Friday, December 5, 2003

Finally, States Release The Pressure on Prisons?

US: After decades of massive prison growth, America may be ending its love affair with incarceration. Policymakers around the country, some of whom previously supported ratcheting up punishments, have begun to rethink the wisdom of unbridled prison expansion, and are advocating alternatives to simply "locking them up and throwing away the key."

But if our country is truly to move away from its expensive and ineffective criminal justice policies, a balanced approach needs to become the rule, rather than the exception.

It is difficult to overstate the massive increase in the number of prisoners in the United States over the past two decades.

In 1989, America's prison and jail population topped 1 million inmates, [prisoners], for the first time in our history. Twelve years later, the number of inmates, [prisoners], had reached 2 million. By 2001, 5.6 million Americans were either in prison or had served prison time -- more than the populations of 28 states or the District of Columbia.

The world's most celebrated democracy [? war mongers] began the new millennium with the world's highest incarceration rate.


In the face of such daunting data, however, there is the beginning of a welcome trend -- born out of a combination of fiscal crises, changing attitudes about crime and research about the benefits of treatment over incarceration -- toward a more balanced approach to crime.

According to a report by Judith Greene published by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, 25 states have abolished mandatory sentencing laws, accelerated parole, increased time off for good behavior, diverted prisoners into treatment or otherwise curbed the unnecessary use of incarceration. (Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a sentencing reform group made up of prisoner families.)

More than a dozen states have reduced their prison populations since 2000; 10 have closed one or more prisons, and two others, including Maryland, have announced their intention to do so. Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Washington have reformed sentencing practices to divert nonviolent offenders from prison into treatment. Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan and North Dakota have either abolished or narrowed their mandatory sentencing laws.

The crack in the incarceration dam comes, in part, in response to the largest state budget shortfalls since World War II. In the past three years alone, states have faced a combined $200 billion in budget gaps. Meanwhile, prisons now consume a larger portion of the state budget pie -- $35 billion annually in 1999, up from $17 billion in 1990 -- rendering them a bigger target for budget cutters. From 1985 to 2000, prison budgets grew at six times the rate of higher education budgets.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that deficits are the only factor driving this trend. State budgets have seen their share of ups and downs over the past 30 years, but prison budgets have grown relentlessly, in good times and bad, since 1972. During the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s, state prison populations rose at a record clip, budget shortfalls notwithstanding.

So history suggests that dollars have never been the single motivating factor in prison policies. Rather, some policymakers are stepping back to evaluate corrections systems, finding that there is a better way to achieve public safety that is supported by opinion leaders and public opinion alike.

In state after state, research has called into question the effectiveness of imprisonment and supported the use of treatment and other alternatives to incarceration -- and policymakers have taken notice.

After the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that certain treatment options reduced rearrests and yielded better public safety outcomes than prison, officials there enacted legislation diverting offenders from prison into treatment.

The reforms saved the state $50 million over two years, $8 million of which was spent to expand treatment options. Joe Lehman, Washington state's corrections secretary, stated, "It's not just about money, it's about informing our sentencing policies with what we know from research works in mitigating the risk of offenders and enhancing community safety."

In support of his drug offender diversion bill, Ray Allen, the conservative chair of Texas' House Corrections Committee, quoted Rand Corp. findings showing that, for every dollar spent on treatment, the state would save between $1.50 and $2. "Treatment works," Allen flatly told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Allen's bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in June, will divert 2,500 would-be inmates from prison into treatment.

Some policymakers have also expressed dismay about the unintended consequences of laws passed during the tough-on-crime hysteria of the past two decades. That dismay has also helped fuel the reforms.

For example, Michigan's former governor, William G. Milliken, urged in September 2002 that the mandatory sentencing bill he signed into law in 1978 be repealed. "I have since come to realize that the provisions of the law have led to terrible injustices and that signing it was a mistake -- an overly punishing and cruel response that gave no discretion to a sentencing judge, even for extenuating circumstances," he wrote in an op-ed for the Detroit News.

Three months later, Michigan's Republican governor, John Engler, signed a law, passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature, that eliminated most of Michigan's mandatory sentences and returned discretion over sentencing to judges.

The reforms were also backed not only by Families Against Mandatory Minimums but also by such diverse bedfellows as the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

In New York, former state senator John Dunne, a Republican and a key supporter of New York's harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws, now chairs the Campaign for Effective Criminal Justice, which is devoted to repealing the same laws.

Support for reforms is not limited to the states. At this year's American Bar Association (ABA) conference, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke passionately of the "inadequacies and injustices in our corrections system."

The Reagan appointee declared in August, "Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long." As a result of Kennedy's speech, ABA president-elect Dennis Archer established the "Kennedy Commission" to examine America's penal policies, making sentencing reform a major focus of the nation's largest legal association.

Public support for the reforms is a logical extension of the public's waning appetite for punishment as crime has declined. An ABC News poll last year found that nine in 10 Americans favor treatment programs over prison for first-time drug offenders, while a Parade Magazine survey, also last year, revealed that 88 percent of Americans feel that people convicted of nonviolent crimes should be sentenced to community service instead of prison. While 42 percent of respondents to a 1994 Gallup poll thought that the best approach to crime control was increasing funding for law enforcement and prisons, only 29 percent of respondents to a Hart and Associates poll felt that way in December 2001.

Not every state is implementing smart prison reforms, of course. In several, there has been talk of change, but it has stalled. New York's legislature and governor have agreed that the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandate life sentences for even first-time drug offenders, should be amended. But they have yet to agree on an approach, leaving the laws untouched since the 1970s.

In Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich has said that we must "work together to get nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and into treatment programs, where they belong."

Despite this, and despite having expanded treatment inside prisons, this year, Ehrlich enacted the largest prison construction increase in a decade and has offered no proposals to reduce his state's prison population, which has tripled since 1980.

In Massachusetts, the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayer's Foundation this month released a study complaining that the famously liberal state is spending more on prisons than on higher education for the first time in 35 years. Still, there is no relief in sight for that state's mushrooming prison budget.

As is so often the case, the many state reforms have not been matched at the federal level. In September, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered his prosecutors to seek the most serious possible charges on almost all federal cases. Ironically, his home state of Missouri passed legislation earlier this year that will divert 1,300 offenders from prison into community supervision.

Despite notable progress, we have far to go if we are truly to curb our imprisonment binge. In the final analysis, Justice Kennedy is right: It's time to forge a new consensus on prison policies. In other words, having proven we can be tough on crime, we must now show we can be smart on crime as well.

By Vincent Schiraldi posted 5 December 03

Author's e-mail:

Vincent Schiraldi is executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.


California Parole System Deemed 'Broken'
SACRAMENTO, Calif: California spends $1.5 billion annually on parolees who mostly fail and are sent back behind bars because they are no better prepared for life on the outside than the day they entered prison, according to a report.

People with Mental Retardation in the Criminal Justice System
Based on the 1990 census, an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million people in the United States have mental retardation. Various studies have suggested between 2 percent to 10 percent of the prison population has mental retardation.

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.

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.