Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons

Opinion
in: CS Monitor

Four ways to relieve overcrowded prisons
Finally, America is beginning to tackle overcrowded prisons, prompted by financially strapped states that can no longer afford them. The road to prison reform, and less crowding, includes revamping ‘three strikes’ laws, as in California, and limiting pre-trial detention.

By Arjun Sethi / December 29, 2011

Necessity can spur novelty. Even political novelty. As the need for fiscal austerity grows, an unlikely alliance has emerged between policymakers and public advocates who have long sought criminal justice reform. These policymakers are realizing what advocates have reiterated for years: The nation’s addiction to incarceration as a curb on crime must end. The evidence is staggering.

In California, 54 prisoners may share a single toilet and 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium supervised by two or three officers. Suicidal inmates may be held for protracted periods in cages without toilets and the wait times for mental health care sometimes reach 12 months.

Citing these conditions and more, the Supreme Court ruled in May that California prisoners were deprived adequate access to medical and mental health care in violation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.

Prison overcrowding is ubiquitous and shows few signs of abating: Between 1970 and 2005, the nation’s inmate population grew by 700 percent. Besides impeding access to health care, overcrowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions, diverts prison resources away from education and social development, and forces low- and high-risk offenders to mingle, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

Expect additional lawsuits. That’s why a consortium of states, including Illinois, Texas, and my home state of Virginia, submitted an amicus curiae or friend-of-the-court brief in support of the state of California.

America’s overreliance on incarceration has also impeded the rights of criminal defendants. TheSixth Amendment guarantees legal representation to individuals charged with a crime. Yet, because of the crushing volume of cases, indigent defense programs often suffer from inadequate staffing, funding, and supervision.

In Kentucky, a public defender may represent more than 450 clients in a single year. In Miami, Florida, the annual case load is nearly 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. The consequences include wrongful incarceration, wrongful convictions, and guilty pleas when meritorious defenses are otherwise available.

Civil rights groups in Michigan and New York have already brought lawsuits seeking an overhaul of their states’ indigent defense systems. These lawsuits might be a harbinger for the future: States unfaithful to the promise of the Sixth Amendment may be forced to increase funding and restructure legislative priorities.

Protecting prisoners and criminal defendants is not just about fidelity to the Bill of Rights. It is about recognizing that they are acutely vulnerable because they do not have access to coalitions and political networks capable of effecting change. Affording them protection is consistent with the enduring constitutional principle that political democracy alone cannot adequately protect the rights of certain groups of people.

First, revamp habitual-offender laws, now in effect in more than 20 states, which regularly yield perverse sentences.

California’s three-strikes law, for example, was passed during the paranoia that followed the searing murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a long-time violent offender, and is so egregiously punitive that nonviolent petty theft may serve as a “third strike.” Leandro Andrade, a father of three, who never once committed a violent felony, received two sentences of 25 years-to-life for stealing children’s videotapes, including “Free Willy 2” and “Cinderella,” from Kmart. A new ballot initiative in California, “The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012,” seeks to change this law.

Second, implement misdemeanor reform by decriminalizing offenses such as feeding the homeless, dog-leash violations, and occupying multiple seats on the subway. Such reform is vital: between 1972 and 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions rose from 5 million to 10.5 million.

Third, limit the use of pre-trial detention. Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s prison population haven’t been convicted of a crime – they are awaiting trial. Many are arrested for low-risk offenses such as disturbing the peace or traffic violations, and they languish in jail because they can’t afford bail. Releasing these individuals would not jeopardize public safety and would reduce overcrowding and public defender case loads. Just this year, Kentucky terminated pre-trial detention for numerous drug offenses and mandated citations rather than arrests for certain misdemeanors.

Fourth, impose nonprison penalties on those arrested for technical parole and probation violations like missing a meeting or court appearance. This would dramatically ameliorate overcrowding and excessive case loads given that over a third of all prison admissions are for such types of violations. Texas is leading the charge here, and through such measures has significantly reduced its inmate population.

The spirit that animates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments is human dignity. A recognition that no matter the crime or harm, criminal defendants and prisoners retain a dignity that must be respected.

Thirty years ago, a group of inmates claimed they were deprived of this dignity and, in what has since become a subject of fascination in American pop culture, rioted at Attica Correctional Facilityin New York. The ensuing violence and its death toll serves as an ominous reminder that Americamust pursue criminal justice reform if it is to honor this dignity.

Arjun Sethi is an attorney.

http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2011/1229/Four-ways-to-relieve-overcrowded-prisons

"No Country for Second Chances"– Obama still has not granted one pardon and has turned down 605 requests for commutations

Thanks to the Real Cost of Prisons.


“No Country for Second Chances”– Obama still has not granted one pardon and has turned down 605 requests for commutations

No Country for Second Chances
By GEORGE LARDNER Jr.
Washington
November 23, 2010- NY Times

LAST February, after long delays, the Justice Department sent President Obama hundreds of recommendations on requested pardons, each one carefully selected for a quick decision under standards for clemency that presidents have followed for decades.

Under these standards, no pardon can be recommended unless a petitioner has been out of prison and law-abiding for at least five years.

Most of the recommendations President Obama received called for a no, but some, according to people who recently left the administration, strongly favored a pardon. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama has yet to judge a single person worthy of his grace.

If by tomorrow he pardons no one but turkeys, President Obama will have the most sluggish record in this area of any American president except George W. Bush. He’ll have outdone George Washington, who granted a pardon after 669 days. And he will also have outlasted Bill Clinton, who took three days longer than Washington to grant his first pardons. If Mr. Obama waits until Christmas Eve, he will make even his immediate predecessor, who waited until Dec. 23, 2002, seem more generous.

Last month, President Obama turned down 605 requests for commutations — from prisoners who wanted their sentences shortened — and 71 for pardons.

It’s difficult to understand why the president has been so unwilling to grant any clemency. As someone who has taught constitutional law, he knows that the founders gave him, and him alone, the power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States except in cases of impeachment.” It is likely that he also knows that a disproportionate number of federal prisoners are black, that mandatory sentencing guidelines have left many of them with excessive sentences and that at least a few of them deserve clemency, whether they’ve asked for it or not.

The president has not only the power but also the responsibility to grant clemency when it is warranted. A pardon can help a worthy former prisoner qualify for a job or a license. But mainly it restores the person’s civil rights, including the right to vote.

What could be holding up Mr. Obama? There is no question that the federal pardon process is flawed. It has been handled by a tiny staff in the Justice Department’s office of the pardon attorney, which has worked for years in a climate of official hostility to any grants of clemency. (As Samuel Morison, a lawyer who worked in the pardon attorney’s office, recently wrote, the view inside the Justice Department is that the pardon attorney should mainly “defend the department’s prosecutorial prerogatives.”) Recommendations for a pardon or a commutation require a great deal of investigation; in most cases, the pardon attorney’s easiest course is to advise that the president say no.

Read the rest here.

George Lardner Jr., an associate at the Center for the Study of the Presidency, is working on a history of the presidential pardon power.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/24/opinion/24lardner.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

———
See also this poem written in 1893 by Voltairine de Cleyre:

John P. Altgeld
(After an incarceration for six long years in Joliet state prison for an act of which they were entirely innocent, namely, the throwing of the Haymarket bomb, in Chicago, May 4th, 1886, Oscar Neebe, Michael Scwab, and Samuel Fielden, were liberated by Gov. Altgeld, who thus sacrificed his political career to an act of justice.)

There was a tableau! Liberty’s clear light
Shone never on a braver scene than that,
Here was a prison, there a Man, who sat
High in the halls of State! Beyond, the might
Of Ignorance and mobs whose hireling Press
Yells at their bidding like the slaver’s hounds,
Ready with coarse caprice to curse or bless,
To make or unmake rulers! — Lo, there sounds
A grating of the doors! And three poor men
Helpless and hated, having nought to give,
Come from their long-sealed tomb, look up, and
live,
And thank this Man that they are free again.
And He — to all the world this Man dares say:
“Curse as you will! I have been just this day.”

Philadelphia, June 1893