Friday, July 26, 2013
If you have any concerns about female federal prisoners...
then you should be especially troubled by this new blog post by Todd Bussert titled "New Hardships For Female Prisoners." That post spotlights this new Slate piece by LawProf Judith Resnik, which highlights the main concern via its headline and subheading: "Harder Time: Why are the federal prison beds for women in the Northeast going to men — while the women get shipped to Alabama?". Here is an excerpt from the Slate piece:
This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn. — 70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.
Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp). The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men. Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala. — 1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.
Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500. As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area. It cost the federal government $250 million. But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby. Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders, or other service providers.
The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people. Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven — counting Danbury — have been exclusively for women. Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women. The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees. Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida, and Minnesota....
Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out. Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.
The Bureau of Prisons knows this, as it recognizes the importance of “family and community ties” in its classification system. The bureau gives inmates points for family ties when assessing the degree of security in which to place individuals. Getting visits also counts toward qualifying for a transfer to a less secure facility.
Most women come to prison from households with children. According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-half of female federal prisoners have a child under the age of 18. Last month, the director of the federal prison system sent a memo to all inmates to announce that his staff was “committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as a parent.” In addition to letters and calls, he hoped that inmates’ families would bring their children to visit. “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them,” he wrote.
But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities. Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.
What’s the justification for moving Danbury’s women to Aliceville? To make the argument for the large new complex, the Bureau of Prison claimed that Aliceville would benefit women, because the existing facilities for them were about 55 percent over capacity. What the BOP did not mention was that it planned to turn over women’s beds in Danbury to make room for lower security male inmates, also housed in overcrowded facilities.
The skyrocketing numbers of people in prison is a well-known tragedy. Adding to it is the isolation to which women at Aliceville are being condemned. The Bureau of Prisons itself describes women as mostly nonviolent and lower escape risks than men. Why not, therefore, keep Danbury open, as well as send women to community-based facilities near their families, and provide educational options, job training, and treatment programs? Instead of taking a route consistent with its own policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of women on a long hard trip to Aliceville.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Two notable new ACLU reports on solitary confinement in US prisonsI am pleased to see that lots of criminal justice public policy groups are starting to spend considerable more time and energy raising concerns about the use and misuse of solitary confinement in US prisons. Of particular recent note are these two new ACLU reports on the topic just this week:
From the national ACLU chapter, "A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row"
From the ACLU of Colorado, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado’s continued warehousing of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement"
Monday, July 22, 2013
"Mass Incarceration and the Making of Citizens"The title of this post is the title of this intriguing essay by Benjamin Justice now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu famously observed that the legal system of a given state ought to exist in harmony with its overall organization of power. In a republic, he argued, the people are sovereign. Thus there must be laws regulating mass education to enhance civic virtue, teaching the people to love the laws of their country above their individual self interest. The laws of crime and punishment, too, must comport with the spirit of the government they support. In a healthy republic, wrote Montesquieu, a virtuous people require little punishment.
If Montesquieu is correct, the rise of the American carceral state signals a profound challenge to the democratic nature of our government. This essay reviews three recent books on the rise of the carceral state as part of a broader discussion of the role of criminal justice in making citizens.
Notable new commentaries about realignment in California
Via two notable sources are these two notable new discussions about sentencing and corrections in California:
From The Crime Report here, "Realignment in California: The Story So Far"
From the Vera Institute of Justice here, "The unfulfilled promise of Realignment in California"
Friday, July 19, 2013
ECHR on LWOP: thoughts on Vinter and possible US impact
As noted in this recent blog posting, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights earlier this month involving UK nationals declared that LWOP sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. As I mentioned in that post, I know very little about how ECHR rulings can impact domestic laws even in countries that have adopted the applicable convention.
But as my title for this post hints, I am especially intrigued by what the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (available via this link) could mean for sentencing law and practices in the US. I suspect the simple answer is just "not much," but I am eager to cover any potential domestic post-Vinter storylines and will be posting soon some thoughts from my of my OSU colleagues on this front.
Before getting into implications, though, I thought it worthwhile to reprint this effective summary of the Vinter ruling from the heart of a brief concurring opinion by Judge Power-Forde:
[W]hat tipped the balance for me in voting with the majority was the Court’s confirmation, in this judgment, that Article 3 encompasses what might be described as “the right to hope”. It goes no further than that. The judgment recognises, implicitly, that hope is an important and constitutive aspect of the human person. Those who commit the most abhorrent and egregious of acts and who inflict untold suffering upon others, nevertheless retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change. Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that, someday, they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed. They ought not to be deprived entirely of such hope. To deny them the experience of hope would be to deny a fundamental aspect of their humanity and, to do that, would be degrading.
In addition to capturing what seems to me to be the essence of the lengthy opinions in Vinter, I think this sentiment indirectly reflects what has been moving the US Supreme Court in its recent Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment rulings. Do other agree? And do others expect, as I do, that Vinter is very likely to be cited a fair amount in the briefing (and perhaps even in some opinions) the next time SCOTUS takes up some follow-up issues raised in Graham and Miller?
Recent related post:
July 19, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Sunday, July 14, 2013
European Court of Human Rights finds UK use of LWOP sentences violated human rights conventionAs reported in this piece from The Guardian, last week brought a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. The article's headlined provide the basics: "Whole-life jail terms without review breach human rights — European court; Three murderers, including Jeremy Bamber, have right to review of sentence, but ECHR judgment doesn't make release imminent." Here is more about the ruling and early reaction thereto:
Whole-life jail sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners, the European court of human rights has ruled. The landmark judgment will set the ECHR on a fresh collision course with the UK government but does not mean that any of the applicants — the convicted murderers Jeremy Bamber, Peter Moore and Douglas Vinter — are likely to be released soon.
In its decision, the Strasbourg court said there had been a violation of article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment. The judgment said: "For a life sentence to remain compatible with article 3 there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review."
The court emphasised, however, that "the finding of a violation in the applicants' cases should not be understood as giving them any prospect of imminent release. Whether or not they should be released would depend, for example, on whether there were still legitimate penological grounds for their continued detention and whether they should continue to be detained on grounds of dangerousness. These questions were not in issue."
The appeal was brought by Vinter, who murdered a colleague in 1996 and after being released stabbed his wife in 2008; Bamber, now 51, who killed his parents, his sister Sheila Cafell and her two young children in 1985; and Moore, who killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in 1995.
The judges in the grand chamber at Strasbourg, the appeal court above the ECHR, found by a majority of 16 to one that there had been a violation of human rights....
Their decision means that the government will now be under pressure to introduce a formal review of whole-life sentences after 25 years. The current law governing release of life prisoners in England and Wales was unclear, the judges said. Those on a whole-life term can be freed only by the justice secretary, who can give discretion on compassionate grounds when the prisoner is terminally ill or seriously incapacitated....
In its judgment, the grand chamber said: "The need for independent judges to determine whether a whole-life order may be imposed is quite separate from the need for such whole-life orders to be reviewed at a later stage so as to ensure that they remain justified on legitimate penological grounds."...
The new British judge on the court, Paul Mahoney, pointed out in his comments that the UK government was "of course free to choose the means whereby they will fulfil their international treaty obligation" to abide by the judgment....
During the original hearing in Strasbourg, Pete Weatherby QC, who represented the three claimants, told the court: "The imposition of a whole-life sentence crushes human dignity from the outset, as it removes any chance and therefore any hope of release in the future. The individual is left in a position of hopelessness whereby he cannot progress whatever occurs."
Commenting on the decision, Rebecca Niblock, a criminal law solicitor at Kingsley Napley LLP, said: "No doubt there will be renewed calls to pull out of the European convention on human rights and repeal the Human Rights Act. Yet Theresa May would do well to keep a sense of proportion: a right to have the sentence reviewed is quite different from a right to be released, and the number of prisoners affected is tiny — 49."
"England and Wales lag behind other European countries in the use of the whole-life sentence — the only other EU country which uses it is Holland. The repeated calls to withdraw from the European convention carry a huge risk of undermining the UK's reputation abroad. There is only so much the UK can say to other countries about their human rights records when they show disdain for judgments which go against them at Strasbourg."
I am unsure about how ECHR rulings impact domestic laws and procedures either in the nation brought before the ECHR or other nations who have adopted the applicable convention. But I am sure, as evidenced by local press stories and commentaries here and here and elsewhere, that this ruling is not being celebrated within the UK. Further, because the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (available via this link) is long and full of nuance, its actual impact may end up somewhat more muted than might be predicted or feared.
That all said, this ruling to me serves as another important reminder that lots of judges when given an opportunity to consider human rights rather than just politics ultimately conclude that a true LWOP sentence is a horrific punishment even for the most horrific of crimes. The US Supreme Court rulings in Graham and Miller, though far more limited and far more divided that this ECHR ruling in Vinter, are in the same vein. And I suspect over time other courts in various other settings will come to similar rulings about true LWOP sentences.
July 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack
Friday, July 12, 2013
DOJ delivers important messages in annual letter to US Sentencing CommissionFulfilling its statutory obligation to deliver comments to the US Sentencing Commission, the US Department of Justice yesterday sent this very interesting 18-page letter to the USSC. The letter cover a lot of important ground in important ways, and here are a few paragraphs that struck me as especially noteworthy (with key emphasis added by me):
From page 3: "At the state level, leaders in and out of government have recognized both the costs and benefits of the sentencing reforms of the late 20th Century. From that recognition - derived from a variety of studies of these 20th Century reforms - a new transformation in sentencing and corrections policy is taking place in much of the country. The dichotomy of determinate and indeterminate sentencing is breaking down and is being replaced by a pragmatism that recognizes that (1) budgets are finite; (2) imprisonment is a power that should be exercised sparingly and only as necessary; and (3) while determinate sentencing elements do indeed promote some of the core purposes of sentencing, reducing reoffending and promoting effective reentry are also core goals that can be successfully achieved and must be included in any effective sentencing and corrections framework."
From page 7: "The Budget Control Act of 2011 sent a clear signal that the steady growth in the budgets of the Department of Justice, other federal enforcement agencies, and the federal courts experienced over the past 15 years has come to an end. Before sequestration, overall budgets had mostly been flat over the past four years. However, even then, as prison and detention spending had increased, other criminal justice spending, including aid to state and local enforcement and prevention and intervention programs, had decreased. In fact, the trend of greater prison spending crowding out other crucial justice investments goes back at least a decade and has caused a significant change in the distribution of discretionary funding among the Department's various activities.
"Now with the sequester, the challenges for federal criminal justice have increased dramatically and the choices we all face - Congress, the Judiciary, the Executive Branch - are that much clearer and more stark: control federal prison spending or see significant reductions in the resources available for all non-prison criminal justice areas. If the current spending trajectory continues and we do not reduce the prison population and prison spending, there will continue to be fewer and fewer prosecutors to bring charges, fewer agents to investigate federal crimes, less support to state and local criminal justice partners, less support to treatment, prevention and intervention programs, and cuts along a range of other criminal justice priorities."
From page 9: "The reforms we are focused on - and that we think the Commission can help bring about - are changes to statutory and guideline drug penalties; improving reentry programming and providing greater incentives to offenders to participate in these programs; and simplifying and reforming the guidelines to better meet all the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act, including controlling the prison population. We believe drug penalties can be reformed, like many states have done, to focus severe penalties on serious and repeat drug traffickers, while providing alternatives or reduced sentences for non-violent, less serious offenders. We believe that both changes to the statutory minimum penalties in title 21 and changes to the so-called 'safety valve' exception to mandatory minimum penalties are needed.
"We are already working towards reforming some mandatory minimum laws along these lines - and along the lines suggested by the Commission in its report on the subject. Similarly, prison credits or other incentives can be reformed to promote more effective and efficient use of prison resources while simultaneously reducing reoffending. The President's last two budgets have included proposals in this area, and we think now is the time to enact them. In addition, we believe the guidelines can be reformed - by making them simpler - to reduce litigation and prison costs, reduce manipulation of sentences by litigants, and improve sentencing consistency."
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Huge hunger strike now on-going in CaliforniaAs reported in this New York Times article, headlined "Hunger Strike by California Inmates, Already Large, Is Expected to Be Long," prisoners are expressing their displeasure with California prison conditions in a dramatic way. Here is how the article begins:
Nearly 29,000 inmates in California state prisons refused meals for the third day Wednesday during a protest of prison conditions and rules. The protest extended to two-thirds of the 33 prisons across the state and all 4 private out-of-state facilities where California sends inmates, corrections officials said. Thousands of prisoners also refused to attend their work assignments for a third day, and state officials were bracing for a long-term strike.
Once the state tallies the official number of participants, the hunger strike could become the largest in state history. A similar hunger strike over several weeks in 2011 had about 6,000 participants at its official peak, corrections officials said, and a strike that fall had about 4,200.
The protest is centered on the state’s aggressive solitary confinement practices, but it appeared to have attracted support from many prisoners with their own demands for changes in prison conditions.
Jules Lobel, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead lawyer in a federal lawsuit over solitary confinement, said he expected the strike to go on for much longer than previous ones because inmates would refuse to accept anything less than a legally binding agreement for immediate changes.
“Last time, they took promises of reforms, but they are not going to do that again, because two years later the reforms have not materialized in any real way,” Mr. Lobel said. “This could become a very serious situation over time, because it seems we have a substantial group of people who are prepared to see it to the end if they don’t get real change,” he said.
UPDATE: This Wired story provides a timely account of why everyone should be deeply concerned about the overuse of solitary confinement. The piece is fittingly headlined "The Horrible Psychology of Solitary Confinement."
Friday, July 05, 2013
A year later, Texas still working through its response to MillerThis New York Times article, headlined "Young Killers in Texas Await Change in Mandatory Life Sentences," reports on the struggles that the Lone Star State has had in fuguring out just how to respond to the Supreme Court's ruling last year in Miller v. Alabama. Here are excerpts:
[Scottie] Forcey was convicted in 2009 of fatally shooting Karen Burke, a 52-year-old Alvarado convenience store clerk. He is the youngest of 23 Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates who received mandatory sentences of life without parole for committing capital murder when they were younger than 18.
Now, as legislators work to comply with a United States Supreme Court ruling, those inmates could become eligible for parole after serving 40 years.
The justices ruled last year that sentences of life without parole for 17-year-old murderers violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Either the courts or Gov. Rick Perry could change such sentences in Texas. But both are waiting for legislators to decide what punishment juveniles like Mr. Forcey should face. Lawmakers, who failed to pass legislation in two sessions this year, are trying now for a third time.
In Texas, 17-year-olds have faced the same sentencing options as adults convicted of capital murder: the death penalty or life without parole. In 2005, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty for anyone under 18, deciding that the less-developed brains of juveniles rendered them less culpable. That left only life without parole as the punishment for 17-year-olds.
After the court’s decision last year, in Miller v. Alabama, prosecutors said they had no sentencing options for 17-year-old killers. They asked lawmakers to make them subject to the same punishment Texas law requires for 14- to 16-year-old capital murderers: life with parole eligibility after 40 years.
Lance Long, a Harris County assistant district attorney, recently told lawmakers that until they decided on a sentencing option, such murder trials were being delayed across Texas. “None of these cases are anything but very, very, very serious,” Mr. Long said.
The Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee has approved a bill that would require a sentence of life with parole eligibility after 40 years. The House, however, has indicated it wants to give juries the option to sentence 17-year-olds to life without parole if other factors — like evidence of abuse or mental illness — are considered. In previous sessions this year, both chambers approved bills addressing the sentencing question, but time ran out before they could get final approval.
Mr. Perry has told prosecutors that when lawmakers decided on a new sentencing bill, he would consider recommending commutation for inmates like Mr. Forcey who were sentenced under the old law. “It really only seems fair and just,” said Justin Wood, the legislative liaison for the Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston.
July 5, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 04, 2013
"Judges refuse to delay order to release 9,600 California inmates"The title of this post is the headline of this latest report from California concerning the on-going (and seemingly never-ending) prison litigation. Here are the highlights:
The federal judges who last month ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to release 9,600 state inmates or find another cure to overcrowding refused Wednesday to delay their edict while the governor appeals their cap on the prison population to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judges' June 20 order, still in effect, requires the Brown administration to begin preparations for freeing inmates immediately unless it has another way to comply with the population limit.
Brown and his lawyers had asked the jurists — U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson and 9th Circuit Appeals Justice Stephen Reinhardt — to delay the order to give the state time to take its appeal to the high court. They vowed Wednesday to persist in that effort.
"We will seek a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court," said state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman. She said the state would begin complying with the existing order, but "we look forward to making our case to the Supreme Court justices that no further reduction in the prison population is needed."
In the interim, California authorities must provide a system to identify inmates eligible for early release. State officials told federal judges in a filing late Wednesday that they were doing so but also were "assessing alternatives" to early releases for good behavior and had asked the court's medical overseer for a list of "low-risk elderly" inmates who might be paroled early.
Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said the state also is prepared to continue to send inmates out of state, though the Legislature has not acted on a request for $300 million to fund those transfers. Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has said he does not intend to take up that proposal.
In its request for a stay, the state contended that enacting the judges' requirement that inmates receive increased good-behavior credits to shorten their prison terms would result in changes that "cannot be stopped or undone," at a risk to public safety.
Lawyers representing inmates in the two class-action lawsuits underlying the release order countered that to do nothing would "prolong ongoing irreparable harm — including illness and death" among the 132,000 prisoners they represent. The lawsuits assert that overcrowding results in constitutionally inadequate care for inmates.
In rejecting Brown's request for more time Wednesday, the judges noted that California has been under the population reduction order for four years and said the state had a "long history of ... noncompliance."...
Inmates' lawyers said they doubted the Supreme Court would grant Brown a stay. "The Court has laid to rest every argument that Governor Brown has for not promptly reducing the prison population to constitutionally acceptable levels so that prisoners can get adequate healthcare," said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, representing inmates in the core medical care lawsuit.
Although California is weeks away from opening its 34th prison, a medical facility near Stockton, officials have not taken other steps to reduce crowding beyond Brown's "realignment" program. That policy took effect in late 2011, requiring counties to house low-level felons and parole violators who otherwise would have been sent to state prisons.
A few recent related posts:
- Federal judges issue new prisoner release order to force California to comply with prior orders
- "Looking Past the Hype: 10 Questions Everyone Should Ask About California's Prison Realignment"
- Talk of reforming prison realignment in California
- Do recent California prison reforms demonstrate Plata ruling was a success or a failure?
- Gov Brown bringing California prison fight back to SCOTUS
Wednesday, July 03, 2013
"Administrative Segregation, Degrees of Isolation, and Incarceration: A National Overview of State and Federal Correctional Policies"The title of this post is the title of this important new report emerging from a group of researchers working at Yale Law School. The report provides a soberly fitting and depressing way to launching into a holiday weekend celebration American freedoms. Here is the abstract:
This report provides an overview of state and federal policies related to long-term isolation of inmates, a practice common in the United States and one that has drawn attention in recent years from many sectors. All jurisdictions in the United States provide for some form of separation of inmates from the general population. Prison administrators see the ability to separate inmates as central to protecting the safety of both inmates and staff. Yet many correctional systems are reviewing their use of segregated confinement; as controversy surrounds this form of control, its duration, and its effects.
The debates about these practices are reflected in the terms used, with different audiences taking exceptions to each. Much of the recent public discussion calls the practice “solitary confinement” or “isolation.” In contrast, correctional facility policies use terms such as “segregation,” “restricted housing,” or “special management,” and some corrections leaders prefer the term “separation.”
All agree that the practice entails separating inmates from the general population and restricting their participation in everyday activities; such as recreation, shared meals, and religious, educational, and other programs. The degree of contact permitted — with staff, other inmates, or volunteers — varies. Some jurisdictions provide single cells and others double; in some settings, inmates find ways to communicate with each other. The length of time spent in isolation can vary from a few days to many years.
This report provides a window into these practices. This overview describes rules promulgated by prison officials to structure decisions on the placement of persons in “administrative segregation,” which is one form of separation of inmates from the general population. Working with the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), the Arthur Liman Program at Yale Law School launched an effort to review the written policies related to administrative segregation promulgated by correctional systems in the United States. With ASCA’s assistance, we obtained policies from 47 jurisdictions, including 46 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
This overview provides a national portrait of policies governing administrative segregation for individuals in prisons, outlines the commonalities and variations among jurisdictions, facilitates comparisons across jurisdictions, and enables consideration of how and when administrative segregation is and should be used. Because this review is of written policies, it raises many questions for research – about whether the policies are implemented as written, achieve the goals for which they are crafted, and at what costs. Information is needed on the demographic data on the populations held in various forms of segregated custody, the reasons for placement of individuals in and the duration of such confinement, the views of inmates, of staff on site, and of central office personnel; and the long-term effects of administrative segregation on prison management and on individuals. Without such insights, one cannot assess the experiences of segregation from the perspectives of those who run, those who work in, and those who live in these institutions.
Monday, July 01, 2013
A year after Miller confirmed kids are different, how may kids have different sentences?The question in the title of this post is inspired in part by this public letter posted last week from the director of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Here are excerpts from the letter (with one key link preserved):
The item linked in the above-quoted discussion is this fascinating three-page document headlined "State Legislative Roundup One Year after Miller v. Alabama." That document notes, inter alia, that since "the Miller decision last June, three states passed legislation that removed JLWOP as a sentencing option for youth."
[The last week of June 2013] marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. Since then, strides have been made to move our justice system toward one that recognizes the fundamental differences between children and adults, and that provides all youth with a chance to demonstrate their unique capacity for growth and change. Advocates across the country have ushered in better outcomes for youth convicted of serious crimes, and have successfully laid the groundwork for future legislative reforms. But much work remains. Today we want to share with you some of the highlights and challenges faced by our movement in the year since the Court handed down its decision in Miller.
The Miller decision advanced the fundamental notion that "kids are different" in youth justice reform across the country. We saw an advocacy community leverage Miller to spark meaningful debate in state legislatures across the country, furthering the education of policymakers about why children should not receive adult sentences. Bills were introduced in more than 15 states, which we describe in more detail in our Miller legislative roundup. We saw a growing and engaged coalition of local and national organizations — including the Boy Scouts of America, the American Correctional Association, the National PTA, and the American Psychological Association — come together to voice their support for fair, age-appropriate alternatives to death-in-prison sentences for children. And due to the tireless work of legal advocates, people declared irredeemable as youth in Illinois, Delaware, and Indiana were given second chances.
We are also mindful of the immense challenges that lie ahead. In the coming year, we expect to confront legislative proposals in a handful of states that undermine the letter and spirit of the Miller decision. We expect courts-which to this point have handed down varied interpretations on the reach and scope of the decision-to weigh in on whether Miller applies to the more than 2,000 individuals currently serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences. And we anticipate difficulties in advancing our reform message in a legislative and criminal justice climate that for years has been dominated by racially-charged rhetoric and shortsighted "tough-on-crime" policies.
As the question in the title of this post suggests, unmentioned in all the terrific materials assembled by The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (from which I got the inforgraphic posted here) is any accounting one-year after Miller of what is happening specifically to the "more than 2,000 individuals currently serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences" for crimes committed while juveniles. I hope this public policy group and/or others are working toward a full (or even partial) accounting of just how many of these juvenile criminals serving LWOP are succeeding in now securing different sentences as a result of Miller and its aftermath.
I know it is likely very challenging (and very costly) to review and monitor all those defendants whose sentences were called in to question by the Miller ruling. But a number of organizations, government agencies, and even public websites and have shown an affinity for, and an ability to, keep a close watch on many thousands of death sentences and all the murder defendants who go on and off state death rows. If even a small portion of the attention now given to capital cases could be redirected to track juve LWOP cases, we could and would over time all be able to garner a much keener sense of the real impact and import of the Miller ruling.
July 1, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Saturday, June 29, 2013
"Exploding number of elderly prisoners strains system, taxpayers"The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new NBC News piece. Here are excerpts:
Prisoners older than 55 make up the single fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison community – a largely invisible shadow population. The number of elderly Americans doing hard time is swelling at a staggering rate and will only continue to balloon, researchers say.
An estimated 246,000 convicts above age 50 were in jail cells across the country last year, according to a June 2012 American Civil Liberties report.
By the year 2030, there will be upward of 400,000 elderly prisoners — nearly a third of the projected total penal population, said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the co-author of the ACLU report. “The number of elderly prisoners has absolutely exploded,” Chettiar said, adding that stringent sentencing policies and “overcriminalization” of historically low-priority offenses are to blame....
The expenditures associated with keeping elderly prisoners behind bars puts a significant strain on state and federal resources, with taxpayers bearing most of the burden, said David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “Incarceration is expensive,” Fathi said. “And incarcerating the elderly is extraordinarily expensive.”
State and federal prisons spend an estimated $16 billion taxpayer dollars a year keeping elderly convicts in the clink, Fathi said. Nearly a quarter of that price tag – roughly $3 billion taxpayer dollars annually – is devoted to providing health care to sick or drying prisoners....
Although most elderly individuals are struck by poor health in their final years, prisoners are generally more predisposed to chronic medical conditions than the average person, which accounts for the great disparity in expenditures, said Tina Maschi, a Fordham University professor who has studied New Jersey’s aging prison population....
Chettiar said that certain conditions common to the elderly – from hearing loss and vision impairment to cardiac issues and dementia – are particularly common in U.S. prisons, slightly exceeding the national diagnostic average. "Prisons exacerbate the health problems that come with age," Chettiar said....
Although the ACLU's Fathi recognized that many older prisoners should not be eligible for an early reprieve, he said that a "cost-benefit analysis" of the exploding elderly prison population demands action. "We can't keep everyone locked up forever," he said.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Two notable prison opinion pieces via the Washington Post
The Washington Post today has two notable opinion pieces concerning prison policies and practices. Here are their headlines and first sentences:
Mass incarceration’s tragic success: "At a time of earnest debate on the size and role of government, relatively little attention has been paid to the Hoover Dam of American social engineering: mass incarceration."
Life without parole? No child deserves that.: "A year ago this week, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose on a child a mandatory sentence of life without parole."
Effective discussion of "Responsible Prison Reform" at National AffairsEli Lehrer has this lengthy new piece in the latest issue of National Affairs, which is headlined "Responsible Prison Reform." As these excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy essay suggest, the piece merits reading in full:
The evidence shows that this mass incarceration has performed more or less as advertised. By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city, and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades. Crime rates in many categories are at less than half of their all-time highs. But the costs of incarceration — both financial and societal — are also becoming increasingly clear. The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest.
Just as conservatives once led the way toward the tougher sentencing rules and other policies that increased imprisonment rates, they should lead the way in sensibly shrinking the prison population. Reform of America's correctional system does not require abandoning a single conservative principle or returning to disproven and, frankly, disastrous policies that blamed society as a whole for crime and resulted in too few people held accountable for their misdeeds. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, an increased emphasis on individual responsibility — which earlier prompted the move toward mass incarceration — also holds promise for a new conservative agenda for prison reform. Combined with a renewed emphasis on effective punishment, increased attention to circumstances within jailhouse walls, and a different social attitude toward ex-offenders, these sound, time-tested principles can shape the new vision for prison reform that America urgently needs....
Effective though mass incarceration is, however, the strategy is not without its costs. These costs can be measured in fiscal terms, in the failure of imprisonment to prevent certain repeat behavior, in the impact of incarceration on certain communities, and in the tension between high incarceration rates and democratic values.
The financial costs of large-scale incarceration are immense. Housing an inmate for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 for a low-security inmate in a state where corrections officers are paid modestly to more than $100,000 for maximum-security inmates in states with high prison-guard salaries. Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails in 2010 to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.
But these costs represent only the tip of the iceberg. Removing 2 million people from the labor force causes dislocations of all sorts. People in prison and jail have a difficult time maintaining personal relationships. This contributes to large numbers of children growing up in single-parent homes, or without any parents at all — which, in turn, correlates strongly with more of those children turning to crime.
The policy of large-scale incarceration has also failed to demonstrate lasting success in the area of rehabilitation. Although recidivism has declined slightly in recent years, thanks in part to new re-entry programs, most studies show that about 40% of people who are released from prison will be re-arrested within three years. Despite concerted efforts and millions of dollars in public spending, recidivism rates barely declined during the 2000s. Since vastly more people are serving time behind bars, this pattern of high recidivism suggests that prisons are fostering even more criminality....
Without casting aside the ethos of individual responsibility that has led to so many Americans being locked up — and without undertaking a wholesale revision of the nation's laws — the United States can and should reduce its prison population and make conditions more humane for those who serve time behind bars. Such reforms, implemented wisely and cautiously, can mitigate the tremendous negative consequences of the explosion in the number of Americans in prison. The United States can remain safe and, simultaneously, undo much of the social damage that results from large-scale incarceration.
Some recent and older related posts:
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- "As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"
June 28, 2013 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
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
"Medicaid for prisoners: States missing out on millions"The title of this post is the headline of this notable and lengthy USA Today article, which gets started this way:
Only a dozen states have taken advantage of a long-standing option to stick the federal government with at least half the cost of hospitalizations and nursing home stays of state prison inmates. The other states have left tens of millions of federal dollars on the table, either because they didn't know about a federal rule dating to 1997 or they were unable to write the laws and administrative processes to take advantage of it.
States and localities have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate health care to prisoners, and they must pay for it out of their own budgets. However, a 1997 ruling says that care provided to inmates beyond the walls of the prison qualifies for Medicaid reimbursement if the prisoner is Medicaid eligible. The federal government then pays 50 percent to 84 percent of Medicaid costs.
Ever since that ruling, it has made fiscal sense to get inmates who needed outside medical attention enrolled in Medicaid, said Aaron Edwards, a legislative analyst in California who helped get the state's program started, "but in 2014 it really becomes a no-brainer."
That's when the major elements of the Affordable Care Act take effect, and most prison inmates will be eligible for Medicaid if they need health services outside of prison. The number of inmates in state prisons as of 2011 was nearly 1.6 million, according to the U.S. Justice Department. An additional 745,000 were in local jails, a population that would also qualify for Medicaid benefits if they required outside medical care.
Right now, in most states, only prisoners who are pregnant, disabled or aged are eligible for Medicaid coverage when they need outside medical attention. But most states and localities don't bother to seek Medicaid reimbursement for that limited class of prisoners, an omission that deprives them of millions of dollars in potential federal reimbursement. It's not the inmates themselves but rather the states and localities that are the beneficiaries of the federal Medicaid reimbursement.
So far, only Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington and some scattered local governments are tapping Medicaid to pay for inpatient medical and nursing home care. A few more states are looking into it, including Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York and Virginia.
Friday, June 21, 2013
"As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Wall Street Journal article appearing on the paper's front page. Here are excerpts (with two lines emphasized for subsequent commentary):
Weeks after his election as Georgia governor in 2010, Nathan Deal was pulled aside by a conservative state lawmaker with urgent business to discuss. Rep. Jay Neal, a small-town pastor, said he had the seeds of a plan to cut Georgia's swelling prison population, which was costing taxpayers over $1 billion a year. The governor-elect didn't let Mr. Neal get far.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has led the drive to reduce prison populations in his state. "The minute I mentioned what I wanted to do, he jumped in with what he wanted to do," Mr. Neal recalled. "And it turns out we were talking about the same thing."
That pairing of a pastor with a former prosecutor, both Republicans, helped pave the way for dramatic revamping of Georgia's criminal code. New rules enacted over the past two legislative sessions are steering nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasizing rehabilitation over jail time, and lessening the penalties for many drug and property crimes.
Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers — and in most cases Republican governors — who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.
Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.
The movement also dovetails with the quest of some Republicans to soften the party's edges and to plunge into new policy areas that affect the poor and the disadvantaged. The initiatives have drawn praise from groups that aren't often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. The result is some unlikely bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council working alongside the ACLU.
"Criminal justice is the area where conservative thinking has most changed with the times," said Eli Lehrer, a former GOP Senate staffer and conservative activist in Washington, who has written extensively on the push for new sentencing rules. He describes the push as "the most important social reform effort on the right since the rise of the pro-life movement in the 1970s."
Just over half of the states have embarked on criminal-justice overhauls of varying scope over the past five years, with 19 of those efforts led by Republican governors or GOP legislatures and nine by Democratic governors or legislatures. Some of the most aggressive moves have come in states, many in the South, with incarceration rates well above the national average....
The downturn has been particularly welcome in states that had projected a continued surge in prison numbers. Ohio, which was bracing for an inmate population of over 57,000 by the end of the decade, has seen its number fall by nearly 1% a year since 2009.
Changes to sentencing laws haven't sailed everywhere. In Indiana, an aggressive push in 2011 by then Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels got watered down — and eventually abandoned — after it ran into opposition from prosecutors. GOP Gov. Rick Scott in Florida cited public safety last year when he vetoed a bill to cut the sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
The conservative quest to rethink criminal sentencing and rewrite state penal codes got its start in Texas, when GOP lawmakers in 2007 balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 17,000 more prisoners by 2012. They decided instead to revamp the state's probation system and boost funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation by $241 million.
The state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates since 2008 after decades of rapid growth and during a time when the state's own population has continued to swell. In 2011, Texas shut a prison for the first time in state history.
Behind the Texas efforts stood a conservative local think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and one of its top donors, a wealthy oil man from Odessa named Tim Dunn. Mr. Dunn paid to establish a center within the foundation in 2005 to focus on overhauling the state's criminal code. An evangelical Christian with a strong libertarian bent, Mr. Dunn said he watched for years as Texas' crime rate continued to climb even while its prison population swelled. "I had come to see our justice system as imperial, as intent on maintaining the authority of the king. It was no longer communal or restorative," he said.
Under the directorship of Texas lawyer Marc Levin, the policy foundation became the hub of a national movement as requests for legislative help poured in from other states. The center adopted a formal platform in early 2010 and took its campaign national under the name Right on Crime. It soon had the backing of a long list of conservative supporters, among them former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, former drug czar Bob Bennett and David Keene, until recently president of the National Rifle Association.
The group and its Republican followers are sensitive to charges that they are going soft on crime, "that we want to hug a thug," as Mr. Dunn puts it. But they insist they are moving to correct a system that tilted too far toward punishment, without any gauge for success or failure. State prison populations swelled 700% between 1970 and 2009, from 174,000 inmates to 1.4 million.
Legislatures across the country have rewritten their criminal-justice codes. A few Democratic governors have jumped in, including Arkansas's Mike Beebe and Hawaii's Neil Ambercrombie. New York and Connecticut made changes even before Texas did. But "on balance, it has been conservatives who have been out front," said Adam Gelb, who directs a national criminal-justice initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has worked on initiatives across the country.
In many states, former law-and-order prosecutors and judges have led the effort. In others, pastors-turned-lawmakers have jumped in. Many describe eureka moments that altered their views....
For Ohio Republican state Sen. Bill Seitz, a turning point came in the late 2000s, when he watched the voters in his county, which includes Cincinnati, twice vote down levies to build a new jail. "It became all the clearer to me how we pass tough sentencing laws with a blind eye to the fiscal impacts," he said.
In Georgia, Gov. Deal and Rep. Neal arrived at their partnership via similar and very personal paths . Mr. Deal says his evolution came about largely on the streets of his hometown of Gainesville, an hour's drive north of Atlanta. For nearly a decade, his son Jason has presided over a drug court designed to rehabilitate addicts charged with felonies and to keep them out of prison. The future governor often went to graduation ceremonies where recovering addicts would tell their stories. "They all have their own stories, but a common thread runs through all of them," Gov. Deal said. "They had lied. They had stolen. They had alienated their spouses, their parents, their siblings. But they were given a second chance, and they had been rehabilitated."...
Supporters of the changes in Georgia and other states note that elected officials such as Gov. Deal have done little to publicize their efforts, much less campaign on them. Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, sees that as a missed opportunity. "This is an area where Republicans can really connect with black voters," he said.
Gov. Deal acknowledges there are risks in championing prison changes. "You always worry about being accused of being soft on crime," he said. But through a spokesman he said he now "very much wants to be seen as the face of prison reform in this state."
I concur with the sentiment emphasized above that the prison/sentencing reform movements on the right are a very important and consequential social issue shift for the GOP, and one that could have a profound long-term impact on the fate and fortunes of both political parties in the decades to come. However, as suggested by the second highlighted point, unless and until GOP politicians believe they can secure votes and not just save money and lives through reform, this reform movement will not likely become as transformative as it might otherwise could be.
Some recent and older related posts:
- When and how will state GOP leaders start cutting expensive criminal justice programming? (post from Nov 2010 right after elections predicting new Republican Govs would have to lead some reform efforts)
- Examining the politics of crime and punishment in modern gubernatorial settings
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."
- Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
- Justice Safety Valve Act gets bipartisan introduction in House of Representatives
- "Bipartisan Legislation To Give Judges More Flexibility For Federal Sentences Introduced"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
Federal judges issue new prisoner release order to force California to comply with prior ordersAs reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Federal judges order California to free 9,600 inmates," the ever on-going federal litigation concerning overcrowded California prisons took another notable turn yesterday. Here are the details:
A trio of federal judges ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to immediately begin freeing state inmates and waived state laws to allow early releases, threatening the governor with contempt if he does not comply.
Citing California's "defiance," "intransigence" and "deliberate failure" to provide inmates with adequate care in its overcrowded lockups, the judges on Thursday said Brown must shed 9,600 inmates — about 8% of the prison population — by the end of the year.
Unless he finds another way to ease crowding, the governor must expand the credits that inmates can earn for good behavior or participation in rehabilitation programs, the judges said. "We are willing to defer to their choice for how to comply with our order, not whether to comply with it," the judges wrote. "Defendants have consistently sought to frustrate every attempt by this court to achieve a resolution to the overcrowding problem."
If Sacramento does not meet the inmate cap on time, the judges said, it will have to release prisoners from a list of "low risk" offenders the court has told the administration to prepare.
Brown had already taken steps to appeal the court-imposed cap to the U.S. Supreme Court, and he vowed to fight the latest ruling as well. "The state will seek an immediate stay of this unprecedented order to release almost 10,000 inmates by the end of this year," he said in a statement.
He had immediate backing from the California Police Chiefs Assn. The court order shows "a complete disregard for the safety of communities across California," said the group's president, Covina Police Chief Kim Raney. "Pressing for 9,000 more inmates on the streets," Raney said, shows "an activist court more concerned with prisoners than the safety of the communities."
But a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it did not expect to have to contend with a flood of ex-convicts to watch over. "It is never a positive step when prisoners have to be released," said spokesman Steve Whitmore, "but the Sheriff's Department is prepared for this eventuality."
Brown has until July 13 to file his full appeal with the high court, the same body that two years ago upheld findings that California prison conditions violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Lawyers for inmates, meanwhile, said Brown has few options but to let some prisoners go. "At this point, the governor is an inch away from contempt," said Don Specter, lead attorney for the Prison Law Office, which in 2001 filed one of two lawsuits on which the judges based their order. "He must make every effort to comply immediately." ... [T]he three-judge panel that oversees prison crowding, U.S. District Judges Lawrence Karlton and Thelton Henderson and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt.... [in their] order accuses the state of "a series of contumacious actions" and challenges Brown's sincerity about obeying their orders. They noted that the governor lifted an emergency proclamation that allowed inmates to be transferred to prisons in other states, for example. Requests from prison lawyers that the administration be held in contempt "have considerable merit," the judges wrote.
The governor's reluctance to set prisoners free early has the backing of legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). He joked openly on Wednesday about intending to kill any population-reduction plans the courts might order the governor to submit to the Legislature. Republicans in the Legislature have pushed a plan to resume prison expansion in California....
California voters may be more willing than Brown to release inmates to reduce crowding. In a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, they were wary of sacrificing public safety, but at the same time supported steps to reduce crowding. Sixty-three percent said they favored releasing low-level, nonviolent offenders from prison early.
The full 51-page order in Coleman v. Brown coming from the special three judge panel can be accessed at this link.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
"Efforts to Fix a Broken System: Brown v. Plata and the Prison Overcrowding Epidemic"The title of this post is the title of this Note available via SSRN and authored by Lauren Salins and Shepard Simpson. Here is the abstract:
Excessive incarceration is a national problem. Across the country, prisons face dangerous levels of overcrowding, which has led to unconstitutional conditions of confinement and the inability of states to effectively rehabilitate their inmates. Ardent public support of “tough on crime” policies inhibits state legislatures from enacting successful reforms. In turn, states spend large percentages of their budget to sustain failing and ineffective corrections systems. By some estimates, states could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually if they reduced prison populations through proactive reforms, such as early release programs and diversionary tactics. In light of these factors, a consideration of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata to uphold an unprecedented prisoner release order is both timely and necessary as the case approaches its two-year benchmark.
This Note argues that the Court’s holding in Brown did not overstep the judicial boundaries imposed by the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), but rather was a step in the right direction toward acknowledging and remedying constitutional violations occurring in California’s severely overcrowded prison system. Moreover, the Court’s analysis of PLRA will help courts navigate the statute’s procedural requirements.
While California has made progress toward complying with Brown’s prisoner release order, this seminal case sheds light on the need for proactive reform in prison systems nationwide to prevent unconstitutionally high levels of overcrowding in the first place. As states are confronted with this new “release or reform” reality, this Note will facilitate the much-needed discussion surrounding long-term solutions to the overcrowding epidemic in U.S. prisons.
UPDATE: This recent article from the Los Angeles Times, headlined "California's prison crowding is growing, state report says," provides a useful reminder that all discussions of prison overcrowding problems remain very timely.
With overcrowded prisons and under court order, Italy is the California of Europe when it comes to punishment practicesThis lengthy new article from the International Business Times prompts my post title because it details how Italy is struggling through prison problems that sound a lot like what California continues to deal with. The piece is headlined "Italy’s Overcrowded Prisons: A Growing Tragedy Of Epic Proportions," and here are excerpts:
Prisons across Europe are facing an overcrowding crisis -- a manifestation of at least three trends: tougher sentencing by judges (particularly for drug-related offenses), a painfully slow justice system and lack of money to build new facilities to accommodate the excess number of inmates.
This crisis is particularly acute in Italy, where correctional facilities are bursting at the seams with an avalanche of convicted men and women. According to the Prison Observatory of Antigone, a Rome-based prisoners' rights organization, almost 67,000 inmates are housed in Italian facilities that were designed to hold only 45,000 -- meaning they are at a capacity of more than 140 percent, among the highest rates in the European Union, where the average capacity is just under 100 percent.
The situation in Italian prisons has become so grave that in January of this year, the European Court of Human Rights declared that Italy had just one year to improve conditions in the country's prisons, while ordering Rome to fork over 100,000 euros ($132,000) to seven inmates who raised a test case with the court. “Their conditions of detention had subjected them to hardship of an intensity exceeding the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention, and violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” the court stated.
Italy's president Giorgio Napolitano (who has no real power to influence public policy) agreed with the court's ruling, saying it amounted to "a mortifying confirmation of the persistent failure of our state to guarantee the basic rights of detainees awaiting judgment and serving sentences.” He added that "decisions can no longer be postponed to overcome a degrading reality for the inmates and for the prison guards.”...
Three years ago, having declared a state of emergency in the nation's prisons, the government unveiled a plan to spend 675 million euros ($900 million in 2013 currency) to build 11 new prisons and as well as extensions to existing jails. But the financial collapse has largely scuttled that program.
As in France, many Italians are being jailed for minor crimes -- about 60 percent of convicted prisoners are serving terms of less than three years. Moreover, about 38 percent of all inmates in Italy are drug offenders (versus figures of 14 percent in Germany and France and 15 percent in England and Wales). In addition, 42 percent of Italy’s prisoners are pre-trial detainees (versus a European average of 28.5 percent); while more than one-third of inmates are immigrants.
"There are so many people awaiting trial for six, seven, eight months," said Cesare Cececotto, an inmate at Regina Coeli, a famous prison in Rome. Another inmate named Giuseppe Rampello complained to Reuters about the large number of foreigners in prison. "We are talking about a prison where you can be in a cell with people with six different languages, six different habits, where there is one who prays as an observant Muslim five times a day and another who swears five times a minute," the 63-year-old inmate said....
In northern prisons, foreigners far outnumber Italians – Antigone said that in jails in Milan and Vicenza, more than 60 percent of inmates are foreign, while in the mountain territories of Trentino Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta, the proportion reaches nearly 70 percent. Cececotto quipped that as the only Italian in his cell, “Thank God, I speak a bit of English and a bit of Spanish.”
In its 2012 report, Antigone declared that "the heart of the prison problem is the penal code.” Napolitano's wish to reform prison sentencing guidelines was compromised by political infighting and the change in government earlier this year. "Something must be done because the prisons are close to collapse," a senior prison official, Margherita Marras, told Reuters....
An inmate named Claudio told Inter Press Service about conditions in his Vicenza facility in March 2013 -- where he had to share a 7.6 square-meter (80 square foot) cell with two other people and stay there 21 hours per day. “Once you excluded the space taken up by beds and drawers, each inmate was left with 90 centimeters (35 inches) to himself. We had to take it in turns to stand up,” he said. “There was no possibility for (inmates) to engage in any activity.”
The crisis in Italy’s prisons is nothing new. As long ago as 1995, the New York Times published an article warning: “Bursting Population Overwhelms Italy’s Prisons.” That piece, written by Celestine Bohlen, noted for example that so many prisoners were housed in Milan’s San Vittorio facility that police were forced to relocate some 400 inmates elsewhere, some to as far away as the isle of Sardinia.
At that time, Italy had 54,000 prisoners in a system designed to hold only 29,000. After almost two decades the problem has only worsened. “The continuous increase in the jails overcrowding and the significant presence of foreign prisoners makes pursuing the rehabilitative aim of punishment extremely complex and often in vain,” Napolitano told the head of the Italian prison administration department....
Ornella Favero, director of Ristretti Orizzonti, said overcrowding could be relieved by providing a significant number of inmates, especially pre-trial detainees and non-violent drug offenders, access to noncustodial sanctions, including alternatives like fines, community service, house arrest and treatment for drug addiction. In Spain, Germany and France, more than 100,000 convicts are outside of prison walls – the corresponding figure in Italy is less than 20,000.