Thursday, December 18, 2008

Will the Obama Administration embrace and promote the faith-based prison movement?

One of the few positive sentencing and corrections stories these days involves the apparent successes of faith-based prisons.  A helpful reader sent me this news story from Oklahoma, headlined "Faith builds character: Inmates learn new ways to rebuild their lives," on this topic. Here are snippets

Behind the iron bars and razor wire of Oklahoma's largest prison for women, a quiet miracle is taking place. Nearly 200 inmates at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are living in separate pods from the general population where they are finding hope for themselves and their families through character development and spiritual renewal.

"This is an incredible program," said Ilinda Jackson, director. "It instills character in these women, teaches them how to deal with the behaviors that got them here, and addresses how to change." She said the voluntary program is changing the atmosphere at the prison.

Misconduct is way down among participants. "There's less violence, a higher level of accountability. The women are taking responsibility for their lives," she said.  The Faith and Character Community Program, now in its second year, is divided into two groups, women pursuing a faith-based solution to their problems, and those seeking character development without the faith element.

Millicent Newton-Embry, warden at Mabel Bassett, said the program has changed the environment of the entire prison, not just the faith and character pods, as women in those pods have influenced inmates in the general population.  Misconduct reports are down 18 percent prison-wide since the programs were initiated. "We have less people fighting over things like curling irons," she said. "The staff has more time to do important case management work because they're spending less time mediating conflict.  The inmates are resolving these things themselves.

"Studies have shown that religion, when it's voluntary, can be foremost in changing criminal thinking, and criminal attitudes, for the long term," she said.  Outside volunteers teach the religious elements of the faith pod to avoid any church-state issues.

I have long been disappointed that academics and researchers have not yet paid sufficient attention to the faith-based prison movement.  But the Bush Administration was an avowed supporter of the movement, though I think the administration could and should have done even more to facilitate the movement's growth and development at both the federal and state level.

President-elect Obama has expressed some support for some Bush Administration faith-based programming, but I have not seen any explicit discussion from the Obama team about faith-based prison.  I am hopeful that the new administration will openly embrace and actively promote the faith-based prison movement if and when there is continuing reason to believe that the movement is having a positive impact on both offenders and public safety.

Some related posts on faith-based prison programs:

December 18, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ABA criminal justice transition recommendations

I just tripped across this ABA webpagetitled "Transition 2008" through which the ABA sets out its recommended "legislative and executive branch actions and initiatives that will improve the justice system, promote the rule of law, ensure the nation's security, and protect civil liberties." Specifically, this ABA page has "four separate policy papers summarizing some of the Association's most significant recommendations for the new administration and the new Congress."

The transition paper on "Criminal Justice System Improvements " is available at this link.  Here is how it is described:

The ABA offers recommendations to improve the criminal justice system.  Such recommendations include: alternatives to incarceration; repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing; eliminating sentencing disparities; and enacting prison reform legislation.

December 16, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A modest(?) proposal for filling the bench from the ivory tower

Law prof Carl Tobias has this new piece online at FindLaw that is sure to get the law professor blogs a buzzing. Titled "Why Barack Obama, as President, Should Nominate Leading Law Professors for Seats on the Federal Appeals Court," this essay certainly gets my endorsement as long as some profs with criminal justice backgrounds are among the short-list mix.  Here are a few excerpts from the short piece:

President-elect Barack Obama will receive much advice in the coming months. One valuable idea that his nascent administration should embrace and implement is nominating legal scholars to serve on the United States Courts of Appeals.  Numerous legal academics are particularly well-suited to discharge the critical responsibility of delivering appellate justice.

President Ronald Reagan used this concept to excellent effect over both of his administrations. The chief executive searched for, identified, and appointed many highly-respected legal scholars to the appeals courts.... Yet selecting legal academics for the appellate courts apparently fell out of favor in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. To be sure, these chief executives did choose a few legal scholars, but they were notable exceptions to the rule....

President Obama has vowed both to practice bipartisanship and to appoint excellent judges.  One fertile source of nominees who possess the requisite expertise and temperament to be outstanding appellate jurists is the faculties of the 200 American law schools.  Because legal scholars' work closely resembles that of circuit judges, choosing academics will allow President Obama to select candidates who are essentially known quantities, and to be confident that they possess the skills necessary to be distinguished federal appeals judges.

I obviously have a parochial and personal interest in endorsing academics who have criminal justice backgrounds when thinking about judicial appointments.  But the important reality of heavy criminal law dockets in the federal appellate courts (especially outside the DC Circuit) undercuts somewhat the assertion by Tobias that "legal scholars' work closely resembles that of circuit judges." 

I fear that too many modern legal scholars, perhaps especially many modern constitutional scholars, tend to give far too little attention and thought to a broad array of criminal justice issues that regularly occupy the day-to-day work of the federal judiciary.  Put another way, I fear that too many criminal justice issues tend to get second-class treatment in the modern legal academy.  I would hate to have a federal appellate bench filled with academics inclined to give criminal justice cases second-class treatment on appeal.

Some recent related posts:

December 16, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2008

President-Elect Obama officially names Eric Holder as his AG pick

As detailed in this CQ Politics entry, the likely next U.S. Attorney General was officially named today: "President-elect Barack Obama on Monday tapped former Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to take the top spot in the Justice Department."  Here are some other notable snippets from the CQ report:

Holder would be the first black attorney general.  The Senate Judiciary Committee will vet Holder for the post.  Several Republicans on the panel have already voiced support for him.

To be sure, Holder will face renewed questions about his role in Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001.  Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, donated heavily to Democratic causes, including Clinton’s presidential library and Hillary Rodham Clinton ’s 2000 Senate campaign. Holder signed off on the pardon.  Holder told the House Government Reform Committee in early 2001, “It is now clear, and this is admittedly hindsight, that we, at the Justice Department, and more importantly, former President Clinton, the American public, in the cause of justice, would have been better served if the case had been handled through the normal channels.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., has said that Clinton, not Holder, bears the responsibility for the Rich pardon. Leahy has predicted a “lopsided vote” to confirm Holder.

Just in time for this long-predicted announcement is this profile of Holder in today's New York Times and this editorial about the Justice Department in today's Washington Post.

Some prior posts on the Obama transition, the Holder pick and federal criminal justice issues:

December 1, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2008

Great state-focused coverage of federal Second Chance Act

A helpful reader pointed me to this effective and timely coverage today of the Second Chance Act at Stateline.org.  The piece is headlined "States want Second Chance Act funded," and here is how it begins:

With correctional facilities around the country teeming with repeat offenders, state and local officials are hoping the Second Chance Act — a federal law signed by President Bush in April to help keep former prisoners from committing new crimes — will be a priority under the incoming Obama administration.

The act, which Congress approved with widespread bipartisan support, authorizes $165 million in annual grants to states, localities, nonprofits and religious groups to build programs that help current and ex-offenders find jobs and housing, overcome drug and alcohol addictions, receive mentoring and return to society as law-abiding residents.

When he signed the bill into law, President Bush called it a sign of support for the roughly 700,000 people who are released from state and federal prisons each year. Federal statistics that show more than two thirds of all those released from prison are rearrested for serious crimes within three years.

That has resulted in surging prison populations — and corrections costs — for many states. Corrections trails only health care, education and transportation among state expenses, costing states nearly $50 billion last year.

Despite the new law’s promise of federal dollars to fund so-called “reentry” initiatives, Congress has not appropriated the money. State and local lawmakers, corrections officials, advocacy groups and others now are pushing the incoming Congress — and the administration of President-elect Barack Obama — to provide funding, perhaps in a spending measure that could come up for debate as early as January.

November 24, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Interesting reflections on Obama appointees from drug policy reformers

The Drug War Chronicle has this interesting new feature piece titled "Obama's Appointees Raise Questions in the Drug Reform Community."  Here are snippets from the start and end of the piece:

Like other interest groups, the drug reform movement has the Obama transition under a microscope, searching for clues on the new administration's intentions as it scrutinizes those appointments for positions that are going to be key to advancing the cause. Some of the Obama transition team's early moves have some drug reformers sounding alarm bells, but other reformers -- not so much....

The reform community should not be freaking out, agreed Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.  Instead, it should be trying to flex its muscles. "I think the reform community is way overreacting and, more importantly, not taking the initiative," he said "Reform leaders ought to be asking themselves what letters they've written to President-elect Obama, what letters to the editor they've penned, what op-eds they've submitted. Is the movement doing anything other than passively reacting?" he asked....

"We have to build the movement. We keep seeing the same 300 people at the conferences, maybe 1,000 if you're talking about the harm reduction conferences. No one is going door to door in the black community talking about how the drug war is undermining public safety and its relationship with the police. No one is talking to the unions. We've done well on the education part of our issue, but we haven't done well in developing a political power base, and until we do that, we won't get reform."

Some recent related posts on the Obama transition and criminal justice issues:

November 23, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three late afternoon thoughts on the Holder pick: race, tough and tech

I have so many old and new thoughts about the importance of the next Attorney General and about President-Elect Obama's apparent selection of Eric Holder for that spot.  At the end of a long day, I want to focus on three particular thoughts/words:

1.  Race:  The import and impact of racial issues in all aspects of the work of the federal Justice Department (both criminal and civil) should not be overlooked, even though war on terror and political issues have dominated modern DOJ and AG discussions.  An appointment of the first African-American Attorney General is therefore noteworthy and important for many reasons.  And, while many aspire for post-racial dialogues about crime and justice, the interplay between race and justice will be that much more salient when Eric Holder becomes the nation's top cop.

2.  Tough:  Jeff Rosen wisely notes here that, because Holder "has impeccable credentials as a tough-on-crime prosecutor," he might be uniquely positioned to achieve a "Nixon in China on Crime."  While many might be concerned about his past connection to all the tough-on-crime posturing during the Clinton Administration, that very background might give him a unique ability and unique credibility if and when he tries to turn the corner on "tough-on-crime" in an effort to now be "smart-on-crime."

3.  Tech:  I was pleased to learn during this NPR segment that Holder is, according to a close friend, "a technology junkie."  As some of my regular technocorrections blogging helps to highlight, I expect some of the hardest and most unpredictable crime and justice issues on the horizon will involve technology issues.  Whatever his policy positions or instincts, the fact that Holder has an affinity and comfort with technology should be a great assert for his new job.

Some recent Holder as AG posts:

November 19, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lots of buzzing around Eric Holder as the next US Attorney General

In this afternoon post, Newsweek has reported today that "President-elect Obama has decided to tap Eric Holder as his attorney general."  But this BLT post has this bold update on the story:

The Associated Press and The New York Timesare reporting that Obama is deeply considering Holder for the AG post but that no decision has been made.  Apparently, Obama aides have been feeling out Republican senators to get a sense of Holder's chances.  An official in the Obama camp told the Times that the Newsweek report was "wrong."

Of course, regular readers know that there is a pardon story that surround Holder as a result of his service in the Clinton Administration.  Here is how the Newsweek report covered this notable ghost of pardons past:

The only hesitancy about Holder’s selection was that he himself had reservations about going through a confirmation process that was likely to revive questions about his role in signing off on the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.  Although there is no evidence that Holder actively pushed the pardon, he was criticized for not raising with the White House the strong objections that some Justice Department lawyers and federal prosecutors in New York had to pardoning somebody who had fled the country.  But after reviewing the evidence in the case, and checking with staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Obama aides and Holder both decided the issue was highly unlikely to prove an obstacle to his confirmation, one of the sources said --especially given the Democrats’ more sizable post-election majority in the Senate.

UPDATE:  Jeralyn at TalkLeft has a series of posts on Eric Holder's criminal justice record, including these recent ones of note:

Because I have never been much of a fan of what the Clinton Administration did on any number of federal criminal justice issues, I am not especially excited to learn that Obama's concept of hope and change for DOJ seems to involve the promotion of a former Clinton Administration high ranking DOJ official.  That said, a lot of people I respect have a lot of respect for Eric Holder, so I will come at this appointment with an open mind.  Still, I am growing ever more concerned that inside-the-beltway experience seems to be a running theme in all the cabinet picks being talked up these days.

November 18, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 17, 2008

Notable US Attorney transitions and the Obama administration

Though not a core sentencing issue, who serves as the US Attorney in a federal district certainly can have an impact of a variety of sentencing issues. Thus, I am intrigued to see this news from the WSJ Law Blog that the US Attorneys for New Jersey and for the Southern District of New York are announcing their resignations. 

Few should be surprised that a new incoming federal administration is prompting some old US Attorneys to head for the door.  And everyone should get in the game of predicting who might take over these local federal "top cop" spots in the future.  Also, I encourage readers to opine on whether and how any particular US Attorney transition might have a particular impact on particular federal sentencing issues under an Obama Administration.

Some recent related posts:

November 17, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More proof that pardon scandals rarely get completely forgotten

The latest proof that bad pardoning actions can cast a long shadow comes from this new article at Politico, headlined "Clinton scandal figure on Justice team."  Here are a few details:

President-elect Barack Obama tapped a major campaign bundler and a former U.S. attorney who got caught up in Bill Clinton's 2001 pardons scandal to serve on the 14-member Justice Department review team announced Friday.

Alejandro Mayorkas, a former U.S. attorney in California, drew controversy in 2001 for calling the White House on behalf of Carlos Vignali, a convicted drug dealer who was seeking a presidential commutation.... The House Committee of Government Reform cited Mayorkas in a report critical of Southern California politicians who pushed Clinton to release Carlos Vignali, saying Mayorkas should have been aware of Horacio Vignali's questionable background, according to a Los Angeles Times story published in March 2002.

Mayorkas told the newspaper that the criticism was fair, and he did not know the elder Vignali very well. "It is reasonable to expect that someone in my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I made a mistake."

The Obama transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Mayorkas, who will serve on the Justice Department review team.

The saddest aspect of this story is the fact that a past pardon scandal is overshadowing the important decision by the Obama transition team to create a "team of 14 law scholars, corporate attorneys and former Clinton appointees who will look at civil rights, legal services and election law."  The full review team is listed here at change.gov.

November 15, 2008 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2008

Developing criminal justice "wish list" for the Obama Administration

Over at the White Collar Crim Prof Blog, Ellen Podgor has this terrifically interesting "Wish List to President Barack Obama & The Next AG."  Ellen's wish list is lengthy (even though only focused on white-collar topics), and here are a few of her provocative and thoughtful wishes that caught my eye:

Needless to say, I could add dozens of my wishes to this list, especially if I were to branch out beyond white-collar topics.  But on a Friday, I am especially interested to hear some criminal justice wishes from readers.  

So, dear readers, please use the comments for expressing your wishes on criminal justice topics for the next Administration.  Though I seriously doubt the President-Elect or his future AG regularly read this blog, one never knows how many cyberspace genies might try to help make a good criminal justice wish comes true.

November 14, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A criminal justice blueprint for the new Prez that I hope gets followed

I received recently an e-mail announcing a new publication from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, entitled "Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President."  This website explains this new document and its coverage, and it provides this link to ten chapters available for download.  One chapter of special interest for sentencing fans is this one authored by Dawn Johnsen titled "Department of Justice: Restoring Integrity and the Rule of Law."

This whole chapter encouraging changes within DOJ should be enjoyable reading for anyone troubled by how the Justice Department has operated in recent years.  And anyone eager for serious state and federal sentencing reform should be especially pleased by the last three pages of this chapter, which are devoted to "longer-term priorities."  Here are some lengthy excerpts from this astute and effective part of CAP's blueprint for criminal justice change:

The attorney general should launch a coordinated set of initiatives that tackle the most fundamental and intractable problems in the criminal justice systems, both federal and state.... Although crime is largely a state and local responsibility, federal leadership can be enormously influential beyond the federal system through assistance that fosters innovation, supports research, and shares information about “what works” in combating crime....

Incarceration in the United States is an issue crying out for DOJ attention.  After holding steady for most of the 20th century, the federal prison population increased 10-fold in the last 25 years. The United States at all levels of government incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world, both in terms of the incarceration rate and in absolute numbers....

The costs, both financial and social, are astronomical. DOJ should undertake affirmative efforts to decrease prison populations without endangering public safety.  Again, states can provide useful models for each other and for the federal government. In response especially to budget crises, some states have successfully reduced incarceration rates without increasing crime. DOJ should study, disseminate, and implement best practices, which include increased and improved use of drug courts and treatment alternatives to incarceration....

DOJ should document the condition of indigent defense representation systems in the states, compile existing national and local standards for indigent defense systems and defense counsel, and bring stakeholders — judges, defenders, and prosecutors — together to devise solutions to the problem.  Beyond this, DOJ should advocate for federal funding for state indigent defense systems analogous to funding for state prosecutorial functions.... 

DOJ should strive to remedy the terribly disparate racial impact of current criminal law enforcement efforts. Under both the federal and state systems, African Americans suffer gravely disproportionate treatment at every stage — stops, arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing. The causes and solutions are complex. The consequences, however, are devastating, in terms of shockingly disparate rates of imprisonment, which translate into political disenfranchisement and exclusion from student loans, jobs, and other life opportunities....

The solutions typically should not be race based, but should address the harms of problems such as ever-lengthening prison terms and the failures of the war on drugs.  Yet the gross disparate impacts on African Americans, and the perpetuation of the historic harms of discrimination, provide a special moral imperative for concerted attention to problems that harm us as a nation.

In addition, DOJ should pay special attention to how our criminal justice policies harm our nation’s youth, diminishing forever their life opportunities.  Most obvious are extremely lengthy prison sentences and even life without parole imposed for crimes committed by juveniles. Another recent such trend is to put children convicted of sex offenses on public sex offender registries, in some cases for the rest of their lives, which in turn may be used to limit where they may live or work....

Some progress in resolving these and other fundamental criminal justice problems can be made in the first months of the new administration — and the effort certainly should begin then.  But real change will take far longer.  Criminal justice reform should remain a priority throughout the next administration, with the goal of a more just and humane criminal justice system that better protects the public.

Some recent related posts:

November 13, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack