Friday, December 22, 2006

Incarceration Nation

America Has Become Incarceration Nation
By Marc Mauer,
Posted on December 22, 2006, Printed on December 22, 2006

Two remarkable developments in Washington in the past week highlight the extent to which the United States has become the land of mass incarceration.

First, the Supreme Court denied the appeal of Weldon Angelos for a first-time drug offense. Angelos was a 24-year-old Utah music producer with no prior convictions when he was convicted of three sales of marijuana in 2004. During these sales he possessed a gun, though there were no allegations that he ever used or threatened to use it. Under federal mandatory sentencing laws, the judge was required to sentence Angelos to five years on the first offense and 25 years each for the two subsequent offenses, for a total of 55 years in prison. In imposing sentence, Judge Paul Cassell, a leading conservative jurist, decried the sentencing policy as "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

The Angelos decision came on the heels of a Bureau of Justice Statistics report finding that there are now a record 2.2 million Americans incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails. These figures represent the continuation of a "race to incarcerate" that has been raging since 1972. With a 500 percent increase in the number of people in prison since then, the United States has now become the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-8 times the rate of other industrialized nations. The strict punishment meted out in the Angelos case and thousands of others explain much of the rapid increase in the prison population.

The composition of the prison population reflects the socioeconomic inequalities in society. Sixty percent of the prison population is African American and Latino, and if current trends continue, one of every three black males and one of every six Latino males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in his lifetime. The overall rates for women are lower, but the racial and ethnic disparities are similar and the growth rate of women's incarceration is nearly double that of men over the past two decades.

While the United States has a higher rate of violent crime than comparable nations, the substantial prison buildup since 1980 has resulted from changes in policy, not changes in crime. The "get tough" movement, which embraced initiatives designed to send more people to prison and to keep them for longer periods of time, contributed to massive prison construction and a corrections budget now totaling $60 billion annually. These policy changes included mandatory sentences that restrict judicial discretion while imposing "one size fits all" penalties, "three strikes and you're out" laws that allow life terms upon a third felony conviction, and the "war on drugs."

Drug policies have been responsible for a disproportionate share of the rise in the inmate population, with the 40,000 drug offenders in prison or jail in 1980 increasing to a half million today. A substantial body of research has documented that these laws have had virtually no effect on the drug trade, as measured by price or availability of drugs. Most of the drug offenders in prison are not the "kingpins" of the drug trade. Indeed, the low-level sellers who are incarcerated are rapidly replaced on the streets by others seeking economic gain.

While crime rates have been declining nationally for a decade, research to date demonstrates that expanded incarceration has, at best, been responsible for only a quarter of this decline. Other factors that played a key role include a strong economy in the 1990s that provided employment opportunities for low-skill workers, a marked decline in crack cocaine use and its associated violence by the early 1990s, and strategic community policing. New York City, which experienced a two-thirds reduction in homicides from 1990 to 2002, did so despite a one-third decline in its jail population during that period. And conversely, while Idaho led the nation with an astonishing 174 percent rise in its prison population, it nevertheless experienced a 14 percent rise in crime.

With a new Democratic Congress in place, there is hope that long-festering criminal justice policy inequities can finally be addressed. Long-time reform champions Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., are poised to take over the chairmanships of the House Judiciary Committee and its Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security subcommittee, respectively. But we should be cautious in our expectations given the Democratic Party's record of complicity in endorsing "get tough" measures. Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill, for example, was loaded with harsh sentencing provisions and $8 billion in new prison construction. Progressives would be wise to continue to build bipartisan support for criminal justice reform measures. In recent years this has led to alliances with conservative Senators Sam Brownback and Jeff Sessions who sponsored bills for prisoner reentry and crack cocaine sentencing reform respectively.

As we look to the new Congress, high on any reform agenda should be the following:

Crack cocaine sentencing reform -- During the last 20 years, the federal sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenses have subjected thousands of low-level defendants to mandatory five- and 10-year prison terms, while exacerbating the racial dynamics of incarceration. More than 80 percent of the persons charged with these offenses are African Americans, who receive much stiffer terms than those meted out to powder cocaine defendants.
Mandatory sentencing reform -- Congressional mandates to impose harsh sentences with no judicial input have created unfair and overly harsh penalties, and have been decried by the American Bar Association and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, among many others.
Racial impact statements -- Just as fiscal impact statements aid lawmakers in assessing the financial implications of sentencing policies, the preparation of racial impact assessments could provide similar benefits to policymakers. Had such assessments existed in 1986, we could have had a debate on the racial dynamics of the crack cocaine laws prior to their enactment, not 20 years later.
Felon disenfranchisement reform -- Five million Americans could not participate in the November election due to a current or previous felony conviction. Laws that govern these practices are enacted by the states, but Congress has the authority to require uniform voting rules in federal elections. Legislation proposed by John Conyers in the House would require states to permit voting by any non-incarcerated person in federal elections, even if barred from participating in state elections.
Three decades of prison expansion have led to rates of imprisonment that are shameful for a democratic nation. Both public safety and community health would be better served through investments in policies that promote job creation, high school graduation and substance abuse treatment. It's time to reverse the race to incarcerate.

Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author of "Race to Incarcerate" and co-editor of "Invisible Punishment" (both from The New Press).

© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Marijuana Called Top U.S. Cash Crop

Marijuana Takes the Pot as Most Valuable Cash Crop in the Country

Dec. 18, 2006 — - Weeding through the value of the nation's cash crops, a study released today states that marijuana is the U.S.'s most valuable crop and promotes the drug's legalization and taxation.

Drug enforcement officials say the equation is not that simple.

The report, "Marijuana Production in the United States," by marijuana policy researcher Jon Gettman, concludes that despite massive eradication efforts at the hands of the federal government, "marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of the national economy."

In the report, Gettman, a marijuana-reform activist and leader of the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, champions a system of legal regulation.

Contrasting government figures for traditional crops -- like corn and wheat -- against the study's projections for marijuana production, the report cites marijuana as the top cash crop in 12 states and among the top three cash crops in 30.

The study estimates that marijuana production, at a value of $35.8 billion, exceeds the combined value of corn ($23.3 billion) and wheat ($7.5 billion).

Pot Tax?

To activists for marijuana legalization, the study confirms a position they've held for years, and uses government stats to support their claim.

"The fact that marijuana is America's No. 1 cash crop after more than three decades of governmental eradication efforts is the clearest illustration that our present marijuana laws are a complete failure," says Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington D.C., a group that focuses on removing criminal penalties for marijuana use.

Kampia, whose comments were included in the study's press release, adds, "Our nation's laws guarantee that 100 percent of the proceeds from marijuana sales go to unregulated criminals rather than to legitimate businesses that pay taxes to support schools, police and roads."

A 2005 analysis by Harvard visiting professor Jeffrey Miron estimates that if the United States legalized marijuana, the country would save $7.7 billion in law enforcement costs and could generated as much as $6.2 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like alcohol or tobacco.

Miron's report on the costs of marijuana prohibition was signed by more than 500 leading economists, most notably the late Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, who served as an economist in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Friday, December 15, 2006

"COPPS" program

Salt Lake City’s Community Oriented Police and Prosecution Strategies (COPPS) project has made the ‘shortlist’ for the World Leadership Award.

The COPPS project is a proactive, collaborative, solution based approach to criminal justice. It is a partnership between law enforcement, prosecution, community, government and non-government organization. COPPS utilizes a three tiered approach which is layered upon each other to create a comprehensive criminal and community justice response. The first tier is our CAT Teams (Community Action Teams), the second tier is “Alternatives to Incarceration” and the third tier consists of Prosecution.
Community Action Teams consist of a multi agency approach to solving community problems. The teams are organized around the seven city council districts working collaboratively to solve issues at the neighborhood level. The teams address and creatively seek out solutions for a wide variety of quality of life issues, including but not limited to neighborhood gang, drug and serious public health issues.

“Alternatives to Incarceration” seek to transition individuals out of the criminal justice system who benefit from interventions that address their core issues. A series of programs initiated through the prosecutor’s office and in collaboration with various agencies seek to address this population. “Crisis Intervention Teams,” Mental Health Court, Misdemeanor Drug Court, Domestic Violence Court, Johns Program, Dui Court, Passages and Public Sex Crimes are such programs.

The third tier is for the prosecution of individuals for offenses that cannot be resolved through the first two tiers of response. This philosophy of creative problem solving has been instrumental in developing and implementing programs focusing on domestic violence, victim support services, and victim counseling.
The collective effect of the three tier process is a comprehensive approach to address criminal justice in the community with a goal of providing a safe and just environment for all of our residents. This approach involves the community, minimizes the costs and gives offenders a chance to turn their lives around through acceptance of responsibility, treatment, education and counseling. The program depends on the cooperation of police, prosecution and various other partners to creatively solve the problem and to be innovative in our public service and public safety response.

“I congratulate the Salt Lake City Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office for earning such well-deserved recognition for the City’s restorative justice programs,” says Mayor Rocky Anderson. “With the guidance and leadership of City Prosecutor Sim Gill and Police Chief Chris Burbank, these programs have provided restitution for victims and our community while fostering rehabilitation for offenders, and are a great credit to our criminal justice system.”

The World Leadership Forum is a not-for-profit organization which promotes leadership internationally. Awards are given to cities whose leaders have shown exceptional imagination, foresight or resilience in eleven different categories. The list has been narrowed down from 400 cities to the top 28 cities. Salt Lake City, Madrid, Spain and Stuttgart, Germany are the contenders in the ‘Law and Order’ category.

The 28 cities will present their projects to the judges in London on December 5 and 6, 2006. The winners of each category will then be announced at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on December 6, 2006. The judges will apply three criteria: the quality of leadership displayed, the difficulties, or obstacles, that the city has overcome; and the degree of inspiration that the city may give to others.

The Salt Lake City Model

Crime programs up for prize
Global competition: SLC to showcase its 'restorative justice' approach to treating underlying causes
By Heather May
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:12/02/2006 01:58:57 AM MST

Mayor Rocky Anderson, his police chief and top prosecutor will fly to London today to tout Salt Lake City programs that attempt to treat the underlying cause of crime - from prostitution to drunken driving to drug offenses.
The city is a finalist for a World Leadership Award. It won one last year for its environmental efforts. This year, Utah's capital is competing against Madrid, Spain, and Stuttgart, Germany, in the "law-and-order" category.
Salt Lake City's program is called "restorative justice." Instead of focusing on punishment, it emphasizes helping victims and the community, and working with offenders.
"We should bring the hammer down on people who deserve to have the hammer down on them," said City Prosecutor Sim Gill, who will make the presentation along with Anderson and Police Chief Chris Burbank.
But, in some cases, Gill said, "you can prosecute them until the cows come home, but you're not going to get anything out of it unless you address the root causes."
The policy shift started in 2000, when Anderson entered his first term. Restorative justice includes 12 programs:
* Community Action Teams: Members from city government, the community and Valley Health Department meet weekly to discuss neighborhood crime and safety issues.
* Pathways: The pilot program provides housing and support services to the chronically homeless.
* Crises Intervention Team: Police officers are trained to identify mental illness so that encounters go more smoothly and the ill get medical help. The mentally ill make up 5 percent of the U.S. population but 16 percent of the jail population, according to the city's prepared presentation for the judges.
* Mental Health Court: Mentally ill offenders receive medical, counseling and housing services. Just 17 percent of participants have graduated, but incarceration and inpatient treatment costs dropped, according to the presentation.
* Domestic Violence Court: Offenders must undergo counseling and be monitored. Some 75 percent of participants have graduated from the program, said the city.
* Drunk Driving Court: Convicted drivers pay restitution to victims and receive counseling. They meet with residents to understand how their crime affects the community. Three-quarters of the 327 offenders have graduated. And the court has saved $490,000 in adjudication costs, the city said.
* Misdemeanor Drug Court: Offenders go through therapy and course work instead of jail. It has reduced jail time by 80,000 days.
* Johns Offender Program: Men who solicit prostitutes learn why they pursue the criminal activity and are taught to express their sexuality legally. The program saved $495,000 in trial costs. Less than 10 percent of participants were re-arrested for solicitation.
* Prostitution Outreach: Women receive counseling that addresses mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.
* Public Sex Crimes Program: Most participants are heterosexuals with families who are caught engaging in homosexual behavior in public, according to the presentation. They receive counseling for a year. Six of the 295 offenders have been re-arrested.
* Passages Program: Misdemeanor offenders must provide restitution to victims and the community.
* Homeless Court: Those with several minor violations are taught how their crimes affect the community and aided in gaining housing and social services. Adjudication costs plunged from $465 to $25 per offender, the presentation said.
In all offenses, except drunken driving, Gill offers violators pleas in abeyance. If offenders finish the program, they avoid a conviction. If they don't, Gill takes them to court.
Salt Lake City says other cities can copy the model and those in Utah may want to. The state has the nation's highest recidivism rate, according to the city.
"Once they go to prison, they're more likely to go back to prison," Gill said. "We can continue to warehouse [violators] or we've got to figure out how do we peel away a certain proportion of people out of there that don't belong there."

Monday, December 11, 2006

A New Jail For Sarasota? part one

Jail crisis puts county in political dilemma

By Jack Gurney

Faced with jam-packed jail cells and no political commitment to provide more, Sarasota County officials have swallowed hard and asked the state for relief from a "zero tolerance" policy on the arrest and incarceration of probation violators.

On Nov. 14, Commission Chair Nora Patterson signed a letter to Florida Department of Corrections Secretary James R. McDonough that asks him "reconsider" the state's get-tough approach on violators by allowing local judges to deal with them on a "case-by-case" basis.

The letter reflects an Oct. 10 commission decision to temporarily reduce the daily jail population of more than 1,000 inmates, while it begins to consider Sheriff Bill Balkwill's request for a new facility where sentenced inmates could serve out their terms.

In her one-page letter, Patterson suggests that almost 15 percent of the jail population - a daily average of 156 inmates - are parole violators who individually cost county taxpayers $58 a day to house. She provided a list of county initiatives to ease overcrowding.

"The county has also started the process of planning the next jail to keep up with the impact of population growth," she stated. "However, all of these efforts are seemingly meaningless in the face of state policies that create a significantly large burden on the jail population."

So far, the only steps taken to provide more cells have been a couple of internal meetings and the employment of an outside consultant. There has been no commitment to provide more jail capacity or build the new facility Balkwill has requested.

On Dec. 4, the first serious consideration of a new medium-security facility for sentenced prisoners could begin to unfold at a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting, where county and sheriff's officials will directly address the proposal.

Meanwhile, the commission's request for local relief from the state's "zero tolerance" policy on parole violators appears to fly in the face of public outrage after the 2004 kidnap, rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia by Joseph Smith, a parole violator.

Television talk show host Bill O'Reilly seized on the Sarasota tragedy to vilify former Circuit Judge Harry Rapkin in a series of broadcasts for not ordering Smith's immediate arrest and incarceration. Rapkin did not seek reappointment to the bench.

Commissioner Shannon Staub raised the subject of jail overcrowding on Oct. 10 and discussed programs to empty cells that have worked in other communities. County Administrator Jim Ley suggested options such as mental health programs and agreed to provide alternatives.

The state's get-tough policy was established in 2003 by former Department Secretary James Crosby and reaffirmed this spring by his successor, McDonough, in a letter to field staff employees that stated, "I have reviewed this policy and am in full support."

While the state's policy predated the death of Brucia in 2004, and the murder of 9-year-old Citrus County resident Jessica Lunsford a year later, it became a focal point for shocked residents who demanded that parole violators be removed from the streets.

As a result, state probation officers have strictly enforced the policy and issued arrest warrants for violators. The ultimate disposition of such cases is still a circuit court responsibility, wherein judges must decide whether to warn or incarcerate offenders.

Earlier this year, Balkwill requested a new mid-county booking facility for arrests, and a new jail outside the city for 200 to 300 sentenced prisoners. The problem is where to locate the structure without stirring up a political hornet's nest with area residents.

In 1998, the county commission considered potential locations outside the city, listened to complaints from Laurel area residents who felt threatened by a new jail facility at the landfill, and finally agreed to a 329-bed downtown jail addition.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

"Futile" Drug War

By Cynthia TuckerSun Dec 3, 12:03 AM ET

All wars have a way of creating collateral damage, as the desk-bound bureaucrats euphemistically call the dead innocents, destroyed buildings and decimated towns that just happen to be in the way of bombs and bullets. Kathryn Johnston was collateral damage in America's misguided "war on drugs."

On Nov. 21, the 88-year-old in woman was shot dead by Atlanta undercover police officers who crashed through her door after dark to execute a "no-knock" search warrant for illegal drugs. Living in a high-crime neighborhood, apparently frightened out of her wits, she fired at the intruders with a rusty revolver, hitting all three. That's according to the police account, which says the officers then returned fire, striking Johnston in the chest and extremities.

Because there are suggestions of police impropriety in the case, Police Chief Richard Pennington has asked outside law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to review the actions of the narcotics officers. Pennington also suspended his entire narcotics squad, with pay, pending the outcome.

The investigation may reveal police incompetence, and it may reveal police malfeasance. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely to point to the root cause of this tragedy: a foolish, decades-long effort to curb illegal drug use through arrests and incarceration. Raging on mindlessly, the war on drugs has caused untold collateral damage -- leaving children fatherless, helping to exacerbate the spread of AIDS, and filling prisons with people who, with minimal rehabilitation, might be contributing to society rather than draining its resources.

That only begins to tally the destruction, much of it inflicted on black communities. While black Americans are no more likely to use illegal drugs than whites, they are disproportionately imprisoned for drug offenses. There are three basic reasons for that, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates alternatives to incarceration: the concentration of drug-law enforcement in inner city areas; harsher sentencing policies for crack cocaine, used disproportionately by black Americans, than for powder cocaine; and the drug war's emphasis on law enforcement at the expense of prevention and treatment.

Whatever led Atlanta police to the small, burglar-barred house in a downtrodden Atlanta neighborhood -- contradictory claims have been offered about the search warrant -- it's clear that Johnston was no drug dealer. Even if she had been, her crimes would not have justified the intrusive and dangerous tactics police used. Those tactics flow from a failed policy that emphasizes arrests -- any arrests, no matter the offender's stature in the drug-trade hierarchy or the size of the cache of drugs. That policy has kept police busy with penny-ante dealers while the real drug trade flourishes.

That strategy also heavily burdens black communities. According to The Sentencing Project's Ryan King, black drug users tend to engage in higher rates of stranger-to-stranger transactions. That makes it easy for police to pose undercover. "It's a lot easier to come off the streets, buy a couple of rocks and make an arrest," King said.

By contrast, targeting affluent users who buy from friends and acquaintances "would require a lot of police work, months or years of undercover efforts for one or two arrests," King said. Most police jurisdictions will choose the easier targets.

Of course, the criminal justice system isn't color-blind, either. Reams of research have shown that white men tend to get probation for nonviolent offenses more often than black and Latino men, who are more often sent to prison. There is a built-in bigotry that tends to see men of color as more of a threat.

It's no wonder, then, that an estimated one-third of young black men are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system -- in prison, on probation or on parole. And once they've been tainted with a conviction, they struggle under its stigma for the rest of their lives. They're less likely to get gainful employment, so they're less likely to be attractive husbands or responsible fathers.

This country now imprisons its citizens at five to eight times the rate of most other industrialized nations, according to The Sentencing Project. We've learned nothing from the earlier period of Prohibition, which produced criminal gangs and an epidemic of lawlessness.

Meanwhile, for all the wreckage from this drug war, the use of illicit substances has declined slightly but not substantially. Methamphetamine has replaced crack cocaine as the drug plague that enlivens local newscasts; the affluent tend toward "designer" drugs such as Ecstasy, which figure less prominently in arrest reports.

And Kathryn Johnston? She's not the first victim of our foolish, futile war on drugs. Sadly, she won't be the last.

(Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached by e-mail:

Copyright © 2006 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Lock em up?

It is time to start a conversation about criminal justice in Sarasota County. To get things started, here is an interesting article I found at TalkLeft.

Big Crime Drop in New York With Fewer Incarcerations

By Jeralyn, Section Crime Policy
Posted on Fri Nov 24, 2006 at 10:00:38 PM EST

Is New York City now the safest city in the country?

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer of its citizens during the past decade. The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time.

The national trend of lock em' up continues to be disturbing.

Nearly 2.2 million Americans now live behind bars, about eight times as many as in 1975 and the most per capita in the Western world. For three decades, Congress and dozens of legislatures have worked to write tougher anti-crime measures. Often the only controversy has centered on how to finance the construction of prison cells.

In New York, officials are shutting down prison cells. Elsewhere, it's a different story.

Perhaps as intriguing is the experience in states where officials spent billions of dollars to build prisons. From 1992 to 2002, Idaho's prison population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

Other states are now beginning to re-think their overreliance on prisons:

In the past few years, legislators in such conservative states as Louisiana and Mississippi have passed sentencing reforms. Kansas and Nebraska are reconsidering prison expansion in favor of far less expensive drug treatment. The United States annually spends about $60 billion on prisons.

If you don't care because you don't know anyone in prison, you should. This affects you too.

"Crime is down and people realize, sure, we can lock up more people, but that's why your kid's pre-K class has 35 kids -- all the money is going to prisons," Jacobson says. "There's a sense of urgency that for the first time in two decades, we can talk about whether it makes sense to lock up even more people."

The pro- lock 'em up crowd thinks more people in prison reduces crime since fewer criminal are out there able to commit offenses. But, others point out:

The nation's prison population rose between 1985 and 1993 -- even as crime spiked sharply. New York was not the only city in which crime and imprisonment fell in tandem during the 1990s. From 1993 to 2001, homicides in San Diego declined by 62 percent while prison sentences dropped by 25 percent.

Casting an eye north of the border, Canada experienced a sharp drop in crime as its prison population fell.

Who's in jail these days?

Approximately 60 percent of U.S. convicts serve time for charges related to drug peddling and addiction. In California, 65,000 parolees fail drug tests each year and are recycled back to prison each year. They serve, on average, an additional four months, at a cost of $1 billion.

Then there's the social cost of incarceration:

Such heavy reliance on prison, epidemiologists note, carries a considerable social price tag. Hundreds of thousands of released felons cannot vote, cannot obtain driver's licenses and have trouble finding jobs -- a toll that falls disproportionately on blacks, Latinos and poor whites.

Don't give credit for lowering the jail population to Rudy Giuliani either:

No public official set out to drive down New York's prison and jail population in the early 1990s. Quite the opposite; crack-fueled homicides had topped 2,000, the middle class was fleeing and Giuliani was elected on a crime-fighting platform.

"If I told Rudy we needed to lock up 40,000, 50,000 people, he would have said fine," Jacobson said. "Rudy can say now that he's a genius, but the drop in prison population was entirely unintentional."

As for why crime may be lower in New York, consider this:

City and state prisons in New York also turned aggressively to drug treatment and mental health counseling. They did so as a matter of enlightened self-interest. The city prison system is the second-largest mental health provider in the nation; only the Los Angeles County system surpasses it.

Rehabilitation. Try it, it works.