Vision 6: Longer Sentences = Diminishing Returns

Oct. 20, 2014

I spent the summer describing alternative justice systems that exist around the world and how they often are community based ( described as “Restorative Justice” in the U.S). I’ve begun a new series on “Alternative Visions of Western Criminal Justice Systems”  that seeks to show how traditional community-based systems can exist alongside current Western systems of criminal justiceScreen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.28.52 PM

It’s always been assumed that putting criminal offenders away for longer sentences would reduce their opportunities to commit crimes. What that seemingly obvious construct leaves out is that there is a point of diminishing returns. Where those sent to prison ultimately are a greater weight to a free society than those released into the community. Sending more offenders into custody for longer terms often results in a lack of resources for critical community needs such as public health and education. How much more safety do we realize by doubling an auto burglar’s prison term, and what services are being denied the community by doing so.

There is an annolgy to be made to the current panic over the “Ebola Crisis” in the U.S. Three persons have been infected and one has died in a nation of over 300 million. And there are cries to close down schools, work places, and other community gathering sites. Never mind that over fifty thousand americans were killed over the last three years because of the Flu (a more highly contagious illness, airborne, as opposed to Ebola which is contracted only by direct contact with bodily fluids). We panic as a nation and a people and resist logic in favor of an emotional response. I am not a sociologist, but it seems to me that that a new threat no matter how remote, makes us feel that we’re not in control and ultimately not safe in an environment that we have spared no expense to be as safe as humanly possible. (There has been no real, massive threat of illness and death to Americans since the Spanish Influenza Pandemic at the end of World War I).

When I had first begun my Oakland Drug Court in 1990, I had occasion to connect with a number of other professions to get out the word on the Drug Court Initiative. I was at one of the Nationwide Probation Conferences given in the early 1990′s as a speaker. I decided to attend a Legislators’ forum, where experience state legislators talked to their new breathen about how best to deal with  the issue of Crime. The first thing they told the new legislators was to drop a bill in the hopper to increase the term of incarceration for driving under the influence. Secondly they were advises to get on the bandwagon to increase terms of incarceration, to make them invulnerable to attacks from the right that they were soft on crime.

For the offender, longer is certainly not better: As the years go by, inmates often become more distant from their families and communities, less employable, and more deeply ingrained in prison culture, all factors that hamper a successful reentry into the community. And how can it be realistically argued that increasing the length of felony sentences is a rational decision rather than an emotional one (In support of that assertion, research by the Urban Institute found that increases in expected time served contributed to half of the prison growth between 1998 and 2010).

I would argue that the public’s hunger for safety (in California, 1000 sentencing bills were passed by the legislature over the past three decades), is a serious problem that we need to come to grips with. How long is enough? Why do we have an almost impenetrable web of sentencing laws in most states. State sentencing grids are a constantly changing labyrinth of overlapping, entangling, and bewildering law that are mostly understood by the few. These are unacceptable circumstances that need to be addressed by governors  and their legislatures, through  Sentencing Commissions and other mechanisms, that can rationally and reasonably review, clarify and simplify our maze of sentencing laws. Hopefully when rationality has returned to criminal justice sentencing practices, we will see appropriate terms of incarceration imposes across the nation.. 

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These observation are to be part of a book to be published on the History of NADCP and the Drug Court Movement. 

(CLICK TO SEE EXCERPTED BOOK CHAPTERS} 

 

Vision 5: Veteran’s Court; a Harbinger of Things to Come

Oct. 6, 2014

I spent the summer describing alternative justice systems that exist around the world and how they often are community based ( described as “Restorative Justice” in the U.S). I’ve begun a new series on “Alternative Visions of Western Criminal Justice Systems”  that seeks to show how traditional community-based systems can exist alongside current Western systems of criminal justiceScreen Shot 2014-10-05 at 9.17.44 PM

I was a new Judge in 1990, assigned to the existing Drug Court, a Reagan Era monstrosity that was designed to get drug offenders from Arraignment to prison as quickly as possible. I was overwhelmed by the level of need for treatment and supervision by drug dependent offenders in the city of Oakland, and decided that we would make treatment the major focus of a new drug court model.

We opened the floodgates and placed 1156 participants in the program over the first full year of the Oakland F.I.R.S.T Drug Court, (with spectacular results, Evaluations of Oakland”s F.I.R.S.T Drug Court: 1991-1993).  Unfortunately the treatment, as limited as it was, was only available to a limited contingent of drug offenders and not at all to those without a drug offense charged or a drug abuse problem. The issue of who is denied treatment because they don’t fit into a predetermined treatment program bothered me then and bothers me today. I am convinced  that Drug Courts and other Community-Based Courts (also called Problem-Solving Courts) are but an intermediate step in the development of a new kind of comprehensive sentencing system that will be the accepted mainstream alternatives model in the future

All serious offenders (whether felons or misdemeanants) need to be engaged in a sophisticated sentencing system that will tailor the offender’s sentence to their need for rehabilitation (i.e. drug and/or mental health treatment, education, job training, etc.) as well as their risk to the community. Rather than categorize the individual, the courts, relevant agencies, and community need to be part of a community-based sentencing process that deals with the individual rather than a predetermined subset of offenders (who may receive intensive treatment in a Drug, Mental Health, Driving Under The Influence, Domestic Violence, or other Problem Solving Court). 

We’ve had the opportunity to test this thesis in the Veteran’s Courts (and to a lesser extent Reentry Courts) that have proliferated across the nation over the past several years. Veteran’s Courts treat veterans charged with criminal offenses, period. They do not reject serious or violent offenders. Offenders are not categorized or rejected for failure to be a drug offender or mentally deficient. They welcome all offenders who are in need of special support, monitoring or rehabilitation. They are assisted by volunteers from the community at large and the Veteran’s Community in particular. They are not  pigeon-holed.They are simply recognized as individuals with problems that need attention.

Of course, we are willing to assist the veteran who has committed a criminal act very differently than we do the common criminal. But the way we approach the veteran’s offense is the key to successful alternatives to incarceration in the future. When we stop putting individuals in boxes, consider them as we do veteran’s, worthy of redemption, and treat them as human beings with critical needs, and ultimately as part of our communities, we will be on our way to a critical systemic change in how we deal with our criminal population.

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These observation are to be part of a book to be published on the History of NADCP and the Drug Court Movement. 

 

(CLICK TO SEE EXCERPTED BOOK CHAPTERS} 

 

 

Vision 4: Throw Out Violent Offender Limitations

Sept. 30, 2014

I spent the summer describing alternative justice systems that exist around the world and how they often are community based ( described as “Restorative Justice” in the U.S). I’ve begun a new series on “Alternative Visions of Western Criminal Justice Systems”  that seeks to show how traditional community-based systems can exist alongside current Western systems of criminal justice and improve our current systems by doing so.Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 3.00.33 PM

IT was May of 1996, and NADCP was having its first annual Conference in Washington D.C.  As NADCP’s founding President, it was a very big deal, and we had some of the top politicians in D.C. attending. Among them was Senator Joe Biden, now Vice President (then former Chairman of  the Senate Judiciary Committee). I remember talking to him about the federal legislation recently passed by the Congress while he was Judiciary Committee Chair (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act), that limited Drug Court funding to nonviolent offenders.

I tried again (this had been a running dialogue with the Committee) to convince Senator Biden that restricting drug court participants to non-violent drug offenders would unnecessarily exclude those who need intensive supervision and treatment the most, who otherwise were on their way to prison or a long jail sentences. His response was that I was pushing too hard, that we would get there eventually, but that we should be content with getting help for those whose “rehabilitation the public will support”.

The need to go slow, and avoid violent offenders remains a serious weakness in many Community-Based Courts across the nation. It can be upsetting to visit or sit in as a visiting judge in a Problem-Solving Court made up substantially of middle class, educated, mostly white offenders, when others who are high risk/high need are passed over because of a prior conviction for a  violent offense. What’s worse is that while many in a drug court program are drug involved, the scientific research suggests that a majority would not be assessed as drug dependent (or addicted).

It’s hard to accept the notion that serious drug-dependent offenders are denied access to the highly structured and monitored Community-Based Courts because they have some history of violence . They are  exactly the demographic that would gain the most from intensive alternatives to prison. The scientific research (particular, out of the University of Cincinatti) all point to a slight increase in criminality for low risk offenders, while high risk offenders reduce their recidivism substantially, when provided with intense supervision and rehabilitative services. We need to take the next step and accept the challenge of making high risk/high need offenders primary participants in our  community-based court programs, without regard to their history of violence. As then Senator Biden suggested, we need to make the serious drug dependent offender a new population whose “rehabilitation the public will support”.

 

Using Reentry-Drug Court as a counterweight to long Prison Terms

THE BEST OF: The following article, published on Feb. 13,2012, uses a Watertown sentencing as an example of how drug court can be used to keep the prison population down, or increase it.

April 28, 2014

Screen shot 2012-11-19 at 9.19.12 AMSomething caught my eye as I was reading newsclips from around the nation. A small item from the Watertown Daily Times (NY). It read:

A Watertown man was sentenced to state prison Thursday after admitting in Jefferson County Court that he violated his Drug Court contract. Paul L. Arndt Jr., 44, was sentenced to 113 to 4 years in prison for violating terms of the substance abuse rehabilitation program that is designed to serve as an alternative to incarceration. He was referred to the program in April 2009 after admitting he violated probation. He was sentenced to five years’ probation in August 2007 after pleading guilty in May 2007 to fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property for taking radiators that had been stolen from a Watertown business and selling them at a Syracuse recycling center. Information about how he violated Drug Court was not available.

Putting aside the issue of whether the probation violation in question was a particularly serious or dangerous one, I would suggest that sending a drug court participant to prison for a substantial term is almost never good criminal justice policy, good use of government funds, or good rehabilitation &/or treatment strategies . There are more than a few drug courts, that quickly fail drug court participants and spirit them away for substantial prison terms. It may be time to revisit the rationality behind such scenarios. Unless the new offense is one involving violence or the threat of violence, is prison ever a sensible response to a drug court violation?

I have suggested in a recent article (see:”Front-loading court interventions”)  that “judges may use their jurisdiction to sentence the felon to prison as part of a court-ordered treatment program, with the understanding that the offender is to undergo treatment before being returned to court for re-sentencing”. The idea is an old one, first described in a monograph written in 1999 by myself and present NADCP CEO West Huddleston (see “Reentry Drug Courts”);  Front-loaded prison reentry programs (involving short custodial terms and a return to court supervision and treatment), are a last resort after the offender has committed serious and multiple violations of a drug court’s requirements.

Numerous states have developed drug court as an alternative sentence of last resort before substantial prison terms are ordered. Governors  such as Christy of New Jersey and Deal of Georgia are calling for special drug courts to give the offender a last chance to succeed. Reentry-Drug Courts, (or simply Reentry courts) need to be put in place for the high-risk offender, where a short prison or other custodial sentence is a last resort (typically one to six months), before a long prison term is ordered.

Remember, the best way to reduce prison recidivism is not to put an offender into prison in the first place. But if there is no viable alternative to prison, use it in a rational and graduated manner, with a brief stay that holds out the promise of rehabilitation and an early return to the community.

 

Reentry Court Myths and Realities

IMG_0999April 14, 2014

Sometimes you need to break away from writing drug court history and blow some Island Jazz. This article was written in 2011 and has received its share of compliments. In case you missed it the first time, here it is again, MYTHS AND REALITIES OF REENTRY COURTS

MYTH #1: There’s not much interest nationally in federal funding for Reentry Courts

Local jurisdictions often have neither the jurisdiction nor the resources to deal with parolees, a traditional state responsibility. However a growing number of states are actively developing state wide, locally run, reentry court systems, as they realize the value of these community-based courts. (IN, OH, MO, TX, and CA have taken the lead in developing state-wide systems). The DOJ can provide resources, information and educational opportunities to assist interested states.

MYTH #2: Reentry Court is just like Drug Court with a different population.

Reentry Court turns out to be a very different animal than Drug Court. Its population is made up of high-risk offenders, who have been institutionalized for substantial periods of time. The most significant realization I’ve made as San Francisco’s Reentry Court Judge, is that parolees require far more services, incentives, and flexibility than traditional Drug Courts; that creating a community among court staff and participants is critical to parolees who have lost most sense of belonging. (over the initial 12 weekly sessions, participants failed to appear for court 1% of time)

MYTH #3: Reentry Courts detect violations, responding with sanctions and return to prison

The purpose of the Reentry Court is to keep the offender from reoffending and returning to prison. We are only peripherally engaged in the creation of model citizens. A heavy-handed approach to technical violations and minor offenses (including drug abuse) does not work well with this population. Encouragement from the bench, incentives, and the creation of court-based communities provide a far more effective approach. This still requires the active engagement of the parolee in community-based activities (job training, education, volunteer service, substance abuse and cognitive behavioral treatments) from the day they enter the reentry court. Professor Ed Latessa of the University of Cincinatti, (Dean of reentry research), warns that parolees need to be engaged in structured activity for 40 to 70% of their day, and that those programs that address 4 or more of the criminogenic needs of the offender do twice as well as those that don’t.

MYTH #4: Reentry Court success means substantially reducing drug abuse among parolees.

If we successfully deal with a criminal’s substance abuse problem, we may end up with a clean and sober criminal. Research suggests that less than 50% of parolees have a substantial drug abuse problem, so dealing with substance abuse as the main focus of Reentry Court may be  a mistake. According to the research, drug abuse is not in the first tier of criminogenic needs for the high-risk offender. Dealing with Criminal Attitudes, Criminal Personality, Criminal Friends and Associates, and Family and Parenting issues are generally considered the most important treatment needs. Unfortunately, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, that have proved to be most successful in treating these issues, is lacking across much of the nation.

Pew Poll: Overwhelming Support for Decriminalizing Use

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 2.52.36 PMApril 6, 2014

A national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that 67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs.

[For a PDF of the report, please click on image on the left]

The survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Feb. 14-23 among 1,821 adults noted,” As a growing number of states ease penalties for drug possession, the public expresses increasingly positive views of the move away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes. By nearly two-to-one (63% to 32%), more say it is a good thing than a bad thing that some states have moved away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. In 2001, Americans were evenly divided over the move by some states to abandon mandatory drug terms.”

 

 

Obamacare may be path to drug treatment as prison alternative

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 6.39.36 PMMarch 31, 2014

The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, millions of ex-offenders could get the health care they need. They claim is predicated on the exoffender accessing the medical services now available to them.

A Newsweek Cover Article states that  ”President Ronald Reagan defunded federal mental health programs, dropping total mental health spending by over 30 percent. As a result, many of the nation’s mentally ill lost what was essentially their home and place of work, and many ended up on the street.Today, a good portion of those make their beds in prisons and jails. The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration.”

Grim statistics, but the article argues that the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid will reach those with mental health and drug abuse for the first time as an alternative to incarceration.

“Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children. – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated. Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion – it is an optional aspect of the ACA). “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.

 

 

Prison Numbers Drop while Crime Rates Drop!.

March 24, 2014Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 12.05.08 PM

Recent statistics from across the nation suggest that criminal justice reform has become a win-win proposition. The Pew Trust, a highly respected authority, has examined data from all fifty states and concluded that morel than half of the states have reductions in both rates of imprisonnmet and crime over the past five years.

Breaking the data down further , PEW  shows even more impressive results:

  • The crime rate went down in all but four of the 31 states that reduced their imprisonment rates. It went up in one of the 15 states that increased their imprisonment rates.
  • The 10 states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates had a 12 percent average reduction in their crime rates, and, in the 10 states with the largest imprisonment rate increases, crime rates fell an average of 10 percent (see table below).
  • Crime was down in states that continued with (and paid for) rapid prison growth, as well as those that did not. For example, crime rates in both Arizona and Maryland fell 21 percent from 2007 to 2012. Over the same period, Arizona’s imprisonment rate grew 4 percent while Maryland’s declined 11 percent.

PEW claims that the results reflect several factors; bipartisan support for reduced imprisonment and accompanying reduced prison budgets; strong public support for elimination of imprisonment for non-violent offenders; and evidence based alternatives to prison that have had significant success.

The success of reducing imprisonment and reliance on evidence based alternative to imprisonment are srong indicators that we’re moving in the right direction, and need to increase our embrace of criminal justice reform.

[The PEW article that this story is based on can be found by clicking on the Table above]

 

DOJ: small drop in fed. prison pop.

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 8.14.33 PMMarch 17, 2014

According to the Department of Justice Prisons Director Charles Samuels, there has been an “unprecedented” fall in prison numbers. He made the statement to a meeting of the US Sentencing Commission in Washington this week to consider across-the-board cuts to penalty guidelines for drug crime.

The Guardian reported this week “ The commission projects that downgrading the lengths of sentences in this way will eventually allow the Bureau of Prisons – the largest corrections department in the country – to reduce its population by 6,550 inmates at the end of five years.

“Though the numbers are small relative to the federal prison population of 216,000, and the 1.3m in state prisons, they suggest that shifts in prosecutions policy are already bringing an end to the long-running boom in prison numbers, particularly for more serious crimes tried in federal courts. There are more than 2 million Americans behind bars when county jails are included. While the total prison population has been declining for three years, the federal prison population had continued to grow.”

Federal prison populations going down is obviously good news. But it would be a mistake to view a onepercent drop in federal prison numbers as a substantial movement toward reform  when the number of federal prisoners has increased astronomically over the past thirty years.

According to a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates, an increase of nearly 790 percent over that thirty year period.

That is not to denigrate this adminstration efforts towards reform, but it points to the difficult path required to have a major impact on the number of federal prisoners..

 

Cal counties increase prison sentences

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 4.04.08 PMMarch 10, 2014

California is seeing a real increase in the number of offenders sent to its prisons, according to a recent article  by the Associated Press, “Counties, where prosecutors have discretion in filing such charges, sent nearly 5,500 people with second felony convictions to state prisons during the 2013-14 fiscal year, a 33 percent increase over the previous year and the most since California enacted the nation’s first three-strikes law in 1994 that required life sentences for offenders convicted of three felonies.”"

This is an unwelcome consequence to prison reform that required less serious offenders remain in-county, to be dealt with by county jails and supervision. Depending who you talk to you will hear different explanations. Prosecutors blame it on an increase in crime. Sheriff’s offices claim that serious offenders who should have been sent to prison in the first place, are getting their due.  Public Defenders claim that their clients are the victim of local economics and a lack of space in local jails.

The numbers seem to favor  the latter view, with counties that have traditionally sent the most offenders to prison (often with the most limited supervision and jail resources), returning to their pattern  of moving criminals out  of county to be paid for by state taxpayers. “Merced County more than tripled the number of second-strikers, from 23 to 79. The number doubled in Placer and San Joaquin counties and climbed 88 percent in Stanislaus County.”

Judges appear to be at the center of the prison reform reversal,  According to the AP story, “Judges are imposing longer prison sentences for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes since criminal justice realignment became law, according to an analysis by the corrections department. Those sentences are increasing even as the length of sentences for violent crimes declined, leading to a net increase of 3.3 months in the average prison sentence since realignment.”

But this is a story with no clear culprit. D.A.s and judges are limited to six month jail terms (actually 90 days with credits) for jailed prisoners who violate their conditions of parole. Some claim that D.A.s and the courts are reacting to the lack of significant sanctions for less serious offenses. If so, local attitudes and economics may make prison reduction harder than anyone expected.