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