Monthly Archives: December 2009

It’s time to wake up (updated)

It’s a different world today than it was in the ’80s, ’90s and even the early whats. The economy may or may not be recovering, but one thing is for sure: budget deficits are spiraling out of control. Crime may be down, but the workload of the criminal justice system is up. In particular, the burden on public defender systems is one that has rarely been seen before.

Whether this is a product of reduced funding, of lengthy sentences coming home to roost, of a zero-tolerance “tough on crime” policy enacted years ago or of the sheer overcriminalization of our society is an open question (my guess: a mix of them all). When a small state like CT has 1663 crimes defined in its statutes (and that’s in 2006; several more have been added since) and when books are written warning us that we commit three felonies a day, it’s time for someone to sit up and take notice. And by someone I mean those with the power to change the direction we’ve gone in: legislators and voters. So you, all of you.

The repercussions of too many people in the justice system are beginning to reverberate throughout the country: Georgia is on its 4th lawsuit to force indigent defense spending; Michigan is being sued by three defendants who claim that the lack of funding forced their public defenders to pressure them into entering pleas of guilty; the Missouri Supreme Court recently allowed public defenders the nuclear option of shutting down their doors and refusing cases if caseloads got unmanageable; the costs in Ohio are rising quick; the Fresno public defender’s office got permission to lay off 6 attorneys before the end of the year to balance their budget; and contract attorneys in Nebraska have been receiving a $100 flat fee instead of $50 per hour for all misdemeanor cases.

Should I even go near the financial black hole that is the death penalty?  How, in times where basic rights of defendants may be in jeopardy – ordinary run of the mill defendants, mind you – can we even consider sustaining the machinery of death?

This will not end anytime soon and even if there is an alleviation of the financial crisis, the impact on the criminal justice system will be temporary. More crimes will be committed, more knee-jerk reactions will be induced and harsher sentences will be given out. The burden continues to build until there is a fundamental change in the way we think about the numbers, the crimes and the system.

A report from 2000, that I’ve mentioned before, seems to have gotten it right. Too bad no one is listening. I’ll reprint the salient points:

Prison overcrowding has a cyclical pattern in Connecticut — reaching a crisis point about every 10 years. The committee report showed most of the causes of prison overcrowding occurred outside the administration and jurisdiction of the Department of Correction and these complex issues and problems cannot be addressed by a single state agency. Specifically, the program review committee identified five main causes of prison overcrowding. They are:

  • Despite the decrease in arrest and crime rates, the number of offenders in prison or jail continued to increase due to the “war on drugs”, increased funding for police, increased role of victims and victim advocacy groups in the court process, added bed capacity in the correctional system, recidivism and technical violations of probation and parole, harsher penalties for certain types of crimes, and narrowed eligibility for community release and alternative sanction options.
  • Convicted inmates were remaining incarcerated for a greater portion of their court-imposed prison sentences as a result of the shift from an indeterminate to a determinate sentencing structure, elimination of “good time”, creation of time-served standards for parole eligibility, and the enactment of several “truth in sentencing” initiatives.
  • The aggressive “tough on crime” approach supported by the legislature and adopted by the executive and judicial branches allows the criminal justice system to narrow its use of discretion and take a more conservative and less controversial approach to punishment.
  • A lack of prison beds, especially high security and pre-trial beds, forced DOC to operate at capacity.
  • Poor planning and a lack of an accurate population projection and offender needs analysis contributed to the cycle of overcrowding and hampered DOC’s efforts to adequately plan for new or expanded facilities.

In reviewing options available to manage and control growth of the inmate population, the committee found Connecticut cannot build its way out of a prison overcrowding crisis. However, prison expansion is one model to address prison overcrowding. This strategy has been Connecticut’s primary response to prison overcrowding over the past 20 years. It is the simplest but least effective and most expensive approach. Services in this model are concentrated primarily on the small percent (25 percent) of the offender population in prison.

And yet here we are: more crimes, longer sentences and an almost unmanageable burden. We’re still fighting the absurd war on drugs and on parolees and probationers. While our prison population has seen somewhat of a slight decline from the record numbers of last year, it would be a tremendous mistake to consider that an improvement. The record numbers were the result of the Governor’s ban on parole. But don’t let that obscure the fact that even prior to the ban, the population numbers were already at the breaking point.

And it’s not going to get any better. Per the OPM‘s most recent projections, the population is expected to increase from its current numbers to around 18, 942. [Here are the Dec 2009 monthly indicators.] The most recent breakdown of inmates by crimes is this one from 2007. And here’s the most recent recidivism study [there’s a wealth of information in there if you’re interested].

So how is this to be done? Over the years, I’ve made many suggestions: legalize marijuana, get realistic about prison sentences, divert all non-violent offenders into treatment and community based rehab, address the problem at its root, etc.

[Update: This NYT editorial makes the case for smart reforms, pointing to a slew of legislation pending in NJ to make the prison system more rehabilitation centric. Among some of the proposals is one akin to the ban the box idea implemented in New Haven earlier this year.]

But it’s all a futile exercise. It’s never going to happen unless there’s a fundamental shift in the thinking. That shift may well be driven by the financial engine. So how about taking a different tact. How about we keep detailed statistics: how many people end up going to jail for a violation of probation for drug problems instead of to a treatment facility? Let’s keep a record of that for 3 years and calculate the cost of sending that person to jail. How about defendants sentenced to 7 years in jail where 5 years would have been just as good. Keep a track of the costs there. How many inmates were denied entry into programs for lack of beds and so instead were forced to take a prison sentence? Let’s keep track of that.

At the end of 3 years, let’s add it all up and look at the staggering cost of our penal system. Let’s put it into real numbers and compare it to the budget shortfall. Extrapolate that over the last 20 years and I bet we will see that these “tough on crime” policies have come at a significant, tangible cost to us.

High-risk sex offenders still have nowhere to go

Two years ago (and how time flies!) I wrote about the lack of any real residential inpatient options for high risk sex offenders in Connecticut. As of today, nothing has changed. The man whose case prompted the prior post is set to be released from custody on Christmas eve and – surprise, surprise! – he’s most likely going to end up in a shelter.

And even that’s not certain.

Instead, 52-year-old Ransome Lee Moody will be waiting in line for a bed at Immanuel Baptist Homeless Shelter in New Haven, a place where indigent offenders who have done their time often go for housing when there are no other options.

Now Moody is not a nice guy. Having spent 32 years of his 52 year life behind bars for various sexual and violent crimes, it’s clear that there’s a problem and he’s a danger either to himself or to society. So it would be appropriate if there were a place to house people like him, which would provide them the appropriate treatment and security and allow them to successfully integrate back into society, if possible.

Such a place was envisioned by the legislature – perhaps the only good thing to come out of the wholesale *cough*bullshit*cough* “reforms” to the criminal justice system in the wake of the Cheshire murders.

Junk “science” and missing evidence

Add a gallon of destroyed evidence to a tubful of junk science and what do you get? Another man set free. Philip Scott Cannon was released from prison Friday after serving 10 years for a triple murder. Note that I have not yet used the term exonerated – and that’s for a reason. We don’t know if he is truly innocent and we will never know. That’s because the police in Polk County, Oregon destroyed all the physical evidence they had collected during their investigation, despite a county policy.

Cannon’s conviction was overturned in the first place because it had been based on the now debunked “comparative bullet lead analysis”, that the FBI distanced itself from in 2005 after another NAS report in 2004 called bullshit on the “science” [not to be confused with the NAS report that this year called bullshit on a whole bunch of other “forensic science tools” and other tales of “junk science“].

In 2004, after the NAS report but before the FBI disavowal, NACDL’s Champion published this lengthy piece on CBL and its flaws. And then in 2007, the Washington Post had this article questioning the FBI’s failure to alert courts and lawyers of their distancing themselves from CBL and the closing window on the possibility of reversing questionable convictions.

The fear is upon us: convict to be on the safe side

these are not the sex offenders youre look-wait, he kinda is

America’s War on Sex (Offenders) is well documented by now. Sexual deviants and offenders are the modern day witches, persecuted by the fearful among us, without any regard to rationality or reason. So it was only inevitable, then, that the prosecutions of these witches creeped into the Orwellian realm: seemingly innocent acts (albeit non-conventional) that may perhaps possibly lead to an actual crime, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting the opposite.

That’s precisely what happened to one gentleman in Colorado, as documented by Dr. Marty Klein, who authors the Sexual Intelligence blog. He explains (explicit details, skip the blockquote if you’re delicate):

Here’s the situation: The defendant “Mr. Jones” goes into a Yahoo adult chat-room, and makes it clear he wants to have conversations about sexually dominating a young person. A person responds—let’s call her “Missy”—who says she’s a teen who would gladly chat with a wiser, older man about the ins and outs of sexual things.“Missy” says she’s 14, and she and “Mr. Jones” proceed to exchange hundreds and hundreds of emails, IMs, and phone calls, which range from the incredibly boring to the graphically sexual. He discusses how one day she’s going to be sexual with men, and therefore he helpfully instructs “Missy” to put her fingers in her vagina, practice sucking them, etc.. On the other hand, he never invites his correspondent to meet him, never sends “Missy” money or gifts, never sends her pictures of adults having sex with minors.

The stupidity epidemic: it’s catching

Well, folks, now you’ve gone and done it. The stupid has taken over the world. In addition to the “honey I found a shotgun in the yard” crime in Britain, Virginia has now gone and convicted the coffee guy who was walking around his house naked and was spied by some peeping toms.

Add to that this by now well worn video of the DC cop who pulled a gun on snowballers and it might be time to scratch this whole homo sapiens project and start over:

I am now going into isolation to avoid catching the stupid. See you never.

The Georgia peach has turned rotten

not cool, GA. You made lolcat swear.

I’m going to throw some numbers at you. See if you can recover sufficiently to read the rest of this post. Ready?

475, over a year, $160,000, 187 and finally 2 and a 1/2.

Any guesses? If you guessed  active cases, time pending, funding for contract attorneys, clients without counsel as of November ’09 and finally, the number of appellate attorneys state-wide in GAs pd system, then you either deserve some sort of prize or have read this.

That’s right. Two full time and one part time appellate public defenders. Handling a caseload of 475.

I don’t think you understand.

475 divided by 2.5 = 190 appeals per lawyer. Appeals. Per. Lawyer. And it isn’t like the State of GA has stopped prosecuting and convicting people.

This is the latest stand in the war against the rape of Constitutional rights in GA. The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a fourth lawsuit against the State of GA, seeking to ensure that adequate funding is provided. This, from their press release, nearly made me cry: