Thursday, February 19, 2009

Montana Senate Passes bill Abolishing the Death Penalty:

With a 27 to 23 vote, Montana State senators on Tuesday approved a bill that would abolish capital punishment. Montana is one of 36 states that currently has the death penalty and bill sponsor, Democrat Dave Wanzenried of Missoula, hopes that will change. His bill would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In addressing the Senate, Wanzenried said the death penalty is costly and cumbersome, with appeals of the sentence wearing on a victim’s family.

“Life without the possibility of parole, on the other hand brings about an immediate sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole, away from the public eye no publicity.”

Wanzenried says the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and cited neighboring state North Dakota having a lower homicide rate with no death penalty.

Republican Dan McGee of Laurel opposes the bill and says the state needs to have an ultimate form of punishment.

“For those people who have done something so egregious in society that society has a bounded duty to take that person out of society forever.”

Republican Gary Perry of Manhattan says he’s spent his entire life believing in the death penalty.

“A sentence of life without parole with the only means of leaving the prison being a body bag and a toe tag is a life sentence, but according to God’s time table. And the only avenue to freedom is through death.”

Perry says for those who are against abortion voting for the bill shows consistency in those beliefs. Perry voted for the bill.

Montana currently has two people on death row. The bill must pass another vote before heading to the House.

Natalie Neumann is reporting from the state capitol for the University of Montana’s Legislative News Service.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is it time to end the death penalty in Florida?

Florida is facing the worst budgetary crisis of our lifetime. Essential services like education, health care and law enforcement are facing tremendous cuts in the upcoming legislative session. It is estimated that each year, the State of Florida spends an extra fifty million dollars to pursue the death penalty in a small number of cases. The alternative to the death penalty under Florida law is life in prison without possibility of parole. If in these lean budget times, every governmental program is truly on the table, shouldn't we consider eliminating one of the most expensive and least effective? For further information, please go to a new web-page:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Montana Senate endorses bill to abolish death penalty

After a 90-minute, emotionally charged debate, the Republican-controlled state Senate today endorsed a bill to abolish the death penalty in Montana.

Supporters of Senate Bill 236 said the death penalty is a costly, imperfect penalty that doesn't deter crime and does more harm than good for the families of those who are horribly murdered.

"In order for punishment to be effective, it must be swift and it must be sure," said Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, the sponsor of SB236. "The death penalty is neither."

Opponents argued just as passionately that Montana should maintain the harshest penalty for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

"This state needs to have an ultimate form of punishment for those people who have done something that is so egregious to society that we have a bounded duty to take that person out of society," said Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel.

Yet by a 27-23 vote, supporters of the bill carried the day, setting up a final, binding vote Tuesday that would send the measure to the House, which is split evenly between the two parties.

Six Republicans joined 21 Democrats in the Senate for SB236, while 21 Republicans and two Democrats voted "no."

Gazette State Bureau

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New Ideas on Prisons

Florida's budget crisis may bring a modicum of reasonableness to the debate over criminal justice policy. Instead of the "tough on crime" mantra that politicians spout to win elections and that usually leads to more prison beds, suggestions are cropping up for alternatives as a way to save big bucks. These ideas are not percolating up from liberal sources alone. Some of the most ardent supporters for a more measured approach to crime and criminals include a conservative Republican lawmaker and a fiscal watchdog group.

Florida houses 100,000 inmates in prison and expects to house another 15,000 by 2014. Three new prisons are on the drawing board. This fiscal year $340 million was allocated for prison construction, and much more will be required in the years to come.

State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, is deeply concerned about the way the prisons are eating up Florida's revenues when the state has pressing priorities in education, public health and elsewhere. As chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, Crist's ideas would eliminate the need for thousands of prison beds. And these ideas have the added benefit of being sensible criminal justice reforms.

In "Ideas for Fiscally Responsible Justice," Crist has laid out options intended to conserve spending on corrections and reduce recidivism while not jeopardizing public safety. They include:

• Establishing an experimental diversion program at buildings vacated by the Department of Juvenile Justice to give nonviolent felons access to substance abuse programs and life-skills training.

• Giving judges discretion to sanction probation violators to more appropriate settings than a maximum security prison bed when their infractions are minor, including the option of expanded electronic monitoring.

• Creating a "community-based incarceration" program for select inmates who are serving the last year of their sentence and have successfully participated in a work-release program.

This program, Crist says, would cut in half housing costs per inmate. Offenders would live in a supervised facility in their home cities. During the day they would be electronically monitored and employed in a job they could potentially retain after release. Crist points out that the program would give soon-to-be released prisoners a way to reintegrate themselves into society, putting them near family with a way to support themselves.

These are good ideas that deserve serious attention. Crist's ideas on expanded work release are similar to those offered by Florida TaxWatch, a fiscal watchdog group that recommends doubling the capacity of work-release programs to include an additional 3,000 inmates.

The organization also has endorsed the reintroduction of "gain time" for good behavior for nonviolent offenders. That would reduce overcrowding and offer another tool to maintain order in prisons. Just these two steps alone, Florida TaxWatch says, would eliminate the need for new prisons.

Florida's budget crisis offers the state an opportunity to move beyond the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" rhetoric that has substituted for criminal justice policy for far too long. A more nuanced, pragmatic approach to nonviolent offenders of the sort that Crist and Florida TaxWatch are proposing would save money that would otherwise be spent on prisons and would provide inmates a better opportunity to stay out of trouble when they are released. Every dollar saved by building fewer prisons is a dollar that can be used to spare public education and social services from deeper spending cuts.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial published February 12, 2009

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Singing the prison blues: Incarceration rate has direct impact on Florida Finances

Everyone in Florida government is singing the Budget Blues. But underlying the melody is a drumbeat many state leaders profess not to hear: The sound of countless prison doors slamming shut. Like it or not, the state's incarceration policies have a direct and growing impact on the current budget crisis.


Florida's prison system is growing faster than that of any other state. According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust, corrections (which includes state prisons and probation) consumed 9.3 percent of the state budget in 2007. The only states to allocate a greater portion of their budget were Oregon and Michigan.

And that only accounts for direct prison and probation spending -- it doesn't encompass increased public support for the families prisoners leave behind, or the burden on city and county governments that have to build additional jail space and employ more public-safety workers. Meanwhile, the state -- whose daily average prison population is projected to top 100,000 this year -- will need to build new facilities this year or face overcrowding. Department of Corrections Secretary Walter McNeil has requested $439.2 million in the coming budget year to add capacity.

Few people are pushing for dangerous murderers and rapists to be released. But neither can they dispute that Florida's incarceration spree occurred at a time when crime rates were actually trending downward. Florida hasn't become a more dangerous place to live, it's just become one that has become politically addicted to the idea of increasingly harsh punishments.


One of the more important checks against legislative excess has been hobbled. Lawmakers have significantly eroded the ability of judges to determine fair, justifiable sentences for a wide range of crimes.

Florida, like many states, adopted sentencing guidelines as a way to keep sentences relatively fair across geographic and racial lines. After sentencing guidelines passed in 1983, courts used a "score sheet" that added points for the particulars of an offense, the criminal background of an offender and other relevant considerations. The resulting score was then matched to a "guideline" range of prison and/or probation time -- but judges could depart from the guidelines if they found good reason to do so. That approach used fairness as a base line, giving judges the ability to tailor sentences to circumstances.

That changed in the mid-1990s, when the Legislature passed a series of laws aimed at stripping discretion from judges. There were "minimum mandatory" laws that demanded specific sentences for specific crimes, regardless of circumstances. Habitual offender statutes added more prison time, again taking away judges' discretion and resulting in cases like that of a burglar who received a life sentence for stealing a handful of children's videotapes.

In 1997, the Legislature erased the "ceiling" for guideline sentences; judges were not allowed to sentence a defendant to a sentence lower than the guidelines called for, but were permitted (even encouraged) to levy the statutory maximum sentence even if the guidelines called for a much lower penalty. As a result, the state could see a dramatic growth in sentencing disparity, with more politically minded judges levying unnecessarily harsh sentences in an attempt to appear tougher.

A final change -- setting zero-tolerance policies for many prisoners on probation -- has pushed thousands more people back behind bars, often for relatively minor offenses.


Restoring the intent of Florida's sentencing guidelines, and returning discretion to judges, would be a good start. The state also can ease the burden on prisons by matching offenders with programs that reduce the chances that they will commit more crimes. Specialized courts -- such as drug or mental health courts -- generally operate outside sentencing guideline requirements. And these programs work, significantly reducing the number of offenders who are rearrested.

Last month, the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard about other measures that could reduce prison population -- such as a controlled release program or prison diversion measures. These are worth exploring, but they would be no replacement for a careful, analytical approach to each case that a judge could offer.

Undoing these dubious reforms would restore equity to sentencing in Florida, and help restore the emphasis of the state's correctional mission -- to reform prisoners and turn them away from a life of crime -- and reducing the burden on Florida's taxpayers, who are feeding ever-increasing sums of money into a prison system that doesn't make them any safer.

By The Numbers

· 9.3 percent -- portion of Florida budget (2007) spent for corrections (prison and probation)

· 100,000 -- state's projected daily average prison population for 2009

· $439.2 million -- requested in coming budget year to add capacity

An editorial from the Daytona News Journal published February 8, 2009