Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘federal justice system

Is the War on Crime Nearing Detente?

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In The Nation this week, Sasha Abramsky asks: “Is This the End of the War on Crime?” Abramsky argues that the decline in violent crime in recent years, combined with the current fiscal crisis, has opened up ideological and political space for reform. Here are just a few of the many examples Abramsky recounts:

In Texas a $600 million prison-expansion plan was shelved in 2007 in favor of a $241 million plan expanding community-based drug and alcohol treatment services, after researchers convinced legislators that the latter would lower crime rates more than expanding the state’s penal infrastructure. …

In Kansas legislators approved a large investment in drug treatment programs and services for parolees designed to stop so many offenders from simply cycling back into prison after their release. The result was a drop in Kansas’s prison population significant enough to allow the state to close several facilities.

Michigan recently reformed its prisoner-release process to allow for shorter sentences … . The state closed eight prisons as a result and invested some of the $250 million savings expected to be generated over a five-year period in an expanded network of mental health and job training services, as well as drug treatment programs.

Since I can’t imagine any politician will ever announce that the war on crime is over — surrender not being an option and victory being difficult to define, if not imagine — I think the metaphor of detente may be a helpful way to frame the seeming thaw in the heated tough-on-crime rhetoric of decades past. And detente only goes so far; after decades of a war mindset, permanent disarmament is difficult to achieve, both practically and politically. Now that states have built such a massive carceral infrastructure, which many citizens have come to take for granted, how far can they really go in abandoning it? If the economic climate improves, or crime rates rise, will states simply remobilize? Notably, while state prison populations declined last year for the first time in decades, the federal prison population keeps rising. As Doug Berman points out, it’s not surprising that “that jurisdictions that generally have to balance their budgets saw a decline in incarceration in 2009, while the one jurisdiction that just prints money went in the other direction.”  Read the rest of this entry »


Poll: Most Americans See Prison System as a Failure, Would Support Alternatives to Incarceration

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Some interesting polling data out from Angus Reid (download the full poll at this PDF link):

  • 75% of Americans polled disagree with the statement that “the prison system in the U.S. does a good job at helping prisoners become law-abiding”
  • 72% support alternative penalties other than prison for non-violent offenders — interestingly, this figure is highest in the South (76%) and lowest in the West (65%)
  • 67% disagree with the statement that “the justice system in the U.S. treats every person fairly”
  • 42% disagree with the statement that “the criminal courts in the U.S. do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty”
  • 36% express “complete confidence” or “a lot of confidence” in their state and local police. For federal agencies, that figure is 35% for the FBI, 26% for the ATF and DEA
  • 22% express “complete confidence” in their local criminal courts; 25% in the Supreme Court
  • 41% say they fear being a victim of violent crime “not too much”; 11% say they fear it “to a great extent”

Readers who can identify any shortcomings in the polling method or pollster are invited to comment, but on the face of it, these numbers suggest a pretty widespread sentiment that the criminal justice system is a failure. Of course, the prison system could fail at “helping prisoners become law-abiding” while succeeding at other goals, like retribution. But the fact that so many poll respondents say they’d support alternatives to incarceration suggests that maybe retribution for its own sake is not their top priority, or maybe that they think we’re using prison on offenders for whom it’s an excessive sanction under a retributive theory.

Federal Court Allows Transgender Inmate’s Lawsuit over Medical Treatment to Go Forward

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Above: Trailer for the 2006 Outcast Films documentary “Cruel and Unusual

A U.S. district court judge in Massachusetts has denied the government’s motion to dismiss a transgender inmate’s lawsuit alleging she was denied appropriate treatment for Gender Identity Disorder (GID). The case will now proceed towards trial. The plaintiff, Vanessa Adams, is a federal inmate who was diagnosed with GID in 2005, and thereafter made repeated requests to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that she be provided with treatment, including psychological treatment and hormone therapy. After her requests were denied, she attempted suicide several times and eventually removed her own genitals. She is being represented by three nonprofit legal organizations — the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Florida Institutional Legal Services, and Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders — along with the national law firm Bingham McCutchen. You can read more about the case and download the plaintiff’s complaint here. The decision is available as a PDF here.

The specific policy Adams challenges is the BOP’s so-called “freeze-frame” policy. Under this policy, the BOP will provide treatment for inmates with GID but only at the level they were receiving prior to their incarceration. That means inmates like Adams, who was only diagnosed after she got to prison, are ineligible for any treatment. (See BOP Program Statement BOP P6031.01(30) — PDF p. 43.) At the motion-to-dismiss stage, the legal issues were mootness and venue. Notably, the judge denied the government’s argument that because the BOP is now providing Adams with hormone therapy, the case is moot: “If this court were to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims at this juncture, based on nothing more than Defendants voluntary cessation of the challenged conduct, without even so much as an assurance from Defendants that the challenged conduct will not recur, it would ‘leave the defendant[s] . . . free to return to [their] old ways'” (PDF p. 10).

Upcoming Event: Prison-related Panels at ACS 2010

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This weekend, the American Constitution Society will hold its national convention in Washington, D.C. Almost all the panels could bear on prison/jail issues in some way, and certainly on broader concerns of criminal law, procedure, and punishment. That said, if you’re planning to attend and are especially interested in prison/jail issues, watch out for these panels:

Friday, June 18

  • 2010 Census and Redistricting — perhaps the discussion will touch on prison-based gerrymandering?
  • Access to Federal Courts after Iqbal and Twombly
  • Immigration Reform: Congress and the States

Saturday, June 19

  • Detainees and Justice: Military Commissions vs. Trials within the Federal Court System
  • The Federal Role in Improving Indigent Criminal Defense

Federal Prisons More Crowded, Less Funded; DOJ Lagging on Prison Rape Standards; and More

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Although I said I wouldn’t be blogging this week, there have been a few must-read news items in the past few days for those interested in prison/jail issues:

  • The Crunch in Federal Prisons“: The Crime Report notes that federal prisons are now at 34% above capacity, but Congress isn’t keeping up with the growth by allocating more funding. The federal prison system now holds over 200,000 inmates, i.e., more than California. Slightly over half of federal prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes, and most of them are subject to tough mandatory minimum sentences.
  • U.S. Likely to Miss Deadline on Prison Rape Rules“: Attorney General Eric Holder is likely to miss an upcoming deadline to promulgate regulations requiring jails and prisons to adopt best practices for preventing prison rape. Holder says local wardens worry the required changes would be too costly.
  • Delaware House passes bill to count incarcerated people at home“: The Delaware House unanimously passed legislation to count incarcerated people at their home addresses for redistricting purposes. The bill now goes to the Senate. If it passes there, Delaware will be the second state — after Maryland — to eliminate prison-based gerrymandering.

Supreme Court Rules on Juvenile LWOP, Federal Civil Commitment of Sex Offenders

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The Supreme Court issued two rulings today in cases whose facts implicate big-picture questions about crime and punishment, although the precise legal questions at issue in both — and therefore the import of these opinions — are narrower than those big-picture questions. In Graham v. Florida, a divided court held that a life-without-parole (LWOP) sentence for a juvenile convicted of burglary violates the Eighth Amendment. In United States v. Comstock, the court held 7-2 (with Scalia and Thomas dissenting) that the federal government’s civil commitment program for “sexually dangerous” offenders does not exceed Congress’s constitutional authority. You can access links to the opinions and related documents at How Appealing, legal analysis at SCOTUSblog, and an interesting perspective on how PR concerns may have driven the Court’s treatment of these cases over at Sentencing Law & Policy (where you can also find lots more commentary from Doug Berman on these opinions, including several posts on Graham).

Note that, as Lyle Denniston observes at SCOTUSblog, Graham does not require or even necessarily contemplate the actual release of juvenile LWOP prisoners. Rather, Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court holds merely that these prisoners must be afforded “some meaningful opportunity” to present a case that they have matured and are fit to re-enter society. However, Justice Kennedy was quick to make clear, “[t]hose who commit truly horrifying crimes as juveniles may turn out to be irredeemable, and thus deserving of incarceration for the duration of their lives.” There is a lot going on in this sentence alone — a lot of assumptions and value judgments — that merits further unpacking.

I’d also note that insofar as juveniles have now won a right to a parole hearing, we might question how meaningful of a right that really is (notwithstanding the “some meaningful opportunity” language) given that in many states, parole hearings have become a sort of charade in which the prisoner can never actually win release, because the parole board routinely denies parole eligbility based solely upon the facts of the underlying crime, which is the one thing that the prisoner, of course, can never change. I am not too familiar with how parole works in Florida, which is home to most of the country’s juvenile LWOP prisoners, but I’ve blogged previously about challenges to rubber-stamp parole boards in Virginia and Michigan. After I’ve had a chance to read the opinions more closely, I’ll blog again about any notable prison implications I see, but for now, hopefully the above links and impressions will get readers started in learning and thinking about these opinions.

The Libertarian Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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As it happens, I had a chance to meet with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and his top aides last year, as part of a series of outreach meetings as the new team planned its strategy. It doesn’t look like my advice was taken. Of course, I probably didn’t help my case by noting that our last three presidents have acknowledged using illegal drugs, and it is just incomprehensible to me how they can morally justify arresting other people for doing the same thing they did. Do they think that they would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated for their youthful drug use? Do they think the country would have been better off if they had been arrested and incarcerated? If not, how do they justify punishing others?

I then suggested that they pursue the policies recommended by Timothy Lynch and myself in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

● repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970,
● repeal the federal mandatory minimum sentences and the federal sentencing guidelines,

● direct the administration not to interfere with the implementation of state initiatives that allow for the medical use of marijuana, and
● shut down the Drug Enforcement Administration.

David Boaz, executive VP, the Cato Institute.

Written by sara

May 12, 2010 at 10:42 am

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