Category Archives: prison overcrowding

Clarifying the problems with mandatory-minimums: why it’s okay to let them go

Over the weekend, Susan Bigelow at CT News Junkie had a fantastic op-ed piece arguing that Connecticut should follow AG Holder’s lead1 and revisit its use of mandatory minimum sentences.

Susan writes:

Just as important as efforts on the federal level, however, are criminal justice reforms we can and should implement here at home. The number of prisoners held in Connecticut’s facilities has, for a number of reasons, dropped from all-time highs in 2007 and 2008, but those levels are still high considering the drop in violent crime that’s occurred over the past decade. Also, the parole reforms enacted after the Cheshire murders in 2007 have contributed to the reversal of recent declines in prison population, meaning fewer prisoners are being released.

That’s accurate, with some recent reporting by The CT Mirror showing that numbers have gone up and overcrowding is a problem again, driven in large part by “reforms” to parole laws. Susan argues that in the next legislative session, we should “reform” mandatory-minimums or,  better yet, do away with them altogether.

There’s nothing to reform. Mandatory-minimums are a dangerous power to give to prosecutors. The results of that power being wielded in a heavy-handed way are evident in the war on drugs. It’s taken decades for the Attorney General of the United States to recognize that mandatory-mininum sentences have a terribly disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

In Connecticut, mandatory-minimums apply if you’re selling drugs within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project. Repeated efforts over the last few years to reduce that “drug-free zone” to 200 or 300 feet have failed.

Take a guess as to who is most impacted by this mandatory-minimum sentence2? You know where you can’t stand without being within 1500 feet of a school or public housing project? That’s right. Connecticut’s urban cities (that’s a post from 2007, by the way. We’ve been dithering over this common sense reform for six fucking years).

Mandatory-minimums are also dangerous because they are a chain that binds the hands of judges who seek to do justice and are a weapon in the hands of prosecutors who want to be unreasonable and unjust.

In Connecticut, prosecutors determine the charges to be filed and pursued. A judge, short of dismissal of a charge for legal reasons, cannot alter the charges filed by a prosecutor. Judges, on the other hand, can indicate a sentence they would impose, which can differ from a prosecutor’s recommended sentence.

So let’s say that a judge thinks an assault charge is worth a prison sentence of two years; the victim doesn’t want to the defendant to go to jail and there is no real long-term injury to any party. The defendant is a young man, with little or no criminal record and the state’s case is iffy at best.

But a gun was used in the assault, so the prosecutor charges Assault in the First Degree, which carries a mandatory sentence of 5 years. Now, no one thinks that a 5-year sentence is appropriate, except the prosecutor, but no one can do anything about it, including the judge and/or victim. Maybe the prosecutor doesn’t like the defendant, maybe she doesn’t like the defense lawyer, maybe she doesn’t like the judge or doesn’t like the system. Who knows.

But the point is that the prosecutor can hijack “fairness” in the process by “sticking” on a mandatory-minimum.

Mandatory-minimums are set by the legislature, based on precise calculations made using actuarial tables and deep meditation pulling numbers out of their ass. Most don’t have any experience in the day-to-day operation of the criminal justice system and base their ideas of “justice” and “fairness” on fairytales Law and Order. To be fair, when we’re resolving cases, we also pull numbers out of our ass, but at least our asses are attuned to the range of widely accepted resolutions.

But legislators, in someone’s infinite wisdom, have selected arbitrary numbers and have decreed not only maximum punishments, but also minimum punishments, sometimes in abject disregard for the realities of the criminal justice system.

Eliminating mandatory-minimums would do only one thing: eliminate the minimum. It would do nothing to the maximum. But it would allow judges the flexibility of making fair determinations of the appropriate sentence to be imposed, not hindered by an over-charging prosecutor. If a case is “worth” 2 years, a defendant should get a sentence of 2 years. But if a case is worth 8 years, he will get 8 years. Eliminating mandatory-minimums does nothing to alter that possibility.

Instead of a range of 5-20 years, the range simply becomes 0-20 years and a judge is free to sentence anywhere between those two numbers.

Finally, as I’ve said before, CT’s mandatory-minimum scheme has a weird interaction with its juvenile sentencing scheme, resulting in 14 year old children being tried in adult court as adult criminals and sentenced to mandatory ten years in jail. Juveniles – children – are different than the rest of us. The science is incontrovertible and established and even the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged this distinction. They deserve a second chance. While states across the country are considering altering their laws to comply with the Supreme Court, a bipartisan bill that would have done just that was defeated in the State legislature.

Because people are afraid:

“There seems to be some notion that mandatory minimum sentences make us safer and that moving away from them makes us less safe,” [State Rep. Gary] Holder-Winfield said, highlighting a stale leftover from the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s. More people in prison doesn’t equal a safer or more just state, especially not when so many lives are being destroyed in the process.

People who commit crimes should be punished. But they should be punished fairly and proportionate to their crime. They should also be punished in a manner that is proportional to others who have committed similar crimes. They should also be punished in a manner taking into account their individual facts and circumstances.

Smart on crime means all of that. It means treating people as human beings. “Tough on crime” means being afraid of everything that isn’t you and condemning vast numbers of people because you’re scared. Tough on crime is simply continuing the narrow-minded racist policies that got us where we are today: staggering numbers of children and low-level non-violent drug offenders serving significant prison sentences, while our jails burst at the seam, corrections swallows the largest portion of our state’s budget and a trail of destroyed lives and families in its wake.

It’s time to stop being stupid on crime and start being smart on it. Eliminating mandatory-minimums is a step in the right direction.

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.

Rell wants to close minimum security prison

As expected, lame-duck Governor Rell announced plans today to close the almost-out-the-door Webster Correctional Institution (hey, news sites, look! It’s possible to link to websites besides your own!) for a savings of a whopping $3.4 million a year.

Actually, I have to be honest. I’m pretty ambivalent about this whole thing. It’s a low-level prison and per the reports would require the relocation of 220 inmates. That’s not a whole lot. So by itself it’s not a bad idea to close Webster. The question really is whether there is room at other facilities to house these inmates. Less space + more inmates = overcrowding. Overcrowding = bad idea. Despite the Governor trumpeting the “drop” in prison population from the record high of February 2008 (which, let us not forget, was her own fault), the fact is that CT’s prisons are still woefully overcrowded. 18,000 plus inmates are packed like sardines into a system that was built for 15,000. They’re still sleeping in the gym, they’re still sleeping on floors and there are still far too many per cell.

I have another idea: if you want to close the prison, fine. But instead of shoving them into an already full elevator, why not release the low-risk offenders? CT now has a full-time parole board (which they claim is working efficiently, but let’s remember this is still a government organization), so why not release the one that have no probable risk factors. There always will be the crazy ones that commit crimes that are unforeseeable. There’s no way to account for that or to correct for it. Sometimes, shit happens.

What do you folks feel? Closing the prison a good idea? Bad? Just want to hate on Rell?

Shh…don’t look now…

but the Judiciary Committee is in full swing again and is considering several important bills again. Here’s a listing of the bills up for public hearing today, with some links to submitted testimony. I’ll have more on specific bills as they progress.

S.B. No. 348 (COMM) AN ACT CONCERNING THE VIDEOTAPING OF CUSTODIAL INTERROGATIONS. (JUD)

S.B. No. 349 (COMM) AN ACT CONCERNING THE PENALTY FOR POSSESSION OF A SMALL AMOUNT OF MARIJUANA. (JUD)

S.B. No. 357 (COMM) AN ACT CONCERNING EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION. (JUD)

S.B. No. 537 (COMM) AN ACT PROVIDING COMMUNITY REINTEGRATION SERVICES TO END-OF-SENTENCE INMATES. (JUD)

S.B. No. 543 (COMM) AN ACT CONCERNING SENTENCE REVIEW Modifications. (JUD)

Ban the box, save the ex-felon

I'm 1002 and you?

A question no more

I have long complained about the failure of governments to engage in any sort of meaningful re-entry for inmates. For a vast majority of released felons, prison is a revolving door. Without any training, education or skills, job prospects are dismal. With no job, there is no money and where there is no money, there is the lure of crime to make some quickly.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised this morning, while listening to Where We Live on NPR. The guest was John DeStefano, mayor of New Haven, and he was discussing the policy he seeks to implement in the city: ban the box. No, this is not some traffic related policy, as I first thought, but a clever scheme aimed at integrating ex-felons back into the community.

Ban the box refers to banning employment applications from listing a “box” that asks applicants whether they are ex-felons. This allows ex-felons to be on the same footing as any other applicant, by preventing would-be employers from discarding them at the get-go.  I’m embarrassed that this story has escaped my attention for three months now, but the wonderful New Haven Independent is all over it:

Bailout where it’s needed: public defender systems

The last few months have brought us a crashing economy and massive government bailouts to the tune of 34 trazillion dollars (it’s a real amount). As banks fail and the auto industry fails and the real estate market plumbs the depths of depression, an equally frightening scenario is unfolding in states throughout the country: the crumbling of indigent defense systems.

Just like the economy, however, this failure of the legal system should come as no surprise. Back in May, I wrote about the mess in Minnesota (and followed up with a June post about Florida) [full coverage here] and our sister blog PD Stuff has been covering money problems for years. Nevada will face some problems starting next year. Things don’t look all rosy in Connecticut, either, as legal aid is taking a hit.

The NYT piece is rightly drawing a lot of attention in the blawgosphere. Bob Ambrogi and J. Craig Williams devoted their recent podcast to this problem by interviewing the Miami public defender Bennett Brummer and NLADA research director David Carroll. [The podcast is at the end of this post.]

This is a very serious problem. As funding for indigent defense declines with no corresponding declines in prosecutions, defendants will experience greater wait times for their trials, resources will be stretched thin and the criminal justice system will produce far more wrongful convictions. There will not be enough time to conduct proper investigations, to hire experts and, frankly, to go to trial.

If a public defender has an obscene number of clients, a number which grows every day, there will a lot of pressure to resolve cases without much advocacy. This is where the rest of the justice system needs to step up. Prosecutors need to take their duty to seek justice more seriously and drop the pursuit of “wins”. Judges need to take a more mediation-oriented approach and broker fair deals and not permit the State to demand the moon.

From the NYTimes piece:

Mr. Jones, in between hushed conversations with clients in the hallway or the holding pen, said he wished he had more time to investigate cases and could go to trial more often, rather than accepting the police version of events and then, after a short discussion, helping his clients make a life-altering deal.

“I’d love to have time to visit the crime scene and do more legal research,” Mr. Jones said.

No defendant should ever have to put up with this. No lawyer should ever be in a position where he is advising a client based on incomplete information. This is not only a money issue, but a Constitutional issue. Skimping on public defenders offices now will only postpone the problem, because there will be a greater number of successful habeas corpus petitions or appeals, which will result in new prosecutions.

Or worse: Federal courts will have to step in and force the state to pay for adequate funding, something no one really wants. So you know, might as well bail them out now, right Prez-elect Obama? Seriously, who better to give federal money to? The banks that set up their own downfall? The auto-industry that refused to innovate? Or the hardworking public defenders that protect your and my rights, day in and day out, doing a community service for little money?

But these are tough economic times. Money is drying up. Perhaps this is a very appropriate opportunity to look at truly reforming the criminal justice system. Let’s provide more alternatives to incarceration and true rehabilitation, let’s not keep non-violent offenders in jail any longer than we absolutely need to. As costs of the prison complex go down, there will be more money to fund the defense of the innocent man. We should start to look at the exorbitant sentences handed down by judges. Do we need a 40 year sentence when a 15 year sentence should do? Do we have to be punitive in our punishments? Must people be on probation for 35 years? A true reformation of the criminal justice system would go a long way towards alleviating these woes.

Then, of course, there’s the death penalty.

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Speedy trial: whose responsibility is it?

How many defense attorneys does it take to screw up a case? Or better yet, how badly malfunctioning does a public defender system have to be to get a court to blame it for delays in the criminal justice system?

Back in March, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a very curious opinion reversing a conviction for failure to prosecute in a timely fashion. The Court held that the three-years spent by the defendant awaiting trial violated his right to a speedy trial. Which would be fine if that were all to the story.

The reason for the delay? The defendant’s various public defenders.

In arriving at this decision, we acknowledge that much of the delay in prosecuting defendant resulted from the inaction of several of the assigned counsel who represented defendant during the three years he awaited trial.  As we discuss in detail below, however, the inaction of assigned counsel does not relieve the state of its duty, through implementation of the criminal justice system, to provide defendant with a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial.  Indeed, the defender general’s office is part of the criminal justice system and an arm of the state.  When, as in this case, a defendant presses for, but is denied, a speedy trial because of the inaction of assigned counsel or a breakdown in the public defender system, the failure of the system to provide the defendant a constitutionally guaranteed speedy trial is attributable to the prosecution, and not defendant.

The Court finds that

irrespective of the reason for the delay, egregious delay in bringing an incarcerated defendant to trial must be factored against the state in a speedy-trial analysis because, as the Supreme Court emphasized in Barker, it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to bring a defendant to trial in a timely matter.  See 407 U.S. at 529 (holding that “the primary burden [is] on the courts and the prosecutors to assure that cases are brought to trial”)

You can read the facts for yourself, but what is important to recognize here is that Vermont is not the only state facing such problems with its public defender system. Normally, a lawsuit would be the appropriate way to remedy the lack of funding, but this certainly may make some ears perk up.

I will reserve judgment on whether the VT Supreme Court was right or wrong, but I get the sense that what the VT Supreme Court tried to remedy was what happens to every client in almost every system (albeit not to this extent), and that everyone accepts as the price of doing business.

Well, everyone except the legislature and the voting public, who are generally outraged that things take so long to go to trial. Maybe they shouldn’t take so long? Or maybe we shouldn’t be creating so many new laws and calling for “hard on crime” policies that clog our systems and lead to overworked public defenders.