A wide-ranging collection of news and opinion from the previous week focusing on criminal justice policy, advocacy, and reform.
Sheldon Silver, Ex-New York Assembly Speaker, Gets 12-Year Prison Sentence
Sheldon Silver, who rose from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become one of the state’s most powerful and feared politicians as speaker of the New York Assembly, was sentenced on Tuesday to 12 years in prison in a case that came to symbolize Albany’s culture of graft.
The conviction of Mr. Silver, 72, served as a capstone to a campaign against public corruption by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, which has led to more than a dozen state lawmakers’ being convicted or pleading guilty.
N.Y. seeks federal OK to offer Medicaid to prisoners nearing release
New York will seek federal approval to provide Medicaid coverage to inmates with serious physical and mental health conditions prior to their release from jail or prison, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
The state’s announcement comes a day after federal health officials urged states to improve Medicaid enrollment for newly released inmates by starting the application process while they are still incarcerated.
Ex-Inmate’s Credibility Questioned as Rikers Guards Stand Trial
The case highlights the risks of relying on witnesses with checkered pasts, and points to the hurdles ahead for prosecutors and others trying to change what many have portrayed as a culture of violence and abuse at Rikers and in the New York State prison system. By their nature, investigations of brutality at prisons — whether among inmates, or between inmates and correction officers — have a limited pool of witnesses to draw from.
Correction Officers Show Solidarity for Rikers Colleagues on Trial
One former officer, Victor Rodman, regularly sits in the back row of the courtroom. He is trying to raise money to appeal a conviction of his own. Mr. Rodman was sentenced in January to 90 days in jail for punching an inmate who then lost the sight in one eye.
“It’s similar,” he said of the current trial.
Since colleagues helped him get through his ordeal, Mr. Rodman said, he wanted to show his solidarity.
Don’t relocate Rikers inmates to Williamsburg
Like my constituents, I’m 100 percent against the building of a jail in Williamsburg. Williamsburg, and the surrounding Greenpoint community, prides itself on being a safe, tight-knit community. That pride is rooted in tireless advocacy and efforts to wrest a community from decades of industrial negligence and economic hardship. And a community is no place for a prison.
Deranged, dangerous, deserted: Our mental health nightmare through one mother’s eyes
When new Rikers Island cellblocks for the mentally ill count as progress to celebrate, as Mayor de Blasio did last week, it’s a sure sign of faulty wiring that goes beyond the brains of the inmates in question.
The tragedy screams : Those who fail to get mental health care on the outside will receive it behind bars, and for some, hurting other people, whether by knife, fist, fire or shove, is the act that will put them there.
From Albany to Prison: Ex-Lawmakers on Life Behind Bars
If interviews with four former lawmakers — two currently incarcerated and two who have been released — are a guide, the three men are in for a prolonged humbling. Their former colleagues tell of spiritual awakenings, physical survival and mental toughening. But what figures largest in these personal narratives — what they say has sustained them throughout — is the belief that they were wrongly prosecuted.
Lawmakers seek to extend time between parole hearings for serious crimes
Dale and his wife, Dori, are among those urging state lawmakers to take up a long-stalled bill in the final seven weeks of the legislative session that would increase the time between mandatory parole hearings for those convicted of a serious violent crime.
Currently, state law allows for a hearing every two years. The legislation would increase that time to five years while still giving the state Parole Board the discretion to convene a hearing earlier than that, a provision the bill’s sponsors say makes it more palatable to those who hold that a shorter time between parole hearings is a greater deterrent to inmate crime.
How Residents Get Ensnared by NYPD Nuisance Abatement Cases
In dozens of cases, residents have been cleared of crimes, but they or their relatives have been deemed a nuisance and removed from their homes anyway, at least temporarily. On this week’s podcast, Ryley talks to ProPublica reporter Joaquin Sapien about how the law has disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods. She also describes courtroom proceedings where settlements are reached outside a judge’s presence and people give up their rights without understanding what’s happening.
What It’s Like to Perform Shakespeare in Prison
Just north of New York City sits Sing Sing correctional facility, one of the most well-known prisons in the nation. Less known is the annual theater performance that takes place there, starring inmate actors and run by the nonprofit Rehabilitation Through the Arts, founded by Katherine Vockins. “This isn’t about becoming an actor or musician,” Vockins said. “We use art forms as vehicles to teach life skills.” This year, the troupe put on Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” to join celebrations worldwide marking the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
Justice Dept. agency to alter its terminology for released convicts, to ease reentry
This new policy statement replaces unnecessarily disparaging labels with terms like “person who committed a crime” and “individual who was incarcerated,” decoupling past actions from the person being described and anticipating the contributions we expect them to make when they return. We will be using the new terminology in speeches, solicitations, website content, and social media posts, and I am hopeful that other agencies and organizations will consider doing the same.
President Obama just commuted the sentences of 58 people. Here are their names.
President Obama commuted the sentences of 58 inmates Thursday as part of his ongoing initiative to release federal prisoners who have received severe mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
With this latest round of commutations, Obama has granted clemency to a total 306 inmates, 110 of whom were serving life sentences. Obama has said he will continue granting commutations during his final months in office to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department.
White House Moves To “Ban The Box” For Many Federal Job Seekers
The Obama administration is announcing a proposed federal rule on Friday that senior administration officials say would effectively “ban the box” for many federal agency jobs.
The rule will prohibit federal employers from asking questions about criminal history until later in the employment process for the affected jobs — a move administration officials say is their part to advance the “ban the box” effort. The phrase is a reference to the check box many job application forms include asking about whether a person has any criminal arrest and/or conviction history.
Ban the box: President Obama’s plan to help ex-prisoners get jobs, explained
Some ban-the-box policies, like the federal one the federal government’s proposing, only apply to governments (or in some cases, to governments and contractors); some apply to any employer in the state. Some ban-the-box policies simply delay the point in the process at which an employer can ask about criminal history; others prohibit the employer from finding out anything about an applicant’s criminal history until the company is ready to hire him or her.
States Push Tougher Standards for Juvenile Public Defenders
Many of the young defendants here are represented by lawyers who specialize in juvenile cases and say the cases can be more complex, take more time and have greater long-term consequences for the defendants than adult cases. As that view becomes more widespread, courts and indigent defense offices across the country are placing more requirements on juvenile defense lawyers with the aim of making it a specialized practice.
D.C. abandons plan to pay criminals to stay out of trouble
The District will not launch a controversial plan to pay its most violent gun offenders stipends to stay out of trouble this year, and the chairman of the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee says Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is to blame.
Bowser (D) did not fund a penny of a sweeping crime bill that the council spent months crafting in response to last year’s 53 percent spike in homicides. The centerpiece of the bill was the stipend program, aimed at replicating an acclaimed model in California.
Man Wrongfully Convicted of Murder Awaits His Exoneration, 52 Years Later
Forty years later, when the Conviction Review Unit plunged into the Gatling case, most of the witnesses were dead. Investigators had to dig up case files from the city archives and track down copies of police reports on microfiche at 1 Police Plaza.
They found that Mr. Gatling had been denied many of the legal protections that defendants take for granted these days — the presence of a lawyer during questioning, for example. Perhaps more important, they also found an alternate theory of the case that the jury never heard.
Lynch’s smart move to give IDs to exiting inmates
Without a valid, readily accepted ID, former prisoners aren’t really free. Absent that identification, they can’t rent apartments, get jobs, open bank accounts, get credit, be admitted to college. So states would be acting in their own self-interest to provide IDs. They would be easing the path to good citizenship for those leaving prison.
Inside Death Row
Between 2014 and 2015, the editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte and his wife, the journalist Anne-Frédérique Widmann, invited death-row inmates in the United States to draw their personal experiences in prison. Last year, the couple curated the drawings in an art and documentation exhibition in Los Angeles called “Windows on Death Row.” The prisoners’ stories became the basis of this five-part graphic journalism series.
You Serve Your Time, Earn Your Freedom, Then the Job Market Shuts the Door in Your Face
I tried for a month to find employment. I filled out application form after application form that asked about criminal convictions, and as I checked the box marked “yes,” I knew that I would never hear from that employer. It tormented me: How could I convince someone to give me a chance at a job?
Former Alabama governor Don Siegelman sent to solitary confinement
Former Alabama governor Don E. Siegelman was sent to solitary confinement this week at the Louisiana facility in which he is imprisoned on political corruption charges, according to his son Joseph Siegelman.
Siegelman, 70, was quoted extensively in a Washington Post article this week on former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, whose 2014 conviction on public corruption charges was reviewed by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
43 years in solitary: ‘There are moments I wish I was back there’
Of all the terrifying details of Woodfox’s four decades of solitary incarceration – the absence of human touch, the panic attacks and bouts of claustrophobia, the way they chained him even during the one hour a day he was allowed outside the cell – perhaps the most chilling aspect of all is what he says now. Two months after the state of Louisiana set him free on his 69th birthday, he says he sometimes wishes he was back in that cell.
Opening the Door
Among prison systems held up as models of reform, none is more prominent than Colorado’s. In less than five years, the state says it has reduced the number of people it holds in Administrative Segregation from a high of 1,500—7 percent of the prison population—to approximately 160 of its just under 20,000 prisoners, which would give Colorado the lowest rate of solitary confinement use in the nation.
Solitary Confinement Is Broken, and Prison Guards Are Trying to Fix It
Now, people inside the prison walls are joining the usual array of criminal justice reform advocates. Lance Lowry, sergeant of correctional officers at a prison intake facility and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, used to work at a high-security prison unit in Huntsville that houses part of its population in solitary confinement. He says the practice isn’t just bad for prisoners—it’s bad for guards too. As labor activists have done throughout history, Lowry is advocating for better, safer working conditions. Isolating fewer prisoners for 23 hours a day in 60-square-foot cells would go a long way toward achieving that goal, he believes.
Obama’s Proposal to ‘Ban the Box’ for Government Jobs
Last week, President Obama signed a memorandum proposing a rule that would prohibit federal agencies from asking whether applicants for government jobs have a criminal record until the final phase in the job process. While it’s technically illegal to refuse to hire a qualified candidate due to a conviction unless the crime is directly related to the job, those with criminal histories are often discouraged or screened out due to disclosure requests on job applications.
Exonerated, Dead and Still on Trial
But within the past four weeks, as the Louisiana courts have ensured that Ford’s family would not be compensated for his decades in solitary confinement, three extraordinary things have happened. First, in early April, a state legislator named Cedric Glover, astutely predicting how poorly the court case might turn out for the Ford family, introduced a bill that would help provide compensation to the family by broadening the state’s restrictive compensation statute.
‘Ban the box’ to help former prisoners stay on the straight and narrow
Just as Attorney General Loretta Lynch rounded her first anniversary as the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, she was on a national tour to promote her plan to help integrate people with criminal records back into society. As her weeklong tour stopped at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Alabama a week ago, she joked to a group of inmates in a substance abuse treatment program that one of the benefits of being attorney general is “you get to pick a week — and name it something.”
What Can the U.S. Do About Mass Incarceration?
Tough sentencing laws and harsh punishments doled out for drug-related offenses are often blamed for mass incarceration. In July, President Obama evendeclared that the country has “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high.”
But should the War on Drugs take all the blame?
How to Get Brutal Guards Out of the Jails
A particularly troublesome provision in the contract allows guards under investigation to simply refuse to answer questions from the police. The state must also extricate itself from a senselessly rigid seniority system embedded in the contract that gives corrections officers their choice of jobs and bars managers from moving them out of positions in which they can do harm.
Until these weaknesses are remedied, there will be little accountability and the prison brutality problem will not be solved.
Don’t Treat Young Adults as Teenagers
Changes in the ways in which we treat young adult offenders are long overdue. This group has its own distinctive educational and mental health needs. But that’s an argument for treating them as a special category of offenders in the adult justice system, not raising the juvenile jurisdictional age. In the long run, this may better serve the interests of young adults and juveniles alike.
A Mockery of Justice for the Poor
Not surprisingly, public defense finds itself starved of resources while facing impossible caseloads that mock the idea of justice for the poor.
In Fresno, Calif., for instance, public defenders have caseloads that are four times the recommended maximum of around 150. In Minnesota, one public defender followed by a reporter estimated that he had about 12 minutes to devote to each client that day. There is no way these lawyers can manage the cases being thrown at them.
The Laws that Betrayed Their Makers: Why Mandatory Minimums Still Exist
In this way, rather than serving Congress’s purpose, federal mandatory minimum drug laws actually function as a prosecutor’s tool of interrogation. Since the same prosecutors who select the charges are also trying to extract information, they threaten defendants with wildly disproportionate mandatory minimums in order to force them to cooperate. They are open about this practice. The President of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys protested in July that if Congress reduces mandatory minimums, “prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information.”
Raise the Minimum Wage, Reduce Crime?
“Higher wages for low-skilled workers reduce both property and violent crime, as well as crime among adolescents,” the authors write. “The impact of wages on crime is substantial … a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in approximately a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates.” More concretely, the Council calculates that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 “would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease (250,000 to 510,000 crimes) and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars.”
How Conspiracy Laws Let Prosecutors Abuse Their Power
Povah’s predicament is far from rare. There are thousands of others like her in America, people who have received outsized sentences despite very minimal connections to the crimes of others thanks to our country’s conspiracy statutes. These laws give broad discretion to prosecutors to charge just about anyone who “conspired to commit” a crime.
What “conspired” means, however, is largely up to interpretation, and the definition can be stretched to absurd lengths at the whim of the prosecution. It often is.
How We Can Prepare Incarcerated Parents for Reentry
Correctional facilities also can offer courses that bolster parents’ ability to support and nurture their children while they are in prison, which could further strengthen their relationship with their kids upon their release. National Fatherhood Initiative’s InsideOut Dad, for example, helps incarcerated fathers connect with their families and build parenting skills. Correctional facilities in a number of states, including Alabama, Florida, New Jersey, and Virginia, have used this curriculum, and research shows it improves parenting skills and participating fathers’ contact with their children.
Story of Incarcerated Teen Shows Injustice of Juvenile Imprisonment
But as compelling as his personal story is, it is the larger context of his trial and conviction that is most gripping. As Trounstine reports, Reed was in some ways unusual. Black youth, she writes, are more likely to have their cases heard in adult courts, and nine times more likely to be sentenced to serve their time in adult prisons than white defendants like Reed. What’s more, it took until four years ago — 2012 — for the US Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama, to rule that sentencing juveniles to life behind bars without the possibility of parole violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
My Father Killed Two People
There were times I wished my father had died that night. We hadn’t gotten along well beforehand, and afterward it became a contentious battle of his demands and my deciding whether or not he deserved my support. But I could never completely give up on him; he was still my father. Which is why I sought empathy for a man whose actions I found reprehensible. And it’s why, six months after one of my daughters asked me who my father was, I took both of them to meet him.
20 years is enough: Time to repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act
The drafters of the Prison Litigation Reform Act argued that the goal was to limit frivolous lawsuits, which they claimed where rapidly increasing. While the number of prison lawsuits was rising in the 1990s, so too was the prison population. In fact, as Schlanger’s data in the first graph above reveals, court filings were – controlled for the size of the prison and jail population – actually lower than in the previous decade.
How Gretchen Rohr Is Using Meditation To Bring Healing After A Crime
“I was motivated to work in justice and civil rights law because I live in a multiracial family, and we experienced quite a bit of discriminatory attacks based on race,” Rohr said in the video above. She found such value in her meditation practice that it led her to volunteer with a mindfulness series in the Washington D.C. community where she lives and works. “Justice In Balance,” which are free gatherings facilitated by survivors of crime, the formerly incarcerated and anyone involved in law enforcement, are a process in which individuals from very different sides come together in dialogue.
First Major U.S. Museum Exhibit on Mass Incarceration Blends Advocacy with Education
Following 200 years of setting positive and negative trends nationwide on prison policies, including some of the first uses of solitary confinement in the states, the Eastern State Penitentiary was converted into a museum in 1990 after shutting down in 1970. Just prior to closing, the prison piloted a program attempting to rehabilitate prisoners through therapy, just one among the elements of criminal reform that originated in the Pennsylvania prison system and, eventually, modeled by other prisons around the world.
Laverne Cox, Other Celebs Promoting #JusticeReformNow Over This Unsettling US Prison Stat
Laverne Cox, Matt McGorry, Gabourey Sidibe, Russell Simmons, Margaret Cho and other celebrities will advocate for criminal justice reform in the United States by promoting Cut50’s #JusticeReformNow campaign. Cut50, a bipartisan coalition seeking to safely reduce the number of jailed people in the U.S. by 50% in the next ten years, is slated to hold a press conference Thursday in Washington D.C. on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, aimed at reforming federal sentencing laws.
Virginians with a Felony Conviction Can Now Vote, But Getting a Job Is No Easier
Voting rights are a prominent issue this year, so it is not surprising that attention turned to the political significance of the order, or that Republicans accused McAuliffe of enfranchising voters to strengthen Democrats’ position in the state. But voting rights are only one of many rights that are withheld from people who have had felony or other convictions. Virginia also imposes eight hundred and fifty-three other restrictions, known as collateral consequences, on people who have been convicted of a crime.
L.A. County severely restricts solitary confinement for juveniles
Los Angeles County on Tuesday approved sweeping restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees, joining a larger movement against a practice that some consider cruel and unproductive.
The Board of Supervisors’ action bans solitary confinement at youth camps and halls except “as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person.
Here’s the New Application that Former Inmates Need to Get Back the Vote in Iowa
Iowa is one of three states in which those with felony convictions are barred for life from voting, unless they get explicit permission from state officials. Earlier this week, the state’s Republican Governor, Terry Branstad, made that process marginally easier with a new “streamlined” version of the required application. The old form — also titled “Streamlined Application for Restoration of Citizenship Rights” — had 29 questions and more than 20 sub-questions.
How Connecticut Plans To Break The School-To-Prison Pipeline
Months after Connecticut’s governor announced he would shut down the state’s abusive juvenile jail, lawmakers hope to divert young people from the juvenile justice system.
On Wednesday, Connecticut’s Senate approved an omnibus bill that cracks down on the school-to-prison pipeline by forcing school officials to handle disciplinary matters in-house. And in order to reduce the likelihood of ending up in the juvenile justice system, school administrators will be required to ensure educational alternatives for kids who are expelled.
Mentally ill in solitary: ‘We’re not addressing the problem, we’re making it worse’
Solitary prisoners live in isolation, but in Florida they’re far from alone. One in eight prisoners in the state lives in solitary confinement, according to recent statistics from the Florida department of corrections (FDC). That’s more than three times the average in state prisons across the nation.
One in five prisoners with mental illness is in solitary, and among juveniles housed in adult prisons the number jumps to one in three.
Gary Tyler a free man after more than 4 decades in Angola
Tyler’s life sentence was recently declared unconstitutional. The St. Charles Parish district attorney’s office agreed to vacate Tyler’s conviction and Tyler agreed to enter a guilty plea to manslaughter and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years. Since he had already served more than twice that, Tyler was released from prison about 4:45 p.m.
“It is long past time for Gary Tyler to come home,” said Tyler’s defense team, headed by attorney George H. Kendall, in a statement. “Hopefully this agreement will help to put this case to rest for Gary, the loved ones of Tim Weber and St. Charles Parish.”
A teen is beaten to death at a Miami jail, and here’s everything that went wrong
Elord, who wasn’t taken to the hospital until just under 24 hours after the beating, became the second child to die in the custody of state juvenile justice administrators last year. He was the fourth to die since the Department of Juvenile Justice, in the wake of a horrific 2003 death at the Miami detention center, pledged that its officers would “treat every child as if he were [their] own.”
RI prison officials to examine controversial use of solitary confinement
The head of Rhode Island’s correctional system says officials are reexamining the practice of placing inmates in disciplinary confinement, as states nationwide place strict limits on how the controversial practice is used.
But A.T. Wall, longtime director of the R.I. Department of Corrections, told Target 12 he opposes any legislation that would clamp down on the practice. He argued enacting a new state law would put “rigid” restrictions on how to handle inmate disciplinary cases, and said any changes should come through prison regulations.
Baltimore Teens Find a Path Away from Violence Through ‘Identity Projects’
The Trace spoke with Clampet-Lundquist and DeLuca about how identity projects can provide a buffer between low-income youth and their violent neighborhoods, about how gunfire shaped these young people’s experiences, and about how the solutions to keeping kids away from violence are closely connected to systemic crises in housing and education.
Miranda warning: Impact still strong 50 years later
Fifty years later, Miranda rights are an everyday part of most arrests in the United States. And those rights are the theme behind The American Bar Association’s Law Day, May 1, which annually commemorates the principles of life, liberty, justice and the law. An event is being held in Tallahassee Tuesday to celebrate Law Day.
Federal inmates get a lesson in reentry
That’s why Thursday, more than 100 female inmates at FCI-Tallahassee had the chance to hear from three convicted felons who, since their release, have turned their lives in a positive direction instead of returning to a prison cell.
The inmates, many of who are serving sentences for drugs and other nonviolent offenses, are expected to be released within the next two or three years. They’re a small fraction of the 800 inmates housed at the Tallahassee facility.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch visiting Talladega prison and Mobile today
While at the Talladega prison Lynch is to receive an overview of educational services for inmates, tour a UNICOR prison industry factory, hold a roundtable discussion with inmates, learn about the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), and visit with prison staff.
Campus job applications will no longer begin with disclosure of past convictions
Beginning this week, UC Berkeley will no longer include a box for on-campus job applications that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history.
The policy shift to remove the box — common on job applications — went into effect Sunday amid a nationwide movement whose advocates say the requirement unfairly discriminates against formerly incarcerated individuals.
New program at Conn. federal prison benefits inmates and puppies
Through the new dog training program, Tails of Justice, two inmates already certified to handle dogs will each train two other inmates to raise a dog. The second inmate will be a back-up handler when the primary handler is eating or showering.
After the inmates are done training, they will receive the same certification from the U.S. Department of Labor and will begin training other prisoners.
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