Monday, August 31, 2009

Senator Jim Webb on criminal justice reform:

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 that I introduced in the Senate on March 26, 2009 will create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom. I believe that it is time to bring together the best minds in America to confer, report, and make concrete recommendations about how we can reform the process.

Why We Urgently Need this Legislation:

With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses 25% of the world's reported prisoners.

Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.

Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based; and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.

Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.

We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A letter to Senator Nancy Detert

This past week I heard Senator Nancy Detert speak at SarasotA Tiger Bay. Following the discussion, members of Senator Detert's staff passed out a newsletter and survery to return to her. Rather than complete the survey I decided to write the Senator abour criminal justice. Here is an except from my letter.

" I thought I would write you a letter about my primary concern, which is criminal justice. I am of the opinion that our criminal justice system in Florida is in need of a complete overhaul. We need to make better decisions about imprisonment, alternative sentences, resources and procedures.

You may be aware that Senator Jim Webb has proposed formation of a national commission on criminal justice to study the federal system. This commission would include members from law enforcement, the judiciary, treatment professionals, prosecutors and defense attorneys. There will be no “scared cows” and everything would be on the table for discussion.

I would encourage you to discuss criminal justice issues with other members of the Florida Senate and see if there would be any support for a similar commission in our state. The commission would be charged with determining the goals for Florida’s criminal justice system, how to best use resources, how to compensate victims and how to rehabilitate offenders. Everything should be under consideration including capital punishment, minimum mandatory sentences, drug offender sanctions and independent forensic laboratories."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting Smart on Crime:

After decades of supercharged incarceration rates, our bloated prison system is straining under its own weight, and policy makers are finally being forced to deal with the need to shrink it.

According to a study last year by The Pew Center on the States entitled “One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008,” the prison population of the United States has nearly quadrupled over the last 25 years while the nation’s population has grown by less than a third.

We now have more inmates per capita than any of the 36 European countries with the largest inmate populations, and our total number of inmates is more than all the inmates in those countries combined.

This comes at a cost. According to a report published last month by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research group, $1 in every $15 from states’ general funds is now spent on corrections. That doesn’t work in a recession.

Much of the rise in the prison population was because of draconian mandatory sentencing laws that are illogical — sociologically and economically.

On the sociological side, as the criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin of the University of Arizona explained to me, data overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.

A study from a decade ago that was published in the journal American Psychologist put it this way: “Department of corrections data show that about a fourth of those initially imprisoned for nonviolent crimes are sentenced a second time for committing a violent offense. Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to reduce them.”

On the economic side, putting nonviolent drug offenders in rehab is cheaper than putting them in prison. A 2006 U.C.L.A. study found that California’s Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, which allowed nonviolent drug possession offenders to go to rehab instead of prison, saved taxpayers nearly $2.50 for every $1 invested in the program. (Unfortunately, funding for the program has been gutted.)

Put them in prison and make them worse criminals, or put them in rehab, possibly make them better, and save some money. Sounds like a no-brainer.

There are encouraging signs that policy makers are moving in the right direction. Many states have moved to repeal mandatory minimums, and there is a bill in Congress to repeal federal mandatory sentencing. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be thinking about this issue the right way. Speaking to the American Bar Association last week, he said, “There is no doubt that we must be tough on crime. But we must also commit ourselves to being smart on crime. ... We need to adopt what works.”

By CHARLES M. BLOW and published in the New York Times on Saturday, August 8 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Breaking Our Addiction to Prison: by General Barry McCaffrey

Our traditional justice system has been inadequate to the task of breaking the cycle of substance abuse and crime. Four out of every five offenses are committed by someone with a drug or alcohol problem; and we just keep locking them up!

In just the past 20 years alone, state prison systems have added 1 million new cells to incarcerate the 2.3 million adults now behind bars in the U.S. That's far more than any other country on the globe with 1 out of every 100 adult Americans currently serving time.1 Approximately one-half of these individuals are addicted to drugs or alcohol2 and most do not pose a serious threat to public safety.

Prison for these individuals has accomplished little to stem the tide of crime or substance abuse. Upon their release from prison, two thirds of drug abusers commit a new crime3 and virtually all relapse quickly to drug abuse.4 And yet, despite these disappointing figures national expenditures on corrections well exceed $60 billion annually.5 On average, states spend $65,000 per bed, per year to build new prisons and $23,876 per bed, per year to operate them. Despite the staggering cost to incarcerate these individuals, most return to their communities without treatment, without jobs and without hope.

Given the abysmal outcomes of incarceration on addictive behavior, there's absolutely no justification for state governments to continue to waste tax dollars feeding a situation where generational recidivism is becoming the norm and parents, children and grandparents may find themselves locked up together.

Author Judge Dennis Challeen (ret.) said it best about sending the addicted to prison:

We want them to have self-worth

So we destroy their self-worth

We want them to be responsible

So we take away all responsibility

We want them to be positive and constructive

So we degrade them and make them useless

We want them to be trustworthy

So we put them where there is no trust

We want them to be non-violent

So we put them where violence is all around them

We want them to be kind and loving people

So we subject them to hatred and cruelty

We want them to quit being the tough guy

So we put them where the tough guy is respected

We want them quit hanging around losers

So we put all the losers in the state under one roof

We want them to quit exploiting us

So we put them where they exploit each other

We want them to take control of their lives, own problems and quit being a parasite on society

So we make them totally dependent on us

An Investment Beginning to be Realized

The verdict is in on Drug Courts. It has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Drug Courts work. Drug Courts significantly reduce drug abuse and crime and do so at less expense than any other justice strategy.

That is why the historic 1994 Biden Crime Bill authorized $1 billion for the Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program, administered by the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. The intent of the Biden Crime Bill at the time was to expand Drug Court funding to $200 million annually by the year 2000. Unfortunately the DOJ federal appropriation has averaged only $40 million and saw its lowest level in 2006 at a mere $10 million.

The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has also supported Drug Courts through its discretionary funding. But it, too, is drastically under-funded with a meager $10 million a year available to enhance treatment services within Drug Court programs.

That is all changing. Earlier this year, Congress approved $64 million for Drug Courts; the highest federal appropriation for the program in its 20 year history. And President Obama has plans to take the ball further up field. In the Administration's budget for 2010, there is potentially $118 million for Drug Courts.

How Much Money Is Needed?

Drug Courts need $250 million per year for the next six years--essentially as was originally envisioned in the Crime Bill -- in order to put a Drug Court within reach of the 1.2 million adult offenders who need it and to truly begin to heal America's number one social problem...addiction.

What Will be the Return on the Investment?

A $250 million annual Federal investment would reap staggering savings, with an estimated annual return of as much as $840 million in net benefits from avoided criminal justice costs alone and another 2.2 billion in savings to our communities. A $250 million annual Federal investment would also substantially reduce the demand for illicit drugs and enable state and local governments to cease over-relying on expensive and ineffective prison sentences for nonviolent, addicted offenders.

If the past is any indication of the future, state and local governments can be expected to follow suit and leverage the Federal investment several-fold. In these down-turn economic times, there is no way to be certain whether the states will be able to continue to leverage Federal dollars at a 9:1 ratio as they have done in the past. But once states began to realize cost-offsets from criminal justice and prison expenditures, state funding can be reapportioned to expand and sustain Drug Courts. Assuming even a modest 5:1 state investment, a $250 million annual Federal investment could leverage as much as $1.25 billion in state funding.

Drug Courts are just good common CENTS! For more information about Drug Courts, go to