« "Victim's wife: Keep me out of death penalty fight" | Main | Effective discussion of nitrogen gas as execution method alternative »

March 20, 2015

Should SCOTUS Justices (and lots of other federal and state judges) regularly visit prisons?

The question of the title of this post is prompted by this interesting local article from Michigan, headlined "Justice goes to prison to weigh Mich. sentencing system."  Here are excerpts from this lengthy story:

On an early March tour of Michigan's prison intake center, new Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein learned that corrections officials want more guidance from judges about their expectations for the lawbreakers sent here.

New prisoners and rearrested parole absconders are processed at the three-building complex before being assigned to correctional facilities around the state. Inmates arrive with sentencing orders and other paperwork but nothing to indicate why a judge prescribed a certain prison term or what the goal of it is, Michigan Corrections Director Dan Heyns said.

"It would be helpful for judges to tell us the intent of their sentences," Heyns told Bernstein, the nation's first blind state Supreme Court justice. "If it's strictly to provide public safety, we know how to do that. But if the intent is to get at the root cause of their criminality, tell us that."

Bernstein's unusual visit — prison officials couldn't recall a previous visit from a sitting Supreme Court justice — came as lawmakers attempt to revive failed 2014 legislation calling for reforms of 1998 sentencing guidelines and parole policies. The changes were recommended last May by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which noted 1 in 5 state dollars is spent on corrections....

Bernstein's visit lasted four hours. He was keen to get a feel for what prison is like and learn how he and the state's highest court might improve coordination between judges who dispense justice and incarceration officials who administer it. Corrections chief Heyns provided examples of the way judges' decisions and state sentencing policies impact costs. For the crime of burglary, for example, the recidivism rate — chance of a repeat offense — is no lower after a five-year sentence than a three-year sentence, Heyns said. "There's no return on our investment for the other two years," he added.

The 41-year-old justice was elected last year to an eight-year term after working at his family's well-known Farmington Hills law firm, which specializes in personal injury litigation, not criminal law.  He handled a number of disability rights cases the firm litigated. "They said I have no experience with the criminal justice system," he said referring to critics of his November campaign for the Supreme Court. "That's a legitimate criticism."

Bernstein said the legal briefs for criminal cases that come before the Supreme Court are "academic" in nature and don't convey the harsh realities of prison life and rehabilitation. At the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, Bernstein encountered stark facilities where 9,000 men are processed annually. They live for two weeks to a month in barred cells stacked in tiers with yellow-railed gangways....

"I wanted to know what it feels like to come here, I want to know the consequences of our decisions," Bernstein said in the midst of it.  "You learn about how every facet of your life is controlled.  A free person does not think about that."...

At the end, the justice pressed for feedback about how to make the system work better. Half of the job of Supreme Court justices, he said, is to administer Michigan's court system through rules governing their proceedings.  Heyns suggested perhaps something as simple as a statement outlining the expectations in each judge's sentencing order would be a great help to prison officials. Bernstein said he wants to work at it but said any change "won't happen overnight."

Nearly two-thirds of the inmates now feeding into the system through Egeler are first-timers and half of them will be released within two years, according to Heyns.  "We don't have a whole lot of time to do a lot of correction," Heyns told Bernstein. "It calls into question, what are we really accomplishing with these people? It's a huge cost."

I think it is fantastic that this new Michigan Supreme Court Justice took the time to check out one part of his state's prison system. I think all judges with a significant part of their dockets comprised of criminal justice cases ought to consider doing the same. (I would guess that only a very small percentage of federal or state appellate judges have spent any real time inside a prison facility.)

March 20, 2015 at 04:59 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Should SCOTUS Justices (and lots of other federal and state judges) regularly visit prisons?:


I'm a public defender in CA. I'm also impressed that the justice visited a prison. But I'm even more impressed with Dan Heyns. It's really encouraging to see a corrections director being this serious and thoughtful about his job.

Posted by: Ryan | Mar 20, 2015 5:39:03 PM

Yes. They should visit and made to stay, for about 20 years, as the hierarchy of the greatest criminal cult enterprise in history.

I know this is an obvious retort, but it is not just irresistible, but absolutely true.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 20, 2015 10:07:43 PM

Judge Kozinski:


Posted by: Joe | Mar 20, 2015 11:07:31 PM


I have often stated that if the public is oppressed by the vile feminist lawyer hierarchy, the lawyer is doubly oppressed, and the ordinary judge is triply oppressed.

A judge was impeached, not just investigated and sanctioned for driving by to see the street scene of an accident under consideration before him. Lucky, Kosinski did not visit a defendant in a pending case, he just visited a fellow writer.

Out of the gaggle of dumbasses in a tribunal, the judge may be the most intelligent, sophisticated and experienced of all. To stifle the judge shows the intent of the hierarchy, to generate fees by the Scholasticist method of disputation, renamed superficially as the adversarial system, the greatest system of justice in the world. No, you assholes, the worst system of justice in the world, from the idiot 13th Century, you morons. The argument is that ex parte communication or investigations by this top person in the tribunal is likely to be biased, since the judge is with the prosecution, and less likely to relate to the defense.

In this case, Kosinski, is a genuine genius person, even after his mind crushing experience in law school. Kosinski is having a communication with the defendant. Still the vile feminist is trying to crush him. The vile feminist in charge of the judicial review board is trying to put on the face of piety, saying, we do not have the facts yet, so on.

Frustrating to the civilian. Judges' experience and skills are being wasted.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 20, 2015 11:35:15 PM

I may file a complaint with the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission for this ex parte activity. The guy is a tort litigator plaintiff lawyer scum, anyway.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 21, 2015 12:57:37 AM

Regular judicial visits are a start, and I commend those who go. But until there are unannounced visits, and wide-opened tours -- not just walks through the sections painted and polished by the inmates in anticipation of the VIPs, then filled with the best staff and inmates a la a set of movie extras -- then judges will never see more than the absolute best (and not necessarily accurate) vision of that prison.

I believe the most accurate glimpse of these prisons would be a flashlight tour of the kitchen area and mainlines at 2 a.m.

Posted by: Jay Hurst | Mar 21, 2015 9:51:58 AM

Well you don't have to touch the fire to know its hot, but visiting and even watching Lockup and other videos can help. Although the latter is supposedly entertainment which I find stupid by its host.

I suppose the general public to an extent thinks that prison is cozy, they won't talk about violence,bad healthcare or almost non existent in some facilities, and strip searches, also keep in mind many low level offenders can be subject to the same restrictions, even greater abuse by correction officials since they are low level and not violent to fight back to risk additional time.

We tend to give lower level crimes similar sentences to an extent as more serious crime, not all the time of course, but it often happens, this is unfair but is it going to change anytime soon, doubtful, legislators keep adding bills to increase time and offenses. Drug offenders may get some breaks, but how much, and who else will get breaks?

Of course rehabilitation is not so much whether the criminal has to motive to do the crime again, is he forced to, losing employment opportunities, an existing job, family in some cases, any public benefits, education is often subpar and training, he may be forced to rob and steal again.

Posted by: Alex | Mar 21, 2015 12:45:44 PM

I think the judges should not only visit the prisons and see what they are like, but that they should also think very carefully when they hand out long sentences...and what that amount of time means to the prisoners. That time also means something to the family and friends who are outside. My spouse received a very long prison sentence...and visiting is not made pleasant by the prison system, although BOP and our justice system supposedly wants to keep up family ties.
In order to visit my spouse, I had to drive 4 and half hours each way...and because visiting ends at 3 pm, the only efficient way to make the drive worth doing was to stay overnight, and plan a second period of visiting at 8 am the next morning (Federal hours tend to run 8 to 3). There is a long process and a long wait before you are able to meet with the prisoner. Then, you must stay the whole time (you can not leave and come back). At the prison where I visited, there was frequently not even any water available in the vending machines....and nothing healthy to eat either...(and you sure can't bring anything in!). I only mention this, because I wonder if most judges have even tried to visit a prisoner through "normal" channels. That alone might be eye opening. (my spouse is now at a different prison...where the vending machines are better stocked...but the process to visit is still onerous)

Posted by: folly | Mar 21, 2015 6:14:39 PM

I think it should be mandatory that all judges, prosecutors (federal and state) and lawmakers be made to stay in prison for a minimum of two weeks, but then they might corrupt the existing residents. Then they might realize the absurdity of locking someone who has not done real harm to a real person for 20+ years instead of 5 years. I mean "real harm", instead of adding on absurd charges like obstruction and resisting.

Liars in the legislature, exective and judicial braches cause much more real harm than a lot of inmates.

Posted by: albeed | Mar 21, 2015 8:15:56 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB