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 Kopko@dioceseofvenice.org

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.