DOJ Inspector General Outlines Challenges for Federal Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis As has been done annually since 1998, in October, the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general released a list of what he sees as the leading management and performance challenges confronting the agency in the year ahead. One of the eight areas identified by Inspector General Michael…

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DOJ Investigates Possible Prisoners’ Rights Violations in Alabama

By Christopher Zoukis The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched a statewide probe on whether conditions in Alabama’s 14 prisons for men violate the rights of inmates. The investigation is under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows action against jails or…

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Two More Years to Reduce Overcrowding: A Tide in the Affairs of California’s Prison System?

By Christopher Zoukis

In February, the State of California secured yet another extension to the date by which it must comply with the U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in its state prisons.  Prior to the February 10, 2014 ruling, the deadline for reductions in prison overcrowding was set for April, but in the latest decision, three federal judges gave the state an additional two years to comply.

California’s prison population is second only to Texas.  Between 2000 and 2010 the inmate population was relatively stable, with a 2010 population of 165,062, or 0.44% of the state’s population, an increase of just 1.3% since 2000.  Long-running lawsuits against overcrowding, particularly from inmates with serious medical or mental health conditions, forced a reduction.  In 2010, the prison population fell by 9.4% to 149,569, but overcrowding remains a serious problem.  California state prisons are currently 44% over the listed capacity.

The state’s increasingly harsh sentencing laws are a significant part of the problem, but despite long sentences and often miserable prison conditions, California’s recidivism rate is much higher than the national average.  Roughly 60% of released prisoners are back behind bars within three years, compared to 44% nationally.  Nor has the current strategy resulted in safer communities.  Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice for 2011 show that although rates for some crimes are below the national average (13% lower for burglary, 20% lower for larceny/theft, and 24% lower for forcible rape), for other rates, California significantly exceeded those for the nation as a whole: violent crimes are 6.4% higher, robbery 27% higher, and motor vehicle thefts a whopping 70% higher.  Given the dire state of California’s public finances and the clear failure of the prison system, it shouldn’t require a court order to persuade the state to re-think its strategy.

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How Is Prison Realignment Playing Out In California

According to the study reported in this video, California’s Realignment Initiative is resulting in more auto thefts throughout the state.   The study does not suggest building more prisons to house California’s criminals.  Instead, the authors of the study propose finding alternative methods to reduce crime.

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Consequences of California’s Realignment Initiative

By Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann

David Harvey, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York, writes that “capitalism never resolves its problems; it simply rearranges them geographically.” The same can be said of California’s almost three-year-old Public Safety Realignment initiative – legislation designed to reduce the Golden State’s prison population, in part, by transferring thousands of prisoners from state facilities to county jails.

Sadly, Realignment has merely shifted the very forms of human suffering it was originally intended to relieve. This – the paradox of modern penal reform – adds a crucial dimension to discussions about who, why and how we punish offenders. Clearly, shifting a criminal justice crisis isn’t the same as solving one.

The Realignment Initiative

Since at least 2011, the State of California has been the epicenter of contemporary prison reform in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted that 70% of the total decrease in state prison populations from 2010 to 2011 was a direct result of California’s Public Safety Realignment initiative.

On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order by a three-judge federal court requiring the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity within two years to alleviate overcrowding that resulted in unconstitutional medical and mental health care. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.1]. California Governor Jerry Brown had called the court’s order “a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”

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Mental Illness and Prisoners

By Stephanie Mencimer / motherjones.com

Passed in 1994, California’s “three strikes” law is the nation’s harshest sentencing law. Designed to imprison for life anyone who commits three violent crimes, the law has inadvertently resulted in the incarceration of a lot relatively harmless people, for a long time and at great public expense. Crimes that have earned people life sentences: Stealing a dollar in loose change from a car, breaking into a soup kitchen to steal food, stealing a jack from the open window of a tow truck, and even stealing two pairs of children’s shoes from Ross Dress for Less. The law is one reason that California’s prison system is dangerously, and unconstitutionally, overcrowded. More than 4,000 people in the prison system are serving life sentences for non-violent crimes.

In 2012, with corrections costs consuming ever more of the state budget, the voters in the state had had enough, and they approved a reform measure that would spring many of these low-level offenders from a lifetime of costly confinement. By August of last year, more than 1,000 inmates had their life sentences changed and were released; recidivisim rates for this group has also been extremely low. But further progress in the reform effort is being stymied by one thorny problem: Nearly half of the inmates serving time in California prisons suffer from a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. So far, judges have been reluctant to let these folks out of their life sentences.

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Too Many Prisoners Dilemma

By Dan Froomkin

There’s a growing national consensus that, as Attorney General Eric Holder stated in August, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

When Holder proceeded to order federal prosecutors to stop triggering mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, that was big news. But where were the follow-up stories?

It’s a familiar cycle. Despite the heavy toll that mass incarceration exacts every day and in countless ways on many American communities, families and of course the incarcerated themselves, the topic attracts remarkably little consistent coverage in the mainstream media.

“Traditionally, the coverage of this has been crisis driven,” says Ted Gest, the founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, who also oversees a daily news digest for The Crime Report news service.

Recently, a hunger strike in California and other protests called renewed attention to solitary confinement as a human rights issue. And questions about oversight were briefly raised after Baltimore jail guards were busted in April for allegedly helping a charismatic gang leader, who impregnated four of them, run his drug and money-laundering operations.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, says he’s seen only a modest increase in news coverage of criminal justice reform despite his sense that the nation is starting to turn the corner on mass incarceration. “I’ve been doing this work since 1990 and there’s been no time that things have looked this hopeful for significant reform in the criminal justice system,” he says.

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