A feature story in the New York Times today digs to discover Texas Governor Rick Perry’s record on criminal justice, highlighting a tenure that contains within it a number of reform elements that are in broad concurrence with the principles advocated by Right on Crime.
Last week, National Review Online ran a story about the recent Fish and Wildlife Service raid on the Gibson guitar factory, written by Right on Crime signatory Pat Nolan. The article uses the Gibson raid, as well as a number of incidents, as examples of a failing criminal justice system, which, Nolan says, is increasingly less focused on what should be its core mission: “stopping the bad guys from harming us.”
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice met last week to take on prison reform. The meeting opened with testimony from Ron Gavin, a former drug addict who turned his life around through Reality House, a Daytona-based treatment center. Now, Ron is employed, engaged, sober, and free. “It’s refreshing to stand behind a podium and not be sentenced,” he told committee members, who saw him as an example of criminal justice done right.
Ten percent of Florida inmates are incarcerated for drug use, but not all of them receive treatment, and that frequently just lands them back in prison. Florida legislators are now recognizing the failure of this policy, and they are re-examining their policies across the board.
The attendees at the Senate committee meeting also discussed root causes of the problem in Florida. Republican Mike Bennett blames some of the problems on the legislature for destroying judicial sentencing discretion: “They don’t have that discretion anymore, and often times we find ourselves with a bunch of people incarcerated that we might not want there,” the Senator said. When asked about appearing ‘soft on crime’ Bennett said, “[i]t’s not soft on crime; it’s hard on the budget.”
Vermont’s governor made criminal justice reform a top priority when he took office in January. He hoped to reduce the state prison population by reforming the parole system and thereby imprisoning fewer non-violent offenders. However, according to a recent article from the Montpelier Argus, despite seeing a reduction in incarceration of sentenced offenders, Vermont has seen a significant spike in detainees awaiting trial in the last two months (up to a record 406 inmates last month).
About 100 of the inmates are on $10,000 bail or less, indicating predominantly minor charges. Administrative Judge Amy Davenport dug deeper to determine whether some offenders had been unduly sentenced, but she “didn’t find any blatantly low-level offenses where you ask, ‘Why is this person in jail?’” Some of the cases appear to be minor and low-level, but Judge Davenport maintains that most low-level offenders had deeper problems. In one case, a defendant had committed one minor underlying crime, but had seventeen violations of his release conditions. According to Judge Davenport, it becomes an accountability issue at that point.
Legislation was passed several years ago to encourage judges to use home detention in lieu of formal incarceration, but as of Friday, not a single person was held in home detention in Vermont. According to Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, defense attorneys have been rejected so many times that they don’t bother drafting the motions for it. “It’s become one of those things where they don’t want to beat their head against the wall.”
Valerio believes that the focus on lowering detainee numbers is helping to fix some of the small problems in the corrections system, but that Vermont is too timid to fix the big ones. In his opinion, the real solution is to release low-risk inmates and instead use community supervision alternatives to monitor them, but he fears that Vermont’s leaders are too politically scared to take the necessary steps.
Jim Webb is in and out of prisons at a rapid rate. The fiery Virginia senator is by no means a criminal, but for thirty years now he has been touring prisons and asking questions.
As a conservative democrat who was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in the Vietnam War, served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and once criticized affirmative action as “state-sponsored racism,” Webb may not seem to fit the profile of most criminal justice reform champions. Yet according to this week’s Newsweek, Senator Webb is leading the charge admirably.
Webb, a man who is committed to “preserving fairness while also preserving discipline,” crunched the numbers, and found that the United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, but only 5% of the total population. He also found that Japan imprisons 63 people per 100,000 citizens, compared to the United States’ 743. As Senator Webb likes to put it, “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.” He later saw the recidivism figures, along with the post-release employment figures, and he decided that something needed to change.
In 2009, Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would conduct the first review of national crime policy in forty-five years. He has been fighting with “stress, insanity, and gnashing of teeth” to get it passed ever since.
Initially, says Webb, the conservative senators “assumed this was all about drugs…so there was hesitation.” But with state budgets struggling, senators are seeing the rapid growth in corrections as a place where real spending cuts can be made without harming public safety. Webb’s plan now has thirty-nine cosponsors (including a number of conservatives, along with numerous conservative interest groups), and he estimates that he has the required two-thirds majority in line to pass it.