Archive for Humane Exposures

CA Gov. Brown Seeks to Undo His 40–Year-old Error Stifling Inmate Rehab

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently said that the initiative he is promoting for the November ballot would help fix a mistake he made nearly 40 years ago that has sent too many offenders to prison for decades with little hope of rehabilitation. The Democratic governor wants voters to approve a ballot measure that would increase early release credits for inmates who complete rehabilitation programs and allowing earlier parole for nonviolent felons.

He told criminal justice reform advocates gathered for a convention in Sacramento that the initiative would partly reverse the determinate sentencing system that he signed into law in 1977 when he was governor the first time. That law largely dictates criminals’ prison sentences, leaving little room for incentives that Brown says can improve inmates’ behavior.

CA Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr.

CA Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr.

“The problems that I create, I can clean up,” he said to applause. “And I’m cleaning this one up.”

The California District Attorneys Association is challenging whether Brown improperly amended his proposal onto an existing juvenile justice initiative in an effort to get his initiative out quickly.

The association also opposes the initiative itself, arguing that Brown is attempting to reverse numerous state laws and voter-approved sentencing enhancements, with few details or direction on how sentences would be reduced.

Brown said the existing system created two problems.

First, state lawmakers felt that no matter how long the determinate sentences are, they’re never long enough. He said that helped lead to more than 5,000 criminal laws augmented by more than 400 enhancements that can lengthen sentences for factors like repeat offenses or use of a gun.

Second, he said it offers little reward for inmates to improve themselves by participating in rehabilitation programs.

Brown’s proposal would allow the state parole board to consider releasing nonviolent inmates after they complete their primary sentence, without the added time from the enhancements. It would also allow state corrections officials to award earlier release credits to inmates who complete classes or treatment programs.

The move comes as a number of politicians across the country try to walk back decades of get-tough policies. Brown said those led to a surge in prison construction that still left prisons overcrowded until federal judges stepped in. His initiative would also write some of the judges’ sentence-reduction orders into state law.

Similarly, former President Bill Clinton said recently during a tour of three historic black churches in Harlem that his administration “overdid it” with the 1994 crime bill that he acknowledged put too many nonviolent offenders in prison for long sentences.

The state California Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether Brown can continue despite the district attorneys’ challenge.

Brown appealed for support at Monday’s convention as he and other initiative backers scramble to gather the nearly 586,000 valid signatures required for a ballot measure this year.

The two-day convention was organized by Californians for Safety and Justice, an arm of which backed Proposition 47, a successful 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain property and drug crimes.

Canada’s 5 Women’s Prisons Are Places of Despair–Especially for the Indigenous Majority

Over this time, some drastic changes have taken place in the way Correctional Service Canada (CSC) treats prisoners. Double bunking, mandatory minimum sentences and inmate pay cuts have turned the prisons into places of hopelessness and anger. Whereas the men’s prisons have become more violent as a result, the women’s have become places of despair and depression.

carol-finlay

Writer Carol Findlay

There are five women’s prisons in Canada serving the five CSC regions. Because there are only five, inmates are rarely incarcerated close to home. Also, indigenous people are vastly over-represented in prison populations: 68 per cent of federally incarcerated female inmates are indigenous (Edmonton Institution for Women is more than 90 per cent).

According to Globe and Mail writer Carol Findlay, who has visited the prisons for seven years:

Our prisons are a continuation of the harm done to indigenous peoples through the residential schools. There’s a strong connection between this harm done and the violence, substance abuse and crime we see in the children and grandchildren of former students of the schools.

Incarcerating indigenous women, especially those who are far from their people and cut off from their culture, is a repetition of what happened in the schools. Few families have the means to visit. When a man goes into prison, often his wife or partner keeps in touch, and the family, although fragile, has a chance of survival. When a woman goes into prison, she is often the sole support to the family, and her children go into foster care. This is a huge issue for female inmates, often resulting in or exacerbating mental illness: About 60 per cent of women in penitentiaries are mentally ill. CSC administrators say it’s their biggest issue.

When you enter a women’s prison, you can feel despair, hopelessness and depression. It’s both palpable and horrifying. Cut off from their families and culture, and locked up in a ‘white man’s justice system’ makes these women ill, both mentally and physically. There aren’t enough psychologists to give meaningful talk therapy, so women are medicated. I have been in book club circles in which I am aware that most of the women are on mood-altering medications. I was told in one institution that as soon as a woman enters the system, she goes to a special unit where she is ‘stabilized’ with medication.

Early on in my visits to the women’s penitentiaries, I realized that there were no books written by, or relating to, the cultures of Canadian indigenous people in the libraries. My organization, Book Clubs for Inmates, then bought sets of books written by some of our great aboriginal writers, and these titles are on all our lists for the book clubs. Although we are pleased to help, and have privately donated funds, we wonder why we should have to do this?

One of the main issues relating to the prevalent despair of the women, Findlay believes, is that there is no meaningful job training inside. When they are released, the women can only get minimum-wage jobs, not enough to support their children and get them back. Thus we have here all the same marks of the residential schools: Indigenous people cut off from their families and culture, and families, which are already broken, unable to be reunited after incarceration.

Findlay concludes:

Indigenous peoples were badly served by Canada’s residential schools. Many of the schools’ children are now in the penitentiaries because of crime that is related to the destruction of their families by these very schools. Prisons further break down family life and exacerbate the cycle of poverty, crime and violence both on and off the reserves.

We all need to become more educated about what is happening to indigenous people in prisons, especially in the women’s prisons as these problems are the most extreme and damaging for future generations. If we don’t address these issues, we become complicit in the ongoing tragedy of the residential schools.

Wilmington NC Experience Found “Housing First” Preferable to Shelters

Katrina R. Knight, executive director of Wilmington, NC’s Good Shepherd Ministries, entered the homeless services arena in 1999, when most still thought emergency shelters were the best they could do by our homeless neighbors. Since the early 1980s they had developed homeless service systems nationwide where they brought homeless folks in and kept them for months or even years as — in the most well-intentioned way — they worked to address their often multiple challenges before deeming them “housing ready.”

The thinking went: “He won’t be able Good-Shepherd-Logoto hold onto an apartment with his health issues” or “She’ll have to complete our life skills program before she can live independently.” For shelter guests with the most serious physical and mental health challenges, there was often no vision of a return to housing that seemed remotely realistic. All the while, the homeless populations increased, shelters were added, and emergency stays grew longer and longer.

Knight recalls:

Like many homeless service providers, my thinking has changed radically since that time, largely due to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ continual spotlight on Best Practices, and by the growing body of research pointing to more effective strategies for achieving transitions to housing. In the last 15 years we’ve learned a great deal about what works in terms of moving people from crisis to stability, and doing so in more expedited ways.

In a nutshell: we can keep adding shelters and shelter beds and allowing the ranks of homeless individuals and families to swell, or we can invest in housing strategies that shorten the length of people’s crises and return them more quickly to housing and stability in the community. It’s been a tough sell, even to the homeless services community itself. We’ve been challenged to rethink our entire approach to homelessness, to look at evidence-based strategies, and to reconsider our own role in addressing the issue — are we working to end the problem or simply managing it?

Here in the Cape Fear region, homelessness is first and foremost a symptom of poverty, an economic crisis brought on by the mismatch between our neighbors’ incomes and what they need to earn to afford housing in our wonderful but expensive community. Slowly, we’ve moved away from an almost exclusively shelter-based focus in favor of this housing + services direction. At first we were successful with the easier cases to re-house, like the two-parent family whose dad had been laid off but who could be moved to a new apartment when he located work again in short order.

She remembers that housing for the tougher situations, with folks who first needed help with the long and intimidating process of applying for disability assistance, took longer to figure out. Over time, however, Knight and her team have been able to drive down the overall size of our homeless population through this new emphasis on housing. The chronically homeless, disabled individuals who were outside her door every morning a decade ago are in homes of their own today. Still disabled, still low income, sometimes in need of a little handholding to navigate their medical and other appointments, but housed and living with dignity in the community rather than in the local shelter.

Knight continues:

As many as 50 new faces arrive at Good Shepherd every month, but they’re no longer 50 new guests in addition to a significant sub-population of chronically homeless individuals. In the process, our nightly census has decreased, from more than 100 men, women, and children when the Night Shelter opened in 2005 to closer to 60 every night now. It’s a testament to the regional effort around rehousing, and when the State asks whether we don’t now have too many shelter beds, at Good Shepherd and in the community, they’re right to ask the question, and to keep the pressure on us to redouble our rehousing efforts.

Moving homeless individuals and families to housing before first solving all of their problems seems counter-intuitive, even for folks who work in it every day. We have a surplus of available shelter beds — for men, for women, for families with children. What we do not have is a ready inventory of modest, affordable apartments for their transition out of homelessness (or to prevent their entering housing crisis in the first place).

Good Shepherd shelters the spectrum of neighbors who find themselves in housing crisis: parents with their children, veterans, single men and women, persons with disabilities, and individuals from varied religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some have a mental health issue, but most do not. Some are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, but most are not. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only thing they all have in common is their inability to access affordable housing.

After many years, the regional Cape Fear Housing Coalition seems to be gaining traction in its efforts to rally widespread support for increasing the affordable housing stock in its community. A Task Force on Affordable Housing currently in formation promises to bring key stakeholders from the business and building arenas to the table. The NC Housing Finance Agency continues to make important investments—through tax credits and construction loans—in private and public efforts to develop rental housing for the very low income.
Good Shepherd is working to develop SECU Lakeside Reserve, a modest housing development marrying affordable apartments with on-site services for homeless persons with disabilities.

Private individuals, congregations, and foundations are donating to this Best Practice strategy for moving those with disabilities out of homelessness. They see the importance of our existing safety net, including Good Shepherd’s shelter, but are responding to the opportunity to invest in real — and lasting — change for their homeless neighbors. Shelter is a response to homelessness. Affordable housing is a solution.

Knight concludes:

The momentum is there if only we commit to spurring it further. The time has come to gather our collective will to embrace these solutions and bring them to scale, so all of our Cape Fear neighbors have access to a decent and affordable place to call home. If ever there were a community with the heart and wherewithal to achieve such a thing, it is ours.

Proposed Georgia Budget Shifting Funds to Juvenile Community Programs Like Second Chance Court

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Counties across Georgia have deployed an ongoing juvenile justice reform effort since 2013. Like states across the country, Georgia wants to keep teens out of prison and in their communities, with better outcomes for families, public safety and the state’s bottom line.

The Georgia Legislature passed the reforms unanimously in 2013, shortly after making major changes to the criminal justice system. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, has championed the changes.

The latest budget proposal from Gov. Deal calls for closing one long-term youth detention facility and moving more than $5 million into community-based alternatives. For example, the budget proposal includes $2.7 million for 40 “step-down” slots that help move kids from secure detention to residential facilities.

The Georgia reforms, rooted in an overhaul of the juvenile justice code, included a move away from locking up status offenders and the creation of a statewide database of juvenile justice referrals and results. The state also launched the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program to fund evidence-based programs in the counties that take their cues from programs like Second Chance Court.

Since 2013, the number of youth in secure confinement has dropped by 17 percent and youth awaiting placement has decreased by 51 percent.

Georgia’s reforms hit many of the marks for reforms rooted in evidence about what works, said Mark Lipsey, director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University. Lipsey has helped the state, and many others, evaluate how well programs are working. Lipsey pointed to the state’s decision to make the reforms in the statute, emphasize evidence-based practices and assemble strong leadership teams as signs of a very strong effort.

“I think what’s going on there is very much state of the art and quite remarkable,” he said.

When lawmakers were considering the reforms three years ago, researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust said the state could save $85 million during the next five years, largely from avoiding the costs of building two new secure facilities.

Now, as the number of youth in detention facilities come down, the state has the potential to take money they would have spent on running the facilities and put the funding into additional community programming, said Joe Vignati, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

From fiscal year 2014 to the fiscal year 2017 proposal, funding for community services grew 17 percent, from $82 million to $95 million in a budget of $334 million. Meanwhile, funding for secure commitment grew 11 percent, from $85 million to $95 million and secure detention grew 12 percent from $107 million to $120 million.

Vignati said the costs of long-term and short-term confinement should continue to come down — and the savings redirected to community programs — as the state gets a handle on just how low the number of juvenile offenders they house can go.

The state also has steadily increased the amount of funding dedicated to Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program, from $6 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget to $8.8 million in fiscal year 2016. In the participating counties, 1,666 youth had access to evidence-based programming in the second year of the program, up from 1,122 in the first. The programs all are ranked “effective” or “promising” on a federal registry to reduce criminogenic behaviors in juveniles and the counties have chosen programs rooted in individual, family or group therapy.

Overall, the counties saw out-of-home placements drop 54 percent in fiscal year 2015, compared with a 2012 baseline.

Steve Teske, the Clayton County juvenile judge who started Second Chance Court and has helped lead the charge for reform statewide, said the grants have been instrumental in his county. The Second Chance program already was underway and showing significant decreases in secure commitment when the incentive program began. However, the grant allowed the county to target the needs of youth who still were being committed, often for family dysfunction, Teske said. During fiscal year 2015, out-of-home placements dropped 63 percent in the county.

The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which is charged with making recommendations to improve both the criminal and juvenile justice systems, called for the next wave of juvenile reforms to focus on schools in its latest annual report.

Schools are one of the largest sources of referrals for the juvenile justice system. The proposed reforms aim to clarify the roles of schools and law enforcement on campuses.

A student who shouts a swear word should be disciplined at school, not accused of disorderly conduct and sent to the juvenile justice system, said Teske, who is a member of the council. Similarly, a schoolyard fight shouldn’t automatically bring assault charges.

“The overall objective is to stop criminalizing kids for what is typical adolescent behavior,” he said.

The report recommended that schools be required to develop and use a system of progressive discipline before a juvenile complaint is filed and that school systems enter into model agreements with law enforcement that clearly delineate how student behaviors will be addressed. The council also recommended measures to improve the procedural fairness of school disciplinary proceedings.

The report also calls for the state to restrict secure detention for anyone age 13 or younger, unless they are charged with a serious crime such as murder. Since the reform, the state has seen a spike in the number of younger children held in secure detention.

The council said:

By expanding the detention of younger children and exposing such youth to the trauma correlated with detention, Georgia, is, in effect, voiding the beneficial effects of juvenile reform for this most vulnerable population.

 

College Education in Prisons is Returning–With Big Societal Dividends

An old idea — offering prison inmates the opportunity to earn a college education — is once again gaining momentum in the U.S and in Washington state. If it lasts, taxpayers will ultimately benefit (as will inmates who get an education). Before 1994, there were about 350 college prison programs nationwide, run by public colleges and universities. It ended when Congress eliminated federal student aid to prisoners.

A year later, Washington state lawmakers mortarboardbanned the use of tax dollars for higher education in prison. Politics were in play. Many legislators were motivated by a foolhardy need to show the voters they were being tough on crime.

Inmates who take part in education programs are less likely to reoffend — 43 percent less — when released from prison, according to a Rand Corporation study. A study by the Indiana Department of Correction had even more dramatic findings. The study showed inmates who took college courses went back to prison at a rate of just 5 percent compared to the national average of nearly 68 percent within three years of release.

The editorial board of the Walla Walla, WA Union-Bulletin writes:

But even if fewer inmates are put on the right path, society benefits greatly. It means crimes won’t be committed. There will be fewer victims of crime. And our prisons will have fewer inmates.

College education in American prisons is starting to grow again, including in Washington state. The pendulum swing back to prison education comes as states look for ways to cut the cost of incarceration, which has been about $80 billion annually in America.

“Education in prison is transformative. It leads to safer communities, and that’s to the benefit of everyone,” said Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit that combines research and demonstration projects associated with criminal justice.

Now more dollars are starting to follow those results, led by a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education to experiment again with federal Pell Grants for inmate students. So far 47 states have applied to participate in that program.

Washington state is also considering spending more on education programs. The state has 16,500 inmates, of whom about 11,000 are involved in some sort of education program. At the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Community College offers inmates learning programs and it also serves the Coyote Ridge Correction Center in Connell.

The editorial board continues:

Lawmakers who have approved the funding for these education programs are not being soft on crime; they are being smart about crime. Providing opportunity for inmates to get an education is ultimately a way to fight crime by reducing it.

Deplorable Conditions Reported at L.A.’s Eastlake Juvenile Detention Center

More than 200 kids in Los Angeles are languishing in a 100-year-old decaying detention center that one probation monitor likens to a “Third World country prison.” According to a scathing new report on conditions in L.A. County’s main juvenile detention center, Central Juvenile Hall,  most of whose young inmates are waiting for their trials to start  are living in squalid units and tossed in solitary confinement for minor infractions.spring_teach

Boyle Heights community leader Azael Martinez, who also volunteers as a probation department monitor, was pegged to investigate and report on the county’s juvenile facilities and discovered that the 22-acre compound, commonly referred to as Eastlake, has walls that are covered in scum and graffiti, kids are forced to use staff bathrooms because theirs don’t have running water and they are also drenched in urine that splashes on them because the facility’s urinals are broken or covered in waste. Martinez also found that staff routinely put kids in isolation for reasons that don’t fall under the department’s guidelines, such as sharing food. In his report, Martinez called the conditions “deplorable” and described the culture of apathy among staff. In general, employees at the facility feel victimized and don’t take responsibility for the “unacceptable” environment.

Martinez wrote inhis report:

It appears that no one cares. Staff does not know who is in charge and are quick to push the blame elsewhere.

Officials have already launched their own investigations of the facility. But the city has long known about the decrepit conditions at Eastlake, which is more than 100 years old. In 2014, a grand jury reported that the detention center is literally falling apart, with broken pipes and rotting facades:

Bath towels and duct tape were used in a futile attempt to repair broken pipes and prevent seepage. There was an indistinct foul odor in the hallway suggesting that sewage or stagnant water was present.

They found a “dilapidated” modular building used to house foster youth facing criminal charges was “totally isolated from the main facility and surrounded by barbed wire fencing which gives the appearance of an adult prison, not a youth facility.”

Supervisors have expressed an interest in rebuilding the facility altogether, but also point to the high cost of doing so. Two years ago, the county funneled billions of dollars into men’s and women’s jails, and allotted $48 million to rebuild another juvenile facility. Only $5 million was given to Eastlake for repairs.

Several high-level county officials echoed the grand jury’s concerns. Trying to repair and modernize the existing buildings “is like putting a jet engine on a Model T,” Probation Department chief Jerry Powers said.

“It’s been a horrible facility for a long time,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, whose district includes the hall. “We’ve tried to clean it up and rehab it and everything, but it needs to be rebuilt.” Advocacy groups, including the Youth Justice Coalition, say the aging central hall is no longer needed and should be torn down and not replaced. At this point, however, no detailed study of the facility or its future has been conducted. It’s unclear whether county officials will back what Powers estimated would be a $50-million replacement price tag for the hall, when so many other costly projects are underway.

Supervisor Don Knabe said:

It costs $230,600 a year to incarcerate one kid. If I had my choice and had all the money I needed, I would support blowing the whole thing up and starting over again. But funding a new central juvenile facility could be difficult.

In the meantime, the county board has been pouring millions into repairing and keeping open the hall’s labyrinth of buildings behind the Eastlake Juvenile Court. Staff at the hall say they struggle to stay on top of recurring problems with leaking and broken pipes and malfunctioning air conditioning. At the same time, money has been pumped into a patchwork of improvements that include a new swimming pool and replacements of some of the oldest buildings.

Edilberto Flores, 18, spent a month in the hall awaiting trial when he was 16. Most of the time, the hot water in the showers didn’t work and his cell was so cold during the winter that he had a hard time sleeping, he recalled. Flores said there was mold on the floor in his cell that he suspected was the result of past inmates relieving themselves in the corner when they couldn’t get staff’s attention for a trip to the restroom. A 17-year-old girl who stayed briefly at Central Juvenile Hall in 2010 while being transferred between other facilities, said she couldn’t take a shower because the water was brown.

Officials note the number of detainees in the county’s three juvenile halls has declined sharply over the last several years, a result of falling crime rates and alternative programs for youths accused of lower-level crimes. The population of the three juvenile halls is down from a high of more than 1,700 in 2006 to about 800 as of last week. Central Juvenile Hall, which can house about 600 inmates, is less than half full. Powers acknowledged that minors detained at the central hall could be shifted elsewhere in the system. But that would create other problems related to transporting juveniles to the central court for proceedings in their cases.

Whether officials ultimately close it down or rebuild it, decisions about the future of Central Juvenile Hall will probably be influenced by recent shifts in thinking about treatment of young offenders, with more emphasis on rehabilitation than punishment and containment of problem minors. Federal authorities are monitoring the treatment of young inmates in probation camps and halls. And the Malibu juvenile camp is being redesigned to support treating and counseling small groups of inmates, a model that advocates say is more humane and more likely to reduce recidivism. Molina said that if Central Juvenile Hall is rebuilt, the facility’s focus should be more “in line with the sort of rehabilitative aspect of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

In addition to being placed in wretched conditions, there is little evidence to suggest that youth detention in L.A. County is serving its primary purpose. Juvenile justice is supposed to be rehabilitative in nature, but a Cal State L.A. study concluded that one-third of juvenile offenders are re-arrested within a year of their release from detention. The vast majority of offenders have a mental illness and half have histories of substance abuse. Youth who spent time in the system reported that rehabilitation programs are few and far between and participating in them is a privilege that can be revoked. Some facilities have no programs at all, and many lack trusted adults to mentor and counsel kids in the system. L.A. County currently has the largest juvenile justice system in the country.

Despite a Few Efforts at Reform, Oklahoma Still Doubles U.S. Female Incarceration Rate

Over the last 20 years, Oklahoma has become the country’s capital of female incarceration, with 127 of every 100,000 women behind bars, double the national rate of 63 per 100,000. It’s a situation so pronounced that even the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has had to acknowledge it: “Oklahoma has consistently ranked first in the rate of female incarceration nationally.”

But Oklahoma’s prisons aren’t filled with the fairer sex because Oklahoma women Oklahomapose more of a threat than women elsewhere; the state simply penalizes women’s actions more forcefully—much more forcefully. At the same time, social safety nets have been cut away, limiting women’s options for other means of survival.

According to Susan Sharp, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, drug possession and drug trafficking are the top two reasons for the ballooning women’s prison population. And indeed, of the 1,152 women entering Oklahoma’s prison system in 2013, 52.6 percent were arrested for a drug offense, with 26.2 percent ultimately sentenced for possession and 16.6 percent for distribution. Keep in mind that Oklahoma often ratchets up the charges by counting possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain quantity of drugs as trafficking. “Five grams of crack or twenty grams of meth can be charged as a trafficking act,” Sharp explained.

In addition, conditions in Oklahoma often push women down the path toward prison. Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 16 states for women’s mental health, meaning that Oklahoma women report experiencing poor mental-health conditions, including stress, depression and eating disorders, at a higher average than in many other states. In 2015, it ranked among the bottom 10 states for women’s economic security and access to health insurance and higher education.

The result of all these tangled, competing forces is a vicious cycle in which the women who have the least access to social and economic independence, health insurance and mental health treatment are the most at risk for imprisonment. And, as in other parts of the country, women of color tend to suffer disproportionately: in a state where black people make up only 7.7 percent of the entire population, nearly 20 percent of the women’s prison population is African-American; Native American women are 13 percent of the prison population, but Native people of all genders are only 9 percent of the state population.

Yet, rather than address these disparities, Oklahoma continues to lock up the women who are most vulnerable to them.

At the boot camp, inmate “Gillian” recalled,

They treated us like dogs. Barked orders at us and insulted us. Came in in the middle of the night and tore up the dorm a couple of times and we had to run around the track with our mats on our back.

The boot camp offered her no programs to address her addiction, help her find a job or regain guardianship of her son. ”When I got out, I was simultaneously enraged and depressed by the further mess my life had become and almost immediately relapsed,” she wrote in a recent letter from prison. She got pregnant, failed to report to her probation officer and was soon arrested. This time, her father paid her bail, allowing her to give birth outside and leave her newborn son with him before being sent to prison for a year and a half.

For women like Gillian, prison does not merely mean the loss of liberty; it also means a loss of their children, sometimes permanently. In 1997, Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, stipulating that the state begin proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child had spent 15 of the past 22 months in foster care.

Susan Sharp conducted a survey of incarcerated mothers for Oklahoma’s Commission on Children and Youth. She found that nearly 10 percent of the women participating had children in foster care, placing them at greater risk for permanent separation from their parents.

Even when they know that their children are safe with other family members, incarceration still takes its toll. Gillian did not see her older son for over 10 years. She has seen him a handful of times within the past few years, but she laments that they remain “virtual strangers.” Although her father brings her younger son to visit regularly, he too has grown up without his mother.

To some degree, Oklahoma recognizes that it has a problem. To combat the drastic increase in incarceration caused by the War on Drugs (as well as the accompanying costs), counties have turned to drug courts, which send women (and men) charged with a nonviolent drug crime to treatment programs, rather than prison. However, failing to complete the stipulations of the drug court can lead to prison, sometimes for a lengthier sentence than if a person had initially pled guilty. Oklahoma has a 42 percent rate of drug-court failure, Sharp noted in her book. In an interview with The Nation, she added that the average sentence for failure is 74 months. Most of these failures, she points out, are for flunking a urine test or not paying court-imposed fines. It’s an “alternative,” in other words, that is also a pathway to prison.

Sentencing is another area in which state is beginning to recognize the need for change. “We definitely need to revisit lengthy sentences, especially for drug crimes and low-level property crimes,” Sharp told The Nation. In February 2015, state legislators introduced House Bill 1574, which allows for a 20-year sentence instead of requiring life without parole for a third drug offense (so long as the two prior convictions are not drug trafficking). And on May 6, 2015, Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law. But the 55 people serving life without parole for drug offenses won’t be going home, because the bill is not retroactive.

So what could stem the flow of women to prison?

Although few people ask the women, they themselves may be the best source of wisdom for how to disrupt Oklahoma’s womb-to-prison pipeline. After years behind prison walls, these women understand how their lives—and their lack of opportunities—helped snare them in the criminal-justice net. And they know what needs to change for women in the state. Reflecting on their experiences, they see the holes in the state’s social safety net that would have kept them from falling out of society and into prison. They also know the solutions that would help keep other lives from being destroyed. But these solutions are not quick fixes; instead, they are systemic changes that might take decades, if not generations, and would refashion Oklahoma dramatically.

For Gillian, keeping out of prison would require a comprehensive change in state policies.

To keep women out of prison, so much would have to change in the current system, Oklahoma would be unrecognizable. This is a generations/decades-long endeavor. Everyone thinks drug treatment, more and better, is the answer. It is part of the solution, but decriminalization is probably more important. How many alcoholics are in prison for anything other than DUI? That’s because the cost of their drug of choice is not prohibitive. Nobody robs a liquor store so they can buy liquor.

Colorado Cruelly and Stupidly Still Criminalizes the Homeless–Instead of Aiding Them

Cities and states have limited resources.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

When they’re faced with a growing homeless problem, those resources can either go toward finding housing for the homeless or to policing and criminalizing the daily habits of the homeless.

In Colorado, according to a new study, the choice has largely been to criminalize homelessness. And it’s a choice that’s coming with a big price tag.
There are nearly 10,000 homeless people in Colorado, about 2,800 without shelter, and it increased more than 26 percent between 2014 and 2015. Yet when researchers at the University of Denver looked at the state’s 76 largest cities, they found that altogether, they have 351 anti-homeless ordinances on the books, which comes to an average of six laws per city, although every municipality has at least two. The ordinances range from restrictions on sleeping, sitting, or lying in public to bans on begging or panhandling to anti-trespassing and loitering laws to prohibitions on public urination and bathing.

The most common ban is on public urination and defecation, appearing in 59 cities, although many cities don’t have public restrooms that are available 24/7. The runner up is restrictions on begging, appearing in 55 cities.

These laws aren’t just sitting on the books; they’re being aggressively put into force. And the homeless are feeling the biggest burden. Across all of the cities the report looks at, over half of the citations are handed to homeless people, even though they make up a tiny share of the state’s population. For example, Denver arrested nearly 300 homeless people for panhandling in 2014 and issued more than 2,000 trespass citations to the homeless between 2013 and 2014, half of all trespass citations it handed out overall. Boulder issued 1,767 camping ban citations between 2010 and 2014, or a rate of two per homeless resident. Pueblo issued 756 citations for loitering in the same time period.

Cities are spending a lot of money on all of this enforcement. Just six Colorado cities, the report estimates, have spent more than $5 million enforcing 14 anti-homeless ordinances over the last five years through policing, court and incarceration costs. Denver has 11 ordinances on its books, and in just one year alone, 2014, it spent nearly $750,000 enforcing its ordinances. That figure includes more than $260,000 in policing costs, or an average of $225 per each citation, and more than $203,000 to process the citations through the courts, at an average cost of $174 a citation. About half resulted in jail time, with the average jailed homeless person spending a little more than four and a half days in jail, at a cost of $247 per person or a total of nearly $280,000.

These figures are all on the low end, given that they don’t include other likely costs of failing to address the root causes of homelessness, such as through the medical system. A different report found that Denver spends an average of $35,000 each year on one chronically homeless person.

These same resources could instead be put toward housing the homeless. As the report authors write:

If taxpayer dollars were redirected to address root causes of homelessness, local governments would save hundreds of thousands of dollars on enforcement and could begin to end the ‘revolving door’ of homeless individuals circulating through the criminal justice system.

Housing costs have been rising in the state, while it doesn’t provide enough shelter space for everyone without a home. For example, Boulder has 280 beds for 440 homeless residents; Fort Collins has 118 for more than 400 people. Shelters in Denver can only house about 10 percent of its homeless population.
The wait for housing assistance can be even more arduous. The Colorado Division of Housing has a 6,500-long list of families on its waiting list. Half of homeless people surveyed in Denver had been on a waiting list for more than a year.

Across the country, mass homelessness didn’t become the phenomenon it is today until funding for affordable housing was slashed and the deficit between demand and supply of affordable units grew so large. The cities and states that have succeeded in ending homelessness for populations like veterans or the chronically homeless have done so through a housing first approach, which gets the homeless into permanent housing before addressing any other issues. That, it turns out, comes with huge savings, including decreased spending on policing and incarcerating the homeless.

The decision to criminalize homelessness, meanwhile, may soon cost states federal money and could be considered unconstitutional.

San Diego Voluntary “Homeless Court” Allows Alternatives for Those Charged With Misdemeanors

homeless courtIn her prize-winning documentary film “It’s More Expenive to do Nothing (available on this blog) Susan Madden Lankford lllustrates how pre-release programs for teen and male and female adult inmates can severely reduce recidivism and help thousands of troubled people turn their lives around. In San Diego, CA, one of the programs described is Homeless Court.

In 1989, at the conclusion of the first Stand Down, 116 of 500 San Diego homeless veterans stated that their greatest need was to resolve outstanding bench warrants. The next year, the San Diego Superior Court set up a special Homeless Court Program (HCP) to hear misdemeanor cases at Stand Down. Because of the increased demand for the service, the court expanded from annual, to quarterly, and now to monthly sessions available to the general homeless population. Results: Nearly 2000 participants resolved more than 7000 cases in the HCP from 2009 to 2012.

The participants voluntarily spent an average of 291 days in the program activities before appearing in the HCP from 2009-2012. The average appearance rate of participants increased to 91.58% in 2012 from 75.97% in 2009. The Stand Down event helped 706 homeless veterans resolve 2,941 cases from 2008 to 2012.

The San Diego Homeless Court Program (HCP) is a special Superior Court session for homeless defendants — convened in a homeless shelter — to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants. To counteract the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, the HCP combines a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing structure, assurance of “no custody,” and proof of program activities to address a full range of misdemeanor cases. Each month, a local homeless service agency hosts a special Superior Court session. The HCP builds on partnerships between the court, prosecutor, public defender and local service agencies to help resolve the problems that homelessness represents with practical and effective solutions. When homeless participants work with agency representatives to identify and overcome the causes of their homelessness, they are in a stronger position to successfully comply with court orders.

The Homeless Court Program Is a Voluntary Program
Homeless participants voluntarily sign up for the HCP through their Homeless Service Agency. If a participant signs up and later decided to challenge his case though a trial or motion, the case is set for a certain date in the San Diego Superior Courthouse. Homeless Court Program participants are entitled to all protections afforded by due process of law.

The Homeless Court Program Addresses Full Range of Misdemeanors 
The HCP addresses a broad spectrum of misdemeanor offenses including jaywalking, charges of being under the influence of a controlled substance, theft and driving under the influence. Participants who appear in Homeless Court with serious misdemeanor cases submit proof of completion of significant program activities. In many circumstances, the participant’s program activities voluntarily exceed the demands a court might order for treatment for low term felony cases.

The Homeless Court Program Uses a Progressive Plea Bargain System
The HCP offers a different plea structure from the traditional court proceeding. The HCP plea agreement responds to the cases or offenses the homeless participants receive due to their condition and status of living on the streets. Additionally, the HCP agreement acknowledges the efforts the participants undertake to change their lives before their appearance in court. The plea agreement recognizes the participants have completed the court order before the court imposes a sentence. Here, participants are able to participate in program activities without the threat of custody or a larger fine.

The Homeless Court Program Employs Alternative Sentencing
Local homeless shelters are the gateway and guide for participants to enter and succeed in Homeless Court. Homeless persons who want to appear in Homeless Court must sign up through one of a number of local agencies and participate in approved program activities. While the HCP “sentences” a participant to activities in the participant’s Homeless Service Agency program, the sentence is actually completed prior to when the participant stands before the judge. The HCP gives “credit for time served” for the participant’s accomplishments in shelter activities. These activities include life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer and literacy classes, training or searching for employment, medical care (physical and mental), and counseling. These activities replace the traditional court sentence options of fines, public work service, and custody. The alternative sentencing structure is not coercive or punitive in nature, but rather designed to address the underlying causes of a person’s homelessness and recognize the person’s efforts to make changes to improve his or her life.

No One Goes into Custody at Homeless Court
The HCP key players (judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and homeless shelter/service agencies) agree, No one goes into custody against his or her will. This does not mean that the prosecution gives up its power to ask for custody, nor does the court relinquish its authority to incarcerate. Rather, this agreement acknowledges both that the participants have committed offenses and have met court requirements through their work in their programs. This agreement respects the relationship and trust the homeless service agencies hold with the participants who appear before the HCP and acknowledges that time spent working with these agencies is equivalent to, and more constructive than, “time” spent in custody.

Local homeless service agencies are the gateway and guide for participants to enter and succeed in Homeless Court. Homeless persons who want to appear in Homeless Court must sign up through one of a number of local agencies and participate in approved program activities.

Similar programs now exist in Los Angeles, Alameda Co., Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Bakersfield, Albuquerque, Contra Costa CA, Denver, Fresno, Houston, Humbolt Co.CA, Kern Co. CA, Maricopa Co. AZ, Orange Co.,Tucson, Sacramento, Salt Lake City and San Bernardino.

Criminal Justice Panel’s 14 Recommendations for Illinois Prison Reform

A commission created last year by executive order from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner just released its first set of recommendations that aim to reduce the prison population in the Illinois Department of Corrections by 25 percent over the next decade. The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform this week presented Rauner with 14 proposals in the first part of its final report. Recommendations include improving and expanding the use of electronic monitoring technology, establishing a council to facilitate better information sharing between state and local units of government, and giving judges more discretion when determining whether probation is appropriate for certain, less serious felony offenses.

From the report:

Echoing national trends, Illinois’ rate of incarceration, even when controlling for population growth, has increased more than 500 percent in the last forty years, with a disproportionate impact on the State’s poor, mostly minority, citizens. Today, Illinois prisons are operating at roughly 150 percent of design capacity, and, at the beginning of 2015, housed 48,278 inmates, most of whom were sentenced for non-violent offenses. Nearly all of these prisoners will eventually return to their communities, and about half will be re-incarcerated within the following three years.

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Rauner said some of the recommendations outlined in the report can be implemented by his administration without approval from state lawmakers. Reforms that would require the passage of legislation should garner bipartisan support, he added.

The Commission’s proposals revolve around four main goals laid out in the governor’s executive order: ensuring the lawfulness of sentencing and programming, reducing the number of prison admissions, reducing the length of prison stays and reducing recidivism by increasing the chances of successful reintegration into society.

Here are brief summaries of the 14 recommendations listed in the Commission’s initial report:

*Enhance rehabilitative programs in Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) by implementing or expanding programming that address particular needs, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment. Prioritize access to such programs for high-risk offenders.
*Remove unnecessary barriers that prevent offenders from obtaining professional licenses, which often makes it impossible for released inmates to find lawful employment.
*Require IDOC and the Secretary of State to provide inmates with a free state identification card upon release when their release plan considers residence in Illinois.

*Prevent the use of prisons to house felons with projected lengths of stay of less than one year, and authorize IDOC to use existing, alternative forms of imprisonment for such individuals.

*Give judges more discretion to determine whether probation is appropriate for the following lower-level felony offenses: residential burglary, Class 2 felonies (second or subsequent) and drug law violations.
*Before an individual is sentenced to prison for a Class 3 or 4 felony, require the presiding judge to explain during sentencing why incarceration is appropriate if the offender has no prior probation sentences or no prior convictions for a violent crime.

*Expedite and promote the use of validated risk-and-needs assessment tools by IDOC, the Prisoner Review Board and Illinois Circuit Courts in order to assess an offender’s risk of reoffending and the needs that must be addressed to change future behavior, which could help reduce the rate of recidivism.

*Incentivize the creation of local Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils to develop strategic plans between state and local agencies, allowing the latter to target specific crime problems and identify how state funding can be used more effectively to address those problems.
*Support the establishment of the Illinois Data Exchange Coordinating Council to expand data collection and facilitate information sharing among units of government.
*Require state agencies that provide funding for criminal justice programs to evaluate those programs and eliminate those found to be ineffective while expanding ones that are effective or promising.

*Expand eligibility programming credits to allow all inmates to earn credits for successfully completing rehabilitative programming, except for credits that would reduce a sentence below Truth-in-Sentencing limits.

*Pair risk-and-needs research and evidence with appropriate programming to better utilize Adult Transition Centers, which should be reserved for high- and medium-risk offenders prior to their release. ATCs have proven to be effective at preparing offenders for reintegration into society.
*Develop protocols to place inmates who are terminally ill or severely incapacitated in home confinement or a medical facility, except those sentenced to natural life.
*Expand and improve the use of electronic monitoring technology.
Reducing recidivism by increasing the chances of successful reentry into society

Some of these recommendations may be controversial, especially for lawmakers in an election year. Rauner said it’s important that legislators not be afraid to talk about some of these issues.

Some of the recommendations include giving judges discretion to sentence probation for residential burglary, class 2 felonies and drug law violations, removing barriers keeping those convicted of crimes from obtaining professional licenses, and prevent the use of prison for felons with short lengths of stay, among other suggestions. Rauner says the state has to be honest about the issues spanning from racial disparities in the criminal justice system to drug laws and sentencing provisions.