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.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stormed Gibson Guitar’s factories in Memphis and Nashville last week, seizing guitars, electronic files, and pallets of wood. The items were not seized due to any tax evasion, misappropriation of funds, or embezzlement. Nor, presumably, were the items seized merely because Gibson’s CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, is a prominent conservative (although that is a curious coincidence).
Instead, the Fish and Wildlife Service seized the goods because of an ongoing legal battle to determine whether Gibson’s guitars are made of illegally harvested ebony wood from protected forests in India. If the wood was indeed procured from a protected forest, it would constitute a violation of the Lacey Import Act, which authorizes the federal government to prosecute businesses based on speculation about what foreign law might prohibit. Gibson explained the situation well in its press release: “The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department’s interpretation of a law in India. (If the same wood from the same tree was finished by Indian workers, the material would be legal.) This action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India.” (The Lacey Act was also implicated in McNab v. United States, the infamous “lobster case” that is frequently cited by opponents of overcriminalization.)
The Lacey Act also criminalizes a failure to properly declare all flora or fauna upon import, whether the violation was intentional or not. Not only can Gibson’s goods be seized, but the company could face fines and criminal prosecution for its violation of the Lacey Act. Strict liability (a situation wherein criminal intent is presumed) is typically only applied to abnormally dangerous activities, but one wonders why it is abnormally dangerous – and criminal – to make a mistake on a customs form?
Arkansas’s prison population doubled in the past two decades, and corrections costs have jumped eight hundred percent — now costing the state $353 million per annum, an all-time high. Governor Mike Beebe recently called upon the Pew Center on the States to evaluate the problem and recommend solutions to help the ailing state. Last week, the Pew Center released its findings and recommendations.
Pew found that Arkansas has been increasing sentence lengths for non-violent offenses consistently for the past twenty years, and it has “depart[ed] substantially from the voluntary sentencing guidelines and delay[ed] transfer of inmates to parole.” Arkansas’s probation rate is 23% below the national average, while the state’s incarceration rate stands at 522 prisoners per 100,000 residents (compared with the national average of 502).
Following the completion’s research, the Pew Center assisted the Arkansas Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections to craft a reform strategy that could correct these problems within the corrections system. Their meetings culminated in The Public Safety Improvement Act, which operates on a standard justice reinvestment model: money is redirected toward community-based probation and prevention programs that reduce crime and recidivism. This leads to a decline in prison populations, which saves taxpayer dollars, and then later, a portion of this money is redirected to strengthen the programs that work best, while the poorly performing programs are eliminated.
Specifically, the act requires vastly improved data collection systems, increased accountability for probationers, an improved parole release process, expansion of electronic parole monitoring for low-level offenders, and expanded eligibility for drug court programs. It also recommends rehabilitation of longtime drug abusers rather than keeping them imprisoned for extended periods of time. Lastly, the act clearly states that violent and career criminals will remain in prison, where they belong.
The Public Safety Improvement Act passed both legislative chambers, and it was signed into law by Gov. Beebe in March of this year. The legislation is projected by Pew to save the state a net $875 million in averted prison construction and operations costs over the next nine years.
Since its inception in 1988, the honest services fraud statute has faced boisterous criticism. The statute was designed to criminalize corruption of public officials, but it has been abused by prosecutors to press charges against unpopular public figures. The statute is extremely vague, and it has been stretched to cover a number of activities that are not necessarily blameworthy.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and limited the scope of the honest services fraud statute to criminalize only bribes and kickbacks in Skilling v. United States. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority, “to satisfy due process, a penal statute [must] define the criminal offense  with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and  in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
The Wall Street Journal warns, however, that honest services fraud may not be done yet. Congress has taken it upon itself to remedy the Court’s “mistake,” and it has introduced a total of three new bills in the House and Senate designed to resuscitate “Honest Services.” Several of the suggested “fixes” will almost certainly violate the Skilling vagueness test, criminalizing an unknown behavior called “self-dealing.”
Even worse, in order to fill the honest services fraud void, federal prosecutors are stretching other similar statutes to recriminalize the same behavior. For example, the Justice Department has doubled its enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the last year, and it now considers a “foreign official” to be essentially every foreign citizen.
Not only do vague laws breed uncertainty amongst governing officials and invite expensive legislation, but they often fail to stop the targeted behavior. Governmental corruption is a problem, but overreaching laws are not the way to stop it.
California Senate Bill 9 was originally introduced in December of last year, and the amended version of the bill passed in the Senate in May. It has just moved through the Assembly committee on Public Safety, and it will now go through the Appropriations committee, and then the Assembly at large for a vote, according to an article from the Fair Sentencing for Youth project.
SB 9 is a groundbreaking piece of legislation for California juvenile justice. The bill recognizes that youth offenders have a unique capacity to change themselves and it improves access to the rehabilitative tools for them to do so.
If passed, the legislation would “provide an opportunity for review and resentencing after many years of incarceration for youth sentenced to life without parole.” Furthemore, “[r]ecognizing that teenagers are still maturing, this act creates specific criteria and an intense, three-part review process that would result in the possibility of a lesser sentence for those offenders who have matured and proven themselves to be changed.”
Even if the offenders are resentenced, they will still face a parole board and be required to prove that they deserve release to community supervision, just like any other prisoner. SB 9 allows for up to three review hearings for each offender serving a life sentence without parole, and it requires a statement of remorse and rehabilitation as a condition of sentence reduction.
During the Texas legislative session, Right on Crime’s Marc Levin testified on several bills related to criminal justice. According to a recent article in The San Antonio Express-News, one of those bills is now a law that takes aim at ensuring juvenile offenders learn from their mistakes.
Presently, most juvenile criminal violations are punished with a fine. Unfortunately, the offender’s parents must usually pay these fines, and unless the parents require their child to work off the payment in some way, a juvenile offender will typically escape with nothing more than a lecture and a slap on the wrist.
New legislation, which takes effect in September, will allow juvenile offenders charged with certain class C misdemeanors to be assessed two hundred hours of community service. In assessing community service, a judge ensures that the child, not the parents, bears the brunt of the punishment. Judges will be instantly notified if an offender fails to report for his community service, and appropriate action can be taken swiftly. Such measures have the potential to teach responsibility to juvenile offenders, reduce recidivism, and help clean up the community.
Some advocates of the legislation are optimistic that the new law will also provide great benefits to elderly residents and neglected neighborhoods across Texas. San Antonio implemented an informal juvenile community service sentencing program last year, and it has seen great success. Many senior citizens have expressed gratitude for the cleanup efforts of the young offenders.