Thursday, December 30, 2010
In fact, the recommended approach should be encouraging to Floridians regardless of party or ideology. Texas is at the forefront of states that have scrapped an ineffective, expensive punishment-first philosophy. If Mr. Scott follows suit, Florida could benefit from a focus on prevention and rehabilitation.
As The Post's Dara Kam reported Sunday, Mr. Scott's advisers are urging him to build a system that diverts nonviolent drug offenders to effective treatment programs that can end the problem instead of recycling them through the state's prisons - at great expense.
For offenders who do go to prison, the new approach would require education and vocational training. Education gives people released from prison a greater chance of getting a job, which is the primary factor in reducing recidivism.
Reforming prisons would be a major test of Mr. Scott's untried ability to lead the Legislature. In the past, lawmakers have made a lot of political mileage out of being tough on crime. Gov. Crist got some of his earliest notoriety as "Chain Gang Charlie" when he advocated a return to that mode of punishment.
Lawmakers also have had a penchant for ordering judges to impose minimum mandatory sentences for various classes of crimes. Getting the Legislature to return proper discretion to judges will take political skill.
It's not hard to see how lawmakers can be conflicted. For example, Gov.-elect Scott is being advised that courts should not be so quick to send offenders back to prison for probation violations. Compare that to four years ago, when incoming Gov. Crist, motivated by the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia by a man with probation violations, pushed a bill through the Legislature to return more probation violators to prison.
A problem has been that crimes make headlines while prevented crimes, by definition, don't draw attention. Statisticians, however, are documenting the positive impact of prevented crimes. In Texas, policy changes saved $900 million in prison costs and preventing a 9 percent increase in the prison population. Encouragingly, Mr. Scott's choice to lead the Department of Corrections, Edwin Buss, advocated similar reforms as head of Indiana's prison system.
Florida spends $2.4 billion on prisons. The state's costs and prison population have been trending up. The goal is to stay tough on criminals who deserve it, but to give a second chance to those who can benefit from one. That isn't "conservative" or "liberal." It's the convergence of common sense and compassion.
- Jac Wilder VerSteeg,
for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board published 12/29/10
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
It was the sort of crime that could only increase support for the death penalty. This effect had some relevance for the Connecticut governor's race, because it pitted a supporter of capital punishment, Republican Thomas Foley, against Democrat Dannel Malloy, an opponent.
When they debated, Foley promised to veto any bill to abolish the death penalty, while Malloy said, "We know that the application of the death penalty has not always been equal and even." A tough sell, right? But Malloy won.
That's just one of the parade of indications that capital punishment is on the wane. The popular impulse to put people to death is just not what it used to be.
Executions have fallen by half since 1999. The number of new death sentences is about one-third what it was at the 1996 peak. Even in Texas, long the leading practitioner, death sentences are off by 80 percent. Several states that retain capital punishment have not administered a single lethal injection in the past five years.
The exoneration of 138 death row inmates has weakened public support for the ultimate sanction. In a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans endorsed it, down from 80 percent in 1994, while opposition has nearly doubled.
A survey commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 61 percent prefer that murderers get some sort of life sentence instead. As a budget priority, the death penalty was ranked seventh out of seven issues.
Did someone mention budgets? They are no friend of an option that requires expensive trials, costly appeals, and pricey incarceration arrangements. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says capital punishment has become "an extreme luxury item."
Even the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, which this year offers a charm bracelet for $248,000, has nothing to compare. Maryland has spent $186 million on capital cases over the past 30 years—which comes to $37 million per execution.
The typical Texas death case carries a price tag of $2.3 million. A 2005 study pointed out that "New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one."
You might surmise that death sentences and executions have subsided because the homicide rate has dropped so much. But Zimring finds that the biggest decline has been among murders that aren't eligible for capital punishment. Capital murders have declined far less. There are thousands each year for prosecutors who want to pursue them.
Even among lawmakers, this remedy is losing ground. The New Jersey legislature repealed it in 2007 and New Mexico followed suit last year. New York's death penalty law was overturned in court, but legislators have refused to pass a new one.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared an execution moratorium in 2000, and his two successors have maintained it. But the moratorium has been, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. While taxpayers continue to incur the costs of seeking death sentences, none is ever carried out.
The cost will disappear if the General Assembly abolishes capital punishment, which opponents intend to propose as soon as it convenes in January. "I really think we're going to get it done," Jim Covington, director of legislative affairs for the Illinois State Bar Association, told me.
That shouldn't be impossible in a state where death row inmates are more likely to be exonerated than executed. Given Illinois' horrendous budget problems, the point of keeping the death penalty on the books is mysterious to see. In the last seven years, taxpayers have spent more than $100 million on capital cases even though the death chamber has been turned into a Starbucks.
If it is repealed, some people will cheer, some will be angry, and most will pay little attention. In the United States, the death penalty may never die, but its best days are past.
by Steve Chapman--published in Reason Magazine on 12/27/10
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
I am out of jail. 2.5 million others in this country tonight are not. Maybe some got canned turkey on their plastic trays today, to celebrate.
Our country has the highest incarceration rate of any country—one in 31 adults—and the highest number of people locked up in cages.
More black men are currently in prison in the U.S. than were slaves in 1850.
7.2 million of us are in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole.
But these were all facts that I already knew.
What I didn’t know is that the vitamin-depleted food tastes and smells like Purina Cat Chow, served with some slimy iceburg lettuce and “milk” with seven ingredients.
I didn’t know about the weight of those slit-windowed rooms, the sense of being buried deep even though we were on the fourth-floor cell block, of being so easy to forget, which is the real horror of a dungeon. I didn’t know “outdoor recreation” meant a rare moment in a high-walled, concrete courtyard.
I didn’t know books would be contraband, a near impossibility. When I saw how much these women loved to read, I told them I’d mail them some books, only to discover that to give these women books I would have to come in person during visiting hours and give one at a time. There is, of course, no library in the jail. The aim of the place is to punish, shame, and deprive.
I didn’t know about Gwen, with the worn face and quiet patience of an Appalachian farmer, who is sitting in a cage because her boyfriend left marijuana at her house.
I didn’t know that 19-year-old Katie has been waiting for a trial date for six months now so the State can figure out if she actually stole that Wii or not. Katie was going to nursing school and caring for her two-year-old daughter when she was arrested, and because her parents now have this little girl to care for they can’t afford bail. It’s like a debtor’s prison: the longer you’re in there, the less likely you’ll be able to afford to get out. Katie, who seems tough, capable, stoic, cries when she speaks of her daughter. She told me she thought she’d be fine when she learned her mother and daughter could visit her twice a week, but she fell apart when she instead was only allowed to speak through a telephone to their images on a television screen. This is the case for all of them in Muscogee County Jail.
In sum, I didn’t know is that “innocent until proven guilty” was such an outrageous lie. If a cop brings you in, you’re guilty. It doesn’t matter what any facts say, you will be punished. If you’re poor, your guilt is heavier, your punishment more severe. For my own convictions for “picketing” and “demonstration without a permit,” I was sentenced to forty days in jail or $300 fines. If I hadn’t had that $300, I would be there until 2011. Forty days or $300—clearly, the punishment for one who can’t pay is far higher. In this reckoning, each day’s worth of freedom, of being with loved ones and feeling the sun and breeze and earth, is worth $7.50.
There is a payment plan for those who can only pay by installments—but I was told this would cost an extra $50 per month, making the option ridiculously cost-prohibitive.
What’s more, I was also charged with “unlawful assembly,” which is a state charge—if I didn’t have $1,300 for bail, I would be in there for weeks or months waiting for that trial.
And waiting for trials is what people in jail do. The women told me they expected to wait four to twelve months before they got a day in court. At that point some of them will be judged to be innocent, but by then they will already have paid heavily for the guilt of poverty.
And so this Thanksgiving I want to send out a call for the old Christian ideal of visiting those in prison, of learning the stories of our society’s most vulnerable. Though the prison figures large in sacred stories from both the Bible and Book of Mormon, we treat wrongful imprisonment as a thing of the past, something we have overcome in our enlightened democracy. We should instead learn that the well-spring of Right Living has always been a kind of steady unruliness, a wilfulness which no Empire can abide.
Also, for Thanksgiving I need to say I’m thankful for the women of the fourth-floor cell block of Muscogee County Jail. For Keisha’s polite explanations of what to do when I came in wide-eyed, dragging my mattress, and for letting me read her Bible and her copy of Twilight all night. For Bama’s kind sass and smile, and for dancing with me in the common area. For Mally and Toi and Miss Margie and Christine and all the others whose names I’ve forgotten because I had no pen and paper to write them down. All of them still laughing easily, still aware of their stories and their dignity after months of being treated with mechanized, organized violence.
A fearful and narrow-eyed State—the same sort of bullies that beheaded the non-conforming John the Baptist—has stripped them of the people and places they love. It acts with brutal efficiency when it comes to capturing them and putting them behind bars, and plods along tortuously when asked to figure out if anyone actually disobeyed its rules. It encourages a culture where being behind bars is taken as proof of shameful behavior: at worst, we condemn them, and at best, we ignore them.
In resistance, the women dance and make a home out of nothing.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Mr. McNeil isn’t a CPA. He’s the secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections, and he has an ambitious plan to reduce Florida’s recidivism rate — now at 32.8 percent — to 17 percent in three to five years. The reason? To save Florida taxpayers’ money.
Gov.-elect Rick Scott, who has said that he wants to cut state prison costs by $1 billion, should have a sit-down with Mr. McNeil before he wields that budget axe.
In 2008, Florida’s inmate population topped 100,000 for the first time. In 2008-09, 42.3 percent of those admitted to prison had been there before.
It costs $19,000 a year to house one inmate. The cost is expected to climb to about $22,451 by 2014. It costs $100 million to build a prison, and $20 million a year to run it.
Mr. McNeil’s fiscal logic is simple: Reduce the number of inmates who return to prison and you cut prison costs. You also restore safety as the crime rate will drop.
Another number Mr. McNeil points to: 88 percent of Florida’s inmates will be released back into society eventually. Eighty-eight percent! With no motivation for going straight, many will likely commit another crime.
Mr. McNeil decided it wasn’t enough just to release an ex-offender with $100, a suit and a bus ticket home. Working with Duval County Sheriff John Rutherford, Mr. McNeil’s staff came up with the “portal of entry” concept. The corrections staff wanted to hand off the ex-offender to key people upon release. Enter Sheriff Rutherford, a logical choice since all ex-offenders must register with authorities.
Using federal Second Chance grants, the two departments in December 2008 created a “single point” of entry for inmates returning to the community. When an inmate is set for release, the sheriff’s office is notified. A group of parole officers, social workers, educators and others assess the ex-offender’s needs for housing, employment, education, training. The ex-offender is given information about where to find help. Ex-offenders who participate have case managers as they re-enter the community.
Mr. McNeil’s department has gotten no new revenue for this project as it coordinates existing resources — such as work-release programs. The “portal of entry” concept is now in various stages of implementation at sheriff’s offices in Palm Beach, Baker, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Mr. McNeil hopes it will expand to all major urban areas.
Empirically, the results of the “portal of entry” program can’t be judged for about three years. But in Duval it appears to be a hit. The sheriff’s office has even developed a job placement component.
So, we can just keep building more prisons to accommodate a growing inmate population, or seek effective ways to reduce crime by helping ex-offenders go straight. Mr. McNeil’s choice makes good dollars and sense for Florida.
A Miami Herald Editorial published November 21, 2010
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/11/21/v-print/1934085/a-smart-way-florida-can-reduce.html#ixzz15wLOgXAF
Friday, October 22, 2010
Working directly with Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CADP), Derrick Jamison and Shabaka WaQlimi said in an interview interviewed this week with David Sirota on Colorado’s Progressive Radio AM 760 that they are hoping to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and the likelihood that states across the country may be preparing to execute innocent people. The exonerees are staunch critics of the death penalty in general -- with good reason -- are currently on a nationwide tour to draw attention to their cases.
Derrick Jamison spent 20 years on death row in the state of Ohio before being cleared of all original charges in 2005. His case in 1985 had all the features of a typical wrongful conviction: unreliable eyewitness testimony, withheld evidence and a codefendant who testified against Jamison in exchange for a sweet plea deal. In initial photo lineups, one witness to the robbery and murder that Jamison was ultimately convicted of didn’t choose Jamison out of a photo lineup. Instead, he chose two other men.
Shabaka WaQlimi, formerly known as Joseph Green Brown, came within 14 hours of being executed before a stay was issued. He had spent 13 years on death row in Florida, the state currently leading the nation in wrongful convictions. What he believed to be his final three weeks were spent just 30 feet from the execution chamber in what’s known as the “death watch cell." He had been measured for the suit he would be buried in, though he refused to order the “final meal."
Mr. WaQlimi was accused of robbing, raping, and murdering the co owner of a Tampa clothing store, Earlene Barksdale, a woman who also happened to be the wife of a prominent area attorney. Again, like Jamison’s case, WaQlimi’s hinged on unreliable testimony and withheld evidence. The prosecution’s star witness had a personal vendetta against WaQlimi for a former robbery case and the jury never did hear expert testimony that would have shown the suspected murder weapon could not have been used in the commission of the crime. Despite the witness later admitting his lie, appellate courts offered WaQlimi no relief. It wasn’t until an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the prosecution had purposefully allowed false testimony at trial that the stay of execution was signed—less than a day before his execution.
The men aren’t bitter—only motivated. They also aren’t blind to the things which put them on death row and make some observations that even some legal experts, lawmakers, and politicians still refuse to see. When asked whether the real problem is the death penalty or how it is being administered, WaQlimi noted capital punishment isn’t just a system of executing people for horrendous crimes with a few mistakes—he called it a system of “elitism."
About the other men WaQlimi shared death row with, he recognized a few things they all had in common--“not one had the money to buy an attorney." He noted that the vast majority of death row inmates he knew personally were poor -- whether black, white or Hispanic. He also addressed the issue of race, observing the majority of victims in death row cases are white while questioning how people can really believe that a country founded on “300-plus years” of slavery can dole out true, fair justice, saying racism is deeply ingrained in the system.
After spending years incarcerated for offenses they didn’t commit, you would think Derrick Jamison and Shabaka WaQlini would be content to spend their remaining years with family, relaxing outdoors, or enjoying life’s simple pleasures. While they could be enjoying their freedom by living as many other Americans do, they instead choose to spend their time on the road, giving a voice to the men and women awaiting execution across the country, and speaking out against something that so nearly took their lives
Saturday, October 16, 2010
When then-governor Jeb Bush appointed Charles Canady to the district court in 2002, he made an overtly partisan and political choice. The same can be said of Charlie Crist, who appointed Justice Canady to the Supreme Court in 2008. Voters should take this opportunity to reverse these lapses of judgment. It is fine to have justices which represent a diverse point of views – liberal, conservative and all points in between – but we do not need political hacks making law from the bench.
From "Pinski on Politics" http://www.pinskipolitics.com/2010/09/pinski-recommends-fire-canady-but-retain-others-on-florida-supreme-court/#comment-2718
Friday, October 01, 2010
A few weeks ago a client came to see me and asked if I could represent him. He was homeless and charged with a minor offense and the judge had been giving him a hard time because he wore shorts to court. His possessions were limited to those he could carry and he didn’t own long pants.
I agreed to take the case. Yesterday I bought him some pants at Goodwill. This morning I met him outside the courthouse. He had his duffle bag that contained all of his possessions. We got in the long security line to enter the courthouse. My client’s bag was put through the x-ray system and rejected. He had can openers and utensils and other odd objects. The bailiffs didn’t want to take the time for him to unpack and go through each compartment, not with a hundred people in line behind us They told him he had to take it away, that he couldn’t leave it there and he couldn’t bring it inside.
Now this story ended without problem. I took his bag and walked out and locked it in my trunk and we went to court. But what about everyone else with all that they own in their possession and a date with a judge? What are they supposed to do with their duffle bags and knapsacks?
And how are they supposed to pay their court costs? But let's make sure they wear long pants.
Friday, September 10, 2010
PROPOSAL WOULD CREATE A BI-PARTISAN COMMISSION TO EVALUATE EVERY STAGE OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROCESS INCLUDING THE DISPARATE REPRESENTATION AND TREATMENT OF RACIAL AND ETHNIC MINORITIES IN AND BY THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
On Tuesday, July 27, 2010, the United States House of Representatives passed, by a unanimous vote, H.R. 5143, the National Criminal Justice Act, which would create a national commission with an 18-month timeline to examine and review the myriad of problems that exist in our current criminal justice system. Specifically, this commission would review every stage of the criminal justice system, from initial contact to sentencing to the challenges facing those ex-offenders who are reentering society. The commission would also be charged with looking into the myriad of problems that have resulted in the staggering overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities from pedestrian stops to the use of the death penalty.
We must now encourage the United States' Senate to follow the lead of the House and pass this bill so it can be signed into law.
At every stage of the criminal justice process serious problems undermine basic tenets of fairness and equity. Perhaps the most glaring problem is the number of racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately treated more harshly and more often by our Nation's criminal justice system. At every stage of the criminal justice process - from initial contact to sentencing to the challenges facing those reentering the community after incarceration - racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the number of people stopped, arrested, tried, convicted, incarcerated and even executed. These disparities are particularly true for African American men and boys. Initial contacts with police officers are often driven by racial profiling and other racially tainted practices, and the disparities exist through the sentencing phase: African Americans routinely receive more jail time and harsher punishments. Although African Americans make up just over 12% of the national population, 42% of Americans currently on death row are African American. Nearly a million African Americans today are incarcerated in prisons and in jails, and unless there is a change, a black male born today has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. Furthermore, African American women have the highest rate of incarceration among women in our nation, a rate that is four times higher than that of White women.
This is not just a problem among African Americans or racial and ethnic minorities. Our nation has 5 percent of the world's population. We have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States that is five times the incarceration rate in the rest of the world. The bottom line is that under our current criminal justice system too many people are being incarcerated and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system and we still have too many Americans who do not feel safe in the homes or their communities. Furthermore, because of the disparities that result from our current system, entire communities within our country do not have confidence in the criminal justice system.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, HAS BEEN DESIGNATED "COMMISSION CALL-IN DAY", IN WHICH SUPPORTERS OF THIS LEGISLATION ARE URGED TO CALL THEIR SENATORS AND DEMAND ACTION. THE NAACP SUPPORTS THE NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE ACT, H.R. 5143, AND ENCOURAGES ALL SENATORS TO ACT QUICKLY TO ENSURE THAT THIS LEGISLATION BECOMES LAW.
Friday, July 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
It may seem odd that state funding for college kids often competes with money for prisoners, but if you track spending in California over the past 30 years, you’ll see evidence of a long-standing tug of war between these two very different constituencies. Over much of the past decade, funding for corrections has gone steadily up, while spending on state colleges has tumbled. “The state seems to be saying we have more of a future in prisons than in universities,” University of California president Mark Yudof said in a recent speech.
Following months of protests by students, parents, and colleges, Schwarzenegger urged the California legislature to pass a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would require the state to spend more on college classrooms than prison cells. “What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” Schwarzenegger said, adding that “30 years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future.” The state’s priorities, he added, “have become out of whack.”
Now the trend to spend more on prisons and less on colleges is a very real one, and not just in California. But the “tug of war” phrase is a misleading metaphor. Colleges don’t brawl with prisons for money, anymore than they brawl with the state employees’ pension fund or the department of parks and recreation. State colleges and prisons don’t fight each other for resources; they fight the state.
As the Wingert article rightly points out, however, both of these expenditures have grown immensely in the past few decades. This leads some, like Schwarzenegger and Yudof, to conclude that their state should be spending more on state colleges than on prisons, because colleges are, you know, nicer.
In January Schwarzenegger proposed an amendment to his state’s constitution requiring California to spend at least 10 percent of its budget on higher education and less than 7 percent of the budget on prisons. Despite the fact that even the state’s accounting office called Schwarzenegger’s plan simplistic and bad this discussion seems not to go away.
This is not a prison blog, but the real problem here is that our prisons don’t work. Once someone spends two years in prison, he’s essentially part of the prison system for life. This is true even if someone enters the system for a nonviolent crime, for something like drugs. The cost of keeping someone is jail in California is about $52,000 a year. Most of this has to do with the fact that California’s prison guards are the highest-paid in the United States of America.
These things are very interesting and potentially worthy of improvement, but pitting colleges against prisons, even rhetorically, is trouble. It’s relatively easy for colleges to raise money independently, by simply enrolling richer students or forcing them into higher debt. Prisons don’t have that option. As long as the state keeps incarcerating people, it has to use state money to pay for that. [Image via]
by Daniel Luzer who is a higher education blogger for the Washington Monthly.
Nationwide, 245 post-conviction exonerations have been based on DNA evidence since 1989 and Florida has contributed to almost 80 percent of those cases — clearing 12 Florida Death Row inmates since 2000.
Mr. Haridopolos' support of the $200,000 makes a large investment in public safety, too. When the wrong person is imprisoned for a crime, the actual perpetrator remains at large. Law-and-order standards, he has pointed out, include expectations of having a system that doesn't make such mistakes.
Creating the Florida Actual Innocence Commission is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, specifically incoming Chief Justice Charles T. Canady. It will be up to him to ensure that the commission, which is just now getting organized, will begin the serious work of examining cases where the system has broken down, or has the potential to, such as handling of eye-witness testimony, improper use of evidence, false confessions, crime-fighting tunnel vision and inadequate defense.
The commission won't look for inmates who might be innocent and it's not intended to assign blame or point fingers. Rather it will look after the fact of DNA exoneration at errors of such a magnitude that they undermine our state's reputation for justice and identify broken parts of the criminal justice system. And, obviously, grave errors of justice cause the innocent person to suffer loss of income and reputation and punish their children and families with untold stresses.
Outgoing Chief Justice Peggy Quince is considering an administrative order launching the commission, which has been championed by former American Bar Association president and Florida State University president emeritus Sandy D'Alemberte.
Mr. D'Alemberte's petition called for a permanent, court-ordered panel of legal experts, police and victim advocates that would continue this deliberative work — a pattern recommended by an American Bar Association's assessment team and used in other states.
But the real legacy could well belong to Mr. Canady if he takes the next step in assigning permanence to this body through a court order so it can do more than issue a report and depart. He has the opportunity to make certain that the Florida Actual Innocence Commission helps put Florida in the forefront of actual justice for all.
An editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat published June 29, 2010
Saturday, June 19, 2010
For decades, progressive policy analysts and criminal justice reformers such as Jones have argued that state and federal antidrug and, more generally, "tough on crime" incarceration strategies were counterproductive: that they were dramatically reshaping American society, at a staggering fiscal and moral cost, and they weren't succeeding. Drug use remained commonplace, and high recidivism numbers for paroled prisoners suggested that prisons weren't remolding criminals into model citizens. Far better, they argued, to keep prisons as a last resort for the truly hardened, violent criminals and to invest more resources in less expensive, and more effective, alternatives to incarceration.
True, crime rates have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, in part because of those higher incarceration rates. But most experts believe they fell in larger part because of demographic shifts, changes in policing practices and an easing of the crack epidemic. The drop-off in crime has, in turn, finally allowed a public slightly less scared of crime to be slightly more willing to look for nuance rather than sound bites when it comes to policy. It has created what Bart Lubow, a juvenile justice advocate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, terms an "ideological space" for discussions of reform. "The overall context regarding crime policy," he says, "is much less hysterical than it was through most of the 1990s."
Faced with a growing body of evidence that carefully tailored rehabilitation models can reduce recidivism or drug use better than jails and prisons, and with a burgeoning crisis in local and state government finances, politicians and voters alike are turning their backs on basic tough-on-crime staples. Instead, they are looking for inspiration to programs such as the HOPE Project in Hawaii, the High Point project in North Carolina and an experiment in Multnomah County (home to Portland, Oregon) to divert low-end probation and parole violators to nonincarcerative settings. All these model programs view jail and prison sentences as a last option rather than a default, and swift responses to violations are considered more important than harsh ones. For reformers, it is a rare breath of fresh air.
"I think the criminal justice system is more under the microscope because of the fiscal situation," explains Mike Thompson, director of the New York–based Council of State Government's Justice Center. "Every state's facing fiscal problems, with the exception of North Dakota, and when you look at items where expenditures have risen in the last twenty years, corrections jumps out at you."
Around the country, legislators are essentially asking how they can get more bang for the bucks they spend fighting crime, drug use, mental illness and so on. And they're willing to consult reformers they would have shunned in the recent past as irredeemably "soft" on crime. "Nobody can sit here and say things are fine," argues Jones. "Something has to give. Now we can sit at the table with people we couldn't previously work with and say, 'What are you willing to give?' We are literally writing this narrative as we go."
In Texas a $600 million prison-expansion plan was shelved in 2007 in favor of a $241 million plan expanding community-based drug and alcohol treatment services, after researchers convinced legislators that the latter would lower crime rates more than expanding the state's penal infrastructure. As a result, the notoriously prison-tough Lone Star State, whose leaders used to boast about its extraordinarily high incarceration rate, is implementing some of the country's most innovative reforms, creating a network of in-prison and post-prison residential drug treatment and DWI centers, mental health facilities, halfway houses for inmates being released onto parole, and nonjail residential settings for low-end parole violators. In 2009 the state's prison population declined, perhaps signaling the start of a reversal of nearly four decades of expansion, which saw the Lone Star State's prison numbers grow from just shy of 16,000 in 1972 to more than 170,000 in 2008. Texas joined twenty-five other states that saw reductions in the size of their inmate population last year.
In Kansas legislators approved a large investment in drug treatment programs and services for parolees designed to stop so many offenders from simply cycling back into prison after their release. The result was a drop in Kansas's prison population significant enough to allow the state to close several facilities.
Michigan recently reformed its prisoner-release process to allow for shorter sentences, winning accolades from the ACLU in the process. The state closed eight prisons as a result and invested some of the $250 million savings expected to be generated over a five-year period in an expanded network of mental health and job training services, as well as drug treatment programs.
All told, ten states have embraced "justice reinvestment" strategies such as this, reducing prison spending, investing a portion of the savings in more effective anticrime infrastructure and using the remainder of the savings to plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets. As this model spreads, says Thompson optimistically, we'll get more results-oriented policy-making than we've had in the past. "These are bipartisan, data-driven approaches: figure out what's driving the [prison population] growth and what can be done differently."
Even states that haven't formally adopted such a reinvestment strategy are, of necessity, being pushed in this direction. In California, home to the country's largest state prison population as well as the country's most dysfunctional state budget process, the combination of federal injunctions against overcrowding and the worst fiscal crunch since the Great Depression has brought the race to incarcerate of the past quarter-century to an end. Over the next several years, to the dismay of politicians who have built careers on being tough on crime, the prison population, which stands at around 170,000, will be reduced by several tens of thousands, with more emphasis on parole, probation and local drug treatment.
New Mexico recently enacted a law banning employers from asking job applicants if they have a felony record. An increasing number of states, including conservative bastions like Alabama and Louisiana, are restructuring their juvenile justice systems to move away from incarceration. Drug and mental health courts are channeling more offenders into structured treatment. And many states are rolling back their most restrictive truth-in-sentencing provisions, allowing low-level offenders to return to their communities after serving only a small percentage of their sentences behind bars.
Some states and localities are also starting to invest in restorative justice models, putting offenders to work to repair the damage they caused the community rather than simply warehousing them in prisons.
Father George Horan, co-director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles's Office of Restorative Justice, has spent a lifetime watching youngsters do stupid things and, as a result, ruin their lives. He has seen generations of kids graduate from being troubled children to hardened prisoners. And he has grown increasingly cynical about the ability of penal institutions to solve ingrained social problems. Far better, he has come to believe, to sit nonviolent offenders down with their families, teachers, peers, even victims, and force them to come to terms with the consequences of their actions.
Horan, 64, has a ruddy complexion and dresses casually. From his small office in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lincoln Heights, a bleak industrial area of Los Angeles just north of downtown, he works to help delinquent teens, many of them gang members, establish more productive bonds with their communities. When three teens broke into their school a few years back and trashed it, the Office of Restorative Justice persuaded the trial judge to consider a restorative justice solution. The kids had to face their principal and fellow students; they had to pay for the damage; and they had to spend their weekends doing community service at the school—cleaning classrooms, doing basic maintenance work, sweeping autumn leaves. The principal, recalls Horan, took the kids out to lunch, got to know them and encouraged them to attend to their studies. "She said the next year they were the three best kids in the school. What a better result than sending the kids to juvenile hall. They turned their lives around."
Horan is aware of the limitations of this strategy—he tried the same approach when three boys set fire to his church door, but this time the prosecutor insisted on seeking prison terms. Politically, he says, it would be next to impossible for prosecutors to embrace restorative justice for violent criminals. But Horan believes restorative justice models have to play a part in any revamping of America's criminal justice system. "Always, the first step is, the person has to take responsibility for what they did. That's the cornerstone," he explains. "What can a person do to heal the victim and heal the community?"
Meanwhile, extending the first-do-no-harm principles of the restorative justice movement, a growing number of politicians have started to identify sky-high African-American incarceration rates as a civil rights issue that, in tandem with high crime rates in poor communities, serves up a double whammy to already devastated neighborhoods. As a result, they have begun pushing legislation that characterizes the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans as a problem. Connecticut recently passed a "racial impact statement" law mandating all major legislative proposals for the criminal justice system be studied for their racial impact. Other states, looking for ways to preserve public safety without inflicting the kind of collateral damage on communities that mass incarceration unleashes, will likely follow suit.
No part of the criminal justice system has had more of a racially skewed impact than America's antidrug strategy. Over the decades, millions of young Americans, mainly poor and disproportionately black and brown, have been arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to jail or prison for their involvement with the drug trade. It has been a staggering exercise in futility.
Yet these days, the "war on drugs," which Barack Obama denounced as an utter failure during his presidential campaign, is showing the fragility of old age. At the urging of the Obama administration and top Justice Department officials, Congress is working to eliminate the infamous crack and powder-cocaine sentencing disparities. And over the next few years, the Justice Department's Task Force on Sentencing Reform will likely recommend more proportionate sentencing for many drug offenses.
The era of "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" seems, slowly, to be drawing to a close. And over the next few decades, that will likely have the effect of gradually drawing down the size of the bloated prison population. Even seasoned conservative voices are cognizant of the winds of change.
"My attitude has always been, speed and certainty are crucial aspects of running a criminal justice system, not length of sentence," argues James Q. Wilson, at one time the country's most influential conservative criminologist. "Many sentences could be shortened without endangering public safety." Wilson, who rose to intellectual fame as President Nixon's favorite sociologist and later became known as the philosophical father of the Broken Windows policing theory, doesn't regret his role in developing ideas that helped contribute to America's mass incarceration experiment. But he also doesn't think that mass incarceration is, or should be, an end in itself. If there are alternatives that have at least as powerful an effect on reducing the crime rate, Wilson, an empiricist, believes they should be tried. Parole and probation systems should be reformed, he argues, so that violators are dealt with quickly and minor violators, such as those who fail a urine drug test, receive "a swift but very short penalty—a weekend in jail, a week in jail. It need not be returning people to serve a full prison term."
Changes in drug policy don't stop with shortening sentences, however. The administration recently lifted the ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs—long a bugbear of drug-treatment and public health professionals. And for the first time since the 1970s, marijuana legalization movements are gaining traction at the state level. Californians will vote in November on a ballot measure to legalize pot, and preliminary polling indicates it could well pass. The initiative is buttressed by a number of politicians, like Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and State Senator Mark Leno, who have argued that legalizing marijuana would allow California to tax the lucrative market. Other states could follow in California's wake.
"People are now making a lawful income from cannabis here in California and other states," argues 57-year-old Chris Conrad, of the marijuana-advocacy newspaper West Coast Leaf, at a hummus-and-wine soiree to celebrate the opening of the Drug Policy Alliance's swank new downtown San Francisco offices. Conrad is talking about how the medical marijuana industry is increasingly using its clout to push for broader, across-the-board rollbacks of pot prohibition. "They can put that money back to invest in change. The idea is, it should be brought under control and tax revenue brought in. The whole financial argument is only going to get better. I think the drug war is fatally flawed, and it's doomed. It's just a matter of time; it could be five years, it could be twenty years. But prohibition doesn't work. It creates crime; it doesn't solve crime."
A few years ago Conrad would have been a countercultural refugee on the hippie fringe; these days, he and his ideas are increasingly mainstream. In fact, the attendees at the party oozed their radical-chic credentials; they were lawyers, doctors, politicians, consultants, businessmen. "The trend is for people to regulate rather than prohibit," asserted Doug Linney, the well-coiffed, sharp-dressed campaign consultant for the legalization initiative. "They see the current drug wars aren't working, especially regarding marijuana. There's an interest in changing it, especially because of the state's finances."
Cumulatively, all of these changes are bearing significant fruit. For the first time since the Nixon era, America's prison population is shrinking. In 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population fell in twenty states; in 2009 it fell in twenty-six states; and that trend is likely to continue in 2010. Moreover, as the number of drug-related sentences has declined slightly, so too has the appallingly high African-American incarceration rate edged slightly downward, off 9 percent from its peak a few years back. The gears of what journalist Joel Dyer, in the 1990s, tellingly labeled a "perpetual prisoner machine"—a self-sustaining interaction of conservative criminal justice lobbies, political opportunism, popular tough-on-crime sentiments, the economic needs of depressed prison towns and media sensationalism—seem finally to have gotten gummed up. Ironically, the federal government, which did so much to shift the country in a more conservative criminal justice direction for nearly fifty years, seems quite content to let the gears stay locked.
Most decisions about the criminal justice system are made at the state level. Despite the near-tenfold growth in the population of federal prison inmates since 1980, less than 10 percent of all inmates are serving federal sentences. But the federal government does perform some vital roles: it allocates resources directly (by, for example, patrolling the border and exporting the "war on drugs") and indirectly (by granting money to localities and states to set up antidrug task forces, funding drug and mental health treatment services, and putting more police on the streets). It creates overarching legal parameters within which states must operate (federal drug laws supersede state ones, which means that if California legalizes marijuana, for example, theoretically it would be setting up a conflict with DC). Perhaps most important, the federal government sets the tone for national conversations on crime and delinquency.
When it comes to tone-setting, sometimes what isn't said by federal officials is as important as what is. Over the past couple of years, President Obama's drug czar, ex–Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, has chosen not to follow his predecessors with regard to medical marijuana. Whereas John Walters, Bush's drug czar, testified across the country against state medical marijuana laws, Kerlikowske has stayed silent. The effect, says Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, has been to send a "green light to the states that they could have the freedom to go their own way on this." Kerlikowske, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama himself steer clear of talking about the "war on drugs," and they generally don't use sound bites to trumpet their "tough" credentials when it comes to tackling the complex problem of crime.
But what is being said is also fascinating. "Too many of our citizens have come to have doubts about our criminal justice system," Holder told a Congressional Black Caucus symposium on June 24, 2009. "We must be honest with each other and have the courage to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our system. We must break out of the old and tired partisan stances that have stood in the way of needed progress and reform. We have a moment in time that must be seized in order to ensure that all of our citizens are treated in a way that is consistent with the ideals embodied in our founding documents. This Department of Justice is prepared to act."
Indeed, in a series of key speeches over the past year, Holder has delivered a commitment, unprecedented in recent decades, to use the might of the Justice Department to ensure a fairer, less coercive criminal justice system. Addressing the NAACP in July 2009, the attorney general talked of the devastating harm that harsh drug sentences have caused in poor communities. "It is not justice," he declared, "to continue our adherence to a sentencing scheme that disproportionately affects some Americans, and some communities, more severely than others."
The previous week, he told an audience at the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York–based think tank, that "getting smart on crime requires talking honestly about which policies have worked and which have not, without fear of being labeled as too hard or, more likely, too soft on crime. Getting smart on crime means moving beyond useless labels and instead embracing science and data, and relying on them to shape policy. And it means thinking about crime in context—not just reacting to the criminal act but developing the government's ability to enhance public safety before the crime is committed and after the former offender is returned to society." Taking their cue from Holder, a slew of top officials have begun revamping the language they use to discuss crime and punishment.
As Kerlikowske explained to The Nation in March, shortly after he returned from a UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, the country should not continue to think of drugs merely as a public safety problem but should start to see them as a public health problem. "My colleagues, I never heard them talk of a war on drugs," he said. "I've heard elected officials talk about it, but not police chiefs, sheriffs or prosecutors. They talk about it with the complexity the problem deserves."
In reshaping the national discourse on drugs, Kerlikowske touts his law enforcement credentials. He's a tough guy, a strong policeman with thirty-seven years on the job, and he knows he commands respect. "For me, it's a little bit like Nixon going to China," he explains. Kerlikowske has "very little concern about being labeled soft on drugs." And so he wants to talk about being "smart on drugs," instead of merely "tough." In fact, when he explains his mandate, the country's drug czar is more comfortable using the language of public health professionals than political posturers. "The 'war on drugs' was a simplistic answer to this really complex problem," he says. "We have to look at talking about addiction as a disease rather than a moral failure or saying people should just stop using drugs."
For the first time in more than forty years, criminal justice trends are starting to move in a sensible direction. At the local and state levels, fiscal necessity is forcing a rethink when it comes to incarceration strategies. And at the federal level, the politics that allowed George H.W. Bush to batter Michael Dukakis with images of Willie Horton, Bill Clinton to sign an execution warrant on the brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector and George W. Bush to push glibly for more teens to be tried and sentenced as adults is taking a back seat to smart, holistic thinking.
"Everyone I talk to around the country has been affected by drugs," Kerlikowske says. "But it's not talked about the same way as if you had a member of your family having cancer—or even alcoholism. When I look at the drug problem, what it costs in healthcare costs, police-community relations, the Southwest border, foreign relations—every one of those things, drugs are a part. If we could recognize how inextricably linked to all of these issues drug consumption and addiction is, if we could work to address it with the complexity it deserves, that would make more sense than holding a press conference and showing a ton of cocaine or five people led out in handcuffs."
Of all the changes in tone brought about by Obama's election, in the long run few will be more significant to the country's well-being than those around criminal justice and drugs. Without a whole lot of fanfare, the administration is laying the foundations for a new criminal justice system model that might, conceivably, end America's morally disastrous, fiscally ruinous, four-decade-long experimentation with mass incarceration.
Sasha Abramsky | June 16, 2010--The NATION
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
We are making and enforcing far too many criminal laws that create traps for the innocent but unwary -- and threaten to turn otherwise respectable, law-abiding citizens into criminals. Consider a few examples from the new book "One Nation Under Arrest":
· A 12-year old girl arrested and handcuffed for eating a single french fry on the Washington subway system.
· A cancer-ridden grandmother arrested and criminally charged for refusing to trim her hedges the way officials in Palo Alto, Calif., were trying to force her to.
A former high-school science whiz kid sent to prison after initially being arrested by FBI agents clad in SWAT gear for failing to affix a federally mandated sticker to his otherwise legal UPS package.
· A 67-year-old retired husband and grandfather imprisoned because some of the paperwork for his home-based orchid business did not satisfy an international treaty.
I could go on, but all these stories share one thing in common -- they are about typical Americans. Most involve a man or woman who works hard and pays taxes, cares for family members and is a good neighbor. Perhaps above all, this person strives to stay on the right side of the law.
This typical American holds deep and often intuitive beliefs in basic principles about American government, including a belief that, if you do what's right, you have nothing to fear from your own government, and certainly not from the criminal justice system.
But the typical American's deeply held beliefs about the freedoms he cherishes and the fundamental principles of his government are no longer as well-founded as they once were. Today, he is far more vulnerable than ever before to being caught up in a criminal investigation and prosecution -- and to actually being convicted and punished as a criminal -- for having done something he did not even suspect was illegal.
Criminal law has changed in the past 50 years. Once criminal law was about criminal acts that everyone knew were inherently unlawful (like murder, rape and robbery). Limiting criminal punishment to conduct that is inherently wrongful restricted governmental power in two important ways.
First, and most important, it kept the range of governmental power small. Having few criminal laws and a short list of things not to be done limited the scope within which government can exercise its authority.
Second, a limited criminal law served a teaching function. It reflected the beliefs and understandings common to the vast majority of our citizens -- the very citizens who were subject to the criminal law.
Today, the criminal law has grown as broad as the regulatory state in its sheer size and scope. In 1998, an American Bar Association task force estimated that there were more than 3,000 federal criminal offenses scattered throughout the 50 titles of the United States Code.
Just six years later, a leading expert on the overcriminalization problem, Professor John S. Baker Jr., published a study estimating that the number exceeded 4,000. As the ABA task force reported, the body of federal criminal law is "so large ...that there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes."
If "ignorance of the law is no excuse," then every American citizen -- literally, every single one -- is ignorant and in peril, for nobody can know all the laws that govern their behavior.
A just criminal justice system, in the best sense of the word "just," has a twofold goal. One is to see that criminals are prosecuted, convicted and appropriately punished. The other is to ensure that those who are innocent are either not prosecuted in the first instance or, if mistakenly prosecuted, are not convicted. Today, our system fails the second of those goals.
Much is at stake for our freedoms and the freedoms of future generations. The problem of overcriminalization merits extensive study and debate by legal experts and policymakers, as well as average Americans, whose fundamental liberty is most at stake. Many constructive changes could make our justice system fairer and more just, and improve its ability to deter wrongdoing and punish real criminals. Taking the steps necessary to ensure that American criminal law once again routinely exemplifies the right principles and purposes will require much work, but the alternative is to distort the American criminal justice system, and jeopardize the American people.
By EDWIN MEESE III, NATIONAL VOICE
April 26, 2010 12:05 AM
Meese, a former U.S. attorney general, is chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Friday, April 23, 2010
The 94-page bill is expected to reduce the state's projected prison population enough to negate the need for a new prison -- saving more than $400 million over five years. It's designed to increase training for nonviolent offenders to re-enter society without becoming repeat offenders. And it defines a laundry list of crimes as "violent," including many sex crimes against children.
It also provides, for example, a tiered approach to assault and battery crimes. Currently, the state has 90-day maximum sentences and 10-year minimum sentences and nothing in between, said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston.
And it provides a sentence of up to $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison for habitual offenders convicted of driving under suspension resulting in death -- and a fine of up to $5,000 and 10 years in prison in such cases where great bodily injury results. A version of that provision, rolled into the bill last month, has been championed by Spartanburg resident Lily Lenderman for eight years -- ever since she lost her grandson in a wreck caused by someone driving under a suspended license.
"The whole idea about any criminal law is to keep us safe," said Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Woodruff, chairman of the House Criminal Law Subcommittee. "This bill ... is strong by keeping the violent offenders segregated from South Carolina families. At the same time, it's smart, because it's taking non-violent offenders out of the Department of Corrections and puts them on alternative sentencing -- GPS monitoring, for instance, that they pay for, not you or me."...
Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint said the Sanford administration had been behind sentencing reform since a scaled-down version of it failed seven years ago. Ozmint said South Carolina currently doesn't have a criminal justice system; rather, it has a patchwork of laws that have been cobbled together over the years. He and several supporters talked about this bill being ruled by statistics rather than emotions. "Don't underestimate that first step in this state's history," he said.
Monday, April 12, 2010
By using state resources differently, Florida's mentally ill residents can be treated and avoid the revolving door of jail and the streets. Under a plan proposed by the Department of Children and Families, the mentally ill accused of relatively low-level crimes would be diverted into locked community-based residential treatment facilities. Once stabilized, these individuals would be provided a continuum of care and monitoring in community-living settings.
Many mentally ill residents could live law-abiding lives if they had access to regular treatment and services. The DCF program would use case managers and other professionals to track their progress and help them obtain federal benefits to reach some level of self-sufficiency.
But DCF cannot launch its diversion experiment without changes to state law. The department needs the flexibility to shift up to 5 percent of funding from forensic treatment beds. It also needs permission to seek federal Medicaid dollars for indigent mentally ill criminal defendants in the program.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday will consider a bill, SB 2612, that would create a forensic mental health probation and parole program in the Department of Corrections and authorize mental health courts throughout the state. Its sponsor, Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, should allow the changes that DCF seeks to be amended into her bill. That would get the pilot program moving this session.
A nudge from Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, who wants to be the state's next chief financial officer, also would help. Allowing this creative experiment would fit in nicely with a candidate for an office that looks out for Florida's long-term fiscal interests.
The mentally ill people who qualify for the diversion program would otherwise land in a state forensic hospital at a cost of more than $60,000. Then they would take a plea agreement — as roughly 80 percent do — and be released without any treatment or services. The sensible choice for Florida is to give the pilot program a try.
A St. Petersburg Times editorial
Published Friday, April 9, 2010
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Since 1996, the study shows, the Sunshine state has added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations to those accused and convicted of a crime. The fees are levied even on those who have no money and cannot pay. Increasingly, the result is a self-perpetuating cycle of debt -- and sometimes further incarceration -- for those re-entering society after prison.
The new study shows that the Florida legislature increasingly relies on "user fees" paid by indigent defendants to finance not just the criminal justice system but other state operations as well.
"As unemployment hovers around 10 percent, it is time to consider whether heaping more debt on those unable to afford it is a sensible and moral approach to financing state functions," said Rebekah Diller, author of The Hidden Costs of Florida's Criminal Justice Fees. "For many reasons, this is simply bad public policy."
The report also raises key questions about the efficiency of the practice. Many of these fees are uncollectible, leaving the court system underfunded. In some places, collection costs are borne partly by counties and court clerks, and the adjudication of fee payments incurs even more costs.
Among the findings:
1. The Florida Legislature has eliminated payment exemptions for the indigent, thus demanding revenue from a population unable to pay;
2. In Leon County, collection practices resulted in more than 800 arrests for failure to appear at debt hearings and more than 20,000 hours of jail time alone in one year.
3. Florida routinely suspends drivers' licenses for failure to make payments, a practice that sets the debtor up for a vicious cycle of "driving with a suspended license" convictions;
4. Florida allows private debt collection firms to add up to a 40 percent surcharge on unpaid debt.
Among the recommendations:
1. The Legislature should exempt those unable to pay criminal justice fees from legal financial obligations;
2. Payment plans should be tailored to an individual's ability to pay, as state law already requires;
3. Florida's Supreme Court should adopt court rules to end the new debtors' prison;
4. Counties can save money by eliminating debt-related arrests for failure to appear and resulting incarceration in already crowded jails.
Florida's increasing reliance on fee revenue coincides with a rising concern about policies that affect massive numbers of Floridians with a criminal conviction. Florida has the third-largest prison population of any state. Nearly 90 percent of the more than 100,000 people currently in Florida's state prisons will be released, and, if past trends persist, nearly one-third will be re-incarcerated for a new crime.
The report also offers longer-term reforms, such as reconsidering legal financial obligations in felony cases.
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
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Monday, February 15, 2010
The new mind-set, also welcomed by top Republican lawmakers, is not a change of heart from the lock-'em-up policies that dominated the past decade. Rather, it indicates how Florida's dire budget situation is making officials rethink the link between crime and punishment.
The shift is notable, given that Republicans are leading the discussion during an election year.
"I think that justice calls for many facets," Crist said Friday. "But I also think if there are individuals who can turn their lives around and get a second chance, especially youth, that's a worthy cause."
Nearly 90 percent of inmates will eventually leave prison, and one in three will commit a new crime within three years. If state prison officials trim recidivism by just 1 percent, they will save $8 million a year.
"Particularly in austere budget times, re-entry (programs) really make good business and public safety sense," Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said. "It comes from the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key (policies) — the evidence shows it has not been very effective."
As the state's chief warden, McNeil began preaching these reforms years ago.
But the political winds didn't change until June when three former Florida attorneys general, a retired Department of Corrections secretary and the state's powerful business lobby wrote a letter to Crist asking him to halt spending for new prison construction as available dollars grew scarce.
Each inmate costs state taxpayers $20,000 a year, and the prison population now tops 100,000, statistics show. The number of inmates is projected to grow 15 percent in coming years — an unsustainable pace, the group said.
In his executive budget, Crist proposed no money for new prisons and diverted funding for prison work camps to re-entry centers where the state assists inmates' transition into the community through job training and social services.
The thinking is spreading even to the Legislature, which in recent years has approved measures to abolish parole and implement minimum required sentences for offenders.
"The prudence of spending has helped to humanize the issue of incarceration," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a lawyer who is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.
For years when offenders left prison, the state gave them $100 and a bus ticket. But in recent presentations to lawmakers, state officials tout a program with space for 5,500 inmates that helps them find jobs and learn life skills — both keys to reducing recidivism.
It's about public safety, officials contend, not coddling criminals. And reducing crime means fewer victims in the future.
"We can measure the bad stuff but never capture all the bad things that didn't happen," said Rebecca Wolf-Reynal, a probation supervisor in Pinellas County who organizes re-entry programs.
The corrections agency is expanding these re-entry hubs in each of the state's four regions for inmates who have less than three years left in prison.
The re-entry facilities operate in conjunction with work release centers that help offenders find jobs before they are released.
Once the program reaches full speed, the state will serve nearly 7,000 inmates at any given time, though the agency wants to expand even further.
Gordon Lee Jr. participated in voluntary re-entry classes after serving 18 years in prison for a slew of drug charges. He left prison at age 40 with dim hopes after seeing others released only to return.
"They went back to the same environment with the same things and wound up with the same results," said Lee, now 42 and a supervisor at a car rental agency in Tampa. "But they taught me a lot of life skills. They made me feel like I had a chance."
The agency's new focus on helping offenders is bolstering a broader examination of how the state punishes criminals.
This year, House Bill 23, the "Second Chance for Children in Prison Act" — once deemed dead on arrival — is getting another look.
The legislation would allow the state's parole board to reconsider lengthy prison sentences given to youthful offenders. The sponsor, state Rep. Mike Weinstein, a Jacksonville Republican, is a prosecutor.
The bill also illustrates the difficulty faced by legislation perceived as being lenient on criminals. When Weinstein introduced the bill two years ago, he was labeled a "liberal." In a recent committee hearing, he began with a disclaimer: "This isn't a massive prison release system."
"Republicans worked a long time to do away with parole and some of them were reluctant to even crack the door," Weinstein said. "But the pendulum is coming the other way."
But not all lawmakers are softening their views. Other measures to add to the "hate crimes" statute and enhance the eligibility for the death penalty continue to get broad support.
"The No. 1 priority should always be public safety," said Republican Sandy Adams, the chairwoman of the House criminal justice budget committee and a former sheriff's deputy. "I don't believe we need to let criminals out of institutions just for budget purposes."
A number of law enforcement officials see it differently, including Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. "The only way to take (public safety) to the next level is through a good re-entry and recidivism program," he said. "When people listen to the facts, they are starting to understand."
published in the St. Petersburg Times on February 15, 2010
Sunday, January 10, 2010
So Alm decided to try something different. He reasoned that if the offenders knew that a probation violation would lead immediately to some certain punishment, they might shape up. “I thought, What did I do when my son was young?” he recalled. “If he misbehaved, I talked to him and warned him, and if he disregarded the warning, I gave him some kind of consequence right away.” Working with U.S. marshals and local police, Alm arranged for a new procedure: if offenders tested positive for drugs or missed an appointment, they would be arrested within hours and most would have a hearing within 72 hours. Those who were found to have violated probation would be quickly sentenced to a short jail term proportionate to the severity of the violation — typically a few days.
Alm mentioned his plan to the public defender, who suggested that it was only fair to warn probationers that the rules were going to be strictly enforced for the first time. Alm agreed, and on Oct. 1, 2004, he held a hearing for 18 sex offenders, followed by another one for 16 drug offenders. Brandishing a laminated “Wanted” poster, he told them: “I can guarantee that everyone in this courtroom wants you to succeed on probation, but you have not been cutting it. From now on, you’re going to follow all the rules of probation, and if you don’t, you’re going to be arrested on the spot and spend some time in jail right away.” He called the program HOPE, for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement, and prepared himself for a flood of violation hearings.
But they never materialized. There were only three hearings in the first week, two in the second week and none in the third. The HOPE program was so successful that it inspired scholars to evaluate its methods. Within a six-month period, the rate of positive drug tests fell by 93 percent for HOPE probationers, compared with a fall of 14 percent for probationers in a comparison group.
Alm had stumbled onto an effective strategy for keeping people out of prison, one that puts a fresh twist on some venerable ideas about deterrence. Classical deterrence theory has long held that the threat of a mild punishment imposed reliably and immediately has a much greater deterrent effect than the threat of a severe punishment that is delayed and uncertain. Recent work in behavioral economics has helped to explain this phenomenon: people are more sensitive to the immediate than the slightly deferred future and focus more on how likely an outcome is than how bad it is. In the course of implementing HOPE, Alm discovered another reason why the strategy works: people are most likely to obey the law when they’re subject to punishments they perceive as legitimate, fair and consistent, rather than arbitrary and capricious. “When the system isn’t consistent and predictable, when people are punished randomly, they think, My probation officer doesn’t like me, or, Someone’s prejudiced against me,” Alm told me, “rather than seeing that everyone who breaks a rule is treated equally, in precisely the same way.”
Judge Alm’s story is an example of a new approach to keeping people out of prison that is being championed by some of the most innovative scholars studying deterrence today. At its core, the approach focuses on establishing the legitimacy of the criminal-justice system in the eyes of those who have run afoul of it or are likely to. Promising less crime and less punishment, this approach includes elements that should appeal to liberals (it doesn’t rely on draconian prison sentences) and to conservatives (it stresses individual choice and moral accountability). But at a time when the size of the U.S. prison population is increasingly seen as unsustainable for both budgetary and moral reasons — the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population — the fact that this approach seems to work may be its biggest draw.
The HOPE program, if widely adopted as a model for probation and parole reform, could make a surprisingly large contribution to reducing the prison population. In many states, the majority of prison admissions come not from arrests for new crimes, as you might think, but from probation and parole violations. Nationwide, roughly two-thirds of parolees fail to complete parole successfully. Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, estimates that by eliminating imprisonment across the nation for technical parole violations, reducing the length of parole supervision and ratcheting back prison sentences to their 1988 levels, the United States could reduce its prison population by 50 percent.
Some in government are beginning to take notice. In November, invoking the HOPE program as a model, the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff of California and his Republican colleague Ted Poe of Texas introduced legislation in the House that would create federal grants for states to experiment with courts that deliver swift, predictable and moderate punishment for those who violate probation.
There also appears to be a national audience for a broader conversation about new ways to shrink the prison population. Last year, a three-judge panel in California ordered the overcrowded state prison system — the largest in the country, with more than 170,000 prisoners at its peak — to reduce the inmate population by tens of thousands of prisoners within two years in order to comply with constitutional standards for medical and mental health care. Facing a tightening budget crisis in September, California legislators added to the pressure by demanding a reduction in the prison budget of $1.2 billion. In the U.S. Senate, Jim Webb of Virginia is leading a crusade for prison reform, insisting that fewer jail terms for nonviolent offenders can make America safer and more humane, while also saving money. And in the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder is questioning the value of relentlessly expanding prisons. In July, he declared that “high rates of incarceration have tremendous social costs” and “diminishing marginal returns.”
The most effective way to shrink the prison population, of course, is not just to reform probation and parole but also to deter groups of potential lawbreakers from committing crimes in the first place. If, in addition to bringing down the numbers of probation and parole revocations, police officers and judges could also address the core problems of drug arrests and street violence, the United States might even be said to have solved its notorious prison problem. Is such an ambitious goal possible? While it might sound too good to be true, the HOPE-style thinking about deterrence offers a promising road map for addressing all these challenges.
ALTHOUGH HE ACTED on his own, Judge Alm did not design the HOPE program without inspiration. In the mid-1990s, when he was a U.S. attorney in Hawaii, Alm heard a presentation by David M. Kennedy, who is considered the patron saint of the new thinking about deterrence. Kennedy, who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spoke about Operation Ceasefire, a program he was designing to reduce youth violence in Boston. Along with his colleagues Anne M. Piehl and Anthony Braga, Kennedy worked with the head of the Youth Violence Strike Force, a division of the Boston Police Department. The police officer explained that while conventional deterrence hadn’t worked, he had begun to persuade gangs to behave by issuing a credible threat: namely, that when a gang attracted attention with notorious acts of violence, the entire gang — all of whose members likely had outstanding warrants or probation, parole or traffic violations — would be rounded up.
Kennedy recalls this today as a breakthrough moment in his thinking. Ever since the days of Cesare Beccaria, the 18th-century philosopher and death-penalty opponent, classical deterrence theorists had focused on credibly threatening individuals; Kennedy’s first innovation was to focus on increasing the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of groups. “The legitimacy element has risen in my mind from being an important element of the strategy to the most important element,” Kennedy told me. Convinced that the best way to increase legitimacy was to enlist what he calls the “community’s moral voice,” Kennedy set out to deter the most dangerous young gang members by persuading their friends and neighbors to pressure them into obeying the law.
In May 1996, Kennedy, Piehl and Braga helped to design the first of what came to be known as “call-in” sessions, intended to put gangs on notice that they would face swift and certain punishments. Working with Kennedy, probation and parole officers ordered gang members to attend face-to-face meetings with the police. The gang members were given three warnings. First, they were told that if anyone in their group killed someone, the entire group would suffer consequences. Second, the gang members were told that if they want to escape from street life, they could get help and job training from social service agencies and churches. And finally, they heard from members of their community that violence was wrong and it had to stop. The results of the forums were striking and immediate. Within two years, youth violence in Boston fell by two-thirds and city homicide rates by about half.
Why was Operation Ceasefire so effective? One reason was that the warning hearings gave the gang members a sense of what to expect. Increasingly draconian sentences don’t always reduce crime, and sometimes increase it. (After increasing in the 1980s, crime fell by 25 percent in the 1990s, but states that put more people in jail had a smaller decline than states that imprisoned fewer.) In part, this is because many people actually don’t know the punishments they face.
In addition to offering knowledge, Operation Ceasefire provided certainty. The small numbers of gang members singled out meant they could trust that the police would be able to follow through on their threats. “If you can get people to behave by threatening them credibly, you’ll need less actual punishment than if you let them run wild and punish only occasionally,” says Mark A. R. Kleiman, author of the new book “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment.” Kleiman, whom Alm consulted soon after initiating the HOPE program, became interested in swift, certain and moderate punishment when he was a colleague of Kennedy’s years before. Lastly, Operation Ceasefire gave gang members an incentive to obey the law by promising that they would get positive reinforcement from their families and neighbors for changing their behavior.
In all of this, Kennedy’s insights were supported by a variety of recent research suggesting that people are more likely to obey the law when they view law enforcement as fair and legitimate. Tom Tyler, a psychology professor at New York University, has found that compliance with court orders is highest for offenders who perceive that they have experienced a fair process. And in a recent book, “American Homicide,” the Ohio State University historian Randolph Roth argues that throughout American history, the homicide rate has decreased when people trust that the government is stable and unbiased and believe in the legitimacy of the officials who run it. Similarly, the legal scholar Paul Butler argues in his new book, “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” that widespread incarceration in the 1980s and ’90s undermined the legitimacy of law enforcement in the eyes of the affected communities by converting a prison term into something heroic rather than stigmatic.
After Operation Ceasefire, Kennedy turned his attention from gangs to open-air drug markets. He set out to change how the criminal-justice system was viewed from the perspective of the offenders and their communities — and how the offenders and their communities were viewed by the police. As Kennedy told me, “I saw law enforcement believing plausible but untrue things about the communities they police” — namely, that the communities were corrupt and didn’t care about the violence that was destroying them — “and the communities believing untrue things about the police” — namely, that the cops were part of a racist conspiracy to lock up black offenders while overlooking white ones.
To correct what he calls a “corrosive and tragic mistake,” Kennedy came up with the idea of a kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission in which offenders would talk to the police accompanied by the people they trusted the most: their mothers. In 2003, working with James Fealy, the police chief in High Point, N.C., Kennedy arranged some preliminary meetings. Although Fealy had been shocked to learn that the community thought he and his officers were almost as bad as the drug dealers, Fealy, in turn, surprised community members by declaring that no one in law enforcement thought the drug war could be won.
These meetings prepared the groundwork for the strategy that followed. After identifying 16 active drug dealers, Fealy arrested four and then prepared warrants for the other 12 that could be signed whenever the police chose. He then called in the other dealers, nine of whom arrived accompanied by their mothers and other “influentials” like grandmothers, and delivered the following message to them as a group: “You could be in jail tonight. We don’t want to do that, we want to help you succeed, but you are out of the drug business.” The mothers and grandmothers, seemingly impressed by the decision not to arrest, cheered on the police. In subsequent meetings, the “influentials” shouted down naysayers, including a conspiracymonger who accused the C.I.A. of having created the crack epidemic to oppress black people. The drug market in the area dried up.
IN ADDITION TO influencing Judge Alm’s probation reform, Kennedy’s efforts to rethink deterrence have also inspired one of the most powerful recent models for national parole reform, which comes from Tracey Meares, a law professor at Yale. (Unlike probation, which involves a sentence instead of prison, parole involves supervision after part of the prison sentence has been served.) In 2002, Meares, who was then a law professor at the University of Chicago, was asked by the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, to analyze how best to address crime in the city. She concluded that they should begin on the West Side, in West Garfield Park and the surrounding area, where rates of murder and gun violence were more than four times the city average. Fitzgerald suggested that they might implement a version of Project Exile, a controversial program in Virginia that sought to deter gun violence by threatening federal prosecutions — and a five-year mandatory minimum sentence — for repeat offenders convicted of illegal gun possession. But Project Exile had experienced only mixed success: federal prosecutors could prosecute only a small proportion of the gun cases submitted by the Richmond police. The threat of a severe sentence was, in effect, something of a bluff.
Meares told Fitzgerald that threats of zero tolerance wouldn’t work because they simply weren’t credible. Instead, Meares argued that law-enforcement officials should concentrate on specific groups of wrongdoers in ways they could accept as both reasonable and fair. Using Operation Ceasefire in Boston as a model, Meares identified everyone who had committed violent or gun-related crimes and had been released from prison and recently assigned to parole. She gathered them in random groups of no more than 20 for call-in sessions in what Meares calls “places of civic importance” — park buildings, local schools and libraries — where they sat at the same table as the police in order to create an egalitarian, nonconfrontational atmosphere. They then heard a version of Kennedy’s three-part presentation. The results of the program were drastic: there was a 37 percent drop in the average monthly homicide rate — the largest drop of any neighborhood in the city. Violent crime in Chicago today is at a 30 year low. “All these strategies are a way of signaling to groups of people that government agents view them with dignity, neutrality and trust, which is the best way of convincing them that the government has the right to hold them accountable for their behavior,” Meares told me.
From Kennedy and Kleiman to Alm and Meares, the judges and scholars developing new deterrence strategies are changing the way we think about parole, probation, gang violence and drug markets. But the strategies also present a rare opportunity to persuade the nation’s policymakers that the most urgent case for prison reform is not only economic but also moral and practical. Yes, it’s an outrage that the United States locks up citizens for so long with such uncertain effect; but it’s also self-defeating, because long sentences give rise to a crisis of legitimacy that can lead to more crime, not less.
A crisis of legitimacy may sound like a huge, perhaps intractable problem, but the tantalizing promise of the new deterrence thinking is that the crisis can actually be solved, practical step by practical step. The relative simplicity of the solutions, it turns out, is at the core of their radical potential.
by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, who is a frequent contributor to theNew York Times magazine. He is at work on a book about Louis Brandeis. Published 1/10/10
Saturday, January 09, 2010
The death penalty costs a lot to implement, a side issue to be sure but in these tough fiscal times, a consideration. Florida, for instance, spends about $51 million a year on its death penalty system or about $24 million for each execution. While another broke state, California, spends an estimated $137 million. The high cost is largely driven by the layers of additional court proceedings intended to make sure that due process has been afforded the accused and a guilty person is being executed.
I can hear the cries of "who cares what it costs?" or "let's make it cheaper by cutting out all those extra legal steps." But what should concern capital punishment proponents is that the system, even with these expensive safeguards, gets it wrong. Executing the innocent is a distinct possibility.
Nine men in 2009 who had been convicted and sentenced to death were exonerated of their crimes and freed. The total now stands at 139 since 1973. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, those nine men served a combined 121 years between the time they were sentenced to death and their exonerations, which means that all that extra due process and all the system's delays that pandering politicians always caterwaul about were necessary to avert a tragedy.
And then there are the cases where a convict's innocence emerged too late. In a 2006 case concerning the death penalty law in Kansas, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote with his typical crowing arrogance that there has not been "a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."
Scalia's misguided confidence is troubling considering the infamous Florida case of Frank Lee Smith whose death warrant was signed in 1989 for a rape and murder. It wasn't until after Smith died of cancer while awaiting execution that a DNA test in 2000 proved his innocence and implicated a convicted rapist and murderer.
And there is also Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas who was convicted of killing his three young daughters by arson and executed in 2004. Forensic experts who have reviewed the case, including one enlisted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, say there is no scientific basis to conclude that the fire that swept through Willingham's home was arson. The original fire investigators, according to these later experts, had no comprehension of fire dynamics.
By all rights this should be the first case where a state formally exonerates a convict after putting him to death. Republican Gov. Rick Perry, a man in a pitched primary battle to win another term against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, refused to grant Willingham a stay of execution even though Perry had before him new scientific evidence disputing the arson.
Perry has so little interest in doing what is right in this case that he's gone out of his way to hamper the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Perry denies this. But after Perry replaced three members of the commission including its chair for no apparent reason the commission quickly put on hold further review of Willingham's case.
Another fairly recent action should jar death penalty supporters. The very group that laid out the modern framework for the implementation of capital punishment has now declared that the system is wholly unworkable and broken. In October the American Law Institute voted to repudiate the legal structure it had created in 1962 for death penalty cases as part of a Model Penal Code. According to the group, decades of experience tells us that there is no way to ensure "a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment."
What we have now is not adequate while being extremely pricey. It is likely at least one innocent man has died and probably numbers more. This is why we should abolish the death penalty.
By Robyn E. Blumner,St. Petersburg Times Columnist
Published Thursday, January 7, 2010