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Preview: Reason Magazine - Topics > Punishment/Prisons


All articles with the "Prisons" tag.

Published: Mon, 24 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 24 Oct 2016 21:58:47 -0400


Chelsea Manning Sent to Solitary over Suicide Attempt

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 15:40:00 -0400

(image) Chelsea Manning, in military prison for releasing classified military documents to Wikileaks while serving in Iraq, will be sent to solitary confinement partly due to a July suicide attempt.

Manning attempted to kill herself in her cell in July. In response to her failed attempt, she faced additional administrative punishment, including solitary confinement, transfer to a more secure prison, and the elimination of any possibility for parole.

Today a disciplinary board decided to punish Manning with 14 days in solitary confinement, seven of which will be suspended.

Of the charges, she was acquitted of one: "Resisting the Force Cell Move Team." This was a strange bureaucratic accusation that potentially punishes a prisoner for anything that requires this team to be called to remove somebody from a prison cell, regardless of the reason. She was found guilty of "Conduct Which Threatens" because her suicide attempt disrupted the orderly operations of the prison. She was also found guilty of having an unauthorized book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, about the activists of Anonymous, in her cell.

One does not have to believe that Manning was innocent and one does not have to support the legitimacy of Manning's transgender identity to be concerned about the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment for somebody who clearly acted out due to mental health issues and frustrations. If Manning were a less polarizing figure and had been diagnosed with something much less culturally controversial like bipolar disorder, it would be very easy to grasp that isolating somebody who had attempted suicide is an absurd response for a prison.

The Obama administration has ordered an end to putting juveniles in federal prisons in solitary confinement. Some states are attempting to scale back on the practice as evidence increasingly shows that it doesn't help, and should really only be considered as a last resort, not a form of punishment.

Read more from Fight for the Future, the activist group supporting Manning, here.

Prison Censors Impound Reason Because It 'Presents a Threat' to 'Security, Good Order, or Discipline'

Fri, 09 Sep 2016 15:30:00 -0400

As Reason subscribers around the country were settling in to peruse the new issue of the magazine this week, one reader wasn't so lucky.

A Florida prison has impounded our current issue. The stated reasons: "(3)(a) It depicts of describes procedures for the construction or use of weapons, ammunitions, bombs, chemical agents, or incendiary devices" and also "(3)(m) It otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person." We received notice at our Los Angeles office that the issue was now in administrative limbo earlier this week.

What was the offending story, you might ask? Has Reason become the newest incarnation of The Anarchist Cookbook? Hardly. Page 8 of the magazine contained a small infographic on popular accessories for AR-15s by Jason Keisling. To be clear, Keisling did not offer instructions for how to construct an AR-15 from ramen noodles and plastic sporks nor strategy on how to use one to kill a warden; the piece offered some snack-sized tidbits about how the military firearm's many interchangeable accessories accounted for some of its popularity with civilians.

We're terribly sorry that our incarcerated subscriber isn't able to see the infographic. He's also missing out on Matt Welch's great cover story on the major parties' fiscal fantasies, Shikha Dalmia's foray into the politics of two of America's most Muslim cities, and Tate Watkins' insider account of Haiti's dysfunctional coffee industry.

But you know who else probably can't see a bunch of that stuff? You! Unless you subscribe to our print or digital edition, you have no better access to our amazing content than a man trapped in a cage.

Celebrate your freedom. Subscribe today!



Philly Can't Turn Entire Airport Into Emotional Safe Space, Say Judges In NAACP-Ad Case

Tue, 06 Sep 2016 15:45:00 -0400

Philadelphia officials can't ban political or religious speech at the airport just because it might make some visitors uncomfortable, says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The decision is a victory for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been told that city policies prohibited its ads from appearing at the Philadelphia International Airport. The trouble started in 2011, when the NAACP attempted to run an ad on airport-display monitors that said, "Welcome to America, home to 5% of the world's people & 25% of the world's prisoners. Let's build a better America together." But city officials declined the ad, citing an informal Philly policy that prevents airport-advertising with noncommercial messages. In 2012, Philadelphia passed a formal policy stating that ads not proposing "a commercial transaction" were forbidden at the airport (as were ads relating to alcohol or tobacco products, sexually oriented businesses, and political campaigns). Noncommercial ads promoting Philly tourism, transport, and government-initiatives were exempted. The city justified this policy by citing a desire to avoid controversy and to maximize ad revenue. City lawyers argued that controversial political or religious messages in some airport ads could jeopardize the impact of nearby commercial ads, thereby leading to an overall decline in willing advertisers. They also claimed that even if revenue wasn't affected, the ban would be justifiable to keep visitors from feeling offended. Not good enough, said the circuit court. "No matter the type of forum, restrictions on speech on government property must be reasonable. The city's ban on ­noncommercial ads at the airport is ­unreasonable because it is not supported by the record or by common-sense inferences," wrote Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro in a decision cosigned by Chief Judge Theodore McKee. Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, however, dissented, writing that the city should be able to regulate speech in order to create a "comfortable environment" for travelers. "It still seems reasonable to think that ­disallowing controversial advertisements on the airport's more than 100 monitors will have a positive impact on travelers' ­experiences by removing some stress or controversy from their journeys," Hardiman wrote. That does indeed seem reasonable—and also irrelevant. The role of government regulations on speech shouldn't be to maximize profits for commercial enterprises or protect the delicate sensibilities of passersby. Luckily, Judges Ambro and McKee seem to believe that the First Amendment trumps turning Philly's airport into one big safe-space from emotional discomfort. "Because the ban [on noncommercial airport-advertising] is unreasonable, it violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced as written," their opinion stated. The judges also noted that the city's claims about ad revenue and offense-taking may merely be a cover for its "viewpoint discriminatory" speech policy—that is, that Philly's official reasons for rejecting the NAACP ad could have been concocted after-the-fact to conceal a simple dislike for its message. The city conceded as much was possible in court, admitting that its argued reasons might be "strictly in the realm of lawyer argumentation." The court points out that, "asked if the City can invent justifications when writing its appellate briefs, counsel for the City answered yes" and that "the City further conceded the possibility that its actual intent might have been to suppress viewpoints that cast Philadelphia or the region in a negative light."[...]

Conservatives Against Incarceration

Sun, 04 Sep 2016 12:00:00 -0400

Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration, by David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $29.95 Only recently have scholars taken a sustained interest in the 20th century construction of the "carceral state," the instruments and political logic by which the United States became the global leader in imprisonment. In Prison Break, David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, a pair of political scientists based at Johns Hopkins University, offer an elegant account of a related story: the conservative pivot away from prison. Given the role that law-and-order Republicans played in forging the punishment apparatus in the first place, the story told by Dagan and Teles is as surprising as it is important. Since most criminal law is written by the states, most offenders convicted of a crime go to a state prison. As of now, Republicans boast almost twice as many governors as Democrats; in 23 states, they control both the statehouse and the executive. If the carceral state is to be dismantled, Republicans will have to supply not just the workhorses but much of the leadership as well. The central insight of Prison Break is that Republican criminal justice reformers do not accomplish their task by parroting progressive views or renouncing cherished ideas. Instead they adopt what Dagan and Teles describe as an "indigenous" language, fashioning an authentically conservative critique of mass incarceration. The authors pay particular attention to a process they call identity vouching: a willingness to entertain unorthodox ideas when a well-credentialed and highly trusted leader or organization espouses them. Identity vouching helps explaining all manner of reforms, from support for gay marriage to action on climate change. But it is particularly well-suited to the elite group of conservatives converted—sometimes as part of an actual Christian conversion—to oppose the politics of mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles recount the stories of two Republican insiders, Pat Nolan and Charlie Colson, both of whom served time behind bars and, as a result, offered powerful testimonials on the dismal choices prisoners confront. Colson, known as President Nixon's "hatchet man" and convicted for his role in the Watergate crimes, founded the organization Prison Fellowship after his release in 1976, and he used this platform to perform outreach to prisoners and their families as well as mount criticisms of the "lock 'em and leave 'em" approach to criminal justice. Two decades later, Nolan joined Colson's group after his own stint in federal prison, and with him came renewed focus on legislative advocacy and conservative reform. Prison Fellowship and its affiliated work was a lonely ministry until Tea Party activism endowed the party with a more stridently ideological tenor, opening the door to a critique of the prison-industrial complex that resonated with the movement's appraisal of government performance in other areas. By "creating a climate of permanent austerity in the states," Dagan and Teles write, Tea Party activists made the "GOP's long time exemption [from fiscal review] for police and prisons ideologically and fiscally untenable." Republicans who "established increasing levels of incarceration as a problem" now positioned themselves as more conservative than others, not less. The authors devote much attention to Texas' pioneering efforts, which began in 2007, and Georgia's more ambitious reforms, which started in 2011. After these states lent their conservative imprimatur to criminal justice reform, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio followed with substantial legislative packages. In general, the new laws entailed lower penalties for nonviolent crimes, non-carceral sanctions for parole and probation violations, drug court diversion, credits given for good behavior in prison that applied for early release, or a rollback of "truth in sentencing" laws. With no great fanfare, against the run of the recent [...]

Bureau of Prisons Will Reduce Time Inmates Spend in Controversial 'Double Solitary'

Tue, 30 Aug 2016 07:00:00 -0400

The federal Bureau of Prisons announced Friday that it will curtail its practice putting dangerous inmates in cramped cells together for up to 23 hours a day, a practice paradoxically known as "double-cell solitary." The agency, as part of the Obama White House's directives earlier this year to reduce the use of solitary confinment, said it will now require mental health screenings before placing an inmate in what's known as its Special Management Unit, which is meant to hold gang leaders, violent inmates, and others considered too dangerous for the general prison population. Time in SMU will be limited to two years, with the goal of getting most inmates out within one year, and, the agency said, it will no longer release inmates straight from SMU back out into society. Solitary confinement is often described as a tiny slice of hell, but arguably more hellish, as Jean-Paul Sartre once famously observed, is being trapped with another person. Civil liberties advocates argue the practice of putting two inmates, many times violent or mentally ill or both, in a 6x10 foot cell for up to 23 hours almost day ensures they will become more violent, more ill, or both. "We're placing people in SMU who are supposed to have behavioral problems," Amy Fettig, the senior counsel for for the ACLU's National Prison Project, said in an interview. "But then we're placing them in a cell the size of your bathroom with another person for 12 months. That type of arrangement sets up people to be injured, if not worse." As the Marshall Project reported earlier this year, at least 18 states double-up their restrictive housing unit cells, more than 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate, and the consequences are often deadly: One prisoner, Aaron Fillmore, started feeling an unexplainable aggression towards his cellmate. "It was a level of discomfort that I never experienced before," he wrote in a letter. Fillmore was double celled at Lawrence Correctional Center in Illinois for three months. "I had thoughts of just punching him in the face. Why? I have no idea. I just had the urge to do it." In 2013, an Ohio man suffering from psychotic delusions strangled his cellmate a day after they were placed together. The murdered cellmate was two days away from being released. A prisoner in Georgia stabbed his cellmate multiple times in 2014 as officers were handcuffing that cellmate through the cell door. When guards demanded that the prisoner put his hands up to be cuffed, he yelled in response, "I can't do that. He just kept messin' with me." That same year in Alaska, two cellmates who had been friends got into an argument, which ended when one strangled the other. After realizing what he had done, he screamed for the guards' help. Fettig and other civil liberties advocates say the reforms are a step in the right direction, but still far above international standards for solitary confinement. A United Nations expert on torture has called for solitary confinement over 15 days to be completely abolished. And, Fettig said, although inmates in SMU are not technically in solitary, "what we hear from mental health experts is it's still an extreme level of isolation even if you're with another person. The mental health impact is very, very similar. You're likely to see the mental and cognitive degradation that occurs in severe isolation." Alan Mills, the executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, a nonprofit legal aid organization, said "double celling does not relieve the damage done by solitary." "To the contrary, it makes it worse," he continued. "People confined to solitary develop coping mechanisms--constant pacing is one, very strict routines is another. Having a second person, always present, in a very small space with zero privacy, interferes with these coping mechanisms--and one person's coping mechanism is another person's irritant." In 2014 Mills documented two inmates confined to double-[...]

6 Alternative Currencies: From Coca Leaves to Mackerel

Tue, 23 Aug 2016 13:04:00 -0400

Time and again, cigarettes have served as a spontaneous currency behind bars. But they aren't the only good to have played that role. As my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported here yesterday, a new sociological study has revealed that ramen noodles are now the currency of choice in at least one prison. While the ramen standard takes hold in that institution, other commodity currencies have emerged in other parts of the world, sometimes as stopgap substitutes for the government's money and sometimes as something more long-term. Here are a few of the examples we've covered in Reason over the years: The T-Shirt Standard: Haiti has an extensive trade in second-hand clothes; it also has an official currency that isn't always stable. And so Haitians have sometimes used the former in the place of the latter. "When the paper or coin currency of a nation is unstable and in short supply, it is not uncommon for a good (and often a relatively plentiful good) to take the place of currency—via a kind of generalized barter," one of the filmmakers behind the documentary Secondhand (Pepe) explains. The Minute Standard: Kenya fell into chaos after the corrupt elections of 2007, and the stores that ordinarily sold prepaid phone minutes shut down amid the violence. Phone credits quickly became more valuable than the government's money, and many people found it relatively convenient to use those units of talk time as a substitute currency. While this was a quick-fix response to a crisis, mobile phone credits had already been used as an alternative currency in more stable times. As the cell phone economy took off, many Africans living abroad discovered that the safest, cheapest way to send remittances home was simply to buy phone minutes for their families. It was an easy step from there to just trading the minutes. The Fish Standard: Ramen isn't the only food to replace cigarettes as a prison currency. Packs of mackerel and cans of tuna have done the same. One difference: While ramen's popularity as money is linked to its popularity as a meal, most prisoners don't like the mackerel enough to actually want to eat it. No doubt this makes it easier to accumulate savings. The Opium Standard: Just as ramen isn't the only food to become a money, tobacco isn't the only drug to play that role. Seven years ago, an AP dispatch from Afghanistan described a town where the "common currency was what grew in everyone's backyard—opium." The scene sounded like a Norman Rockwell/Thomas De Quincey mash-up: "When children felt like buying candy, they ran into their father's fields and returned with a few grams of opium folded inside a leaf. Their mothers collected it in plastic bags, trading 18 grams for a meter of fabric or two liters of cooking oil. Even a visit to the barbershop could be settled in opium." Alas, "the economy of this village sputtered to a halt last year when the government began aggressively enforcing a ban on opium production." You didn't realize the war on drugs could double as a deflationary monetary policy. The Cocaine Standard: In Colombia, on the other hand, a government crackdown inadvertantly encouraged the use of coca leaves as a medium of exchange. "No money has reached Guerima for months," the Telegraph reported in 2008, "and transactions are conducted in coca, with one gram enough to buy a soft drink." Possibly a coca-cola. The Pee Standard: When I blogged that cocaine story eight years ago, I also linked to an article that claimed prisoners were using yet another valuable commodity as money: drug-free urine. (Talk about liquid assets!) I'd call this one the gold standard, but I guess that name is already taken. Unlike that other gold standard, this one seems especially susceptible to inflation.[...]

Ramen Noodles Replacing Cigarettes as Prison Currency

Mon, 22 Aug 2016 12:35:00 -0400

(image) Cigarettes have long served as one form of currency between prison inmates, but they're being supplanted in the bartering hierarchy by an unlikely candidate: packaged ramen noodles. So says researcher Michael Gibson-Light, in a paper presented at the 2016 American Sociological Association (ASA) Annual Meeting this week. He attributed the shift—which can be seen even in prisons where smoking is still allowed—to "punitive frugality" stemming from prison cost-cutting and cost-shifting, and the resulting unhappiness among inmates over the quality and amount of food they're served.

"Services are cut back and many costs are passed on to inmates in an effort to respond to calls to remain both tough on crime and cost effective," said Gibson-Light, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona. "Prisoners are so unhappy with the quality and quantity of prison food that they receive that they have begun relying on ramen noodles—a cheap, durable food product—as a form of money in the underground economy." Like cigarettes—and, increasingly, in place of them and other erstwhile prison-bartering staples, like stamps—they're used to exchange for other goods, services such as laundry, and bargaining chips in football pools or card games.

The rise of ramen noodles as prison currency is just one of Gibson-Light's findings from interviewing inmates and staff at an all-male, Sunbelt-area state prison from May 2015 to May 2016. Honing in on inmates who worked as laborers, his research led him to focus largely on a spectrum of monetary practices among inmates.

While his research was only conducted at one prison, the ramen noodle finding is in line with other investigations into prison markets, he noted. "What we are seeing is a collective response—across inmate populations and security levels, across prison cliques and racial groups, and even across states—to changes and cutbacks in prison food services."

"Prison staff members as well as members of the inmate population provided narratives of the history of changes in prison food—the past few decades have seen steady decreases in the quality and quantity of inmate food," Gibson-Light said.

Gustavo Alvarez, who spent more than a decade in a California men's prison, published a book last year on creative ramen recipes from behind bars (titled, aptly, Prison Ramen). "Large buckets lined with plastic trash bags would be used to cook huge spreads," including "dirty ramen," adorned with canned Vienna sausages and green beans, Alvarez told NPR. "It can bring a couple of guys who don't have much together. Why? Because maybe a guy has a bag of chips—that's all he has to his name. And this other guy is blessed to have a couple of soups. Well, they get together, they make an interesting meal."

A 2014 Vanity Fair story on prison food also yielded a "prison chicken nuggets" recipe: "Take ramen noodles, boil it down to literally mush. You ball it up, put a piece of cheese and beef summer sausage in the middle. Make sure it's tightly wound up. You cook it in the microwave for ten minutes until it's brown."

The Justice Department Is Wrong. Private Prisons Aren't the Problem.

Thu, 18 Aug 2016 17:45:00 -0400

Liberal critics of the U.S. criminal justice system overwhelming cheered the Justice Department's recent decision to cancel federal contracts with private prisons. Their enthusiasm for this misguided half-measure is disappointing, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the real problem. The criminal justice system is not broken because there are too many people in private prisons. It is broken because there are too many people in prison, period. Merely shuffling prisoners from one form of captivity to another might be an exciting development for lefties whose driving force is hatred of corporations and profits, but the move won't accomplish much else. It may even make life even more uncomfortable for the actual prisoners. If left-leaning reformers understand this, many of them aren't letting on. Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King hailed the Justice Department's decision as a "huge deal." Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, called it "one of the most significant victories of the decade." California's Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris said that she applauds the decision. "Mass incarceration should not be incentivized by private gain." This analysis is ahistorical. Private prisons did not create the conditions that encouraged mass incarceration—private prisons came into being as a response to mass incarceration. As Reason's C.J. Ciaramella points out, the federal Bureau of Prisons started contracting with private corporations in 1997. The government took this step to help alleviate overcrowding, having arrested and imprisoned huge swaths of the population as a response to public panic stemming from the crime wave of the 1980s and early '90s. Incarcerating so many people was an overreaction to the problem—it was bad public policy, and terribly costly. The rise of private prisons is a symptom of this mistake, and getting rid of them without addressing the underlying condition that made them necessary in the first place is counter-productive to the cause of criminal justice reform. Where are these federal prisoners going to go? Back to publicly-run prisons? It might very well be the case that further overcrowding of public prisons is the consequence of closing private prisons. While it may delight liberals to know that private companies aren't making money off of prisoners' misery anymore, the prisoners will still be, well, prisoners. They might even be more miserable, living in more closely confined quarters and competing with even more inmates for prison resources. The Justice Department claims that it reviewed its private prisons and found them lacking. "They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security," wrote Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, according to The Washington Post. This matches the public perception of private prisons. The media routinely portrays them as less safe: the most recent season of Orange is the New Black insists that privatization is nothing short of a humanitarian crisis for inmates, and Mother Jones garnered universal acclaim for an investigative report on the inadequacies of a private prison in Louisiana. No one disagrees that private prisons have huge problems, are often mismanaged, and frequently neglect inmates' safety. But public prisons are plagued by the exact same problems. It's not clear that one kind is clearly better run than the other. And private prisons have at least one important advantage over public prisons: it's easier to hold management responsible when management is someone other than the government. As Reason's Leonard Gilroy and Adrian Moore observed, "If dissatisfied with performance, a government can cancel a prison contract with a private [...]

Brickbat: Juvenile Justice

Thu, 04 Aug 2016 04:00:00 -0400

(image) An investigation by an Australian TV network has found that staff at a juvenile detention facility in the Northern Territory teargassed and assaulted inmates, held them in isolation and stripped them and put them in confinement chairs. Some of those children were as young as 10.

America's Jails and Prisons Have Become Cruel, Expensive Institutions for the Mentally and Physically Disabled

Tue, 19 Jul 2016 14:45:00 -0400

People with mental and physical disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in U.S. jails and prisons, according to a report released Monday by the Center for American Progress. According to the report, "Disabled Behind Bars," 31 percent of those in prisons and nearly 40 percent of those in jails report having at least one disability. Fully half of women in jails have at least one reported disability. Compared to the general population, people behind bars in state and federal prisons and jails are three and four times as likely to have at least one disability, respectively. Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and learning disorders are among the most commonly reported disabilities, according to the report. Once behind bars, people with disabilities can find themselves placed in solitary for lack of appropriate accommodations, despite federal disability laws that mandate equal access to all services and activities for those in custody with disabilities. They're more likely to be abused by guards, have their treatment and medication regime disrupted, and have a harder time overcoming the considerable obstacles a criminal record puts on finding steady work and housing, the report says. "Mass incarceration of people with disabilities is unjust, unethical, and cruel," the report states. "But it is also penny-wise and pound-foolish, as community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than housing an individual behind bars." The report cites a 2014 study that found jailing a person with serious mental illness in Los Angeles County costs more than $48,500 per year. "By comparison," the report goes on, "the price tag for providing Assertive Community Treatment, or ACT, and supportive housing—one of the most intensive, comprehensive, and successful intervention models in use today—amounts to less than $20,500 annually." At a White House briefing Monday on criminal justice reform and disability, the report's main author, the Center for American Progress' Rebecca Vallas, said the wave of de-institutionalization in the 1960s and 1970s—when the U.S. shuttered many of its mental institutions—was widely greeted as a positive development, but it was not accompanied by new investments in treatment, leaving police and jailers as the primary mental health service providers. "We effectively traded one form of mass institutionalization for another," Vallas said. Another panel member at the briefing, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, noted the Cook County jail, L.A. County jail, and Rikers Island are the three largest mental health treatment providers in the country. "The money never followed the people, and additionally, money was cut," Koutoujian said. "Surprise, jails and emergency rooms are now the de facto mental health treatment facilities." The report says those with physical and mental disabilities face inadequate services at nearly every level of interaction with the criminal justice system, from policing to pre-trial booking to court to jail to reentry into society. The report highlights cases like that of Christine Stein, a deaf North Dakota woman who was arrested after using a video relay to call 911 to report a suicidal man in her apartment. Unable to understand her, police arrested Stein on suspicion of harming the man. "According to a lawsuit against the Jamestown police department and courts, Stein was denied a sign language interpreter not only during police questioning and booking, but also when she was brought before a judge for court proceedings," the report states. "The charges were ultimately dropped after she was able to meet with an interpreter two days before she was scheduled to return to court." People who are deaf are sometimes denied access to court interpreters or in other cases billed for them, Vallas said. A[...]

State and Local Spending On Prisons Has Grown Three Times as Fast as Spending on Schools, Says New Report

Fri, 08 Jul 2016 16:12:00 -0400

According to a new report from the Department of Education, spending over the past three decades by state and local governments on prisons and jails has grown three times as fast as spending on public education. Based on data collected between 1979 and 2013, state and local expenditures for education from preschool through grade 12 increased by 107 percent. In comparison, state and local expenditures for corrections grew by 324 percent. While the report notes these increases are much smaller when collected data is adjusted for population change, corrections still outpaced education spending in all but two states. In 24 states, there was a growth rate in per capita corrections spending more than 100 percent higher than per pupil education spending. The two states where public education spending increased more than correctional spending were New Hampshire and Massachusetts, yet it was not by much; the differences were 1 and 2 percent, respectively. Why the stark differences in spending? One of the biggest factors that the report notes is the growth in the number of people being sent to prisons and jails. The report specifically mentions data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that the number of people incarcerated in state and local facilities more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2014. This dramatic increase is, as the study claims, "due in part to the enactment of additional, often lengthy mandatory minimum sentence laws." What may be unsurprising to many is that certain groups were disproportionately affected. As the report states: Even for offenses for which there are few differences by race or ethnicity in the likelihood of committing a crime, individuals of color—black youth in particular—are more likely than white individuals to be arrested and receive longer sentences for the same offenses (CEA 2015). For example, black males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males, and black students are about two times more likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest than white students (Pew Research Center 2013; OCR 2016). Additionally, children with incarcerated parents face an increased risk of a variety of adverse outcomes, including antisocial and violent behavior and lower educational attainment (Johnson 2009). The paper also observes a relationship between poor classroom performance and incarceration: Among state prison inmates, available data suggests that two-thirds have not completed high school (BJS 2009). Young black males between the ages of 20 and 24 who do not have a high school diploma (or an equivalent credential) have a higher chance of being incarcerated than of being employed (Neal and Rick 2014). The report concludes by arguing for state and local governments to shift some funds away from incarceration and toward education investment—not exactly surprising considering the source. Some of the policies proposed include increasing teacher salaries, increasing access to high-quality preschools, and providing education opportunities to those already incarcerated. While the Education Department argues that graduation rates rise when education funding increases, Reason's Nick Gillespie has pointed out that this doesn't necessarily increase academic success. Being enrolled in school doesn't do a person any extra good if he doesn't gain anything from being in the classroom. What's interesting is that sentencing reform was not mentioned as a policy suggestion in the report. As Families Against Mandatory Minimums explains, those rules have a major influence on how people are sentenced and are at least partially responsible for America's growing prison population. Plus, the federal government has just as much—if not more—say in this realm as states[...]

Louisiana Inmates Serving Unconstitutional Sentences Will Have to Keep Waiting for Relief

Wed, 08 Jun 2016 13:06:00 -0400


Yesterday, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat representing Louisiana's District 5, blocked a bill that would have allowed people sentenced as children to life in prison without the possibility of parole—essentially death without execution—to become eligible for parole after serving 30 years behind bars and meeting certain other requirements. Why would a democratic senator let the clock run out on a bill that sailed through the Louisiana House (82-3) with bipartisan support and would likely have seen a similar vote in the Senate? Petty politics, of course. 

According to Julia O'Donoghue of the Times-Picayune, Peterson actively blocked the juvenile-parole bill as retribution for House members failing to vote on a construction budget bill that was backed by the Senate. Now a vote on the measure, House Bill 264, will have to wait indefinitely, as the regular legislative session has run out.

HB 264, sponsored by Representative Sherman Mack (R-Livingston), would have made Louisiana compliant with two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases. In 2012, the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller case should be applied retroactively to minors sentenced before 2012.

It's estimated that approximately 300 inmates could have been eligible for parole through the passage of the Louisiana bill. That means there are currently 300 inmates who were essentially sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed when they were kids—something the U.S. Supreme Court has determined to be a form of "cruel and unusual" punishment. But because of Peterson's petty politics, they'll have to keep waiting for relief until a bill is passed and signed by Governor Edwards. Perhaps that will happen if a special session is called, perhaps they'll have to wait until next year.

According to Ben Cohen, of counsel for the Promise of Justice Initiative, Peterson's actions will result in a wave of new litigation because Louisiana still is not compliant with the recent Supreme Court decisions. This litigation will come with additional costs and uncertainty.

Cohen wrote in an email, "I think the idea that this will be fixed some day in the future, either by the state courts, the United States Supreme Court, or at next year's legislative session—it derives from the perverse view that people serving an unconstitutional sentence of life without parole at Angola, should be happy with whatever they get, should accept a second class justice. When I think about the people I know serving that sentence, that unconstitutional sentence, each day is an injustice. And today, I think Senator Peterson is responsible for that."  

It's times like these where it's important to remember that being awful on criminal-justice issues can be a bipartisan issue, too.

This post has been updated since publication.

DNA Saves the Day

Wed, 01 Jun 2016 10:00:00 -0400


Is It Time to Abolish Three Strikes? New at Reason

Mon, 23 May 2016 13:13:00 -0400

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The Return, which debuts tonight on PBS, is a documentary that follows the journeys of several former California prison inmates as they re-enter the world after serving decades behind bars under Three Strikes sentencing. Three Strikes passed in 1994 in the state and requires a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for a third felony conviction. California voters modified the law in 2012 by passing Prop 36, which allowed for the resentencing and release of convicts whose third strike was a non-violent, non-serious offense. Since then, the courts have released more than 1,500 California inmates from prison.  

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Katie Galloway, who is one of the film's two directors, and Kevin Bilal Chatman, one of the film's subjects, who served 11 years for dealing drugs to an undercover police officer. Under Three Strikes, Chatman faced life in prison but was resentenced after the passage of Prop 36.

Galloway and Chatman discuss the role that Three Strikes has played in overincarceration, what "tough on crime" laws get wrong, the surprising politics of prison sentencing reform, the difficulties of transitioning from prison to civilian life, and what other states can learn from California's experiment in resentencing.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Music by Chris Zabriskie. Approximately 13 minutes. Click the link below for downloadable versions. Subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel for daily content like this.

Maryland Reforms Asset Forfeiture, Mandatory Minimums

Fri, 20 May 2016 12:30:00 -0400

Though Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed bipartisan efforts to reform the state's asset forfeiture and drug laws in 2015, a new push has succeeded. Yesterday Hogan, a Republican, signed a bill that tightens the rules for civil asset forfeiture (the mechanism by which police seize and keep assets and property from people suspected of crimes) and also the Justice Reinvestment Act, which reduces the state's prison population and potentially reduces sentences for drug and non-violent offenses.   The asset forfeiture bill, HB 336, is modest in scope, but will nevertheless improve the situation for anybody caught up in the system. It raises the standard of proof for seizing property to "clear and convincing evidence." Because asset forfeiture is often a "civil" not criminal process, officials don't generally have to prove guilt "beyond a shadow of a doubt" like they do in criminal trials, making it easier to take somebody's property than it is to actually convict him or her. In order to seize a citizen's principal home in Maryland, though, officials actually will have to get a criminal conviction. That's an additional new requirement in the law. The law also eliminates cash forfeitures for simple drug possession cases, but maintains it for trafficking arrests. The new rules also forbid the transfer of seized cash to federal agencies unless the amount seized is more than $50,000. This is an attempt to prevent law enforcement agencies from bypassing the tighter state rules by turning to the federal Equitable Sharing Program at the Department of Justice. This federal program has looser rules than state laws, and as a result we're seeing more and more law enforcement agencies attempt to use the federal program to keep what they seize. (A pack of representatives just introduced a bill to try to make the federal rules less prone to abuse.) Unfortunately, there's an exception in the law to allow for a transfer if there's a federal warrant involved, and the Institute for Justice warns that this loophole could be pursued even more frequently to bypass Maryland's new restrictions. The Justice Reinvestment Act is estimated to reduce Maryland's state prison population by more than 1,000 over 10 years and to save the state $80 million dollars (that will be spent on other programs). The new law allows for earlier releases of those convicted of non-violent drug offenses and thefts under $1,500. It completely eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It leaves the sentence ranges intact, though, giving judges the discretion over how harsh to be. Mandatory minimums will remain for violent drug-related crimes. It will also significantly increase the types of crimes (from nine to 50) that can be wiped from an offender's record. Read more about the provisions of the Justice Reinvestment Act here. Both of these laws ended up a bit more modest but they could have been, but the reforms are valuable and needed. [...]