Category Archives: Incarceration

When Sex Offender Laws Punish Too Many

It’s not just drug laws that lock up too many people. The Economist writes about America’s unjust sex laws:
How dangerous are the people on the registries? A state review of one sample in Georgia found that two-thirds of them posed little risk. For example, Janet Allison was found guilty of being “party to the crime of child molestation” because she let her 15-year-old daughter have sex with a boyfriend. The young couple later married. But Ms Allison will spend the rest of her life publicly branded as a sex offender.

Several other countries have sex-offender registries, but these are typically held by the police and are hard to view. In America it takes only seconds to find out about a sex offender: some states have a “click to print” icon on their websites so that concerned citizens can put up posters with the offender’s mugshot on trees near his home. Small wonder most sex offenders report being harassed. A few have been murdered. Many are fired because someone at work has Googled them.

Registration is often just the start. Sometimes sex offenders are barred from living near places where children congregate. In Georgia no sex offender may live or work within 1,000 feet (300 metres) of a school, church, park, skating rink or swimming pool. In Miami an exclusion zone of 2,500 feet has helped create a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge.

Make the punishment fit the crime

There are three main arguments for reform. First, it is unfair to impose harsh penalties for small offences. Perhaps a third of American teenagers have sex before they are legally allowed to, and a staggering number have shared revealing photographs with each other. This is unwise, but hardly a reason for the law to ruin their lives. Second, America’s sex laws often punish not only the offender, but also his family. If a man who once slept with his 15-year-old girlfriend is barred for ever from taking his own children to a playground, those children suffer.
Georgia is a noted example in overly harsh laws in this area.

Applying Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending

Joel Dvoskin has studied prison populations:
“We need to know what may be behind the criminal behavior to know what the best treatment is,” he said. “A person who commits crimes when drunk but not when sober is likely suffering from an alcohol problem. Treating the alcohol problem may diminish the criminal behavior.”

Decreasing prison populations needs to be more of a priority, Dvoskin said. “This can be done by paying more attention to those with the highest risk of violent behavior rather than focusing on lesser crimes, such as minor drug offenses.”

Finally, bringing work back into prisons can benefit prisoners by teaching them job skills and filling unmet job needs. With the increase in the criminal population and lack of increase in prison staff, “there is not enough supervision to allow prisoners to work and build skills,” Dvoskin said. “This makes it very hard to re-enter into the civilian world and increases the likelihood of going back to prison.”

With 7 million American adults in prison and almost 50 percent of them African-American males, many children are growing up without fathers and are at risk for continuing the vicious cycle of criminal behavior, Dvoskin said. “If we don’t make the changes now, we will see these numbers go up.”

On the other hand, if we want more criminals, sure, throw more minor offenders in with hardened criminals so they can learn how to do it worser.

Justice in Erie County, New York

Lest anyone think jail problems are just a southern phenomenon, the Buffalo News reports that Erie County, New York’s two jails have a few problems, too:
The U.S. Justice Department, after an almost two-year investigation, finds that Erie County’s two jails routinely violate the constitutional rights of their inmates and subjects them to brutality as well poor care on several levels.

In a 50-page report, the Justice Department says the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden have failed to correct their numerous problems, even after being warned of them for years by other regulatory agencies.

The Justice Department called the effort by Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s Jail Management Division to run the two facilities as “woefully inadequate” and said it has led to a “pattern of serious harm to inmates, including death.”

“We conclude that the conditions of confinement violate the constitutional rights of inmates,” the Justice Department said in a letter to County Executive Chris Collins, who had refused to cooperate with the probe.

It turns out the Erie county government went well beyond just not cooperating.

Maybe if we weren’t locking up more people than any other country in the world, we might not have so many problems with jails.

Cronkite on War on Drugs

Walter Cronkite died today. I’ll remember him by what he fought for:
It surely hasn’t made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people…disproportionately people of color…who have caused little or no harm to others – wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effort – with no one held accountable for its failure.

Amid the clichés of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we’ve become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane.

But nothing will change until someone has the courage to stand up and say what so many politicians privately know: The war on drugs has failed.

LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

Sanity from law enforcement and legal personnel:
“We’re all calling for an end to drug prohibition. We want to end it just like we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933,” said Jack Cole, executive director for LEAP. “The day after we ended that nasty law, Al Capone and all of his smuggling buddies were out of business.”

War on Drugs is Over! (Portugal Won)

Portugal admitted locking everybody up wasn’t working, and shifted to treatment and prevention:
Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006, according to a report released recently by the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C, libertarian think tank.

“Now instead of being put into prison, addicts are going to treatment centers and they’re learning how to control their drug usage or getting off drugs entirely,” report author Glenn Greenwald, a former New York State constitutional litigator, said during a press briefing at Cato last week.

Under the Portuguese plan, penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime. But people caught using or possessing small amounts—defined as the amount needed for 10 days of personal use—are brought before what’s known as a “Dissuasion Commission,” an administrative body created by the 2001 law.

Of course, if we did that in the U.S., we’d probably have to close quite a few prisons.

We’re not at war with people in this country

Gary Fields writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

That’s a refreshing change, given that the 5% of the population that’s incarcerated and their families and friends might well wonder if the government is at war with its own people. There are indeed some nasty sociopaths out there who need to be locked up to protect everyone else. But there aren’t enough of those to account for the U.S. prison population. The “war on drugs” accounts for many of the rest.

It’s interesting that this article was published in the WSJ, not generally known as a left-wing rag. Kerlikowske, for that matter, is a former police chief. As is customary with newspaper articles, it ends with a counter view:

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest law-enforcement labor organization, said that while he holds Mr. Kerlikowske in high regard, police officers are wary.

“While I don’t necessarily disagree with Gil’s focus on treatment and demand reduction, I don’t want to see it at the expense of law enforcement. People need to understand that when they violate the law there are consequences.”

Indeed, even people at the highest levels of government need to learn that for themselves. But the solution to Pasco’s conundrum for the “war on drugs” is to change the laws. That alone won’t do it, however. Just throwing convicts back on the street after being in prison with real criminals wouldn’t be nearly as good as implementing programs to reintegrate them into the community and to prevent others from getting drug habits in the first place. Kerlikowske’s approach is needed at the same time, and even before, changing the laws.

For those who say it can’t work, try this article about Norway, which actually provides public assistance for drug addicts instead of locking them up, yet does not have any large population of addicts, and is actually growing its economy during the current economic depression.

5% population, 25% prison population: U.S.

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia met with people who work in prisons:
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.”

We need to change that.

Prison Reform

US_incarceration_timeline-clean.gif We’ve locked a lot of people up since 1980, making the U.S. the world leader in prison population (both total and per capita), and the south the leader of the U.S. Locking up a lot of non-violent offenders, especially drug offenders, hasn’t bought us much safety and has caused a lot of problems.

Fortunately, somebody is trying to do something about it:

Washington, DC–Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today introduced bipartisan legislation to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation’s entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee, is the principal Republican cosponsor.
You can follow the progress of S.714 online; it’s currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Meanwhile, Jim Webb explains the problem in Parade:

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. 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.

And Arlen Specter gets into details in an op-ed in the Philadelphia newspaper:

The U.S. criminalizes conduct that would be better left to treatment and penalties other than imprisonment. Take drugs. The number of jailed drug offenders has soared 1,200 percent since 1980 despite the fact that many of these offenders have no history of violence or high-level drug distribution. Many are behind bars under sentencing guidelines that leave judges no choice.

In another example of dubious penology, too many mentally ill people are treated as miscreants or felons rather than as patients in need of treatment. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison than in mental health hospitals. Many of these individuals end up back on the streets.

This is not about people convicted of violent crimes. We need to make sure that dangerous criminals and second-time offenders with a history of violence go to jail. As a former prosecutor who served two terms as D.A. in Philadelphia, I’m a strong proponent of incarcerating violent criminals for public safety and deterrence. And I support the death penalty in especially egregious cases.

But I also believe we need to restore judicial discretion in low-level drug cases and other nonviolent crimes. With our federal prisons at 140 percent capacity and with 7.3 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole – a number equivalent to 1 in every 31 adults – the issue cannot wait.

The question we started with, jail deaths in Lowndes County jail, is only a symptom. The problem is much larger. Fortunately, we can do something about it.

Georgia does not have a member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but that means there’s no reason not to contact any or all of the members of that commmittee. Here they are.

U.S. Leads the World and South Leads the U.S.: In Prisons

incrt.gifAccording to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of sentenced inmates incarcerated under state and federal jurisdiction per 100,000 population has increased from 139 in 1980 to 507 in 2007. That’s more than tripled.

That also gives the U.S. the highest per-capita prison population of any country in the world. Also the biggest prison population; bigger by far than China or Russia:

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. Even though the United States represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates.
prisonstudies-org.jpg And in the U.S., according to the Institute for Southern Studies, the South has even higher prison populations per capita.
When it came to locking people up, Louisiana leads the South, and the South leads the nation. Simply put: the South has more of its population in prisons or jails than any other part of the country.

Since 1980, the country’s prison population has quadrupled to more than two million, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. The prison population increase can be attributed largely to “tough-on-crime” criminal justice policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” laws for repeat offenders, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws that restrict early releases. These draconian policies uniquely hurt the South, especially where enacted with key backing from “get-tough-on-crime” lawmakers (resulting in, among other things, the disenfranchisement of millions of potential Democratic voters).

208px-Federal_Prisoner_Distribution.png The effects of the Drug War and its resulting surge in incarceration were also especially hard-felt in the South. By 2000, nine of the 20 states with the highest incarceration rates were in the South. And by 2008, 10 of the 20 states with the highest rates were in the South. Prevention, treatment and re-entry programs have been slashed while prison budgets continue to rise.

The racial disparity of these policies has been tremendous: Nationally, black adults are four times as likely as whites to be under correctional control. One in 11 black adults — 9.2 percent — was under correctional supervision by 2008. And because the majority of African Americans live in the Deep South (the highest populations are in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia respectively), the racial disparities of “get-tough” policies have been disproportionately felt there.

It seems that crime and punishment is now a dominant industry in the Deep South. By 2008, the top five states with the highest adult incarceration rates were in the South: Louisiana leads the way, with one out of every 55 residents behind bars. Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama finish off the top five.

So, even if, as the VDT says, jail deaths in Lowndes County, Georgia, are no higher than in Fulton or DeKalb Counties, why are the jail populations in all those counties so high in the first place?

Is it because there are more criminals in the South? Apparently not:

Dealing out longer sentences and putting more people behind bars have been the hallmarks of Southern states, Gelb told CNN. “The huge differences between states are mostly due not to crime trends, or social and economic forces,” he said. “The rates are different mostly because of choices that the states have made about how they respond to crime.”
The ISS article goes on to suggest several alternatives already tried and shown to work in Texas and other states.