Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?
The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new Newsweek article that purports to explain "How Obamacare May Lower the Prison Population More Than Any Reform in a Generation." Here are a few highlights:
[The] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) ... may be the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.
On the face of it, there’s no direct connection between the ACA and what experts refer to as the “justice-involved population.” There’s no mention of prisons or jails or even crime in the language of the law. However, in what proponents of the act are considering a happy public policy accident, the ACA may inadvertently change the makeup of the U.S. prison population by getting early help to those with mental health and drug abuse issues, ultimately reducing recidivism rates and saving states millions, if not billions, of dollars annually....
The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration....
Health and crime have become inextricable in the U.S. Health issues such as drug addiction and severe mental health disorders directly lead to illegal activities and eventual imprisonment. A high percentage of those incarcerated are guilty of crimes directly related to medical issues, such as illegal drug use or theft to support an addiction.
This population — the poor, homeless, addicted, and mentally ill — has never had any health safety net. With no jobs or income, they are highly unlikely to have private insurance, and Medicaid — the federally-funded health coverage option meant to protect the poorest Americans — is actually only available to a select group of individuals. Though it varies state by state, eligibility is always categorical, which means besides having a low income, Medicaid is only available to five types of people: pregnant women, children below a certain age, parents of Medicaid-eligible children, the disabled, and seniors.
Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated. Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion — it is an optional aspect of the ACA). “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.
Of course, these people are hard to reach, and eligibility doesn’t ensure coverage or healthier behavior. That’s why the bigger opportunity, according to many health and justice policy experts, is to reach and help this population at the points where they do become involved with the justice system....
[T]he right to health care only applies to the length of a person’s sentence.... [A] 2013 report in California, for example, found that 90 percent of prisoners had no health care upon release. Once released, prisoners are likely to discontinue their meds, delay seeing primary care doctors (out of concern for costs), and, as a result, end up in emergency rooms — where high treatment costs are passed on to everyone else via insurance premiums.
This is not just a public health issue; it’s a public safety concern. Lack of care for chronic conditions creates additional long-term problems, like being physically or mentally unfit for employment. In conjunction with a lack of appropriate care for their drug problems and an inability to effectively medicate their mental health disorders, the formerly incarcerated are likely to return to a life of crime.
Many hope and believe that change is on its way. The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, 5.4 million ex-offenders currently on parole or probation could get the health care they need. (It’s important to note that 25 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented the Medicaid expansion as of 2014. However, many policy experts expect the remaining states to fall in line, citing the historical example of how CHIP was initially rejected by many states when it rolled out in 1997, but is now utilized in every state in the country.)
Even with coverage, those ex-offenders will still need to actually utilize those health, and the key will be making the connection at the time of release. The biggest challenge will be getting state justice systems and health systems — not exactly happy bedfellows in past years — to work together to create coordinated discharge planning between jails and community healthcare....
The cost savings associated with keeping former prisoners out of the ER and out of prisons will likely lead leadership at the highest levels — state governors, for example — to push for the types of collaboration that will keep ex-offenders healthy and out of trouble....
Ultimately, because there is no precise directive in the ACA, the choice on how to handle these issues will be made independently in every state, and in every county. In some cases, reform will be swift; in others, life may go on as though Obamacare never happened.
"15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner"
The title of this post is the headline of this amusing new item in The Onion sent my way by one of my terrific students. Here are highlights from this all-too-biting satire:
Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation.
“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999....
Gunderson [also] noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Alabama struggling with enduring challenges as tough-on-crime history creates "box of dynamite"
The New York Times today has this notable and lengthy article about the criminal justice reform challenges facing Alabama headlined "Troubles at Women’s Prison Test Alabama." Here are excerpts:
For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation. More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.
But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation. Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.
“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”
The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity. Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation. “No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.
Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal. The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.
The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner. He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers....
There is no ignoring the prison crisis. Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform. It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead....
“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners. In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse....
“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services. “I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”
Friday, February 28, 2014
"The Private Prison Racket"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece from Politico. It carries this sub-headline: "Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records. So why do we keep giving them business?". And here is one snippet of a piece that merits a full-read by all researchers and policy-makers interested in prison reform:
As inmate populations have soared over the last 30 years, private prisons have emerged as an appealing solution to cash-starved states. Privately run prisons are cheaper and can be set up much faster than those run by the government. Nearly a tenth of all U.S. prisoners are housed in private prisons, as are almost two-thirds of immigrants in detention centers — and the companies that run them have cashed in. CCA, the oldest and largest modern private prison company, took over its first facility in 1983. Now it’s a Wall Street darling with a market cap of nearly $3.8 billion. Similarly, GEO Group, the second largest private-prison operator, last week reported $1.52 billion in revenue for 2013, its most ever and more than a hundredfold increase since the company went public ten years ago.
But while privatizing prisons may appear at first glance like yet another example of how the free market beats the public sector, one need only look at CCA’s record in Idaho — which recently cancelled its contract with CCA — to wonder whether outsourcing this particular government function is such a good idea.
In July 2000, Idaho’s then-Governor Dirk Kempthorne made a decision similar to Jerry Brown’s. He opened the Idaho Correctional Center, the state’s first private prison. But it wasn’t long before the facility — built and operated by CCA — began to draw concerns. Prisoners in the 2,000-bed facility dubbed it “Gladiator School” for the rampant fighting that took place inside. A 2008 study by the Idaho Department of Corrections obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that there were four times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults there than in all the state’s seven other prisons combined.
The ACLU sued CCA in 2010, alleging that violence had become an “epidemic” in the facility, and the Associated Press released a video showing a prisoner beaten unconscious while correctional officers stood around watching. A 2011 settlement required CCA to keep more officers on staff, but the company apparently didn’t bother to do that. Last year, a review of CCA’s staff records showed that prison employees had falsified as many as 4,800 hours over the course of seven months; they had understaffed the prison on purpose and fudged records to boost their personal incomes. The end result: Idaho will terminate its private prison experiment with CCA in June.
CCA’s failure in Idaho is just one example of the industry’s spotty record.
Some related posts on private prisons:
- Noticing racial disproportion in who ends up serving time in private prisons
- Is anyone making a broadside constitutional attack against private prisons?
- New report assails "lockup quotas" in private prison industry
- "Billions Behind Bars: Inside America's Prison Industry"
- ACLU of Ohio releases new report assailing Governor's plan to sell state prisons
- Might private prisons actually cost taxpayers more than public prisons?
- "Who Benefits When A Private Prison Comes To Town?"
- New ACLU report critical of private prisons
- "Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America"
- "Hustle and Flow: Prison Privatization Fueling the Prison Industrial Complex"
- "International Trends in Prison Privatization"
- Notable review of Kentucky's (now-ending) experiences with private prisons
UPDATE: Steve Owen, who is senior director of public affairs for CCA, has this response to the piece linked/quoted above now in Politico, and here are excerpts:
A recent opinion piece in Politico Magazine about private prisons and our company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), was a rehash of stale arguments that failed to provide a balanced look at the important role we play in addressing the many corrections challenges our nation faces.
In reality, our company is helping federal, state and local governments find solutions to overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing taxpayer costs and inmates struggling to break the cycle of crime. Our company believes we have an opportunity and a responsibility to help inmates develop the skills and values they need to be successful when they are released from prison. We are a team of 16,000 correctional officers, chaplains, teachers, nurses and counselors providing high-quality corrections services at a cost savings for taxpayers.
The opinion writer opens his piece with ill-informed commentary about CCA’s relationship with California. In fact, there is perhaps no better example of the important role we can play in addressing corrections challenges. The difficulties the state has faced with overcrowded facilities are well documented, and for more than seven years, CCA has provided an important relief valve to help them manage their inmate population. Our facilities and professional staff have alleviated unsafe conditions and created opportunities for offenders to access a wide range of programs that prepare them to re-enter their communities once their time is served. The most recent iteration of our partnership is an innovative agreement that allows California to lease needed space from our company and staff the facility with public employees.
Additionally, the tools we are providing to help manage this difficult situation are being delivered at a significant cost savings. Overall, economists from Temple University, in an independent study receiving a partial grant from our industry, analyzed state government data and found companies like ours save 12 percent to 58 percent in long-term taxpayer costs....
Overall, we recognize that there’s a national discussion going on about our justice system, and people often feel passionately about what should be done to improve it. Much of that conversation is driven by frustration with sentencing and detention laws, which under longstanding policy our company doesn’t lobby for or take positions on. Where we can and do make a difference is in being an available tool for governments, providing them critical flexibility to meet their changing needs, while offering inmates services that can help turn their lives around. For our company, making that difference is an opportunity, a responsibility to our communities, and at the heart of our business.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Lots of recent (and long-overdue) new concerns about solitary confinement
Long-time readers know I have bemaoning the enduring use and reliance on extreme solitary confinement in many penal instututions for many years. Indeed, in some of my posts here and here from 2006 on this issue, during a time when constitutional litigation over lethal injection protocols was just getting revved up, I made assertions here and elsewhere that persons truly concerned about both human dignity and public safety ought to focus a lot more on the tens of thousands of humans in Supermax facilities and subject to long periods of solitary confinement than on the many fewer humans on (much nicer) death rows. And while it seems there has been remarkably limited progress on the lethal injection front over the last decade, recent developments suggest that extreme solitary confinement is finally getting the attention and criticisms it deserves.
Thanks in large part to this Senate hearing conducted yesterday under the title "Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences," both the old and new media have too many new pieces on this topic to provide a comprehensive accounting of what's now afoot on this front. Here are a few highlights from various sources and with telling headlines that help sketch the direction of the modern discussion:
From the Smithsonian magazine here, "The Science of Solitary Confinement: Research tells us that isolation is an ineffective rehabilitation strategy and leaves lasting psychological damage"
From the New York Times op-ed pages here, "My Night in Solitary"
From The Atlantic here, "Colorado's Prison Director Spent 20 Hours in Solitary — But That's Not Enough"
From NPR here, "N.Y. Becomes Largest Prison System To Curb Solitary Confinement"
From the AP here, Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement"
From Slate here, "The Definitive Case for Ending Solitary Confinement; The practice is impractical as well as immoral. It harms prisoners, costs too much, and leads to more crime.
"The Supreme Court and the Rehabilitative Ideal"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Graham v. Florida was a watershed decision, not least because of the centrality of the so-called “rehabilitative ideal” to its holding that life in prison for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes was cruel and unusual. The Court’s emphasis on rehabilitation was surprising both in terms of the Court’s previous decisions on punishment, in which rehabilitation was barely included as a “purpose of punishment,” but also in terms of the history of academic and legislative skepticism if not hostility toward the idea of rehabilitation (which includes two recently decided sentencing cases, Tapia and Pepper). Courts and commentators have struggled to make sense of both the meaning and the scope of Graham’s rehabilitative holding. Their struggle is one about defining how (and whether) rehabilitation should play any substantial role in sentencing.
My essay places Graham in the context of the recent history of rehabilitation, and views its attempt to “rehabilitate” rehabilitation in light of that history. The rehabilitative ideal encompasses not just one model, but three: the mostly discredited model of rehabilitation as treatment, a more modest model of rehabilitation as training, and an older model of rehabilitation as reform. Both the language and the result of Graham show it to be squarely in the tradition of the third model, where rehabilitation is not something the state provides, but something the offender is supposed to undergo, through a process of reflection, remorse, and atonement. Rehabilitation as reform is notable because it is compatible with a suspicion that prison in general is a bad place for rehabilitation and that it is unlikely that the state can do anything to positively aid the offender in reforming. At best, the state must get out of the way. Whether we want to extend Graham or reject it depends on whether we find its ideal of rehabilitation as reform appealing.
February 26, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Thanks to Gov. Brown, Plata, budget woes, state court rulings and/or _____, California lifers now have a real chance for parole
The weird "Mad-Libs" title to this post is my reaction and query in response to this notable new AP report headlined "California 'lifers' leaving prison at record pace." Here are the details:
Nearly 1,400 lifers in California's prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out. Gov. Jerry Brown has granted parole to a record number of inmates with life sentences since he took office in January 2011, going along with parole board decisions about 82 percent of the time.
Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.
This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.
Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers. "This is playing Russian roulette with public safety," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. "This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous."
The governor's office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor's office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.
Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years -- almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles. Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population.
But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions. The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant's underlying crimes. It ruled that inmates' records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.
State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012. In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.
Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his seven years in office when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board. Brown has allowed 82 percent of the 1,590 paroles granted by the board.
Brown's office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors, and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release....
Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years. Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, he approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release....
The few studies of recidivism among released lifers including a Stanford University report show they re-offend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder. Of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 that Stanford tracked, only five inmates committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. The average released lifer is in his mid-50s. Experts say older ex-cons are less prone to commit new crimes than younger ones.
Brown has reversed the parole board. On Friday, his office announced it blocked the parole of 100 inmates deemed fit by the board for release and sent two others back to the board for reconsideration. One of those inmates found fit for release by the board but blocked by Brown was James Mackey, a former University of Pacific football player found guilty of shooting his victim with a crossbow and then strangling him. Brown said Mackey hasn't sufficiently owned up to the crime. "Until he can give a better explanation for his actions," Brown wrote, "I do not think he is ready to be released."
Ernest Morgan on the other hand, is a lifer Brown did let free. Morgan, a San Francisco man convicted of the shotgun slaying of his 14-year-old stepsister burglarizing the family home, was turned down for parole five times before the board granted him parole, only to be overruled by Schwarzenegger.... "So I was devastated when Schwarzenegger denied my release," said Morgan, who now is majoring in business management at San Francisco State. "I felt I was a political pawn who would never get out."
In 2011, Brown approved his release after 24 years in prison. Brown made no comment in granting Morgan his release. Instead, the governor signaled his approval by taking no action within 30 days of the parole board's decision becoming official. "It's been a remarkable and unexpected change," said Johanna Hoffman, Morgan's lawyer who has represented hundreds of lifers vying for parole since becoming a California lawyer in 2008. "The overcrowding issue has a huge amount to do with it."
Monday, February 24, 2014
NY Times debates "Visiting Prisoners, Without Visiting Prison"
The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the virtues and possible vices of using video feeds for prison visition. Here is the section's set up:
The attorney general, Eric Holder, recently instructed federal prisons to treat same-sex marriages the same as opposite-sex marriages, including visitation rights for spouses. But at many prisons, family visitation is increasingly difficult and even phone calls are exorbitantly expensive.
Some prisons have instituted “video visitation” as a solution. Does that help or create new problems?
Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:
"A Service to Families and Children" by Doug Phillips, Sheriff's Office, Polk County, Iowa
"Symptoms of a Broken Prison System" by Glenn E. Martin, JustLeadershipUSA
"More Video Visits, and More In-Person Time" by Margaret diZerega, Vera Institute of Justice
"Potential for Exploitation, or Innovation" by Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Initiative
"Lessons From Military Families" by Barbara Van Dahlen, licensed clinical psychologist
Monday, February 17, 2014
"Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety Realignment Funds"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing paper available via SSRN authored by Jeffrey Lin and Joan Petersilia. Here is the abstract:
The California correctional system is undergoing a dramatic transformation under Assembly Bill 109 (“Realignment”), a law that shifted responsibility from the state to the counties for tens of thousands of offenders. To help manage this change, the state will distribute $4.4 billion to the counties by 2016-2017. While the legislation directs counties to use these funds for community-based programs, counties retain a substantial amount of spending discretion. Some are expanding offender treatment capacities, while others are shoring up enforcement and control apparatuses.
In this report we examine counties’ AB 109 spending reports and budgets to determine which counties emphasize enforcement and which emphasize treatment. We also identify counties that continue to emphasize prior orientations toward punishment and counties that have shifted their priorities in response to Realignment. We then apply quantitative and comparative methods to county budget data to identify political, economic, and criminal justice-related factors that may explain higher AB 109 spending on enforcement or higher spending on treatment, relative to other counties.
In short, our analysis shows that counties that elect to allocate more AB 109 funds to enforcement and control generally appear to be responding to local criminal justice needs, including high crime rates, a shortage of law enforcement personnel, and a historic preference for using prison to punish drug offenders. Counties that favor a greater investment in offender treatment and services, meanwhile, are typified by strong electoral support for the Sheriff and relatively under-funded district attorneys and probation departments.
Noticing racial disproportion in who ends up serving time in private prisons
This new Mother Jones piece, headlined "Why There's an Even Larger Racial Disparity in Private Prisons Than in Public Ones," highlights a new study concerning the racial composition of private prison populations. Here is how the piece begins, with all the notable links (including a link to the discussed study) included:
It's well known that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons. African Americans and Latinos constitute 30 percent of the US population and 60 percent of its prisoners. But a new study by University of California-Berkeley researcher Christopher Petrella addresses a fact of equal concern. Once sentenced, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to serve time in private prisons, which have higher levels of violence and recidivism (PDF) and provide less sufficient health care and educational programming than equivalent public facilities.
The study compares the percentage of inmates identifying as black or Hispanic in public prisons and private prisons in nine states. It finds that there are higher rates of people of color in private facilities than public facilities in all nine states studied, ranging from 3 percent in Arizona and Georgia to 13 percent in California and Oklahoma. According to Petrella, this disparity casts doubt on cost-efficiency claims made by the private prison industry and demonstrates how ostensibly "colorblind" policies can have a very real effect on people of color.
The study points out an important link between inmate age and race. Not only do private prisons house high rates of people of color, they also house low rates of individuals over the age of 50 — a subset that is more likely to be white than the general prison population. According to the study, "the states in which the private versus public racial disparities are the most pronounced also happen to be the states in which the private versus public age disparities are most salient." (California, Mississippi, and Tennessee did not report data on inmate age.)
Private prisons have consistently lower rates of older inmates because they often contractually exempt themselves from housing medically expensive—which often means older—individuals (see excerpts from such exemptions in California, Oklahoma, and Vermont), which helps them keep costs low and profits high. This is just another example of the growing private prison industry's prioritization of profit over rehabilitation, which activists say leads to inferior prison conditions and quotas requiring high levels of incarceration even as crime levels drop. The number of state and federal prisoners housed in private prisons grew by 37 percent from 2002 to 2009, reaching 8 percent of all inmates in 2010.
The high rate of incarceration among young people of color is partly due to the war on drugs, which introduced strict sentencing policies and mandatory minimums that have disproportionately affected non-white communities for the past 40 years. As a result, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2009, only 33.2 percent of prisoners under 50 reported as white, as opposed to 44.2 percent of prisoners aged 50 and older.
So when private prisons avoid housing older inmates, they indirectly avoid housing white inmates as well. This may explain how private facilities end up with "a prisoner profile that is far younger and far 'darker'... than in select counterpart public facilities."
Private prisons claim to have more efficient practices, and thus lower operating costs, than public facilities. But the data suggest that private prisons don't save money through efficiency, but by cherry-picking healthy inmates. According to a 2012 ACLU report, it costs $34,135 to house an "average" inmate and $68,270 to house an individual 50 or older. In Oklahoma, for example, the percentage of individuals over 50 in minimum and medium security public prisons is 3.3 times that of equivalent private facilities.
"Given the data, it's difficult for private prisons to make the claim that they can incarcerate individuals more efficiently than their public counterparts," Petrella tells Mother Jones. "We need to be comparing apples to apples. If we're looking at different prisoner profiles, there is no basis to make the claim that private prisons are more efficient than publics."
Sunday, February 16, 2014
New York Gov makes serious push for serious educational programming behind bars
This new AP article, headlined "Gov. Cuomo wants state to fund college classes for NY prisoners," reports on a notable new prison proposal coming from a notable elected official. Here are the basics:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to fund college classes in New York prisons, saying a college degree will reduce the likelihood an inmate will return to crime when released. The program will offer associate and bachelor's degree education at 10 prisons, one in each region of the state.
According to Cuomo's office, New York currently spends $60,000 per year on each prisoner, and it will cost approximately $5,000 per year to educate an inmate. Cuomo didn't specify the cost of the overall program. The state will issue a Request for Proposal from qualified educational associations in March.
Since 2007, the state Department of Corrections has partnered with colleges, including Cornell University and Bard College, to offer privately funded degree programs at 22 prisons. The new program will expand on that.
Friday, February 14, 2014
Series of thoughtful posts on faith-based prisons
Sasha Volokh this week has done an effective series of informative posts on what we know and do not know about faith-based prisons. The final one is available at this link, and it starts and ends this way:
This is the final post in a series on the effectiveness of faith-based prison programs, based on my recent Alabama Law Review article, Do Faith-Based Prisons Work? (Short answer: no.) Monday’s post introduced the issue, Tuesday’s post surveyed some of the least valid studies, Wednesday’s post critiqued the studies that used propensity score matching and discussed other possible empirical strategies, and Thursday’s post talked about the most valid studies–those that used rejected volunteers as a control group.
Throughout, I’ve been putting the faith-based prison research side-by-side with the private schools research, because evaluations of each raise similar methodological problems. The fact that both are voluntary means that they can attract fundamentally different sorts of people, so their good results might be attributable to the higher-quality participants they attract. Today’s post ties the ends together and asks whether there’s any way forward for faith-based prisons....
Let’s take the broad view and come back to the education studies that I’ve been using as a point of comparison throughout this Article. Finally, after decades of research, we have some credible studies estimating the effect of private schools. The best evidence, taken from studies comparing accepted and rejected applicants, indicates that private schools do have a positive effect on the students who attend them, at least for black students and at least for math scores.
On the one hand, one can observe that, next to these results (modest as they are), it’s all the more disappointing that faith-based prisons haven’t shown much in the way of significant positive effects. But on the other hand, it took decades of research and debate by different groups, each using a slightly different empirical approach — and many finding little to no effect — before we got even the mild results we have on private education. This suggests that we should encourage more research on the matter, in different contexts, using a variety of different empirical techniques.
The result is that, if there’s no strong reason to believe that faith-based prisons work at all, and even less reason to believe that they work better than comparably funded secular programs, there’s also little reason to believe that they don’t work, and in many cases they may be the only available alternative. It’s probably sensible to allow such programs to operate and to allow the process of experimentation to work its course, provided that all this can be done constitutionally.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Federal judges give California two additional years to deal with prison population problems
As reported in this AP article, "federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care." Here is more about the latest chapter in the long-running federal litigation that made it to the Supreme Court a few years ago and that continues to impact California's criminal justice system in profound ways:
The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.
"It is even more important now for defendants to take effective action that will provide a long-term solution to prison overcrowding, as, without further action, the prison population is projected to continue to increase and health conditions are likely to continue to worsen," the judges said in a five-page opinion scolding the state for more than four years of delay.
California has reduced its prison population by about 25,000 inmates during the past two years, primarily through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. It also has spent billions of dollars on new medical facilities and staff, including opening an $839 million prison medical facility in Stockton last fall.
Yet in its latest ruling, the special panel of judges tasked with considering the legal battle involving overcrowding said the state has continually failed to implement any of the other measures approved by the panel and the Supreme Court that would have safely reduced the prison population and alleviated unconstitutional conditions involving medical and mental health care. The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer.
However, immediately enforcing the population cap would simply prompt the state to move thousands more inmates to private prisons in other states without solving the long-term crowding problem, the judges said. Given that choice, they adopted a proposal outlined by Gov. Jerry Brown's administration that it can reach the population cap by the end of February 2016 through steps that include expanding a Stockton medical facility to house about 1,100 mentally ill inmates and freeing more than 2,000 inmates who are elderly, medically incapacitated, or who become eligible for parole because of accelerated good-time credits.
The judges said the state also has agreed to consider more population-reduction reforms in the next two years, including the possible establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of penal and sentencing laws.
Brown said the ruling was encouraging. "The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer," he said in a statement.
Brown's administration said the alternative would have been to spend up to $20 million during the fiscal year that ends June 30 and up to $50 million next fiscal year to lease enough additional cells to meet the court order. With the delay, Brown said the state can spend $81 million next fiscal year for rehabilitation programs that would otherwise be spent to house inmates.
Inmates' attorneys had wanted the judges to require the state to meet the population cap by May. "We're very disappointed," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represented inmates in the crowding lawsuit. "We believe that there are substantial constitutional violations continuing right now, which result in prisoners suffering and dying because of prison overcrowding."...
Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state parole board, called the court order "tragic" and said it would endanger public safety. He blamed Brown, a Democrat expected to seek re-election this year, and the court for what he called a "disastrous new system that will result in the early release of many serious and violent inmates." The state should instead increase capacity in prisons and jails while investing in rehabilitation and early intervention programs, Nielsen said in a statement.
UPDATE: This Los Angeles Times article suggests that this latest federal court order might grease the path toward California finally creating a sentencing commission. Here is how the article begins:
Talk of a sentencing commission to review whom California sends to prison and for how long helped Gov. Jerry Brown win a two-year grace period from federal judges who want crowding reduced to a safe level. But there is no official move by the governor's office or Legislature to create one.
Brown's office was quick to point out Monday's federal court order giving the state until early 2016 to reduce crowding notes that the state only "will consider the establishment of a commission to recommend reforms of state penal and sentencing laws." Spokesman Jim Evans noted that was not a "promise" to create such a commission.
The proposal for a sentencing reform came from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg(D-Sacramento), who included it in a September 2013 letter to the federal judges supporting Brown's request for more time to deal with crowding.
Monday, February 10, 2014
"Fewer prisons — and yet, less crime"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece by Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson. The piece highlights the work of one GOP state legislator and details that Michigan's recent reductions in its prison populations has not been followed by a significant crime increase. Here are excerpts:
Americans are weary of paying for prisons. After stuffing more and more people behind bars for more than two decades, the vast majority of states, including Michigan, have taken steps in recent years to reduce both the number of people they imprison and the length of time offenders remain incarcerated.
As prison populations fall, moreover, crime rates are following suit. Nobody has proved a causal relationship between the two trends, but the fact that some of the biggest reductions in crime have occurred in states that slashed their inmate populations most dramatically has debunked the presumption that public safety depends on lengthy sentences and stingy parole policies.
States that spent the 1980s and ’90s building more and bigger penitentiaries have found a better return in programs designed to divert offenders from prison, and smooth re-entry for those who’ve served their time. Politicians on the front lines say the accompanying shift in voter attitudes has been nearly as startling as the thaw in public sentiment toward same-sex marriage.
State Rep. Joe Haveman, a Holland Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and has made sentencing reform a quietly messianic crusade, tells fellow lawmakers worried about looking soft on crime that voters understand that locking up more offenders is a dead end. “This movement wouldn’t be taking place if the people of this country didn’t realize we’ve made some mistakes,” Haveman says. “I come from the second-most conservative district in the state and the third most conservative county in the country,” Haveman says, “and nobody’s saying I’m wrong about reducing our prison population.
“This isn’t just good policy,” he adds, “this is where the public wants us to go.”...
In a study released last year, the Pew Center for the States reported that Michigan’s rate of incarceration plummeted 12% between 2007 and 2012, to 441 prisoners per 100,000 residents. During the same five-year interval, reported crime dropped 17%, mirroring a national decline.
It’s hard to pin either trend to a single factor, but corrections experts point to Michigan’s relaxation of its notorious “650-lifer law,” which for two decades mandated a life prison sentence for anyone convicted of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine or heroin. In 1998, then-Gov. John Engler signed bills permitting lesser sentences for future drug offenders and allowing those already serving life terms for drug offenses to seek parole.
Michigan’s change — the amended law allowed 650-lifers to seek parole after 20 years — was a modest one. But it anticipated a nationwide retreat from the draconian drug penalties that many states put in place during the 1970s and ’80s, setting off a slow but steady decline in the percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for possessing or selling drugs.
Michigan corrections officials also credit a decrease in the number of offenders sentenced to prison for all crimes, a slight increase in paroles, and changes in parole supervision that resulted in fewer parolees being returned to prison for minor parole violations....
Haveman, who spearheaded the passage of a 2012 bill that allows more juvenile offenders to expunge their criminal records if they stay out of legal trouble [is] working to revive a state sentencing commission that would be empowered to propose a new, data-driven scheme of criminal penalties modeled on best practices nationwide. But Haveman’s fellow Republicans remain fearful of going too fast, especially in an election year.
Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Haveman introduced legislation that would allow Michigan inmates already serving life sentences for crimes that they committed as teens to seek new sentences consistent with the court’s decision.
But state Attorney General Bill Schuette insists that only juveniles sentenced since the high court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama are entitled to the relief provided by the justices. Last week, Haveman’s Republican colleagues in the House agreed, adopting his bill only after the provision authorizing parole hearings for current juvenile lifers had been stripped out....
Haveman, whose western Michigan district is ground zero for the region’s Dutch Christian Reformed conservatives, is an unlikely champion for corrections reform. A former executive director of the Holland Home Builders Association, he credits the late state Sen. William Van Regenmorter, an Ottawa County conservative who earned national recognition for his advocacy on behalf of crime victims, with sparking his interest in criminal justice and prisons.
But Haveman says he’s been equally influenced by relationships that he and his wife have formed in the course of mentoring paroled inmates in a re-entry program sponsored by their church. That experience, supplemented by Haveman’s visits with corrections workers and inmates at 31 of Michigan’s 32 correctional facilities, convinced Haveman that he had a lot in common with many of those behind bars.
“I certainly was a dumb teenager, and I made mistakes,” Haveman said. “But if I’d grown up with the policing and enforcement policies that are in place today ... well, I’m not sure I’d be in the state Legislature.”
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Recognizing the modern mental health realities of modern punishment
In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof has this poignant discussion of the mental health issues that are often a central aspect of modern crime and punishment matters. The piece is headlined "Inside a Mental Hospital Called Jail," and here are excerpts:
The largest mental health center in America is a huge compound here in Chicago, with thousands of people suffering from manias, psychoses and other disorders, all surrounded by high fences and barbed wire.
Just one thing: It’s a jail. The only way to get treatment is to be arrested.
Psychiatric disorders are the only kind of sickness that we as a society regularly respond to not with sympathy but with handcuffs and incarceration. And as more humane and cost-effective ways of treating mental illness have been cut back, we increasingly resort to the law-enforcement toolbox: jails and prisons.
More than half of prisoners in the United States have a mental health problem, according to a 2006 Justice Department study. Among female inmates, almost three-quarters have a mental disorder.
In the jail here, some prisoners sit on their beds all day long, lost in their delusions, oblivious to their surroundings, hearing voices, sometimes talking back to them. The first person to say that this system is barbaric is their jailer.
“It’s criminalizing mental illness,” the Cook County sheriff, Thomas Dart, told me as he showed me the jail, on a day when 60 percent of the jail’s intake reported that they had been diagnosed with mental illness. Dart says the system is abhorrent and senseless, as well as an astronomically expensive way to treat mental illness — but that he has no choice but to accept schizophrenic, bipolar, depressive and psychotic prisoners delivered by local police forces.
People are not officially incarcerated because of psychiatric ailments, but that’s the unintended effect. Sheriff Dart says that although some mentally ill people commit serious crimes, the great majority are brought in for offenses that flow from mental illness....
A few data snapshots:
• Nationwide in America, more than three times as many mentally ill people are housed in prisons and jails as in hospitals, according to a 2010 study by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center.
• Mentally ill inmates are often preyed upon while incarcerated, or disciplined because of trouble following rules. They are much more likely than other prisoners, for example, to be injured in a fight in jail, the Justice Department says.
• Some 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses have been arrested at some point in their lives.
In the 1800s, Dorothea Dix led a campaign against the imprisonment of the mentally ill, leading to far-reaching reforms and the establishment of mental hospitals. Now we as a society have, in effect, returned to the 1800s....
In 1955, there was one bed in a psychiatric ward for every 300 Americans; now there is one for every 3,000 Americans, the 2010 study said. So while more effective pharmacological treatments are theoretically available, they are often very difficult to access for people who are only borderline functional....
Taxpayers spend as much as $300 or $400 a day supporting patients with psychiatric disorders while they are in jail, partly because the mentally ill require medication and extra supervision and care. “Fiscally, this is the stupidest thing I’ve seen government do,” Dart says. It would be far cheaper, he adds, to manage the mentally ill with a case worker on the outside than to spend such sums incarcerating them.
Saturday, February 08, 2014
Is anyone making a broadside constitutional attack against private prisons?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new blog post by Professor Michael Tigar over at his blog TigarBytes. The post is titled "Private Prisons Are Unconstitutional," and here is an excerpt:
In Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927), the Supreme Court invalidated a system whereby the mayor who presided as a judge of minor offenses received a percentage of fines and fees that he levied on defendants. In Ward v. Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57 (1972), the fines assessed in the "mayor's court" provided a significant share of the town's financial resources. The mayor had a major role in the administration of town finances. The Court held this arrangement violated due process.
The due process evil of occupancy guarantees [in private prison contracts] works on two branches of government. The judge who sentences a defendant is an agent of the state, and awareness of the contractual obligation inevitably skews her judgment. It is but a small step from Tumey and Monroeville to such a conclusion.
However, there is an additional evil here. The prosecutors who choose whom to prosecute and for what offenses, and to advocate for particular sentences, have the most direct influence on incarceration, given that 90% or more criminal cases are resolved with guilty pleas. One must assess the influence -- direct and indirect -- on prosecutors to make sure that those prison beds are filled....
A case more directly on point is Young v. U.S. ex rel. Vuitton et fils, S.A., 481 U.S. 787 (1987). In New York, there was a federal injunction against sellers of fake Vuitton merchandise. Courts would allow Vuitton to select and pay special prosecutors, who would conduct contempt cases against violators. There are several opinions in the case, but the upshot is that without strict judicial supervision, the "Vuitton system" posed too great a danger that the special prosecutors would pay more attention to Vuitton's interests than to their ethical obligation to prosecute fairly.
Young is one case among many that result from the movement away from private prosecution to the system that prevails today in the United States. Prosecutors are public officials, and while their choices of defendants and charges are entitled to considerable deference, influences other than the impartial public interest in punishing and deterring crime are suspect.
I do not pretend, in this post, to explore all the relevant case-law. I simply express a hope that somebody will start to litigate these issues.
Saturday, February 01, 2014
Two notable new Sentencing Project reports on sentencing reform and prison closings
This past week, The Sentencing Project released two notable short reports on state sentencing reforms and prison closings. Both reports are linked from this webpage, where the reports are noted and summarized in this way:
The Sentencing Project released two reports that highlight states downsizing prison systems and adopting sentencing policy reforms. Our research documents a three-year trend of prison closings that produced a reduction of 35,000 beds, including six states reducing capacity by 11,000 beds in 2013.
On the Chopping Block 2013 documents state prison closures and attributes the trend to several factors:
- A declining prison population in many states
- State fiscal constraints
- Sentencing and parole reforms in the areas of drug policy, diversion programs, and reductions in parole revocations to prison
The State of Sentencing 2013 documents reforms in 31 states in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:
- Expanding alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses
- Policies to reduce returns to prison for supervision violators
- Comprehensive juvenile justice measures that emphasize prevention and diversion
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Florida prisons struggling with extra costs of a hearty appetite for religion
This new New York Times article, headlined "You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher," highlights the extra costs of respecting religious freedoms for the incarcerated. Here are excerpts:
Florida is now under a court order to begin serving kosher food to eligible inmates, a routine and court-tested practice in most states. But state prison officials expressed alarm recently over the surge in prisoners, many of them gentiles, who have stated an interest in going kosher.
Their concern: The cost of religious meals is four times as much as the standard fare, said Michael D. Crews, who is expected to be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Corrections in March. “The last number I saw Monday was 4,417,” Mr. Crews said of inmate requests at his recent confirmation hearing before a State Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”...
Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if takes a little chutzpah to make the request.
“Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”
In Florida’s prison system. which faces a $58 million deficit, money is the easy answer for the battle against kosher food. The cost of three kosher meals in Florida is $7 a day, a big jump from the $1.54 for standard meals, Mr. Crews said. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is $5 a person. In California, where some prisons have kosher kitchens, the price tag is $8, and the meals are served to 0.7 percent of about 120,000 inmates.
Last April, facing an inmate lawsuit, Florida began a pilot program for the religious diet at Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville. Initially, some 250 inmates signed up, Mr. Crews said. But once other inmates spied the individually boxed lunches, 863 expressed a sudden interest in keeping kosher....
But the question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals. “Who is a Jew?” Mr. Rassbach said. “People disagree about who is a Jew.”
The courts steer clear of that perilous debate. Instead, inmates need only say they have a “sincerely held” religious belief. Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.... Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.
But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle. “There should be away to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”
Monday, January 20, 2014
"Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent article from The Atlantic. The subheading highlights its themes: "An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 prisoners released each year have substance abuse or mental health problems. But no one has been willing to pay for their treatment — until now." Here is an excerpt:
An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 men and women released from America’s lockups each year have either substance abuse problems, mental health problems, or both. Very often, those problems were largely responsible for getting them locked up in the first place. Most addicted and mentally ill prisoners receive little or no effective treatment while they’re incarcerated or after they’re turned loose, so it’s little surprise that ... they soon wind up back in jail. But for some, that revolving door may stop spinning this year, thanks to a little-noticed side-effect of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Obamacare, it turns out, might be a crime-fighting tool.
Numerous studies support the common-sense notion that treating offenders’ drug addictions and mental illnesses helps keep at least some of them from going back to jail. Get that junkie off heroin, and maybe he won’t steal your car stereo for fix money; get that mentally ill homeless person on proper medications, and maybe she can find a job instead of turning tricks in alleys. “It’s not the drug itself, it’s the stealing and robbing they do to get the drug,” says Abbie Zimmerman, a therapist at Transitions Clinic, a program based in San Francisco’s hard-bitten Hunter’s Point area that treats former prisoners (including Sanders, who is now an outreach worker there). “If I can keep them sober, I can keep them out of jail.”
But no one has been willing to pay for such treatment for hundreds of thousands of ex-cons. And they certainly can’t afford it themselves: According to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, the vast majority of released prisoners re-enter society with little money and no health insurance. But now many of those former prisoners are eligible for insurance, courtesy of the federal government.
Among many other reforms, the ACA is drastically expanding Medicaid, the federal insurance scheme for the poor. Previously, able-bodied childless adults were generally not covered by Medicaid, regardless of how impoverished they might have been. But starting this year, any American citizen under age 65 with a family income at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line — about $25,000 for a family of three — is eligible for Medicaid (at least in the two dozen states that have so far agreed to participate in this aspect of Obamacare). Meanwhile, citizens and legal immigrants earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line are now entitled to subsidies to help pay for private insurance. Taken together, those two provisions mean that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of the inmates released every year are now eligible for health insurance, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse services.
Providing treatment to those former prisoners could yield enormous benefits for all of us. The average cost to incarcerate someone for a year is roughly $25,000. That means if only one percent of each year’s released inmates stay out of trouble, taxpayers will save nearly $200 million annually — and the pool of troubled ex-cons looking to steal your car stereo will be that much smaller. “Success in implementing the Affordable Care Act has the potential to decrease crime, recidivism, and criminal justice costs, while simultaneously improving the health and safety of communities,” sums up a recent report by the federal Department of Justice.
It all looks great on paper. But there are significant obstacles to making this work in the real world. One is the simple fact that many former prisoners aren’t even aware of their new entitlements. “I don’t really know what Obamacare is,” says Ernest Kirkwood, a Transitions client who spent 29 years in prison, when I tell him I’d like to talk to him about the new health care regime. “I never read the newspaper.”
Making services available is one thing. Getting people whose judgment isn’t that great in the first place to actually use them is another. Plenty of drug users and mentally ill people don’t want to admit they have a problem. The stigma that persists around mental illness keeps some should-be patients away. Richard Rawson, a professor of psychiatry specializing in substance abuse at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that an earlier experiment that provided residential treatment to just-released drug offenders didn’t work as well as hoped. “People said, ‘I just got out, I don’t want to be in rehab for another year,’” he says.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Your tax dollars at work in incarceration nation
Two very different recent stories about two very different prisoners have the unifying theme of taxpayers footing the bill. Here are the headlines and the starts of the stories:
A federal appeals court in Boston today upheld a judge’s ruling that a transsexual inmate convicted of murder is entitled to a taxpayer-funded sex change operation as treatment for her severe gender identity disorder. In a ruling that was a first of its kind, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said courts must not shy away from enforcing the rights of all people, including prisoners. “And receiving medically necessary treatment is one of those rights, even if that treatment strikes some as odd or unorthodox,” the court said.
“Having carefully considered the relevant law and the extensive factual record, we affirm the judgment of the district court,” the court said in a 2-1 ruling, which could still be appealed to the full appeals court or to the US Supreme Court.
Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway, who is serving a one-year sentence for bank fraud, wants out of prison and says her unique status is keeping her confined longer than what’s normal.
Hathaway, in a self-drafted motion filed today, asks U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara to let her out early or allow her to serve the rest of her sentence at home. O’Meara sentenced Hathaway on May 28 to 12 months and one day in prison, plus two years’ probation, after she pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud in connection with the short sale of her Grosse Pointe Park home. She reported to prison in August.
She is serving her time in Alderson, W.Va., at a federal facility sometimes referred to as Camp Cupcake because of its relatively comfortable conditions, compared with some federal prisons. Former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers also served time there.
In her motion, Hathaway says she would normally be eligible for a move to a halfway house at this point in her sentence, but the Bureau of Prisons won’t consider such a move because of security and safety concerns because she is a former sentencing judge. Instead, she is only eligible to serve the last 10% of her sentence at home, Hathaway said in the motion. “Defendant is being denied equal protection of the law,” Hathaway told the judge.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that the incarceration costs for these two very different offenders are not worthwhile. Rather, I am just highlighting the (annoying?) reality that just about every interesting prison story in incarceration nation is being funded and fueled by state and federal tax dollars.