Archive for the ‘Corrections’ Category

In late March, Texas Governor Rick Perry sent a letter to the Department of Justice (PDF) bemoaning the fact that his state would have to comply with key provisions of federal legislation intended to reduce sexual violence in prisons and jails.  This federal legislation–the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)–was passed back in 2003, and ten years of effort have been put into researching and refining rules related to its implementation.

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Now it’s time for states to come into compliance with the law, and Perry has taken the opportunity to play politics with its mandates instead of doing the right thing and making his prisons and jails safer for his communities.  The governor’s arguments against PREA implementation are not only myopic and disingenuous, but are also couched in the type of snark and sarcasm that so often passes for political discourse these days.

Let’s see what he had to say.

Point #1

The governor’s letter begins with this false claim:

The rules [of PREA] appear to have been created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.

In fact, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC), which was created by the PREA legislation, sought input from correctional officials at all levels of the system for years before implementation of the law began. According to the NPREC:

The NPREC was a bipartisan panel created by Congress as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The Commission was charged with studying federal, state and local government policies and practices related to the prevention, detection, response and monitoring of sexual abuse in correction and detention facilities in the United States. Consistent with the Act, the Commission’s recommendations are designed to make the prevention of rape a top priority in America’s jails, prisons, lockups, juvenile facilities, and other detention facilities. The commission submitted its report to the President, Congress, The Attorney General, The Secretary of Health and Human Services and other federal and state officials on June 23, 2009.

Representatives from Perry’s own state department of corrections have even gone so far as to praise the federal government’s efforts to gather information about local prison and jail operations as part of developing implementation rules:

…during one of several public comment periods, Texas corrections department head Brad Livingston wrote to the Department of Justice in 2010, “it is apparent the Department of Justice gave careful consideration to the comments submitted by many interested parties during 2010, the TDCJ has few issues relating to the proposed national standards.”

Far from being created in a vacuum, the opposite appears to have been the case. To claim now that the state cannot comply because of a lack of input by correctional experts is disingenuous, to say the least, and an outright falsehood in the worst case.

Point #2

The governor goes on to contend that his state is leading the effort to reduce sexual assaults in prisons through its Safe Prisons Program:

Since 2001, TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has started the Safe Prisons Program, created and tested zero tolerance policies, added additional video surveillance, established a PREA ombudsman and developed comprehensive sexual assault training for staff and offenders.

The sad fact is that Texas prisons are among the least safe in the country today. Based on data collected from 2009 to 2011 as part of PREA, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found one correctional unit in Texas as having the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States, and five other Texas prisons or jails as being particularly violent as well – a higher number than any other state in the survey.

Point #3

Next, the governor asserts that he is under “threat of criminal penalties” if he does not certify that all jails and prisons in his state are in compliance with PREA’s requirements by May of this year. This is another disingenuous statement, given that he does have other options under the law. According to the National PREA Resource Center:

Pursuant to the PREA statute, the governor has three options: 1) submit a certification that the state is in full compliance; 2) submit an assurance that not less than five percent of its DOJ funding for prison purposes shall be used only for the purpose of enabling the state to adopt and achieve full compliance with the PREA standards; or 3) accept a five percent reduction in such grants.

He is looking at losing funding if he doesn’t comply, but he could choose to simply assure that a portion of federal funding his state currently receives for prison operations could be used to bring facilities into compliance. That doesn’t sound like a threat. It sounds like a reasonable measure to help states improve their practices.

1687022_-rick-perry-05-jl-10-11-2010

It’s pretty clear that all this is just political grandstanding. Instead of taking his obligations seriously in this area, Perry is choosing to turn his correctional system into just another opportunity to score political points with his base. Ironically, he is also choosing to operate a correctional system that is incredibly dangerous, not only to the inmates it confines, but to the public at large, including his political supporters.

One of the driving forces behind PREA is the idea that the chances of successful inmate rehabilitation are significantly reduced when inmates are subjected to sexual violence while incarcerated. Considering that Dallas and Houston are perennially among the top ten cities with the highest rates of crime in the country,  as is the state of Texas overall, you would think that rehabilitating offenders, and reducing the likelihood of them engaging in repeated criminal behavior, would be a high priority.

Further, research on the benefits of preventing sexual violence in correctional environments also make clear that such efforts are important, not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because they can result in significant cost savings as well:

Prevention dollars, if appropriately targeted, save therapeutic intervention dollars. To capture these “savings,” however, inmate safety must be a top priority. Prioritizing safety requires the establishment of reasonable standards of safety and safety benchmarks for prisons, followed by measuring performance on safety accurately and reliably and reporting performance data in ways consistent with standards of transparency and accountability. Safe, humane prisons can be expected to yield immediate savings by avoiding the costs of treating the consequences of physical and sexual assault, and longer term savings if the people leaving prison are less impaired with emotional and psychological difficulties created by the prison environment.

Instead of wasting money on programs that apparently don’t work to reduce sexual violence in prisons (the Safe Prisons Project), and wasting time complaining to the DOJ about having to comply with PREA, the governor should set his sights on taking responsibility for what he is allowing to occur in his jails and prisons.

I’m just glad I don’t live in Texas.

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Handcuffs are probably one of the most basic and ubiquitous pieces of police equipment around today. They’re carried used not only by thousands of police officers around the world, but by private security officers, correctional officers, magicians, teachers at some schools, and, yes, lovers.

Image courtesy of Praisaeng / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Praisaeng / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We apparently even have a National Handcuff Day, celebrated on February 20th each year to mark the issuance of the modern handcuff patent in 1912 (how’s that for a phony, made-up corporate holiday?).

Handcuffs are so common, in fact, that we normally pay little attention to them at all, unless perhaps you’re wearing a set for some reason. But, who invented them and why, and how have they evolved to become what we recognize today?

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Inmate art is nothing new. As long as people have been confined with little or nothing else to do, they’ve been seeking ways to express themselves with whatever items they have at hand. And, some of what’s created can be quite compelling.

CARLOS-GUITTERREZ-Caught-in-a-Web-of-Violence

According to artist, Phyllis Kornfeld, inmate art is informed by the negative nature of the individual’s experiences:

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Image courtesy of koratmember / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of koratmember / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, the US Department of State released its human rights report for 2013, which offers up an assessment of human rights compliance and non-compliance in countries around the world. Secretary of State, John Kerry, had this to say about this year’s report:

Governments that protect human rights and are accountable to their citizens are more secure, bolster international peace and security, and enjoy shared prosperity with stable democratic countries around the world. Countries that fail to uphold human rights can face economic deprivation and international isolation. Despite that simple truth, these reports show that too many governments continue to tighten their grasp on free expression, association, and assembly, using increasingly repressive laws, politically motivated prosecutions and even new technologies to deny citizens their universal human rights, in the public square, and in virtual space.

The irony here, of course, is that our nation’s credibility is questionable at best on many of these measures. The NSA’s eavesdropping activities alone, as revealed by the Snowden leaks, have made it clear that our own government is willing to engage in legally questionable practices that have a chilling effect on free speech, freedom of expression, and the willingness of citizens to lawfully disagree with their own government. Eavesdropping, of the type that the government claims is legal and necessary, also erodes press freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution that are fundamental to the maintenance of a free and vibrant democracy.

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Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In many of the corrections courses I teach, we frequently end up having some variation of the below conversation:

Student: We need to build more prisons because crime is increasing.

Me: Actually, crime isn’t increasing, and there’s little consensus that prisons work to reduce crime rates anyway. In fact, many who research the relationship between incarceration and crime feel that we’ve gone too far in our use of prisons, which has lead to overcrowding.

Student: But if our prisons are overcrowded, we need to build more.

Me: Or, we could stop over-relying on prisons as a primary way to deal with crime.

Student: But, if people don’t believe they’ll go to prison, they’ll just commit more crimes.

And on it goes.

I don’t fault my students, of course. They’re just learning about the system and how it works, and I expect them to bring their ideas about correctional practice to the classroom. I also expect them to challenge what they’re learning and to think critically about all of the new information they’re being exposed to in their studies.

It’s certainly no wonder that students are frequently convinced that a) crime is on the rise, and b) we need more prisons. Both of those points are commonly misconstrued in the media and, more significantly, by ill-informed politicians seeking to whip the public into a frenzy over crime issues as a way to secure funding for this or that pet project.

True, the evidence is somewhat mixed on whether or not prisons actually reduce crime. There’s some research showing that the incapacitating effect of imprisonment does reduce certain forms of criminal behavior.  The relationship between incarceration and crime rates is complex, though, which makes studying it quite challenging.

But some leading academics have pointed out the illogical elements of pro-prison arguments. On this point, Dr. Joan Petersilia of Stanford University wrote that:

…if there were a close correlation between crime rates and incarceration, the prisons would have begun emptying out in the late 1990s, when crime in most of its forms began to decrease.

As we know, that’s not what’s happened at all. Incarceration rates have soared to the point where the US  leads the world in the use of imprisonment. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), the incarceration rate in the United States (including both jails and prisons) was 920 per 100,000 residents in 2012, down slightly from the 1,000 persons per 100,000 rate in 2009.

The reductions in imprisonment rates is welcome, but will that translate into increases in crime as some fear? Not necessarily, at least according to a 2013 summary by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. According to the below infographic that summarizes state data on 2012 imprisonment rates, 29 states simultaneously reduced both the rates of imprisonment and crime.

PSPP_pop_webgraphic_FINAL

The Pew infographic also makes a direct comparison between data from two states (Maryland and Arizona) that both experienced more than a 20% drop in the crime rate but also had very different rates of incarceration. Maryland reduced prison use by 11% while Arizona increased their use by 4%.

This highlights the complex relationship between incarceration and crime rates – but the overall message is clear:  it is possible to reduce prison use without increasing crime.

In my opinion, we’re at a point where reducing our reliance on prisons is not only a good idea, it’s a necessity. We’re spending billions of dollars annually to house, feed, and clothe inmates, many of whom could be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a fraction of the cost. As Dr. Petersilia also noted in her article above, informal discussions with correctional administrators around the country have disclosed their belief that fully 10-15% of their current prison populations could be safely released to the community.

When we couple all of this with the advancements in evidence-based practices, such as Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, it becomes apparent that we now have tools that can indeed reduce our reliance on incarceration while also increasing our ability to successfully intervene with correctional clients in community-based settings.

What are your thoughts? More prisons, less prisons? Leave a comment and share your opinions below!

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Court

Presentence investigations have been an important aspect of the criminal sentencing process for many years. Listen to my audio post below to learn about who writes PSIs, what goes into a PSI, and how judges use that information.

Click the arrow on the player above to listen to the podcast.

For more information about PSIs and how they’re used, check out:

What is a presentence report?

Law and legal definition

Federal Probation Presentence Investigation Unit

American Probation and Parole Association Position Statement on the PSI

One state’s rules about PSIs

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What would you do to shorten your sentence if you wound up incarcerated in a Thai prison? Almost anything? If you’re one of the over 5,000 inmates at Klong Prem prison in Bangkok, you might just decide to fight your way out.

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of tiverlucky FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sound like a crazy idea? It’s a reality at Klong Prem where inmates train to compete in high-stakes Muay Thai style bouts.

According to one visitor to the prison:

If an inmate wins a match, his case is referred to the warden of his prison, who then has the option of reducing his sentence by months or even years. After winning five straight bouts, Sawangsuk, a former enforcer for a Bangkok gambling ring, has already shaved seven years off his 10-year sentence. If he wins today, he could be a free man within a few months.

That’s right. Winning fights has shaved years off one inmate’s sentence. And he’s not the only one.

Check out the Vice doc below for the full story.

Thai Prison Fights Documentary

Have a safe weekend!

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It’s been a great first year, and I want to thank all of you for taking the time to read, post, comment, share, and otherwise support this blog. I especially want to thank Brittius.com for all the reblogs of our content and the comments they’ve shared over the past months. Much appreciated, friends. You can read their blog here.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Our blog began simply as an information project, primarily to help my students. I referred them here for more info on topics that commonly came up in our discussions and the other work we were doing together. Not only was it helpful to them, and a springboard for further discussion and learning, but I soon found that other people were interested in these topics as well.

That lead to additional topics, some guest posts, experiments with different approaches, and even a shot at a podcast (I plan to revive that in the new year). We also upped the game with a new and improved research blog, also supported by the company that sponsors this blog – Æquitas Educational Services – and a new weekly news site for parents: Social Web Safety.

Our Blog — Æquitas Educational Services 2013-12-14 08-28-44

So, to wrap things up, I’ve pulled together the top ten posts from Crime & Justice in terms of views, comments, and reblogs for 2013. I look forward to another year of growth and experimentation in 2014, and we’ll continue striving to provide you with the types of content you’re seeking.

If you have suggestions, story ideas, or just some feedback you’d like to share, let me know. And, as always, please spread the word about our blog and what we’re up to.

Top Ten Posts of 2013
  1. How Many Innocent People are in Prison?
  2. Why do Non-violent Felons Lose the Right to Bear Arms?
  3. Female Sex Offenders – Hidden in Plain Sight?
  4. Compliance with Authority and The Strip Search Prank Call Scam
  5. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
  6. The Legal System’s Non-Response to “Revenge Porn” (Updated 11/7/13)
  7. Friday Crime Vids – The Failed War on Drugs
  8. Why Therapeutic Jurisprudence?
  9. Does Privacy Still Matter?
  10. Kratom – Wonder Drug or Potential Health Threat?

Thanks again, and have a happy and safe holiday season!

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As it turns out, lack of gainful employment is among one of the most significant factors in predicting recidivism. To some that might sound like a cop out, but it’s a reality borne out by research (PDF).  Correlations between employment and recidivism aren’t exact, of course, but the influence of unemployment on the risk to reoffend can clearly be seen in the literature.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As it also turns out, one of the long-standing collateral consequences of conviction and imprisonment is the impact on future employability. For people with a conviction on their record – especially a felony – the chances of getting a living-wage job are significantly reduced.

This creates a vicious cycle in which a lack of employment contributes to criminality, but the availability of jobs is limited for those with a prior conviction.

How can we break out of this and change the dynamic so that once someone has paid their social debt, and has demonstrated that they’ve been rehabilitated, they’re welcomed back into the mainstream of society and allowed to work toward prosocial goals?

One way is for employers to stop immediately disqualifying applicants with criminal records.

Ban the Box is an organization that’s striving to promote that very idea through their Take the Fair Chance Pledge campaign. According to their web site:

The campaign challenges the stereotypes of people with conviction histories by asking employers to choose their best candidates based on job skills and qualifications, not past convictions. Since 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has a conviction history, the impact of this discrimination is widespread and affects other aspects of life in addition to employment opportunity.

The idea is a simple one: Remove the check box from employment applications that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history up front, and instead allow them an opportunity to explain their past behavior in a face-to-face interview.

Although this has already become law for many public organizations and agencies, it wasn’t until recently that private companies were required to ban the box. Beginning next year, though, Target Corporation will be one of the major employers to stop asking crime questions as part of the initial application process.

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of jannoon028 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I personally think this is a fantastic idea. If we’re serious as a society about reducing risk factors that contribute to crime, we need to give ex-offenders the opportunity to return to society as fully contributing, employed citizens.

The alternative is to punish law breakers in perpetuity, which ultimately serves no one, and may in fact make problems worse.

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I read an excellent blog post over the weekend by Rick Horowitz, “I’m a Prosecutor. This is What We Do,” that lays out a clear argument against the mindless, overzealous enforcement of the law by some prosecutors. His point was that, too often, thoughtless actions on the part of the State’s attorney can result in serious injustices that not only do real harm to individuals, but also erode public confidence in the system’s ability to functional at all.

Court

It’s not just prosecutors, though, who can act like “energizer bunnies,” to use Horowitz’s term for those who too aggressively pursue a barely articulated goal of “justice.” It’s also the police officer who oversteps his authority and injures or kills someone without just cause. It’s the judge who hides behind his robe when handing out sentences he knows are disproportionate to the crimes committed. It’s the correctional officer who uses excessive force just because he can.

We (meaning criminal justice practitioners) can all too easily forget that the justice system is operated by human beings for the purpose of protecting and serving other human beings. Inherent in that is the idea that our humanity should shine through, no matter the situation. Undoubtedly, this is messy work with few clear answers. Pretending, however, that the answer is to simply maximize the vengeful impacts of our limited role as a way to bring predictability and structure to the chaos is wrong-headed.

It will only serve to steer us further away from the goal of seeking justice. On this point, Horowitz concluded:

We, the People — not “the People” as mouthed by prosecutors and judges in the show trials that make up 95% of courthouse trials these days, but we, the actual People — need to wake up. When prosecutors forget that “not merely to convict” is intended to be a brake on vengeance, a reminder that true justice requires looking at the bigger picture, to see how we can make the world a better place, it is not merely the convict who suffers. Our whole society is dragged down by this attitude.

None of this is to say that police officers, prosecutors, judges, or correctional workers are inherently bad. They’re not. They’re essential, in fact, to maintaining public safety. At the same time, though, we need to look more deeply at what we’re doing as a whole, not just at what goes on within the self-enforced vacuum of our own little silos.  We need to look beyond the arbitrary boundaries we’ve established and work together to improve society overall through our actions.

So, how do we do that?

One place to start is to give more attention to integrated approaches to justice, such as Therapeutic Jurisprudence, a term coined by legal scholar, David Wexler, in the 1980s to describe what he referred to as:

a perspective that regards the law as a social force that produces behaviors and consequences. Sometimes these consequences fall within the realm of what we call therapeutic; other times antitherapeutic consequences are produced. Therapeutic jurisprudence wants us to be aware of this and wants us to see whether the law can be made or applied in a more therapeutic way so long as other values, such as justice and due process, can be fully respected.

While this is most typically applied to the court room, there’s no reason that it needs to be limited to any one part of the justice system. What if all elements of the system focused on increasing therapeutic effects while reducing harm to the maximum extent possible? What if we all operated not from a retributive perspective, but from a rehabilitative one as well?

Would that be more just and more likely to instill confidence in the system as a whole?

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below and share your perspective.

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