A wide-ranging collection of news and opinion from the previous week focusing on criminal justice policy, advocacy, and reform.
Seminary Announces ‘Morally Right’ Decision to Remove This Question From Its Admissions Applications
A seminary located in New York City has decided to ban the “box seeking criminal histories” on its applications for admission, calling the move “morally right” and “faithful” to its traditions.
“In accepting the White House’s Fair Chance in Higher Education Pledge, we are calling on all sister theological institutions across the nation to do the same,” Union Theological Seminary said in a statement to media. “Not only is this decision morally right and deeply faithful to our many traditions, it is sound public policy.”
5 Rikers Officers Convicted in Beating of Inmate
Five correction officers accused in the brutal beating of a Rikers Islandinmate were convicted of all charges on Tuesday, including the most serious count of first-degree attempted gang assault, in a case that shined a harsh light on the New York City jail complex.
The inmate at the center of the case, Jahmal Lightfoot, said after the verdict that “justice got served.”
Forget Closing Rikers
At a conference about incarceration at The New School in April, two other men who’d done time at Rikers expressed skepticism about calls to close it. Like Graham, both men emphasized a more urgent priority: shifting the focus at Rikers to real rehabilitation, a purpose for which the island’s location and size could be ideal.
Fraud Charges Against Jail Officers’ Union Chief With a Taste for Luxury
As federal agents tell it, the kickback scheme that led to the arrest on Wednesday of Norman Seabrook, the powerful leader of the New York City correction officers’ union, was hatched one night in late 2013 in a hotel room in the Dominican Republic.
The union president had been drinking and was delivering an earful to a well-connected New York real estate developer, according to the agents. For too long, Mr. Seabrook complained, he had been working hard to invest the union’s money and had not received anything in return.
Violence and Corruption in a Prison Union
Mr. Seabrook on Tuesday tried to explain away the beating, saying that corrections officers were merely doing their jobs. This response comes as no surprise, given his efforts to obstruct reforms and investigations meant to hold guards accountable for crimes against inmates.
Corrections officers have been loyal to Mr. Seabrook, who has controlled the union for more than two decades. But they could well change their minds once they learn that he placed their retirement money at risk.
Norman Seabrook’s Ouster as Union Chief May Complicate Overhaul at Rikers
Among the rank-and-file, Mr. Seabrook commanded tremendous loyalty. Unlike the department officials and the commissioners who came and went, he was one of them, a correction officer born in the Bronx and raised poor as one of eight children. He was also a black man leading a heavily black union, sensitive to racial issues on the job and in the community.
Norman Seabrook Cultivated Clout and Loyalty
The longtime president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents more than 9,000 officers who work at city jails, Mr. Seabrook has publicly clashed with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and the Department of Correction. In his 21 years leading the union, he has carefully cultivated his political clout, according to people who have worked with him.
“In many ways, he ran the department,” said a former city official. “Commissioners come and go, and he had an outsized influence.”
‘Systemic’ Lapses Found in Escape of 2 Killers From Dannemora Prison
Officer Blair’s failure was just one of scores of serious security lapses detailed in a report released on Monday by state investigators to coincide with the first anniversary of the escape at the maximum security state prison in northern New York. The breakout touched off a three-week manhunt that drew nationwide attention to the dense woods around Dannemora, home to the prison.
Advocates’ report details alleged abuses after Dannemora escape
While the state Inspector General’s report detailed the factors that contributed to the escape from Clinton Correctional Facility last June, a new report from a prisoner advocacy group levels a number of abuse claims against staff at the maximum-security prison that allegedly occurred in the wake of the escape.
The Correctional Association of NY report, largely a compilation of anonymous inmate accounts, contends that the June 6, 2015, breakout was followed by an uptick in abusive behavior by employees, plus excessive use of solitary confinement and rampant racism.
Time for Restorative Justice in Our Schools
In school every day, the first thing that greets us is police officers and a metal detector. It’s demoralizing and, for many of us, can be traumatizing. Once inside the building, students like me face stereotypes that we will never graduate, that we will drop out and have a child, that we are trouble waiting to happen. It feels like the system isn’t built to build us up and support us, but to break us down mentally and emotionally. Research shows the presence of police leads only to an increase in students being arrested for minor incidents. Instead of investing in students, our state is investing in the school-to-prison pipeline. And it’s time for that to change.
Obama Just Told 20 People They Won’t Die In Prison
President Barack Obama will commute the sentence of 42 federal prisoners on Friday, a senior administration official told The Huffington Post.
All told, Obama has now issued 348 commutations — more than the amount issued by the past seven presidents combined — though advocates have encouraged him to be even bolder.
Supreme Court to Hear Death Penalty Cases
“Left uncorrected, trial counsel’s injection of explicit racial discrimination into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing profoundly undermines confidence in the integrity of both Mr. Buck’s death sentence and the criminal justice system over all,” Mr. Buck’s lawyers told the justices.
The cases will be argued during the court’s next term, which starts in October.
Court reopens race and death penalty issues
Returning to ongoing disputes over the role of race in criminal punishment and in politics, the Supreme Court on Monday added new cases for decisions at its next Term — one involving the death penalty in Texas, the other involving the drawing of new maps for election of members of Virginia’s state legislature.
Opinion analysis: Another step toward constitutionalizing recusal obligations
In Williams v. Pennsylvania, the Court ordered the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to reconsider Terrance Williams’s allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. In doing so, the Court created a new, albeit narrow, constitutional recusal rule: a judge who has had “significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case” must recuse. In this case, that meant that Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had to recuse from Williams’s post-conviction appeal, since Castille had previously approved the decision to seek the death penalty against Williams.
Justice Clarence Thomas’s Solitary Voice
In an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court overturned a 30-year-old murder conviction, ruling that racial discrimination infected the selection of the all-white Georgia jury that found a black man guilty of a white woman’s murder. The vote was 7 to 1. The dissenter was Justice Thomas. His vote, along with the contorted 15-page opinion that explained it, was one of the most bizarre performances I have witnessed in decades spent observing the Supreme Court. As the post-Scalia Roberts court continues to take shape — and in advance of the final onslaught of decisions to come in the next few weeks — it’s worth pausing to consider this vote and the role of the justice who cast it.
Loretta Lynch Opens DC Re-Entry Court for Felons
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke in a D.C. courtroom Monday about a new program designed to keep repeat offenders out of prison. “A fundamental part of our commitment to justice is helping to make sure that once you’ve paid your debt to society, you are truly able to rejoin society,” she said. News4’s Mark Segraves reports.
The United States is the only country in the world that routinely sentences children to life in prison without parole, and, according to estimates from nonprofits and advocacy groups, there are between 2,300 and 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were minors. Two-thirds of those were sentenced in just five states: Louisiana, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Ninety-seven percent of them are male, according to figures from the Sentencing Project, and 60 percent are black.
Got a Criminal Record? It’s Getting Easier, Less Expensive to Expunge It
Many Americans are not taking advantage of a growing number of state laws that allow people to clear or seal their records of arrests and convictions for an expanding list of misdemeanor crimes, and even some low-level felonies, after they’ve served their sentences.
Part of the reason is ignorance of the remedies that the laws allow, part of the reason is the cost. In Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee, for example, filing for expungement of a criminal record costs around $500. And lawyers can charge thousands of dollars to do it.
Is a Life in Solitary “Cruel and Unusual?”
Wetzel, the nationally-known, reform-minded secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is the lead defendant in a federal lawsuit and injunction request filed three weeks ago by lawyers for Johnson, an intellectually disabled man who allegedly has spent the past 36 years in solitary confinement in the prisons of the Keystone State. The indefinite conditions of that confinement, Johnson’s lawyers contend, violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Mental-health crisis ensnares inmates, judges, jailers and hospitals
In 25 states surveyed this year by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center based in Arlington, Va., 1,956 inmates were in local jails waiting for psychiatric hospital slots, leaving them in facilities that were not designed to meet their needs at what can be triple the cost of tending to other inmates.
“If you could design a system to treat these people as ineffectively and as expensively as possible, you’d use jails the way we do,” says the Treatment Advocacy Center’s executive director, John Snook.
Virginia at Center of Racially Charged Fight Over the Right of Felons to Vote
Ms. Taylor, 45, has never voted. In 1991, when she was 20, she was stripped of her voting rights after being convicted of selling crack cocaine and sent to jail for a year. So she was stunned when an organizer from a progressive group, New Virginia Majority, showed up one recent afternoon at the church soup kitchen where she eats lunch and said he could register her.
I Survived a Suicide Attempt in Jail
When I was doing drugs, there had always been this third-person observer in me, just watching the entropy of my life. I had been a project manager for technology companies, and my whole professional career was about painstakingly putting things together. But the process of entropy — of having everything fall apart — is much faster.
The third person observer in me said, “If you live through this, find a way to use all this in a positive way. Make it worth it.”
Learning Behind Bars
Among those working to bring greater visibility to the issue of schooling in juvenile-detention facilities is David Domenici, the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), a nonprofit devoted to improving teaching and learning at juvenile-justice schools. In 2013 CEEAS developed “Words Unlocked,” a nationwide poetry contest to amplify the voices and creative talents of incarcerated youngsters. After speaking recently at an education summit hosted by The Atlantic, Domenici offered additional thoughts on why educating students in juvenile facilities deserves more attention and support. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
How Prison Debt Ensnares Offenders
“Jurisdictions are imposing a great deal of fines and fees on people who have an inability to pay them. A consequence is that people are permanently tethered to the criminal-justice system, are being issued warrants and summons to court, and are being held accountable for their poverty, essentially,” Harris said. A sociology professor at the University of Washington, she became interested in LFOs—legal financial obligations—after completing some work requested by the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission. Expanding the scope of the work led her to conclude that, “some jurisdictions are sending people to jail solely for their indigence, for their inability to make payments on their fines and fees.”
The Smart Way to Help Ex-Convicts, and Society
Criminal justice reform is not just about being fair to the individuals who will be most directly affected, but it’s also about doing what’s right for our nation’s well-being. A 2009 study estimated that the official poverty rate would have declined by 10 percent for the years 1980 until 2004 had it not been for our incarceration policies. And while there hasn’t been a large-scale study of the economic effects of criminal-justice reform, most experts in the field agree that preparing people for life after prison is a critically important public investment that would alleviate poverty and increase worker productivity.
The Newest Rape Crisis Hotlines Serve an Unlikely Group — Prisoners
For inmates who are sexually assaulted, getting help from outside has until recently been nearly impossible. But now some states and counties are making help easier to get by setting up prison sexual assault hotlines. A 2013 report from the Bureau of Justice statistics shows one reason being able to talk to someone outside matters: Prisoners are raped more often by staff than other inmates.
Some private prisons are, um, public.
In the end, the real harm is being done to those incarcerated. Local jails with profit motives are incentivized to house increasing numbers of people, without regard for services or educational programs for those incarcerated. The Times-Picayune reports that in Louisiana, those stuck in local jails on state contracts “subsist in bare-bones conditions with few programs to give them a better shot at becoming productive citizens.”
Prisoners Deserve the Benefit of the Doubt
The judiciary enjoys high legitimacy as an institution of government. Given that fact, the courts should avoid legitimating the prison system by interpreting the law to allow only occasional intervention when the facts are especially bad. The court should take a broader view, and give the benefit of the doubt to prisoners who see the courts as the only institution capable of protecting them from the bad things that happen in prisons.
Public defenders can be biased, too, and it hurts their non-white clients
Given that most public defenders handle a high volume of cases and clients — sometimes in the hundreds — their decision-making process is vulnerable to unconscious bias. A public defender may try harder for a client that he or she perceives as more educated or likely to be successful because of their race.
To Stop Bad Prosecutors, Call the Feds
David Brown’s case is a good example of how every part of the justice system bears some responsibility for not fighting prosecutorial misconduct. State courts often fail to hold prosecutors accountable, even when their wrongdoing is clear. Professional ethics boards rarely discipline them. And individual prosecutors are protected from civil lawsuits, while criminal punishment is virtually unheard of. Money damages levied against a prosecutor’s office could deter some misconduct, but the Supreme Court has made it extremely difficult for wrongfully convicted citizens to win such claims.
California’s Prison System Co-opts Reform Language While Increasing Its Budget
In order to advance community-based solutions, we cannot continue to increase the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s budget and entrust them with undoing the mental, emotional and physical trauma that has been sustained by people before — and made worse by — incarceration. We cannot continue to believe that behind walls, out of the sight of the public, that abuse does not continue. The department is continuing to cycle people in and out of prison in the name of “job security” while monopolizing resources that should be used to build strong communities and place people’s care in the very communities they came from.
Chicago’s Jail Kept Inmates Locked Up for 218 Years Too Long
The wait for a case to reach conviction can be so long that many of the jail’s inmates serve more time in Cook County than they are eventually sentenced to spend in prison, what’s known as “dead days.” For instance, if an inmate is convicted to 100 days in state prison, and spends 300 days in Cook County waiting for their case to reach conviction, they will have served 200 dead days.
Utah man whose long drug sentence stirred controversy is released
One federal inmate who was released — but not under Obama’s clemency initiative — is Weldon Angelos, 36, a father of three from Utah who was sentenced in 2004 to a 55-year mandatory minimum prison term in connection with selling marijuana.
The specific circumstances of Angelos’s release are unclear because court records in his case are sealed. But after a long campaign from his supporters, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Angelos was quietly released Tuesday after a federal court granted him an immediate reduction in sentence. He was able to immediately go home to his family without serving three months in a halfway house, as those who receive clemency are required to do.
The end of life without parole for juveniles in Philadelphia?
Over the last few decades, Philadelphia has become known as the juvenile-lifer capital of the world, home to 300 people sentenced as teens to die in prison.
That era is rapidly drawing to a close.
Two men locked up since the 1970s received new sentences Friday, making them eligible for parole immediately. It marks the start of a resentencing process in the city that could take up to three years.
Senator Tom Cotton Wants to Keep Kids in Jail
While many conservatives have joined with Democrats to embrace sentencing reform and other efforts to reduce a record prison population, Cotton is on a different path. He rails against the “criminal leniency movement,” and says he has nothing but “contempt” for those who want more “empathy” for criminals. He quotes Hillary Clinton’s comment from the ’90s about “superpredators,” for which she has apologized, saying she got it right.
High Court Blocks Suit Against Prison Guard
Shaidon Blake had been in prison for two months after his 2007 conviction for a gang-related murder when he says the guards moving him to a segregation unit physically assaulted him without cause.
The Internal Investigative Unit of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spent a year looking into Blake’s report of the incident, and ultimately found that guard James Madigan had used excessive force against Blake by punching him in the face while he was handcuffed.
Will Ohio’s prison watchdog be silenced after chief’s ouster?
Saul says she was doing her job as a watchdog over the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which has a $1.5 billion annual budget. Her involvement ranged from going after a vendor when maggots were found in prison food to challenging practices at a privatized prison plagued by gangs and drugs.
GOP leaders say she displayed “insubordination and rogue behavior,” attempting to exert power she did not legally possess.
Life After Life
After his release from prison, Hernandez took a full-time position as a welder and now splits his time between his full-time job and traveling across the country to advocate for the release of nonviolent drug offenders serving life sentences. He’s also working on developing a curriculum for juvenile offenders and at-risk kids to help keep them out of prison.
Nearly two decades after his arrest, Hernandez reflects on his path from a rising teenage drug dealer to an advocate for people that the system has forgotten.
Prison officials change tactics as research points to failures of seclusion
In a radical policy reversal inspired by research that solitary confinement harms people and does not make the prison safer, officials reduced the number of people in seclusion by about 70 percent from its peak over the past year. They report no jump in violence since.
The segregation wing, once conceived as a place to seclude the most dangerous, is being reimagined as a home for rehabilitation. Through group activities, behavioral health treatment and a system of incentives, administrators seek to teach their most dangerous prisoners to be less violent.
Tennessee Supreme Court weighs inmates’ rights to file lawsuits
A Franklin lawyer challenging a state law that says inmates who have past-due court fees cannot file new cases asked the Tennessee Supreme Court Thursday to deem the law unconstitutional.
David Veile of Schell & Davies law firm argued before the state’s top court Thursday on behalf of inmate Reginald D. Hughes. Hughes’ appeal of a decision that denied him parole in 2011 was dismissed because he owed $258.85 in fees, according to court records.
Wisconsin’s system fails to track assaults at juvenile prisons
State corrections officials have fallen six months behind in publishing an annual report on attacks on officers, and Wisconsin’s youth prisons have yet to implement a centralized database tracking assaults, fights and other incidents.
At the juvenile facilities, officials store paper copies of reports in inmates’ files, making it difficult to identify the extent of problems at the two institutions now under criminal investigation.
Candy snatcher convicted of attempted theft; lengthy prison term less likely under habitual offender law
The case attracted national attention after Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich noted in court that Grimes faced 20 years to life in prison if the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office decided to enhance his sentence by invoking his five prior theft convictions.
In response to concerns raised by the judge, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro asserted that “shoplifters will not be doing 20-year sentences.” But the DA has not ruled out upping Grimes’ sentence from the one-year term he now faces by labeling him a habitual offender.
One in 10 Dallas inmates locked up solely because they’re mentally ill. Can officials change that?
These are largely poor people who don’t need to be locked up, said Andy Keller, CEO of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. They’re accused of minor, nonviolent crimes such as trespassing, panhandling and disturbing the peace.
Keller presented a plan Thursday that aims to keep the mentally ill who aren’t dangerous out of the jail. This population, Keller said, is separate from the rest of the jail’s mentally ill inmates who are accused of serious crimes.
Fight or Flight: Anthony Harris has two weeks to turn himself in before spending the next 15 years in prison
Arrested on May 20, 2014, and charged with 21 counts of felony and misdemeanor charges, Harris faced 252.5 years in prison. In exchange for his guilty plea, he agreed to serve 15 years.
But 9 a.m. arrives, the time Harris and the court agreed that he would turn himself in. The courtyard quiets as almost everyone has entered the building. Harris is nowhere to be seen. 9:05 a.m… 9:10 a.m…. and he is still missing.
Orleans jail hearing: Low pay cause of staffing problems, HR director says
After conducting most of the outgoing employees exit interviews and based on conversations with staff members, Buchanan said, she has determined that employees are mostly leaving their jobs because of low entry-level wages. The sheriff’s office cannot compete with other law enforcement agencies in the New Orleans metro area regarding wages, she said. Moreover, low pay also thwarts recruitment, Buchanan said. Starting pay for deputies tasked with guarding inmates at the jail after six months on the job is $12.36, she testified. Before guards hit the six-month mark, the agency pays just over $11.
Running with criminals: the prison that helps inmates rehabilitate a mile at a time
Every year, he adds another mile. And with every step of every mile, Connelly dives into the pain. The leg soreness. The knee aches. The stomach cramps. But most of the pain he feels has nothing to do with the running. “It’s shameful, it hurts,” he said. “It hurt everybody that I love on both sides of the family, our friends. It hurt everybody who knew and cared for me.”
It’s a cathartic way to spend the anniversary of his crime. “It’s healing,” Connelly said. “It gives me permission to go into that, to see where I’m at with it.”
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