Colorado Expands Restorative Juvenile Justice

“We should hope to get to the point where we spend more on classrooms than cages…more on textbooks than prison blocks.”- Colorado State Representative Pete Lee.

According to the Colorado Springs Independent, legislation by Rep. Pete Lee aims to expand restorative justice alternatives in Colorado’s juvenile justice system. Currently, the District Attorney must suggest the alternative system. With the new reforms (which passed on the last day of the legislative session), the judge is required to inform both the victims and defendants of the option, and the judge can order it without it having to be suggested by the DA.

The current alternative justice system has been in place since 2008, and has seen promising results, with the crime rate steadily falling since the mid nineties.  Already, several graffiti cleanup programs and other community service projects, as well as expansive school programs are helping at-risk youth.  Juvenile justice reforms not only serve a very important moral goal, they can also save a significant amount of money ($270 per day in a correctional facility as compared to $7-$73 a day in diversion/supervision programs).  The new legislation will shift available funds to further expand these programs in the hopes of preventing misguided juveniles from choosing a life of incarceration.


Lubbock Blazes New Trail in Indigent Defense

An attorney is a constitutional right, but court-appointed defense attorneys have a tarnished history. Thanks to a sizeable grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, Lubbock County is moving forward with a restructuring of its public defender program, The Texas Lawyer reports. The task force recently voted to disperse $21.2 million in grants to a number of counties to encourage new approaches to the indigent defense problem, Lubbock County among them. The current framework of judge-appointed counsel can be problematic, as judges are required to remain impartial, and cannot get involved if they suspect that an attorney is inadequately representing his or her client (a frequent problem).

The new system will implement a regional public defender’s office, designed to serve multiple surrounding counties. The attorney in charge of the office will evaluate cases, and appoint legal counsel from within the office. David Slayton, director of Lubbock County court administration said, “We’re hopeful that [the new program] will lead to an improvement in the quality [of indigent defense]…It takes a lot of administrative burden off the judges.” This model allows for a head attorney to supervise and oversee the efforts of the appointed lawyers much better than a judge could.

Lubbock County hopes to have the new office in full operation by January 2012. The task force is very excited about the program’s potential, and it is hoping the new Lubbock office will serve as an example for other counties in the state. Several counties are already receiving funds to implement electronic filing, teleconferencing, and public defender training in order to improve the quality of indigent defense and to reduce costs down the road.


Kansas Forms New Partnership To Take On Recidivism

Kansas spends over $300 million per year on the incarceration of some 15,000 inmates in county and state prisons, and it boasts a recidivism rate of around 43% (on par with the national average).  According to Right On Crime supporter Pat Nolan, Governor Sam Brownback has decided that the national average is not good enough for Kansas, and he is tackling recidivism head on.

For Gov. Brownback, lower recidivism means a safer society and lower spending.  In pursuit of those goals, Brownback has partnered with Nolan’s organization, Prison Fellowship, to sponsor “a statewide effort that will bring together more than 250 businesses, nonprofit organizations, churches and other community groups.” The new program, dubbed “Out4Life” will focus on building local coalitions to help parolees re-enter society.  These groups will help to match ex-convicts with housing, transportation, medical care, and church communities.  According to Nolan, “a top priority for the coalitions will be to match inmates with mentors who will hold the offenders accountable while also providing practical advice. Many of the offenders have never had an adult they can trust and look up to.”

Does this partnership guarantee success?  Nolan himself said, “That is unlikely.  But we can make a difference in the lives of those who want to change.  And that will make communities safer and better.”


Alabama Chief Justice Issues Overcrowding Warning

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has a warning for the legislature of her state: fix the overcrowded Alabama prison system, or the judiciary will do it for you.  Like many other states’ leaders, she read Brown v. Plata, and saw a similar problem in her own state.  Alabama’s prisons are currently operating at about 190% of capacity: dangerously close to the level that prompted the Supreme Court to declare California’s overcrowding levels unconstitutional and forced the release of 30,000 prisoners in a 5-4 decision.  The Huntsville Times has the story.

The Plata decision along with the legislature’s failure to pass a broad sentencing reform package, have Chief Justice Cobb and a number of state senators concerned about a judicial takeover of Alabama’s prisons.  Cobb estimates that a sentencing reform package pending in the state legislature could have reduced the overcrowding to 170% of capacity.  The sentencing reform package was taken down by legislature, however, primarily based on a fear of appearing “soft” on crime to constituents.  Senators told the Chief Justice “we didn’t come to Montgomery to lessen sentences.”  In response, Senator Cam Ward pointed to a number of conservative states like Texas who have seen great success in abandoning archaic “tough on crime” principles in exchange for “smart on crime” principles.

In the end, only one of the seven bills in the reform package survived, and that one merely corrected and updated an existing law.  Accusatory fingers are pointing in several directions, but regardless of who is to blame, the legislature’s failure to take care of a glaring problem in a way that would have saved millions is discouraging.

Were a judicial takeover of Alabama prisons to occur, it wouldn’t be the first time.  A U.S. District court declared the overcrowded prison conditions cruel and unusual punishment in 1976, and appointed a special master to oversee a transition to a system that passed constitutional muster.

“It’s a shameful thing,” said the Chief Justice. “They knew we were locking people up for things that are not appropriate for changing their behavior, and we’re wasting money.”


Freighters Fined For Cartel Crimes?

One of Nebraska’s largest companies, Union Pacific Railroad, now owes the federal government $400 million, according to an AP article. The railroad is not liable because of bailouts, loans, or back taxes owed, but because drug cartels have become quite skilled at hiding drugs on Union Pacific’s trains.  The fines stem from the Tariff Act of 1930, designed to penalize freighters for having inaccurate shipping manifests.

The law has now been expanded to penalize freighters for every ounce of illegal drugs that are smuggled into the United States.  Regardless of intent, knowledge, or negligence, a freight company such as Union Pacific is fined $500 per ounce of marijuana, and $1,000 per ounce of heroin, opiates, or cocaine that is found on board.

The merits behind the original legislation are sensible enough: make sure you know what’s in your shipment and exercise some care in preventing illicit goods from reaching American markets.  But the law fails to address the broad range of potential violations because it does not consider any element of intent or negligence.

Suppose, for example, that a freighter negligently ignores his duty to inspect his cargo, which is littered with explosives, drugs, and unregistered firearms.  A fine may be perfectly reasonable.  But Union Pacific spends $3.6 million a year on officers to search for contraband, and it has spent some $72.5 million to aid federal officers on the border.  Nevertheless, it faces the same fines as the negligent freighter.  This leaves Union Pacific in a lose-lose situation.  It can ignore its inspection duties entirely and face huge fines or it can make a good-faith effort to inspect and secure its rail lines, spending millions of dollars, and still face fines.  This has created a perverse incentive for inaction.

The doctrine’s failure to recognize any sort of intent or negligence element is its downfall.  While it is fair to expect freighters to examine their cargo for dangerous or illegal contraband, it is not fair to expect them to find everything.  Drug smuggling earns around $25 billion a year, giving smugglers motivation to circumvent inspections.  X-ray scanners, drug sniffing dogs, and visual inspections are evaded every day by smugglers, and it is unreasonable to force Union Pacific to pay extreme fines because it is unable to solve this difficult political problem.

Union Pacific says that it cannot be expected to “send unarmed personnel into Mexico to battle Mexican drug cartels that maliciously murder and wage a war against the Mexican military.”  The Justice Department says that the rail company is wholly responsible for controlling Mexican train traffic.  Litigation is now pending in federal district court in Nebraska (along with additional suits in Texas and California), and the courts will decide who is right.


Ohio Passes A Major Reform Package

This week Governor John Kasich is expected to sign a monumental piece of criminal justice legislation into law, The Plain Dealer reports.  The bill, which drew significant support from both parties, will send low-level nonviolent felons to rehabilitation facilities in lieu of prison, put a credit-earned system in place, and adjust prison sentences for drug and petty theft offenses.  The package was proposed as a means to save money, reduce recidivism, and ease overcrowding.

Ohio’s corrections department is currently operating at roughly 136% of capacity.  “These proposals will begin to address the problem of low-level offenders cycling through the prison system while reserving scarce and expensive state prison beds for violent and predatory offenders” said Gary Mohr, Ohio’s Director of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

Interestingly, although the reform package is expected to provide savings of around $46 million, Gov. Kasich strongly insists that the measures were not just designed to aid the ailing budget, but to help those who get trapped in the system, and create a safer society.  “These reforms will make our communities safer by putting…offenders in more fitting corrections environments with the goal of preventing them from becoming career criminals” said Kasich.


Georgia Tests a New Method of Parole Reporting

It is well-understood that parole is less expensive than incarceration, but the state of Georgia is now testing a new program to make parole even more cost-effective.  The state has expanded its parole population by 10% in the past ten years, and this has led to a shortage of parole officers for mandatory check-ins. According to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the state is not hiring new officers to monitor all these parolees.  It is getting creative instead.

Georgia hopes to save money by implementing a self-reporting telephone system.  Now, parolees will call in on designated check-in dates, which will be confirmed by vocal recognition software.  Not only does this make parole check-ins much more convenient for parolees, the state will save a significant amount of money.  Instead of having to pay a parole officer to organize these check-ins, parolees will bear the manageable cost of $7 per month to participate in the program. (A parole officer, on the other hand, would make about $50,000, on average).

The voice recognition software is reliable, and it maintains accountability for parolees.  The preliminary experiment will last three months, and advocates for conservative criminal justice reform should be eager to see the results of the pilot program.


Reforms Being Considered In North Carolina

There is interesting news out of North Carolina, where important prison and probation reforms are headed to the Governor’s office. The Blue Ridge Times-News has the story:

Significant changes to North Carolina’s sentencing and probation laws designed to keep better track of offenders and discourage recidivism while scaling back prison construction are heading to Gov. Beverly Perdue’s desk.

The General Assembly gave its final approval Wednesday night to the so-called “Justice Reinvestment Act” developed with the help of outside researchers and interest groups. The House agreed to changes approved by the Senate earlier in the day.

The measure would allow the state to place short-term punishments on probationers to help them avoid serious violations. More released felons would be supervised and repeat breaking-and-entering offenders could face tougher punishments. More misdemeanor violators would serve jail time. More first-time drug offenders can avoid prosecution.

Bill supporters argue the changes could result in the need for 3,000 fewer prison beds.


California’s Misguided Approach to Complying with Brown v. Plata

June 7th is the deadline by which California must comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata. Right now, the plan is apparently to reallocate inmates to prisons in other states and to county jails. This has Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich a little bit scared, NPR reports.

Supervisor Antonovich warns that L.A. County jails are already packed to the brim. He condemned the Supreme Court decision as a “reckless, unfunded mandate” that L.A. County cannot handle. “[W]ho’s going to pay for these individuals after six months? What do you do with a repeat offender? We don’t have mental health programs to provide for our own people; now we’re going to have all these other individuals coming in. This is really a Pandora’s Box.”

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley fears that the mandate will force early releases of dangerous criminals, which he argues will have dire consequences for public safety. L.A. recently released a number of violent criminals from its system due to a computer glitch, so “their track record is not too hot,” Cooley said.

Peter Eliasberg, an attorney with the ACLU (the group in charge of monitoring L.A.’s prison conditions) is concerned with the probable increase in inmate violence that will follow in Los Angeles. “You’re going to dump another 10,000 more prisoners into that system? It is a prescription for disaster. It is going to become a much greater cauldron of violence, overcrowding and idleness”

Antonovich, Cooley, and Eliasberg all have valid concerns. California’s path to complying with the prison release order will be littered with roadblocks.  Ultimately, the state will realize that the only way to comply with the order is to make distinctions between violent and nonviolent offenders, and prioritize prison space for violent criminals, while burnishing community supervision alternatives for nonviolent ones.


Did “Three Strikes” Laws Bring Down California’s Violent Crime Rate?

Over the last two decades, California has seen a steady reduction in violent crime. Supporters of the “tough on crime” approach take the credit, claiming that “three-strikes” provisions implemented in the mid-1990s are responsible for the drop. Advocates of these policies argue that high incarceration rates act as a deterrent to potential criminals, which translates into a lower crime rate and a safer society.

The correlation seems clear enough at first, but an article by Dan Walters in the Sacramento Bee highlights new studies showing that three-strikes provisions have little or nothing to do with fluctuations in crime rate. Robert Parker from the University of California—Riverside recently published one of these studies. His research found that three strikes policies “show little or no impact…on violent crime rates in California and elsewhere.” Instead, Parker believes the most influential factors on crime are economic and social factors, which could be better controlled using rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration. Texas adopted this strategy in 2007 when the state spent $241 million to expand rehabilitation programs instead of spending $2 billion on expanding the prison system. This measure saved $1.75 billion and brought down the state recidivism rate.

If research shows that three strikes policies have negligible effects on crime rates, then a “lock ‘em up, and throw away the key” policy is wasteful. Parker’s study estimates that if California were to abandon the (ostensibly) “tough on crime” approach the state could save around $2.3 billion per year. This coupled with the typical drop in recidivism rate that rehabilitation projects bring make such reforms an attractive proposition.