Category Archives: alternatives to incarceration

More on justice reform: which ex-offenders need the most help?

As expected, Senator James Webb (D-Va), reintroduced his bill on criminal justice reform on Tuesday. The National Criminal Justice Commission Act,  first drafted two years ago, would set up a bipartisan group  to conduct an 18-month review of the U.S. criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations on what needs to be done to fix it.

The bill was passed by the House last year, but held up in the Senate  over concerns about how it would be financed. In an interview last week, Webb’s spokesman Will Jenkins said the Senator ” never wavered in his commitment to reform and was determined to press on this year.”  The fact that Webb  has several Republican co-sponsors, Jenkins added, “has opened the door for compromise.”

Will he get it?  Conservatives have recently embraced justice reform, most notably through Right on Crime, an organization pushing for fiscally responsible change  at the local and state levels. Their goal is to recalibrate an incarceration-heavy system that has led to diminishing returns in terms of safety and effectiveness.  Mark Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a signatory for Right on Crime, said there are good things about Webb’s bill and that he believes the commission could be financed  using current corrections funding.  ” I’d hate to see the proposal held up over costs,” he added.

Beware, the pressure for quick fixes

Still, its passage will likely come down to whether legislators have the patience for a detailed review or feel the need to  press for more immediate reforms.  To that end,  a newly released report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, provides a preview of where they might start.  The report, which grew out of a 2009 request by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va) to hold a summit on proven ways to both serve justice and reduce crime and recidivism, offers a useful summary of what works and what doesn’t.

The report takes on a state system that costs more than $50 billion annually.   Apparently, only Medicaid increased faster as a proportion of total state budgets.  Meanwhile correction spending grew at nearly three times the rate of spending on higher education. At the same time, the authors caution that pushing fiscal auterity alone will lead to ill-advised policy decisions. Already they note:

Although many states and localities have made successful strides in prisoner reentry, elected officials in a growing number of jurisdictions are finding budget pressures and other conditions make it practically impossible to finance, on a large scale, strategies necessary to make someone’s transition from prison to the community safe and successful.  

Scary.  Especially considering how cursory so many reentry efforts are right now.

Where should the funding go?

So how to make avoid making ill-advised funding decisions while paring costs?  The report suggests four areas where funds and energies should be targeted (read “justice reinvestment”) to get the most bang for the buck.

  1.  Focus should be on people most likely to reoffend.
  2. Programs should be based on scientific evidence and have measurable outcomes.
  3. Efforts should be made to improve community supervision.
  4. Place-based strategies should be emphasized.

Yes,  such a reallocation of resources will result in some people falling through the cracks.  Ex-offenders with lesser crimes, for example, may lose out on some access to programs and services to aid in their reentry.  But the authors also provides evidence that directing efforts to those individuals most likely to commit a new crime will be more beneficial in terms of reducing the crime rate and improving public safety.

At any rate, the report provides a  useful summary of current thinking and programs, so  it’s  well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Some other highlights:

  • Drug treatment in the community is  more effective than while in  prison.
  • Prison education programs work, (yeah!), but  community based programs have more an impact on recidivism rates than those based in prison.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy that is action-oriented is the more successful in changing behavior and reducing recidivism than fear tactics and emotional appeals, talk therapy or other client-centered approaches.
  • Focusing services, resources and attention to certain high crime areas will have a bigger payoff in terms of reducing crime and recidivism.  Probation and other reentry service offices located in where the individuals live have been found to be more effective.

Readers, what are your feelings on reform?  What do you expect to happen?

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, prison reform, reentry

Hope for ex-offenders: increased focus on justice reform puts spotlight on reentry

It’s unlikely that it made any of  the 2011 trend lists.  But it should have:

What’s Out : Being tough on crime by throwing people in prison.                                             

What’s In:   Being smart about crime by putting serious offenders behind bars and finding alternative and more cost effective punishments for nonviolent offenders.

It’s true.  For the first time in more than thirty years, we’ve got both the left and the right calling for a more sensible way to deal with crime in the U.S.   Two years after Senator James Webb,D-VA  became the lone wolf decrying the nonsense of the U.S. imprisoning people at a rate five times the world’s average, even conservatives have embraced the need to do something to repair a costly and ineffective system that doesn’t make us any safer.

I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first started reading about  Right on Crime, the conservative organization backed by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Grover Norquist.   After reading their proposals, however, I’m encouraged that a platform being advanced by the folks who usually campaign to lock up lawbreakers no matter the cost, may actually lead to some real change.   For one, they make no bones about laying out what the problem is and how we got to our current state of diminishing returns:

Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

All of this, is of course, true, and something that most people can agree on regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.  Obviously, the reason we’re looking at it now is primarily budgetary.  It’s just too expensive to put so many people in prison.  But if that can spur reform, I’ll take it.

One of the provisions I’m most intrigued about is the conservatives desire to deal with the whole issue of negligent hiring suits, which make so many employers reluctant to hire parolees.   Reducing the potential risk of such lawsuits could  go a long way towards bringing down recidivism, since people with jobs are less likely to commit new crimes.   The challenge is to see whether this will change how employers behave in a labor market with double-digit unemployment.  

In two recent New York Times opinion pieces, author Tina Rosenberg also emphasized that” prisoner re-entry has become a hot topic in the field of corrections, largely because of the increasing number of people being released (many as states cut back on budgets).  She also did a great job of describing the challenges faced by returnees and describing the patchwork nature of reentry programs — highlighting a few like the renowned Delancey Street residence in San Francisco and Fortune Society’s Fortune Academy (known as “The Castle”), which work.  There’s also a piece here citing programs in states like Michigan, that have been successful in helping ex-inmates find jobs. 

What do you think is going to happen in terms of criminal justice reform?   Earlier this month, Senator Webb and The Prison Fellowship sponsored a symposium at George Mason on “Undoing the Effects of Mass Incarceration.”  The State of Louisiana recently announced it’s going to take the plunge to reform it’s prison system.  Will this all be a lot of talk or will/can the country follow suit?

2 Comments

Filed under alternatives to incarceration, companies hiring ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, prison reform, probation and parole, reentry, Uncategorized

Lindsay Lohan’s jail break

Jail is an awful, dehumanizing place, and I don’t envy Lindsay Lohan for having to spend time there.

In case you’ve fallen behind in your tabloid reading: Lohan, the talented, but increasingly troubled actress, began serving a 90-day sentence today at the women’s jail in Lynwood, California.  She got it for failing to show up to court and violating the terms of her probation on earlier misdemeanor drug and driving charges.  

 In the run-up to her surrender, there was a predictable face-off between those who felt Lohan was getting what she deserved and those who thought she’d be better off in a rehab program.

While I agree that jail isn’t going to cure  a serious substance abuse problem, I have to say I’m glad she’s there.   And no, not just because this proves a famous actress isn’t above the law and has to pay for what she’s done like everyone else.   Initially, I thought that might be why as I’ve often expressed how I feel about rich or celebrated lawbreakers getting special treatment.

But ultimately, I realized it was more because of Lohan’s similarities to others who are doing time  behind bars.   If you take out the spoiled actress part and all the money, she’s actually a  pretty typical inmate.  Consider:

Lohan, who first charmed me playing twin sisters in “The Parent Trap,” has some incredible gifts.  My hope  is that she’s able to see this as a wake-up call and use her time away from society — which is expected in the end to be around 23 days — to face her problems.  Going to rehab is almost fashionable among the Hollywood set.  But sometimes people need a bigger dose of reality to get them to truly want to change.   Just as with Roberty Downey Jr.,  whose drug use ultimately earned him a prison term, this could be a turning point for Lohan. 

Readers, what do you think?  Have any of you ever been prompted to change your life or deal with major shortcomings because of  a jail or prison term?  How did you do it?

1 Comment

Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, life in prison, personal responsibility, second chances, sentencing alternatives, starting over, taking responsibility, women ex-offenders

Remembering the battles soldiers fight — away and at home

On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a couple of people I know.  These particular folks not only served their country — in some cases with much distinction — but in a twist that’s become all too familiar, they also served time in prison or jail.

Sadly, the longer America has been at war, the more common this scenario  has become.   So common, in fact, that the prevalence of combat veterans who get  in trouble with the law after they return has been well-documented — In stories like this one from the Salt Lake City Tribune. Or  in the “The Wounded Platoon” , a television documentary airing earlier this month, which opened with a tale of how three army combat buddies had killed a fourth after a night of drinking in Colorado Springs.

As these reports note, it’s difficult to find hard statistics on incarcerated veterans, let alone the whys behind their offenses.  This oft-cited special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at the ex-military population in prisons and jails in 1998 and found a preponderance of Vietnam War vets, higher-levels of education and people who were more likely to be addicted to alcohol than drugs.

But new wars have brought new challenges.  “The Wounded Platoon,” depicts how the need for troops prompted the military to accept recruits with criminal and juvenile records who might have been rejected in the past.  Faced with a spike in post-traumatic stress disorder during IED-laden guerrilla wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military also began to allow soldiers in combat to take prescription drugs, among them antidepressants and Ambien. Some believe this may account for higher incidences of  post-war drug and alcohol abuse.

Given the difficulties of readjusting to life outside a war zone — and the little support available  —  it’s not a big leap to imagine how a combination of substance abuse and psychological disorders could lead a veteran to cross the line. Granted, many in the service had problems before they ever put on a uniform.  As one commenter noted on the story in the Salt Lake City Tribune, some “would have committed a crime regardless.”  Still, the 2000 BOJ report found that veterans were more likely to be serving a sentence for a violent offense than those who had never served.  They were also more likely to be older and first-time offenders.

I’m not saying those who have broken the law should be exempt from punishment because of their military service.  It just seems that perhaps military service needs to be factored in more.  This was brought home to me earlier this year when I met an offender whose profile didn’t make sense to me.  This woman had spent nearly a decade in the service, fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and received commendations and assignments that required a high level of security.   The incident that got her in trouble was alcohol-fueled and happened shortly after her return to the U.S.   Obviously, I don’t know all the details because I wasn’t there, but the idea that the crime warranted time in jail as opposed to some other sort of psychological or substance abuse treatment seemed bizarre.

This is not just an issue in the U.S., by the way.   Veterans in Prison, an organization founded by a group of British ex-soldiers tracks similar problems in the UK.  In 2008, for example, a report found that 1 in 11 people serving time in British jails was a former member of the armed forces.

What can we do?  That’s a good question.  Fortunately, as more soldiers reenter civilian life, there seems to be a growing  awareness of the challenges they face.   This was reflected in a California ruling  last year in a case involving a former Army Ranger accused of  breaking into two pharmacies to fuel his prescription drug addiction. Although he was facing up to 12 years in prison, he was given treatment as opposed to jail upon appeal.

I’m hoping to see more of this.  How about you?

****

On an administrative note:  Alas, today is the official end of the WordCount Blogathon 2010. Yesterday, I reflected on what a long, often challenging, but rewarding trip it’s been.   Unfortunately, (or fortunately, for those of you who were tired of me nattering on) this means that I’ll no longer be posting daily.  But thanks to some new followers, some great ideas and lots of inspiration, I”m hoping to be able to use the longer lead time between posts to tackle some stories I’ve been meaning to get to — like ban the box and other pressing issues.

So thanks again for sticking with me for a month’s worth of posts and blog-discovery.  And a final shout-out to Michelle Rafter, who made this whole event not just possible, but loads of fun.

I hope you’ll stay tuned…..

1 Comment

Filed under addiction and recovery, alternatives to incarceration, breaking the law, criminal records, ex-offender psychology, homelessness

What’s best for non-violent offenders?

Heard a timely interview today with former prosecutor and onetime felon Paul Butler, who’s now a law professor at George Washington University. In a new book, Let’s Get Free, he argues that if you want to reduce crime you have to send fewer people to prison. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But I think his argument — that there are other ways of dealing with nonviolent offenders than locking them up — is dead on.

When I first started teaching I was naive perhaps, but surprised to find so many of my students were serving sentences for drug and alcohol-related offenses. Sometimes the charges were more serious than DUI or possession, of course. A lot involved theft (the grab the purse and run variety) and credit card fraud. All deserving of punishment, certainly. But incarceration and a permanent record? I’m not always sure. In many cases, it’s difficult not to think that treatment for substance abuse and/or a combination of restitution, community service and job/life skills training would serve these type of offenders and society better. And it would be a heckuva lot cheaper than the current $60 billion annually ($50,000 per inmate), that the U.S. spends housing prisoners. How is it that this great country of freedom, which has 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoners?

That’s one reason I’m encouraged by Sen. Jim Webb’s criminal justice reform bill. Webb, who was keynote speaker when the Brookings Institute unveiled their report on prison reform that I blogged about here, is also concerned about the alarming proportion of mentally-ill, non-violent drug offenders and minorities currently in prison. His measure would put some really smart and experienced people in charge of figuring out what approach works best.

Webb says he wants to look at the total cost of incarceration, not only in terms of the billions we spend in building prisons and housing prisoners, but the in terms of the “lost opportunities with our post-prison systems.” A change in thinking here, could provide a much-needed boost to re-entry services such as employment training and education, substance abuse treatment and other assistance that would help someone who had done their time could better reclaim their place as a productive citizen in society. It will be interesting to see if budget pressures will have an impact in terms of making this bill and Butler’s ideas more palatable to those who would prefer to just lock everyone up.

In the meantime, you can listen to Butler here. You can also track Sen. Webb’s bill and help by sending your stories or ideas to his office at this link.

Leave a comment

Filed under alternatives to incarceration, training ex-offenders