PRISON REFORM


2014:


    Chuck DeVore Testifies Before California's Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review


    Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Vice President of Policy Chuck DeVore testified before California’s Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review on January 30. The committee hearing, chaired by Senator Mark Leno, focused on realignment in California. DeVore presented a clear description of successful Texas’ Criminal Justice Reforms as a set of lessons learned that may be applied to California.

    From 2004–2010, Chuck served in the California State Assembly, during which time he also authored a section of 2007’s AB 900 prison construction bill that calls for 4,000 new beds for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

    The testimony was widely covered by California media, including U-T San Diego, Orange County Register, and OC Weekly. In addition, Chuck conducted multiple radio interviews to reiterate the prison reform successes of Texas and to tell why he believes The Golden State would benefit from following in the footsteps of Right On Crime.

    (Source: Right on Crime | Texas Public Policy Foundation | www.rightoncrime.com |
    900 Congress Ave., suite 400, Austin, TX, 78701 | srumpf@texaspolicy.com


2013:


    News Releases

    Cornyn Introduces Federal Prison Reform Based on the Texas Model

    Dec 09 2013

    WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) issued the following statement after introducing the Federal Prison Reform Act. The bill would increase public safety and reduce prison costs by allowing non-violent, low-risk offenders to complete work, education, skills training, or rehabilitation programs in order to earn up to half of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.

    “Modeled after successful reforms in Texas, this bill will target only non-violent, low-risk offenders to reduce the taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous criminals remain off the streets. By working to reduce the number of repeat-offenders, we can improve safety, as well as costs, for our communities.”

    Summary of the Federal Prison Reform Act:

    •Requires the Department of Justice to use existing funds to develop and implement recidivism reduction programming (drug rehabilitation, education, skills training, work programs, etc.) for 100% of eligible federal prisoners within 5 years. Ineligible prisoners include violent offenders, sex offenders, terrorists, child abusers, human traffickers, and repeat federal offenders.

    •Requires the Attorney General to enter into partnership with non-profit and faith-based organizations to provide many of these programs at little or no cost to the taxpayer.

    •Requires the use of existing resources to develop a federal post-conviction risk assessment tool that uses empirical data to classify all federal prisoners as (1) low-risk of recidivism; (2) medium risk of recidivism; or (3) high risk of recidivism, and allow for regular reassessments of each eligible prisoner over time.

    •Allows prisoners who are classified as low-risk to earn up to 50% of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house, with earned time credit accruing at a rate of 30 days for every 30 days the prisoner is successfully completing recidivism reduction programming.

    •Allows medium-risk and high-risk prisoners to earn time credits at a rate of 30% and 20% while they are successfully completing recidivism reduction programming, but does not allow them to cash in this credit until the risk assessment tool shows that they are a low-risk of recidivating.

    • Reduces the need for new federal prison construction allocation by working to cap and reduce the number of incarcerated offenders by shifting prisoners near the end of their sentence to home confinement.

    See the full S. 1783: Federal Prison Reform Act of 2013 Here.

    Cornyn Introduces Federal Prison Reform Based on the Texas Model


    Oct. 31, 2013

    *Brooke Rollins in Austin American-Statesman: Criminal Justice Reform — Texas Style

    In honor of October serving as Crime Prevention Month, Texas Public Policy Foundation President Brooke Rollins highlights the 'Texas Model' as a successful blueprint for other states, and notes that "Every dollar we save on costly incarceration is a dollar that a Texas family keeps."

    Read The Complete Article by clicking on the link below:
    Criminal Justice Reform — Texas Style


    Aug. 31

    Transforming Texas' Criminal Justice Landscape
    The 2013 Legislature's record for Reforms, many of which take effect Sunday, shows smart thinking beneath our Law-And-Order veneer.

    Texas' law-and-order reputation is well-deserved, deriving from the nation's busiest death chamber and an incarceration rate that towers over nearly every other nation on the planet.

    Yet the state is slowly earning recognition on another level - the smart-on-crime level - where both ends of the political spectrum question the wisdom of warehousing low-level offenders and where individual rights are not smothered by the power of the state.

    This year's Legislature enacted dozens of new laws, most of which take effect Sunday, that help move Texas from an outlier on criminal justice and further into a position of leadership in some areas.

    The reasons are many. An emotional driver is Texas' embarrassment of having freed more innocent prisoners on DNA evidence than any other state. Then there is the emerging liberal-conservative alliance that has made headway in demanding more effective and affordable ways to address crime than keeping jails and prisons stuffed.

    Youth Crime And Punishment

    The left-right alliance was at work this year to plug the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, including one notable bill (SB 393) to limit the criminal citations that police can write in schools. The author, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is a former prosecutor, and the lead House sponsor, Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, is a former judge.

    With other new laws, this legislation helps dismantle the legacy of the zero-tolerance 1990s, when youth lockups and Texas prisons swelled. Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson warned lawmakers that the system is "criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses." He estimated the number of citations written in schools at 300,000 a year, often for misbehavior or rules infractions that teachers or principals once handled.

    Instead of relying on courts and fines to correct behavior, the bill looks to a tiered system of sanctions by school personnel. None other than anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist supported the bill, saying an "after-school detention or two" often gets better results for public dollars than expensive court cases.

    2 recent studies cited the Texas trend away from youth lockups to address juvenile crime. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation co-authored a national report citing Texas as 1 of 9 "Comeback States" that have turned to community treatment and other alternatives to confinement. Last week, a study by the Pew Center on the States cited Texas as 1 of 3 states where reforms have focused money on programs to keep youthful offenders accountable while closing expensive detention centers. Pew pegged the savings in Texas at $50 million a year since 2008.

    Lawmakers were wise to keep this trend alive.

    Innocence

    Home to the nation's 1st watchdog agency on forensic science, Texas is also breaking ground with enactment of a bill (SB 344) that allows a convicted person to reopen a case if he was found guilty based on forensic testimony that is discredited by later advances in science. So-called junk science has been implicated in high-profile Texas cases, including the death sentence carried out against Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, convicted of arson-murder.

    The Texas Forensic Science Commission has stressed the need to re-examine other shaky arson convictions, a process that's moving ahead in cooperation with the State Fire Marshal's Office and the Innocence Project of Texas. Lawmakers also passed a bill (SB 1238) to give the commission wider authority to investigate suspect cases or forensic investigators. The commission has distinguished itself since taking its 1st complaint 5 years ago, and lawmakers were smart to provide more latitude.

    DNA tests would be mandated by another bill (SB 1292) on biological evidence collected in any case in which the state is seeking the death penalty.

    These reforms could be foundational to new chapters in uncovering or preventing miscarriage of justice.

    Individual Rights

    The infamous case of Michael Morton, imprisoned for nearly 25 years for a murder he didn't commit, produced a bipartisan bill named for him (SB 1611). Scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, the Michael Morton Act strengthens and clarifies a suspect's right to evidence held by prosecutors in the case. A related bill (HB 1847), by Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas, a former prosecutor, requires prosecutors to receive training on their duty to turn over evidence that could be favorable to a defendant.

    These bills help guard against innocent people being railroaded by flimsy evidence, as happened in the awful Morton case.

    Money, Incarceration

    Lawmakers also freed up court fees that had previously been collected for an indigent defense account but were held hostage to balance the state budget. The infusion allowed the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to boost its annual formula allocation to counties for public defenders by $15 million, reaching $35 million this year. Well-known as a tough conservative, Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, lobbied hard for those dollars.

    Effective counsel is important not only to prove innocence but to secure an outcome to a case that is appropriate to the crime. With an incarceration rate that's 4th in the nation, and the highest of the mega-states, Texas will spend $3 billion over 2 years on a sprawling prison system that reflects our historic law-and-order streak.

    But change has been afoot. After the prison population crested at nearly 157,000 in 2008, lawmakers began turning to treatment and diversion programs, improved parole and other community-based efforts. In 2011, the state, for the 1st time, closed a prison. With support of business groups, the Legislature earmarked 2 more lockups for closing this year, including the Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas, and beefed up probation and parole programs. The prison population has receded to 150,898 at last count.

    People are noticing. Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder, of all people, cited Texas as a leader in finding antidotes to the national fever for incarceration.

    That doesn't mean the 2013 Legislature couldn't have done more to reform criminal justice. It left important items on the table, such as bills to decriminalize possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs and to reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a fine-only misdemeanor. Another would have created a panel to study court-confirmed exonerations to find more ways of improving the justice system. The time may come for those proposals, and this newspaper is hopeful.

    Texas Prisons still hold more people than the populations of Richardson, Colleyville and Addison combined - with 67,000 more in county jails. It's a relief, at least, that lawmakers seem to realize that enough is indeed enough.

    State Incarceration Rates
    In Prisoners Per 100,000 Population, 2011:

    Top 5 States
    Louisiana: 865
    Mississippi: 690
    Alabama: 650
    Texas: 632
    Oklahoma: 631

    National Average: 492

    Bottom 5 States
    Massachusetts: 206
    New Hampshire: 198
    Rhode Island: 196
    Minnesota: 183
    Maine: 147

    [Source: The Sentencing Project]

    (Source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)


    Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

    ABBY RAPOPORT
    AUGUST 26, 2013

    Attorney General Eric Holder may have brought attention to the problems of prison sentencing, but it's been state legislatures—including staunchly conservatives ones—that have taken the lead in finding solutions.

    In the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise—or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller.

    Not long ago, the lack of a right-wing furor would have been unthinkable. So would Holder’s initiative; criminal-justice reform has long been politically toxic for Democrats as well as Republicans. But in 2013, even with an administration whose policy proposals almost always prompt pushback, Holder’s speech has not raised conservatives’ hackles.

    Probably because at the state level, conservatives and liberals alike have spent years pushing for policies that go even further than Holder’s proposals to reduce incarceration rates.

    Holder’s speech comes after a decade-long push in state legislatures to reduce prison populations that had been swelling for years. In a time of widening partisan policy divides, criminal justice has proven to be one area where Republican and Democratic state legislatures are willing to learn from one another.

    Politicians in Texas have studied plans in Connecticut and others have studied Texas, all examining what policies will produce the desired outcome—fewer people in prison, lower recidivism rates, and safer communities.

    The most popular approach, known as justice reinvestment, starts with acknowledging that throwing every offender into jail for the long term isn’t likely to accomplish much. Instead, judges can rely on sentencing alternatives, like drug rehabilitation and mental health treatment, for low-level and nonviolent convicts. More people—on parole or probation—stay in the community, under close supervision, where they can complete community-service hours and make restitution payments. These programs frequently incentivize good behavior, allowing offenders to earn “good time” that can allow for early release. Each state that takes a justice-reinvestment approach passes slightly different laws, but all are based on data that shows this philosophy of more sentencing flexibility and incentivizing good behavior both lowers the number of people in prison and lowers the recidivism rate.

    The National Council on State Legislatures reports that at least 27 states have enacted some form of reinvestment legislation in the last six years.

    State prison populations have been on the decline for the past three years, even as the federal prison population has continued to grow. The progress shouldn’t be exaggerated: State prisons are still overcrowded, and high incarceration rates are still causing major problems. But criminal-justice reform has become one of the few policy areas where Democrats and Republicans increasingly agree—at least on the state level. It’s been a different story in Washington, where such bridges seemingly cannot be crossed.

    For decades, of course, “tough on crime” laws were all the rage in both statehouses and Congress. Crime rates rose in the 1970s and 1980s, but that hardly explained the rush to throw millions of Americans (disproportionately black) behind bars for ever-longer sentences. Increasingly, Republicans—taking a cue from George Wallace and Richard Nixon—learned to fear-monger their way into office, wooing white, working-class voters by preying on their racial phobias as well as their fear of crime. Most Democratic politicians, lest they be seen as soft, either went along—or, in some cases, embraced—legislation geared toward tougher penalties and longer sentences.

    Between 1978 and 2009, incarceration rates rose dramatically. As crack cocaine became more prevalent—mostly in black and low-income communities—lawmakers passed measures that increased penalties for possessing and selling the drug.

    (Powder cocaine, more popular among whites and the higher-income, carried lighter penalties.) Prison terms got longer as mandatory minimums increasingly prevented judges from softening sentences as they saw fit. States passed “truth in sentencing” measures requiring that offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before coming up for parole. Prisons filled up, new ones got built, and those filled up too.

    By the late 1990s, Attorney General Janet Reno was calling for more programs to help prisoners re-enter society. Crime rates had begun to fall even as the number of people in prison continued to grow. While there’s much debate as to why crime began to drop, the political outcome was clear: Lawmakers could once again talk about solutions that went beyond locking ‘em up, without necessarily suffering political torment.

    Since the political winds began to shift on criminal-justice issues, some of the most influential reforms have come from deep-red states. In 2003, facing budget cuts, the Kansas legislature passed a bill to require treatment or probation for those convicted of nonviolent drug possession for the first or second time and provided nearly $6 million in funding for the program. Four year later, as the prison population began creeping up again, lawmakers noted that a majority of prison admissions came from people who violated their parole and probation. In an effort to target the population, they created a statewide program meant to incentivize counties to keep parolees and those on probation in the community, and to help the offenders to start rebuilding their lives. Prisoners could receive “good time credit”—to accelerate their release—for completing education and treatment programs and counties got money for cutting the number of people sent back to prison for probation or parole violations. Governor Sam Brownback, known for his hard right politics, has championed judicial discretion, allowing municipal judges to give lighter sentences like house arrest for minor crimes and parole violations.

    For many conservatives, this approach made sense. “The one thing prison does really well is incapacitate those that are dangerous,” writes Marc Levin, the director of the conservative incarceration-reform group, Right on Crime, in an email. “Yet, too often states send low-risk, nonviolent offenders to prison for a year or less, which often means any benefit of incapacitation is outweighed by the fact that these offenders are often more of a risk when they leave due to who they encountered behind bars and their ties to family, work, church, and community being severed.” Levin has been a lead voice making the conservative case for prison reform, and Right on Crime has received support from Republicans as diverse as Grover Norquist, Jeb Bush, and Newt Gingrich.

    Shortly after Kansas began instituting some of its reforms, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Texas, the ultimate law-and-order state, began developing a set of policies to decrease the number of people sent to prison for probation violations. After studying laws passed in Kansas and Connecticut, in 2007, the legislature allocated $240 million for in-prison, residential, and outpatient treatment programs geared toward treating substance abuse and mental illness.

    The money also helped to fund local probation and parole supervision, and established maximum caseload numbers for parole officers. While the state still has the nation’s largest prison population, and among the top five incarceration rates, the Texas prison population has fallen to a five-year low. The incarceration rate has dropped by more than 10 percent.

    Since 2007, a number of other states that aren’t exactly run by wide-eyed liberals—Georgia, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Kentucky to name a few—have embraced justice reinvestment to varying degrees. The National Conference for State Legislatures details each state plan in its latest criminal-justice brief.

    Most focus on helping drug offenders—those charged with possession and in some cases low-level dealers—get treatment rather than requiring they serve time, and gives those prisoners with a track record of good behavior opportunities to get out early. Some parole-violators now face penalties other than re-imprisonment.

    In several states, “truth in sentencing” laws have been amended, so that prisoners can come up for parole earlier. Many states now offer nonviolent probationers methods for getting time off their sentence if they successfully hold a job, complete a treatment program, or get a degree. Specialty courts, like drug courts, take an almost rehab-like approach, as those convicted come in regularly for drug testing and receive praise for accomplishments (or swift but short punishments for violations.)

    But the new political atmosphere hasn’t undone the decades of harshly punitive policies. After decades of sweeping laws that put millions away longer and longer for nonviolent crimes, these new reforms are only a beginning. And plenty of states are only just catching on.

    In California, it took a court order to get lawmakers serious about reducing the prison population. The four-year-old order, demanding that the state reduce its horribly overcrowded prison population by 30,000, has resulted in some significant changes. The state has allowed a number of offenders to remain at the county level, rather than entering the state prison system. While for some, that’s simply meant time in county jails rather than prison, others have a greater chance to enter treatment programs or re-enter the community under supervision. The state has distributed $220 million over three years to counties that have successfully decreased the number of people going to prison for probation violations. But California has balked at releasing prisoners, and Democratic Governor Jerry Brown asked the court for an extension, which it denied. The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently lambasted state leaders, noting through “crowding and foolish management” the prisons actually make people more likely to offend again after release. “California leaders and lawmakers knew they had to rationalize sentencing and redirect more funding from punishment to reentry, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation,” the editorial read. But until the pressure of the court order, lawmakers didn’t make reforms because “it would have meant moving away from the fear-based and politically lucrative method of sentencing and incarcerating headline by headline, statute by statute, initiative by initiative.”

    It’s not just California. Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida vetoed a bill in 2012 to allow nonviolent offenders to get substance abuse treatment, arguing it could mean some prisoners might not serve the mandatory 85 percent of their sentences. (A recent piece in the Miami Herald documented the state’s struggle to make criminal-justice reforms.) Arkansas is struggling to find prison beds after a set of new mandates resulted in more parolees going to prison. Similarly in Arizona, the state has 37,000 permanent beds for over 41,000 prisoners. The rest sleep on temporary beds stuck in random places, like tents and day rooms.

    Even among those states making reforms, the new policies don’t immediately reverse years of lock-up mentality.

    Texas may have reduced its prison population, but it still has one of the top four incarceration rates in the country. And while the national prison population is decreasing, just three states—California, North Carolina, and Texas—account, combined, for more than 80 percent of the decline.

    Holder’s announcement helped mark a turn at the federal level, showing policymakers can take a public stance for prison reform without getting tarred and feathered. But without legislative action, any change coming from Attorney General Holder’s new initiative may be temporary one, only lasting until another administration comes in. Prior to the Republicans winning the House, Congress did pass the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the sentencing gaps between crack and cocaine. Since then, however, there’s been little movement. The Senate currently has two bills, both with bipartisan sponsorship, that would both decrease mandatory minimum sentencing. But given the glacial pace of lawmaking in Washington, it will still likely fall to the states to continue shifting the rhetoric around criminal justice and slowly undoing decades of failed “lock-em-up” policies.

    Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?


    Prison Reform

    An Unlikely Alliance Of Left And Right


    America Is Waking Up To The Cost Of Mass Incarceration

    Aug 17th 2013
    ATLANTA

    ERIC HOLDER and Rick Perry (pictured) have little in common. America’s attorney-general is black, liberal and uses the word “community” a lot. The governor of Texas is white, conservative and says “God” a lot. Last month Mr Holder’s Justice Department sued Texas for allegedly trying to make it harder for blacks to vote. Last year Mr Perry ran to unseat Mr Holder’s boss, Barack Obama.

    On one thing, however, the two men agree. On August 12th Mr Holder said: “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law-enforcement reason.” He then unveiled reforms to reduce the number of people sent to America’s overcrowded federal prisons. In this, he was following the perfectly-coiffed Texan’s lead. Several years ago, Mr Perry enacted similar reforms in the Lone Star State, and they worked.

    America has the world’s largest prison population. China, which has more than four times as many people and nobody’s idea of a lenient judiciary, comes a distant second. One in 107 American adults was behind bars in 2011—the highest rate in the world—and one in every 34 was under “correctional supervision” (either locked up or on probation or parole). A black man in America is 3.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than a black man in 1993 in South Africa, just before apartheid ended.

    Granted, the number of Americans under lock and key has fallen since 2008, but only from 2.31m to 2.24m. And that slight dip comes after a mammoth rise: between 1980 and 2008, the number of incarcerated Americans more than tripled.

    In the federal prison system, for which Mr Holder is responsible, the rise has been even more dramatic (see chart). From the 1940s to the early 1980s the federal prison population remained relatively stable, at around 24,000. But then came the crack epidemic, to which Congress responded with mandatory-minimum sentences.

    A first-time offender convicted of possessing five grams of crack, for instance, received a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years. Conviction as part of a “continuing criminal enterprise” triggered a 20-year mandatory-minimum. Conspiracy laws made all members of a drug operation legally liable for all the operation’s crimes: a youngster whom drug dealers paid a few dollars a day to act as a lookout, for instance, could be hit with the same stiff penalties as his bosses. In 1994 Congress introduced a “safety-valve”, which allowed judges to ignore mandatory minimums for certain non-violent informants, but its stringent terms disqualify most people convicted of drug-related offences.

    Drug offenders are nearly half of all federal prisoners, and most people convicted of federal drug offences received mandatory-minimum sentences. Since 1980 the federal prison population has soared from 24,000 to 219,000; between 1980 and 2013 the federal Bureau of Prisons budget rose by almost 600% in real terms. Federal prisons today house nearly 40% more inmates than they were designed for. Meanwhile, America’s violent-crime rate is less than one-third what it was in 1982, and less than half what it was in 1997.

    Some argue that prison works. The reason crime has fallen so sharply, they say, is that bad guys who are locked up cannot mug you. This is true, but America long ago passed the point where imprisoning more people is a cost-effective way of reducing crime. Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University find “accelerating declining marginal returns” to incarceration in America. In other words, locking up violent criminals while they are young, strong and reckless does indeed keep the streets safer, but keeping them locked up deep into their dotage costs a fortune and prevents very few crimes.

    It is also unfair. Harsh, inflexible sentencing rules inflict punishments that no reasonable judge would impose. Jack Carpenter, for example, sold medical marijuana to dispensaries in California, where it is legal, but was still sentenced to ten years in prison by a federal judge.

    The high cost of mass incarceration has attracted attention from both left and right. In March Rand Paul, a Republican senator, and Patrick Leahy, a Democratic one, introduced the Justice Safety-Valve Act of 2013, which would let judges impose sentences below the mandatory minimum. In July Mr Leahy, along with Dick Durbin and Mike Lee, a Democrat from Illinois and a Republican from Utah, introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013. It would, among other things, shorten mandatory minimums and expand the safety-valve.

    And this week, in a speech before the American Bar Association, Mr Holder announced a clutch of reforms. More elderly federal inmates are to be released early. More effort will be made to help ex-convicts re-enter society, in the hope that this will curb re-offending. Pointless rules making it harder for ex-cons to find homes or jobs will be reconsidered. And most important, low-level, non-violent drug offenders without ties to gangs or cartels will no longer be charged with crimes that trigger mandatory minimums.

    Texas won’t hold ’em

    As Mr Holder noted, these policy shifts mirror similar ones that more than half of all American states have enacted over the past decade. The wave began with Texas—then as now led by Mr Perry—which in 2003 passed a law sending people convicted of possessing less than a gram of drugs to probation rather than prison. In 2007 Texas allocated $241m for drug-treatment and alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. Between 2003 and 2011 violent crime in Texas fell by 14.2%. The state’s prison population has also declined steadily.

    Sentencing reform passed in Georgia—where one in 13 adults is imprisoned, on probation or on parole—will save the state an estimated $264m over the next five years. Kentucky’s is forecast to save the state $400m while reducing its prison population by 3,000 over the next ten years.

    It is not clear how many sentences Mr Holder’s reforms will shorten or how much money they will save. Although the federal prison system is larger than that of any single state, it holds only 10% of American prisoners. Mr Holder has not changed any sentencing laws; he has ordered federal prosecutors to circumvent them. Some people object: Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, chided Mr Holder for “selectively enforcing our laws and attempting to change them through executive fiat”.

    Others say Mr Holder has simply exercised his prosecutorial discretion humanely. Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a pressure group, says that after years of campaigning against discretion-free mandatory sentences, it feels at last as though her group is “pushing against an open door”. And “open door” is not a phrase you often hear in the same breath as “American prisons”.

    America Is Waking Up To The Cost Of Mass Incarceration


    Panelists Introduce High-Tech Prison Reform at SXSW

    Published 12 March, 2013
    The Takeaway

    Panelists in the 'Breaking Out of Prison session at
    South By Southwest discussed alternative ideas for
    incarcerating low-level criminals.
    (Photo by Alex Nabaum for Deloitte.)

    A group of panelists at this year's South by Southwest interactive media conference in Austin, Texas, presented an idea to improve the U.S. prison system with smart phone technology. One of the attendees says the idea could reduce the levels of recidivism among low-level criminals.

    Creative minds and innovators gathered at the South by Southwest interactive conference in Austin, Texas, this weekend.

    Among the literally hundreds of sessions and presentations was one narrowly focused on how prisons can use digital technology to reduce recidivism.

    The consulting firm, Deloitte, and its think-tank, GovLab, led a discussion on alternatives to the brick-and-mortar prisons low-level criminals are sent to. Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC radio's New Tech City said two consultants from Deloitte suggested the U.S. keep low-level criminals out of prison, using smart phone technology.

    Kara Shuler, senior consultant for Deloitte, suggested "virtual incarcerations," where nonviolent, low-level offenders are taken out of prison cells with support and monitoring that keeps both the community and the offender safe.

    Nonviolent, low-level offenders cost as much as other prisoners, or more, because spending time in prison can put them at risk for committing worse crime in the future. In New Jersey, it costs more to keep someone in prison for a year than it would to send them to Princeton University, Zomorodi said.

    The SXSW panelist told the story of an inmante named Frank, who was charged with marijuana possession.

    Rather than give Frank a prison sentence, he could be virtually incarcerated, receiving badges or points via a smart phone for accomplishments like keeping a job and making it to his counseling sessions, Zomorodi said.

    When a court determines a low-level criminal is a good candidate for the smart phone program, they would be equipped with an ankle-monitoring device to track them with GPS, and given a locked smartphone with specific apps related to their needs, Shuler said.

    "Frank's app might be Breathalyze, an app that detects the eye movements in the camera on your phone," she said.

    The app would also allow Frank to meet with his parole officer via FaceTime on his phone, Zomorodi said.

    Also on the panel was John Vanyur, former assistant director of the correctional programs division for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

    Vanyur says in the area of prison reform, there's currently a focus on reducing sentencing, decreasing incarceration for nonviolent offenders, and a stronger emphasis on community supervision. But there hasn't been a large commitment at a state or federal level to create an alternative to physical prisons.

    But the panelists say virtual incarceration would reduce recidivism, because people would feel like they're part of a community if they're home, rather than in prison, Zomorodi said.

    "The United States has 25 percent of the world's prison population, but only five percent of the population in general," Shuler said. "Economic times are really difficult for states, so they need to look outside of the box and find different ways of using technology that's already out there and putting them together."
    -----------------------------------------------
    "The Takeaway" is a national midday news magazine that features unique conversations about topics of the day with both newsmakers and diverse voices.
    The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH Radio Boston.

    Panelists Introduce High-Tech Prison Reform at SXSW


    Feb. 2, 2013

    LEGISLATIVE OVERVIEW

    Lawmakers Must Continue Criminal Justice Reforms


    Photo By: Rodolfo Gonzalez
    An empty wing of the Central State
    prison farm in Sugar Land in January.
    The prison was slated to close in 2011
    as the state tries to save on criminal
    justice expenses. But parts of it still
    operate.

    Marc Levin

    By Marc Levin

    There’s plenty of good news on criminal justice in Texas, but now is not the time to stop the presses. Instead, Texas lawmakers must build on recent achievements that have enabled Texas to realize its lowest crime rate since 1973 and a double-digit percent drop in both the state’s crime and incarceration rates since 2005. By better aligning policies with research, policymakers can continue the progress in driving down the crime rate without being too tough on taxpayers.

    Building on recent successes requires understanding the factors that contributed to it. Two key budgetary strategies adopted in 2005 and 2007 enabled Texas to avoid building more than 17,000 new prison beds, which the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) had projected would be needed by 2012. Such beds would have cost $2 billion to build and operate over five years.

    The first strategy involved appropriating $55 million in 2005 for probation departments that agreed to seek a 10 percent reduction in the number of probationers returned to prison, and that agreed to implement graduated sanctions. Such sanctions involve imposing issuing swift, sure and commensurate measures (more required meetings, extended probation terms, electronic monitoring and weekends in jail, for example) for rules violations such as missed appointments, rather than letting them pile up and then revoking that probationer to prison. Most of the funding went toward reducing caseloads, which facilitated closer supervision and the consistent application of both sanctions and incentives. Participating probation departments have reduced revocations, avoiding $226 million in incarceration costs.

    The second strategy was the 2007 appropriation of $241 million for prison alternatives. This included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts, and substance abuse and mental illness treatment slots. Capacity was also created to clear the backlog of parolees not being released because of waiting lists for in-prison treatment programs that must be completed as a condition of release, and for halfway houses (paroled inmates cannot be released without a valid home plan). The 2008-09 budget added about 7,000 beds, including treatment beds for diverting probationers and parolees from prison, halfway house beds and mental health pretrial diversion beds, as well as 3,000 outpatient drug treatment slots, all of which were maintained in subsequent budgets.

    Given that nearly all felonies in Texas can result in either probation or prison, the recent drop in nonviolent offenders directly sentenced to prison may reflect the confidence that judges, juries and prosecutors have in the effectiveness of probation. Also, probation and parole revocations together account for approximately half of the annual prison intakes, and both have declined over the last several years as supervision has been strengthened.

    Parole offices have expanded the use of graduated sanctions, implemented instant drug testing, and hired chaplains who connect willing parolees with local religious congregations. Thus, despite there being more parolees, the number of new crimes committed by parolees has declined 11.9 percent since 2007, contributing to a sharp reduction in parole revocations.

    The first step in sustaining and continuing these gains is to ensure that the upcoming budget prioritizes proven community corrections approaches that hold offenders accountable and put them on the right track at a fraction of the cost of prison. Consider that in Texas probation costs less than $3 a day, with half of that paid for by offender fees, while prison is more than $50 per day. Even if a more intensive community corrections approach like a problem-solving court or GPS is needed to safely supervise certain offenders, the cost is still a fifth of prison. Fortunately, the Texas prison population has declined from its high of nearly 156,000 just a few years ago to 151,191 as of the end of the 2012, some 4,384 fewer beds than the system’s operating capacity. Accordingly, legislators should budget for closing additional prisons and reinvest some of the savings in the proven approaches that have contributed to this surplus of beds and simultaneous drop in crime.

    Lawmakers can do even more in the next budget by implementing Senate Bill 1055, which was unanimously enacted last session. This measure authorizes counties to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the state to reduce prison commitments of low-level offenders whereby the community receives a share of the state’s savings on lower prison costs, partly based on the county’s performance in reducing probationers’ recidivism rate and increasing the share of probationers who are current on their victim restitution. The next budget should implement SB 1055 by reallocating to participating counties some of the savings from prison closures achieved through the implementation of the local commitment reduction plans described in the legislation. In 2010 — the first fiscal year of Texas’ Juvenile Commitment Reduction Program — juvenile commitments to state lockups fell 36 percent, saving taxpayers at least $114 million, while juvenile crime continued to decline. Senate Bill 1055 provides that counties can use the share of the state’s savings that they receive for community-based programs, which include problem-solving courts, specialized probation caseloads, electronic monitoring and short-term use of the county jail to promote compliance.

    Legislators should also establish a presumption of probation with mandatory treatment for first-time drug offenders who possessed less than 4 grams — about one-seventh of an ounce — of the outlawed substance. One version of this is Senate Bill 90. Those convicted of drug delivery are excluded, as are drug possession offenders who had a previous conviction for any other offense beyond a traffic violation.

    The judge would determine whether the offender would go to a residential facility, which could be the state’s six month secure Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities (SAFPFs), or day treatment, or a combination of both. If “three hots and a cot” is tough on crime, is it not tough on crime to force a drug addict to be in a program where he is tested regularly and must attend treatment and cover the cost to the extent possible, hold a job, pay child support and face jail time for repeated failures to comply?

    Under this proposal, such an offender could still be initially imprisoned upon a documented judicial finding of danger to the community. Moreover, those who fail to comply face revocation to prison for up to 10 years. The LBB estimated this approach would save $500 million over five years, even considering the additional probation and drug treatment costs incurred.

    Policymakers must also overhaul the state jail system, which houses those with offenses such as possessing less than a gram of drugs, writing hot checks and prostitution. It is plagued by a 60 percent recidivism rate, significantly higher than the recidivism rate of prisons that hold more serious offenders. To achieve better results, the law should be amended to return to the original model where state jail time must be a condition of probation. Accordingly, instead of being discharged without supervision after serving an average of eight months, state jail inmates would go on probation, where they would report to an officer, take drug tests and be required to attend mental health and substance abuse treatment and hold a job, while also being eligible for resources that promote reintegration into society.

    Another priority is legislation allowing prosecutors to refer certain cases to victim-offender conferencing. Consider if an 8-year-old in your neighborhood stole something out of your garage. Rather than go through months of a protracted legal process, you as the victim could choose this restorative approach which typically involves the offender taking responsibility for his conduct, making an apology, providing monetary and/or service restitution and performing community service. The defendant must also choose conferencing, as he waives his right to trial and appeal. Some 89 percent agreements are met, but if not, the case is prosecuted. Research shows this approach increases restitution collections, enhances victim satisfaction and reduces recidivism, as offenders come to understand they did not just violate the words of a statute but hurt other individuals. It also conserves judicial, prosecutorial and indigent defense resources.

    Furthermore, lawmakers must continue recent progress in driving down both the juvenile crime rate and the number of youths in state lockups. This requires prioritizing funding for the Commitment Reduction Program through which counties have implemented evidence-based approaches that involve juvenile probation officers and treatment personnel coming into the home to strengthen the family’s capacity for providing discipline.

    Furthermore, it’s time to overhaul ineffective zero-tolerance policies that unnecessarily remove students from school and funnel many of them into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Each year, hundreds of thousands of students are issued criminal citations and sent to municipal courts for such routine misbehavior as making “unreasonable noise,” even though such citations don’t improve behavior. Further, under zero-tolerance policies, a principal has no choice but to suspend a high school student with an empty beer can in his car within 300 feet of the campus. Policymakers must administer a dose of common sense and local discretion to remedy these flawed policies.

    Additionally, let’s rein in the number and scope of the state’s 1,700 criminal offenses, and avoid adding yet more superfluous crimes. Some 1,500 of these offenses are outside of the Penal Code where the traditional crimes are found.

    Most of these relate to ordinary business activities. For example, Texas has 11 felonies concerning the harvesting of oysters. In a January report, the LBB recommended that the Legislature create a sentencing commission that would regularly review the voluminous criminal laws to identify those that are unnecessary and ensure that penalties for those that are needed are commensurate with the relative gravity of the conduct. The recommendations of the commission, which would include key stakeholders such as judges, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers and victims’ advocates, would then go to the Legislature.

    Unfortunately, without such a mechanism to regularly review a body of criminal laws too vast and complex to be comprehensively examined during the fast-moving legislative session, we will be stuck on auto-pilot in the grow-government mode as the Legislature adds an average of 39 new offenses each session and dozens more penalty enhancements without repealing or reining in any laws.

    We also recommend adoption of the rule of lenity. This approach to interpreting criminal laws specifies that, if it is unclear whether the conduct at issue is clearly prohibited, the benefit of the doubt goes to the defendant. This concept is consistent with the conservative emphasis on strictly interpreting the law as well as the traditional formulation that a crime consists of a guilty mind combined with a bad act. To have a guilty mind, or mens rea, a person must have had fair warning that their conduct was criminal. If a statute is unclear, it by definition does not provide that fair warning.

    These recommendations flow from the fundamental principles of limited government and personal responsibility and the need for policymakers to apply the same scrutiny to criminal laws and spending on corrections as other policy areas.

    Public safety is one of the few core roles of government, but let’s distinguish between those offenders we are afraid of and those we are simply mad at. Texas has made remarkable progress over the last several years in reducing both crime and incarceration, and there is plenty more to be done this session to take a few more bites out of crime and a few less dollars out of taxpayers.

    Marc Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the policy director of its Right on Crime initiative. He can be reached at mlevin@texaspolicy.com.

    Agenda for Texas:
    This is the latest in an occasional series in Insight & Books focusing on priorities for the Legislature.

    Lawmakers Must Continue Criminal Justice Reforms


2012:


    Oct. 22, 2012

    Martin: Texas prison system could use real reform

    By Steve J. Martin

    As the 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature approaches, Texas prisons are filled to the brim, and I am reminded of William Faulkner’s prescient words in “Intruder in the Dust” about an African-American unjustly accused of murder: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. In 1990 and 2000, I penned Statesman commentary pieces on the rates of incarceration in Texas, particularly for African-American males. Fast-forward another decade and I find myself tilting at the same windmill.

    At a recent conference at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, a state representative was touting Texas’ criminal justice system as a model for reform. I question the validity of that assertion and suggest that an alternative view of what constitutes reform is sorely needed. Here are some performance measures on Texas’ social justice institutions:

    •Texas incarcerates the greatest number of persons in the U.S. but is dead last in the percentage of persons who graduate from high school.
    •Texas has 75,000 inmates incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a number that exceeds the prison populations of all but one state.
    •Texas prisons hold more people with mental illness than our state mental health institutions have patients.
    • Texas continues to incarcerate almost twice as many African-American males as are enrolled in the state’s public universities.

    The monolithic prison system we have created is unsustainable, and real reform will require a radical change in how we administer our social justice institutions.

    Texans must acknowledge the serious and pervasive inequities in our present system. These inequities can be attributed to one simple fact: We have too many Texans locked-up — especially minorities who comprise nearly 70 percent of the total prison population.

    What would constitute real reform of our criminal justice system? I draw on two state systems with which I am familiar. In the past six years, California has reduced its prison population by 50,000 by “realigning” its criminal justice system and shifting the burden of managing low-level offenders from state prisons to local communities. California is now spending $800 million less on its prisoners than it did two years ago without compromising public safety and without an increase in crime rates. Ohio’s Department of Youth Services has reduced its juvenile offender population by two-thirds since 2009, by developing an extensive network of services delivered locally rather than in penal settings. Consider for a moment the potential impact if Texas pursued similar reforms.

    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a sizable array of alternatives to expensive prisons beds, but these are sorely underfunded. In the department’s current appropriations request, funding for community supervision and diversionary programs is less than 10 percent of the $6 billion total. The department has requested more money for fleet vehicle replacements than for treatment alternatives to incarceration. The agency has also requested more than twice the amount of money for computers than it has requested for providing services to parolees with serious mental health issues, even though such services have proven effective in reducing the rate of recidivism for such offenders.

    Rather than spend our dollars to manage those who run afoul of the law, session after session elected officials simply follow the well-trodden path of supporting a monolithic system whose top-heavy administrative costs have subverted its primary mission to provide public safety and promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime. It is absurd to under-fund a proven and cost-effective program to reintegrate offenders, when the program constitutes an infinitesimal fraction of the budget. That the department is willing to spend $37 million to replace fleet vehicles and obsolete computers but requests only $6 million to provide needed services for inmates being released into our communities with serious mental illnesses constitutes a brazen violation of its goal to provide supervision and administer the range of options and sanctions available for felons reintegration back into society following release from confinement.

    It is frightening to me, both as a citizen and criminal justice professional, that elected representatives can repeatedly approve massive expenditures that perpetuate inequities that run counter to basic principles of social justice.

    Until there is widespread acknowledgment that these inequities exist, public officials cannot begin to engage in responsible debate to address them. Albert Einstein said that “if you want to solve a problem, you cannot solve it if you continue to think the same way you were thinking when you created it.”

    Martin: Texas prison system could use real reform


    THE NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT:

      SUMMARY

      The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011 will create a blue-ribbon commissioncharged with undertaking an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system. Itstask will be to propose concrete, wide-ranging reforms to address the most pressing issues facing the nation’s criminal justice system

      .WHY THIS LEGISLATION IS URGENTLY NEEDED

      The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. With five per cent of the world’s population, our country now houses twenty - five percent of the world’s reported prisoners. More than 2.3 million Americans are now in prison, and another 5 million remain on probation or parole.

      Our prison population has skyrocketed over the past two decades as we have incarcerated more people for non-violent crimes and acts driven by mental illness or drug dependence.

      The costs to our federal, state, and local governments of keeping repeat offenders in the criminal justice system continue to grow during a time of increasingly tight budgets.

      Existing practices too often incarcerate people who do not belong in prison, taking resources away from locking up high-risk, violent offenders who are a threat to our communities.

      Transnational criminal activity, much of it directed by violent gangs and cartels from Latin America, Asia and Europe, has permeated the country. Mexican cartels alone now operate in more than 230 communities across the country.

      Incarceration for drug crimes has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities, despite virtually identical levels of drug use across racial and ethnic lines.

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

      LEGISLATION: REVIEW AND RECOMMENDATIONS

      The Commission shall undertake a comprehensive review of all areas of the criminal justice system, including Federal, State, local, and tribal governments’ criminal justice costs, practices, and policies. After conducting its review, the Commission shall make recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.

      Please help by calling or e-mailing Senators Cornyn and Hutchison and asking them to co-sponsor the National Criminal Justice Commssion Act!

      ACTION NEEDED: Call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 1-202-224-3121, and ask to be connected to Senator Cornyn’s office, and then Senator Hutchison’s office.

      When connected to each office, please ask the Senator to co-sponsor S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.

      E-Mail Senator Cornyn HERE.
      E-Mail Senator Hutchison HERE.

      MESSAGE:

      I am requesting [Senator Cornyn or Senator Hutchison] to cosponsor S. 306, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, because:

      Having a transparent and bipartisan Commission review and identify effective criminal justice policies would increase public safety.

      As we found in Texas, the wrongfully convicted often end up languishing in our prisons for decades, robbed of their lives and freedom while the real perpetrators of crime go free and commonsense reforms could help prevent this.

      The proposed commission would conduct a comprehensive national review not audits of individual state systems and would issue recommendations not mandates for consideration.


      Sunset Commission Sets the Tone for Criminal Justice Reforms in 2013

      June 8th, 2012
      Posted in Criminal Law Reform, Prison Reform, Texas Legislature
      By Kate Vickery
      Policy Intern

      The last time that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was up for Sunset review, the prison system in Texas was bursting at the seams. Today, thanks to some positive reforms during the 2007 session, adult incarceration rates have leveled out. The state has a long way to go to make a real improvement in our chronic over-incarceration problem, but thanks to the advocacy of groups like the ACLU of Texas, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Civil Rights Project, and many others, reforms are starting to be made.

      All of these groups were in attendance for the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing on June 5, 2012 at the Capitol. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Board of Pardons and Paroles,Windham School District, and Correctional Managed Health Care Committee are under review by the Sunset Advisory Commission.

      Our Policy Strategist Matt Simpson and I attended to give the ACLU of Texas’ testimony on a number of issues that are currently not included in the Sunset Commission’s recommendations. It is important to start the conversation on these important issues because the Sunset process often sets the stage for the legislative priorities for the next session, which will begin in January.

      The ACLU of Texas is particularly interested in:
      • Increasing the use of parole/probation, especially medical parole;
      • Decreasing the use of administrative segregation (solitary confinement);
      • Improving the treatment of and services for youth certified as adults;
      • And creating more independent oversight mechanisms for TDCJ.

      We were pleasantly surprised by the support for reform of the Medically Recommended Intensive Supervision (MRIS) program. MRIS is a mechanism for releasing elderly (Texas’ oldest inmate is currently 90), and mentally and terminally ill individuals who are not a risk to public safety. Currently, the sickest inmates can cost the state up to $1 million per year each for health care while posing no public safety threat. Senator Whitmire called for lawmakers to make a “tough vote” for a bill that would make it easier to release these individuals, underscoring that this likely will be an uphill political battle.

      Medical release was one of many issues discussed throughout the day and it was inspiring to hear the testimony of the agencies dedicated to criminal justice reform and the powerful stories of family members of incarcerated individuals.

      To download the full Sunset Commission staff report and recommendations for all four agencies, go Here.

      You can watch the full video of the hearing Here.

      Sunset Commission Sets the Tone for Criminal Justice Reforms in 2013


      Need to Know: Texas Justice

      By Karen Brazell
      March 30, 2012

      While it’s known for its high number of executions, Texas is taking the lead on an innovative treatment plan to keep former prisoners from committing new crimes. The goal is to build fewer prisons and, by some accounts, has already saved the state billions. Anchor Jeff Greenfield interviews Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States about how lawmakers in other states are embracing prison reform to reduce costs.

      Watch Fri., March 30, 2012 on PBS. See more from Need to Know.


    2011:


      DECEMBER 05, 2011

      TDCJ adds 2,000 beds as agency deals with consequences of budget cuts without policy reform

      At the Austin Statesman, Mike Ward has a piece today ("Prison cuts prove fleeting") on the predictable outcome from reducing incarceration budgets without simultaneously enacting policies to reduce the number of prisoners locked up.

      The story opens:
      Last summer, when tough-on-crime Texas closed its first prison ever, legislative leaders were jubilant over downsizing one of the nation's largest corrections systems by more than 1,000 beds. It was a first big step, they said, toward saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in coming years.

      Meanwhile, prison officials were adding bunks to the other 111 state prisons, which house more than 156,000 convicts. By last week, Texas had about 2,000 more prison bunks than it did a year ago, thanks to a state law that requires the prison system to maintain some excess capacity as a cushion against crowding.

      Because those beds will likely fill up — empty prison beds almost always do — Texas taxpayers could be in line for some whopping additional costs come 2013.

      At least TDCJ didn't add additional beds by contracting with private prisons, which was an option the Lege had left open. But cuts to probation programming made it all but inevitable that recent reductions in the incarceration rate won't be replicated over the next biennium. Even the Legislative Budget Board predicts (pdf) the number of Texas prisoners will rise beyond capacity before the 83rd session in 2013.

      The problem, as regular Grits readers are well aware, is that the state incarcerates too many people for penny ante offenses. Virtually nothing is a misdemeanor anymore. Everything is a felony, or else somebody, somewhere thinks it should be.

      As Ward's sources put it:
      "This is the adult discussion that the Legislature is going to have to have," said Scott Medlock, an Austin attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Ultimately, the problem is that we're incarcerating too many people for too long."

      State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who for more than a decade has headed the committee that oversees prisons, echoes the sentiment:

      "At some point, because of the costs, we have to recognize that we don't need to waste one dollar incarcerating one person that doesn't really need to be behind bars. We're at that point."

      To significantly reduce the number of people in prison, state laws could be changed to reduce penalties for some crimes or to limit local judges' discretion to mete out long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes — both of which would be unpopular politically.

      I'm actually not sure it's true those things "would be unpopular politically." That's an assumption among the political class, but given the bipartisan tuff-on-crime consensus it's a largely untested one, and recent polling doesn't support it. In a Texas Tribune poll last year, 66% of respondents placed prisons last when asked to rank budget items based on "how important it is to you that their current funding levels are preserved." In the same poll, just 2% of Texans ranked "crime and drugs" as their top priority.

      We can see empirically that the "tuff on crime" hammer is losing some of its heft. At the Lege, few critics besides police unions and prosecutors oppose reform bills: Most of the public input legislators receive on reform legislation is supportive, including from traditionally conservative groups. The smart-on-crime approach also dovetails nicely with the desire among movement conservatives to cut the budget: "There's nothing the state can do to limit its costs (for prisons) if we keep sending more and more people to prison, if we keep expanding the capacity," Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told the paper.

      You can further see via election outcomes that "soft on crime" accusations are losing their political potency. After GOP House Corrections Committee Chairmen Ray Allen and Jerry Madden, consecutively, passed reform legislation to reduce incarceration rates, both were challenged by opponents who tried to label them soft on crime because of reform bills they passed, but both were able to win reelection. (In the interest of full disclosure: I helped Allen's campaign with opposition research in that 2004 race, one of my last clients as a professional opposition researcher.) Governor Perry has endorsed radical cuts to the prison budget and signed a raft of reform legislation that would make a Massachusetts liberal blush, but none of that has hurt him at all (his problems lie in other areas). And Newt Gingrich, the current leader in GOP primary polling, has backtracked from earlier views to endorse the Right on Crime campaign, whose guiding principles call for downsizing the justice system. (I'd love to see somebody ask him about that in a campaign debate.)

      So why should we assume that smart-on-crime incarceration reforms will be "unpopular politically"? What spotty evidence we have, IMO, points in the other direction.

      There are many different ways to reduce prion numbers, but Ward identified a few being seriously discussed behind the scenes:
      Among other budget-savings proposals being pushed:

      • Parole to their home countries some of the 8,000 nonviolent criminals who are not U.S. citizens, a plan that was enacted into law last spring but has yet to see significant results.

      • Allow counties to benefit financially for sending fewer convicts to state prison, through new state funding for local corrections programs that advocates insist would be less costly for taxpayers — and probably more effective in cutting recidivism. A bill to do this died in the Legislature last spring.

      • Reform sentencing laws, and limit the amount of prison time a judge can give some nonviolent offenders. Past proposals for sentencing guidelines have died in previous legislative sessions amid opposition from elected judges and prosecutors who say it would illegally limit their authority to dispense justice based on community mores.

      While more than a dozen other states have recently enacted or are seriously considering such changes, legislative leaders say they are not sure Texas is quite ready to go along.

      Again, I don't see why not. It's true that the Texas Senate this year was a killing field for reform legislation, while the session before quite a few reform bills died because of "chubbing" in the House over voter ID. And it's equally true that police unions and prosecutors carry disproportionate weight in the process. Not to mention, the task becomes more difficult from losing long-time reform champions like Jerry Madden, Pete Gallego, and Scott Hochberg from the Lege.

      But desperate times call for desperate measures and if this is the only way to cut the budget, will all the new Tea-Party aligned conservatives really vote against it? Debates over TDCJ's budget are fundamentally constrained by reality in a way that election rhetoric is decidedly not. You can't reduce health care funding by 9 figures without reducing the number of patients served. Reducing food budgets at a time when food costs are rising requires reducing quantity, quality or else the number of people eating. Cuts to diversion programs that cost a few dollars per day don't (or shouldn't) count as savings when they result in more revocations to prison for probationers and parolees, boosting their (average) cost to $44 per day. These are immutable facts. When a judge or jury sends a prisoner to TDCJ - until they serve their full sentence or are released by the parole board - they must be fed, clothed and supervised. When they are sick they must receive healthcare. When they are elderly and disabled they receive the equivalent of nursing-home care. Those things cost money.

      We have passed the point where TDCJ can find savings by cutting "waste." The only way to reduce the budget further is to change policies. But for whatever reason, in 2011 that wasn't seriously on the table. As described by a Grits headline summing up the session: "Texas budget ditches 'smart on crime' approach, reverting to old priorities."

      It should be mentioned that the list of suggestions offered by Ward for reducing the inmate population is far from exhaustive. Grits can imagine many other ways not suggested in the story:

      Index property offense thresholds to inflation
      Ratchet down drug offenses by one category across the board
      Relieve the parole board of discretion to disregard earned-time credits
      Boost funding for state hospitals, community-based mental health treatment
      Reform 'fiscal note' process to reflect actual cost of new crimes, enhancements in state budget
      Boost parole release rates at the margins for low-risk offenders
      Give credit for time supervised on parole on certain offenses
      Repeal post-'93 "boutique" enhancements passed on behalf of special interests
      Enact a moratorium, explicit or de facto, on creating new crimes or "enhancing" existing ones
      Expand use of medical parole for elderly, sick inmates who pose little threat
      Spend at least 1% of juvenile justice funding on programs for at-risk youth
      Require inmates set to be released on “flat discharge” for serving their entire sentence to be placed in a community-based, supervised program for nine months to decrease their likelihood of recidivating
      Expand mandatory probation for first-offense drug felony to 1-4 grams of a controlled substance
      Expand and for some offenders mandate use of intermediate sanctions
      Cap time in prison for property and drug offenders revoked on technical violations to no longer than 12 months
      Reward successful probationers with early termination of probation or dismissal of their case (an even stronger incentive because it reduces collateral consequences).
      Reduce reliance on life and life-without-parole sentences to avoid high future costs.

      That's not an exhaustive list, either, but it shows there are a lot of different methods for reducing the prison population if the Lege can muster the will to make its policies match its budgeting preferences. Whether that's possible, I don't know. But the takeaway lesson from 2011 is that the prison budget can't be effectively cut without reducing the inmate population. We've traveled beyond the point when it's possible to tell TDCJ, "Do more with less."

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: BUDGET, REFORM, TDCJ


      SEPTEMBER 30, 2011

      Conservatives praise 'Texas model' on criminal justice reform
      Just received this press release from the Right on Crime initiative
      announcing two new public policy reports from the Texas Public Policy Foundation:
      FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
      September 30, 2011

      Right on Crime and TPPF Release Reports on Texas Corrections Reform

      Texas achieves dramatic results in criminal justice reform

      AUSTIN, TX - Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) today released two policy briefs regarding Texas' extensive criminal justice reforms in juvenile and adult corrections. Over the last decade, the groups' policy advisors have been instrumental in working with the Texas legislature and Governor Rick Perry to overhaul the state's corrections system.

      "For the first time in state history, Texas closed a prison because we don't need it anymore," said Marc Levin, Senior Policy Advisor to Right on Crime, who also serves as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "The reforms that were first adopted in Texas have stimulated similar initiatives across the nation in South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, Arkansas, and other states. Crime has dropped in Texas since the changes and taxpayers have saved more than a billion dollars from not building new prisons. We believe these commonsense policies, which were supported by 'tough and smart on crime' conservatives and are outlined in these reports, can serve as an effective model for other states."

      According to the report Adult Corrections Reform: Lower Crime, Lower Costs, policies initiated since 2005 have expanded capacity to alternatives to incarceration that hold nonviolent offenders accountable and provide effective supervision. This has helped Texas reduce its crime rate by 12.8 percent since 2005 while also reducing its incarceration rate by 9 percent. Additionally, the number of new crimes committed by parolees fell 8.5 percent from 2007 to 2010.

      The second report, Comprehensive Juvenile Justice Reform: Cutting Costs, Saving Lives, revealed that through key reforms, Texas was able to reduce the number of juvenile crime cases by 9.1 percent from 2007 to 2011. Among the reforms, Texas moved away from an overemphasis on incarcerating less serious youth offenders in remotely located state lockups and towards evidence-based community corrections programs that produce a greater reduction in re-offending for every dollar spent.

      "While we have more work to do, the Texas model of reform has proven to be extremely effective in both increasing public safety and saving taxpayers' money," said Brooke Rollins, president of TPPF and a Right on Crime signatory.

      "In criminal justice, it is vital to align policies with the current research indicating what works to protect communities and reform offenders, rather than simply maintain the status quo. The commonsense approach outlined in these new reports provides a roadmap for other states to follow Texas' model in modernizing the corrections system in a way that reduces crime and cuts costs."

      To view the reports, click Here.

      While the state deserves credit for various reforms passed in the last few years, this last session Texas legislators backed away from a more aggressive reform agenda, much to this writer's dismay, de-emphasizing the strategies embraced over previous sessions instead of doubling down. As regular readers, know, I'm willing to give credit where credit's due, but I was disappointed Texas legislators didn't seize the opportunity presented to them by the budget crisis to more radically reform the corrections system, particularly on the adult side. Indeed, in many ways I fear this failure to act in 2011 may, in the medium to long run, set the agency up to fail.

      POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST

      LABELS: BUDGET, TDCJ, TJPC, TYC


      SEPTEMBER 28, 2011

      "How-to" guides detail new reform legislation aimed at de-incarceration

      Listed below are provided links to 3 new "How To" Briefs we created to help practitioners implement 3 of these critical bills. Please click on the links to download a PDF version of each:

      S.B. 1055: Community Justice Plans and Commitment Reduction Plans

      H.B. 1205: Self-Improvement Programming Credits for Probationers

      H.B. 2649: Diligent Participation Credits for State Jail Inmates

      These are useful tools for judges, attorneys, probation professionals, programming providers, and those impacted by criminal justice system.


      Convict couldn't handle being free


      Convicted murderer and arsonist Randall Lee Church talks watis to be escorted back to his jail cell after an interview with media in the Bexar County Sheriff's conference room at the Bexar County Jail, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011. Photo: Jerry Lara/Express-News, JERRY LARA / SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS

      By Jazmine Ulloa
      julloa@express-news.net
      September 25, 2011

      Texan burns down house to return to prison.
      Most inmates want out of the pen.
      Randall Lee Church burned a house down to get back inside.

      Released in April after years of incarceration, he could not adjust. “Everything had gone fast forward without me,” he said in a recent interview at Bexar County Jail.

      Church, 46, admits he did it. He already has pleaded guilty to arson and is going back to prison, where he spent 26 years for fatally stabbing a man.

      He can fix his blue eyes on a visitor through jail glass and admit to the killing, too. But it was in self-defense, he adds — a drunken dispute over $97 that turned into a scuffle and a misunderstanding, a miserable mistake.

      He didn't persuade a jury. At 18, he was locked up for murder. It was 1983.

      Ronald Reagan was president. Cordless phones were modern technology. McDonald's had just introduced the Chicken McNugget.

      Inside his small, gray cell within the Texas prison system, Church forgot the world and it forgot him.

      Stepping out to freedom, “I didn't know how to use computers or cell phones or the Internet,” Church said. “The weirdest thing was walking into a store, like Walmart, and have parents hide their children from me, like I was supposed to jump at them.”

      Fed up on July 10, 96 days after his release, he poured gasoline through a window of the empty house on the Southeast Side, then threw in flaming rags and paper towels, setting the place on fire.

      Days later, he told police he did it because he wanted to go back to his job at his former prison unit.

      Most former inmates confront some measure of fear or anxiety upon release, experts say. They tend to have low levels of education, few job skills and high incidences of mental health and substance-abuse issues. Many have no money or family and struggle to find affordable housing and social services.

      And while the barriers to re-enter society always have been high, they're even greater in a tough economy.

      More than four out of 10 adult offenders nationwide return to state prisons within three years of their release, studies show. Experts call it a revolving door—though Church's actions make him something of an extreme case.

      Former Bexar County Jail inmates sometimes deliberately court arrest for minor crimes to get three square meals and a roof over their heads when things get tough on the outside, said County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who helped form the Bexar County Re-entry Roundtable, a dialogue among public, religious and nonprofit actors on how to help inmates return to society.

      But there are no statistics on felons like Church, who reoffend deliberately because they can't cope with their freedom.

      “I don't mean to diminish what this man did,” said Ann L. Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But when you think about what people come out to, how much the world has changed, what a disadvantage they are at and what little support they generally have, it is kind of a miracle it goes as well as it does for as many people as it does.”

      The crime

      The man Church killed was named James Alfred Michael, but people called him “Willie” because he looked like Willie Nelson, with a stockier build. He was 56 and had peppered dark hair. The two had met just months earlier while in a Baytown jail for public intoxication.

      Church said Michael gave him a place to stay when they got out and often loaned him cash. Church hustled drugs to support himself, he said. Raised in West Virginia, he had moved to Baytown as a teen and never had been much of a good kid, he said. He found school boring and had dropped out of 10th grade. Eventually, he earned his GED.

      “Back then, I lived right for the day, getting high, drinking, not thinking of the consequences,” Church said.

      Church remembers the last night Michael came home from work on Oct. 6, 1983. They had been drinking and got into it over $97 that Michael claimed Church took. Church vehemently denied it — lying — and they came to blows, he recalled.

      They soon broke up the fight, but Michael always carried a knife on his belt and Church noticed it was missing. When his partner went upstairs, Church believed he had gone to retrieve it. So he grabbed a big knife from the kitchen and bore it through Michael's chest when he came back.

      “I was scared half to death,” Church said. When police led him out, “I kept picturing myself on television, like it was happening to somebody else.”

      Church was sentenced to life in prison. He kept busy, working at different facilities. His latest job, as a janitor at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, had been the best, the one he yearned to return to when he was freed, he said. It gave him access to all the free soda and ice he wanted in the summers.

      Prison reform

      While Church was behind bars, the federal and state prison population more than quadrupled.

      The numbers of inmates in the United States grew from 319,598 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Corrections costs skyrocketed. States today collectively spend more than $50 billion a year by some estimates.

      Studies indicate the United States has the highest proportion of its population locked up, its offenders tending to serve some of the lengthiest sentences in the world.

      But more striking are the reports that show recidivism rates, the number of people who, like Church, return to correctional facilities after their release, lawmakers and prison reform activists said. A report published just this year by the Pew Center on the States found that on average more than 40 percent of those released from penitentiaries are reincarcerated within three years, for committing a new crime or for violating the terms of their release.

      In the past decade, the debate among criminal justice circles has shifted to focus on programs and resources that can help prisoners re-enter society.

      President George W. Bush included prisoner re-entry in his 2004 State of the Union address, marking an end to the country’s “period of punitiveness” and paving the way for the Second Chance Act and other legislation to help prisoners adjust to life after incarceration, Jacobs said.

      “We are at a time in our culture when the prison budgets are depleting budgets for higher education in most states, when there are more African American men in prison then there are in college. We can’t allow that as a society. It will pull us all down,” Jacobs said.

      Today, almost every state has re-entry programs and resources to assist the 700,000 people on average who are released from correctional facilities annually, but almost every state is under budget pressures.

      Texas is known for its toughness on crime and is the country's leader in rate of imprisonment but undertook wide-ranging prison reforms in 2007 that have significantly reduced the state's recidivism rate.

      Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released that year returned to prison within three years, according to the Texas Legislative Budget Board.

      But looming budget cuts could hinder this progress in giving inmates “the tools to live responsibly,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

      “While people are in prison, they need to be given vocational programs and counseling and cognitive thinking programming, so that when they get out, they can support their families,” she said.

      For inmates like Church, such resources could make a difference in the transition back to the outside world.

      The shock

      Fellow inmates warned Church he was in for a shock. He didn't believe them, thinking they were angry or envious he would soon walk free. Days after he was released, he realized they'd been right.

      Prices were higher and scanned with bar codes. Video games were more realistic. People were always on their cell phones. Cars had childproof locks.

      “I didn't know this,” Church said. “It was so overwhelming. I was constantly embarrassed by simple things I just didn't know.”

      He made his way to San Antonio and was living on a small ranch with a relative of a friend he met in prison. On her property was a dilapidated, three-story house, abandoned for almost a decade. Things weren't getting any better, and Church decided to burn it down.

      He watched the flames from his bedroom window. They died out. He attempted to reignite the fire but went to sleep believing his plan had failed. A couple of hours later, Church and his landlord were awakened by emergency responders.

      The blaze was ripping through the house. They took out lawn chairs and watched plumes of smoke billow skyward as firefighters worked to stop it, Church recalled.

      “I didn't tell anyone it was me,” he said. “It was my ticket to go back (to prison) if I wanted. I know it was wrong, and I am sorry for it now.”

      Three days later, he turned himself in by treating himself to a hamburger, French fries and two chocolate shakes at the Jim's restaurant on Loop 410 and Perrin Beitel. He savored every taste, knowing he only had 31 cents in his pocket. Then he asked the waitress to call police, saying he did not want to cause a scene.

      Her manager told Church he could leave if he never came back, so he told them he had committed a crime, Church recalled.

      He should have sought more counseling or looked for a rehabilitation center, he said. But as flames engulfed the old house, he felt a sense of relief, a kind of excitement. When he was little, he used to play with matches.

      “It was kind of like that,” Church said. “It was my Fourth of July.”

      Convict couldn't handle being free


      Criminal Justice Reform Bills Pass

      BY JORDAN SMITH
      MAY. 26, 2011

      Two criminal justice reform measures recommended last year by the Tim Cole Advisory Panel are now on their way to Gov. Rick Perry.

      Senate Bill 122 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, expanding access to post-conviction DNA testing, and House Bill 215, an effort to improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications, each passed last week and will move to Perry’s desk. The Advisory Panel convened after the 2010 session to recommend improvements to Texas law that might help to prevent wrongful convictions – like that of the panel’s namesake, Tim Cole, who was convicted of a rape he did not commit, died in prison before he could clear his name, and was posthumously exonerated. But whether the reforms – particularly the eyewitness ID bill – will actually help prevent future miscarriages of justice remains to be seen. Ellis’ DNA bill would expand access to post-conviction testing based on claims of innocence, and would require testing whenever there is biological evidence that has not previously been tested, or when the evidence can be subjected to newer techniques that might be more revealing than the results of an older test.

      As the law currently reads, an inmate can access post-conviction testing only if the testing wasn’t previously available, the tests were not advanced enough to provide probative evidence of guilt or innocence, or the testing was not done through no fault of the defendant.

      That last provision in particular has wreaked some havoc in Texas; in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner – sentenced to death for a 1993 triple murder he says he did not commit – prosecutors blocked Skinner’s efforts for additional DNA testing of crime-scene evidence, saying he defaulted that right when, prior to his original trial, his lawyer chose not to test all items available for testing. Ellis’ bill would strip the narrowing language from the statute, ensuring that “if there is DNA evidence available to prove someone’s innocence, it can and will be tested,” Ellis said in a press release. “No longer will the door to justice be shut just because of a procedural error.” (SB 122 passed on a unanimous vote in the Senate in April and made it out of the House May 20, on a vote of 145-4.)

      This is no small issue in Texas where, to date, there have been 46 DNA exonerations. Faulty eyewitness ID was implicated in the vast majority of those wrongful convictions, but it’s unclear whether Gallego’s HB 215 would be an effective tool to end mistaken IDs. (The bill passed the House in March with only Leo Berman, R-Tyler, voting against it, and passed out of the Senate unanimously last week.) The bill requires police agencies to adopt – by Sept. 1, 2012 – a “model” policy for administering live and photo lineups. The problem, however, is that there is no enforcement mechanism – no sanction for agencies that do not adopt such a policy – and, importantly,there is nothing in the bill that would keep out of court eyewitness IDs not obtained using best practices. Still,Steve Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, which has worked with other Texas stakeholders over the last six years to develop an eyewitness ID reform measure that could actually pass, says the incremental change in this bill is a good first step. “This is the best legislation and the most effective that this legislative process would allow for this year,” he said.


      Study praises Texas for prison reforms, but comes with warning

      By ALLAN TURNER
      Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
      April 13, 2011

      Texas was praised Tuesday for adopting wide-ranging prison reforms that have dramatically cut the state's recidivism rate — and warned that repeat incarcerations and criminal justice costs could rise again if budget-burdened legislators slash the programs.

      The comments came from Pew Center on the States official Adam Gelb as he announced results of a nationwide study of prison recidivism. In Texas, the study found, 31.9 percent of the 72,130 prisoners released in 2004 returned to prison within three years.

      Only 24.3 percent of Texas inmates released in 2007 - the year Texas lawmakers initiated the reforms — returned to prison within three years, the Texas Legislative Budget Board told lawmakers earlier this year.

      Criminal justice reforms enacted in 2007 included creation of intermediate sanction facilities for parolees who violated terms of their release, allowing offenders to serve short terms behind bars rather than face parole revocation.

      Diversion programs for mentally ill offenders and those with substance abuse problems were started, and more money was allocated for adult probation programs.

      Stable prison numbers

      Gelb said the reforms were propelled by the state's need for additional costly prison beds.

      "The corrections department said it needed 14,000 to 17,000 beds over the next five years and that it would cost $2 billion to do that," Gelb said. "Legislators, frankly, said 'no.' "

      State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said the reforms led prison population and recidivism rates to stabilize.

      "We do have very tough and smart diversion programs at the front end that are making a difference," he said. "We are saving hundreds of millions, and there has been no compromise."

      Gelb warned those gains could be lost if legislators cut those programs in a bid to reduce budget woes. Lawmakers must close a funding gap of $15 billion to $27 billion in the upcoming two-year budget period.

      "If cut, there is a very strong chance recidivism will go back up and the prison budget will do the same," Gelb said.

      Doing a better job

      Whitmire, who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is "guardedly optimistic funding will be provided to continue our progress."

      "The lieutenant governor says that we're short of funds, but our priorities will be education, Medicaid and criminal justice," Whitmire said. "I don't let him forget that.

      "We are doing a better job with drug courts, mental health dockets, veterans dockets," he said. "We're encouraging jurisdictions to look at individuals, not to paint violations of the law with a broad brush. ... We are the toughest state on violent crime, but we've worked to distinguish who we're afraid of as opposed to who we're just mad at."

      Gelb, director of Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, said "we've started to see a triumph of science over sound bites."

      "More policymakers are asking much better questions: How do we get taxpayers better public safety for their tax dollars?" he said.

      Looking at prisons in 41 states, the Pew study found 43.3 percent of prisoners released in 2004 were back in jail within three years.

      Among approaches that hold promise in reducing repeat incarceration, researchers said, are incentive programs that shorten paroled inmates' supervision time if they meet specified treatment or education requirements. Such programs now are law in Arizona, South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire.

      allan.turner@chron.com

      Study praises Texas for prison reforms, but comes with warning



      Michael Vick: Symbol of the second chance

      By Michael Gerson
      January 4, 2011

      President Obama's unofficial pardon of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was a fleeting story highlighting a durable problem.

      According to team owner Jeffrey Lurie, Obama phoned to praise the Eagles for giving Vick a "second chance." According to Lurie, Obama said "it's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.'"

      That field is more level when trod by millionaire athletes, particularly those who throw 20 touchdowns in a season. But though Vick is not representative, he is symbolic.

      During the past few decades, America has engaged in a massive experiment in routine imprisonment. From 1975 to 1999, by one estimate, the criminal justice system grew five times more punitive. A nation with 5 percent of the world's population now has about a quarter of the world's prison population - well over 2 million people.

      It has had the intended effect. At least a portion of the sharp reduction in violent crime during the 1990s can be traced to the isolation of habitual offenders for longer periods. (The increased size and skill of police forces and the subsiding of the crack cocaine epidemic also played roles.)

      But other consequences were unintended - the growth in single-parent households, in the number of children with one or both parents in prison, in the universality of the incarceration among some groups, particularly poorly educated African American and Hispanic men. The incarceration rate for African American male high school dropouts is nearly 50 times the national average. And the inevitable result of mass imprisonment is mass return. About 700,000 former inmates come back to communities each year with considerably dimmer prospects than Michael Vick.

      Criminal justice experts argue about the effect of race and class on rates of incarceration. But one racially charged fact is clear enough: If such incarceration rates prevailed among middle-class youth, it would be a crisis rather than a curiosity.

      The most effective responses are also the most daunting. Crime prevention, in the long run, is youth development. The alternative to cultivating the next generation is fearing it. Children, as one would expect, do better in life when they have not been poisoned by lead paint, abandoned by parents or betrayed by failed schools. There is promise in encouraging preschool attendance, providing mentors for the fatherless, demanding competent teachers, rewarding high school completion and making street gangs less attractive.

      Such policies, while essential, don't seem sufficiently urgent; they are like recommending exercise and vitamins for a cerebral hemorrhage. So states are searching for better ways to sort their criminal population - to distinguish between the predatory who require prison and the nonviolent who need something else. They are questioning mandatory minimums, experimenting with alternative sentencing and creating drug courts that give priority to treatment. There is less creativity, but equal need, on the reintegration of ex-prisoners: providing transitional work programs, addressing addiction and mental health issues, removing unnecessary barriers to employment and housing. It is never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.

      Preventing crime and reducing recidivism are among the most difficult social policy challenges. Gains come slowly and tend to be incremental. But such efforts are also the practical demonstration of a defining national principle: While human beings are capable of great horrors that merit justice, they do not become trash to be thrown away. Even the least sympathetic - heroin addicts and jailed criminals and gang members - remain part of the American community, the human community. And their very lack of sympathy tests our commitment to that ideal.

      Obama's instinct on this issue is entirely correct, and he should run with it.

      The president has exhausted the nation with grand reforms. Perhaps instead of the reconstitution of American society, he could focus on the amelioration of some specific needs. Other presidents have done the same, to their great credit. George H.W. Bush pushed for the Americans With Disabilities Act, making our laws and sidewalks more welcoming. Bill Clinton expanded the earned-income tax credit; George W. Bush fought AIDS worldwide.

      Guiding children away from crime and disrupting the cycle of recidivism fall into a similar category. When an important moral cause lacks a potent political constituency, only the president can unite the nation to address it. It is the power, and burden, of executive leadership.

      America is the nation of the second chance. Or at least it should be.

      michaelgerson@washpost.com

      © 2011 The Washington Post Company


    2010:



      Texas' love affair with incarceration

      by Michele Deitch
      Published: Nov. 22. 2010

      Michele Deitch is a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses on criminal justice policy. This post is part of a Know series on the Texas prison system.

      The United States now has more than 2.3 million people locked up in its prisons and jails — that's one out of every 99 adults. Our nation’s prison system is by far the largest in the world, dwarfing even those of China and Russia, our nearest competitors for this dubious distinction. And our rate of incarceration is even more out of sync with the rest of the world: we are locking up our citizens at a rate five to 10 times higher than most other industrialized Western nations.

      It has been said that our country has a "love affair with incarceration." Nowhere is this statement more accurate than in Texas, home to the second largest prison system in the nation and a state that tripled the size of its prison population from 50,000 to more than 150,000 in one short decade. That prison growth in the 1990s represented the largest and most expensive construction project of any kind in Texas' history.

      The Texas approach to crime and punishment is iconic. Small wonder then that the connection between the two formed the basis for a new book, titled appropriately enough, "Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire." What many do not realize, however — and what this new book illustrates so vividly — is the extent to which Texas' incarceration policies have been a driver for America's spot at the top of the charts when it comes to mass imprisonment.

      "Texas Tough" was written by Robert Perkinson.

      Author Robert Perkinson argues in "Texas Tough" that the South, and Texas in particular, has shaped the development of the modern penitentiary into institutions that are harsher, less rehabilitative and more racially divisive than their Northern counterparts of earlier times. He traces the roots of the Texas penal system to patterns set during times of slavery and segregation. The book is thick with examples of ways in which Texas prisons of the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s more closely resembled slave plantations than reformatories. And as Texas' unprecedented expansion of prison beds in the last part of the 20th century became the prototype for a national experiment in mass imprisonment, that history and attitude toward prisoners produced the dominant philosophy across the country.

      It is impossible to talk about criminal justice in this country without also talking about race. We live in an era in which one in three young black men is under the control of the criminal justice system, in which blacks have a seven times greater chance of being incarcerated than whites, and in which blacks are disproportionately disenfranchised due to prior felony convictions. Perkinson's analysis should provide much food for thought about the roots of this disparate impact of our punishment policies. At the same time, his thought-provoking book forces us to face the possibility that our policies are doing more to resegregate society than to protect us from crime.

      Perkinson will be at the university's School of Law Monday, Nov. 22, to discuss his book. The timing of this talk is impeccable as we head into a legislative session facing the most profound budget crisis in decades. Texas is facing tough choices with regard to the services and programs that must be severely cut or shuttered entirely, including health care and education. One inescapable reality of our massive prison system in Texas is that it is extraordinarily expensive, costing about $5 billion each biennium. The choice we made to be "Texas tough" in prior years may finally be coming back to haunt us.

      Texas' love affair with incarceration


      Sam Kent was a ‘monster,’ but he’s owed rehabilitation

      BY KEVIN PENNELL
      HOUSTON CHRONICLE
      Aug. 21, 2010

      Irony can be cruel. For years, the Honorable Samuel B. Kent ruled Galveston with a fist harder than steel and a wit sharper than a razor blade. Because he was such a jerk, few shed any tears when he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and was sentenced to 33 months in prison. And when he recently begged the court to shorten his sentence because prison was "cruel" and "unfair," well, wasn't that just a bit ironic that the man who so maliciously mocked others before sentencing them to prison could not handle it himself? Yes, irony can be cruel.

      But perhaps we should reconsider whether there might be any merit in his plea for mercy. And, unlike many who delight in his misfortune, I have more than a passing interest in his case.

      I interviewed with Sam Kent for a clerkship in the fall of 2003, my last year of law school. When he offered me the job, I eagerly accepted. A clerkship with a federal judge can be a ticket to success for a baby lawyer, and I was thrilled to be clerking for someone as famous as Kent. During the first week of my clerkship, I noticed that he tended to drink rather heavily. During the second week, he invited my co-clerk, my wife and me over to his house and, after drinking all afternoon and most of the evening, groped my wife.

      My relationship with him deteriorated rapidly after that. When the FBI contacted me, my employer, a prominent Texas law firm, instructed me to cooperate with their investigation, so I did. Their interview of me led to an interview with my wife, and she ultimately received a subpoena to testify at his criminal trial. Needless to say, we were quite relieved when he admitted to forcing himself on the women who worked for him and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.

      Now he has come forward claiming that he is being mistreated. He has already admitted to lying under oath, so these allegations should be thoroughly investigated. But if he's telling the truth, the federal prison system is doing him, and society as a whole, a great disservice.

      The purpose of prison is partly to punish, but it is primarily to rehabilitate.

      Society as a whole is better served by reforming prisoners so that they can be productive members of society upon their release, rather than by warehousing them under circumstances that warp them further than they already are.

      If Kent is telling the truth, he is not being treated for his alcoholism, he is not being taught basic computer skills, and he is spending weeks on end in solitary confinement. Everyone who has spent any time with him at all knows about his raging alcoholism. He's lost his law license, which allowed him to do the only thing he knows how to do. How is denying him counseling and training supposed to help him become a productive member of society upon his release?

      And what could possibly justify placing him in solitary confinement? For six weeks? Kent was a bully when he wore the robe, but I seriously doubt he's a threat to the murderers and rapists he's locked up with. Long-term solitary confinement causes serious mental health problems. I'm no psychiatrist, but I know screwed-up when I see it, and Kent was about 18 different kinds of screwed-up when I worked for him. What's he going to be like now?

      There's something fishy going on. Kent's currently in a maximum security state prison. He pleaded guilty to, and is being incarcerated for, a nonviolent federal offense. He should be in a federal minimum security facility. The only explanation that has ever been offered is that, because he is a federal judge, he would be endangered by being placed in a federal prison because the other prisoners would want to harm him.

      Please. Federal prisons house mobsters, terrorists and drug kingpins; surely federal prison officials can figure out a way to keep an old man safe. What it reminds me of is U.S. officials extraditing terrorist suspects to countries that aren't as fastidious about human rights as we are so that they can be tortured. No, he doesn't deserve special treatment because he used to be a federal judge. But he doesn't deserve to be singled out for additional punishment, either, and that appears to be what's happening.

      Sam Kent used to be a monster. And he may well still be. But, monster or not, he's going to be released in November 2011, with only the clothes on his back and a chance to start over. And it would be gratuitously cruel to sabotage his chance, indeed, any inmate's chance, at a fresh start.

      Pennell is a Houston attorney.

      Sam Kent was a ‘monster,’ but he’s owed rehabilitation


      07/14/2010

      Author explains how to get 'Texas Tough' on prison system

      By: News 8 Austin Staff

      Robert Perkinson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii, recently wrote a book called Texas Tough. He took a moment to sit down with News 8 and discuss what it's all about.

      The book is a history of American prisons from the days of slavery up until now. In it, Perkinson tries to uncover why the U.S. has built the largest prison system in the history of democracy and why it’s failing.

      Until recently, he said, Texas has played a big role in creating a "prison system that does not protect the public."

      Now, Texas is a playing a leading role in fixing the system.

      "Texas has been, in the last couple of years, really leading the way in trying to figure a way out and to get smart on crime rather than just tough on crime," Perkinson said.

      He also discusses how racial divisions within the system are even worse now than at the height of the Jim Crow era.

      "The book explains how race has always poisoned our politics," Perkinson said.

      He said he hopes, through his book, people come together to help the effort to reform the U.S. prison system.

      Author explains how to get 'Texas Tough' on prison system


      Call for Prison Reform

      April 20, 2010
      By: Michael Santos
      (Federal Prisoner)
      Prison Reform Activist

      When I was 23, in 1987, Ronald Regan presided over the White House and I began serving my term in the Big House. I had been involved in the transport of cocaine. I was guilty, and I was stupid. I was a kid in search of easy money; I was never violent, never carried a gun, and had no history of criminal activity. I was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

      Shortly thereafter, George H. W. Bush was elected president, promising a 'kinder, gentler America.' As a new prisoner, this promise made me optimistic, even as those around me laughed at my naivete toward politics. They were right: Bush was speaking to citizens outside the fence, promising ever-harsher punishments to the growing underclass inside.

      At the time, I was working towards my bachelors' degree, reading the Bible every day, and trying to insulate my family from the shame caused by my actions. I was taking every possible precaution to maintain a good behavioral record that would allow for my release after only 26 years. But as politician after politician came to office promising to make America a kinder, gentler place, I saw higher walls, more razor wire, fewer classes, and more repeat offenders. For all the prisoners like me, striving for redemption, there always seemed to be another 'Willie Horton' helping to justify the increase of the Bureau of Prisons annual budget by several billion dollars.

      Now I'm 46, and despite my not having a history of violence, weapons, or prior confinement, I've been a prisoner for half of my life. I expect to serve a few more years before release, and I don't expect to see meaningful prison reform before the expiration of my sentence. Nevertheless, experience and observations of living as a prisoner compel me to speak out on the reasons why more citizens should call for prison reform legislation.

      I spent my first 15 years in prison earning undergraduate and graduate degrees before new directives from the Bureau of Prisons prohibited my pursuit of further formal education. I then turned to writing, attempting to educate the public and my fellow prisoners about the realities of life on the inside and the methods people can use to overcome long-term hardship. I have spent half of my life defying the system through behavior that those outside of prison call 'good' -- the pursuit of education and the reluctance to abandon hope. I feel that I have earned my right to be free in society. I have accomplished this through a level of initiative and obstinance that many prisoners find hard to understand, and I am also blessed with family and friends who take the time and energy to sympathize with and assist me. But the hundreds of thousands of others entering the system each year are encountering more and more crowded and oppressive conditions and far fewer opportunities for rehabilitation and positive growth than ever before.

      Research from credible organizations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts -- and even the U.S. Senate -- report alarming statistics concerning America's prison system. We've locked up more than 2.3 million people in American prisons or jails. That deplorable number represents more prisoners per capita than any other nation on earth! Taxpayers spend nearly $60 billion every year to warehouse their fellow citizens. The continuous expansion of prison budgets has resulted in the diversion of funds from education, health care, and environmental preservation; the continuous expansion of the U.S. prison population has resulted in a need for increased security instead of anti-recidivism programs.

      And what does society receive in return for its colossal expenditures on prisons? The data shows that two of every three people return to confinement after release. Our prisons have grown into superior training grounds for failure -- unless "prisonization" is the goal. Every day as I teach other prisoners how to read, write, and find employment on the outside, I know that thousands more are spending years in prison learning how to hide, transport, and sell drugs, how to manufacture crude weaponry, and how to acclimate others into a nihilist cycle of violence, substance abuse, and other criminal behavior.

      As a federal prisoner at the minimum-security camp in Taft, California, I participate in a youth outreach program where, under staff supervision, I speak to high school students about the consequences of criminal behavior. In giving my presentation I always ask the students how many have family members in prison. I'm overwhelmed with the number of hands that shoot up when I ask that question! Citizens should understand that our massive prison population influences everyone's quality of life and has ancillary consequences for millions of children, spouses, and parents. Prisons have become mainstream, significantly decreasing the stigma associated with confinement.

      Prominent outsiders such as Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court claim that America incarcerates too many people for far too long. In a speech to students at Pepperdine University earlier this year, Justice Kennedy blamed the prison lobby for propping up the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that keep so many confined. He recognized that although the Constitution did not prohibit incarceration on such a massive scale, policies that encourage penal warehousing of such magnitude are inconsistent with the aspirations of our society. (If you're looking for evidence of this inconsistency, try this HuffPost article about how America incarcerates more black people than it ever enslaved.)

      Certainly, society must respond to criminals who prey upon citizens, and long-term confinement is appropriate for some offenders. But credible data shows that the majority of people locked up serve multiple years (or decades) for nonviolent drug offenses. By locking so many offenders in prison for lengthy terms, our society makes poor use of its criminal justice system's limited resources.

      However, even those travesties pale in comparison to the mere fact that, once in the system, prisoners have few opportunities to improve their lives. In fact, they're actively discouraged from doing so!

      The fundamental flaw within our prison system is that it lacks a mechanism that would inspire prisoners to work toward earning freedom. Judges impose sentences that do not offer possibility for parole and therefore extinguish hope.

      Taxpayers fund warehouses for millions of people, who in turn become increasingly alienated from law-abiding society. As the months turn into years, and the years turn into decades, loved ones desert the imprisoned. Many prisoners become further entrenched in criminal subcultures, as evidenced by the massive proliferation of prison and street gangs over the past 20 years. Rather than contributing to safer communities, the unrestrained spread of long-term imprisonment just conditions more people for further failure.

      Prison reforms must introduce a more enlightened approach and intelligently designed system. The federal system that exists today does not distinguish between prisoners who waste their sentences from those who work toward reconciling with society. My observations and research suggest that policies based on punishment and societal revenge rather than on rehabilitation and opportunities to redeem for misdeeds represent the primary reason that 500,000 of the 700,000 prisoners who return to American communities each year will return to confinement after inflicting further violence upon society.

      Too many prisoners conclude their terms with finely-honed skills necessary to survive in prison which are inimical to legal and social success "outside."

      I know that I have rehabilitated myself, in the eyes of my family, myself, and God. Through the decades, as politicians and BOP officials decreased my opportunities for education and involvement with the outside word, I persevered. I have earned a BA, an MA, most of a PhD, and have published several books. I won't have to watch too many more presidents promise me a kinder, gentler America. But I'm a rare case. Until we can make prisoner rehabilitation and redemption real and institutional, we'll just be teaching people how to be comfortable in prison, and they'll keep coming back for longer and longer.

      Call for Prison Reform


      02/15/2010

      A BLUE-RIBBON LOOK AT CRIMINAL JUSTICE

      The nation's criminal justice system is in need of an overhaul. This is particularly true of its incarceration policies. Too many people are being put behind bars who do not need to be there, at great cost to the states, and not enough attention is being paid to helping released prisoners re-enter society.

      The Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted to create a blue-ribbon commission to study the justice system and offer reforms. The bill's main sponsor was Jim Webb, a Democrat of Virginia who is one of the Senate's more thoughtful voices on crime and punishment.

      Among the issues the commission would study is why the United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. Prisons are filled with a large number of nonviolent offenders, including minor drug offenders. In many cases, it would be more humane, economical and effective to provide drug treatment and mental health alternatives.

      The high imprisonment rate has long been troubling as a matter of fairness, but with the recession it has become an enormous financial burden. States have begun, out of fiscal necessity, to parole prisoners faster and in larger numbers, and to look for alternatives to incarceration. This scattershot approach is far from ideal. It would be better to have experts address these issues at a national level in a more methodical way.

      The commission also would look at sentencing policies for drug crimes, including their impact on minority communities, something that is long overdue, as well as the involvement of foreign-based gangs in crime in the United States. Some of the proposed topics have backing across the political spectrum, including re-entry programs to help released inmates begin law-abiding lives.

      The bill has strong support from both civil rights and law enforcement groups.

      The Senate leadership needs to push it to a vote, and the House needs to get to work on passing a companion bill. A broad consensus has emerged that the system is broken.


      January 25, 2010
      By Robert Guest

      KBH on the National Criminal Justice Act

      What is the National Criminal Justice Act? It's a commission proposed by Jim Webb (D) to evaluate the shortcoming in our criminal justice system. From Senator Webb.

      The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 that I introduced in the Senate on March 26, 2009 will create a blue-ribbon commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom.

      I believe that it is time to bring together the best minds in America to confer, report, and make concrete recommendations about how we can reform the process. This legislation has already garnered wide bipartisan support in Congress and from interest groups representing a range of backgrounds and political viewpoints.

      Why We Urgently Need this Legislation:

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

      >Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.

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

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

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

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

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

      Being a concerned citizen I emailed KBH and asked her to support this measure. As a former prosecutor I have seen the destruction caused by overzealous law enforcement. Arrest, prosecution, probation, and a criminal conviction are especially devastating on the thousands of young adults we prosecute annually.

      It's about time we evaluated the investment of our tax dollars and the forfeiture of our liberty. I'm pretty sure we can find a better way forward than the status quo. A blue ribbon panel is a great way to start the conversation.

      One thing I can say about KBH is that she responds fairly quickly to my emails. I really appreciate a prompt and courteous Senator. My only criticism is that the response says nothing about her position, but she seems eager to listen to my views on criminal justice reform.

      I'll be sure and forward those ideas to her post haste.

      From KBH-
      Dear Friend:

      Thank you for contacting me regarding the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

      On March 26, 2009, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced S. 714, the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009. This act would establish the National Criminal Justice Commission, which would undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.

      The Commission would focus on incarceration policies, prison violence, and prison administration.

      After examining the current system, the Commission would be required to submit a public report to Congress and the President.

      S. 714 has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, on which I do not serve. Should this legislation come before the full Senate, you may be certain I will keep your views in mind.

      I appreciate hearing from you, and I hope that you will not hesitate to keep in touch on any issue that is important to you.

      Sincerely,
      Kay Bailey Hutchison
      United States Senator

      Senator Cornyn hasn't gotten back to me yet. I'll post his response when available.

      KBH on the National Criminal Justice Act


      Unlikely role model

      Tough-on-crime Texas leads the way in prison reforms, less crowded prisons

      HOUSTON CHRONICLE
      Jan. 2, 2010

      A new Justice Department report on the nation's prisons holds some welcome and rather surprising news for Texans: Long known for its “hang 'em high” judges and juries and chronically overcrowded prisons, our state has become a role model of sorts for enlightened treatment of nonviolent offenders and a shrinking prison population.

      In a pattern that began in the 1980s and continued through 2005, as the state adopted tougher, more punitive criminal laws, Texas' prison population ballooned 300 percent, at a cost of $2.3 billion. As reported by the Chronicle's Cindy Horswell, the state was faced with either coming up with half a billion dollars to accommodate a projected 17,000 additional inmates or spending about half that amount to provide alternative treatment programs.

      State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, longtime chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, joined forces with state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, to develop a “justice reinvestment strategy.” They commissioned a thorough analysis that showed the Texas Department of Corrections was “overwhelmed” with inmates who would be far better served by alternative programs, resulting in significant cost savings and freeing up the system's limited resources to more effectively handle its violent, dangerous offenders.

      In 2007, state lawmakers passed measures aimed at saving $443 million by reducing the state's prison population. They invested $241 million to enhance substance abuse and mental health treatment and diversion programs, and enacted parole reforms.

      The results were even better than predicted: After an average annual increase of 3 percent since 2003, Texas' prison population increased only by 0.4 percent in 2008, making it one of two states with the smallest increases. TDC reports that since then, numbers have actually declined. As of December, Texas prisons had 1,050 fewer inmates than in 2008.

      Among the many programs contributing to these positive results, Whitmire cited one that has seen an impressive 25 percent decrease in parole violators being sent back to jail. It's a new Houston facility with 400 beds, housing parolees who have not committed new crimes but have violated conditions of parole.

      “We used to just send them back to prison,” he told the Chronicle. “This allows them to get out of prison, get back on track. It's a win- win situation. We're lowering the recidivism rate and making productive citizens, which also allows us to focus time and resources on our hard-core inmates.”

      Madden said he is pleased with the results of their efforts. “The net effects were above what we forecast,” he said, but added that much work remains to be done. When he spoke to a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee in April, Madden said, “Texas has some of the most punitive criminal justice laws in the nation.”

      Sandra Guerra Thompson, University of Houston Law Center professor, agrees: “Both in terms of harshness of sentences and numbers of incarcerated,” she told the Chronicle, “we're way behind many other states, and we have a long way to go to catch up.” But, she said, “There seems to have been a change recently, a more nuanced approach.”

      Ironically, that's one of the reasons these welcome successes are so striking: Many other states already have programs to divert nonviolent criminals and those with substance abuse or mental health problems, but for Texas it's a sea change.

      As Madden put it, “Years from now, we'll be able to look back and see that these have been the most significant reforms in Texas criminal justice policy for many decades.”

      That should give us time to get used to the concept of being a role model.

      Unlikely role model


    2009:


      Fixing Criminal Justice

      Jordan Smith
      Dec 2. 2009

      Should the government undertake a review of the nation's criminal justice system – and if so, should there be limits on what is up for consideration? That's the question before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow when they're scheduled to consider the Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, filed in March by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.

      Filing the bill this spring, Webb noted that the number of drug offenders in prisons and jails has increased 1200% since 1980, and that although the U.S. is home to only 5% of the world's population, we now account for 25% of the world's prisoners. In other words, he said, the system has "deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace." And fixing the problem will "require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration."

      Webb's bill (S.714) has so far attracted 35 bi-partisan co-sponsors, including Judiciary Committee heavyweights Sens. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah – but, alas, has not gotten the nod of Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who also sits on the committee. (You can contact Cornyn here.) And under the bill as currently written, everything about the criminal justice system is up for discussion – including a detailed examination of drug policy. Among the specific topics the bill would require the commission to undertake is an "examination of current drug policy and its impact on incarceration, crime and violence, sentencing, and reentry programs, to include an analysis of the general availability of drugs in our society, the impact and effectiveness of current policies on reducing that availability and on the incidence of crime, and in the case of criminal offenders, the availability of drug treatment programs before, during, and after incarceration."

      Indeed, in an interview with the Huffington Post this spring, Webb said that a review of drug policy could include a discussion of whether marijuana should be legalized: "I think everything should be on the table, and we specifically say that we want recommendations on how to deal with drug policy in our country," he said. "And we'll get it to the people who have the credibility and the expertise and see what they come up with."

      Fixing Criminal Justice


      Tough on crime?

      Jessica Huseman,
      Associate Opinion Editor,
      jhuseman@smu.edu
      Issue date: 10/27/09
      Section: Opinion

      The "tough on crime" platform of major political frontrunners since the 1960s has had a major effect on the American population.

      We don't want criminals on the streets; we want them in prison, regardless of their offense. Such a mindset has disabled the American criminal justice system from distinguishing between violent criminals who need to be put away, and repeat petty offenders that would be better suited in a criminal rehabilitation program.

      Because of this mentality, the United States' prison population is overflowing. After almost three decades of growth, the prison population reached 2.3 million in 2007, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

      This means that about 1 in 100 people in America are locked away. This number surpasses any other country for which reliable figures exist.

      This large prison population comes with a hefty price tag. In 2007, the United States spent $44 billion on the prison system, which is 33 billion more than we spent in 1987. This number isn't surprising when you consider that the average annual cost of incarceration is $24,000 per inmate.

      The most amazing thing about all of this is that according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, crime rates in the United States are dropping steadily while prison populations continue to rise.

      All of these statistics point to one thing: America's prison system is completely ineffective.

      As a nation, we are so focused on being "tough on crime," that we do not realize that we are running out of prison cells, and we are allowing violent criminals to go free early so that we can house more petty drug users and hot check writers.

      We have done away with work placement, drug rehabilitation, and counseling programs because we have no money left to spend.

      California's Folsom prison embodies the problem that America's corrections system faces. Folsom, where Johnny Cash serenaded prisoners from an improvised stage in the cafeteria, was built to hold 1,800 inmates. According to National Public Radio, it now holds 4,427, and 75 percent of those prisoners will be back in prison within three years.

      Work programs that used to be available to all prisoners now have waiting lists that are years long, and the medical facility has been completely shut down. Funds that used to pay for inmates to receive their high school GED or wood-working certification now has to be stretched just to feed all of the inmates.

      Folsom was once America's most effective prison, it is now struggling to keep up with daily expenses.

      But what can we do about it? Any politician who argues that petty criminals shouldn't be given life sentences is seen "soft on crime."

      Unfortunately, this mindset is driving the corrections program into the ground. If we would wake up and focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment, maybe we could solve the problem.

      The majority of prisoners in our prison system today are petty criminals. 21 percent of those in prison are drug offenders, a statistic that has not changed since 1994, and more than half of these criminals return to jail within three years. Many people who go to jail for drug offenses have no prior criminal record. They pose no danger to society other than that they are addicted to drugs. If these people were allowed to forgo a prison sentence entirely in exchange for time spent in a rehabilitation program our prison population could be reduced, which would save the state prison-cells and money and allow ample room for those who truly need to be incarcerated. Not only that, but these people would be helped with their addiction, which would aid in taking drugs off the streets.

      Studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that effective treatment for prisoners cuts drug use in half, reduces criminal behavior by up to 80 percent, and prevents re-arrest up to 64 percent.

      The benefits to America's prisons system are infinite. Such a reduction in re-arrest would reduce the prison population and make the system less of a burden on taxpayers. In fact, it is estimated that if rehabilitation programs were implemented, for every $1 spent on rehabilitation, $4 to $7 would be saved on drug related crime.

      What America needs to do is clear: clean up our inmates rather than stowing them away. We'd reduce cost, decrease recidivism, and increase the number of active and involved citizens. But, what America will do is a different story. And until we figure things out, many of our prisons may end up exactly like Folsom.

      Jessica Huseman is a sophomore CCPA and Political Science double major.
      She can be reached for comment at jhuseman@smu.edu

      Tough On Crime


      September 24, 2009

      Prisoners’ Rights

      In 1996, Congress passed a law that made it much harder for inmates to challenge abusive treatment. It has contributed significantly to the bad conditions — including the desperate overcrowding — that prevail today. The law must be fixed.

      In the name of clamping down on frivolous lawsuits, the Prison Reform Litigation Act barred prisoners from suing prisons and jails unless they could show that they had suffered a physical injury. Prison officials have used this requirement to block lawsuits challenging all sorts of horrific conditions, including sexual abuse.

      The law also requires inmates to present their claims to prison officials before filing a suit. The prisons set the rules for those grievance procedures, notes Stephen Bright, the president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and they have an incentive to make the rules as complicated as possible, so prisoners will not be able to sue. “That has become the main purpose of many grievance systems,” Mr. Bright told Congress last year.

      In the last Congress, Representative Robert Scott, Democrat of Virginia, sponsored the Prison Abuse Remedies Act. It would have eliminated the physical injury requirement and made it harder for prison officials to get suits dismissed for failure to exhaust grievance procedures. It would have exempted juveniles, who are especially vulnerable to abuse, from the law’s restrictions.

      The bill’s supporters need to try again this year. Conditions in the nation’s overcrowded prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous; recently, there have been major riots in California and Kentucky.

      Prisoner lawsuits are a way of reining in the worst abuses, which contribute to prison riots and other violence.

      The main reason to pass the new law, though, is human decency. The only way to ensure that inmates are not mistreated is to guarantee them a fair opportunity to bring their legitimate complaints to court.

      Prisoners’ Rights


      Op-Ed Columnist

      Priority Test: Health Care or Prisons?

      By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
      Published: August 19, 2009

      At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?

      Mr. Wilkerson is serving a life sentence in California — for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks. As The Economist noted recently, he already had two offenses on his record (both for abetting robbery at age 19), and so the “three strikes” law resulted in a life sentence.

      This is unjust, of course. But considering that California spends almost $49,000 annually per prison inmate, it’s also an extraordinary waste of money.

      Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care — and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor.

      It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health. Consider a few facts:

      ¶The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study.

      ¶California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.

      ¶For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared.

      ¶One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project.

      Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re over-investing in prisons and under-investing in schools.

      Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration. The evidence on this isn’t conclusive, but it’s noteworthy that graduates of the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, an intensive effort for disadvantaged children in the 1960s, were some 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.

      Above all, it’s time for a rethink of our drug policy. The point is not to surrender to narcotics, but to learn from our approach to both tobacco and alcohol. Over time, we have developed public health strategies that have been quite successful in reducing the harm from smoking and drinking.

      If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail.

      “Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach.

      A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.

      Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes.

      “There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

      Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?

      A version of this article appeared in print on August 20, 2009, on page A27 of the New York edition.

      Priority Test: Health Care or Prisons?


      Rupert Cornwell: War hero tackles US over degrading prison conditions

      Out of America: Dumping grounds for drug addicts, the mentally ill and petty thieves exposed by Democrat senator

      August 9, 2009

      Few United States senators have a more unusual CV than Virginia's Jim Webb. He's a Democrat who was once a Republican and served as Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran and the highly successful author of Fields of Fire, which is said by many to be the best novel ever written about that war. When he made his senate bid in 2006, his Republican opponent ran adverts criticising some explicit sexy passages in other Webb works. Now he is embarked on perhaps his most improbable mission: the senior senator, from one of the toughest law-and-order states, wants to restore humanity, and proportionality, to the punishment of criminals.

      All the focus, right now, is on reforming the US healthcare system.

      Think prisons, and you think Guantanamo Bay, and the bizarre debate over whether the transfer of its inmates to the mainland would see alleged Islamist terrorists burst out of fearsome maximum-security jails such as Florence, Colorado, and run amok across the Rockies.

      When it comes to sending people to jail, America is the undisputed world champion. In 1970, a mere 200,000 people were behind bars. Last year, 2.3 million were held in federal, state and county prisons, more than 1 per cent of all adults in the US and five times the international average. Blacks, predictably, bear the brunt of this compulsion to incarcerate, accounting for 40 per cent of the prison population. This punishment industry gives work to more than two million, more even than the 1.7 million employed in higher education.

      The establishments themselves hide behind bureaucratic euphemisms such as the phrase "Department of Corrections". In reality, US prisons are hideously overcrowded breeding grounds for crime, and dumping grounds for drug addicts and the mentally ill: "America's default mental health institutions", as one expert described them.

      Precious little "correcting" goes on. Of the 700,000 men and women who are released each year, two-thirds are back in jail within three years. As Webb puts it: "Either we are the most evil people on earth, or we're doing something wrong." You don't have to subscribe to the country's spiritually exalted view of itself to know which.

      The vast majority of those behind bars pose no threat to society; most inmates in state prisons have been convicted of non-violent offences, mainly related to drugs or property. The colossal growth in prisoner numbers can be traced to the collapse of inner cities and the urban rioting of the late 1960s, the futile "war on drugs", an over-rigid parole system – and, of course, politicians' awareness that nothing wins elections like being tough on law and order.

      Back in 1988, the elder George Bush used the infamous Willie Horton case to brand Michael Dukakis, his Democratic presidential opponent, soft on crime. In 1994, California became the first state to pass a "Three Strikes and You're Out" bill; within a year, 24 states had followed in an effort to target violent repeat offenders. Instead they led to nonsenses (upheld by the Supreme Court, no less) such as the sentencing of one recidivist to 25 years to life for stealing a bag of golf clubs. No less pernicious are the minimum-sentencing requirements imposed by many states, which force judges to send people to prison unnecessarily, or for too long.

      And so a vicious cycle has set in, whereby the country locks up ever more people for ever less serious offences, at ever greater expense, with ever less resources for rehabilitation.

      Common sense – with the help of a firm shove from economic reality – may finally be making a comeback and, as ever, California is setting the example. It's not that the place has gone soft on crime: the Golden State is still planning a new death row facility, even though no one has been executed there since 2006. It's simply that conditions in California's prisons have become untenable, with some operating at 300 per cent of capacity, where violence is endemic, and lockdowns are often the only practical means of keeping order.

      Now a panel of federal judges has stepped in, ordering Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to come up with a plan by mid-September to cut the prison population by a quarter, or 40,000, over the next two years.

      If Webb has his way, as California goes, so goes the nation. This spring, the Virginia senator introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. Assuming Congress passes the measure, a top- level body will be established to conduct a review of the US sentencing and prison system, in which nothing would be off-limits, even drug decriminalisation. Only when the commission has submitted its recommendations would lawmakers be in a position to act. And even then, they may not. America's prisons may be falling apart but many Congressmen will not dare suggest less means more in the fight against crime. Unless of course, you've got the bipartisan war-hero credentials of Jim Webb.

      War hero tackles US over degrading prison conditions


      August 6, 2009

      U.S. to Reform Policy on Detention for Immigrants

      By NINA BERNSTEIN

      The Obama administration intends to announce an ambitious plan on Thursday to overhaul the much-criticized way the nation detains immigration violators, trying to transform it from a patchwork of jail and prison cells to what its new chief called a “truly civil detention system.”

      Details are sketchy, and even the first steps will take months or years to complete. They include reviewing the federal government’s contracts with more than 350 local jails and private prisons, with an eye toward consolidating many detainees in places more suitable for noncriminals facing deportation — some possibly in centers built and run by the government.

      The plan aims to establish more centralized authority over the system, which holds about 400,000 immigration detainees over the course of a year, and more direct oversight of detention centers that have come under fire for mistreatment of detainees and substandard — sometimes fatal — medical care.

      One move starts immediately: the government will stop sending families to the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former state prison near Austin, Tex., that drew an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and scathing news coverage for putting young children behind razor wire.

      “We’re trying to move away from ‘one size fits all,’ ” John Morton, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency as assistant secretary of homeland security, said in an interview on Wednesday. Detention on a large scale must continue, he said, “but it needs to be done thoughtfully and humanely.”

      Hutto, a 512-bed center run for profit by the Corrections Corporation of America under a $2.8 million-a-month federal contract, was presented as a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s tough approach to immigration enforcement when it opened in 2006. The decision to stop sending families there — and to set aside plans for three new family detention centers — is the Obama administration’s clearest departure from its predecessor’s immigration enforcement policies.

      So far, the new administration has embraced many of those policies, expanding a program to verify worker immigration status that has been widely criticized, bolstering partnerships between federal immigration agents and local police departments, and rejecting a petition for legally binding rules on conditions in immigration detention.

      But Mr. Morton, a career prosecutor, said he was taking a new philosophical approach to detention — that the system’s purpose was to remove immigration violators from the country, not imprison them, and that under the government’s civil authority, detention is aimed at those who pose a serious risk of flight or danger to the community.

      Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said last week that she expected the number of detainees to stay the same or grow slightly. But Mr. Morton added that the immigration agency would consider alternative ways to assure that those who face deportation — and are not dangerous — do not flee.

      Reviewing and redesigning all facilities, programs and standards will be the task of a new Office of Detention Policy and Planning, he said. Dora Schriro, special adviser to Ms. Napolitano, will become the director, assisted by two experts on detention management and medical care. The agency will also form two advisory boards of community groups and immigrant advocates, one focusing on detention policies and practices, the other on detainee health care.

      Mr. Morton said he would appoint 23 detention managers to work in the 23 largest detention centers, including several run by private companies, to ensure that problems are promptly fixed. He is reorganizing the agency’s inspection unit into three regional operations, renaming it the Office of Detention Oversight, and making its agents responsible for investigating detainee grievances as well as conducting routine and random checks.

      “A lot of this exists already,” he said. “A lot of it is making it work better” while Dr. Schriro’s office redesigns the detention system, which he called “disjointed” and “very much dependent on excess capacity in the criminal justice system.”

      Asked if his vision could include building new civil detention centers, he said yes. The current 32,000-bed network costs $2.4 billion a year, but the agency is not ready to calculate the cost of a revamped system.

      Vanita Gupta, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who led the lawsuit against the Hutto center, was jubilant over the decision to stop sending families there, but cautious about the other measures.

      “The ending of family detention at Hutto is welcome news and long overdue,” she said in an e-mail message. “However, without independently enforceable standards, a reduction in beds, or basic due process before people are locked up, it is hard to see how the government’s proposed overhaul of the immigration detention system is anything other than a reorganization or renaming of what was in place before.”

      Ms. Gupta said the changes at Hutto since 2006 illustrated the importance of enforceable rules. Before the A.C.L.U. lawsuit was settled in 2007, some children under 10 stayed as long as a year, mainly confined to family cells with open toilets, with only one hour of schooling a day. Children told of being threatened by guards with separation from their parents, many of them asylum-seekers from around the world.

      Only through judicial enforcement of the settlement, she said, have children been granted such liberties as wearing pajamas at night and taking crayons into family cells. The settlement also required the agency to honor agency standards that had been ignored, like timely reviews of the decision to detain a family at all. Some families have been deported, but others were released or are now awaiting asylum decisions in housing run by nonprofit social service agencies.

      That kind of stepped-up triage could be part of the more civil detention system envisioned by Mr. Morton and Dr. Schriro, who has been reviewing the detention system for months and is expected to report her recommendations soon.

      But the Hutto case also points to the limits of their approach, advocates say. Under the settlement, parents and children accused of immigration violations were detained when possible at the country’s only other family detention center, an 84-bed former nursing home in Leesport, Pa., called the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility. The number detained at Hutto has dropped sharply, to 127 individuals from as many as 450.

      Advocates noted that Berks, though eclipsed by the criticism of Hutto — the subject of protest vigils, a New Yorker article and a documentary — also has a history of problems, like guards who disciplined children by sending them across the parking lot to a juvenile detention center, and families’ being held for two years.

      The Hutto legal settlement expires Aug. 29. In the most recent monitoring report last month, Magistrate Judge Andrew W. Austin wrote: “Although the use of this facility to hold families is not a violation of the settlement agreement, it seems fundamentally wrong to house children and their noncriminal parents this way. We can do better.”

      Mr. Morton, a career prosecutor, seemed to agree. Hutto will be converted into an immigration jail for women, he said, adding: “I’m not ruling out the possibility of detaining families. But Berks is the better facility for that. Hutto is not the long-term answer.”

      U.S. to Reform Policy on Detention for Immigrants


      Jim Webb’s attack on American Gulag

      By Alexander Cockburn
      Published: July 6, 2009

      Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia introduced his bill to set up a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission. "We find ourselves as a nation," Webb declared, "in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis," vis., "the national disgrace of our present criminal justice system" and "the disintegration of this system, day by day and year by year." This "is dramatically affecting millions of lives, draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and — most importantly — it is not making our country a safer or a fairer place."

      True words.

      The goal of Webb's legislation? To establish a national commission to examine and reshape America's entire criminal justice system, the first such effort in more than 40 years. Its aims as outlined by Webb are to refocus incarceration policies on criminal activities that threaten public safety; to lower the incarceration rate; to decrease prison violence; to improve prison administration; to establish meaningful re-entry programs for former offenders; to reform drug laws; to improve treatment of the mentally ill; and to improve responses to international and domestic criminal activity by gangs and cartels.

      Webb compared the implications of his bleak data to the financial meltdown that has already eaten a trillion dollars of public funds and the "War on Terror" that has eaten another trillion, plus tens of thousands of lives.

      America has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's known prison population; 7.3 million incarcerated, on probation or on parole; 2.38 million are in prison — five times the world's average rate. Imprisoned drug offenders are up from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 by 2008, a significant percentage of them with no history of violence or high-level drug activity. There is extreme disproportion in the drug sentencing — blacks have roughly the same drug-use rate as whites but are seven times more likely to go to prison where there's hopeless overcrowding with all hope abandoned and extremely high recidivism rates. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals, roughly 350,000 compared to 80,000.

      One very important omission from Webb's profile of crisis was the crisis in prison medical (non)care, now so dreadful in California as to be taken out of California hands and managed by a court-appointed federal judge. This is clearly a contentious issue since Jerry Brown plans to run for governor on a platform that denounces medical care for prisoners as a frivolous expense.

      Gov. "Moonbeam" Brown has learned his lesson and become No-Nonsense Jerry, who rejects prison medicine as "holistic" silliness. Considering the ever-growing number of three-strike lifers vegetating in their own organic manure who have Alzheimer's and can't remember their names let alone their crimes, the cynicism of Jerry Brown — whose family has lived off the people in every possible "job" they could "run" for (after) for over 50 years — is unfathomable.

      What hope of reform? For 30 years, the political economy of the American gulag has had irresistible allurements: the "tough on crime" Seal of Approval for political candidates from police chiefs, prison guard unions and the victims' lobby. What governor, given the fate of Dukakis of Massachusetts or Ryan of Illinois, dares to pardon or even parole? In my recollection, only Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, released substantial numbers from prison.

      "Reform of the justice system" is now on lips that would otherwise disdain those words because of economic crisis, which has enabled reform of New York's terrible Rockefeller drug laws: The prisons housing the swelling flood of convicts become the darling of upstate New York. What legislator would vote to kill all those rural jobs, however counterproductive? Before the fiscal meltdown, hardly any; since the fiscal meltdown, a solid majority. New York State cannot now afford the huge workfare program that developed in the upstate counties around Rockefeller's prison-packing program. The money just isn't there. So, soon thousands of those convicts who shouldn't have been there in the first place won't be there either.

      Aside from the spur of fiscal crisis in every state, the only apparent opening political wedge discernible in Webb's opening statement is the issue of organized Mexican gangs that supposedly exist in "hundreds" of American cities. "There are an estimated 1 million gang members in the United States, many of them foreign- based," Webb declared. "Every American neighborhood is vulnerable.

      Gangs commit 80 percent of the crime in some locations. Mexican cartels, which are military-capable, have operations in 230-plus U.S. cities. U.S. gangs are involved in cross-border criminal activity, working in partnership with these cartels."

      Yet the organized gangs of prison guards and cement contractors who control all the state legislatures are far more powerful.

      Webb's stark recitation of the grim facts was all the more dramatic since it was devoid of editorial comment. It reminds one of Machiavelli's little theorem: the more difficult the diagnosis, the easier the cure; the easier the diagnosis, the harder the cure. When it is obvious to all, there is no cure.

      Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.

      Jim Webb’s attack on American Gulag


      Webb Crime Bill Moving In House

      By Ryan Grim
      First Posted: 06-24-09

      The House of Representatives will be taking up a companion version of a popular Senate bill intended to overhaul the American criminal justice system, Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) told the Huffington Post on Wednesday.

      The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Jim Webb and would create a commission to make recommendations on the reform of everything from sentencing to drug policy. Everything, Webb has said, would be on the table.

      Delahunt, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said that reform of the American justice system should begin with a broad look at drug policy.

      "I think it's really time to do an absolute overview of the issue of drugs and come at it with an open mind," he said.

      The bill, he said, "would create a commission of respected individuals in the field with a time frame for review. This deals with gang violence and everything else, but clearly, as you continue to peel back the problems, dealing with crime in this country, and particularly violent crime, the one common nexus is drugs. So you've gotta take a hard look at that."

      Delahunt is a former prosecutor from Massachusetts. Asked how his experience as a prosecutor shapes his thinking on drug legalization, he turned the question around.

      "I mean, how long have we been waging the war on drugs?" he said.

      Forty years?

      "Is it working?" he asked.

      Webb's bill was heard on June 11th in Sen. Arlen Specter's (D-Penn.) Crime and Drugs Subcommittee and is moving quickly. It now boasts 30 cosponsors, including Specter and the Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), also a former prosecutor.

      The top four Democratic leaders -- Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Chuck Schumer and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) -- have signed on. It has Republican backing from conservative Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both influential voices on the Judiciary Committee, as well as moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

      "We've got a good chance to get this done this year," said Webb when he introduced the bill. "I'm very concerned about the issue of gangs and transnational gangs and I think a big piece of that -- not all of it -- a big piece of that is the movement of drugs."

      Webb Crime Bill Moving In House


      In Light Of New Report, ACLU Calls On Congress To Restore Courts As Check On Prisoner Abuse

      FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

      CONTACT:
      (202) 675-2312
      media@dcaclu.org

      WASHINGTON – In light of a new report showing that a law intended to reduce so-called “frivolous lawsuits” by prisoners has resulted in barring serious prison abuse cases from reaching the courts, the American Civil Liberties Union today called on Congress to amend parts of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA). The law requires prisoners to exhaust the internal grievance process of their facilities and allege a physical injury due to mistreatment in order to seek redress in the courts.

      The troubling consequences of the PLRA are made clear in a Human Rights Watch report released today which finds that the exhaustion and physical injury requirements of the law have been particularly problematic for juveniles who are at higher risk of sexual assault and other violence. The American Civil Liberties Union has long fought to amend parts of the PLRA known as the exhaustion provision, the physical injury provision and the Act’s application to juveniles.

      The following can be attributed to Amy Fettig, Counsel to the ACLU National Prison Project:

      “For over thirteen years, the Prison Litigation Reform Act has denied access to the courts to countless prisoners who have become victims of abuse, creating a system of injustice that denies redress for prisoners alleging serious abuses, barriers that don’t apply to anyone else. It is time for Congress to pass legislation to restore the courts as a needed check on prisoner abuse.”

      ACLU Calls On Congress To Restore Courts As Check On Prisoner Abuse


      06/12/2009

      WHY WE MUST REFORM OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

      America's criminal justice system is broken.

      How broken? The numbers are stark:

      The United States has 5% of the world's population, yet possesses 25% of the world's prison population;

      More than 2.38 million Americans are now in prison, and another 5 million remain on probation or parole. That amounts to 1 in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release;

      Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980, up from 41,000 to 500,000 in 2008; and 60% of offenders are arrested for non-violent offensives--many driven by mental illness or drug addiction.

      Numbers only tell part of the story.

      While heavily focused on non-violent offenders, law enforcement has been distracted from pursuing the approximately one million gang members and drug cartels besieging our cities, often engaging in unprecedented levels of violence. Gangs in some areas commit 80% of the crimes and are heavily involved in drug distribution and other violent activities. This disturbing trend affects every community in the United States.

      Ex-offenders are also confronted with a lack of meaningful re-entry programs.

      With the high volume of people who are coming out of prisons, it is in the self-interest of every American that national leadership design programs that provide former offenders a true pathway towards a productive future.

      An examination is required as to what happens inside our prisons. Our correctional officers deserve better support in dealing with violent criminals under their supervision. It is also imperative that we facilitate a safe environment for all inmates, and examine ways to better prepare them for their release back into civil society. The de-humanizing environment of jails and prisons compounds these challenges.

      Without question, it is in the national interest that we bring violent offenders and career criminals to justice. The purpose of this legislation is not to let dangerous or incorrigible people go free. Rather, it is to determine how best to structure our criminal justice system so that it is fair, appropriate and--above all--effective.

      No American neighborhood is completely safe from the intersection of all of these problems.

      Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. This legislation, which I originally introduced in March, creates a Presidential level blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our nation's entire criminal justice system, ultimately providing the Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform.

      The committee hearing can be seen via webcast live today at 3:00pm.

      The goal of this legislation is nothing less than a complete restructuring of the criminal justice system in the United States. Only an outside commission, properly structured and charged, can bring us complete findings necessary to do so.

      Fixing our system will require us to reexamine who goes to prison, for how long and how we address the long-term consequences of their incarceration. Our failure to address these problems cuts against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.

      Today's hearing "Exploring the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009," chaired by cosponsor and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Senator Arlen Specter and ranking Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, also a sponsor, provides a platform for Judiciary Committee members to hear witness testimony from a wide spectrum of political ideologies and backgrounds including my own statement, about the need to make this commission a reality.

      The National Criminal Justice Commission Act has already garnered wide support from across the political and philosophical spectrum, including 29 sponsors in the Senate, among them many senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My staff and I have engaged with more than 100 organizations and associations, representing the entire gamut of prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, advocacy groups, think tanks, victims rights organizations, academics, prisoners, and law enforcement on the street. This engagement is ongoing, and support continues to grow.

      My goal, shared by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, is to pass this legislation soon and to enact it into law this year. Obviously we appreciate any measure of support and assistance in this difficult undertaking.

      For more information,
      please visit my website; Senator Webb


      June 03, 2009 edition

      Redeem the prison generation
      Treating prisoners like toxic social waste isn't working. Here's a better way.

      By Mark Lange
      SAN FRANCISCO

      They're the least popular constituency in America. People we'd rather forget. Last year, a record 1 in every 100 American adults was in prison. One in every 30 men aged 20 to 34. And among black males in that age group? One in 9. Why?

      Because America's crime and punishment policies reflect an incoherent mix of motives: justice, retribution, vengeance, the illusion of expedience, the cruel bigotry of nonexistent expectations. And absent decent job training, counseling, and re-entry programs, the system only incites violence and invites recidivism.

      It's past time to reconsider our approach to prisons, for practical reasons – and because it seriously undermines our effectiveness as a society and our moral authority with other nations.

      With just 5 percent of the world's population, we cage almost a quarter of the world's prisoners – a trend that has accelerated wildly since the 1970s. If the 2.3 million Americans now behind bars joined the 5 million on parole or probation to form a city of their own, you'd have a population nearly twice that of Los Angeles.

      Feeling safer yet?

      You shouldn't.

      The last decade's legendary drop in crime may be providing a false sense of security. Applying the murder rate as an index for overall crime, William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School notes that advances in emergency medicine mean that one-fourth of victims now survive murder attempts that would have been fatal in the halcyon 1950s. Adjust for that factor, he says, and "a clear picture emerges: Outside the South, American cities are at least several times more violent than they were in the mid-20th century."

      With exceptions (since justice is imperfect), inmates aren't innocents, of course. They all had victims, directly or indirectly.

      And many are plea bargainers suspected of more serious crimes that couldn't be proved in court. We're certainly right to err on the side of safety with violent offenders, drug and human traffickers, rapists, anyone guilty of child molestation – where there is no basis for trust and no room for error.

      But the 10-fold increase since 1980 of incarceration for small-time drug use has put half a million people, one-fifth of the total prison population, behind bars. While crime comes in degrees, the basic risk assessment we apply to every other human enterprise – from military interventions to medicine to making children's toys – doesn't seem to apply here. Instead, the crudest and broadest possible sentencing mandates treat many offenders as domestic terrorists, with little regard for the severity of the crime or the risk to society.

      Being "tough" on crime should mean getting results. But more than two- thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Why? Because we recycle nonviolent offenders for minor, technical violations of probation or parole. Miss a parole appointment? Back to jail.

      Mass imprisonment of nonviolent offenders amounts to justice by lock- down – and lets government off the hook for results. The only stakeholders this system serves are elected officials, including judges, who are rewarded for posing as "tough" on crime without solving it – and the lobbyists and interests paid to build and run prisons.

      We'll pay the prison industrial complex at least $50 billion this year to build jails that are essentially crime schools where nonviolent offenders are taught violence. That's an average of $24,000 a year to make each inmate just go away. What are we getting for our money?

      For starters, inhumane conditions that are unworthy of America. Prisons punish inmates who are addicted or mentally disabled. A federal court found that in California a prisoner dies a needless death due to inadequate medical care or malpractice every six to seven days. The use of solitary confinement is spreading.

      And despite chronic underestimates by prison authorities, independent studies estimate that at least 1 in 5 inmates are threatened or forced into sexual contact. Of these, more than half had been raped at least once. Data from the US Department of Justice shows that 42 percent of reported assaults were by prison staff, while 37 percent involved prisoner-on-prisoner violence. We have built Abu Ghraib next door.

      How long will we put up with this vicious cycle – and this waste of human potential? There is a better way:

      •Invest federal dollars to put more cops on high-crime streets, since the data show that more police coverage had a greater effect on reducing crime in the 1990s than more jail time. President Obama's proposed budget adds less than a half percent to policing; the much- bigger boost in the 1990s led to a massive decline in crime.

      •Revise mandatory sentencing guidelines and repeal the "three strikes" law so that judges have discretion to apply proportionate punishment. That's what they're paid for. Without that discretion, we'll continue to jam prisons with low-level offenders whose lives are likely to worsen in jail. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and others now recognize data showing that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders.

      •States should ramp up efforts to handle drug users in drug courts rather than the criminal courts, sentencing them to monitored treatment rather than jail. From Texas to New Jersey, community-based programs with day-reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service are generating cost- effective results.

      •To break the cycle of recidivism, cities must find creative ways to fund responsible, safe reentry programs. San Francisco, for example, partnered with Goodwill to fund a "Back on Track" program limited to adults without weapons offenses, who receive job training and placement, apprenticeships in the building trades, GED preparation, and parenting support.

      If there's one person who needs your support now to make more of this happen, it's Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia. He's a decorated Marine and former Reagan administration Navy secretary with the courage and credibility to do for prison reform (a liberal cause) what Bill Clinton did for welfare reform (a conservative one).

      Fixing this would tap the best of our traditions from both left and right. For conservatives, it restores the ideals of freedom and individual responsibility that no prison teaches, reducing the reach of the worst kind of welfare state. For liberals, it mitigates great social injustice and the disproportionate jailing of black and Latino Americans. And for both, it relieves state budgets of unsustainable expense that is damaging our standing in the world, our self-respect, and our safety.

      Redemption is one of the oldest and best American stories. This is the land of the second chance.

      Let's have a clearer and more constructive conversation about what we're trying to accomplish in our prisons: retribution, or reform. It doesn't take much for a boy who can't sit still and focus in class to wind up with a rap sheet and a lifetime defined by doing wrong.

      Can we live with that? The answer depends on what you think American society should more closely resemble: a school, or a prison.

      Mark Lange is a consultant and former presidential speechwriter.

      Redeem the prison generation


      Our Real Prison Problem
      Why are we so worried about Gitmo?

      Dahlia Lithwick
      NEWSWEEK
      From the magazine issue dated Jun 15, 2009

      The public-opinion two-step on the wisdom of closing the prison camp at Guantánamo is fascinating, and not just because, as recent polling shows, Americans are inclined to keep it open forever. The current legal meltdown over what to do with the 240 prisoners shows that Americans actually care a lot about prisons, prisoners and prison reform, but only when the inmates threaten to tumble out into their backyards.

      That's what Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) may be counting on as he launches an ambitious effort to reform U.S. prisons. In addition to proposing a massive 18-month review of the prison system, Webb wants to work toward reducing the overall incarceration rate while refocusing efforts toward locking up truly dangerous criminals and gang leaders, decreasing prison violence, establishing meaningful reentry programs for ex-offenders, reforming the nation's drug policies and improving treatment of the mentally ill. It's not quite as dramatic as the prospect of Abu Zubaydah bedding down at the Supermax prison in Colorado, but Webb wants to reignite the subject of prison reform, because he's convinced that when it comes to their prison problem, Americans need only know how to count.

      Here are the facts about America's prisons, according to Webb:

      The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, houses nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. As Webb has explained it, "Either we're the most evil people on earth or we're doing something wrong." We incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents—nearly five times the world average. Approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail or on supervised release. Local, state and federal spending on corrections amounts to about $70 billion per year and has increased 40 percent over the past 20 years.

      Webb has no problem locking up the real baddies. He just wants us to recognize that warehousing the nation's mentally ill and drug addicts in crowded correctional facilities tends mostly to create a mass of meaner, more violent, less employable people at the exit. The Justice Department estimates that 16 percent of the adult inmates in American prisons—more than 350,000 of those incarcerated—suffer from mental illness; the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher. Justice statistics for 2007 showed that nearly 60 percent of the state prisoners serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence, and four out of five drug arrests were for drug possession, not sales.

      Webb also reminds us that while drug use varies little by ethnic group, African-Americans—estimated at 14 percent of regular drug users —make up 56 percent of those in state prison for drug crimes.

      So why does the senator from one of the country's most rabid "lock 'em up" states believe that with two wars raging, an economy collapsing and America's Next Top Model beckoning seductively, Americans are ready to grapple with his new legislation—the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009—which establishes a blue- ribbon panel to review the nation's entire prison system?

      Perhaps public opinion is finally shifting away from fear-based appeals to personal safety. If Americans actually have the conversation about our disastrous prison policies, we'll understand the trends all move in very dangerous directions: we lock up more people, for less violent crime, at ever greater expense, breeding more dangerous criminals who often come out unemployable, violent and isolated.

      The Guantánamo problem we've finally started to grapple with—it's a dangerous place with some dangerous people—is a mere speck in the eye of America's larger prison program. An AP story last week indicated that a small Montana town was willing to take all the Guantánamo prisoners because, ultimately, a jail is a jail. If we are so worried about locking up a few terrorists for life in maximum-security U.S. jails, shouldn't we be worrying about the folks who are already there? As Dennis Jett observed recently in The Miami Herald, "even if everyone at Guantánamo were transferred to a U.S. prison it would amount to an increase of less than one hundredth of one percent in the total number incarcerated in this country."

      Compared with the powder keg of our domestic prison system, Guantánamo looks pretty benign.

      If we are going to have a national panic attack about the failings of the criminal justice system after 9/11, let's be honest that the dangers of a handful of Guantánamo prisoners rejoining the battlefield is far more remote than the dangers festering in our own jails and prisons. Americans worried about what's happening in their own backyards would be well advised to recognize that the U.S. prison system is one burgeoning backyard that won't be contained, ignored or walled off forever.

      URL: Our Real Prison Problem


      05/29/2009

      PARADE POLL
      How Would You Change Our Prison System?


      Why We Must Fix Our Prisons

      By Senator Jim Webb
      Published: 03/29/2009

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


      Inmates at a facility in California, a state that spent almost $10 billion on corrections last year.

      We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding-- and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.

      The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision, " which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.

      Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear. Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard or, in some places, nonexistent, making it more difficult for former offenders who wish to overcome the stigma of having done prison time and become full, contributing members of society. And, in the face of the movement toward mass incarceration, law-enforcement officials in many parts of the U.S. have been overwhelmed and unable to address a dangerous wave of organized, frequently violent gang activity, much of it run by leaders who are based in other countries.

      With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.

      Over the past two decades, we have been incarcerating more and more people for nonviolent crimes and for acts that are driven by mental illness or drug dependence. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 16% of the adult inmates in American prisons and jails--which means more than 350,000 of those locked up--suffer from mental illness, and the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher. Our correctional institutions are also heavily populated by the "criminally ill," including inmates who suffer from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.

      Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons. According to data supplied to Congress' Joint Economic Committee, those imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10% of the inmate population to approximately 33% between 1984 and 2002. Experts estimate that this increase accounts for about half of the dramatic escalation in the total number imprisoned over that period. Yet locking up more of these offenders has done nothing to break up the power of the multibillion- dollar illegal drug trade.

      Nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs--such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines- -that are reaching our citizens.

      Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales.

      Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans- -who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population-- accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

      Against this backdrop of chaos and mismanagement, a dangerous form of organized and sometimes deadly gang activity has infiltrated America's towns and cities.

      It comes largely from our country's southern border, and much of the criminal activity centers around the movement of illegal drugs. The weapons and tactics involved are of the highest order.

      The Mexican drug cartels, whose combined profits are estimated at $25 billion a year, are known to employ many elite former soldiers who were trained in some of America's most sophisticated military programs. Their brutal tactics took the lives of more than 6000 Mexicans last year alone, and the bloodshed has been spilling over the border into our own neighborhoods at a rapid pace. One terrible result is that Phoenix, Ariz., has become the kidnapping capital of the United States, with more than 370 cases in 2008. That is more incidents than in any other city in the world outside of Mexico City.

      The challenge to our communities is not limited to the states that border Mexico. Mexican cartels are now reported to be running operations in some 230 American cities. Other gang activity--much of it directed from Latin America, Asia, and Europe--has permeated our country to the point that no area is immune. As one example, several thousand members of the Central American gang MS-13 now operate in northern Virginia, only a stone's throw from our nation's capital.

      In short, we are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail. It is incumbent on our national leadership to find a way to fix our prison system. I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior while still minimizing violent crime and large-scale gang activity. And we all deserve to live in a country made better by such changes.

      Senator Jim Webb (D. Va.)
      is a PARADE Contributing Editor
      and the author of nine books,
      including "A Time to Fight."

      Why We Must Fix Our Prisons


      Criminal Justice Reform = Slow Train A-Comin'

      News: May 8, 2009
      By Jordan Smith

      The fact that Texas leads the nation in wrongful convictions – and that by the time lawmakers headed into the Capitol in January, 38 innocent men had been released from Texas prisons after spending altogether roughly 500 years behind bars – would seem a powerful motivator for elected officials to take the time to clean up problems in the state's criminal justice system. Thus far, however, the tally for criminal justice reform is mixed. At best.

      A bid to reform the way police conduct live and photo lineups has the best chance at becoming law (Senate Bill 117 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D- Hous ton), along with a bill that increases the amount of compensation for exonerees to $80,000 for each year spent behind bars (House Bill 1736 by Rep. Rafael Anchía). Other bills with a decent shot of making it to Perry's desk include a bill that would free so- called "Romeo and Juliet" lovers from a lifetime of having to register as sex offenders (SB 1709 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas), another Ellis proposal that would have police record interrogations (when "practical"), and one by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that would require corroboration of jailhouse snitches (SB 1681).

      Also still in the running are a bid to create a specialty court to handle cases involving defendants who are veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury (Ellis' SB 112) and West's SB 1454, which would make it easier for individuals who've had criminal charges against them dismissed to have their records expunged.

      Still, the specter of dozens of exonerees filling the halls of the Capitol hasn't been enough to push stiff reforms through with any speed. Some insiders complain, for example, that even reforms with a good chance at passage (such as the eyewitness-ID bill and the interrogation-recording measure) have been softened, which is hardly a mandate for reform. Still others say that the ship is turning – if slowly – toward a more equitable system. Whether that's enough to keep the innocent out of prison in the future is something that, unfortunately, we'll have to wait to see.

      Copyright © 2009 Austin Chronicle Corporation.

      Criminal Justice Reform


      Webb's Prison Crusade - 100 Days

      By; CHRISTOPHER HAYES
      This article appeared in the May 4, 2009 edition of The Nation.
      April 15, 2009

      After more than a year of hearings before the Joint Economic Committee, in March Virginia Senator Jim Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. The legislation would create a blue-ribbon panel with the mandate to make recommendations for wholesale reform of criminal justice policy.

      There's dramatic symmetry to Webb's taking on this issue. A proud member of the white working class, raised a Democrat, he sided with the right during the culture wars only to return to the Democratic Party in response to the kleptocratic neoconservative incarnation of the modern GOP. If his election in Virginia signaled that conservative backlash politics had reached a point of diminishing returns, his crusade against the prison-industrial complex can't help but make me feel optimistic that the culture wars may finally be drawing to a close.

      Webb's biography makes him the perfect vessel for this endeavor; it also helps that he's so indifferent to the rudiments of electoral politics. In fact, it's a kind of miracle the man is a senator at all. On a recent afternoon, as he toured the Bragg Hill Family Life Center, which provides social services to ex-offenders in Fredericksburg, Virginia, he was so stone silent that co-founder Rev. Joseph Henderson grew self-conscious. "You can ask any questions," Henderson offered nervously. "We preachers talk too much sometimes."

      As we walked through the gym, Webb had to be prompted to shake the hands of the (adorable) children scurrying around him, and the look on his face as he prepared to glad-hand was that of a man steeling himself for the dentist's chair.

      But once we were inside the presentation room, where about a dozen people who work in corrections and social services had assembled to talk about the criminal justice system, Webb's evident passion and fluency with the issues created a palpable bond with the attendees.

      "We have 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the people in prison," he said. "Either we're the most evil people on earth, or we're doing something wrong." As for the imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders: "I saw more drug use at Georgetown University Law Center when I was a student there than I've seen anywhere else in my life," he said, to knowing laughs. "And some of those people are judges."

      Webb then listened as attendees enumerated the various dysfunctions, injustices and perverse incentives created by the metastasizing prison-industrial complex: "I can get $600,000 from the state for a new jail," said Fredericksburg Mayor Tom Tomzak, "but I can't get $40 for Healthy Families."There are some hard policy questions in Washington, but whether we should have more, or fewer, people in prison is not one of them. The question is whether politicians remain paralyzed by fear of culture war demagogy. The mere fact that Webb is calling for a commission, a classic Washington way of outsourcing explosive issues like intelligence reform or closing military bases, suggests that members of Congress remain wary. On the other hand, the right-wing, tough-on-crime backlash that started in the wake of the Watts riots in 1966 corresponded to a dramatic rise in the crime rate in the United States: violent crime more than tripled between 1960 and 1980. This doesn't mean the politics of crime were just about crime--the issue stoked racial solidarity among white voters--but it does mean that crime and the political reaction to it are related, and that the drop in the crime rate in the past decade (down almost 14 percent) should make reform more possible.

      So far Webb has gotten nineteen co-sponsors, including Southern Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Kay Hagan and Republican Lindsey Graham. Most promising, he has enlisted the support of Arlen Specter.

      Facing a primary challenge from his right, Specter is as attuned to the risk of provoking a conservative backlash as any politician in the country. If he thinks he can get away with it, it's a good sign.

      Politics is a path-dependent business: most elected officials simply imitate the actions and language of those who came before them.

      Occasionally, an innovator comes along who senses that the old rules no longer apply. If he's successful, others follow. That's how the culture wars started, with men like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who understood there were new resentments and frustrations to tap that weren't available to an older generation of conservatives.

      "People follow leaders," Webb told me, "if leaders give them something to believe in."

      On this issue, Jim Webb, onetime culture warrior, seems to be just such an innovator in reverse.

      Webb's Prison Crusade


      Color of Change

      April 9th, 2009

      When it comes to issues plaguing Black and low-income communities, a White senator from the South is the last person we'd expect to go out on a limb and sound the alarm. Senator Jim Webb from Virginia just did exactly that when he boldly called out the over-imprisonment of Black folks and the serious problems with our prison system. Most importantly, he's demanding big changes.

      Now it's up to us to seize the moment and create the pressure necessary to achieve true reform.

      The first step is publicly thanking Senator Webb. Our praise will show other politicians that when they take risks and step out on critical issues like prison reform, we will have their backs. It will also show that everyday people stand with Webb and are serious about this issue. Please join us, and ask your friends and family to do the same: CLICK HERE

      In recent years, politicians have lacked the courage to create meaningful prison reform. They've been paralyzed by the fear of being branded as "soft on crime." They've been held hostage by prison guard unions and industry lobbies. And the communities most affected--Black and low-income communities- -have had a hard time getting a seat at the table and making our voices heard.

      Our country has a clear problem.

      With just 5% of the world's population, America holds nearly 25% of the world's reported prison population. Our prison population has quadrupled since 1984, and most of the increase comes from people being imprisoned for drug offenses-- mostly minor and nonviolent.

      Despite the fact that there is no statistical difference in drug use between different racial groups, harsh drug laws have had a devastating, disproportionate effect on Black communities.

      While only 12% of the U.S. population is African-American, Black people make up 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

      It's surprising and encouraging that someone like Senator Webb is speaking out in this way. Webb is a White politician from Virginia, a Southern "law-and-order" state that has abolished parole and executed more people than any state besides Texas. He has nothing to gain politically from this--it's an act of true conviction.

      By eloquently making the case for reform and calling for a National Criminal Justice Commission, Webb has created a major opening to address these issues. And it comes at a time when there are increasing signs the country is ready for reform.

      New York's governor and state legislature just struck a deal to reform the state's "Rockefeller drug laws"--some of the harshest laws in the country, and a great example of the failed status quo.

      A panel of federal judges has just told California it must reduce its prison population by a third to alleviate the torturous conditions stemming from overcrowding.

      And at the same time that more people are recognizing the deep injustices in our system, the economic crisis is forcing elected officials at all levels of government to realize they can't afford to keep directing so many taxpayer dollars toward law enforcement, jails, and prisons.

      We need to make the most of this moment. Take a minute to thank Senator Jim Webb for his courageous stand and support his call for a meaningful commission. And when you do, please ask your friends and family to do the same.

      Click HERE to Thank Senator Webb

      Thanks and Peace,
      -- James, Gabriel,
      Clarissa, William,
      Dani and the rest of the
      ColorOfChange.org Team

      Help support our work.
      ColorOfChange.org is powered by
      YOU--your energy and dollars.
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      References:

      1. "Senator Jim Webb's Floor Speech to Introduce 'The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009'," 3-26-2009

      2. "Why we must fix our prisons," Parade, 3-29-2009
      3. See reference 2

      4. "Webb Sets His Sights On Prison Reform," Washington Post, 12-29-2008

      5. "More on Albany's Rockefeller Drug Law Reform," Village Voice, 3-27-2009

      6. "Court Orders California to Cut Prison Population," New York Times, 2-9-2009

      7. "A Different Drug Czar Signals Shift Away From Emphasis On Punishment," Hartford Courant, 3-22-2009


      Editorial

      Reviewing Criminal Justice

      Published: March 29, 2009

      America’s criminal justice system needs repair. Prisons are overcrowded, sentencing policies are uneven and often unfair, ex-convicts are poorly integrated into society, and the growing problem of gang violence has not received the attention it deserves. For these and other reasons, a bill introduced last week by Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, should be given high priority on the Congressional calendar.

      The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would establish a national commission to review the system from top to bottom. It is long overdue, and should be up and running as soon as possible.

      The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. More than 1 in 100 adults are now behind bars, for the first time in history. The incarceration rate has been rising faster than the crime rate, driven by harsh sentencing policies like “three strikes and you’re out,” which impose long sentences that are often out of proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

      Keeping people in prison who do not need to be there is not only unjust but also enormously expensive, which makes the problem a priority right now. Hard-pressed states and localities that reduce prison costs will have more money to help the unemployed, avert layoffs of teachers and police officers, and keep hospitals operating. In the last two decades, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, state corrections spending soared 127 percent, while spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

      Meanwhile, as governments waste money putting the wrong people behind bars, gang activity has been escalating, accounting for as much as 80 percent of the crime in some parts of the country.

      The commission would be made up of recognized criminal justice experts, and charged with examining a range of policies that have emerged haphazardly across the country and recommending reforms. In addition to obvious problems like sentencing, the commission would bring much-needed scrutiny to issues like the special obstacles faced by the mentally ill in the system, as well as the shameful problem of prison violence.

      Prison management and inmate treatment need special attention now that the Prison Litigation Reform Act has drastically scaled back prisoners’ ability to vindicate their rights in court. Indeed, the commission should consider recommending that the law be modified or repealed.

      Mr. Webb has enlisted the support of not only the Senate’s top-ranking Democrats, including the majority leader, Harry Reid, but also influential Republicans like Arlen Specter, the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham, the ranking member of the crime and drugs subcommittee.

      There is no companion bill in the House, and one needs to be written. Judging by the bipartisan support in the Senate, a national consensus has emerged that the criminal justice system is broken.

      A version of this article appeared in print on March
      Reviewing Criminal Justice


      March 20, 2009

      The View From Inside: Why We Need Prison Reform

      By Michael Santos


      [Editor's Note: The post below is the first from our new regular contributor, Michael Santos, a federal inmate and the author of "Inside: Life Behind Bars in America." I'm excited to have Michael join the change.org community and hope you'll join me in welcoming him.]

      I am a long-term prisoner and I welcome this privilege of introducing myself to readers of change.org. I look forward to contributing articles that offer my perspective on America's prison system. Readers can expect me to respond openly and honestly to all questions or comments.

      Since 1987 I've been locked inside prisons of every security level, from high-security United States penitentiaries to minimum-security federal prison camps. I was 23 when the term began. Now I'm 45. Although I had never been incarcerated before, and I did not have a history of weapons or violence, my judge imposed a 45-year sentence. That sanction followed my convictions for crimes related to the distribution of cocaine.

      With more than 21 continuous years of prison behind me, I've had considerable time and opportunity to contemplate policies that govern our nation's prisons.

      We need change.

      This system of warehousing human beings perpetuates cycles of failure.

      In the Second Chance Act of 2007, the United States Congress made some telling findings about America's prison system. Taxpayers spent $59 billion each year to cover the costs associated with confining more than 2.3 million people.

      Despite the massive public expenditure, Congress found that more than six of every ten people who concluded their sentences returned to confinement after their release.

      The costs to society of maintaining this system are many, both in financial and human terms. The financial costs necessitate the diversion of funds from education, health care, and other social programs more beneficial to the advancement of an enlightened society. The Pew Report recently published findings showing that state spending on corrections has increased at a faster rate than all agencies other than Medicaid.

      Despite the high costs, recidivism rates show that corrections fail to take place. To improve these dismal results, we need reforms that would bring fundamental changes to America's prison system. Rather than relying exclusively on the threat of further punishments and more oppressive conditions, administrators ought to implement an incentive system that would encourage more prisoners to work toward earning gradual increases in freedom through merit.

      This idea of earning freedom is not such a novel concept. Nor is it radical. In the mid-1980s, former Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered a commencement speech to a graduating class from Pace University. In Factories with Fences, Chief Justice Burger wrote that we needed reforms that would encourage prisoners to earn and learn their way to freedom.

      More recently, on August 9, 2003, Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered a keynote speech to the American Bar Association. In that speech, Justice Kennedy called for prison reform. Specifically, he said that "A decent and free society, founded in respect for the individual, ought not to run a system with a sign at the entrance for inmates saying, ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.'"

      Prisoners in the institutions where I have been confined could behave in myriad ways to aggravate the conditions of their confinement. No mechanism existed, however, that would allow the prisoners to distinguish themselves formally in a positive way. That fundamental flaw in America's prison system extinguished hope for many. That loss of hope led to poor adjustment decisions. Poor adjustments led to high recidivism rates. The cycle of failure continued.

      We need prison reforms in America. Those reforms should begin with an introduction of mechanisms through which prisoners could earn gradual increases in freedom.

      Why We Need Prison Reform


      January 18, 1971 -- TIME Magazine (US)

      The Shame of the Prisons

      (Note: This article was originally published 38 years ago, but is certainly even more relevant today)

      It is with the unfortunate, above all, that humane conduct is necessary. -- Dostoevsky

      PRESIDENT Nixon calls them "universities of crime." Chief Justice Burger has become a crusader for their reform. Legislators have taken to investigating them -- and citizens have finally begun to listen. After decades of ignoring their prisons, Americans are slowly awakening to the failure that long neglect has wrought.

      It is not just the riots, the angry cries of 426,000 invisible inmates from the Tombs to Walla Walla, that have made prisons a national issue. Public concern is rooted in the paradox that Americans have never been so fearful of rising crime, yet never so ready to challenge the institutions that try to cope with it. More sensitive to human rights than ever, more liberated in their own lives and outlooks, a growing number of citizens view prisons as a new symbol of unreason, another sign that too much in America has gone wrong.

      It is a time when people have discovered with a sense of shock that the blacks who fill prisons (52% in Illinois) see themselves as "political victims" of a racist society. It is a time when many middle-class whites are forced to confront prisons for the first time, there to visit their own children, locked up for possession of pot or draft resistance. A time when many judges have finally begun to make personal -- and traumatic -- inspections. After a single night at the Nevada State Prison, for example, 23 judges from all over the U.S. emerged "appalled at the homosexuality," shaken by the inmates' "soul-shattering bitterness" and upset by "men raving, screaming and pounding on the walls." Kansas Judge E. Newton Vickers summed up: "I felt like an animal in a cage. Ten years in there must be like 100 or maybe 200." Vickers urged Nevada to "send two bulldozers out there and tear the damn thing to the ground."

      The Big House

      It will not be easy to raze, much less reform, the misnamed U.S. "corrections" system, which has responsibility for more than 1.2 million offenders each day and handles perhaps twice as many each year. Since 1967, four presidential commissions, dozens of legislative reports and more than 500 books and articles have pleaded for prison reform. But the system remains as immutable as prison concrete, largely because life behind the walls is still a mystery to the public. Most Americans think of prisons only in terms of the old "big house" movies starring James Cagney and more recently Burt Lancaster.

      In fact, the corrections system is not a system at all. It is a hodgepodge of uncoordinated institutions run independently by almost every governmental unit in the U.S. Pacesetting federal institutions (20,000 prisoners) range from maximum-security bastilles like Atlanta Penitentiary to a no-walls unit for tame young offenders in Seagoville, Texas. The states offer anything from Alabama's archaic road gangs to California's Men's Colony West, one of the nation's two prisons for oldsters. There are forestry camps for promising men and assorted detention centers for 14,000 women. Some juvenile institutions are the best of the lot because reformers get the most political support at that level. But many areas are still so lacking in juvenile facilities that 100,000 children a year wind up in adult pens.

      The Jail Mess

      Two-thirds of all U.S. offenders technically serving time are actually outside the walls on parole or probation, but most offenders have at some point encountered the worst correctional evil: county jails and similar local lockups. Such institutions number 4,037 -- a fact not even known until last week, when the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration published the first national jail census. Jails usually hold misdemeanants serving sentences of a year or less. More important, they detain defendants awaiting trial: 52% of all people in jails have not yet been convicted of any crime. Of those, four out of five are eligible for bail but cannot raise the cash. Because courts are overloaded, unconvicted defendants may linger in crowded cells for months or even years.

      To be sure, jails vary widely from two-cell rural hovels to modern urban skyscrapers. But the vast majority treat minor offenders -- and the merely accused -- more harshly than prisons do felons, who commit graver crimes. The jail mess is typified by New Orleans' Parish Prson, a putrid pen built in 1929 to hold 400 prisoners. It now contains 850 -- 75% of them unsentenced. Money and guards are so short that violent inmates prey on the weak; many four-bunk cells hold seven inmates, mattresses smell of filth and toilets are clogged. Prisoners slap at cockroaches "so big you can almost ride them."

      Jail conditions frequently breed hardened criminals who then go on to the prisons themselves, the second anomaly in a pattern that stands as a monument to irrationality. The typical U.S. felon is sentenced by a judge who may have never seen a prison and has no idea whether x years will suffice. Leaving the courtroom, where his rights were scrupulously respected, the felon has a good chance of being banished to one of 187 escape-proof fortresses, 61 of them built before 1900. Now stripped of most rights, he often arrives in chains and becomes a number. His head sheared, he is led to a bare cage dominated by a toilet. In many states his cellmate may represent any kind of human misbehavior -- a docile forger, a vicious killer, an aggressive homosexual.

      In this perverse climate, he is expected to become socially responsible but is given no chance to do so. He is told when to wake up, eat and sleep; his letters are censored, his visitors sharply limited. His days are spent either in crushing idleness or at jobs that do not exist in the "free world," such as making license plates for a few cents' pay an hour. In some states, he cannot vote (even after his release), own property or keep his wife from divorcing him. He rarely gets adequate medical care or sees a woman. Everything is a privilege, including food, that can be taken away by his keepers.

      If he is accused of violating one of scores of petty rules, he is haled before the "adjustment council" without right to counsel. If he denies guilt, he can be punished for implying that his accuser guard lied; if he admits it, he may lose "good time" (eligibility for parole) and perhaps land in solitary. The lesson is clear: truth does not pay.

      If he happens to be a rich criminal, a Mafia type, life in some prisons can be easy. Ill-paid "hacks" (guards) may sell him anything from smuggled heroin to a girlish cellmate. More often he is a complete loser; for him, prison is synonymous with poorhouse. Already angry at life's winners, he becomes even more insensitive to others in a doomed universe whose motto is "Do your own time": trust no one, freeze your mind, be indifferent. Unequipped for normal society, he may well be headed back to prison as soon as he leaves. In fact, he may come to prefer it: Why struggle in a world that hates ex-convicts?

      Everyone knows what prisons are supposed to do: cure criminals. Way back in 1870, the nation's leading prison officials met in Cincinnati and carved 22 principles that became the bible of their craft. "Reformation," they declared, "not vindictive suffering, should be the purpose of the penal treatment of prisoners." Today, every warden in the U.S. endorses the ideal of rehabilitation. Every penologist extols "individualized treatment" to cure each inmate's hangups and return society's misfits to crime-free lives. But the rhetoric is so far from reality that perhaps 40% of all released inmates (75% in some areas) are reimprisoned within five years, often for worse crimes. Says Rod Beaty, 33, who began with a $65 forged check, became an armed robber, and is now a four-time loser in San Quentin: "Here you lose all sense of values. A human life is worth 35#, the price of a pack of cigarettes. After five years on the inside, how can you expect me to care about somebody when I get outside?"

      Slavery in Arkansas

      Without question, the U.S. boasts some prisons that look like college campuses -- humane places that lack walls and shun official brutality. Guards chat amiably with inmates; men are classified in graded groups, promoted for good conduct and sped toward parole.

      And yet, rehabilitation is rare. By and large, mere aging is the main cause of going straight. For inmates between the ages of 16 and 30 -- the vast majority -- neither the type of prison nor the length of sentence makes any significant difference. The repeater rate, in fact, is rising. Something is clearly wrong with a system that spends $1 billion a year to produce a failure record that would sink any business in a month. Consider a random sample of prisons from the worst to the best:

      ARKANSAS. Whether in 110° F. summer heat or winter cold, 16,000 acres of rich southeastern Arkansas land will always be tilled. This is the Cummins Prison Farm, where 200 convicts stoop in the vast cotton fields twelve hours a day, 51 days a week -- for zero pay. Such are the wages of sin in what may be the nation's most Calvinistic state.

      A virtual slave plantation in the 20th century. Cummins takes all kinds of errants and turns them into white-clad "rankers" who work or perish. Toiling from dawn to dusk, they move in a long line across the fields, supervised by a horseman in khaki and five unmounted "shotguns" (guards) who "push" the serfs along. At each corner of the field stands another guard, armed with a high-powered rifle. All the guards are convicts, the toughest at Cummins. Hated by rankers, the trusties are picked for meanness in order to keep them alive off duty. They are killers, armed robbers, rapists -- ready to gun down the first ranker who strays across an imaginary line in the fields.

      After three skeletons were dug up on the farm in 1968, national publicity moved the state to do a little fixing. Gun-toting trusties lost some power, 60 more free-world staffers arrived, $450,000 was allotted to replace some men and mules with farm machinery. Robert Sarver, head of the Arkansas penal system, is pushing hard for improvement against stiff odds. But Cummins still lacks any schooling, counseling or job training. For a college-trained social worker, the state pays only $593 a month; Cummins can barely attract civilian guards ($330). Says Sarver: "We can't guarantee a man's safety."

      Last year U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled that imprisonment in Arkansas amounts to unconstitutional "banishment from civilized society to a dark and evil world." He ordered the state to reform Cummins by the fall of 1971 or face an order to close the place. But the evil world persists. With no pay, Cummins prisoners survive by selling their blood or bodies. To blot out the place, they sniff glue and gobble smuggled pills. Some mornings, 200 men are too stoned to work. Since gambling is pervasive, loan sharks top the prison pecking order. They charge 50¢ per dollar a week and swiftly punish defaulters. In a single month last summer, Cummins recorded 19 stabbings, assaults and attempted rapes. The worst of it is the privacy-robbing barracks, where 100-bunk rooms house all types, from harmless chicken thieves to homicidal sadists, and the young spend all night repelling "creepers" (rapists). "You're all there in the open," shudders a recently released car thief named Frank. "Someone's stinking feet in your face, radios going, guys gambling. You never really get to sleep. What's worse is the fear. There's no protection for your life. I kept thinking 'if I get out -- not 'when.'"

      INDIANA. With its 40-ft. walls, the gray castle in Michigan City looks its part: a maximum-security pen for 1,800 felons, including teen-age lifers. Inside, the walls flake, the wiring sputters and the place is falling apart. Indiana spends only 1.5% of its state budget on all forms of correction.

      Like many legislatures, Indiana's insists that prisons make a profit. Last year Indiana State Prison turned out 3.5 million license plates, among other things, and netted the taxpayers $600,000 -- no problem when inmates get 20¢ an hour. Inmates also provided the prison's few amenities. Many cells are jammed with books, pictures, record players and tropical fish in elaborate tanks. There are two baseball diamonds, three miniature golf courses, tennis, basketball and handball courts -- all equipment paid for by the inmates' recreation fund.

      The prison needs far more than play. It teems with bitter men, one-third of them black. Some of the toughest are young militants transferred from Indiana State Reformatory at Pendleton, where 225 blacks staged a sitdown last year to protest the prolonged solitary confinement of their leaders. Instead of using tear gas or other nonlethal weapons, Pendleton guards fired shotguns pointblank into the unarmed crowd, killing two blacks and seriously wounding 45. One official gasped: "They slaughtered them like pigs."

      At Indiana State, Pendleton survivors and other young blacks grate against 245 guards, most of them middle-aged whites and some close to 70. This is a U.S. pattern: only 26% of all prison guards are younger than 34; only 8% are black. To compound Indiana State's age and racial tensions, only a third of the inmates actually work. Boredom is chronic. The prison has only 27 rehabilitation workers; job training is absurd. Since the state provides few tools, vocational classes make do with donated equipment: archaic sewing machines, obsolete typewriters, TV sets dating to Milton Berle.

      Why not send some promising Indiana inmates to work or school outside? "Their victims would disagree," says Warden Russell Lash, a former FBI agent. Lash, only 29, is a good man hampered by his budget and the voters' fears. His first duty, he says, is "custody."

      CALIFORNIA. Though it leads all states in systematic penology, California has the nation's highest crime rate. Critics also claim that the system is characterized by a kind of penal paternalism that becomes psychological torment. In a much touted reform, California judges give indeterminate sentences; corrections officials then determine each offender's fate according to his presumably well-tested behavior. Thus 66% of all convicted offenders get probation, 6% work in 20-man forestry crews, and only 13.5% of felons go to prison. Despite rising crime, California's prison population (26,500) has actually dropped by 2,000 in the past two years.

      All this saves millions in unneeded prison construction. But it fills prisons with a higher ratio of hard-core inmates who disrupt the rest. And because of indeterminate sentences, California "corrects" offenders longer than any other state by a seemingly endless process (median prison stay: 36 months) that stirs anger against the not always skilled correctors. Says one San Quentin official: "It's like going to school, and never knowing when you'll graduate."

      Something is not quite right even at the state's cushiest "correctional facilities" (bureaucratese for prisons), some of which could pass for prep schools. At no-walls Tehachapi, near Bakersfield, inmates can keep pianos in their unbarred rooms, get weekend passes and join their wives at "motels" on the lush green premises. Yet Tehachapi is full of repeaters, prison-dependent men who soon violate their paroles and return.

      These days, California's black prisoners are rebelling at places like Soledad, a seeming garden spot in the Salinas Valley that looks like a university campus. Soledad's 960 acres throb with activity: tennis, basketball, weight lifting, a dairy, a hog farm. Inmates earn up to $24 a month turning out toilet paper and handsome furniture for the judges and prosecutors who got them the jobs. But for 180 rebels confined in Soledad's "X" and "O" wings, there is no play or work. Because they scorn prison rules, they are locked up tighter than lions in a zoo.

      Many are blacks who see themselves as political victims, others whites who hate the blacks. Racial tension is so bad that some prisoners wear thick magazines strapped to their backs to ward off knife blades. In January 1969, the prisoners were allowed to exercise together in a small yard. Before long, a guard shot and killed three blacks. According to the guard's testimony before a Monterey County grand jury, the blacks were beating a white inmate. The guard said that he fired a warning shot, then killed the attackers. Though black witnesses insisted that there was no warning shot, the grand jury ruled justifiable homicide. At Soledad not long after that ruling, a white guard was thrown off a balcony to his death.

      The accused killers are three unrelated blacks who call themselves the Soledad Brothers. They include George Jackson (see page 54), one of the angriest black men. In one of his many despairing letters to Angela Davis, the black Communist, Jackson wrote: "They've created in me one irate, resentful nigger -- and it's building."

      Costly Cages

      The idea that imprisonment "corrects" criminals is a U.S. invention. Before the 18th century, prisons mainly detained debtors and the accused. Punishment itself was swift and to the point. Europeans castrated rapists and cut off thieves' hands; the Puritans put crooks in stocks and whipped blasphemers -- then forgave them.

      In 1790, Philadelphia's Quakers started a humane alternative to corporal punishment: they locked errants in solitary cells until death or penitence (source of penitentiary). Soon the U.S. was dotted with huge, costly, isolated cages that deepened public fear of those inside and reinforced a U.S. spirit of vengeance against prison inmates.

      Caging has crippled the entire system. Burdened with vast forts that refuse to crumble (25 prisons are more than 100 years old), wardens cope with as many as 4,000 inmates, compared with the 100 that many penologists recommend. Archaic buildings make it difficult to separate tractable from intractable men, a key step toward rehabilitation. The big numbers pit a minority against a majority, the guards against the prisoners. Obsessed with "control," guards try to keep inmates divided, often by using the strong to cow the weak. The result is an inmate culture, enforced by fist or knife, that spurs passivity and destroys character.

      Even though two-thirds of all offenders are on parole or probation, they get the least attention: 80% of the U.S. correctional budget goes to jails and prisons; most of the nation's 121,000 correctional employees simply guard inmates and worry about security. Only 20% of the country's correctors work at rehabilitation and only 2% of all inmates are exposed to any innovative treatment.

      Federal prisons lead most of the U.S. in job training; yet few released federal inmates find jobs related to their prison work. With notable exceptions, like California, most states provide no usable training, partly because unions and business have lobbied for laws blocking competition by prison industries. At least one-third of all inmates simply keep the prison clean or do nothing. Most of them need psychiatric help. Despite this, there are only 50 full-time psychiatrists for all American prisons, 15 of them in federal institutions, which hold only 4% of all prisoners.

      The failure of American prisons, humane or inhumane, to change criminal behavior is hardly their fault alone. The entire American criminal justice system shares the blame. It is perfectly human, if somewhat bizarre, for a criminal to see himself as a victim. The U.S. reinforces that defense: most crimes are committed for economic reasons by the poor, the blacks and other have-nots of a society that stresses material gain. In fact, only 20% of reported U.S. crimes are solved; half the crimes are never even reported. Since justice is neither swift nor certain, the caught criminal often sees his problem as mere bad luck in a country where "everyone else" gets away with it.

      He has a point. Americans widely ignore laws they dislike, whether against gambling or marijuana. The nicest people steal: roughly 75% of insurance claims are partly fraudulent. Uncaught employees pocket $1 billion a year from their employers. To poor offenders who go to jail without bail the system is unfair, and the legal process strengthens that opinion. If a man cannot afford a good lawyer, he is pressured to plead guilty without a trial, as do 90% of all criminal defendants. He then discovers that for the same crime, different judges hand out wildly disparate sentences, from which 31 states and the federal courts allow no appeal.

      So the prison gets a man who sees little reason to respect state-upheld values. Even if he actually leaves prison as a reformed character, he faces hazards for which no prison can be blamed. In a Harris poll, 72% of Americans endorsed rehabilitation as the prison goal. But when it came to hiring an ex-armed robber who had shot someone, for example, 43% would hesitate to employ him as janitor, much less as a salesman (54%) or a clerk handling money (71%). This is obviously understandable; it also teaches ex-cons that crime pays because nothing else does.

      Even parole supervision is often cursory and capricious. Many parole agents handle more than 100 cases; one 15-minute interview per month per man is typical. The agents can also rule a parolee's entire life, even forbid him to see or marry his girl, all on pain of reimprisonment -- a usually unappealable decision made by parole agents, who thus have a rarely examined effect on the repeater rate. To test their judgment, Criminologists James Robison and Paul Takagi once submitted ten hypothetical parole-violator cases to 316 agents in California. Only five voted to reimprison all ten men; half wanted to return some men but disagreed on which ones.

      Groping for Change

      Can prisons be abolished? Not yet. Perhaps 15% or 20% of inmates are dangerous or unreformable. Still, countless experts agree that at least half of today's inmates would do far better outside prison. President Johnson's crime commission advocated a far greater shift to "community-based corrections" in which prisons would be a last resort, preceded by many interim options designed to keep a man as close as possible to his family, job and normal life -- not caged and losing all self-reliance.

      Sweden provides a fascinating model. Each year, 80% of its convicted offenders get a suspended sentence or probation, but forfeit one-third of their daily pay for a period determined by the seriousness of their offenses. The fine can be a tidy sum. After Film Maker Ingmar Bergman angrily cuffed a critic two years ago, he was convicted of disturbing the peace and fined for a 20-day period. Total: $1,000.

      Swedes who actually enter prison mostly work in attached factories, earning nominal wages to make products for the state. Some promising long-term inmates attend daytime classes at nearby schools and colleges. All live in comfortable private rooms, furnished with desks and curtains, and are eligible for short, regular furloughs to visit their families. For several summers, groups of ten or so life-termers have been given three-week vacations, accompanied by only two guards.

      Most of Sweden's 90 prisons contain no more than 120 inmates; one-third of all inmates live in open institutions without bars or walls. Guns are unheard of, some wardens are women, and inmates often carry keys to their own rooms. The escape rate is high (8%), but fugitives are rapidly caught, and Swedes are more interested in the statistic that really counts: in a country where the average prison sentence is only five months, the repeater rate is a mere 15%.

      With its small, homogeneous population, Sweden has advantages that cannot be duplicated in urban, congested, racially tense America. Even so, the U.S. is groping in the Swedish direction -- slowly:

      * In New York City, a pioneering program started by the Vera Foundation waives money bail for offenders who can show job stability or family ties pending trial. Results suggest that perhaps 50% of jail inmates could be freed in this way, cutting the U.S. jail bill ($324 million per year) by half.

      * Kansas has heeded Psychiatrist Karl Menninger, a searing prison critic (The Crime of Punishment), and set up a felon's "diagnostic center" near the Menninger Clinic in Topeka. The state now sends all prison-bound felons to the center for exhaustive tests by four full-time psychiatrists and numerous other experts. Result: half these men get probation. Among all such Kansas probationers, the failure rate has dropped to 25%, much less than in other states. Congress has approved a similar $15 million center in New York City to screen federal defendants after arrest.

      * North Carolina's innovating work-release" program (also common in federal prisons) sends 1,000 promising inmates into the free world each day to function normally as factory workers, hospital attendants, truck drivers. Another 45 prisoners are day students at nearby colleges; one did so well that he got a faculty job offer.

      * Senator Mike Mansfield has introduced a bill that would pay up to $25,000 apiece to victims of federal crimes, then empower the Justice Department to sue convicted offenders to recover the money. States would get federal grants to copy the plan. Of all U.S. offenses, 87% are property crimes, and restitution as the entire punishment makes sense in many cases unless violence is involved. Variations include Sociologist Charles Tittle's idea: the state would repay victims immediately, then confine and employ property offenders at union wages, keeping half their pay and putting the rest in trust for their use upon release.

      The big trouble is that penology (from the Latin poena, meaning penalty) is still an infant art given to fads and guesswork, like the 1920s reformers who yanked tens of thousands of teeth from hapless inmates on the theory that bad teeth induced criminality. Even now, penology has not begun to exploit the findings of behavioral scientists who believe that criminal behavior is learned, and can be unlearned with the proper scientific methods.

      They know that misbehavior can be changed by "punishment" if a reward for good behavior follows very swiftly. If a reward (like parole) is delayed too long, they say, the subject forgets what he is being punished for, becomes aggressive and may go insane. In this sense, the Puritan use of stocks followed by forgiveness worked far better than U.S. prison terms, some of them as incredibly long as 500 or even 1,500 years. For many U.S. offenders, especially first-timers, the mere shame of arrest and conviction is quite enough to prevent repetition.

      Applying the principle of "response cost," some psychologists also say that a punishment must be in the same terms as the crime. Instead of fining a speeder, for example, they would immediately impound his car or license and make him walk home. Conversely, a cash theft might be dealt with not by jail but by a stiff fine equivalent to reparation. Another possibility for changing criminal behavior is "aversion therapy," which is used, for example, to cure bed wetting in children. Instead of chiding or coddling the child, the therapist has him sleep on a low-voltage electric blanket linked to a battery and a bell. Urine, which is electrolytic, then activates the bell, the child awakes and goes to the bathroom. A cure usually follows soon.

      Since crime is often emotionally satisfying, a major problem is how to banish its thrills. One way is suggested by the work of Psychologist Ivar Lovaas with certain disturbed children who consistently try to mutilate themselves. He noticed that when the children went on a rampage, nurses warmly cuddled them and thus unconsciously rewarded their destructiveness. Instead Lovaas now jolts the kids with an electric cattle prod, often stopping the behavior pattern in hours or minutes. In his book Crime and Personality, Psychologist H.J. Eysenck offers a fascinating discussion of how certain depressant or stimulant drugs can be used to make a patient feel sick whenever he commits a specific antisocial act. "Given the time and resources," adds Psychologist Barry F. Singer, "a behavior-therapy program could make a bank robber want to vomit every time he saw a bank, could make an armed robber shudder every time he saw a gun."

      Unhappily, all this seems remote. Only a fraction of 1% of the nation's entire crime-control budget is even spent on research. Beyond that, the system is mired in bureaucratic inertia and fiddle-faddle. Many exciting ideas are never institutionalized, the same problem that impedes school reform. In 1965, Psychologist J. Douglas Grant and his wife put 18 hardened California inmates (half of them armed robbers) to work studying how to salvage their peers. They blossomed into impressive researchers, skilled at statistics, interviews, proposal writing and the rest. Today, 13 of Grant's men are doing the same work outside. One former illiterate is getting a doctorate, one man heads a poverty-research company, two are federal poverty officials. Only one is back in prison. To Grant, this shows that criminals can be cured by trying their best to cure other criminals -- an idea confirmed by many other experiments and selfhelp groups like Synanon and Alcoholics Anonymous.

      But prison officials rebuffed Grant's idea, just as they do the work of other ex-convict groups seeking the same result. Instead of selfhelp, they favor trained officials working with fewer prisoners or parolees, a costly process that may well have little or no effect on the repeater rate. Thus skeptics wonder about efforts like the Federal Government's new $10.2 million Robert F. Kennedy Youth Center in Morgantown, W. Va., where 180 staffers work on a mere 200 teen-age offenders, two-thirds of them car thieves. After detailed classification (from "inadequate-immature" to "social-ized-subcultural"), the kids are plunged into quasi-capitalism: an incentive system that pays each boy points and pennies for doing his chores and studies well. The pennies are used for room rent and other needs, the points for earning privileges. The idea is intriguing, but the yearly cost per boy is huge ($9,000 v. $6,000 in an average juvenile home), and the results are not yet clear.

      25¢ on the Dollar

      Criminologist James Robison, who does research for the California legislature, is among those who question the accuracy of many penal statistics. He even disputes the much-vaunted results of the California Youth Authority's Community Treatment Project, a famous experiment in which convicted juvenile delinquents were not confined' but given intensive tutoring and psychotherapy. After five years, only 28% had their paroles revoked, compared with 52% of another group that was locked up after conviction. As a result, the state expanded the project and cut back on new reformatories, saving millions. Robison, though, has proved, at least to his satisfaction, that the experimenters stacked the deck by ignoring many of the kids' parole violations. He argues that most penal-reform funds are wasted on salaries for bureaucrats, who mainly worry about pleasing their bosses. "For every dollar spent on the criminal justice system," he insists, "we get back about a quarter's worth of crime control."

      Given the facts of penal bureaucracy and sheer ignorance, critics like Robison sometimes wonder whether the only rational solution is simply to unlock all jails and prisons, which clearly breed crime and hold only 5% of the nation's criminal population while costing far more to run than all the crimes committed by their inmates. Pessimism is well founded, but the encouraging sign is that few if any Americans defend the system as it is. From the President to the lowliest felon, the nation wants a humane system that truly curbs crime. This is the year of the prisons, the year when Congress may double federal spending (to $300 million) to spur local reform, the year when something may finally get done and Americans may well heed Dostoevsky's goading words.

      Original: The Shame of the Prisons


      March 9, 2009

      One Year After Second Chance Act: New Funds To Stop The Prison Cycle

      By Mitchel Herckis and Katie Seeger

      Last week, the Department of Justice announced that it is seeking applications for grant funding under the Second Chance Act Prisoner Reentry Initiative. The grants will fund demonstration projects that provide offenders with educational and job placement services, substance abuse treatment, housing and mental and physical health care to ease their reentry into communities. Proposals for grant funding are due April 20.

      Almost one year ago, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law in a formal White House ceremony that featured a bipartisan group of House and Senate members. The law, which created the demonstration grants, is aimed at helping inmates released from prison readjust to society. President Obama is also supportive of reentry programs and included $75 million for the Second Chance Act in his FY 2010 budget proposal.

      Once a cause with few advocates, the need for transitional services for ex-offenders has become glaring with an estimated 650,000 people released from prison and another 10 to 12 million people released from local jails each year.

      According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 50 percent will end up back in the justice system. With the Pew Charitable Trusts estimating taxpayers are expected to pay as much as $27.5 billion on prisons alone from 2007 to 2011 on top of current corrections spending, many states and localities are reevaluating methods for dealing with criminal offenders.

      To assist local leaders in applying for the grant, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments released a comprehensive guide.

      To access this information,
      visit the Justice Center’s website:
      Additional information is available on the
      DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance website,
      including the grant announcement
      and frequently asked questions.

      Visit Second Chance for more information.

      National League of Cities
      1301 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Suite 550
      Washington, DC 20004
      Phone:(202) 626-3000
      Fax:(202) 626-3043
      E-Mail; info@nlc.org
      Web Site; www.nlc.org


      Good bills backed by Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

      March 02, 2009

      The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has posted online a list of good criminal justice bills they're supporting this session, from innocence, to reentry, probation, parole, and drug policy reform. At the end of their three-page list, TCJC added this teaser:

      Coming soon: Identification bill for returning offenders, to be authored by Rep. Turner

      - DPS should comply with the 2005 legislation and accept TDCJ-issued offender identification cards as a “verifiable” proof of identity.

      That's a much needed change that jibes nicely with Rep. Turner's HB 1711, which according to TCJC, "Establishes a re-entry and re-integration plan in which individuals released from prison are provided with identification papers, medical prescriptions, job training certificates, housing and structured programs, and referrals to services."

      See the rest of the list below for other good bills TCJC is supporting.

      PARTIAL LIST OF SUPPORTED CRIMINAL JUSTICE BILLS

      HB 70 [Guillen]
      - Relating to the issuance of an occupational license to certain applicants with criminal convictions
      - Analysis: Allows certain persons with prior criminal offenses to apply and receive an occupational license, and prohibits a cause of action against an employer, general contractor, premises owner, or other third party solely for hiring a person who holds a license issued by a licensing authority.

      HB 93 [Hodge]
      - Relating to the restoration of good conduct time forfeited during a term of imprisonment
      - Analysis: Allows the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to restore an inmate’s good conduct time previously taken away due to bad behavior. This bill encourages an inmate to engage in good behavior through the possibility of having good conduct time restored.

      HB 94 [Hodge]
      - Relating to the application of laws awarding credit to an inmate for time between release on and subsequent revocation of parole, mandatory supervision, or conditional pardon
      - Analysis: Allows inmates revoked of parole, mandatory supervision, or conditional pardon to subtract the time they spent released from prison from their total sentence. This bill eliminates the inequality in the criminal justice system that causes inmates released on conditional terms who are revoked to stay in prison longer than their original release date.

      HB 293 [Dutton]
      - Relating to automatic expunction of criminal records
      - Analysis: Eases the restrictions for obtaining an expunction and allows for mandatory expunction orders under certain situations for defendants who have been acquitted by a trial court, pardoned, or had charges dismissed.

      HB 498 [McClendon]
      - Relating to the creation of a commission to investigate and prevent wrongful convictions
      - Analysis: Creates a 9-member Texas Innocence Commission to investigate post-convictions exonerations to prevent future wrongful convictions.

      HB 612 [Naishtat]
      - Relating to the eligibility of certain persons for the food stamp program
      - Analysis: Allows certain persons with felony drug convictions to be eligible for the food stamp program.

      HB 789 [Thompson]
      SB 164 [Ellis]
      - Relating to a criminal justice policy impact statement attached to certain bills or resolutions
      - Analysis: Requires all proposed legislation concerning a change in sanctions applicable to adults convicted of a felony to attach a practical examination of its fiscal impact, the effect on current prison populations, and effects on racial minorities. This bill assists legislators in deciding the practicality and effectiveness of each bill by giving them easy access to data to be taken into consideration before submitting a bill.

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast
      Labels: Texas Legislature


      Ideas for good corrections bills

      February 18, 2009

      A staffer recently asked me for bill suggestions that might go through the House Corrections Committee, so I offered several ideas, none fully developed into bill language, but all relatively simple to draft. Upon reflection, I added a couple of more to the list and submit them here for readers' consideration. Use the comments to say what other Corrections (or other criminal justice) bills you'd like to see filed in the 81st Texas Legislature before the March 13 filing deadline:

      1. Recognition of possible innocence: Quite a few of Texas' DNA exonerees - including Timothy Cole who died in prison - were denied parole in part because they refused to accept responsibility for crimes that, it turns out, they did not, in fact, commit. I would add a new (d) between the current (c) and (d), renumbering accordingly, at Government Code 508.0441 to say the parole board cannot adopt any rule, policy or practice penalizing a prisoner's failure to take responsibility for a crime if they maintained their innocence at trial and throughout the post-conviction appellate process.

      2. Right to Counsel for Actual Innocence Writs: Authorize two new positions at State Counsel for Offenders for attorneys dedicated specifically to 11.07 habeas work. This would have a fiscal note, but the courts might actually save money overall if the CCA weren't constantly dealing with poorly written, pro se, habeas writs. This was an excellent idea suggested recently in blog comments to this post.

      3. Parole for state jail felons: If you're looking for new money for anything (like new appellate positions at the State Counsel for Offenders!), here's a bill with a positive fiscal note (i.e., it would save the state money): Require the parole board review for state jail felons at one year into their (currently) mandatory 2-year term. LBB says the state jail felony population is growing more rapidly than the rest of the prison system, and especially for substance abusers (more than half the state jail felony population), once they've completed a mandatory treatment program it makes little public policy sense to keep them there. Such legislation should create a presumption for parole at one year unless the board identifies reasons for keeping them specific to the defendant.

      4. Presumption for paroling low-risk inmates: This would be an even bigger money saver, since 2/3 of all prison inmates are currently eligible for parole. The parole board categorizes inmates into seven risk categories, but the board is LESS likely to follow its own parole guidelines for nonviolent and low risk cases than they are for TDCJ's most dangerous inmates. I'd suggest removing the parole board's discretion for both class 6 and 7 inmates, releasing them as soon as their time served plus good time equaled their sentence length; even if you did it only for Class 7, though, it would have a significant positive financial impact.

      5. Better monitoring of treatment funds: A good way to spend any savings from items 3 and 4 would be to use it to pay for research-based analysis of Texas' recently expanded substance-abuse treatment programs' effectiveness, including grants to university researchers or other contractors to develop Texas' own "evidence-based" best practices about "what works" over time, giving more substance and Texas-specific meaning to those perennial, oft-overused buzzwords.

      6. Speed up medical release for terminally ill inmates: Here's another cost saving idea - requiring the parole board to issue more medical paroles in cases involving terminally ill offenders. According to testimony last year to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, TDCJ recommends about 70 or more inmates per month for medical-based parole, but the parole board on average releases just 10% of them. As a result, "inmates who could be released into a hospice or nursing home facility (where the feds through Medicaid would pay 2/3 of the cost), are being held in TDCJ even though they're bedridden and immobile. Dee Wilson of the Office on Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments told senators that "many" offenders recommended for medical release pass away before the parole board gets around to their case. Around 40 inmates per month die in Texas prisons.

      Let me know what you think of these ideas or offer any other corrections- related bill suggestions in the comments.

      Posted by Gritsforbreakfast at; Ideas for good corrections bills

      Labels: House Corrections, Parole, TDCJ, Texas Legislature


      America's Shame: Can Jim Webb Fix the Prison Gulag?

      By Katrina vanden Heuvel,
      The Nation
      February 16, 2009

      Our criminal justice system is broken. The U.S. represents 5 percent of the world's population but accounts for nearly 25 percent of its prison population. We are incarcerating at a record rate with one in 100 American adults now locked up -- 2.3 million people overall. As a New York Times editorial stated simply, "This country puts too many people behind bars for too long."

      But people who have been fighting for reform for decades are seeing new openings for change. The fiscal crisis has state governors and legislators looking for more efficient and effective alternatives to spending $50 billion a year on incarceration. At the federal level, there is reason to believe that the Obama administration and a reinvigorated Department of Justice will take a hard look at the inequities of the criminal justice system and work for a smarter and more effective approach to public safety. Finally, there are Congressional leaders -- none more prominent than Senator Jim Webb -- who understand that the system isn't functioning as it should and there is an urgent need for reform.

      Indeed advocates for reform couldn't ask for a better standard-bearer than Senator Webb. As a decorated former Marine and Reagan Administration official no one is going to slap him with the politically- dreaded "soft on crime" label that has stymied so many Democrats who have taken on this issue in the past. There is a "Nixon goes to China" quality to Webb's call for change -- a law and order man who described his reform effort as "an act not of weakness but of strength."

      As a journalist Webb wrote on the need for reform after visiting Japanese prisons and seeing a fundamental fairness and effectiveness that he recognized as lacking in the U.S. criminal justice system. As a Senator he's held hearings which have highlighted racial disparities in sentencing, the staggering costs of incarceration and effective and cost-efficient alternatives, and a futile and racially biased drug policy.

      Now Senator Webb is poised to establish a commission with a broad mandate to examine issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, racial injustice, education for inmates, reentry programs -- the myriad of issues intertwined in wasteful, ineffective criminal justice policies. Look for him to lay out that mandate with specificity in the coming weeks, and make an aggressive push to bring this issue to the forefront in both Congress and the media, much as he was able to do with the GI Bill.

      Webb sent me an e-mail saying, "I feel very strongly about the need to put the right people behind bars. But we're locking up the wrong people too often all across our country. Mental illness isn't a crime. Addiction isn't a crime. We need to make sharp distinctions between violent offenders and people who are incarcerated for non- violent crimes, drug abuse and mental illness. We must raise public awareness about the need for criminal justice reform and find viable solutions. My staff and I are finalizing proposed legislation that could be introduced in the next two weeks to establish a national commission that will take a comprehensive look at where our criminal justice system is broken and how we can fix it."

      While it's critical that Senator Webb is raising these issues at the national level where they have received so little attention, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, points out that 90 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated in state prisons and only 10 percent in federal prisons. Mauer said there is a growing awareness at the state level that our drug and sentencing policies have "gotten out of hand" and that the fiscal crisis presents an opportunity to do something about it.

      "The fiscal crisis gives governors and legislative leaders the opening to do what many of them have known should be done for some time, but [they] didn't have a political comfort level to do it," Mauer said. "Now they can talk about issues like excessive sentences for drug offenders, and too many people being sent back to prison for technical violations of parole."

      One legislative reform effort is occurring in Senator Webb's own Virginia -- a state that abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in number of executions. This session, a bill will be taken up that would allow prison officials to release non-violent offenders 90 days before their sentences are up. This would primarily be achieved by offering drug treatment programs at the beginning of an individual's incarceration rather than only at the end. (Which begs the question -- if we are truly serious about rehabilitation of inmates why are we only offering addicts treatment for a disease at the end of a sentence?!) Upon successful completion of the treatment program these individuals would be eligible for early release. The legislation also provides for more non-violent offenders to be sent to community-based programs or be monitored electronically rather than incarcerated.

      A similar program was undertaken in Washington state and a four-year study of 2,600 inmates released early showed significant cost savings and no negative consequences in terms of recidivism. Mauer said the coalition rallying around the Virginia proposal is diverse and particularly encouraging in what has traditionally been a "tough on crime state."

      Other states taking action on criminal justice reform include:
      Michigan which is addressing re-entry issues and shifting resources to parole officers and community-based programs; Kansas cut parole revocations by 50 percent in a two-year period by increasing oversight of parole officers and using alternatives to incarceration such as increased drug testing and electronic monitoring; California issued a court ruling this week that the state must address its failure to provide adequate health and medical services in prisons by reducing the population by a third -- nearly 55,000 persons -- through "shortening sentences, diverting nonviolent felons to county programs, giving inmates good behavior credits toward early release, and reforming parole."

      Now is also a hopeful, unique moment in New York state where the top three political leaders all support real reform and there is a chance to repeal the wasteful, ineffective, and unjust Rockefeller- era drug laws -- after thirty-five years! This week I moderated a panel -- cosponsored by The Nation, the Correctional Association of New York, and The New School's Center for New York City Public Affairs -- of government officials and reform leaders working to downsize prisons, reform probation and parole, and provide effective community-based prisoner reentry programs. The Correctional Association of New York is leading the "Drop the Rock" campaign that includes an Advocacy Day in Albany in March.

      Greg Berman, Director of the Center for Court Innovation -- a non- profit think tank in New York -- said, "The question is: can we come up with meaningful, cost-effective responses to non-violent crime that do not rely on incarceration? Drug courts, mental health courts and community courts -- the so-called 'problem-solving courts' -- all show enormous potential. Most criminal cases are not complicated in a legal sense, but they are committed by people with complicated lives.

      Scratch the surface and you find addiction, mental illness, joblessness, etc. These problem-solving courts are linking offenders to drug treatment, counseling, job training in lieu of incarceration.

      But unlike some rehabilitation efforts in the past, they are requiring participants to return to court on a periodic basis to ensure accountability. There is a growing amount of evidence suggesting that this approach can change sentencing practice -- dramatically reducing the use of jail, for example -- while also reducing both substance abuse and recidivism."

      Despite a fiscal crisis which has caused at least forty states to make or propose cuts in vital services like education and health care -- and ample evidence of the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration -- the battle for reform on the state level is still a difficult one.

      "It's far from a done deal that this will automatically lead to prison reductions," Mauer told me. "One option is to say let's reconsider sentencing policies, reduce the population, close prisons and save money. The other choice is to say let's cut out alternatives to incarceration, community-based drug treatment, and other programs, and you can see those cost savings very quickly. I think that would be a shortsighted way to go but it's going to be tempting for a lot of legislators to think about doing that. I think that's the battle that is going to be fought in different states."

      That's why the effort of Senator Webb and his colleagues at the federal level is so critical. They can galvanize support for repealing unjust policies like those that treat a low-level user of crack the same as a major drug dealer, or five grams of crack the same as 500 grams of powder. They can ensure that we use needed federal dollars for public safety in smart and effective ways. For example, the Second Chance Act to provide job training, drug treatment, and other re-entry programs was passed with broad bipartisan support in 2008 but no funds have been appropriated.

      Finally, with Senator Webb's commission, we can begin the process of transforming our criminal justice system so that prisons are reserved for violent offenders and other vital resources are used to support alternatives like drug treatment, effective parole policies, education, and reentry programs.

      Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation

      Can Jim Webb Fix the Prison Gulag?


      Sensible Sentencing

      When it comes to small-time drug offenses, it's time for the punishment to fit the crime

      Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
      Feb. 13, 2009

      Hard-won experience often lies behind a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of policy.

      Case in point: State District Judge Michael McSpadden.

      “I used to be one of those judges who thinks stronger penalties are a deterrent,” says McSpadden — an understatement if ever there was one.

      After his appointment to the bench in 1981, McSpadden, a Republican and former prosecutor, earned a frontier-justice, tough-on-crime reputation — most famously, by supporting voluntary castration for sex offenders. Once, to protest a Democratic state senator’s effort to lighten penalties for nonviolent repeat offenders, McSpadden sentenced two of them to write thank-you notes to the man.

      That history gives particular weight to McSpadden’s change of heart regarding drug penalties. About 10 years ago, he says, he noticed that his courtroom was clogged with small-time users, people accused of possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance — mostly crack, often just residue on a pipe.

      A gram is about the size of a restaurant packet of Sweet’N Low. Even with a drug as potent as crack, a gram isn’t much — an amount you’d expect of an addict but not from a dealer, and certainly not from a kingpin. But in the world of zero tolerance, even a few one- hundredths of a gram often can lead to felony charges.

      Deterrents might work for other crimes, but addicts, pretty much by definition, don’t think rationally. Jonesing for the next high, they don’t mull the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor. They don’t worry that a felony conviction could not only send them to state prison but haunt them for the rest of their lives as they apply for jobs and loans. They need rehab to get their lives back on track — and our state jails, McSpadden says, don’t offer it.

      Those small-timers add up to a big problem.

      McSpadden figures that 25 percent to 30 percent of the cases on his docket involve less than a gram of drugs. On any given day, state jails hold around 5,000 of those less-than-a-gram offenders, with many others on probation or serving their time in county jails.

      Last month, McSpadden led a group of 16 judges — both Democrats and Republicans — who urged that Texas reclassify delivery or possession of a small amount of drugs. The judges’ letter to Gov. Rick Perry argued that the crime should be downgraded from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor. The lighter punishment would cap jail time at one year instead of two, include a fine of up to $4,000 and — probably most important — require mandatory drug treatment.

      The judges argue for the change in both economic and human terms, noting that it’s good for both the addict and the state.

      Rehab reduces the odds that a convict will commit another crime.

      Former addicts, trying to go straight, need jobs that a felony conviction can put out of reach. Our state jails are overcrowded.

      And our police and prosecutors could better spend their time on more dangerous criminals.

      This proposal isn’t new. McSpadden has made the argument for years, and last legislative session, a bill to reduce the penalties didn’t make it out of committee. But in these lean times, the non-partisan, money-saving proposal seems all the more urgent.

      The Legislature needs to take note. Small-time penalties for small- time users: The idea makes big-time sense.

      Sensible Sentencing


      After Guantánamo: The Crisis of U.S. Prisons and Lessons from the Medieval Past

      By G. Geltner

      The incoming Administration is to be lauded for its intention to dismantle the Guantánamo Bay prison, whose very existence, let alone the activities reportedly carried out within it, undermine the U.S.’s claim of promoting democracy and human rights.

      But if prisoners’ rights are evidently so important, and if we seem to agree that we are judged by how we treat the weak and disenfranchised, why have our leading politicians (including Barack Obama and John McCain, to judge by their campaign websites) avoided addressing the intolerable realities of U.S. prisons and their inmates?

      At 2.3 million, the U.S. prison population is the largest of its kind in the world. And at an annual cost exceeding $70 billion, it is also the most expensive one. But prisons’ enormous scale and increasing dysfunctionality bothers few.

      Disregarding convicts is easy enough; we pass by them daily in blissful ignorance thanks to manipulations by architects and city planners. Some Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) organizations, however, would go even further. In the view of Stop BHOD, for instance, the New York City Department of Corrections’ intention to reopen the Brooklyn Prison undermines “economics and the best interests of the community and city as a whole.” Such responses, which exploit popular unease about living near convicts, imply that inmates are not people, but environmental hazards. Like airports or antennas.

      If the urban cosmetics of anti-prison NIMBYs prevail, one percent of all Americans will be presently excommunicated. That’s one medieval practice we should avoid, especially at a time when incarceration is becoming increasingly common: at the current rates, one out of every fifteen U.S. citizens born in 2001 will spend time behind bars during his or her lifetime.

      Excommunication aside, some medieval practices can inform present-day incarceration. For despite crowding, poor sanitation, and low security, medieval prisons witnessed limited violence, few deaths, and infrequent escapes. Far from the stereotypical dungeon, they were publicly funded, centrally located, and easily accessible places of detention, coercion, and punishment. As such they served as visible symbols of justice and provided a reliable blueprint for future institutions. Hardly did they foreshadow the “black flower of civilization” which Nathaniel Hawthorne would later bemoan.

      Hawthorne was right, of course; the prison’s march into modernity is a story of civic failure. Most recently, the incarceration binge triggered by the War on Drugs precipitated an unprecedented brutalization of inmates’ lives and a growing intolerance toward them. It also transformed prisons from penal institutions to warehouses of social marginals. Despite their titles, corrections officers nowadays are trained to manage inmates, not prepare them for reentry. Small wonder that recidivism rates are approaching seventy percent, despite the best efforts by families, prison staff, parole officers, and others.

      Yet prisons steadily proliferate, mainly due to sentencing policies and the promise of privatization. One outcome is that new facilities are progressively larger and farther removed from the urban centers where most convicts originate. The expansion and ruralization of prisons forces convicts into crowded, noisy, ultra-violent cages with little access to their families and communities and a growing racial disparity between inmates and staff.

      Half of all convicts today are not violent offenders, yet they live in singularly lethal environments: prisons and jails report three- thousand deaths annually, including fifty homicides and five-hundred suicides; and almost five percent of all inmates complain of being sexually victimized by other inmates or staff. Compounded by substance abuse, material poverty, the deprivation of autonomy and security, and, perhaps most importantly, the severing of social ties to the outside world, such institutions present prisoners with fewer chances of surviving imprisonment unscathed, let alone emerging from it prepared for life at large.

      Medieval prisons, by contrast, acted as penal corridors to and from free society, not as dumping grounds for deviants. Their daily operation afforded face-to-face interaction with the outside world, whether for legal and financial affairs, labor, religious worship, or nourishment. Such frequent contact between prisoners and free society today would counteract what scholars call “prisonization,” or the process of conforming to prison subculture. It would also curb corruption and mitigate major pains of prison life, notably lack of family ties, often cited as a main factor driving inmate suicide rates to nearly five times higher than in the outside world.

      Isolated, mammoth prisons exacerbate these already numerous pains of captivity by casting millions further into social oblivion. Let’s change this by insisting that penal incarceration refocus on loss of liberty. How? By ensuring that prison sentences are meted out thoughtfully, served locally, in smaller institutions wherever possible, and with structured, indeed obligatory interaction with free society. By following these guidelines we will be reminding both convicts and ourselves of our mutual responsibilities toward one another.

      G. Geltner is the author of The Medieval Prison: A Social History.

      The Crisis of U.S. Prisons and Lessons from the Medieval Past


      Criminal Injustice

      JANUARY 23, 2009
      POLITICAL INTELLIGENCE

      The behemoth criminal corrections industry in Texas requires constant vigilance. We execute more prisoners than any other state in the nation and release an appalling number of citizens who’ve been imprisoned for crimes it later turns out they didn’t commit. Nonprofit advocacy and reform groups go to battle for justice on a daily basis.

      The end-of-January closing of the JEHT Foundation, another victim of the $50 billion Bernard Madoff debacle, is dealing a body blow to several such criminal justice nonprofit groups in Texas. The New York- based JEHT Foundation (the acronym stands for justice, equality, human dignity and tolerance) was the largest funder of criminal justice reform in the country. The foundation, supported primarily by donors Jeanne and Kenneth Levy-Church, has disbursed more than $100 million since 2002 and had scheduled a budget of $45 million for 2009, at least until Madoff was arrested for defrauding investors in his massive Ponzi scheme.

      The Levy-Churches drew all their foundation money from investments managed by Madoff’s firm.

      Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says her nonprofit lost $119,000 in JEHT support for its juvenile justice program. “I’ve got a short amount of time to fill that gap,” she says. “Or else we have to let our program staff go.”

      The JEHT closure came as a shock, she says, since foundation staff had visited Texas in early December. JEHT was poised to give millions to innovative pilot projects designed to reduce criminal behavior in Texas. Representatives from Travis County, Harris County and the cities of Dallas, San Antonio and Houston met with philanthropy staff to discuss funding, she says.

      “It meant a lot, because JEHT was supporting programs that were doing it right,” she says. “Then literally the next day we got an e-mail that they were closing.”

      Other state nonprofits taking a hit are the Innocence Project of Texas, which had a grant to review 400 cases for evidence of wrongful convictions, and the Texas Defender Service, which focuses on death penalty reform. The ACLU of Texas has also received JEHT funding.

      While advocates are still reeling from the news, they remain undeterred from their missions. Yañez-Correa says the cities and counties brought together by JEHT are committed to finding new funds to keep their programs afloat, as is her own Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “We’re not going anywhere,” she says.

      —Melissa del Bosque

      Criminal Injustice


      Why Prison Reform?

      The state of our prisons is a fair measure of the state of our society.

      The Prison Reform works to ensure they are a just, humane and effective.

      Prisons are the most shaming of all our public institutions.

      Yet the vast majority of our prisoners do not present a serious threat to life or limb. Their crimes are such that they can be more humanely, economically and effectively dealt with in the community.

      At first sight, our enthusiasm for imprisonment is suprising. Prison has a poor track record. It is hard to show any relationship between a society's rate of incarceration and its rate of crime. Prison keeps some offenders off the streets, but it seems neither to deter nor reform. Judged simply on its effectiveness, prison has been repeatedly condemned as a blunt instrument.

      We believe that:

      • Prison should be reserved for those whose offending is so serious that they cannot serve their sentence in the community.

      • Prisoners and their families should be treated with humanity and respect and have access to clear information and the opportunity to represent themselves and have their views taken into account.

      • The Prison System should provide constructive regimes in decent, safe conditions that ensure the well-being of prisoners and prepare them for resettlement in the community.

      • The Public, The Government and those responsible for incarcerating offenders should be fully informed about the state and effectiveness of our criminal justice system.

      • As the most severe punishment in this country, imprisonment should remain the ultimate responsibility of the state, in order to safeguard prisoners' human rights.


      Prison Reform Talking Points

      By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

      The US prison system is exacting an increasingly heavy toll, both financial and human. Surging numbers of prisons hold more than 2 million inmates, giving the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

      Over the past few decades, the dominant criminal justice philosophy dropped rehabilitation in favor of sequestration and retribution.

      Opportunities for education, job training and drug treatment have fallen out of fashion. "Three strikes" and minimum sentencing laws have led to excessive punishments for millions of nonviolent offenders, especially in the misguided "war on drugs."

      Any assessment of the US prison system is incomplete without considering the prison-industrial complex, a network of private corporations with a direct interest in increasing the number of prisoners. Dovetailing with these interests are politicians exploiting tough-on-crime rhetoric that plays well at election time. The reality is that punitive incarceration policies are a relatively ineffective means of reducing crime, especially drug use.

      Fortunately, many states are starting to recognize the system's failure and experiment with rehabilitative programs such as job training and drug treatment. These programs are yielding impressive results in the form of reduced recidivism rates and taxpayer costs. But alternative solutions are in constant jeopardy because of the prevailing, federally driven ideology.

      Prison Reform Talking Points

      1. The conditions of prisons are inhumane.
      In many prisons, inmates are victims of physical abuse and excessive disciplinary action. Overcrowding and double-bunking are widespread. At the same time, many "supermax" prisons subject inmates to prolonged isolation in tiny cells, which frequently fosters mental illness. Prisoners also tend to have inadequate access to physical and mental healthcare.

      2. Prisons are "crime factories.
      "Instead of curbing criminal tendencies, prisons encourage them. Violent and aggressive behavior is standard and even rewarded. It's clear that time served in such conditions regularly creates violent criminals from nonviolent ones.

      3. Recidivism rates are exceedingly high.
      According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years. These figures underline the ineffectiveness of prison as a deterrent and a reformer. They also lead to a related criticism of prison trends: Increasingly, people are re-arrested on technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer, and returned to the system more quickly than in the past.

      4. Prisons are expensive.
      According to CBS News, taxpayers are paying an estimated $40 billion a year for prisons. Feeding and caring for an inmate costs about $20,000 a year on average, and construction costs are about $100,000 per cell. The demand to build more prisons has often siphoned funds from the few existing treatment and education programs, leading to a vicious circle in which more prisons are needed because, partly due to the lack of these programs, more prisoners continue to come back.

      5. Most of the growth in prison population has been for nonviolent offenders, especially those convicted on drug charges.
      Because of mandatory sentencing laws, over half of today's inmates are incarcerated on drug charges, despite evidence that treatment programs are much more effective at preventing future drug offenses.

      6. The combined effects of disenfranchisement laws, inmate population trends and economic realities perpetuate a racial divide in society.
      Prisoners are disproportionately from minority communities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on current rates of incarceration an estimated 32 percent of black males will enter prison during their lifetime, compared with 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males. Once released, many prisoners lack job skills and face employer suspicion. In most states convicted felons are not allowed to vote from prison; in twelve states, felons are disenfranchised for life. These factors contribute to widespread unemployment in minority communities as well as disproportionately meager electoral representation.

      7. Under draconian laws, people can end up in jail for life for nonviolent crimes.
      Because of the ascendancy of "three strikes" laws, for example in California, it is increasingly common for people to receive life sentences for offenses such as drug possession and welfare fraud.

      8. Most prisoners will be released into society, and are not prepared by prisons to participate productively.
      The culture of parole has changed dramatically over the past generation. Now there is much less individualized consideration of how well prepared an inmate is to leave prison. Less help is provided to facilitate that preparation, and fewer parole officers are available to ease the transition back into the community. Such trends are especially dangerous in light of the mental illness and violent tendencies that result from prison conditions.


      Sen. Webb's Call for Prison Reform

      01/02/2009

      This country puts too many people behind bars for too long. Most elected officials, afraid of being tarred as soft on crime, ignore these problems.

      Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat of Virginia, is now courageously stepping into the void, calling for a national commission to re-assess criminal justice policy. Other members of Congress should show the same courage and rally to the cause.

      Prisons and PrisonersThe United States has the worlds highest reported incarceration rate. Although it has less than 5 % of the worlds population, it has almost 1/4 of the world's prisoners. And for the 1st time in history, more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars.

      Many inmates are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, including minor drug offenses. It also is extraordinarily expensive. Billions of dollars now being spent on prisons each year could be used in far more socially productive ways.

      Senator Webb a former Marine and secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration is in many ways an unlikely person to champion criminal justice reform. But his background makes him an especially effective advocate for a cause that has often been associated with liberals and academics.

      In his 2 years in the Senate, Mr. Webb has held hearings on the cost of mass incarceration and on the criminal justice system's response to the problems of illegal drugs. He also has called attention to the challenges of prisoner re-entry and of the need to provide released inmates, who have paid their debts to society, more help getting jobs and resuming productive lives.

      Mr. Webb says he intends to introduce legislation to create a national commission to investigate these issues. With Barack Obama in the White House, and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, the political climate should be more favorable than it has been in years. And the economic downturn should make both federal and state lawmakers receptive to the idea of reforming a prison system that is as wasteful as it is inhumane.

      (source: Editorial, New York Times)

      Sen. Webb's Call for Prison Reform


      2008:


      Texas Senate News

      November 13, 2008
      (512) 463-0300

      PRISON REFORMS HAVING EFFECT

      (AUSTIN) -- The director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) reported that reforms passed during the 80th Legislative Session are having a positive impact on prison staffing levels. At a hearing of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, TDCJ Director Brad Livingston testified that his agency has filled more than a thousand vacancies. He said this was accomplished through a increase in starting pay for applicants who have a college degree or an honorable discharge from the military.

      Money appropriated last session also included funds for a 10 percent increase for all staff in the first three levels of prison employees.

      Prison capacity was recently increased by converting former youth facilities in San Saba and Marlin to adult facilities. Last session the Legislature approved increasing space for probation and parole intermediate sanction facilities and drug treatment programs, but a Legislative Budget Board report shows capacity lagging behind projections.

      Committee Chair Senator John Whitmire was less pleased with progress relating to reentry programs, aimed at helping former prisoners reintegrate into society.

      He directed Livingston to redouble his efforts at improving offender reentry, including developing an ID card for former prisoners to help them find work.

      Committee Member Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa also raised concerns about the state of care at privately operated prison and treatment facilities, saying he has heard reports that these institutions cut corners to improve profit margins, and that prisoners at these facilities are more likely to be involved in violent crimes while incarcerated.

      Livingston said conditions at private facilities are monitored by the state and are nearly the same as at any state run prison.

      He promised to deliver a report to the committee comparing rates of violent crime between public and private facilities.

      The Senate Criminal Justice Committee is chaired by Houston Senator John Whitmire, and vice-chaired by Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger.

      Its members are Senators John Carona, Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Glenn Hegar, Rodney Ellis and Bob Deuell.

      Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

      PRISON REFORMS HAVING EFFECT





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