Tag Archives: Prisons

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.

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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.”

Support for TYC Shutdown: Overstated?

Following up on that Austin American-Statesman article I mentioned yesterday, which cited “very broad-based support” for an incipient plan to do away with the Texas Youth Commission: Here’s Grits for Breakfast with some commentary:

In related news, the Austin Statesman’s Mike Ward and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire tag teamed again today for another story proposing TYC’s outright abolition. The Governor’s new conservator opposes the idea, and House Corrections Chair Jerry Madden told Ward he does not favor “shutting anything down or drastically changing anything until we know what we’re replacing it with.” Still the headline reads, “Plan to close TYC gathers support.” I’m not so sure about that. The main supporters of the plan appear to be Chairman Whitmire and Mike Ward himself.

The irony here: Last year the “Blue Ribbon Panel” appointed by the Governor recommended downsizing TYC and shifting to small regional facilities with a greater emphasis on community corrections. Whitmire and other legislators didn’t take the idea seriously. But now that his personal choice to run the agency is out the door, he’s ready to defenestrate TYC without blinking an eye.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’d be just fine to further downsize TYC (its inmate population has already been cut in half) if, as the story suggests, the Legislature decided to “piggyback some programs with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, which funds county-based treatment programs for youths on probation,” and it “would not include any unfunded mandates for counties.”

So it’s not the idea, per se, but proposing it in a fashion akin to uncorking a flash-bang grenade in a crowded theater. The proposal clearly blind-sided the conservator, and has the potential to harm the agency’s all-important recruiting efforts. (Would you go to work for an agency you thought wouldn’t exist in a year?) It also reverses the legislative trajectory coming out of 2007, when millions were sunk into upgrading TYC facilities. No one can predict the future, but IMO Mike Ward overstated both the level of support for the plan and the ultimate likelihood that TYC will be “abolished,” unless by that you only mean “renamed.”

The Joint Select Committee on TYC has scheduled a hearing on April 16, so hopefully then we’ll get more significant details about Whitmire’s proposal, and a sense of what other legislators think of the idea.

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.)

CNN on Juv Prison Abuse

Check out this long article by CNN writer Ashley Fantz on widespread abuse in US juvenile prisons. It’s not a pretty picture–in fact, it’s quite dark. But as Jerome Miller, a psychiatric social worker and co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, tells Fantz, “It’s a nationwide crisis that has been going on for years, one the public has never been told the extent of.” Fantz does a commendable job of bringing this national scandal into the light.

Violence Up at Baltimore Youth Prison

Violence involving inmates at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center has spiked in recent months, according to data released this week by the state’s juvenile justice monitor. As the Baltimore Sun reports, “In the first three months of the year, there have been 155 youth-on-youth assaults and 28 youth-on-staff assaults at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center–up nearly 40 percent from the same period last year. Use of physical restraints is up 68 percent this year compared with this time last year.”

The news came as little shock to State Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, who described the prison as “a very poorly configured monstrosity.” “It’s almost hard to know where to begin, there are so many problems there,” Zirkin told the paper.

Criminal Record

On February 28 I posted a brief note about a new report from the Pew Center on the States that brought some startling statistics to the public eye. With a record-high population of more than 2.3 million adults behind bars, the report found, America now incarcerates more than one in every 100 adults.

The report included a cascade of similarly dismal figures on the demographics and outsize costs associated with the US prison leviathan. Consider: the national population of prisoners has nearly tripled in the past three decades, and total state spending on corrections has spiked from $12 billion in 1987 to more than $49 billion last year. States now spend an average of 60 cents on corrections for every dollar invested in higher education; in 2007, four states spent more money on prisons than college. The racial breakdown is, of course, appalling: nationally, black men are about seven times more likely than white men to land in jail or prison (Latino men are roughly three times more likely); the incarceration rate for black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is one in nine.

It’s not too late to put the system on a crash diet, the report concluded. A two-pronged strategy of reducing admissions (by redirecting low-risk offenders to community treatment programs and scrapping a punitive approach toward parole violators) and decreasing the length of certain sentences would dramatically cut population size and curb costs without jeopardizing public safety.

A few days after the report came out, I called Bruce Western, a criminal justice expert at Harvard University, to hear his thoughts on its findings and policy prescriptions and on the prospects for implementing them. “Maybe correctional budgets have now gotten so large that a left-right coalition could mobilize around reducing the size of the penal system,” he told me. Then again, he added, the Pew report is merely the latest in a long succession of common-sense calls for sentencing reform, all of which have gone unheeded. “If we had said in 1990 that the system is going to double in size over the next fifteen years,” Western said, “I think a lot of people would have thought that was a pretty crazy forecast.”

The New York Times drew a similar conclusion in an editorial it ran on Monday of this week. These statistics, the paper wrote, “point to a terrible waste of money and lives”:

They underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety. The key, as some states are learning, is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and dangerous repeat offenders, who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders, who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug treatment programs, combined in some cases with shorter sentences.

Persuading public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy is a daunting prospect, however, not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry.