Thursday, June 14, 2012

Judge unmoved by undefeated boxing champ's claim prison is defeating him

As reported in this AP article, "Floyd Mayweather's demands that he be released from jail because the poor quality of the food and water has threatened his health were denied by a Las Vegas judge who says he should eat and drink what is being given to him behind bars."  Here is more about the ruling which denied the boxing champ's request to get out of jail early:

Justice of the Peace Melissa Saragosa wrote in her late Wednesday decision that water has been made available to Mayweather around the clock and the only reason he isn't eating properly is because he refuses to eat the provided meals.  Saragosa said Mayweather's complaints that he is unable to exercise in jail also are invalid because he has been "provided sufficient space and time for physical activity if he so chooses."

"This court finds, and the defendant admits, there is nothing illegal about the defendant's sentence in this case," Saragosa wrote.

A mere 12 days after Mayweather turned himself in to begin his three-month sentence, his legal team filed an emergency motion Monday asking the court to put him under house arrest or move him into the general jail population -- something that jail officials had avoided to protect the celebrity fighter.  The motion claimed the undefeated champion might never fight again because he was getting out of shape in solitary confinement....

Mayweather pleaded guilty last year to reduced domestic battery charges stemming from an attack on his former girlfriend while two of their children watched.  The plea deal allowed him to avoid trial on felony charges that could have gotten Mayweather up to 34 years in prison if he was convicted.  Mayweather was sentenced Dec. 22, but was allowed to remain free long enough to make a Cinco de Mayo weekend fight.

Mayweather's legal team told the court this week that his personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, visited the jail Friday and determined that the fighter appeared to have lost muscle tone.  Voy estimated Mayweather was consuming fewer than 800 calories a day instead of his usual 3,000 or 4,000 calories.  Mayweather also wasn't drinking enough because he wasn't allowed bottled water and doesn't enjoy tap water....

Prosecutor Lisa Luzaich scoffed at the complaints during a court hearing Tuesday. "It's jail," Luzaich told the court. "Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"

Though perhaps not quite as catchy as "That's a clown question, bro," I sure like the idea of the sports world giving us the phrase "It's jail, not the Four Seasons."

June 14, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Big new ACLU report highlights the high cost of high numbers of elderly prisoners

Elderlyprisonreport_cover_0The ACLU has just released this important and timely new report, titled "At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly." The full report runs nearly 100 pages, but seems worth reading in full (especially after checking out thanks to the ACLU this slideshow and this video on the topic).  And the first seven paragraphs of the report's introduction highlights its basic findings and themes:

The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars. Prisoners across the country are also getting older and experiencing all the same ailments that afflict those of the same age who are not behind bars. Our extreme sentencing policies and a growing number of life sentences have effectively turned many of our correctional facilities into veritable nursing homes — and taxpayers are paying for it.

From 1980 to 2010, the United States prison population grew over 11 times faster than the general population. During this time, the general population increased by 36%, while the state and federal prison population increased by over 400%. The number of elderly people in our prisons is growing even faster.

The graying prison population has become a national epidemic afflicting states around the country—from California to Missouri to Florida— further burdening already strained state budgets. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoners age 50 and older are considered “elderly” or “aging” due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration. This report uses that definition and finds that that there are 246,600 elderly prisoners behind bars across the country. To the extent possible, this report provides data for prisoners age 50 and older; in a few cases when data for this age group is not readily available, this report provides data on the next closest age range.

In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. Today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United States. In other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. This astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.

The United States keeps elderly men and women locked up despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that recidivism drops dramatically with age.  For example, in New York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years.  That number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older. In contrast, this number is 16% for prisoners released at age 49 and younger. Further, most aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. For example, in Texas, 65% of prisoners age 50 and older are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, and other nonviolent crimes.  This increasing warehousing of aging prisoners for low-level crimes and longer sentences is a nefarious outgrowth of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.  Given the nation’s current overincarceration epidemic and persistent economic crisis, lawmakers should consider implementing parole reforms to release those elderly prisoners who no longer pose sufficient safety threats to justify their continued incarceration.

State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to run our penal system. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending.  These corrections costs are mainly spent on incarceration, and incarcerating aging prisoners costs far more than younger ones.  Specifically, this report finds that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. To put that number into context, the average American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety risk and can be released.  Releasing many of these individuals will ease the burden on taxpayers and reunite prisoners with their families to care for them.  This report conducts a fiscal impact analysis detailing the cost savings to states in releasing the average aging prisoner.  While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their healthcare or other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than the costs of incarcerating them.  Based on statistical analyses of available data, this report estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax revenue.  Even on the low end, states will save at least $28,362 per year per released aging prisoner.

June 13, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Golden anniversary of the greatest escape from the greatest prison

AlcThis morning's New York Times has this new article discussing an old mystery still surrounding a long-closed (but still justifiably famous) federal prison.  The piece is headlined "Tale of 3 Inmates Who Vanished From Alcatraz Maintains Intrigue 50 Years Later," and here is how it begins:

Fifty years ago, on the night of June 11, 1962, the three convicts were locked down as usual.  Guards walking the tier outside their cells saw them at 9:30 and checked on them periodically all night, looking in at the sleeping faces, hearing nothing strange.  But by morning, the inmates had vanished, Houdini-like.

Guards found pillows under the bedclothes and lifelike papier-mâché heads with real hair and closed, painted eyes.  Federal agents, state and local police officers, Coast Guard boats and military helicopters joined the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, scouring the prison complex on Alcatraz Island, the expanse of San Francisco Bay and the surrounding landscape of Northern California.

A crude raft made of rubber raincoats was found on a nearby island.  But the fugitives were never seen again.  Federal officials said they almost certainly drowned in the maelstrom of riptides, undertows and turbulent, frigid waters of the 10-mile-wide bay, their bodies probably swept out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge.

But for aficionados of unsolved mysteries, the fantasy that Frank Lee Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin had successfully escaped from the nation’s most forbidding maximum security prison and are still alive, hiding somewhere, has been a tantalizing if remote possibility for a half-century now.

It seemed wildly improbable.  “The Rock” where Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and other infamous criminals were held was thought to be escape-proof.  In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, no one is known to have made it out alive.  Forty-one inmates tried. Of those, 26 were recaptured, 7 were shot dead, 3 drowned and 2 besides Mr. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never found.

Had they survived, the three men — all bank robbers serving long terms — would be in their 80s now.  And while their names are all but forgotten, their breakout has been a subject of fascination to many Americans, analyzed in countless articles, four television documentaries, a 1963 book by J. Campbell Bruce, “Escape from Alcatraz,” and a 1979 movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood as Mr. Morris.

June 10, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

NY Times debates "When to Punish, and When to Rehabilitate" for juve offenders

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing punishments for juvenile offenders.  Here is the sections set up:

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on when, if ever, it is appropriate to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole.  The arguments this spring showed the complexity of drawing the lines between child and adult, and between justice and cruelty.

When minors commit violent crimes, should they be treated differently from adults?  Is prison effective as a punishment and deterrent for juveniles, or does it harden a young person who might otherwise recover?

Here are the contribututions, with links via the commentary titles:

June 6, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"A Proposed National Corrections College"

The title of this post is the title of this article available via SSRN authored by James Jacobs and Kerry Cooperman. Here is the abstract:

More than four decades ago, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger proposed the establishment of a National Corrections Academy.  He envisioned a training center for prison and jail personnel as prestigious, well-funded, and high-powered as the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.  Although the National Institute of Corrections established a National Corrections Academy in 1982, this academy has remained extremely small (ten full-time program specialists) and modestly funded ($2.5 annual budget) given the size of this nation’s correctional infrastructure.

Today, at a cost of approximately $70 billion per year, more than half a million correctional employees in more than 5,000 correctional facilities across the U.S. house, feed, clothe, supervise, recreate, educate, and provide medical care to nearly 2.3 million inmates, and probation and parole officers supervise an additional 5 million people. Despite the cost and complexity of administering this massive correctional complex, there is no national institution to identify and prioritize correctional-leadership-development needs, evaluate best training practices, develop and disseminate quality curricula, conduct cutting-edge research, and deliver training to a significant number of high-level corrections leaders.

This article reprises Chief Justice Burger’s proposal, calling for the establishment of a National Corrections College that would be the nation’s “brain center” for correctional research, curriculum development, and leadership training.  As Justice Burger observed three decades ago, an investment in a full-fledged national-level correctional training and research center would “cost less in the long run” than the failure to make such investment.

June 5, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 02, 2012

New civil rights suit goes after segregated isolation in California prisons

As reported in this recent Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Group sues California over isolation of some prison inmates," a new lawsuit is assailing California's use of solitary confinement in prison management. Here are the details:

California's practice of isolating prison inmates it suspects of gang affiliations and keeping them that way for years is being challenged in federal court by a national civil rights group. Inmate advocates say California is the only state that makes such extensive, harsh use of solitary confinement, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The inmates are segregated based on thin evidence and prevented from seeking parole, the advocates say, and their isolation leads to mental and medical problems. "It's beyond the pale for any civilized nation," said Jules Lobel, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit Thursday. "We as a society should not be sanctioning torture."

The lawsuit focuses on about 300 inmates who have been held in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit for more than a decade. Most are alone in their windowless cells, allowed out only to shower or exercise in a small concrete yard known as the "dog run." They're allowed one package a year and almost no phone calls, the lawsuit says, and the food is often rotten.

Prison officials said they were already examining their policies on how inmates are placed in the security unit, and a spokesman defended the practice as necessary to handle safety problems in a prison system rife with gangs.

"It's a place where people who pose a particular threat to staff and other inmates can be kept in the most secure way possible," said Jeffrey Callison at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The state's use of solitary confinement is one of the most controversial aspects of its troubled prison system. Thousands of inmates went on a hunger strike last year to protest conditions in solitary housing. Inmate advocates in March asked the United Nations to investigate whether such confinement constitutes torture.

Pelican Bay has 1,128 inmates in its Security Housing Unit. They are sent there through an administrative process that advocates described as severely flawed and lacking in due process. Only 66 are in the Security Housing Unit for behavioral problems; the rest have been confined because of gang affiliations, according to the state. One inmate is considered a member of the Mexican Mafia because he was caught with Aztec artwork, according to the lawsuit....

Ninety-one prisoners have been in the unit for more than two decades, according to the state. New rules under consideration would require assignment there to be based more on behavior in prison than on gang affiliation, Callison said.

June 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, June 01, 2012

Ohio sentencing reforms already driving down state prison population (and recidivism rate?)

The mantra from one of my all-time favorite movies is "If you build it, they will come."  Now, based on a new article from my own Columbus Disptach, I am thinking about talking up a sentencing/prison policy mantra of "If you reform it, they will leave."  This article is headlined "Ohio prison population dropping: Sentencing revision seen as successful," and here are excerpts:

Ohio’s revised criminal-sentencing laws are making a difference after six months, diverting hundreds of inmates away from state prisons to less-expensive community programs.

From Oct. 1, 2011, when the new laws took effect, through the end of March this year, 26  percent fewer inmates were imprisoned for child-support-only violations and 180 fewer inmates came to prison for nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felonies.  As a result, the prison population dropped to 49,846, the lowest since November 2008. The number of prisoners had peaked at 51,278.

The recidivism rate — the number of offenders who return to prison within three years after being released — is at an all-time low, 31.2 percent. That compares with a national average near 50 percent.

Still, Ohio prisons director Gary C. Mohr said yesterday that he isn’t satisfied with the numbers. He had hoped to hit 49,168 inmates by July 1, but that won’t happen. “The impact has been slower than we anticipated,” he said.  But Mohr predicts House Bill 86, the much-debated criminal-sentencing overhaul, will show greater results in the coming year.

The provision expected to make the deepest impact has been delayed because of legal complications.  It would allow the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to recommend in specific cases that inmates be released after serving 80 percent of their sentence.  The inmates must have a record of good behavior and be recommended by prison staff.   Cleanup language for the 80 percent provision is included in the omnibus budget review bill about to be signed by Gov. John Kasich.

Saving money is not the only reason the Kasich administration pushed for sentencing reform, but it’s an important one. It costs taxpayers $25,000 a year to house and feed each inmate in a state prison, compared with $5,000 a year for offenders in community corrections facilities.

Another change allows judges to issue what are called “risk-reduction” sentences. That means if inmates have a good record in prison and participate in programs, they qualify to get out early.  About 140 offenders have been sentenced under that provision since Oct. 1, Mohr said.

I am very pleased that, a mere six months after enactment, Ohio's sentencing reforms are already helping to ensure that my state taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on expensive prison space to warehouse non-violent offenders.  I am also intrigued to see that what strikes me as already a major state prison population reduction in only six months is still less than what Ohio's prison chief had expected by this point.

As the lats part of the title of this post reveals, I think it is a bit too early to assert that Ohio's sentencing reform from just last year itself fully accounts for the all-time low state recidivism rate.  Nevertheless, these numbers at the very least provide more encouraging evidence suggesting that we states can (and should be trying to) reduce the size of their prison populations without immediately producing a negative impact on public safety.

June 1, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Crime Report. The piece was authored by Jamie Fellner, who is the Senior Advisor to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States."  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up.  Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous?

According to prison statistics, hardly any.   In Ohio, 26.7 percent of former prisoners commit new crimes within three years of their release from prison.   But only 5.6 percent of those released between the ages of 65 and 69 — and 2.9 percent of those released between the ages of 70 and 74 — commit new crimes.  Of those released at age 75 or older, none revert to criminal behavior.

In New York, you can count on two hands the number of older prisoners who have gone on to commit violent crimes after release.  Of 1,511 prisoners aged 65 and older when released between 1995 and 2008, only 8 were returned to prison for committing a violent felony.  Among the released older prisoners were 469 who had originally been sent to prison because of a violent crime.  Only one has returned to prison because of a new crime of violence.

These statistics quantify what criminal justice professionals know from experience: as a group, released older prisoners are not likely to pose much of a risk to the public.  The risk is no doubt even less if the released prisoners are ill or infirm....

Wholly apart from the effects of age and infirmity, years in prison also leave older prisoners with little desire to pick up a gun or hit the streets looking for trouble even if they were physically able to do so.  They want to spend their remaining time on earth with family and friends.  They do not want to die behind bars.

Ensuring just deserts for those who harm others is a legitimate criminal justice goal.  But age and infirmity can change the calculus of when the time served is long enough.  At some point in a prisoner’s life, parole supervision and perhaps restrictions on movement (e.g. home confinement) may suffice as a cost-effective and sensible punishment.

May 29, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

A year after Plata ruling, a "picture of success" fixing California's overcrowded prisons

UTI1646197.jpg_t220Before the completion of the federal litigation that culminated in last year's Plata Supreme Court ruling, the iconic image of the California's persistently crowded prisons was a picture of hordes of men in orange prison garb atop triple-stacked bunk beds in a packed gymnasium that was never intended to house inmates.  Versions of this iconic image were even reprinted in the Supreme Court reporter as part of the majority opinion in Plata which affirmed the federal court order that California reduce its total prison population to prevent continuing constitutional violations of the inmates' Eighth Amendment rights.

Now, thanks to this new article from the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is headlined "Prison crowding eases as local jails house more inmates," we can see a new "picture" of what the Plata ruling has achieved through a photo showing all those bunk beds now empty. Here are excerpts from the article in which this new image of California's prison system appears:

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Just a few months ago, California’s inmates were packed into double- and triple-stacked bunk beds in prison gymnasiums, classrooms and other areas never meant for housing. Now those beds are empty.

The prison population is declining, but not because there are fewer criminals. Instead, a new state law shifted the responsibility for some lower-level offenders to the county jails, which are filling up.

State officials have “taken the monkey off their back and put it on ours,” said Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs seven county jails. In the nearly eight months since the law took effect, Gore has used a number of strategies to ward off jail crowding, including early releases, but he insists the county is handling the load. He and other county officials have said that with proper funding the local authorities can do better than the state at rehabilitating criminals so they’re less likely to end up back behind bars. “We can’t warehouse these inmates,” Gore said.

At Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa, rows of graffiti-scarred bunks sit empty in one of the prison gyms, where more than 150 men once slept in an area the size of a basketball court. A couple of inmates likened the experience to “living in the crazy house.”

“It’s horrible. It’s violent. It’s crowded,” said David Dewrance, 50, who spent almost two years in a gym trying to rest and study for his correspondence courses. When space became available earlier this year, Dewrance was moved to a two-man cell in one of the housing units, which allowed him access to one of the preferred vocational programs. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, imprisoned for second-degree murder, now works in the prison bakery.

Fellow inmate Jesus Yanez said he was housed in a gym at another prison before coming to Donovan five months ago to continue serving his sentence for assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury. In an interview this month at the prison, he recalled trying to sleep, shower and keep his bunk clean while keeping watchful eye dozens of fellow inmates.

“I wouldn’t wish that on the worst person,” said Yanez, 40, whose head and arms are inked with tattoos, many of them evidence of his former gang life in Los Angeles. The cells, he said, are “100 percent better.”

Shortly after the state’s prison population had reached an all-time high in the summer of 2007, more than 19,600 inmates were sleeping in so-called nontraditional beds. All inmates were cleared out of Donovan’s gyms and day rooms at the beginning of this year. And in March, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it had stopped bunking inmates in gyms and day rooms at all California prisons.

“It’s a lot safer,” said Daniel Paramo, a 20-year corrections department veteran who became Donovan’s warden in July. The extra bunks, he said, “made it very difficult to manage the institution.”

As of this month, 3,573 prisoners were being held at Donovan, about 1,000 fewer than the facility housed at the same time last year, but it remains overcrowded. The prison is designed to hold 2,200 inmates with one man to each cell....

In January, the corrections department announced that the population of inmates housed in its 33 institutions had dropped by more than 11,000 inmates over six months. This month, the population was pegged at 122,305 — 153.6 percent of capacity — according to the most recent figures available.

“The population is going down,” said Dana Simas, a department spokeswoman, who acknowledged county officials’ frustrations over rising jail populations. “We never purported that it would be without a few bumps in the road,” Simas said.

Even with the recent inmate reductions, some doubt the state will meet the Supreme Court’s deadline.   Prison officials want the court to allow them to hold the inmate population at 144 percent of capacity — rather than the 137.5 percent as originally ordered — while maintaining constitutional standards for medical and dental care, Simas said. “Our conditions have vastly improved,” she said.

Of course, simply managing to move bodies out of a crowded gym hardly proves that the Plata decision was a perfect ruling or that all is now better in California's often dysfunctional criminal justice system.  But, at the very least, these pictures document that a constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court combined with a serious state effort to respect that ruling can quickly engineer some needed changes to a prison system that had for many years been stalled in a political and practical quagmire concerning overcrowding.

I am hopeful that there will be a number of serious and systematic efforts to take stock of what has followed from the Plata ruling in California.  I have little doubt that the demands on local facilities as a result of the urgent need to move bodies out of state facilities has created various new problems.  Still, this story confirms my gut instinct that, a year after the controversial Plata ruling, the 5-4 decision has produced a net gain for not only the inmates who were suffering Eighth Amendment violations, but also for the entire state of California.  At the very least, there seems to be limited evidence (or at least limited reporting of evidence) that the dire predictions of doom and California crime waves right after the Plata ruling (which appeared in the Plata dissents and on this blog) were a bit overstated and hyperbolic.

UPDATE:  I am intrigued and a bit surprised that oft-vocal "tough on crime" commentors like Bill Otis and federalist, who were quick to condemn the Plata ruling last year, have not yet had anything to say here about the opinion a year later when now it seems the opinion's benefits have been greater than its harms.   In that vein, I found notable this new Sacramento Bee commentary from a former California Assembly member titled "Fear mongers were wrong about prison system's 'realignment'." Here are excerpts:

A year ago we heard fear-mongering voices warning of dangerous criminals being released and counties too broke to provide jail space, parole officers or programming for realigned prisoners.

One year in, how's realignment actually working out? The number of people held in state prison has dropped by more than 25,000 in 16 months since Brown has been in office. The count of people on parole is down almost 30,000, and the number of people held in private out-of-state prisons is down 10 percent; all that without a spike in crime.

The crime rate continues to fall and putting fewer people in state prisons means saving tax dollars, and given the $15.7 billion gap forecast in the May revise those savings have never been needed more than they are now. CDCR estimates that it is saving $1.5 billion a year through realignment and will save another $2.2 billion a year by canceling $4.1 billion in new construction projects....

Corrections built prisons, but it was the Legislature that filled them with hundreds of laws that created new crimes and lengthened sentences. Serious sentencing and parole reforms are long overdue and communities, advocates, and other experts throughout the state have been providing ideas of where to start for decades.

An easy step could be to address the rapidly aging population by implementing a geriatric parole process, and expanding medical parole and compassionate release. Other options include passing legislation to decriminalize drug possession, or supporting the initiative to reform the "three strikes" law on the November ballot. We need only the political will to move away from sentencing and parole policies that have done more to bankrupt our state treasury than to secure safety in our neighborhoods.

Do we return to the course of expanding prisons and jails and expanding the percentage of our resources that go to filling them? Or do we take realignment as only a first step toward further downsizing, offering us the opportunity to use tax funds to invest in the well being of our residents now and in the future? I advocate for the latter.

May 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Effective op-ed on "Plantations, Prisons and Profits" in Louisiana

26blow-ch-articleInlineThe title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new op-ed in the New York Times by Charles Blow, which gives justified praise to the recent local newspaper series about Louisiana's criminal justice system (which I have spotlighted in prior posts here and here).  Here are excerpts:

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital.  The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts.  First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.

The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.... [S]ome facts from the series:

  • One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.

  • More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state.  The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent.  The national average is 5 percent.

  • Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.

  • Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.

  • Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders.  The national average is less than half.

In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did. It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.

But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full.  That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.

It also means that criminal sentences must remain stiff, which the sheriff’s association has supported. This has meant that Louisiana has some of the stiffest sentencing guidelines in the country.  Writing bad checks in Louisiana can earn you up to 10 years in prison.  In California, by comparison, jail time would be no more than a year.

There is another problem with this unsavory system: prisoners who wind up in these local for-profit jails, where many of the inmates are short-timers, get fewer rehabilitative services than those in state institutions, where many of the prisoners are lifers.  That is because the per-diem per prisoner in local prisons is half that of state prisons. In short, the system is completely backward....

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed.  It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.   As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

Related recent posts:

May 26, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Friday, May 25, 2012

Effective commentary urges greater us of "compassionate release"

Julie Stewart, the president and founder of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), has this effective new commentary at The Crime Report headlined "Let’s End the ‘Death Rattle’ Rule." Here are excerpts:

It is easy for most Americans to identify ways in which the government wastes money, but it is not often you come across a federal program that is both wasteful and cruel. The Federal Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) “compassionate release” program fits the bill.

Some background will help. When Congress passed the landmark Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, in the interest of “truth in sentencing” it abolished parole at the federal level and eliminated all but a few opportunities for a judge to revisit and shorten a sentence once it had become final.

One little-known opportunity permits courts to order the immediate release of prisoners in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. Although Congress did not restrict this opportunity to situations where an inmate was in grave medical condition, the relief — which became known as “compassionate release” — was limited to such cases.

But, and this is important, a judge cannot act unless the BOP asks the court for the sentence reduction. Before 1994, the BOP would only file motions in court to release terminally ill patients with less than six months to live. It did not matter if the inmate was bedridden or suffered from advanced dementia, or how many taxpayer-funded medical services he required.

In 1994, the BOP slightly broadened its qualifications to include those with a terminal illness and less than a year to live, but it made no difference. BOP’s macabre standard became known as “the death rattle rule,” as in, no death rattle, no release. Despite the wider standard, during the 1990s, an average of 21 inmates a year received compassionate release, a figure that represents 0.01 percent of the federal prison population.

Sentencing reform groups, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), were dismayed by BOP’s cruel administration of the compassionate release program. The Bureau’s nonsensical stinginess resulted in families being kept from their incarcerated loved ones when they died, and in taxpayers footing the bill for extraordinary, end-of-life health care expenses that could have been shouldered by inmates or their families.

In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission adopted sentencing guidelines to broaden eligibility for the compassionate release program. The Commission’s amendment was an overdue but straightforward interpretation of the Sentencing Reform Act. It interpreted to the Act’s “extraordinary and compelling circumstances” to include, but not be limited to, instances where: (1) the inmate is suffering from a terminal illness; (2) he is suffering from a permanent physical or mental health condition that prevents him from caring for himself and from which he is not expected to improve; and (3) the death or incapacitation of the inmate’s only family member capable of caring for the inmate’s minor children.

The BOP responded to this not-too-conservative, not-too-liberal interpretation by promptly ignoring it. Instead, it has continued to follow its grisly death rattle rule.

Nothing has changed. The rate of compassionate release motions filed by the BOP from 2000 to 2001 is the same as it was during the 1990s: an average of just 21 per year. In roughly 24 percent of those motions, the inmate died before the district court even had a chance to rule on the motion. Even the “lucky” ones are often forced to spend their final days fighting the BOP bureaucracy. Under the BOP’s rules, nearly every layer of the bureaucracy gets a chance to say “no” to an inmate seeking compassionate release....

The need for compassionate release is only going to grow. First, the number of older prisoners has increased by 750 percent nationwide over the last two decades. Second, the BOP is already suffering from severe overcrowding; its facilities are operating at 138 percent of capacity.

Lastly, Congress is facing a massive budget problem. Though it is asking agencies to look everywhere for cuts, the BOP is seeking an increase of more than $80 million to activate two new prisons. Even if administered correctly, the compassionate release program cannot solve BOP’s overcrowding problem or Congress’s budget challenges, but it can help.

Taxpayers need not subsidize expensive medical services for inmates who pose no threat to public safety. Ultimately, however, we need to expand the compassionate release program to save more than money. We need to do it save our nation’s soul.

May 25, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released this week coming from the University of San Francisco School of Law's Center for Law and Global Justice.  This press release provides a background and summary of this report, and here are excerpts from the press release:

Sentencing laws in the United States are at odds with the country’s human rights obligations to direct its prisons system towards rehabilitation, the University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law and Global Justice said ... in a report examining the sentencing laws of all the countries around the world.  U.S. laws increasing the likelihood and length of prison sentences have created a prisons system out of step with the rest of the world.  They help to explain why, despite a declining crime rate, the U.S. prison population has grown six-fold since 1980 to become the world’s largest per capita.

The report, “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context,” compiles comparative research on sentencing laws around the globe and documents how sentencing laws distinguish the United States from other countries.  Researchers found that the United States is in the minority of countries using several sentencing practices, such as life without parole, consecutive sentences, juvenile life without parole, juvenile transfer to adult courts, and successive prosecution of the same defendant by the state and federal government.  Conversely, sentencing practices promulgated under international law and used around the world, such as setting 12 as the minimum age of criminal liability and retroactive application of sentencing laws that benefit offenders, are not systematically applied in the United States. Mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and “three strikes” laws are used in the U.S. more widely than elsewhere in the world....

Fact Sheet for “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context”

  • The United States is among only 20% of countries around the world having life without parole (LWOP) sentences.  LWOP sentences can never be reviewed and condemn the convict to die in prison.

  • The United States allows for LWOP sentences for a single, non-violent offense such as drug possession, whereas it is often restricted to multiple, violent crimes in other countries.

  • The United States is one of only nine countries which have both the death penalty and LWOP, along with China, Comoros, Cuba, Israel, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

  • There are currently over 41,000 prisoners serving LWOP sentences in the United States, compared to 59 in Australia, 41 in England, and 37 in the Netherlands.  On a per capita basis, the United States LWOP population is 51 times Australia’s, 173 times England’s, and 59 times the Netherlands’....

  • The United States, Canada, and Micronesia are the only federalist countries known to researchers allowing successive prosecution of the same defendant by federal and state governments for the same crime....

  • Under international human rights law, if legislators pass a new law to lighten sentences, offenders have a right to benefit from it retroactively.  Though 67% of countries have codified that right, the United States has not....

  • The vast majority of countries (84%) account for the age of the offender at trial, leaving the United States in the minority of countries (16%) trying and sentencing children as adults.

  • The United States is the only country in the world to use juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, with an estimated 2,594 juveniles offenders serving such sentences.

May 24, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Is it inappropriate to find Unabomber's 50th Harvard reunion entry amusing?

TK profileThe quirky question in the title of this post is prompted by this story from the Boston Globe, which is headlined "Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, lists himself in Harvard 1962 alumni report; says ‘awards’ include eight life sentences." Here are the details:

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who is serving life in prison for sending deadly mail bombs, won’t be able to attend his 50th reunion festivities at Harvard College.  But he did contribute a bizarre entry to the alumni report for the class of 1962.

While many of his classmates sent in lengthy updates on their lives for the 2 ½-inch-thick “red book,” the entry for “Theodore John Kaczynski” only contains nine lines.  The listing says his occupation is “Prisoner,” and his home address is “No. 04475-046, US Penitentiary—Max, P.O. Box 8500, Florence, CO 8126-8500.”  Under the awards section, the listing says, “Eight life sentences, issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, 1998.”...

The widow of one of Kaczynski’s victims said she was “disappointed in Harvard.”  Susan Mosser, widow of Thomas Mosser, a 50-year-old advertising executive who was killed in December 1994 when a package exploded in the kitchen of their New Jersey home, said, “Kaczynski is a con artist.  He’s a serial killer, he’s a murderer. ... Everything is a game for him to push people’s buttons.”  She said if Harvard did not publish his information, she thinks he would have tried to sue the school for excluding it.

A Harvard Alumni Association spokesman confirmed that Kaczynski submitted the entry and said it was considered within the guidelines set for the book, which is titled, “Harvard and Radcliffe Classes of 1962 -- Fiftieth Anniversary Report.”  The books are ultimately by the alumni for the alumni, the spokesman said.

“I don’t fault them on that,” said one of Kaczynski’s classmates, John Higginson, who now lives in Arizona and is participating in the reunion events in Cambridge this week.  He said the entries are written by the alumni, and rather than making Harvard look bad, the entry makes Kaczynski look bad for writing it.

Kaczynski evaded the FBI for nearly 20 years while killing three people and injuring 23 others with bombs sent through the US mail.

May 24, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Justice Department Releases Final Rule to Prevent, Detect and Respond to Prison Rape"

A helpful reader rightly noted to me today that I have failed to give proper coverage to the big news last week concerning the Justice Department's new regulations to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).  This recent piece from Corrections.com, which shares the headline of this post, provides an effective and detailed summary of this important development.  Here are snippets of this summary:

The Justice Department [last week]] released a final rule to prevent, detect and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities, in accordance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). This landmark rule sets national standards for four categories of facilities: adult prisons and jails, lockups, community confinement facilities and juvenile facilities. This rule is the first-ever federal effort to set standards aimed at protecting inmates in all such facilities at the federal, state and local levels....

The standards set forth in the final rule are binding on the Federal Bureau of Prisons. With regard to states, those that do not comply with the standards are subject to a five percent reduction in funds they would otherwise receive for prison purposes from the department unless the governor certifies that five percent of such funds will be used to enable compliance in future years. No organization responsible for the accreditation of correctional facilities may receive any federal grants unless it adopts accreditation standards consistent with the standards set forth in the final rule.

The administration has also determined that PREA applies to all federal confinement facilities, including those operated by executive departments and agencies other than the Department of Justice....

Congress unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 and created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to recommend a set of standards to the attorney general, after which it disbanded pursuant to the act. After receiving the commission’s recommendations in 2009, the attorney general convened an intradepartmental PREA working group that was tasked with reviewing the commission’s recommendations and collecting public feedback on the commission’s proposal. Last year the department published a draft rule for public comment....

To assist federal, state and local agencies in their compliance efforts, the department has funded the National Resource Center for the Elimination of Prison Rape to serve as a national resource for online and direct support, training, technical assistance, and research to assist adult and juvenile corrections, detention, and law enforcement professionals in combating sexual abuse in confinement. Focusing on areas such as prevention strategies, improved reporting and detection, investigation, prosecution, and victim-centered responses, it will identify promising programs and practices that have been implemented around the country and demonstrate models for keeping inmates safe from sexual abuse.

May 23, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"The Ninth Circle of Hell: An Eighth Amendment Analysis of Imposing Prolonged Supermax Solitary Confinement on Inmates with a Mental Illness"

The title of this post is the title of this piece available via SSRN authored by Thomas Hafemeister and Jeff George.  Here is the abstract:

The increasing number of inmates with a mental disorder in America’s prison population and the inadequacy of their treatment and housing conditions have been issues of growing significance in recent years.  The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that “over one and a quarter million people suffering from mental health problems are in prisons or jails, a figure that constitutes nearly sixty percent of the total incarcerated population in the United States.”  Furthermore, a person suffering from a mental illness in the United States is three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, with as many as forty percent of those who suffer from a mental illness coming into contact with the criminal justice system every year and police officers almost twice as likely to arrest someone who appears to have a mental illness.  As a result, the United States penal system has become the nation’s largest provider of mental health services, a “tragic consequence of inadequate community mental health services combined with punitive criminal justice policies.”

This growth in the number of inmates with a mental disorder, combined with the recent rise of prolonged supermax solitary confinement and the increasingly punitive nature of the American penological system, has resulted in a disproportionately large number of inmates with a mental disorder being housed in supermax confinement.  The harsh restrictions of this confinement often significantly exacerbate these inmates’ mental disorders or otherwise cause significant additional harm to their mental health, and preclude proper mental health treatment.  Given the exacerbating conditions associated with supermax settings, this setting is not only ill-suited to the penological problems posed by the growing number of these inmates, but intensifies these problems by creating a revolving door to supermax confinement for many such inmates who may be unable to conform their behavior within the prison environment.

Housing inmates with a mental disorder in prolonged supermax solitary confinement deprives them of a minimal life necessity as this setting poses a significant risk to their basic level of mental health, a need “as essential to human existence as other basic physical demands . . . .”, and thereby meets the objective element required for an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claim.  In addition, placing such inmates in supermax confinement constitutes deliberate indifference to their needs as this setting subjects this class of readily identifiable and vulnerable inmates to a present and known risk by knowingly placing them in an environment that is uniquely toxic to their condition, thereby satisfying the subjective element needed for an Eighth Amendment claim. Whether it is called torture, a violation of evolving standards of human decency, or cruel and unusual punishment, truly “a risk this grave — this shocking and indecent — simply has no place in civilized society.”

May 16, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Continued great reporting on the toughest state in incarceration nation

As noted in this post from this past weekend, the New Orleans Times-Picayune is published a huge eight-part series on the severity of punishment and prison overcrowding in the Bayou state. This series is titled "Louisiana Incarceration: How We Built the World's Prison Capital," and every piece in the series merits a full read. Today's installment is headlined "Prison sentence reform efforts face tough opposition in the Legislature," and here are a few excerpts from the outset:

Even as prison populations have strained the state budget and prompted fiscal conservatives to join liberals in calling for changes, the political calculus in Louisiana has evolved slowly since a series of tough sentencing laws in the 1970s, '80s and '90s bloated the state's inmate counts.

If anything, the balance has remained tilted toward law enforcement. After a prison-building boom in the 1990s, Louisiana sheriffs now house more than half of inmates serving state time -- by far the nation's highest percentage in local prisons. Their financial stake in the prison system means they will lose money if sentences are shortened. They typically house the same drug pushers, burglars and other nonviolent offenders who will be the likely targets of any serious efforts to change the system.

"The three easiest votes for a legislator are against taxes, against gambling and to put someone in jail for the rest of their lives," said state Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, a veteran policymaker who has led the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate.

This lengthy piece goes on to detail how challenging it can be to forge a needed political consensus for any ameliorative sentencing reforms.

May 16, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

New report highlights inequities in Michigan’s JLWOP sentences

JlwopmapAs reported in this new press release, the public policy group Second Chances 4 Youth along with the ACLU of Michigan has release a new report "documenting the systemic disadvantages facing juveniles in the adult criminal justice." This report, which it titled “Basic Decency: An Examination of Natural Life Sentences for Michigan Youth,” is summarized in the press releade this way:

The 38-page report explores the fiscal and human costs of juvenile life without parole sentences and the disproportionate punishments and documented racial disparities found in the plea bargaining process for youth accused of certain crimes. The findings rely on publicly available data produced by the Michigan Department of Corrections and survey responses from individuals originally charged with first-degree homicide in Michigan for crimes committed as youth since 1975. The report documents the many challenges youth face in the criminal justice system, including that:

• Race seriously affects the plea bargaining process for adolescents. Youth accused of a homicide offense where the victim was white were 22 percent less likely to receive a plea offer than in cases where the victim was a person of color. In addition, there are clear geographic disparities with Oakland, Calhoun, Saginaw and Kent Counties offering lessor sentences to youth at significantly lower rates than the state average.

• Juveniles reject plea offers at much higher rates than adults; therefore adults receive lessor sentences for comparable crimes. Juveniles are less equipped to negotiate plea offers because of their immaturity, inexperience, and failure to realize the value of a plea deal. Many report that they did not fully understand the nature of the charges they were facing, the crime they were on trial for, or the meaning of parole.

• Attorneys who have represented youth convicted and sentenced to life without parole in Michigan have an abnormally high rate of attorney discipline from the State Bar of Michigan. About 5 percent of all attorneys are reprimanded, however 38 percent of counsel representing youth sentenced to life without parole have been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for egregious violations of ethical conduct.

Michigan law requires that children as young as 14 who are charged with certain felonies be tried as adults and, if convicted, sentenced without judicial discretion to life without parole. Judges and juries are not allowed to take into account the fact that children bear less responsibility for their actions and have a greater capacity for change, growth and rehabilitation than adults.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to life without parole. In the last five years, there has been a downward trend in imposing such sentences across the nation.  Michigan is one of only six states deviating from this national movement. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger.

Intriguingly, this new report does not at all discuss the pending SCOTUS cases of Jackson and Miller, which could possibly result in a ruling that all LWOP sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  Perhaps that is wise; it remains hard to predict exactly what the Justices will end up doing in those cases when they hand down an opinion in the coming weeks before the end of the current Term.

Moreover, this new report categorically urges, inter alia, that Michigan "abolish Michigan’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children who commit homicide offenses prior to the age of 18" and "provide an opportunity for parole for any youth having served ten years of a life sentence with annual reviews thereafter and mandatory public hearing every five years."  In part because the Jackson and Miller cases both involve offenders who committed murders at age 14, and in part because SCOTUS has never required a particular timeline for parole consideration, there is little chance that even a very broad SCOTUS ruling in Jackson and Miller will require many (or even any) of the reforms urged by this new report.

May 15, 2012 in Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Laissez-faire with strip-searches: America's two-faced liberalism"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary appearing in The Guardian authored by Professor Bernard Harcourt.  The piece, which I have been meaning to post for some time, makes for a very interesting read and it gets started this way:

There is a deep tension in contemporary US political thought between the notion of freedom that tends to dominate in the socio-economic domain and the concept of liberty that predominates in the penal sphere.  In socio-economic matters, the idea of freedom tends to be shaped by classic economic liberalism: the belief that an invisible hand shapes favorable public outcomes, that individuals need robust protection from the government, that the state should refrain from interfering in commerce and trade.  In the law enforcement and punishment context, by contrast, the dominant way of thinking about liberty gives far more ground to the government, to the police and to the state security apparatus.

This tension, when it gets acute, gives rise to what I would call "two-faced" or "Janus-faced liberalism".  Over the last 40 years, during a period characterized by increased faith in free markets, in deregulation, and in privatization, America's Janus-faced liberalism has worsened and fueled the uniquely American paradox of laissez-faire and mass incarceration.  In the country that has done the most to promote the idea of a hands-off government, our government runs, paradoxically, the single largest prison system in the whole world.

This past month, the great American paradox took a distinctly dystopian turn, particularly at the US supreme court.  The oral argument on the constitutionality of President Obama's Affordable Care Act, in conjunction with the court's decision on the constitutionality of strip-searching all persons arrested even on the most minor traffic infractions, crystallize this worrisome trend.  My sense is that I am not alone in this assessment; there appears to be growing recognition across the US that this two-faced liberalism may, in fact, be pushing the country, inch-by-inch, in the direction of a police state.  This is surely true of the recent strip-search case, Florence v County of Burlington.

May 14, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Profiling the top lock-up state in the top incarceration nation

Prison-referlogo-051312png-740cefbf65715ba5I am intrigued and pleased to see that the New Orleans Times-Picayune today starts this huge new eight-part series titled "Louisiana Incarceration: How We Built the World's Prison Capital." The first piece in the series is headlined simply "Louisiana is the world's prison capital," and it gets started this way:

Louisiana is the world's prison capital.  The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts.  First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana's incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran's, seven times China's and 10 times Germany's.

The hidden engine behind the state's well-oiled prison machine is cold, hard cash.  A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.

Several homegrown private prison companies command a slice of the market.  But in a uniquely Louisiana twist, most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, who hold tremendous sway in remote parishes like Madison, Avoyelles, East Carroll and Concordia.  A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations.

If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs.  The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.

Meanwhile, inmates subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens. Each inmate is worth $24.39 a day in state money, and sheriffs trade them like horses, unloading a few extras on a colleague who has openings. A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.

In the past two decades, Louisiana's prison population has doubled, costing taxpayers billions while New Orleans continues to lead the nation in homicides.

One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average.  Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation.  Crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high, but that does not begin to explain the state's No. 1 ranking, year after year, in the percentage of residents it locks up.

In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole.  A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.

May 13, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Too young to shave, but old enough for solitary"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article from the ACLU Blog of Rights, which gets started this way:

As any parent knows, teenagers are different than adults. This common-sense observation is backed by hard scientific evidence; we know that an adolescent’s brain continues to grow and develop well into his or her twenties. The fact that teenagers’ brains are still developing makes them especially vulnerable to trauma of all kinds, including the trauma of social isolation and sensory deprivation.

That’s why the leading American child psychiatry association just approved a policy statement opposing the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities for juveniles. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry represents over 7,500 child and adolescent psychiatrists and other interested physicians.

This groundbreaking policy statement from adolescent psychiatry experts comes not a moment too soon. While recent settlements in ACLU lawsuits in Montana and Mississippi include limits on solitary confinement for youth, the practice remains alarmingly widespread, with thousands of persons under 18 held in solitary on any given day, in juvenile facilities as well as in adult jails and prisons.

May 11, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack