Monday, August 29, 2011

A surprising prison echo resulting from mass murder in Norway

Even after seven plus years of blogging about crime and punishment, I still find myself surprised and intrigued by unexpected consequences that can often flow from particular crimes or particular punishments.  Today's example comes from this international story, which is headlined "Norway prison vacancies rise."  The subheading to the piece is titled "Police are so busy concentrating on the Anders Behring Breivik terror case many criminals are escaping going to jail," and here is more:

Politicians usually complain Norwegian prisons are overcrowded, but there are currently plenty of bunks for potential prisoners since the 22 July massacre.  Oslo District Court reports remand hearings are down 40 percent on the same period last year, admitting the Breivik case has affected numbers.  Many cases are shelved temporarily.

“We now have 25 vacant cells out of 392, so we have the capacity to accommodate remand prisoners from police custody,” said prison director Stig Storvik to NRK.

Underlining Oslo Police are still capable of carrying out their tasks with help for their district colleagues, however, Deputy Police Chief Hans Halvorsen says people must understand their “challenging situation”, despite the drop and recent criticism of the force.   “Of course this is a challenging situation for Oslo police.  There is not much doubt about it. We use large resources.  We have approximately 140 people just focusing on investigating the case alone” he said.

Meanwhile, NRK reports police may consider transferring indicted Anders Behring Breivik, to whom women around the world are sending fan mail, from his solitary confinement in Ila prison to special high-security prisons Skien or Ringerike.

Seems like it really should be petty criminals in Oslo, rather than "women around the world," sending Breivik fan mail.

August 29, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Texas' newest seminary is opening inside a state prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this local article, which gets started this way:

Texas' newest seminary will launch Monday -- inside a Texas prison. It starts with 40 inmates who will be trained at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit in Rosharon, about 300 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

Fort Worth's Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will play a big role in the seminary, as will the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Heart of Texas Foundation, as co-sponsors of the nondenominational program.

After inmates finish the 125-credit-hour program over four years, they receive bachelor's degrees in biblical studies and are sent to other Texas prisons, where they "minister to their fellow offenders," according to a release.

"The opportunity to provide education and growth for those in a prison unit .. is the opportunity to enable these inmates to discover a significant new way that through study will change life, perspective and hope for hundreds," said Paige Patterson, president of the Fort Worth seminary.

August 28, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Sushi and whisky: hard time in Russia's VIP prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this report from The Independent newpaper, which gets started this way:

For most people, spending years in a Russian prison camp would be a living nightmare. But one ex-prisoner has described how it can be a time of whisky, sushi and relative freedom -- if you have enough money.

Andrei, a former assistant to a Russian member of parliament who was sentenced to nine years in jail in 2006 for embezzlement, says that from day one of his time in the camps, money was the only language.  In an interview with Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, the former prisoner explains in detail how he paid his way through his years in jail, where he says that anything can be bought for the right price.

"We had whatever we wanted. I even ate sushi every day," he told the paper, to which he showed photographs that backed up his claims.  "We had a great table laid on for us in the camp -- sushi, champagne, whisky."

His allegations come just a month after photos were published of prisoners partying in a prison just outside Moscow.  The photos showed inmates dressed up in togas, sitting down to a lavish meal and having McDonald's delivered to their cell.  The governor of the prison was sacked after the photos appeared on the internet.  Both incidents show how corruption, endemic in Russia, has also engrained itself in the Russian prison system.

August 26, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Iowa is a state to watch for sentencing fans and researchers (as well as political junkies)

From straw polls to caucuses, political junkies know that Iowa is a special state in the election season.  But this recent article from the Des Moines Register, which is headlined "Hundreds of Iowa inmates could be released on ruling," highlights why sentencing fans also should be watching the state closely in the months ahead:

The Iowa Department of Corrections will have to parole or discharge hundreds and possibly thousands of Iowa inmates early - some of them dangerous - because of a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling, a state official confirmed Thursday night.

Fred Scaletta, a spokesman for the department, said the department is recalculating the sentences of roughly 3,200 convicts whose time under corrections supervision is affected by the ruling last month. Officials plan to inform the Board of Corrections today at a meeting in Fort Dodge about the effects of the court decision.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in July that state law mandated that a convicted sex offender should receive credit for time served while under home supervision, even though he violated probation while at home....

Scaletta said that decision now applies to all defendants whose probation was revoked, regardless of their crime. "We just don't know how many there will be. We're having to do each defendant by hand," he said. "We're on it. We want to get this done as quickly as we possibly can." The department also must notify the defendants' victims.

A helpful reader altered me to this story and provided these follow-up statistics about the import and impact of what the Iowa Supreme Court has wrought:

The headline [of ther Register article] understates what is going to happen. The Iowa Department of Corrections is going to have to release the following (this is clipped from an email Iowa DOC sent to all County Attorneys last week):

Currently in Prison = 2,152
Currently in Prison and there are civil commitment issues needing addressed = 117
Currently on Work Release = 165
Currently on Parole = 1010
Total = 3,444

They have said this will happen “immediately or within a short time.”   [Because the Iowa] inmate count is 8775 ... within a short time the Iowa prison system is going to release approximately one quarter of the inmates ... [and] the parole rolls are going to drop by about 33%."

In other words, Iowa is about to have a court-ordered rapid experience with decarceration.  I think all persons concerned with both mass incarceration and crime rates ought to be keeping a very close watch on how all this new freedom in Iowa plays out. 

UPDATE:  Thanks to commentor Robert for tracking down the Iowa Supreme Court opinion causing the commotion in the Hawkeye State.  The unanimous opinion in Anderson v. Iowa, No. 09-0507 (Iowa July 29, 2011) (available here), gets started this way: 

“Ours not to reason why, ours but to read, and apply. It is our duty to accept the law as the legislative body enacts it.”  Holland v. State, 253 Iowa 1006, 1011, 115 N.W.2d 161, 164 (1962) (Thompson, J.).  In this case we must decide whether a convicted sex offender incarcerated after revocation of his probation is entitled to credit against his prison sentence for time spent living at home under supervised probation wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle.  The district court denied the credit, and a divided court of appeals affirmed.  Although it is counterintuitive to count days living at home against a state prison sentence, we conclude the plain language of Iowa Code section 907.3(3) (2007), requires credit for the time Anderson was committed to electronic monitoring and home supervision during his probation.  We therefore vacate the decision of the court of appeals, reverse the district court ruling, and remand for entry of an order providing that sentencing credit.

August 22, 2011 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, August 19, 2011

Plea deal frees "West Memphis Three" now 18 years after their (wrongful?) convictions

As detailed in this New York Times article, which is headlined "Deal Frees ‘West Memphis Three’ in Arkansas," a high-profile, long-running case involving possible wrongful convictions has now been wrapped up through a plea deal. Here are the specifics:

Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in a notorious 1993 murder case were freed from jail on Friday, after a complicated legal maneuver that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. Related

A district court judge declared that the three men — Damien W. Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36, known as the West Memphis Three — who have been in prison since their arrest in 1993, had served the time for their crime.  The judge also levied a 10-year suspended sentence on each of the men.

With his release Friday, Mr. Echols became the highest-profile death row inmate to be released in recent memory. The agreement, known as an Alford plea, does not result in a full exoneration; some of the convictions stand, though the men did not admit guilt. The deal came five months before a scheduled hearing was to held to determine whether the men should be granted a new trial in light of DNA evidence that surfaced in the past few years. None of their DNA has been found in tests of evidence at the scene. The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the new hearing in November, giving new life to efforts to exonerate the three men.

In May 1993, the bodies of the boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore, were found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, Ark., called Robin Hood Hills. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, their hands tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders led to a theory about satanic cult activity. Investigators focused their attention on Mr. Echols, at the time a troubled yet gifted teenager who practiced Wicca, a rarity in the town of West Memphis. Efforts to learn more about him, spearheaded by a single mother cooperating with the police, led to Mr. Misskelley, a passing acquaintance of Mr. Echols, who is borderline mentally retarded.

After a nearly 12-hour interrogation by the police, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, though his confession diverged in significant details with the facts of the crime known by the police....

Largely on the strength of that confession, Mr. Misskelley was convicted in February 1994. Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin were convicted soon after in a separate trial, largely on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders and on the prosecution’s theory that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult....

An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention. Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and the men’s supporters continued to pursue their freedom. Many residents of West Memphis resented the presumption that outsiders knew the details of the horrific case better than they did. But in recent years some, though not all, of the victims’ families have begun to doubt the guilt of the three men.

August 19, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Noting the achievements of a prison hunger strike in California

Last month I asked in this post, "Can a hunger strike by state prisoners in SHU have an impact?". An answer is now provided by this new local piece from California headlined "California prisoners make inroads with hunger strike." Here are excerpts:

Last month, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their complaints of being unfairly held in extreme isolation at the Crescent City lockup.  Within three weeks, the prison hunger strike had become one of the largest in years, spreading throughout the state corrections system to involve thousands of inmates and sparking a legislative hearing scheduled for next week....

The effort ended July 21, after inmates inside the security housing unit at Pelican Bay were promised changes, including being given wool caps for use during winter months and being allowed to have wall calendars.

Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also said they will review policies on how the agency determines which inmates are believed to be gang leaders who are then placed in a security housing unit.  But they insist that inmates inside the SHU, including several who have identified themselves as leaders of the hunger strike, pose a serious threat to others and are there for very good reasons....

The Assembly's Public Safety Committee has set a hearing for Tuesday on how the corrections agency handles prisoners inside its three security housing units. The panel expects to hear testimony from corrections officials, as well as a former inmate in Pelican Bay's SHU.

Advocates for the inmates contend they are denied basic human rights, are kept in windowless cells, and that corrections officials wrongly label some inmates as gang leaders and banish them to the security housing unit.

They see the seemingly minor concessions made to end the hunger strike as a major step forward for prisoners.  "Those things are more substantial to them than they may seem to those of us outside prison, who can take such things for granted," said Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for Critical Resistance, an Oakland organization that supported the hunger strikers....

[T]he hunger strike spawned media interest worldwide, and the corrections department found itself on the defensive against critical coverage.  On Wednesday, it offered the media a tour of Pelican Bay, and CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate wrote a letter challenging a New York Times editorial that labeled the security housing units as "cruel isolation."

The result is that advocates believe they now have an opening to focus more attention on the treatment of inmates, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California earlier this year to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

Recent related posts concerning the hunger strike in California prisons:   

August 19, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, August 15, 2011

Attica, Attica, Attica ... law conference four decades after the infamous prison riot

Attica As detailed in this official press release, next month brings a notable law conference titled "40 Years After the Attica Uprising: Looking Back, Moving Forward," which is being sponsored by the University at Buffalo Law School and its Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. Here is more about the upcoming event:

Forty years ago, the deadliest prisoner rebellion in U.S. history occurred.  Next month, a major conference will bring together prisoner advocates, legislators, policymakers, corrections professionals, activists and people who were on the front lines of the conflict, on both sides....

The two-day event marks the anniversary of the uprising at Attica State Prison, about 40 miles east of Buffalo, that brought the world's attention to long-festering problems in the U.S. prison system. The Attica Uprising began on Sept. 9, 1971, and ended four days later when then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to storm and retake the prison from the inmates who had taken control.  Twenty-nine prisoners and 11 security and civilian staff died.

To open the conference, the documentary "Ghosts of Attica" will be shown at the Burchfield Penny Art Center (Buffalo State College) on Sunday, Sept. 11.  Over the next two days, Sept. 12-13, conference events will be held on UB's North and South campuses and at a downtown Buffalo church.  The schedule of events is posted on the conference website.

"It's about healing, in part," says UB Law Professor Teresa A. Miller, conference organizer. "This is the last decade in which these people are going to be able to sit down together and reflect upon Attica's turbulent past.  This conference is unique in that it creates a dialog between stakeholders with diverse ideological perspectives on the Attica Uprising.  For the Buffalo community, this is one of the last opportunities to hear firsthand from people who were there."

In addition to looking back at the uprising, the conference will feature several influential policymakers, including New York State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubrey, chair of the Committee on Corrections and a vocal advocate for prison reform.  Miller says it comes at a time when the corrections industry, an entrenched part of the state's and the nation's economy, is undergoing reconsideration.

August 15, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, August 12, 2011

Texas closes prison for first time

As reported in this local article, headlined "As prison closes, could others be next?," the Lone Start State is in the process of closing a prison after having stabilized its prison population. Here are excerpts:

As white-uniformed convicts hefted steel bunks and furniture out of the aged Central prison unit on Thursday, correctional officers spoke in hushed tones about how time ran out for the concrete landmark. It was done in by suburbia that slowly surrounded it, a prison population that has stabilized after years of explosive growth and state budget cuts....

"There's no doubt there are better uses for that land as development occurs," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. "And there's also no doubt that if the (prison) population continues to drop, that we may have other opportunities to close other units that are more expensive or are in the wrong place."...

The Central Unit, the first state prison in Texas history to close, is the second oldest in the state corrections system. It first opened in 1878 as a sugar-cane plantation where convicts were leased to companies, including Imperial Sugar, to work the fields. Its closure has been debated for at least six years. This spring, it fell victim to the tightest state budget in nearly a decade....

Officials note that Texas is perhaps the only state in the country now with hundreds of empty prison bunks and the possibility of having even more in the future, if trends hold....

Built to house 600 convicts in the white tower, capped by a peculiar, tiny cupola that once served as a lookout for guards, the old cellblocks at one time in the early 1950s held more than 1,000 prisoners.

"They should have condemned this place a long, long time ago," Terral Griffin, 48, a convicted burglar, said as he helped clear out an empty cellblock Thursday. He was assigned to Central until a few weeks ago and lived for a time in the tower. "It's one of the worst places I've been. The roaches and ants, the heat in the summer, the stories about the ghosts. If I'd come here first, I'd never wanted to come back" to prison.

August 12, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Should a prison sentence necessarily halt all access to all social media for all purposes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent AP piece, which is headlined "Calif. says Facebook will remove inmates' pages" and reports these developments:

Facebook has agreed to work with law enforcement agencies nationwide to remove accounts set up by inmates or posted on their behalf, in part because prisoners are using the social networking site to stalk victims and direct criminal activity, California prison officials said Monday.

It's the latest effort to combat a problem that has grown with the advent of smart phones and social networking sites. Last year a convicted child molester used a cell phone smuggled into prison to search his victim's Facebook and MySpace web pages, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in announcing the agreement with Facebook. The inmate then sent sketches to the 17-year-old victim's home....

"Victims who fought hard to put their offenders behind bars are being re-victimized," said department spokeswoman Dana Toyama.  "It's evolving as Facebook has become a huge social networking site and a place for gang members to talk and coordinate inside and outside prison.  This is just one example of what they can do."

Inmates are permitted to retain Facebook profiles that were created before they went to prison, according to the department.  But Facebook will disable the account if it is used while the inmate is behind bars.  Prison officials said the problem has grown worse because of the growth in smuggled cell phones.  Six years ago the department confiscated 261 devices, compared to 10,760 last year and 7,284 in the first half of this year.

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes said prison officials' best response is to keep smart phones and other Internet devices out of prisons.  "We will disable accounts reported to us that are violating relevant U.S. laws or regulations or inmate accounts that are updated by someone on the outside," he said in an e-mailed statement.  "We will also take appropriate action against anyone who misuses Facebook to threaten or harass."

Noyes said Facebook has been cooperating with law enforcement for some time whenever it is notified of problems, but Toyama said California had previously asked Facebook to remove inmates' pages without success.  "We've really only been successful in taking down one account so far.  After this, we're looking to be able to do this more," Toyama said.

She said the Federal Bureau of Prisons first announced Monday that Facebook had agreed to take down any account that prison officials can confirm has been updated while an inmate is in prison.  The bureau's National Gang Intelligence Center also reported a growing problem of inmates with active Facebook accounts, Toyama said, but she could not provide a copy of the report because it is a confidential law enforcement bulletin.

I understand the many ways some prisoners might use social media like Facebook to do harm, but I also suspect many prisoners might much rather use social media (instead of, say, letters or phone calls or even emails) to keep family and friends updated on how they are doing while they serve their sentence.  And I read this article to suggest that even an update to a prisoner's Facebook page done by someone on the outside could lead to a social media "takedown."

These realities, combined with the fact that nearly 2.5 million persons are behind bars in the United States, perhaps suggests the next social-media opportunity.  Perhaps a clever programmer can and should develop a form of Facebook that is uniquely structured and regulated for use (and only proper usage) by persons who are incarcerated.  If well-developed in consultation with prison officials and experts in corrections policies and practices, this new form of social media (dare I call it FelonSpace?) perhaps could provide prisoners and their family and friends with social media benefits without the risk of harmful misuse.

August 10, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 06, 2011

California not yet on track to reduce prison population as much as court ordered

This front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined "Report: Prison population reductions insufficient," indicates that California is not yet doing quite enough to reduce its prison population to the levels required by federal court orders.  Here are the details:

Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to keep tens of thousands of low-level offenders in county jails instead of state prisons won't reduce the inmate population enough to fully comply with a federal court order, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said Friday.

A report released by the analyst's office said the state will likely fall several thousand inmates short of the 34,000-man reduction ordered by the court.  The report urges officials to ask a judge for more time, look at other ways to reduce crowding and consider sending more prisoners to private prisons in other states.  "Asking for a court extension is probably the most important thing," said analyst Paul Golaszewski, the report's author.

A federal judge ruled five years ago that substandard health care in California prisons was leading to the deaths of about 50 inmates a year.  A three-judge panel then appointed a health care receiver to oversee medical care and ordered the state to reduce its prison population.

The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in May that California must cut the number of prisoners from 143,500 to 110,000 by 2013.  The state was given a series of benchmarks for that reduction, including an initial deadline of 10,500 fewer inmates by Dec. 27....  Prison officials recently acknowledged that they do not expect to reach that required reduction until Jan. 27.  The analyst's report recommends that the state ask for more time....

State officials believe the plan to move more offenders to county jails, known as realignment, will reduce the state prison inmate population by nearly 40,000 within four years. The report outlines several other ways that state projections might not pan out.  For example, district attorneys might seek more serious charges to keep some offenders out of county jails and in state prisons, the report says.

Still, realignment will "likely" shrink the state prison population by tens of thousands of inmates over the next two years and "will go a long way toward reducing overcrowding in the next several years," the report said.

August 6, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, August 05, 2011

Another special issue of Criminology & Public Policy examines mass incarceration

C& PP cover As noted in this prior post, the February 2011 issue of Criminology & Public Policy was devoted to the idea that society would be well served to reallocate resources from mass incarceration to targeted policing. Today I discovered that the August 2011 issue of Criminology & Public Policy explores various other aspects of the modern story of mass incarceration.  Here is an excerpt from start from the editorial introduction to the issue authored by Marie Gottschalk:

The United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating a larger proportion of its people than any other country.  Since the 1970s, the U.S. inmate population has increased by more than sixfold (Manza and Uggen, 2006: 95).  A staggering 7 million people –- or approximately 1 in every 31 adults -— are either incarcerated, on parole or probation, or under some other form of state supervision today (Glaze, 2010; Pew Center on the States, 2009).  These figures understate the enormous and disproportionate impact that this bold and unprecedented social experiment has had on certain groups in the United States.  If current trends continue, one in three Black males and one in six Hispanic males born recently are expected to spend some time in prison during their lives (Bonczar, 2003).

Since the late 1990s, the phenomenon of mass incarceration has been a growing source of scholarly interest.  Today the carceral state is a subject of rising public interest.  In 2009, Wired magazine included emptying the country’s prisons on its “Smart List” of “12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change the World,” and Parade magazine featured Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) call to end mass incarceration on its front page (Webb, 2009).

Two related questions have long dominated discussions of mass incarceration: Why did the U.S. incarceration rate, which had been reasonably stable for much of the 20th century, shoot up in the 1970s and continue to climb for decades despite a fluctuating and then plummeting crime rate?  And what precisely is the relationship between the incarceration rate and the crime rate?  Today a scholarly consensus is congealing that the dramatic rise in the incarceration rate contributed to only a modest dent in the crime rate.  Although identifying the causes of mass incarceration in the United States remains a central concern, the focus is shifting.

This special issue of Criminology & Public Policy showcases several emerging frontiers in research on mass incarceration that have enormous public policy implications: penal developments at the state and local levels; the collateral consequences of the carceral state, especially for already disadvantaged individuals, families, and communities; and the possibilities for trimming or dramatically reducing the incarcerated population and downsizing prisons. 

August 5, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"On the Chopping Block: State Prison Closings"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new little report from The Sentencing Project. The report spotlights that at least 13 states have closed or are considering closing correctional facilities this year, and includes a detailed chart on state prison closings. The report begins this way:

As a result of recent policy changes and pressures brought on by the fiscal crisis, state lawmakers are closing prisons after 40 years of record prison expansion.  Declining prison populations in a number of states have resulted in excess prison capacity.  During 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported the first decline in the overall state prison population since 1977 and found 24 states had reduced prison populations during 2009.  In 2011 at least thirteen states have closed prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 13,900 beds.  Since 2002, Michigan has led the nation in this regard.  The state has closed 21 facilities, including prison camps, as a result of sentencing and parole reforms.  Overall, the state has reduced capacity by over 12,000 beds for a total cost savings of $339 million.

Other states, including New Jersey and Kansas, have also closed prisons in recent years amid changes in sentencing policy and parole decision making that have resulted in a decline in state prison populations.  Maryland also reduced prison capacity when it closed the Maryland House of Corrections in 2007 by transferring 850 prisoners to other prisons.

August 5, 2011 in Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 04, 2011

"Strategic Segregation in the Modern Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Professor Sharon Dolovich now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For more than three decades, the L.A. County Jail has been systematically separating out the gay men and trans women who come through the Jail and housing them wholly apart from the general population.  This is to protect them from sexual victimization, to which they are especially vulnerable.  This article draws on original research to provide an in-depth account of this segregation unit, which is known as K6G.  The aim is both descriptive and evaluative -- to describe the mechanics of the program and its implications for residents, and to assess a variety of objections to it.

As the article shows, L.A. County has managed to create a surprisingly safe space for the high-risk populations K6G serves.  That it has done so in a carceral system that is severely overcrowded and notoriously volatile makes the success of the program even more remarkable.  There is, however, no getting around it: with K6G, L.A. County is engaged in a process of state-sponsored, identity-based segregation.  Equally troubling, K6G is woefully underinclusive, leaving unprotected many vulnerable people who are neither gay nor trans. This article carefully considers and responds to these objections.  It also addresses a third, constitutional objection: that, even should prison administrators in L.A. County or elsewhere wish to follow a K6G model, they would be precluded from doing so on Equal Protection grounds.  Two appendices accompany the article: a detailed description of the research methodology and a reproduction of the 176-question instrument used to structure the 32 formal interviews conducted with K6G residents.

August 4, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Laboratory of the states, particularly in Florida, running notable experiment with private prisons

The notable new entry at Stateline.org, which is headlined "Public, private prisons to go 'head to head' in Florida," spotlights an emerging prison experiment in the laboratory of on of the states.  Here are the interesting details:

Are private prisons more efficient and better at reducing crime than their public counterparts? The new secretary of the nation’s third-largest correctional system believes that a major prison outsourcing in his state could help answer that long-debated question.

Ed Buss, who took over Florida’s corrections department this year, is overseeing one of the biggest — and fastest — prison privatization efforts in history. By the end of this year, 30 state prisons, road camps and work release centers in an 18-county region of south Florida will be turned over to a single private operator.

According to The Miami Herald, the initiative has set up a “high-stakes competitive battle” between the nation’s two largest private prison operators, Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, both of which are already active in Florida and are now competing to win the huge new contract.

In the meantime, Buss, a well-known corrections administrator who previously was in charge of Indiana’s prison system, tells the News Service of Florida that the privatization of so many facilities will help provide crucial information in the back-and-forth over whether private prisons are more cost-effective — and result in better outcomes for inmates — than their public counterparts. “This will provide some competition so that the public and private sector can go head-to-head,” Buss says.

Under the legislation calling for Florida’s prison privatization, the winning contractor must ensure savings of at least 7 percent beyond what the state currently pays to run its facilities. But the legislation also calls on the contractor to keep recidivism down by relying on research-guided practices to keep inmates from returning to prison. Buss says he will be watching the private facilities closely to see whether they are effective for inmates as well as for taxpayers.

“It takes three to five years to get any meaningful data on recidivism,” Buss says. “I wouldn’t recommend any future private prisons until we get the data and we see if it does actually work.”

August 3, 2011 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

California enacts new legislation preventing convictions based solely on jailhouse informants

I am pleased to see, as reported in this local article headlined "Law requires corroboration of cellmate's testimony," that California has now finally enacted a prohibition on convictions based solely "on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant."   Here are the basics, along with a bit of the legislative history:

Testimony by jailhouse informants will no longer be enough to convict criminal defendants in California under hotly contested legislation signed today by Gov. Jerry Brown.

SB687 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, applies to cases in which an inmate, often in exchange for leniency, testifies that a cellmate confessed to a crime. The bill, effective next year, will require prosecutors to corroborate that testimony.

Similar laws are in effect in 17 other states. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the same proposal twice at the urging of the California District Attorneys Association, which also opposed Leno's bill.

The prosecutors' group argued that there was no need for such a law, since judges already tell juries to consider an informant's testimony with caution. The association also said a ban on uncorroborated informant testimony would make jailhouse crimes harder to prosecute.

But Leno said informant testimony is often self-serving and unreliable and can lead to convictions of the innocent. Defense lawyers and civil-liberties advocates who supported SB687 were joined by the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles, who say a requirement of corroboration, already in effect in their offices, actually leads to stronger prosecutions....

The informant measure was one of several proposed by a statewide commission, headed by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, that the state Senate established in 2004 to look into the causes of wrongful convictions.

Other measures backed by the commission would have required police to tape-record interrogations of violent felony suspects, set guidelines for police lineups and made it easier for wrongfully convicted prisoners to get compensation from the state. Schwarzenegger vetoed those as well.

Fittingly, Alexandra Natapoff at her Snithcing Blog has more about this development in this new post.

August 2, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Monday, August 01, 2011

Venezuela's notable response to prison overcrowding and violence

This new article from the Christian Science Monitor provides a notable international perspective on prison overcrowding problems and how they can be addressed.  The piece is headlined "Venezuela promises to release thousands of prisoners: The new prisons minister, appointed in the wake of a deadly riot at El Rodeo prison outside Caracas, says that she will let 20,000 nonviolent criminals go." Here are excerpts:

Just a month after a deadly prison siege in El Rodeo prison outside Caracas, Venezuela in which some 30 people died, Venezuelan authorities have announced plans to release 40 percent of the country's prison population.  Varela said that the release of some 20,000 prisoners would ease overcrowding, a major issue in jails across Venezuela and the entire region.

“Of the country's 50,000 prisoners, 20,000 should be out of jail," Ms. Varela told a local newspaper.  The country's 30 prisons are designed to hold around 12,500 inmates.  "In prison there are people that do not pose a danger to society, such as shoplifters who have no history of violence.  They can be handled outside prison," she said.

But the new minister is likely to face criticism, even as overcrowding in jails is one of the issues for which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez constantly gets panned.  Venezuela is considered one of the region's most dangerous countries, with the murder rate in Caracas comparable to that of warzones such as Baghdad.  While many prisoners may have gone into jail for minor crimes such as shoplifting, they will no doubt have been hardened by the “Dante-esque" conditions inside, according to Humberto Prado, who helps run the Venezuelan Prison Observatory.

Varela sought to dispel concerns of mass chaos. "I want to promise the Venezuelan people that we won't let the wolves loose," added Varela who was appointed by President Chavez last week....

Riots at El Rodeo jail, in Guatire just east of Caracas, left around 30 dead in a siege that lasted for 27 days. Thousands of troops attempted to regain control against inmates armed with AK47s, machine guns, and hand grenades. Family members waited outside a kilometer-wide perimeter for news of their loved ones, as shooting was heard from the complex.

August 1, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"''The Mess We’re In': Five Steps Towards the Transformation of Prison Cultures"

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

Few dispute that conditions in prisons need to be improved -- that, for example, prisoners with mental-health problems need to have those problems addressed, and addressed effectively, while they are confined.  But the more fundamental question is whether prisons can be, not just improved, but transformed.  Transformation in this context means deep and sustained changes in the ethos of those who work and live in prisons. That ethos would reflect at least four precepts: (1) hope as an imperative; (2) the viability of renewal; (3) the catharsis that attends personal responsibility and accountability; and (4) the duty and call, extending to prisoners and correctional employees alike, to respect human dignity.

This article rests on the proposition that such “culture busting” in prisons is possible and describes five key steps that need to be taken by each state and the federal government to effectuate the envisioned transformation in their prisons.  Those steps include: (1) Establish a maximal limit on the per-capita imprisonment rate in the jurisdiction that is at least 50% lower than the current national rate and adopt mechanisms to responsibly implement and enforce the limit; (2) Adopt a comprehensive plan to bring transparency and accountability into the operations of the jurisdiction’s prisons, in part through an independent public entity’s monitoring of, and issuance of public reports on, conditions within those prisons; (3) Modify prison policies, practices, and programs to reflect and inculcate a restorative-justice ethos within the prisons; (4) Ensure that a trained and dedicated mentor is assigned to each prisoner at the outset of his or her incarceration; and (5) Implement procedures to accord prisoners a central role in the development of their individualized reentry plan, whose implementation would commence upon their incarceration.

July 30, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 28, 2011

If you always dreamed of owning your own prison...

get out your checkbook and head down to Texas ASAP, as explained in this interesting local article:

Littlefield residents hope to lighten a heavy tax burden with the crack of an auctioneer’s gavel.  The city’s Bill Clayton Detention Center will go on the block today at 11 a.m. for an opening bid of $5 million in the first known auction of a prison in the state.

Littlefield hopes to claw out from under more than $9 million in debt tied to the more than 94,000-square-foot complex, which has remained empty for two years....  [T]he bonds to construct the center have put heavy pressure on the city’s tax rates, and sale proceeds would help buy down the debt.

The detention center was supposed to be an economic boon.  City officials had dreams of it employing up to 150 with a $2.7 million payroll as they prepared to break ground in 1999.

Ultimately, the project expanded to its present 30-acre site in 2005 and housed adult prisoners on contract from the Idaho Department of Corrections, instead of the juvenile offenders they had once planned.

GEO Group Inc., a for-profit prison corporation, laid off all 74 contract workers when it cancelled its contract with the city in 2009.  The group had lost its contract with Idaho because of concerns over prisoner safety.

Inmate Randall McCullough died in Littlefield after spending roughly a year in solitary confinement for an assault on a prison officer.  His son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the GEO Group last year. That lawsuit is pending in Comal County.     McCullough alleged negligence, fraud and public corruption in his father’s death....

Littlefield has had four visits with six interested parties over the last two months, [the realtor] said.  About half of the prospective bidders would be on site, with the other half participating live via the Internet, he said.  All of the interested buyers are private detention companies.

UPDATE:  This new local piece, headlined "Littlefield prison sells at auction for $6 million," reports on the results of the jail auction.

July 28, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Norway killer could be held in 'luxury prison'"

The title of this post is the headline of this report from The (UK) Telegraph, which starts this way: 

Anders Behring Breivik could be jailed in one of the world's most progressive prisons, where inmates enjoys cells equipped with flat screen televisions, minifridges and designer-style furniture.  Halden Fengsel prison was opened last by King Harald V and is home to some of Norway's most hardened criminals, including murderers and rapists.

The jail is spread over 75 acres of woodland just outside Oslo and facilities include a sound studio, jogging trails and a two-bedroom house separate from the main facility where convicts can stay with their families during overnight visits.

Guards move around the prison unarmed and often play sports or eat meals with the men they are tasked with watching.  Half of the prison staff are women, a policy based on research which shows a female presence induces a less aggressive atmosphere.

In a far cry from the brutalist set up of British or American prisons, there is even a "kitchen laboratory" where inmates can take specialist cooking courses.

Speaking at the opening of the jail last year, governor Are Hoidal said: "In the Norwegian prison system, there's a focus on human rights and respect.  We want to build them up, give them confidence through education and work and have them leave as better people."

There is some evidence that the Norwegian approach to prison works, with only around 20 per cent of offenders ending up back behind bars within two years of release, compared to around half of British convicts. 

Related recent post:

July 26, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway mass murderer facing no more than 21 years in (cushy?) prison

As detailed in this press report, which is headlined "Norway killing suspect may get 21 years in jail," it appears that the maximum sentence that could be given to the terrorist who murdered nearly 100 people in Norway is only 21 years in prison:

The person suspected of carrying out terrorist attacks in Norway will be charged for terrorist activity, while the maximum prison sentence in Norway is 21 years, Norway police said Saturday.

Over ninety people have been killed in the two attacks since Friday.

Police have confirmed that arrested 32-year-old Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, was involved both in the explosion in Oslo, and in a shooting at a youth summer camp on Utoya Island.  Police did not link the tragedy to any international terrorist organisations but said the suspect was connected with right-wing extremism.

As detailed in prior posts linked below, Norway crime and punishment has previously been noted on this blog because of various press reports on its relatively cushy forms of incarceration.  I do not know if Anders Behring Breivik would be eligible to serve his 21 years in one of these "cushy" Norway prisons, but I do know that a significant number of American criminals involved in relatively minor crack deals and child porn downloading and corporate crimes face much longer prison terms in the US than does a mass murderer in Norway.  Remarkable.

Related prior posts on Norway's prisons:

UPDATE:  Anders Behring Breivik appeared in court this morning, and the details are report in this CBS News piece headlined "Judge: Massacre suspect wanted to 'save Norway'."

July 24, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (45) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 23, 2011

California inmates end hunger strike (after success?)

As detailed in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, it appears that inmates "have ended a three-week hunger strike in the high-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County to protest conditions in isolation units at the facility and what they said were oppressive gang-security measures by prison officials."  Here is more:

Advocates for the prisoners said they got confirmation late Thursday from the inmates themselves. Meanwhile, some inmates in three other state prisons who were refusing to eat in solidarity with those in Pelican Bay were continuing their strike until they could also receive confirmation, state officials said.

"Most inmates at Pelican Bay started eating again last night, and as of 1 p.m. today they were all eating," Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Thursday....

The hunger strike began at Pelican Bay near the Oregon border on July 1 and, at its peak, had spread to 6,600 inmates in at least 13 of California's prisons, according to the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition in Oakland, which is speaking for the prisoners....

The strike began winding down after inmates spoke with prison system staff and "better understood" plans to review and change some policies, officials said.

Among five key demands, the Pelican Bay strikers had called for more lenient treatment in strict isolation units and the abolishment of "debriefings" - lengthy interviews that prison officials use to determine inmates' gang member status. The prisoners said the debriefing process can result in an inmate being incorrectly labeled a snitch, making him a target for violence.

Thornton said the measures the Department of Corrections is considering include easing restrictions in isolation units so inmates can make phone calls and get calendars and cold-weather caps, as well as expanded educational opportunities.

Recent related posts concerning this hunger strike in California prisons:  

July 23, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Californians would rather ease penalties than pay more for prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Los Angeles Times article which reports on the results of a recent poll.  Here are some of the the details:

Cash-strapped Californians would rather ease "third-strike" penalties for some criminals and accept felons as neighbors than dig deeper into their pockets to relieve prison overcrowding, a new poll shows.

In the wake of a court order that the state move more than 33,000 inmates out of its packed prisons, an overwhelming number of voters oppose higher taxes — as well as cuts in key state services — to pay for more lockup space.

The survey, by The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, shows a clear shift in attitude by residents forced to confront the cost of tough sentencing laws passed in recent decades.

The poll canvassed 1,507 registered California voters between July 6 and July 17, about six weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an earlier court order requiring the inmate numbers to be cut. It was conducted by two firms in the Washington, D.C., area: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm....

The pollsters noted that people don't generally favor the release of convicted criminals. But "when it comes to prisons," said Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint, "voters are looking for solutions that don't raise taxes or take money from other priorities like education."

Only 12% of respondents said they'd be willing to accept less state spending on healthcare or education to pay for more prisons.  And less than a quarter of voters want to pay higher taxes to build prisons or ship inmates to private lockups in other states to comply with the courts.

July 21, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Police union sues Gov. Rick Scott over private prison plan"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting local report out of Florida.  Here is how it begins:

The union that represents state correctional officers is suing Gov. Rick Scott's administration, seeking to derail a massive privatization of state prison operations in 18 South Florida counties.

The suit, filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association against Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss, hopes to block a plan to privatize 30 prisons in Miami-Dade, Broward and 16 other counties. The prisons house about 20 percent of Florida's 102,000 inmates.

Buss said Tuesday he has not reviewed the lawsuit. "I'm not sure what the legal argument is, given that this was a legislative mandate," Buss said. "To us, it's like a bell that's already been rung. We're working under a very aggressive time line, and we need to get started on it right away."

The privatization plan was included as part of the 2011-12 state budget as a way to shave costs. The Legislature required the state to have vendors in place to run the prisons by Jan. 1, 2012.

The union maintains that privatization will result in the loss of jobs by its members. The lawsuit claims the language in the budget mandating the outsourcing is unconstitutionally broad. "We want to stop prison privatization altogether, but we certainly want to stop this 18-county takeover," said Matt Puckett, the union's Florida executive director. "We consider this just a handout."

July 20, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Are there First Amendment problems with California officials blocking media access to all hunger-striking prisoners?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Los Angeles Times piece headlined "Prisoners' hunger strike in its third week."  Here is the parts of this report prompting my inquiry:

More than 400 inmates at four California prisons are in the third week of a hunger strike to protest long, punitive stays in isolation cells.

Prison officials, who refuse to allow reporters into the institutions to interview the strikers, said 49 inmates who have lost at least 10 pounds each are "being monitored closely," including seven at Pelican Bay, the maximum-security prison near the Oregon border where the hunger strike began.

An inmate at the state prison in Tehachapi in Central California has lost 29 pounds, according to Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the court-appointed receiver in charge of prison healthcare.

Inmate advocates say thousands of inmates have joined the strike, which began July 1. Many are beginning to show dramatic weight loss and collapse with the early signs of starvation, they say. Dozens have been sent to prison infirmaries because of irregular heartbeats and fainting, according to a statement issued Monday by a group calling itself California Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity, which represents attorneys and family members of inmates. "Most have lost 20-35 pounds," the statement said....

Despite repeated assurances that the situation is under control, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refused The Times' request to visit and interview striking inmates.

"At this time, we are not allowing media into the prison due to security and safety issues," prison spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said in an email.  "This hunger strike signifies a disruption in normal operation of Pelican Bay and our operations staff are focused completely on resolving this issue."...

The inmates are protesting lengthy stays in Security Housing Units, known as prisons within the prison, where they are sent for violating rules.  They are typically kept alone in their cells for 22 hours a day, allowed out for medical visits and for exercise in individual wire cages on the prison yard.

I know that the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that prisoners First Amendment rights are have significantly limited while they are behind bars, but these rights are not completely extinguished.  In addition, I would think the traditional media might be able to assert some of its own First Amendment rights to try to get access to at least a few of the hunger-striking prisoners.  Legitimate safety and security issues likely do not justify restricting access to every one of the hundreds of prisoners involved in this hunger strike.

Any free speech experts out there have any wisdom on this front?

Recent related posts concerning this hunger strike in California prisons: 

July 19, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Colorado inmate sues prison for saving his life"

The title of this post is the headline of this new piece in the Denver Post (Hat tip: How Appealing).  Here is how it begins:

Convicted murderer Daniel Self has sued Sterling Correctional Facility, claiming that prison guards disregarded a do-not-resuscitate directive when they saved his life.  It's not that he isn't grateful, he said.  That's not even the point.

"I've been wrongfully convicted and called a baby-killer.  Death would be welcome relief," Self said during an interview in a concrete visitor's room rimmed with rolls of razor wire. "Even if you die, they drag your ass back to prison."

From the 54-year-old's perspective, damages in his case are accruing "a million dollars" every day that he must live in the hell that is prison.   "Maybe it's a million dollars a minute," he said.

Katherine Sanguinetti, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Corrections, said the state has not been served with Self's lawsuit and that she could not comment about the case because it is in litigation.

Self's attorney, Brett Lampiasi, recently filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Denver, claiming prison officials were deliberately indifferent to Self's right to refuse medical treatment.

Self's plight, he said, became more intolerable after he broke his wrist in a fall from his bunk and doctors botched an operation, leaving him in constant pain with a deformed wrist, the suit says.   He went eight months before corrective surgery was performed, the suit claims, and he was not given prescribed pain medications.

Before he went to prison, Self lived in Colorado Springs and set up lighting for live band performances at nightclubs.  He was convicted of fatally shooting his girlfriend, Leah Kathleen Gee, 24, in March 2003.  Gee was pregnant.  He claims that she shot herself.

July 18, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Barbarous Confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this new op-ed in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:

More than 1,700 prisoners in California, many of whom are in maximum isolation units, have gone on a hunger strike.  The protest began with inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison.  How they have managed to communicate with each other is anyone’s guess — but their protest is everyone’s concern.  Many of these prisoners have been sent to virtually total isolation and enforced idleness for no crime, not even for alleged infractions of prison regulations.  Their isolation, which can last for decades, is often not explicitly disciplinary, and therefore not subject to court oversight.  Their treatment is simply a matter of administrative convenience.

Solitary confinement has been transmuted from an occasional tool of discipline into a widespread form of preventive detention.  The Supreme Court, over the last two decades, has whittled steadily away at the rights of inmates, surrendering to prison administrators virtually all control over what is done to those held in “administrative segregation.”  Since it is not defined as punishment for a crime, it does not fall under “cruel and unusual punishment,” the reasoning goes....

Officials at Pelican Bay, in Northern California, claim that those incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit are “the worst of the worst.”  Yet often it is the most vulnerable, especially the mentally ill, not the most violent, who end up in indefinite isolation. Placement is haphazard and arbitrary; it focuses on those perceived as troublemakers or simply disliked by correctional officers and, most of all, alleged gang members.  Often, the decisions are not based on evidence.  And before the inmates are released from the barbarity of 22-hour-a-day isolation into normal prison conditions (themselves shameful) they are often expected to “debrief,” or spill the beans on other gang members....

Hunger strikes are the only weapon these prisoners have left.  Legal avenues are closed. Communication with the outside world, even with family members, is so restricted as to be meaningless.  Possessions — paper and pencil, reading matter, photos of family members, even hand-drawn pictures — are removed.  (They could contain coded messages between gang members, we are told, or their loss may persuade the inmates to snitch when every other deprivation has failed.)...

Do we find our ethics by forcing prisoners to live in what Judge Henderson described as the setting of “senseless suffering” and “wretched misery”?  Maybe our reaction to hunger strikes should involve some self-reflection.  Not allowing inmates to choose death as an escape from a murderous fate or as a protest against continued degradation depends, as we will see when doctors come to make their judgment calls, on the skilled manipulation of techniques that are indistinguishable from torture.  Maybe one way to react to prisoners whose only reaction to bestial treatment is to starve themselves to death might be to do the unthinkable — to treat them like human beings.

Recent related posts: 

July 18, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"The Causes of Growth in Prison Admissions and Populations"

The title of this post is the title of this important new empirical paper by Professor John Pfaff now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The explosive growth in the US prison population is well documented, but its causes are poorly understood.  In this paper I exploit previously-unused data to define precisely where the growth is occurring.  In short, the growth in prison populations has been driven almost entirely by increases in felony filings per arrest.  All other possible sites of growth -- arrests, admissions per filing, convictions per filings and admissions per conviction, and even (perhaps most surprisingly) time served per admission -- have barely changed over the past four decades.  But the growth in filings tracks that of admissions almost perfectly.  This paper demonstrates the importance of felony filings and considers some of the possible explanations for their growth.

July 16, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (59) | TrackBack

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Black men survive longer in prison than out: study"

The title of this post is the headline of this Reuters article about a new study that seems sure to get significant attention.  Here are the details:

Black men are half as likely to die at any given time if they're in prison than if they aren't, suggests a new study of North Carolina inmates.  

The black prisoners seemed to be especially protected against alcohol- and drug-related deaths, as well as lethal accidents and certain chronic diseases.  But that pattern didn't hold for white men, who on the whole were slightly more likely to die in prison than outside, according to findings published in Annals of Epidemiology.

Researchers say it's not the first time a study has found lower death rates among certain groups of inmates -- particularly disadvantaged people, who might get protection against violent injuries and murder.

"Ironically, prisons are often the only provider of medical care accessible by these underserved and vulnerable Americans," said Hung-En Sung of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.     "Typically, prison-based care is more comprehensive than what inmates have received prior to their admission," Sung, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health by email.

The new study involved about 100,000 men between age 20 and 79 who were held in North Carolina prisons at some point between 1995 and 2005.  Sixty percent of those men were black. Researchers linked prison and state health records to determine which of the inmates died, and of what causes, during their prison stay.  Then they compared those figures with expected deaths in men of the same age and race in the general population.

Less than one percent of men died during incarceration, and there was no difference between black and white inmates.  But outside prison walls, blacks have a higher rate of death at any given age than whites.  "What's very sad about this is that if we are able to all of a sudden equalize or diminish these health inequalities that you see by race inside a place like prison, it should also be that in places like a poor neighborhood we should be able to diminish these sort of inequities," said Evelyn Patterson, who studies correctional facilities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee....

As in the general population, cancer and heart and blood vessel diseases were the most common cause of death among inmates -- accounting for more than half of deaths. White prisoners died of cardiovascular diseases as often as expected and died of cancer slightly more often than non-prisoners.

Black inmates, by contrast, were between 30 and 40 percent less likely to die of those causes than those who weren't incarcerated. They were also less likely to die of diabetes, alcohol- and drug-related causes, airway diseases, accidents, suicide and murder than black men not in prison.

"For some populations, being in prison likely provides benefits in regards to access to healthcare and life expectancy," said study author Dr. David Rosen, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill....     For Rosen, one of the main messages from the study is the need to make the world outside of prison walls safer, and to make sure people living there have adequate access to healthcare.

The underlying study appealing in the Annals of Epidemiology that is the basis of this article is available via this link 

July 15, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Split Iowa Supreme Court endorses denial of good behavior credit for sex offender who refuses to admit guilt in treatment program

As detailed in this news report, headlined "Justices: It's OK to push inmates to admit guilt," the Iowa Supreme Court yesterday held that "Iowa sex offenders can be compelled to admit their crimes as part of prison treatment programs without triggering a violation of the inmates' right against self-incrimination." Here is more:

Four of the seven Iowa justices found that the Mount Pleasant Correctional facility didn't violate Robert Harkins' Fifth Amendment rights by denying him time off for good behavior if he refused to participate in a treatment program. The remaining justices said they would have allowed the requirement only if the state offered immunity to prevent any admissions from being used against Harkins in court.

Iowa law says state prison inmates can earn 1.2 days off their sentences "for each day the inmate demonstrates good conduct and satisfactorily participates" in any program he or she is determined by prison officials to need.

Harkins, convicted of third-degree sexual abuse in 2006, argued in court pleadings he filed himself that linking those "earned-time credits" to completion of sex-offender treatment violated his constitutional rights because the treatment required signing a contract that would have forced Harkins to "assume full responsibility" for his past offenses and behavior....

[T]he majority of justices - Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield, Bruce Zager and Chief Justice Mark Cady - ruled Friday that state prison officials have "important rehabilitative goals" in using the possibility of a longer prison term to compel sex-offender treatment.

"The state is not using a threatened loss of credits to try to extract testimony; instead it is attempting to administer a bona fide rehabilitation program for sex offenders who have already been found guilty under a statutory scheme that afforded them all required due process," Mansfield wrote in a 27-page opinion for the majority.

"Harkins had every right not to be a witness against himself. ... Now that he has been convicted as a sex offender, though, the State of Iowa may constitutionally establish an incentive for him to obtain treatment in prison by withholding earned-time credits if he declines to participate."

Justice Brent Appel, author of a 30-page dissenting opinion on behalf of a minority that included Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht, said the case boils down to a tough choice for Harkins: "Simply put, if he chooses to remain silent by not participating in the program, he likely will be incarcerated for a substantially longer period of time."

Appel's opinion concludes that Iowa has imposed "an impermissible penalty for the exercise of (Harkins') Fifth Amendment rights" and argues that "the state may force Harkins to choose" between self-incrimination and a longer sentence "only if it provides Harkins with use and derivative-use immunity from prosecution."

I cannot yet find a copy of this ruling available on line, but I will post a link to the ful opinion once available.

July 9, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 07, 2011

"Would porn incite prison violence?"

The question in the title of this post is the main heading given to this new piece at Salon, which carries this subheading: "An inmate sues over a ban on explicit material, but officials say smut causes aggression. We look at the evidence." Here are excerpts:

A 21-year-old inmate is suing the governor and state of Michigan for depriving him of porn while locked up. This case follows on the heels of a suit last month by the ACLU to force a South Carolina prison to loosen its broad restrictions on reading materials, which was sensationalized in the press as a push for porn in prison, causing officials to explain that smut was a danger to inmates because it would cause aggression and violence.

Is there really evidence that it would, though?

The short answer is: No, there isn't solid proof that it would. The longer answer is, as Joseph Slade, the author of "Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide," tells me: "No responsible academic researcher claims that evidence supports pornography's causing hostility or violence, principally because of the number of variables involved in constructing studies, the divergent definitions of pornography, and the sometimes unconscious biases of those who look for effects," he said. These studies also focus on the immediate, short-term impact. "That does not mean that there are no effects, just that they cannot be ascertained." That's exactly why in 2007, Sweden's Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing porn in prison: Officials couldn't prove that it would "jeopardize the safety of the institution."

In a piece for the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, researchers Milton Diamond and Ayako Uchiyama pointed out that there is a fundamental problem with assuming that people in the real world function just like the college students in these laboratory experiments: "In real life, individuals can elect to experience some pornography for minutes or hours, at a single session, or over years. In real life, individuals are free to satisfy different sexual urges in ways unavailable to students in classroom situations." (Just to further complicate things, none of these studies specifically look at the effect in prison, which is, clearly, a very unique environment with yet more variables.)

Setting all those serious caveats aside for a minute, a meta-analysis attempted to settle the debate once and for all by surveying the sizable amount of research on the effects of pornography and concluded that viewing "pictorial nudity reduces" -- yes, reduces -- subsequent aggressive behavior. At the same time, though, "consumption of material depicting nonviolent sexual activity increases aggressive behavior," but "media depictions of violent sexual activity generates more aggression than those of nonviolent sexual activity."...

So, as I said, the short answer is that there isn't evidence that porn causes aggression -- and yet prisons continue to ban explicit material on those very grounds. Considering our general disregard for science -- not to mention the fact that prisoners' sexual fantasy lives are not at the top of most people's lists of important world problems -- it's no real surprise.

July 7, 2011 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"Tough on Crime (on the State's Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties' Incarceration Rates -- And Why it Should"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Professor W. David Ball, which now is available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

California’s prisons are dangerously and unconstitutionally overcrowded; as a result of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Plata v. Schwarzenegger, the state must act to reduce its prison population or face court-ordered prisoner releases.  The state’s plans to reduce overcrowding are centered around what it calls criminal justice “realignment”, whereby California will send a portion of the state prison population to county facilities.  The plan faces opposition from county officials, who see it as pushing the state’s problem on to the counties.

But what if state prison overcrowding is really a county problem?  I argue that state prison overcrowding is due in large part to county decisions about how to deal with crime.  Using data from 2000-2009, I will show that California’s counties use state prison resources at dramatically different rates, and, moreover, that the counties which use state prisons the most have below-average crime rates.

The contribution the Article makes, then, is twofold.  First, it reinforces that incarceration in state prisons is one policy choice among many, not an inexorable reaction to violent crime.  Counties can and do make different choices about how to respond to violent crime, including the extent to which they use prison.  Second, the Article demonstrates why localities are crucial -- and critically underexamined -- contributors to state prison populations.  Decisions are made at local levels about prosecution, investigation, plea bargaining, and sentencing, and these decisions are made by officials who are either elected locally (such as DA’s, judges, and sheriffs) or appointed locally (police and probation officers).  Local policies and policymakers affect the state’s corrections budget, even though the state has no say in designing or implementing these policies. State officials must take these local differences into account, and create incentives for counties to behave differently.

The problem is that it is difficult to distinguish between justifiable, crime-driven incarceration and optional, policy-driven incarceration.  I propose a new metric for distinguishing between these two types of incarceration, one which defines justified incarceration in terms of violent crime.  This would allow the state to manage local usage of state prison resources without either penalizing crime-ridden areas or rewarding prison-happy ones.

This Article is the first of two articles dealing with the state/county prison relationship. While this Article quantifies the ways in which the extent of local prison admissions is not necessarily a function of the violent crime rate, a second Article will examine whether, given these differences, it makes sense for the state to subsidize county commitments to prison.

July 7, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Hunger strike among California prisoners growing

As detailed in this new article, "[i]nmates in at least 11 of California's 33 prisons are refusing meals in solidarity with a hunger strike staged by prisoners in one of the system's special maximum-security units, officials said Tuesday." Here is more:

The strike began Friday when inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison stopped eating meals in protest of conditions that they contend are cruel and inhumane.  "There are inmates in at least a third of our prisons who are refusing state-issued meals," said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation....

Some inmates are refusing all meals, while others are rejecting only some, Thornton said. Some were eating in visitation rooms and refusing state-issued meals in their cells, she said.  Assessing the number of actual strikers "is very challenging," Thornton said....

More than 400 prisoners at Pelican Bay are believed to be refusing meals, including inmates on the prison's general-population yard, said Molly Poizig, spokeswoman for the Bay Area-based group Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity....

The group's website claims that prison officials attempted to head off the strike by promoting a Fourth of July menu that included strawberry shortcake and ice cream. According to the website, the wife of a Security Housing Unit inmate said her husband had never had ice cream there and "has never seen a strawberry."...

The strike was organized by Security Housing Unit inmates at Pelican Bay protesting the maximum-security unit's extreme isolation. The inmates are also asking for better food, warmer clothing and to be allowed one phone call a month. 

The Security Housing Unit compound, which currently houses 1,100 inmates, is designed to isolate prison-gang members or those who've committed crimes while in prison.  The cells have no windows and are soundproofed to inhibit communication among inmates. The inmates spend 22-1/2 hours a day in their cells, being released only an hour a day to walk around a small area with high concrete walls.

Prisoner advocates have long complained that Security Housing Unit incarceration amounts to torture, often leading to mental illness, because many inmates spend years in the lockup.  Gang investigators believe the special unit reduces the ability of the most predatory inmates, particularly prison-gang leaders, to control those in other prisons as well as gang members on the street.

Recent related post:

July 6, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Crime paying pretty well for doctors in California's prison system

As detailed in this AP article, headlined "Data show prison doctors at top of state pay scale," it appears that in California doctors working within the state correction system are finding ways to profit from the state's prison problems. Here are some details:

Doctors, dentists and psychiatrists with the federal receiver's office overseeing inmate medical care are the highest paid state employees in California, according to government salary data the state controller's office released Tuesday.

Two prison doctors make more than $700,000 a year.  Dozens of other prison medical personnel, some with the Department of Mental Health, make more than $300,000 a year. A top official with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection makes $309,000 annually.

The controller's office began requesting the data in response to the compensation scandal in the Los Angeles County city of Bell.  Residents there voted the entire city council out of office in March after learning that council members and other top officials were giving themselves enormous salaries and pensions.

The people with the top four state salaries are two doctors, a dentist and a psychologist, all working for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who were paid salaries ranging from $777,323 to $582,609....

The information is available on a website that shows salary ranges as well as actual compensation in calendar year 2010, said Hallye Jordan, spokeswoman for Controller John Chiang.  It lets users see the employees' true earnings, including overtime, bonuses, and if they cashed in vacation time or sick leave, she said.  "There are people who are making more than the maximum salary (range)," Jordan said, by the time additional income is added to their base salaries.  All five of the top-paid state employees earned more than the maximum salary listed for their position....

Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the court-appointed federal receiver who controls prison medical care, said many of the prisons' health care providers do not earn the maximum salary listed for their professions.

July 6, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"The GOP's Born-Again Prison Reformers"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent piece over at The Daily Beast.  Here is how it begins:

Back in the early 1990s, William Kennedy was a power player who toed the Republican Party line and put the likes of Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s tough-on-crime attorney general, on the cover of his Conservative Digest magazine.  Then some business deals went south and he was convicted of racketeering and money laundering and spent 17 years behind bars (his first night in Colorado’s Ed Meese Detention Center, of all places). Recently dozens of leading conservatives gathered at a private home in Virginia to welcome him back to society.  Kennedy insists he was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct, but a bitter irony still overwhelms him.  “I helped push the same laws that put me away all these years,” he told us in his first interview since his release in January . “I was a law-and-order conservative.  What an idiot I was.”

His is not the only transformation.  The party of Nixon’s 1968 law-and-order campaign, Just Say No, and the Willie Horton ad is now seeing a growing number of leaders tackling what once would have been political suicide: reforming the country’s overwhelmed criminal justice system.  While the recent Supreme Court decision to free tens of thousands of California prisoners due to overcrowding has upset conservatives (Justice Antonin Scalia dissented strongly, describing the potential release of “46,000 happy-go-lucky felons”), the magnitude of the decision makes it even harder to pretend the U.S. doesn’t have a problem.  And these days many conservatives are leading the charge for a solution.

Conservative governors in lock ’em up states are suddenly talking about rehabilitation and redemption, not throwing away the key.  Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation in April that opens the door to overhauling Georgia’s sentencing laws; Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal in January announced a partnership to help fix the state’s ballooning incarceration rate — the highest in the country.  In Indiana, Mitch Daniels says he is fighting for legislation to reduce recidivism (nationally, 43 percent of offenders are back in jail within three years). And Ohio’s new Republican governor, John Kasich, is being feted by conservatives for pushing a prison reform bill through the state house in early May, calling the reform “low-hanging fruit.”  Legislation that would keep more people out of prison has also recently passed in such right-leaning states as Kentucky, Arkansas and South Carolina.

Inside the Beltway it’s the same story.  Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America once called for more prisons and tougher sentencing, but these days the presidential candidate is co-authoring passionate editorials about the need for “common-sense left-right agreement” on prison reform and “encouragement and love” for offenders who have served time.  He’s joined other conservative icons like Meese, Grover Norquist, William Bennett and NRA president David Keene to pledge their names to the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s recently launched “Right on Crime” website, designed to make the rehabilitation of non-violent offenders and the end of skyrocketing incarceration rates the new conservative cause célèbre.

July 6, 2011 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Can a hunger strike by state prisoners in SHU have an impact?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this new AP article, headlined "Pelican Bay prison inmates go on hunger strike." Here are the basics:

Dozens of inmates in an isolation unit at Pelican Bay State Prison went on a hunger strike Friday to protest conditions they describe as inhumane.

Advocates for the prisoners at the Security Housing Unit said inmates are subjected to solitary confinement and forced interrogations — the latter as prison officials try to elicit information about gangs.  "The inmates see this strike as their only shot at trying to get improvements," said Carol Strickman, an attorney with the group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, which represents some of the striking inmates.

A lawsuit filed in 1990 accused officials at Pelican Bay of abusing inmates.  A federal judge ruled in the inmates' favor in 1995 and ended the case in March after determining the state corrections department had made sufficient reforms to protect inmates from abuse by guards.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said additional restrictions on those prisoners are needed to reduce the influence of gangs.  However, officials denied that prisoners in the unit are kept in solitary confinement or subject to forced interrogations.  "We encourage them to walk away from that (gang) lifestyle," Thornton said. "But it's their choice."

Several dozen inmates in the Security Housing Unit declined to eat their morning meal on Friday, advocates said.  The unit holds about a third of the 3,100 inmates at the maximum-security prison.

State prison officials confirmed the strike, though they did not immediately know how many inmates were participating.

The Security Housing Unit segregates prisoners from the general population who have been determined to be prison gang members or have committed a serious crime while in prison.  About 4,000 of the 162,000 inmates in the state corrections system are housed in such units, which exist at three other prisons in addition to Pelican Bay.

July 2, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, July 01, 2011

"California given strict deadline to reduce prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Los Angeles Times article, which gets started this way:

A three-judge court that has ordered California to reduce its prison population issued strict deadlines Thursday for what will amount to a reduction of 37,000 inmates in two years.

The special panel of federal judges set June 27, 2013, as the deadline for compliance, paying little heed to the U.S. Supreme Court's call for flexibility. In May, the high court cited California's cash crisis in suggesting that officials might need more time to resolve the overcrowding problem.

The three-judge court ruled in August 2009 that conditions in state prisons violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The inmate population — then exceeding 160,000 — was twice the number for which the state's 33 prisons were built, the court said, and the crowding resulted in deprivation of medical and mental health care for many inmates. By Dec. 27, the number of prisoners must be at or below 133,600, or 14,400 fewer than were in state custody last week.

Further cuts of 9,600 by next June and 6,400 by December 2012 were also ordered. In two years, the population must be no larger than 111,000. Some reductions have already been accomplished since the original court order.

July 1, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 30, 2011

US Sentencing Commission voting today on making new FSA crack guidelines retroactive

As previously noted here and as indicated in this official public notice, this afternoon at a public meeting, the US Sentencing Commission will vote on whether and how to make the new reduced crack offense federal sentencing guidelines applicable retroactively to previously sentencing defendants.  The new guidelines reflect the 18-1 quantity ratio between crack and powder cocaine quantities that became the new federal sentencing standard after the Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

As I have detailed in prior posts (some of which are linked below), a decision to make the crack guidelines retroactive would potentially impact the sentences of many thousands of federal prisoners, and this fact has made this issue a subject of considerable controversy.  Still, the smart money is on the Sentencing Commission voting to make the new crack guidelines retroactive with a few (but not too many) limitations on which previously sentencing defendants can get the benefit of the new lower guidelines.

A few related posts on this particular retroactivity decision before the USSC are linked below, and readers interested in a broader understanding of the FSA should check out this February 2011 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter on the FSA and those interested in a broader discussion of the last round of crack retroactivity should check out this April 2008 FSR issue on crack retroactivity:

I will be on the road and likely off-line until very late tonight, but the folks at FAMM are all over this issue, as evidenced by this new item on FAMM's homepage:

Today! Historic Sentencing Commission vote on retroactivity

At 1 p.m., the U.S. Sentencing Commission will vote on retroactivity of the crack guidelines.  FAMM's Mary Price told the Associated Press, "there is a tremendous amount of hope out there ... there is a potential that people could see their sentences reduced, some quite dramatically."  Learn more -- read FAMM's latest factsheet, "Myths and Facts on Crack Guideline Retroactivity" and other resources.  FAMM will also report live from the vote on Twitter.

June 30, 2011 in Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies"

Gaming_the_system-cover-full The title of this post is the title of a new report (available here) from the folks at The Justice Policy Institute. This press release provides background on the report:

Over the past 15 years, the number of people held in all prisons in the United States has increased by 49.6 percent, while private prison populations have increased by 353.7 percent, according to recent federal statistics.  Meanwhile, in 2010 alone, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group, the two largest private prison companies, had combined revenues of $2.9 billion.  According to a report released [this week] by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), not only have private prison companies benefitted from this increased incarceration, but they have helped fuel it.

Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies, examines how private prison companies are able to wield influence over legislators and criminal justice policy, ultimately resulting in harsher criminal justice policies and the incarceration of more people.  The report notes a “triangle of influence” built on campaign contributions, lobbying and relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials.  Through this strategy, private prison companies have gained access to local, state, and federal policymakers and have back-channel influence to pass legislation that puts more people behind bars, adds to private prison populations and generates tremendous profits at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

“For-profit companies exercise their political influence to protect their market share, which in the case of corporations like GEO Group and CCA primarily means the number of people locked up behind bars,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of JPI.  “We need to take a hard look at what the cost of this influence is, both to taxpayers and to the community as a whole, in terms of the policies being lobbied for and the outcomes for people put in private prisons.  That their lobbying and political contributions is funded by taxpayers, through their profits on government contracts, makes it all the more important that people understand the role of private prisons in our political system.”

Paul Ashton, principle author of Gaming the System, noted, “This report is built on concrete examples of the political strategies of private prison companies. From noting campaign donations, $835,514 to federal candidates and $6,092,331 to state-level candidates since 2000, to the proposed plan from Ohio Governor John Kasich to privatize five Ohio prisons followed by the appointment of a former CCA employee to run the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, Gaming the System shows that private prison companies’ interests lie in promoting their business through maintaining political relationships rather than saving taxpayer dollars and effectively ensuring public safety.”...

If states and the federal government are interested in providing cost-effective, proven public safety strategies, investments in private prison companies will not help achieve that goal.  Gaming the System includes a number of recommendations for criminal justice policies that are cost-effective and will improve public safety:

  • States and the federal government should look for real solutions to the problem of growing jail and prison populations.  A number of states are already utilizing innovative strategies for reducing the number of people behind bars in their state. Reducing the number of people entering the justice system, and the amount of time that they spend there, can lower prison populations, making private, for-profit prisons unnecessary, and improving public safety and the lives of individuals.
  • Invest in front-end treatment and services in the community, whether private or public.  Research shows that education, employment, drug treatment, health care, and the availability of affordable housing coincide with better outcomes for all people, whether involved in the criminal justice system or not.  Jurisdictions that spend more money on these services are likely to experience lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.  An increase in spending on education, employment and other services not only would improve public safety, but also would enhance and enrich communities and individual life outcomes.
  • Additional research is needed to effectively evaluate the cost and recidivism reduction claims of the private prison industry.  With conflicting research on both the cost savings and recidivism reduction of private prisons, additional research is needed to determine the accuracy of such claims.  Moreover, a clearer dialogue surrounding the difficulties of comparative research between private and public facilities would also be beneficial in providing a better understanding of the implications of prison privatization.

June 24, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Budget realities leading Ohio republicans to embrace progressive prison reforms

As detailed in this Columbus Dispatch piece, headlined "Senate prepares to vote on 'get-out-of-prison-sooner' bill: Measure would shorten inmates' sentences and save Ohio $78 million a year," the republicans in Ohio, who control all the political positions in the state, are on the verge of enacting massive sentencing and prison reforms.  Here are the details:

Ohio's criminal-sentencing overhaul is growing, with provisions added by an Ohio Senate panel yesterday requiring prisons to justify why they are keeping inmates 65 or older, provide certificates to help former inmates get jobs, and create an instant diversion program for shoplifters.

The Senate Judiciary Criminal Justice Committee voted 6-3 late last night to pass a substitute version of House Bill 86 loaded down with new amendments.  The bill will be considered by the full Senate today.

Savings are estimated at $78 million annually on prison costs, by diverting nonviolent offenders to community programs and giving inmates credit that would reduce their sentences for participating in treatment and training.  It would provide the option of treatment instead of prison for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, allow release of inmates who have served at least 80 percent of their sentences, and equalize penalties for crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine possession.

Gov. John Kasich supports the main provisions of the bill, which he called "common-sense improvements that are badly needed."

One change approved last night would require the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to issue a report justifying why prisoners who are 65 should still be kept in prison.  The state now houses 320 prisoners 65 or older and nearly 1,900 inmates 60 or older.

Other changes include a provision that would give inmates who have completed certain programs a "certificate of achievement and employability."  That would shield potential employers from on-the-job liability if they hire ex-offenders.

Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, the committee chairman, said another change would permit a sort of instant diversion program for shoplifters.  They would not be arrested, but could arrange a community program with the store in lieu of jail time.  "This ought to help us some and save money in the process," he said.

June 22, 2011 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Desperate sick man commits $1 bank robbery to get health care in prison

Throughout the modern health care reform debates, I have often joked with students that the United States has long had a single-payer health-care system for all persons in every jurisdiction, but one needs to commit a serious crime in order to get admitted to this (prison-based) single-payer system.  This joke has a serious side through this remarkable local story from North Carolina headlined "Bank robber planned crime and punishment."  Here are the details:

James Richard Verone woke up June 9 with a sense of anticipation. He took a shower. Ironed his shirt. Hailed a cab. Then robbed a bank.

He wasn’t especially nervous. If anything, Verone said he was excited to finally execute his plan to gain access to free medical care. “I prepared myself for this,” Verone said from behind a thick glass window in the Gaston County Jail Thursday morning. Verone spoke calmly about the road that led him to a jail cell he shares with a young man arrested for stealing computers....

Until last week Verone had never been in trouble with the law. Now he hopes to be booked as a felon and held in prison where he can be treated for several physical afflictions.

Verone worked for Coca-Cola for 17 years. He prided himself on keeping his nose to the grindstone. Don’t make enemies. Sell the product. Make your deliveries and stick to your schedule. When his career as a cola delivery man ended some three years ago, Verone was knocked out of his comfort zone.... Not his first choice, Verone became a convenience store clerk. But the bending, standing and lifting were too much for him. The Gastonia man’s back ached; problems with his left foot caused him to limp. His knuckles swelled from arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome made daily tasks difficult. Then he noticed a protrusion on his chest.

Strapped for cash, Verone looked into filing for disability. He applied for early Social Security. The only thing Verone qualified for was food stamps. The extra money helped, but he felt desperate. He needed to get medical attention, and he refused to be a burden on his sister and brothers. “The pain was beyond the tolerance that I could accept,” he said. “I kind of hit a brick wall with everything.”

A couple of months ago Verone started weighing his options. He considered turning to a homeless shelter and seeking medical help through charitable organizations. Then he had another idea: commit a crime and get set up with a place to stay, food and doctors.

He started planning. As his bank account depleted and the day of execution got closer, Verone sold and donated his furniture. He paid his last month’s rent and gave his notice. He moved into the Hampton Inn for the last couple of days. Then on June 9 he followed his typical morning routine of getting ready for the day. He took a cab down New Hope Road and picked a bank at random — RBC Bank.

Verone didn’t want to scare anyone. He executed the robbery the most passive way he knew how. He handed the teller a note demanding one dollar, and medical attention. “I didn’t have any fears,” said Verone. “I told the teller that I would sit over here and wait for police.”

The teller, however, did have some fears even though Verone never showed a weapon. Her blood pressure shot up and once Verone was handcuffed by police, the teller was taken to Gaston Memorial Hospital to be checked out. Verone said he was sorry for causing the woman any pain....

Verone says he’s not a political man. But he has a lot to say on the subject of socialized medical care. He suspects he wouldn’t be talking to a reporter through a metal screen wearing an orange jumpsuit if such an option were available in the U.S....

The man has high hopes with his recent incarceration. He has seen several nurses and has an appointment with a doctor Friday. The ideal scenario would include back and foot surgery and a diagnosis and treatment of the protrusion on his chest, he said. He would serve a few years in prison and get out in time to collect Social Security and move to the beach.

Because he only demanded $1, he was charged with larceny from a person. Still a felony, the count doesn’t carry as much jail time as bank robbery. The bearded, gray-haired man plans to represent himself in court. He’s trying not to get too confident about his knowledge of the legal system. He just wants to prepare a statement for the judge and then take whatever active sentence he is given. Verone is considering an ultimatum if the penalty isn’t great enough, he said. The crime will happen again.

The day Verone set out to commit his first felony, he mailed a letter to The Gazette. He listed the return address as the Gaston County Jail. “When you receive this a bank robbery will have been committed by me. This robbery is being committed by me for one dollar,” he wrote. “I am of sound mind but not so much sound body.”

Verone wanted to talk to a reporter to make sure people knew why he turned to crime. He figured he had nothing to lose. “I knew that a felony would not hurt me. I cannot work anymore,” he said. “That felony is going to hurt my reputation.”

June 21, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Could flogging solve our prison crisis?"

The question in the title of this post come from the headline of this new Salon piece, which includes a Q&A with the author of a new provocative book titled "In Defense of Flogging." Here is how the piece starts:

America's prison system is in a state of crisis. Since the declaration of a war on drugs 40 years ago, our country has amassed the largest prison population the world has ever seen. Overcrowding and unconstitutional conditions have gotten so bad that one of the worst offenders, California, was recently ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to either transfer 33,000 people to other jurisdictions or simply let them go. Now former police officer turned criminal justice professor Peter Moskos has devised a modest proposal that, he argues, could solve the problem of our congested prisons overnight: give prisoners the option of being flogged instead of being imprisoned.

Moskos makes a compelling 154-page argument in flogging’s favor. He points out that since physical brutality is already a part of prison life -- for example, 1 in 20 prisoners report having been sexually assaulted by other inmates or staff in the past year -- and corporal punishment is a much faster and cheaper method of retribution, prison may actually be the more inhumane and less fiscally responsible option. Although his outrageous idea may conjure up unsavory reminders of U.S. slavery, by the end of "In Defense of Flogging," Moskos might just have you convinced.

Salon spoke with Moskos about the feasibility of flogging, the reasons behind our prison population explosion -- and why so many Americans want to see prisoners suffer.

June 20, 2011 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Nebraska yet another state struggling with high prison population and its costs

As detailed in this effective local article, headlined "Prisons losing crowding battle," the Cornhusker State is struggling with prison over-population problems.  Here are some of the particulars from an article that effectively details one state's on-going struggle with crowded and costly prisons:

A deluge of new prison inmates — many convicted of sex crimes — is overwhelming the state's effort to relieve overcrowding in the state corrections facilities. The state has been ramping up a program to accelerate parole for short-term, low-risk inmates and reduce overcrowding, which has hovered around 140 percent of capacity for several months.

But record-high admissions to Nebraska prisons, along with still-transitioning rehabilitative programs, have left those efforts well short of expectations. Instead of populations falling at the nine state correctional facilities, numbers have risen in the past few months, reaching 4,482, or 141.17 percent of capacity, last week. State prison officials spoke last year of paroling more than 260 inmates by July 1, but the number of inmates on parole has risen by only 40 since March 1.

Bob Houston, state corrections director, remains confident his department can reach a goal of reducing the state's prison population by 545 inmates, or about 12 percent, over the next two years....

State officials, needing to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap this spring, were counting on faster progress to parole more short-term inmates, providing significant cost savings. A total of $6.7 million in savings was projected over the next two years by paroling 545 inmates.

It costs about $29,000 a year to house an offender behind bars, compared with $5,000 per year for intense parole supervision. Houston and others say parole, coupled with treatment, is more effective at avoiding repeat crimes. The expected reduction had another anticipated benefit: heading off construction of a $125-million-plus state prison.

When the prison population reaches 140 percent of capacity, it triggers a report to the governor, who can declare an emergency.  The figure also can be a benchmark federal judges use to order construction of new prison cells....

The growth in the number of sex offenders sent to prison appears to be a major culprit in the prison population dilemma.  Such offenders generally serve longer sentences and are paroled at a much lower frequency than other inmates, exacerbating the overcrowding problem.

In the past couple of years, sex offenders have supplanted drug dealers and drug users as the largest group in Nebraska prisons.  A sex offense was the most serious crime committed by nearly 19 percent of all state inmates.  Assault followed at 13 percent, with felony drug crimes third at 12 percent.

Officials said prison alternatives such as drug court and community corrections have reduced the number of inmates sentenced for drug crimes.  But while one in five inmates is in prison for sex crimes, only about one in 30 offenders released on parole last year, or 28 in 797, was a sex offender.

That is despite a low rate of recidivism for sex offenders.  A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 5.3 percent of men who committed rape or sexual assault had reoffended within three years of being released from prison.  Esther Casmer, the state parole board chairwoman, disagreed that the low rate of parole for sex offenders was related to any cultural fear of such criminals.

Casmer said her board is often presented with parole candidates who have either refused treatment for sex offenses or have been unable to get treatment because of waiting lists in the state prison system.  Casmer said she won't parole anyone who hasn't shown through treatment that his risk of reoffending has been reduced.

June 20, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Paroled lifers pose high risk of new crimes: Serious offenders often back in jail in 3 years, review finds"

Criminals__1308480457_3279The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article appearing in today's Boston Globe.  Here are excerpts:

More than a third of the most serious criminal offenders paroled in Massachusetts over the past five years were returned to prison for committing new crimes or violating the conditions of their release, a Globe review has found, raising questions about the public risk posed by granting early release to scores of convicted murderers, as well as the state’s ability to supervise violent criminals on parole.

The Globe analysis, undertaken after last December’s fatal shooting of a Woburn police officer by a career criminal on parole from a life sentence, found that the Parole Board freed 201 prisoners serving 15 years to life from January 2006 through December 2010.

Thirty of the parolees, or 14.9 percent, were returned to prison after being accused of committing new crimes, including murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, as well as less serious offenses such as assault and drunken driving. An additional 39, or 19.4 percent, were sent back because of parole violations such as failing a drug test.

The 34.3 percent reincarceration rate goes directly to the question the Parole Board could not answer after the shooting death of Woburn officer John Maguire last winter: How often do Parole Board decisions to release serious criminals go awry, resulting in new threats to the public? Was paroled lifer Domenic Cinelli’s murderous rampage an anomaly or part of a pattern?

The Globe analysis also appears to contradict a widely held belief in criminal justice circles: that lifers are less likely than other parolees to return to prison because they tend to be older and face the risk of resuming a life sentence if they violate the conditions of their release.

In fact, in 2009, Massachusetts lifers returned to prison more often than parolees convicted of lesser offenses, based on a Parole Board study that found that 22 percent of non-lifers on parole returned to prison.

Josh Wall, the newly installed chairman of the Massachusetts Parole Board, said the Globe’s findings reflect an urgent need for change in the decision-making process used by board members when considering parole applications from violent criminals. He said the board has approved parole for about one-third of the lifers who applied in recent years, but that rate is likely to drop as it adopts newly written guidelines and more rigorous standards. “People who are serving a life sentence who come before the Parole Board assure the Parole Board that they will not commit any new crimes and will obey all the conditions of parole," Wall said. “As we see, 35 percent of those lifers who received parole were unsuccessful in completing those promises. That rate is too high." Wall also said the board will begin tracking the return rate for paroled lifers and improve its collection of information on all parolees — an area in which Massachusetts is severely lacking, especially in comparison with states such as New York.... In the course of its review, the Globe found a number of Parole Board decisions that resulted in the release of repeat, violent criminals who committed serious new crimes once they were paroled....

Other paroled lifers who ended up back in prison appeared to make genuine attempts to forge new lives before they reoffended by committing less serious crimes. Mark Jones, for instance, seemed to make progress after the board paroled him in 2006, nearly 25 years after he was convicted of second-degree murder for his role in a Roxbury shooting when he was a teenager. Jones married and found work at a Home Depot and later as an ambulance driver and a cabbie, and began building a new life, primarily in Lynn. But his marriage foundered as he and his wife fought and finally separated. Jones also failed a urine test that detected marijuana use — an infraction that could have landed him back in prison.

Jones’s parole officer and the officer’s supervisor gave him another chance. But Jones and his estranged wife had another argument, this time over a car she was using, that culminated when Jones punctured the tires of the vehicle. He has been back in prison ever since. Jones, who is now 49, said he did not blame the Parole Board for returning him to prison. But he also said that, if paroled again, he would attempt to begin his freedom under the supervision of a sponsoring organization such as a church that might provide more help than a parole officer is able to give....

Some advocates say that the reincarceration rate for lifers in Massachusetts is not alarming, noting that most went back to jail for violating the terms of their release, while only 15 percent committed new crimes. “The fact that only 30 people were returned for new crimes is a fantastic number and speaks well of parole as a public safety measure," said Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, which provides legal services for inmates.

But Wall, a veteran prosecutor who was Governor Deval Patrick’s pick to revamp the Parole Board in the wake of the Cinelli case, said minor criminal offenses or technical violations of parole, such as failing a drug or alcohol test, can be precursors to more serious, violent crimes. “If you know the initial offense, most likely a murder, was committed while drinking, the failure to pass a urine test is more serious than it might be for a parolee whose initial offense was larceny," he said.

Overall, the rate of reincarceration for Massachusetts lifers appears relatively high, at least when compared with New York State, which has tracked murderers and other offenders on parole for decades. Only 19.1 percent of the 1,480 convicted murderers paroled from 1986 to 2006 in New York were returned to prison. In addition, only 2.6 percent were returned for committing new crimes, while 16.6 percent were sent back to prison for committing technical violations of their parole.

The reason for the difference between the states is hard to discern, complicated by the Massachusetts Parole Board’s failure to keep detailed data on recidivism. Peter Cutler, spokesman for New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, attributed the low return rate in his state to a comprehensive effort to assess every inmate’s shortcomings when they enter prison, along with mandatory treatment and job training designed to prepare them for life outside of prison.

On the other hand, the return rate for Massachusetts lifers is lower than the return rate for all state prison inmates, including those who completed shorter sentences and those released with no post-prison supervision. A recent study by the Pew Center on the States, a nonprofit public policy research organization, found that 43.3 percent of people released from the nation’s prisons in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years.

June 19, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Five myths about incarceration"

Five-myths-145x100 The title of this post is the headline of this new piece in the Washington Postauthored by Marc Mauer and David Cole.  The piece merits a full read, but here I will spotlight the author's set-up and statement of their "five myths."

No country on Earth imprisons more people per capita than the United States.  But for America, mass incarceration has proved a losing proposition.  The Supreme Court recently found California’s overcrowded prisons unconstitutional, and state legislators want to cut the vast amounts of public money spent on prison warehousing.

Why are so many Americans in prison, and which ones can be safely released?  Let’s address some common misunderstandings about our incarceration problem.

1. Crime has fallen because incarceration has risen....

2. The prison population is rising because more people are being sentenced to prison....

3. Helping prisoners rejoin society will substantially reduce the prison population.....

4. There’s a link between race and crime....

5. Racial disparities in incarceration reflect police and judges’ racial prejudice.

I am very interested in any and all reader reactions to these "five myths."  In particular, I would like to hear any comments/arguments contending that one or more of these myths are not really myths, and I would also would like to hear any comments/arguments contending that there are other more important myths about incarceration that did not make Mauer and Cole's list.

June 17, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Can imprisonment rehabilitate?"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific post at Grits for Breakfast asking some of the bigger and broader questions implicated by the narrow ruling by the Supreme Court yesterday in Tapia.  Here are excerpts of this post, which ends with questions on which I would also like to hear reader comments:

Kagan [in here opinion for the Court in Tapia] identified the four stated purposes of criminal sentences — retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation - but explained that federal law does not allow all of them to be considered in crafting different types of sentences.  For example, not only may rehabilitation not be considered when ordering imprisonment, but "retribution" may not be considered when ordering community supervision.  Kagan found especially "illuminating ... a statutory silence — the absence of any provision granting courts the power to ensure that offenders participate in prison rehabilitation programs."

The opinion does not impact state courts, interpreting only a federal criminal statute, but this same issue comes up frequently in the context of drug courts, which in Texas may require longer-than-usual incarceration stints in secure lockups known as "community corrections" facilities as a condition of probation for up to two years to facilitate rehabilitation.  For that matter, the statute authorizing drug courts explicitly allows "a court [to] use other drug awareness or drug and alcohol driving awareness programs to treat persons convicted of drug or alcohol related offenses."

So while the federal statute explicitly excludes rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration on the grounds that locking someone up is "not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation," Texas law specifically contemplates imprisonment in a secure facility in pursuit of rehabilitative goals.

The Catch-22 for Texas' stance comes in cases like Tapia's where a defendant is recommended for a treatment program but there are lengthy delays because of a shortage of treatment capacity  (Tapia, despite the court's recommendation, never actually entered the federal RDAP program).  Another version of that phenomenon: Texas' parole board frequently extends prisoners' time they're incarcerated because they've not completed this or that treatment program, even when the reason they didn't complete it is a lengthy waiting list for services, not anything the prisoner did or didn't do.  That's been an issue most particularly in DWI cases, but at various times that observation would also apply to drug treatment, sex-offender treatment, and other rehabilitative programs.

Should rehabilitation goals be considered in sentencing someone to prison?  While Kagan finds ample backing to say federal law "precludes sentencing courts from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender’s rehabilitation," it's an open question — one on which I'd like to hear Grits readers' opinions — whether that's the right policy.

It's also interesting to me, though understandable, that drug treatment in a secure facility is equated in this opinion with pure "imprisonment" with no rehabilitative goals.  In Texas political debates and even in the statutes, treatment in a secure facility is considered a separate beast from straight up imprisonment — an "alternative to incarceration," in the parlance.  But the offender is still locked up while receiving treatment.  What do you think?  Is this a distinction without a difference?

Recent related posts on the Tapia ruling:

June 17, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Fear-mongering from the Bench: Scalia & Alito Disgrace Themselves in Brown v. Plata"

The title of this post is the headline of this sharp commentary authored by Malcolm C. Young, who is the Soros Senior Justice Fellow and Director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.  Here are excerpts:

The ruling [in Plata] should have been a slam dunk, given the repeated findings of atrocious conditions, the repeated failure of state defendants to provide remedies, and the consensus among national experts that the prison population had to be reduced — and could be reduced safely.  The testifying experts, many previously hired by the state to produce commission reports, included five former or current heads of state departments of corrections.  Of those, four had never before testified for prisoner plaintiffs — but came forward, as one stated, because “the prisons aren’t safe,” and “nobody seems to be willing to step up to the plate and fix the problem.”  This was the record on which Justice Kennedy based the majority opinion.

Yet the narrow, 5–4 ruling was in fact anything but a slam dunk; and while those of us who agree with the majority may have won a battle, the war remains very much in question. Especially when you survey the weapons the other side deployed.  In a troubling display of injudicious rhetoric, dissenting Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito used scare tactics to describe, in frankly demagogic terms, the potential effects of the majority decision in Brown v. Plata.  In separate dissenting opinions, Scalia and Alito took potshots at the lower court’s ruling and at their colleagues’ majority opinion.  Scalia faulted the lower court’s order as too broad a remedy, asserting sarcastically that “the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order ... will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”  Elaborating this theme, he speculated about “the inevitable murders, robberies, and rapes to be committed by the released inmates,” while Alito warned of a future “grim roster of victims.”  Together they repeated nine times that “forty-six thousand convicted criminals” will be released—“the equivalent of three Army divisions,” Alito mused darkly, conjuring up columns of soldiers shouldering rifles and marching out of prison to wreak havoc on the public....

Do the wild alarms of Justices Scalia and Alito reflect willful misunderstanding or merely a runaway sense of the theatrical?  Whatever the case, they ignore some crucial facts: that the recommended releases will result in no more than a manageable 14.5 percent increase in prisoner releases in California; that many California prisoners pose minimal risk to citizens, including over thirty-two thousand convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes and thousands more of drug-related offenses; that seventy thousand former prisoners are returned each year for violating parole, including seventeen thousand whose violations consisted of simply breaking an administrative rule such as not reporting to their parole office; and finally that forty-seven thousand new inmates arrive at the gates each year with less than ninety days to serve in prison — “convicted criminals” who are coming home soon anyway, no matter what the courts rule.  And as for the lurid invocation of iron-pumping cons, such imagery is suggestive but false.  As evidence in the lower court amply showed, California’s prison gyms and day rooms are “crammed” with three-high bunk beds.  No one is “pumping iron” in them....

Citizens eager to alleviate unconscionable prison conditions should celebrate the decision in Brown v. Plata cautiously.  Grounded in evidence and important principles, the majority opinion concludes that “a prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized world.”  And yet I fear that the dissenting opinion may be the one that ultimately prevails. That is because the dissenting justices appealed to the same exaggerated but durable fear of crime — and the same intuitive but inaccurate reliance upon incarceration as a solution—that brought California before the Supreme Court in the first place.  Two starkly divergent opinions mapping starkly divergent courses for our future: it remains to be seen, in a nation beset by unprecedented mass incarceration and all the accompanying human and financial costs, which one will win the day.

Some prior posts on the Plata ruling and responses thereto:

June 17, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Illinois Supreme Court limits state efforts to take monies earned by prisoners

As detailed in this AP article, a state effort to encourage "inmates to get jobs in prison and then taking away the money they make to pay for their incarceration is absurd and unjust, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday." Here is more:

Although the state may take a percentage of prisoners' earnings and "assets" such as Social Security or pension benefits, state law does not allow confiscating all money earned at jobs worked behind bars.

The state Department of Corrections had sued convicted murderer Kensley Hawkins for the estimated $455,000 cost of keeping him locked up in a Joliet prison from 1983 to 2005. Officials sought authority to take a good chunk of the $11,000 he had in a savings account after working as a furniture assembler.

Justice Rita Garman, writing for a unanimous court, decided that two state laws seem to contradict each other allow Corrections to seek reimbursement for the cost of incarceration and may take a portion of prison wages to satisfy that cost -- in Hawkins' case, 3 percent, or $750.

But the law says the rest shall be deposited into inmates' bank accounts. Any other interpretation is "absurd, unjust," and not what lawmakers intended, Garman wrote. A prison system that takes away what inmates earn also takes away incentive to work and learn a marketable skill, Justice Lloyd Karmeier wrote in a special concurring opinion.

"Work may be its own reward for some, but probably not for most inmates in the Department of Corrections," Karmeier wrote. "Once inmates realized that the extra work necessary to generate savings would benefit only the Department of Corrections, not them, they would quickly reevaluate the utility of prison employment."...

Robyn Ziegler, of Attorney General Lisa Madigan's staff, said the opinion "provides some much-needed clarity to the law and recognizes that the state can continue to recoup costs of incarceration under other circumstances." Hawkins' lawyer, David Simonton, said the ruling proves "Illinois is serious in promoting the basic hope of its prison system -- namely, that once inmates are released they will not return to a life of crime."...

Hawkins, convicted of murder, armed robbery and other crimes in Will County in 1982, is not scheduled for release until May 2028.  But studies show inmates who work in vocational programs are 20 percent less likely to re-offend, according to the Institute for People with Criminal Records, a Colorado-based non-profit group, which filed a brief in the case.  It also pointed to a study that found of more than 20,000 inmates released to Chicago communities in 2005, 1,200 of them wound up homeless.

The full Illinois Supreme Court opinion in Hawkins is available at this link.

June 17, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reviewing the "political paralysis" making California sentencing reform distinctly dysfunctional

This front-page article from the San Francisco Chronicle, which is headlined "'Political paralysis' in Calif. over prison reform," highlights effectively the political forces that ultimately culminated in the Supreme Court need to affirm the major prison population reduction order in the Plata case last month. Here is how the piece starts and some notable quotables from the piece:

As California deeply cut spending for public schools, social services and health programs in recent years, state leaders also found themselves grappling with a court order to reduce the prison population by tens of thousands of inmates.

Some civil rights groups and criminal justice experts are now seizing on this perfect storm of chronic deficits and crowded prisons to push for wide-ranging changes to the state's sentencing laws that would transform California's handling of crime and punishment. The California chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups want the state to reduce drug possession and low-level, nonviolent property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and they want more community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Yet even modest changes have trouble getting legislative support from Republicans and Democrats alike in California -- even as bipartisan groups of policymakers in conservative states such as Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky embrace sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration.

"There's a political paralysis here - people are afraid," said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, whose 2007 bill to create an independent sentencing commission passed the Senate but failed in the Democratic-dominated Assembly. "I think it's a false fear, but they are afraid of being labeled soft on crime, so they legislate by sound bite. They don't take up the big issues, so years pass and we are in the same predicament."...

Last month, a bill that would have given district attorneys the power to decide whether to charge marijuana cultivation as either a misdemeanor or felony -- and save taxpayers an estimated $3.5 million a year -- mustered only 24 votes in the Assembly, with much of the opposition coming from Democrats.  And Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to send low-level, nonviolent offenders to local jails instead of state prisons has prompted howls from the right. Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen of Gerber (Tehama County) warned of "blood on the streets," and Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster (Los Angeles County), said Californians need to "get a gun, buy a dog, and put an alarm system in."

"It's the politics of fear," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who has had mixed results in pushing prison reforms through the Legislature.  "In times of fiscal crisis, when we are limited to a few choices, the question is how long can we afford to lock up ever more people for longer periods of time and still have funds for public education and higher education?" Leno said California's corrections budget has more than doubled as a percentage of the state's general fund spending since he entered the Legislature in 2003....

Barry Krisberg, a criminal justice expert at UC Berkeley, said the California District Attorneys Association has enormous sway over lawmakers and opposes most sentencing changes. He noted that the federal government and 23 states have sentencing commissions, which tend to increase penalties for violent crimes and decrease penalties for nonviolent offenses.

"The question is, what's wrong with us? Are we more conservative than Virginia? Are we more irrational than North Carolina?" he said.  "It's the politics, and it's the dilemma of this state. ... Unlike almost all the other states, we have been unable to get the two parties to sit down and cut a deal.  It's not the prison guards -- they are not standing in the way. It's not victims' rights groups.  It's really the District Attorneys Association."...

Politicians also fear the "Willie Horton" syndrome, Krisberg said -- a reference to the Massachusetts felon who did not return from a weekend prison furlough program and brutally raped a woman.  Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' support for the program and response to the incident helped doom his White House bid.  "Democrats are scared of being used in the next campaign," Krisberg said. "The minute we made determinate sentencing (the law) through the Legislature, we made sentencing a political issue. That's been going on for 30 years, and it's hard to turn around after 30 years."

That's not the case everywhere, said Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States.  He said states such as Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky have taken notice of the fact "that states can reduce their incarceration rate and also have less crime."

Prior posts on the Plata ruling and responses thereto:

June 15, 2011 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lots to good reasoning on crime and punishment at Reason

Reason cover A few helpful readers have pointed me to a few different notable new pieces in the July issue of Reason magazine.   That issue is a special one with the over title  "Criminal Injustice: Inside America's National Disgrace."  Reasoneditor-in-chief Matt Welch provides an effective introduction to this issue, titled "The Ends Didn’t Justify the Means: Our complicity in the devastating war on crime," which starts this way:

At the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson implored Republican voters to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” of the criminal justice system.  “Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug related, and to what end?” Johnson asked a South Carolina audience in May.  “We’re arresting 1.8 million a year in this country; we now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country.  We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.  I would ask people to look at this issue; see if they don’t come to the same conclusion that I did, and that is that 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related.”

The ends of justice, Johnson argues, have not justified the means of prosecution.  This issue of reason is a detailed brief in support of that thesis.  A system designed to protect the innocent has instead become a menagerie to imprison them.  A legal code designed to proscribe specific behavior has instead become a vast, vague, and unpredictable invitation to selective enforcement.  Public servants who swear on the Constitution to uphold the highest principles of justice go out of their way to stop prisoners from using DNA evidence to show they were wrongly convicted.  Even before you start debating the means of the four-decade crackdown on crime and drugs, it’s important to acknowledge that the ends are riddled with serious problems.

 And here are the three major article that follow this introduction in the magazine:

The "social costs" article, authored  by Harvard sociology Professor Bruce Western, includes these important insight:

Do prisons make us safer?  By taking would-be offenders off the streets, prisons clearly have reduced crime in the short run.  In the long run, though, imprisonment erodes the bonds of work, family, and community that help preserve public safety.

Three effects are fundamental.  First, former prisoners do worse economically than if they had never been incarcerated.  We can see some evidence in a study I conducted in 2004 with the Princeton sociologist Devah Pager. We ran an audit experiment that sent trained testers to apply for more than 1,000 entry-level jobs throughout New York City.  The fake job applicants were dressed similarly, gave similar answers, and provided résumés with identical education and work experience.  At each job interview, however, one randomly chosen tester would tick the application box indicating a criminal record and submit a résumé that mentioned a prison and provided a parole officer as a reference.

White testers who were assigned a criminal record received call-backs or job offers from employers only half as often as testers with clean records. For African Americans, a criminal record reduced employment opportunities by two-thirds. Labor force data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth paint a similar picture of incarceration’s negative effects: Wages fall by about 15 percent after prison, yearly earnings are reduced by about 40 percent, and the pay of former prisoners (unlike compensation for the rest of the labor force) remains stagnant as they get older.

The second important effect of imprisonment falls not on ex-inmates but on their families.  About half of all prison and jail inmates are parents with children under 18.  By 2008 about 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail.  By age 17, one in four African-American youth has a father who has been sent to prison.

Because of their poor job prospects, formerly incarcerated fathers are less able to contribute financially to their families.  Because incarceration strains marital relations, those fathers are also less involved as parents.  Compared to otherwise similar kids whose parents haven’t been behind bars, the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be depressed, behave aggressively, and drop out of high school.  These problems appear to be more common for boys than girls. Incarceration, it seems, is weakening the bonds between fathers and sons.

The third important effect of incarceration is cultural, shaping how the institutions of law and order are viewed in high-crime/high-incarceration neighborhoods.  The prison population is drawn overwhelmingly from low-income inner-city areas whose residents come to associate police and the courts with the surrounding social problems of violence and poverty.  Police are viewed as unhelpful, and often unaccountable, contributing to what the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson calls “legal cynicism” in troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

June 12, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Medicine and the Epidemic of Incarceration in the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this short "perspective" piece appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine.  Though much of the ground covered by the piece will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, I thought these passages added some new data to the usual discussions of mass incarceration:

The largest facilities housing psychiatric patients in the United States are not hospitals but jails. More than half of inmates have symptoms of a psychiatric disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM­IV), and major depression and psychotic disorders are four to eight times as prevalent among inmates as in the general population — yet only 22% of state prisoners and 7% of jail inmates receive mental health treatment while in­carcerated....

Substance use and dependence are highly prevalent in the incar­cerated population.  More than 50% of inmates meet the DSM­IV criteria for drug dependence or abuse, and 20% of state prisoners have a history of injection­ drug use.  Up to a third of all heroin users — approximately 200,000 — pass through the crim­inal justice system annually.  With growing numbers of drug users in correctional facilities, the prevalence of infectious diseases has increased correspondingly.  As many as a quarter of all Ameri­cans infected with HIV and one in three with hepatitis C pass through a correctional facility each year.  Chronic noninfectious diseases are also disproportionately prevalent in correctional facilities.

June 12, 2011 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack