Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Prison Officials Go After Masturbating Prisoners"

The title of this post is the headline of this local article from Connecticut discussing a bill being considered by state lawmakers.  Here are the details:

Prison officials in Connecticut want lawmakers to pass a bill that would label inmates who commit lewd acts in their cells, including masturbation, as sex offenders. It's an ongoing problem at prisons. In 2011, 94 inmates committed 390 indecent exposure violations of this type, according to the bill.

At the high-security Northern Correctional Institution, some inmates masturbate in front of staff, often a female staff member, a Correction Department spokesman said. Lisamarie Fontano, president of the union representing prison workers, said more than 500 such incident reports were written up at Northern last year.

Internal discipline hasn't deterred the behavior, but she believes inmates will stop if they know they will have to register as a sex offender when they leave prison, Fontano said.

Prior sort-of related posts:

April 28, 2012 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Monday, April 23, 2012

Notable news and notes about prisons and prisoners

Winding my way around Google News this evening allowed me to come across this array of notable new stories about prisons and prisoners:

April 23, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Our ‘War on Drugs’: Eugenics Without Surgery?"

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative commentary by Erik Roskes, a forensic psychiatrist, and appearing at The Crime Report.  Here are excerpts:

[There is prison] data showing that half of all inmates are currently incarcerated on drug offenses.  In my experience, more than half of the remainder are also incarcerated on crimes committed in the service of addiction: burglary, robbery, bank robbery, assault, felony murder.

And these inmates disproportionately come from segments of society that suffer various, often multiple, deprivations: social deprivation, educational deprivation, nutritional deprivation, cultural deprivation, cognitive deprivation.

Since drug addiction — or at least being caught, prosecuted and convicted for addiction and related crimes — disproportionately affects deprived segments of our society, I submit that our incarceration addiction is tantamount to eugenics without surgery....

In my view, the selective incarceration of young minority men due to addictions that they often develop in their socioeconomically and culturally deprived worlds removes them from society in part because we view them as the “bogeyman,” and as unfit to be full partners with us. This is eugenics in different form.

April 19, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 15, 2012

When do the costs of incarcerating the elderly clearly outweigh any benefits?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this commentary from the Tulsa World, which is headlined "A Wow Moment: The aging of Oklahoma's prison population."  Here are excerpts:

If the state can prove that [73-year-old Darlene] Mayes is what it claims she is, a marijuana queenpin who supplied 40 percent of the marijuana sales around Grand Lake, there could be other wow moments. Like the wow moment for taxpayers and the Department of Corrections when yet another aging offenderwith the equivalent of a life sentenceis added to the more than 5,000 geriatric inmates already in the prison system. These are inmates in varyingand some very costlystages of declining health.

How useful is sending or keeping some of these older inmates in prison? Does their incarceration deter others in the AARP set from dipping into crime? Does it protect the community, or simply cost it?

Oklahoma has thousands of inmates, of all ages, behind bars serving time for drug offenses. That fact obviously hasn't deterred many others from getting in the business despite the risks. So, if deterrence isn't working, how about risk to the community? Are there alternatives to prison that would protect public safety but not cost taxpayers an arm and a leg in medical costs for an aging inmate?

If there are two categories of people that Oklahoma likes to lock up, it is women and drug offenders. Oklahoma ranks No. 1 nationally in per-capita female incarceration and is fairly high up the ladder in the percentage of drug offenders in prison.

But it is not only the number of drug offenders and female offenders that's grown exponentially in the past few decades. Oklahoma also has had marked growth in the number of older inmates, a population that presents expensive health-care challenges.

In 1980, DOC had only 85 inmates age 50 or older in its entire prison system. By 2010, that figure had grown to 3,952, and by 2013, the population is expected to reach 5,254 - a 48 percent increase. This is not favorable news for the DOC, taxpayers or older inmates.

"Inmates don't come to us in good health to start with," DOC Director Justin Jones told Tulsa World reporter Barbara Hoberock two years ago. "After years of substance abuse, when they get into their mid-50s, they have an array of chronic illness." Several years ago, DOC opened a geriatric facility at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. "We filled it up the day we opened," Jones said of the 273-inmate facility.

In fiscal year 2000, DOC's total inmate health-care costs were about $34 million, which rose to more than $61 million by fiscal year 2010. A disproportionate share of that cost, by necessity, is being spent on care of older inmates.

This aging of the prison population poses tough choices for lawmakers and agency heads grappling with ever tighter budgets and demands to cut spending. A Time magazine article reported that policymakers "must address soaring medical costs for these older inmates and ponder whether some can be safely released before their sentences expire."

That might work for some nonviolent offenders, who could be paroled and use Medicaid or Medicare benefits instead of DOC-supported care. But how well would that play politically?

In many states, which have no choice financially, early-release programs targeted at older, nonviolent inmates are being tried. Compounding the issue, however, is the difficulty of finding nursing homes for aging, recently released felons who have no families and cannot live on their own. Some states are looking at starting long-term care facilities outside prison to care for parolees.

April 15, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 09, 2012

"Tim Tebow connects with inmates during prison visits"

TebowingThe title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece appearing on NFL.com.  Here are excerpts:

On Easter Sunday, Tim Tebow answered questions from a Texas pastor with more than 15,000 people hanging on his every word.  It was a very public example of both Tebow's immense popularity and outspoken connection to his Christian faith.  Not all Tebow does is seen by the masses, however.

The New York Jets' quarterback has made 10 prison visits dating back to his time at the University of Florida, speaking and interacting with inmates who are looking for a fresh start.  Accompanied by chaplain and longtime family friend James Williams, Tebow had spoken with everyone from death row inmates to young offenders new to the system.

“It’s hard to fool people who are incarcerated,” Gerald Evans, an inmate at Lawtey Correctional Institution in northeast Florida, told the New York Daily News.  “They can see right through you.  They can tell when a guy’s faking, every time. Tim Tebow, he brought a charge to people here.  He brought inspiration to people here. He is a real as you can get.”

Tebow has visited Lawtey twice, talking faith and throwing a football with inmates in the prison's gymnasium.  “Being in prison you automatically see the worst in people,” inmate Tyron Thomas said.  “You meet a lot of people who pick up the Bible and when they put it down you can never tell they read it.  There was just something about Tebow, and how he truly believes in the word of God.  It’s kind of freaky, actually.  It’s not something you see too often.”

I like this story not only because it is useful to hear from prisoners that Tebow is not a phony, but also because it is nice to see prominent persons practice what they preach.  Regular readers know that many persons with strong Christian faith are ready and eager to apply that faith's principles of forgiveness and redemption to the criminal justice system, and I am pleased to learn that Tebow has long brought these messages to persons in prison who surely benefit from hear them directly from someone so high-profile.  Let the Tebowing in prison begin.

April 9, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 08, 2012

"Race, Prediction & Discretion"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Professor Shima Baradaran, which is now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Many scholars and political leaders denounce racism as the cause of disproportionate incarceration of black Americans. All players in this system have been blamed including the legislators who enact laws that disproportionately harm blacks, police who unevenly arrest blacks, prosecutors who overcharge blacks, and judges that fail to release and oversentence black Americans. Some scholars have blamed the police and judges who make arrest and release decisions based on predictions of whether defendants will commit future crimes. They claim that prediction leads to minorities being treated unfairly. Others complain that racism results from misused discretion. This article explores where racial bias enters the criminal justice system through an empirical analysis that considers the impact of discretion and prediction.

With a close look at the numbers and consideration of factors ignored by others, this article confirms some conventional wisdom but also makes several surprising findings. This article confirms what many commentators have suspected — that police arrest black defendants more often for drug crimes than white defendants. It also finds, contrary to popular belief, that there is little evidence to support the belief that drugs are linked to violent crime. Also, judges actually detain white defendants more than similarly-situated black defendants for all types of crimes. The important and surprising findings in this article challenge long-held conventions of race and help mitigate racial disparity in criminal justice.

April 8, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Interesting report on developments in prison consulting industry

Today's New York Times has this intriguing piece headlined "Making Crime Pay," which discusses industry developments in the prison consulting business. Here is how the lengthy piece gets started:

Larry Levine, heavyset and bald, runs a thriving business out of a gated apartment complex in Ventura County, Calif., a setting that’s not at all bad for a home office considering some of the prison cells he’s lived in. But as he drops into his plush beige and white sectional couch to talk business, something is nagging at him.

The trouble is the new competition. All these guys are setting up shop, marketing themselves on the Internet, claiming they know the ropes and cutting into his market share. To Mr. Levine, they’re a bunch of poseurs, with no street cred. After all, they’ve barely spent any time behind bars.

“Look at my résumé, I’ve got 10 years: high-security, medium, low,” said Mr. Levine, 50, who was in jail until 2007 on narcotics trafficking, counterfeiting and weapons charges. “These guys go in for a year and a half, maybe two. I’ve got more experience than all the rest of these guys combined.”

Mr. Levine is a prison consultant. The business — which entails advising people who are facing jail time on how to prepare for life on the inside, deal with medical issues, transfer to other prisons and even reduce their sentences — has been around for decades. It enjoys a burst of publicity when a boldface name like Bernie Madoff or Michael Vick hires a consultant.

But the business is changing. Behind the scenes, the profession is attracting a new crop of ex-cons who believe they can put their experience to work, rather than have it burden them in a tough job market. And more competition means rising tempers and flying accusations. Some prison consultants say that others are so lacking in expertise that their businesses are practically criminal enterprises. Rancor among thieves.

“This industry’s exploding,” mourned Mr. Levine, who operates two Web sites, American Prison Consultants and Wall Street Prison Consultants. He reached to a nearby coffee table and picked up a piece of paper listing the names of several dozen competitors and the length of their prison sentences. This is not a rap sheet, it’s market research. The business, he said, is “becoming saturated with people who don’t know what they’re doing.”

He and his competitors (some of whom find his prison time equally unimpressive) walk a fine marketing line, bragging about an extensive criminal record to attract customers. That can make it tough for potential clients to choose: How much incarceration time is enough? What kind of experience is right for the job — maximum security, solitary confinement, a knife fight?

To hear the consultants talk, most competitors aren’t worth the time of day. “Let’s put it this way: If I was in prison, I wouldn’t share a chow table with Larry Levine,” said William Mulholland, who founded the Real Prison Consultant in 2010. He and Mr. Levine have had words about Mr. Mulholland directing people to free online resources about the prison system.

He also said Mr. Levine routinely criticizes lawyers as money pits, which Mr. Mullholland said only alienates lawyers who could be crucial allies for the fledgling industry. (Mr. Levine said Mr. Mulholland is afraid to criticize lawyers.) "He’s like a used-car salesman,” Mr. Mulholland said of Mr. Levine.

April 7, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 06, 2012

"Moms support closure of Illinois supermax prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article from the Chicago Tribune, which gets started this way:

A group critical of the treatment of prisoners at Tamms Correctional Center marched through downtown Chicago in support of Gov. Pat Quinn's proposal to close the southern Illinois prison.

Mothers of prisoners were among about 50 marchers at Wednesday's demonstration. They took aim at a union opposed to the prison's closure because it would mean layoffs for guards and other personnel. The mothers say the issue is about “human dignity, not jobs.” They marched through downtown, shouting, “No more torture, no more cages.”

April 6, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

"Justice in the Shadowlands: Pretrial Detention, Punishment, and the Sixth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper from Professor Laura Appleman now available via SSRN.  This paper seems especially timely in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in Florence earlier this week concerning strip searching of arrestees (basics here).  Here is the abstract from this paper:

In a criminal system that tips heavily to the side of wealth and power, we routinely detain the accused in often horrifying conditions, confined in jails while still maintaining the presumption of innocence.  Here, in the rotting jail cells of impoverished defendants, are the Shadowlands of Justice, where the lack of criminal procedure has produced a darkness unrelieved by much scrutiny or concern on the part of the law.

This article contends that our current system of pretrial detention lies in shambles, routinely incarcerating the accused in horrifying conditions often far worse than those convicted offenders existing in prisons.  Due to these punitive conditions of incarceration, pretrial detainees appear to have a cognizable claim for the denial of their Sixth Amendment jury trial right, which, at its broadest, forbids punishment for any crime unless a cross-section of the offender’s community adjudicates his crime and finds him guilty.  This article argues that the spirit of the Sixth Amendment jury trial right might apply to many pretrial detainees, due to both the punishment-like conditions of their incarceration and the unfair procedures surrounding bail grants, denials and revocations. In so arguing, I expose some of the worst abuses of current procedures surrounding bail and jail in both federal and state systems.  Additionally, I also propose some much needed reforms in the pretrial release world, including better oversight of the surety bond system, reducing prison overcrowding by increasing electronic bail surveillance and revising the bail hearing procedure to permit a community “bail jury” to help decide the defendant’s danger to the community.

April 4, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Marching bishops perhaps take Connecticut to verge of repealing its death penalty

Bishops-488x327As reported in this local article, which is headlined "Senate To Raise Death Penalty Repeal Wednesday" and is accompanied by the picture reprinted here, it appears that Connecticut may be on the verge of repealing its death penalty. Here are some of the interesting details of the still-on-going legislative debate:

The state Senate is poised to raise a bill to prospectively abolish the death penalty during Wednesday’s session with the support of previously undecided Sen. Edith Prague.  The news broke Tuesday as Bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut led a march on the Capitol with group of about 120 people calling for the end of capital punishment. The state Capitol complex was the last stop on a “Stations of the Cross” trip, during which the Bishops depicted the events leading up to the Romans’ execution of Jesus.

Bishop James Curry said the idea was to take the annual Holy Week prayers to the streets of Hartford and to focus on repealing the death penalty.  “We’re looking for justice for victims and victims’ families, and justice for our society.  It’s truly about what we want to say we are as a society and I think the death penalty turns us to the worst we are: seeking revenge rather than just punishment,” he said.

Sources say the death penalty will come up for a vote during Wednesday’s session.  The fact that lawmakers are considering raising the bill indicates they’re confident they have at least enough votes for an 18-vote tie in the sharply divided chamber. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman has announced her intention to break a tie vote in favor of repeal.

Prague, one of the three senators who has been on the fence over the issue this year, said Tuesday she would vote for repeal if she could be assured the legislation will not provide the grounds for appeals by the 11 inmates currently on death row.  “I am fully prepared to vote for repeal with the caveat that I stand up on the floor and get documentation from the chair of the Judiciary Committee that this in no way gives judges any discretion to apply this repeal to the people who are currently on death row,” she said.

Prague said judges have a lot of discretion in their courts, so the legislation must “make it very loud and very clear that this repeal can not apply to anyone who is on death row.”

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney doubted anyone could give Prague such an assurance.  Even if language is inserted into the bill stipulating the law was not intended to apply to inmates already sentenced to death, McKinney said the courts will view that as immaterial.   “That’s a decision that will be decided in the courts,” McKinney said. “No one disputes that there will be a legal challenge brought by the public defender’s office and the weight of the legal experts is to say that a prospective death penalty won’t pass constitutional muster.”

Assuming Prague does support repeal, her vote alone won’t be enough to tip the scales of the chamber far enough to reach a tie.  Sen. Andrew Roraback, who has previously supported repeal, has announced his intention to vote against the bill this year unless the legislature repeals a program which gives inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences by participating in re-entry programs.

“The early release program, the more I have learned about it, the more committed I am to not letting us repeal the death penalty unless we repeal that as well,” Roraback said Tuesday.  “The fact that nobody will give these people the time of day is a really sad commentary on the institution of the legislature and the relationship of the legislature and the Judicial Branch to victims of crime.”...

McKinney said he’s hoping tomorrow’s debate will convince anyone who is considering supporting the bill to abandon their support.  Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he expects a long debate.

Kissel, a supporter of the death penalty, was tight-lipped Tuesday on what amendments he intends to offer during the debate, but in the past he has expressed interest in requiring that inmates convicted capital murder be held in solitary confinement.  Kissel said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Democrats offer a similar amendment Wednesday.  He said it was flattering they had embraced his idea but suggested it supports the notion that inmates currently on death row won’t be put to death if the bill passes. If the bill is truly prospective, why is there concern over the living conditions of those inmates, he asked.

McKinney said Republicans may offer another amendment that would make the death penalty more workable in the state rather than abolish it. Roraback likely will try to amend the bill to repeal the inmate early release program. Advocates in favor of repeal, like Executive Director Ben Jones of the Connecticut

Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he’s on pins and needles in anticipation of this year’s vote. Last year, efforts to repeal the death penalty died when the Senate was unable to come up with the necessary votes. It passed both chambers in 2009, but was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. “I will be nervous until it passes the House,” Jones said. While Jones said he isn’t as nervous about the votes in the House, where there’s a much more comfortable margin in favor of repeal, he said he’ll sleep a little better after both chambers vote.

April 3, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, April 02, 2012

New poll from Pew Center suggests significant public concerns with prison populations and costs

Pspp1Via this website entry (which I discovered thanks to the The Crime Report), I see that the folks at The Pew Center on the States "collaborated with two of the nation's leading polling firms, The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, to explore public opinion on sentencing and corrections issues across the country." Here is more from the web description of the poll and its findings:  

The firms conducted a national survey of 1,200 likely voters to measure underlying attitudes and support for specific policy changes. Download the summary of findings. (Adobe PDF)

Key Takeaways

• American voters believe too many people are in prison and the nation spends too much on imprisonment.

• Voters overwhelmingly support a variety of policy changes that shift non-violent offenders from prison to more effective, less expensive alternatives.

• Support for sentencing and corrections reforms (including reduced prison terms) is strong across political parties, regions, age, gender, and racial/ethnic groups.

A quick review of the full the summary of findings document suggests that there is a lot more to glean from this poll than just what Pew lists above as "Key Takeaways."  In addition, it does not seem as though the poll asked any specific questions about marijuana law and punishment, which seems like a real missed opportunity give the detail in which this poll went into on other issues.  Still, as Pew suggests, this survey can and should provide even more momentum to on-going efforts in various jurisdictions to reduce prison populations and associated costs.

April 2, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Lots more interesting criminal justice work from SCOTUS via orders and opinions

Though the Supreme Court will not be hearing argument for the next two weeks, the Justices provides still more reason for criminal justice folks to buzz about their work through the issuance of notable orders and opinions this morning.  SCOTUSblog, of course, is the place to go for all the SCOTUS news, and here is the live-blogging summary of some of the Court's work this morning:

[A grant in] 11-702, Moncrieffe [v. Holder, which concerns whether state conviction that covers distribution of a small amount of marijuana without remuneration constitutes an "aggravated felony" for deportation purposes]...

First opinion: 10-788, Rehberg v. Paulk (Alito), affirmed 9-0. A governmental grand jury witness has the same absolute immunity as a trial witness. The opinion in Rehberg is here.

[Second opinion:] 10-945, Florence -- affirmed.  Justice Kennedy writes the opinion, except as to Part IV.  Roberts, Scalia, and Alito join the Kennedy opinion in full; Thomas in part. Breyer writes the lead dissent.  The search procedures at the jails strike a reasonable balance.  Roberts and Alito write concurring opinions.  The part of the opinion that Thomas does not join says the Court leaves open what to do when the inmate will not be admitted into the general jail population.  Here is the opinion.

The Alito concurrence joins the opinion but says it is limited to admission to the general population without physical contact.  The Roberts concurrence draws attention to the fact that Florence was arrested on a warrant and had to be admitted to the general jail population. It's unclear how much the Court has decided.

Final opinion: 11-199, Vasquez [concerning harmless error review] -- dismissed as improvidently granted.

There is much of criminal justice interest in all of these ruling, though arguably nothing that significant to hard-core sentencing fans.  Still, I suspect the ruling, the voting particulars and the dicta of Florence is a matter on which I will have later commentary.  In the meantime, here is part of Lyle Denniston's first take on the Court's work regarding jails and strip searching:

Insisting that it has no expertise in how to run a jail or prison, the Supreme Court divided 5-4 Monday in ruling that every person arrested and held temporarily can be subjected to a routine strip search, so long as it involves only a visual inspection without touching or abusive gestures.  The prisoner, however, may be told to manipulate some part of the body.  A partial split within the five-Justice majority made it appear that the decision did not authorize jail officials to conduct a strip search unless the prisoner was to be placed among other prisoners at the facility. Two Justices wrote separately in an effort to narrow the ruling, and their votes were essential to the 5-4 result.

The decision was a clear defeat for challengers to strip searches as a general policy.  The Court explicitly refused to limit the authority to use such searches only to situations in which a specific individual gave officers a reason to consider that prisoner to be dangerous or likely to be carrying a concealed weapon or drugs.  The same kind of visual inspection of an arrestee’s naked body, the Court declared, can be applied to anyone placed in the general population of a jail or prison, even if only temporarily.

The ruling also was a personal defeat for a Burlington County, N.J., man, Albert W. Florence, who was subjected to strip searches at two county jails over a six-day period of confinement after he had been arrested while driving on a state highway, based upon an out-of-date warrant.  The warrant was for failure to pay a fine, but he had actually paid the fine; court records had not been updated.  Florence has contended in public comments that he believed he had been targeted because he was a black man driving an expensive car.

As if somehow to help justify its ruling against his challenge to the strip searches, the Court’s main opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy opened with a description of Florence’s earlier run-in with police, seven years before the arrest that led to the strip searches.... Although the Kennedy opinion would later say that police need not make a strip search policy depend upon an arrested individual’s prior history in crime, the inclusion of the background material about Florence’s history appeared to be aimed at showing that police could not know the character of any individual they had brought in, and thus needed a policy applying to all to ensure that no threat would enter the facility with that prisoner.

April 2, 2012 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lengthy fights in California over lengthy stays in solitary

A helpful reader altered me to this new piece in the New York Times, headlined "Fighting a Drawn-Out Battle Against Solitary Confinement." Here are excerpts:

Ernesto Lira is not a murderer. He has never participated in a prison riot. The crime that landed him behind bars was carrying three foil-wrapped grams of methamphetamine in his car. But on the basis of evidence that a federal court later deemed unreliable, prison officials labeled Mr. Lira a gang member and sent him to the super-maximum-security unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s toughest correctional institution.

There, for eight years, he spent 23 or more hours a day in a windowless 7.6-by-11.6-foot cell, allowed out for showers and exercise. His view through the perforated steel door — there were 2,220 holes; he counted them — was a blank wall, his companions a family of spiders that he watched grow, “season by season, year by year.”

Mr. Lira insisted that he was not a gang member, to no avail. He was eventually vindicated and is now out of prison, but he still struggles with the legacy of his solitary confinement. He suffers from depression and avoids crowds. At night, he puts blankets over the windows to block out any light. “He’s not the same person at all,” said his sister Luzie Harville. “Whatever happened, the experience he had in there changed him.”

California has for decades used long-term segregation to combat gang violence in its prisons — a model also used by states like Arizona with significant gang problems. Thousands of inmates said to have gang ties have been sent to units like that at Pelican Bay, where they remain for years, or in some cases decades. But California corrections officials — prodded by two hunger strikes by inmates at Pelican Bay last year and the advice of national prison experts — this month proposed changes in the state’s gang policy that could decrease the number of inmates in isolation.

Depending on how aggressively California moves forward — critics say that the changes do not go far enough and have enough loopholes that they may have little effect — it could join a small but increasing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement, a practice that had become common in this country over the past three decades.

The changes in California’s system would represent one of the largest shifts in how it handles prison gangs since officials began pulling gang leaders, known as shot-callers, out of the general population in the late 1970s. Prison reform advocates say that if California, with the largest prison population in the nation, changes its practices, states like Arizona that have similar policies might follow suit....

Few dispute the threat posed by prison gangs, or the murders, assaults, drug smuggling and other mayhem they are responsible for. In 2011, there were 1,759 gang-related homicides, attempted homicides and violent attacks on staff members or other inmates inside state prisons, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

Most states identify inmates who are members of prison gangs, and gang members account for a large percentage of the prisoners held in solitary confinement around the country. But California’s policy has been among the most severe, sending not only full gang members but also inmates found to associate regularly with gangs to one of the state’s three super-maximum-security facilities. More than 3,000 prisoners judged to have gang ties are held in such conditions. Of the inmates sent to the unit at Pelican Bay for gang affiliation, 248 have been there for 5 to 10 years; 218 for 10 to 20 years; and 90 for 20 years or more....

But civil rights lawyers have long been critical of California’s gang policy. The procedures used to identify gang members are flawed and lacking in due process, they say, leading to mistaken identifications like the one that sent Mr. Lira — who was vindicated by a civil rights lawsuit resolved last year, long after he was paroled — to Pelican Bay.

The piece in accompanied by this slideshow titled "A Legacy of Solitary."

March 31, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Putting The Compassion Into 'Compassionate Release' With A Little Help From Setser"

The title of this post is the title of this great new post by Federal Public Defender Steve Sady over at the Ninth Circuit Blog, which discusses one (of many) interested aspects of the Supreme Court's sentencing ruling in Setser yesterday (basics here). The post demands a full read, but here are key excerpts:

Your client from years ago calls you with terrible news.....he has a terminal illness; his family suffered a tragedy; an injury or illness renders him no longer able to care for himself. You look through the statute book and see that Congress anticipated this type of issue.  Under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), the sentencing judge has the authority to reduce the federal sentence at any time based on “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Congress assigned to the Sentencing Commission the task of defining “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” including examples, in 28 U.S.C. § 994(t).  The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) acts as the gatekeeper, filing a motion where such reasons exist, leaving to the sentencing judge the decision whether, considering all the factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), the motion should be granted.  Great theory; horrible reality.

The BOP hardly ever files § 3582(c) motions and when it does, the standard is imminent death or what we call “the death rattle rule.”  In about 24% of the cases where a motion is filed, the prisoner dies before the sentencing judge has a chance to rule.  Although the Sentencing Commission has broadly defined “extraordinary and compelling reasons” in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, the BOP expressly refuses to implement the Commission’s standard in its so-called “compassionate release” program, as the Government Accountability Office confirmed in its February 2012 report....

[T]he Supreme Court just gave our § 3582(c) litigation a big boost in Setser.  First, in holding that the power to run sentences concurrently or consecutively resided in the Judicial Branch, not the Bureau of Prisons, the Court rejected the BOP’s usurpation of sentencing authority: “But the Bureau is not charged with applying 3553(a).”  Exactly.  The BOP’s practice of only filing § 3582(c) motions that it believes should be granted now runs contrary to Supreme Court authority.  But there’s more.  During oral argument, the attorney defending the district court’s authority to order a federal sentence to run concurrently with a not-yet-imposed state sentence asserted that the federal court could review subsequent state court action through § 3582(c).  Didn’t he realize that the BOP only allowed consideration of imminent death (see 21 Federal Sentencing Reporter 167 (February 2009))?  Although the statute is nowhere in the briefing, the Setser opinion states, “[W]hen the district court’s failure to ‘anticipat[e] developments that take place after the first sentencing,’. . . produces unfairness to the defendant, the Act provides a mechanism for relief,” then sets out the text of § 3582(c)(1)(A). The BOP’s stingy reading of the statute is completely inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s broad reading, and the Court has added to the Sentencing Commission’s recognition of factors “other than, or in combination with” its listed factors that should now include subsequent state sentencing proceedings.

I likewise found notable and valuable the SCOTUS comments about § 3582(c)(1)(A) in Setser v. US, No. 10-7387 (S. Ct. March 28, 2012) (available here).  In addition to the important comments stressed in Steve Sady's post linked above, I also thought it important that at the very end of the Setser opinion the Court indicated that an imprisoned defendant who fails to get requested relief from the BOP adminstrative review process "may seek a writ of habeas corpus.  See 28 U.S.C. §2241."  Because I am not often involved in BOP-related issues, I am unsure if it is well known and/or common for imprisoned federal defendants to seek habeas review via 28 U.S.C. §2241 of BOP decisions that adversely impact them.  If not, the Setser ruling might, in this additional way, prove to be a very positive development for those already serving legnthy federal prison terms.

Prior related posts:

March 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Vermont exploring racial disparties in its prison population

Few people likely think first of Vermont when concerned about racial disparties in the operation of criminal justice systems, but this local article from the Green Mountain State highlights that Vermont's legislators are (justifiably) concerned on this front.  The piece is headlined "Vermont bill calls for study of prison population by race," and here are excerpts:

It’s been a vexing puzzle for years, and Vermont lawmakers have decided to take a step at trying to solve it: Why do African-Americans make up 10.3 percent of Vermont’s prison population when they are just 1 percent of residents in the nation’s second-whitest state?

Traffic stops and roadside searches have been studied for years as a possible source of race-based bias among Vermont law enforcement. A new study, contained in a bill given preliminary approval by the House on Tuesday, will look at whether bias enters the picture when defendants are sentenced in court.

“There’s a dramatic disparity between those who are incarcerated and what our census data show,” said Rep. William Lippert. The Hinesburg Democrat chairs the House Judiciary Committee and described the bill to his House colleagues Tuesday. It won preliminary approval on an overwhelming voice vote and was up for final House action Wednesday before moving to the Senate.

The figures are striking: African-Americans make up just 1 percent of the population of a state that is 95.3 percent white, yet they make up 10.3 percent of Vermont inmates. Put another way, a Vermont inmate is more than 10 times as likely as a resident at large to be African-American.

According to the legislative findings at the beginning of the bill, a statistical technique called regression analysis indicated that black men were 1.5 times more likely, and women 2.6 times more likely, to be arrested in Vermont than their white counterparts....

The bill requires that a key part of the study look at prior criminal records of defendants, including prior convictions from out of state. Appel said there is widespread belief — but not enough data to back it up — that African-Americans frequently get into trouble in Vermont when they bring illegal drugs from elsewhere to sell in the state.

“Is it racial profiling, or black men preying on our kids by selling drugs in our communities? It’s long overdue for us to get a handle on what’s driving these disparities,” Appel said. “That’s what this study is designed to answer.”

March 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"How Would Jesus Punish Drug Use?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Huffington Post commentary authored by Molly Gill, who is the Director of Special Projects for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Here are some excerpts from a potent piece discussing the always interesting connections between religious convictions and criminal justice doctrine:

The first and only time I heard evangelical mega-figure Pat Robertson speak in public, he wasn't calling for the legalization of pot. I was 21, a junior at Oral Roberts University, playing endless rounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" on my viola with the school orchestra. Robertson was present to give the commencement address to that year's graduates.  I can't remember what he exhorted them to do, but I'm positive it didn't involve toking up.

Robertson still isn't spreading that message, but his recent comments about legalizing pot, the cruelty and irrationality of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, and the expensive and failed War on Drugs are refreshing.  Our harsh mandatory prison terms for drug offenses are incompatible with Christian principles of justice.  This conviction -- and the faith I and Robertson share -- drove me first to law school and then to Washington, D.C. to work on criminal sentencing reform for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a secular organization.  I join Robertson in posing a question all evangelicals should be striving to answer:

How would Jesus want us to punish?

Most Christians would start with Exodus 21's command that "an eye for an eye" is the right approach.  Sadly, this verse has been cited to justify heartless vengeance in our criminal laws: "do the crime, do the time."  The verse isn't a license to punish, but a limitation on punishment: the time must fit the crime and not be excessive. Giving either less or more punishment than the crime or the offender deserves is an injustice....

Jesus turned the "eye for an eye" concept on its head in Matthew 5, when he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Anyone can hit back, but it takes real Christian love to show compassion to criminals -- in Jesus' words, to love our law-breaking neighbors as ourselves and to treat them as we would like to be treated....

Our lawmakers are to blame.  Too many Christian legislators wear their faith like a badge of honor and proclaim a belief in redemption and forgiveness, but vote for more mandatory minimum prison sentences in election years.  These lawmakers would do well to remember James 2:17: "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."  (James 2:13 is another good reminder.  That verse tells believers to show others the same mercy they've received: "Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.")

The Book of James also teaches that a true mark of our faith is caring for widows and orphans. Every time we lock up a breadwinner, we create a widow.  Every time we incarcerate a parent, we create an orphan.  The Christian organization Prison Fellowship does wonders in recruiting the faithful to care for prisoners and their families, but it also urges legislators to reform the laws that are at the root of the problem. Both prison ministry and sentencing reform advocacy are essential.  Christians should support reforming mandatory sentencing laws that perpetuate an over-reliance on prisons and fail to deliver the compassion, services and opportunities for redemption that prisoners and their families need.

More leaders like Robertson should tell Congress to remove the thumb of mandatory minimum sentences from our scales of justice. Our judges need flexibility and discretion to require an eye for an eye -- nothing less and nothing more. They also need more compassionate, redemptive -- I daresay Christian -- sentencing options that treat offenders like the valuable children of God we all are.

Some related older and newer posts:

March 28, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Georgia poised to "nestle [its] miscreants in a down-filled feather bed of comfort"

ImagesCASZS4J3The title of this post is drawn from an amazing line in an amazing email reportedly sent by a local sherrif to county residents in reaction to a state sentencing reform bill that just received unanimous approval from the Georgia Senate.  This Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece, headlined "Senate unanimously approves sentencing reform bill," provides the details of this latest example of tight budgets prompting significant (cost-saving) sentencing reforms in a "red" state:

The state Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation to reform Georgia's criminal sentencing laws to divert nonviolent drug and property offenders away from costly prison beds, saving the state tens of millions of dollars in projected corrections spending.

House Bill 1176, approved by a 51-0 vote, is intended to steer some low-level offenders to pretrial diversion programs such as drug and mental health courts and reserve the prison system for the state's most dangerous criminals.

The initiative is a top priority of Gov. Nathan Deal. The legislation must be approved once more by the House before it goes to the governor's desk for Deal's signature. House passage is a near certainty, as it initially passed the chamber with almost unanimous support.

"HB 1176 outlines much-needed reforms that will improve public safety, lower recidivism rates and bring real costs savings to Georgia taxpayers," Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, who handled the bill in the Senate, said. "Without action, taxpayers would have paid $264 million over the next five years to accommodate a rising prison population."...

If the bill is enacted, Georgia would follow a number of other conservative southern states -- including Texas and South Carolina -- that have already adopted so-called "smart on crime" sentencing reform legislation.

Some who have followed the legislation said it would go too far in lessening punishment for some crimes, while others said the initiative does not do enough to reform the criminal justice system.

In an email last week to Putnam County residents, Sheriff Howard Sills strongly criticized HB 1176. "Every thief, burglar, check forger and hoodlum from Trenton to Tybee, from Bainbridge to Blue Ridge will be grinning from ear to ear if this passes," Sills wrote. "When it comes to being soft on crime, this legislation will nestle our miscreants in a down-filled feather bed of comfort they never remotely thought they could slumber in."

Sara Totonchi, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, disagreed. The bill, she said, "implements a very modest slice" of the reforms recommended by a special council of judges, lawyers and other officials that held meetings and issued a report on the initiative. "If Georgia is to realize the crucial cost-saving and public safety benefits that have been promised, future reforms must be far more bold and innovative than what we've seen in 2012," Totonchi said.

A key provision of HB 1176 would create new categories for drug possession crimes, with less severe penalties for those caught with small amounts of narcotics and the most severe penalties for those found with large quantities. It also would increase the felony thresholds for theft and shoplifting crimes.

March 27, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 26, 2012

Notable new ACLU of California report on state's prison realignment efforts

Asset_upload_file954_10684The ACLU of California has recently released this significant new report titled "Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads," examining and assessing recent California efforts to deal with its prison overcrowding problems. Here is the start of the report's executive summary:

California is at a criminal justice crossroads.  After decades of “tough on crime” policies and draconian sentencing practices, the state correctional system — one of the largest incarcerators in the largest incarcerating country in the world — finally buckled under its own weight.  Faced with a historic U.S. Supreme Court order requiring the state to reduce overcrowding, California made a momentous decision: it would no longer take into state facilities or under state custody most people convicted of low-level, non-violent offenses, instead tasking counties with dealing with these individuals at the local level.

Legislatively codified as the Public Safety Realignment Act, or Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109), this major policy shift has put California’s 58 counties in the driver’s seat.  Each county will choose its own path, but their futures are intertwined. Poor implementation in one county will inevitably affect others. All will affect California taxpayers.

The ACLU has conducted an in-depth review of all 53 available county realignment implementation plans, and we have analyzed the statutory changes and related state laws and budget allocations.  We have identified four major interrelated themes:

• A troubling lack of state monitoring, data collection, outcome measurements and funding incentives to help counties successfully implement realignment.

• A dramatic increase in spending on county jails — facilitated by billions of dollars in state funding — particularly in those counties that have historically sent more people to state prison for low-level, non-violent offenses.

• A shockingly high number of people who present no real threat to public safety being held in county jails before having their day in court, incarcerated without trial simply because they cannot afford bail.

• A promising commitment — though not yet realized — by many counties to adopt alternatives to incarceration and evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism.  A few counties are adopting innovative programs and approaches that can serve as models for the rest of the state, but all too often our analysis revealed few, if any, resources allocated for such programs

March 26, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"When lifers kill in prison, is it a waste to prosecute them?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this interesting piece appearing in the Denver Post.  Here are excerpts:

When Dominic Stewart was found guilty this month of killing a fellow prisoner at the Supermax prison in Florence, he was already serving a life term for another murder.  At sentencing, Stewart is likely to have another life term added on, raising questions about whether it was worth the government's time to pursue the case.

Prosecuting homicides is expensive and uses up government resources at a time when the economy is down, according to critics. Darren Cantor, a Denver defense lawyer who represents high-profile murder suspects, said it can cost about $500,000 to go to trial on a murder case, depending on a variety of factors.  The expense can be much less, but it can also go up, costing millions if the death penalty is pursued, he said....

But prosecutors counter that you can't put a price on justice for victims, and punishing people for their crimes sends a message to other inmates that violence won't be tolerated in prison.  "Sometimes justice is not an accounting exercise," said 13th Judicial District Attorney Robert Watson.  "Justice isn't always measured in dollars and cents. There are still family members of victims who want to see the process run through."

Watson, whose district encompasses a prison in Sterling where four murders occurred in two years, said even smaller crimes, such as a lifer found possessing drugs in his cell, need to be punished.  "We are sending the message to the guy in the cell next to him who is only doing five years," Watson said.

Mark Collins, spokesman for the Supermax prison in Colorado, agreed. "It is necessary to maintain the security and order of our institutions or a level of normalcy to the best of our ability," he said.  Collins said there are a variety of methods that corrections employees can use to keep order among lifers who may think they have nothing to lose.  "They could lose their visiting privileges, phone privileges, access to the prison commissary," he said.

In Colorado state prisons, 16 inmates were murdered by another prisoner from 2002 through 2010. In Colorado federal prisons, five homicides have been reported in the past seven years....

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer, who prosecuted Stewart, said victims — even if they were inmates with violent records of their own — deserve justice.  "If you don't prosecute a murder — especially if you have a pattern of not prosecuting a murder because someone is serving a life sentence — it can be an encouragement to that dangerous segment of society to commit murder with impunity because they feel they are not going to be prosecuted," he said.  "You have anarchy if you do not prosecute these crimes."

Murderers serving life sentences also have seen their convictions overturned on technicalities, and another violent conviction in prison can help ensure they will never get out.  "A life sentence isn't always forever.  There is no limitation on how much further down the road they can attack the conviction," Watson said.

When a murderer kills again behind bars, prosecutors will usually seek the death penalty, depending on the evidence, Troyer said.  Federal prosecutors are already pursuing death sentences in the cases of Richard Santiago and Gary Watland....

If prosecutors don't seek convictions, inmates might believe that the U.S. attorney doesn't care, Troyer said. "That is a hall pass to kill anyone you want," he said.

The substance of this article provides an easy answer to the question as phrased in the title of this post taken from the article's headline: no.  The much harder question is "What are the most effective and just ways to punish likers who kill?"  As we have debated on this blog before, this refined question is much more challenging, especially for anyone categorically opposed to the death penalty.

A few related prior posts:

March 25, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (57) | TrackBack

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Machinery of Criminal Justice #3: Hiding Punishment Behind Prison Walls

[Stephanos Bibas, guest-blogging]

In my last two guest-blog posts on my new book, The Machinery of Criminal Justice, I described a couple of the key features of colonial-era punishments: the room they left for showing mercy and for reintegrating defendants after they were punished. Now I'll start to describe a couple of key changes that happened in the nineteenth century with the shift to imprisonment as the dominant punishment. In this post I'll focus on how prison hid punishment from public view.

An ideological change led to the great prison experiment. Reformers no longer saw the roots of crime in weakness of free will or in the devil's temptations. Rather, they blamed wrongdoer's families, associates, and vice-filled cities for dragging wrongdoers down into crime. The solution seemed to be to remove them from their criminogenic environments and to instill new, law-abiding habits and discipline.

After a few failed experiments with hard labor in public or having the public come into prison to watch prisoners work, a newer vision took hold, starting in Philadelphia and New York. The Pennsylvania system kept each inmate in solitary confinement, separate from one another and in complete silence. If each man was kept in silence, with only a Bible as his companion, optimistic reformers believed that his inner light or reason would convict his conscience and lead him to repent and reform.

New York's Auburn prison was less austere, as inmates worked together in silence each day but slept alone at night. Both the Pennsylvania solitary system and the New York silent system involved at least some isolation, as well as almost military structure and discipline. Both had as their central aims to reform wrongdoers through structure, and in some cases through work.

These reformers were far too optimistic about human nature. Penitentiaries did not breed penitence but crime. Solitary confinement without work drove some inmates insane or to suicide and did not reform them. True solitary confinement also proved too costly and difficult. Crime kept rising, leading to double-bunking and more cells. Once prisoners talked and bunked together, prison became a school for crime, providing criminal networks and contacts.

Though prison had failed, few people could stomach going back to bloodier punishments, and there was no obvious alternative. Thus, prison has remained our default punishment for the last two centuries. Inertia triumphed. Prison bred everything from abusive guards to gang violence to rape, but these brutalities were out of sight and mind.

One of the biggest barriers to reentry was the prisons bred idleness, not job skills and responsibilities. Though at first work had been central to prison administrators' ambitions to reform inmates, prison labor dwindled between 1870 and 1940. The fatal blow was not humanitarian but economic, as labor unions and small businesses opposed potential competition and got Congress to outlaw interstate transportation or sale of prison-made goods, choking the market for prison labor.

Today, prisoners can work for private firms only at prevailing local wage rates. That requirement, on top of the added security costs in prison, makes prison labor uneconomical for private firms. Prisoners can instead produce goods for state governments' internal use, but that internal market is too small to keep most prisoners busy. As a result, only about 1/9 of state prisoners and 1/6 of federal prisoners work in an industry or farm. Far more waste their days in mind-numbing idleness, watching television or killing time.

March 23, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Guest blogging by Professor Stephanos Bibas, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lots of media coverage anticipating SCOTUS arguments on JLWOP

Unsurprisingly, the media now has lots of discussion of kids sent to prison for life with the US Supreme Court due to hear oral argument tomorrow in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, two cases concerning the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.  Here is just a sampling of some of the notable new pieces from both old and new media:

From ABC News here, "Juvenile Murderers: Is Life Without Parole Unconstitutional?"

From the Chicago Tribune here, "For young killers, 'a chance to have a chance'; Supreme Court to consider whether a life sentence without parole is too harsh for juveniles"

From the Daily Beast here, "Ex-Prisoners Say Life Term Is Cruel for Teens, As Case Hits High Court"

From UPI here, "Under the U.S. Supreme Court: When children commit murder"

In addition, a large number of news outlets have recent editorials urging SCOTUS to declare these juve LWOP sentences always unconstitution, including CNN and the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and the Washington Post and lots of other smaller media outlets from all around the nation (as evidenced here and here and here).

Some recent related posts on Jackson and Miller cases:

March 19, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, March 16, 2012

"12 tips for Blagojevich" as he starts his 14 years in federal prison

The Chicago Tribubne has this lengthy article providing prison tips for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he heads for prison. T he piece was written by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who recently spent a year in at the Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester, Ky. as a result of a campaign-finance violation.  Here are some snippets of his fascinating advice:

1. As your grandma probably taught you, God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth — use them in proportion....

• Don't ever ask anybody about their crime. If they want to tell you what they did, fine. But you won't know if they're telling the truth. And if you ask and strike a nerve with someone, the result may not be pretty.

• Don't talk about how you got railroaded. So did everyone else.

• Don't ask anything about anyone's family; it will be a sore subject with many, especially those who have not seen or heard from their children or ex-wives in years.

• Don't ever talk about how much time you have. Someone else has more.

2. Embrace your background, but don't try to be a politician....

3. Get in the best shape of your life....

4. Correspond with anyone who writes you....

6. Don't complain about how bad your prison job is, and don't brag about how good it is....

8. Use your unique knowledge and skills to help other inmates....

• Use your legal background to help prisoners who are bringing appeals pro se (representing themselves), but do so quietly so that you aren't swamped with requests.

9. Don't snitch, under any circumstances.

• The only people in prison who have it harder than child molesters are snitches....

• Don't be seen talking to the Cos (correctional officers).  Just like you could be cordial to Republicans but not be best friends with them without arousing suspicion among Democrats, you cannot be "friends" with the guards.  Sure, there may be gangs and racial/ethnic division among prisoners.  But there are really only two teams: inmates versus the prison.  When guards try to get you to regale them with stories, resist the impulse to be on stage again. Do not forget this rule.

10. Don't break prison rules....

12. Don't eat the Snickers....

March 16, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"States reject offer to buy prisons: Trend moving away from once-popular privatization"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article, which includes these excerpts:

The nation’s largest private prison company made an enticing offer to 48 states that went something like this: We will buy your prison now if you agree to keep it mostly full and promise to pay us for running it over the next two decades.  Despite a need for cash, several states immediately slammed the door on the offer, a sign that privatizing prisons might not be as popular as it once was.

Corrections Corporation of America sent letters to the prison leaders in January, saying it had a pot of $250 million to buy facilities as part of an investment.  The company is trying to capitalize on the landmark deal it made with Ohio in the fall by purchasing a facility, the first state prison in the nation to be sold to a private firm.

Prison departments in California, Texas and Georgia all dismissed the idea. Florida’s prison system said it doesn’t have the authority to make that kind of decision and officials in CCA’s home state of Tennessee said they aren’t reviewing the proposal.  The states refused to say exactly why they were rejecting the offer....

Critics of private prisons called the offer a backdoor way to delay the sentencing reform movements that have sprung up in many states looking to cut prison budgets.  Lawmakers in many conservative states that once eagerly passed tough-on-crime laws are now embracing alternative sentences for low-level offenders who would otherwise be locked up.

CCA said selling a prison to a private firm doesn’t block states from pursuing sentencing reform. The company also said it was still too early to say whether any state would take them up on the bid.  “It was an outreach letter making them aware of these offers, it’s yet another tool in the toolbox,” said company spokesman Steve Owen.  “We can design and build and own facilities from scratch or manage government facilities, but this is a third business model.”...

The private prison industry boomed in the late 1980s and 1990s as states sought cheaper ways to jail people and voters began resisting building more prisons.  But efforts to privatize prisons have become highly-charged political debates in many states, partly because a sale often requires legislative approval by the governor.

In Louisiana, lawmakers last year defeated Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposal to privatize and sell several state prisons to generate $90 million. Relatives of prison employees aggressively fought the move, fearing that they would get lower pay and less benefits working for a private firm. An effort to privatize a chunk of Florida’s prisons also met stiff opposition from lawmakers in February. They blocked what would have been the largest prison privatization in the U.S.

March 11, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Reductions in "The Gray Box" another silver lining of lean corrections budgets

JP-SOLITARY-4-popupOn the front-page of my New York Times today is this lengthy article headlined "Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity."   The piece reinforces my sense that a down economy and lean budget times have had a number of positive impacts on criminal justice system, and here are excerpts:

The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so.  On Friday, officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades.  More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift is economics.  Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as conventional prisons are.  They are an expense that many recession-plagued states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.

Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall prison violence.  Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies suggest.

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as “hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.  “That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said. By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes.  “If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,” he now says.

Coincidentally, the Dart Society, which describes its mission as seeking "to connect and support journalists worldwide who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice," has its Spring 2012 issue devoted to the topic of solitary confinement via a multimedia investigation titled "The Gray Box." The video and article in the series make a fitting and moving companion to this notable new piece from the New York Times.

Some recent and older related posts:

March 11, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is California's prison population reduction going as well as it seems?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "California prisons clearing out."  Here are excerpts:

Images of California's overcrowded prisons are so striking that the U.S. Supreme Court included two photographs of the problem in last year's landmark opinion that forced the state to address the issue.

On Friday, state corrections leaders will announce they have made an important step toward their goal to ease overcrowding, finally getting rid of the last of thousands of bunks that were crammed into day rooms, gymnasiums and other spaces to hold inmates.

In a news conference scheduled to be held at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, corrections chief Matthew Cate and other officials are scheduled to announce the end of what the department itself calls "iconic images of (the) overcrowding crisis."...

The use of what the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation calls "nontraditional beds" peaked at just under 20,000 in 2007, Callison said.  Their use stemmed from the prison system at one point holding twice as many inmates as the 80,000 it was designed to house.  "The degree of overcrowding in California's prisons is exceptional ..." the Supreme Court concluded in its May 2011 opinion, which described in graphic detail how officials found room to house them....

Following the court's order that the state reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates to bring it to 137.5 percent of capacity, state officials went to work.  Gov. Jerry Brown's "realignment" plan, which shifts responsibility for some offenders considered low-level, nonviolent and nonserious to county jails, has since helped cut the prison population from about 144,000 inmates to about 127,770.

"The number of nontraditional beds had been falling since '07, but realignment has basically taken us over the finish line," Callison said.  The department hopes to reduce overall population to 137.5 percent of capacity -- about 110,000 inmates -- by June 2013.

It is surely way too early to reach a final judgment (or even a mid-stream judgment) about whether the Plata prison overcrowding litigation and California's prison-population-reduction responses has proven to be a great public policy success.  But I continue to see in the California papers positive stories like the one reported here, while I am yet to see many stories reflecting the parade of horribles sometimes described by those who opposed the various prison reduction orders during the Plata litigation. Thus the question in the title of this post.

February 28, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, February 27, 2012

Another notable consequence of very long prison sentences

Because serious crime has long been a young man's game, prisons have historically had to worry most about how to manage and pacify young men until the finished serving their time.  But, as this front-page Sunday New York Times article details, the much longer sentencing terms of the modern era means a new challenge for managing parts of the prison population. The article is headlined simply "Life, With Dementia," and here are excerpts:

Dementia in prison is an underreported but fast-growing phenomenon, one that many prisons are desperately unprepared to handle. It is an unforeseen consequence of get-tough-on-crime policies — long sentences that have created a large population of aging prisoners. About 10 percent of the 1.6 million inmates in America’s prisons are serving life sentences; another 11 percent are serving over 20 years.

And more older people are being sent to prison. In 2010, 9,560 people 55 and older were sentenced, more than twice as many as in 1995. In that same period, inmates 55 and older almost quadrupled, to nearly 125,000, a Human Rights Watch report found.

While no one has counted cognitively impaired inmates, experts say that prisoners appear more prone to dementia than the general population because they often have more risk factors: limited education, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, depression, substance abuse, even head injuries from fights and other violence.

Many states consider over-50 prisoners elderly, saying they age up to 15 years faster. With many prisons already overcrowded and understaffed, inmates with dementia present an especially difficult challenge. They are expensive — medical costs for older inmates range from three to nine times as much as those for younger inmates. They must be protected from predatory prisoners. And because dementia makes them paranoid or confused, feelings exacerbated by the confines of prison, some attack staff members or other inmates, or unwittingly provoke fights by wandering into someone else’s cell.

“The dementia population is going to grow tremendously,” says Ronald H. Aday, a sociologist and the author of “Aging Prisoners: Crisis in American Corrections.” “How are we going to take care of them?” Some prison systems are confronting that now. Many would like to transfer demented inmates to nursing homes, but their often-violent crimes make states reluctant to parole them and nursing homes reluctant to take them.

New York has taken the top-dollar route, establishing a separate unit for cognitively impaired inmates and using professional caregivers, at a cost of about $93,000 per bed annually, compared with $41,000 in the general prison population. Pennsylvania and other states are giving mental health workers special dementia training.

But some struggling prison systems, including those in Louisiana and California, are taking a less expensive but potentially riskier approach. They are training prisoners to handle many of the demented inmates’ daily needs.

February 27, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New report laments prison growth in West Virginia

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonpartisan research group, has today released a new report highlighting and criticizing growth in West Virginia's prison population and corrections spending in recent decades. The report, available at this link, is titled "Stemming the Tide: The Racial and Economic Impacts of West Virginia's Prison System," and here is the start of the report's executive summary:

Despite a relatively stable crime rate, West Virginia is facing a growing prison population, which currently is larger than the capacity of the existing state prisons.  As a result, many state prisoners are being housed in regional jails where they cannot access educational and supportive services offered by the Division of Corrections.  With more individuals serving sentences in prison, there is a growing financial burden on the state. This population increase is associated with an increase in prison spending, with a growing percentage of the General Revenue fund going toward the Division of Corrections.  Prison population growth and its associated overcrowding are not only criminal justice issues, but also fiscal concerns for West Virginia.

This growth in the prison population in a state with little total population growth and a stable crime rate is in part the effect of sentencing patterns that place offenders into prison rather than into alternatives like community corrections and give them long sentences, as well as a reduction in the rate of granting parole.  It also is a result of the shift from understanding prison as a place of rehabilitation to one of punishment that accompanied the “war on drugs” and the movement in the 1970s toward harsher sentences and being tough on crime.  The growing prison population appears to be mainly the result of structures and policies, rather than an increase in crime.

February 22, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is it "grim news" when a state budget calls for prison closings?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this news story out of Illinois, which begins this way:

Gov. Pat Quinn prepared Tuesday to deliver an Illinois budget proposal stuffed with grim news including closing two prisons and 12 other state facilities, slashing Medicaid by $2.7 billion and cutting spending at most state agencies.

The facilities Quinn wants to close include the supermax prison at Tamms, a maximum-security prison for women at Dwight and six halfway houses for inmates nearing release, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the budget publicly.

I am not sure news can get much more "grim" for folks housed in a supermax prison, and thus I suspect anyone who cares about prisoners now at Tamms will see this prison-closing part of Gov. Quinn's budget proposal as great, not grim.  But the article goes on to explain some reasons why, in fact, the prisoners elsewhere already dealing with overcrowded facilities may agree with the description grim (and also why monies may be found to make the final story perhaps less grim):

Illinois prisons are severely overcrowded.  In November, 48,620 people were squeezed into space designed for 33,700. The Illinois Department of Corrections has begun counting areas such as gymnasiums when calculating the space available for housing inmates. Closing facilities would further complicate the situation.  The two prisons and six “adult transition centers” on Quinn’s list house 2,648 inmates.

Quinn’s other closures could be a repeat of last year, when he said several facilities need to be shut down because lawmakers hadn’t given him enough money to run them. They include a youth prison in Murphysboro and mental institutions in Rockford, Chester and Dixon.  Those closures were avoided when lawmakers approved additional money to keep those and other facilities open.

February 22, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lots of fascinating new stuff via The Crime Report

Regular readers may be tired of hearing me promote The Crime Report as a must-daily read, but this set of fascinating recent headlines and commentaries from that source make it essential for me to promote it once again:

February 18, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash In Exchange For State Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable and lengthy new piece recently posted on The Huffington Post.  It gets started this way:

As state governments wrestle with massive budget shortfalls, a Wall Street giant is offering a solution: cash in exchange for state property.  Prisons, to be exact.

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for "challenging corrections budgets."  In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Huffington Post.

The move reflects a significant shift in strategy for the private prison industry, which until now has expanded by building prisons of its own or managing state-controlled prisons. It also represents an unprecedented bid for more control of state prison systems.

Corrections Corporation has been a swiftly growing business, with revenues expanding more than fivefold since the mid-1990s. The company capitalized on the expansion of state prison systems in the '80s and '90s at the height of the so-called 'war on drugs,' contracting with state governments to build or manage new prisons to house an influx of drug offenders. During the past 10 years, it has found new opportunity in the business of locking up undocumented immigrants, as the federal government has contracted with private companies in an aggressive immigrant-detention campaign.

And Corrections Corporation's offer of $250 million toward purchasing existing state prisons is yet another avenue for potential growth.  The company has billed the "corrections investment initiative" as a convenient option for states in need of fresh revenue streams: The state benefits from a one-time infusion of cash, while the prison corporation wins a new long-term contract.  In addition, supporters of prison privatization have argued that states can achieve cost savings through outsourcing, as prison corporations give fewer benefits to employees.

"We believe this comes at a timely and helpful juncture and hope you will share our belief in the benefits of the purchase-and-manage model," reads the letter from Harley Lappin, CCA's chief corrections officer, who was a former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Ohio sold off one of its largest prisons to Corrections Corporation last year as a way to plug holes in its budget, and government officials estimate that outsourcing the prison could save the state $3 million annually.  Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) proposed putting three state prisons on the block last year to generate one-time revenue, but he failed to persuade state lawmakers to endorse the plan.

By now we all should know the lessons of these kinds of stories: "Follow the money"

Some recent related posts: 

February 14, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, February 13, 2012

New GAO report reviews back-end sentencing realities in federal system

Thanks to The Crime Report, I just saw that the US Government Accountability Office has released a notable new report to Congress titled "Eligibility and Capacity Impact Use of Flexibilities to Reduce Inmates' Time in Prison."

This report, which is summarized on this webpage and is available in full at this link, is a lot more interesting and important for federal sentencing junkies than its title might suggest.  The report provides the most detailed account that I have seen concerning who gets the benefit of the few back-end sentencing mechanisms in the federal system that determine how much time offenders actually serve for their offenses.  Here is part of the summary from the GAO:

BOP’s use of authorities to reduce a federal prisoner’s period of incarceration varies. BOP primarily utilizes three authorities — the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program (RDAP), community corrections, and good conduct time.

(1) Eligible inmates can participate in RDAP before release from prison, but those eligible for a sentence reduction are generally unable to complete RDAP in time to earn the maximum reduction (generally 12 months).  During fiscal years 2009 through 2011, of the 15,302 inmates who completed RDAP and were eligible for a sentence reduction, 2,846 (19 percent) received the maximum reduction and the average reduction was 8.0 months.  BOP officials said that participants generally do not receive the maximum reduction because they have less than 12 months to serve when they complete RDAP.

(2) To facilitate inmates’ reintegration into society, BOP may transfer eligible inmates to community corrections locations for up to the final 12 months of their sentences. Inmates may spend this time in contract residential re-entry centers (RRCs) — also known as halfway houses — and in detention in their homes for up to 6 months.  Based on the most recently available data, almost 29,000 inmates completed their sentences through community corrections in fiscal year 2010, after an average placement of about 4 months; 17,672 in RRCs, 11,094 in RRCs then home detention, and 145 in home detention only....

(3) Most eligible inmates receive all of their potential good conduct time credit for exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations — 54 days taken off their sentence, per year served, if an inmate has earned or is earning a high school diploma; 42 days if not.  As of the end of fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011, about 87 percent of inmates had earned all of their available credit.

BOP also has other authorities, such as releasing prisoners early for very specialized reasons, but has used these less frequently for various reasons.

Inmate eligibility and lack of capacity impact BOP’s use of certain flexibilities and programs that can reduce an inmate’s time in prison.

February 13, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, February 10, 2012

"The Best Places to Go to Prison"

Best-place-prisons-yanktonThe title of this post is the headline of this interesting slideshow from the folks at CNBC.  As this brief description of the slideshow reveals, the headline should really have the word "federal" somewhere as the list only reflects federal facilities:

Ever wonder what prison life is like for high-profile white-collar criminals like Bernie Madoff, or how Martha Stewart got through her time in prison?

The prison experience all depends on where you wind up, according to Alan Ellis, a criminal defense attorney and co-author the “Federal Prison Guidebook.” Ellis, who specializes in defending federal white-collar criminals, has made a career of bargaining to get his clients the lowest possible sentences and get them into the best prisons possible.

The worst federal criminals wind up behind bars in U.S. penitentiaries. But there are also medium-, low-, and minimum-security prisons. Of those minimum-security facilities, known as federal prison camps, some are adjacent to higher-security prisons and others stand alone. It’s the stand-alone ones that Ellis believes are most preferable. “The staff is less stressed out,” he said. “As I like to say, happy staff makes happy inmates.”

Federal prison camps also have limited or no fencing, and “zero” violence. Ellis cautioned, however, that these are no country-club — or “Club Fed” — facilities. The inmates are still in prison and away from their loved ones. It’s not just the camp accommodations that made Ellis’ list. For the low- to medium-security inmate, there are choice assignments, as well.

So where are the best places to do time? Click ahead to see the names Ellis believes should be on every federal inmate’s wish-list, in no particular order.

I have reprinted here what struck me as the most appealing looking of the facilities that made this list, and here is the CNBC description of FPC Yankton:

Number of prisoners: 868

Location: Yankton, S.D.

This stand-alone federal prison camp is in downtown Yankton, S.D., and was once a college campus. Inmates have the opportunity to leave the prison site and go into the community by volunteering for local nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity. The inmate and charity must be approved, and the prisoner is supervised by a representative from the organization.

Those who stay inside the prison camp may play sports, take art lessons, or play any of the instruments in the music room. There is also a library with hundreds of books.

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

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"Are America's Prison Towns Doomed?"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting piece via The Altantic.  Here is a brief excerpt:

[M]uch like the real estate market crash of the last ten years, the belief that the incarceration market was recession-proof and could only rise is being proved wrong. Declining crime rates are leaving more prisons empty. There isn't enough crime to keep the prison industry afloat as it currently stands.

To save money, more states are moving their prisoners back to state-run facilities when space is available. Without prisoners, the private companies managing the facilities are leaving. And the small towns who bet on an ever-growing incarceration rate are left further in debt with few sources of capital.

February 9, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Two diverse state prison stories provide would-be reformers "follow-the-money" lessons

Two new state prison reform media reports (both of which I saw thanks the to my daily read of The Crime Report) provide still more evidence that modern state stories concerning proposed or enacted prison reforms — and views about their benefits or success — is more about budget realities than any other concern or criteria.  The stories, linked below, come from two very different states with different on-going debates, and yet the headlines highlight the recurring theme:

"Debate on Florida private prisons hinges on cost":

As state lawmakers consider a massive expansion of prison privatization, one number dominates the debate: 7 percent.  That’s how much savings the legislation requires of private prison operators compared to state-run prisons.  “I believe in it,” says Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “It’s incumbent upon me to find the best deal for the taxpayer.”

But that number is subjective and the state’s own analysts warn against comparing prison costs because no two prisons are alike and it’s difficult to make precise cost comparisons between public and private prisons.  “You can make something look like a savings on paper,” says Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.  “We’re not saving money.  Absolutely not.”

Privatization has polarized the Legislature into two camps: one sees outsourcing as a proven way to cut costs; the other views it as a risky undertaking riddled with hidden costs.

"State inmates' return to Pa. boosts county economies":

In early 2010, in an effort to ease the burden of the state's prison system, Gov. Ed Rendell announced that Pennsylvania would contract with Michigan and Virginia to move 2,000 low-risk inmates to facilities in those states.

Over the ensuing months, Pennsylvania sent millions of dollars out of state, at the same time taking criticism from advocacy groups that such a move interfered with family visitation, which in turn, interferes with successful reintegration into the community. "Ninety percent of our inmates will return home someday, and helping them maintain family support is vital to their successful return into society," said Janet Kelly, a spokeswoman with Gov. Tom Corbett's office.

That's why, she said, in combination with the idea that when possible Pennsylvania's money should stay local, Mr. Corbett early in his administration declared that those inmates should be returned and housed, instead, in county facilities.

February 8, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Is the crime rate just shifting, not really declining?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provacative new piece by Christopher Glazek, sent my way by a kind reader, appearing in the magazine n+1.  The piece is titled, "Raise the Crime Rate," and here is an excerpt:

According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City.  In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent.  Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble.  What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession.  On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s.  This seemed odd.  Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem — progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con.  Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States — it’s been shifted.  Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells.  The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie — but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole.  What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union.  We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

The rest of this commentary does an effective job discussing various problems of mass incarceration and the so-called "prison-industrial complex," but the claim that crime has merely shifted from outside to inside the prison walls is misguided both statistically and normatively.  We have literally thousands fewer murders outside the prison walls each year now compared to two decades ago, and there are usually only a handful of murders in prison each year.  The rape story is much more complicated and the notion of a mere crime shift here is a bit more plausible.  But, critically, unless sent to prison based on a wrongful conviction, those enduring crime within prison walls are not properly described as a "luckless minority."  Bad luck can often play some role in whether, when and how one gets sent to prison for a crime, but the average citizen can entirely avoid this luck by avoiding any serious criminal wrongdoing.

These concerns notwithstanding, this commentary still makes for an interesting read and it concludes with these sentiment which I consider very sound in many respects:  

If ever there were a time to launch a coordinated assault on the prison-industrial complex, the time is now.  Budgets are strained, voters are angry, and crime is low.  The Tea Party is in the midst of convincing everyone that government is the enemy — and so it is, in the field of criminal justice.

Popular resentment against an authoritarian state shouldn’t be denied or pooh-poohed — it should be seized and marshaled toward progressive ends.  The prison crisis was created by centrists.  Limited reforms and immoral moderation will not end the crisis.  Prisoners and ex-cons, the most abused population in United States, will have to rely on political extremists, on both the left and the right, to turn the page on what will one day be recalled as one of American history’s darkest chapters.

February 7, 2012 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 05, 2012

"Prison beats jail for viewing the Super Bowl"

The title of this post is the headline of this Super Sunday commentary coming out of North Carolina.  This piece, which seems like a fitting post before I head into game mode for the afternoon, is authored by Myron Pitts and here are excerpts:

So what's today's big game like for people in the big house? Well, it appears an inmate would be better off in the state pen than in the Cumberland County Jail, if he wants to watch the 46th Super Bowl, which airs at 6:30 p.m.

County jail inmates get about 30 minutes of TV time, says Debbie Tanna, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office, which runs the facility. She does not believe that the schedule is adjusted for the Super Bowl, a game that, along with the million-dollar commercials, can stretch more than four hours.

A co-worker of mine, who often plays the sad sack, said, "Knowing my luck, I'd probably get my 30 minutes during half time." (It's Madonna this year, by the way.)

For state prisoners, depending on where they are locked up and their individual circumstances, they might be able to watch the whole game, says Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction.

"TV schedules are decided prison-by-prison from the inmates," he said. A committee of inmates haggle over and recommend what shows are broadcast on TVs in the common areas. For male prisoners, Acree said, this usually means "guy" programming, like sports.

There are 36,604 male inmates in North Carolina prisons and 2,613 female inmates, so it's safe to say most prison TVs in the state are serving up a steady diet of sports action.

"TV is a privilege; not every inmate has it," Acree noted. "Those who have the freedom to be in the common areas probably have access to it for the game."

I know it bothers some people that prisoners are allowed to watch TV, but I couldn't care less. I figure they're pretty bored, and TV probably helps maintain order. TV has a pacifying effect, as you can learn from any parent of a young child who has been enraptured by a cartoon....

I also wondered about kinds of TVs available in lockup, and from my limited research, it sounds like they're not necessarily top-of-the-line. I hope this makes people who don't think inmates should have TVs feel a little better.

Acree said the TVs in state prison are paid for out of an inmate welfare fund, which comprises profits from the prison canteen, where inmates buy snacks and sundries, and proceeds from the phone system they use to call out. The TVs are pretty basic and "not extravagant," Acree said.

February 5, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Television | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 27, 2012

New major report documents costs and concerns with aging prison populations

Usprisons0112Human Rights Watch has today released a major new report on US prison populations titled “Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States." HRW visited nine states and 20 prisons to gather information for the report, which can be accessed via this link (along with a lot of companion materials). Here is an excerpt from the report's summary:

Life in prison can challenge anyone, but it can be particularly hard for people whose bodies and minds are being whittled away by age.

Prisons in the United States contain an ever growing number of aging men and women who cannot readily climb stairs, haul themselves to the top bunk, or walk long distances to meals or the pill line; whose old bones suffer from thin mattresses and winter’s cold; who need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids; who cannot get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe without help; and who are incontinent, forgetful, suffering chronic illnesses, extremely ill, and dying.

Using data from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Human Rights Watch calculates that the number of sentenced federal and state prisoners who are age 65 or older grew an astonishing 94 times faster than the total sentenced prisoner population between 2007 and 2010.  The older prison population increased by 63 percent, while the total prison population grew by 0.7 percent during the same period.

Some older men and women in prison today entered when they were young or middle-aged; others committed crimes when they were already along in years.  Those who have lengthy sentences, as many do, are not likely to leave prison before they are aged and infirm. Some will die behind bars: between 2001 and 2007, 8,486 prisoners age 55 or older died in prison.

This report is the first of two that Human Rights Watch plans to issue on the topic of elderly prisoners in the US.  It presents new data on the number of aging men and women in prison; provides information on the cost of confining them; and based on research conducted in nine states where prisons vary significantly in size, resources, and conditions, offers an overview of some ways that prison systems have responded to them. The report tackles some policy considerations posed by incarcerating elderly inmates, and raises the human rights concerns that must be addressed if sound policies are to be developed for the criminal punishment and incarceration of older prisoners, both those who grow old in prison and those who enter at an advanced age.

Prison officials are hard-pressed to provide conditions of confinement that meet the needs and respect the rights of their elderly prisoners.  They are also ill-prepared — lacking the resources, plans, commitment, and support from elected officials — to handle the even greater numbers of older prisoners projected for the future, barring much needed changes to harsh “tough on crime” laws that lengthened sentences and reduced or eliminated opportunities for parole or early release.

Some prior related posts on older prisoners: 

January 27, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Georgia chief justice calls for sentencing reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent piece from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which gets started this way:

Georgia's chief justice on Wednesday called on lawmakers to enact sentencing reforms that steer nonviolent offenders away from costly prison sentences, saying, "we now know that being tough on crime is not enough."

In a 25-minute address before a joint session of the Legislature, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein asked lawmakers to adopt proposals by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that studied Georgia's sentencing and corrections system.  The state can no longer afford to spend more than $1 billion a year to maintain the nation's fourth-highest incarceration rate, she said.

The initiative, supported by Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic and Republican leaders, calls for increased funding for drug, mental health and veterans' courts across the state and for other alternatives to prison.  Legislation is being drafted and will be introduced in the coming weeks, said Brian Robinson, a spokesman in the governor's office.  Deal's budget plan already asks for $10 million for new accountability courts.

Hunstein, a member of the special council, said its members "began united in our belief that warehousing nonviolent offenders who are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill does nothing to improve the public safety.  Indeed, in the long run, it threatens it."

Accountability courts address the roots of crime and reduce recidivism, she said.  "If we simply throw low-risk offenders into prison, rather than holding them accountable for their wrongdoing and addressing the source of their criminal behavior, they merely become hardened criminals who are more likely to re-offend when they are released."

In addition to viewing these comments by Georgia's chief justice to be substantively notable, I also find fascinating the tradition(?) of having the state's top jurist address a joint session of the state legislature.  Imagine if there was such a tradition in the federal system: what do folks think Chief Justice Roberts might decided to talk about in an address to Congress?

January 26, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers"

The title of this post is the title of this important new (and relatively brief) report from the Vera Institute of Justice, which aspires to provide a complete picture of state prison costs to taxpayers.   Here is the text of the e-mail blast I received about the report:

A newly released study by a team of Vera researchers calculates—for the first time—the full cost of prisons to taxpayers, including costs outside states’ corrections budgets. The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers—published today—shows that in 40 participating states the aggregate cost of prisons in FY2010 was $38.8 billion, $5.4 billion more than their corrections budgets reflected.

Individually, states’ costs outside their corrections departments ranged from less than 1 percent of total prison costs in Arizona to as much as 34 percent in Connecticut.  Detailed fact sheets for each of the 40 participating states are available [at this link].

The Price of Prisons is a joint product of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and its Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit, and was conducted in partnership with the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.

January 26, 2012 in Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?"

The title of this post is the headline given to this extended and thoughtful new article by Adam Gopnik appearing in The New Yorker. The full piece is a must-read, in part because it defies easy labels and lacks many polemics.  Here are a few of many interesting passages:

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say.  For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.  More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives.  Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.  In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then.  Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.  That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States....

[I]f, in 1980, someone had predicted that by 2012 New York City would have a crime rate so low that violent crime would have largely disappeared as a subject of conversation, he would have seemed not so much hopeful as crazy.  Thirty years ago, crime was supposed to be a permanent feature of the city, produced by an alienated underclass of super-predators; now it isn’t.  Something good happened to change it, and you might have supposed that the change would be an opportunity for celebration and optimism.  Instead, we mostly content ourselves with grudging and sardonic references to the silly side of gentrification, along with a few all-purpose explanations, like broken-window policing. This is a general human truth: things that work interest us less than things that don’t....

[S]mall acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened — “hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk” — “designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it — that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.” This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already.   Minority communities, [Professor Frank] Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced.   “The poor pay more and get more” is Zimring’s way of putting it. He believes that a “light” program of stop-and-frisk could be less alienating and just as effective, and that by bringing down urban crime stop-and-frisk had the net effect of greatly reducing the number of poor minority kids in prison for long stretches.

January 24, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Feds finally set to stop overseeing health care in California prisons

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Federal oversight of state prison healthcare to end," it appears that the federal judiciary may be finally done keeping an eye on prison healthcare in California. Here are the details:

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson said Tuesday that healthcare in state lockups has improved significantly since he seized control of the system, a move that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars. "While some critical work remains outstanding — most notably on construction issues — it is clear that many of the goals of the receivership have been accomplished," Henderson wrote in a three-page order.

State officials were rebuffed when they sought to end the receivership in 2009. On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown applauded the judge's decision. "We have been working very hard to clean up the mess in the prisons and I appreciate the judicial recognition of our efforts," the governor said in a statement.

Henderson directed state officials, receiver J. Clark Kelso and an inmate advocacy group that sued the state over prison conditions to meet and file a report by April 30, spelling out how to go forward. The parties will have to determine how progress will be measured, sustained and monitored, according to Henderson's order.

Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement that "the department is ready and willing to start planning for the end of federal oversight of prison medical care."

Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, the inmate advocacy group, warned that progress could be fleeting. "I'm very worried about the state backsliding, especially in times when money is tight," he said. Specter pointed to a court case involving San Quentin Correctional Facility in the 1980s. Medical conditions eventually improved, he said, but problems arose again after the case was dismissed.

January 19, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Miss Wisconsin makes father's prison time a Miss America platform"

Miss am and dadThe title of this post is the headline of this CBS News report, which confirms yet again why I tell my students that every story that makes news has some kind of sentencing angle.   Here are excerpts from the piece explaining how sentencing now connects to our nation's biggest beauty pageant:

Making her father's prison sentence her platform for the Miss America pageant was a family decision, 23-year-old Laura Kaeppeler has said.

The Wisconsin beauty queen, who won the 2012 Miss America pageant, said she wanted children of incarcerated adults to feel less alone, to have mentoring and to pursue as much of a relationship with their parents as possible.  "There are many of you out there and I was one of them but it doesn't have to define you," Kaeppeler told The Associated Press after winning the crown and $50,000 scholarship on Saturday night.  More than 2 million U.S. children have a parent in jail, she estimated.

The brunette opera singer, who won the talent preliminaries, was 18 and just graduating from high school when her father started an 18-month sentence in federal prison for mail fraud.

Her father, Jeff Kaeppeler, said when his daughter approached the family about making the personal topic her chosen platform, they supported it even though they knew it would be discussed publicly.  "It taught us that God can turn anything into good if you let him," he said.  "Laura is totally on board with that idea.  She let that drive her and inspire her this past year to get ready for this."

This additional article about the new Miss America includes (along with lots of pictures) some notable quotes about her plans to make work on these issues part of her future career:

As the new Miss America, Miss Kaeppeler will spend the next year touring the country speaking to different groups and raising money for the Children's Miracle Network.  She said she planned to use the scholarship money to pursue a law degree and become a family attorney who specialises in helping children of incarcerated adults.

"I really feel like I've been called to work in this," she said.  "Whether I became Miss America or not, this is something that I would pursue in my career no matter what."

January 16, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 15, 2012

New talk in California of cutting prison spending by more than $1,100,000,000

As reported in this front-page piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined "Gov. Jerry Brown plans $1 billion in prison cuts," there is serious talk of some serious budget cuts to the most expensive state prison system in the nation. Here are excerpts:

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cut state prison spending next fiscal year for the first time in nearly a decade, a departure from the goals of recent administrations, which consistently increased corrections spending and pushed for prison expansion.

Brown's budget would save California $1.1 billion on housing inmates and hundreds of millions more by allowing the state to halt some prison construction - savings largely due to his administration's recent overhaul of the state's criminal justice system.

General fund spending on prisons nearly doubled under Brown's Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, from $5.2 billion in 2004 to $9.5 billion in 2011, when Brown, a Democrat, took office. The increase in spending was largely caused by an exploding inmate population and a court order to improve medical care in prisons.

The general fund is backed by statewide taxes and pays for most of the government's basic programs, including schools, police, welfare services and other programs. A cut in prison spending makes more dollars available for other programs....

Under Brown's spending proposal, released Jan. 5, general fund spending on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would decline from this year's budget of $9.8 billion to $8.7 billion, largely because the state prison population has fallen nearly 1,000 a week since Oct. 1, when the state shifted responsibility for lower level offenders to county law enforcement, a policy known as realignment.

"I don't think there's any question we've turned a corner here ... just by the fact that we are significantly reducing the prison population," said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, a nonprofit that conducts policy analysis on criminal justice issues....

Just one year ago, California was grappling with a court order to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates and was moving forward with 13 construction projects to expand prison capacity. Now, the prison population is at 130,000, a decrease of 11,000 in six months. State officials met the first benchmark set by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the prison population and say they are on track to meet the next one as well, as thousands of offenders that would have flowed into the overcrowded system are staying in county jails instead and being supervised by local probation officials rather than state parole officers.

In addition to halting construction projects, Brown next year wants to begin phasing out the state's Division of Juvenile Justice and place the state's most violent youth offenders in county facilities. And after years of cuts to rehabilitation programs in prisons, Brown wants lawmakers to restore about $100 million in funding for drug treatment, education and other services....

Republican critics of the governor's realignment plan continue to warn that the change will have dire public safety consequences, while county law enforcement officers are still worried about whether realignment funding -- $400 million this year and nearly $860 million next year -- will be consistent or adequate to meet their expanded responsibilities.

County officials and juvenile justice experts are glad that the governor has proposed putting off severe budget cuts to the juvenile justice system this fiscal year, but they worry about the ability of counties to handle the population in the future.

Advocates who oppose prison spending are heartened by Brown's decision to scrap several construction projects, but say the governor isn't going far enough.  Under Brown's proposal, the state would stop the conversion of two former juvenile facilities into adult prisons, which together would have cost nearly $500 million to build.  Officials expect to save about $250 million a year in debt service on bonds by canceling those projects.

As I have suggested before, anyone and everyone who is interested in the relationships between sentencing and corrections policies and crimes rates ought to be keeping a very close watch (and trying to assemble lots of data) in California over the next decade.  

January 15, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is a brief account of the report's coverage via the text of an e-mail I received this morning:

The report details the history of private prisons in America, documents the increase in their use, and examines their purported benefits. Among the report's major findings:

  • From 1999 to 2010 the use of private prisons increased by 40 percent at the state level and by 784 percent in the federal prison system. 
  • In 2010 seven states housed more than a quarter of their prison population in private facilities. 
  • Claims of private prisons' cost effectiveness are overstated and largely illusory. 
  • The services provided by private prisons are generally inferior to those found in publicly operated facilities. 
  • Private prison companies spend millions of dollars each year attempting to influence policy at the state and federal level.

The full report, Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America, includes a comprehensive chart on state and federal privatization levels, as well as detailed graphs and data on the lobbying and contribution activities of Corrections Corporation of America. 

January 13, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lots of sentencing news of note via The Crime Report

As I have said before, and as I am happy to say again, all sentencing law and policy fans should be sure to make The Crime Report a daily read.  To reinforce this point, check out just some of these new posts from over there in the last 24 hours:

January 11, 2012 in On blogging, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 05, 2012

"Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons"

I just came across this opinion piece by Arjun Sethi published last week by the Christian Science Monitor.  Here are excerpts of a piece that merits a full read:

Necessity can spur novelty.  Even political novelty.  As the need for fiscal austerity grows, an unlikely alliance has emerged between policymakers and public advocates who have long sought criminal justice reform.  These policymakers are realizing what advocates have reiterated for years: The nation’s addiction to incarceration as a curb on crime must end. The evidence is staggering....

Prison overcrowding is ubiquitous and shows few signs of abating: Between 1970 and 2005, the nation’s inmate population grew by 700 percent.  Besides impeding access to health care, overcrowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions, diverts prison resources away from education and social development, and forces low- and high-risk offenders to mingle, increasing the likelihood of recidivism....

The solution?

First, revamp habitual-offender laws, now in effect in more than 20 states, which regularly yield perverse sentences....

Second, implement misdemeanor reform by decriminalizing offenses such as feeding the homeless, dog-leash violations, and occupying multiple seats on the subway. Such reform is vital: between 1972 and 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions rose from 5 million to 10.5 million....

Third, limit the use of pre-trial detention....

Fourth, impose nonprison penalties on those arrested for technical parole and probation violations like missing a meeting or court appearance.  This would dramatically ameliorate overcrowding and excessive case loads given that over a third of all prison admissions are for such types of violations.  Texas is leading the charge here, and through such measures has significantly reduced its inmate population.

January 5, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

"Texas Prisoner Burials Are a Gentle Touch in a Punitive System"

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

Kenneth Wayne Davis died at 54 as not so much a man but a number: Inmate No. 327320. Mr. Davis was charged, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for capital murder by the State of Texas after taking someone’s life on Nov. 19, 1977.  But when he died in November 2011, Texas seemed his only friend. His family failed to claim his body, so the state paid for his burial....

On this day, Mr. Davis’s funeral was one of seven at the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery, the largest prison graveyard in the country, 22 acres where thousands of inmates who were executed or died while incarcerated are buried.  All of them went unclaimed by their relatives after they died, but the cemetery is not a ramshackle potter’s field....

The state’s prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, has been the steward of the cemetery since the first inmates were buried there in the mid-1800s, maintaining and operating it in recent decades as carefully and respectfully as any religious institution might....

In a state known for being tough on criminals, where officials recently eliminated last-meal requests on death row, the Byrd cemetery has been a little-known counterpoint to the mythology of the Texas penal system.  One mile from the Walls Unit, which houses the state’s execution chamber, about 100 inmates are buried each year in ceremonies for which the state spends considerable time and money.  Each burial costs Texas about $2,000.  Often, as in Mr. Davis’s case, none of the deceased’s relatives attend, and the only people present are prison officials and the inmate workers.

Though all of those buried here were unclaimed by relatives, many family members fail to claim the bodies because they cannot afford burial expenses and want the prison agency to pay the costs instead.  The same relatives who declined to claim the body will then travel to Huntsville to attend the state-paid services at the cemetery.  “I think everyone assumes if you’re in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” said Franklin T. Wilson, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana State University who is writing a book about the cemetery.  “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”

Prison officials have verified 2,100 inmates who are buried at the cemetery, but they say there may be additional graves.  Professor Wilson recently photographed every headstone and estimated that there were more than 3,000 graves.

January 5, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 02, 2012

"Getting Prison Numbers Down — For Good"

The title of this post is the title of this effective, lengthy piece by Malcolm Young appearing at The Crime Report.  The piece reviews in detail some state sentencing and corrections reforms, and here are excerpts making some important broader points:

Some commentators are celebrating the decrease in prison population numbers reported for 2010 by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) — and they should.

Any attention to mass incarceration is welcome in a nation where prison reformers, community groups, advocates from across the political spectrum, major foundations, and many policymakers favor reducing prison incarceration — currently at levels that have no peacetime historical or international precedent.

Yet despite evidence that the U.S. as a whole may at last have turned away from the annual increases in state prison incarceration that began in the early 1970s, it remains to be seen whether progress toward meaningful reductions will proceed at a pace necessary to have a significant impact on the phenomenon.  The basis for broad-based and deep change in sentencing and corrections practices has not yet emerged....

Certainly, the recession has forced policymakers to look to corrections to reduce costs, prompting efforts to reduce incarceration in conservative as well as liberal states: Connecticut, Indiana, Texas, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi to name a few.

But the economy as one factor is hardly the same as the economy as an underlying, broad-based engine driving reform.  And against “tough on crime” political assaults, fiscal responsibility stands up like a candle in a hurricane....

Even if we apply these lessons from states that have succeeded in reducing prison incarceration, something is still missing.  Except among highly committed corrections staff, advocates and a handful of political leaders, it is difficult to discern evidence of a genuine consensus favoring reductions in prison populations.

So far, neither the dollar nor human costs of a massive system of incarceration and its racial and class impacts, have ignited a widespread, energized political or social movement opposite of that which resulted in mass incarceration. This has to be a concern if there is any chance of reversing four decades of prison expansion.

January 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

California having success(?) in complying with Plata prison reduction order

According to this new local media report, "California’s prison system has been shedding an average of 933 inmates a week since the governor’s realignment plan took effect this fall, and the state almost hit a court-mandated goal to reduce the population to 133,000 inmates by Dec. 27." Here is more:

As of today, the state’s prisons held 134,804 inmates — just 1,800 short of the target and far closer to that goal than many expected. California prison officials announced the numbers Tuesday and said they are in the midst of preparing a report, due by Jan. 10, that details the progress made toward meeting the court-ordered reductions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that California must obey a lower court order to reduce its prison population, agreeing with federal judges who had found that overcrowding was the main cause of “grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.” In the 5-4 ruling, the high court agreed that the prison system — which has held nearly twice its designed capacity for more than a decade — should cut its population to 110,000 by spring of 2013. The court also and set a series of benchmarks for state officials to reach before then.

While state officials did not meet the first target — 167 percent of designed capacity, or 133,000 inmates — by Dec. 27, they got pretty close. In a short statement announcing the numbers, prison officials appeared to credit Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment plan for the progress. The plan calls for most lower-level and nonviolent offenders to serve their prison sentences in local jails and report to county probation departments instead of the state parole agency upon release. In the written statement, prison officials said the plan — instituted Oct. 1 — has resulted in state prisons taking in an average of 933 fewer inmates per week.

The progress puts the state exactly where it said it would be in an August court filing. In that filing, state officials predicted they would miss the 167 percent by two percentage points (the system is now at 169.2 percent of capacity) but would hit the next goal, a reduction to 155 percent, or 124,000 inmates, by June 27.

I have placed a question mark following the work success in the title to this post because simply meeting court-ordered prison reduction benchmarks is not the only real measure of how successful California is being with its prison-reduction efforts.  But if crime continues to decline in the state AND the prison population keeps shrinking, then California will truly have had a successful response to the Plata litigation.

December 28, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

ACLU blog provides series of notable year-end posts

I am pleased to see that the folks at the ACLU have had the energy and inspiration to do a series of posts recapping the year that was in criminal justice news and developments.  Here are links to these posts:

December 27, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Recap posts, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack