Archive for Alan Waldman

A Federal Jobs Guarantee for Ex-Prisoners

Between August 21 and September 9, 2018, incarcerated people across the United States are engaging in a strike for better conditions inside prisons and substantial reforms to the criminal justice system. Second on their list of ten demands is a call for an immediate end to prison slavery: “All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.” For the 2,000 prisoners now fighting the largest fire in the history of California, a successful strike would mean earning a wage worthy of their hard work, one far higher than their current $1 per hour. And if incarcerated people can (and do) perform useful and valuable labor, as the California fires have shown, so can formerly incarcerated people.

The reasons to proactively include people with criminal records in a jobs guarantee program are both moral — everyone who wants to enter the workforce should be given a chance to work — and practical: Employing people with criminal records would also empower the rest of the workforce. When people are desperate for work, their bargaining power plummets, an even more urgent problem in a country in which union power has shrunk over the past century. Under-employment allows employers to offer lower wages, fewer benefits, and poorer labor conditions. But the more people are employed in good jobs, the more everyone else can negotiate for better jobs.

The class of people who fall into this category is not small: Close to 70 million Americans have criminal records, around 2.2 million of whom are incarcerated. Criminal records make it difficult to secure a job. Professional licensing rules contain thousands of clauses excluding people with records of misdemeanors and felonies, and finding work typically takes this class more than a year after being released. They remain less likely to be selected for an interview or receive a job offer, with even lower chances if the candidate is black. Controlling for other factors, this population’s wages also typically fall 10 to 40 percent below what other workers earn. And because individuals of color are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest of the population, it follows that these discriminatory employment practices hurt them and their families at disproportionate rates. This, in turn, only exacerbates inequality across our society.

Despite the misconceptions that many employers have about people with criminal records, people with a steady stream of wage income are less likely to commit crimes again. And the higher the wage, the lower the chance of re-offending: Studies show that even a modest wage increase to $10 or $12 per hour could halve the rate of recidivism and drop the crime rate by 5 percent. So while higher employment rates and wages would most directly benefit people with criminal records, society as a whole would enjoy collateral benefits like “reduced incarceration costs, increased income and payroll tax receipts, [and] lessened reliance on social services.”

The dark irony is that there is already a sort of jobs guarantee for up to 22,000 federal prisoners — it’s just an exploitative one. Federal Prison Industries, Inc./UNICOR, a corporation wholly owned by the federal government, pays federal prisoners 23 cents to $1.15 per hour to manufacture an impressive array of products ranging from furniture, apparel, and data services, to electronics and solar energy equipment, which it then sells to various branches of the government. (In comparison, prisoners who do non-UNICOR maintenance work must settle for 12 to 40 cents per hour.) These “wages” — if we can call them that — allow UNICOR to reap profits that it could not if it was obligated to truly compete on the market. UNICOR reported sales of $453.7 million for fiscal year 2017.

UNICOR does not operate in state prisons, which run their own work programs. Although some states pay a few cents or handful of dollars hourly, others like Georgia and Texas actually compel their prisoners to work for free. In

Photo by /susan Madden Lankford

Photo by /Susan Madden Lankford

many instances, this state labor is performed at the behest of private corporations that have no qualms about boosting their bottom line by replacing union workers with indentured prisoners. Courts help feed this labor pipeline. In a recent investigative report, Reveal News described how state judges routinely send individuals to chicken farms and bottling plants operating labor camps, all under the guise of reducing the prison population. Their appalling labor conditions make it difficult to seriously argue that the formerly incarcerated should not be given a chance to work outside of prison.

UNICOR is proof that people with criminal histories are perfectly capable of of learning new skills and performing useful jobs. In fact, UNICOR claims that its programs prepare inmates for re-entry. Of course, it is difficult to market and apply those skills when outside employers discriminate against criminal records even while they rely on incarcerated labor. In other regions, the jobs and willingness to hire may be there while the skill set does not match the work.

Consider a world where, by law, UNICOR had to transition much of its work to free individuals with criminal records, with a corresponding jobs guarantee wage and benefits. Though justice is blind, perhaps having a significantly reduced labor force to exploit would encourage prosecutors, judges, and prisons to seek shorter sentences and advance release dates. It would prevent the government and private corporations from circumventing living wage laws (and the prohibition against slavery). Of course, UNICOR would no longer be able to force workers to show up every day. But most other employers are not legally permitted to enslave or indenture their workforce, and yet most workers show up every day.

Including people with criminal records and releasing as many UNICOR workers as possible would probably increase the price tag of a Job Guarantee. On the other hand, it has repeatedly been proven that incarcerating people costs more annually than ensuring they are cared for on the outside. So in the long run, this approach may be more cost-effective.

There are, of course, many details to be worked out. For instance, we’d have to carefully think about the conditions under which a formerly incarcerated individual should be placed in sensitive jobs like day cares or hospitals. And we must take seriously the fact every crime is the result of very specific circumstances, and that a past criminal record may not tell us much about people’s present ability to perform certain work. As this idea continues to gain momentum, there will be many more questions and much to scrutinize and vigorously debate.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Homelessness is Not Just About Sleeping Rough

The UK is experiencing rising levels of rough sleeping and homelessness. There are clear parallels in Australia, too. As a UK academic researching homelessness, who recently attended Australia’s National Homelessness Conference in Melbourne, I know that both nations must be keen to find an effective response to this extreme form of poverty and exclusion. But answers will remain elusive, until everyone can understand its causes.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Policies to end homelessness often focus on ending rough sleeping – just like the UK government’s recent rough sleeping strategy. But the thing about people sleeping rough is that they can look, feel and sound different to “ordinary” citizens. And these perceived differences can be seized on to justify certain approaches to the problem – from punitive to progressive.

But US research, investigating how homeless people use services over time, has shown that problems such as mental illness, addiction and poor health are confined to a minority of people, who experience long term and repeated homelessness. Similar findings have been reported in Australia and the UK.

For instance, in England, in the autumn of 2017, there were 4,751 people sleeping rough, compared with 121,340 children in temporary accommodation, who are legally defined as homeless. And this does not even account for those who are sofa surfing; who lack their own front door, private space, physical security or any legal right to anything that could really be called a home. These people are difficult to count, but studies of the experience of homeless people show us they are there.

So, rough sleeping is a relatively unusual form of homelessness in the UK, and in Australia.

Not a choice
As homelessness worsens, it’s time to challenge the narrow views of the issue, which are driving the current social and political responses. Homelessness is not just rough sleeping and it is not just experienced by people with complex needs such as mental illness and addiction.

All too often, sleeping rough is not associated with economic and social causes. Instead, it’s widely believed that people sleep rough because they’re ill, or because they have “chosen” to be there. The role of low paid and insecure jobs, a welfare system that does not pay enough to live on, domestic violence and, perhaps above all, a lack of affordable, adequate homes often don’t appear in discussions about homelessness.

Yet countries such as Finland, which have extensive welfare, social housing and public health systems, as well as well-organised, well-resourced and integrated homelessness strategies, do not have rough sleeping – or homelessness more generally – in the same way that the UK or Australia do.

The real causes
There’s further evidence that the prevailing view of homelessness is distorted. Long term and repeatedly homeless people tend to fall within certain age ranges; they tend to be people who were young during periods of economic downturn – that is, in their 20s and 30s, unable to exit homelessness, and then who are all in middle age 20 years later. This challenges the idea that being homeless is just down to individual characteristics – if that were the case, you’d expect homelessness to be randomly distributed across age groups.

What’s more, the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network has pointed out that the focus on the apparently disproportionately male population of rough sleepers excludes lone women with sustained and recurrent experiences of homelessness, who need lots of support, but who often sofa surf rather than sleep rough. Most homeless families are led by lone women parents, who do not have severe mental illness or addictions – their homelessness is often associated with domestic violence.

This is not to suggest that the individual is not important, or that someone’s needs or choices cannot make a difference as to whether they experience homelessness, or how long they experience homelessness for. But ignoring the associations between homelessness and poverty, welfare and health systems, or an inadequate supply of secure and affordable homes, will not address the problem.

Rough sleeping is real. But so too is every poor person and family, living precariously without a settled home – and their numbers are greater. For this reason, rough sleeping should not be the sole target of homelessness policies. Countries ranging from Finland to the US focus attention on sustained and recurrent homelessness — associated with very high support needs – all of whom need assistance, not just those on the street. This includes people who get stuck in what are meant to be short-term homelessness services, unable to move on.

Prevention is also crucial, and there is scope to build on longstanding policies and support the revolutionary changes in Wales and in England, which will make prevention much more accessible and extensive. And it’s critical to ensure there are enough affordable homes, because so much of tackling homelessness is ultimately about having enough of the right sort of housing available to people on low and uncertain incomes.

Governments which focus on rough sleeping and fail to challenge the widely held assumptions about homelessness are missing the bigger picture. They do not understand what homelessness really is, the scale of the problem and the day-to-day realities of homeless people – let alone what we, as a society, should be doing to solve it.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

New Jersey Has Achieved Significant Juvenile Justice Reform

New Jersey announced the implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in all of its 21 counties. That process, which began in 2004, has led to dramatic reductions in juvenile detention center populations.

In the 1990s, New Jersey experienced dramatic increases in the use of secure, institutional detention for youth – as did states across the country – despite decreases in juvenile delinquency. By 1996, New Jersey’s county-

juvenile 1

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

operated detention facilities were operating at 166 percent of approved capacity and by 2002, with more than a 50 percent increase in the number of available beds, some juvenile detention centers were operating at anywhere from 122 percent to 223 percent capacity.

Understanding the ramification of this – namely the unnecessary use of secure detention with lasting negative results as well as the over representation of youth of color – the Juvenile Justice Commission embarked on what seemed to be an overwhelming challenge – to reform the juvenile justice system.

After implementing the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in phases, the JJC announced that the statewide implementation of this reform initiative has changed the face of juvenile justice in the state.

In 2004, the Annie E. Casey Foundation selected New Jersey to be among the first states to replicate JDAI, which historically had been a county-drive

in initiative. That same year, New Jersey launched JDAI in five pilot sites – Atlantic, Camden, Essex, Hudson, and Monmouth counties. As counties expressed interest and demonstrated readiness, each new county was designated an official JDAI site.

In 2008, as a result of the impressive outcomes achieved through JDAI, New Jersey was named a State Model Site for detention reform by the Casey Foundation. Since that date, representatives from 17 states have traveled to New Jersey to learn about the state’s experiences and success with JDAI implementation.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal stated:

The transformation of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system is nothing short of remarkable. Due to the leadership of the JJC and the ongoing efforts of many partners including the judiciary, law enforcement, public defenders,

county government, advocates and other stakeholders, and with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, New Jersey has become a national model for reform.

By focusing on prevention and the principles of JDAI, this collaboration has allowed tens of thousands of young people to remain at home receiving appropriate services – all as the juvenile crime rate continues to decline.

Kevin M. Brown, executive director of the JJC, added:

We know from research and direct experience that incarceration is one of the strongest predictors that a young 

person will have continued involvement in the juvenile justice system. When possible, it is best to keep young people at home with their families and provide the services necessary to provide support and to help them avoid risk-taking behavior.

The JJC is the lead agency for JDAI implementation in New Jersey, providing the management and staffing infrastructure integral to New Jersey’s success. The New Jersey Judiciary is a critical partner in the work, and with the JJC, has provided the leadership needed to achieve the success that has brought New Jersey national recognition. Nationally JDAI is operational in more than 300 local jurisdictions spanning 50 states.

As detailed in the JDAI 2017 Annual Data Report, which includes information for the 19 counties that were active in 2017, the average daily population of 

juvenile detention centers decreased by almost 70 percent since 2003, resulting in 7,951 fewer youth admitted to detention annually – and tens of thousands of fewer youth since the implementation of JDAI – all while meeting public safety goals.

The decline in numbers has allowed several detention centers to merge. At the start of JDAI there were 17 county-operated detention centers in New Jersey. Today there are nine, resulting in approximately $21 million in annual cost savings per year.

New Jersey’s juvenile justice reform continues, with specific focus on minimizing racial disparities in the system, increasing opportunities for the diversion of low-level offenders into community-based programs where they can obtain needed services, and the strengthening of partnerships between schools, the juvenile justice system and other stakeholders.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Pennsylvania aims for female inmate reforms

The return of legislators to Harrisburg is still more than one month away, but already their work has piled up. Now, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is ramping up its efforts to change the way the commonwealth handles criminal justice – echoing a priority of Philadelphia legislators and the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. The ACLU announced that it’s rolling out a “Campaign for Smart Justice,” with a mission to end mass incarceration.

ACLU Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol told reporters that when lawmakers return to Harrisburg in September, one of the group’s priorities will be pushing a measure aimed at repealing automatic driver’s license suspensions for people with unrelated drug convictions.

“Between 2011 and 2016 Pennsylvania suspended the licenses of almost 150,000 drivers that were unrelated to traffic safety,” she said.

Another goal is getting a second package of bills in the long-gestating Justice Reinvestment Initiative over the finish line.

According to WHYY, the project is aimed at keeping onetime offenders out of jail and lowering incarcerated populations.

Prior to the recess, State Rep. Morgan Cephas, D-192, led her colleagues in unveiling a package of legislation that would push criminal justice reform and help incarcerated women and parents in Pennsylvania.

’Cephas, chairwoman of the Women and Girls of Color Subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said:

I’m glad that we’re having vital, bipartisan discussions about criminal justice reform. I think it’s crucial for those discussions to include women and girls of color, Women are the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population.

Since 1985, the rate of incarcerated women has increased at nearly double the male rate. Further, the ACLU reported that African-American women and women of color are significantly overrepresented in the prison population. African-American women are 30 percent of incarcerated women in the United States, but only 13 percent of the female population.

Additionally, Hispanic women are 16 percent of incarcerated women but only 11 percent of all women in the U.S., Cephas said.

She added that she plans to introduce a bill to create a Women and Girls Committee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

“I believe this would aid the commission in its work as it specifically relates to research and programs that will have a direct impact on women and girls,” Cephas said.

Other bills in the package include requiring state prisons to provide free feminine hygiene items to all female inmates.

“While the Department of Corrections recently changed its policy internally to provide these products, my legislation would ensure this change to Pennsylvania law so that future administrations could not easily repeal it,” said State Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald, D-203.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-195, wants free monthly telephone calls for incarcerated parents, a move she said would help children cultivate relationships and strengthen their confidence.

Also, State Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-191, has proposed creating a system to help inmates register for all available benefits before being released.  McClinton said:

Many women find themselves struggling with aliments, addiction or mental health concerns that put them at risk of relapsing. My proposed legislation would ensure that once they are released, they receive the health care and financial support needed to help them transition back into their communities. It can be a matter of life and death.

Meanwhile, scaling back “draconian” state parole laws is also high on the ACLU’s list of priorities, Randol said.

The issue came to the fore earlier this year when rapper Meek Mill was released from prison, where he’d been after a parole violation arrest.

In what could be a sign that deals could more easily be reached in the coming legislative sessions, many of the ACLU’s priority bills are sponsored by Republicans — something Randol said is a pretty recent phenomenon.

“This is definitely one area that bipartisan agreement can be reached to effect some really great changes for the people in the commonwealth,” she told WHYY.

However, not everything on the group’s agenda is likely to see quite so kind a reception from both sides of the aisle.

The ACLU counts staving off reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentences among its goals. And Randol noted, “that’s a platform that remains popular among a lot of Republicans.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford


Trying to Foolishly Prosecute Our Way Out of a Public Health Crisis

In the midst of St. Louis County, MO’s opioid epidemic, we find ourselves in a criminal justice crisis. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. Prosecutors must stop packing our jails and prisons with those who need treatment, not punishment.

The effect of this overcriminalization is undeniable: Nine out of every 10 people in Missouri’s correction centers need addiction treatment. In fact, 35 percent of the new admissions to state prison in 2017 were explicitly sent to receive help with their addictions.

St. Louis County needs a prosecuting attorney committed to reducing incarceration and prioritizing alternatives that are more effective at preventing future crime and improving community health.

Since St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch started his pre-charge, alternative drug court program in 2014, only 99 people have been enrolled. Only 36 people have completed the program. That averages to nine people per year. With drug abuse rates so high in the county, why are we not using the alternative drug court system designed to address this very problem?

Instead, McCulloch’s office continues to push for imprisonment, contributing to Missouri’s skyrocketing incarceration rate — and doing nothing to stem the devastating opioid epidemic. Missouri ranks No. 8 in the nation when it comes to how many of its citizens are behind bars. Since 2010, Missouri’s female prison population has increased 33 percent and is the fastest growing in the nation.Much of that increase is attributable to drug-related prosecutions.

Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors have the power to decide what kinds of charges they’ll pursue and how severe the punishment will be. A prosecutor’s decision can dramatically shape a person’s entire life.

We know the criminal justice system is not equipped to handle the social and health issues that land many people in prison and jail.

Opioid abuse is so rampant in St. Louis County, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger recently declared it a public health emergency. His $1.5 million plan has public health officials working with corrections officers, social workers and other specialists to combat the addiction crisis.

St. Louis County needs reform-minded prosecutors focused on keeping the public safe by addressing the root causes of crime, not on obtaining convictions and harsh prison sentences at any cost. On McCulloch’s watch, the opioid epidemic has worsened, with devastating consequences for families and communities.

In 2016, St. Louis County filed new 3,159 drug prosecutions, including citations, misdemeanors and felonies — an increase from years before. Despite this aggressive prosecution of drug-related crimes, including simple drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia, St. Louis County still finds itself in the middle of a public health crisis.

Imprisonment is a harsh and costly response to addiction. It often forces people into debt as they work to secure bail money to free their loved ones facing charges. Incarceration should be the last option, not the first.

St. Louis County should commit to sending the national average of 9 percent of all felony cases to an alternative drug court. Voters in St. Louis County must demand that their prosecuting attorney shapes a smart and fair justice system.

Prosecutor Robert  McCulloch/photo by Ryan Michaelesko

Prosecutor Robert McCulloch/photo by Ryan Michaelesko

With a different approach, St. Louis County has an opportunity to become an innovator. Across the country, a growing number of forward-thinking prosecutors are leading the way in changing the culture of the criminal justice system and getting results. They have worked to become more transparent with and responsive to the communities they serve.

Prosecutors have power. We the people must make sure they use it for the health of the community.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Inmates Volunteer in Iowa Program

An earned release program (ERP) at the local prison is giving minimum security inmates positive behavioral reinforcement while also sustaining the needs of Couleecap in Prairie du Chien, Iowa.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford


Once a week, three inmates from the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCCI) are released to Couleecap for three hours to perform volunteer labor, accomplishing work such as sorting and pricing clothing, testing electronics, sorting games and puzzles, putting away food pantry groceries, folding bags and otherwise performing innumerable other jobs. This is all under the supervision of PDCCI’s Sgt. Tanner, alongside the regular Couleecap and Bargain Boutique workers and community volunteers. Tanner said:

The ERP guys are all volunteer inmates who enjoy coming here. It gets them out in the real world and they appreciate that they’re helping out the community. Many of these inmates are the type of men who end up utilizing programs such as the food pantry and thrift shop when they reintegrate into the community.

Though PDCCI is considered a medium-minimum security prison, all ERP inmates are classified as minimum security, which means they have not committed “dangerous” crimes and pose no escape risk. Background checks and paperwork are done and the men must be approved before starting the work.

Couleecap Bargain Boutique and Food Pantry Coordinator Jann Sturmer said:

I think that they’re not only happy to get out, but also once they see what the work is and that the proceeds help people in need, they like it all the more. They come here with such great attitudes and they can accomplish more in three hours than most people can in eight hours. It’s nice to have the men with the muscles to help with the heavy lifting.

When the food truck delivers federally-supplemented food once a month (from  The Emergency Food Assistance Program from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service) , “the inmates may stay longer than their three-hour shift to assure all the food is put away,” she added.

In the past year since PDCCI and Couleecap began partnering for this program, at least 50 inmates have helped at the thrift store on four different occasions to accumulate 12 hours each. Once they’ve hit 12 hours of community volunteerism, they’ve completed the program. Tanner added:

A lot of them want to volunteer more than that. Everyone involved would like to see this opportunity happen two times a week, for three hour shifts. But PDCCI is short on staff to make it happen.

Sturmer said the community is in the position of being truly blessed to have a lot of volunteers, yet Couleecap is really in need of more. “They can work one hour a week, there’s no set schedule, every little bit helps. Kids can volunteer too,” she stated. “Some of the other volunteers were apprehensive at first (about the inmates working alongside them), but now, especially when they see how hard-working they are, everyone really enjoys it and has become very accepting of it.”

Tanner said, for the inmates, this positive relationship within the community is good for all. As part of the earned release program, these interactions help the inmates realize more about the crimes they committed, who they affected and how they impacted people. It’s part of their community reintegration process.

“It’s good for them,” he stated. “They’re doing great work, they like it, and a lot of them want to come shopping here when they get out.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

3 Common Myths About Homelesssness

As a young psychologist in the 1980s who had researched treatment of the mentally ill, I was concerned by many reports suggesting that the growing number of homeless people may be due to deinstitutionalization. Over 30 years my group and I have conducted many studies of homelessness.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Myth #1: The homeless and ‘poor will always be with us’
This statement about the poor, attributed to Jesus in Matthew 26:11, can be taken out of context to suggest that people need not be concerned with caring for the poor and homeless. According to such an interpretation, assistance to the poor is a waste of time. Most Biblical scholars disagree with such a pessimistic interpretation.

But will there really always be poor people? Rates of homelessness vary widely across nations. In our telephone surveys of random samples of citizens across 10 developed nations, the chance that a given citizen had experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime varied between 2.2 and 8.6 percent.

It’s not yet clear what explains this variation. Is it the quality of social and health services in different countries? Could different patterns of substance abuse or immigration explain it? In any event, at 6.1 percent, the U.S. has one of the highest rates among developed nations.

If nations vary so widely, that suggests national policy changes could reduce high rates of homelessness. In the past decade or so, the U.S. has dramatically ramped up resources devoted to eliminating homelessness among veterans. Thanks to these efforts, veteran homelessness went down 35 percent between 2009 and 2015, outpacing the 10 percent total reduction in homelessness.

Provided with ongoing support services, the homeless mentally ill and other homeless persons can maintain themselves in permanent housing over long periods of time.

Other research suggests that homelessness can be prevented among vulnerable groups. For example, in a statewide evaluation, youth exiting foster care and detention facilities in Tennessee were randomly assigned to a special outpatient program or to a control group. Those in the program spent significantly less time homeless over the next year and also had other positive outcomes, like higher employment income.

Myth #2: Homelessness affects only very limited segments of American society
For sure, homelessness is more likely to affect those who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged in our society. But homelessness appears to touch the lives of a wide range of Americans, including some who average citizens would never have thought to be vulnerable.

Many people mistakenly believe that most of the homeless are mentally ill. Studies done by our group and others over the last 30 years have found that only one-quarter to one-third of homeless adults show a documented serious mental disorder, like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

Substance use disorders among homeless adults are much more common. Sixty to 75 percent of homeless people struggle with substance abuse at some point in their lifetime, versus 16 percent among the general population. Both serious mental and substance use disorders are less common among homeless mothers, their children and unaccompanied homeless youth.

Recently, studies have shown that college students suffer from high rates of homelessness and food insecurity. A recent survey of over 40,000 students across the U.S. found that 9 percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students had been homeless in the past year.

Over three decades, my team has interviewed thousands of homeless people. We have very rarely found anyone who we might consider to have “chosen” a homeless lifestyle. Yes, there are women, youth and others fleeing violent or otherwise very difficult life circumstances. Yes, there are some with severe mental or substance use disorders who have no other alternative to the streets or homeless shelters. If given the “choice” between a mental hospital, a jail or a homeless shelter in a dangerous area of town, some will, with good reason, take to the streets.

Myth #3: The public has developed ‘compassion fatigue’ when it comes to homelessness
Starting in the late 1980s, researchers have conducted a series of public opinion surveys on homelessness in the U.S. and other developed nations. In the 1990s, some in the U.S. media started to suggest that the public was experiencing “compassion fatigue,” the feeling that homelessness had become an intractable problem that no longer needed so much societal attention.

However, the evidence doesn’t support this at all. For example, surveys continue to find that a majority of the public would pay more taxes to help the homeless.

Perhaps it’s an issue of perception. My team analyzed the media’s interest in homelessness over the past 40 years, focusing on four major U.S. newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

There was virtually no media interest in homelessness prior to 1980, when Ronald Reagan began his first term as president. Interest then took off, perhaps due to actual increases in the numbers experiencing homelessness. This curiosity peaked in 1987, the same year that the first major federal funding was passed, then declined as the media became interested in other topics.

Since 1995, media interest has been steady at a relatively low level. Given these findings, perhaps a more accurate conclusion is that the mass media have experienced “compassion fatigue.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Gaps Remain in Florida’s Youth Diversion Program

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the James Madison Institute were among the groups discussing this year’s iteration of the Caruthers Institute report “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Pre-Arrest Diversion Efforts” on a Tuesday morning conference call.

Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute,can-florida-state-map-cities_which conducts the study, said that juvenile civil citations have “widespread support across the political spectrum,” with conservatives and liberals agreeing that diversion is the best remedy for “common juvenile misbehavior.”

Caruthers said these programs help public safety, improve outcomes and save taxpayer money.

One major move: “civil citations” are now rebranded as “pre-arrest diversion” programs. “This language is both more expansive and more accurate – unlike traditional citations, juveniles who receive civil citations must report to a program that includes a needs assessment and sanctions beyond a simple fine.”

For advocates, this year’s report took a look at best practices and how they translate into results. Many of the conference call speakers noted that this approach is one with self-evident benefits, and spotlighted the intersection of smart “restorative justice” policy and the interests of taxpayers and policy makers.

Demographically, there is equity among both gender and ethnicity in the use of diversion. Utilization across the board is 58 percent, with Latinos topping out at 65 percent, and whites at 57 percent. Diversion is more likely in incidents in schools (75 percent of the time) versus incidents in the community (52 percent).

Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that “we’re doing better with the racial disparity problem,” though there are still gaps in schools.

According to the report, “As illustrated by past editions of this study, there has been a consistent disparity in the frequency at which students of color are arrested for eligible offenses at school.”

Black students are still almost 2.5 times as likely as white students for school arrests, per the report. Leon County is the worst, with black students being 11.67 times more likely than white students for arrests.

The issues with racial equity in school usage of this policy was the worst news of this report, which by and large shows strides, with evidence-based progress.

The state’s top three counties using pre-arrest diversion are Monroe at 97 percent, Miami-Dade at 95 percent and Pinellas at 93 percent.

Rural counties are laggards on this front, and there is room for improvement for next year’s report.

“Nearly all the top-performing jurisdictions have a policy that presumes law enforcement officers should issue a pre-arrest diversion in all eligible instances. Arrests, with few exceptions, must be justified in writing by the law enforcement officer,” the report reads.

Caruthers noted that in top-performing jurisdictions, civil citation is a “presumptive norm” and that law enforcement training is annualized for veterans and part of orientation for new hires.

Many jurisdictions have utilization rates of 90 percent or higher, Caruthers said.

Monroe County was singled out for routing youthful offenders into diversion programs within 24 hours of the offense.

And diversion is effective as a deterrent. According to the report, only 4 percent of juveniles in these programs reoffended over the next 12 months.

The biggest barrier to diversion are arrests for domestic violence.

The report lauds Duval and Hillsborough counties for strides made from previous years, with memoranda of understanding driving a policy change.

“Duval County adopted a new memorandum of understanding in May 2017 expanding its use of pre-arrest diversion by defining eligibility, addressing the process of citing an eligible youth, and strengthening its Teen Court program. This has led to an increase in utilization from 27 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2017. The county had an average 90 percent utilization in the first quarter of 2018, positioning it to be a top performer in 2018,” the report states.

Duval had racial disparities in utilization that have abated, as of 2018, with increased usage, a priority of State Attorney Melissa Nelson that has become policy.

Michelle Morton, Juvenile Justice Policy coordinator of the ACLU, asserted the “increased advocacy … changed the culture,” turning around Duval’s approach to these issues.

McCoy noted that “racial disparity” issues have been mitigated in Duval due to “increased utilization” of diversion programs.

Hillsborough County, meanwhile, “adopted a new memorandum of understanding in August 2017 expanding its use of pre-arrest diversion by expanding the list of eligible offenses. The County continues to exclude 13 misdemeanors that are eligible in other counties.”

“The new agreement followed a one-year pilot study using pre-arrest diversion for marijuana possession. This led to an increase in utilization from 37 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2017. The county had an average 60 percent utilization in the first quarter of 2018.”

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

Female Imprisonment Skyrocketing in Mississippi and Elsewhere

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Although they make up only 8 percent of Mississippi’s inmate population, women and girls in the state’s prisons and jails face a singular set of challenges today, a new report finds.

Not least of these challenges, per Washington, D.C.–based national advocacy group The Sentencing Project, are burgeoning law enforcement efforts, stricter drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers that affect women disproportionately.

Moreover, Mississippi’s rate of female incarceration rose 925 percent between 1978 and 2016, from 8 to 82 incarcerated women per 100,000 female residents. Mississippi now incarcerates women at a rate 1.5 times than the national average.

As of 2016, the most recent data available, Mississippi ranked 14th out of all states for the rate of female incarceration.

Researchers and advocates from The Sentencing Project, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and two regional organizations based in Nashville and San Francisco sought to contextualize national and regional statistics with projects they’ve undertaken in specific cities and regions in a web panel Tuesday.

In seeking solutions for women and girls, panelists concurred that the process of securing justice should be rooted within communities, not the current courts system and its counterparts — foster care, the juvenile-justice system and government welfare programs.

“It’s not freedom when I have a young woman come to me who’s not in jail anymore but her kids were taken away on Thursday,” said Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the San Francisco-based Young Women’s Freedom Center. “That’s not winning.”

Nationally, 1.2 million women and girls are now under supervision of the criminal-justice system, with 1 million on probation or parole and another 200,000 women in local jails or state and federal prisons, said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

Most of these women have young children, she added — over 60 percent of women in state prisons have at least one child under age 18.

At a national level, the growth rate of incarcerated women doubles that of men, though women make up only about seven percent of the U.S. prison population. And African-American and Latina women are currently imprisoned at twice and 1.4 times the rate of white women, respectively.

In contrast to men, more than half of whom are imprisoned for violent offenses, most women are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, per The Sentencing Project. Only 37 percent of women in state prisons in 2016 were convicted of a violent crime.

These numbers are mostly driven by local and state policies, thus yielding the wide range of imprisonment rates across states, Ghandnoosh said. At 149 per 100,000, Oklahoma ranks first, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island are tied for last at 13 per 100,000.

Within Mississippi’s system, disparities have emerged between resources allocated for female and male inmates, as the Atlantic reported in April. The Mississippi Department of Correction’s website lists 13 vocational opportunities for men, such as auto mechanic and welding technology, and only five for women, including cosmetology and “Family Dynamics,” which is described as an expanded form of a home-economics class.

Other MDOC programs tailored for women include a recent re-entry workshop, backed by Arianna Huffington, businesswoman and co-founder of the Huffington Post, that uses “principles routinely applied in the corporate world.”

All women in MDOC state prisons are held at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County.

Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, posed the question:

How do we shift the system? It involves finding ways to pull back from the current system and really engage communities in taking back their power. Engage communities in being a part of the process of making decisions about what does justice look like for us? What do we want our communities to look like?

Nowlan, of the San Francisco-based Young Women’s Freedom Center, provided a case study of work still needed for young, incarcerated women, even in California: “Still no housing, still in poverty, still having to do survival sex work,” she said. She cited incidents in which snatching phones or stealing laundry soap turned into felony charges.

Research conducted by the Freedom Center into the past 25 years has shown a “huge correlation” between homelessness and incarceration, foster homes and juvenile justice systems, Nowlan added.

Oleta Fitzgerald, Southern regional director for the Children’s Defense Fund in Jackson, links the plight of incarcerated women of color in Mississippi, particularly, to a dearth of economic opportunity, citing poverty as a driving force behind the state’s incarceration rate.

“When you intersect poverty, gender and race, you’ve got yourself something,” Fitzgerald told Mississippi Today.

That Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, ACLU of Mississippi executive director Jennifer Riley Collins adds, means that most women who enter the criminal justice system are economically disadvantaged with little education, few job skills, and sporadic employment histories.

Women leaving prison, Riley outlined in a statement, must stay clean and sober, return to a primary caretaker role for their children, earn a livable wage, obtain reliable childcare and transportation, and find safe and sober housing for themselves and their children. And all of this occurs while they try to meet requirements of community supervision and additional demands of other public agencies such as child welfare.

Women need to be provided with a basic safety net: transportation, community spaces, housing, healthcare, education, employment, and economic security. Without a safety net, women often are forced to return to a life of survival and are not afforded the opportunity to be restored.

In organizing efforts to address the disruptive effects of incarceration on women and children, organizers have found it crucial to include the experiences of the incarcerated themselves.

“We don’t do anything — not one thing — without first reaching to the women and girls and (families) who are on the inside of the prison bunk,” James said.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford


Aussi prison job programs help ex-convicts stay out of trouble

Prisoners who took vocation and education training programs in jail were twice as likely to remain offence-free five years after release when compared with inmates who didn’t.aussi

This is among the findings of a recent joint study by criminologists from five Australian universities that surveyed data from correctional services institutions in NSW, NT, ACT, and South Australia.

The study, titled ‘Australian prison vocational education and training and returns to custody among male and female ex-prisoners: A cross-jurisdictional study’, looked at data of more than 10,000 prisoners released in 2010–11 and compared it to data in 2016 showing which of those prisoners were back in prison.

Dr Jesse Cale, UNSW Senior Lecturer in Criminology, says he and his colleagues were able to determine who among the sample had taken VET training and who hadn’t, enabling them to see whether there was any correlation between undertaking VET and staying out of jail:

At the end of the day, engaging in vocational training in prison reduces the risk of returning to custody or reoffending over at least a five-year follow-up period.

But he warns against interpreting the study as showing a causal relationship between engaging in vocational programs and a lower rate of recidivism:

While overall vocational education training reduces the likelihood of the return to custody, the type and appropriateness of the training has a big impact on the result.

This ties in with a second conclusion of the study which says a one-size-fits-all approach to VET programs is not effective. Rather, prisoners need to be assessed and recommended to programs individually, based on their needs, interests, and strengths.

Cale says:

Employment needs to be considered against the needs of the individual and the strengths of the individual, just like other behavioral change programs. So that might be one reason why it’s effective for some people and maybe not others.

Contributing to the variation in results was the fact that some states might not have the same resources to throw at programs as other states, while implementation of programs from institution to institution also played a part.

Like so many criminal justice issues, the issue isn’t always whether the program is right or wrong, but can the program be effectively implemented.

However, despite the correlation between VET programs and lower recidivism rates, the authors found that preparation for employment within the prison walls was no guarantee a prisoner would find work on the outside.

Dr. Cale says:

People can do all the VET programs in the world in prison, but if there’s no work when they get out… Employment is a big factor related to whether people offend in the first place or reoffend when they’re released from custody.

“There has to be consideration of the external job market when you’re running these programs – that training they receive in prison is actually appropriate to the job market they walk into.

The study looked at a sample of 10,834 prisoners who were released in 2010–11, of whom 1063 were women.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford