Tag Archives: prison problems

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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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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357 die in Honduras prison fire

357 people are dead in the wake of a fire that broke out in the prison in Comayagua, Honduras.

The prison housed over 800 people, which is well beyond its capacity. Officials believe the fire was either started by a short circuit in the electrical system, or by an incarcerated man setting fire to his mattress.

Can you imagine anything worse than being helpless, locked in a cell, as the prison fills with smoke? Maybe having your husband, brother, son, or father die that way.

Read more here.



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The sunny side

About a year ago now, I was feeling cranky. I was up to my armpits in my thesis project, writing about transformative alternatives to incarceration for young women. Or at least, I was supposed to be writing about transformative alternatives, but it turns out that in order to talk seriously about transforming something you really need to explain the necessity for transformation first. So actually I was writing a thesis on all the ways that young women (specifically poor, young women of color) get royally screwed by the criminal justice system, the detention system, and society as a whole. I know it sounds like a party, but it was actually getting to be a downer.

One night I tossed about six books and a ginormous notebook and my laptop into a bag and hauled it out to a coffee shop. I precariously balanced my laptop, notebook, and (obviously) black coffee and 7,986 calorie “snack” on a table built for one half of a person, and chose a book at random from my stack.

Ruh roh. This book looked real cheesy. I had gotten it through interlibrary loan (yay, libraries!) because it was one of about two books ever to have the words “transformative justice” in the title, but come on! I was writing a serious thesis here!

OK, so I think you know where I’m going with this. I opened the book exclusively to confirm my suspicions and eliminate something from my devastatingly long list of shit-I-have-to-read, and I was hooked. Truth be told, it was kind of cheesy, but in the best possible way.

Because I have a lot to say about this book, the ideas it discusses, and the oh-so-incredible author, Ruth Morris, I’m going to save the stories themselves for a later date. For now, I’m going to leave you with a brief description of transformative justice, straight from the horse’s mouth.

Transformative justice uses the power unleashed by the harm of a crime to let those most affected find truly creative, healing solutions. Transformative justice includes victims, offenders, their families, and their communities, and invites them to use the past to dream and create a better future.

As someone who is a little bit preoccupied with action steps, my immediate thought was, “That’ll never work.” And that’s why I spend all my time whining about what’s wrong with the current system. Because we can’t forget that the current system doesn’t work. There’s no real evidence that it reduces crime significantly or increases public safety. And in the meantime, it’s hurting a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways. Thus, dismissing transformative justice outright just because it doesn’t sound feasible is not an acceptable reaction given our current context. So if you are, stop that right now!

But I’m sounding like Negative Nancy again, so I’m gonna shut up. Come back for story time tomorrow.

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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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Troop 1500

Words alone cannot capture the experiences of parents and children who are separated by incarceration. This exploration of Troop 1500, a girl scout troop that brings together incarcerated women and their daughters, offers a valuable snapshot of some of the challenges and joys that incarcerated parents and their children face while in prison and after release. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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Why aren’t we making it easier to visit prisons?

Prison visits offer a lot of advantages. For incarcerated men and women in prison, getting visits from family, friends, clergy, and others is humanizing. It helps people remain connected with the world outside the prison. It gives them a reason to act responsibly, and helps maintain relationships that are often crucial to their welfare after release.

For family and friends on the outside, prison visits allow relationships to be maintained, parents to stay connected to their children, and marriages to weather the storm of imprisonment. It is difficult to see someone you love in prison, but most of the time it’s more difficult to have that person ripped out of your life completely.

Prison staff benefit from visits as well. If they have visitation rights to hold over someone, that person is much more likely to follow rules and go above and beyond to protect what little freedom they have. One of my friends moved from a prison where he had a good job, good friends, and quite a bit of freedom to a prison that was worse in almost every way exclusively because they offered trailer visits for married couples. A visit is a powerful thing.

A recent study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections illustrates another benefit of prison visits: a reduction in recidivism rates. They measured recidivism and visitation in a variety of different ways, and across the board found that as rate of visitations went up, rates of recidivism went down (way down).

So should we assume that because of this great news DOCs across the country are lining up to encourage visits?

Of course not. Arizona, for example, always a front runner for biggest jackass in the incarceration world, has recently enacted a one-time $25 fee for visitors over the age of 18. (Check out the full article here.) Freakin’ sweet, Arizona. Guess what socio-economic segment of the population is primarily going to be saddled with that little responsibility?

When Middle Ground, an inmate-advocacy group, challenged the fee, a judge supported the legislation and argued that those paying the fee will benefit from it since it will pay for prison upkeep. Is she confusing those who visit prisons with those who live there? Jeez Louise. Imagine if an argument like that was made for a hospital, or a retirement home. It’s a mad, mad, mad world.

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Collateral damage

There are a whole bunch of things that people who have been convicted of crimes have to worry about and the rest of us do not. The American Bar Association recently released a list of more than 38,000 punitive provisions that affect people convicted of crimes (38,000!), including everything from housing and welfare laws to licensing for certain professions.

One of the biggest challenges for folks getting released from prison – or even people who are only arrested for crimes – is finding a job. In today’s job market, this is a struggle for just about everybody, but for people who can’t get through a background check unscathed, getting a job is incredibly difficult. At the same time, an income is especially crucial for people who are barred from Section 8 affordable housing, unemployment benefits, etc.

A recent Op-Ed for the New York Times argues that we should put caps on the length of time that criminal records are available. In some states, for example, misdemeanors are sealed after five years while most felonies are sealed after ten. The emphasis in the editorial is on making things more equitable for people who were convicted of only one infraction many years ago.

It’s pretty nuts that we still bar some of these folks from jobs today, but we also need to be thinking about the people who have been convicted of multiple crimes, and more recently. Anyone who is getting out of prison, even with RAP sheets as long as their arms, needs employment and/or financial support. If we aren’t willing to think about providing resources necessary to help people stay on the up-and-up after release then we may as well not release them. (By the way, I don’t think not releasing them is a good option.)

And just to end on a personal note, I’ll share an anecdote about my time at the transitional housing facility in Vermont:

I was asked to help one of the residents draw up a budget: weekly, monthly, etc. He was having a hard time paying rent which, at this place, was $75/week including three meals a day. He worked full time, so they were wondering why he couldn’t pay the bills.

After going through his expenses and balancing that with what he was making working full-time at a Wendy’s overnight drive through window (the kind of work available for someone with a criminal record) we calculated that, assuming he made it to all his shifts and if no unusual expenses came up, he could afford to maintain his half-a-pack-a-day smoking costs and still come out ahead ten dollars every week. Ten dollars! With a full-time job! If I was working full-time at a Wendy’s drive through, I’d probably expect to have a little more spending cash myself, frankly.


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