Monday, August 19, 2013

Push for leniency in drug sentencing has been a hard sell in Florida

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he was ordering prosecutors to stop charging lower-level drug offenders with “draconian minimum mandatory sentences,” he echoed the refrain from a bi-partisan coalition of activists who have tried and failed to get legislators to change the laws in Florida.
The cost of incarcerating a drug offender for a mandatory three-year prison sentence in Florida is estimated at $58,400, while the cost of treatment in a work release program is $19,130, according to an analysis by the Florida Office of Program and Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
Meanwhile, Florida’s crime rate is at a 41-year low but the prison population continues to grow with non-violent, first-time offenders, most of whom are snared by undercover agents targeting them for trafficking in small quantities of prescription drugs, the analysis found.
The Florida Department of Corrections reports that taxpayers are spending an estimated $300 million a year to house people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Holder announced last Mondaya major shift in federal sentencing policies, targeting long mandatory terms that he said have flooded the nation's prisons with low-level drug offenders and diverted crime-fighting dollars that could be far better spent.
If Holder's policies are implemented aggressively, they could mark one of the most significant changes in the way the federal criminal justice system handles drug cases since the government declared a war on drugs in the 1980s
As a first step, Holder has instructed federal prosecutors to stop charging many nonviolent drug defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences. His next step will be working with a bipartisan group in Congress to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.
The move mirrors new laws adopted in a growing number of states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas, and is endorsed by a wide range of interest groups. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights called it “game-changing.” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said in a blog post on Friday that it “signaled a significant shift toward justice.”
But whether the announcement will have any affect on Florida, where a bi-partisan group of activists and legislators have tried to shift the focus from drug incarcerations to treatment and diversion, is still an open question.
“It’s time to start using our brains on this issue,’’ said Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, a lawyer and one of several freshman lawmakers who support ending minimum mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes. “Let’s look at the facts and evidence and not the anecdotes. We are ruining lives and families forever.”
Rep. Katie Edwards, a freshman Democrat from Sunrise, sponsored legislation last year that would have allowed judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in illegal prescription drugs. The proposal passed every House committee but never came to a final vote after being blocked in the Senate.
Now, Edwards and others believe Holder’s announcement could lead to an influx of drug offenders in the state system, putting pressure on the state to adjust.
If a federal prosecutor wants a tougher punishment for a drug offender “he can kick over the case to the state,’’ said Greg Newburn, Florida director of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is working to change state and federal laws. “That could be extremely costly move for Florida if it decides not to change its sentencing laws.”
Edwards warns that caseloads for state public defenders and state attorneys are already at the breaking point and “this may force our hand and really finally get the ball rolling.”
Drug convictions in Florida have surged in the last decade with the abuse of prescription drugs. Convictions for trafficking more than quadrupled between 2006 and 2012 and, in most cases, judges had little discretion but to sentence offenders to a mandatory three years behind bars. Three of four drug offenders have little or no prior criminal history and just as many have substance abuse and addiction problems, the OPPAGA report found.
The cost of housing those prisoners sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences is estimated at $97.5 million a year, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Only one third received any treatment or re-entry skills and, after release, the data shows, three in five of the drug offenders return on a drug offense.
One of the most active proponents of reforming the system is the Smart Justice Alliance, a business-backed advocacy group that argues the cost savings will allow the state to shift resources into education and economic development. It is backed by non-profit companies who acknowledge they want to get a piece of the state’s prisoner rehabilitation business.
But resistance is strong. In addition to the reluctance of legislators who worry they will be perceived as being soft on crime, the pushback includes prosecutors, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and both public prison officials and private prison lobbyists. The prison advocates have quietly opposed the legislation at a time when there is a surplus of prison beds in Florida.
In 2012, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed nonviolent offenders to receive drug counseling. His argument: prosecutors feared it would mean that some prisoners would leave prison early, and fail to serve the mandatory minimum 85 percent of their sentences.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Green Cove Springs, and a former assistant state attorney, agrees in theory that federal prosecutors could steer more cases to state court, crowding the dockets. But he wants to change the law because it makes sense. He plans to file a bill next session to change what he considers a glitch in the law that allows someone to be sentenced to three years in prison on drug trafficking charges for seven pills of oxycodone, treating the less potent prescription drugs the same way it treats 28 grams of cocaine.
The laws were written during the era of Miami Vice and drug cartels, “when the legislative mindset was focused on heroine and cocaine, not opiates,’’ he said.
Edwards’ bill included a similar provision to modify the law for prescription drug crimes. Legislative analysts estimated a savings of $58 million and 576 fewer prison beds. She believes the fear of closing prisons, not the best public policy, is what worked against them.
“There’s an absolute economic incentive to keep people in prison as long as we can so we can profit from them,’’ she said. “Tell me what threat [non-violent, drug offenders] are to society, because they are a threat to the state budget.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he plans to push for sentencing reforms next session. But, in addition to offering more leniency to non-violent drug offenders who commit first-time crimes, he wants those changes offset with new laws that will increase penalties for crimes against the elderly and children.
“The reason Rep. Edwards’ bill did not become law is it was only beneficial to offenders. It did not enhance public safety,’’ he said. He also opposes the proposals pushed by the Smart Justice Alliance whose goal, Gaetz said, is “a series of reforms that would really create a pipeline for rehabilitation and re-entry services.”
Barney Bishop, director of the Alliance, challenges that characterization.
“I’ve never known Republicans were opposed to companies making a profit, especially a not-for-profit,’’ he said. The reforms will lead to fewer people in the pipeline, he said, adding that only about 33 percent of the state’s 102,000 prisoners receive treatment.
“If we can break the cycle so they don’t come back, we will save hundreds of millions,’’ Bishop said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Read more here:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Help Thy Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison

IF you want to understand all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system, take a look at the nightmare experienced by Edward Young.
Young, now 43, was convicted of several burglaries as a young man but then resolved that he would turn his life around. Released from prison in 1996, he married, worked six days a week, and raised four children in Hixson, Tenn.
Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them.
“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.”
Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods. The United States attorney in Chattanooga prosecuted Young under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition. In this case, under the Armed Career Criminal Act, that meant a 15-year minimum sentence.
The United States attorney, William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings.
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges.
So the federal government, at a time when it is cutting education spending, is preparing to spend $415,000 over the next 15 years to imprison a man for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells while trying to help a widow in the neighborhood. And, under the law, there is no early release: Young will spend the full 15 years in prison.
This case captures what is wrong with our “justice” system: We have invested in mass incarceration in ways that are crushingly expensive, break up families and are often simply cruel. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.
This hasn’t always been the case, but it is the result of policies such as mandatory minimum sentences since the 1970s.
In 1978, the United States had 307,000 inmates in state and federal prisons. That soared to a peak of more than 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the number of inmates has declined for three consecutive years to 1.57 million in 2012. The number of juveniles detained has also begun to drop since peaking in 2000, although the U.S. still detains children at a rate five times that of the next highest country.
In short, there’s some hope that this American experiment in mass incarceration has been recognized as a failure and will be gradually unwound. Among the leaders in moving away from the old policies are blue states and red states alike, including New York and Texas. But America still has twice as many prisoners today as under President Ronald Reagan.
Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that locking up vast numbers of nonviolent offenders is a waste of money. California devotes $179,400 to keep a juvenile in detention for a year, and spends less than $10,000 per student in its schools.
Granted, mass incarceration may have been one factor in reduced crime in the last couple of decades; there’s mixed evidence. But, if so, the economic and social cost has been enormous — including the breakup of families and the increased risk that children of those families will become criminals a generation later.
There’s also contrary evidence that incarceration, especially of young people, doesn’t work well in preventing crime, especially for young people. One careful study of 35,000 young offenders by Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. reached the startling conclusion that jailing juveniles leads them to be more likely to commit crimes as adults. Milder sentences, such as electronic monitoring and home detention, were actually more effective at preventing adult crime.
Alternatives to incarceration are both cheaper and more efficient. Youth Villages has an excellent record of working with troubled youngsters and their families, and of keeping them from committing crimes. So do some job-training and education programs. Mass incarceration has been particularly devastating for blacks and members of other minority groups, as well as for the poor generally. In this case, Edward Young is white.
Conservatives often argue that there is a link between family breakdown and cycles of poverty. They’re right: Boys are more likely to get into trouble without a dad at home, and we have a major problem with the irresponsibility of young men who conceive babies but don’t raise them.
We also have a serious problem with the irresponsibility of mass incarceration. When almost 1 percent of Americans are imprisoned (and a far higher percentage of men of color in low-income neighborhoods), our criminal justice system becomes a cause of family breakdown and contributes to the delinquency of a generation of children. And mass incarceration interacts with other government policies, such as the way the drug war is implemented, to have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans. Black men use marijuana at roughly the same rate as white men but are more than three times as likely to be arrested over it.
Young is particularly close to his children, ages 6 to 16. After back problems and rheumatoid arthritis left him disabled, he was a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked in a doctor’s office. When the judge announced the sentence, the children all burst into tears.
“I can’t believe my kids lose their daddy for the next 15 years,” his wife, Stacy, told me. “He never tried to get a firearm in the 16 years I was with him. It’s crazy. He’s getting a longer sentence than people who’ve killed or raped.”
Young’s lawyer, Christopher Varner, of Chattanooga, is appealing the sentence and says he is shaken by the outcome. “It’s shocking,” he says. “That’s not what we do in this country.”
I asked Killian, the United States attorney, why on earth he would want to send a man to prison for 15 years for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells. “The case raised serious public safety concerns,” Killian said.
The classic caricature of justice run amok is Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables,” pursuing Jean Valjean for stealing bread for hungry children. In that case, Valjean knew that he was breaking the law; Edward Young had no idea.
Some day, Americans will look back and wonder at how we as a society could be much more willing to invest in prisons than in schools. They will be astonished that we sent a man to federal prison for 15 years for trying to help a widow.

by Nicholas Kristoff, published in the New York Times on August 11, 2013

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

FLVCS Can Be Proud of the (CAVS) Courts Assisting Veterans Program in the 12th Judicial Circuit

Pasted below is a letter from the mother of veteran praising the Courts Assisting Veterans (CAVS) program that has been supported by FLVCS since its inception by Judge Lee Haworth, the recipient of the FLVCS 2011 annual Thomas Paine Award.
Special kudos to Greg Para, the current CAVS coordinator and FLVCS member for his good work.
Diverting veterans from the criminal justice system is one of the most effective ways to support the troops and to help veterans over the long haul.
The goal of FLVCS is to establish veterans diversion courts state wide with adequate funding for the vets courts. If we can accomplish that, not only will be veterans be helped, but our communities and states will be better too.
Here's the letter:
To Whom It May Concern:   
It is my pleasure writing this letter regarding Greg Para's invaluable work as the Courts Assisting Veterans - Veteran Coordinator for the 12th Judicial Circuit here in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, Florida.  It is the least I can do, as I will never be able to repay the debt my husband and I owe Greg for his undying service to our country and to our son, Keith Howard.

My husband and I are very proud of the fact that our son, Keith, is an Iraq War Veteran.  Keith is third generation military and he proved his pride and love for his country when he fought gallantly as a Combat Soldier for the United States Army in Iraq.  Keith was Honorably Discharged June 30, 2011.  

Only 30 years old, Keith was so affected by the horrors of war, that he is now 100% permanently and totally disabled from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, spinal and back injuries/deterioration, debilitating light sensitive migraines, night terrors (he sleeps with a light on in his room), anxiety attacks (he battles  insomnia), and depression.  He now takes multiple medications which sometimes have adverse reactions due to the experimental nature of treating his many illnesses. 

We were at a loss as to how to help our son get better.  Other than taking him back and forth to the VA hospital, all we could do was watch our son descend into another form of hell.  Keith ended up getting arrested six (6) months after his Honorable Discharge, which began his downward spiral into the abyss of the Florida Criminal Justice System as an offender.  His descent only served to deepen his alienation and pain.  Incarceration certainly was not in Keith's best interest.  He was a threat to himself, not American society.  But he found himself locked up as a prisoner in the same country for which he just gave everything.  

Keith needed someone to understand his pain, someone who also knew the horrors of what he had gone through in war.  I remember thinking that my child survived horrors that most men won't see in 12 lifetimes, but he may not survive this hell we call jail.  Then God sent me an angel named Greg Para.  God knew we needed His help dealing with my child's issues and Greg appeared out of nowhere in January of this year.  You see, a mother never prays so hard as when her child ships off to war, UNTIL that same child is completely helpless on the opposite side of the metal bars of a jail cell.  Even as a licensed attorney, I could only do so much to help my son get out of the revolving American criminal justice door where he had found himself just 6 months after surviving war in a foreign country.  

But Keith had the compounded problem of his type of mental illness (PTSD brought on by the horrors of war) not even being considered as a mitigating factor in our courts here in Manatee County.  That is, not until Greg started fighting so devoutly for the Veterans he loves so dearly and the courts began to listen.  Greg is not long out of combat himself and God knew Greg commanded respect and deserved to be heard as he explained his well thought-out plan by which to help our hero's heal and to give them the proper care they need and deserve.  Greg articulated to the court, in a way that only he could, why our veteran offenders, not long back from war, should be able to heal their scars of war outside our justice system.  That is the least we can do to repay our Veterans' loyalty to us.  

Because of Greg's devotion to our beloved Veterans, Keith was beginning to thrive.  He was regularly attending therapy with other Vets from other eras and learning how to integrate back into civilian life.  I saw a major difference in his coping skills and Keith became positive and hopeful.  We all did.

There is no doubt that Greg goes above and beyond the call of duty as Veteran Coordinator.  I am writing this letter to give other mothers, fathers, and soldiers hope like the hope Greg has given us.  I want these young men, who have fought so bravely for our freedom, to know that when they come home dazed and confused from the fog of war, Greg will never stop fighting for you and your freedom.  My family will forever be indebted to Greg Para for his bravery and his compassion.  Thank you, Greg, from the bottom of our hearts!

Melony F. Howard, MBA, JD
Attorney At Law

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Decline of the Prison Population (Letters to the Editor--New York Times--August 3, 2013)

The news that the prison population in the United States decreased by 1.7 percent in the last year is certainly heartening (news article, July 26), but policy makers and everyday Americans should be aware that it’s possible to achieve even greater incarceration declines without jeopardizing public safety.
Since 2001, New York City’s incarceration rate has plummeted by 32 percent even as the major felony crime rate declined at the same rate. Put simply, the city has proved that you don’t need to lock up more people to achieve safer streets; in fact, with the right set of policies in place, the opposite is true.
How can other jurisdictions achieve similar results? There’s no single solution; it comes down to relying less on incarceration and more on carrying out a data-driven network of programs and policies, including proactive policing, early interventions and community-based programs focused on providing people with the tools and opportunities they need to break the cycle of crime.
New York, July 29, 2013
The writers are, respectively, deputy mayor for health and human services and commissioner of the Department of Probation.

To the Editor:
You quote a criminologist as saying, “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.” In fact, it’s premature to celebrate. The United States remains the world’s largest jailer, with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. Without a national shift away from “tough on crime” policies, it will maintain that title.
While the positive results of a few state reforms are heartening, the data do not reflect a systemic movement to decrease unnecessary incarceration permanently. Just three states — California, Texas and North Carolina — accounted for 84 percent of the 2 percent decline in the national prison population, while federal prison populations continued to grow.
Policy makers nationwide should institute proven, effective reforms — reclassifying petty offenses, reducing harsh sentences and using incarceration as a last resort — to create a meaningful and permanent change to criminal justice policy and end the country’s overreliance on prisons.
New York, July 30, 2013
The writer is director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.

To the Editor:
New York has achieved historic low crime rates while reducing arrests and correction populations. Sentence reform, coupled with smart investments in community-based programs, have made our communities safer and saved taxpayers millions in prison costs. But more needs to be done in New York and across the country if we hope to continue this trend.
Legislation must be enacted giving judges and prosecutors more opportunities to send appropriate defendants to community-based programs instead of prison. Since not everyone is eligible for these programs, it is imperative that we expand prison-based programs that prepare inmates who are returning home.
Finally, community-based and re-entry programs, like those run by the Fortune Society, must be treated as equal partners in the effort to increase public safety. Access to drug treatment, job training and education is often the difference between success and failure for former offenders.
Senior Vice President of Programs
The Fortune Society
Long Island City, Queens, July 29, 2013

To the Editor:
Your article identifies a positive trend, but the United States still has too many prisoners. If more productive spending is truly a priority for Congress, it should restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students.
In 1994, Congress banned Pell Grants for people in prison. As a result, by 1997, the number of college programs in prisons had dropped to 8 from 350.
The benefits of these grants for the incarcerated remain indisputable. Studies show that when prisoners attend college, they don’t commit new crimes or return to prison. Thus, public safety is increased, spending is decreased, and, more important, the lives of people and families are transformed.
New York, July 26, 2013
The writer, a daughter of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the former Rhode Island Democrat and sponsor of the Pell Grant, is a member of the Education From the Inside Out Coalition.