Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates : NPR

By , January 22, 2010 12:15 pm
Bail Bonds by Harry
Image by rioncm via Flickr

Leslie Chew spent his childhood working long days next to his father on the oil rigs of southern Texas. No school meant he never learned to read or write. Now in his early 40s, he’s a handyman, often finding a place to sleep in the back of his old station wagon.

But he got by — until one night in December 2008 when the station wagon got cold, and he changed the course of his life.

“Well, I stole some blankets to try to stay warm,” he says quietly. “I walked in and got them and turned around and walked right back out of the store. [The security guard] said, ‘Excuse me, sir, come here. Are you planning to pay for these’ I said, ‘No, sir. I don’t have no money.’ That’s when he arrested me right then.”

When I first spoke to Chew last summer, he’d been inside the Lubbock County jail since the night he was arrested: 185 days, more than six months.

Chew is like one of more than a half-million inmates sitting in America’s jails — not because they’re dangerous or a threat to society or because a judge thinks they will run. It’s not even because they are guilty; they haven’t been tried yet.

They are here because they can’t make bail — sometimes as little as $50. Some will wait behind bars for as long as a year before their cases make it to court. And it will cost taxpayers $9 billion this year to house them.

via Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates : NPR.

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The Extravagance of Imprisonment Revisited

By , January 20, 2010 7:26 pm

Prisons. In 2008, there were 1.3 million sentenced pris- oners under the jurisdiction of states. An estimated 22% (301,331) of all prisoners were convicted of nonserious, nonsexual offenses.
The national average cost to incarcerate an offender for one year was $28,648. Collectively, states spent $39 billion in 2006 on state corrections, which includes prisons, parole, and juvenile justice.

Jails. In 2008, the average daily population of jails was 776,573. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 37% (288,109) of these were convicted. Of convicted jail inmates, 39% (112,362) were nonserious, nonsexual offenders. In 2006, the national average cost to house an offender in jail was $27,237 per year. Collectively, states spent $21 billion on local corrections, which includes jail and probation.

Cost savings of alternatives. In 2008, states spent $12.9 billion to incarcerate 80% (330,954) of nonserious, nonsexual offenders in prisons and jails. Alternatives are estimated to cost $3.2 billion. A total cost savings of at least $9.7 billion can be expected with implementation of alternatives.

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Prisoners of Parole

By , January 10, 2010 9:40 am

IN 2004, STEVEN ALM, a state trial judge in Hawaii, was frustrated with the cases on his docket. Nearly half of the people appearing before him were convicted offenders with drug problems who had been sentenced to probation rather than prison and then repeatedly violated the terms of that probation by missing appointments or testing positive for drugs. Whether out of neglect or leniency, probation officers would tend to overlook a probationer’s first 5 or 10 violations, giving the offender the impression that he could ignore the rules. But eventually, the officers would get fed up and recommend that Alm revoke probation and send the offender to jail to serve out his sentence. That struck Alm as too harsh, but the alternative — winking at probation violations — struck him as too soft. “I thought, This is crazy, this is a crazy way to change people’s behavior,” he told me recently.

So Alm decided to try something different. He reasoned that if the offenders knew that a probation violation would lead immediately to some certain punishment, they might shape up. “I thought, What did I do when my son was young?” he recalled. “If he misbehaved, I talked to him and warned him, and if he disregarded the warning, I gave him some kind of consequence right away.” Working with U.S. marshals and local police, Alm arranged for a new procedure: if offenders tested positive for drugs or missed an appointment, they would be arrested within hours and most would have a hearing within 72 hours. Those who were found to have violated probation would be quickly sentenced to a short jail term proportionate to the severity of the violation — typically a few days.

Alm mentioned his plan to the public defender, who suggested that it was only fair to warn probationers that the rules were going to be strictly enforced for the first time. Alm agreed, and on Oct. 1, 2004, he held a hearing for 18 sex offenders, followed by another one for 16 drug offenders. Brandishing a laminated “Wanted” poster, he told them: “I can guarantee that everyone in this courtroom wants you to succeed on probation, but you have not been cutting it. From now on, you’re going to follow all the rules of probation, and if you don’t, you’re going to be arrested on the spot and spend some time in jail right away.” He called the program HOPE, for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement, and prepared himself for a flood of violation hearings.

But they never materialized. There were only three hearings in the first week, two in the second week and none in the third. The HOPE program was so successful that it inspired scholars to evaluate its methods. Within a six-month period, the rate of positive drug tests fell by 93 percent for HOPE probationers, compared with a fall of 14 percent for probationers in a comparison group.

via Prisoners of Parole – NYTimes.com.

Criminal turned criminologist John Irwin dies

By , January 7, 2010 7:46 am

John Irwin had the usual choice when he got out of Soledad Prison in 1957 after a five-year stretch for armed robbery: Do more crime, or remake his life.

He chose rebirth – with a passion.

Over the next half century, Mr. Irwin became one of the nation's foremost advocates for compassionate reform of the prison system, the author of six heralded books dissecting criminal justice, and a tenured sociology professor at San Francisco State University.

When he died at 80 at his San Francisco home of liver and kidney failure Sunday, he had one final book nearly ready for print, an autobiography he called “Rogue.”

The term, in its kindest but most activist meaning, fit him perfectly, his family, friends and colleagues said.

“John was fearless about being honest about the realities of crime and justice,” said Naneen Karraker, a national advocate for prison reform. “He had the courage to see things differently from the common way.

“He was an uncommon man.”

via Criminal turned criminologist John Irwin dies.

Innocents in prison

By , January 4, 2010 7:51 pm
United States criminal justice system flowchart.
Image via Wikipedia

THREE DAYS after Donald E. Gates was released from prison after serving 28 years for a murder he didn’t commit, federal prosecutors acknowledged that they received, but failed to act on, information discrediting testimony key to his conviction. In the same week, a Florida man imprisoned for 35 years for kidnapping and rape was freed after DNA tests proved his innocence. As appalling as the two cases are, what’s even scarier is the thought that imperfections in the criminal justice system will go uncorrected and more people could be wrongly jailed.

The wrongful conviction of Mr. Gates in the 1981 rape and murder of a D.C. woman and that of James Bain in the 1974 assault of a 9-year-old boy could serve as primers for what’s wrong with the system. In Mr. Bain’s case, it was reliance on identification from an unreliable eyewitness: a traumatized 9-year-old. Witness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to more than 75 percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide, the Innocence Project reported.

The second biggest cause is faulty forensics, and that played a starring role in Mr. Gates's conviction. A FBI special agent testified that two pubic hairs found on the victim’s body were microscopically identical to those of Mr. Gates. Even if, as later examination showed, the agent hadn’t basically been making up his findings, the science behind the technology is suspect. Indeed, a report this year from the National Research Council found such serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system that it called for major reforms and new research.

via Innocents in prison – washingtonpost.com.

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Prisons and Budgets

By , January 4, 2010 2:30 pm

The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about one-quarter of its prisoners. But the relentless rise in the nation’s prison population has suddenly slowed as many states discover that it is simply too expensive to overincarcerate.

Between 1987 and 2007 the prison population nearly tripled, from 585,000 to almost 1.6 million. Much of that increase occurred in states — many with falling crime rates — that had adopted overly harsh punishment policies, such as the “three strikes and you’re out” rule and drug laws requiring that nonviolent drug offenders be locked away.

These policies have been hugely costly. According to the Pew Center on the States, state spending from general funds on corrections increased from $10.6 billion in 1987 to more than $44 billion in 2007, a 127 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the same period, adjusted spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

via Editorial – Prisons and Budgets – NYTimes.com.

Group That Shaped Death Penalty Gives Up on Its Own Work

By , January 4, 2010 2:11 pm
Against the death penalty
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Last fall, the American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it.

There were other important death penalty developments last year: the number of death sentences continued to fall, Ohio switched to a single chemical for lethal injections and New Mexico repealed its death penalty entirely. But not one of them was as significant as the institute’s move, which represents a tectonic shift in legal theory.

“The A.L.I. is important on a lot of topics,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “They were absolutely singular on this topic” — capital punishment — “because they were the only intellectually respectable support for the death penalty system in the United States.”

via Sidebar – Group That Shaped Death Penalty Gives Up on Its Own Work – NYTimes.com.

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Liberals, the Individual Mandate, and Critical Legal Studies

By , January 4, 2010 9:54 am

Mark Tushnet

This morning’s Washington Post has a story on proposed legal challenges to the individual mandate in the pending health care legislation. (In brief, conservatives are arguing that Congress lacks the power to require people to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty, under either the commerce clause and the power to tax and spend for the general welfare.) The story observes that liberal-leaning constitutional scholars think that, as Erwin Chemerinsky puts it, “There are many close constitutional questions. But this is not among them,” or, as Jack Balkin says, “All of these arguments don’t work, but they’re interesting to debate.”

I’m afraid that these reactions demonstrate that liberal-leaning constitutional law types haven’t absorbed the lessons of critical legal studies — or, indeed, the lesson Justice William Brennan taught his law clerks by holding up one hand with his fingers splayed: “With five votes you can do anything.” The CLS lesson was — and is — that where the stakes are high enough and the political energy is available (to lawyers and judges), at any time the body of legal materials contains enough stuff to support a professionally respectable argument for any legal proposition. So too with the constitutional arguments against the individual mandate.

I lack both the interest and the energy to work out the arguments in detail, but I’ve thought enough about the constitutional issues to be able to sketch out an argument, compatible with existing law, that the individual mandate (a) doesn’t fall within Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, (b) doesn’t fall within Congress’s power to tax and spend for the general welfare, and (c) is (in its penalty aspect) a direct tax prohibited by the Constitution. I myself don’t find these arguments particularly strong, but that — on the CLS view — doesn’t mean anything about what constitutional law on this matter “really” is. If, as Holmes said and as CLS reiterated, what the law “is” is what the courts will do in fact, the thing to do is to figure out which side of the argument can count to five first.

Or, put another way, remember Bush v. Gore?

via Balkinization.

Criminal justice: Tough on crime? Check. Smart on crime? Not so much.

By , January 3, 2010 7:36 pm
AlcatrazCell
Image by armigeress via Flickr

We’re Texas and we’re famously tough on crime. So how come we still have so much of it?

Numbers from recent years show Texas near the top in adults on probation or parole, prisoners in state correctional institutions, inmates under 18 in state prisons and (here's the punch line) crimes per capita.

Somehow, somewhere, we have been doing something wrong. And that adds up to an unsatisfactory return on what will be a $10.8 billion investment in public safety and criminal justice in the state’s 2010-2011 budget.

That’s almost 10 percent of state tax dollars. By comparison, 6.7 percent goes to business and economic development and 1.2 percent goes to natural resources.

The reality is that crime stats, more than being a measure of our success in fighting crime, are a measure of our failure in so many other areas.

via Criminal justice: Tough on crime? Check. Smart on crime? Not so much..

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