Tag Archives: Crime

George Will v. Sentencing Project

Last Sunday George Will, the bowtie-wearing dean of conservative punditry, published an op-ed in the Washington Post called “More Prisons, Less Crime.” In the piece Will gave prominent attention to his colleagues and fellow travelers Heather Macdonald and James Q. Wilson, citing at length their contention that the record-high level of incarceration in the United States has been beneficial. “For many reasons, including better policing and more incarceration, Americans feel, and are, safer,” he wrote. It was a scattered argument without much substance, but what was most disturbing was the mendacious cherry-picking of data to support the ideological thrust of his argument–which rationalizes increased incarceration and totally dismisses the strong taint of racism in current sentencing policy. Now the Sentencing Project has responded with a welcome corrective, “Do More Prisoners Equal Less Crime?” which dismantles Will’s column point by point to advance a more reality-based take on the relationship between incarceration and crime rates, and on the racist underpinnings of the bloated American prison system.


Investigating Justice

Today’s newspapers may be heading for the great bird cage in the sky by now, but it’s not too late to point out that the Washington Post ran a big piece this morning on investigating the Justice Department’s grantmaking, ahead of Waxman’s hearing. The article does a good job of summarizing the OJJDP scandal, and admirably cites Youth Today for breaking the story about the First Tee golf mentoring program. The piece also brings word that the Justice Department’s inspector general is looking into allegations of an improper hire on the part of OJJDP administrator J. Robert Flores. And OJJDP grants are not the only Justice Department disbursements that may be due for public scrutiny, either, as “members of Congress and watchdog groups are calling on investigators to expand their inquiry into the Byrne Grant program, the federal government’s primary effort to support local crime fighting across the nation.”

“Grant programs are a great tool for distributing federal funds, but only if the process is truly open, fair and competitive,” Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill told the paper. “Some bureaucrat cannot decide on a whim who gets precious tax dollars. It’s insulting to all the programs that work hard on their applications to have merit take a back seat to who you know.”

At stake is more than $150 million in Justice Department grants for fiscal year 2007. Says the Post:

One source said that staff members in the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which oversees the Byrne grants, last year plucked some applications from other categories in a rush to find enough recipients for grants that target violent crime. The winners were awarded Byrne grants and given extra financial incentives in the form of a 10 percent “information sharing enhancement,” according to an Aug. 27, 2007, memo by Domingo S. Herraiz, who leads the bureau.

Herraiz said in the “revised” funding recommendation memo that the unit had received 128 applications, 106 of which were “subsequently externally peer reviewed.”

One of the applications that did not undergo such review was a $296,168 award to the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services for an anti-gang initiative in the city of Columbus, according to the documents….

Separately, POGO and Justice employees are raising questions about another award, in which the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio received $603,000 in Byrne crime prevention money for the “Ohio school alert system.” The Ohio chapter, which did not return phone calls for comment, supported Herraiz’s bid for the Justice Department job four years ago, according to sources familiar with the process.

There’s a common thread here connecting Flores’s grantmaking practices to those at the Bureau of Justice Assistance, both of which are patches on a grotesque quilt that also includes the US Attorneys scandal, the vote suppression campaign in the civil rights division, the Scooter Libby fiasco, the torture memos and so much more. In the Bush era, all justice is politics. The law is elsewhere.

FBI: Violent Crime Down

Reuters: “U.S. violent crimes like murders and rapes decreased by 1.4 percent in 2007 after two years of increases that caused concern among criminal justice experts, the FBI reported on Monday.”

JPI Opposes Clinton’s Anti-Crime Plan

According to the Justice Policy Institute, Hillary Clinton’s anti-crime package (see my earlier post here) “ignores critical research that finds that investments in employment, education, housing and treatment for those who need it is the most effective and fiscally-responsible way to improve public safety.”

JPI issued a press release this morning taking aim at various aspects of Clinton’s plan, notably her proposal to revive her husband’s jobs program for police officers. “The first COPS was found to be costly and ineffective in reducing crime rates and COPS 2.0 is not an improved version of the first one,” says JPI executive director Sheila Bedi. “COPS was only successful in filling our prisons and jails with people who research shows can be better served with treatment, evidence-based practices, and community-based alternatives that also promote public safety.”

“Not only does the Clinton crime plan lack innovation and forward thinking, it ignores all we know about crime prevention. When people are employed, violent crime decreases,” says Lisa Kung, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “One in every one hundred Americans is incarcerated. It is clear that Clinton intends to continue a legacy of policies that will keep Americans paying for more police, more prisons and more punitive measures.”

More, from the JPI press release:

Advocates also believe that Clinton’s opposition to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision to make retroactive the changes to sentencing for the thousands of people who had received disproportionately long sentences for crack-cocaine, most of whom are African American, is concerning. Nationwide, from 1995 to 2004, drug abuse violations were the only crime that saw an increase in arrests following the COPS grant. However, a report by JPI release last year, found that while African Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar rates, African Americans are ten times more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses mainly due to disparate policing practices, disparate treatment before the courts, mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, and differences in the availability of drug treatment for African Americans.

According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, “it would be a cruel injustice to base the crack cocaine reduction on an assessment that these people have suffered under an unjust structure and then deny the benefit of the amendment to the very people whose experiences led the Commission to lower the sentences in the first place.”

“If any of the candidates really wants to do something about crime, then they should invest in policies that increase employment, educational attainment and treatment for people who need it,” says Bedi. “These are proven approaches that reduce crime and recidivism–evidence-based practices, which have undergone rigorous experimental inquiry, and have been shown to have proven public safety benefits.”

Clinton Unveils Anti-Crime Agenda

Stumping in Philadelphia ahead of the April 22 primary election, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton unveiled a $4 billion plan to combat crime today. Most important, aside from the fact that she injected the topic into a campaign season that has essentially avoided it, is her call to do away with mandatory five-year sentencing for crack cocaine users. Her “Solutions for Safe & Secure Communities Now” agenda also includes hiring 100,000 new police officers (lifting a page from her husband), allocating $250 million a year to “community-oriented prosecutors,” reducing homicide rates by half and promoting a “tough but fair” approach to probation in order to keep recidivism down.

I haven’t found a transcript of her speech yet, but according to the news reports I’ve read and from reading the release on her campaign website, Clinton didn’t specify how she would fund the plan aside from assigning a commission to “identify savings” from corporate subsidies. Surely, though, reforming sentencing procedures for low-level drug users would help free up resources.

Two tentative thoughts on this: one is political, the other related specifically to juvenile justice. Politically, it’s clear that Clinton has waded into Obama territory with an attempt to nip away a piece of his Philly base. Her smart stand on sentencing reform also happens to be racially sensitive–I assume she hopes it will play well among African-Americans who are basically on board with Obama but not fervidly or who are leaning toward him but still undecided. On that score, it’s a wise move. Remember, though, that this eminently Clintonian strategy reveals very little about Hillary’s actual commitment to the ideas she has just put forward. The fact that she’s finding religion on this stuff at this particular moment, however, says a lot.

With regard to juveniles, Clinton really didn’t get into specifics as far as I can tell. MSNBC tells me she tossed out a hollow bromide about implementing “programs to help at-risk youth.” And as that UPI brief reports, “If elected, she said she would direct the U.S. attorney general to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and to vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities.” More specifically, there’s this, lifted from her website:

Prevent Crime through Early Interventions for At-Risk Kids. Those on the front lines know that the best way to reduce crime is to prevent it in the first place. Hillary will partner with states and communities to provide the interventions that will start kids out on the right track and keep them there, including after-school programs, nurse home visitation, and early-intervention mentoring programs.

Crack Down on Child Exploitation Online and Fight Identity Theft. Hillary will direct the Attorney General to make online child exploitation and harassment a major federal priority, and vigorously prosecute identity theft, particularly theft of children’s identities. She will strengthen and vigorously enforce federal laws against online child exploitation, and she will dramatically increase funding for state Internet Crimes Against Children task forces.

During her speech Hillary cited as a model her husband’s approach to crime prevention. Bill Clinton, let’s not forget, presided over a massive crackdown on juvenile offenders and helped blur the lines between juveniles and adults in the US justice and prison systems–the negative consequences of which we’re seeing in states across the country today. But by highlighting child exploitation (whether from online sexual predators or ID thieves), she seems to be taking a page from the Bush II Administration, as well. As I’ve discussed recently, under Bush the mandate of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has quietly shifted from setting policy on juvenile crime and developing prevention strategies to protecting innocent children from evildoers. It’s as if Hillary is trying to tackle the juvenile superpredators that were in the Justice Department’s crosshairs during her husband’s terms in office and the adult predators that the Justice Department has been battling during Bush’s tenure. In both cases, the scourge is for the most part phantasmic. When you take an honest look, it becomes clear that the real priorities are elsewhere. Which presents Barack Obama with an opportunity to correct the record–if he’s up to the task.

Wyoming Prison Stats Tell the Tale

State population in 1982: 510,000

State population in 2006: 515,000

Increase in state population from 1982 to 2006: ~1 percent

Number of inmates in state prisons in 1995: 1,300

Number of inmates in state prisons in 2008: 2,043

Increase in prison population from 1995 to 2008: 57 percent

Number of employees managing/working in local jails and state prisons in 1982: 583

Number of employees managing/working in local jails and state prisons in 2005: 1,570

Increase in number of jail/prison employees from 1995 to 2005: 269 percent

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(Statistics provided by the US Census Bureau, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Wyoming Department of Corrections, all via the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. With apologies to the Harper’s Index.)

New JPI Report on Overuse of Jails

A new report by the Justice Policy Institute, “Jailing Communities: The Impact of Jail Expansion and Effective Public Safety Strategies,” documents the heavy toll paid by communities that have seen a massive expansion of their jail populations in the past twenty years. The report, according to the JPI press release, found that this expansion “is having serious consequences for communities that are now paying tens of billions yearly to sustain jails.”

“Crime rates are down, but you’re more likely to serve time in jail today than you would have been twenty years ago,” said report co-author Amanda Petteruti. “Jail bonds have skyrocketed, so that means if you’re poor, you do time. People are being punished before they’re found guilty—justice is undermined.”

“The more a community relies on jails, the less it has to invest in education, employment and proven public safety strategies,” says Nastassia Walsh, another co-author.

Among the report’s recommendations:

• Improving release procedures for pretrial and sentenced populations. Implementing pretrial release programs that release people from jail before trial can help alleviate jail populations. Reforming bail guidelines would allow a greater number of people to post bail, leaving space open in jails for people who may pose a greater threat to public safety.

• Developing and implementing alternatives to incarceration. Alternatives such as community-based corrections would permit people to be removed from the jail, allowing them to continue to work, stay with their families, and be part of the community, while under supervision.

• Re-examining policies that lock up individuals for nonviolent crimes. Reducing the number of people in jail for nonviolent offenses leaves resources and space available for people who may need to be detained for a public safety reason.

• Diverting people with mental health and drug treatment needs to the public health system and community-based treatment. People who suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems are better served by receiving treatment in their community. Treatment is more cost-effective than incarceration and promotes a positive public safety agenda.

• Diverting spending on jail construction to agencies that work on community supervision and make community supervision effective. Reallocating funding to probation services will allow people to be placed in appropriate treatment or other social services and is a less costly investment in public safety.

• Providing more funding for front-end services such as education, employment, and housing. Research has shown that education, employment, drug treatment, health care, and the availability of affordable housing coincide with lower crime rates.