Tag Archives: criminal justice system

The Dangerous Class

Not long ago I was meeting with a young man at Riker’s, New York City’s infamous island of jails, when an alarm started sounding. “That sounds like my block” he told me, intrigued, as a number of correctional officers (“COs”) started flooding into the corridor outside our glassed-in meeting room. To my surprise, without saying a word to either of us (or the other man whose lawyer had just left and who was sitting nearby in the same enclosure), a CO came over and locked us in. Then I watched as five, ten, twenty COs suited up in what looked like a cross between football pads and hazmat suits. They drew long wooden clubs out of a bin next to their gear cubbies, and several of them clipped massive spray cans to their belts. “Pepper spray?” I asked my client. “Worse,” he responded. “This is way worse than pepper spray. It’s made for bears.”

He told me that he’s been nearby when it’s been sprayed before, and even just being close is terrible. “I coughed so hard blood came up,” he said. Hearing this description, and watching guard after guard show up to get in gear, I wonder how much of the extreme level of security we’re seeing can be attributed to real risk faced by officers. Certainly there is some risk – anyone incarcerated at Riker’s will tell you it’s a dangerous place for prisoners – but to send in twenty or more guards, with clubs and bear spray, I would think they ought to have a good reason. So I looked for some numbers.

In a ten-year period between 1999 – 2007, 113 COs were killed on the job. In a smaller timeframe, from 2001 – 2007, 356 prisoners were victims of homicide (and, side note, 1,386 prisoners committed suicide). By comparison, from 1999 – 2007, 1,529 police officers in the U.S. were killed, and, just to throw in another dangerous job, 335 coal miners died at work. Deaths are, obviously, just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s also an important marker of how dangerous a job really is. And although any number of deaths is too many, 113 in ten years sounds relatively low to me. Note that there are about 470,000 people currently employed as correctional officers in the U.S. today, so over ten years a generous estimate would be that 0.003% of COs are killed per year.

So what’s with the riot gear, the clubs, the bear spray? What’s with the regular complaints of egregious violence at Riker’s and elsewhere?

It’s my view – and I’m not alone here – that this comes from the idea that prisoners are part of a “dangerous class” who, regardless of the offense that landed them in prison and regardless of their conduct while incarcerated are perceived as violent animals who are liable to strike out in any way possible at any time. And it’s easy to see the connection between the level of security and surveillance in prisons and jails to the treatment of people who are perceived as part of this “dangerous class” on the outside. For example, black men between the ages of 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts are, and the average sentence for murder grew 238% in the 80’s and 90’s. These are all manifestations of an idea of dangerous, bad people whose sentence and even whose offense are secondary to a general inhumanity.

The really low rate of death among correctional officers is probably due in part to the extremely high level of security employed, but it comes at the price of a widespread dismissal of the humanity of the people who are incarcerated (literally using products designed to keep vicious animals at bay). This is not the product of individual failings among COs, nor is the policing statistic a reflection of individual assholes in police departments, nor is the sentencing statistic a product of bad prosecutors personally bent on creating more punitive systems. These are symptoms of a fundamental shift in the way that we understand people involved with the criminal justice system, and more generally people of color and poor people in our society. This is the new face of prejudice that Michelle Alexander was describing in her blockbuster critique of our criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow. It’s what protesters in Ferguson, New York City, Madison, Charlottesville, etc. are calling out when they insist that #blacklivesmatter. It’s the message that Right on Crime and other conservatives are reinforcing when they call for justice only for non-violent, low-level offenders and fail to call our system into question more broadly. And, in my humble opinion, it’s why we need to fundamentally rethink not only how prisons operate, but also whether we should have them at all.

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Whites Accept Racially Disparate Imprisonment

One of the defining features of the U.S. prison population is how disproportionately black and brown it is. The more the word gets out about that, the better, right? Wouldn’t you think people would be outraged?

Turns out, a study by two Stanford researchers suggests the opposite. What researchers Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found when they introduced information about racial disparities in prisons was that whites were, in general, more afraid of crime and more supportive of highly punitive responses to crime than when they were unaware of the difference.

My guess as to the reason for this horrifying outcome is that we’ve been trained to view people of color as dangerous, and also as fundamentally different (“other,” as they say). See my post in a couple of days for more on the “dangerous class.”

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Mass Incarceration is a Symptom, not a Disease

Thank you to the Prison Policy Initiative for wrangling many different data sources for this comprehensive view.

The scope of incarceration in the U.S. is just one of the defining features of mass incarceration. That may seem counterintuitive. After all, the scale of the U.S. system is what makes it so infamous. It’s impossible to pick up a book about prisons in America without being quoted some relevant stats in the first handful of pages (we lead the world in incarceration rate, we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population, our incarceration rate has grown 500% in forty years). All of this is true and important, and – bonus! – tends to freak out even the most punitively minded audience.

But it also should be treated as a sign of a problem, not as the extent of it. In my post about Ferguson yesterday, I argued that the dystopian horror story of a criminal justice system that they’ve got down there, with more outstanding charges than citizens, was a predictable outcome of unbridled discretion handed to police officers and prosecutors (coupled with racism and classism, that is). Change may be effected in Ferguson as a result of protesting, federal investigation, and new leadership, but there’s more where Ferguson came from. Similarly, treating mass incarceration as the problem, rather than a very scary symptom of problems that we had before mass incarceration, is short-sighted and unlikely to produce lasting change.

See my thoughts on the conservative “Right on Crime” movement tomorrow for more on this note.

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System overload: plea bargains vs. trial by jury

A recent NYT editorial by Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crowe, posits a striking question: What would happen if everyone who was charged with a crime actually exercised their right to a trial by jury?

If you grew up watching Matlock as much as I did, you might think jury trials are fairly common. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the accused take plea bargains; more than ninety percent of criminal cases never see a jury trial. Thus the amount of resources that would be required for all alleged offenders to receive jury trials far exceeds what is currently available at the state or federal level.

The answer to that question, then, is this: Chaos would ensue. Alexander writes:

Such chaos would force mass incarceration to the top of the agenda for politicians and policy makers, leaving them only two viable options: sharply scale back the number of criminal cases filed (for drug possession, for example) or amend the Constitution (or eviscerate it by judicial “emergency” fiat). Either action would create a crisis and the system would crash — it could no longer function as it had before. Mass protest would force a public conversation that, to date, we have been content to avoid.

So why do the accused so often take pleas? Haven’t we all been raised with the ideal that a jury of one’s peers is the highest standard of justice available in a democracy? Don’t we know that the burden of proof is with the prosecution, making it possible that even a guilty person could walk away unscathed from a jury trial?

The truth is, most people can’t afford a lawyer who will be able to spend any significant time or energy on them. They probably know little to nothing about the criminal justice system, and – particularly if they’re Black or undocumented – most of what they do know is more likely to instill fear or distrust than idealism or faith. So when they’re told (usually by their own defense lawyer) that a plea bargain is their best bet, that even if they’re innocent they’ll likely be convicted and given a much harsher sentence if the case goes to trial, many people feel powerless to challenge that.

And for a lot of folks, a plea bargain really is a good thing in some ways. Especially if the person is guilty of the offense, they often receive shorter sentences or probation from a plea bargain, and really can go home sooner. If they’re worried about what’s happening to their kids, for example, or just scared shitless by living in jail, many people will take the plea bargain first and ask questions later.

But once at home, secondary forms of punishment abound. Particularly for people convicted of drug offenses, public benefits like subsidized housing and food stamps are frequently revoked. Conviction records make finding jobs more difficult, and can result in people losing custody of their children. And if the person is convicted of another crime, the sentence could be much harsher as a result of the earlier conviction.

People who demand a trial by jury experience a longer waiting and trial period, and some probably do receive harsher sentences than the plea bargain would have offered. But many do not. And if the number of people who exercised their sixth amendment rights merely doubled, it would be enough to bring the current system to a crashing halt and require our country to seriously consider the way we lock people up.

It’s pretty depressing that simply utilizing our rights would so drastically disrupt today’s justice system. It’s also pretty exciting to think that the people who are often treated as the least powerful players in the criminal justice system have a very powerful resource at their disposal. That’s something to think about.

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Life until death: The numbers

1 in 11: The proportion of the U.S. prison population currently serving life sentences.

141,000: The number of people serving life sentences in the U.S.

29: The average number of years served by people sentenced to life in prison. This is up from 21 years in the 1990’s.

1 in 3: The number of people with life sentences who have life without parole.

2,000: The number of people serving life sentences in Mississippi. Also the number of people serving life sentences in Germany. (Mississippi’s total state population is about 2% of Germany’s total population.)

2,500: The number of people serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

43,000: The number of people in California serving sentences as a result of “3 strikes and you’re out” legislation.

$19 billion: The amount of money California spends each year incarcerating 3 strikes prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

Life without parole is often gestured to as a humane alternative to the death penalty. But since life without parole has been increasingly used as a sentence, few potential capital punishment convictions have been “reduced” to life without parole. Instead, people who would never have received a death sentence receive more and longer life sentences. A lot of noise is made about the 3,300 people on death row in the U.S. Perhaps some noise should also be made about the 141,000 who have received the “other death sentence.”

Check out Marie Gottschalk’s excellent article on this topic for the Prison Legal News.

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Nurturant parent politics: reframing to promote transformative justice

I recently gave a brief presentation in transformative justice to four people I didn’t know. Since TJ is so incredibly unlike the traditional criminal justice system and because I didn’t want to leave these four people thinking I was a nutcase, I framed the discussion around two hypothetical situations:

A stranger breaks into your car and steals your car radio –  what would you do?

Your brother, sister, child, or parent breaks into your car and steals your car radio – what would you do?

This seemed like a good way to get people rethinking responses to crime. I figured that people would be more interested in thinking creatively and addressing individual situations if they had an investment in what happened to the offender. I also figured that more people would want to know (and deal with) why the crime was committed in the second scenario. That’s transformative justice, baby.

Ironically, three days later by complete chance I happened upon Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff. Surprise! There’s an actual foundation of knowledge for what I was doing.

Have you ever heard of the “strict father” and “nurturant parent” models? I sure hadn’t. But I was inadvertently doing exactly what Lakoff argues we (progressives) have to do – among other things – if we’re going to appeal to the masses: Take a strict father viewpoint and reframe it around a nurturant parent viewpoint.

In a nutshell, the strict father model works like this: a strong male figure makes the rules, punishes anyone who disobeys, and doesn’t engage in dialogue or ask permission for jack. Individual success and competition is viewed as the hallmark of national progress. Anyone who threatens that model, tries to help the “bad” children who deserve their lot in life for failing to make a lot of money and achieve traditional success, is actually hurting themselves and everyone else by getting in the way of discipline, order, and morality. Within this framework, things like free drug treatment programs, welfare, affirmative action, etc. are detrimental to the natural development and success of the nation’s “children” (literal and figurative), who will actually learn and thrive through punishment, not support.

In contrast, the nurturant parent framework looks like this: gender neutral parent figures support their “children” by empathizing, understanding their needs, and providing resources to meet those needs. They believe children need safety and support to thrive, as well as freedom to learn on their own and actualize their own potential. Basic tenets are empathy and responsibility.

I think that analysis is pretty boss, frankly, because all of a sudden I get why abortion and gay marriage matter so much to conservatives. I get why our foreign policy seems to center around doing whatever the hell we want, and even when our interests are in agreement with an agreement, not signing anything anyway. Y’all should probably read that book.

It really, really is not rocket science to figure out what this has to do with the prison system. What I accidentally hit on for my little presentation was that our current system runs within the strict father model; transformative justice aligns with the nurturant parent model: What went wrong? What can we do to prevent this in the future? What is my (or my community’s/state’s/country’s) responsibility to aid in that prevention?

The truth is, everyone can understand both structures. Most people utilize both structures at different times, but even if you only use one you certainly encounter both in books and movies and your neighbors’ lives and your children’s schools and on and on. Which is dope for two reasons: because conservative viewpoints now seem more like differences of opinion to me than outright craziness, and because now I know that everyone can understand transformative justice when it’s presented in the right framework.

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Jails increasingly act as mental health care facilities

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says that the Illinois mental health system “is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health care provider in the state of Illinois.”

Dart’s statement comes at a time when the state is planning to shut down six of its twelve mental health centers by the end of April. Though the reduction is expected to save the state 2 million dollars, critics believe the costs to everything from prisons to emergency rooms will far exceed the short term savings. Not to mention the costs to those suffering from mental illness – costs that will manifest themselves both economically and otherwise.

Of the 11,000 or so prisoners at the Cook County Jail, Mr. Dart estimates that 2,000 people suffer from mental health problems. Many of these 2,000 are jailed for minor crimes but commit new infractions due to stress and confusion and see their short sentences run on and on. Corrections officers spend far more time with their mentally ill charges than with the general population, and receive only limited training.

Corrections officers and administrators don’t want people with mental illness to be in jail. People with mental illness don’t want to be in jail. People in jail don’t want people with mental illness in jail. So why are they in jail?

“Because [the police department] is the only place left to call,” suggests Amy Watson, associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Fancy that: a situation in which instead of addressing a problem, we choose to hide it behind bars.

Resources for people struggling with mental illness were already scarce. Cutting them in half means that waiting lists will be longer, access will be more limited, and existing services will be over-extended.

And when the mentally ill are incarcerated? Problems abound for prisoners and officers alike. Incarcerated people who are mentally ill are more likely to refuse to follow orders or even act out violently against CO’s. In response, CO’s are more likely to throw mentally ill people in solitary confinement, which frequently exacerbates the problems they are already experiencing. In fact, mentally ill people in solitary confinement make up the majority of prison suicides. This is especially sad when one considers that these suicidal people are often in jail in the first place because of simple drug possession or vagrancy.

And if they are released, they typically leave with up to two weeks of their medication. In addition to the challenge of finding a health provider who can renew their prescription, many of them are uninsured, and will have to wait at least 45 days for Medicaid approval. And that’s just one aspect of the enormous challenge that mentally ill people face upon re-entry. Thus it is no surprise that mentally ill folks are among the most likely to recidivate.

Check out the NYT article here.

Or hear from people with mental illnesses during a similar reduction in services that Texas went through a year ago in this video from the Texas Tribune.

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Social work and the future of juvenile justice

The vast majority of young people who end up involved with the criminal justice system come from marginalized communities. They very frequently have parents who are absent from their lives because they’re forced to work long hours at multiple jobs, struggling with mental health problems, addicted to drugs or alcohol, incarcerated, or for other reasons. Many violent youth offenders are victims of physical and sexual abuse, while property crimes and involvement with illegal economies (drug dealing, in particular) are often the result of trying to improve a low standard of living for themselves and their families.

A recent study published in Social Work, a journal for the National Association of Social Workers, recognizes the importance of the structural factors that underpin much of the crime committed by youth in the U.S. In “Social Work and Juvenile Probation: Historical Tensions and Contemporary Convergences,” Clark Peters traces the gradual divergence between probation offices and social workers over the last hundred years.

“The correctional system affects individuals and communities at the heart of social work’s efforts: people who are poor and people of color,” Clark writes. “Yet social work has an almost negligible presence in the key roles of this domain.”

Why the separation? Clark presents several explanations, but foremost among them is the transition from the juvenile justice system’s original purported goal of intervention and support for youth offenders to its current emphasis on individual failure. As Clark explains, “The court’s focus on personal culpability did not allow offenders to externalize blame.” In short, each offense is viewed as an insular occurrence and the result of the child’s bad judgment and even their bad character. Sound familiar?

That pretty much sums up the recent history of juvenile justice in the U.S., but is it possible that we’re at the brink of some kind of turning point? Beyond simply using the skill set and perspective of a social worker to help individual kids, Clark concludes with the suggestion that social workers might have a broader impact on the criminal justice system as a whole. He writes that some commentators today “[call for] a role for social workers in reforming a punitive system that is hostile to the communities that social workers purport to serve.”

“Commentators in this vein argue that social workers should advocate for ‘fundamental change’ in the corrections system, and that failure to do so is an implicit endorsement of the nation’s correctional policies and tantamount to ‘professional incompetence.'”

So – exciting new horizon for the role of social workers in juvenile justice? Or the opinions of a few lone rangers whose views will never be reflected in reality?

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New Jersey diversion program sparks familiar debate

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is promoting the use of treatment before prison for low-level drug offenders. Though Christie promotes this as a money saving venture and is interested in diverting only the lowest-level offenders, it’s still lovely to see any moves away from expanding the prison system.

Ironically, the most significant objections to this move come from advocates for addicts. Elizabeth Thompson of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance argued, “It takes months for the general population to get help, but if you get arrested you’d get help more quickly. I question the fairness of that.” Check out the story here.

True dat, Ms. Thompson. But what’s the real problem here: that people who have committed crimes might receive the kind of assistance that would allow them to stay drug – and crime – free? Or that New Jersey has thus far failed to provide enough resources for everyone to get the help they need in a timely manner?

Fifteen years ago, a similar debate went on in New York state. Corrections Officer unions were up in arms about the public education grants that incarcerated people were receiving which made college education in prisons a possibility. CO’s in New York facilities were cheesed off that incarcerated people were getting free college educations while they couldn’t afford to send their children to college.

Instead of this race to the bottom in which no one wins, Thompson and other critics should be asking why the government can’t shell out money for drug treatment resources for all. Certainly if they weren’t paying to incarcerate roughly 7,000 drug offenders they’d have some extra bill$ to throw around.

Oh, and the folks who objected to the use of public education grants for incarcerated people were successful. Grants for higher education were revoked, and college programs were pulled out of correctional facilities state wide. I’m pretty sure that the working class still has just as much trouble paying for their kids’ education, but on the bright side at least we’re not coddling those darned criminals anymore.

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Great expectations

There are a whole lot of things that contribute to America’s crazy prison population. One of the many nutso things that we do is throw tons of people back into prison for parole violations. These violations include breaking a 9 pm curfew, leaving the state without getting permission, drinking alcohol, and other things which sound more like things your parents would get pissed about than things for which you should go to jail.

On my first day at the transitional housing facility where I worked, there were eleven people living in the house. That was Friday. When I came back the following Monday, there were five people left. What happened? Six of the residents decided to pick up a couple of six packs. The residence supervisor called the cops, and the six parole violators were scooped up and deposited back in jail. They were only in for a couple of days, but by then they had lost their chance to live in the place where I was working, which meant that they were stuck renting a room in one of several rooming houses in the area. Those places were far more expensive and offered none of the support resources that my place did, and they were notorious hotbeds of drug activity to boot.

Definitely stupid to have the little party – they knew it was against the house rules and the parole regulations – but don’t you think those consequences are out of proportion to the action?

New York State recently shifted their policy a wee bit in this area: as of Jan. 1, parole violators are no longer subject to mandatory jail time for their errors. Now the judge or parole board can take various criteria into consideration, such as mental health and access to stable housing. This is a step in the right direction, but it means that judges or parole boards have the option to forego jail time, not that violators have any real protection.

Like so many other aspects of the prison system, it’s easy in this situation to imagine that people are just asking for it when they violate. But what if instead of looking for the best way to punish people for their mistakes, we started looking for the best way to help them not screw up? My guess is that jail time would fall out of the equation real fast.

Check out the NYT piece on this issue here.

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