Saturday, December 22, 2007

If Florida could follow New Jersey's lead . .

Practicality. Justice. Morality. These three forces combined this week in New Jersey, when Gov. Jon Corzine signed that state's historic ban on the death penalty. It is the first state in the nation to legislatively abandon the death penalty as an antiquated, arbitrary and illogical penalty. It should not stand alone.

Unlike Florida, New Jersey hasn't conducted an execution since 1963 and seemed unlikely to do so any time soon. Yet the state -- like Florida -- has spent millions in death-penalty litigation, sending families of murder victims on a seemingly never-ending emotional roller coaster.

Even before he was elected, Corzine never made any secret of his opposition to capital punishment (a fact that undermines the belief that the public won't support anti-death-penalty candidates). But the state didn't leap into the debate over the death penalty blindly. Instead, the Legislature convened a study commission that looked at all angles of the death penalty and finally -- citing the weight of evidence against it -- recommended abolition. The commission's report included several conclusions:

· There's no evidence that executions serve "legitimate penological intent." Capital punishment doesn't serve as a deterrent to murder, especially when it's so arbitrarily applied.

· It costs more to administer the death penalty than it does to keep someone in prison for the rest of his or her life. The commission considered emotional as well as monetary costs in its calculation.

· The death penalty is increasingly out of step with "evolving standards of decency." Polls show public support slipping for capital punishment, especially when pollsters include the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

· Abolishing the death penalty could reduce inequities in sentencing. The commission didn't find persuasive evidence of racial bias, but did find that death sentences were often unrelated to the severity of the crime for which the condemned was executed. More likely predictors: Poverty and the quality of the accused's legal representation.

· Society's interest in executing convicted murderers is outweighed by the high probability of executing an innocent person. This statement was bolstered by the recent rash of sentences overturned by DNA evidence -- and the sure knowledge that many more cases might never be overturned because DNA wasn't preserved or never existed.

· Life in prison without the possibility of parole is just as effective in protecting the public.

The commission wasn't asked to address the horrific spectacle of botched executions, or the lingering doubts that lethal injection -- the execution method most commonly used in the United States -- could in fact be a torturous death for many prisoners.

These arguments should be just as persuasive in Florida, which has led the nation in overturned convictions and has more reason than most states to doubt the guilt of those on death row: 25 condemned men have been freed since 1973. Yet state leaders show little interest in following New Jersey's footsteps. What will it take for one Florida leader to find the courage to speak out against this ongoing injustice -- and to work to put an end to state-sanctioned killing?

Corzine gave a passionate speech before signing the historic legislation in which he quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation." Florida has yet to evolve. For the sake of justice, it should.

An Editorial from the Daytona Beach News Journal, published December 21, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Long Time Coming

It took 31 years, but the moral bankruptcy, social imbalance, legal impracticality and ultimate futility of the death penalty has finally penetrated the consciences of lawmakers in one of the 37 states that arrogates to itself the right to execute human beings.

This week, the New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed a law abolishing the death penalty, and Gov. Jon Corzine, a staunch opponent of execution, promised to sign the measure very soon. That will make New Jersey the first state to strike the death penalty from its books since the Supreme Court set guidelines for the nation’s system of capital punishment three decades ago.

Some lawmakers voted out of principled opposition to the death penalty. Others felt that having the law on the books without enforcing it (New Jersey has had a moratorium on executions since 2006) made a mockery of their argument that it has deterrent value. Whatever the motivation of individual legislators, by forsaking a barbaric practice that grievously hurts the global reputation of the United States without advancing public safety, New Jersey has set a worthy example for the federal government, and for other states that have yet to abandon the creaky, error-prone machinery of death.

New Jersey’s decision to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole seems all the wiser coming in the middle of a month that has already seen the convictions of two people formerly on death row in other states repudiated. In one case, the defendant was found not guilty following a new trial.

The momentum to repeal capital punishment has been building in New Jersey since January, when a 13-member legislative commission recommended its abolition. The panel, which included two prosecutors, a police chief, members of the clergy and a man whose daughter was murdered in 2000, cited serious concerns about the imperfect nature of the justice system and the chance of making an irreversible mistake. The commission also concluded, quite correctly, that capital punishment is both a poor deterrent and “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”

By clinging to the death penalty, states keep themselves in the company of countries like Iran, North Korea and China — a disreputable pantheon of human mistreatment. Small wonder the gyrations of New Jersey’s Legislature have been watched intently by human rights activists around the world.

Spurred in large part by the large and growing body of DNA-based exonerations, there is increasing national unease about the death penalty. The Supreme Court is poised to consider whether lethal injections that torture prisoners in the process of killing them amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, an exercise bound to put fresh focus on some of the ugly details of implementing capital punishment.

In a sense, the practical impact of New Jersey’s action may be largely symbolic. Although there are eight people on New Jersey’s death row, the moratorium was in place, and the state has not put anyone to death since 1963. Nevertheless, it took political courage for lawmakers to join with Governor Corzine. Their renunciation of the death penalty could prick the conscience of elected officials in other states and inspire them to muster the courage to revisit their own laws on capital punishment.

At least that is our fervent hope.

A New York Times Editorial published December 15, 2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

States Rethinking Harsh Juvenile Crime Laws

One size fits all justice never works. States that in the past enacted tough laws charging juveniles as adults and in many cases throwing them in prison for life without a key are now rethinking these laws.

They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

States considering changes: Colorado, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Illinois. The article is filled with details.

America can't jail itself out of its juvenile crime problem. We can't keep putting law enforcement and punishment over prevention.

The expertise of the family court and the juvenile court system serves a vital function in our society. As I wrote back in 1998 when Congress was considering some ill-advised juvenile crime legislation:

The value of prevention over the pure "lock-em-up" mentality was shown by a Rand Corporation projection: While a $1 million investment in new prisons would prevent 60 serious crimes a year, the same $1 million, if invested in parent training, could prevent 160 serious crimes a year. And if the same amount were spent on graduation incentives for disadvantaged students, there might be 258 fewer serious crimes a year.

It's time to get smarter, not tougher about crime.

By Jeralyn TALK LEFT posted Saturday December 1, 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Right Way to Handle Former Inmates:

To control recidivism, and thus have a shot at controlling prison crowding and costs, the states and localities need to develop comprehensive programs that help former inmates find jobs, housing, training, drug treatment and mental health care. A promising model has emerged in Brooklyn, where District Attorney Charles Hynes started his re-entry program long before other jurisdictions even realized they were necessary.

Created in 1999 in Brooklyn, ComAlert was recently the subject of a state-funded study carried out by the district attorney’s office in collaboration with Bruce Western of Harvard, a sociologist and criminal justice expert. The program is still evolving and is far from perfect. But the study shows that former inmates are more likely to get jobs and keep jobs — and more likely to remain out of jail — if they undergo a rigorous regime of counseling and drug treatment while participating in a companion program that offers them immediate work experience and job training.

Drug treatment, counseling and drug testing are cornerstones of the ComAlert program. In addition to being counseled and tested, participants are also encouraged to sign up with Ready, Willing & Able, a highly regarded work and training program offered by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization in New York.

Many of those who join the program have little or no experience with the world of work. They begin to get that experience by working full time in low-skill jobs like street cleaning, which pays between $7.40 and $8.15 per hour. Most participants are eventually moved into vocational programs where they are trained in one of several areas, including food preparation, pest control, office services and building management. They are often referred to jobs at companies that have longstanding relationships with the program.

According to the report, ComAlert graduates are less likely be re-arrested after leaving prison and much more likely to be employed than either program dropouts or members of the control group. Participants who complete the Doe Fund work-training component do even better. They have an employment rate of about 90 percent, somewhat higher than the ComAlert graduates generally and several times higher than the control group.

These results are quite promising, but more research will be needed to bear them out fully. Beyond that, the ComAlert team will need to find ways to lower the combined dropout and failure rate, which is nearly 46 percent. These issues aside, the program is clearly headed in the right direction and deserves to be expanded and emulated elsewhere. It represents an impressive start toward the goal of helping newly released inmates forge viable lives on the outside.

November 29, 2007
New York Times Editorial

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

US. Prison System a Costly Failure

The US prison population has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to the taxpayer, researchers say. There are more than 1.5 million people in US state and federal jails, a report by a Washington-based criminal justice research group, the JFA Institute says. Inmate numbers are projected to rise by 192,000 in five years, costing $27.5bn to build and run jails.

The JFA recommends reducing the number and length of sentences. The Unlocking America report, which was published on Monday, also advocated changing terms of parole and finding alternatives to prison as part of a major overhaul of the US justice system. "There is no evidence that keeping people in prison longer makes us any safer," said JFA president James Austin.

The report said that US crime rates, which have been in decline since the 1990s, are about the same as those for 1973.
It says the incarceration rate has soared because sentences have got longer and those who violate parole or probation are more likely to be given prison terms. The report said that every year hundreds of thousands of Americans are sent to jail "for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to society". It cited several examples including a Florida woman's two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee at another car in a traffic row.

Its recommendations run counter to the Bush administration's policy of longer, harsher sentences, which the government says has contributed to falling violent crime and murder figures. The JFA researchers found that women represented the fastest-growing sector of the US prison population.

The report was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2007/11/19 17:44:20 GMT

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Second Chance for Ex-Offenders

If past patterns hold true, more than half of the 650,000 prisoners released this year will be back behind bars by 2010. With the prison population exploding and the price of incarceration now topping $60 billion a year, states are rightly focusing on ways to reduce recidivism. Congress can give these efforts a boost by passing the Second Chance Act, which would provide crucial help to people who have paid their debts to society.

Newly released inmates are often driven right back to prison by difficulty in obtaining jobs, education and housing, as well as by the social stigma that comes from having been in prison. In addition, many of these people suffer from mental illnesses but have no access to treatment. Some states have begun offering assistance in these areas, but much more needs to be done.

The Second Chance Act would add to what the country knows about the re-entry process by establishing a federal re-entry task force, along with a national resource center to collect and disseminate information about proven programs.

The bill would broaden access to high-quality drug treatment, which is in scarce supply almost everywhere. It would also encourage states to work harder at reuniting families, which are often torn apart when a parent goes to prison.

The country worsened the recidivism crisis when it killed off many of the in-prison education programs that have a strong track record of helping released inmates live crime-free lives. The bill would begin to reverse that destructive trend by providing grants to improve academic and vocational education behind bars.

The programs necessary to help former prisoners find a place in society do not exist in most communities. The Second Chance Act would help to create those programs by providing money, training, technical assistance — and a Congressional stamp of approval.

A New York Times Editorial published November 7, 2007

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Right Model for Juvenile Justice

With the prisons filled to bursting, state governments are desperate for ways to keep more people from committing crimes and ending up behind bars. Part of the problem lies in the juvenile justice system, which is doing a frighteningly effective job of turning nonviolent childhood offenders into mature, hardened criminals. States that want to change that are increasingly looking to Missouri, which has turned its juvenile justice system into a nationally recognized model of how to deal effectively with troubled children.

The country as a whole went terribly wrong in this area during the 1990s, when high-profile crimes prompted dire predictions of teenage “superpredators” taking over the streets. The monsters never materialized. In fact, juvenile crime declined. But by the close of the decade, four-fifths of the states had made a regular practice of housing children, even those who committed nonviolent crimes, in adult jails. Studies now show that those children were considerably more likely to become serious criminals — and to commit violence — than children handled through the juvenile justice system.

But all juvenile justice systems are not created equal. Most children taken into custody are committed to large, unruly and often dangerous “kiddie prisons” that very much resemble adult prisons. The depravity and brutality that characterizes these places were underscored in Texas, where allegations of sexual abuse by workers prompted wholesale firings and a reorganization of the state’s juvenile justice agency.

Missouri has abandoned mass kiddie prisons in favor of small community-based centers that stress therapy, not punishment. When possible, young people are kept near their homes so their parents can participate in rehabilitation that includes extensive family therapy. It is the first stable, caring environment many of these young people have ever known. Case managers typically handle 15 to 20 children. In other state systems, the caseloads can get much higher.

The oversight does not end with the young person’s release. The case managers follow their charges closely for many months and often help with job placement, therapy referrals, school issues and drug or alcohol treatment. After completing the program, officials say, only about 10 percent of their detainees are recommitted to the system by the juvenile courts.

A law-and-order state, Missouri was working against its own nature when it embarked on this project about 25 years ago. But with favorable data piling up, and thousands of young lives saved, the state is now showing the way out of the juvenile justice crisis.

A New York Times Editorial October 28, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Life on Florida’s Death Row

Dale S. Recinella and Dr. Susan Ward Recinella are the featured speakers for
this free presentation. Dale serves as Catholic lay chaplain to Florida’s Death
Row. His column about the death penalty and prison conditions appears regularly in
The Florida Catholic, the statewide newspaper of the Catholic Bishops of
Florida. Mr. Recinella received a Year 2000 Press Award from the Catholic
Press Association for his reporting. Susan, a clinical psychologist for men-
Dr. Susan Ward Recinella and Dale S. Recinella, J.D. work with tally ill adults, serves as Catholic lay death row inmates and their families. minister to the families of the executed.

Mr. Recinella will speak on the realities of Florida’s death penalty and death row, including the experience of actual executions, presented in the context of Catholic teaching and Scripture. Dr. Susan Recinella will describe her experience in ministering to the families of the condemned during executions. The Recinella’s speak to audiences across the state and their presentation educates Catholics and others interested in Church teaching on the death penalty.

The event is Saturday, October 27, 2007 from 1:30 - 4:30 at Bishop Nevins Academy (St. Martha School) at 4380 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, Florida 34232.

Please register before Oct. 25 by calling the Respect Life Department:
941-441-1112 or email

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A New Jail For Sarasota County? Part 9

Where is the next jail likely to be built? North Venice, Nokomis and North Port are all potential locations.

Ten years ago residents of Nokomis fought a major battle and persuaded the Sarasota County Commission not to build a jail adjoining the Solid Waste Landfill site on Knights Trail north of Laurel Road and east of the interstate.

The proposal in 1997 was to build a correctional facility designed to handle misdemeanor offenders as a result of the rise in number of prisoners being held in the jail in downtown Sarasota. It was to be funded from the county's 1-cent sales surtax revenue. The decision was made to enlarge the existing jail instead.

At that time, most of the area consisted of small ranches and fields. Since then, the Venetian Golf & River Club and other major residential projects have been constructed, and there are plans for an additional 5,000 homes within a short distance of the landfill.

Now the enlarged jail is filled to capacity with people awaiting trial or serving sentences.

A Criminal Justice Committee has been set up and will operate under the auspices of the existing Criminal Justice Planning Committee.

Chief Twelfth Circuit Court Judge Lee Haworth heads both committees. He has accepted an invitation to outline issues associated with the proposed new county jail, including possible locations and related facilities, at the Nokomis Area Civic Association quarterly meeting at the Nokomis Community Center, Nippino Trail, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23.

NACA President John Ask sits on the jail committee and has arranged the presentation.

"Nimbyism (not in my back yard) is a tremendous problem and can lead to irrational and emotional responses which are not good for future planning," said Ask. "The current jail situation is unsatisfactory and creates the need for a new jail or detention center. If we don't become proactive on this issue, an incident could arise due to overcrowding and the feds could take the decision away from the local scene, implementing their own project."

Knowing the new jail is going to be in mid or South County, those involved in decision making want to bring the community along with the project to avoid fear-mongering, according to Ask.

"Will the next jail be a maximum security location with razor-wire fences? Do we need two of the same size? Is there a greater need for a rehabilitation center for clinical, substance and alcohol related abuse as an alternative?" said Ask.

Cost is a major factor. Configuration of the jail also presents challenges, as it is illegal to mix females, males and juveniles. If one man occupies a cell in a six-cell unit, the other five must be used for men or remain empty.

Personnel cost based upon the makeup of the prison census is another expense factor.

"There is a long way to go and we are looking for community input at this stage," said Ask.

Osprey and North Port, then North Venice, Nokomis and Venice, are the fastest-growing communities in the area. The Criminal Justice Committee is gathering statistics on police activity.

Local geography is an issue, as there is a need for a good traffic grid system to a new jail campus. Currently the road system in North Venice is thought to have a lot of problems.

NACA wants to educate the community. Ask believes his task is to make people aware of the impact of a new jail, as they will pay for it through the taxes.

"The need is to be wise and not emotional, making decisions on facts, because ultimately it will impact the next generation," said Ask.

The NACA forum is open to the public.
by Roger Button Venice Gondolier

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

State Must Be Careful With Drug-Treatment Funding Cuts

When it comes to treating substance abuse, Florida can pay now or pay later. In the quest to trim the state budget, lawmakers are gambling on later.

The state prison system has been told to trim $3 million from its drug treatment programs. And cuts to community treatment centers loom large because of state-mandated cuts in local government spending.

It's politically easy to cut treatment programs for drug and alcohol abusers, since they have no advocacy group beyond the caregivers who see the difference that treatment can make.

But it's a risky strategy, given the carnage that substance abuse creates on our roads, in our emergency rooms, in our schools and in our families.

Because of costs, only about 30 percent of Floridians who need substance-abuse treatment can access it, experts say.

Because of proposed cuts, Mary Lynn Ulrey, executive director of Hillsborough's community-based DACCO program, expects her waiting list for inpatient treatment to grow from about 20 people a month to about 40. Behind those numbers are real people and desperate families who need help now, not months from now.

She also worries about losing a $250,000 grant that last year paid to screen 497 pregnant women for drug abuse. Of those, 50 completed a drug treatment program and 38 babies were born drug free.

Already, Ulrey said the number of emergency detox beds has dropped from 35 to 20 because of flat funding.

Consider the context:

•Seventy percent of the people in Florida prisons - 65,000 people - have drug problems. Without intervention, they will bring those problems back to their communities when released.

•Seventy percent of foster children entered the child welfare system because their parents had drug problems.

•Last year in Hillsborough, 484 people died with illegal drugs in their systems.

•Many inmates who've been ordered into residential treatment programs must remain in jail - costing taxpayers $72 a day - because there are no open beds.

•Alcohol and drug abuse costs the American economy an estimated $366 billion in lost productivity, health care costs and crime.

One might wonder whether treatment really works, given the celebrities who fly in and out of care centers. But in the last quarter century, much has been learned about the biological mechanisms of addiction and its effects on the brain. The evidence is that treatment works - if patients participate in their care. But treatment takes longer than 30 days - the average in-patient stay set by insurance company reimbursement limits.

Worse, many insurance carriers have cut coverage of substance-abuse treatment altogether. As a result, caregivers find themselves gaming the system to get reimbursed, diagnosing people with 'mental health' issues instead of drug or alcohol dependency. A legislative effort to require companies that sell health insurance in Florida to also cover drug treatment deserves more momentum.

Tallahassee faces tough choices, but cutting substance-abuse treatment programs is a dangerous strategy for which Florida families will pay a long-term price, with interest.

An Editorial from The Tampa Tribune
Published: October 17, 2007

Monday, October 15, 2007

Still Waiting in Florida

Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida was right when he called for tearing down the barriers that prevent as many as 950,000 ex-offenders from voting in his state. But the new rules that were put in place to help former inmates reclaim their rights have fallen far short of what’s needed to bring democracy back to Florida.

The number of petitioners seeking to restore their rights has increased, but the process is excruciatingly slow and strewn with unnecessary hurdles. Unless the rules are further refined and the process speeded up, many ex-offenders will go to their graves without being permitted to vote. And until their voting rights are restored, many of these people will remain locked out of scores of state-regulated occupations for which restoration is listed as a condition of employment.

As a first step, the state needs to sever that connection, as was recommended by the ex-offender task force appointed by Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. No reasonable person would want to see a sex offender working in a school or a career embezzler employed in a bank. But the practice of barring convicted felons from a whole range of jobs that have nothing to do with their offenses shuts them out of the economy and makes it more likely that they will return to jail.

The state should also end the practice of generally denying restoration to people who owe restitution to their victims. Restitution is, of course, important and should be paid. But it’s illogical to limit these ex-offenders’ employment opportunities and their ability to pay the compensation they owe.

Governor Crist served an important public service when he raised this issue. To ensure that ex-offenders get back their rights, the Legislature and he will have to do a lot more. What’s needed is for Florida to bring its policies into line with those of 39 other states that automatically restore voting rights once former inmates are released from prison or when they finish probation or parole. Only then will democracy return to Florida.

A New York Times Editorial published 10/12/07

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Time for Federal Criminal Justice Reform?

Is the nearly 40-year-old, bipartisan "let's get tough on crime" mantra getting old-- even for politicians? On the campaign trail Barack Obama and John Edwards are now warning of the dire consequences stemming from the rise in the incarceration rates for African-American men and boys. This week the Supreme Court heard arguments against five-year mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine dealers.

And on Thursday, the Senate Joint Economic Committee held the first hearing that reform advocates and legislative staffers can remember on the social and economic harms that come from having the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. Both lawmakers and witnesses explicitly connected the explosion in the prison population to the so-called "War on Drugs." One damning statistic after another was given:

-The number of incarcerated citizens has gone from 250,000 at the dawn of the drug war to a current 2.3 million.

-Despite making up 13 percent of the overall population, half of all current prisoners are black.

-While blacks are not shown to use drugs more than whites, they are four times as likely to be arrested for possession or dealing.

These facts are nothing new. What is new is that the sociologists and prison reformers were reciting these stats not at university lecture halls but to Senators who write criminal law. And Kansas Republican and long-shot presidential candidate Sam Brownback was pushing his Recidivism Reduction and Second Chance Act of 2007.

Brownback and several Republican and Democratic co-sponsors want to provide federal grants for job training, substance abuse treatment and other social re-entry programs to some of the more than 650,000 inmates who leave prison each year. As the prominent Christian conservative pointed out, two-thirds of all inmates currently return to prison in three years.

While Brownback's bill seems the kind of "compassionate conservative" policy President Bush once promised, a fiscal conservative argument for prison reform has also emerged. Building and operating prison is the only part of state budgets beside Medicaid to have grown in the past 20 years. States spent $9 billion on prisons in 1984-- and spent $41 billion in 2004.

At the hearing, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia endorsed Brownback's legislation and spoke broadly on the issue, saying, "The American public needs to understand the cultural divisions of the problem." He noted that the U.S. has more than ten times the percentage of its citizens incarcerated then other developed countries.

Witness Pat Nolan, Vice-president of the advocacy group Prison Fellowship, testified that imprisonment has strayed much too far from the intention of public safety. "Prisons are supposed to be for people we're afraid of," he argued, "But instead they're for people we're mad at."

Not every legislator will immediately sign-up for the Prison Fellowship mailing list, but all-in-all it was an auspicious week for beginning to shed light on the broken criminal justice system.

Friday, October 05, 2007

NAACP Banquet

Hundreds of citizens gathered last evening at the Hyatt in Sarasota to celebrate the 22nd annual NAACP Freedom awards. I received the public service award and was given two minutes to speak. This is what I said:

"Thank you, I am very grateful and honored to receive this award. I accept on behalf of everyone who has ever worked with or for the Public Defenders Office. And I also take this opportunity to remind you:

That while we are gathered here for this wonderful banquet tonight, one mile away there are a thousand of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, incarcerated at the Sarasota County Jail. And within the next year, most of these people will be released back to our community, and my challenge to you this evening, is what will we do to help keep them from going back.

And while we join together in fellowhip tonight, our Florida Legislature is at work, slashing heath care for our most needy, eliminating treatment for our addicted, and cutting education for our next generations, while continuing to spend upwards of 50 million dollars a year to fund a deeply flawed death penalty and I have to ask you, are our priorities in order?

And when I read the results of the Census Bureau released just last week, that shows that 3 times as many Black and Hispanics behind prison bars than live on college campuses, it reminds us all of how much more work there is left to do.

For all of these reasons I say to you Long live the NAACP."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Senate holds hearings on "Mass Incarceration" today

The Senate's Joint Economic Committee (JEC) will hold a hearing this morning on ""Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?" The purpose is "to explore the economic consequences and causes of and solutions to the steep increase of the U.S. prison population."

The United States has experienced a sharp increase in its prison population in the past thirty years. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States remained steady at approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. Today, the incarceration rate is 737 inmates per 100,000 residents, comprising 2.1 million persons in federal, state, and local prisons. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but now has 25 percent of its prisoners. There are approximately 5 million Americans under the supervision of the correctional system, including parole, probation, and other community supervision sanctions.

With such a significant number of the population behind bars, expenditures associated with the prison system have skyrocketed. According to the Urban Institute, “the social and economic costs to the nation are enormous.” With 2.25 million people incarcerated in approximately five thousand prisons and jails, the combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections personnel totals over $200 billion.

The JEC will examine why the United States has such a disproportionate share of the world’s prison population, as well as ways to address this issue that responsibly balance public safety and the high social and economic costs of imprisonment.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Juvenile Justice set to reverse course, cut programs that deter teen crime

The former Tallahassee police chief chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist to head Florida's juvenile justice system this year announced soon after taking over that the state would fight crime in a new way.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil said Florida would not keep dumping the bulk of its money into youth lockups. Instead, the state would take a balanced approach, investing in less expensive prevention programs that stop teens from skipping school, joining gangs and committing crimes.

Legislative leaders and youth advocates say they now are surprised that the agency and governor's office presented budget plans that would do just the opposite - chopping millions from programs proven to reform teens who have not yet committed crimes as adults.

As the state held its first round of hearings last month on plans to reduce a $1.1 billion budget shortfall, Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice, wrote a memo saying that the agency's proposed cuts would sabotage Florida's attempts at juvenile justice reform.

The cuts to proven programs were "appalling," he wrote to Rep. Dick Kravitz, chairman of the House Safety and Security Council, on Aug. 31.

The intent of juvenile justice reform, Needelman wrote, "was to abolish the archaic system that had failed juvenile offenders so miserably and 'warehoused' them in a mire of outdated policies until they finally aged out of the system and graduated into full-fledged adult criminals."

Under the budget proposed by Crist, 45 percent of all public safety cuts would be at the Department of Juvenile Justice, a far greater percentage than the reduction at the Department of Corrections.

The proposal would take $3 million from Redirections, a program the legislature established in 2004 and expanded by $6 million to a budget of more than $11 million earlier this year. The program, which provides intense therapy for families of teens who are violating probation and committing crimes, would be forced to scale back its expansion plans by 422 teens statewide, some in Palm Beach County.

113 girls would be dropped

The governor's plan also would hamper a planned expansion of the PACE Center for Girls, a day school and counseling program, cutting its budget from $11.6 million to the $10.5 million it received in 2005-06. A total of 113 girls would be cut from the program, and the state likely would have to eliminate two centers, PACE spokeswoman Mary Marx said.

Roy Miller, who advocates for children's issues as head of the Children's Campaign, said, "It appears that some advisers in the governor's budget office haven't gotten the word about the new direction of public safety and juvenile justice in Florida."

Anthony DeLuise, a spokesman for Crist, said that in a difficult budget year, the governor suggested cuts to programs that were scheduled to expand. Crist "is certainly still committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the many very important programs they provide," DeLuise said.

West Palm Beach's PACE Center for Girls provides education and counseling for 40 girls who are making mistakes that could one day get them locked up, killed or pregnant. Some have joined gangs or committed crimes such as stealing a car.

When they first come to PACE, said Executive Director Angela Clarke, many of the girls are confrontational or withdrawn. Gradually, Clarke said, workers peel back the layers of their anger to find the true problem. For many, it is a deep sadness. Statewide, a quarter of the girls have a father or both parents in jail, and 10 percent have seen a parent die.

Helping teens and parents

Alicia, 16, said the program helps "girls who have lost their way." Before she came to PACE, she said, her mother was worried for her and cried all the time.

Alicia started the program as a 10th-grader. After a little over a year in the program, she will return to her home school a senior, on track to graduate a year early. After college, she would like to help other teens who are struggling, maybe as a probation officer.

"I'm trying to make my mom happy," she said. "That's my goal."

The Redirections initiative, started by the legislature in 2004, has similar goals. In that program, therapists teach teens how to resolve problems at school and at home. They work closely with families, helping parents regain control of their teens. State and national studies have shown that Redirections programs are effective at deterring crime.

Legislators will meet in a special session beginning Oct. 3 to make up the deficit, caused by a dip in the housing market and a drop in sales tax receipts.

Last month, every state agency was asked to recommend 10 percent in possible cuts to the legislature. It wasn't possible to do that to the Department of Juvenile Justice's $700 million budget without cutting into worthwhile programs, McNeil said.

He told state legislators he was not endorsing any of the cuts he was forced to bring to them and said he has been a strong supporter of programs such as PACE for more than a decade because he could see that they worked.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, said he has no plans to cut teens from juvenile justice programs.

"I'll be right up front," said Crist, no relation to the governor. "The governor's proposal is significantly different than the Senate's." He said he disagrees with the governor's plan, which "whacks into the Department of Juvenile Justice pretty significantly and then holds the Department of Corrections pretty harmless."

Children's Campaign President Miller said the state won't be able to solve its budget crisis by ignoring teens on the brink of becoming serious criminals. "Florida won't be able to build enough prisons if we don't invest in children," Miller said. "It will bankrupt the state."

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The government's morally dubious use of drug informants

Late last month, the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the death of the Kathryn Johnston, the 92-year-old Atlanta woman killed by police during a November 2006 drug raid on her home.

Johnston died when she mistook a team of narcotics officers for criminal intruders. When the police broke down her door, she met them with an old pistol. They opened fire, and killed her.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the entire chain of events up to and shortly after Johnston's death were beset with lies, planted evidence, and cover-up on the part of the narcotics cops. They fabricated an imaginary informant to get the search warrant for Ms. Johnston's home. They planted evidence on a convicted felon, arrested him, then let him off in exchange for his tip—which he made up from whole cloth—that they'd find drugs in Ms. Johnston's house.

When they realized their mistake, they then tried to portray an innocent old woman as a drug dealer. They planted marijuana in Ms. Johnston's basement while she lay handcuffed and bleeding on the floor.

More investigation revealed that this kind of behavior wasn't aberrant, but common among narcotics officers in the Atlanta Police Department. Police Chief Richard Pennington eventually dismissed or reassigned the entire narcotics division of the APD.

What came out at the hearings investigating Kathryn Johnston's death was even more disturbing.

In one eye-popping exchange, two congressmen—one Democrat and one Republican—confronted Wayne Murphy, the assistant director of the FBI Directorate of Intelligence about the way the FBI uses drug informants. Rep. Dan Lundgren, R-Calif., and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., told Murphy they were troubled by reports that the FBI had looked the other way while some of its drug informants participated in violent crimes, and that the agency then failed to notify local authorities, leaving many of those crimes unsolved.

Lundgren and Delahunt said they were also troubled by reports that in order to protect the identity of its informants, the FBI had withheld exculpatory evidence from criminal trials, resulting in innocent people going to prison.

This is worth repeating. The FBI has determined that in some cases, it's better to let innocent people be assaulted, murdered, or wrongly sent to prison than to halt a drug investigation involving one of its confidential informants.

Could Murphy assure the U.S. Congress, Delahunt and Lundgren asked, that the FBI has since instituted policies to ensure that kind of thing never happens again?

Murphy hemmed and hawed, but ultimately said that he could not make any such assurance. That in itself should have been huge news.

Shortly after the Johnston hearings concluded, another informant scandal emerged.

Jarrell Bray, a longtime informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Cleveland field office, admitted that with the cooperation of DEA agent Lee Lucas, he had repeatedly lied in court to secure the convictions of innocent people. Bray said he and Lucas fabricated evidence, falsely accused people who had done nothing wrong, then concocted bogus testimony to secure their convictions.

Bray's admission could result in dozens of overturned convictions.

There's nothing new about any of this. The problems with the use and abuse of drug informants have been known for years. Policymakers have just decided it's more important to keep up a brave front in the drug war than admit to the shortcomings. Bogus testimony from drug informants has led to wrongful arrest and/or incarceration of innocent people in Dallas, Texas; Hearne, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Church Point, La.; to list just a handful of the more egregious examples.

In fact, more than 12 years ago, the National Law Journal ran a three-part series on the issue of drug informants. The magazine reviewed more than a thousand search warrants in four cities. It found widespread abuse with respect to the use of informants, and issued an urgent warning that "there is little or no oversight of the informant system," and that as a result, "the nation's system of justice is in danger."

Not much has changed.

The article was spurred by the case of Donald Carlson, a San Diego businessman who was nearly killed in 1992 after an informant's faulty tip led police to raid his home. Like Kathryn Johnston, Carlson thought the police were criminal intruders, and fired at them in defense of his home as they broke down his door. He was shot several times in the back, and spent six weeks in intensive care.

As in Atlanta, a subsequent investigation revealed severe deficiencies in the use of informants for drug crimes. The informant in Carlson's case was later convicted on 25 counts of lying to federal law enforcement officials.

In fact, Johnston and Carlson aren't the only ones. Bad informants have led to mistaken drug raids all over the country. Many of these raids have resulted in the deaths of innocent people, including Harlem's Alberta Spruill, Denver's Ismael Mena, Houston's Pedro Navarro, and Albuquerque's Ralph Garrison.

Dave Doddridge is a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a former narcotics officer. He's now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former cops who have come out against the drug war. Doddridge says what happened in Atlanta isn't at all uncommon, and shouldn't be mistaken for a few rogue police officers acting out of line.

"There's tremendous pressure to 'climb the ladder' after you make a drug bust," he says, referring to the practice of getting one drug offender to give up information on his suppliers and superiors. "You want to get up that ladder before word hits the street, and the guys you're after know that you're on to them. That leads to the temptation to take shortcuts," he says. "What happened in Atlanta goes on all over the country."

These sorts of police tactics would be morally dubious if they were being used to fight terrorism, or to ensure national security. But they grow more absurd—and more intolerable—when you consider the ultimate end, here. None of this deception, corruption, and abuse is being employed to catch sleeper Al-Qaeda cells, or to catch murderers or serial killers or pedophiles. It's being used to stop people from getting high.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sarasota County Commission pledges jail will stay open:

They blinked.

The Sarasota County Commission indicated it would come up with about $1.2 million Monday night to keep the Venice holding facility open if it had to -- despite a plea to Sheriff William Balkwill to make further cuts in his budget for the jail.

Balkwill has threatened to shut the facility down, claiming he has no room in his budget to fund it.

"We do need the jail," said County Commissioner Paul Mercier, before a crowd predominantly from North Port dressed in red as a sign of solidarity. "If this is a standoff, I'll blink."

North Port City Commissioner Vanessa Carusone encouraged the county commissioners to take money from her city's contributions to the county to cover the costs required to keep the jail open.

"Even with the reduction in your millage rate and the reduction in our millage rate, there's still an additional $660,000 that will be added to your coffers from the city of North Port," Carusone said. "I implore you to take that money and put it toward the sheriff's department budget. Because if there is anything that is needed that cannot be cut, it's the life, safety and well-being of our South County residents."

That's when County Commissioner Shannon Staub fell in with Mercier, despite her earlier input on a motion that would encourage County Administrator Jim Ley to work with Balkwill to find more money in his budget -- as well as other sources -- for the facility.

"I can only speak for myself," Staub said. "I'm blinking. I'm ready. Let's get it done. Get it over. And I'm very sorry that we even had to come to this point."

Not budging

Things didn't start out in such a conciliatory manner. Before the meeting, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta was adamant about two things: The jail must stay open and the sheriff must help.

"We're going to have to figure out a way to keep it open and hopefully we'll get some cooperation from the sheriff to help us do that," Barbetta said. "I can't conceive us not doing everything we possibly can to keep it open."

Barbetta said he learned Venice was willing to withdraw its condition for the sheriff's office to pay rent for the facility, which he saw as a good first step toward coming to a solution.

"So it really comes down to the sheriff's manpower," Barbetta said, hinting Balkwill might make cuts in shifts, hours or jobs.

But when Balkwill came forward to state his case, it was plain to see he wasn't going to budge.

"We're down about 27 positions right now," Balkwill said. "The only way we can (keep the jail open) right now is through overtime."

Balkwill said there are other services his department provides to the county that add costs to his budget. These include working with the fire department, the Sarasota Police Department, animal services, roads and bridges and other internal services for the county.

"We've also cut over 100 vehicles from this year's budget," Balkwill said. "As far as staff goes, I challenge you to compare our staff levels with any other agency surrounding us right now."

Afterward, although he promised he was "always willing to work with them," Balkwill said his budget was too maxed out to subsidize the jail.

"What I heard in there was (the county) was funding this," he said.

By Steven J. Smith Sun-Herald

Friday, August 31, 2007

Treat addicted criminals, keep streets safer:

It's no secret that Florida's economy has taken it on the chin with regard to the distressed housing market. The downturn in such a key economic sector of our state has now compelled Gov. Charlie Crist to ask Florida lawmakers to return once again to Tallahassee to reduce the state's spending plan. But legislators will be faced with trimming a budget already pruned pretty tightly. It's not just fat that will be hitting the butcher's floor this time around. Budget reductions will affect programs and policies of great significance in the sunshine state.

Legislators must wield their authority to reduce expenses wisely. Elimination or reduction of seemingly nonessential programs has often produced grave unintended consequences -- the result has been penny-wise, pound-foolish spending plans that just defer greater expenses until some later date.

Drug-addiction treatment services provided by Florida's state agencies have always been vulnerable to cuts in times like these. Under normal circumstances, the common sense and humanity of these programs isn't questioned. But when times are bad, there is a limited constituency to speak on behalf of some Florida's most vulnerable people.

Drug addiction is a problem that, when left untreated, exacts a social, medical, legal and economic toll on our state so enormous it's difficult to calculate. But effective addiction treatment has been proven over and over to improve the quality of life in our state, reduce expenses related to substance abuse and protect the safety of the public.

A shining example of how these programs serve Florida are those employed by the Florida Department of Corrections. Secretary James McDonough is a gifted thinker -- not someone who develops policy on a whim or without regard for the weighty obligations of his post. His department embraces a policy of providing evidence-based addiction treatment for inmates and offenders on probation.

This may seem a surprisingly humane luxury for the guy who was the principal author of the U.S. Army's central fighting doctrine. But just ask the MIT graduate why he makes this a priority, and you will likely get a clear answer: Treating addicted criminals keeps the streets safer. McDonough's department has compiled reliable data in support of his policy: Three studies have demonstrated clearly that drug treatment for Florida offenders on probation in the community reduces recidivism by 27-30 percent. Treatment of addicted prisoners demonstrated reductions of 11-15 percent in recidivism.

His policy is also supported by a national meta-analysis of more than 290 offender programs intended to reduce crime. This rigorous analyis found that addiction treatment consistently proved its value in reducing recidivism among criminal offenders -- more than supervision and surveillance, more than electronic monitoring, more than faith-based interventions and more than prison time. Addiction treatment topped all of these programs for reducing crime among convicted criminals.

Effective addiction treatment of criminal offenders is a fiscally responsible public safety measure that must be protected and developed as a cornerstone of public safety policy. As a matter of public safety and fiscal responsibility, Florida legislators and Crist should protect these important programs as they weigh decisions on budget reductions.

By Finn Kavanagh, vice president of Phoenix House, chairs the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association's Criminal Justice Committee.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Cut hard time: Rehabilitation does more than cut costs.

James McDonough is one of the longest serving top state officials in Florida, having been the so-called Drug Czar for most of the Jeb Bush administration and now serving as secretary of the Department of Corrections under Gov. Crist.

He is also a man who has the wisdom and the gumption to try to lead the leaders, coming up with proposals such as this week's suggestion that his agency can save 10 percent by moving thousands of state inmates from prisons to work release, substance abuse and education programs.

The savings he projects would be twice what Mr. Crist has asked of the agency, but it isn't an easy proposal to swallow politically, however wise and far-sighted if managed with scrupulous regard for public safety.

Mr. McDonough wants to use the approach, releasing non-sex offenders - with no escape history or domestic violence injunctions - three months early, to better prepare inmates to make a successful transition back into society. Right now about a third of inmates released from DOC, return, so the current system isn't exactly working when it comes to recidivism.

In a report Saturday in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Mr. McDonough said he realized this would be a shift from more than a decade of hard-line policies - including those emanating from the governor's own "chain-gang Charlie" years. In the 1990s, then-state senator Crist lead lawmakers in mandating that all inmates serve 85 percent of their sentence, and promoted work on roadside labor crews.

But the governor said last week that he respects Mr. McDonough's "excellent judgment" and would like to see what offenders would be under consideration, and whether they would indeed pose little threat to the public.

This is an open-minded view not reflected in the Senate where criminal justice committee chairman Victor Crist (no relation to the governor) reacted more negatively.

It is indeed a concept to be considered very carefully, but clearly the need to make dire cuts in the budget is an incentive and opportunity to review any programs that may represent excessive loyalty to a political selling point, but cannot necessarily be supported.

For example, some 3,000 inmates who, nearing the end of their sentences, have already been out working in the public for sometime yet are staying in DOC institutions at night. Mr. McDonough, a former West Point-educated Army officer, said there is little risk in releasing these inmates to work-release centers, which still provide oversight, drug testing, garnished wages and so forth.

Another 3,600 inmates are coming from local communities that have sentenced them to a year and a day - just long enough to place them in a state prison instead of in an overcrowded local jail. Mr. McDonough contends many of these would be more effectively managed in halfway houses or substance abuse treatment centers instead of expensive state prisons, an approach that would promote a better transition for these short-sentence inmates back into society.

Given the state budget crunch, and the fact that the budget population has doubled since 1990 in large part due to laws that put long-term incarceration above vocational, education and mental health treatment - a review of programs that aren't truly effective but are excessively expensive is a prudent, probably necessary, and even professionally smart step to take.

An Editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Jail alternatives:

At the Charlotte County Jail, many inmates sleep on "boats," or plastic beds on the ground. That's because there are 612 inmates crammed into a facility designed for 528.

The conditions are just as crowded at the DeSoto County Jail, which has 160 inmates for 148 beds, and the Sarasota County Jail, which has an operating capacity of 872 but last month housed 1,084 inmates.

"Unfortunately, you violate your own rules," said DeSoto County Sheriff Vernon L. Keen. "We set rules that are based on the safety and welfare and so forth of the staff and the inmates, and then we violate it because we don't have anything else to do with them."

On Aug. 8, the Sun held a roundtable discussion with nine people who deal with jail overcrowding at the law enforcement, jail administration, court and government levels. They spoke about why some inmates spend so long in jail and what can be done to alleviate overcrowding -- including utilizing alternative methods of sentencing.

The time it takes to get to trial plays a role in jail overcrowding. Nearly half of the people at the Charlotte, DeSoto and Sarasota jails are awaiting felony trials. It can take years for those cases to reach a resolution.

That delay is related to the increasing number of felony cases entering the judicial system. In 2005, 1,750 cases entered the system, then 1,910 in 2006, according to Assistant State Attorney Daniel P. Feinberg, who works in Charlotte County. So far this year, there are 1,369 felony cases. Two judges handle felony cases in Charlotte County.

Minor offenses

Many others are in jail for relatively minor offenses -- driving with a suspended or revoked license, or violation of probation.

"A lot of our citizens want everybody arrested," said Charlotte County Sheriff John Davenport. "It's the citizens themselves who need to be educated."

Defense attorney Paul D. Sullivan agreed. "I think our problem is, we want to lock up too many of our citizens," he said. "People get arrested for stuff they never used to get arrested for."

Sullivan pointed out that driver's licenses are often revoked as a penalty for crimes unrelated to driving, such as drug charges. However, people often need to drive to get to work, and consequently end up back in jail. Probation is another issue that plays into jail overcrowding -- probation officers do not always have much discretion over whether to arrest a person on even a minor violation, and those arrested on violation of probation charges typically are booked into jail without bond.

At the Charlotte County Jail, those arrested on violation of probation charges -- both misdemeanor and felony -- make up about 14 percent of the inmate population.

Keen said the way people committing driving offenses and probation violations are dealt with is a reflection of the public's expectations. As an example, he pointed out that there could be considerable public outcry if a person driving on a suspended or revoked license got into a crash and killed someone.

"Maybe they put too much emphasis on 'he didn't have a license,'" Keen said. "They eat us up when something happens. There's not a problem until there's a problem."

Though arrests for probation violation may contribute to jail overcrowding, the program itself is one of the most frequently-used alternatives to incarceration. Rather than serve a sentence entirely behind bars, many defendants are placed on probation, which requires them to keep in contact with a probation officer and follow a set of guidelines that may include a curfew or random drug testing, among other conditions.

Jon Embury, court services manager in Charlotte County, said many defendants have come to expect probation.

"It's not looked at as an alternative anymore," he said.

What's more, the penalty for violating the terms of probation is going to jail or prison to serve out a sentence.

"Probation is only effective if there's a threat of incarceration," said Judge Paul Alessandroni.

Other alternatives

Another alternative to incarceration is electronic monitoring, which costs about $16 per day. However, Embury pointed out that a determined criminal could cut off the monitoring device.

"There's not going to be one magic bullet," Embury said.

Diversion programs exist for some first-time defendants and those with drug and mental health problems. Charlotte County's drug court accepts 15 people at a time and focuses on getting treatment for people with addictions.

"For the most part, people who deserve to be in these programs get in these programs," Feinberg said. "We can give them some opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have."

However, it can be difficult to coordinate limited resources to operate such programs.

"If I've got to do a drug court program, I've got to staff an attorney -- I've got to pull one of 15 attorneys that handle all of our cases, and that attorney's got to spend ... a minimum of three hours per week to spend on a population of 15," Feinberg said, "When we're having a 21 percent increase in felony crimes."

Another problem with those programs is the limited pool of qualified applicants, Feinberg said. Many are designed for first-time, nonviolent offenders, and defendants' prior records may render them ineligible.

"Your average is probably around nine or 10 (prior) offenses," Feinberg said. "I don't know what else to do with them ... I can't divert them."

Those waiting for their cases to be resolved are sometimes released from jail on their own recognizance -- a practice Sullivan felt should be more widely used with those accused of minor infractions, rather than pretrial release, which involves more supervision.

Those who work in pretrial supervision are "doing a great service, they're there every morning, but they ought to be supervising somebody else because the people who wind up in pretrial release services should be ROR," Sullivan said.

At the roundtable, all nine participants agreed that there was no simple solution to the problem of jail overcrowding.

"Obviously, it's not something we can solve overnight, or we would've done it," Keen said.


DeSoto County

* Probation

* Community control

* Pretrial intervention -- for first-time, nonviolent offenders. Those who go through a particular program can have their cases not prosecuted.

Charlotte County

* Probation

* Worthless check, domestic violence, pretrial and misdemeanor diversion programs

* Drug court

* Mental health court

* Supervised or pretrial release

* Teen court

Sarasota County

* Probation

* Drug court

* Mental health court

* Pretrial services

* CART (Community Alternative Residential Treatment) Initiative -- a three-phase program for individuals with mental health and addiction issues.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Reefer madness

A few weeks ago, 200 federal, state and local law-enforcement officers launched a huge marijuana-eradication effort in the mountains of Sacramento’s forested neighbor to the north, Shasta County. The strike, dubbed Operation Alesia, was so big that even President Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, flew out to Redding on July 12 to kick it off.

“America’s public lands are under attack,” Walters said, charging that heavily armed Mexican drug cartels had turned the national forests into “ground zero for drug cultivation. These violent drug traffickers are endangering America’s outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen, and the sensitive ecosystems of our wilderness.”

The week-long operation was a big success, if success is measured by the number of plants seized, 283,397 in this case. Numerous other eradication raids—including ones in Calaveras County near Stockton, and in the Sequoia National Forest and Yosemite—have been executed across California these last weeks because cannabis plants mature in late July, early August.

Will all that expenditure of manpower and resources do much good in the long term? Probably not. Marijuana gardens are low-investment, high-yield ventures. If they don’t produce a crop, little is lost, at least as far as the cartel bosses are concerned. If some low-paid workers end up spending 10 years in prison, as could happen to the 16 Mexican nationals arrested during Operation Alesia, the cartels don’t care. They’ll just try again next year.

Not long ago, most marijuana growers in California were local people who cultivated the herb on their own land. Gradually, law enforcement drove most of them out of business, but demand for the product didn’t go away nor did the lure of high profits. Well-financed Mexican operators moved in to fill the void.

All the pot seizures in the world aren’t going to stop them. According to an October 2006 press release issued by former state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the number of seizures increased by more than 1,200 percent in the past decade and yet marijuana remains California’s No. 1 cash crop, worth almost $14 billion annually.

For more than 30 years government has been trying to convince people not to use marijuana and spent billions of dollars trying to catch pot growers, and yet marijuana is still big business. It’s crazy to keep doing something that doesn’t work, especially when it’s so expensive. It’s time for a new approach, one that acknowledges reality.

We believe marijuana should be legalized and regulated. That’s what we do with wine, for example, and it seems to work. What’s more, a 2005 Harvard University study, signed by 500 economists, found that allowing marijuana to be taxed and regulated would actually lead to savings and revenue of $10-14 billion.

As Bruce Mirken, of the Marijuana Policy Project, notes, “There’s a reason you never hear about clandestine vineyards hidden in national parks and forests. If we regulated marijuana as we do wine, the problem Walters denounces so vehemently would disappear overnight.”

Editorial Sacramento News and Review 8/23/07

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Our nation's brutal approach to punishment:

The persistence of the death penalty is only one way in which the United States stands out from the rest of the Western world on crime and punishment.
It also has the highest incarceration rate of any country, with more than two million people behind bars. (China, second in the rankings, has an estimated 1.5 million, and Russia just short of 900,000.) The US has just 5 per cent of the world's population, but 25 per cent of its overall prison population.
Some of the reasons behind the extraordinary machinery of incarceration - including the death penalty - is cultural and historical. In the South, in particular, the phenomenon is inextricably linked to the long history of racial inequality, with blacks put away in numbers vastly disproportionate to their overall population.
The states with the highest ratio of prisoners per population are all former slave states with long traditions of jailhouse brutality, chain gangs and other barbaric practices: Louisiana (816 prisoners per 100,000 people), Texas (694) and Mississippi (669). In many states, blacks are up to 15 times as likely as whites to find themselves behind bars. In Florida, one in three adult black men has a criminal record.
Some trends, though, are more recent - tied, in particular, to the mania for tough-on-crime legislation that has swept state after state in the past 25 years.
The national prison population has quadrupled since 1980, the increase fuelled in particular by the "war on drugs" and the consequent incarceration of hundreds of thousands of petty drug offenders. That, in turn, has exacerbated a host of problems from overcrowding to prison rape to the formation of ultra-violent prison gangs, many of them based on deep racial hatred.
In many cases, prison has taken the place of social services such as drug rehabilitation and mental health counselling and, according to critics of the system, has, in effect, criminalised large portions of the population who would have been much better and much more cheaply treated elsewhere.
Prison guard unions have become major political players, especially in California, home to the single largest prison system in the world, where they bankroll the campaigns of senior state officials and lawmakers. A whole industry has sprung up to support the burgeoning prison population. One writer, Eric Schlosser, memorably described the entire system a few years ago as a "prison-industrial complex".
At a time of tight state budgets, prisons are one area where lawmakers do not hold back from spending lavishly. From next year, California will be spending more on prisons than on its entire higher education system, including close to $1m on a new death row unit at San Quentin outside San Francisco - despite the statewide moratorium on executions. The United States as a whole spends an estimated $60bn a year on its prisons.
by Andrew Gumbel

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Three Speakers to Discuss Death Penalty-Related Topics at New College

Assigned to read a common book on exonerated prison inmates, new students at New College of Florida will follow up their summer reading with death penalty-related presentations by guest speakers who include a local public defender and alumnus, an inmate cleared of a murder-rape conviction and a DNA researcher.

Over the summer, New College freshmen were asked to read "The Exonerated," a short play based on transcripts from trials and interviews with more than 40 exonerated inmates who had received the death penalty. New students will focus on the book during orientation, which is Aug. 22-29. Fall classes at New College begin Aug. 29.

The Court TV film, "The Exonerated," which stars actors Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Brian Dennehy and Aidan Quinn, will be shown twice: Monday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Sept. 6, at 6 p.m.; both showings will be in the Teaching Auditorium, Hamilton Center, which is located on New College's campus east of Tamiami Trail.

Three speakers will come to New College for public talks related to "The Exonerated," all speaking in the Teaching Auditorium, Hamilton Center:

l "A Community Conversation on the Death Penalty," Thursday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m.

New College graduate Adam Tebrugge, who has worked for 22 years in the Florida's Public Defenders Office in Sarasota, will lead a discussion on the death penalty. A graduate of the Florida State University College of Law and a board-certified criminal trial attorney, Tebrugge is a frequent speaker on criminal justice issues. He is a member of the Death Penalty Steering Committee of the Florida Public Defender Association and helps to organize the annual "Life Over Death" training conference for attorneys.

l "An Exoneree’s Odyssey," Thursday, Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m., Teaching Auditorium, Hamilton Center

Guest speaker John Restivo served 16 years in prison before DNA tests excluded him from involvement in a 1984 murder and rape in New York. He was sentenced in 1987 to 33-1/3 years to life. The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing, took up his case in 1997. False confessions, use of informants and forensic-science misconduct are cited as contributing causes of Restivo's wrongful conviction. He was exonerated in 2005.

l "Forensic DNA Analysis: Popular Perceptions and Reality," Friday, Sept. 7, 4 p.m.

Dr. Matt Thomas, a senior scientist and laboratory manager at DNAPrint, will speak on forensics in evidence collection. Since joining DNAPrint, Thomas has played an instrumental role in research, development and commercialization of innovative forensics products that have aided investigations around the world. At DNAPrint, Thomas oversees the forensic operations of the company as well as projects dedicated to understanding the genetic makeup of the world populations.

The play, "The Exonerated," which grew out of the Innocence Project, won the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards, and the LA Ovation Award for Best World Premiere Play. It was nominated for four additional Ovation Awards, three NAACP Theater awards and the John Gassner Playwriting Award.

The play’s 12 subjects ("just like in a jury," wrote one of the authors) were freed through an appeals process that left them imprisoned on death row for as long as 20 years. In each case, crusading lawyers working pro bono, journalism students or investigative reporters worked to overturn the inmates' convictions.

Remaking Prisons: Now's our chance to design a system that actually works

Federal judges Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento lost patience with California’s out-of-control penal system last month, and set in motion what could turn out to be a revolutionary rethinking of the way the state punishes lawbreakers.

They ordered the creation of a three-judge panel to bypass the political whims and pressures of Sacramento lawmakers and produce their own study on how to tame an ever-burgeoning prison population. The top solution being considered is whether to cap the population, and what steps, including home detention and drug-prevention programs, could be used to reduce the number of people behind bars.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has filed an appeal of what amounts to a judicial takeover of at least part of the management of the state prison system. He claims the state is well on its way to ameliorating the crisis without intervention. The governor cites his transferring thousands of prisoners out of state and a $7.4 billion plan to build new prisons as evidence of his good deeds. Critics dismiss his plan to send inmates to Mississippi, Tennessee, or Arizona and his prison construction plan, outlined in Assembly Bill 900, as proof of just how off-kilter our approach to law and order has become.

“What’s criminal about [AB] 900 is that there was supposed to be sentencing reform attached to it, but the reform part got cut off,” says Dave Fratello, co-author of Proposition 36, the initiative approved by voters in 2000 that called for drug treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time, non-violent drug-possession offenders. “It shows how spineless our political system is … there’s only one right answer on criminal justice.”

For three decades, that answer has been a keep-getting-tougher approach that keeps digging us in deeper. Since sentence enhancements became a dominant feature of our judicial landscape in the late-’70s, prison capacity has tripled; during the same period, tougher sentencing laws have caused the prison population to mushroom by more than 800 percent. In the last 30 years, Sacramento has issued some 1,000 bills lengthening jail terms. There are now 173,000 inmates in spaces designed for 100,000.

What all this means, critics say, is that perhaps the federal court’s new panel actually gives California a golden, if embarrassing, opportunity to rethink some seriously flawed policies. Just as some urban planning experts are warning that we’ll have to choke on our own traffic jams before we’ll wean ourselves from auto-dependence, so some governmental analysts are arguing that mandatory prison population caps are the only measures severe enough to shock the system into re-evaluating the entrenched sentencing requirements clogging the system.

To say our state’s prisons are grossly, unconscionably filled beyond capacity is akin to noting that the Pope is Catholic. Some 17,000 inmates are currently not housed in cells at all, but are warehoused in formerly communal spaces like recreation rooms, gyms, and hallways, adding insult to injury as overcrowding pushes out rehabilitation programs along with any semblance of a civilized existence. For years, politicians have called these arrangements an embarrassment, yet still they exist. And that’s ironic, according to Fratello. If the state ceased sending minor drug offenders to do hard time, 10,000 inmates could be freed immediately. But that’s only “if we’re willing to be really forward thinking and smart, which there’s no evidence anyone wants to be,” he says.

As it is, in a 2006 report, the Justice Policy Institute determined that Proposition 36 kept 14,000 potential inmates out of the prison system, and accomplished that on a skimpy budget. A UCLA study said the program needs an infusion of $100 million to be considered optimal funding. Currently, due to extraordinary budget pressures, Prop. 36’s measly $120 million funding could be in jeopardy when the state Senate reconvenes later this month, Fratello says, despite the fact that the state typically pays more than $30,000 to house one inmate for one year. “It’s a sickness in the system that we have to scrape and claw for minimal funding for treatment that changes people’s lives and ends people’s criminal careers, when by contrast it’s so easy to throw money at a solution as long as it locks people up,” Fratello says.

Perhaps voters have a right to wonder what all that taxpayer funding is buying them. “Keep in mind that mass imprisonment is no guarantee of safety,” says UC-Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon. “California experienced significant declines in violent crime during the 1990s while it was locking up record numbers of offenders, but our decline was no better than most states that did not incarcerate at nearly the same rate, and some relatively low incarcerating states, especially New York, did significantly better. Indeed Canada, which has very low incarceration rates compared to California, did just as well.”

Who exactly are we locking up? “There’s a lady in prison now for stealing baby formula for her infant,” says Donna Warren, a spokesperson for Families Against California’s Three Strikes. “Kelly Turner is doing 25 years for writing a bad $500 check to Nordstroms … . There are 4,438 people now doing life for non-violent crimes.”

Fratello estimates that overall, half of our current prison population is considered non-violent. According to Simon, 2005 demographics show that a third of the inmates are locked up for non-violent property crimes, drug charges, or a range of other mostly public order offenses.

“It’s reasonable to suppose that many of these offenders could be handled in the community without setting off a wave of feared crimes,” says Simon, who also co-directs the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and is the author of the recent book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. But beyond those who have yet to commit a violent crime, Simon adds that there’s a great deal of criminological research suggesting that almost all offenders – including those who commit serious and violent crimes – are not likely to commit a crime after age 45 or so. These studies have shown that even persistent offenders give up the habit after middle age. “In 2005, more than 36,000 prisoners were 45 or over,” Simon says. “Most of them probably pose little risk if released.”

As for why our legislators can’t keep their hands off the sentencing button, Simon has a theory. “I believe the main explanation lies in the perverse incentives of term limits.” These limits, he says, have created a system demanding legislators make their mark quickly in order to hop from the Assembly to the Senate and on to statewide offices. To do that, a legislator must sponsor a lot of legislation that actually gets enacted, and sentence enhancement bills don’t have very many influential interests to oppose them, while health care and education reform or economic policy changes invariably draw oodles of powerful opposition. Furthermore, term limits offer the added bonus of ensuring that “legislators are not around long enough to get blamed for big structural problems like the prison crises,” Simon adds, meaning it’s going to take more than term- limits reform to effectively eliminate the incentives for tough-on crime legislation, but it wouldn’t be a bad start.

Until then, “Our best hope to achieve more dramatic gains is a charismatic governor willing to build a state wide consensus behind a different approach,” Simon continues. “Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is constitutionally barred from being president and probably doesn’t want to go the U.S. Senate is our best chance in decades. Stay posted.”

For the moment, however, not everyone is as optimistic about Schwarzenegger’s leadership. This spring, the Northern California-based Critical Resistance, an organization protesting what they see as California’s over-reliance on using prisons to treat social ills, says they headed up to Sacramento and handed out copies of their pamphlet 50 Ways to Reduce the Number of People in Prison, but to little avail.

“Our point is, there’s a myriad of ways to reduce the prison population tomorrow,” says Rose Braz, a Critical Resistance campaign director. “We just don’t have the political will. When Schwarzenegger first got into office, he said some really promising things … but very, very quickly that changed and now Schwarzenegger is showing no leadership on this issue and we see things are only getting worse.”

Meanwhile, even the federal judges themselves singled out Schwarzenegger’s AB 900 in particular for criticism, as an idea that could only exacerbate the difficulties of managing the state’s already unwieldy system.

“It’s the largest prison expansion plan in the history of the world,” opines Braz.

Currently, the prison system consumes $10 billion a year overseeing 173,000 inmates. AB 900 is a bond measure borrowing $7.7 billion more to construct 53,000 beds, many of which would come online in 18 to 24 months. That’s too long to wait to achieve dicey results at best, according to Braz. “The federal judges flatly said building will only make the problem larger,” she says. “AB 900 is not a prescription for change, and thanks to 900, we’ll soon be spending more on our prison system than our educational system, despite poll after poll after poll showing that voters don’t support funding prison expansion.”

In fact, in past years, voters here have done more than that; they’ve actively voted down bond measures earmarked for prison construction. In light of these past failures, Braz says the state legislature essentially pushed AB 900 through a loophole.

“When California voters rejected prison construction bonds, the legislature created a fiction,” she says. According to Braz, California’s two methods for approving debt separate out general obligation and lease-revenue bonds – the former must be approved by the public, the latter don’t because they’re typically earmarked for projects like toll bridges, which eventually pay for themselves. “The legislature said, ‘Let’s say prisons are revenue generators, because the department of public works will build them and lease them to the department of corrections,”’ Braz says. “It’s not simple to explain what they’re up to, but the simple way to say it is: the voters have a right to approve debt.” And another calculation getting left out of the equation, she says – paying back AB 900’s $7.7 billion debt is likely to jump to $15 billion once all is said and done. “It violates the letter and the spirit of the constitution,” she says.

Indeed, this all might be much simpler if we just let some inmates walk out of prison. State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, is hoping that the governor signs her bill calling for a study of which inmates could be released before finishing their sentences.

~ By MINDY FARABEE ~Los Angeles City Beat

Friday, August 03, 2007

Restorative Justice-Texas Style

Who can say when the phrase “Justice, Texas-style” was first uttered? What is certain is that since the state declared independence from Mexico 171 years ago, the term has become synonymous with swift, hard retribution, often accompanied by the cinder-block-splitting end of one of Chuck Norris’s reverse roundhouse kicks.
For the incarcerated, Texas-style justice may indeed feel like a kick in the teeth. Politicians (and since district attorneys and judges are elected in Texas, we include both in that category) sell themselves to voters with a tough-on-crime image, which often translates into cheap-on-rehabilitation policies and practices. The result: Slow case processing, trials weighted in favor of the prosecution, harsher sentences, overcrowded jails and prisons, a high recidivism rate, and so on, so forth, so what? After all, why should law-abiding citizens care about criminals?

In the last few years, a small but growing contingent in Texas has been pushing for a shift in criminal-justice priorities. While our current system of “retributive justice” serves to punish and alienate offenders from society, “restorative justice” is an inclusive theory that aims to repair the harm inflicted on society through offender rehabilitation and victim reconciliation. Under this paradigm, the victim is at the center of the justice process, offenders are held directly accountable, and the community as a whole is urged to participate in the healing process, which is directed at both the victim and the offender.

In late June, proponents of this new approach held the first-ever National Conference on Restorative Justice at Schreiner University in Kerrville, of all places, and it wasn’t just bleeding-heart activists behind it. Organized by the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Source of Light Center at San Antonio’s University Presbyterian Church, the conference featured speakers from across the nation and globe, as well as regional policymakers such as Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle and Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.

“The most clear, distinct, measurable, internationally used and empirically grounded form of this movement is what I call ‘restorative justice dialogue,’ and that involves a process where the families most affected by the reality of crime and conflict — communities, victims, offenders, families — have the opportunity to come together to talk about the real human impact of this stuff,” said Dr. Mark Umbreit, the founding director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking.

Many of the techniques embraced by the restorative justice movement — including victim-offender mediation, family-group conferencing, and community peacemaking circles — were developed in post-conflict countries, such as South Africa, which pioneered victim-offender mediation after the end of Apartheid through their “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” These techniques were further developed in international contexts, such as Irish-British and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. Minnesota and Wisconsin are currently hotspots for restorative-justice initiatives, whether it be prison-based programs or reconciliation projects involving Liberian refugees.

Texas may indeed be the next vortex for the movement as professors at UTSA and St. Mary’s University push for restorative-justice curricula and local officials add it to their priorities. As a result, in the next decade, Texas-style justice may become less Chuck Norris and more Nelson Mandela.

Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem?

OK, so you're rich and famous and have a drug problem. You relapse and get arrested. What do you do? It seems the latest trend in countering your likely conviction is not hiring a "dream team" of legal defenders but immediately enrolling in a rehab drug program. Lindsay Lohan, the troubled Hollywood starlet, joins a host of other high-profile celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and the son of the former vice president, Al Gore III, who have adopted this novel strategy.

Lohan's pal, Paris, just did a brief stint in jail for driving with a suspended license after a previous drunk-driving arrest.

Nicole Richie recently pleaded guilty to driving under the influence from an incident where she was caught driving the wrong way down a Los Angeles freeway last year. She was sentenced to four days in jail and mandated to enter a drug and alcohol program.

Gore was recently arrested for speeding down a highway in his Prius at 100 miles per hour with a small amount of marijuana and a pocket full of different prescription pills. He pleaded guilty to two felony counts of drug possession, among others, and was allowed to enter a drug diversion program. If Gore successfully completes that program, the charges may be dropped.

The role of drugs and drug addiction loom large over these individuals' criminal cases since each enrolled in rehab quickly after their brushes with the law.

Without question, rehab is an essential tool on the road to recovery. It is a multi-tiered, long-term process that enables changes to life patterns that typically trigger the urge to get high. This requires time and effort by the participant.

Lohan was only out of rehab for two weeks when she was busted again for driving under the influence and cocaine possession. Her father, Michael, himself a former addict, was recently released after serving a two-year sentence for a drunk-driving incident. He said his daughter needs a long-term treatment plan to successfully recover from her problems with alcohol and other drugs.

Many were quick to blame the rehab center Lindsay attended, saying it failed her. But no rehab center can produce miracles in such a short period of time.

What most fail to realize is that relapse is an expected part of recovery. Treatment is valid for fighting the demons of addiction and an effective tool in overcoming the government's use of incarceration and punitive measures in response to low-level, nonviolent drug law offenses stemming from addiction.

According to Justice Department statistics, the United States holds a firm lead in maintaining the most prisoners of any country in the world -- now at 2.2 million and rising, and last year recorded the largest increase in the number of people in prisons and jails since 2000. Criminal justice experts attribute the exploding U.S. prison population to harsh sentencing laws and record numbers of drug law offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems.

Should we treat drug addiction as a criminal matter or a medical problem? For most people, treatment is much more effective than imprisonment for breaking their addictions, yet our prisons are full of drug-addicted individuals. Nonviolent drug offenders should be given an opportunity to receive treatment, not jail time, for their drug use. This would be a more effective (not to mention much more affordable) solution for the individual and the community.

Our 30-plus-year war on drugs has stifled the open debate this country should be having about addiction and how best to deal with it. It is time to treat addiction for what it is, a medical problem, not a criminal one. Even for celebrities who rely on a trend to bail them out and continue driving down that road to oblivion.

Anthony Papa is a communications specialist for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York group working to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Fixing the Scam on Collect Calls

New York’s Gov. Eliot Spitzer set an important example earlier this year when he abandoned the longstanding practice of charging prisoners bankrupting fees for collect calls. Telephone rates in New York have since dropped by about half. Those rates are likely to fall further now that Mr. Spitzer has signed a bill requiring the state to consider the cost of inmate phone calls when it negotiates the next contract for prison telephone services.

That’s a far cry from how business is done elsewhere. In most states, contracts are awarded to the company that pays the state the largest “commission” for such calls — essentially a legalized kickback. The states and the companies both rack up the cash because inmates are only allowed to make collect calls while the person who accepts the call is charged a massive premium, sometimes as much as six times the going rate for regular calls.

This amounts to a hidden tax on inmates’ families, who tend to be among the country’s poorest. It also weakens family ties, making it harder for inmates to make successful transitions to outside life.

Even at a reduced price, the collect-call-only approach is not the only option. The federal prison system uses a more affordable debit calling system, in which inmates use money from computer-controlled accounts. New York and other states should adopt the debit system. No families should have to choose between putting food on the table or accepting a collect call from a loved one behind bars.

A New York Times Editorial July 27, 2007

Unlawful Convictions:

LAST week, Judge Nancy Gertner of the Federal District Court in Boston awarded
more than $100 million to four men whom the F.B.I. framed for the 1965 murder of
Edward Deegan, a local gangster. It was compensation for the 30 years the men
spent behind bars while agents withheld evidence that would have cleared them
and put the real killer * a valuable F.B.I. informant, by the name of Vincent
Flemmi * in prison.

Most coverage of the story described it as a bizarre exception in the history of
law enforcement. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by those whose sworn duty
it is to uphold the law is all too common. In state courts, where most death
sentences are handed down, it occurs regularly.

My recently completed study of the 124 exonerations of death row inmates in
America from 1973 to 2007 indicated that 80, or about two-thirds, of their
so-called wrongful convictions resulted not from good-faith mistakes or errors
but from intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions by criminal justice
personnel. (There were four cases in which a determination could not be made one
way or another.)

Yet too often this behavior is not singled out and identified for what it is.
When a prosecutor puts a witness on the stand whom he knows to be lying, or
fails to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, or when a police officer
manufactures or destroys evidence to further the likelihood of a conviction,
then it is deceptive to term these conscious violations of the law * all of
which I found in my research * as merely mistakes or errors.

Mistakes are good-faith errors * like taking the wrong exit off the highway, or
dialing the wrong telephone number. There is no malice behind them. However,
when officers of the court conspire to convict a defendant of first-degree
murder and send him to death row, they are doing much more than making an
innocent mistake or error. They are breaking the law.

Perhaps this explains why, even when a manifestly innocent man is about to be
executed, a prosecutor can be dead set against reopening an old case. Since so
many wrongful convictions result from official malicious behavior, prosecutors,
policemen, witnesses or even jurors and judges could themselves face jail time
for breaking the law in obtaining an unlawful conviction.

Strangely, our misunderstanding of the real cause underlying most wrongful
convictions is compounded by the very people who work to uncover them. Although
the term “wrongfully convicted” is technically correct, it also has the
potential to be misleading. It leads to the false impression that most inmates
ended up on death row because of good-faith mistakes or errors committed by an
imperfect criminal justice system * not by malicious or unlawful behavior.

For this reason, we need to re-frame the argument and shift our language. If a
death sentence is overturned because of malicious behavior, we should call it
for what it is: an unlawful conviction, not a wrongful one.

In the interest of fairness, it is important to note that those who are
exonerated are not necessarily innocent of the crimes that sent them to death
row. They have simply had their death sentences set aside because of errors that
led to convictions, usually involving the intentional violation of their
constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial. Very seldom does the court
go the next step and actually declare them innocent.

In addition, some of these unlawful convictions resulted from criminal justice
officials trying to do the right thing. (A police officer, say, plants evidence
on a defendant he is convinced is guilty, fearing that the defendant will escape
punishment otherwise.) In cases like these, officers or prosecutors have been
known to “frame a guilty man.”

The malicious or even well-intentioned manipulation of murder cases by
prosecutors and the police underscores why it’s important to discard, once and
for all, the nonsense that so-called wrongful convictions can be eliminated by
introducing better forensic science into the courtroom.

Even if we limit death sentences to cases in which there is “conclusive
scientific evidence” of guilt, as Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate and
former governor of Massachusetts has proposed, we will still not eliminate the
problem of wrongful convictions. The best trained and most honest forensic
scientists can only examine the evidence presented to them; they cannot be
expected to determine if that evidence has been planted, switched or withheld
from the defense.

The cause of malicious unlawful convictions doesn’t rest solely in the imperfect
workings of our criminal justice system * if it did we might be able to remedy
most of it. A crucial part of the problem rests in the hearts and souls of those
whose job it is to uphold the law. That’s why even the most careful strictures
on death penalty cases could fail to prevent the execution of innocent people *
and why we would do well to be more vigilant and specific in articulating the
causes for overturning an unlawful conviction.

By Richard Moran who is a professor of sociology and criminology at Mount Holyoke