City of Richmond Debates Juvenile Detention

The City Council and Mayor in Richmond, Virginia, are looking long and hard at their juvenile detention policies.

A recent city council meeting included a discussion of a recently closed city-run juvenile detention facility in Richmond. An average of 39 juveniles were detained after arrest in the facility before the state put the facility on probation and the mayor closed it.

Officials sought to compare the facility to private options or facilities within a regional partnership, but were unable to do so as there was not sufficient data to assess how much the facility cost the city.

The meeting produced no final decision beyond an agreement that more study is needed.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has undertaken such a study, and recently released a report on detention alternatives that can save municipalities significant money while improving outcomes for juvenile offenders. The open debate and recently closed facility in Richmond provides an excellent opportunity for consideration of those alternatives and how they may benefit Virginia residents as well.


Right-Sizing Texas Corrections

On May 8th, the Texas Public Policy Foundation hosted a primer titled “Right-Sizing Texas Corrections.” The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is under Sunset Review this year, and the commission will need to identify the core functions of the department which serve its mission most effectively in terms of costs and results. The Foundation’s primer looked at several policy options for enhancing public safety and controlling costs. Among the options discussed were better prioritizing prison space to focus on dangerous offenders and achieving operational efficiencies in areas such as correctional health care.

Marc Levin of Right On Crime, and the Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, moderated the panel, which featured the following speakers:

The Honorable Joan Huffman
Texas State Senator

The Honorable Jerry Madden
Texas State Representative

The Honorable Ray Allen
former Texas State Representative

Peggy McGarry
Director, Center for Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute for Justice

Listen to audio of the primer by clicking here.


Targeted Approaches to Juvenile Justice

Unique circumstances sometimes underlie juvenile delinquency cases. In order to properly handle those cases and prevent further wrongdoing, targeted approaches can specifically address those underlying circumstances in ways traditional juvenile justice systems cannot.

The circuit court in Winnebago County, Illinois, recently initiated the Youth Recovery Court for youths with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues. Specifically limited to youths charged with nonviolent offenses, the court seeks to treat the mental health or substance abuse issue to prevent further delinquency linked to those health issues.  This community based program incorporates a high level of family participation to ensure adherence to the treatment plan.

Livingston County, New York, has adopted a restorative justice approach to handle first-time non-violent delinquent youths through their Youth Court program. Administered by teenage volunteers who dole out community service sanctions, this court seeks to make young offenders aware of how their actions impact their peers, victims, and the community at large. With a quick turnaround (no more than 60 days) and initial success (30 out of 31 juveniles handled by the Youth Court fully completed their community service sanction), the Youth Court hopes to increase youth responsibility while redressing wrongs.

These targeted approaches offer a different course for specific low-level juvenile offenders who may benefit far more from diversion from the juvenile justice system without risk to the public safety.


12 Steps for Overcoming Overcriminalization

In 2010, the Texas Public Policy Foundation published “Analyze Before You Criminalize.” Policymakers appreciated the checklist, but they also asked an important follow-up question: “This checklist helps us prevent new overcriminalization, but how do we reverse the overcriminalization that has already occurred?” In response, the Foundation has now released a guide with some answers: 12 Steps for Overcoming Overcriminalization. The recommendations are as follows:

1. Identify weak mens rea protections;

2. Adopt a default mens rea statute;

3. Enact the Rule of Lenity;

4. Don’t criminalize offenses based on voluntary economic transactions;

5. Eliminate unnecessary occupational licensing requirements;

6. Eliminate delegation of power to agencies through rulemaking;

7. Require that criminal laws unrelated to controlled substances include potential or actual harm to an individual victim as an element of the offense;

8. Identify and consolidate duplicative laws which sanction essentially the same behavior;

9. Reclassify misdemeanors to remove jail time when unnecessary or convert to a civil violation;

10. Apply consistent criteria in distinguishing felonies from misdemeanors;

11. Create a commission to examine and identify all criminal laws that are redundant, unnecessary, or overbroad;

12. Apply the Tenth Amendment to criminal law.

The recommendations are followed by brief explanations and several notorious examples of overcriminalization. The complete document can be read here.


Protecting Public Safety and Reducing Costs in Louisiana

Right On Crime is distributing a short policy brief in Louisiana to encourage legislators and Governor Jindal to pass significant criminal justice reform during the state’s current legislative session. The brief discusses some of the policy problems confronting Louisiana and recommends the Right On Crime principles as the key to reform. You can read the policy brief here.


New Report on Prosecutorial Regulation of Corporations

Low level criminal cases against individual defendants can sometimes be dismissed in lieu of a fine, or due to community service performed prior to the trial date, usually as recognition that the individual defendant’s debt to society has been paid and a trial is unnecessary. This standard practice is substantially expanded when federal prosecutors file charges against corporations involved in finance, health care, and other multi-billion dollar industries and enter into an agreement before trial, as detailed in a new report from the Manhattan Institute.

These agreements, named deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements, are entered into following the filing of criminal charges, and used by the corporations to avoid trial and the attendant collateral effects that can severely hamper business. They are also used by prosecutors to exact penalties without the cost and risk of proving their case before judge or jury.

After the U.S. Department of Justice files charges against a corporation, frequently for a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, fraud, or antitrust law, the two sides to the criminal case come together under an agreement that usually involves two key aspects: a substantial fine and sometimes continuing prosecutorial oversight of the corporation.

The fines can be crippling: over $5 billion in 2009, $4 billion the year after that. But a far more onerous component of deferred or non-prosecution agreements is the prosecutorial regulation of the corporations involved, both at the time of the criminal case and often for some time into the future. The oversight can broadly encompass sales and compensation practices, merger and acquisition decisions, implementation of corporate monitors who report to prosecutors, and even ouster of corporate executives.

There have been over 200 such agreements in the last decade, and even include seven of Fortune magazine’s top 100 largest U.S. businesses.

As the Manhattan Institute points out, the problem with these agreements is not necessarily the underlying regulation—regulation of corporations is an important function of criminal laws when truly fraudulent behavior has taken place—but that these agreements evade judicial oversight and have significant economic impacts on the corporation. Further, companies fearful of negative publicity with a criminal trial, stunting of business growth, or ineligibility for federal contracts may forgo the risk of trial and enter into these agreements even if guilt is disputed.

These agreements could be a more efficient component of the criminal justice and regulatory system with a modicum of judicial oversight, and with a less broad scope, both in terms of the conduct for which such agreements may be used and in the long-term prosecutorial control over a private company.

The report, “The Shadow Regulatory State:  The Rise of Deferred Prosecution Agreements,” by James R. Copland, is available here.


FOCUS Act Debated in House Committee

This week, H.R. 4171, the Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act of 2012, or the FOCUS Act, was heard in committee. This legislation is designed to restore the Lacey Act to its original purpose.

The Lacey Act has been in the news lately because it is the legal underpinning for a raid of Gibson Guitar by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. The Act, as codified today, permits criminal charges to be brought in United States courts against anyone accused of violating foreign laws. This brought about a raid and seizure of property from Gibson upon allegations that it imported rosewood from India in supposed violation of Indian law (although Indian officials have questioned the U.S. government’s legal analysis that harvesting the wood is illegal).

Originally, the Lacey Act was intended to have a much more focused purpose—namely, prohibiting the trafficking of illegal game. To that end, the FOCUS Act strips the legislation of its criminal sanctions and the references to foreign laws that have nothing to do with illegal game.

Reports out of the committee hearing show that the testimony was passionate on both sides of the debate, but that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) succinctly summed up the issue: as it stands, the Lacey Act requires every American to know both the criminal and civil laws of every foreign country.

If such a requirement doesn’t need FOCUS, we’re not quite sure what would.


Sobering Centers: Cutting Jail Populations, Costs, and Crime

Almost 19,000 arrests in Houston each year are for public intoxication alone. While certainly this offense is an important tool to keep streets clean and crime free, public intoxication is almost always a non-violent offense handled most appropriately with detoxification rather than secure confinement. Not only does jail time fail to address the underlying issues, it is also expensive–in Houston, the 19,000 public intoxication arrests require $4-$6 million each year in law enforcement and jail costs.

In search of more effective case management of public intoxication offenders, San Antonio, San Diego, Phoenix, Colorado Springs, and Portland have all adopted the use of a “sobering center” as a diversion alternative for these offenders.

A sobering center accepts public intoxication offenders—and only such offenders–from law enforcement custody rather than being sent to a jail cell. Then, after obtaining health information, the offender is required to sober up. When sober, the center counsels the offender on alcohol issues and social services available to help break the cycle of alcoholism. Unless there are active city warrants out on the offender, he or she is then discharged.

This approach is more effective because it addresses the underlying issue of alcohol abuse inherent in most public intoxication offenses. It diverts these non-violent offenders away from costly jail beds while ensuring they are not out on city streets putting themselves or others in harm. Police officers, meanwhile, are free to turn their attention to far more dangerous crimes and criminals.

In turn, Houston is now considering a sobering center of its own. The estimated cost of annual operation is about $1.5 million, far less than the $4-6 million currently spent jailing public intoxication offenders. Further, the size of the facility has been calibrated to optimally handle almost all public intoxication offenders.

Other cities adopting such sobering centers have seen reductions in arrests and jail time for these offenders, as well as fewer emergency room and hospital check-ins for this often indigent population, on top of the cost savings found in jail bed diversions. In San Antonio, in the first year alone, the sobering center led to $6 million in cost savings. After three years, total cost savings from reduced jail time, reduced hospitalizations, and other sources stretches over $25 million.

The successes and cost savings realized by other municipalities are currently being considered by Houston as it seeks its own sobering center. The city may also decide that there is a better way of handling public intoxication that can keep Houston streets safe while saving taxpayers millions.