Thursday, December 30, 2010

Florida should move away from its expensive, ineffective tough-on-crime philosophy:

To Floridians worried about Gov.-elect Scott's ultra-conservative bent, the only thing more alarming than news he is being advised to shake up the prison system might be news that Mr. Scott is being advised to use Texas as a model.
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

The Death Penalty on the Wane--Is it time to abolish capital punishment?

In the midst of the fall election campaign, Steven Hayes went on trial in New Haven, Conn., in one of the most horrific murder cases in memory. The killers invaded a home, beat a man with a baseball bat, sexually assaulted and strangled his wife, and tied up their two daughters before setting a fire that killed them.
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

Thanksgiving in Jail (by Katy Savage--The Mormon Worker)

This last weekend I spent a day and a half in the Muscogee County Jail in Georgia. Soon I will write about the School of the Americas Watch Vigil, its fight and its power. Soon I will write about the fragility of First Amendment rights and how quickly I saw them disappear. But first I want to write about this:
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.