Tuesday, November 11, 2003

USA: With Cash Tight, States Reassess Long Jail Terms

OLYMPIA, Wash., Nov. 6 - After two decades of passing ever tougher sentencing laws and prompting a prison building boom, state legislatures facing budget crises are beginning to rethink their costly approaches to crime.

In the past year, about 25 states have passed laws eliminating some of the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences so popular in the 1980's and 1990's, restoring early release for parole and offering treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders. In the process, politicians across the political spectrum say they are discovering a new motto. Instead of being tough on crime, it is more effective to be smart on crime.

In Washington, the first state in the country to pass a stringent "three strikes" law by popular initiative a decade ago, a bipartisan group of legislators passed several laws this year reversing some of their more punitive statutes.

One law shortened sentences for drug offenders and set up money for drug treatment. Another increased the time inmates [prisoners], convicted of drug and property crimes could earn to get out of prison early. Another eliminated parole supervision for low-risk inmates [prisoners], after their release.

Taken together, these laws "represent a real turning point," said Joseph Lehman, the secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections, who was a major supporter of the legislative changes. "You have to look at the people who are behind these laws," Mr. Lehman said. "They are not all advocates of a liberal philosophy."

A major backer who helped persuade the Legislature to pass the new drug policy was Norm Maleng, a conservative Republican who has been the King County prosecutor in Seattle since 1979 and was a sponsor of a 1980's law that doubled sentences for drug convictions. "It was a little like Nixon going to China when Norm went down to the Legislature to persuade them to support this," said his chief of staff, Dan Satterberg.

The new laws will save Washington a projected $45 million a year. But equally important, Mr. Satterberg said, the new drug policy "is a recognition that you can't incarcerate your way out of this problem."

"There has to be treatment as well as incarceration," he said.

Still, Dave Reichert, the Republican sheriff of King County, along with other sheriffs in the state, opposed the law allowing offenders to earn more time for good behavior because, he said, he was afraid some of those released were violent criminals. "I'm worried that this is a first step in a long road that could take us decades to recover from," he said.

In Kansas, faced with the need to build $15 million worth of prisons, the Legislature passed a law this year mandating treatment instead of incarceration for first-time drug offenders who did not commit a crime involving violence. The law is expected to divert 1,400 offenders a year, a significant proportion of Kansas' 9,000 inmates, [prisoners.]

"I think we are realizing that there is a smarter way to deal with criminals, rather than just being tough on them and putting them away for the rest of their lives," said John Vratil, a Republican who is chairman of the State Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Even those people who favor being tough on crime don't want to find the money to build more prisons and go back on their pledge of no new taxes," Mr. Vratil said. "So they are choosing between the lesser of two evils." Will this new approach last when the economy recovers? Mr. Vratil thinks it will.

"What started out as an effort to save money has evolved into an appreciation for good public policy, and this has enabled legislators who were initially reluctant about it to support it," he said.

Michigan has dropped its lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, among the toughest in the nation. Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin have taken steps to ease their "truth in sentencing" laws, which require inmates to serve most of their sentences before being eligible for release.

Colorado has sought to reduce the large number of former inmates [prisoners], who are sent back to prison for technical parole violations, like failing a urine test or not showing up for an appointment with a parole officer. A new Colorado law limits the amount of time nonviolent offenders can be sent back to prison to 180 days.

Missouri has passed a law allowing inmates [prisoners], convicted of property crimes to apply for release after only four months, instead of having to serve one-third of their time, usually four to seven years.

These changes reflect an important national trend, said Daniel Wilhelm, director of the State Sentencing and Corrections Program at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. "People thought parole was dead, the idea of early release from prison," Mr. Wilhelm said, because in the 1980's and 1990's many states outlawed parole as part of the get-tough-on-crime movement.

"But parole is alive and well," he said, because of the twin pressures of budget deficits and the continued growth in the nation's prison population, even as the crime rate has fallen or leveled off over the past decade.

There are now 2.1 million Americans in jail or prison, quadruple the number in 1980. The New York Legislature quietly took two steps this year, with the support of Gov. George E. Pataki, that are, tantamount to making parole easier to get in order to save money, Mr. Wilhelm said.

The first law enables inmates [prisoners], convicted of nonviolent crimes to earn a certificate for good behavior, which makes them eligible for a program called presumptive release, under which they can be paroled without going before the parole board.

An estimated 1,185 inmates [prisoners], a year will be released early this way, saving the state $21 million, said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, a prison research and advocacy group.

Under the other new law, offenders convicted of some of the most serious drug crimes will for the first time be able to shorten their prison term by up to one-third by avoiding discipline problems and by staying in education or other programs.

This means that an inmate [prisoner], serving a sentence of 15 years to life for the possession of a small amount of drugs, under the Rockefeller-era drug laws, could now get out in 10 years, Mr. Gangi said.

Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, described the two laws as significant steps, but said they still fell far short of repealing the drug laws. Even Alabama, one of the most conservative states, now has a sentencing commission that has made reform recommendations, which the Legislature has begun to enact this year.

"I've been in the attorney general's office 30 years," said Rosa Davis, the chief assistant attorney general in Alabama, "and we've been the `lock them up and throw away the key' office. We're now learning the difference between being tough on crime and smart on crime."

In Alabama, a severe fiscal crisis is forcing some of these changes, Ms. Davis acknowledged. "We've cut spending on prisons so far that our prison system now looks like a third world country," she said. Some prisons are so crowded they are operating at almost double their capacity.

One new law this year raised the monetary threshold for prosecuting property crimes to $500 from $250, to try to keep the flow of new inmates [prisoners], down. Under another new law, low-level offenders will be kept in work release programs or sent to drug treatment. Alabama was one of the few states not to have such alternatives to prison.

Here in Washington, the budget crisis has also made the changes possible, said David Boerner, a former prosecutor who is now chairman of the Washington Sentencing Guidelines Commission. "The fiscal crisis has brought together the folks who think sentences are too long with the folks who are perfectly happy with the sentences but think prison is costing too much," Mr. Boerner said.

The new Washington drug law will lower sentences for drug offenses and allow judges to send offenders to treatment instead of prison, with the opportunity to have the charges against them dropped if they successfully complete the program. Money for treatment will come from money saved by the reduction in the number of drug offenders in prison.

One of the most sweeping changes in the nation was Michigan's repeal of its mandatory minimum drug sentences. The reform is projected to save the state $41 million this year, according to a report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group.

Under the new law, not only were drug penalties drastically reduced, but inmates [prisoners], already in prison became eligible for earlier release.

Karen Shook, for instance, a 44-year-old single mother of three, was serving a 20- to 40-year sentence for conspiracy to sell two and a half ounces of cocaine. It was her first arrest, and Ms. Shook said she thought her sentence was particularly harsh because she was only an intermediary. The actual dealer received a three-year sentence.

"I got longer than most people get for violent crimes," she said. But under the revised law, Ms. Shook became eligible for parole in April, after she had served 10 years, and she has now returned to her home near Lansing.

"In the end, the impossible happened," Ms. Shook said. "I had appeal after appeal turned down by the courts, and then it was the Legislature that wrote the law the other way and got me out."

By FOX BUTTERFIELD posted 11 November 03


After a war waged by the U.S. military against Vietnam which took the lives of more than 3 million Vietnamese people and more than 58,000 GIs, the U.S. finally withdrew in 1975. It had suffered its first official major military defeat by a united people struggle led by the Vietnamese, along with a mass U.S. anti-war movement.

Report on State Prisons Cites Mental Illness
NEW YORK: Nearly one of every four New York State prisoners who are kept in punitive segregation [solitary confinement], confined to a small cell at least 23 hours a day are mentally ill, according to a new report by a nonprofit group that has been critical of state prison policies.

High court keeps alive case of prisoners held in solitary
NEW ORLEANS: The nation's highest court refused Monday to kill a lawsuit brought by two prisoners and an ex-prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who spent decades in solitary confinement.

US: Mentally Ill Mistreated in Prison More Mentally Ill in Prison Than in Hospitals (New York, October 22, 2003) Mentally ill offenders face mistreatment and neglect in many U.S. prisons, Human Rights Watch. "Prisons have become the nation's primary mental health facilities. But for those with serious illnesses, prison can be the worst place to be."

Shut down the Security Torture Units
San Francisco: October 18 In solidarity with other prison activist organizations, MIM, RAIL, the Barrio Defense Committee (BDC) and the Prison Reform Unity Project held a four hour rally in San Francisco demanding the Security Housing Units (SHUs) in California prisons be shut down.

Solitary Confinement: Mental illness in prisons
As noted earlier, inmates [prisoners] with mental illness are over represented in our toughest prison settings. Symptoms of mental illness (i.e., delays in response time, paranoia, difficulty interpreting the actions of others, command hallucinations, and so on) can make complying with prison rules difficult.

Post-Incarceration Sentences
Pat: "The 1990s brought a new front in the war on drugs, featuring a new layer of the Prison Industrial Complex, which has the effect of ensuring that people coming in contact with the criminal punishment system remain within the grasp of the Prison Industrial Complex even beyond prison walls."

Inside Prison, Outside the Law
Every year, tens of thousands of prisoners in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 prisoners were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons.

Day Seven of the Fast for Freedom in Mental Health:
PASADENA, CALIF: On the seventh day of a hunger strike by six psychiatric survivors to oppose human rights violations in the mental health system, the American Psychiatric Association faces a direct and unprecedented challenge from a Scientific Panel of 14 academics and clinicians.

Supreme Court Justice Criticises Sentencing Guidelines
San Francisco, August 9, 2003, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said today that prison terms are too long and that he favours scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes.

US prison population 2.1 million
The US prison population grew more than twice as fast last year as in 2001, bringing the total number of people held behind bars in the United States to more than 2.1 million, a record, according to a government report.

McKean Federal Prison: An Alleged Model
McKean, a federal correctional institution [? prison], does everything that "make 'em bust rocks" politicians decry--imagine, educating inmates [prisoners]! And it works. [Allegedly works.]

Prisoners Justice Day Press Release (Montreal)
On August 10th, 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement unit at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison near Kingston,Ontario when the emergency call button in his cell failed to work. An inquest later found that the call buttons in that unit had been deactivated by the guards.

Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the "abolitionists." He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing.

Study Warns of Rising Tide of Released Prisoners
Washington: More than 625,000 former prisoners will be coming back into U.S. society this year, part of a record flow of prisoners who will face crushing obstacles in finding work and housing and repairing long-fractured family ties, according to a newly released study.

Incite Statement Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex
We call social justice movements to develop strategies and analysis that address both state AND interpersonal violence, particularly violence against women.

Second International Conference on Human Rights & Prison Reform
**This second gathering will be much smaller and more in depth in participation. A report on the human rights violation of discrimination in regard to prisoners will be produced. This report will be given to the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights which will be having its annual meeting near our conference and is the"think tank" for the human rights agenda of the United Nations.

Judged Forever- The Orange County Register
US: California's largest job-placement program for parolees will be shut down May 31 after an Orange County Register investigation found that ex-convicts were sent to questionable jobs [?] and that the state was charged for placements that did not occur. [? According to the ruling-class]

California Family Visiting Case
US: CALIFORNIA: Today (5/03/08) in Superior Court around twenty friends and family members of inmates from CSP Solano showed up to show their support in the Gordon vs. CA Department of Corrections (Case #322862) which deals with the subject of bringing back Family Visits to all inmates.

Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds
An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department.

Justices question prison visitation policies
WASHINGTON: In a case that could affect the visitation rights of millions of prisoners, Supreme Court justices on Wednesday struggled with the question of whether inmates have a constitutional right to visits with friends and family.