Archive for Humane Exposures

43 States are Reducing Commitment of Juveniles to State Facilities

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

Arkansas scored the biggest drop in incarcerated young

Giddings State School in Texas

Giddings State School in Texas

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker

Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Oliver Hilariously Skewers Maximum Minimum Sentences

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

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


Wentworth dvd box

Franky. Bea and Jacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Criminal Justice Reforms Need to Include Youth Behind Bars

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

Maggots in my Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama’s Drug Pardons Move Focus to SAFE Justice Act

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford 

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

In a video Obama said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent HUD Report Finds Housing Vouchers Best Way to Fight Homelessness

The most reliable method in the fight to end homelessness is housing vouchers, a recent Department of Housing and Urban Development report found. It also found that families with vouchers experience less distress and less domestic violence. The study examined 2,200 homeless families in emergency shelters in 12 U.S. cities to find out how they responded to different forms of help designed to help them exit homelessness. After 18 months, the families offered a housing choice voucher were less likely to re-enter homelessness or experience housing instability, the report said.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Jennifer Ho, a HUD senior adviser on housing and services, said the vouchers help reduce overall homelessness:

Sometimes we’ve thought of homeless families as needing a bunch of services to do better, but what we’ve found is that they need housing.

The study gave families four options: housing vouchers (known as Section 8 vouchers) to help pay for housing that they find in the private market; rapid re-housing, which helps families pay their rent in the short-term; transitional housing, which combines up to two years of housing with services to assist families; and usual care, which provides temporary shelter housing without many of the aforementioned services.

According to the report, families with vouchers stayed together in greater numbers and experienced reduced psychological distress, domestic violence and food insecurity. The children in families with vouchers were also less likely to be separated from their parents and experienced reduced school mobility.

Additionally, the HUD study reported that vouchers cost the same or even less than other forms of assistance. Ho said the voucher program costs more than rapid re-housing, but that comparatively, the long-term efficacy of the voucher program is what’s important.

Funding cuts have reduced the number of families receiving housing vouchers, with agencies assisting 100,000 fewer families by June 2014, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Ho said:

If we want to make an impact on this problem we need Congress to invest in a way that can address homelessness.

According to HUD, the number of families with children experiencing homelessness has declined 15% since 2010, and the number of unsheltered families fell 53%  during the same period.

HUD plans to continue to follow the families for at least three years and will report on 36-month outcomes in 2017.

The findings, Minneapolis-St. Paul advocates say, mirror the results they’ve seen in the Twin cities and the surrounding area—though they caution that vouchers remain in short supply and recipients face a tight rental market.

Mikkel Beckmen, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said:

If we had an abundance of federal housing subsidies, we would have a lot fewer homeless people in our community locally.

Across the country, demand for ­federal housing vouchers far outpaces the supply. The “Housing Choice” vouchers are available to qualifying low-income individuals and families, who put 30%  of their income toward housing. There’s no end date on a voucher; the program keeps running unless program participants move out of the required income restrictions.

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) last opened its waiting list in 2008. In the 48 hours the list was open, the agency received 14,000 applications. Today, there are still 5,000 families on the waiting list.
 Rita Ytzen, the MPHA’s senior supervisor of the voucher program, said:

I truly believe if you can find a way to assimilate low-income families into communities without the stigma of identifiable low-income housing; that’s a perk for both the family and the program.

Although demand on local shelters and assistance programs remains high, there are some signs of improvement. In June, Hennepin County recorded 273 families in public and private shelters–down from 336 families last year over the same period.

Advocates say it is tough to pinpoint the exact number of homeless people in the area, in part because of varying census methods and because many people don’t turn up to ask for help, but instead rely on the help of family or friends to get by.
Kenza Hadj-Moussa, communications and development director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, said vouchers are a useful tool for many families, though additional services are often required for people struggling with more complex problems, like substance abuse or mental illness. She said that while vouchers can be more cost effective than other approaches, it’s important for agencies to maintain flexibility in how they serve individual families.
Local advocates said they are hopeful the study will draw more attention to the need for more stable housing solutions for families in need.


Reports: Juvenile Justice System Grossly Fails Native American Youth

The juvenile justice system is failing Native American15327471373_b4f21a1f07_o youth. That’s what a series of recent reports have shown. In June the Tribal Law and Policy Institute reported that state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes like truancy and alcohol use, than any other racial and ethnic group. All three recent reports call for reform.

The Navajo juvenile detention center in Tuba City, at a recent visit, was empty. Corrections Lieutenant Robbin Preston said even though they have 36 beds at the facility, the average population is only one or two teens a day:

The Navajo Nation is reluctant to send youth to these facilities. It’s used more as a last resort, so our population has been very, very low.

Preston said the low jail population doesn’t reflect the number of troubled Navajo youth who need help, and that help is nearly impossible to find on this reservation and most others. The Navajo can’t afford the rehabilitative services, treatment programs and case workers that are provided for youth at detention facilities around the country.

Addie Rolnick, a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, says:

It’s a misnomer to say there’s a juvenile justice system in Indian Country. Native youth arrested face a maze of legal jurisdictions — tribal, federal and state. There are two or three different governments in charge of dealing with kids, and they may or may not talk to each other. Where the kids end up being sent may not be a good place for them.

The majority of Native American youth live in communities with alarmingly high rates of alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide. They suffer from post traumatic stress at a rate higher than military personnel who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Rolnick said incarceration should be the last option for kids exposed to so much violence:

If you have a population of kids who have suffered trauma and violence and abuse, and that’s true for a lot of kids in the justice system, especially a lot of girls, it’s really true for native youth, the last thing you want to do is lock them up put them in places where they’re watched by cameras and guards all the time.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee On American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed To Violence said prevention and treatment programs have proven to be more effective than incarceration. But most tribes rely on federal funding sources. And it’s easier to fund a jail, a building, something tangible than it is to fund a program.

The Navajo Nation, the country’s largest tribe, does provide limited funds to run one prevention program called Dine Youth–an after-school program that keeps kids out of trouble.

Theresa Hatathlie, who has worked with Dine Youth for more than a decade, says:

I listen to a lot of the kids’ stories, and a lot of times they just need somebody to hear them and to acknowledge them.

Dine Youth puts a strong emphasis on learning Navajo culture, language and philosophy.

All three reports concluded that’s what Native youth are missing is a connection to their heritage. The researchers pointed to the painful legacy troubled youth have inherited. For centuries the federal government forced Native Americans off their land and youth into boarding schools to erase their Native identity. That trauma has compounded over generations.

Law professor Addie Rolnick said lawmakers need to look beyond jails and courts, because it’s investing in treatment and prevention programs like Dine Youth that are going to make a difference with kids.

Scotland Finally Realizes Female Imprisonment is Counterproductive

Female imprisonment reform in Scotland has been a long time coming, but now at last there is acceptance that incarceration provides no significant reduction in re-offending.

Sixteen years ago, then chief inspector of prisons Clive Fairweather said Scotland’s female prison population should be reduced from 200 to 100, on the basis that many prisoners were low-level offenders.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Built in 1975, HM Prison Cornton Vale comprises a total of 217 cells in its five houses. It now houses almost all female adults and young offenders in Scotland.  In April 1999, the separation of adults and young offenders was attained.

Cornton Vale has been criticized for overcrowding–with 353 inmates being held there in November 2005–and the high number of suicides which have taken place there. Between 1997 and 2002, 11 women killed themselves while serving sentences at Cornton Vale. In 2010, Brigadier Hugh Munro declared the prison in a “state of crisis”, citing overcrowding, two-hour waits for the toilet, cold meals, lack of activities and a deep problem of prisoner boredom which was impeding rehabilitation.

In 2006, 98% of the inmates had addiction issues, 80% had mental health problems and 75% were survivors of abuse. The prison also holds children, in particular the babies of inmates, who are imprisoned alongside their mothers, and teenagers where there is no suitable accommodation available in young offenders institutions.

In 2006 it was announced that the practice of “double cuffing” all inmates who are in labor to a custody officer until second stage labor and immediately re-handcuffed after giving birth, had ended.

But it was not until 2012 that radical reform became a realistic prospect. A comprehensive report by the Commission on Women Offenders, led by former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Agiolini, made 37 recommendations, including the closure of Cornton Vale, its replacement with a smaller prison and the addition of regional units.

At the report’s heart was a recognition that the existing system was of little benefit to either those punished or to the public. Dame Elish highlighted the “significant cost to society” of locking up women whose addiction or mental health problems were not going to be helped by a stretch in jail.

Locking up those who break the law is, of course, a deterrent, but jailing women can have a severely negative impact on families and on children in particular. This can perpetuate and extenuate circumstances which contributed to the offending in the first place.

The commission found that 75%  of prisoners were sentenced to six months or less, but their rate of re-offending was a desperate 80%. Imprisonment did not reform female inmates’ characters; it merely consolidated low self-esteem.

Hearteningly, Dame Elish’s key findings are behind the course of action taken by the Scottish Government very recently, albeit only after the scrapping of plans for a new women’s “super prison” earlier this year. A new national prison taking up to 100 inmates will be built on the Cornton Vale site, along with five small custodial centers across the country which would give the female prison population a maximum capacity of 180.

It is also encouraging that the units will provide “intensive support” for those affected by alcohol and drug addictions, mental health problems and domestic abuse trauma.

These measures are designed to break the cycle of re-offending, which is the key to any kind of progress on this issue. Time will tell if it works, but we know for sure that the existing arrangements do not work. Imprisonment reinforces rather than treats habits, and a new method of addressing these problems has to be attempted.

Critics will question whether 180 jail places in Scotland are sufficient. The answer depends on how successful these attempts are at achieving rehabilitation, but the reduced figure should help to focus minds on using prison only as a last alternative from now on.

Raleigh Addresses Answers to Homeless Food Insecurity

Recently, on the same day Raleigh’s much-awaited, $20 million affordable housing plan was unveiled, a panel of activists gathered to discuss another set of intricately linked issues that the city faces: homelessness and food insecurity. Panelists discussed the root causes food insecurity—which is defined as being without reliable access to safe, nutritious, sufficient food in order to live a healthy life—as well as what Raleigh is doing to address these issues and what the city could be doing better.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Nation Hahn, president of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation which works to promote leadership in poor and hungry communities, said:

We know there’s a need, but too many people are unseen, unheard, unrecognized. Can we build the public will? Can we build public awareness of solutions that exist and actually go forth and take action?

According to the January 24, 2015 Point-in-Time count, there are 887 people currently experiencing homelessness in Raleigh. In 2013, Raleigh’s homelessness crisis and the city’s management of it were thrown into the national spotlight, when residents showed up en masse to a City Council meeting to show their support for Raleigh’s homeless residents and their desire to solve the problem.

A year later, the city opened the Oak City Outreach Center, which serves meals to homeless residents on the weekends, when the City’s shelters are closed. The Outreach Center is temporary, and in his report to Council on affordable housing, Larry Jarvis, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department, laid out a plan to open a permanent, one-stop services center for homeless people to access by 2018. It’s a good step, but the panelists agreed it will take much more to end homelessness and food insecurity.

“We are compassionate, but our actions don’t meet our ideals,” said the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, the founder of Love Wins Ministries, which serves as a faith-based community for Raleigh’s homeless residents. “Our policies don’t represent the best of what we believe.”

Erin Byrd, the founder of the Fertile Ground Food Coop in Southeast Raleigh, when asked what the city could do better to address homelessness and food insecurity, answered:

I have a list: It includes better transit, slowing gentrification, paying workers a living wage of $12-$15 an hour, creating small cooperative economies and passing laws to prevent discrimination on worksites.

Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, suggested:

We could look at existing resources and look at how we could use them differently. Is it converting abandoned buildings?Converting hotels? Is it tiny homes? That’s where I would like to see some change.

Erin White, the founder of Community Food Lab, a design and consulting firm focused on local food systems, says taking advantage of underutilized resources is the way to solve hunger problems as well. He asks:

All the food that we throw away before it’s actually bad–can we get smart about diverting that to get to the people that are hungry? Can we use space that we don’t use and grow food there? We are surrounded by open space in this city that’s not getting used.

Hollowell believes homelessness is cheaper to end than it is to manage:

But it requires a commitment of funding for a long period of time before you begin to see savings. The places that do this better honor peoples’ agency. Most of us make the best choices we can given the information we have available. If we want to improve peoples’ situations, we need to fight to increase the number of options they have available to them.