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A different view of the justice system

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Corrections Budgets "Unsustainable?"

We constantly hear that our corrections budgets are straining finances and that we spend more on prisons than on schools.  The following chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities clearly indicates that this is not the case.  What we spend on corrections is peanuts compared to other budget line items, especially education and healthcare.  If our country ever goes broke, it won't be because of too much spending on prisons.

Can we lay this myth to rest?  Unfortunately too many people have gotten a lot of mileage promoting it.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Getting To The Heart Of Improving The Criminal Justice System

The main thing wrong with calls to reform our criminal justice system is the false assumptions about the core problem.  This leads to recommending the wrong solutions and it perpetuates the need for future reforms.   Mistaken assumptions often impede progress.  Criminal justice reform isn't unique in assuming a mistaken view of the challenge before it.

Science gives us some of the best examples.  At some point in time, scientists came to accept the fact that light was a wave.  They subsequently spent decades chasing after the "ether" (luminiferous ether),  the hypothetical stuff through which light propagates. It stood to reason that as sound waves are disturbances in air and water waves are disturbances in water, light waves must be a disturbance in something. 

Up until the first part of the twentieth century, there was scientific consensus about the existence of this mysterious ether.  The word "consensus" is even now unfittingly applied to certain scientific fields but that's another discussion.  It took Einstein's theory of special relativity to make clear that the ether wasn't just illusive.  It didn't exist.

Mistaken assumptions are based on personal bias or refusing to look beyond the obvious.  Personal biases can also prevent looking at the bigger picture.  The criminal justice reform efforts of the past thirty years is a case in point.  The reform narrative assumes that the main problem with the system is it's punitiveness based on "mass incarceration."  

It's actually easy to see why this narrative has so much staying power.  Our prison population ballooned from about two hundred thousand in 1975 to about two million in 2005.  A "correctional crisis" was declared because of prison overcrowding and run away spending on prisons.  Just about everyone knows that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

People from academia, private foundations, non profit organizations, and even from within the criminal justice system itself have established successful careers promoting this narrative.  They're considered to be experts in criminal justice and have the attention of policymakers at the national and state levels.  Many of them have personal biases against prisons and incarceration.  This too is easy to understand. It seems hard to reconcile the notion of prisons in the land of the free.

Our criminal justice system does need to improve.  It's essential however that we focus on the right problems in order to craft workable solutions.  We've all heard the quote misattributed to Einstein that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  The reform narrative adds another dimension to this definition.  Reformers keep demanding that the system do what it's already doing and has been doing for decades.

They demand that we make greater use of or start using alternatives to incarceration in order to divert more people away from overcrowded prisons.   In order to drive home the point, many of them tell us that we're spending more on prisons than on schools and we should switch things around.

The fact is that we already have more than eighty per cent, in some states, of our corrections population under community supervision (alternatives) rather than locked up.  The national average is more than two thirds of our corrections population under community supervision.  Probation alone constitutes the biggest component of the community supervision (community corrections) population.  We have about one and one half million people locked up and about four million on probation.  Add to that last number people on parole, halfway houses, and other community programs and it becomes clear that in this country incarceration is an alternative sentence.

Community corrections is the invisible giant of the corrections field and it has the greatest amount of "overcrowding."  Probation officers struggle with huge case loads of hundreds which makes effective supervision next to impossible. As far as spending, we spend about sixty billion annually on corrections compared to more than six hundred billion on education.  And that's the way things should be in a free country such as ours.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Chicago's Operation CeaseFire Loses Funding In State Political Stalemate

Chicago's Operation CeaseFire Loses Funding In State Political Stalemate

What's wrong with this picture? Initiatives such as this should be viewed as "strategies" and not as "programs." As with the criminal justice "quiet revolution" of the past 20+ years, change must come from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
Our steadfast focus on top down crafted programs makes such efforts dependent on funding from government sources and thus subject to the usual political trappings. "Strategies" primarily (although not absolutely entirely) depend on criminal justice system components merely changing their standard OP's and internal policies without asking government permission or dispensation.
We'll succeed at long-term crime and violence reduction only when we can create lasting strategies with roles for every aspect of community cohesion. Programs, are short-sighted and narrowly focused. Worst of all, they come with multiple attached strings and conditions which makes them fickle to political whims and misgivings.

FINAL THOUGHT: Strategies like Operation Ceasefire are one way of reducing gun violence without passing more gun control legislation.  A partnership of police, social services, faith groups, schools, citizens, and other justice system components, work together to address problems at the neighborhood level.  Citizen participation in the strategies gives the community a sense of ownership and empowerment to confront problems without the dictates of outside forces. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Prison Crowding.  What is it and what's it's importance.

In order to call attention to the urgency of the criminal justice problem a “corrections crisis” has been declared.  It states that our nation’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded and enormously expensive.  They pose a hazard to the lives of inmates and staff as well as to the fiscal stability of states. 
The problem with this scenario is that it's misleading at best and fictitious at worst. The problem with prison overcrowding has less to do with increasing inmate populations than with various definitions of overcrowding based on the following designations: 
Design capacity: The number of inmates that planners or architects intended for the facility.
Operational capacity: 
The number of inmates that can be accommodated based on a facility's staff, existing programs, and services.
Rated capacity: The number of beds or inmates assigned by a rating official to institutions within the jurisdiction.
Based on these three different standards, no one actually knows the level of prison overcrowding.  Prison overcrowding is a fluid concept that’s been used as a political football by all sides of the corrections debate in order to push a certain agenda.  Most importantly, prison crowding ignores the real issues of inmate and staff safety and security as well as institutional manageability—which have all greatly improved in the past 20 years.
Experts have long predicted that our overcrowded prisons would soon erupt into violence in a rash of disturbances. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Prisons have become much more peaceful in the past 30 years. Better staff training and inmate classification systems have dramatically decreased prison homicides.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics manages the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP).  Records show that between 1980 and 2002 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000. Better architectural design of facilities has also made Attica type uprisings virtually a thing of the past.
Between 1983 and 2002 jail suicide rates dropped 64 percent. State prison suicide rates, historically much lower than the rate in jails, dropped from 34 per 100,000 inmates to 14 per 100,000 during the same period.
Deaths from all causes including homicide, suicide, illness, intoxication, and accidental injury declined from 3,414 in 2009 to 3,232 in 2010, for a total decrease of 5%, which is the largest decline in the number of prison deaths since the DCRP began collecting prisoner mortality data in 2001.
Courts and legislatures call for no-violent inmates or defendants to be released or not incarcerated because of prison overcrowding; yet no one bothers to ask the critical questions that must be asked. What exactly is a non-violent offender?  What constitutes prison overcrowding?  What is our primary and ultimate goal—to reduce the prison population or to create and maintain safer communities?
That’s the reason why every instance of sentencing or court imposed reform results in calls for more reform.  Prison populations continue expanding or aren’t greatly reduced.  Imagine the confusion if hospitals were ordered to reduce their percentages of people who were not “seriously ill” or had an illness that was “not potentially life threatening” and could be treated by other means.  In the first place Doctors don’t refer the vast majority of their patients to the hospitals.  More specifically, the terms “not seriously ill” and illnesses that are “not potentially life threatening” are open to interpretation.  Influenza can be potentially life threatening to an 80 year old but not necessarily to a 20 year old.
Attempts to send fewer people to hospitals wouldn't change the fact that as a matter of course the vast majority of people don’t end up as hospital patients after getting sick.  It’s just as important to know that the vast majority of people don’t end up as prison inmates after a criminal conviction.
As for prisons being nothing but human warehouses and schools of crime, in the BOP and in state prisons an inmate can enter as a functional illiterate and leave with a college degree.  He/she can receive job training in various vocational trades such as computers.  He/she has access to counselors, caseworkers, psychologists and other professionals.  Some inmates choose not to take advantage of any opportunities for self-improvement.  These tend to be the ones who are released, commit another crime and when arrested declare that “they didn’t rehabilitate me.”
During the first 6 years of my career with the Bureau of Prisons, each maximum-security penitentiary averaged around five inmate homicides a year. This was at time when the federal inmate population was about seven times smaller than its present size. Today, the entire Bureau doesn’t average that many inmate homicides in a year.   During the period that I worked with the BOP (1973-2000), twelve federal correctional personnel were killed on duty, making it the deadliest era for staff in Bureau history. 
In May1979, the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary experienced its twelfth inmate murder in 30 months.  Primarily because of the high number of inmate homicides, congress had initiated hearings to investigate problems.  Consequently a new management system pioneered by the BOP was recommended for immediate implementation in Atlanta.  Known as the Unit Management System, it divides the institution up into several semi-autonomous units. Each unit consists of a unit manager, two case managers, two correctional counselors, and a unit secretary.  The unit offices are located in the inmate living units.  The biggest problem with the big fortress-like penitentiaries was that their shear size made them very hard to manage and control.    
In 1978, I was transferred to the Atlanta Penitentiary as a case manager as part of unit management implementation.   My office was a vacated inmate cell in one of the cellblocks.  Instead of the inmates making an appointment to see their case manager or counselor in a more secure part of the institution, the inmates had ready access to us in their living quarters. 
Better architectural design of facilities has also made Attica type uprisings virtually a thing of the past.   The old institutions were built with cube shaped cell blocks enclose within a boundary wall.  This design contained dozens of blind spots where officers couldn’t see any activities unless they walked up to the particular spot.
In the 1970s the Federal Bureau of Prisons pioneered a new design for jails called “Direct Supervision”.   The direct supervision concept was designed for jails but it was based on principles that the BOP considered vital for all correctional facilities, such as unit management. 
The important distinction between prisons and jails is that jails are primarily temporary holding facilities for those awaiting trial or sentencing or otherwise serving short (less than one year) sentences.  Length of stays in a jail can be measured in terms of hours and days, instead of years, as people are constantly released on bail or “time served”.  A jail’s population is in constant flux and this presents some unique problems. 
Jail inmates aren’t there long enough for much effective “treatment” or other activities.  The relative idleness creates more opportunities for negative behaviors to surface.  This in turn effects the entire institutional environment.  

In 1978 the Bureau of Prisons had fewer than 30,000 inmates in custody.  By 2014 that number had swelled to more than 200,000.  The important thing to note is that in 1978 many federal prisons were setting up bunks in prison gymnasiums because of overcrowding.   This means that even if incarceration rates were to shrink to 1978 levels, prisons would still be decried as overcrowded and in desperate need of reform.
It seems nothing prisons do can redeem them in the eyes of their critics.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Prisons.  Establishing a New Self Identity.

Early American colonists practiced punitive methods on offenders that were universally common at the time.  Widespread practices included such things as branding and confining people in stocks on public display.  These harsh methods came into conflict with the democratic ideals established by the American Revolution.  Many perceived (as many perceive today) a dilemma of imprisoning individuals in a free society.
The attempt to reconcile that dilemma began with the American Quakers establishing a new type of prison in 1790—the Philadelphia Walnut Street Jail.  The jail was based on a lofty goal of reforming convicts through solitary confinement and total abstinence from alcohol.  The only reading material allowed was a bible.  Because the inmates performed penance through their solitude and isolation, the Walnut Street Jail was called a “Penitentiary House.”  Needless to say the idea of forcing people to reform through solitary confinement failed.  Many inmates reportedly went mad.
The Penitentiary was the outcome of a reform movement with a misplaced sense of priorities.  Even though the idea was a flop, the mission for prisons was forever engraved within the lexicon of corrections.  The primary mission of prisons was to “correct”, reform, or rehabilitate inmates. 
American prisons have been held to that measure ever since.  Any attempt by politicians or administrators to establish policies that appear more punitive or controlling is immediately attacked by reformers as tampering with or abandoning the “true” mission.  Prisons are held accountable if inmates are released and commit more crimes.  They’re called human warehouses regardless of the educational and vocational learning they provide.  
Because many consider prisons incompatible with a free society (except for the most violent) it seems that nothing they do can fully redeem their usefulness.  They’re called violent schools of crime but when they clamp down on violence they become more oppressive in the eyes of critics. 
On October 22, 1983, inmate Thomas Silverstein, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang was released from his cell in the Control Unit of the U.S. Penitentiary Marion, to take a shower.  He was shackled but as he passed in front of another cell an inmate slipped him a “shank” and an improvised handcuff key.  After freeing his hands Silverstein attacked officer Merle Clutts and killed him by stabbing him 40 times.
Later that same day, another Aryan Brotherhood member, Clayton Fountain used the same method to kill another Marion Correctional Officer, Robert Hoffman.  The back-to-back murders sent shock waves throughout the Bureau of Prisons.  I was working at the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary at the time and the news created a depressing pall of gloom that lasted several days.
The Marion Federal Penitentiary was the most secure prison in the country and had replaced Alcatraz after it closed in 1963.  The Marion control unit was like a maximum-security unit within a maximum-security prison.  It housed the most violent offenders in the system-the worst of the worse.
Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain were exactly the types of inmates the unit was designed for.  In 1981 they were charged with killing a black inmate at Marion by strangling him to death. Silverstein and Fountain then killed a friend of the murdered inmate who had sought to avenge his death.  They reportedly stabbed the inmate 67 times and then dragged his bloody corpse up and down the prison tier so that other prisoners could see their handiwork. 
Through these murders, Silverstein and Fountain were sending a message on behalf of the Aryan Brotherhood that no matter where you locked them up they’d get to you.  It should be noted that there was no federal death penalty at the time of these murders and Silverstein and Fountain were already serving life sentences for murder.  The Bureau of Prisons clearly got the message.
The Bureau consequently “locked down” Marion, meaning that all inmates would be locked in their cells 23 hours a day.  Marion, thus essentially, became the nation’s first “super max” prison.  The response from angry inmate advocates was swift and expected.     The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was hit by a wave of lawsuits claiming cruel and unusual punishment. 
The BOP eventually prevailed in court and set out to build a new institution specifically designed as a super max facility.  The states meanwhile were watching and waiting to see what would happen once the dust settled.
In 1994, the BOP announced the opening of its new Administrative Maximum (ADMAX) Facility in Florence, Colorado. Silverstein and Fountain, meanwhile, were transferred to other federal prisons.   Fountain died of a heart attack in 2004 and Silverstein is now housed at the ADMAX.  Critics have been decrying the use solitary confinement since super max prisons began proliferating after the BOP successfully fended off all initial lawsuits.  
One way of looking at super max facilities is that they are prisons for the prison population “community”.  Many inmates will tell staff that they’re happy the Bureau of Prisons provides a place to keep dangerous predators away from them. 

With 490 inmates in federal super max out of a population of 219,000, this comes out to an “incarceration rate” of about 224 per 100,000.  This is considerably lower than the U.S. incarceration rate of 738 per 100,000 (and lower than the top ten countries’ incarceration rates) that critics constantly quote to criticize our nation’s criminal justice policies. 

Partly because of ADMAX, where the most violent and dangerous inmates can be isolated from the rest of the population, and for other reasons, homicides within BOP facilities have taken a nosedive.  Many states have also built their own super max facilities instituted other innovations.  Consequently, our prisons are more peaceful than 35 years ago. 
This has happened despite a surge of the prison population, and “severe overcrowding” contrary to what the experts have long predicted and warned us about.  Better staff training and inmate classification systems have dramatically decreased prison homicides.  Between 1980 and 2003 the state prison homicide rate dropped from 54.0 per 100,000 inmates to an astounding 5.7 per 100,000.  This should strike inmate advocates as good news but they persist in condemning prisons as if nothing’s changed since the 1971 Attica riot.
New and ever-changing conditions in society require new and innovative operating practices.  Critics nonetheless continue to malign prisons for failing to perform the mission imposed on them by religious zealots more than two hundred years ago.  Because of this corrections in general and prisons in particular have suffered from a kind of identity crisis.  This crisis was, and still remains in some jurisdictions, demonstrated in a vague or even contradicting sense of mission.