Thursday, January 06, 2011

Why shouldn't imprisoned former Governor George Ryan get released to see his dying wife?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article, headlined "Jailed ex-Illinois gov. asks to visit gravely ill wife." Here are the basics:

Family members of imprisoned former Illinois Gov. George Ryan have gathered at the hospital bedside of his gravely ill wife while waiting for a federal appeals court to decide whether he should be allowed to join them.

Ryan's attorneys filed an emergency motion Wednesday asking that the 76-year-old former governor be let out of prison during daytime hours so he can be with his wife of 55 years, who they said was in intensive care suffering complications from chemotherapy.

One of Ryan's attorneys, former Gov. James Thompson, told The Associated Press that Lura Lynn Ryan's family was called to her side Wednesday morning. Family members did not address reporters who congregated outside Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee. "Doctors have told the family that they have to go hour by hour," Thompson said.

An emergency motion filed with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago says Ryan's wife went into septic shock, a complication of her treatment for what the motion describes as incurable cancer of the lungs, back, pelvis, ribs and liver. "Though neither radiation nor chemotherapy will affect a cure, Mrs. Ryan . . . has elected to receive both treatments in the hope that they will keep her alive until she can be with her husband to say goodbye," the motion says. "She has, at most, weeks to live."

The former governor has served three years of a 6 1/2-year sentence on convictions of racketeering, conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI. His attorneys' motion argues "he is not a flight risk or a danger to the community." Attorneys also appealed directly to federal prison authorities to release Ryan under a program allowing inmates temporary leave to visit gravely ill family members, Thompson said.

Thompson said Ryan remained in prison as of Wednesday night but that his attorneys were keeping in touch with prison authorities in hopes of winning an immediate release. U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said prison wardens decide whether to grant bedside visit requests, but that the agency cannot disclose whether a request is made or granted due to privacy and safety concerns....

Ryan was convicted in 2006 of steering state contracts and leases to political insiders while he was secretary of state and then governor for one term. He received vacations and gifts in return. He also was accused of stopping an investigation into secretary of state employees accepting bribes in exchange for truck driver's licenses.

For all non-violent offenders who pose no obvious risk of flight or to the community, I would endorse a general rule that they readily be permitted release for a short period to be with a dying spouse. Such a temporary release rule, especially if limited to critically ill spouses, seems essential to a truly humane criminal justice system.

January 6, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Ninth Circuit upholds DNA extraction from California prisoners

Today in Hamilton v. Brown, No. 09-1523 (9th Cir. Jan. 4, 20110 (available here), a Ninth Circuit panel rejects various constitutional challenges to California's process for extracting DNA from its state prisoners. Here is how the opinion gets started:

We must decide whether California state prison inmates constitutionally may be required to provide blood samples for DNA identification under California’s DNA and Forensic Identification Database and Data Bank Act of 1998, as amended, Cal. Pen. Code § 295 et seq. (the “Act” or the “California DNA Act”).  Pro se plaintiff George Hamilton, a California state prison inmate, alleges that prison officials forcibly extracted a blood sample for DNA identification without his consent.  He contends that this violated his rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and under California state law.  The district court dismissed Hamilton’s second amended complaint with prejudice.  This appeal followed. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we affirm.

January 4, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 03, 2011

Empty prison in Virginia a sign of new sentencing and prison times

This effective and lengthy local article, headlined "New $105M Va. prison remains empty," reflects some of the new sentencing and prison times that many states are experiencing as we start a new year.  Here are excerpts:

[F]our months after the Grayson County prison was completed at a cost of $105 million, it sits empty -- the consequence of a declining number of inmates statewide, and a reduction in state dollars to lock them up.

Having a new prison without prisoners is a striking turnabout for Virginia. The state's inmate population of about 38,000 has nearly doubled since 1994, when the General Assembly voted to abolish parole and to embark on a prison-building boom.  In the past two fiscal years, however, the number of inmates has declined for the first time in recent history, dropping by 2.8 percent.

At the same time, the ongoing fiscal crunch has forced the Virginia Department of Corrections to trim its $1 billion budget.  The state has eliminated nearly 2,500 prison beds in the past two years, in part by closing four correctional centers....

It's not unusual for states to shut older prisons as crime drops and public concern shifts to the troubled economy, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national group that promotes criminal justice reform.  "Corrections over the past 25 years has become an increasingly big component of state budgets, to the point that it's competing for funding with education and other core services," Mauer said. "And you can't have it both ways anymore."  What's more unusual, he said, is for a brand-new prison like the one in Grayson County to be mothballed....

[C]rime in Virginia is declining, a trend that began well before the three new prisons were ready to accept inmates. "Prior to 2002, historical trends showed growth," Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections....  Arrest rates have since dropped, especially for violent crimes and drug offenses that in the past have driven inmate predictions upward.  "Forecasters across the country are monitoring trends to explain these unprecedented declines; however, they are not explained at this point," Traylor said....

Even with arrests down, correctional officials say they can always use more prison beds. "This is not a bed space problem. This is a money problem," Traylor said, when asked to respond to criticism that the prison system was overbuilt.  "Budget reductions have forced us to close facilities."...

At the direction of Gov. Bob McDonnell, corrections officials are putting more emphasis on programs to keep inmates from re-offending.  Although Virginia's recidivism rate is the sixth-lowest among 40 states for which data was most recently available, the current reduction in prison beds and funding is adding urgency to the effort.

The program -- run by a newly created coordinator and overseen by a council appointed by the governor -- will target inmates as soon as they enter prison and develop a detailed plan to assist their rehabilitation.  Such an idea might never have been broached 10 or 15 years ago -- much less by a Republican governor -- when the mood among politicians was to abolish parole, enact mandatory minimum sentences and vote for other punitive measures.

But with crime down and state dollars scarce, there seems to be a shift in philosophy when it comes to crime and punishment, said Del. Onzlee Ware, D-Roanoke, who serves on the Virginia Crime Commission.  "I think we've come full circle, because it's obvious we've overbuilt ourselves with prisons," Ware said. "I think it's finally seeped in. I don't think people like to admit it politically, but the fact of the matter is that it's a lot cheaper to do prevention than it is to lock people up in the penitentiary."

Re-entry is not the only new idea being floated these days.  A state task force is looking for ways to cut down on the number of nonviolent felons sent to prison.  For years, drug dealers and thieves have far outnumbered killers and rapists in prison.

January 3, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 02, 2011

"Outlawed, Cellphones Are Thriving in Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating new New York Times article.  Here are excerpts:

Technology is changing life inside prisons across the country at the same rapid-fire pace it is changing life outside.  A smartphone hidden under a mattress is the modern-day file inside a cake.

“This kind of thing was bound to happen,” said Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  “The physical boundaries that we thought protected us no longer work.”

Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smartphones have changed the game.  With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons.  “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife.  You can do a lot of other things with it.”

The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad. But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.

Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike....

Even closely watched prisoners are sneaking phones in.  Last month, California prison guards said they had found a flip phone under Charles Manson’s mattress.  The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison.  But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.  Prisoners agree.

“Almost everybody has a phone,” said Mike, 33, an inmate at Smith State Prison in Georgia who, like other prisoners interviewed for this article, asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation. “Almost every phone is a smartphone. Almost everybody with a smartphone has a Facebook.”

Cellphones are prohibited in all state and federal prisons in the United States, often even for top corrections officials.  Punishment for a prisoner found with one varies. In some states, it is an infraction that affects parole or time off for good behavior.  In others, it results in new criminal charges.

President Obama signed a law in August making possession of a phone or a wireless device in a federal prison a felony, punishable by up to a year of extra sentencing.  Still, they get in.  By the thousands. In the first four months of 2010, Federal Bureau of Prisons workers confiscated 1,188 cellphones, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sponsored the federal measure.  In California last year, officers discovered nearly 9,000 phones....

The solution, [various experts] say, is to simply jam cellphone signals in prisons.  [P]rison officials from [30] states petitioned the Federal Communications Commission last year for permission to install technology that would render cellphones useless.  But there is no support from the cellphone industry. “It’s illegal, plain and simple,” said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association.  He cited the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the blocking of radio signals — or, in this case, cellphone signals — from authorized users.

The recent rise in smartphones raises larger issues for prisoners and their advocates, who say the phones are not necessarily used for criminal purposes.  In some prisons, a traditional phone call is prohibitive, costing $1 per minute in many states.  And cellphones can help some offenders stay better connected with their families.

Mike, the Georgia inmate who was part of the recent strike, said he used his to stay in touch with his son. “When he gets off the school bus, I’m on the phone and I talk to him,” he said in an interview on his contraband cellphone. “When he goes to bed, I’m on the phone and I talk to him.”

Some groups are encouraging prisons to embrace new technology while managing risks. Inmates are more likely to successfully re-enter society if they maintain relationships with friends and families, said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It shows that even if they are closed institutions, prisons are still part of the larger society,” Mr. Fathi said. “They can’t be forever walled off from technological changes.”

And in a world where hundreds of apps are introduced each day by developers hoping to tap new markets, a pool of prisoners with smartphones can seem an attractive new market, despite the implications.

“It’s a pure business opportunity,” said Hal Goldstein, the publisher of iPhone Life magazine. He predicted that games would be big, but so would the ability to download news and books. “People outside of prison become addicted to their phones,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Can you imagine if you had nothing but time on your hands?”

January 2, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Newest BJS data on correctional population shows historic first decline

Perhaps finally providing that what goes up must eventually come down even in incarceration nation, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today via this press release "the first measured decline in the total number of adults under correctional supervision [in the United States] since BJS began reporting these populations in 1980."  Here is more:

One in 32 adults, or about 3.1 percent of U.S. adult residents, was under correctional supervision at yearend 2009, down slightly from the rate of supervision in 2008.

Although comparatively small, decreases in the probation population (down by 40,079 offenders) and the parole population (down by 5,526 offenders) were the first observed decreases since BJS began annual data collections on these populations in 1980. At yearend 2009, 4,203,967 adults were on probation, and 819,308 were under parole or other post-custody supervision....

Among incarcerated offenders, the number of jail inmates totaled 760,400 at midyear 2009 (down 2.2 percent from 2008).  The number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities increased by 0.2 percent (3,981 prisoners) during 2009 to reach 1,613,740 at yearend.

The growth in the prison population during 2009 was the slowest annual increase in the current decade and marked the third consecutive year of a declining rate of growth in the prison population. While the federal prison population increased by 3.4 percent (up 6,838 prisoners), the state prison population had the first measured decline (down 0.2 percent or 2,857 prisoners) since 1977.

Sentencing nuts and/or data junkies eager in mining these numbers further should be sure to check out this series of new reports released today by BJS:

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2009: Presents summary data on the number of adults under some form of correctional supervision in the United States at yearend 2009. Correctional supervision includes adults supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in prison or local jails.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2009: Presents the number of adults under community supervision (probation or parole) at yearend 2009 and the rate of change in both populations during the year.

Prisoners in 2009: This annual report presents data on prisoners under jurisdiction of federal or state correctional authorities on December 31, 2009, collected from the National Prisoner Statistics series.

December 21, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Federal education stimulus dollars covering prison costs in Alabama

As detailed in this local article, which is headlined "Prisons the biggest recipient of Alabama's education stimulus dollars," a big chunk of federal dollars earmarked for education has been going to prison spending in Alabama. Here are the details:

Alabama’s biggest recipient of federal education stimulus dollars thus far is not a local school system or a college: It’s the Department of Corrections, according to a Press-Register analysis.

The agency has received $118 million of $1.1 billion in stimulus funding doled out to the state by the U.S. Department of Education since 2009.  The money covered health care costs for 26,000 inmates, and salaries and benefits for about 4,200 corrections officers and other employees for three and a half months, officials said.

The spending was legal: Governors were allowed to give up to 18 percent of the funding to areas other than education, such as public safety. Nonetheless, Alabama spent about $4,500 in education stimulus dollars per prisoner, about four times the amount per student in kindergarten through 12th grade....

“If we could’ve had that $118 million,” Baldwin County schools Superintendent Alan Lee said of school systems in general, “we could’ve given the prisons less business.” Studies have shown that students who fail classes and drop out are more likely to go to prison than those who do well in school....

Steve Brown, associate commissioner over administration for the Department of Corrections, said the injection of federal stimulus dollars was vital to the 31 prison facilities across the state. Without it, he said, his agency might have petitioned the Legislature for permission to release inmates, something that Brown said would not have been well-received. Or, the state would have had to skim money from all of its other departments, including education, to cover a corrections budget that has been ailing for years.

Prisons are overcrowded and the corrections department is staffed only at 80 percent of what it should be, he said. “We’ve done ‘what if’ drills before. We would’ve had to release 40 percent of our inmates. That’s not a viable option,” Brown said. Brown said that federal auditors examined the corrections department spending and gave their OK.

December 19, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, December 17, 2010

"The Worst of the Worst: Supermax Torture in America"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece from the Boston Review authored by investigative journalist Lance Tapley. The piece provides an important and disturbing view of supermax confinement in the United States.  Here are excerpts from a must-read:

James’s story [of being beaten during cell 'extractions' he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison] illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantánamo.  To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons. The Obama administration — somewhat unsteadily — plans to shut down the Guantánamo detention center and ship its inmates to one or more supermaxes in the United States, as though this would mark a substantive change.  In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity.  Prisoners may be regularly beaten in cell extractions, and they receive meager health services.  The isolation frequently leads to insane behavior including self-injury and suicide attempts.

In 2004, state-run supermaxes in 44 states held about 25,000 people, according to Daniel Mears, a Florida State University criminologist who has done the most careful count. Mears told me his number was conservative.  In addition the federal system has a big supermax in Colorado, ADX Florence, and a total of about 11,000 inmates in solitary in all its lockups, according to the Bureau of Prisons.  Some researchers peg the state and federal supermax total as high as a hundred thousand; their studies sometimes include more broadly defined “control units” — for example, those in which men spend all day in a cell with another prisoner.  (Nationally, 91 percent of prison and jail inmates are men, so overwhelmingly men fill the supermaxes.  Women also are kept in supermax conditions, but apparently no one has estimated how many.)  Then there are the county and city jails, the most sizable of which have large solitary-confinement sections.  Although the roughness in what prisoners call “the hole” varies from prison to prison and jail to jail, isolation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.

Some related older and newer posts:

December 17, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Kentucky judge rejects death sentence for child killer claiming life term will be a "hell more suited to you"

A helpful reader alerted me to this remarkable new sentencing story from Kentucky in which a sentence judge rejected the prosecutor's death sentence request for a child killer claiming that such a sentence would be too easy for the defendant.  Here are the details:

Saying the death penalty was not a harsh enough punishment, a judge ordered for Cecil New II to serve the rest of his life in prison, surrounded by “bigger, meaner men who have nothing to lose.”

“He will fear for his life every day,” Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman told the family of 4-year-old Ivan Aguilar-Cano, who disappeared while playing outside his home near Churchill Downs in 2007 and was murdered by New.  “He will wish this court had put him on death row.”

Since a November hearing in which prosecutors asked that New be sentenced to death, McDonald-Burkman said she had investigated the differences between the life of a death-row inmate and one serving a life sentence.  On death row, she said, inmates are segregated from other prisoners and can have meals sent to their cell without ever having to be around anyone else, and typically an execution is not scheduled for at least 20 years. With the life sentence, New must congregate with other prisoners and “is never truly isolated.”

“Death is undoubtedly justified for you,” the judge told New. “There’s not one cell in your body, Cecil New, that can be rehabilitated, not one. But is a death sentence justice?”  The unusually frank language from McDonald-Burkman included scenarios on how New’s life would play out in the general population.  “Death is easy,” she said.  “Living outside of death row, in general population in fear of prison justice every day is a hell more suited to you, Mr. New, than living under the protective guise of death row.”

McDonald-Burkman reiterated that this was not a “sentence of mercy, not an act of mercy, not an anti-death penalty stance” but the harshest punishment she could hand down.... The judge also addressed Ivan’s family directly, saying she hoped they would find comfort knowing that the only contact New would have would be with bigger, meaner inmates and that “he will be the smaller, weaker, more defenseless.”

Ivan’s family left through a back hallway, away from the media, but activist Christopher 2X, spoke for the family, saying they understood the judge’s decision but felt that “a life for a life should be the appropriate penalty.”...

On Oct. 14, the day before his trial, New surprised many by pleading guilty to charges of murder, kidnapping, tampering with physical evidence and unlawful transaction with a minor.  However, New did not negotiate a plea bargain and entered what is known as an open plea, which made him eligible to receive the death penalty and waiving his right to an appeal.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jon Heck had asked McDonald-Burkman on Nov. 16 to give New the death penalty, saying he deserved to die for his actions. But Jay Lambert, New's attorney, argued that New's life should be spared because of a horrific childhood that, at least in part, helped make him into who he is.

After the sentencing, Heck said he agreed with the judge’s reasoning that the life sentence was the greatest penalty.  “He will serve out his life a tormented man,” Heck said. “And I think he deserves that.”

It is not uncommon to hear death penalty abolitionists claim that a life sentence is in fact worse than a sentence of death, but I cannot recall a case in which a jurist has expressly relied on such a claim in order to reject a prosecutorial request for a death sentence.  Intriguingly, though the victim's family seems displeased with this result, this press report suggests that the prosecution agrees with the sentencing judge here and thus likely will not seek an appeal (and I am not even sure if applicable state law would permit an appeal in any event).

December 17, 2010 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

"Festivus for the rest of us, O.C. Jail style"

Festivus The title of this post is the headline of this awesome holiday-season article from the Orange County Register about how a inmate managed to talk his way into a healthier meal for his jail stay.  Here are the details:

Festivus may only come around only come around once a year — more often if you watch "Seinfeld" reruns — but longtime county inmate Malcolm Alarmo King was able to celebrate it three times a day while locked up at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange.

King’s quest for a healthier eating option while behind bars ended with a county lawyer forced to research the origin of Festivus and its traditions and a Superior Court judge recognizing the holiday — which lodged its place in pop culture on an episode of "Seinfeld" — as a legitimate religion.

The menu selection at Theo Lacy apparently didn’t please King, 38, when he was booked into the jail on drug charges in April.  They serve salami there.  And that didn’t quite fit in with the fitness buff/gym clothes model’s lifestyle.  So King, who is also suspected of being in the country illegally from Liberia, asked for kosher meals.... 

Judge Derek G. Johnson signed off on the high-protein double-portion kosher meals for King.  That didn't sit well with the Sheriff's Department — which pays for the food.  Kosher meals are more expensive than the regular jail fare — and are reserved for those with a religious need.... 

When sentencing day came, King pleaded guilty to the sale or transport of a controlled substance — a felony.  Two other felonies were thrown out.  But King still wanted his non-salami meals.

Judge Johnson pulled King's lawyer and the prosecutor aside and said he needed a religion to put down on the order to make it stick, explained [King's lawyer Fred] Thiagarajah.  “I said Festivus,” said Thiagarajah.  The order was granted — three non-salami meals a day.

County Counsel researched Festivus, arguing the holiday was the creation of writer Dan O’Keefe to celebrate his first date with his wife in 1966.  The holiday was introduced to the world by his son Daniel, a screenwriter for "Seinfeld," who wrote it into the show.  Seinfeld celebrated Festivus with an aluminum “Festivus pole” instead of a tree and traditions such as the “Airing of Grievances” and “Feats of Strength.”  Easily explainable events were “Festivus miracles.”...

King was released from county jail Oct. 5 and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  He is awaiting deportation, according to ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley.  No word if Festivus celebrations are allowed in ICE detention.

December 17, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New issue of Pace Law Review on need for prison oversight in US

I received via e-mail a press release spotlighting this new issue of the Pace Law Review that all sentencing law and policy fans will want to check out.  Here is how the press release begins:

Latest issue of Pace Law Review offers blueprint for critically-needed U.S. prison oversight: Contains views from academics, human rights lawyers, national and international corrections experts

The United States has, by far, the highest incarceration rate of any developed country on the planet, yet its prisons remain largely hidden worlds.  Unlike many Western countries, which have systems for inspecting and reporting on prison conditions, the U.S. lacks formal and comprehensive external oversight mechanisms to regularly monitor prisons and jails.

Now, a newly released issue of the Pace Law Review, “Opening up a Closed World: A Sourcebook on Prison Oversight,” offers a comprehensive look at prison oversight, including articles from leading academics, national and international corrections experts, and prisoners’ rights and human rights lawyers.  Together, this diverse group calls for a national conversation on this important subject, and offers insights and practical ideas for how oversight could be accomplished in the American context.

December 14, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Releasing elderly non-violent prisoners would reduce Ohio deficit"

The title of this post is the headline of this potent and effective letter to the editor in a local Ohio paper. Here are excerpts:

How do you eat an elephant? . . . One bite at a time

Ohio is $8 billion in the red.  A budget crisis the size of an elephant.  A recent report by the Kasich camp suggesting ways to balance the budget, asked Ohio agencies to look at operating at a 90 percent of their current budgets.  As expected, all said such a plan would reduce services, raise education costs and create havoc.  The scenario communicated by the Department of Corrections is particularly startling.  If the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction takes a 10 percent hit to their current $3.1 Billion budget, staff would be reduced by 20 percent and several prisons would have to close. Overcrowding would rise from 135% overcapacity to a startling 174 percent creating a dangerous and inhumane situation....

In September, Director Ernie Moore announced that the big WIG or “Wildly Important Goal” of the ODRC is to “reduce the prison population to 48,000 by July 1, 2013.”  This trickle of proposed reductions over 2½ years is uninspired. We need a fiscally and morally arguable plan to reduce the absurd amount of resources wasted to warehouse humans in the name of public safety now.  Don’t be fooled by the fear mongering by those who benefit by the ever-growing prison industrial complex.  The ODRC employs nearly 14,000. Make no mistake there are vested interests in keeping prisons open, full and growing. When the rhetoric of releasing prisoners is used to create fear, panic and more irresponsible spending, remember over 95% of those incarcerated are eventually released regardless of pedantic tactics used to manipulate the public....

It is said that character of a society can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable and marginalized.  There is no group of citizens more vulnerable or more marginalized, forgotten and forlorn than the elderly incarcerated.  According to the US Department of Justice, elderly inmates represent the most vulnerable of the entire population.  They are subject to systemic abuse and neglect, violated in ways that would make you sick.  They suffer exponentially and in degrading and disgusting circumstances that were never intended, even by the most ardent supporters of tough on crime legislation.... Yet, they are unquestionably proven to be the least risk to society and of recidivism.

Ohio has nearly 7,000 inmates over the age of 50, the age, generally accepted as elderly by the National Institute of Corrections and the State of Ohio.  Based on documented “accelerated aging” studies showing the actual age of an older inmate to be 10 years older than their biological age.

To incarcerate the most vulnerable, lowest risk and most expensive inmates, is costing Ohio $500,000,000 a year; a half billion dollars, money that could go to schools, job training and positive, productive uses.  Resources that should be an investment in the future of Ohio not spent on satisfying the public and political appetite for the last morsel of vengeance.

If Ohio and the ODRC was to release just 3,000 of the eldest, non violent offenders that alone would save over $225 million, stave off the dangerous overcrowding and put Ohio on the cutting edge and moral high ground of the travesty of geriatric incarceration.  The immediate, early release of the elderly non-violent prisoners is both pragmatic and humane.  Simply, it is just the right thing to do.  This is one big bite of the elephant that should be palatable to all.

Some recent related posts:

December 13, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Prisoners in Georgia coordinate (unprecedented?) strike

Though it may not be unprecedented, this news via the New York Times about a prisoner strike in Georgia is certainly remarkable.  Here are the basics:

In a protest apparently assembled largely through a network of banned cellphones, inmates across at least six prisons in Georgia have been on strike since Thursday, calling for better conditions and compensation, several inmates and an outside advocate said.

Inmates have refused to leave their cells or perform their jobs, in a demonstration that seems to transcend racial and gang factions that do not often cooperate.  “Their general rage found a home among them — common ground — and they set aside their differences to make an incredible statement,” said Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader who has taken up the inmates’ cause.  She said that different factions’ leaders recruited members to participate, but the movement lacks a definitive torchbearer.

Ms. Brown said thousands of inmates were participating in the strike. The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached for comment Saturday night.

“We’re not coming out until something is done.  We’re not going to work until something is done,” said one inmate at Rogers State Prison in Reidsville.  He refused to give his name because he was speaking on a banned cellphone.  Several inmates, who used cellphones to call The Times from their cells, said they found out about the protest from text messages and did not know whether specific individuals were behind it....

Ms. Brown, who lives in Oakland, Calif., said she planned to gather legal and advocacy groups on Monday to help coordinate a strategy for the inmates.

Chief among the prisoners’ demands is that they be compensated for jailhouse labor. They are also demanding better educational opportunities, nutrition, and access to their families.

December 12, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, December 10, 2010

A chance to support the completion of June Gloom, a film about prisoner reentry

JGposter1 I received this interesting e-mail last night that I feel is worth sharing:

My name is Attila Adam.  I'm a L.A. writer and director currently working on a new drama called June Gloom.  The film is centered around a man's release from prison, into a world that doesn't want him.  It's an example of how difficult restarting your life can be when you walk into that "gloom" without a strong support system.

I've been reading your work on Sentencing Law and Policy online and felt compelled to reach out and share what I'm doing.  I believe that June Gloom has the potential to get a real message across about the importance of reentry and readjustment. I've put together a special intro video to the project that includes a short trailer.  I hope it can give you a better idea of the direction I'm trying to go in.  You can view it here.

I'm doing my best with the resources I have to get this project finished and seen.  I've put together a set of creative rewards that I'm offering supporters in exchange for any size contribution.  If you like what you see, I was wondering if you'd consider mentioning my project on your blog or spreading the word to colleagues.  Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this.

Notably, for the seemingly bargain price of only a $500 supporting pledge, one can get executive producer credit on this film. I wonder if readers and regular commentors like Bill Otis or federalism or Supremacy Claus or others will be interested in having their names on the big screen. Better yet, perhaps readers can pool pledges and we can have this blog's readers listed as a executive producer. Seems a small price to pay for a good cause and for having one's name on a movie, no?

The minimum pledge to support this project is a mere $10, and I will pledge to match (at least) the first $100 that come from SL&P readers for this project (in part because a pledge of $100 gets one goodies that include "a Special Thanks in the film's credits and on [and a] limited edition 11x17 poster of the film [and a] DVD of the film, including original audition footage & a behind-the-scenes slide show").   

December 10, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 09, 2010

New issue of American Prospect magazine focused on mass incarceration

I was pleased to learn that this special issue of The American Prospect magazine is focused on “Mass Incarceration in America.” The issue includes an array of essays, and the introductory essay has a fitting title: "Eyes on the Prize: Our moral and ethical duty to end mass incarceration."   And I would add that ending mass incarceration could also be fiscally wise and quite socially useful.

December 9, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

OK prisons not okay because of crowding and costs

OK prisons This recent article in The Oklahoman, which is headlined "Oklahoma lawmakers seek to strike budget balance for prisons; this year marks the 12th year in the past 13 that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has sought emergency funds from the state Legislature," spotlights struggles facing the Sooner system of justice. Here are excerpts from a lengthy and effective piece that helps explain the accompanying picture:

In 1995, long rows of bunk beds replaced game tables, ironing boards and folding chairs in the day rooms where prisoners inside the Eddie Warrior Women's Correctional Center in Taft would sit when someone with a message of hope would come to speak.

“I remember when we put in those bunks and were quoted as saying it would be temporary,” Justin Jones, Oklahoma Department of Corrections director, said. “Here we are in 2010, and they are still there, except now they are stacked two high. In the Department of Corrections, temporary is at least 15 years.”

This year also marks the 12th year in the past 13 that Corrections has sought emergency funds from the state Legislature. Since 1995, the prison population has grown from 17,983 inmates to 26,720 and state appropriations have increased from $188 million to more than $461 million, despite the department having trimmed $76 million from its budget in the past two years. The department estimates it now needs more than $592 million to operate.... With the Legislature's bill-filing deadline for 2011 less than a week away, newly elected Speaker of the House Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, is pushing for a series of short-term steps to reduce the budget strain.... “I think public safety is a top priority in our state and as a result, historically, Oklahoma's answer to that has been incarceration,” Steele said. “It's been kind of a one-size-fits-all approach. Lawmakers have been reluctant to dig in ... nobody wants to be perceived to be soft on crime.”

In addition, supporters of reforms in the criminal justice system that has helped make Oklahoma a state of incarceration — it leads the nation in locking up women on a per-capita basis and is consistently in the top five for incarcerating men — say it has helped reduce Oklahoma's crime rate and improved public safety. “I can tell you from a fiscal standpoint ... (and) from a human resource standpoint we are going to have to do something different,” Steele said.

Steele said three numbers stand out in the research: 68 percent of female offenders aren't a danger to public safety; the state prison system is operating at 99 percent capacity, which means there is little room for more violent offenders; and 70 percent of children with a parent in prison wind up being incarcerated at some point in their lives.

A recent Tulsa World survey also showed strong public support for finding alternatives to incarceration for many nonviolent female offenders and for doing more to help the children they leave behind. Sen. Brian Bingman, the new Senate president pro tem, said he supports “anything that we can do to keep nonviolent criminals out of prisons.”...

Prison officials have maintained for decades the system is overcrowded and underfunded, in large part because offender growth is not funded until after the fact and often is not annualized. The latest unfunded Legislative mandate is the “85 Percent Rule,” which requires persons convicted of certain crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for parole.

Signed into law in 2000, the list of those crimes has grown from 11 to 24 offenses, which Jones said ensures the average prison stay will steadily increase. The number of “85 Percent” offenders already has risen from 53 in December of 2000 to 5,086 in December of 2009.

December 7, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, December 06, 2010

NY Times editorial on California's prison overcrowding case

This morning's New York Times has this extended editorial headlined "The Crime of Punishment," which comments on last week's Supreme Court argument in the California prisons case. Here are excerpts:

In 2005, when a federal court took a snapshot of California’s prisons, one inmate was dying each week because the state failed to provide adequate health care.  Adequate does not mean state-of-the-art, or even tolerable.  It means care meeting “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” in the Supreme Court’s words, so inmates do not die from rampant staph infections or commit suicide at nearly twice the national average.

These and other horrors have been documented in California’s prisons for two decades, and last week they were before the Supreme Court in Schwarzenegger v. Plata.  It is the most important case in years about prison conditions.  The justices should uphold the lower court’s remedy for addressing the horrors....

The case will most likely be resolved by a vote of 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote decisive.  At the oral argument, he said that “at some point,” the court must say “overcrowding is the principal cause, as experts have testified, and it’s now time for a remedy.”  After 20 years of litigation and 70 court orders, that point has come.

At the intense, sometimes testy argument, Justice Samuel Alito revealed the law-and-order thinking behind the California system.  “If 40,000 prisoners are going to be released,” he said overstating the likely number, “you really believe that if you were to come back here two years after that you would be able to say they haven’t contributed to an increase in crime?”  To Justice Alito, apparently, it was out of the realm of possibility that, rather than increasing crime, the state could actually decrease it by reducing the number of prison inmates.

Among experts, as a forthcoming issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy relates, there is a growing belief that less prison and more and better policing will reduce crime. There is almost unanimous condemnation of California-style mass incarceration, which has led to no reduction in serious crime and has turned many inmates into habitual criminals.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure — the result of an expensive approach to criminal justice shaped by fear-driven ideology.  California’s prisons embody this overwhelming failure.

December 6, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Notable new article on the rights of children of the incarcerated

I just came across this new article available via SSRN titled "Children of Incarcerated Parents: The Child’s Constitutional Right to the Family Relationship."  Here is the abstract:

This Article describes the vast population of children with incarcerated parents.  The central argument reframes sentencing law and prison visitation policy through the lens of children’s rights, rather than the traditional frame of prisoners’ rights.  It then suggests as a possible legal basis for children's right to a relationship with their convicted parents the First Amendment freedom of association and a due process liberty interest.  The argument is developed through comparative analysis of current sentencing law and visitation policy in New York State and the federal system, as well as First Amendment doctrinal analysis. International law and practice illustrate that the status quo in the United States need not be the only approach.

The author of this notable article is also notable. The article is authored by Chesa Boudin, a 3L at Yale Law School and the son of the Weather Underground radical Kathy Boudin.  Kathy Boudin served 20 years in New York State prison after she was convicted in 1984 of felony murder for her participation in an armed robbery that resulted in the killing of three people.

December 5, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Should an inmate be able to use Facebook?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this ABC News story which is headlined "Convicted Murderer Justin Walker Used a Blackberry to Talk to Friends on Facebook While in Prison."  Here is how it begins:

The mother of an Oklahoma man who was shot to death is furious that her son's killer was able to get a Blackberry in his cell and has been corresponding with friends and posting photos on Facebook.

Cathy Lawrence, the mother of slain Sheriff Dwight Woodrell Jr., told that Justin Walker, the man serving a 30-year sentence for her son's murder, doesn't deserve to be alive, let alone to be updating his Facebook status.

December 2, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Will the Chief Justice seek consensus in the California prison overcrowding case?

I had a chance last night to read the full and lengthy transcript of the oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Plata (which is available here), and the whole thing is fascinating.  Justice Alito's tough questions to the prisoner advocate continued to burnish his well-deserved reputation of being the most pro-government, pro-prosecution of the current Justices, while Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor posed some of the toughest questions to California's lawyer.  And not only old swing Justice Kennedy, but also new (swing?) Justice Kagan seemed to be trying to figure out how the potent prison crowding reduction order might be tweaked to engineer a resolution of Plata that everyone could live with.

Because the legal and factual issues in Plata are dynamic and uncertain, the Justice I am now thinking is most important to the resolution of this case is Chief Justice Roberts.  There is no crisp, plain right/wrong resolution in Plataand really no enduringly significant jurisprudential concerns, and yet the outcome of the case and also the reasoning (and rhetoric) used by the Court in reaching an outcome will still surely have lots of sentencing law and policy reverberations. 

For these reasons, the Chief's oft-stated interest in having more consensus on the Court could (and perhaps should) come to the fore in Plata.  And, as suggested above, it seems that both Justices Kennedy and Kagan may be especially interested and eager to find split-the-difference resolution to this case that all (or almost all) of the Justices can join.

Candidly, I am not sure if I would prefer to see a unanimous minimalist opinion in Plata that delicately balances all the competing issues, or would instead like the Justices to deliver a 5-4 opinion with lots of rhetoric flying.  But I am sure that the Chief Justice seems to me to be the key player in shaping just what becomes of Plata.

December 1, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Early assessments of SCOTUS oral argument in California prison overcrowding case

This morning the Supreme Court heard extended oral arguments in the California prison overcrowding case Schwarzenegger v. Plata (basic SCOTUSblog review here).  How Appealing has effectively here collected linksto lots of early media coverage of the argument, and Lyle Denniston's reporting here on SCOTUSblog starts his account of the argument this way:

In an argument that at times came close to being rowdy, the Supreme Court’s members jousted on Monday over whether to take on themselves the management of the way California provides medical care for some 140,000 prison inmates, or to leave that chore to a lower court that some Justices thought had done it right and some thought had botched the job.  In the end, the final choice seemed likely to reside with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who insisted that the lower court be left with a lot of discretion but who just as plainly showed he was not entirely satisfied with how it had used that leeway.

An argument that ran just a few minutes over the already expanded schedule of 80 minutes found Justices raising their voices and interrupting each other with some frequency as Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., tried only occasionally and gently to referee.  All of the Court’s members except Justice Clarence Thomas were warmly engaged, and seemed determined at times to drive the arguments of counsel in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, et al. (08-1233) — the first case to reach the Court on the power of the courts to order a release of thousands of inmates from over-crowded prisons under a 1996 federal law.

The full and lengthy transcript of the oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Plata is now available here, and I hope to have my own (original?) comments on this argument if/when time permits.  In the meantime, I welcome reader perspectives and predictions.

November 30, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Private prison in Idaho under investigation after inmate beating video discovered

As detailed in this pair of new AP articles, a private Idaho prison run by that Corrections Corporation of America is being investigated concerning allegations that guard rely on inmate-on-inmate violence to manage prisoners:

November 30, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 26, 2010

"State mulls private alternatives to public prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable editorial in today's Orlando Sun-Sentinel. Here are excerpts:

Privatizing prisons may be "on the table" — as new Senate President Mike Haridopolus has said — but state leaders would be wise to avoid rushing to fast-track it.

Privatization fits in nicely with Gov.-elect Rick Scott's plans to slash almost half of the state's $2.4 billion prison budget. The $1 billion cut in penal costs is part of Scott's efforts to make up the estimated $2.4 billion state budget shortfall Scott will inherit when he is sworn in as governor in January.

Florida's crime rate as decreased over the past decade, and that's good news.  Except that, during that same time, the state's incarceration rate increased dramatically, thanks to tougher sentencing enacted to keep inmates behind bars longer.

Higher incarceration rates usually mean higher costs to operate prisons, which prompted some state leaders to begin mulling the private-prison alternative. It's not a new concept.  Florida already lists six privately run prisons, with another 2,000-plus-bed facility opening in 2011.

If tougher policies keep violent criminals locked up, it's a price Florida must pay, of course.  But there's evidence, too, that many being locked up for longer periods of time are those with non-violent, more minor drug offenses that might better be dealt with in other ways than prison cells....

Facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, state leaders are correct to consider trimming penal costs, but not by a quick substitution of a private facility whose profit margins depend on high incarceration rates and taxpayer subsidies.  State taxpayers would be better served if their leaders examined incarceration rate data to determine if the legal system can save money by tweaking current sentencing guidelines and release laws and evaluating decisions by courts and parole boards to see if all this leads to imprisoning non-violent offenders who could repay their debt to society in a more cost-effective way.

The state may well find it can save money by reducing the time and resources spent on housing minor offenders.  BOTTOM LINE: There are better options than relying on private prisons.

November 26, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Illinois prisons bursting following end of early release program

Ill prisons

I just came across this notable recent piece from the Chicago Tribune, which is headlined "Illinois prison population surges to record high: Backlash over Quinn's early-release program plays role." Here is how it begins:

Hard time has gotten even harder in Illinois prisons.  The state's prison system is bursting at the seams with a record high of nearly 49,000 inmates, some 3,000 more than just a year ago.  The surge, combined with the state's multibillion-dollar budget crisis, has led to conditions that watchdog groups and veteran correctional officers say they haven't seen since a population crisis in the 1980s prompted the state to build three new prisons.

Confronted with putting more offenders in the same amount of space, administrators are doubling up every available cell.  As many as four inmates are bunked in slightly larger cells intended for two handicapped prisoners.  At the intake facility at Stateville near Joliet, incoming inmates regularly sleep on cots in a gymnasium or prison hospital.

Guards say overcrowding provides fewer disciplinary options — some prisons have been pressed into holding problem inmates in "segregation" in the same areas as regular inmates.  Overcrowding also leads to more inmate assaults on staff, guards say.

With the Illinois Department of Corrections about $95 million behind on its bills, many prison vendors haven't been paid for months.  In some cases, fed-up contractors have stopped extending credit to prisons, causing shortages that have led wardens to barter among themselves to stay stocked with essential items like paper goods and soap.

It's a marked change for Illinois, which a year ago saw its prison population drop, a trend seen in about half of the country as cash-strapped states looked to alternatives to incarceration to reduce spending, according to a Pew Center report.

Three years ago, thinking that the number of inmates statewide would stabilize or even fall, prison officials in Illinois considered closing Vandalia Correctional Center to cut costs. But in just the last year, the population at the downstate minimum-security prison nearly doubled, rising to 1,700 this fall from 950 last November.  Now, nearly 100 inmates sleep dormitory-style in a basement area previously closed off by prison officials, said Russ Stunkel, president of the union representing staff at Vandalia.  The bunks are only about 2 feet apart — rear end to elbow, as he put it.  "We're beyond our capacity, and I don't think we can handle any more," Stunkel said.

The reason for the rising numbers of inmates over the last year has nothing to do with more offenders entering the system — it has to do with fewer getting out as the result of a backlash against a policy change by Gov. Pat Quinn that allowed the early release of about 1,700 inmates over four months.

Under fire by an opponent in a heated primary fight, Quinn in January suspended the controversial program, called Meritorious Good Time Push, after news media reports that some prisoners sentenced to short terms of incarceration were freed after as little as a few days in state prison under the program.  At the same time, Quinn also suspended the state's regular Meritorious Good Time program, which had been in place for three decades and reduced the prison time of nearly two-thirds of the state's inmates by an average of a few months.

As a result, the prison population began rising immediately and has gone up every month since, reaching a peak of 48,731 last week.

November 24, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Friday, November 19, 2010

"It's 'give back' time: Locally grown foods and criminal sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting op-ed in today's Chicago Tribune authored by Professors Lynn Branham and Bruce Branham.  As the title hints, the piece has a creative proposal for an alternative sentencing program. Here are excerpts:

A few months ago, the two of us were, once again, victims of crime — burglary and theft. We felt what so many crime victims feel. Invaded. Vulnerable. Angry.

What we soon discovered, though, was that there were limits — rational limits — to our anger toward those who had victimized us. When we asked each other whether we wanted these people sent to jail or perhaps even prison if they were caught and convicted, the answer, to our surprise, was no. We wanted something more.

What we really wanted was not to "get back" at the perpetrators of the crimes. What we wanted was for them to "give back" for the harm their crimes had caused.

That harm, we recognized, went far beyond us. Those who commit crimes also fracture neighborhoods and communities, instilling all of us with resentment, fear and distrust.

So if we were to craft a penalty for the malefactors who stole from us, what would it entail? Work. Hard work. Productive work. Work that makes amends for their crimes by helping others.

Which brings us to what many consider the "wastelands" in Chicago. You know. The places rived by crime and poverty. The places from which a disproportionate percentage of the inmates in the local jail and the state's prisons hail. The places where hope can seem mythical.

What people may not know about these areas of the city is how difficult, and sometimes impossible, it is for people living in them to obtain fresh or homegrown foods. There is, it is true, a burgeoning movement in this country to make locally grown foods readily available. The goals are to make our meals tastier, our health improved and our waistlines, hopefully, smaller.

But the local foods movement has largely missed the poor and decimated parts of urban cities.  One of us, a horticulturist, witnessed this gap while working with a ministry in Chicago that wants to grow and distribute fresh produce to the poor.  During that endeavor, it became apparent to both of us that a structure needs to be put in place to facilitate the growing, preserving, distribution and preparation of healthy foods in poor neighborhoods of Chicago.

That structure can come from what many might consider the most unlikely of sources — the criminal justice system.  Prisons and jails in this state are overflowing with inmates whiling away their time, at enormous expense to taxpayers.  Many of these criminals can be enlisted in making locally grown foods readily accessible to the poor.  Tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting and distributing fresh produce, as well as preserving some of it, takes a lot of time. And that is something that inmates have an abundant supply of.

The local foods work crews laboring to help the poor, however, would not be composed solely of incarcerated individuals.  In fact, developing a structure to provide judges the option of imposing this kind of "work sentence" would obviate the need or perceived need to incarcerate many of those who now wind up in prison or jail.  These exorbitantly expensive incarceration resources could then be conserved for the violent and incorrigible offenders for whom incarceration is the only viable sentencing alternative.

November 19, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Hundreds Die of Illnesses in County Jails"

The title of this post is the headline of this piece from the Texas Tribune.  Here are some excerpts:

Sheriffs say that they are doing everything they can to care for people who come to them with a multitude of physical and mental illnesses that are exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction.  And, they say, they are struggling to meet the health care needs of more inmates at a time when budgets are dwindling.

There are no state standards for health care in county jails, but criminal justice advocates and correctional facility experts say the large number of illness-related deaths prove they are needed.  “People aren’t dying of old age in jails,” said Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.  “Those numbers are more likely to be reflective of medical care concerns.”

The data analyzed by the Tribune related to more than 1,500 deaths that occurred in law enforcement custody statewide from January 2005 through September 2009. Nearly 500 of those deaths were inmates who were in the custody of the state’s 254 sheriff’s departments.  Some were the result of high-intensity pursuits or suicides that occurred before an offender was arrested. Some happened during the course of the arrest, when a person was shot, tased or restrained by officers.

But more than half of the deaths reported by county law enforcement — 282 — happened as a result of an illness contracted before or during incarceration.  Many inmates died of heart conditions; some of cancer or liver and kidney problems; and others of afflictions ranging from AIDS to seizure disorders and pneumonia.

November 14, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, November 12, 2010

Inmates having to sleep on floors in overcrowded West Virginia jails

This local article, which is headlined "Official says inmates sleeping on jail floors," spotlights the problems of jail overcrowding in West Virginia. Here are excerpts:

Officials say the issue of over-population has reached a critical point in the state's regional jails and prisons, with no clear-cut solution in sight.

Joe Thornton, Secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said the issue has gotten so bad, inmates have slept on mattresses on the floors of some facilities. The Regional Jail Authority took up the problem at its quarterly meeting Wednesday at South Central Regional Jail.

One temporary solution has been the installation additional bunks at the 10 regional jails around the state.  The bunks will be mounted to the walls in the pods as per safety specifications, leaving less space for inmate and guard movement but providing additional beds, which officials hope keeps the inmates off the floors....

"We're getting to a point where we have no room at the inn," Thornton said.  "We don't have the right of refusal."  He said the problem of over-population in the regional jails stems from having too many offenders in the state's prisons.  Currently, there are about 1,600 of the Department of Corrections 6,639 inmates being held in regional jails around the state....

A commission established by Gov. Joe Manchin to study overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons released a report last July with 14 recommendations to ease the problem. Thornton said the state is working on implementing them.

Among the recommendations was accelerated parole for eligible inmates.  He said those eligible inmates would have their parole hearing 9 months before their estimated parole date rather than 12 months, meaning they would get out three months earlier.  Add to that a review of the state criminal code to review and possibly revise or repeal outdated laws....

Thornton said the idea of adding on to any prisons or jails was "not on the table" at this point because of the state of the economy, and building another prison facility or jail was all but out of the question, he said, citing a $200 million price tag.

November 12, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, November 05, 2010

Overcrowded jail lacks room for non-violent offender who keep trying to get in

A helpful reader altered me to this amusing local article, which is headlined "Thief can't get in, now won't go to jail." Here are the basics:

Despite being a criminal, Carla Freeman's persistence paid off Wednesday when a judge decided she didn't have to go to jail after all.

Freeman, 28, was an employee in 2004 at the Pleasant Ridge Home Depot when she was charged with voiding sales for friends and letting them take items without paying. She was convicted of theft and placed on probation with the stipulation she pay $2,278 for Home Depot restitution, court costs and fines. Six years later, though, Freeman hadn't paid that money so Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Melba Marsh ordered Freeman's probation ended and told her to go to jail for 180 days.

Freeman reported Jan. 4 to the jail to serve her sentence. She was turned away because the overcrowded jail had no room for her. For about two years, the jail has been turning low-level, non-violent criminals away, often telling them to return later to serve the sentences, because there was no room.

Freeman showed up at the jail again March 8 and she again was told to come back later due to overcrowding. She tried several more times, each time being turned away. "She's tried eight times to get in and can't," Freeman's attorney, Ed Noe, said Wednesday. She tried again April 16, June 2, July 7, Aug. 8, Sept. 17 and Oct. 15....

"That's not unusual at all, especially for females," sheriff's spokesman Steve Barnett said Wednesday. "We just don't have room for them."

Freeman has been trying to get into the jail for so long, Noe said, that she just gave birth and likely wouldn't be accepted in her next scheduled reporting date, Nov. 29. "They don't take breast-feeders," Marsh said of the jailers.

Noe filed a motion asking Marsh to release Freeman.   Marsh agreed and ordered Freeman released.

November 5, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Great new Vera Institute report on how states are trying to balance tight budget and public safety

I received via e-mail blast this afternoon this helpful heads-up about a helpful new report about state corrections practices:

A report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections suggests that after decades of increases in corrections spending, states are trying something new. The Continuing Fiscal Crisis in Corrections: Setting a New Course is based on a two-part investigation that sought to gauge the current status of states’ corrections policies: Vera staff surveyed state officials about their planned corrections spending for fiscal year 2011 and reviewed states’ recent corrections-related legislative initiatives.  The results show officials planning to spend less even as they initiate changes aimed at shoring up public safety.

According to the report, two factors are driving these developments.  First, ongoing budget pressures are compelling officials to seek savings whenever safely possible.  At the same time, states are drawing on decades of research and using identified policies and practices that can be counted on to yield positive results.

The Center on Sentencing and Corrections has also created an interactive online resource highlighting data from the new report.  The page features a map and chart illustrating changes in individual states’ corrections appropriations from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, including funding sources.

Download the report.

View the interactive map and chart.

October 28, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Retribution and the Experience of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this new forthcoming article from Professors John Bronsteen Christopher Buccafusco and Jonathan Masur that is now available via SSRN. It looks like the latest must-read for those interested in punishment theory and subjective punishment experiences.  Here is the abstract:

In a prior article, we argued that punishment theorists need to take into account the counterintuitive findings from hedonic psychology about how offenders typically experience punishment.  Punishment generally involves the imposition of negative experience.  The reason that greater fines and prison sentences constitute more severe punishments than lesser ones is, in large part, that they are assumed to impose greater negative experience.  Hedonic adaptation reduces that difference in negative experience, thereby undermining efforts to achieve proportionality in punishment.

Anyone who values punishing more serious crimes more severely than less serious crimes by an appropriate amount — as virtually everyone does — must therefore confront the implications of hedonic adaptation.  Moreover, the unadaptable negativity of post-prison life which is caused by the experience of imprisonment results in punishments that go on far longer than is typically assumed.  Objectivist retributive theories that fail to incorporate these facts risk creating grossly excessive punishments.  Certain retributivists have disputed the claim that adaptation is important to punishment theory, but their arguments are unavailing.

October 19, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 18, 2010

Justice Sotomayor dissents from cert denial in prisoner rights case

The one notable action for criminal justice fans in today's SCOTUS orders comes via Justice Sotomayor's dissent from the denial of certiorari in Pitre v. Cain (available here). It starts and ends this way:

Petitioner Anthony Pitre, a Louisiana state prisoner,stopped taking his HIV medication to protest his transferto a prison facility.  He alleges that respondents at thefacility punished him for this decision by subjecting him tohard labor in 100-degree heat.  According to Pitre, respondents repeatedly denied his requests for lighter duty more appropriate to his medical condition, even after prison officials twice thought his condition sufficiently serious torush him to an emergency room.  In response to one such request, respondent Cain expressly acknowledged in a letter attached to Pitre’s complaint that Pitre was “dealing with unnecessary pain and suffering, as well as cruel and unusual punishment,” but he accused Pitre of “bringing it on himself” by refusing to take his medication. App. F toPet. for Cert. (Exh. A-2). Cain concluded, “If you are suffering because of your own choices, so be it.”   As a result of respondents’ actions, Pitre alleges, his already-fragile medical condition deteriorated even further.

The courts below deemed these allegations insufficient to state an Eighth Amendment violation....

Pitre’s allegations, if true, describe “punitive treatment [that] amounts to gratuitous inflictionof ‘wanton and unnecessary’ pain that our precedent clearly prohibits.”  I cannot comprehend how a court could deem such allegations “frivolous.”  Because I believe that Pitre’s complaint states an Eighth Amendment violation, I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari and reverse the judgment below.

October 18, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, October 11, 2010

"With more prisoners and no place to put them, Kansas faces hard choices"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article from the Kansas City Star.   Here is how it starts:

A few years ago, Kansas had figured out how to control its prison population. It had solved the equation and become a national model.  No more.  Kansas is officially out of beds for male prisoners, with a population last week of 8,411 — above the system’s capacity of 8,259.

In 10 years, the state is projected to be nearly 2,000 beds short.  So Kansas corrections leaders have started talking seriously about two options: Either find millions of dollars to house more prisoners — at a time when the state is struggling to pay for schools and social services — or start letting them go.

Another option — crowding prisoners — would just lead to violence and lawsuits, prison officials say. Many states, including Mississippi, have already retreated from years of tough crime laws. Kansas experts are looking at the Mississippi solution of making nonviolent offenders eligible for parole after they have served 25 percent of their sentences.

Another possibility suggested by the Kansas Sentencing Commission is to increase “good time” credit for some inmates from 15 or 20 percent to up to 50 percent, meaning prisoners who stay out of trouble could be released after serving half of their sentences.

But early releases in either form would violate promises the state made to those who have suffered at the hands of criminals, said Wyandotte County District Attorney Jerome Gorman. “I don’t know how we can do that to the victims of the state of Kansas,” he said.  Even nonviolent inmates such as drug addicts and burglars are mostly chronic criminals who will get out and cause trouble, he said, and the state is already failing to revoke parolees who should be put back in prison. “They entrusted a job to police, prosecutors and judges and now they’re saying we don’t care about the effort,” Gorman said.

Wyandotte County District Court Judge Ernest L. Johnson, chairman of the Sentencing Commission, agreed that early releases would be a step back from the state’s sentencing grid system meant to impose consistent and true prison time. “But what do you do when there isn’t enough money? You’ve got to change something,” he said.

October 11, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Could (and should?) expanded good-time credits help reverse mass incarceration?

Good times The question in the title of this post is inspired by this effective local article from Washington state, which is headlined "Will the State Bring Back Half-Off Sentences for Good Behavior?".  The piece highlights that in most states it is budget woes, rather than concerns about mass incarceration, that is helping to generate a policy debate concerning how much of a sentence reduction a prisoner should be able to earn for good behavior while behind bars.  Here are excerpts:

A revival of the 50-percent-off provision for well-behaved inmates in the prison system is likely in January as the state’s budget situation grows increasingly dire.  Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said she has “no doubt” that lawmakers will discuss the provision, which allows inmates serving time for non-violent offenses half off their sentence for good behavior.

A law for 50 percent off was enacted in 2003 but expired on July 1.  The vast majority of inmates in prison receive their earned release time, currently up to a third off, according to DOC officials.

Awarding time off for good behavior can be seen as a benefit to the taxpayer.  Inmates who get out early for good behavior don’t take up costly prison space, said Mary Fan, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington School of Law.  So, what began as a tool to keep inmates behaving has become a mechanism to relieve budgets in a time when the state is perennially strapped for cash.

Fan agreed that lawmakers who wish to appear tough on crime can, say, bolster sentences for a variety of offenses, while more discreetly saving money by expanding good time. “If, on the back end, you quietly open the door wider, it’s less controversial,” Fan said.

Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge believes good time can control behavior and provide incentives for inmates to stay in line while behind bars.  But 50 percent off is simply too much, he said. “That’s just for cost savings,” said Hauge, also a member of the state’s sentencing guidelines commission, which advises Gov. Chris Gregoire on criminal justice policy issues.

State appellate court decisions have also altered the idea of earned release time, Hauge said. “They’ve turned good time from a privilege one earns through good behavior to a right they’re entitled to,” Hauge said.

The state’s prisons currently hold more than 16,000 people. Each inmate costs $100 per day, making prisons a target for cuts.  Appleton, a member of the House public safety and emergency preparedness committee, said if re-elected, she would support the half-off provision. In her mind, the alternative is letting more inmates in state prisons out to lower costs, so it would be better to reward non-violent offenders and keep all others incarcerated. “I think that could save a lot of money,” she said.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, said he cannot support the concept of 50-percent off a sentence. He said the state’s residents have an expectation of “clear and definitive” sentences by a judge.  “I think the public likes truth in sentencing,” said Sheldon, also a Mason County commissioner.  “I think you ought to behave yourself anyway and be penalized for not behaving.”

Perhaps the only offenders who should get expanded good-time credits are those who can sing the great theme song to the classic 1970s sit-com, which ends with the fitting lines "Good Times ... Ain't we lucky we got 'em ... Good Times!"

October 10, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, October 04, 2010

Notable Third Circuit ruling on process requirements for prisoner sex offender classification

The Third Circuit has a notable prisoner rights ruling today in Renchenski v. Williams, No. 07-3530 (3d Cir. Oct. 4, 2010) (available here), which gets started this way:

Plaintiff Charles Renchenski is serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole for murder in the first degree. Although he was never charged with, nor convicted of, a sexual offense, in 2005 Defendants classified Renchenski as a sex offender and recommended his enrollment in Pennsylvania’s Sex Offender Treatment Program (“SOTP”).  Renchenski filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging that his forced participation in sex offender treatment therapy violates several constitutional rights, including his: Fourteenth Amendment right to due process before being labeled a sex offender; Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; and Sixth Amendment right to have a jury adjudicate his guilt.  He also challenges the District Court’s conversion of Defendants’ motion to dismiss into a summary judgment motion without granting him leave to take discovery.  Because we hold that an inmate who has never been charged with, nor convicted of, a sex offense is entitled to due process before Pennsylvania classifies him as a sex offender, we reverse the District Court’s Order entering summary judgment as to his procedural due process claim.  We affirm the District Court in all other respects.

October 4, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"California's bloated prison system threatens public safety"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary in the Sacramento Bee authored by Jeanne Woodford, former director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and former warden at San Quentin. Here is how it begins:

Public safety is a bipartisan concern. The corrections budget must be, too.

California's spending on corrections has risen unchecked for too long and with too little to show for it. As every other area of the state budget absorbs significant cuts, corrections remains the exception even as recidivism rates exceed 70 percent. Despite some attempts to cut back, prison costs have actually increased during this severe economic downturn. The state Legislature must not let one more year go by without righting this wrong.

Public safety is threatened –- not enhanced –- by a massive, inefficient prison system haphazardly constructed through piecemeal legislation and ill-conceived ballot initiatives. The 160,000-plus state prison population is far from static, with 120,000 people returning to communities each year and just as many taking their places behind bars.  Two-thirds of people released from prison are sent back within three years.

Californians aren't getting their money's worth.

October 4, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Jailhouse Stocks Slip as Trends Shift"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable piece from The Street, which provides a market-based perspective on the private prison industry.  Here are excerpts:

Corrections Corp. of America (CXW) and Geo Group (GEO), the largest U.S. prison operators with a combined 86% market share, have long been touted as ironclad investments based on two trends: the rising prison population and government outsourcing of penal services. But those companies' lock on the industry is loosening.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation last week reported that violent crimes fell 6.1% in 2009, the third consecutive year of declines in such crimes, the type that most frequently contribute to lengthy jail sentences. Also in 2009, the state prison population dropped for the first time in 38 years, by 0.3%. While small, that came as a surprise, given the eightfold increase between 1972 and 2008, the Pew Center on the States reported.

Criminologists cite a variety of reasons for the trends: an aging population, the recession and judges' increasing willingness to seek alternatives to prison sentences, such as putting non-violent offenders on probation, releasing well-behaved prisoners earlier than required under sentencing guidelines, or giving some home detention and equipping them with ankle bracelets for monitoring.

Those factors keep a lid on growth in the prison population, which bodes poorly for the private-prison industry. That's already showing up in the numbers....

Still, some analysts give Corrections Corp. of America and Geo high marks, primarily based on the expectation that government entities will increasingly outsource detention services as cost-effective alternatives to making the huge investment it takes to build new prisons and staff them.

Barclays Capital analyst Manav Patnaik, who has "buy" ratings on both firms, said in a recent research report that state prisons still anticipate their inmate populations will grow. And only four states have authorized funding for new prison construction next year, and none acted upon it, suggesting demand for new private-prison housing will continue.

September 23, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Risk as a Proxy for Race"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Professor Bernard Harcourt available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Today, an increasing chorus argues that risk-assessment instruments are a politically feasible way to resolve our problem of mass incarceration and reduce prison populations. In this essay, I argue against this progressive argument for prediction: using risk-assessment tools to decrease prison populations would unquestionably aggravate the already intolerable racial imbalance in our prison populations and will not address the real source of mass incarceration, namely the admissions process.

Risk has collapsed into prior criminal history, and prior criminal history has become a proxy for race.  This means that using risk-assessment tools, even for progressive ends, is going to significantly aggravate the already unacceptable racial disparities in our criminal justice system.  Instead of turning to prediction, we need to address prison admissions . Recent evidence suggests that our carceral excess was not so much fueled by the length of sentences, as it was by the front end: new admissions.  The real solution to mass incarceration, then, is not to cut short prison terms though prediction, but to reduce admissions to prison.

September 21, 2010 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Feds seek to halt inmate's frequent lawsuits"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent amusing AP article. Here is how it starts:

A federal inmate who has filed more than 3,800 lawsuits and targeted the famous, the infamous and even the long-dead is now being sued by federal officials who want him to knock it off.

Federal prosecutors who say they have had enough of the frivolous filings have filed a lawsuit of their own asking a judge to take unusual action to stop Jonathan Lee Riches.  Since 2006, Riches has filed lawsuits in nearly every jurisdiction in the country, court documents show. The inmate who dubbed himself "Lawsuit Zeus" in one of his thousands of court cases has filed up to four of his handwritten petitions a day in Kentucky courts alone.

The 33-year-old inmate at the federal prison in Lexington has sued New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, former President George W. Bush, then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and even Somali pirates.  Sometimes, Riches asks for money, other times an injunction to stop alleged, if physically impossible, activity.

Among Riches' targets have been "Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party," the ancient philosopher Plato, the celestial body formerly known as the planet Pluto and the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the Guinness case, he wanted to prevent himself from being dubbed the most litigious man in America.  "These phrases (i.e. "Patrick Ewing of Suing," "Johnny Sue-nami," etc ...) hurt my feelings and violate my civil rights.  I've filed so many law suits with my pen and right hand that I got arthritis in my fingers, numbness in my wrists, crooked fingers, I got bags under my eyes for sleepless nights suing the world," Riches wrote in Riches v. the Guinness Book of Records.

Guinness spokeswoman Sara Wilcox said the book doesn't monitor litigious people and has no records concerning Riches.  Like many of his other legal claims, the lawsuit was dismissed.

September 17, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Zapping Inmates To Control Them: Harmless Or Torture?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent NPR story which discusses the latest hot new technology that hopes to help to keep prisoners in line.  Here are excerpts:

Los Angeles authorities have unveiled a new high-tech device designed to control rowdy inmates: a mechanism that blasts millimeter beams that simulate intense heat. At the Pitchess Detention Center, north of Los Angeles, officials recently showed off their latest tool, which resembles a supersized dental X-ray machine with a flat screen on top. It works like something out of Star Trek.

"You know when they set their phasers to stun, they did that so they didn't kill people? Well, that's exactly what this is. It does stun you," says Mike Booen, a vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems. The company built the device for the Los Angeles County Jail, a scaled-down version of what it designed for the military.

"I don't care if you're the meanest, toughest person in the world," he says, "this will get your attention and make your brain focus on making it stop, rather than doing whatever you were planning on doing."...

Dave Judge, the operation deputy for the sheriff's department, says the machine is more effective than their usual methods of firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades. "This is tame; this is mild," Judge says. "This is a great way to intervene without causing any harm. The nice thing about this is it allows you to intervene at a distance."...

Raytheon's Booen says the device sends out millimeter waves, creating a harmless, but intense sensation. "It penetrates about a 64th of an inch under your skin," Booen explains. "That's about where your pain receptacles are. So it's what it would feel like if you just opened up the doors of a blast furnace. You feel this wave of heat immediately."...

Three years ago, the Department of Defense demonstrated a bigger version of the device it considered using. During one simulation, it repelled a pretend group of protesters with the "Active Denial System" direct energy weapon mounted on a military vehicle.The U.S. Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Programs reportedly never actually used the device in Afghanistan, but a spokeswoman says they are considering related technology.

Now, Los Angeles has been given a smaller, civilian version of the same device free. But the ACLU says that's a bad idea. "We're going to use people in the jails as guinea pigs for some mega arms builder to test their device," ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg says.

He sent a letter to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca asking him to reconsider using what he says has the potential to be a torture device.... Eliasberg says some tests of the millimeter device have badly burned people with repeated zaps. And he notes that Los Angeles deputies have a documented history of abusing inmates. Eliasberg suggests a better solution would be to prevent the overcrowded conditions that trigger jail riots in the first place.

September 13, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Interesting judicial perspective on prison overcrowding in Alabama

This local story from Alabama, which is headlined "Overcrowded prisons open Madison County judge's eyes," provides interesting background with how the state's judiciary is looking at the problems of prison overcrowding. Here are excerpts:

With state prisons stuffed beyond capacity and no signs of any slowdown in the volume of drug and theft cases that fill court dockets, Alabama's judges are being asked to rethink the sentences they issue.

The message came last week as all Alabama judges with power to sentence prisoners were invited by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb to a three-day meeting in Montgomery.  Cobb wants to find ways to reduce jail overcrowding and still enforce Alabama's laws in the face of significant state budget problems.

She has said Alabama's prisons are operating at 195 percent of capacity, making it the most crowded state prison system in the U.S. Alabama has the nation's sixth highest incarceration rate; state prison costs quadrupled in 20 years to $577 million a year in 2008, and half of all new inmates in the system in 2009 were imprisoned for drug offenses, according to the chief justice.

Madison County Presiding Circuit Judge Karen Hall, who attended the conference, said the tours she took of Elmore and Tutwiler prisons are causing her to rethink how she sentences young male and female offenders.

Hall said the Alabama Legislature needs to address the lack of prison space and the lack of programs offering rehabilitation or skills training. "I saw 195 men in a dorm that was 96 degrees," she said. "They can go to church; they can play basketball or lift weights in their yard, and that's it. They need to be doing something.

"What it has done for me is made me rethink how I will handle those who are considered low-risk, especially young males, young females, and maybe give one more chance before I send them down there."  Hall favors the addition of work camps and boot camps and halfway houses to bolster the state's alternative sentencing system.

She said Madison County enjoys a good reputation with its approach to alternative sentencing, which includes a drug court, a mental health court and a family drug court.  Hall said there are clearly some counties where judges simply lock everybody up....

Alan Mann, a former prosecutor and longtime defense attorney who is running for the newly created circuit judge position, said the problems of prison overcrowding and how sentencing should work are fueled by sheer volume and a basic misunderstanding.  "The rub is, there's always going to be some disconnect between the public and the reality of the problem," Mann said. "Every politician runs on being tough on crime, cleaning up the streets.  But that's not the reality; (the case volume) never stops.  So the rubber meets the road in the courtroom with the judge, the DA and the defense attorney."...

Mann said even alternative programs can prove to be too expensive or too time-consuming for some of his drug-offense clients, who instead opt for probation.  "I'm told by many clients they simply can't afford it, it costs more than it does to pay a probation officer," he said. "Then again it takes money to run it.  There are no easy answers to these things."

September 13, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, September 10, 2010

New York Times editorial urges "tough as possible" prison rape policies

This morning's New York Times includes this editorial headlined "Make Prisons Safer," which gets started this way:

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has spent nearly 15 months weighing new mandatory rape prevention policies for federal prisons and state correctional institutions that receive federal money. The policies, which are due this fall, need to be as tough as possible.

A recent report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics makes that clear, suggesting yet again that sexual violence is frighteningly commonplace in the nation’s prisons and jails.

September 10, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 09, 2010

"At 90, what does 17 years in prison mean?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this article from The Buffalo News about a (stiff?) sentence given to an elderly murderer.   The piece also discusses the prison realities for very old criminals, and here are excerpts:

A feeble-looking John H. Bunz had to be held up by two court officers after the 90-year-old stumbled getting from his wheelchair into his seat at the defense table Wednesday in a downtown courtroom.

It's hard to comprehend, but this is the same man who bludgeoned his 89-year-old wife to death with a hammer in a bloody attack during March in their Amherst apartment. Bunz showed little emotion as he apologized for his crime shortly before receiving what some deemed a "death sentence" -- 17 1/2 years in prison -- in State Supreme Court....

Bunz pleaded guilty in July to first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Virginia H. Bunz, his wife of nearly 68 years, in the couple's apartment in the Amberleigh Retirement Community.  In interviews Wednesday, authorities offered new details about the attack, which occurred early on March 21. 

Sometime after getting up that morning, Virginia and John Bunz got into a quarrel over "her health care issues," said Amherst Police Detective Lt. Richard S. Walter....  John Bunz hit his wife about 30 times with the hammer, police and prosecutors said, first in the hands as she tried to defend herself and then repeatedly in the head. "It was an extremely violent crime scene," Walter said.

Virginia Bunz died from blunt-force trauma from the beating, but John Bunz still grabbed a pillow afterward and held it over her face "to make sure the job was done," Walter said.  He then grabbed a kitchen knife and cut himself above his eyes, on his neck and on his wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.

Their daughter found the couple at about 10 a.m. Bunz admitted his role in the slaying to Detective Sgt. John J. Piracci and Detective James D. Jackson at Erie County Medical Center, where he was taken for treatment. "I would say he was remorseful but matter-of-fact," Walter said....

The district attorney said that he recognizes that this is likely a "death sentence" for Bunz but that he deserved lengthy incarceration because of the savageness of the crime.  "This was not a mercy killing.  This was not a gentle killing.  This was not, as far as we know, part of any [murder-suicide] pact," Sedita said.  "This was an extraordinarily violent act."

What happens to a 90-year-old who is sentenced to prison?  Based solely on his crime and the length of his sentence, Bunz would be classified as a maximum-security inmate, said Linda M. Foglia, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correctional Services. And elderly inmates aren't unilaterally segregated from the general prison population....

If it is apparent that Bunz has special needs, such as a wheelchair, she said, the state has several prison facilities that can accommodate him.  And the state takes into account a prisoner's physical abilities when assigning housing and work responsibilities, she said. "We'll pay attention to the environment that a 90-year-old needs," Foglia said.

When Bunz begins his sentence, he will be the second-oldest inmate in a New York State prison, after Theodore A. Sypnier, according to department records. Sypnier, a 101-year-old convicted pedophile from this area, was sent back to prison on a parole violation and is serving two years at Groveland Correctional Facility in Livingston County.

A Niagara Falls man, Otes G. Rodriguez, is third on the current list at 86 years old. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for pouring gasoline on a woman and trying to light her on fire by using a flare gun.  Rodriguez was 80 at the time of the 2004 attack and previously served prison sentences for the 1959 murder of his wife and the 1973 murder of his girlfriend.

September 9, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The story of prisons becoming nursing homes in Virginia

This new piece in the Washington Post, headlined "Virginia's prison system struggles to handle the surge in elderly inmate," provides a look into some of the consequences of an aging prison population in Virgina. Here are excerpts:

Since the General Assembly abolished parole for the newly convicted in 1995, the number of elderly inmates in custody has soared. In 1990, there were 900 inmates over the age of 50. Now there are more than 5,000. Deerfield Correctional, which once housed 400 inmates, has become a 1,000-bed facility with a long waiting list. "We're left trying to be both a nursing home and a prison," said Keith Davis, the warden.

Scrambling to handle the surge, the state has built a 57-bed assisted living facility at Deerfield, with rows of hospital beds filling a room the size of a high school gymnasium. They've added a special meal for the facility's legion of diabetics, and they've hired nurses to keep round-the-clock watch on the infirmary's 16 inmates.

It's an expensive endeavor: It costs $28,800 annually to house an inmate at Deerfield, compared with the $19,000 it costs at most of the state's medium-security prisons....

Under the 1995 Truth in Sentencing law, two types of inmates can still be paroled: prisoners over 60 and those convicted before the law took effect. That makes Francis eligible for parole. But since George Allen (R) was elected governor in 1993 with a promise to abolish parole, offenders have spent significantly more time behind bars. Fewer than 5 percent of inmates charged before 1995 have won reprieves since Allen's initiative passed, compared with 42 percent of eligible inmates who were granted parole in the years preceding the change in law.

Those over 60 face even slimmer odds. Only 15 of 1,000 eligible elderly inmates have won release. That record has led to a class-action lawsuit against the state. "The law says these inmates are eligible for parole, but the Parole Board is acting as if they're not," said Bill Richardson, an Arlington attorney representing 11 inmates.

State officials say the low parole rate reflects the fact that most nonviolent criminals have been released over the past 14 years, leaving mainly harder-core criminals behind bars. "These inmates might be old, and they might no longer pose a threat, but this is the price of committing a heinous crime," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Sentencing Commission, which oversees state sentencing guidelines.

The trend in Virginia foreshadowed a national trend. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of inmates 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, from 43,300 to 76,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Some related posts:

September 8, 2010 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"Prison is too good for Blago"

The title of this post is the headline of this column by Phil Luciano in the Peoria Journal Star.  Here are some excerpts:

How would you like to see Rod Blagojevich punished?  I'd like to see him do something that involves hard and demeaning work. You know, like real punishment....

I get my prison peek courtesy of a pal of mine, "Screamin'."  He recently got out of the federal system after serving three years for fraud.  He spent a good amount of cell time writing me letters about the relative ease of federal prison camps.  Now that he is out and on the straight and narrow, he still is amazed at how little punishment is involved behind bars at minimum-security prison -- and why many folks call it "Club Fed."

That's likely where Blago will end up.  Remember, regardless of the second trial, he already has been convicted of lying to the FBI.  For that, a source tells me, he likely will get a year or two in prison.

He has no prior record, so he will get a minimum-security assignment.  Unlike Pekin's medium-security facility, minimum-security prisons have no walls.  It's kind of like living at a college dorm, Screamin' says.

Screamin' says Blago will spend most of his days doing light labor, such as upkeeping the library or cutting grass.  For that, he'll get around 16 cents an hour, which means about $15 a month.  Inmates get to spend earnings on treats at the commissary.

But Blago will have opportunities to make more money or earn favors.  As an attorney, he can write motions for other prisoners. In exchange, he could get packets of tuna -- a favorite at prison camps, because it tastes most like real food, Screamin' says.  Or, Blago could trade legal work for favors, such as laundry work.

During down time -- and there is plenty of down time -- Blago likely will consort with other politicians and businessmen.  They often walk around the outdoor track, not so much for exercise but to gossip and scheme.  Sure, Blagojevich is a big jogger, but he'll likely be more attuned to the deals inmates concoct regarding life on the outside after they do their time....

Many [inmates] do what they love on the outside: gamble.  Bookmaking is immensely popular, with wives and girlfriends taking care of settling wagers on the outside. Screamin' would see inmates lose thousands of dollars per sports season. "It's crazy," he says.  "A lot of money."

Of course, get caught and get in trouble.  You might get shipped off to "the hole."  Or you could get moved to a stiffer prison, where you can't get away so easily with such shenanigans.  All in all, though, Screamin' found his stay rather uneventful.  And that's why I hate to see Blagojevich go away to federal prison.

U.S. taxpayers spend more than $24,000 a year to house each prisoner.  And there are more than 200,000 inmates in the federal system. Behind bars,  Blago gets easy jobs and a chance to network with other pols and bigwigs.  That's hardly what I call punishment.  So maybe it's time to get creative.

Judges sometimes opt for alternate sentences nowadays.  In Ohio, a man who ran from police was forced to jog around a jail every day.  In Texas, a woman who tried to weasel Hurricane Katrina rebuild money had to clean houses.  In California, a beer thief had to wear a T-shirt declaring his crime.  But those were state sentences.  Federal sentencing guidelines don't allow anything but incarceration.

Yet wouldn't it make more sense to find a different way to handle Blago and others like him?  A way that not only makes him pay his debt to society but takes the taxpayer off the hook?

Make him work a 9-to-5 minimum-wage job -- fast food, retail or whatever -- so he can learn how the little guy squeaks by while earning money to help support his family.  At night, he would have to stay at home -- no restaurants or fun until his term is over.

Weekends, though, he would do very visible public service. Picking up trash on the highways, cleaning state Dumpsters, shoveling state-owned sidewalks -- anything involving sweat and humility.  And the aggrieved public could watch -- perhaps with knowing smiles and pointing fingers -- what happens when a government official brazenly goes bad.

Informed readers should know that shaming sanctions and other prison alternatives in fact are possible in the federal sentencing system, though truly creative sentences are quite rare.  Do others agree with this columnist that Blago is a good candidate for some creative sentencing?

September 1, 2010 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A thoughtful call for Congress to slightly increase federal good-time credit

Steve Sady, the public defender who for years argued for a defendant-friendly interpretation of the federal statute providing for 15% good time credit for prisoners, has this new commentary in the National Law Journal.  The piece is headlined "Too much time in prison," and here is how it starts and ends:

On June 7, my federal public defender office had the disturbing experience of losing Barber v. Thomasin the U.S. Supreme Court, a case that — if the outcome had been different — would have prevented up to 36,000 years of federal overincarceration, saving taxpayers up to $951 million.  The issue was whether the federal statute that allowed federal prisoners to earn up to 54 days of good-time credits for each year of their sentences meant that a prisoner could reduce the sentence imposed by up to 15%.  This sounds like an easy figure to calculate (54/365), but the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), based on time served, came up with a complex formula that works out to 12.8% of the prisoner's sentence, or only 47 days per year of the sentence imposed.  In light of the Court's majority ruling approving the BOP's interpretation of 12.8%, Congress should now amend the good-time credit statute to require the 15% rate against the sentence imposed that has received bipartisan support in previous legislation and that provides the basis for the federal guidelines' sentencing ranges....

Although the Supreme Court has made its decision, the result is bad public policy.  It is now up to Congress and the administration to step up and correct the problem.  Congress can fairly and safely lower incarceration rates for well-behaved prisoners, thereby reducing prison overcrowding and preserving public resources, by amending the federal good-time statute to ensure that prisoners can receive good-time credits of up to 15% of the sentence imposed.  By doing so, Congress would reaffirm the value our society and Constitution place on human freedom, while reinforcing good behavior by federal prisoners.

August 29, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Friday, August 20, 2010

Notable Eleventh Circuit ruling on use of force on mentally ill prisoners

The Eleventh Circuit has a long discussion of the use of force against prisoners in Florida in its ruling today in Thomas v. Bryant, No. 09-11658 (11th Cir. Aug. 20, 2010) (available here). Here is how the legthy opinion gets started:

This appeal presents important questions concerning the intersection of the Eighth Amendment and the incarceration of inmates with serious mental illness.  Ten inmates incarcerated at Florida State Prison (“FSP”) brought this § 1983 action against various officers and employees of the Florida Department of Corrections (“DOC”), alleging that the use of chemical agents on inmates with mental illness and other vulnerabilities violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  After the plaintiffs settled their damages claims against the individual correctional officers responsible for administering the chemical agents, the district court held a five-day bench trial on their remaining claims for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the two defendants allegedly responsible for the policy which authorized the use of chemical agents on inmates at FSP: Walter McNeil, Secretary of the DOC, and Randall Bryant, Warden of FSP. 

The district court entered judgment in favor of two of the remaining six plaintiffs, concluding that the repeated sprayings inmates Jeremiah Thomas and Michael McKinney received pursuant to the DOC’s non-spontaneous use-of-force policy violated the Eighth Amendment.  Specifically, the district court concluded that Thomas and McKinney demonstrated that at times in which they were sprayed with chemical agents they were unable to conform their behavior to prison standards due to their mental illnesses such that the DOC’s use of force for purposes of prison discipline amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.  To remedy the violation, the district court permanently enjoined the defendants, in their official capacities, from allowing the non-spontaneous use of chemical agents on Thomas or McKinney without first consulting with the DOC’s trained mental health staff to evaluate their mental health status.  Defendants McNeil and Bryant now appeal, challenging both the district court’s finding of an Eighth Amendment violation and the propriety of its permanent injunction....

Our task is to determine whether the district court erred in concluding that the DOC’s nonspontaneous use-of-force policy, as applied to McKinney, violates the Eighth Amendment and whether its permanent injunction was both necessary to remedy the violation of McKinney’s rights and also properly tailored to the identified harm.  Finding no error in the district court’s thorough conclusions of law and narrowly tailored injunction, we affirm.

August 20, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two interesting new commentaries on prison reform in the Obama era

The folks at AOL have recently published these two interesting commentaries on prison reform:

The second piece ends this way:

The Obama administration has the perfect opportunity to move forward on prison reform. Economic pressures are making over-criminalization fiscally unfeasible, and research-driven solutions are available. Moral issues like prison rape are crystal clear.  President Obama can credibly use the bully pulpit to point out what the American criminal justice system must learn: Compassion is not the enemy of public safety.

August 18, 2010 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ACLU of Ohio produces major report on prison growth and problems

As detailed in this article from the Columbus Dispatch, which is headlined "ACLU: Ohio prisons in crisis: Senators of both parties agree that system is costly, overcrowded," the ACLU has a new and timely report on Ohio's prison costs and problems. Here is how the Dispatch article gets started:

The American Civil Liberties Union and state Sens. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat, and Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, are at odds on many issues. But the unlikely trio joined forces yesterday to pitch enactment of reforms to heal Ohio's "overcrowded, overused and underfunded" prison system.

"We are at a crisis in the state of Ohio," said James Hardiman, Ohio ACLU legal director, in releasing "Reform Cannot Wait," a report examining the cost and impact of prison incarceration and spending from 1991 to the present.

The report summarized the findings of other reports over nearly two decades and reached the same conclusions: Ohio sends far too many people to prison, spends an inordinate amount of money on adult and youth prisons, and has done little to reduce crime and recidivism....

Seitz said the state's 1996 "truth-in-sentencing" law failed miserably, largely because lawmakers added dozens of tough-on-crime sentence "enhancements" that increased the overall average time served instead of reducing it as intended. "We created layer after layer of additional sentences," he said.

Seitz is the sponsor of Senate Bill 22, which would funnel some low-level, nonviolent offenders to community treatment programs and give offenders time off their sentences for successfully participating in education and treatment programs behind bars. It would initially save about $13.7 million in operating costs, but it would help avoid billions in spending if it prevents the state from having to build new prisons because of severe overcrowding, he said.

The ACLU of Ohio's press release about its report is available here, and the full 20-page report titled "Reform Cannot Wait" is available at this link.

August 18, 2010 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Terrific piece in The Atlantic on "Prison Without Walls"

The September issue of The Atlantic magazine includes this terrific piece focused on technocorrections like GPS tracking under the headline "Prison Without Walls." The lengthy piece is a must-read and here is a long excerpt that highlights some reasons why I have been talking up the future of technocorrections for years:

GPS devices ... are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration, as it becomes ever clearer that, in the United States at least, traditional prison has become more or less synonymous with failed prison.  By almost any metric, our practice of locking large numbers of people behind bars has proved at best ineffective and at worst a national disgrace. According to a recent Pew report, 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated — enough people to fill the city of Houston.  Since 1983, the number of inmates has more than tripled and the total cost of corrections has jumped sixfold, from $10.4 billion to $68.7 billion.  In California, the cost per inmate has kept pace with the cost of an Ivy League education, at just shy of $50,000 a year.

This might make some sense if crime rates had also tripled.  But they haven’t: rather, even as crime has fallen, the sentences served by criminals have grown, thanks in large part to mandatory minimums and draconian three-strikes rules — politically popular measures that have shown little deterrent effect but have left the prison system overflowing with inmates.  The vogue for incarceration might also make sense if the prisons repaid society’s investment by releasing reformed inmates who behaved better than before they were locked up.  But that isn’t the case either: half of those released are back in prison within three years. Indeed, research by the economists Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago and M. Keith Chen of Yale indicates that the stated purpose of incarceration, which is to place prisoners under harsh conditions on the assumption that they will be “scared straight,” is actively counterproductive.  Such conditions — and U.S. prisons are astonishingly harsh, with as many as 20 percent of male inmates facing sexual assault — typically harden criminals, making them more violent and predatory.  Essentially, when we lock someone up today, we are agreeing to pay a large (and growing) sum of money merely to put off dealing with him until he is released in a few years, often as a greater menace to society than when he went in.

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine.  The potential upside is enormous.  Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers.  The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

Moreover, such a change would in fact be less radical than it might at first appear.  An underappreciated fact of our penitentiary system is that of all Americans “serving time” at any given moment, only a third are actually behind bars.  The rest — some 5 million of them — are circulating among the free on conditional supervised release either as parolees, who are freed from prison before their sentences conclude, or as probationers, who walk free in lieu of jail time.  These prisoners-on-the-outside have in fact outnumbered the incarcerated for decades. And recent innovations, both technological and procedural, could enable such programs to advance to a stage where they put the traditional model of incarceration to shame.

In a number of experimental cases, they already have.  Devices such as the one I wore on my leg already allow tens of thousands of convicts to walk the streets relatively freely, impeded only by the knowledge that if they loiter by a schoolyard, say, or near the house of the ex-girlfriend they threatened, or on a street corner known for its crack trade, the law will come to find them. Compared with incarceration, the cost of such surveillance is minuscule—mere dollars per day—and monitoring has few of the hardening effects of time behind bars.  Nor do all the innovations being developed depend on technology.  Similar efforts to control criminals in the wild are under way in pilot programs that demand adherence to onerous parole guidelines, such as frequent, random drug testing, and that provide for immediate punishment if the parolees fail. The result is the same: convicts who might once have been in prison now walk among us unrecognized—like pod people, or Canadians.

There are, of course, many thousands of dangerous felons who can’t be trusted on the loose. But if we extended this form of enhanced, supervised release even to just the nonviolent offenders currently behind bars, we would empty half our prison beds in one swoop....  [S]ome would offend again.  But then, so too do those convicts released at the end of their brutal, hardening sentences under our current system. And even accepting a certain failure rate, by nearly any measure such “prisons without bars” would represent a giant step forward for justice, criminal rehabilitation, and society.

August 18, 2010 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Aging inmates straining prison systems"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new AP article. Here is how the piece starts:

Curtis Ballard rides a motorized wheelchair around his prison ward, which happens to be the new assisted living unit — a place of many windows and no visible steel bars — at Washington's Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.  A stroke left Ballard unable to walk. He's also had a heart attack and he underwent a procedure to remove skin cancer from his neck. At 77, he's been in prison since 1993 for murder.  He has 14 years left on his sentence.

Ballard is among the national surge in elderly inmates whose medical expenses are straining cash-strapped states and have officials looking for solutions, including early release, some possibly to nursing homes.  Ballard says he's fine where he is. "I'd be a burden on my kids," said the native Texan. "I'd rather be a burden to these people."

That burden is becoming greater as the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that elderly prisoners — the fastest growing segment of the prison population, largely because of tough sentencing laws — are three times more expensive to incarcerate than younger inmates.  The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400.  The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period.

August 16, 2010 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two must-reads from the latest issue of Governing

GOV08_cover The August 2010 issue of the magazine Governing has its cover story devoted to the interesting and important (and under-appreciated) story of corrections reform in the state of Mississippi.  There are so many interesting parts to the stoty, I will just plug this piece by simply noting its headline and subheading: "Mississippi's Corrections Reform: How America's reddest state -- and most notorious prison -- became a model of corrections reform."

In addition, the same issue has this astute commentary piece on one of my favorite policy topics under the headline "Marijuana: To Legalize or Not to Legalize?; Federal, state and local governments can't seem to agree whether to legalize cannabis." Here are two snippets this commentary:

Medical marijuana is in a legal and political twilight zone, caught between the ongoing policy battles on drugs and the pleas of patients suffering from painful, debilitating diseases. In fall 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that in the 14 states permitting the sale of medical marijuana, the feds would focus only on big drug traffickers and money launderers. Republicans fired back that Holder was undermining federal laws and fueling the drug wars on the Mexican border. The House Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith, countered: "We cannot hope to eradicate the drug trade if we do not first address the cash cow for most drug-trafficking organizations -- marijuana." The Cato Institute's Tim Lynch countered yet again, saying the drug war had proven a "grand failure," while advocates of legalizing marijuana quietly applauded....

It's hard to think of a policy battle full of so much heat but backed by so little research. The drive for medical marijuana comes from two sources: the underground campaign to make marijuana legal, where advocates have long argued that the drug is a harmless recreation, and the desperate plight of patients suffering from chronic diseases, where traditional medicine has provided little relief....

Amid the ongoing federal war on drugs, the states are leading a noisy revolution to legalize marijuana, at least for medical use. The Obama administration said it will back off prosecuting drug laws in the states permitting medical marijuana, but in some local governments, opponents are fighting back to restrict where state-sanctioned marijuana can be sold. The state laws themselves are all over the map, from California's permissive statute to New Jersey's tough government regulation of the chain from plant to user. [Along the way], we're clumsily drawing new lines on drug use as only American federalism can.

August 11, 2010 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack