Obamacare may be path to drug treatment as prison alternative

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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!.

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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.

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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

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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.

DOJ Budgets $173 million for Reform

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March 2, 2014

Eric Holder is making good on his promise  to double down on funding for criminal justice reform. Holder’s budget — $122 million above the 2014 enacted level — includes $173 million in targeted investments for criminal justice reform efforts.

As reported in the Washington Post, “The DOJ budget requests funding for Holder’s “smart on crime” initiative to reduce the number of low-level drug offenders in prison and reduce recidivism rates by expanding drug treatment programs.”

It requests $15 million for U.S. attorneys, including prevention and reentry work and promoting alternatives to incarceration such as the establishment of drug courts and veteran courts.

Another $15 million would go towards expanding the federal residential drug abuse program, and $14 million would assist inmates with reentering society and reducing the population of individuals who return to prison after being released. An additional $14 million would expand the residential substance abuse treatment program at the state and local levels.

The DOJ budget also requests $115 million for the Second Chance Act grant program to reduce recidivism and help ex-offenders return to productive lives.

“Each dollar spent on prevention and reentry has the potential to save several dollars in incarceration costs,” Holder said in a statement.

“These wise investments can help make our criminal justice system more effective and efficient.”

Penn Prison Chief tells it like it is

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Political leaders across the nation should take note of Pennsylvania’s Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, a straight talker who is willing to tell it like it is.

Responding to legislators concerned about increased numbers of Pensylvania prisoners, the following is a summary of his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on February 12, is reported in the Patriot News (he best speaks for himself).

“You say you want change, but you keep passing the same bills,” Wetzel told the lawmakers.

Since adopting the prison reform legislation aimed at reducing the prison population, he said, the House has passed no fewer than 23 bills that will likely increase it – either through the creation of new criminal offenses, or lengthening the sentences for existing crimes. No one bill could break the reform, but the small impact of multiple bills combine to a formidable threat. Wetzel called it “death by a thousand paper cuts.”

” Wetzel said every budget season he goes to the Capitol to explain corrections policy to lawmakers, “and then they forget about it until the next year.” Correctional Policy, Wetzel said, should have two goals: the response should be equal to the crime and the response should yield results; in other words, the offender should be less likely to commit another crime when he exits the criminal justice system”

. “You can’t say that about some of our current laws and corrections policies,” said Wetzel. He said, “No less than 23 bills have passed the House, every one of which has the potential to increase prison populations,” but legislators have done little to counteract the effect of those legislative efforts through legislation aimed at reducing crime and prolonged incarceration.”

I think we should to keep an eye out for further comments from Corrections Secretary Wetzel.




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February 17, 2014

The federal Government has recently doubled down on their investment in drug courts. What was once a  $6 million federal program has grown to a major government project amounting to approximately one hundred million dollars.

As described in the Grant Publication,”The goal of the Adult Drug Court Discretionary Grant Program is to build and/or expand drug court capacity at the state, local and tribal levels to reduce crime and substance abuse among high-risk, high need offenders. States, Local courts, Counties, Units of local government, and Indian tribal nations are eligible for 60 grants.

States that are looking to improve, expand or enhance drug court services statewide and/or financially support drug courts in local jurisdictions  are eligible for grants of up to $1.5 million over a three year period.

While not directly aimed at court-focused prison reform, it would not be difficult to design a grant project that would use its resources on offenders who were otherwise heading for prison. State agencies should take a long look at the money available under this and other federal programs, that can be used to reduce prison populations, drug abuse, and criminality in their communities.

“States applying for funding under this subcategory must demonstrate a statewide, data-driven strategy for reaching and expanding capacity of drug court options and services for nonviolent substance-abusing offenders, which may include: implementing new drug courts; reaching capacity of existing drug courts; and expanding/enhancing capacity of existing drug courts to reach specific or emerging offender populations with drug treatment needs. The support provided through such statewide awards must also be consistent with the evidence-based principles outlined above” (Drug Court Funding)

 All applications are due by 11:59 p.m. eastern time on March 18, 2014. 



Brown gets 2 year extension to reduce prison pop.

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A three judge Federal Panel that has been demanding the reduction in  California prison overcrowding has decided to give Governor Brown one last opportunity to reduce prison overcrowding under  a new state plan.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has reduced its prison population by 25,000 by shifting less serious prisoners to county jails over the last two years

Seen as a major win for Brown and the democratic legislature,  Monday’s order instructed the state to immediately carry out a series of measures to either release or move inmates from state prisons. These include: increase credits for nonviolent second-strike offenders and minimum custody inmates; set earlier parole eligibility for some nonviolent offenders; ease parole for inmates who are older than 60 and have already served at least 25 years in prison; and expand alternative custody programs for female inmates.

The judges also backed a state proposal to appoint a compliance officer to ensure California is on track to comply with the inmate population cap.As part of the order, the court barred prison officials from exceeding the current 8,900 inmates in out-of-state prisons, limiting a tactic the Brown administration has used to lessen overcrowding in California’s prisons.

In a statement, Brown called the order “encouraging.”

“The state now has the time and resources necessary to help inmates become productive members of society and make our communities safer,” the governor said. Brown has committed the state to spend $80 million over the next two year on rehabilitation and reentry programs that will increase the number of successful reentries into society.


AG Holder’s push for systemic clemency program

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The Washington Pst reports that the  Obama administration is stepping up its efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system, called Thursday for the early release of more low-level, nonviolent drug offenders from federal prisons.

“Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, speaking to the New York State Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section, said the administration wants to free inmates who no longer pose a threat to public safety and whose long-term incarceration “harms our criminal justice system.” He appealed to defense lawyers to identify candidates for clemency”.

Urban Institue reports on “Justice Reinvestment Initiative”

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The Urban Institute has issued a positive report on seventeen states that have adopted the “Justice Reinvestment Initiative”and issued the following statement,

“Seventeen Justice Reinvestment Initiative states are projected to save as much as $4.6 billion through reforms that increase the efficiency of their criminal justice systems. Eight states that had JRI policies in effect for at least one year – Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina – reduced their prison populations. Through the Initiative, states receive federal dollars to assess and improve their criminal justice systems while enhancing public safety. This report chronicles 17 states as they enacted comprehensive criminal justice reforms relying on bipartisan and interbranch collaboration. The studynotes common factors that drove prison growth and costs and documents how each state responded with targeted policies.”

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative State Assessment Report was written by Nancy La Vigne, the project’s principal investigator, along with a team of researchers from the Urban Institute (click on image on left for PDF).

[See Justice Reinvestment Initiative”Leads Prison Reform]




Most of Cal. Realignment funds go to Jail Expansion

January 20,2013

It’s disheartening to see the negligible amount of money that has been made available for rehabilitation and reentry programs under California’s Realignment Reform. Most of the state’s money comes from a discretionary realignment fund that counties can use to fund realignment projects as they see fit.

According to a report last year by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, criminal justice critics say county leaders could have spent more of their new money on rehabilitation. In the first year of realignment, counties budgeted 16 percent of the $367 million they received from the state for services such as mental health and drug treatmentScreen shot 2012-11-04 at 6.14.22 PM (Sacramento Bee, Jan 14,2013).

“Leaders at the California State Association of Counties, the Chief Probation Officers of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Association say they need more money for job training, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.” But still the state overwhelmingly supports funding jail expansion at the expense of treatment and rehabilitation dollars. California’s new budget proposal plans to give counties $500 million for new jail space, on top of $500 million that is now being distributed through a competitive grant program.

Part of the problem is that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation historically has not emphasized rehabilitation,  Just 5 percent of department spending goes to programs and services for offenders,

And part of the problem is that counties are fearful of the political consequences of crimes committed by offenders serving prison sentences in jail facilities. According to the Sacramento Bee article,” Sixty percent of parolees released to counties from October 2011 through September 2012 were arrested for new offenses within 12 months of leaving prison, the same rate as a comparable population of parolees managed by the state the year before the law took effect.”

There are several promising provisions in the Governors new state budget that may have a substantial impact on those statistics. The budget proposal authorizes  $81 million to go toward re-entry centers, mental health services and drug treatment for offenders.

Most significantly, the Budget  proposal would require that all felony sentences served in county jails be split between jail time and mandatory supervision, unless a judge concludes that a split sentence is not in the interest of justice. That last provision promises to reverse the current trend, where judges across the state are overwhelmingly sentencing felons to county jail  under AB109 for straight time (straight time may not include “mandatory supervision, basically community based supervision or probation).

Until the counties meet their responsibility to provide substantial rehabilitation resources and monitoring for prisoners released from jail under P.C. AB109, we are unlikely to see significant benefits from the transfer of felons from state prisons to county jails.

Brown’s Budget makes good on Reform Mandate (mostly)

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Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget for the coming fiscal year includes several proposals welcomed by reformers. They are also intended to help the state comply with a federal court order requiring the reduction of prison overcrowding by mid-April to improve medical and mental health care for inmates.

According to the Sacramento Bee, the budget package:

—allows for the parole of medically incapacitated inmates; considering parole for inmates age 60 or older who have served at least 25 years in prison; and increasing good-time credits for non-violent second-strike offenders

— Frees up $81 million for rehabilitation programs that otherwise would be spent to house inmates, if the federal judges grant the two-year extension to meet a court-ordered prison population cap.

— Spends $8.3 million to redesign the 600-bed Northern California Reentry Facility in Stockton, although it will take more than two years to ready the facility to house male inmates.

— Adds $14 million to fight the smuggling of drugs and other contraband, including cellphones.

— Allocates nearly $65 million for the Department of State Hospitals to help the agency deal with a more violent mentally ill population that increasingly comes from the criminal justice system. A U.S. District judge last year ordered increased federal oversight after finding problems with the department’s treatment of mentally ill inmates.

— Gives counties $500 million for new jail space, on top of $500 million that is now being distributed through a competitive grant program. The proposal requires that counties demonstrate they are taking steps to lower their jail populations by freeing more suspects who are awaiting trial.

— Inmates sentenced to more than 10 years in county jails under the state’s two-year-old criminal justice realignment law would again serve their time in state prisons. That would increase theprison population by a projected 300 inmates, felons that sheriffs have said they are not equipped to handle. The shift would come only if the state is able to comply with federal judges’ prison crowding reduction order.

— Reduces the cost to counties to send local inmates to state-run firefighting camps. Counties have said the current $46 daily rate is too costly. Counties would pay $10 a day for each inmate at a firefighting camp, and $81 each day the inmates are being trained.

— Requires that all felony sentences served in county jails be split between jail time and mandatory supervision, unless a judge concludes that a split sentence is not in the interest of justice.

That last item is extraordinarily important. Though Courts have had the power to split sentences under “Realignment” they overwhelmingly have declined to do so. If passed, this provision will create a right to a split sentence (unless the court makes a special finding), which will require the courts to grant “mandatory supervision” to less serious prisoners housed in county jails, releasing offenders into the community under the supervision of Probation and optimally involving them in rehabilitation programs that will help reintegrate them into the community.

Not all of these provisions can be considered reforms (the provision allowing counties to shift prisoners from county jail to prison when a sentence is more than ten years is of particular concern), but they are an important step in the right direction, including many provisions that reformers have sought since Realignment was announced in 2011.

Holding Steady in the New Year

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Reading the articles, studies, and editorials over the past few month can bring on an attack of schizophrenia. Different news sources review the same studies regarding sentencing and prison reform and come to completely different conclusions. It’s interesting to track the stories as they have played out in the media. What started out  last year as widespread over the top endorsements of prison and sentencing reform  has morphed into a mixed bag of modest optimism and panicked defeatism.

I think I  have an idea of what’s going on. The reforms that are playing out across the country are having some success, but not the extraordinary early success predicted by some. That allows the more reactionary elements (especially those financially tied to  existing incarceration models), to redouble their efforts to undermine reform efforts.

The expectation is that releasing an offender into the streets should result in immediate rehabilitation . Well it doesn’t work that way. It takes sustained and systemic effort to get folks to change their ways. Consider, can we really expect those released with no resources, skills, family, jobs and/or education and often without housing or sustenance, to change on their own. It defies logic to expect that, but that is what those attacking sentencing and prison reform are arguing should happen.

In California, in particular, Prison Realignment, the historic reform being implemented, moves less serious offenders out of prison into county jurisdiction (meaning county jail for many). Recently it has come under attack as precipitating a “crime wave”, both in our communities and in our jails.

We’ve heard how jail violence has increased in California and how it must be inextricably linked to the violent offenders held in jail rather than prison. At the same time the critics seem to ignore the fact hat violence in prison is substantially down as well (see: Cal Jails see increased violence since Realignment)

We hear about the latest  news reports on those released under realignment from 2011 through 2012 and read how their has been an uptick in California crime which must be the result of realignment. However, if you read the actual report by  Magnus Lofstrom  and Steven Raphael of the Public Policy Institute of California, “Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California” [click on image on left for PDF], you come away with little reason for panic. It should concern us, that the lack of structured reentry systems  in much of California is a problem, and one sufficient to cause  reassessment  and modification of the existing  sentencing systems.

For example, while there is little evidence of any increase in violence there is substantial evidence of a small increase in property crime, in particular car theft. We also know that there are 18,000 fewer offenders in custody (27,000 fewer in prison minus 9,000 additional in our jails). It stands to reason that we need to modify how we deal with the non-violent property offender, including the use of the funds we are saving (by not locking up 18000 prisoners), to provide resources and assistance as well as increased monitoring where appropriate. None of these changes come easy, but there is excellent reason to believe they are slowly working themselves out, if you manage to hold steady in the new year.

President Obama takes tentative steps toward Sentencing Reform

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In a tentative step toward federal sentencing reform  President Obama reduced the sentences of eight prisoners serving long federal prison sentences — six of them life sentences — under draconian laws for crack-cocaine sentencing. He also pardoned 13 others, at least six of whom were in prison for drug offenses.

This administration has been reluctant to use the pardoning power of the president to effect prison sentencing reform. In this instance, the President noted that some prisoners effected by his pardon would have been released under new federal laws enacted over the past two years.

. “Prior to Thursday’s announcement, he had commuted only one sentence during his tenure, out of 8,700 commutation applications” according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums. His rate of both pardons and commutations was the lowest of any president in modern history.

The administration argues that they are getting prison and sentencing reform ready for the coming year and expect to pass important criminal justice reforms with the help of conservative legislators. And perhaps, the President’s strategy is correct, as conservative a Senator as John Cornyn (R-TX)  has introduced a prison reform bill.

In the Senator’s statement introducing the bill, he noted, “Modeled after successful reforms in Texas, this bill will target only non-violent, low-risk offenders to reduce the taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous criminals remain off the streets. By working to reduce the number of repeat-offenders, we can improve safety, as well as costs, for our communities.”

We may find the Administration letting Conservatives take the lead in Prison and Sentencing Reform is the best strategy for getting reform passed.

Ohio Prison Reform Not Reducing Recidivism


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Ohio prisons director Gary Mohr is concerned that a package of prison reforms passed in 2011 have so far failed to achieve their goal of reducing the number of prisoners.

Director Mohr in an interview with members of the Northeast Ohio Media Group and Plain Dealer editorial boards, said “some aspects of that law, which was Senate Bill 86, haven’t worked – such as risk-reduction sentencing, which allows the release of certain prisoners who complete treatment and programming while incarcerated.While about 50,000 people have been sent to prison in the state since the new law took effect, Mohr said, risk-reduction sentencing has been used in less than 400 cases.

“There’s something wrong with it,” Mohr said. “It’s wrong or we haven’t communicated it well enough (to judges)”. Risk-Reduction Sentencing allows judges to issue what are called “risk-reduction” sentences. That means if inmates have a good record in prison and participate in programs, they qualify to get out early. As described in an ACLU article on the Ohio dilemma, “Why did things turn out this way? The short answer is that the bill’s provisions haven’t had the impact that lawmakers expected because its provisions aren’t being fully utilized.”

Interestingly, last year we reported on the conflict between Ohio judges and the Corrections Department’s interest in keeping less serious offenders out of prison (“Judges Upset at Ohio Prisons for Rejecting Commitments”). At the time we were reporting a different aspect of the Reform Package, a section that would prohibit the court from sending non-serious first offenders to prison, if rejected by the Corrections Department. Some judges bridled at what they saw as a loss of sentencing discretion.

The issue is very much the same. And it it exists across the nation. Judges reluctant to use new discretionary powers to keep offenders out of prison or to release them early under new statuary authority. Whether its California judges sentencing offenders to straight jail terms on prison sentences (rather than jail and community supervision), or Ohio judges refusal to use their discretion to keep non-violent offenders out of prison, Judges are reluctant to use scientific evidence-based risk assessments in sentencing non-violent offenders to non-prison sentences.

For the first time in decades, the legislatures, governors, and corrections agencies in a multitude of states are handing judges the tools to use their discretion to keep offenders out of prison and under community based supervision. The shame is that so few are willing to do so.




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