Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration’
The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an excellent series on how Louisiana became the world’s leading jailer. The eight-part series begins with these sobering stats:
Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s. …
One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Crime rates in Louisiana are relatively high, but that does not begin to explain the state’s No. 1 ranking, year after year, in the percentage of residents it locks up.
In Louisiana, a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole. A trio of drug convictions can be enough to land you at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of your life.
Earlier this week Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced plans to shut down L.A.’s notorious Men’s Central Jail. This is big news: L.A. County’s jails comprise not just the largest and most violent jail system in the nation, but also, by default, one of the nation’s largest mental health care providers. Over the years I have been writing this blog, I’ve often noted stories of violence and other problems in the L.A. County jails. So, planning to shutter the largest of those troubled facilities — Men’s Central, which houses as many as 5,000 inmates on any given day — is a noteworthy reform. (Of course, questions remain about whether/how the plans will be implemented.)
How, you might ask, can L.A. County do this — especially at a time when California’s realignment policy is shifting more responsibility to the county jails? The ACLU of Southern California, which has been suing L.A. County over its dismal jail conditions for years, explains:
[A] report [PDF here], by nationally-renowned corrections expert James Austin and based on data provided by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, finds that Men’s Central Jail can be shuttered by safely releasing 3,000 low-risk, non-violent pre-trial and sentenced inmates into community-based supervision and education programs that will curb recidivism, and by increasing the capacity of the county-wide jail system by 2,000 beds through a repurposing of existing facilities.
James Austin may be familiar to readers of this blog, because he also provided the data crunching needed for Mississippi to shut down its horrific solitary confinement wing, “Unit 32“. I noted previously that he was also working with New Orleans to downsize its jails, though it appears his recommendations there have not been implemented. His firm has also consulted for a number of states and the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. Consultants, advisers, policy analysts don’t have the flashiest jobs, and unlike celebrity activists and high-profile lawyers rarely become household names, but work like Austin’s is what will make it possible for local and state governments to dismantle mass incarceration — and, ideally, to do so in a way that avoids the Pyrrhic victories that Bob Weisberg and Joan Petersilia have warned of.
I have lamented many times on this blog that the media has not been entirely accurate in its reporting on California’s “realignment” policy that went into effect in October 2011 (e.g. here and here). Luckily, there is no reason to be misinformed about realignment anymore because expert criminologist Joan Petersilia, who probably knows more about California parole and reentry than anyone and has advised California governors on criminal justice policy, has recently given an interview the Berkeley Law “Criminal Justice Conversations” podcast series. Listen here!
Unfortunately, and as evidenced by the numerous comments that keep streaming in on an earlier post I did on realignment, there seems to be widespread confusion not just in the media, but also on the ground about how realignment is being interpreted and applied in particular counties. Perhaps this is because the state and/or the counties are not doing a good job of communicating the policy to the public, or because the policy itself has some gaps, or simply isn’t working well (or isn’t working as well everywhere), or… etc. Whatever the reason for the confusion, this makes it all the more problematic that, as Petersilia notes in the podcast, the realignment bill did not set aside funds for evaluating its implementation:
You know it’s so disheartening, I can hardly voice it to you, to be honest with you. It goes against every other trend in every other state, and as you said, at the federal government, but it also goes against California’s recent history. Every other major initiative in modern history in California has had a set-aside, that if you’re going to spend all of this money to do things differently, somebody should be accountable and report back to the legislature about how well it worked. Realignment, we’re investing much more then any of these previous initiatives, and yet isn’t it rather odd that we didn’t set aside any money for evaluation?
The New York Times “Room for Debate” feature this week addresses the racial imbalance in incarceration rates, providing a range of opinions on the question:
The news for young black men is not good: they are disproportionately singled out for discipline in school, they are more likely to be stopped and frisked by New York City police officers, and according to Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.
Would pulling back on draconian drug laws or legalizing marijuana be enough to fix this imbalance? What else needs to be done?
In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:
The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.
At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.
In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness: Read the rest of this entry »
n+1 magazine has this article arguing for prison abolition, by Christopher Glazek. For all the statistics it recites, it doesn’t explicitly grapple with any of the leading experts on the topics of crime, punishment, and mass incarceration or discuss their research; nor does it (on my reading) accurately describe the recent state-level reforms with which I’m most familiar (those in California), which leads me to wonder whether its other sections are accurate. To take the section in which Glazek discusses California, point-by-point: Read the rest of this entry »
Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization
Recently, mass incarceration has been theorized as a system of racialized social control. This frame, however, often relies on long-standing gender reductionism that posits the primary subject of punishment and criminalization as male. At the same time, the unprecedented growth of female incarceration has spawned a host of gender-sensitive interventions, yet the discourses that are gender-sensitive often marginalize if not entirely erase the distinctive racial dimensions of the punitive turn in public policy. This Symposium will interrogate how criminalization is mediated through various intersections of race, gender and class and will shed light on the dimensions of racialized criminalization that are gendered differently.
Moreover, this symposium will investigate the parallel and reinforcing nature of institutions that prepare certain populations for incarceration and function to exclude them upon their release. In examining various logics of punishment, the discussion will not be limited to formal boundaries of the criminal justice system, nor the processes that govern adjudications of innocence or guilt. Instead, this symposium will interrogate the processes of control that parallel and intersect with the prison system such as the public health, welfare, foster care and education systems. Examining these overlaps reveals the way that systems which are seen as policing race have gender dimensions and those which are seen as embodying gender norms police them along racial lines. Lastly, we will examine the ways in which formalistic examinations of the criminal justice systems and constitutional limitations on state action can obscure these race and gender dynamics.
The full lineup of panels and panelists is at this link.
Insofar as America is (descriptively) exceptional,* two key differences setting America apart from its peer nations are mass incarceration and popular religiosity. Assuming the U.S. is most usefully compared with Canada, Australia, and Western Europe (I acknowledge not all will share this assumption), none of these peer nations match the U.S. imprisonment rate and few come close to American levels of church membership, church-going, or public professions of faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many American prisons offer a wide array of faith-based programming (even, or especially, prisons where secular education and rehabilitation programming is meager: for instance, in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, you can earn a BA from a Baptist theological seminary, but no non-Christian college courses are offered). An evangelical group, Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, is among the most prominent national organizations sending volunteers into prisons and advocating for criminal justice reform.
How does this convergence of American religiosity with American imprisonment fit with the First Amendment’s ban on state-established religion? In her book Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton UP, 2009), Buffalo law professor Winifred Sullivan uses a recent lawsuit as a case study for considering this question. From the book’s introduction: Read the rest of this entry »
That’s the dire prediction made in this editorial from the Birmingham News:
Actually, it’s surprising someone hasn’t sued already. We’ve known since May the U.S. Supreme Court’s dim view of California’s overcrowded prisons. The high court ordered California to get rid of 30,000 of the prison system’s 140,000 inmates after inmates’ lawsuits contended the overcrowding violated their rights and kept them from getting needed medical care and other services.
Alabama’s prisons are even more jam-packed than California’s, with our state’s 30,970 inmates exceeding the prisons’ designed capacity by 190 percent, according to state data. California’s prisons were at 175 percent capacity at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. While Alabama’s prison conditions aren’t nearly as bad as California’s, Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones expressed the obvious concern.
“California’s prisons are not as overcrowded as Alabama’s are right now,” Jones told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story published Tuesday in The Birmingham News. “I’m afraid that all it’s going to take is for someone to take some of the California lawsuits and change the names of the defendants to Alabama officials instead of California officials and a group of federal judges is going to order that Alabama reduce a bunch of prisoners to reduce overcrowding.”
The California case referred to is, of course, Brown v. Plata, last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding a federal court order requiring the Golden State to reduce its prison population. At the time, for all its importance as a moral statement, I didn’t think Plata would have much practical effect for other states since no other state has prisons as overcrowded as California’s — no other state, that is, except for Alabama. So, it’s not surprising to me that officials there are worried.
I don’t think Alabama has as much to fear from federal judges as this editorial implies. Read the rest of this entry »
Does fiscal crisis promote criminal justice reform? From reading newspapers and magazines, one would certainly think so. State efforts to cut costs by downsizing prisons have been one of the biggest criminal justice stories in recent years — with articles like this one (on California) and this one (on Oregon and… (the list could go on) now a recurring feature in both national and local newspapers. UC-Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram has coined a term for this convergence of fiscal woes with prison reform: “humonetarianism.” And one of the more intriguing political developments of the Obama era — the sudden reversal of many right-wing politicians from their Bush/Clinton/Bush era “tough on crime” stance — can be explained in part by concerns about the runaway costs to taxpayers of mass incarceration. Yet as Malcolm C. Young notes at The Crime Report, state budget woes can also be “double-edged swords” if they lead states to slash social programs that can help keep people out of prison.
In a (relatively) new paper, UW law professor Mary D. Fan provides some timely scholarly analysis of this seeming trend of “budget-cut criminal justice,” and offers suggestions for how states might move beyond expedient cost-cutting to lasting penal reform. In turn, here’s UC-Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh, writing at the legal blog Jotwell, discussing Fan’s findings:
Some of [the recent state-level prison reform] measures are decidedly modest; about half of the states have introduced “back-end” sentence reductions in their early release and parole programs so that individual prisoners receive small adjustments in their sentences in the interest of collective fiscal savings. Wisconsin has introduced “Taco Tuesdays” to save $2 million dollars a year by shaving off ten cents per inmate meal. Other measures, though, are decidedly more ambitious. Fan draws upon many examples. In 2008, Mississippi amended a law requiring prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so that parole boards could decide to release prisoners after serving 25 percent of their sentences. In 2009, New York amended its law to give counties the discretion to establish “local conditional release committees” to review applicants for early release. In 2010, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support that lowers the penalties for several drug possession and use crimes. …
Fan suggests public officials consciously embrace a fiscally responsible, evidence-based approach to penal policies that focuses on alternatives to automatically increasing sentences and warehousing prisoners. Unlike the rehabilitative ideal of the first half of the twentieth century, this rehabilitation pragmatism is less interested in the moral transformation of the prisoner and more concerned with cost-effective measures that nevertheless assure the public of its safety. Fan draws our attention to a moment in our history that may well be a turning point for prison policies that desperately need political will and legislative attention.