Friday, April 20, 2007

Packed Pinellas jail set to free inmates:

Those accused of misdemeanors and ordinance violations will be the first group allowed to leave.

Hundreds of inmates in Pinellas County's chronically overcrowded jail could be released thanks to a judge's order.

The inmates eligible first for release would be those accused of misdemeanors or violations of local ordinances.

If that doesn't provide enough relief, Sheriff Jim Coats could ask judges to consider freeing people accused of nonviolent felonies, like retail theft and drug possession. After that, the sheriff could set free inmates sentenced to the county jail who have only a short time left to serve.

The authorization to free certain inmates, issued this week by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge David Demers, comes as the jail's population hovers around 3,600 - 1,100 more than it was originally designed to house.

The crush of inmates has made it difficult to control tensions and the spread of disease. Last year, attacks on jail staff jumped 82 percent.

The order empowers Coats to lower the population only to 3,300, the jail's modified capacity.

"I asked for all this responsibility in order to do something to help relieve this overcrowding," Coats said Thursday. "This will be a slow, methodical process as we review those who meet the criteria for release. We're not going to release anyone with a history of violence or who is being held for a very serious crime."

Demers issued the administrative order after a yearlong series of meetings between the sheriff, prosecutors, public defenders and other judges. Demers said Thursday that it was a temporary fix for a problem that will inevitably get worse.

Officials expect the recently passed state Anti-Murder Act, which requires violent felons who violate probation be jailed until they see a judge, to add to the crowding problems in Pinellas.

"We may get through the current crisis, but sooner or later, we'll have another," Demer said.

The population at the Pinellas jail began to spike in 2004, driven in large part by a zero-tolerance policy by the state's probation officers. The policy change came after 11-year-old Carlie Brucia of Sarasota was killed by a man on probation.

At times, as many as 400 inmates were being held on such charges, but the figure has declined in recent months as judges work to process the cases faster.

Coats also said Thursday he is expanding the use of electronic monitoring devices, from 200 to 300. The monitoring devices are cheaper than incarceration and free up space in the jail for other inmates. Ultimately, Coats will have to hire another staff member to help monitor the group.

The judge also urged Coats to use the discretion his staff already has to speed up processing of ordinance violators, issuing them a court appearance notice rather than booking them in jail.

Both prosecutors and public defenders, while they were involved in the creation of the new order, raised concerns about how much, or how little, it will actually do.

"It's a good start," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said. "But we have a long way to go to changing the way we think about who we put in these very expensive jails. I think we have an awful lot of people in jail who are poor."

Dillinger said he would like to see 1,000 people on electronic monitoring, enabling them to be productive in society and work.

"We just can't keep building jails," he added. "People who are on monitors have a very, very low re-offending rate and sooner or later, the expense of all this will drive us to do what is real and safe and positive."

Bruce Bartlett, the chief assistant in State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office, said that while Demers' order contains safeguards against releasing dangerous inmates, he worried that too much discretion was given to deputies who book newly arrested suspects.

"You essentially have a non-judge, non-lawyer deciding who is going to be released or not," he said.

But Bartlett said he anticipates the release of low-level offenders will be enough to alleviate the immediate crowding problem.

"I don't think it's as bad as it looks," he said.

Two jail expansion projects are due to open in coming months. An abandoned PSTA bus garage near the jail is being renovated to house 288 inmates. It is scheduled to open in August. And a $36-million medical building with 400 beds may also open in August more than a year behind schedule.

Pinellas voters also approved in March a 10-year extension of the 1 percent Penny for Pinellas sales tax, which the county will use to expand the jail complex. The first priority: a new 2,500-bed facility that would bring the jail's capacity to 5,298.

Thursday, however, more than 200 inmates were still sleeping on the floor, some of them old, some with serious health problems. Micah Sanders, 18, charged with burglary, has been in the jail more than a month. He said he just got a bunk to sleep on two days ago.

His broken arm was in a hard cast.

"We're lucky to get pillows in here," he said. "It's stressful."

By JACOB H. FRIES St. Petersburg Times
Published April 20, 2007
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS: Who could go
The first inmates eligible for release from the Pinellas County Jail under the judge's order would be those whose highest charge is a local ordinance violation -- such as urinating in public or having an open container of alcohol -- or a misdemeanor -- such as petty theft or trespassing. If the release of those inmates didn't alleviate crowding, jail staff could ask judges to consider releasing people accused of third-degree felonies, such as forgery, grand theft or careless driving with a suspended license.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Americans in prison

In the international race to incarcerate, the United States dominates, with few rivals and no rich countries within shouting distance. Incarceration rates across countries are best measured as shares of national populations. Last year, for every 100,000 people in the United States, 738 were in prison. Second-place Russia, whom the United States succeeded in 2000, currently boasts a rate of 603, but the only other OECD country with a rate above 200 is Poland at 229. The U.K. incarceration rate of 145 is the highest of any Western European country. Although African-Americans suffer the greatest relative burden of U.S. imprisonment, the incarceration rate for whites in the United States is still more than three times the OECD average.

To its credit, the United States hasn't always imprisoned such a large share of its population. Incarceration rates were steady, sometimes falling, and always below 200 throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The prison population rate rose sharply from 1973 to 1980, and then skyrocketed, more than tripling over the past 25 years.

What caused such a tremendous spike in imprisonment? Increases in crime rates surely made some contribution, but the road to prison involves other components of the criminal justice system, like prosecutorial and judicial decisions, and the time served in jail. Isolating these factors during the period from 1980 to 1996, Carnegie Mellon professor Alfred Blumstein and Bureau of Justice statistician Allen Beck conclude that only 12 percent of state incarceration growth resulted from the increased number of offenses. The rest of the prison population growth was due to decisions to incarcerate arrested individuals and their subsequent sentence length -- namely, policy choices made by legal and political representatives.

Coinciding directly with this astounding expansion of the prison population is the U.S. "war on drugs." Nonviolent drug offenses accounted for less than 8 percent of prisoners in 1980, but by 1993 that share had risen to about 25 percent, where it remains today. By contrast, more than half of those imprisoned in 1980 were violent criminals, who now comprise a bit less than half of the prison population. As a proportion of illicit activity, drug use therefore either tripled in just slightly over a decade and then stabilized, or the focus and severity of U.S. penal and sentencing policy shifted dramatically.

International comparisons also reveal the stark and decisive contribution of criminal justice policies to incarceration rates. Cross-country crime surveys from the late 1980s through the present place the United States slightly above average, but well within the range of Western European criminal activity. The United States is now, of course, off the charts in terms of incarceration, imprisoning on a per capita basis six times the average of other OECD countries.

Incarceration rates in the United States and Finland were not dissimilar in the mid-1960s. Over the following 30 years, the United States saw a near fivefold increase in the rate of violent crime and a threefold increase in the rate of imprisonment. Violent crime also rose in Finland by a factor of three, but over roughly the same period, the promotion of sentencing alternatives to incarceration and deliberate reductions in the length of prison sentences helped to cut the Finnish incarceration rate by more than half.

Assessing these trends, criminologist Michael Tonry writes that whereas U.K. punishment policies were originally not out of the ordinary compared with Western Europe, since 1993 England and Wales "have consciously emulated American crime control policies," resulting in the near doubling of the prison population. In Germany, despite a doubling of the violent crime rate between the early 1960s and 1990s, "no radical decisions were made to increase or decrease the imprisonment rate," and so the German incarceration rate stagnated and even fell somewhat over this period. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that incarceration rates are driven primarily by policy choices, not by crime rates or inexorable laws of nature.

by Ben Zipperer a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Published at AlterNet

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

The prison system in the U.S. stands alone in the modern Western world as a model of mass incarceration. The "tough on crime" stance taken by elected officials from across the political spectrum has not halted the resurgence of crime in the last few years, nor has it helped prevent ex-inmates from once again ending up behind bars.

How did the U.S. devolve into a nation that incarcerates over 2.13 million people, when just a quarter century ago the number was 475,000? What happens when the criminal justice system deals out vengeance instead of justice?

Sasha Abramsky delves into these questions in his new book, American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, a title that alludes to the ancient Greek goddesses of vengeance. It follows in the tracks of his first two books, Hard Time Blues and Conned, and tries to synthesize what he has learned about criminal justice in the U.S. since an article assignment first piqued his interest around eleven years ago. American Furies traces criminal justice through American history, including the psychological and religious issues, and the power dynamics involved in the development and implementation of recent policy.

Abramsky's quiet Sacramento home is a far cry from some of the dark scenes he has witnessed in his research. AlterNet interviewed Abramsky there about his book and his ideas on how to extricate this country from an age of mass imprisonment.

Prema Polit: Why has the U.S. become incarceration central when other countries have taken a different route?

Sasha Abramsky: I think one of the reasons is that America took a distinctly conservative turn in the 1970s. Other countries went through their conservative moments, England being a case in point with Margaret Thatcher, but they didn't quite have the sort of populist conservatism that we have here. One of the effects is that there has been a pandering to really very ill thought out prejudice on an array of issues. Then a result of that in the criminal justice debates are very simplistic laws like "three strikes and you're out." They sound good in 15-second sound-bytes, and they're lousy public policy.

I think that the other reason, paradoxically, is that we're extremely wealthy, and extremely powerful. Most states, when they're at the zenith of their power, in addition to projecting themselves out onto the world also seem to impose order on their own populaces. America is the big cheese at the moment, so we're seeing those social policies playing out in America in a way that they're not playing out anywhere else right now.

An example is England in the late 19th century. Brimming with self-confidence, it believes that its political, social and economic systems are the best in the world. Its empire is at its maximum expansion. You see very similar policies in late 19th century England that you see here.

I think what's distinct about the American system is that America has reached the zenith of its power at a moment when technology provides so many opportunities for the state to insert itself in ways that it couldn't previously. One of the most fascinating things that comes to mind is that in addition to being liberal with its use of incarceration, we have technology that allows the state to eavesdrop, to control, to regiment the lives of its prisoners in a way that no other prison mechanism in history has been able to do. So we're not just creating more prisons, we're creating more secure prisons and more regimented prisons. We're not just creating more jobs for prison guards, but we're creating an entire subset of the economy based on the technology of incarceration.

PP: You wrote about the "Nothing Works" movement, which dismissed rehabilitative efforts for prisoners as ineffective. So what does work?

SA: I guess I should backtrack and explain what the "Nothing works" philosophy is. It's an idea which both the left and the right came to believe in in the 1970s. The idea was that a ton of money and a ton of resources had been invested in trying to create rehabilitation structures inside prisons for criminals. They were tailored to meet individual needs, and they were designed to recalibrate the way people behaved and also their belief structures. The left came to hate it because they concluded that these rehabilitation efforts were very totalitarian, that they were an attempt to sort of remodel people to meet social norms. And the right hated it because they thought it was wishy-washy. The consensus is that it should just be about punishment, that we should just get back to the basics. That's been fairly prevalent for about 25 or 30 years at this point.

But there is evidence that there are things that do work: some of the new drug-treatment programs, some of the diversionary courts, the mental health courts, drug treatment courts that don't put people into prisons in the first place but put them in structured care in the community. They do have success rates. But how do you measure success? That's one of the key problems here.

There's a group called the "Fortune Society" in New York, and I've worked with them for many years. Their clients are mainly drug-addicted ex-prisoners. The director of Fortune is a woman named JoAnne Page. She'll always stress to me that if you look for success in terms of absolute change, you'll never find it, because that's not how human beings work; they don't suddenly change overnight. She says that the way you have to look for success among her clients and more generally is to look for incremental change. Can you set in motion a chain of events that will gradually take someone away from drugs, gradually transform how they see themselves, how they see their role in the world, transform them from criminally minded to being a law-abiding, productive citizen.

If you look at the really innovative drug-treatment programs that try to reintegrate people into jobs and housing and so on, they deal in incrementals. Wherever you look, the more successful programs are the ones that aren't overly ambitious. They deal with the art of the possible.

PP: Some people say that the criminal justice system makes sure that the accused has all these rights, but ignores the victims. What is your response to that?

SA: One section of my book is on the victims' rights movement. I profile a woman in Alabama who is one of the more vocal proponents of victims' rights. She's been very instrumental in moving Alabama in a more conservative direction when it comes to crime and punishment policies. And that's precisely her point, that the way the criminal justice system works all too often the victims feels neglected. They feel that the rights of the defendant outweigh that of the victims, they feel that the court system is stacked in favor of the defendant because you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To a degree they were right. I think there was a period in history when the court system became coldly indifferent to the needs of the victim, and so in the 1970s era, there probably was room for a victims' rights movement to emerge to address that.

My argument with the victims' rights movement is that it has outgrown its original role, and that it's channeling the emotional response of the victim into making public policy. And I think that's dangerous, because when you're victimized you're almost certainly going to have an extremely emotional response. As an individual, that response makes perfect sense. If I were a crime victim or my family was, I would have an emotional response, and I would want that emotional response to take center stage in the criminal justice system. But that's not how the system is supposed to work.

One of the basic underlying intellectual foundations of modern criminal justice theory is that you need a dispassionate state, that if you allow the emotions of the victims to govern public policy, you're going to get a very brutal state response. In a sense you're going to turn the state into a distributor of vengeance rather than justice.

PP: What was the most surprising thing that you encountered while researching and writing American Furies?

SA: I went out in 100-degree heat into the desert early one morning with a group of women. They had mostly been convicted of parole violations or probation violations, but very minor offenses. For the next three or four hours I watched them lower coffins into a pauper's grave, in the desert, next to an air force base. There was this extraordinary image, surrounded by these shotgun-toting sheriff's deputies. And they're these two-bit characters, these women who were addicted to cocaine, young women convicted of welfare fraud, that kind of thing. They're chained at the ankles, and they're sweating and they're miserable, and there's no point to their work.

I found that was the most extraordinary thing that I have ever seen when I've been reporting on criminal justice, that to me really spoke to everything that's gone wrong in the way that we implement criminal justice here.

PP: These days all politicians want to be "tough on crime," which people take to mean harsher sentencing. What is an alternative definition that we might adopt?

SA: The definition that I've heard said by quite a few criminal justice experts over the years is if you're going to be truly tough on crime, then measures of success should be a lowering of the crime rate and a lowering of the recidivism rate - the rate at which people who have been in the prison system then come out are bussed back into the prison system, partly because they commit new crimes or they violate parole. Now if you can craft a series of policies that over the long term reduce crime and over the long term reduce the number of people who are cycling through the system then you're really making society safer, and you're doing it in a way that is financially viable because you're not building more and more prisons at a staggering cost. That seems to me the sensible definition of "tough on crime" because it's structural. It means that you're tackling some real root causes of why crime occurs and who is committing it and how to stop it.

What's happening right now is based on the 15-second sound byte. It's the idea that if you can pitch the public a policy that's easy to explain in the 15 seconds that you can be allotted in the local TV news show, then you can claim your "tough on crime" credentials. Now, it's impossible to explain the complicated, good public policy in 15 seconds, but it's very easy to pitch something like "three strikes and you're out" because it's slogan based.

The result is this sort of endless cycle of increased incarceration. We've incarcerated so many people at this point that if they really were tough on crime, with successful, well-defined tough-on-crime laws, we'd have nobody committing crimes at this point. But that's not happening.

The last couple years in all the big cities, including here in Sacramento, the crime rate is up. And it shouldn't be happening, because the incarceration rate is still going up; every year it is going up by 50 or 60 thousand people. So if we really had a successful tough on crime policy, we wouldn't be having these debates right now about why is it so many teenagers are shooting each other, why is it that so many people are still taking drugs?

PP: You took the title "American Furies" from the ancient Greek drama about murder, vengeful spirits, and the creation of a court of justice. How far have we come since those days?

SA: Clearly in some ways we're a world away from the world of ancient Greece. Our technology is different; the scale of our society is different; the things that we find as criminal are different.

The reason that I chose "American Furies" as a title is that I wanted to in a sense explore the mythological qualities of crime and punishment. The Furies in ancient Greece were these goddesses who basically would chase the guilty around the Mediterranean world, and if not directly deal out punishment, would terrorize the guilty into death. They were these far larger-than-life characters that were designed to show how powerfully the Greek society understood notions of right and wrong and crime and punishment. I think that's a perennial theme in the human saga, that society is always going to look at crime and the transgression of the social code as being extremely serious, and it's always going to create its own responses designed to impose order; it's always going to make it's own equivalent to the Greek furies to deal out justice.

What I think happens every few centuries in different parts of the world is that the state goes completely overboard in its response to crime, usually in response to a panic about crime. You see it in Tudor England when there's this rash of hangings. Over a couple decades you see 70,000 people hanged. You see these very vengeful social movements that tend to take the state with them. And I'm arguing in American Furies that America is in the middle of one of these periodic crime hysterias. It's created this larger-than-life response, this almost mythological quality to our criminal justice system.

PP: You explore the history of the criminal justice system in your book. What's next?

SA: We're at a turning point and can go one of two directions. We've either reached the apogee, and we're at the point where it's almost impossible to build more prisons and fund more prisons and put more people in prison. And if that's the case, and there's some evidence that a lot of states are moving in that direction, then we'll see a renewed focus on rehabilitation, we might well see an expansion in drug treatment course, more money to mental health, and that's the somewhat optimistic scenario.

The other scenario is that we're stuck in a cycle of fear. Whether it's fear of drugs, whether it's fear of illegal immigrants, fear about terror, whatever it is. And some of the fears are valid; there's a valid reason to be fearful of terrorism. But I think we're stuck in a moment where these fears may congeal into another epidemic of incarceration. You do see in many border regions these ribbons of facilities set up to house INS detainees, or ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement detainees. I do think there's a risk that the immigration debate could slide in the direction that makes it more likely that we mass incarcerate illegal immigrants.

PP: What changes do you think would most benefit the criminal justice system?

SA: One of them is mental health. There's a half a million seriously mentally ill people behind bars. That's a huge number, and that's the wrong place for most of them. There are lots of people committing low-end crimes, especially drug crimes, that have serious mental illness that could be much better treated, and much more cheaply treated outside prison. So I think one way to at least start to tackle this problem is to really invest in the community mental health services. Try and catch people with illnesses and treat people with mental illnesses before they end up in court.

I think another thing that overnight would transform the criminal justice system is more sensible dialogue about drugs. That dialogue should change to, "Well, we have a serious crack and heroin epidemic. Is the best approach incarceration, or should we make it possible to access treatment programs from the outside, funded by the state." And then if they do still get in trouble, really create a country-wide instead of a half-hazard network of drug-treatment course. Because, now, depending on where you live, for the same crime, you're either going to prison or to a drug-treatment facility. I think this needs to be standardized.

If you deal with drugs and you deal with mental illness, overnight you reduce the scale of the prison population, and then you can introduce other changes. You can reduce the number of people in prisons; you can invest money in better parole and probation structure and all of that.

PP: What is the most important message or idea to take away from American Furies?

SA: I want American Furies to show people that the criminal justice system isn't behaving in the way that we think and we hope it behaves. And I'm using behave deliberately here, because I think that even though the criminal justice system is basically a series of institutions rather than individuals, it's also very much subject to political whim -- to the whim of politicians, and the mood of the electorate.

I want people to take a deep breath and say, "Alright, nobody wants to live in a world besieged by crime. People who break a law need to pay a price, but are we doing this in the most sensible way possible?" I want them to read my book and come away from it saying, "No we're not." Whether you're left wing or right wing, whether you're a tough law and order person, whether you're a diehard fan of rehabilitation, I think anybody who reads this book should say, alright, we have a real problem here. We have way too many people in prison, and it's coming at a tremendous financial and moral cost to the state of our society.
By Prema Polit, AlterNet
Posted on April 14, 2007, Printed on April 15, 2007
Prema Polit is an editorial intern at AlterNet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Can we keep kids from repeating their incarcerated parents' mistakes?

"The kids are not responsible for the decisions we adults make," says an inmate.

More than 2 million childre have a parent in prison and statistics say they'r up to six times more likely to go down that same road than othe children. These are big number that help explain overcrowding outdated prison buildings overworked staffs an shockingly high recidivism rate that plague corrections system nationwide

But there may be a way out of the hole: the Coalition for a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Founded in San Francisco in 2003, the Coalition created an eight-point bill of rights meant to protect, educate and care for children whose parents have been incarcerated. This effort has been adopted with gusto in Philadelphia, especially by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which led a forum last week for advocates, caregivers and people involved in the correctional system to discuss how to care for and protect the rights of these children.

"A lot of what we're doing is raising the issue," says Ann Schwartzman, Prison Society policy director. "These kids really end up being invisible."

The discussion ranged from training law enforcement officials on how to act when there is a child present during the time of the arrest (Right No. 1) and allowing contact visits in prison (Right No. 5) to providing programs to educators and caregivers about how to reduce the stigma or embarrassment that a child with a parent in prison faces (Right No. 7).

Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, said children face many difficulties if they are not allowed an arena to vent or to meet other kids in a similar position. She applauded the Prison Society for its SKIP (Support for Kids with Incarcerated Parents) program, which meets during school hours and allows children in similar situations to talk. Adalist-Estrin also discussed the importance of maintaining a bond between parent and child, saying that prisoners who have regular visitors are six times less likely to re-enter the system.

"If the children choose to continue this relationship, they should have it," she said, citing solutions such as incarcerating a prisoner close to home and allowing weekend visits.

Community organizations, including the Prison Society, help facilitate these visits by organizing buses to various prisons around the state and having Virtual Visitation programs that allow kids to talk to their parents via video camera. During actual visits, the children are allowed to touch their parent — something unique to Philadelphia. According to prison-system spokesman Bob Eskind, some prisons also provide special rooms away from the general visiting area, if arranged in advance.

"You can certainly hold your child, hug your child, kiss your child," says Eskind. "We're aware that family re-unification is an important issue and we work with a number of outside agencies to try and bridge those gaps."

Still, coalition members say more can be done, such as making visiting rooms more kid-friendly and extending visiting hours so that school-age children are able to attend. Though some prisons in the area have visiting hours until 9 p.m., others require signing in by 4:30 p.m., making it difficult for some children to arrive in time.

While the bill of rights campaign is on its beginning legs in the Philadelphia area — the coalition, still in its formative stage, will ultimately work locally to get some of the "rights" enacted — those at the forum were optimistic that it would find support from politicians, family members and the corrections community. They still have a long way to go.

"We've heard about it," says Eskind. "I don't know if it's led to any re-evaluation of policy, but we're aware of it."

While the group aims for policy changes, looking out for the kids remains focal. As Schwartzman read statements to the crowd from men at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, outside Philadelphia, the desire to keep their kids from making the same mistakes became a familiar refrain.

"The kids are not responsible for the decisions we adults make," one letter read. "It's important for us to explain to our children that it is us, not them, that are responsible.

by Francesca Heintz

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A New Jail for Sarasota County? Part 7

Nobody appeared to be listening when Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill asked for a new jail last year. The politically repugnant subject was quietly discussed in back rooms, but seldom addressed in public forums before cameras and microphones. That has changed.

On Tuesday, the county commission finally came to grips with the obvious. There aren't enough cells and beds available in the current jail for a fast-growth community such as Sarasota, so there needs to be another one for sentenced prisoners.

Where will it be? How big will it be? What will it look like? Who will run it?. What services will it provide? There are no answers yet, but a consensus exists among the commissioners to spend about $200,000 on a consultant so the planning process can begin.

"There were 1,142 prisoners in jail last November and 1,036 beds," Major Daryl Stinger said. "When we squeeze people into cells, and they sleep on portable beds, there is more pressure on everyone. There are fights. If we start building a new jail today it will still take years to finish."

Commission Chair Nora Patterson acknowledged the predicament. "What I hear is we need a new facility," she said. "People don't think they want a jail located near them because it will hurt property values. But it didn't hurt them when we added onto the downtown jail."

Criminal justice officials and circuit court judges met with the commission to support a process that will probably encounter resistance from some residents who fear the location of jail anywhere near their homes. It is a reality the commission will have to address.

"What we need to do is a have a realistic conversation with the community," Patterson said. "We need to be firm with people and tell them we can't go downtown again. We also have to have a conversation with our cities because they are involved."

The approach commissioners will apparently attempt to take involves wrapping the new jail into a long-range planning process similar to one that took place in Broomfield, Colo., a Denver suburb that built a new jail before nearby offices and apartments were developed.

County officials who recently attended a Denver conference on planning for new facilities such as jails tried to lay out a step-by-step scenario for the commission that would treat the jail as a community amenity rather than a political hot potato.

"We need to think not just 15 years out into the future, but maybe 30 years," Health Department Director Bill Little said. "We're not at the point yet where we're ready to say we need a 200-bed minimum security facility. We have to consider program development and alternatives."

Commissioner Joe Barbetta wasn't convinced. "Jails are for violent criminals," he said. "Of the 1,000 who are in and out of our jail, about 600 are violent and belong. Our efforts should be aimed at the other 400 who probably shouldn't be there."

The problem for those prisoners is often what to do when they leave jail. "Joe Barbetta is right, but it's not that simple," Commissioner Paul Mercier said. "We need to involve our business community in this discussion. People need jobs when they get out of jail."

Because the downtown Sarasota jail is a maximum security facility there is no room for educational services or job training programs. It was a glaring short-coming when commissioners voted for a jail addition in 1998 rather than build a new jail for sentenced prisoners outside the city.

While there was no vote, a commission majority indicated it was time to move forward and County Administrator Jim Ley agreed to produce a contract for consultant services. It shouldn't take long because there is already one on his desk.

It has been there since Jan. 23, when the commission balked at approving $200,000 for a jail consultant and directed administrators to investigate the possibility of building a regional facility with DeSoto and Manatee counties.

Those efforts were reportedly rebuffed at the Colorado conference when DeSoto County officials indicated they would rather address jail and prisoner needs on their own. There was no discussion about the possibility of pursing joint efforts with Manatee County.

by Jack Gurney Pelican Press

Juvenile Justice in Sarasota:

Sarasota County commissioners learned officially Tuesday morning what many of them have known privately for a while: Too often young offenders aren't being arrested, and therefore don't receive help in substance abuse, mental health or behavioral programs until they become adults or commit serious offenses - when it may be too late.

The reason: Sarasota County today has no facility to evaluate juvenile offenders and determine whether to jail them in a regional juvenile detention facility in Bradenton, or send them to a diversionary program in Sarasota.

Sarasota's old Juvenile Assessment Center, once housed in the county jail by the courthouse downtown, was closed down Oct. 1 in compliance with a state law, the Martin Lee Anderson Act, named for a youth killed by poorly trained officers in a detention center boot camp.

Ever since, assessment center staffers have had to work out of a Bradenton detention center, which means officers who arrest minors must drive them to Bradenton in their squad cars, wait for assessment professionals to make a determination - which officials say can take upwards of two hours - and sometimes drive the offender back home or to another facility after that.

That can mean four hours off the street for a Sarasota Police officer, and maybe six or more for an officer from the North Port Police Department. As a result, juvenile arrests fell quickly by 50 percent or more for the first few months after the assessment center closed, and remain at least 25 percent below last year's arrest rate, although juvenile justice personnel say that actual offenses are being committed at the same rate or higher.

Police officers and sheriff's deputies are just far less willing to make an arrest.

Ironically that falloff is making it hard to justify staffing the two juvenile assessment centers in Sarasota County - one near North Port and another in the City of Sarasota - which law enforcement agencies have requested.

"It's a real Catch-22," said Criminal Justice Coordinator James Schulz. "Police on the streets have the ability to make a choice [about making an arrest], and with borderline cases, juvenile offenders might not get to the JAC."

The commission on Tuesday asked staffers to explore a new, temporary assessment center site in north county near I-75, and estimate the costs of at least a part-time center in North Port Police headquarters offered for that purpose by Chief Terry Lewis.

Coastal Behavioral Health Care, the county contractor that runs the assessment center, will work up cost estimates for an upcoming commission meeting, said the agency's CEO, Jerry Thompson.

Fortunately, some $665,000 was earmarked for a new center in the local option sales tax extension budget approved in 2000, he said.

A secure assessment facility at the county jail downtown is part of a pending remodeling project that should be ready in 12 to 14 months, according to Schulz.

County Administrator Jim Ley used Tuesday's discussion to criticize the state for what amounts to another "unfunded mandate" inherent in the Anderson Act, forcing the counties to spend money because of its changes in state law.

But Commissioner Shannon Staub said the discussion should be refocused. "No, it's about the kids," she said. "We're not now taking charge of the kids we can turn around. We have to step back and see if we can find a solution for the kids."

In 1998, state authorities encouraged Sarasota County to provide land for a separate, 52-bed detention facility where juveniles could be assessed and - if necessary - detained. The county commission would not commit to the project.

The state funds for that project were eventually shifted to provide 20 new beds in an expansion of the Manatee County Juvenile Detention Center, and 20 beds were added to a Marion County facility to improve its intake and screening capability.

The state currently allocates $210,000 a year for the operation of a juvenile assessment center in Sarasota County, while the county allocates $300,000 so Coastal Behavioral Health Care experts can screen troubled youths and make referrals.

by Rick Barry Pelican Press

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Congress Should Listen to The Judges on Mandatory Sentencing:

Every effort to scrap or modify the blatantly unfair minimum mandatory sentencing law for illicit drug abusers has crashed against two things. The first was then President Bill Clinton's half-hearted fight to change the disparity sentencing in the law in Congress in the mid-1990s. Next, it crashed against President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress's dogged battle against changing the sentencing disparity. The law requires that judges slap a minimum mandatory sentence of five years on anyone caught with crack cocaine. Those convicted are mostly poor blacks. Those caught with the same amount of powdered cocaine, mostly whites, often middle-class suburban whites get a comparative hand slap sentence.

Clinton, Bush and Congress easily turned a tin ear to those screaming for reform as along as they were the usual suspects, the ACLU, black and Latino activists, a handful of elected officials, drug reform organizations, and criminal justice reform advocates. Congress may have a harder time ignoring the latest to raise their voices against the law. The ones screaming louder this time are federal judges. Many of them are Reagan and Bush appointees, have impeccable conservative credentials, and are not bleeding heart liberals on crime. But a growing number of them say it's time for change in the laws.

Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the new chair of the House judiciary Committee, and a long time crusader against sentencing disparities has pledged to hold hearings on the disastrous impact of the laws. And they have been a disaster.

When Congress enacted the law in 1986, the idea was to use tougher drug sentencing to rid the streets of violent, drug kingpins. At the time, drug and gun violence tore many poor black neighborhoods, and police and terrified residents demanded a crackdown. The law hammered poor blacks, had almost no affect on the drug lords, and gave white drug users a relatively free legal pass. The problem for the judges was that the laws stripped them of much of their discretionary legal authority to impose sentences. In several judicial districts, judges quietly rebelled, bent the rules, and lightened sentences for some first time offenders.

In at least one case, a judge resigned from the bench in protest against the mandatory sentencing laws. Even Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy, and the late William Rehnquist have publicly called for scrapping or at least modifying the mandatory law. This drew a loud rebuke from then Attorney General John Ashcroft. There were open threats to retaliate against the dissenting judges.

Meanwhile, the majority of blacks that are sentenced under the law, and that's upward of 80 percent, are poor, ill educated. They fit the increasingly standard, and disturbing profile of thousands of federal prisoners. Though studies confirm that black illicit drug use is no greater than that of whites, they are less likely to be offered a chance to plea bargain, black drug offenders are more likely to fall under federal or state minimum mandatory sentencing law, and will serve a sentence nearly double that of whites. The escalation in black incarceration is the single biggest cause of the massive bulge in the number of inmates in federal prisons. The number has jumped four fold since the late 1980s, and more than half of them are there for drug crimes, or other petty offenses.

The law has wreaked havoc on many black communities and families. A handful of states permanently ban ex-felons from voting. More than half of those disenfranchised are black men. The voting ban diminishes the political power of the black communities. Women convicted of felony drug offenses are also barred for life from receiving welfare benefits. This puts thousands of women and their children at dire social risk and increases the likelihood that they will commit more crimes. The high black imprisonment rate also drastically increases health risks and costs in black communities, since many prisoners are released with chronic medical afflictions, particularly HIV/AIDS.

The mandatory sentencing law has been a costly white elephant, and has done nothing to curb violent crime. More states realize that stuffing thousands in jail cells is no cure for crime and drug ills. In Michigan, California and New York, courts are much more willing to send people to drug treatment programs rather than prison. And a growing number of states have repealed, or modified their mandatory sentencing laws. Still, it's the judges that can make a difference with Congress. Breyer, Kennedy and the other federal judges that protest minimum mandatory sentencing have repeatedly said that the laws are wasteful, harmful, and a judicial embarrassment that threatens the legal independence of judges. The law further mocks the concept of equal protection under the law for rich and poor alike.

Conyers should move with all due speed to get congressional hearings going and show the damage of sentencing disparities. Then Congress should change or end them.

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in September.