Mississippi takes historic step to reform criminal justice system | Southern Poverty Law Center

Mississippi takes historic step to reform criminal justice system | Southern Poverty Law Center

By Jody Owens II, Managing Attorney – Mississippi

As the managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office, I’ve seen the terrible toll the state’s broken criminal justice system has taken on its communities.

The state has the shameful distinction of having the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation – ranking behind only Louisiana, according to the Department of Justice. The last decade has seen Mississippi’s prison population grow by 17 percent to more than 22,000 prisoners last year.

Many prisoners aren’t hardened, violent criminals. Nearly three-quarters of the people entering Mississippi prisons in 2012, in fact, were nonviolent offenders, according to a task force that examined the state’s prisons. And the system fails them: Almost one in three nonviolent offenders are back behind bars within three years of their release. These statistics paint a grim future of a state with a skyrocketing prison population that costs taxpayers, communities and the people caught in this broken system dearly.

This morning, I was pleased to witness Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant sign groundbreaking reforms into law that can help repair this broken system. As a member of the task force that issued recommendations for reform, I can attest that these reforms address many longstanding issues. They help protect our communities from violent offenders but take steps to prevent low-level offenders from returning to prison.

Read the rest here.

SPLC reaches agreement to address prisoner abuse, neglect at Orleans Parish Prison

From: Southern Poverty Law Center
Dec. 11th 2012

The SPLC has reached an agreement with officials in Orleans Parish, La., to address the brutal and inhumane conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison, where prisoners have endured rampant violence, sexual assaults and neglect.

The federal consent decree outlines steps that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will take to ensure prisoner safety and adequate staffing of the facility. If approved by the court, an independent monitor will oversee the agreement to ensure compliance. The agreement, the result of an SPLC lawsuit filed in April, also would apply to any new facility that is built to replace the jail.

“We are hopeful the judge will agree that this settlement is in the best interest of all parties involved,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC’s New Orleans office and lead attorney on the case. “We also applaud Sheriff Gusman and his office for taking the important first step of acknowledging the problems within the jail. While implementation will be difficult, we are committed to improving conditions, and will work with him to do so. We also need the city to work with us and provide the funding to truly fix this jail.”

SPLC clients Byron Morgan and Nicholas Miorana, both prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, said they were pleased an agreement has been reached. “I am excited the sheriff has agreed to take a hard look, and fix this jail,” Morgan said. “I hope Mayor Mitch Landrieu will help make the changes as well.”

Miorana added, “Today, I understand what right and wrong stand for. With help from the Justice Department and SPLC, our cries will finally be heard.”
The decree includes the following provisions:

  • Review and monitoring of prison operations by a professional corrections administrator.
  • Comprehensive policies governing the use of force and restraints on prisoners.
  • Documenting and tracking complaints of prison staff using excessive force.
  • A staffing plan that provides enough officers to ensure prisoner safety.
  • A ban on placing teenagers in units where they may have contact with an adult prisoner.
  • Guidelines for providing medical and mental health care for prisoners.

The SPLC lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, described a facility where widespread violence and contraband – including knives – are the norm. It also noted that the jail is understaffed and that deputies are not only poorly trained and supervised, but are often complicit in the abuses suffered by the prisoners.

The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case in September, joining the effort to address the conditions. Three years ago, a comprehensive investigation by the department documented many of the same violations contained in the SPLC lawsuit.

Once the agreement is approved by the court, it will go into effect immediately. However, certain provisions cannot be implemented until the city and the sheriff’s office resolve how to provide adequate funding for the jail. If the city and the sheriff cannot resolve the funding dispute, the funding issue will go to trial on April 4, 2013, before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

“April 4 is a long time for the men, women and children in Orleans Parish Prison to wait,” said Schwartzmann. “With Sheriff Gusman committed to reform, we urge Mayor Landrieu to provide immediate emergency funding to support the necessary changes. Every day we wait, the lives of thousands of New Orleanians remain at risk.”

SPLC Lawsuit Targets Abuse, Neglect of Children Held in Jackson, Miss., Detention Center

From: Southern Poverty Law Center

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi filed suit in federal court today to protect the rights of children and teens who face inhumane treatment in Mississippi’s largest juvenile detention center.

The suit says Hinds County, which operates Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Jackson, violates the constitutional rights of children by subjecting them to prolonged periods of isolation and sensory deprivation, denying them mental health services, and subjecting them to verbal abuse and threats of physical harm.

The SPLC and DRMS filed the class action lawsuit after numerous attempts to resolve the issues with county officials failed.

“This litigation presents an opportunity for the county to re-direct its resources away from this abusive facility and into community-based alternatives that will better serve our children, protect public safety and reduce taxpayers’ exposure to legal liability,” said Jody Owens, who leads SPLC’s Mississippi office.

Abusive incidents detailed in the lawsuit include:

– A staff member taunted one young man and encouraged him to kill himself so that there would be “one less person officers have to worry about” after the teen began cutting himself with a razor.

– Staffers regularly verbally abuse children, cursing and threatening harm to the children and their family members.

– A staff member threatened to harm a child’s family because the child took too long to return to his cell after his shower.

– Youths are forced to stay in their small cells for 20 to 23 hours every day with very little human contact, exercise or access to education and rehabilitation programs.

– Staffers regularly withhold necessary medication from children with serious mental health problems.

Florida TaxWatch, Southern Poverty Law Center applaud Scott’s transition team recs on juvenile justice

From: Miami Herald
Posted by Janet Zink on December 22, 2010

Read more: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2010/12/florida-taxwatch-southern-povery-law-center-applaud-scotts-transition-team-recs-on-juvenile-justice.html#ixzz193ftJsVo

Florida TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro says implementing some of the recommendations made by Rick Scott’s transition team on juvenile justice will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Specifically, Calabro’s organization and the Southern Poverty Law Center want Florida legislators to agree to the suggestion not to incarcerate juveniles guilty of misdemeanors, saying it could save $30 million annually. But what about lawmakers who want to make sure voters see them as “tough on crime?” The SPL’s Vanessa Carroll says this: “The research shows that when you put those children into residential facilities they’re going to be more likely to reoffend. So that’s actually not helping public safety.” As it is now, 70 percent of the juveniles behind bars are there for nonviolent crimes, and 44 percent are there for misdemeanors and probation violation.

Calabro, whose organization was represented on Scott’s law and order transition team group, said that given the state’s budget crisis, he expects lawmakers this session will be more open to ideas for saving money in the criminal justice system.

As to the transition team’s proposal to merge the departments of Juvenile Justice and Children and Families, one of many organizational mergers contemplated by Scott, Calabro gives that a thumbs up, even though he acknowledges the logistics of such consolidations can be problematic. “Historically, the juice has not been worth the squeeze. You usually end up with more costs. But in this case, because of the nature of this governor, because of his orientation, because of his commitment, I think you will see substantial cost reductions. I actually applaud him for thinking like that,” he said.

Read more: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2010/12/florida-taxwatch-southern-povery-law-center-applaud-scotts-transition-team-recs-on-juvenile-justice.html#ixzz193a9dc5i