Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Farewell to “Prison Law Blog,” Hello to “Evolving Standards of Decency”

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Dear all,

As I noted a few weeks ago, I am officially placing this blog on hiatus as I am moving onto some new endeavors. But there are two pieces of good news. First, I am happy to announce that a new blog, “Evolving Standards of Decency,” will be picking up where I left off and covering prisoners’ rights litigation. This new blog is spearheaded by Margaret R. Moreland, a lawyer and law librarian at the Pace University Law Library, and aims to “creat[e] a forum for discussing the constitutional rights of those in America’s prisons and jails.” I hope you will bookmark the site and check it often.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

June 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Must-read: “Louisiana Incarcerated: How we built the world’s prison capital”

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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.

 

Written by sara

May 18, 2012 at 8:08 am

[Guest Post] Patting down the data on racial profiling in New York City

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This is the next in a series of guest posts on criminal justice broadly speaking from Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative.

by Peter Wagner

New York City’s “stop and frisk” policing strategy is getting a lot of attention. A police officer notes a “reasonable suspicion,” whatever that is, and then stops the person, asks some questions and then often frisks him or her.

It’s not hard to see where allegations of racial profiling come from. It’s the subject of a class action lawsuit, and last week 20 people, including Cornel West, were convicted for a civil disobedience protest last year against stop and frisk.

“Stop and frisk” is a major NYC initiative that is growing:

graph showing the number of New York City police stops from 2002 to 2011

The majority of the people being stopped and frisked are Black and Latino, and that’s been a consistent fact:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

May 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Sunday Reading, and a Programming Note

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Here’s a roundup of some recent scholarship and online commentary about prison-related issues:

Also, via Doug Berman, I noticed that the Yale Law Journal is running a prison law writing contest. If you are or have been in prison or jail, you may be eligible to enter.

A programming note: the blog has been slow this spring. This has been my way of “winding down.” I’ll actually be moving on to some new endeavors soon where for various reasons I won’t be able to blog, so I will be putting the blog on indefinite hiatus as of June 2012. I will leave the site up for archival purposes as long as WordPress will have it.

Written by sara

May 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail May Close (And a Footnote in Praise of Technocrats)

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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.

[Guest Post] Supply-side murder control?

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This is the first in a series of guest posts from Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative. These will be short posts on a range of criminal justice topics (not just prison legal issues) that I hope will spark discussion. All opinions are his, etc.

by Peter Wagner

The National Rifle Association is concerned that we aren’t using enough guns. An article in today’s New York Times explains that the National Rifle Association is pushing back against efforts to control gun ownership and use by advancing “Stand Your Ground” laws that actually encourage people to use their weapons. The laws expand the self-defense doctrine to make it easier for someone to shoot another person and claim “self-defense”. These laws are in the news due to the Trayvon Martin case, where an unarmed 17-year-old African-American was shot and killed by a Neighborhood Watch leader in Florida. Last night, after 6 weeks, the prosecutor finally announced that murder charges are being filed.

The NRA bumpersticker declares that guns aren’t the problem: “Guns don’t kill people, People kill people”. But it’s hard to deny that guns are facilitating the result. Internationally, the evidence is clear that nations with higher gun availability have higher gun homicide rates. (See page 43 of this UN report for a fascinating, if overly academic, chart showing the clear correlation.)

Within the U.S., the historical trend is quite clear. Check out this graph that matches the number of handgun homicides each year with the number of handguns produced:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

April 12, 2012 at 11:08 am

Supreme Court Upholds Jailhouse Strip Searches, Even for Traffic Infractions

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A 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court has ruled that jails may constitutionally strip-search anyone admitted to the jail, no matter how minor the reason they’re in jail. Writing in dissent, Justice Breyer observed that “the harm to privacy interests would seem particularly acute where the person searched may well have no expectation of being subject to such a search, say, because she had simply received a traffic ticket for failing to buckle a seatbelt…”

Actually, in the case at issue in this decision, the subject of the strip-search was erroneously arrested for something that isn’t even a crime: Albert Florence was arrested for not paying a fine that in fact he had paid, and in any event not paying a fine is not a crime under New Jersey law, it’s a civil infraction. As I noted previously about this case:

This line of cases should be extraordinarily troubling for civil libertarians. When you combine cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when the police arrest and detain you even for very minor offenses — even offenses that aren’t actually arrestable offenses under state law — with cases finding no Fourth Amendment violation when jail guards strip-search you after booking on a minor offense, basically we’re giving the police a green card to find any pretext to have anyone they don’t like arrested, jailed, and strip-searched. Read the Atwater dissent, Part II, if you don’t think this could be a real problem.

I haven’t yet had time to read the full SCOTUS opinions, so perhaps I’ll have additional thoughts later, but you can find all the opinions and other materials here at SCOTUSblog.

Some Twitter reactions:

Written by sara

April 2, 2012 at 11:16 am

Web Resources: Joan Petersilia Explains California’s Realignment Policy

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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?

Does California Need a Truth Commission about Prison Overcrowding?

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Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon thinks so:

[W]e need a commission to investigate for the public record how the state found itself operating prisons that attract words like torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. This is not Honduras where poverty, spiraling crime, and corruption are the order of the day, or Mexico, but we had prisons that belong in the same frame as recent news stories about the fire the killed hundreds in an overcrowded and chaotic Honduran prison (Guardian coverage here) and a murderous riot by one prison gang against another in Mexico to cover over an escape of elite gang members abetted by guards (coverage in the Guardian here).

Given the severity of the human rights problem in California’s prisons and its duration for more than two decades, retrospective documentation should lead to prospective preventive techniques. The commission could become a California Committee for the Prevention of Torture, or CAL CPT, modeled on the European CPT; a body of legal, medical, human rights, and criminological expert investigators with the authority to inspect any prison, mental hospital, or indeed any place of confinement, in order to warn state government of the potential for degrading conditions to form and how to prevent it.

The full post and more are at Simon’s always thought-provoking Governing through Crime blog.

Written by sara

March 14, 2012 at 8:46 am

“Room for Debate”: Would Ending the War on Drugs Resolve Racial Imbalance in the Prison System?

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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?

Written by sara

March 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm

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