Tuesday, September 02, 2014
"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"
The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper. Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions. Here are excerpts:
The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom. But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.
For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment. Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe. But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.
Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money. Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.
According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.
Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.
South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday. Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....
The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation. That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains. South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.
The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision. Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....
Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.
September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Shareholders of private prison corporations already profiting from border problems
As this CNN Money article highlights, because of the "crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, ... Wall Street is betting that it will result in a boom for private prisons." Here is more about who can profit from a need for prison beds:
Geo Group (GEO)and Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) are two of America's largest for-profit prison operators. They have thousands of open beds, and they have deep relationships with the federal agencies charged with doling out contracts to house undocumented immigrants, including children.
"It's highly likely that the federal government will have to turn to the private sector for help with this crisis. Both companies are extremely well positioned," said Brian Ruttenbur, an analyst at CRT Capital Group who covers the stocks of Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
Investors are clearly seeing dollar signs. Shares of both CCA and Geo Group have spiked since the border crisis landed on front pages this summer. CCA has climbed 8.5% since July 30, and Geo Group is up over 7%. That's a lot better than the S&P 500's 1.5% advance over that time span.
The Obama administration has already shifted over $405 million in funds to address the crisis and is urging Congress to pass a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental bill. "Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand," said Alex Friedmann, an activist investor who owns shares of both CCA and Geo Group....
Ruttenbur said CCA and Geo Group have both been talking to the federal government about how they can help. "We are always in conversations with our government partners including ICE, but we don't have anything new to report," a CCA spokesman told CNNMoney. Geo Group did not respond to a request for comment.
The best outcome for these companies would be landing a contract with the government to help house some of the undocumented immigrants at existing facilities that are currently idle. That's exactly what happened last month when the U.S. border control inked a contract with Geo Group to give its adult detention center in Karnes County, Texas a makeover. Now the facility is able to house hundreds of immigrant women and children....
Wall Street also applauded when CCA and Geo Group, which went public during the 1980s and 1990s, recently converted to real estate investment trusts, or REITs. That status, which is also used by hospitals and office building operators, gives them enormous tax advantages....
[I]nvestors are attracted to prison stocks because they give generate lots of cash flow, have strong dividend yields and high occupancy rates compared to other real estate options. "The long-term trends are very much in place right now because the federal, state and local governments aren't willing to put up the capital to build new facilities. The only group building new facilities is the private sector," said Ruttenbur.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Drug addiction specialist laments that "our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts"
I just saw this notable recent Washington Post commentary by David Sack, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, headlined "We can’t afford to ignore drug addiction in prison." The piece merits a full read and here are excerpts:
As the addiction epidemic rages and prisons overflow, our nation seems to be backing away at last from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mindset that has characterized the failed war on drugs.... Sure, this is inspired largely by the need to relieve the pressure on our prison system, which is straining to cope with a population that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But it’s also recognition that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of our drug problems.
As someone who helps people with addictions, I consider this good news. But I'd be more encouraged if we also focused on improving conditions in prison. In the long run, this will have more power to reduce our inmate population. As it is, our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.
Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls.... Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction. When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent. In other words, if an inmate is looking for encouragement to “Just say no,” odds are he won't find it from his bunkmates.
But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use disorders received treatment at federal and state prisons or local jails. The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings. No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.
So what is needed? Inmate evaluations to spot addictions and underlying issues that may be fueling them.... Consistent treatment by a trained staff that includes addiction medicine specialists who understand how to use evidence-based treatments, including medication-assisted therapy. Long-term treatment programs that follow the inmate into his community and continue to support him after his release.
It’s a substantial investment, and your first thought may be, “We can't afford to do that.” But the reality is we can’t afford not to do it. As it stands now, only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences. That means we are shelling out billions of dollars to clean up the mess of addiction rather than doing what we know pays off -- helping people overcome it.
A 2010 CASA study, for example, determined that if we gave quality addiction treatment and aftercare to every inmate who needed it, we'd break even on the investment in only a year if just more than 10 percent were successful in staying employed, out of trouble and drug free. In dollar terms, that translates to an economic benefit for the nation of more than $90,000 annually per former inmate. Studies confirm that addicts pressured to undergo treatment by the legal system fare as well or better than those who seek treatment voluntarily....
While it’s tempting to think punishment is the answer [to drug crimes and addiction], prison alone doesn’t teach addicts how to change their thinking and behavior, doesn’t help repair damaged neural pathways and doesn't take away drug cravings or offer strategies to prevent relapse. In most cases, prison just buys a little time before the addict relapses and re-offends, perpetuating the cycle and hurting himself along with the rest of us.
Monday, August 25, 2014
"Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America"
Thanks to this new posting at The Crime Report, I see the exciting news that Jonathan Simon's new book about mass incarceration and California's dysfunctional role therein has been released by The New Press. The book's title makes up the title of this post, and here is how the publisher describes the book on its website:
For nearly forty years, the United States has been gripped by policies that have placed more than 2.5 million Americans in jails and prisons designed to hold a fraction of that number of inmates. Our prisons are not only vast and overcrowded, they are degrading — relying on racist gangs, lockdowns, and Supermax-style segregation units to maintain a tenuous order. In short, mass incarceration has proven to be a fiscal and penological disaster.
A landmark 2011 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, has opened an unexpected escape route from this trap of “tough on crime” politics and points toward values that could restore legitimate order to American prisons and ultimately lead to the dismantling of “mass incarceration.” Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon — an internationally renowned critic of mass incarceration and the war on crime — argues that, much like the epic school segregation cases of the last century, this new case represents a major breakthrough in jurisprudence. Along with twenty years of litigation over medical and mental health care in California prisons, the 2011 Brown decision moves us from a hollowed-out vision of civil rights to the threshold of human rights.
Exposing the priority of politics over rational penal policy — and debunking the premise that these policies are necessary for public safety — this perceptive and groundbreaking book urges us to seize the opportunity to replace mass incarceration with a system anchored in the preservation of human dignity.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State
This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:
An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell. She has a walker, too. The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.
Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates. In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older. The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....
“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford. Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good. It makes a certain segment of society feel good. But it’s a costly proposition.”...
Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years. One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years. But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.
In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed. Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men. Less than 90 were women....
The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years. “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said. As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.
Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services. Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina. Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said. Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board. Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.
Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....
Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons. Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds. A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.
Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....
For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs. The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.
That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison. “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said. “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”
Thursday, August 21, 2014
"Let's reserve costly prison beds for dangerous offenders"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary appearing in Utah's Deseret News and authored by Grover Norquist and Derek Monson. Here are excerpts:
As the economy continues to sputter, Utah should continue to heed the practical wisdom of the frugal family and tighten its belt. There can be no sacred cows in the budget.
One area of spending that has traditionally been “off limits” for cuts — the prison system — can no longer escape examination. Utah’s growing prison population, which currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually, is projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades. If that increase would make us safer, it would be worth it.
But many of these additional beds are not for dangerous and serious offenders. In fact, Utah is sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than it did a decade ago and keeping them behind bars for longer periods of time. This includes a steep increase in female offenders as well as probationers sent to prison for “technical violations” of the terms of their supervision rather than for committing a new crime. In other words, many of those we choose to send to prison (or back to prison) are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.
This is costly and counterproductive. Research shows that low-level offenders often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered. As conservatives, we pride ourselves on being tough on crime, but we also must be tough on criminal justice spending. The question underlying every tax dollar spent on corrections should be: Is this making the public safer?...
Across the nation, other states have faced the same dramatic increases in prison costs, which are now the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets behind only Medicaid. Several of these states have found innovative ways to cut corrections spending while maintaining public safety. Texas, for instance, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment, with impressive results: Crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the falling inmate population enabled Texas to close three prisons, avoiding $3 billion in prison costs.
States like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota have adopted similar reforms that reduce prison populations and corrections costs while improving public safety, allowing them to reinvest some of the savings into programs proven to cut crime and reduce recidivism....
As signatories to the national Right on Crime movement, we are conservative leaders working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. As such, we are pleased that Utah is joining other states in demanding more cost-effective approaches to public safety, and we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Utah’s leadership to create a more effective criminal justice system.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Detailing the significant increase in California lifers getting parole
This local article, headlined "Life with parole no longer means life term: Legal ruling causes steady rise in parole for California's lifers," highlights that parole has recently become a realistic possibility again for lifers in California. Here are the details:
Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in legal circles was that any violent criminal sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in California wasn’t likely to ever walk out of prison. Whether that inmate had served the minimum on a term of 15 years to life or 25 years to life seemed inconsequential for many prisoners in the 1990s and early 2000s. In California, life meant life.
But that’s not the case anymore. In 2009, 221 lifer inmates were released from prison on parole, more than twice the number from the year before, according to the Governor’s Office. The numbers have steadily increased since then, reaching a high of 596 lifer inmates released on parole last year.
More than 2,200 inmates who had been serving life sentences in California have been paroled over the past five years, which is more than three times the number of lifers paroled in each of the previous 19 years combined.
Authorities say the higher numbers are primarily the result of a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 that set a new legal standard for the Board of Parole Hearings and the Governor’s Office to use when determining who is suitable for parole. That standard is focused not just on the circumstances of the inmate’s offense, but whether he or she poses a current threat to public safety. If not, the inmate may be released.
Despite speculation to the contrary, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has stressed that lifer parole grants during his current administration have had nothing to do with a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons. “The prison population has no bearing on the governor’s decision to reverse or not act on a parole grant,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown....
The spike in paroles came during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor, when the state’s high court established the standard by which a prisoner could be determined suitable for parole. Schwarzenegger, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, reversed more than 1,100 lifer parole grants during his time in office. One of them involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who killed her lover’s wife in 1971. Her case went to trial in 1983. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The Board of Parole Hearings determined in 2005 that Lawrence was suitable for parole based on several factors, including her efforts to rehabilitate herself in prison, her acceptance of responsibility for her crime and her close ties to her family. But Schwarzenegger found that Lawrence was not a good candidate for release based on “the gravity of the commitment offense,” according to court documents.
A three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court said that’s not good enough, explaining that parole could not be denied simply because the inmate’s offense was “heinous” or “cruel.” The key factor is whether that person remains a danger at the time parole is considered. “There has to be something more than just your crime was particularly atrocious,” said Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings. Denial can’t be based on “something you can’t change,” she said.
When the board denies parole for an inmate, that decision can be appealed, which results in a court-ordered hearing. In 2009, the first full year after the ruling, there were 263 court-ordered hearings spurred by appeals. “That is basically the court saying, ‘You got it wrong,’” she said. Last year, there were only 13 court-ordered hearings, which Shaffer said indicated the board had learned over time how to do a better job of applying the new standard. “The board, as a whole, learned with a lot of guidance from the court,” she said.
The Board of Parole Hearings issued 670 parole grants in 2012, and 590 in 2013, but some of those offenders may still be behind bars. Depending on factors specific to each case, it could take five months to several years for each prisoner to actually be released. State law bars the board from taking prison overcrowding into account when making its decisions. However, Shaffer said, there may be a perception that the issues are related because of the state’s efforts to comply with the federal court order.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Senator Whitehouse defends risk-assessment tools for some sentencing determinations
The New York Times today published this letter-response by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse to this recent NYT commentary expressing concern about the use of risj-assessment tools in sentencing decision making. Here is the full text of the published letter:
In “Sentencing, by the Numbers” (Op-Ed, Aug. 11), Sonja B. Starr highlights concern over judges’ use in sentencing of predictive tools to gauge an offender’s risk of recidivism. But let’s not overlook the important role that risk-assessment tools can play in helping identify the factors that make sentenced inmates more likely to commit crimes after they are released.
The most useful tools emphasize dynamic factors — those the inmate has the ability to change — including things like substance abuse, lack of education or antisocial attitudes.
States as different as Rhode Island and Kentucky have found that risk-assessment tools, when coupled with appropriate in-prison programs, can help inmates prepare to re-enter society with less likelihood that they’ll reoffend. That reduces spending on prisons, keeps us safer and also benefits the prisoners themselves.
Recent related posts:
- "Attorney General Eric Holder to Oppose Data-Driven Sentencing"
- Three distinct takes on AG Eric Holder's recent reservations about risk-based sentencing
Monday, August 18, 2014
More evidence of the poor funtioning of California's crime-and-punishment policies and practices
Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times published this lengthy and disconcerting article spotlighting yet another aspect of the mess that is California's current sentencing and corrections system. The piece is headlined "Early jail releases have surged since California's prison realignment," and here are some extended excerpts:
Jesus Ysasaga had been arrested multiple times and ordered by the court to keep away from his ex-girlfriend. Two parole boards sentenced him to nearly a year in jail for stalking, drunkenness and battery.
But the Fresno County jail would not keep him. Four times in the summer of 2012, authorities let Ysasaga go, refusing two times to even book him. The jail had no room. Ysasaga's attorney, Jerry Lowe, said the parade of convicted offenders being turned away from the jail was common. "It became quite a joke," he said.
Across California, more than 13,500 inmates are being released early each month to relieve crowding in local jails — a 34% increase over the last three years. A Times investigation shows a significant shift in who is being let out of jail, how early and where.
The releases spring from an effort begun in 2011 to divert low-level offenders from crowded state prisons to local jails. The move had a cascade effect, forcing local authorities to release their least dangerous inmates to make room for more serious offenders. "It changes criminal justice in California," said Monterey County Chief Deputy Edward Laverone, who oversees the jail. "The 'lock them up and throw away the key' is gone."
State and local officials say that they are making every effort to ensure the releases pose little danger to the public, freeing those believed to be the least risky convicts, usually parole violators and those convicted of misdemeanors. But an analysis of jail data has found that incarceration in some counties has been curtailed or virtually eliminated for a variety of misdemeanors, including parole violations, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and driving under the influence.
In Los Angeles County, with a quarter of California's jail population, male inmates often are released after serving as little as 10% of their sentences and female prisoners after 5%. Fresno County logs show the jail is releasing criminals convicted of crimes that used to rate prison time: fraud, forgery and trafficking in stolen goods.
Law enforcement officials say that criminals have been emboldened by the erratic punishment. "Every day we get guys who show up in the lobby, stoned out of their minds," said one parole agent who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the issue. "I'll have 15 arrested, and 12 to 14 will be released immediately."...
For law enforcement agents, the jailhouse revolving door is frustrating.
Leopoldo Arellano, 39, was in and out of custody at least 18 times from 2012 to 2014 for violating parole, criminal threats and at least four incidents of domestic battery, according to Los Angeles County jail logs. San Diego County let parolee Demetrius Roberts go early 12 times; mostly for removing or tampering with his GPS tracker, which he was required to wear as a convicted sex offender.
In Stockton last year, a furor erupted over the repeated releases of Sidney DeAvila, another convicted sex offender. He had been brought to the San Joaquin County jail 11 times in 2012 and 2013 for disarming his GPS tracker, drug use and other parole violations.
He was freed nearly every time within 24 hours, even when he was brought to the jail by the state's Fugitive Apprehension Team. Days after being let out early in February 2013, DeAvila went to his grandmother's house, raped and killed the 76-year-old woman, then chopped her body into pieces. He was found later that day with the woman's jewelry around his neck....
The problem stems from the huge increase in the number of state prisoners over the last four decades, spurred by increasingly harsh sentencing laws passed during the war on drugs. Felons could serve decades behind bars for repeat convictions of drug use and other nonviolent crimes. From a relatively stable population of less than 25,000 in the 1970s, the number of state prisoners rose to a high of 174,000 in 2007.
Crowding reached dangerous levels, leading federal judges to rule in 2009 that the conditions were unconstitutional. When Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011, the state was under orders to cap prison counts at 110,000.
Brown's solution, called "realignment," shifted the responsibility for parole violators and lower-level felons to the counties, putting inmates closer to home and potentially improving their prospects for rehabilitation. Lawmakers tried to ease the load on counties by expanding credits for good behavior and jailhouse work, cutting most sentences in half. Even with that, state officials concede, they knew jails did not have enough room.
The shift flooded county jails, many of which already were freeing convicted offenders under a melange of local court rulings, federal orders and self-imposed caps. "If you've got a prison population and a jail population, if you're going to release anywhere, you might better release at the lower level," said Diane Cummins, Brown's special advisor on realignment and criminal justice policy.
The number of prisoners released from county jail because of crowding has grown from an average of 9,700 a month in 2011 to over 13,500 a month today, according to state jail commission figures. In October, those records show releases surged to over 17,400.
Jailers are struggling to decide whom to let go.... Kern County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Gonzales said the jail he manages hits its maximum capacity two or three times a week. When that happens, inmates must go, 20 to 30 at a time. Parolees and those who have served the most time on their sentences leave first. Those who have committed violent crimes or molested a child stay the full term. The county is experimenting with a risk-assessment system that tries to gauge the likelihood an offender will commit future crimes. Gonzales does not pretend the decisions are foolproof. "Every release is a bad release," he said. What happens after "is a crap shoot."...
Law enforcement authorities and other officials say that releasing prisoners has raised safety issues, although there have been no studies on the effect. At a shelter for battered women in Stanislaus County, where the jail releases more than 500 inmates early each month, caseworkers are convinced that decreasing sentences has emboldened abusers....
Time served varies considerably around the state — a situation that UC Berkeley law professor Barry Krisberg called "justice by geography." That is especially true for parole violators, who used to serve their time in state prison. Now they are locked up in jails and are frequently the first to be released, or not booked at all....
Krisberg said stopping the early releases would require a fundamental change in California's criminal justice system. Just "shifting the location of incarceration" from prisons to jails doesn't change much, he said.
The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state policy agency that released a report last year that was critical of early releases, has recommended that California reform its complex sentencing laws, which have overwhelmed prisons with long-term inmates.
The commission has also recommended reducing bail so more inmates can afford to leave. State records show nearly two-thirds of the space in county jails is occupied by suspects awaiting trial. But even political supporters of such reforms say the issue is an electoral land mine likely to stir campaign accusations of being soft on crime.
Sheriffs have launched their own silent reform by letting out prisoners when there is no room. "We actually have a de facto sentencing commission in our sheriffs," said Carole D'Elia, acting executive director of the Little Hoover Commission. "You have a crazy system of 'Is the jail full today?' "
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Vlavianos said that allowing jailers to override judges "does nothing but undercut integrity.… It loses public confidence. You lose integrity with the defendants. All the way around, it is a bad thing," he said.
As I have commented before and will say here again, this mess is the obvious by-product of California policy-makers failing to deal proactive with sentencing and corrections problems for decades. Nearly a decade ago, as noted in this long-ago post, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency because extreme prison overcrowding "created a health risk and 'extreme peril' for officers and inmates." He also called the the California legislature into special session in Summer 2006 to address critical prison crowding and recidivism issues. But, thanks to California's dysfunctional politics, nothing much got done. Similarly, smart folks have been urging California to create a sentencing commission to help deal with these issues, but California's dysfunctional politics again brought down a number of potentially sensible proactive reforms.
Now the price of all the avoidance is finally coming due, and the result seems pretty ugly on all fronts. But, sadly, I fear that precious few of the folks who should pay a political price for all this political dysfunction will in the end pay any real political price. Sigh.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
"Adverse childhood events: Incarceration of household members and health-related quality of life in adulthood"
Via The Crime Report, I came across this new report in the August 2014 issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved. The piece has the title that is the title of this post, and here is the abstract:
Background. Incarceration of a household member has been associated with adverse outcomes for child well-being.
Methods. We assessed the association between childhood exposure to the incarceration of a household member and adult health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in the 2009/2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, and additional adverse childhood experiences.
Results. Adults who lived in childhood with an incarcerated household member had higher risk of poor HRQOL compared with adults who had not (adjusted relative risk [ARR] 1.18; 95% CI 1.07, 1.31). Among Black adults the association was strongest with the physical health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.58 [95% CI 1.18, 2.12]); among White adults, the association was strongest with the mental health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.29, [95% CI 1.07–1.54]).
Conclusions. Living with an incarcerated household member during childhood is associated with higher risk of poor HRQOL during adulthood, suggesting that the collateral damages of incarceration for children are long-term.
Also appearing in the same journal issue are these two additional studies exploring the impact of prisoner release and health-care:
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
"How Prisoners’ Rights Lawyers are Preserving the Role of the Courts"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Margo Schlanger. Here is the abstract:
This article is part of the University of Miami “Leading from Below” Symposium. It canvasses prisoners’ lawyers strategies prompted by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. The strategies not only comply with the statute’s limits but also allow U.S. district courts to remain a forum for the vindication of the constitutional rights of at least some of the nation’s millions of prisoners.
Part I summarizes in several charts the PLRA’s sharp impact on the prevalence and outcomes in prison litigation, but demonstrates there are still many cases and situations in which courts continue to play a role. Part II looks at three methods by which plaintiffs and defendants can jointly obtain injunctive-type relief in prison cases — by crafting stipulations that comply with the PLRA’s constraints, by structuring the relief as a conditional dismissal, or by setting up the possibility of state-court enforcement. Part III examines plaintiffs’ coping methods for the PLRA’s provisions easing the path to termination of decrees, whether litigated or consent. Two types of preparation for a termination motion have emerged. First, the parties sometimes agree to stretch out the remediation period more than the PLRA’s default two years. Second, plaintiffs have worked to ensure that they are collecting sufficient information to inform their potentially hurried response to a termination motion.
It is my hope that the examples presented can help counsel and judges in prisoners’ rights cases thread the needle that the PLRA presents
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Is preventing ex-prisoners from being homeless the key to preventing recidivism?
The question in the title of this post comes from my take-away from this notable article discussing a recent reentry initiative in Washington state. The article is headlined "Housing First” Helps Keep Ex-Inmates Off the Streets (and Out of Prison)," and here are excerpts:
Many of the roughly 10,000 inmates who exit U.S. prisons each week following incarceration face an immediate critical question: Where will I live? While precise numbers are hard to come by, research suggests that, on average, about 10 percent of parolees are homeless immediately following their release. In large urban areas, and among those addicted to drugs, the number is even higher — exceeding 30 percent.
“Without a safe and stable place to live where they can focus on improving themselves and securing their future, all of their energy is focused on the immediate need to survive the streets,” says Faith Lutze, criminal justice professor at Washington State University. “Being homeless makes it hard to move forward or to find the social support from others necessary to be successful.”
Although education, employment, and treatment for drug and mental health issues all play a role in successful reintegration, these factors have little hope in the absence of stable housing. Yet, few leaving prison have the three months’ rent typically required to get an apartment. Even if they did, landlords are given wide latitude in denying leases to people with a criminal record in many states. Further, policies enacted under the Clinton administration continue to deny public housing benefits to thousands of convicted felons — the majority of whom were rounded up for non-violent offenses during the decades-long War on Drugs. Some are barred for life from ever receiving federal housing support.
As a result, tens of thousands of inmates a year trade life in a cell for life on the street. According to Lutze, with each passing day, the likelihood that these people will reoffend or abscond on their parole increases considerably.
Lutze and a team of researchers recently completed a comprehensive assessment of a Washington State program that aims to reduce recidivism by providing high-risk offenders with 12 months of housing support when they are released from prison. The study tracked 208 participants in three counties and found statistically significant reductions in new offenses and readmission to prison. It also found lower levels of parole revocations among participants....
Lutze says stable housing not only reduces violations of public order laws related to living and working on the street, but it increases exposure to pro-social networks and provides a sense of safety and well-being conducive to participating in treatment and other services.
That not only improves community safety, she says, but it “reduces the economic and human costs of ex-offenders cycling through our jails and prisons just because they do not have a safe place to live.”
While this seems like a common sense strategy, programs that place housing at the forefront of prisoner reentry are actually relatively scarce in the U.S., and have historically been driven by a handful of pioneering non-profits.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Ninth Circuit panel splits over prisoner Sixth Amendment suit about officials reading legal mail
A Ninth Circuit panel handed down a notable new split opinion concerning an Arizona prisoner's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of how prison officials were treating his legal mail. Here is how the majority opinion in Nordstron v. Ryan, No. 12-15738 (9th Cir. Aug. 11, 2014) (available here) gets started:
Plaintiff-Appellant Scott Nordstrom is on death row in the Arizona State Prison. He alleges that when he sought to send a confidential letter — “legal mail” — to his lawyer, a prison guard actually read the letter, instead of merely scanning and inspecting the letter for contraband. He claims that when he protested to the guard that the letter was a confidential attorney-client communication and should not be read, the guard told him to go pound sand. Nordstrom’s formal grievances were denied on the stated ground that Department of Corrections staff “is not prohibited from reading the [legal] mail to establish the absence of contraband and ensure the content of the mail is of legal subject matter.”
Nordstrom then brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit against Department of Corrections officials, as well as the officer who allegedly read his legal mail, seeking to enjoin them from reading his letters to his lawyer. He alleges that the defendants’ conduct violates various constitutional rights, including his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The district court dismissed the complaint at the pre-answer screening stage for failure to state a claim under any constitutional theory. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
A prison is no ordinary gated community. It’s a tough place. Corrections officials obviously have good reason to be on the lookout for contraband, escape plans, and other mischief that could jeopardize institutional security. Officials likewise have every right to inspect an inmate’s outgoing legal mail for such suspicious features as maps of the prison yard, the times of guards’ shift changes, and the like. Prison officials know what to look for. But inspecting letters and reading them are two different things, as the Supreme Court recognized in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 576–77 (1974). What prison officials don’t have the right to do is read a confidential letter from an inmate to his lawyer. This is because it is highly likely that a prisoner would not feel free to confide in his lawyer such things as incriminating or intimate personal information — as is his Sixth Amendment right to do — if he knows that the guards are reading his mail.
Reading legal mail — not merely inspecting or scanning it — is what Nordstrom alleges the Department of Corrections is doing, and it is what he seeks to enjoin. We hold today that his allegations, if true, state a Sixth Amendment violation. We reverse the dismissal of his complaint.
Here is how the dissent by Judge Bybee in Nordstrom gets started:
Scott D. Nordstrom alleges that, on one occasion during his seventeen-year incarceration, an Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) officer read a single letter he had written to his attorney. Nordstrom claims that this one event prejudiced his direct appeal, although he cannot explain how.
Based on these allegations, the majority concludes that Nordstrom has adequately pleaded a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. I believe the majority is twice wrong. First, the majority has misread Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974), to hold that prison officials may not read legal letters, even to the limited extent necessary to detect illegal conduct. See Maj. Op. at 14. Second, the majority disregards Williams v. Woodford, 384 F.3d 567 (9th Cir. 2004), by holding that an inmate need not show substantial prejudice to state a right-to-counsel claim, as long as this court thinks that such prejudice is likely. See Maj. Op. at 14.
In my view, the Sixth Amendment does not prevent prison officials from reading legal letters with an eye toward discovering illegal conduct. Furthermore, claims under the Sixth Amendment require proof of actual injury, and Nordstrom does not allege any. I respectfully dissent.
Friday, August 08, 2014
"The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population"
For the past four decades, we have witnessed the most sustained and widespread imprisonment binge known throughout recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar: the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. With an estimated 2.3 million adults in jail or prison and 1 out of every 32 adults under correctional or community supervision, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in sheer numbers and per capita incarceration rates.
The immense costs of incarceration have increasingly framed the conversation around reducing the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. This discussion is often centered around reducing the arrest and prosecution of so-called “non-violent drug offenders.” But these issues belie a much more pressing human and economic concern: the aging prison population, whose costs for incarceration and care will soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken. And though prison is expensive, cost is far from the only justification to move away from our reliance on incarceration, as the continued long-term incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety implications.
This paper aims to provide a brief contextual framework of the issues affecting elders in prison; to illuminate the ongoing efforts being undertaken to improve conditions within correctional facilities, increase mechanisms for release, and develop robust post-release services specifically targeting the unique needs of the aging population in reentry; and to sketch out preliminary recommendations to serve as a basis for further work to be done throughout several key sectors.
Despite their apparent interrelated interests in the aging prison population, the fields of gerontology, medical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have only sporadically interacted around this issue, and never as a unified voice. Thus, a primary objective of this work is to encourage multi-sector dialogue, cross-pollination of ideas, and a shared foundational knowledge that will strengthen the connections among these fields and form a basis for unifying action.
We believe such a partnership will be well equipped to identify and engage in appropriate measures that will immediately impact the aging prison population, while also developing and implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry.
Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets and increasing public discomfort with mass incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison population and to imbue our criminal justice system with values and policies that are humane, cost-effective, and socially responsible.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
Greek priest helps poor inmates buy their way out of Greek prisons
This new AP article, headlined "In Greek crisis, priest roams prisons to buy inmates their freedom," reports on what might be viewed as a remarkable "alternative sentencing" program in Greece and the noble role played by a clergy to make the system a bit less economically unfair. Here are the details:
In Greek justice, money talks ...: Some inmates jailed for minor offences are allowed to buy their freedom — at an average rate of five euros per day.
With the rich at a clear advantage, Greek Orthodox priest Gervasios Raptopoulos has devoted his life to paying off the prison terms of penniless inmates.
The soft-spoken 83-year-old with a long white beard and black robes has helped more than 15,000 convicts secure their freedom over nearly four decades, according to records kept by his charity. The Greek rules apply only to people convicted of offences that carry a maximum five-year sentence, such as petty fraud, bodily harm, weapons possession, illegal logging, resisting arrest and minor drugs offences.
His work, however, is getting harder. Gervasios, 83, has seen his charity's funds, which all come from private donations, plummet in Greece's financial crisis. And there has been a sharp rise in inmates who can't afford to pay their way out of prison. "Where people would offer 100 euros ($135), they now give 50 ($67). But that doesn't stop us," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
The crisis, which has worsened already hellish prison conditions, makes his efforts even more pressing. "Our society rejects inmates and pushes them into the margins," he said. "People often say: 'It serves them right.'"
While behind bars, inmates also need money to buy necessities such as toilet paper and soap when the often meagre supplies provided by prison run out. Gervasios helps them, too, either with cash or handouts.
Greece has a prison population of about 13,000 — far above capacity — forcing authorities to cram inmates into police holding cells as they wait for a place in jail. Gervasios' charity allocates up to 500 euros ($675) for each prisoner they help, but the amount needed varies. Sometimes a small sum goes a long way. "Once, we gave a man 8.5 euros, which was what he lacked to gain his freedom," he said....
Many prisoners released by his efforts in Greece are foreigners. If they die in prison, the charity pays for their bodies to be taken home. Since launching the charity in 1978, Father Gervasios has received several state awards, including one of the highest civilian honors granted by the government. The Justice Ministry, responsible for Greece's prisons, is unstinting in its praise.
"For decades now, Father Gervasios Raptopoulos has carried out exceptional work, offering human warmth and solidarity to prisoners," said Marinos Skandamis, the ministry's secretary-general. It is inmates and prison staff who are the most grateful. "We would send him papers concerning prisoners who could be freed with a cash payment, and details on what they were in prison for," said Costas Kapandais, a former governor at Greece's Komotini and Diavata prisons. "He didn't turn down a single request."
"Sociology of Prison Life"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new little paper from across the pond authored by Deborah Drake, Sacha Darke and Rod Earle available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Prison life both fascinates and repels. As with many aspects of punishment it attracts the interest of both academics and the general public. In this short and accessible account the principal issues of prison life are presented in a historical context that traces the emergence of focussed academic study of the way people live, and die, in prison.
The most influential theoretical perspectives are clearly set out alongside a discussion of their influence on research and analysis in the UK and beyond. Questions of women’s experience and that of black and minority ethnic prisoners are explored before a consideration of post-colonial prison studies is introduced. These studies of prison life beyond the axis of Europe and north America challenge some of the accumulated academic wisdom of Anglo-phone and European studies of prison life, indicating the potential of novel developments to come in an era which, unfortunately, shows no signs of declining to produce more and more prisons.
Monday, August 04, 2014
"Women in the Federal Offender Population"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new document from the US Sentencing Commission as part of its documents as part of its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.") Here are some of the data highlights from this new publication that I found especially interesting:
While women continue to make up a small percentage of federal offenders, the proportion of federal offenders who were women rose slightly from 12.1% in fiscal year 2009 to 13.3% in fiscal year 2013....
In fiscal year 2013, more than two-thirds of female offenders were sentenced for drug trafficking (33.7%), fraud (23.9%), or immigration (14.3%) offenses....
The largest racial group of female drug trafficking offenders was Hispanic (43.6%) followed by White (35.6%), Black (16.3%), and Other Races (4.5%).
The largest racial group of female fraud offenders was White (42.5%) followed by Black (35.8%), Hispanic (15.5%), and Other Races (6.2%).
Most female immigration offenders were Hispanic (86.4%), followed by White (5.4%), Other Races (4.9%), and Black (3.3%).
The average age of these offenders at sentencing was 38 years.
Most female offenders (70.8%) had little or no prior criminal history (i.e., assigned to Criminal History Category I).
Weapons were involved less frequently (4.1%) in cases involving females than in cases involving males (8.6%).
Three-quarters (75.6%) of female offenders were sentenced to imprisonment, which is less than the rate for male offenders in fiscal year 2013 (93.5%).
Female drug trafficking offenders were often sentenced to imprisonment (90.3%), although at a lower rate than male drug trafficking offenders in fiscal year 2013 (97.3%).
Female fraud offenders were sentenced to imprisonment at a lower rate (61.1%) than were male fraud offenders (74.1%).
Female offenders were convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty at a lower rate (24.0%) than were male offenders (26.9%).
The average sentence length for females convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 60 months.
The average sentence length for females not convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 17 months.
For each of the past five years, female offenders were sentenced within the guideline range in less than half of all cases (49.7% in fiscal year 2009 and 40.2% in fiscal year 2013), compared to 55.3% and 49.8% for male offenders.
The rate of government sponsored below range sentences increased from 28.0% in fiscal year 2009 to 32.9% in fiscal year 2013, compared to 26.3% and 28.7% for male offenders.
The percentage of female offenders that received a non-government sponsored below range sentence increased over the last five years (from 21.1% of cases in fiscal year 2009 to 25.8% in fiscal year 2013), compared to 16.3% and 19.2% for male offender
The average guideline minimum for female offenders has increased over the last five years from 36 months in fiscal year 2009 to 41 months in fiscal year 2013.
The average sentence imposed slightly increased over the last five years, from 25 months in fiscal year 2009 to 27 months in fiscal year 2013.
Like all good and detailed and sophisticated sentencing data, there are many ways to "spin" all these numbers. But midst all the numbers, the most glaring of the data points seem to be a not-insignificant increase over the last five year of the average guideline minimum and the average imposed sentence for female offenders in the federal system even despite a significant reduction in crack sentences during that period.
Saturday, August 02, 2014
Documenting the high health-care costs of an aging prison population in Oklahoma
This notable article from Oklahoma, headlined "Inmate health costs rise, prisons scramble for solutions," highlights a modern corrections reality facing more and more jurisdictions as the economic costs of tough-on-crime policies come into focus. Here are excerpts:
Taxpayers forked over nearly $1 million last year to buy inhalers to treat asthma and emphysema among inmates in state prisons. The state also paid for 530,647 inmate prescriptions.
Those represent just a fraction of the health expenses for the state’s approximately 25,000 inmates, which cost $36.6 million last year, according to a review by the State Auditor and Inspector’s office.
That total amounts to an 11 percent increase from 2010 to 2013, and experts say the number likely is to keep swelling, especially as the inmate population ages. “That is something Oklahoma has in its future, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on,” said Maria Schiff, director of Pew Charitable Trust’s State Healthcare Project, which recently researched prison health care costs.
According to the Pew report, Oklahomans paid the least in the nation in prisoner medical expenses, at $2,558 per inmate, while Californians spend the most at $14,495. That was based on expenses in fiscal year 2011. But that number is growing. By fiscal 2013 — the most recent year for which data is available — Oklahomans spent an average of $7.58 per inmate per day in medical expenses, said Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie.
A prison’s health care spending usually depends on the size of its prisoner population and its age, Schiff said. Oklahoma’s percentage of inmates 55 and older was near the top in the nation, the Pew researchers found. That trend also was detected by the state’s audit, which found that nearly 43 percent of the state’s inmates are older than 40. That percentage has been steadily growing.
That’s a key finding, the audit noted, because older inmates typically have more illnesses and infirmities, and they cost taxpayers at least double what’s spent on their younger counterparts. The number of older inmates sentenced for the first time has grown nationally, Schiff said. They join inmates sentenced in the 1980s who simply are aging in prison....
Finding a balance in funding can be complex, Gary Jones, state auditor and inspector, noted in the report. That’s because the Corrections Department has no control over criminal laws, who gets prosecuted, the length of sentences imposed or the number of people entering its system. “Proponents of ‘tough-on-crime’ and policymakers advocating rigorous sentencing laws must act responsibly and commit sufficient financial resources to fund the infrastructure, operations and specialized programs needed to accommodate the resultant expansion of a demographically demanding inmate population, or find ways in which to be smart on crime, keeping in mind the ever-increasing cost to Oklahoma taxpayers,” Jones wrote in his report.
There may be no easy solution, but Jones’ staff proposed one alternative in the audit — releasing older and terminally ill inmates. That’s not a popular choice, as legislator Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, discovered. She proposed a bill that could have led to the release about 600 or 700 inmates age 65 or older if they met certain conditions, including conviction for a non-violent crime. The Parole Board ultimately would have made the decision, she said.
McDaniel said she got the idea from Louisiana’s early release for an aging population at its Angola prison. “Their success was great, and they saved the money,” she said. “These were people that were not threats to society. Their costs were eating up the prison budget.”
But McDaniel said she met resistance from prosecutors who felt the Parole Board shouldn’t be able to overturn sentences handed down by a judge or jury. She hopes to introduce a similar bill during this coming session, she said.
Schiff said a number of states have passed guidelines for geriatric release. Among the advantages of those programs is expense: While freed inmates likely end up on Medicaid, the state shares those costs with the federal government. Also, the state doesn’t need to pay to drive freed inmates to appointments. But early release is controversial in many places where lawmakers struggle to decide which prisoners should qualify and under what circumstances, Schiff said.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Alabama struggling (and facing lawsuits) as sentencing toughness produces overcrowded prisons
As reported in this new local article, headlined "Governor Bentley to feds, prison reform advocates: 'You all are crazy to sue us'," elected officials in Alabama are struggling to figure out how best to deal with too many prisoners and prison problems. Here are the details:
Gov. Robert Bentley acknowledged the immense problems facing the state's prison system but said Monday that his administration needs time to address them, not lawsuits. Speaking at the annual convention at the Alabama Sheriffs' Association, Bentley said his message is the same whether his audience is the U.S. Justice Department or advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"You all are crazy to sue us," he said. "What good does it do to sue us?"
Bentley said he is as interested as anyone in solving problems that include overcrowding and allegations of mistreatment of inmates. He said he wants to work with anyone who has ideas about how to improve the system but added that lawsuits only divert time and money away from those solutions.
The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has, in fact, sued the state over its prisons. The organization alleged last month that the state has failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate health care to prisoners. Maria Morris, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization had no choice but to sue to force improvement to years-old problems.
The Justice Department so far has not sued. But a scathing report in January detailing alleged abuses at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka has raised fears among the state's elected leaders that federal authorities are preparing to do so.
Bentley said the state cannot solve its prison problem without taking further steps to reduce long sentences, although he offered no specific proposals. "It is a real problem in this state. Not only is it a problem, but our sentencing of our prisoners is a real problem," he said.
The Legislature already has taken action in recent years on that front. Sentencing guidelines designed to reduce penalties for certain nonviolent and drug crimes have been "presumptive" since October, meaning that judges must cite specific reasons if they depart from the recommendations.
As far as addition action, Bentley said the state is waiting recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program coordinated by the National Council of State Governments Justice Center. He acknowledged the political difficulty of taking on the prison issue.
"I can't run for governor talking about prison reform. People say, 'I don't care about that,'" he said. "But they do care if you have to raise taxes to build more prisons. They do care if you let violent prisoners out."
Bentley suggested changes in the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which was designed to crack down on repeat criminals but has helped spark a massive increase in the state's prison population since its passage in 1977. "The habitual offender act probably has increased our prison population more than anything else," he said.
Bentley said he opposes leniency for violent criminals and sex offenders – "I don't think we ought to let them out" – but said some nonviolent offenders serving longer prison terms because of the law probably can be rehabilitated faster. "If we don't do that, we're going to have to find money to build more prisons," he said.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Another effective review of how Obamacare could be "an antidote to crime"
Regular readers likely recall a number of posts in which I highlighted ways in which the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) could have a significant impact on a number of criminal justice realities in the years to come. A helpful readers alerted me to this notable new Christian Science Monitor article on this topic headlined "Obamacare for ex-inmates: Is health insurance an antidote to crime?". Here are excerpts:
In the enduring quest to discover what can prevent criminals from reoffending, a new holy grail is emerging: health-care services.
Excitement is stirring inside the justice system, as corrections officials work to link inmates who are leaving custody with health services in their communities, courtesy of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). The idea is to enroll thousands of ex-offenders in Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, thus making them eligible for treatment for mental health issues, substance abuse, and chronic medical problems that most have never before consistently received on the outside.
The hoped-for result: a reduction in the share of those who reoffend, and a drop in incarceration costs related to securing public safety. “This is a huge opportunity,” says Kamala Mallik-Kane, who studies correctional systems, inmates, and health policy at the nonprofit Urban Institute. “The unprecedented step of connecting these newly eligible people to health insurance has incredible potential to change the trajectory of inmates to reintegrate back into society and not back into the justice system.”...
[But] it is much too soon to know if the excitement among justice experts is justified. No state or county expects to see, this early, a sea change in its correctional systems, recidivism rates, or health-care costs. And it’s not known, for instance, at what rate ex-offenders who enroll in Medicaid actually use health services in their communities.
Many experts, moreover, are wary of the notion that health reform and access to Medicaid for formerly imprisoned men can truly transform America’s criminal-justice system. “Medicaid enrollment for inmates is not the silver bullet,” says Paul Howard, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank and director of its Center for Medical Progress.
He suggests that Medicaid, a $265 billion federal expenditure in 2013, is not yielding adequate results for the cost – and that it’s time to take “a long and hard look” before expanding it to serve even more people. “Extending those benefits to a historically transient and difficult population with a whole host of social-issues challenges will not change their approach to health care or [their] behaviors,” warns Mr. Howard.
Enthusiasts for Medicaid sign-ups for ex-inmates build their hopes on research indicating that recidivism rates fall when prisoners and ex-prisoners receive mental health treatment. A 2010 study by David Mancuso of the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, a state-based policy think tank, found that for state residents enrolled in Medicaid and receiving substance abuse treatment, arrest rates dropped by as much as 33 percent compared with rates for those who didn’t receive treatment, leading to lower correctional costs and better public safety.
In any case, about 8 million prisoners leave America’s prisons and jails every year. Since the rollout of Obamacare last October, ex-offenders account for about 1 million of the 6 million new Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled in expansion states.
While incarcerated, prisoners have a constitutionally protected right to health care, with costs usually covered by the state (even if they have their own health insurance). Typically, privately contracted health companies or public hospital systems provide such care. Most jails and prisons have on-site clinics – in some cases, even full-service hospitals.
While some say the quality of prisoner care could be better, it’s more robust than what usually greets indigent ex-inmates on the outside. In many states, inmates who’ve been diagnosed with chronic conditions receive a small supply of medication upon release, but often no medical provider or insurance for refills – creating a gap in their health care. Correctional health professionals across the United States share stories of inmates who get rearrested so they can get medication....
Substance abuse or mental health issues afflict the vast majority of prison inmates in the US. More than 1 million incarcerated people suffer from mental illness, the Department of Justice estimated in 2006 – almost half the total in custody. As for substance abuse, the picture is even bleaker, affecting between 60 and 80 percent of all inmates, found a 2013 report of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The strongest case study might be Connecticut, which has one of the most comprehensive approaches to Medicaid enrollment in the nation. The state runs all its jails and prisons, making change easier to administer uniformly. It has four jails and 11 prisons, holding almost 17,000 inmates. Here, a person making less than about $15,800 a year qualifies for Medicaid.
The link is obvious between greater access to health care and lower recidivism rates, say state officials. “If you don’t feel well, you don’t act well,” says James Dzurenda, state correction commissioner. “The Affordable Care Act gives our released offenders access to health care, which is critical to release offenders back into the community safely, increase public safety, and ultimately reduce victimization.”...
Last year, Connecticut processed 7,794 Medicaid applications from state criminal-justice agencies. In the same period, state prison population and arrest rates dropped by about 3.4 percent, according to reports from the state Office of Policy and Management....
Enrolling in Medicaid does not guarantee an ex-inmate will instantly turn over a new leaf, of course. Moreover, the cumulative effect promises to be difficult to tease out: None of the programs now in place track inmates after they reenter the community, so there is no way to tell if ex-offenders are actually using the health insurance. Often, ex-inmates stick with their former habits of heading directly to emergency rooms for care, driving up public health costs, according to a recent study of former prisoners in Rhode Island.
Some related prior posts:
- "Can Obamacare Reduce the Cost of Corrections?"
- "Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"
- Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?