A wide-ranging collection of news and opinion from the previous week focusing on criminal justice policy, advocacy, and reform.
The trouble with city contracts
In my 27 years at The Fortune Society, there has never been a time when the nonprofit community in New York City has been under so much pressure to achieve results, while restrictions on the government funding we receive continue to increase. All this while the needs of the populations we serve are escalating.
Rikers Island Guards and a Cook Took Bribes, Officials Say
In another blemish on New York City’s troubled jail system, two Rikers Island correction officers and a cook accepted bribes from inmates to smuggle in contraband such as scalpels, synthetic marijuana and tobacco, officials said on Thursday.
The indictments, which were made public on Thursday, were the result of a monthslong inquiry by the New York City Department of Investigation and the office of the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark. Mark G. Peters, the commissioner of the Investigation Department, called it “the largest contraband smuggling takedown in more than a decade at Rikers Island.”
17 Arrested-Including Correction Officers-In Contraband Smuggling Takedown at Rikers Island
Seventeen people – including Rikers Island inmates and correction officers — were arrested Thursday as part of a takedown of a contraband smuggling operation at Rikers Island.
Those arrested included two New York City Department of Correction officers, a DOC-employed cook and six inmates. Prosecutors said they conspired to bring scalpels, narcotics and other contraband into the jail in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribes.
De Blasio Administration Announces Changes To Ease Process For Paying Bail
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced Friday that it would add ATM machines to criminal courthouses that lack them and take other steps to make it easier for people to pay bail before a defendant is transported to Rikers Island or another jail.
Is Rikers’ New “Secure Unit” Just Solitary Confinement By Another Name?
June 1st is supposed to be the date that New York City’s Department of Correction stops placing 18 to 21-year-olds in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, making the jail the first in the nation to end isolation, not just for adolescents but also for young adults.
But at a public meeting on Tuesday, the DOC stated that they won’t be entirely eliminating solitary, better known as “punitive segregation,” for that age group.
Rikers jail officers found 48% more weapons this year, thanks to tougher visitor searches, inmate checks
Tougher inmate and visitor searches at Rikers Island have turned up nearly double the normal amount of guns and drugs in the last year, officials said.
The number of weapons found in city jails jumped 48% between July 1 and May 1, records show.
Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s Mission to Save Rikers Island
In an ABC News exclusive, Diane Sawyer’s “Hidden America” team was given unprecedented access inside Rikers Island for 70 hours over seven days. Some of the questions raised: What to do with its most violent inmates? And do long stretches in solitary make prisoners more or less dangerous?
Rikers Island Officer Describes What a Day Is Like for Him at the Jail
After suiting up and meeting with the warden for roll call, Graham picks up his radio and pepper spray, which officers often use to subdue inmates while limiting physical contact with them.
“This chemical agent, O.C., consists of extremely hot peppers and water-based liquid,” Graham said of the pepper spray. “It burns. It’ll make them stop fighting when you need to spray, so that’s what we use it for.”
Cuomo proposes new bills to increase HIV testing, treatment
As activists proceeded through Manhattan’s Central Park Sunday for the 31st annual AIDS Walk, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced legislative proposals intended to advance his administration’s goal of ending the state’s HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2020.
The proposals seek to increase access to HIV testing and break down barriers to treatment as part of an effort to reduce the number of new HIV infections from an estimated 3,000 annually to 750 in the next four years. It’s a signature health initiative of the Cuomo administration.
“Pray” for Success: How to Take the Guesswork Out of Social Finance
The high-profile failure of a Social Impact Bond (SIB) experiment at Riker’s Island begs the question: how can we de-risk investment in SIBs, and social programming generally? SIBs are largely predicated on private investors assuming the risk that programs will succeed at producing desired social benefits. In the Riker’s Island example, Goldman Sachs lost $1.2M and Bloomberg Philanthropies lost $6M because a juvenile recidivism intervention failed to work. Some backers hailed it a success nonetheless, insofar as the government didn’t have to pay for the program. But was it really a success? Will investors be more attracted to SIBs in the future?
Supreme Court Rules Right to Speedy Trial Ends at Guilty Verdict
“As a measure protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right — like other similarly aimed measures — loses force upon conviction,” Justice Ginsburg said.
She added that “the sole remedy for a violation of the speedy trial right” is dismissal of the charges, which “would be an unjustified windfall, in most cases, to remedy sentencing delay by vacating validly obtained convictions.”
The Supreme Court Just Seriously Undermined Your Right to a Speedy Trial
The American criminal justice system doesn’t really do trials any more. Sure, a handful of defendants—fewer than 5 percent—take their case to court to try to beat charges, but the overwhelming majority of the accused simply enter into a plea bargain with a prosecutor. For these defendants, a sentencing hearing is absolutely critical, their most substantive interaction with a judge, their best chance to demonstrate why they deserve leniency before the judge determines the appropriate punishment. A delay in sentencing can thus be disastrous for plea bargainers: Witnesses disappear, evidence goes missing, memories cloud.
States Move Toward Treating 17-Year-Old Offenders as Juveniles, Not Adults
Seventeen-year-olds cannot vote, buy cigarettes or even adopt a dog from an animal shelter. But as of today, in nine states, including Louisiana, they are automatically handled as adults, rather than as juveniles. In two states, New York and North Carolina, 16-year-olds are as well.
Now Louisiana and several other states among those nine appear to be on the verge of raising the cutoff to the more standard age of 18 — part of a national “raise the age” movement that has won bipartisan support.
Paying for Years Lost Behind Bars
Most states, like Louisiana, place the burden on people who were wrongly convicted to prove their innocence before any payment is made. Several states offer embarrassingly small payouts, like New Hampshire, which gives a flat sum of $20,000 no matter how long a person spent behind bars. Others have laws riddled with unreasonable restrictions, like in Florida, where compensation is denied to anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony.
Stalled Crime Bill’s Backers Hope Promise of Savings Can Move It Along
A bipartisan criminal justice overhaul remains stalled in the Senate. But its backers might have found a new argument to break it loose: It would save a significant amount of money.
The Congressional Budget Office, in a new report, estimated that the legislation reducing mandatory minimum sentences would save the federal government $722 million over 10 years, primarily through reduced costs for housing federal prisoners. Spending on social programs to aid those released would rise $251 million over the same period.
13 Important Questions About Criminal Justice We Can’t Answer
The open secret is that we know very little about much of how the criminal justice system operates in America. These aren’t things the government knows and won’t tell us (though there are plenty of those, too). It’s because state, local and federal governments, which ought to rely on data to inform the policies they enact, just don’t know.
Quashed report warned of prison health crisis
A government report, blocked from publication a decade ago, presciently warned of an advancing, double-barreled health crisis of mental illness and substance abuse that has currently swamped the nation’s vast prison systems.
The 2006 document, prepared by then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona, urged government and community leaders to formulate a treatment strategy for thousands of sick and addicted inmates that also would assist them after release or risk worsening public health care burdens.
Is It Time for Criminal Justice Reform? 2 Law Enforcement Groups Are at Odds
Steven Cook, whose organization represents more than 5,500 assistant United States attorneys, believes Congress’ attempts to reduce prison sentences for certain low-level offenders will “substantially harm” law enforcement’s ability to “dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking organizations.”
William Fitzpatrick, the president of the official body representing state-level district attorneys across the U.S., views the issue differently, recently writing to congressional leaders that a Senate plan to reduce sentences for drug crimes allows “lower level offenders a chance for redemption.”
Jobs for Ex-Offenders
The most important change will come, though, when employers nationwide join the ranks of businesses already helping to build stronger, safer communities by offering second-chance employment opportunities. They may find that doing the right thing is also good for business.
When Parole Boards Trump the Supreme Court
Almost everyone serving life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles deserves a shot at going home. That’s the thrust of a series of Supreme Court rulings, the fourth and most recent of which was decided this year. Taken together, the high court’s message in these cases is that children are different than adults when it comes to crime and punishment — less culpable for their actions and more amenable to change. As such, court rulings have determined all but the rarest of juvenile lifers are entitled to “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
How to solve the biggest issue holding up criminal justice reform
“Mens rea” — Latin for “guilty mind” — refers to requirements in criminal law that concern a defendant’s mental state, like the intent to cause harm or knowledge of what one was doing. Republicans have demanded that criminal justice reform also make such requirements in federal law stricter, forcing prosecutors in many cases to prove that defendants knew they were breaking the law. Democrats have balked at the proposed reforms, arguing that they would make it much harder to prosecute corporate executives for white-collar crimes.
The grotesque criminalization of poverty in America
This makes a complete mockery of the criminal justice system’s pretense of fairness and impartiality. There are a dozen other ways it is rigged in favor of wealth and social status, of course, but most of these are more subtle and underhanded. Here there are people openly sitting in jail, being punished without conviction or a guilty plea, simply because they don’t have enough money.
Anatomy of a Snitch Scandal
Prosecutorial misconduct and the misuse of jailhouse informants are persistent problems in the criminal justice system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 there have been 923 exonerations tied to official misconduct by prosecutors, police, or other government officials, 89 of them in cases involving the use of jailhouse snitches. Over the last two years, a scandal involving both has engulfed Orange County, California, exposing systemic violation of defendants’ constitutional rights and calling into question the legality of the prosecution of a number of violent felony cases.
Why We Can’t Afford to Wait for Federal Sentencing Reform
If the legislation is adopted, at least 7,500 individuals locked up for harsh mandatory prison terms would be eligible for earlier release. Life without parole for third-strike drug offenses would be eliminated. Another 4,000 individuals each year would get relief from mandatory minimum sentences.
Yet, even though the bill represents the best chance in a generation to make significant changes in federal drug sentencing, some activists seem to be feeling the fierce urgency of next year. With Democrats poised to make gains in November, there’s a school of thought that says it might be better to wait for bolder legislation.
Are Prosecutors the Key to Justice Reform?
Party loyalty, tough-on-crime promises, or just electoral indifference—can result in prosecutors who amass and wield enormous amounts of power in the courtroom and beyond. And where there’s unchecked power, there’s often corruption, particularly in high-profile cases. In some instances, entire districts have been tainted by a reputation earned during a particularly bold district attorney’s tenure. These and other regional struggles between justice and authority have developed over decades of individual and cumulative legal acts in thousands of cities and districts.
Former Inmate Hires Ex-Cons So They Can Get On Positive Path After Prison
Extremely Clean 2 Construction and Design in Springfield, Massachusetts, hires ex-inmates to help them stay on the right track after prison. The business, which is owned by Jenal Rentas, a former inmate himself, was started about seven years ago and has hired roughly 50 ex-cons.
Mass reduction of California prison population didn’t cause rise in crime, two studies find
An astounding 17 percent reduction in the size of the California prison population,” Sundt’s study concluded, “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime.” The study said that California’s initial, full-throated embrace of incarceration as a means to fight crime, such as the notorious “Three Strikes” law, “may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives. Moreover, there is now evidence that prison populations can be safely reduced without harming the public.”
The myth that fewer people are going to prison
Whatever the reason, the number of people going to prison has increased dramatically in several states despite declines in the population behind bars. In Alaska, for example, there was a 45 percent jump in admissions between 2010 and 2014, despite a 3 percent decrease in the incarcerated population. The number behind bars declined by 8 percent in North Carolina over that period, while the number of people sent to prison increased 34 percent.
The False Promise of DNA Testing
The subject of the segment was the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, among the largest public forensic centers in Texas. By one estimate, the lab handled DNA evidence from at least 500 cases a year—mostly rapes and murders, but occasionally burglaries and armed robberies. Acting on a tip from a whistle-blower, KHOU 11 had obtained dozens of DNA profiles processed by the lab and sent them to independent experts for analysis. The results, William Thompson, an attorney and a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, told a KHOU 11 reporter, were terrifying: It appeared that Houston police technicians were routinely misinterpreting even the most basic samples.
Michelle isn’t the only one waiting for a surgery date. Despite the settlement, and despite the fact that the prison released a new transgender medicine policy that includes surgery, no trans person has received a sex reassignment in a California prison — not even Shiloh Quine, a full ten months after the prison agreed to provide it. Michelle, on the other side of the wall, says she’ll keep calling the doctor’s office. “I’ll work it out,” she says. “Just watch.”
A Peek at the Golden Age of Prison Radio
Governors and other state officials appeared on “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” using it as a platform to explicitly promote prisoner rehabilitation. Inmates also gave interviews about life behind bars. “Before the advent of radio, prisoners were exiled; citizens outside paid little attention to them,” Gov. Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, himself a radio personality and bandleader, announced on the show in 1939. “But now you hear them talk; you hear them sing; you find out they are sons and daughters of good mothers. You find out they made mistakes, thus proving that they are human.”
Still No Answers
So Jamycheal Mitchell spent 101 days in jail while he waited for that transfer, evidently starving himself to death over the weeks and months he remained there. A jail officer found Mitchell lying dead in his bunk on that Wednesday in August, his feces smeared all over the walls and his urine on the floor of his cell. When he arrived at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in May, Mitchell weighed 182 pounds. He weighed 144 pounds during a post-death examination.
Criminal Justice Reform Is Necessary
Conservatives are generally suspicious of government that is too big, too costly, and too powerful. That is, until it comes to the justice system where we seem to think it’s okay for the government to be big and powerful and spend our tax dollars like a drunken sailor. But why should we view the justice system any differently than the rest of the government? Why should we not demand transparency and accountability? Why should we not demand that crime and punishment be proportional? Why should we not demand that justice-related spending be efficient and cost-effective?
Ex-Con Asks Obama for Pardon
“A presidential pardon will allow me to have all of my rights restored as a United States citizen.” White says. “Since I am a federal offender I must make my request to the President of the United States to be pardoned. Then I could move or live anywhere in the United States and be able to vote, serve on a jury, or hold public office if I choose.”
Thankful for my clemency, hoping for greater change
I understand that harsh drug laws were supposed to keep violent and serious repeat drug offenders off the streets. That did not happen in my case. I am not a violent person or serious repeat drug offender. At my sentencing, even the prosecutor said “the thrust of the evidence against Mills was that Mills did whatever [the ring’s leader] told him to do.” Even worse, the drug kingpins who testified against me were released over a decade ago, having only served ten years. The drug ring’s leader will be released in three years, as will the group’s second in command. I was the least responsible person in the group yet the one sentenced to the longest prison term. Was America safer with me locked away, while the kingpins and ringleaders gain their freedom?
A drive to rethink what incarceration is for
Gone is the era when a “lock them up” attitude prevailed in dealing with the crimes that often accompany addiction, everything from possession of a controlled substance to stealing to support a drug habit. Now, presidential candidates are calling for treatment instead of incarceration as they talk of how addiction, specifically the opioid crisis, has affected friends and family.
But at South Bay, where nearly three-fourths of the inmates contend with substance abuse issues, a growing emphasis on care — and not just custody and control — predates the national spotlight trained on the issue of addiction.
For Juvenile Lifers, Wheels of Justice Grind Slow
Henry Montgomery has lived behind prison walls for 53 years now, but even so he is a “little bit antsy” according to his lawyer while waiting to learn when he will get a chance at freedom under a new Supreme Court decision.
Montgomery is one of 300 or so Louisiana inmates serving time under life-without-parole sentences imposed for murders they committed as juveniles — sentences ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court four years ago.
Calling a Place a Sanctuary City Won’t Lead to More Crime
The debate over so-called sanctuary cities — municipalities that limit local police’s assistance to federal immigration officers — has been heating up this month, as sanctuary clauses took a blow across Louisiana and became a flashpoint in Pennsylvania’s senate race. Public arguments around the sanctuary designation focus on whether it raises crime. But research already suggests that it doesn’t — and it might, in fact, be a useful tool for supporting Latino political engagement.
This Is What A Formerly Incarcerated Man Went Through To Vote In Kentucky
“I’ve been trying for so long,” he said, his voice cracking while thinking about his more than decade-long journey to restore his voting rights. “It’s really nice to be able to have a voice after so long being silent.” He wiped tears from under his eyes as he spoke to ThinkProgress from a bench outside a suburban Louisville polling place.
In New Orleans, Criminal Justice Meets Housing Justice
Every year, masses of people head home from prison, eager to start life on the outside, and end up stranded on the street. Because of draconian drug war–era regulations, many are freed from prison only to get locked out of the basic human right to housing.
But the politics of public housing are starting to tip toward fostering inclusion rather than punishment.
What It’s Like When Your Mom’s In Prison
We talk with Colette Payne, a community organizer at Cabrini Green Legal Aid and a formerly incarcerated mother herself, about the push to allow mothers serving time for low-level crimes to do it in their communities instead of in prisons that are hours away from their homes.
Prosecutor finds a new way to avoid accountability
One of the more infamous prosecutors still in office right now is Angela Corey in Jacksonville, Fla. There seems to be some momentum building to add her to the list. But Corey — or her party or her supporters — has found a creative way to escape the verdict of voters.
Scandals Embroil Alabama Governor, Speaker and Chief Justice
The chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court has been hit with ethics charges for defying federal courts on same-sex marriage, and could be removed from his seat. The governor, caught on tape engaging in salacious banter, apparently with his powerful chief adviser, is facing criminal investigations and calls for impeachment.
That the governor’s racy phone calls became public at all is because of what may be the most significant and sweeping crisis of the lot: the impending trial of the Alabama House speaker, Michael G. Hubbard, described by friends and foes as the most powerful man in state politics.
Convicted murderer pushing for referendum on community re-entry program
LaGasse, convicted of murdering Louise Brochu in 2007 in New Portland in what he describes as a burglary gone wrong, is working with other prisoners and their supporters on the outside on a petition that is expected to be released for circulation by the Maine Department of the Secretary of State this week. It seeks to place a referendum question on the 2018 state ballot asking voters to agree to create a new “positive re-entry program” for Maine inmates to help re-integrate them back into society.
Bedford man feels ‘blessed’ after being freed from prison
A Bedford man convicted of murder in 1998 was freed Tuesday because of new evidence in his case.
John Earl Nolley, 42, who has spent almost 19 years in jail and prison, walked out of state District Judge Louis Sturns’ courtroom after a short hearing in which his murder conviction was overturned.
Landmark criminal justice bill heads to Gov. Walker’s desk
The bill’s comprehensive reforms to sentencing, bail, probation and parole practices are designed to keep nonviolent criminals out of jail and to generate better results from a state justice system that sees nearly two of every three inmates return to prison within three years of their release.
“We’ve got to break that cycle, and SB 91 is a paradigm shift that will help us do it,” Coghill said in a statement Friday.
Pregnant inmates still being shackled in Massachusetts, report finds
Two years ago, then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law banning the shackling of prison inmates who are in labor, in their second or third trimester of pregnancy or post-delivery.
But today, pregnant women are still being shackled, contrary to the law, according to a study released Monday by advocates for female prisoners.
Lack of Adequate Health Care is a Death Sentence for Arizona Inmates
Jorge Rios wasn’t thinking straight when he got the news.
The mother of his 15-year-old son, the woman he’d loved since high school, had been transferred to the hospital from Arizona’s Perryville Prison, where she was nine months into a two-year sentence for drug possession.
It was cervical cancer.
Campus hosts 1st ever graduation ceremony for formerly incarcerated students
Pride was a central theme for the 14 formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley graduates who were honored at a special ceremony held Sunday afternoon in Anna Head Alumnae Hall. The ceremony — organized by the the Underground Scholars Initiative, a campus student group that advocates for current and prospective students affected by the prison system — was the first of its kind.
Middle School Students Take The Law Into Their Own Hands
Brownsville Middle School students visiting the Police Academy recently got a stark warning from recruit Albert Hightower: “I have friends who’s dead; I have friends who’s in jail…Do not, do not let the environment you’re in right now dictate what you become,” Hightower said, drawing on his own experiences growing up near Brownsville, in Liberty City.
Virginia bakery gives women a second chance at life and career
Together We Bake is part-job, part-school. Women gain hands-on experience with running a business by keeping inventory, cranking out batches of homemade cinnamon pecan granola and chocolate chip cookies, and packaging the goods to be sold at the Alexandria Whole Foods Market. They also study for their ServSafe certificate, a credential that makes it easier to land a higher-paying position in the food industry after graduation.
But most importantly, they take classes in personal development.
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