Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Helping Prisoners Re-enter Society

Most re-entry efforts focus on prison inmates, yet about nine million people cycle annually through our country’s jails. This is roughly 10 times the number who leave prisons.

Jail inmates generally return to their communities after short incarcerations, bringing with them a higher incidence of communicable diseases and mental health conditions than exists in the general population.

Left untreated, these problems add to society’s health burden, emergency room costs and municipal budgets. They also increase the likelihood that inmates will commit new offenses and return to jail again, at public expense.

Jails are required to provide health care to inmates. This mandate creates an opportunity to support re-entry efforts. By linking inmates with community-based doctors, whom they can continue seeing after release, jails can stabilize inmates’ health and help improve the health and safety of the community.

The Second Chance Act is a welcome step. We can do more to support jail inmates by remembering that they are part of our communities and by providing them with community-based health care during incarceration.

Keith Barton
South Londonderry, Vt., May 20, 2008

The writer, a physician, is medical director of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services in Oakland, Calif.

To the Editor:

Financing of the Second Chance Act will support useful services to support the transition from prison to community. But these services must also be accompanied by removal of conflicting and counterproductive policies that stand in the way of community reintegration.

For example, while New York State allocated $3.1 million to assist re-entry efforts this year, the same budget projects an estimated $40 million in revenues from fees and surcharges imposed on people convicted of crimes, 80 percent of whom are indigent.

This crushing debt will leave releasees unable to acquire employment and housing, reverting to a life of crime that jeopardizes the community safety.

If New York is truly committed to public safety and reintegration, it must stop using financial penalties that undermine the intent of legislation like the Second Chance Act.

Marsha Weissman
Executive Director
Center for Community Alternatives
New York, May 22, 2008

Letters to the Editor of the New York Times published May 27, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Minnesota becomes second state to offer treatment to veterans who commit crimes

Last week, Minnesota became the second state in the nation to pass a sentence-mitigation bill for veterans facing criminal prosecution who suffer from combat related mental health disorders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law the evening of May 12, meaning courts will now be allowed to consider treatment over incarceration. California passed a similar law in 2007.
The legislation, tucked into the Reentry Omnibus Bill, requires the courts to inquire whether a defendant facing criminal proceedings is a veteran. By establishing military service, attorneys can then order a psychological evaluation. If a veteran is found to be suffering from a combat related mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the courts will work with the Department of Veterans Affairs so that treatment can be considered as part of the sentencing.

"I really do believe the judges will consider this, and use it as a condition of probation," says Brockton Hunter, a veteran and current legislative chair of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Military veterans have a heck of a time asking for help. They're proud and they're trained to believe that they can handle anything."

Instead of seeking therapy, many veterans suffering from mental disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with their problems, says Hunter, who authored the bill with the help of local veteran activist Guy Gambill.
According to a recent RAND report, one in five veterans suffers from psychological problems and many are not getting adequate care. The guerilla insurgency in Iraq and the increased stress of serving multiple tours has led to higher incidents of mental disorders.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Hunter. "We need to prepare for the rest as they continue to come home."
In the last three years, Hunter estimates he's defended at least 25 veterans whose military service can be linked to their crime, including Shoreview resident Tony Klecker, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who is now in jail for killing a 16-year-old while driving drunk in South St. Paul.

"This is not the kind of disease that is just going to go away," says Hunter. "Without proper treatment and care this stuff can linger for decades.... Until we get them help, they will continue to present the same problem, the same danger to public safety."

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that veterans accounted for 13 percent of state prisoners and 12 percent of jail inmates, with some 225,700 veterans of the U.S. Military incarcerated.
In 2006, 25 percent of Minnesota's male homeless population were veterans, more than half of them deemed to have a serious mental illness.

"The memories of the Vietnam era haunt us all," says state Sen. Linda Higgins-DFL, who was instrumental in the bill's passing. "Everyone my age can remember at least one veteran of that war who came back and was never quite right again. We can't repeat that."

Besides the personal and often devastating social repercussions untreated mental illness can have on soldiers and their families, the RAND report also warns of the economic costs to society associated with veterans suffering from untreated mental health disorders. "Billions of dollars" of government spending can be avoided with appropriate treatment, its authors argued.

"It makes a lot more sense to give them a break now, rather than just throwing them in the slammer and dealing with it on the other end," says Gambill, a former homeless veteran himself. "I can tell you it would have made all the difference in the world for many men I know who are now quite lost or dead."

Gambill is hoping to get a national version of the bill passed by Congress. He has spent the last few weeks in Washington, D.C., lobbying Sen. Amy Klobuchar's and Congressman Keith Ellison's offices for a congressional resolution drawing attention to the nexus between veterans, mental health, and crime.

"We are creating a permanent underclass here in the United States, bagged, tagged, and set on the shelf to stumble along until the lights go out," he wrote in an email from D.C. "For many, this [legislation] is a welcome respite from the piecemeal, haphazard existence we are forced to live."

By Beth Walton Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lean times all around, but Florida prisons are booming

Crime might not pay, but we keep paying for criminals.

Especially for offenders in the never-ending War on Drugs.

In a lean budget year that will put the crimp on public schools, universities and health care, the state's prison system keeps pumping iron. The upcoming budget includes $309 million to build three prisons. That's in addition to the $2.5 billion the Department of Corrections gets for annual operating expenses.

The numbers are startling. Five years ago, Florida's prison population was 77,316. By August, the Department of Corrections expects the figure to top 100,000, an increase of 28 percent from 2003.

That far outpaces the general population growth.

It would be one thing if other big states have had similar prison growth. But the two states with larger prison populations, Texas and California, had shrinkage last year. So did New York.

A March report by the Pew Center on the States found that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated, one out of every 99 adults, the highest rate among industrialized nations. The report had a subsection on Florida titled "A Case Study in Growth."

With almost 100,000 in prisons and another 64,000 locked up in county jails, Florida's adult incarceration rate is even higher. Florida has an adult population just under 14 million.

"Drug policies over the last 20 years account for the growth more than anything," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice research organization that advocates alternatives to incarceration.

At 20.7 percent, drug offenders make up the biggest segment of the state prison population, according to the state. Of the 3,307 people sent to prison from Broward last year, 537 (16.2 percent) were for cocaine possession, according to the Broward State Attorney's Office.

Broward sent more people to prison last year than every county except Hillsborough (4,000).

Drop by the Broward County Courthouse on any given day and you'll see a steady stream of defendants put away for nonviolent drug crimes, including possession of cocaine, residue-laden crack pipes and painkillers without prescriptions.

Jeff Marcus, chief of the felony division for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, said all drug offenders sent to prison have prior felony convictions and first-timers are given the chance to enter treatment programs in drug court or jail.

He said many drug offenders sent to prison also have violent felonies, theft or burglary on their rap sheets.

"These are people who have to be taken off the streets," Marcus said.

Florida's prison population has also grown because of stricter policies. Starting in 1995, criminals had to serve 85 percent of their sentences. And there's been zero tolerance for parole violations.

"Crime in Florida has dropped substantially during this period," The Pew report said, "but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even shrunk them, such as New York."

"It's a huge business," said Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Bill Gelin, whose JAABlog Web site has been critical of strict drug prosecutions in Broward. "It's a big employer, and there are powerful interests behind it."

It's also easy politics.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein calls the drug war "an abysmal failure" and said it's time Satz shows "better discretion" in certain drug cases. "The easiest arrest for police to make is for drug possession," he said.

Florida spends almost $20,000 a year on each prisoner. Mauer said changing the approach to the drug war to de-emphasize prisons makes long-term economic sense, but it won't be easy.

"It's like trying to close a military base," Mauer said.

"These prisons are mainly in rural areas, and a whole economy sprouts around them."

There's got to be a better way.

by Michael Mayo South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com News Columnist
posted May 13, 2008

Friday, May 02, 2008

Qualifying concludes for local judicial races

Qualifying for circuit court judicial races concluded at noon today. The following Circuit Court Judges for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, earned new six year terms without drawing any opposition:
Charles Roberts
Rick DeFuria
Andrew Owens
Robert McDonald
Peter Dubensky
Marc Gilner
Deno Economou
Edward Nicholas

Judge Durand Adams decided not to run for another term. Two candidates qualified to run for his position. The election will be held Tuesday, August 26, 2008. The two candidates are:
Connie Medros-Jacobs
Gilbert Smith Jr.

The State Attorney for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit is Earl Moreland. Nobody qualified to run against Mr. Moreland and so he has earned another four year term.

The Public Defender for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit is Elliott Metcalfe. First elected in 1976, and serving thereafter without opposition, Mr. Metcalfe decided not to seek another term in office. On August 26, 2008, two candidates will face-off in the Republican primary. They are:
Larry Eger
Ron Filipkowski
The winner of the Republican primary will then face the Democratic candidate in the November 4th general election. That candidate is:
Adam Tebrugge