A wide-ranging collection of news and opinion from the previous week focusing on criminal justice policy, advocacy, and reform.
Landlords Face Pressure on Criminal Background Checks
Apartment landlords are facing mounting criticism that they are using electronic criminal-background checks to discriminate against prospective renters with only minor legal blemishes. Technology has made it possible for apartment owners to perform fast, cheap and wide-ranging criminal background checks with just the click of a button instead of rifling through records at a local courthouse.
Federal Housing Officials Warn Against Blanket Bans of Ex-Offenders
Private landlords who have blanket bans on renting to people with criminal records are in violation of the Fair Housing Act and can be sued and face penalties for discrimination, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development said.
Overhaul of Solitary Confinement Is Approved for New York’s Prisons
The settlement caps the length of time an inmate may be placed in solitary confinement — some inmates spend years there — and provides alternative programs to address “the underlying causes of an inmate’s disciplinary issues,” the judge noted. The agreement can also be enforced in court.
City Hall Quietly Eyes Neighborhoods for New Jails to Replace Rikers Island
But city officials have identified possible locations on Staten Island, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens where two new jails — each housing as many as 2,000 inmates — could be built.
Space next to the NYPD’s newly opened police academy in College Point is one possible location, according to sources.
Council Members Vow to Fight ‘Non-Starter’ New Jails in Their Neighborhoods
A new battle could be brewing after City Council members responded strongly to DNAinfo New York’s exclusive report Thursday that City Hall has identified possible locations on Staten Island and in College Point, among other neighborhoods, to build new jails in an effort to close Rikers Island.
Rikers Island inmate who was paralyzed while incarcerated says correction officers ignored complaints of pain and numbness in limbs in $196M suit
He walked into Rikers Island in December 2014 and left a paraplegic four weeks later.
Kenzo Capulong, a 29-year-old aspiring artist, claims he had repeatedly complained to correction officers and the medical staff at the jail about worsening pain in his back, and progressive weakness and numbness in his limbs — but his concerns were not taken seriously until it was too late.
In Trial of Rikers Officers, Focus Turns to Cover-Up of an Inmate’s Beating
Dwayne Maynard was not one of the five correction officers accused of mercilessly beating Jahmal Lightfoot, an inmate at Rikers Island, to teach him a lesson.
But it was Officer Maynard who was on trial in New York State Supreme Court in the Bronx on Monday as opening statements continued for a second day in the case of nine current or former Rikers correction officers accused of taking part in what prosecutors have described as an orchestrated assault and cover-up in July 2012.
Melissa Mark-Viverito wants to mandate reports showing lawsuits against Correction Department
As she looks for ways to shut down Rikers Island, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wants to shed more light on troubles inside the city’s jails by mandating public reports on lawsuits against the Department of Correction.
Mark-Viverito is set to introduce a bill next week to require two reports a year detailing how many lawsuits the department has been slapped with and how they were resolved.
Upstate Prosecutor Is Revisiting 2010 Death of Clinton Prison Inmate
The district attorney with jurisdiction over the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., said on Wednesday that his office was reviewing the case of an inmate who died there in 2010 after a violent encounter with prison guards.
The death of the inmate, Leonard Strickland, did not result in prosecution or disciplinary action at the time, despite surveillance video showing him near death, being dragged along the floor by guards in the prison infirmary while a nurse stood idly by.
Spotting the ‘Red Flags’ of Abusive Prison Guards
Under state law, disciplinary actions against corrections officers are confidential, but 20 of the officers named in the cases are still working for the department, state records show. Nine of them have since retired and one, who was named in two brutality cases that settled, has resigned, according to the state comptroller’s office.
“I’ve never understood why these cases don’t lead to people losing their positions,” said Anthony Cecutti, a lawyer who has represented several inmates in brutality cases.
FBI investigates inmate abuse at Downstate, Fishkill facilities
The Federal Bureau of Investigations has launched a probe into a 2013 incident at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill in which an inmate was allegedly beaten by a group of officers.
It’s the latest investigation by the FBI into the use of excessive force within the state prison system since the death of Samuel Harrell III last year at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon.
Criminal Justice Reform Again Given Little Attention in Budget Negotiations
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders rush to deliver an on-time budget, criminal justice reform advocates aren’t holding out hope that any of their major legislative priorities will be included in the final document. Advocates are resigned that many of their priorities, which are backed by Cuomo and included in his executive budget, will be pushed to the post-budget legislative session.
Editorial: Correct this prison system
Only occasionally do we get glimpses of what goes on behind the walls of New York’s state prisons. The little we can see is evidence enough to warrant a broad, independent investigation of alleged prisoner abuse.
Finally, that may be coming. The U.S. Attorney for Southern New York, Preet Bharara, who has successfully prosecuted corruption at the highest levels of state government, fiercely gone after organized crime and made life miserable for shady Wall Street tycoons, is aiming his sights toward New York state prisons.
Formerly Incarcerated NYU Administrator Wants School to ‘Ban the Box’
Rowe praised the school’s new admissions process, but said he still wants the school to “ban the box,” both as a symbolic move and because he feels so strongly about his alma mater. He wants everyone to “have access to a quality education, and a quality life, quality employment,” as he did.
President Obama grants early release to 61 more federal drug offenders
“The power to grant pardons and commutations . . . embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws,” Obama wrote in a letter to the 61 inmates whose sentences he commuted.
President Obama Grants Commutations
On March 30, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 61 individuals. The President granted commutations of sentence to the following 61 individuals.
Obama Commutes the Sentences of 61 Federal Prisoners
Yet with the 61 prisoners whose sentences he is now shortening, all but seven of whom will be released in July, Obama seems now to be aggressively using his executive authority to combat what his administration sees as the excesses of the War on Drugs era.
The Clemency Backlog Continues
Among the thousands in the pardon backlog are people like Ronald Blount, who got a mandatory life sentence for minor drug-trafficking offenses, and Weldon Angelos, serving 55 years for carrying a gun while selling small bags of marijuana to an undercover officer. Why aren’t cases like these getting resolved faster?
The Bureaucracy of Mercy
The Obama administration’s attempt to speed things up – by all accounts well intentioned – has suffered a number of handicaps. The Clemency Project has a staff of six, occupying borrowed space and living on donations from legal advocacy groups, Roseberry said. The volunteer lawyers included some of the nation’s most accomplished, but few of them had any experience of clemency petitions.
Obama’s Clemency Problem
The problem here is that too many cases can’t be adequately considered by the president because of a sluggish and often intransigent review process. Clemency petitions undergo no fewer than seven levels of review, four of them within the Department of Justice. Within the Justice Department, clemency petitions run not only through the Office of the Pardon Attorney but also through the office of the deputy attorney general.
On pardons, Obama could go down as one of the most merciless presidents in history
The results of this great, unprecedented effort? Obama has a clemency record comparable to the least merciful presidents in history. He has granted just 70 pardons, the lowest mark for any full-term president since John Adams, and 187 commutations of sentence. Meanwhile, 1,629 pardon petitions have been denied (more than five of the previous six presidents), as well as 8,123 requests for commutations (a new record). An additional 3,444 requests have been “closed without presidential action.”
‘We go rotten’: man granted clemency describes life in the US prison system
“I have to say it’s very animalistic because you have people that are there actually turning into animals in environments like that for so long. You’re seeing people licking glasses and growing crazy hairstyles and yelling from behind as if you were in an insane asylum. And to try to process all this and thinking that I may not ever go home, well, how do I survive in here? What am I going to have to do? So my experiences from the beginning were kind of frantic.”
Former administration pardon attorney suggests broken system in resignation letter
The Obama administration instructed Justice Department attorneys to neglect applications for presidential pardons to give priority to the Justice Department’s initiative to release low-level offenders from prison, the former pardon attorney said in her resignation letter early this year.
Highlights From Our Justice Talk On Solitary Confinement
Yesterday marked our second installment of Justice Talk, a monthly online discussion series about criminal justice in partnership with Digg. The topic: solitary confinement. The chatter ranged from how we reported our recent story with NPR on a practice known as double celling — in which two prisoners are placed in a small solitary cell together for nearly 24 hours a day — to anecdotes from former inmates with intimate knowledge of how prisons use isolation. Below, a collection of some of the most striking exchanges.
DOJ Tells Prisons to Put Safety First in Housing Transgender Inmates
The Justice Department, under pressure from advocates, has issued a memorandum reasserting its policy that transgender prisoners cannot be housed according to their anatomy alone but must be assigned to facilities on a case-by-case basis, with the inmate’s own sense of where he or she would be safest “given serious consideration.”
Supreme Court Rules Against Freezing Assets Not Tied to Crimes
The government can seize, Justice Breyer wrote, “a robber’s loot, a drug seller’s cocaine, a burglar’s tools, or other property associated with the planning, implementing, or concealing of a crime.”
But it cannot, he said, freeze money or other assets unconnected to the crime.
A Near-Epiphany at the Supreme Court
In a 5-3 decision in Luis v. United States on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the government from seizing legitimate funds defendants could use to hire a lawyer of their choice. Along the way, the justices came close to asking a more troubling question: Does America’s underfunded public-defender system meet the Sixth Amendment’s standards for adequate legal counsel?
Old Main prison: A tour through American prison history
Haney added that security responses to heightened violence and overcrowding during the prison explosion in the 1980s led to an emphasis on segregation as a means of punishment and control. It led prison administrators to “increasingly relying on solitary confinement as a prison management tool”.
The Most Gripping Photo Essays on Criminal Justice
Over the past 40 years, we’ve voted time-and-time-again for harsher laws … and for the politicians who supported them. Our tax-dollars have built thousands of new jails and prisons, but how much do we know about what goes on inside? Can photography and photographers help us know?
The Deadly Consequences of Solitary With a Cellmate
Simmons threw the first punch, only grazing his roommate’s face. Sesson lunged back at him and grabbed him by the throat, wrestling him to the ground. He picked up a torn, knotted strip of bedsheet, but it split. So Sesson pulled a shoelace from his boots and wrapped it tightly around Simmons’ neck.
Feds struggle to provide prison medical care
The aging inmate population has exacerbated the staffing gaps in recent years, as the government has been increasingly unable to compete with the private sector for medical professionals who are paid exponentially more outside of government, according to the report by Justice Department’s inspector general.
Private Prison CEOs Continue to Make Much More than the Correctional Officers that Work for Them
New data released last week by the federal government shows striking inequality in the private prison industry, which collects hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from taxpayers each year.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the median salary for correctional officers at private prisons and jails in 2015 was $32,290. The data reveals that one in four private correctional officers make less than $26,091, putting them near or below the poverty line for a family of four.
Argument preview: A “clean” constitutional question – does the speedy trial right apply to sentencing?
The Sixth Amendment provides various rights for “all criminal prosecutions.” Among those listed is “the right to a speedy and public trial.” Next Monday, March 28, in Betterman v. Montana, the Court will consider whether the “speedy” part of the right applies to a criminal defendant’s sentencing that happened about fourteen months after he was convicted by guilty plea.
How Prison Phone Calls Became A Tax On The Poor
Because she works so often, in-person visitations are impossible. So Zemorah waits for the calls from Mary Jo. Mary Jo, in turn, waits for the calls from Amber. Amber, meanwhile, says the high cost of communication is literally driving people behind the jail walls insane. “There’s so much stress,” Amber told me recently. “People are heartbroken. People miss their kids. They can’t talk to them. People go crazy inside.”
There hasn’t been a criminal defense lawyer on the Supreme Court in 25 years. That’s a problem.
There’s good reason to be concerned about the jurisprudence of a court that only understands one side of a criminal case from experience — and since the high-water mark of the 1960s, defense lawyers have seen the Supreme Court put serious restrictions on the right against self-incrimination, the right against unreasonable search, and even the right to a lawyer.
Criminalizing HIV Transmission Does More Harm Than Good
These HIV-specific laws can discourage people from getting tested by making ignorance of their HIV status a form of protection against sex-related criminal charges, according to David Martin, senior director of the APA’s office on AIDS. “If you don’t know whether you have [the virus], you can’t be prosecuted for having sex with someone and not telling them you have HIV,” he says. “But if you do know and don’t inform your partner, even if you use a condom and everything you did was safe with regards to the possibility of transmission, you can be incarcerated.”
Trump On Crime: Tough Talk, Few Specifics
But he has eluded easy definition. At a time when there’s growing bipartisan consensus that much of today’s justice system is badly in need of reform, Trump remains an enigma.
He has not opposed the reform consensus—he’s just avoided talking about it. Until recently, when asked for comments on the issue, Trump responded by threatening to get “tougher” on criminals, or by defending police.
Adam Foss: A prosecutor’s vision for a better justice system
When a kid commits a crime, the US justice system has a choice: prosecute to the full extent of the law, or take a step back and ask if saddling young people with criminal records is the right thing to do every time. In this searching talk, Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, makes his case for a reformed justice system that replaces wrath with opportunity, changing people’s lives for the better instead of ruining them.
Racial Threat and Incarceration Rates
I think racial threat might be enough to explain why diversifying small counties are so zealous in throwing people in jail. Vera Institute data show that the smallest counties had a mean increase in people of color of 239 percent from 1990-2013. That’s a lot of people! And while that number actually pales in comparison to the 300 percent of other counties, it’s worth noting that many small, very rural counties start at a much smaller baseline and are dealing with both shifts towards a more cosmopolitan identity and a diversity shock.
Mr. Wearry spent almost 15 years on death row for a crime that (based on the Supreme Court’s description of the evidence) he probably didn’t commit. If he’s exonerated, neither the people nor the institution that caused his unjust imprisonment by violating his constitutional rights will be required to make him whole. The particular prosecutors involved will likely never see any professional consequences for their misconduct in Mr. Wearry’s case. And he’s one of the lucky ones.
Are Shows Like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” Clouding the Wider Struggle for Justice?
Moreover, although the cases of Stephen Avery and Adnan Syed may spark a collective consciousness about justice, they also run the risk of turning the process of unraveling mass incarceration into teledrama, a Netflix moment that absorbs us until the next riveting plot twist. This, of course, comes along with the inevitable expectation of a kind of happy ending justice and freedom for those who are “innocent.” Happy endings are the rule of law in Hollywood and mainstream television.
Justices struggle with key issues in Iowa voting rights case
At stake are voting rights for many of the 57,000 felons who have been disqualified from participating in elections or running for office in Iowa. The case has been closely watched because Iowa is one of only three states that disenfranchise convicted felons for life unless their rights are restored by the governor.
Iowa high court hears challenge to felon voting ban
Iowa’s highest court heard a case Wednesday that could restore voting rights to around 20,000 former felons. The Hawkeye state is the latest battleground in a nationwide push to weaken or end state bans on felon voting, which disenfranchise nearly 6 million Americans, disproportionately African-Americans.
NYU Law Highlights Issues with Being Pregnant in Jail
Many women who are incarcerated are pregnant and are often mistreated while in prison, and the event held by NYU Law Students for Reproductive Justice on Wednesday hoped to shed light on the severity of this mistreatment.
Imprisoned Washington-area man gets early release with help from unlikely ally
McDade’s attorneys, who submitted his clemency petition about a year ago, said the process took longer than anticipated because of opposition from the U.S. attorney’s office. Prosecutors objected to McDade’s early release, according to his lawyers, in part because of the amount of drugs involved in the conspiracy.
Hundreds of Arizona inmates have used razors, drugs in self harm or suicide attempts
One prisoner at the Dakota Close Unit in Yuma has been on suicide watch continuously since December. According to a Feb. 8 letter from the Prison Law Office, a California-based nonprofit that provides free legal representation to inmates, the prisoner last was seen by a psychiatrist on Jan. 4. The prisoner told a psychiatric associate on Feb. 3 that he wanted “to kill himself with a plan.”
Keep pushing criminal justice reform in Kentucky (by Senator Rand Paul)
One of the biggest mistakes we’re making by abiding by the current system is letting one youthful mistake define someone for the rest of their life. By giving certain non-violent offenders the opportunity to hold a stable job and participate in society by voting we will begin repairing some of the serious issues that have plagued our criminal justice system for far too long.
Why Some Prisoners With HIV Get Better Treatment Than Others
With the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation, Louisiana locks up so many people that 40% of those sentenced to serve time in state prisons are instead sent to a local parish jail. This has long created a two-tiered system: people in prisons have access to educational and vocational programs in state-run facilities that the 15,000 state inmates assigned to jails don’t.
A new report released Tuesday shows the consequences of this system can be deadly. Beyond access to classes and job training,the disparities extend to HIV care, too.
President Obama commutes New Orleans man’s 20-year sentence for Uptown drug dealing
President Barack Obama on Wednesday commuted the sentences of 61 federal prisoners, including a New Orleans man serving two decades behind bars for dealing crack cocaine. The White House said the prisoners had been serving lengthy terms for drug-related convictions under “outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.”
Burl Cain probes leave lingering questions about fuzzy rules, questionable judgment at Corrections
Burl Cain is gone from Angola — but not from the state payroll — and last week three separate investigations found that he broke no rules. Even so, the probes left lingering questions about how the state’s Corrections Department is being managed.
Lawmakers consider tougher mandatory sentences for violent crimes
While much of the country seems to be moving away from mandatory minimums in prison sentencing, Louisiana lawmakers took a step Tuesday (March 29) toward tougher incarceration requirements.
A Senate judiciary committee voted 5-2 for Senate Bill 196 to limit judges’ discretion over sentencing in felony cases involving a gun.
New Massachusetts licensing law aims to clear re-entry path for drug offenders
Shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of Massachusetts drug offenders became eligible to have their driver’s licenses reinstated as Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill repealing automatic license suspensions for most drug crimes not related to the operation of a motor vehicle.
Reentry struggles of Montana’s incarcerated Native Americans discussed
The Montana US Attorney’s Office says Native Americans make up 20% of all arrests in the state of Montana while only making up 7% of the state’s overall population.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and other agencies put on a two-day training seminar in Pablo this week called “Reentry in Tribal Communities” where speakers from several local agencies presented their take on why Native Americans make up such a large part of state incarceration and arrest rates.
Ninth deputy pleads guilty in Iberia Parish Jail beating investigation; sheriff to be arraigned this week
Hatley looked on while a narcotics agent assaulted an inmate — placing his flashlight between his legs and forcing it into the inmate’s mouth, mimicking fellatio — inside the parish jail’s camera-less chapel, according to the agreement.
When the FBI questioned Hatley in December about whether he witnessed beatings inside the chapel, he said “he had never seen any detainees abused in the chapel,” the document states.
Fulop: Neighborhood objections are major obstacle for prisoner re-entry programs
Mayor Steve Fulop said today that the major political challenge facing prisoner re-entry programs in New Jersey is the “knee-jerk reaction” from neighbors who don’t want to live near centers that provide addiction services, job training and other services to ex-offenders.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle meet for prisoner re-entry conference in Jersey City
A pair of governors from each party, a Fox News analyst, a civil-rights leader and a business executive whose bosses are staunch conservatives gathered in Jersey City on Thursday to talk policy – and no one pointed an accusatory finger or raised their voice.
Conference Celebrates Successes, Challenges of Re-entry Efforts
With over 800 in attendance at the third prisoner re-entry conference, a wide cross section of people involved in the criminal justice process, from prosecutors to former prisoners, shared their stories, like Nyreek Scott who found work — and redemption — after doing time.
At prisoner reentry conference, woman breaks down in tears over second chance
Nicole Freeman, a former prisoner at Hudson County jail, tearfully thanked Same Sky America and Most Excellent Way yesterday for regaining custody of her children and getting a second chance at life.
“I have joint custody off my children as a result of this, it still gives me the opportunity to have this connection that I lost for nine months while I was incarcerated.”
Why Is Utah the First State to Have a White-Collar Crime Registry?
Last month, Utah became the first state in the U.S. to have an online registry for white-collar crime offenders. The registry, which was approved by Utah legislature last year and has been online since mid-February, includes a recent photo of criminals convicted of second-degree felonies involving fraud in the last 10 years in Utah, similar to other criminal registries.* Although this information is already publicly available, Utah’s Attorney General Sean Reyes said that the user-friendly nature of the database is an important tool for consumer protection, especially in light of the state’s financial vulnerability to a certain types of fraud known as affinity fraud.
How Lansing can reduce crowding at state’s lone women’s prison
“Complaints have gone up,” said Natalie Holbrook of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people. Women may not be able to get daily showers or time out of their cells because of the crowded conditions. They may wait in long lines for meals or medication. A former warden even rationed toilet paper and sanitary napkins for budgetary reasons. (A spokesman said inmates are issued more if they have a need.)
The debt never paid: Reforming re-entry
The reforms this report proposes offer a way to incorporate second chances into Illinois’ criminal-justice system after offenders have completed their court-mandated sentences – creating a path forward to rehabilitation and productive citizenship after incarceration.
Orange County Cases That Used Jailhouse Snitch Evidence Must Be Re-Examined, Experts Say
A jury in Orange County last week nearly acquitted a man accused — and previously convicted — of murder. It’s an outcome that has reignited concerns about the fairness of past convictions in the California county where evidence gleaned from a jailhouse informant program has allegedly violated the rights of multiple defendants.
F.I.G.H.T. helps Asian, Pacific Islanders readjust after prison
“I just wanted to continue to give back in there [prison] and also help them when they get out,” says Wong, 34.
From that desire to help came F.I.G.H.T., or Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, a group of Asian and Pacific Islanders working to provide mentoring, support and political education to hundreds of such men in Washington state prisons.
Court Refuses Appeal of Man Serving Life for Stealing Tool
The Alabama Supreme Court is refusing to overturn the conviction and life sentence of a man convicted of taking a tool from a home improvement store.
The justices refused Friday to hear the appeal of Willie Lee Conner.
Senators Donnelly, Coats should support sentencing reform
My experience as a public defender, deputy prosecutor, judge and Indiana attorney general revealed the ways in which our criminal justice policies were hurting our communities. Mandatory minimums sentencing laws have resulted in overcrowded prisons in Indiana and across the country, without addressing the core issues that many individuals face, such as poverty and drug misuse.
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