Arizona Considers Expanding Prison Privatization

Private prisons are a controversial topic in Arizona ever since the July escape of three violent offenders from a private prison near the city of Kingman.  The controversy, however, has not stopped a state commission from suggesting that more private prisons — not less — might be the answer to the state’s budget crisis.


Missouri is Informing Judges about the Costs of Sentences

Missouri is now providing its judges with a “Sentencing Assessment Report” (SAR), a document which informs the judge of the cost of the sentence that he or she will imminently deliver.  A recent New York Times article explains how it works:

“For someone convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, for instance, a judge might now learn that a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770.  A second-degree robber, a judge could be told, would carry a price tag of less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for a comparable prison sentence and parole afterward. The bill for a murderer’s 30-year prison term: $504,690.”

Missouri’s SARs may or may not be a good idea — but they are certainly a controversial idea: “The practice has touched off a sharp debate. It has been lauded nationally by a disparate group of defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives, who consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously.  But critics — prosecutors especially — dismiss the idea as unseemly. They say that the cost of punishment is an irrelevant consideration when deciding a criminal’s fate and that there is a risk of overlooking the larger social costs of crime.”


Is This the Modern Prison?

The last issue of The Atlantic Monthly featured a fascinating article on the use of GPS monitoring as a more effective – and less costly – alternative to prison.  The author of the piece, Graeme Wood, analogizes GPS surveillance to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of The Panopticon.  He writes:

“Inside the Panopticon (the name is derived from the Greek word for “all-seeing”), the prisoners are arranged in a ring of cells surrounding their guard, who is concealed in a tower in the center. The idea is that the guard controls the prisoners through his presumed observation: they constantly imagine his eyes on them, even when he’s looking elsewhere. Bentham promoted the concept of the Panopticon for much the same reasons that spur criminal-justice innovation today—a ballooning prison population and the need for a cheap solution with light manpower demands. Whereas the guard in Bentham’s day had only two eyes, however, today’s watcher can be virtually all-seeing, thanks to GPS monitoring technology.”

The rest of the article, in which Wood digs into the theory, technology, and practice of GPS monitoring makes for interesting reading.

Nevertheless, GPS surveillance is certainly not a panacea.  For instance, violent criminals and sex offenders should not be given GPS monitored probation – they should be put in prison.  For some lower-level offenders, however, GPS increasingly looks like a more sensible alternative.


Send Nebraska’s State Inmates to County Jail?

According to The Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska may seek to alleviate its prison overcrowding crisis (the state prison system is 40% over capacity) by transferring the inmates to county jails.


It’s Time for a New Deal in Georgia Criminal Justice

If you find it disturbing that 1 in every 31 adults in America are under correctional supervision (and you should), then you will probably find it downright startling to learn that 1 in every 13 adults in Georgia is in the corrections system.

A new ediotorial in the citizen notes that Georgia has more adults under correctional supervision than any other state.  Where there are problems, however, there are also opportunities, and this editorial argues that is up to Georgia’s new governor, Nathan Deal, to seize this opportunity.


Cutting Recidivism Saves Money and Lives

The following editorial was written by Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley, and it was originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  It is an outstanding piece, and it is worth including here in its entirety.

If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it? The people of Georgia would never stand for that kind of failure. But that is exactly what is happening all across the U.S. in our prison systems.

Last year, some 20,000 people were released from Georgia’s prisons to re-enter our communities. If trends of the past decade continue, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years. That failure rate is a clear and present threat to public safety.

Not only is this revolving door a threat to public safety, but it results in an increasing burden on each and every taxpayer.

The Georgia corrections budget was $1.1 billion in 2008, nearly 6 percent of the state’s general funds. The state’s deficit is so severe that it threatens to shut down our 4-H program and cripple the higher education system.

Every year an inmate spends in Georgia’s prisons costs citizens $17,500 per inmate, and our growing prison population is already bursting at the seams with 53,000 inmates.

Georgians simply can’t afford for the corrections system to maintain the status quo.

Just as a student’s success isn’t measured by his entrance into high school but by his graduation, and a bridge’s value isn’t measured by its completion but by its long-term reliability, celebrating taking criminals off the street with little thought to their imminent return to society is foolhardy.

The key to public safety and fiscal sanity is not just getting dangerous people off the streets but also making sure that men and women who eventually leave prison have changed and can stay crime-free on the outside.

We’re happy to say that the Georgia Department of Corrections is serious about making sure that offenders who get out of prison have what it takes to succeed. Focusing on cutting recidivism rates is a high priority. Not only will it make our communities safer, a key public safety priority, but will save taxpayers the high cost of re-incarceration.

But the state cannot do this alone. The men and women who step out of prison gates have an overwhelming number of needs — from personal transformation, housing, transportation, and employment to medical care and education.

But more importantly, they need the help of a community that will rally around them and provide the counseling, encouragement, and love that truly lead to changed behavior.

This can only happen in the context of relationship; and it is the churches and other community-based nonprofits that are best-equipped to provide this kind of support.

That is why Prison Fellowship, the world’s largest outreach to prisoners and their families, is partnering with the Georgia Department of Corrections to launch Out4Life. This prisoner re-entry movement, which kicks off in Atlanta March 29-31, is a holistic approach to prisoner re-entry, aiming to unite the efforts of government agencies, businesses, social services, churches and other community groups to help offenders reintegrate into their communities successfully and safely.

Out4Life will bring together key partners in prisoner re-entry from across the state to coordinate local programs for returning offenders and their families.

Its goal is to build coalitions to raise public awareness about the need to rehabilitate prisoners and to provide resources, education and training for former inmates.

Several states have already enthusiastically embraced Out4Life. There are now 300 organizations in Louisiana working together in coalitions launched by Out 4 Life Louisiana in 2008. Arkansas’ Out4Life kick-off last fall and Tennessee’s launch earlier this month have met with resounding success and are building momentum across these states.

For the safety of our communities and the fiscal well-being of the state, Out4Life Georgia is a critical initiative. Every taxpayer in Georgia has a direct stake in achieving a better success rate for prisoner re-entry.

Working together, the faith community, community-based nonprofits, and the state can make sure that offenders get out of prison and stay out — for life.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is honorary chairman of American Solutions for Winning the Future. Mark Earley is the president of Prison Fellowship and former attorney general of Virginia.


Robert Bentley’s Distinction Between Violent and Non-Violent Offenders

Conservative advocates of criminal justice reform sometimes have their “tough on crime” bona fides questioned, but Alabama Governor-Elect Robert Bentley demonstrates why such criticisms are unfounded.  On his campaign website, he listed the following as a point in his “Law Enforcement and Crime Prevention” platform:

“Non-violent criminals, and only non-violent criminals, should be rehabilitated to prevent their return to crime when they have finished serving their sentences.”

The italics are his — and they’re noteworthy.  He goes on to say, “As Governor, I will ensure that criminals receive a punishment that fits the crime they committed.  Unfortunately, Alabama’s criminal justice system suffers from intense overcrowding.  This is because the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality does not work for individuals convicted of non-violent crimes.”  Bentley was explaining to voters that he is serious about rehabilitating non-violent criminals, but he is not going to put Alabama’s public safety at risk by focusing rehabilitation and re-entry resources on violent offenders.  Those offenders will remain incapacitated in prison, where they belong.

Soft on crime?  Alabama voters don’t think so.  They’ve elected Bentley to become their 53rd Governor, and he’ll get the chance to start enacting his smart and tough platform on January 17th.


Prison Building in the Bluegrass State Is Not Getting Results

Today the Pew Center on the States released a report on corrections in Kentucky:

The report finds that the Kentucky prison population is 45% larger than it was in 2000.  The U.S. state prison system population as a whole also grew during this period, but only by 13%.  In order to accomodate the exceptionally rapid growth in the prison population, corrections spending has increased by 338% in recent years.  Kentucky, however, does not seem to be getting the results it probably wants: “The state’s recidivism rate—the number of offenders who return to prison within three years of release—has actually increased slightly in the past several years, from 37 percent for offenders released in 1997 to 43 percent for those released in 2006.”

Corrections spending in Kentucky totaled $513 million in 2009, and state taxpayers are probably wondering what, exactly, they paid for last year — and the 10-20 years before that.


Crime Victims as “Consumers” of Justice

This policy paper, published earlier this year, makes a unique proposal: why not think of crime victims as “consumers” of the criminal justice system?  Too often, the criminal justice system focuses so intensely on the punishment to be meted out the defendant and on the retribution sought by the state that it seems to ignore the interest of the individual crime victim.  This paper provides a framework for bringing the victim’s concerns back to the forefront.


Bond v. United States

Americans concerned about the relentless federalization of state and local criminal laws are on the brink of a rare victory in Bond v. United States, a U.S. Supreme Court case that reads like a pulp novel.  The defendant in the case is a microbiologist, Carole Bond, who became unmoored when she learned that her husband had impregnated her best friend.  She resolved to poison the friend by using toxic chemicals she obtained from and from her workplace.  She spread the chemicals on her friend’s door knob, car handle, and mailbox.  The friend survived, and Bond was discovered and convicted.

This ought to sound like a straightforward – if salacious – case of assault.  As the cliché counsels, “there’s no need to make a federal case out of it.”

That is not how the U.S. Attorney saw it.  Federal prosecutors seized upon the fact that the chemicals Bond used were regulated under an international weapons treaty and indicted Bond as a federal criminal.  Under the federal sentencing enhancement, Bond received six years in jail, when she would otherwise have received two years.

Bond appealed, arguing that an intra-state assault did not implicate an arms control treaty, and under the Tenth Amendment, it was a matter for local – not federal – law enforcement.  A federal court of appeals held, however, that Bond was precluded from making this argument because only states, not individuals, have standing to raise Tenth Amendment issues.

Bond then appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court, citing a panoply of Supreme Court case law, academic articles, and even The Federalist Papers to argue that overfederalization is significant political concern, and individuals must have standing to raise Tenth Amendment concerns about it.  Otherwise, her brief asks, who would do it? “[A] state has few incentives to object to federal laws that serve to relieve a state from its responsibilities.  [A]s state budgets are constrained, state governments may well prefer to allow the federal government to take responsibility for prosecuting and punishing local crimes.”

Astonishingly, the federal government agreed with her.  The Solicitor General’s reply brief acknowledged that individuals do indeed have standing to raise Tenth Amendment issues.  Because the parties are in agreement, the Supreme Court appears to have granted certiorari merely so that it can issue an opinion that clears all confusion and explicitly affirms that individuals have standing to raise Tenth Amendment suits.

It is important to understand what this case does and does not accomplish.  The case does not mean that Bond’s prosecution under a chemical weapons statute will be found illegal.  It certainly does not mean that Bond, who committed a heinous crime, will not be punished.  It does, however, recognize the right of an individual merely to raise important questions about whether certain crimes ought to be federalized.  In the larger fight to scale back overfederalization, this is a significant triumph, one with the potential to be reap benefits for years to come.