“Housing First” Programs in the U.S. and Overseas Work


Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Housing First,” supported by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and nonprofit agencies throughout America, not only provides permanent homes for the homeless but also provides wraparound case management services to the tenants. This case management provides stability for homeless individuals, which increases their success. It allows for accountability and promotes self-sufficiency.

The housing provided through government-supported Housing First programs is permanent and “affordable,” meaning that tenants pay 30% of their income towards rent. Housing First initially targeted individuals with disabilities. This housing is supported through two HUD programs: the Supportive Housing Program and the Shelter Plus Care Program. The Housing First model has been recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as an Evidence-based practice.
Principles of Housing First are: 1) Move people into housing directly from streets and shelters without preconditions of treatment acceptance or compliance; 2) The provider is obligated to bring robust support services to the housing. These services are predicated on assertive engagement, not coercion; 3) Continued tenancy is not dependent on participation in services; 4) Units targeted to most disabled and vulnerable homeless members of the community; 5) Embraces harm-reduction approach to addictions rather than mandating abstinence. At the same time, the provider must be prepared to support resident commitment to recovery; 6) Residents must have leases and tenant protections under the law; 7) Can be implemented as either a project-based or scattered-site model.[6]
Housing First is currently endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness  as a “best practice” for governments and service-agencies to use in their fight to end chronic homelessness in America.
Housing First programs currently operate throughout the United States in cities such as New Orleans, LA; Plattsburgh, NY; Anchorage, AK; Minneapolis, MN; New York City; District of Columbia; Denver, CO; San Francisco, CA; Atlanta, GA; Chicago, IL; Quincy, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Salt Lake City, UT; Seattle, WA; Los Angeles; Austin, TX and Cleveland, OH, among many others, and are intended to be crucial aspects of communities’ so-called 10-Year Plans To End Chronic Homelessness.

On June 11, 2014 the “100,000 Homes Campaign” in the United States, launched in 2010 to “help communities around the country place 100,000 chronically homeless people into permanent supportive housing,” announced that it reached its four-year goal of housing 100,000 homeless people nearly two months before its July 29 deadline.

Here are some “Housing First” results:

In Massachusetts, the Home & Healthy for Good program reported some significant outcomes that were favorable especially in the area of cost savings.

The Denver Housing First Collaborative, operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, provides housing through a Housing First approach to more than 200 chronically homeless individuals. A 2006 cost study documented a significant reduction in the use and cost of emergency services by program participants as well as increased health status. Emergency room visits and costs were reduced by an average of 34.3% . Hospital inpatient costs were reduced by 66%. Detox visits were reduced by 82%. Incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76%, and 77% of those entering the program continued to be housed in the program after two years.

Researchers in Seattle, partnering with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, found that providing housing and support services for homeless alcoholics costs taxpayers less than leaving them on the street, where taxpayer money goes towards police and emergency health care. Results of the study funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association April, 2009. This first US controlled assessment of the effectiveness of Housing First specifically targeting chronically homeless alcoholics showed that the program saved taxpayers more than $4 million over the first year of operation. During the first six months, even after considering the cost of administering the housing, 95 residents in a Housing First program in downtown Seattle, the study reported an average cost-savings of 53%—nearly US $2,500 per month per person in health and social services, compared to the per month costs of a wait-list control group of 39 homeless people. Further, stable housing also results in reduced drinking among homeless alcoholics.

In Utah, there has been a 72% homelessness decrease overall since enacting the plan in 2005, according to the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development.

In August 2007, HUD reported that the number of chronically homeless individuals living on the streets or in shelters dropped by an unprecedented 30%, from 175,914 people in 2005 to 123,833 in 2007. This was credited in part to the “housing first” approach; Congress in 1999 directed that HUD spend 30% of its funding on the method.

In September 2010, it was reported that the Housing First Initiative had significantly reduced the chronic homeless single person population in Boston, although homeless families were still increasing in number. Some shelters were reducing the number of beds due to lowered numbers of homeless, and some emergency shelter facilities were closing, especially the emergency Boston Night Center. By 2015, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had announced a 3-year plan to end chronic homelessness, focusing on coordinating efforts among public agencies and nonprofit organizations providing services to homeless men and women.

In South Australia, the State Government of Premier Mike Rann (2002 to 2011) committed substantial funding to a series of initiatives designed to combat homelessness. The Rann Government established Common Ground Adelaide, building high-quality inner city apartments (combined with intensive support) for “rough sleeping” homeless people. The government also funded the Street-to-Home program and a hospital liaison service designed to assist homeless people who are admitted to the emergency departments of Adelaide’s major public hospitals. Rather than being released back into homelessness, patients identified as rough sleepers are found accommodation backed by professional support. Common Ground and Street-to-Home now operate across Australia in other states.

In its Economic Action Plan 2013, the Federal Government of Canada proposed $119 million annually from March 2014 until March 2019—with $600 million in new funding—to renew its Homelessness Partnering Strategy (HPS). In dealing with homelessness in Canada, the focus is on the Housing First model. Thus, private or public organizations across Canada are eligible to receive HPS subsidies to implement Housing First programs. In 2008, the Federal Government of Canada funded a five-year demonstration program, the At Home/Chez Soi project, aimed at providing evidence about what services and systems best help people experiencing serious mental illness and homelessness. Launched in November 2009 and ending in March 2013, the At Home/Chez Soi project was actively addressing the housing need by offering Housing First programs to people with mental illness who were experiencing homelessness in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal and Moncton. In total, At Home/Chez Soi has provided more than 1,000 Canadians with housing.

Housing First has grown in popularity in Canada and used in many Canadian ten-year plans to end homelessness, such as those in Edmonton and Calgary. Housing First: A Canadian Perspective is spearheaded by Pathways to Housing Calgary and director Sue Fortune. Canadian adaptations to Housing First have demonstrated positive outcomes as documented on the website: www.thealex.ca (Housing Programs; Pathways to Housing). Canadian implementations of Housing First must be tailored to Canadian homelessness, resources, politics and philosophy.

In Calgary, Alberta, the Alex Pathways to Housing Calgary which opened in 2007, had 150 individuals in scatter-site homes in 2013. Clients pay 30% of their income towards their rent: 85 percent of Pathways to Housing clients receive Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped benefits and 15% receive Alberta Works. The Alex Pathways to Housing uses a Housing First model, but it also uses Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), an integrated approach to healthcare where clients access a team of “nurses, mental health specialists, justice specialists and substance abuse specialists.”

Director Sue Fortune is committed to the 10 Year Plan To End Homelessless in the Calgary Region. Fortune reported that the Housing First approach resulted in a 66% decline in days hospitalized (from one year prior to intake compared to one year in the program), a 38% decline in times in emergency room, a 41% decline in EMS events, a 79% decline in days in jail and a 30% decline in police interactions.She reported that fewer than 1% of existing clients return to shelters or rough sleeping; clients spend 76% fewer days in jail and clients have a 35% decline in police interactions.

In 2007 the centre-right government of Matti Vanhanen began a special program of four wise men to eliminate homelessness in Finland by 2015. The program to reduce long-term homelessness targets hard-core homeless people,assessed on the basis of social, health and financial circumstances. The program to reduce long-term homelessness focuses on the 10 biggest urban growth centers, where also most of the homeless are to be found. The main priority, however, is the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, and especially Helsinki itself, where long-term homelessness is concentrated.

The program is structured around the housing first principle. Solutions to social and health problems cannot be a condition for organising accommodation: on the contrary, accommodation is a requirement which also allows other problems of people who have been homeless to be solved. Having somewhere to live makes it possible to strengthen life management skills and is conducive to purposeful activity.

Because of all the reasons there are for long-term homelessness, if it is to be cut there need to be simultaneous measures at different levels, i.e. universal housing and social policy measures, the prevention of homelessness and targeted action to reduce long-term homelessness.
The program’s objectives are to eliminate homelessness entirely by 2015 and to take more effective measures to prevent homelessness.

In France the government launched a Housing First-like program in 2010 in 4 majors cities: Toulouse, Marseille, Lille and Paris called “Un chez-Soi d’abord”. It follows the same principles as the Canadian and US programs, focusing on the homeless people with mental illness or addicted to drugs or alcohol. The plan is on a 3-year basis for each individual, sheltered in an apartment lent by a non-government organization. Several NGOs are involved in this experiment, they are assuring the rental management as well as the social support for the housed people.

Those NGOs are linked with scientists investigating the results of the experiment and serve as a relay for informations and status reports on the targeted public. The lead team of “Un chez-soi d’abord” is expecting results to be published around 2017.

Tulsa Business Leaders Urged to Help Female Former Inmates Recover

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Oklahoma has had the highest rate of female incarceration every year since 1993.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

In 2014, Oklahoma incarcerated women at a rate of 136 per 100,000; but the national average was only 65 per 100,000. In a recent op-ed piece in the Tulsa World, insurance and financial services company CEO Ed Martinez Jr. sought to answer the question “ Why is Oklahoma’s rate so high?”

He concluded:

Many compounding factors lead women to prison, starting early in life: outdated policing strategies, underfunded mental health systems, and draconian sentencing practices and laws.

Recently, we have witnessed overbearing law enforcement in the minority communities of Ferguson, MO and Baltimore. I have begun to think that women are being mistreated in the same manner.
My daughters and the daughters of friends who have come into contact with local law enforcement report common themes. Their cell phones are seized, which feels like a personal violation. If they try to prevent this violation, they are threatened with obstruction of justice charges. Women stopped for suspected traffic violations are immediately ask for permission to search their car without probable cause. If they decline, they are threatened with arrest.

From their experiences, I began to understand that Tulsa law enforcement, and maybe the rest of the country, is mistreating women and contributing to the high rate of arrest and incarceration of women.

Martinez believes this is only a small part of the problem. Most women involved in the criminal justice system are suffering from untreated trauma, mental illness and or drug addiction. They are homeless, unemployed and oftentimes victims of domestic violence. They have on average two to three children. Once they enter the criminal justice system, they are assessed with multiple fines and fees, most of which support the criminal justice system itself. If they are arrested, jailed or sent to prison, they rarely receive services to address any of the issues that entangled them in the first place. The state of Oklahoma also enforces sentencing enhancements, mandatory minimums, and harsh drug laws that result in unnecessary felony convictions and long prison sentences for non-violent women.
The system perpetuates itself in peculiar and unjust ways, he believes. For example, once a woman is charged, it becomes extremely difficult to secure a job, even if she is never convicted. She becomes unemployable. Even in cases where charges are dropped or deferred, women still face huge employment hurdles. This cycle pulls women into poverty and drags their children down with them. Entire families and communities become lost in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Martinez reached out to Mimi Tarrasch, executive senior program director of the Women in Recovery Program at Family & Children’s Services, to better understand the issues. Women in Recovery helps about 100 women at a time break the cycle of incarceration. The program is an intensive outpatient alternative to incarceration for women who are not eligible for other diversion programs. It ensures women receive substance abuse and mental health treatment, trauma intervention, education, workforce readiness training, family reunification services, comprehensive case management, supervision, and safe housing. Families and children are integrated into the program. In short, it focuses on structure, safety and accountability.
The return on investment in this program has been significant. Today, there are close to 7,000 children with mothers in Oklahoma prisons. Those children are four to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. He cautions:

If you remember only one thing, understand that incarceration has devastating impacts on children. It affects their education, health and life’s outcomes.
Women in Recovery provides its clients and their families stable housing and treatment to ease the transition to a “normal” life. But more important, they are trained to rejoin the work force. The program provides training for sustainable careers that will allow women to support themselves and their families.
Women in Recovery and similar programs need Tulsa’s good corporate citizens to commit to partnering with service organizations to provide employment and in some instances on-the-job training. A number of prominent Tulsa businesses already have committed to improving the lives of justice-involved women, but we need more. You do not have to be a big business to make a big impact.
Don’t let our women continue to be victims of reckless law enforcement and punitive criminal justice policies. Let’s commit to helping the ones that have been unjustly caught in this trap by helping them learn to live a positive life.

Tulsa Business Community Urged to Help Female

New Jersey Enacts Juvenile Justice Reforms; Becomes 21st State to End Solitary Confinement of Kids

Governor Christie’s recent signature of S2003/A4299

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

will implement significant and much-needed reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. The new law:

1) Raises the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult from 14 to 15, narrows the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, and amends the standard governing such decisions to reflect the continuing maturation of young people through their mid-twenties; 2) requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison and 3) eliminates the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, and places time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.

The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition is pursuing system-wide reforms of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, including promoting alternatives to incarceration for youth and improving conditions of confinement for those who are incarcerated. Members of the Coalition’s Steering Committee include Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden and Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic in Newark.

Through legislative advocacy on this bill, as well as executive advocacy and litigation, the Coalition has sought to reform the process and circumstances under which youth may be placed in an adult prison and to eliminate the practice of solitary confinement of juveniles. The Coalition applauds the extraordinary leadership of Senator Nellie Pou, who more than two years ago, began bringing together advocates (including members of the Coalition), retired judges, county prosecutors, the Attorney General’s Office and other stakeholders to discuss New Jersey’s juvenile justice system and how to improve it through these substantial reforms.

Alexander Shalom, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey, said:

The historic reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system just signed into law will make us fairer, smarter, and safer. While there remains more work to do, these changes are a significant step towards making the ‘justice’ in our juvenile justice system a reality.


Natalie Kraner, Pro Bono Counsel at Lowenstein Sandler, explained:

New Jersey will become the twenty-first state to prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement by either law or practice, in line with a growing national trend. This is a first and significant step towards reducing the risk of serious harm to juveniles in secure facilities, but we still have a long way to go.

The new law’s data collection requirement is critical because it will afford transparency to the Juvenile Justice Commission’s continued use of solitary confinement and protect against an over-broad and prolonged use of non-punitive solitary confinement.

Laura Cohen, Director, Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers School of Law, remarked, “Serving time in an adult facility has enormous and lifelong consequences.”

In another important change, youth who have been waived for adult prosecution presumptively will be held in local juvenile detention centers, rather than county jails, while awaiting trial. Similarly, any young person who is sentenced to a term of incarceration will be committed to the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission until the age of 21 and may remain there beyond that time at the discretion of the Commission. “These reforms to the waiver laws are consistent with the substantial body of research establishing that adolescents’ developmental immaturity renders them less culpable than adults,” explained Cohen.

Mary Cogan, Assistant Director, Advocates for Children of NJ., said:

While we agree that juveniles should be held accountable for their actions, we must treat juveniles who commit crimes differently than adults. These youth will return to their communities, and we must equip them with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults.

LaShawn Warren, Vice President and General Counsel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice,  concluded:

This legislation represents a much-needed paradigm shift in how New Jersey addresses juvenile delinquency issues. It moves the state closer to a rehabilitative model that appropriately factors in developmental considerations of youth and ensures progress toward racial fairness in the state juvenile justice system.

43 States are Reducing Commitment of Juveniles to State Facilities

According to federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention statistics, between 1997 and 2011 the U.S. enjoyed a 61% decline in the number of juveniles committed to state incarceration facilities–and 43 states had notable drops in youths behind bars over that period. Only seven states saw more kids in the state pokey over that 15-year span: WV (+156%), ID (+96%), CO (+85%), VT (+76%), MO (23%), UT (+5%) and ND (+1%).

Arkansas scored the biggest drop in incarcerated young

Giddings State School in Texas

Giddings State School in Texas

people–93.4%, from a rate of 76 youths per 100,000 juveniles to only five. Next in order were MI (-89.6%), MS (-88.5%), SC (-88.1%) and CA (-87.7%). Five states (NY, AZ, OH, NC and TX) have seen their imprisonment rates drop between 65% and 80% over the decade and a half. And eight others have lowered their incarceration rates by more than 50%: WA, TN, RI, NV, GA, LA and FL.


One big reason is that 23 states have enacted or are in the process of setting in law major juvenile justice reforms. In recent years, seven states have passed laws excluding certain juveniles from being placed in state custody, reflecting a growing recognition of the steep cost and low public safety return of confining juveniles who commit lower-level offenses in residential facilities. Three states also have modified the length of time juveniles spend in custody. Because research shows little to no recidivism reduction from extended stays for many offenders, a handful of states have adopted mechanisms to evaluate youth placements and shorten them when appropriate.

1) In 2014, Hawaii banned commitment to the state’s youth correctional facility for misdemeanor offenses.
2) Kentucky adopted reforms in 2014 that prohibit most misdemeanor offenders and Class D felons—the least serious class—from commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
3) Georgia passed legislation in 2013 to prohibit residential commitment for all “status offenses,” such as skipping school or running away, and for misdemeanor offenders, except those with four prior adjudications, including at least one felony.
4) In 2011, Florida banned state commitment for misdemeanors, with certain exceptions for youth with prior delinquency and those at high risk of re-offending.
5) In 2009, Mississippi prohibited commitment to the state training school for any juvenile offender adjudicated as delinquent for a nonviolent felony or with fewer than three misdemeanors.
6) In 2007, California banned state commitment for all low-level and nonviolent offenses.
7) As part of a complete overhaul of its juvenile corrections system in 2007, Texas barred commitments to secure facilities for misdemeanor offenses.

Several other states, including Ohio and Virginia, took steps to remove misdemeanor offenders from state commitment in the 1980s and 1990s.

Moderating length of stay:
1) In 2014, Kentucky limited the amount of time a juvenile may be held by the Department of Juvenile Justice in out-of-home placement for treatment and the total amount of time a youth may be committed or under court supervision.
2) In 2013, Georgia eliminated the mandatory minimum sentence for certain felony offenses and reduced the maximum term for less serious felony offenses from five years to 18 months.
3) In 2011, Ohio expanded judicial discretion in release decisions for committed youth. Legislation authorized the courts to release from the Department of Youth Services offenders serving mandatory sentences once certain minimum terms are met.

In the past eight years, 23 states enacted various juvenile justice reforms. These include the aforementioned states and IN, NV, OR, IL, MA, CO, ID, MO, DE, UT, WA and WY. 

In 2013 alone, several states moved toward reducing the prosecution of youth in adult court and removing children from adult jails and prisons. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation in July 2013 that raises the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, and Massachusetts enacted similar legislation. Missouri passed “Jonathan’s Law” to give more youth an opportunity at rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system instead of the adult criminal justice system. Also, both the Maryland General Assembly and Nevada State Assembly created task forces to examine the issue of automatic transfer, which allows prosecutors to bypass the juvenile courts and prosecute youth directly in criminal courts. Finally, the Nevada and Indiana legislatures approved legislation to keep more kids out of adult jails and prisons.
Four states (Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, and Massachusetts) have expanded their juvenile court jurisdiction so that older youth who previously would be automatically tried as adults are not prosecuted in adult criminal court.
Twelve states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Ohio, Maryland, and Nevada) have changed their transfer laws making it more likely that youth will stay in the juvenile justice system.
And eight states (California, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Missouri, Ohio, and Washington) have changed their mandatory minimum sentencing laws to take into account the developmental differences between youth and adults, allow for post-sentence review for youth facing juvenile life without parole or other sentencing reform for youth sentenced as adults.

Mass. Gov. Baker Vetoes $2 Million in Homeless Housing & Support

The leaders of Y2Y Harvard Square, a new student-run shelter for young adults in Harvard Square scheduled to open in November, are calling on members of the Legislature to overturn Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of $2 million in funding for housing and support services for homeless youth in the commonwealth. This short-sighted decision on the part of the governor strikes a direct blow to the young adults working hard to change their lives and find homes.

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker


This funding, the first-ever dedicated state funding to this population, had been recommended and approved by the MA Conference Committee, and Gov. Baker took away this historic leap forward without sufficient comment or explanation.
Last week when the exciting news of funding was shared with Y2Y’s Young Adult Advisory Council — a group of 10 young adults who have experienced homelessness — it was so clear how much this mattered and how much the courage they had to repeatedly tell their stories mattered. Gov. Baker’s budget cut tells them otherwise.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ Executive Director Elisabeth Jackson voiced a hope that the veto would be overturned:

At Bridge Over Troubled Waters, we have been serving homeless youth and young adults for 45 years and advocate consistently for age-appropriate services for youth at risk, outside of the adult homeless system. By reaching these vulnerable young people early, while they still have hope, we can prevent them from joining the ranks of chronically homeless adults. We have an historic opportunity to prevent increasing homelessness in the commonwealth and support those who have been working without substantial state investment toward this goal. We are hopeful that this critical funding will be restored.

Carl Sciortino, executive director of AIDS Action Committee, said:

AIDS Action Committee served more than 300 homeless young adults last year in our Youth on Fire program. We know first-hand how important it is the state step up its investment in meeting the needs of this vulnerable population, and we urge the Legislature to fund the unaccompanied homeless youth line item by overriding the governor’s veto.

Y2Y Harvard Square and its partners are calling on Massachusetts residents to contact their state legislators and ask them to override the governor’s veto and restore this funding.

The first dedicated state funding to this population in Massachusetts history would have impacted the thousands of unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. Youth become homeless due to abuse, neglect and lack of family support, and they are vulnerable in adult shelters and on the streets. Studies show that intervention at this age is critical to prevent a lifetime of chronic homelessness.

This budget allocation was the product of years of hard work by stakeholders. Under the leadership of the MA Coalition for the Homeless and the MA Executive Office of Health and Human Services, the Legislature voted in 2012 to create the Massachusetts Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth. This group has worked to conduct research and put forth recommendations relative to services for unaccompanied homeless youth. The Legislature has the ability to overturn Baker’s veto, with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.

John Oliver Hilariously Skewers Maximum Minimum Sentences

On my favorite TV show, by far, LAST WEEK TONIGHT, with John Oliver, last Sunday he hilariously but seriously took on the problem of maximum minimum sentences for minor crimes. If you missed it, it’s well worth seeing.

WENTWORTH’s a Dark, Dramatic Women’s Prison Series


Wentworth dvd box

Franky. Bea and Jacs

At a time when Orange is the New Black is delighting U.S. audiences and media, while drawing attention to the shocking plight of women behind bars — much as Bad Girls did in Britain — Australia’s Wentworth (in some countries titled Wentworth Prison and in Poland called Wiezienie dla kobiet) is a compelling, edge-of-your-seat drama down under.

Currently, Netflix is streaming two seasons (22 episodes; 2013-2014) of this series. A third 12-episode season is airing in Australia now, and a fourth has been ordered.

Plot elements in the white-knuckle first two seasons include drug smuggling, attempted murder, successful murder, attempted and successful suicide, all kinds of violence, sarcasm, sex in a garden shed, caring for a sick magpie, a clever prison escape, matricide and many more of the things that today’s viewer craves. This series is highly recommended, except for the very squeamish.

Elements calling out for prison reform include abuse of solitary confinement, denying on-site access to children, sex between guards and prisoners, some sadistic wardens, limited programs and privileges, and much more.

Wentworth just won two of Australia’s top TV honors (Logies) for Most Outstanding Drama Series (two years running) and Most Outstanding Dramatic Actress (lead Danielle Cormack). The show has also taken the Best TV Drama Series ASTRA Awards for the past two years, and Best Actress ASTRA honors have gone to Cormack and her series sometimes-friend/sometimes-enemy Franky, powerfully played by Nicole da Silva.

The program has been nominated for 19 other awards, including TV Choice Best International Show and 13 acting noms for eight cast members, including two for creepy Kris McQuade as ubervillainess Jacs Holt.

Wentworth serves as a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, which ran for 692 episodes on Australian TV from 1979 to 1986. Set in modern day, the current series centers on Bea Smith (Cormack) who is imprisoned for attempted murder of her abusive husband.

Unlike the situation in real U.S. prisons, where 60% of female inmates are in for nonviolent drug or drug-related theft crimes, these Aussie gals have mostly done the heavy stuff.

Wentworth has received a mostly positive reception from critics, and the first episode became the most-watched Australian drama series premiere in Foxtel history. The series has been picked up by 20 countries so far.

Ben Pobjie, writing in Australia’s The Age, called Wentworth “a triumph,” adding:

So rarely in Australian TV do we see well-written characters collide with dead-on casting and tense, atmospheric direction as they have here. Wentworth is a powerful, almost cinematic drama with its own identity that incorporates echoes of the original Prisoner series.

The plot follows several compelling story lines, but the main one is the path of newbie Bea Smith who soon learns that she has to deal with the top-dog prisoner, tough-as nails lesbian Franky Doyle, who heads a gang of gals and brooks no nonsense. Early on, in an unexpected prison riot, the “governor” (warden) is mysteriously murdered. She was the wife of guard Will Jackson (twice-nominated ASTRA Award Best Actor Robbie Magasiva) and the secret mistress of guard Matthew Fletcher (twice–nominated Best Actor Aaron Jeffrey). She is replaced by a new governor who tries some reforms, while having an adulterous lesbian affair with prisoner Franky.

Before long, Franky’s power is seriously challenged by the arrival of Jacs Holt, matriarch of a major crime gang on the outside and instant head of a tough rival posse inside. Overt and covert warfare ensues, and Bea finds herself caught in the middle.

Jacs orders her son Brayden, who is secretly dating Bea’s beloved daughter Debbie and shooting heroin with her, to kill her with an overdose. Revenging this act sets in motion the main plot of both seasons, although a hell of a lot of good and evil stuff goes on simultaneously.

As in Orange is the New Black, one of the most compelling characters is a transgender woman (wonderfully played by Socratis Otto) who becomes a key figure in plots and counterplots, foiling a murder attempt and trying desperately to get a reliable source for her needed female hormones.

Following the end of the first season, it was revealed with much Ausssie excitement that notorious Prisoner character Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, a sadistic, lesbian prison officer, would be introduced in the second season as the new governor. She meddles in everyone’s lives and schemes against prisoners, guards, and even her boss on the prison board of governors. Tall, imposing Pamela Rabe, who is totally hateful in the role, was ASTRA-nominated this year for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor.

I peeked at the plot synopses for the episodes of Season 3 already aired, and Ferguson’s back raising hell with Bea, who is now top-dog, after having bested Franky in a major knife fight. I can’t wait for Series 3 to come to Netflix later this year or next, although you can catch some episodes now on YouTube.


Criminal Justice Reforms Need to Include Youth Behind Bars

The recent criminal justice reform discussions centered on federal laws and federal corrections–but the juvenile justice system received scant attention. The President and Congress should not leave out youth behind bars in efforts to reform criminal justice this year, and their actions must focus on reforms at both the federal and state level.

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Youth are locked up in the states and localities–nearly 80,000 on any given day–and not primarily in federal corrections. A small percentage of youth are under the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons and most of these youth are incarcerated in youth prisons through contracts with the states.

Every year, an estimated 200,000 youth are prosecuted in adult criminal courts, and research demonstrates unequivocally that trying and sentencing children in adult court does not reduce crime. In fact, it does just the opposite. Trying youth as adults has both a detrimental impact on the youth tried as adults and decreases public safety.

That is why most justice system professionals and the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence report recommend that:

We should stop treating juvenile offenders as if they were adults, prosecuting them in adult courts, incarcerating them as adults and sentencing them to harsh punishments that ignore their capacity to grow.

Incarceration in the juvenile justice system is a significant predictor of involvement in the adult criminal justice system. States and localities lock up youth even though the vast majority don’t pose a risk to public safety. However, incarcerating youth increases the likelihood that they will re-offend, so youth are much worse off after being incarcerated. Removing them from their homes and communities and placing them in correctional settings disrupts youths’ education and their healthy psychological development by disconnecting them from family, peers and activities that require critical thinking and independent decision-making.

The costs for taxpayers and youth are enormous. Even with all the data on the ineffectiveness and harm of incarceration, states and localities continue to spend the bulk of their juvenile justice funds on incarceration instead of on more effective and much less costly alternatives to incarceration.

This comes at a high price not just for taxpayers, topping $6 billion per year, but for the youth themselves. Not a week goes by without a headline in some newspaper citing abuse of a young person in one of these facilities in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system.

And this abuse of incarcerated youth is increasing, according to a new report, Maltreatment in Youth in U.S. Correctional Facilities, released in June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report documents an increase in the number of states where youth are abused, from 22 states to 29.

There were recent news reports about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who as a teenager was charged as an adult, accused of taking a backpack, and who spent three years including one year in solitary confinement, awaiting trial at Rikers Island in New York City. In another recent case, six detention facility staff in Florida were disciplined in the death of 14-year-old Andre Sheffield at the Brevard County Juvenile Detention Center.

The profound racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system begin in juvenile justice. Youth of color, like Kalief Browder and Andre Sheffield, are disproportionately impacted by incarceration. For example, African-American youth are 4.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Latino youth are 1.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth and Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.

To ensure that juvenile justice reforms in the states are part of any criminal justice reform effort, Congress needs to include an overhaul of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in any criminal justice reform package this year. Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Whitehouse (D-RI) have just introduced and plan to consider S. 1169 in the Senate Judiciary Committee. This bill would strengthen the JJDPA’s core protections for youth by eliminating the detention of status offenders, banning the placement to youth in adult jails and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Among the new pieces of information that states will be asked to report to Justice are one-month snapshot counts on the following:

  • Use of restraints and isolation in juvenile facilities;
  • The number of status offenders who are detained, the underlying reason for the detention and the average length of stay;
  • The number of pregnant juveniles held in custody; and
  • The number of juveniles whose offenses occurred on school grounds.

Further, Congress should support states in increasing the age of criminal court responsibility to age 18 through legislation such as the S. 675/H.R. 1672, the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2015 (REDEEM Act).

The president and his Administration need to actively and visibly support these juvenile justice bills and urge that they are part of any comprehensive criminal justice reform package that Congress considers this year.

Further, the President must swiftly undertake executive actions to accelerate and expand state reforms to increase the age of criminal responsibility to age 18 and shift resources from youth incarceration to evidence-informed, community-based, non-residential alternatives to incarceration for youth through vigorous technical assistance, training, research and dedicated resources from within the U.S. Department of Justice.

And any criminal justice reform package must be informed by directly impacted youth, a constituency noticeably absent at congressional hearings and in policy discussions with Congressional and Administration officials.

Kalief Browder and Andre Sheffield’s deaths should be a sobering reminder to the President and the Congress of the urgency and the need to ensure youth behind bars are not left behind.

Obama’s Drug Pardons Move Focus to SAFE Justice Act

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford 

The Obama Administration has consistently supported measures aimed at reforming mandatory minimum prison sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, and President Barack Obama recently commuted the prison sentences of 46 drug offenders, saying in a video posted online Monday that the men and women were not “hardened criminals” and their punishments didn’t match the crimes they committed. Obama said the move was part of his larger attempt to reform the criminal justice system, including reviewing sentencing laws and reducing punishments for non-violent crimes.

In a video Obama said:

I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances, and I believe these folks deserve their second chance.

Of the 46 prisoners whose sentences were commuted on Monday, 13 had been sentenced to prison for life. Most of those commuted sentences will now end in November, a several-month transition period that officials said allowed for arrangements to be made in halfway homes and other facilities. After they’re released, the former prisoners will be supervised by probation officers and subject to conditions that were set during their original sentencing, which is some cases includes drug testing. Obama wrote in a letter to each of the 46 men and women whose sentences were commuted:

I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances. But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices.

After the pardon, President Obama was planning to discuss criminal justice further at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia and at the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma.

His actions have focused attention on H.R. 2944, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill does not repeal any federal mandatory minimum sentences or reduce drug mandatory minimum sentences across the board, but instead limits the application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level offenders. The bill will reduce prison costs and populations, save money, reinvest savings into law enforcement needs (e.g., training, body cameras, blue alerts) and protect the public by using state-tested, evidence-based practices that are reducing crime.

If it becomes law, the SAFE Justice Act would make the following sentencing, good-time credit and earned time-credit reforms:

1.  Limit application of federal mandatory minimum drug sentences to people who meet the drug quantities listed in 21 U.S.C. sections 841 and 960 and were organizers, leaders, managers, or supervisors of a criminal activity that involved at least 5 people. Everyone else would not be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, but could still be sentenced up to the law’s statutory maximum terms, depending on the drug quantity, number of participants, and role in the case. People who are already in prison would be permitted to seek retroactive application of these changes to their current sentences by filing a motion to the courts.

2. Make the Fair Sentrencing Act of 2010 retroactive: Federal prisoners serving crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed before August 3, 2010, would be allowed to petition the court for a sentence reduction in line with the new, 18-to-1 crack-powder ratio Congress unanimously passed in 2010.

3. Redefine the kinds of prior convictions that can be used to increase mandatory minimum drug sentences to 10, 20 years, or higher. The bill also strengthens the procedural and notice requirements when prosecutors want to increase sentences based on prior convictions.

4. Allow prisoners to earn up to 33% earned time credit for rehabilitation: With few exceptions, federal prisoners could earn up to 10 days of time credits for every 30 days of rehabilitative programming they complete in prison. These credits would be real sentence reductions, not time spent in another form of confinement such as a halfway house or home detention. This change would be retroactive.

5. Fix the technical error in good time credit calculation: Prisoners could earn up to 54 days of credit for good behavior per year in prison, rather than 47 days, as is current practice. This change would be retroactive.

6. Expand compassionate release and elderly prisoner release: The bill would permit prisoners and the courts, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, to request a compassionate release for extraordinary and compelling reasons, or for prisoners who are at least 60 years old, have an extraordinary health condition, or have been notified that the primary caregiver of the prisoner’s minor child has died or become incapacitated or is unable to care for the child any longer or cannot be cared for by other family members and is at risk of being placed in foster care. The law, if enacted, will also

  • encourage greater use of probation and problem-solving courts for appropriate offenders;
  • create a performance-incentive funding program to better align the interests of the Bureau of Prisons and federal judicial districts;
  • require regulatory criminal offenses to be compiled and published for the public;
  • ensure fiscal impact statements are attached to all future sentencing and corrections proposals;
  • charge the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons and the Administrative Office of the Courts with collecting key outcome performance measures;
  • invest in evidence-based crime prevention initiatives; and
  • increase funding for community based policing and public safety initiatives.

Two years after beginning an intensive, comprehensive review of the federal criminal justice system as the leaders of the Over-Criminalization Task Force, Representatives Sensenbrenner and Scott just introduced bipartisan, state-tested legislation aimed at safely reining in the size and associated costs of the federal criminal code and prison system. The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act of 2015 takes a broad-based approach to improving the federal sentencing and corrections system, from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.  It is also the first bill that addresses the federal supervision system – ensuring that probation does a better job stopping the revolving door at federal prisons.  The legislation, which is inspired by the successes of states across the country, will reduce recidivism, concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals, increase the use of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, curtail over-criminalization, reduce crime and save money.

Of the law, co-author Rep Bobby Scott said:

The SAFE Justice Act implements the successful, evidence-based reforms from the states and restores accountability, fairness and rationality to our federal criminal justice system.  Most importantly, it utilizes an evidence-based approach to reduce over-criminalization and over-incarceration and reinvests the savings into community based prevention and early-intervention programs to improve public safety.

In the past 10 years, the federal imprisonment rate has jumped by 15 percent while the states’ rate has declined 4 percent. The drop in the states’ imprisonment rate, which occurred alongside sustained reductions in crime, can be attributed in large part to the more than two dozen states that have enacted comprehensive, evidence-based corrections reforms.