Do Private Prisons Have a Future?

Beyond the ideological debates about prison privatization, privately run corrections facilities are likely to continue to be used by cash-strapped governments. In a new book, Lauren Brooke-Reisen of New York University suggests it may be time to figure out how the private prison industry can become a partner in reducing recidivism.

Private prisons are one of the most controversial areas of the justice system today. Although the Department of Justice made efforts to limit them during the Obama administration, the private corrections industry has regained influence under the current administration, which has proposed expanding privately run detention facilities for undocumented immigrants.

But private prisons are not new. As Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center’s Justice Program, writes in her recent book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the privatization of corrections can be traced back through American history to the convict-leasing system and slavery.

In a chat with The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta, she discusses the expanding role of the private corrections industry in today’s mass incarceration system, how prison privatization in other countries such as Australia and the UK is used to incentivize reductions in recidivism rates, and whether they can be models for reform-oriented US corrections policy.

The Crime Report: You write that privatization can be traced back to the convict leasing system in the 19th century. What are the origins of privatization in American history? 

private prisons

Lauren-Brooke Eisen

LBE: [This isn’t] the first time that we have treated people who are behind bars as commodities. When slaves were emancipated, under the Jim Crow laws in the South, African Americans were jailed for things that were never crimes before. The wardens would lease the inmates to different businessmen, whether they were textile manufacturers or companies that were building railroads. We ended up almost institutionalizing slavery through these laws, which resulted in African Americans being convicted and sent to jails with whom businessmen would sign contracts to employ inmates. Businessmen would pay the state, the penitentiary, for the use of [convict] labor, and while I am in no uncertain terms analogizing that to the private prison industry today—[they are] very different situations—the common theme is that there has been profit in incarceration from the beginning.

TCR: What kinds of crimes were African Americans accused of?

LBE: In 1876, the Mississippi legislature redefined grand larceny as theft of a farm animal or any property valued at $10 or more. This would result in five years in prison. There are many, many examples of these types of laws. Convict leasing was implemented and began to thrive at about the same time. It solved the labor shortage that the Southern economy faced after the Civil War. Slaves were emancipated [but] who was going to perform labor very cheaply?

TCR: What does the government gain from pushing for the privatization of institutions that were previously under their control? 

LBE: The core idea of the Republican Party has been less government control, and the idea of privatization tends to be more popular when we have Republican administrations. That’s part of how the private industry was able to take off. These companies were founded in the “tough-on-crime” heyday; but also when the government does look to privatize it tends to be because it thinks it can save money. There’s always been this sort of ideological divide in US politics over whether the government provide these services better than companies.

Sometimes people talk about the private prison industry as if it’s an outlier. [But] governments have privatized other parts of the justice program. We have private arbitrators, private judges; even firefighting was private at one point in our history. There are more private security guards in the US than there are police officers. Privatization is as old as the founding of our government.

President Ronald Reagan created a lot of blue ribbon commissions to look at privatization and one of the commissions, the Grace Commission, suggested that the government privatize corrections. Is there a difference between privatizing garbage collection and prisons, or are they different sort of services? A lot of people say that that privatizing garbage collection may make more sense than privatizing prisons, where someone is deprived of their life and their liberty. But look at the privatization of military services. Corporations make enormous profits from hiring their own contractors, many of whom are former military people but who are now performing duties that historically were performed by the United States military. Is that a closer analogy to the private prison industry?

TCR: You refer to the fact that privatization basically became a distraction from the real issues of incarceration. The debate shifted to private prisons vs. public prisons instead of focusing on issues that were generating mass incarceration in the first place.

 LBE: The early congressional hearings [in November 1985] that Congress held on the private prison industry [were] fascinating. It was really the first time that the country wrestled with the legal issues, the moral issues, the economic issues, of private prisons, and one of the themes of my book is that private prisons emerged without great debate. Law professors testified, correction officials testified, union officials testified, private prison officials testified. [But] no one really understood what the industry meant, where it was headed, what its potential was, or wasn’t.

At the time that the private prison industry really emerged, in the mid-1980s, about three-quarters of states were under some sort of federal court order to reduce the prison population in at least one of their prisons, and the private prison industry offered to build these new prisons. The director of corrections didn’t have to worry about building a new prison, and the industry said, “well we can do this cheaper than you can as well,” so it was a boon to the government.

In 2018, crime rates are much lower than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s easy for me to sit here today and say there should have been conversations about the proper role of punishment, and over incarceration. I understand that hindsight [is like] Monday morning quarterbacking, but I point to that time when there weren’t debates about the proper role of punishment. There wasn’t a great conversation about what we were doing as a nation, and why we were incarcerating so many people for so long.

I am very careful in the book to say that the private prison industry did not create mass incarceration. [But] their ability to fill these prisons quickly and efficiently let correction departments off the hook. These departments didn’t need to go to their governor and policymakers and tell them to change our laws because they are sending too many people to us.

TCR: How did the two big players in the private prison industryCoreCivic, previously known as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and the GEO Group—emerge?

LBE: In the mid-1980s, a man named Thomas Beasley, who was formerly head of the Republican Party of Tennessee, a businessman named Robert Crants, and T. Don Hutto, who at one point had been the president of the American Correctional Association, and was also the Director of Corrections in Virginia and Arkansas, got together and founded Corrections Corporation of America [now re-branded as CoreCivic]. The company was originally funded with $10 million raised primarily by the Massey Burch investment group. Which also happens to be the same group that financed Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Hospital Corporation of America. They were entrepreneurs, and they modeled their group partly on the Hospital Corporation of America; and in fact, Thomas Beasley had said that the CCA will be to jails and prisons what the Hospital Corporation of America has been to medical facilities nationwide. In 1984, Thomas Beasley appeared on the 60 Minutes program, where he called prisons a growth industry. In 1985, CCA actually attempted to take over Tennessee’s entire prison system. They were not successful.

And then [there is] Geo Group, formerly the Wackenhut Corporation. These two corporations have bought a lot of other private prison companies, as well as electronic monitoring companies and drug treatment centers over the years; today CoreCivic and GEO Group are the two largest private prison companies, and they are publicly traded on the stock exchange.

TCR: One of the issues raised by the book is whether private prisons, and prisons more generally, provide jobs and an economic boost to rural American communities

LBE: Prisons bring benefits to rural towns. They bring federal funding because the people who are in these prisons are sometimes counted as part of the population. These prisons bring jobs, correctional officer jobs. Janitor jobs. Cafeteria jobs. They bring hotels, and transportation hubs. On the flip side, there are people in these communities who don’t want prisons, and they don’t feel that it’s safe to have prisons, or they’re worried about escapes. I think it tends to be a little bit rarer, but there are some situations where they are competing with prison labor because individuals behind bars are not paid the minimum wage.

TCR: Can you elaborate on the battle between powerful correctional unions, such as the ones in California and New York, and the private prison industry? They are important political players. You write that since 1989 the union of California corrections officers made $22 million in political campaign contributions

LBE: [Corrections] unions are certainly a special interest group and a powerful one. It’s important for the reader to understand that the private prison industry is just one of a lot of special interest groups. New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo found it incredibly difficult to close prisons. He’s closed over a dozen prisons in New York, and the New York Corrections Officers Benevolent Association made it incredibly difficult because they were worried about losing jobs. When we talk about different special interest groups, different ways that we as a country are perpetuating mass incarceration, I thought it was important for the reader to understand that there is no one cause, there is no one solution. Correctional officers’ unions play an important role in protecting correctional officers, but at the same time when we talk about reducing prison populations, they can certainly make it difficult for states to reduce prison populations.

private prisonsPeople don’t often talk about correctional officers’ unions and their role in expanding the prison industrial complex. In California in the 1990s, the [California Correctional Peace Officers Association] pushed for Three Strikes legislation; they battled attempts at parole reform; and they became an incredibly powerful union.

What’s interesting about New York is that after Gov. Cuomo closed prisons, it’s my understanding that very few, if any, correctional officers actually lost jobs. People were just moved around.

TCR: You write that New York and Illinois are the only two states that have succeeded in banning private prisons.

LBE: There are no state private prisons in New York. There is a pilot [privately run] immigration detention center in the borough of Queens, but that’s federal. Gov. Cuomo has closed 13 prisons in New York. I think that New York is certainly a model to other states. We haven’t seen crimes skyrocket or get out of control after these prison closures. We’ve continued to see this great crime decline in New York with [fewer] people locked-up, and [fewer] prisons in operation.

TCR: You mention that since the 1980s, the US government has passed a number of laws that have increased punishment around illegal immigration. As a result, since the late 1990s and early 2000s, private prison industries saw immigration facilities as “ripe for privatization.” What are the ramifications of privatizing immigration facilities? 

LBE: A lot of people are simply unaware that we have essentially privatized immigration detention, about 65 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration beds are privatized. These are places where undocumented individuals are held. They have not been in those cases convicted of breaking any criminal laws necessarily. Many of the individuals are there simply because they came into the US without authorization. A lot of them are waiting for hearings, deportation or asylum hearings.

ICE itself doesn’t provide much, if any, programming to a lot of these individuals, so the private prison industry also doesn’t provide very much programming. And again, it’s not very different from what the government is doing. The government isn’t requiring the private industry to provide this programming, because a lot of these people will be released back to their home countries; but if you walk around these immigration centers, they look and feel like prisons. People are not free to go.

TCR: After the attacks on September 11th, annual detention rates skyrocketed.

LBE: 9/11 reinvigorated the private prison industry. It certainly is not the only thing that helped the private prison industry step in, but certainly I point to it as a time in American history when people were very afraid, and so that context was important too.

TCR: One of the rationales behind private prisons is that they are cost-effective. However, you point out that there is scant evidence of this and that public and private prisons perform roughly the same.

LBE: It’s difficult to compare even one public facility to another public facility. So when we compare public facilities to private facilities, it’s very hard to find the same population, the same situation. It’s a little bit like comparing apples to oranges, but for those studies that have tried to compare the facilities, there is a mixed bag of research, but little evidence that these facilities are saving money. I think the larger point is that we shouldn’t be asking the private prisons to save money.

Incarceration should be expensive. If we as a society have decided that someone should be separated from their family and their community for significant periods of time, we should be spending money providing programming and services to those people behind bars so that they can successfully rejoin our communities. We shouldn’t be asking the private prison industry to save us money. I think that’s ludicrous.

We really need to change our mindset and say we’re going to send [fewer] people to prison, and if it’s expensive, it’s expensive because we are providing needed programming and that should be in both public and private prisons.

TCR: You quote people who’ve been incarcerated in both private and public prisons. Tell us about them.

LBE: A lot of those I spoke to were surprised that their time in private prisons was not what they thought it would be. This is anecdotal, it’s not a sample size of thousands, [but] everyone I spoke to said the idea of someone making money from [their incarceration] bothered them.

TCR: There is a debate between academics and public intellectuals around whether corrections and incarceration should be a public or private issue.

LBE: Since the 1985 congressional hearings, there’s always been a debate in this country about the delegation of authority, whether this is a proper delegation of authority. It’s still a question that a lot of people ask: What is the government’s role in punishment? Can this role be delegated? The individuals I interviewed for the book didn’t feel that this was a proper delegation of punishment. Yet there are a lot of policymakers and corrections directors who feel [private prisons] can do a better job than the government. The book doesn’t come down on one side or the other. But I ask the question: If we really care about rehabilitating people and ensuring that we reduce recidivism rates and improve the lives of those who are behind bars, and improve the safety of our communities, does it matter if these people have spent time in public facilities or private facilities?

If our end goal is public safety, should it matter if the private prison industry can do a better job? Maybe it shouldn’t matter, and that’s how I end the book, which is looking at the potential innovation of the private prison industry. Australia and New Zealand are prime examples. The governments of both countries have signed contracts with the private prison industry to pay them more money if they can reduce recidivism rates better than [the state system].

TCR: You mention in the book that there are 11 other countries in the world that use private prisons. How does the US compare to these countries?

LBE: It’s not just an American issue. There are private prisons in the U.K. and Australia and New Zealand, and I end the book with a recommendation that we change a lot of the contracts today, so that members of the public and the media have access to these private facilities. [I recommend] that we basically create performance-based contracts for these facilities, so that if I were a director of corrections I would incentivize these corporations to increase programming and reduce recidivism.

The private prison industry was created partly because of these overwhelming numbers of incarcerated people, where we didn’t have capacity to house them, but also with this idea of innovation—that they can do better than the government.I didn’t see a lot of that, but the models in Australia and New Zealand are really promising because innovation really seems to be happening there.

 TCR: What is the future of private prison corporations under the Trump presidency?

LBE: I wrote this book under the Obama administration, but it came out after Trump was elected. In the summer of 2016, the Obama administration asked the Bureau of Prisons to reduce its reliance on the private prison industry and specifically not to renew contracts with private prisons at the federal level. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that memorandum, and asked the Bureau of Prisons to continue to rely on the private prison industry. We saw the stock prices of Geo and CoreCivic increase after [the election].

The Trump administration seems to be planning to expand the number of federal immigration centers used to house undocumented immigrants. We’ve seen some requested proposals posted on the department of Homeland Security’s website. Trump has asked in both of his recent budgets for additional funding, over $1 million, to expand its detention capacities to closer to 50,000 beds a day. Currently we’ve got capacity for closer to 30,000 beds a day. The administration, through Jared Kushner, created the Office of American Innovation, and one of the things the office is supposed to focus on is how to privatize additional government services. The rhetoric coming out of this White House conflating crime and immigrants, despite the fact that all of the research indicates that undocumented individuals actually commit very few crimes, will likely translate into more private immigration detention centers, and will benefit the private prison industry.

TCR: You write, “privatization can come to resemble an exercise in who can better pretend to be a public prison.” What did you mean by that?

LBE: I tried to be evenhanded in writing this book, and really talk about this issue from the eyes of other people. That’s why I interviewed so many different people with different roles and different stakeholders in the criminal justice system or just regular civilians. I end the book with the idea that private prisons are not going away today or tomorrow, especially under the Trump administration.

So, as long as anyone is spending a day, a week, a month, in these [private] jails, prisons, or immigration detention centers, we need to do more to innovate, to make the outcomes better. But we haven’t asked the private sector to do that. We’ve never incentivized them to outperform the government. Today’s recidivism rates [vary] from 60 percent to 80 percent depending on what state you are in. A lot of people who are leaving prison will return within three years. More than half the people released are going to return.

It’s time we ask the private sector to innovate, which is why what’s happening in Australia and New Zealand is so exciting. It’s a little unfair that we’ve asked the private prison industry to replicate what the government is doing, yet also save money. Some of these contracts are written in such a way that we haven’t allowed the private sector to innovate. Conducting this research, I really found that you have to give the private prison industry some room to innovate. The idea that we are asking them to save money makes absolutely no sense if we care about public safety.

Julia Pagnamenta

Julia Pagnamenta

As we look to the future, if we’re going to rely on private prisons at all, than we need to incentivize them to innovate. We need to incentivize them to reduce recidivism rates. We’ve always thought of them as government partners, but we’ve never asked them to do more.

See Also: Despite Problems, Private Prisons are Growing

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lauren-Brooke Eisen will discuss her book at a special seminar at John Jay College on Wednesday, April 25th at 4:30 p.m. Please find more information and sign up for the event here.

 Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern and a student at John Jay College. She welcomes readers’ comments.


South Carolina’s Prison Riot: The Questions That Should Be Asked

After this week’s deadly prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution, inmate deaths in the state have reached 13 so far this year—already close to last year’s count. It’s a sign that South Carolina’s vaunted justice reforms still leave much to be desired, says a local columnist. 

Seven dead bodies tend to focus the attention. But don’t count on it — not if they are dead men behind bars.

In South Carolina.  In an election year.

Seven inmates were stabbed and beaten to death and 17 injured in eight hours of nightmarish rioting at South Carolina’s largest and most violent prison Sunday night. Seven deaths are shocking, but not surprising to anyone paying close attention to what is going on inside the state’s prisons.

Even as the inmate population has declined, a product of the much-ballyhooed prison reform, violence behind the prison walls has exploded.

And Gov. Henry McMaster, facing a tough primary fight against a gaggle of Republicans each trying to out-Trump the other, was not about to sound soft on crime or criminals in the wake of the mayhem.

He declared: “It is not a surprise when we have violent events take place inside the prison—any prison in this country.”

If only inmates could vote.

The massacre at Lee Correctional, a maximum security prison in tiny Bishopville, puts South Carolina well ahead of 2017’s pace, which was the deadliest year on record. Eighteen inmates died in the state prisons last year—12 of them murdered by other inmates, six by suicide — according the state Department of Corrections.

The body count, which has risen four years in a row, is at 13 so far this year. In 2009, there were two deaths.

These are inconvenient numbers for the Legislature and the prison system. (And it took a Freedom of Information filing to extract the basic information about how many people are dying in the prisons.) That is because it detracts from the state’s preferred narrative that it is cutting the inmate population—and costs—through reform.

“South Carolina has led the nation in criminal justice reform,” state Sen. Chip Campsen, a co-author of 2010 prison reform legislation, wrote in a commentary for the Post and Courier last year. He said he was inspired to act by his faith.

The inmate count is, in fact, down 14 percent in five years, dropping the state’s incarceration rate to 19th in the nation from 11th as it has expanded alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. But the violence has spiked, too, as the percentage of violent prisoners left behind has risen.

Consider: There were more than 250 inmate-on-inmate assaults that required taking prisoners to outside hospitals in 2016 and 2017, double the previous two years. Attacks on correctional officers also increased. Shivs are the weapon of choice.

Prison officials, as always, attributed the growing violence to contraband cell phones, which allow inmates to continue to fight over turf and money on both the inside and the outside.

Getting cell phones out would help stem the violence—in South Carolina and in prisons across the country.

But getting more correctional officers in the prisons would help even more. That costs money the Legislature is unwilling to spend. One in four jobs are vacant, leaving the gangs to fill the vacuum.

Willie McCray knows this all too well.

“Gangs run the prisons,” McCray, who qualifies as an expert, having spent four years in prison on drug charges, told me last year.

McCray was playing checkers in his dorm at Evans Correctional, a medium-security prison in Bennettsville, when he was leveled from behind by an inmate wielding a so-called “lock-in-a-sock,” which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. He suffered a ruptured eye socket, a fractured cheek bone and a concussion. He still wears special glasses and suffers from headaches and memory loss.

“There just aren’t enough guards,” said McCray, who is now out of prison. There was a single officer overseeing 60 inmates that day, and she was nowhere in sight. No one, as usual, was charged.

South Carolina’s prisons, like prisons everywhere, are also filled with the mentally ill. In 2016, the Department of Corrections settled a decade-old class-action suit that committed the state to upgrade mental health treatment. It has made progress, but has far to go to meet the court-ordered requirements. The recent spike in suicides—one 22-year-old died by swallowing paper clips—indicates there is much work to be done.

Last year, South Carolina prison violence became national news when four inmates at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia, the state capital, were strangled and beaten to death. Denver Simmons, convicted of the cold-blooded killing of a mother and her teenaged son, later said he and another prisoner killed the four to get the death penalty rather than spend a lifetime in prison.

Lee Correctional

Lee Correctional Institution. Photo courtesy South Carolina Department of Corrections

This year, it’s Lee Correctional.

With almost 1,600 inmates, Lee was the scene of inmate takeovers in 2012 and 2013. It has recorded 11 murders in the last three years and more serious assaults than any prison in the system. It had two suicides in two months last year.

Lee is located in Bishopville, a dirt-poor speck of a town best known as the home of “The Lizard Man,” an alleged seven-foot reptile monster that locals say rose up from Scape Ore Swamp. After Lizard Man’s first sighting in 1988, the town’s chamber of commerce was thrilled with the national attention. I’m betting it’s not so thrilled with the new headlines.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina House of Representatives had a moment of silence for the seven dead inmates at Lee. It was a nice gesture, but the state’s prisoners need more than gestures. It’s past time for the Legislature to launch a real investigation — independent of the corrections department — into the causes and cures for the mounting death toll.

Steve Bailey

Steve Bailey

Managing some of society’s most violent misfits, many of them mentally ill, is a thankless job. But when the state takes someone’s freedom, it also assumes the responsibility for their safety.

Even if they can’t vote.

See also: Prison Deaths Pile up in South Carolina: Does Anybody Care?

Steve Bailey, a former Boston Globe columnist, is a contributing columnist for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. Follow him @ sjbailey1060. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Domestic Abuse: Puerto Rico’s Women in Crisis

A dedicated network of psychologists, advocates and shelters has emerged to cope with the rise in domestic violence victims since last year’s Hurricane Maria. The challenge is complicated by the slow pace of reconstruction and the lack of government resources.  

Alba, 36, is a skinny woman who looks younger than she is.

Her body is covered with tattoos. In the middle of one breast, a drawing represents, “los golpes de la vida” (the hard knocks of life); another on her ankle ties her to her sister forever; on her arm, another recalls the cancer that killed her father.

On her back are a number of butterflies—symbols of the fragility that marks her life.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it left Alba’s house, located in the countryside surrounding Cayey, a small community on the southeast of the island, severely damaged and without electricity.

But Alba (at her request her full name is withheld to protect her identity) suffered more than house damage as a result of the storm.

Puerto Rico

Alba (left), a victim of domestic violence and Luz, her legal intercessor, during an interview at the Hogar Nueva Mujer in Cayey. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

“In the midst of all our desperation,” she recalled. “My partner and I argued even more violently; he left, and I tried to take my life.

“I cut my veins and took some pills.”

She woke up in the hospital. After treatment for her injuries, Alba returned home with her two children, aged 18 and 7, from a previous relationship. There was no trace of her partner until Dec. 22, when six shots, fired in the dark, hit her car parked in the street, and pockmarked the outer wall of the room where the boys slept.

“I knew it was him because the day before, he must have seen my ex-husband come to bring a present to my children, and he must have done so out of jealousy,” she said.

Four days later, Aurora won a protection order from a judge and, on a friend’s suggestion, moved to Hogar Nueva Mujer (New Women’s Place), a women’s shelter in Cayey.

She joined hundreds of other women who have fled abusive spouses or partners since the hurricane, reflecting what women’s advocates on the island have called an “astronomical” increase in domestic violence.

According to John Jay College Prof. Jodie Roure, who works with human rights and women’s organizations in Puerto Rico, the number of 911 calls skyrocketed from 211 in the immediate aftermath of the storm to 889 the following month—with some 1,747 calls received through November, 2017.

In an earlier interview on Criminal Justice Matters, Roure said, “the lack of access to food and electricity has exacerbated stress” in many families hit hardest by the storm, and contributed as well to a number of “murder-suicides” related to domestic conflicts.

The problem has not abated.

Alba is one of 223 victims of domestic violence that Hogar Nueva Mujer assisted between September 2017 and February 2018—36 more than those recorded in the same period between 2016 and 2017. Like some of the other victims of violence, she didn’t use 911 to call for help—relying instead on a friend’s recommendation—which suggests that the number of women fleeing abusive relationships after the hurricane may be even larger.

Puerto Rico

Vilmarie Rivera, director of the center for women victims of domestic violence, Hogar Nueva Mujer. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Vilmarie Rivera, the director of Nueva Mujer, said the center has increased its security protection as it tries to cope with the rise in demand for its services.

“We had to ensure that no volunteer was actually an attacker, but it was also a good time to allow the victims to approach us, with any excuse,” said Rivera, who noted that some women come just to take advantage of the laundry, to pick up medicines, or obtain food for their families.  In that period the center had the only electricity generator in the area.

Nueva Mujer—which works primarily on the housing problem by supporting victims of violence in finding a home and starting new independent lives—is one of eight shelters for Puerto Rican women active before the hurricane, and one of five that did not have to suspend the activities because of the damages suffered.

It helped find Alba a new house, and put her in touch with entrepreneurship courses that will help her build a new life. One of her goals is to open a small cosmetic business.

“I knew they would help me,” she says. “But I did not imagine so much.”

Rivera, like all gender-related activists on the island, believes that violence against women after the hurricane has increased further, but the actual numbers are still hard to obtain.

Vilma González, director of Coordinadora Paz Para las Mujeres (Peace for Women Coordinating Center), says the most recent data on domestic violence provided by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Women’s Advocate comes from 2016.

“I sent a message requesting the cases divided per month in 2017 but they have not answered,” said Gonzalez.

Rivera says there are other challenges as well.

“There’s no protocol (by the government) to address the danger which women faced,” she said in an interview.

As a result, many women have stayed with abusive partners “because they have not seen an alternative.”

Like Jodie Roure, Rivera blames the increase in domestic violence on economic hardship caused by the storm.

“Women have lost their jobs and men counted on that salary, plus many men were also unemployed,” she said. “Despair brings nervousness, anger, frustration.”

*“The hurricane has demonstrated the total failure of the system and has brought out inequality: Poverty in Puerto Rico has a woman’s face, but there are no public policies for them.”

In Vega Alta, a small town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, Hogar Ruth (Ruth’s Place) has been active since 1984. Despite the lack of funds and supplies, and the damage caused to the building by the hurricane, it has never stopped providing shelter to the victims and their children.

“Today we have 21 guests, divided into 8 rooms,” explained coordinator Damaris Feliciano in an interview last month.

“During the hurricane we were 42. The women who knocked on our doors were not only victims of violence but pregnant girls or women with newborn babies who did not want to stay in the insecure and unhealthy camps organized by the government in schools or in gyms.”

Hogar Ruth dealt with 182 cases of domestic violence between October and December 2017, almost three times the number of those helped in the same period in the previous year (63).

Katalina (a pseudonym), who arrived at the shelter on Oct. 11, 2017, was one of them.

She moved to the island seven years ago, following a Puerto Rican man she met in her native country, Ecuador, with a newborn in her arms.

“As long as he came to visit me, everything was fine but as soon as we got here, he changed,” Katalina recalled. “He treated me as if I were stupid, as if I was always wrong, and also spoke badly to the child.

“The house where we lived was not a decent place to raise our daughter but I was here alone; I did not know who to ask for help and he kept us like prisoners.”

The hurricane and its aftermath somehow gave Katalina the courage to escape her situation.

“After seven years, I could not stand it anymore, and when Maria came, it was really too much,” she recalled. “One day I accompanied him to his sister’s house, she saw me cry and although we did not get along very well she handed me the number of a judge.”

After hearing Katalina’s story, the judge issued an order of protection—one of the 442 issued throughout Puerto Rico between September 20 and mid-October 2017. She and her child were then escorted by police to her house, where she was then helped to pack up her belongings and move to Hogar Ruth.

Hogar Ruth, as a transitional emergency hotel, shelters women for a maximum of 90 days before moving to their new home. But Katalina’s partner violated the order by going to her daughter’s school, and the shelter considered it safer to postpone their transfer.

Meanwhile, other institutions are using federal grant money to pay for psychological counseling to victims of domestic violence.

puerto rico

Cynthia Garcia Coll of Albizu University, San Juan. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Cynthia Garcia Coll, a psychologist and professor of human development at Albizu University in San Juan, received $400,000 from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) program to provide psychological and legal assistance to domestic violence victims at the university’s clinic.

The university, which describes itself as the “first professional school of psychology in North America and the Caribbean,” set up a clinic to house the program in January, 2018, staffed by 16 advanced psychology doctoral students, four supervisors, two lawyers, and two legal intercessors who prepare victims of domestic violence for court testimony.

“After the hurricane, our project has taken on an even more important meaning,” said Coll.

During its first three months of operation, the clinic has worked with 14 women affected by the hurricane.

“We call them victims of victimization facts,” said Coll. “Domestic violence is often just one of the problems to be treated, and just one of the factors that has led people to find themselves in their specific situation.

“If [these] factors are not addressed, the risk of recurrence is very high: women often go from one violent relationship to another, and the epilogue can be tragic.”

In the absence of good data, one woman has begun to chronicle those tragedies on her own.

Carmen Castello

Carmen Castellò operates her Facebook site on murdered or disappeared Puerto Rican women out of her apartment.

Carmen Castelló Ortiz, a former social worker, devotes a good part of her day to registering cases of missing women or victims of femicide.

Puerto Rico

A gallery of the women who have disappeared in Puerto Rico since the hurricane, prepared by Carmen Castellò, administrator of the facebook page, Seguimiento De Casos. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

The computer in her small apartment in one of the island’s towns holds dozens of folders where she archives cases she finds in newspapers. The information includes photos of the victims, data reported by the police, and a brief summary of events which she then publishes on her Facebook page “Seguimiento De Casos (Tracing of Cases).”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Ortiz has recorded a number of heart-rending stories, such as a 78-year-old woman who was murdered.

“For me, they are like family,” Ortiz said, as she scrolled through the faces of the women whose tracks have been lost. “I do not know if I could survive if one of my loved ones disappeared.”

But information and details are still hard to get. The island’s Public Security Department released in mid-October a list with 33 other missing women.

Gonzalez of Coordinadora de Paz Para Mujer fears that behind these numbers there may be human trafficking.  But  Puerto Rico’s overworked police force—which experienced a walkout earlier this year over complaints of missing overtime pay—has not been able to investigate further.

That has left Carmen as the missing women’s sole voice.

Claudia Bellante

Claudia Bellante

“I want to keep the attention, encourage the police to work more and better, so these women are not forgotten,” she says.

But the work of Puerto Rico’s advocates for women may only have just begun. The next hurricane season in the Caribbean begins in less than two months.

Claudia Bellante is an Italian freelance journalist who writes on Latin America. She has published articles in Internazionale, El País, The Caravan, and Rhythms Monthly. Photos by Mirko Cecchi at  Readers’ comments are welcome.


One Man’s 22-Year Search for Justice

Calvin Buari, convicted of a double murder he didn’t commit, was a casualty of over-zealous prosecutors in New York’s tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. In a conversation with The Crime Report about his new podcast, “Empire on Blood,” investigative journalist Steve Fishman tells the story of the battle to clear his name.

Calvin Buari spent 22 years in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit. He was a notorious crack dealer in The Bronx, N.Y., when he was arrested, which made the struggle to prove his innocence─and find allies who could help get his case heard─that much harder.

But when he persuaded veteran journalist Steve Fishman to investigate, his fortunes changed.

Buari was exonerated in May 2017, seven months after his conviction was vacated and he had left prison. The story of Buari’s search for justice is told in a recently released podcast, “Empire on Blood.” The seven-part podcast takes listeners back to the New York of the 1990s, when the city was reeling from a crack epidemic and 2,000 murders a year, and newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani came to power promising “tough-on-crime” strategies. But it also offers troubling lessons for today about the collateral damage of those strategies.

In a conversation with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie, Fishman reflects on his seven-year-long investigation, on how he battled his own doubts about the case at the beginning, and on what his podcast reveals about the workings of the criminal justice system.

The Crime Report: Why were you obsessed with this case?

steve fishman

Steve Fishman in the studio (courtesy Panoply Media)

Steve Fishman: I resisted the obsession for a long time, but I guess the origin story, because I’ve thought about this a bunch, is the first call with Cal. He had been put in touch with me by a guy I knew, Emel McDowell, who in fact had won his innocence after being convicted of a murder at the age of 17. Emel says to me ‘I think Cal is innocent,’ so Cal picks up the phone and cold-calls me. And there he is at the other end of the line. Having had some experience with prisons, I can picture Cal on the payphone, standing with these inmates behind him waiting on line for their 15 minutes. And he’s kind of racing through the details of his case and all of this evidence, and it’s a blur—even if I really wanted to I couldn’t have deciphered it.

Maybe it was one of those moments where I was particularly open or vulnerable. I mean, his voice was filled with despair despite the fact that Cal, as I later came to know him, really learned patience and emotional control in prison. I’m imagining this guy with the whole system stacked against him running this campaign for freedom from this prison payphone. It was one of those moments where I was able to imagine, to whatever extent I could, that it must be excruciating to face those kinds of odds.

[I said] “OK Cal, send me the transcripts,” and then these 1,100 pages arrived. It turns out that not only is this one prosecution witness, Dwight, Cal’s “great friend,” really organizing the prosecution, but the prosecution is handing out deals. All of the witnesses who are brought in by Dwight have received an order of protection, which means that Cal and his defense attorney cannot know the names of witnesses who are testifying against him until they walk to the stand. So I’m reading this and I’m thinking— this is crazy! This is insane, this is unfair.

And then I read that in chambers, the judge is saying the same thing. It’s the first day of trial, and the prosecutor in chambers says he just got a phone call from a new witness, and it’s like raining witnesses… and the judge says, for all I know there’s a call out to the entire northeast, any drug dealer wanting to testify will have the charges dismissed against them!

And it just became a moment for me where you start to feel like—the system’s not fair.

It became a road that I was willing to walk. And I have to tell you, it wasn’t easy. I mean, Cal’s no angel. I liked him, I think he’s changed— but he was a guy who was boasting that he helped bring crack to The Bronx. He was a very successful drug dealer and he was ruining neighborhoods, and he needed to be off the streets.

TCR: It seems challenging to get the general public to care about the wrongful conviction of an admitted crack dealer

Fishman: It was a real problem for the audience, and it was a problem for editors— it was a problem for the lawyers that Cal reached out to! He got on the phone and told them the evidence, and when they heard he was a drug dealer, they said: “OK, best of luck.” But I came to the belief that the criminal justice world and maybe the world in general is a complicated place, and the podcast really takes that head on, and I’m proud of that.

oscar michelen

Courtesy Panoply Media

Calvin Buari and his attorney, Oscar Michelen (courtesy Panoply Media)

I think we say, yeah he’s no angel, but what does that mean? What right does that give you as the criminal justice system [to] say, “Well, he didn’t do this crime but he did another— so let the wardens sort them out?” I think that’s a pretty live question for the criminal justice system. People are flawed. Does the past always determine the future? If you believe in rehabilitation and psychotherapy, then no.

TCR: The story also epitomizes a key moment in New York City history, the Giuliani era. Where was your crime reporting at the time? How was this different from the other wrongful convictions?

Fishman: I had reported the wrongful conviction of a guy named David Wong, who was actually in prison for a robbery that he did commit, and then was accused and convicted of a prison yard murder he did not commit. Again, it’s a guy who’s not exactly the high school honor student that you want to root for. The difference for me is that I came in after he had been exonerated and I was telling that story retrospectively. So I was involved in it as a piece of drama that I had all the pieces for.

Cal’s case was very different, because in many ways I was really a catalyst. As a journalist you’re kind of supposed to be a step back, and you’re supposed to be objective. And I certainly was a journalist, as I had to remind Cal at several points. But I was also involved in the story, and I’m going to contend that’s where some of the richness of the narrative comes from.

I started a long time ago in an eastern Connecticut newspaper called the Norwich Bulletin, and the first big story that I ever did was about a rapist-murderer. Part of my portfolio has always been writing about crime, and that’s the reason I would get these envelopes from time to time.

TCR: Who was responsible for Cal finally getting the charges dismissed?

Fishman: Maybe the podcast put a little weight on that side of the scale, because the DA knew it was coming out in a few days and maybe it was a good idea to get ahead of the story. But it was really that Cal was incredibly, incredibly persistent and disciplined. Cal’s a smart and really gifted entrepreneur. One of the things he did on the street that he could not help but be proud of— even when he’s saying “oh, I didn’t realize all the bad I did” — when you get him talking about the crack trade, he says “I was always ahead of the game, I had these marketing gimmicks, I would do sales, two-for-ones,” and there’s a certain kind of pride in his voice. But it is true that he became this quite intuitively gifted businessman.

calvin buari

Calvin Buari (courtesy Panoply Media)

He goes into prison at the age of 24, and spends the next 22 years there. So he really spends his adulthood in prison. And he still has this entrepreneurial gift. He’s writing business plans. He starts a fashion business in prison. And at the same time, he’s maturing. He was all about self-gratification when he was on the streets, and he learns delayed gratification, and patience, and he learns discipline— to the point where he stops even leaving his cell. He just takes his meals in his cell, and reads his books and works on his case, with a level of single-minded devotion that is way beyond my capabilities.

And then, by the way, when he comes out— he’s been out seven months or so, because his case was vacated before the charges were dismissed—he started a business.

TCR: What was your role in the reinvestigation?

Fishman: I will admit that there were a lot of moments when I wavered because Cal’s story was not something that I always believed, not in all of its details. He was a drug dealer in an extremely violent time and he operated on a corner that was dubbed the Corner on Blood [Although] Cal said he was never violent, I always found that to be a little unsettling.

The private eye on the case was a guy who actually had been the private eye on the David Wong case. You meet him in episode 5. He’s a really weird, interesting guy, I mean very colorful. He was on this case and he knew that I was interested in Cal’s case, and he said, “Do you want to take a train ride? There were these new witnesses, and he didn’t know what they were going to say. We’re at a kind of restaurant at a Holiday Inn [in North Carolina], where we meet two sisters. One of the sisters had flashbacks of the scene right in front of me, because she had been 25 feet away [from the murders]. It solidified for me Cal’s innocence. And it certainly helped Cal’s case.

myron beldock

Myron Beldock (courtesy Panoply Media)

So Cal gets the affidavit from her and he manages to get hooked up with Myron Beldock, the legendary attorney who got Hurricane Carter out of prison. Beldock, then 85 years old, comes off his deathbed to basically take up Cal as his last case—and then he dies. And that’s another moment that really pushes me ahead on this path. Cal is a guy who can do 100 pushups without a stop—he’s a tough dude—and he hears that Beldock has died, and he’s in tears. It was just a very emotional moment. It was emotional for him, it was emotional for me. It was one of those moments where I could actually imagine what it might be like to suddenly have this… not just a setback, it’s like your life feels it’s on a course toward freedom, and then the tunnel you’re going through collapses on you.

Cal needed an attorney afterwards. He can’t make phone calls from prison except to people whose numbers are approved. so he would call me and I would conference in people, and I ended up conferencing in Emel McDowell, the guy who initially introduced me to Cal.

Emel had written the appeal that had gotten him out of prison, and then went to work for a law firm. [Emel offered his attorney] and he finally wins Cal’s case. I was a little bit of a provocateur, a little bit of a catalyst, and a little bit of a witness.

TCR: What was your role with the new witnesses?

Fishman: It’s a good question because I was there as a journalist, and I was introduced as a journalist. Journalists don’t usually get to ride along with investigators interviewing witnesses for the first time. I was also there as somebody who had been involved in the case for a long time. I would say that I was not there as an advocate, but I was certainly there as a participant. I did not see my role as urging them to come forward, but I grilled her on her story. It was a journalistic interview, but maybe there’s not too much difference between that and another kind of interview. I wanted to know how close she was, and I wanted to know what she saw, and who she saw, and how could she be sure?

Her story was very, very credible, and frankly I was kind of pleased by that, just from the point of view of having some assuredness about the story that I’d been on by that time for three or four years. it reassured me as a journalist, and because I always occupied a kind of strange space; it buoyed me as somebody who had been involved with Cal for a long time, because I knew, I knew as she said that. I knew that this really could change Cal’s life. It took another two years to get there.

TCR: One of the most striking moments for me is learning what happens to the witness who comes forward after 20 years to testify, how this innocent bystander gets punished by a pretty blunt-edged justice system.   

Fishman: This goes I think to a larger question about how justice works. As you’ve pointed out it was the Giuliani era, the 1990s, there were 2000 murders a year. These guys— the prosecutor, the detective— felt they were the good guys. And they were the good guys. Somebody had to clean up the streets. And it wasn’t always pleasant work to do.

I don’t think that these guys are corrupt. I think that in the context of the times, they felt they had a mandate to act, in a sense, by any means necessary. And if he didn’t do this crime, well he did another crime. and you know what? With Cal, it was true. He didn’t do the murder, he did the drug [crime]. They were going to do whatever it took to make sure that someone like Calvin Buari was not on the streets. But the system can’t work that way.

TCR: Earlier this year, in a conversation about conviction reviews, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, commenting on the flood of murder cases of the 1980s and 1990s, said many of them were not very well investigated. The attitude was “We’ll just let the jury decide.”

Fishman: That could well be true. He probably mentioned, or maybe he didn’t, if you went before a jury in The Bronx in the 1990s, you didn’t have much of a chance. The DA had a huge advantage, and that advantage was that people were on the side of the DA. It was not a Black Lives Matter moment; it was a moment where Giuliani rolled tanks into the streets. People forget, the city was under siege. I don’t think [prosecutors] felt they had as high a burden of proof as they must feel now.

TCR: There were times during the podcast that you said either prosecutors or detectives intentionally neglected to investigate.

Fishman: I do think that there were times that… I want to choose my words very carefully here. I guess I can’t really use the word conspiracy, but listen— the main witness against Cal absolutely and definitively lied on the stand. And he lied on the stand in two regards: one is that he denied being involved in an attempt to murder Cal, and two, he lied in saying that Cal did it.

Dwight, the main witness, admitted to me that he lied about both of those things. And I really grilled him on the first one. Dwight had actually tried to murder Cal. And the fact that the chief witness against Cal had previously tried to murder him— that really seems like it would be an important fact for the jury to consider. Dwight was asked on the stand, did you have anything to do with the attempted murder of Cal, and he says no. But subsequently Dwight narrated for me how he tried to kill Cal– and so did the chief investigator for The Bronx DA! I asked Dwight, if he was surprised they let him get away with it, and he said no— that’s how the game is played. If you play by the rules, you’re always going to lose.

For me that was actually the most chilling moment in the whole walk through the criminal justice system. Because here you had the insider, the guy who really organized the prosecution, who was the chief witness. And basically he was not only saying that he lied, but he was basically saying that the system worked by allowing witnesses to lie. And I think one of the things the podcast does is really let you know how the system works.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor (Content) for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


Los Angeles Hunts for Police Chief with the ‘Right Stuff’

A chief of police is one of the nation’s toughest jobs today. Choosing the right one may be even tougher. As Los Angeles scouts a replacement for Charlie Beck, other cities might pick up some pointers.

When Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck retires in June, he’ll leave to his successor the best police department in the city’s history—one that’s no longer the hated, pugnacious symbol of repression it once was, or a primary instigator of the class and race volatility that once made the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) infamous throughout the world, and ignited two of the bloodiest American riots of the 20th century.

The principal reason for the old LAPD’s notorious reputation was myopic, insular leadership, sometimes megalomaniac and self-servingly driven, sometimes stubbornly, existentially dead, and deadly racist in its intent and execution. This was particularly true of those who led the department in the half century between 1950 and 2002.

As the Los Angeles Police Commission and Mayor Eric Garcetti begin the selection of a new chief, the rest of the country should be carefully watching.

First, because the dramatic demographic, economic and social changes experienced by Los Angeles over the past half century are shared by many other urban centers across the nation. That includes: growing homeless populations, too-high crime rates, and large immigrant populations living in daily dread of being deported.

Such issues may differ in detail from place to place. But regardless of a city’s size or special challenges, it is dangerously easy to slip back into the repressive policing reviled by so many Americans today.

All it would take to undo much of the trust and goodwill earned by the LAPD over the past 15 years, for example, is a string of controversial incidents in one of its volatile divisions that could provoke a riot—if it’s badly handled by a new chief without the “right stuff.”

Searching for a chief with the right stuff begins with selecting someone with the right temperament and experience. In Los Angeles, that means someone with a cosmopolitan understanding of their city’s extraordinarily diverse population, and a keen awareness of how each police division needs to be individually policed to meet the expectations of today’s politically aware and vocal city dwellers—especially communities of color.

But it also means understanding what went wrong—and right—with previous appointments. The history of Los Angeles police chiefs from the 1950s through the 1990s is replete with examples; and is also the story of most American police leaders of that era.

Mostly white men, they were stubbornly resistant to change and innovation; and, unable to conceive of anything beyond the big stick to reduce crime. They either wouldn’t—or didn’t know how to—accommodate the cultural and political transformations unfolding during their watch.

Take, for instance, the LAPD’s Bill Parker.

Chief from 1950-1966, he was a police leader who seemed ideal for the challenges of his time. The major issue facing Parker in 1950 was the LAPD’s historic, on-the-take corruption. A true, innovative reformer he brought the endemic dishonesty and abasement of his department to an immediate and impressive end—a step the police in New York and Chicago didn’t take until decades later.

But by the 1960s, Parker had grown old, imperious and autocratic. He was unable to tolerate dissenting opinions or criticism. Most disconcertingly, Parker’s racism was hard to miss. Once, he denounced all those “wild tribes from Mexico” pouring into his city that had to be contained. (Los Angeles Times, 1/29/59)

To deal with them—and most especially to control black Angelinos—he devised the intrusive, often brutal “occupying force” policing strategy in black L.A. that became the department’s hallmark.

As the city’s African American newspaper, The Sentinel put it: “Hardly a day passes without…physical evidence of beatings [in the black community by LA cops.]…led by a chief who has shown an unbelievable contempt for our Negro and Mexican American communities.” (Los Angeles Sentinel, 8/17/61)

All of which led to both the 1965 Watts’ Riots and set the stage the 1992 L.A Riots. Parker, in short, embodied being an exemplary chief for his time and place, as well as the kind of disaster that can happen when he or she is not.


Ed Davis

L.A. Police Chief Ed Davis (1969-1978). Photo via Wikipedia.

Ed Davis, chief from 1969-1978, and later a California state senator (1980-1992), shared Parker’s world view and many of his most egregious leadership qualities. But the bullying manner in which he dealt with conflict and adversity should be a red flag to anyone choosing a new chief. Smart, big and mean, Davis utterly, uncompromisingly, believed the LAPD should be accountable only to him. His response to any perceived criticism was high-decibel public bombast.

To take one example, when a local TV reporter decided to investigate a raft of bad LAPD shootings, Davis ordered the reporter’s head-shot photo placed on all targets at the police academy shooting range, and stickers with the last name of the reporter pasted on patrol-car rear bumpers reading, [Wayne] “Satz Sucks.”

As Davis’ immediate predecessor, LAPD Chief Tom Redden who served briefly 1967-1969, later pointed out: “When Ed Davis fought with everybody, the cop on the street thought he could fight with anyone, too.”

And that’s what L.A. cops did over the ensuing decades. They copied his behavior and, in the process incited trouble and anger.

Daryl Gates

L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates (1978-1992). Photo via Wikipedia

Daryl Gates, chief from 1978-1992, possessed just about every red-flag quality to avoid in a new chief. He was stubborn, unwilling to compromise, and displayed an arrogance so profound that he refused to listen to, or work with, civilian oversight entities or leaders in black or brown communities. He saw his troops as his only constituency and would defend them no matter how outrageous their behavior—which inevitably encouraged abuses of police power.

Nor did he care that L.A.’s politics, culture and demography were dramatically changing; or that vast numbers of Angelinos felt impotent to change the department and had come to fiercely hate it.

With Gates as chief for 14 years, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots were almost inevitable.



Watts 1965. Photo by beth noe via Flickr

Willie Williams left his post as Philadelphia Police Commissioner to succeed Gates. The former Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Williams, who served from 1992 to 1997, was chosen because he was an outsider—the first in 40 years—and most explicitly, because he was African American. But he possessed none of the qualities needed to be the new reform chief of a riot-torn city.

Willie Williams

L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams (1992-1997). Photo courtesy LAPD

He arrived knowing no one and trusting no one, and made no allies. Incurious and inept, he lacked the skills and energy to gain acceptance within the department or to reform it.

Unceremoniously dismissed five years after being hired, Williams represented a missed opportunity for meaningful reform. The Williams lesson should be a warning to Los Angeles commissioners currently examining new applicants—as well as to other cities experiencing a change in senior police management.

  • Thoroughly vet your candidates;
  • Avoid choosing a chief because he or she is a symbol. (The job’s too big and important for that.)


Bernard Parks

L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks (1997-2002). Photo via Wikipedia

Bernard Parks, who succeeded Williams in 1997, was also ill-suited for the job. Smart, and knowledgeable, the 32-year LAPD veteran knew his city, and was highly regarded by his own black community, downtown politicians and department insiders. But like his predecessors, he thought he could run the LAPD as his own private fiefdom, and treat critics and the press with disdain.

He also had a quality that must be avoided in a new chief.

He was imperious—headstrong and authoritarianSo thoroughly did his inappropriately harsh and indiscriminate discipline and top-down management alienate his troops, that they lost confidence in him. Parks never got it back, and thus could not continue as an effective leader.

The lesson was clear to Charlie Beck, who served under Parks as an ambitious young officer (and inherited his seat a decade and a half later). “The way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community,” Beck later told me. “If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out] on the street.”

Bill Bratton

L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton (2002-2009). Photo by Policy Exchange via Flickr

Beck’s immediate predecessor, Bill Bratton, changed the paradigm. As chief from 2002-2009, Bratton was confident, reform-minded, and willing to listen. In L.A. he followed his playbook as New York Police Commissioner in the 1990s. He recruited smart people and encouraged his field captains to freely innovate, and to tailor their strategies according to each individual division’s needs.

He made the LAPD a thinking organization, not one that was glued to an antiquated police manual, and afraid to take the initiative.

The clear lesson: A confident but flexible, innovative chief is a must.

Finally, Charlie Beck.

Charlie Beck

L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck (2009-2018). Photo by Scott L. via Flickr

Los Angeles and other cities in search of new leadership would do well to look at Beck as a model. Since he took over from Bratton, Beck used his strong interpersonal skills to forge ties with the opinion-makers and lever-pullers in communities, and with political groups throughout the city.

His political intelligence was manifest in how he worked successfully both with a liberal police commission and a conservative police union to reinforce and expand the behavioral/cultural changes begun under Bratton. During his tenure, all patrol cars and officers were equipped with cameras. The department’s shooting policy was also altered to include training officers to avoid the use of lethal force when possible by de-escalating tense situations.


L.A. Police Chief (2018-?). Image by mohamed mara via Flickr

His big-picture managerial skills also extended to dealing with his troops. He got buy-in from the rank and file for his reforms by treating all LAPD officers with the same respect he expected them to show when dealing with the public. By modeling his collegial working style and measured responses in controversial situations, he exemplified how his officers should deal with conflict.

Bratton and Beck have given Los Angeles an important gift: a police department that once notoriously defied progressive reform for decades that’s become a model for the nation.

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

The next Los Angeles police chief will need to have Beck’s extraordinary political skills, Bratton’s confidence and openness to change, and some of the strong-willed management skills (without the arrogance) of their predecessors.

The goal of L.A.’s police commission—as well as reform-minded police oversight bodies throughout America—should now be to avoid at all costs a new chief that could set the clock moving backward.

History has shown how difficult it is in policing to get things right.

See also: The LAPD’s Charlie Beck: A Chief for a Transformed City

Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, is the author of two books on the LAPD. Newspaper references above can be found in his first book, “To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War on the City of Dreams,” published in 1994. His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” is now out in paperback. Joe welcomes readers’ comments.


How Drug Courts Can Respond to the Opioid Crisis

Evidence-based reforms could make them more effective, writes an addiction expert. He offers one example: stop limiting approved medication-assisted treatment to Vivitrol.

When both sides of an issue agree on something, it can suggest a sensible consensus has emerged. But it could also mean that everybody’s trying to do the minimum without expending more energy on thinking clearly about the subject.

I believe that when it comes to drug abuse, the latter holds true.

Here’s one glaring example: As the nation’s opioid crisis continues to accelerate, liberals and conservatives both seem to have fixated on using drug courts as an alternative to punishment.

President Donald J. Trump has endorsed the recommendations of his President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, in particular the establishment of drug courts in every federal district court.

The fact is, drug courts are not a panacea—at least as currently implemented.

In general, drug courts or drug treatment courts (DTC) divert individuals arrested for drug offenses to court-monitored drug treatment programs instead of prison. Eligibility varies. Usually, drug dealers or drug traffickers are not allowed in; nor are “violent” offenders.

Sometimes the crime for which an individual is arrested is not directly connected to drug use, although stealing to support a drug habit is. Failure to complete drug treatment or drug use within treatment under the court order can result in imprisonment.

Drug courts, we’re told, can fix a lot more of our justice system problems than the rising rate of substance abuse. They supposedly will reduce our bulging prison populations by removing many of the nonviolent drug offenders who have been subject to the tough mandatory-minimum sentencing that was a component of the “war on drugs.”

“Drug courts are known to be significantly more effective than incarceration,” declared the commission, adding, “For many people, being arrested and sent to a drug court is what saved their lives, allowed them to get treatment, and gave them a second chance.”

But one crucial, and largely unexplored, issue is what kind of “treatment” the individual substance abuser is mandated to receive as part of the diversion process. Some argue that the current paradigm of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is badly conceived.

For example, In response to the president’s endorsement, addiction journalist Maia Szalavitz tweeted: “right, drug courts, ~2/3 of which ban meds proven to reduce mortality, that’s what we need.”

Although Trump’s initiative also calls for increased support for MAT, he only endorses one such medication-assisted treatment, which most experts consider the least effective.

There are three medications commonly used in MAT: are methadone, buprenorphine (usually in its Suboxone formulation with naloxone), and naltrexone in its once-monthly injectable Vivitrol formulation.

Most drug courts only allow the use of Vivitrol in MAT because it is the only one of the three commonly used anti-abuse medications that is not itself an opioid. Instead, it is what’s called an “opioid antagonist.”

That means it will prevent offenders from getting high on opioids even if they relapse. Because of this, it can’t be initiated before the patient has been weaned off opioids completely, or they will go through instant, painful, and possibly fatal withdrawal.

Alex Azar

HHS Secretary Alex Azar via Wikipedia

A directive from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration mandates Vivitrol for those entering MAT after detox, even though the new US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has acknowledged to STATnews “that doesn’t mean it’s the best form for all populations.”

However, methadone and buprenorphine (which are, respectively, an opioid agonist or partial agonist) are now largely regarded as more effective. Although when taken in large-enough doses, they can produce a high, when taken as prescribed, they just prevent withdrawal. They may be started sooner than Vivitrol, and allow a patient to resume normal life and responsibilities, such as holding down a job.

Methadone is normally dispensed only one dose at a time at a doctor’s office or clinic to prevent abuse. Buprenorphine can be prescribed as a multi-month implant, and may soon be available as a monthly injection, too.

Of course, the patient offender could still take an additional opioid to get high. That’s why it’s called medication-assisted treatment, not medication-only treatment. Additional treatment, inpatient at a luxury executive rehab or outpatient at a community clinic is necessary.

So why do drug courts limit the use of methadone and buprenorphine? The problem here is one of perception, prejudice and morality.

Many still feel people with a substance abuse disorder are morally deficient or weak, not sick. The idea of giving these people drugs to combat their addiction is seen as wrong, as substituting one drug for another. (Similarly, safe injection sites are opposed because they might make drug use seem “acceptable,” although the evidence is that they save lives and prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis.)

Methadone use, in particular, can last years.

Even some addicts share this prejudice and refuse MAT that uses methadone or buprenorphine.

But a 14-year-long study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, entitled “Opioid agonist treatments and heroin overdose deaths in Baltimore, Maryland, 1995-2009” concluded that “Increased access to opioid agonist treatment”—particularly buprenorphine—”was associated with a reduction in heroin overdose deaths.”

In a 2016 article for The Huffington Post, Maia Szalavitz wrote the following:

Research shows that people who stay on methadone or buprenorphine long term have half the death rate of those who detox from these medications or participate in abstinence-only treatment. (There is no similar data for antagonist medications, including Vivitrol).

Another problem is that the maker of Vivitrol, Alkermes, has lobbied intensively for its product over all others, including to politicians and drug court judges. According to ProPublica, Alkermes adopted this strategy when the usual approach to doctors and patients encountered resistance.

Having judges without medical training in effect prescribing medical treatment is unsettling to some addiction specialists and civil rights advocates.

But the lack of medical expertise associated with drug courts is only one of the issues that merit skepticism about their use.

Their overall effectiveness can be questioned. The available data don’t always account for people who drop out of the program before completion. (The same is true of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which many of these courts also mandate.)

Worse, some studies show that some populations do worse after drug court than before.

According to a 2013 study of New York adult drug courts, the success rate for drug courts— i.e. fewer re-arrests— varied based on whether the cases were felony drug (better) or felony property (worse), or whether the patient offender had three or more prior arrests (one to 5 percent better) or no priors (10 percent worse).

Drug treatment vs. incarceration shouldn’t be an either-or choice.

An addict in prison may still have access to drugs, and hence to the risk of overdose. If substance abusers stay drug-free, but still remains addicted, upon release they are likely to be more vulnerable to a fatal overdose, because they no longer have the tolerance for the drug that they had prior to incarceration.

Beond the problem of how to treat substance abusers in drug courts is the question of who should be tried in them.

Some judges have sentenced offenders guilty of an offense that would normally result in a suspended sentence or parole to drug court, and then locked them up when they almost inevitably failed the program. Recovery is far less likely if participation is coerced rather than voluntary if the offender doesn’t want to quit using.

Some judges also sentence non-addicts to drug court based on a false positive test (confirmed by multiple negative tests), forcing the defendant to plead guilty to a false drug charge or face harsher sentencing. Not even the National Association of Drug Court Professionals thinks non-addicts arrested for drug crimes should qualify.

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

And while most drug courts only accept non-violent offender addicts, they may not be the ones who need the help the most. According to a CASAColumbia study, the majority of prisoners who committed property crimes (77 percent) and violent crimes (65 percent) either had a history of or were under the influence of alcohol and drugs when they committed their crimes. Reducing violent crimes and drug abuse seems a worthwhile goal.

Drug courts may be more cost-effective—financially and socially—than prison time, but as currently constituted they have some serious flaws. Evidence-based reform is needed, not the purely punitive solutions of the past.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.


In Germany, It’s Hard to Find a Young Adult in Prison

Deprivation of liberty is a “last resort” in the German juvenile justice system. Instead, as two US researchers discovered on the last leg of their fact-finding trip in Europe, the priorities are diversion, rehabilitation and minimized interventions for emerging adults under 21 who run afoul of the law.

Germany is probably the “grandfather” of special treatment for emerging adults in all of Europe. In 1953, German law was changed to allow youth up to age 21 when they committed their offense to be tried as juveniles.

Responding to the “fatherless generation” of young people following World War II, German leaders decided not to institutionalize youth in great numbers; but rather to rehabilitate and shield them from some of the harsher aspects of their adult system.

But the most far-reaching changes have emerged slowly.

Initially, the percentage of youth ages 18, 19 and 20 retained in juvenile court hovered at around 20 percent, while the rest were sentenced as adults. That was similar to today’s figures in the Netherlands and Croatia—the two other nations we visited on our European tour.

But steadily, over the years, as German judges and prosecutors gained more faith in this approach, they used the juvenile system more and more frequently for emerging adults who had committed more serious offenses.

By the time we visited, 66 percent of emerging adults who ran afoul of the law were sentenced as juveniles, including over 90 percent of those who had committed homicide and rape. The highest rate of sentencing these young people as adults was for traffic offenses, which often result in fines.

Under the juvenile law, young people can receive sentences of up to 10 years. But they rarely do. Fewer than one percent receive sentences of five to 10 years; fewer than five percent receive sentences of between three and five years.

Parenthetically, Germany’s adult system is still a moderate one by comparison to the US, both in terms of their incarceration rate (76 per 100,000 vs. 693 per 100,000) and prison conditions.

Youth under age 14 are not considered criminally responsible and, prior to age 18, youth can never be tried or sentenced under adult law. This higher minimum age is not unusual in Europe. Age 12 is the international standard and is the Dutch age of responsibility, while in Croatia, the minimum age is 14 like Germany.

Interestingly, the Massachusetts minimum age will rise to 12 if pending legislation (see below) is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, making it the highest minimum juvenile court age in the US.

This combination of factors essentially pushes the entire German youth justice system upward to be more of an older juvenile/young adult system, with younger youth either diverted or handled by lighter touches administered by social services.

Neustrelitz prison

The working farm in Neustrelitz youth prison, Photo courtesy the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

For example, in one of the youth prisons we visited, the vast majority of youth were older than 18. While it is technically possible for 14- or 15-year-olds to be sentenced there, everyone we interviewed said they are a rare sight. Their mixing with the older adolescents was not considered a problem, even among the youth we spoke to.

The German system prioritizes diversion and minimized interventions, mediation and restorative practices, and educational community sanctions. Community service and direct payments can be geared to repaying victims through labor or even direct compensation. Deprivation of liberty is a last resort.

In a hearing our delegation witnessed, a young adult with several prior involvements with the law fired a realistic-looking starter pistol while drunk in the Berlin subway system on New Year’s Eve around 15 months ago. The courts attempted mediation with the victim—a woman who was nearby when he fired the shot which halted her train—but she had moved her residence and was unavailable.

This took time, during which the youth was at liberty getting his life together and staying on the straight and narrow.

The victim attended the hearing, a combination of trial and sentencing, during which she testified. The youth had no representation. In cases unlikely to result in youth imprisonment, representation is not required.

The youth was convicted and fined several hundred Euro; the judge took his income into account in setting the fine. The victim was offered, but turned down, 100 Euro in compensation for pain and suffering. By all appearances, she harbored no ill will towards the youth being tried; they actually entered the courtroom together chatting in a friendly manner. Instead of directly compensating the victim, the judge ordered a portion of the youth’s fine to go to a victims’ compensation fund.

The mission of the German system is clear.

Children (under 14 years), juveniles (14-17) and young adults (18-20) have the right to support and education and to be protected in their personal development by the child and youth welfare agencies. Youth services are established at the local community level, where priority is given to private non-profit organizations which must be accredited by the state-level youth welfare departments of the ministries of social affairs⸺analogous to our state child welfare agencies.

The data and relevant legal codes above were provided to us by our gracious host, Prof. Frieder Dünkel of Greifswald University. Dr. Dünkel arranged meetings with judicial, correctional, legal and community officials and was our guide, interpreter and source of information throughout the trip.

He also co-authored an excellent article about European approaches to working with emerging adults, a must-read for anyone interested in this subject.

The Neustrelitz Youth Prison

The German system’s educational and rehabilitative ethic also holds true when youth are incarcerated. According to Germany’s Youth Courts Law, when a youth is confined, it should “arouse the youth’s sense of self respect,” “be structured in an educational manner” and “help the youth to overcome those difficulties which contributed to his commission of the criminal offense”.


The Young Offender Institution of Neustrelitz (Prison) Photo from the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

The rehabilitative ethic of Germany’s youth system was on full display when we toured the Neustrelitz Youth Prison accompanied by Joerg Jesse, Director General of Prisons and Probation for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Director General Jesse can be seen on this 60 Minutes segment discussing the adult prisons he manages.

Staff there and throughout the German system are required to undergo two years of training prior to working as correctional officers.

As noted above, the population of the facility was the rough equivalent of a US prison incarcerating young adults, rather than a juvenile facility, even though the youth in it were all incarcerated pursuant to juvenile law. Eighty-five percent of the youth were older than 18 and their average age was 20.

Since it’s not easy for a youth to get a prison term in Germany, young people tended to be incarcerated for more violent offenses than youth in U.S. juvenile facilities. Care needs to be taken in cross-national comparisons; violence, particularly gun violence, is far less prevalent in Germany than in the US, for example.

The staff were highly professional, and treatment of the young people was very much normalized, particularly when compared to US adult prisons where many of these young people would likely be if they similarly offended in America. The level of vocational programming was astonishing, with professional woodworking, metal working, culinary instruction and farming (including award-winning rabbit husbandry) dominating the youths’ daily programming.

The level of freedom offered young people was extraordinary by US standards. For example, youth in the facility served us a tasty meal shortly after arrival with real knives and forks. Sharp equipment in the vocational shops was everywhere; and nowhere was there the sense of fear and heavy correctional hardware, such as pepper spray, solitary confinement, and strip searching, that dominates the US correctional landscape.

youth cell

Room/Cell at Neustrelitz Photo courtesy the Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

Clearly, not only were the Germans incarcerating fewer of their young adults, but they were incarcerating them in better conditions than our adult systems.

What was remarkable to me was how much these predominantly young adult facilities resembled some of the more well-run juvenile systems in the US. The Massachusetts system, for example, has a long history of running decent and rehabilitative juvenile facilities, reserving secure care for youth with the most serious offenses and a continuum of community programs for those with less serious offenses/prior records.

Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) Commissioner Forbes, a member of our delegation, informed us that the state had about 100 youth in locked secure custody—in a state of 6.9 million—mostly in small living units, at the time of our delegation.

Having toured the Massachusetts system and Neustrelitz, the culture and rehabilitative ethic were strong in both. I have little problem imagining DYS being able to work with emerging adults in Massachusetts either in community programming or secure care, especially since they already have youth up to age 21 in their custody. Having the capacity to beef up their vocational programming would be important, as the numbers of older youth would grow.

Final Thoughts

Emerging adults are more immature than their older counterparts. They’re greater risk-takers, less future-oriented, and are more volatile in emotionally charged settings, especially around their peers. Putting further strain on their developmental immaturity, adult roles that help young people, particularly young males, mature out of criminality–through marriage and steady work–are available much later than they were for previous generations; certainly much later than they were for my generation in the late 1970s.

About one out of every five people entering US prisons are young adults. They have the worst outcomes. Racial disparities in prison roles for them exceed even the outrageous disparities that plague U.S. incarceration overall.

This is a population that needs special attention.

Perhaps that’s why the Council of Europe recommends to its constituent nations:

Reflecting the extended transition to adulthood, it should be possible for young adults under the age of 21 to be treated in a way comparable to juveniles and to be subject to the same interventions.

Several jurisdictions, including and perhaps especially Massachusetts, are looking into special treatment for emerging adults when they break the law, ranging from raising the juvenile court age; to special facilities, courts and caseloads; to special programming.

Clearly, there are substantial cultural differences between the US and Europe, just as there are substantial differences between US states. No one expects to go to Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands and borrow their systems wholesale, any more than people expect the systems in Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin to be the same.

But that doesn’t mean that such delegations have nothing to teach their visitors.

When we debriefed at the end of our journey and participants were asked to give their thoughts on what we had witnessed, one respondent said simply, “possibilities.” By this, he explained that while no system could be adopted whole cloth, the tour had opened his eyes to possibilities that we need to explore for this population, a population that is both challenging and full of opportunities.

I hope this series has opened up similar possibilities to those who have read through it. I’m happy to answer any questions, if I’m able.

A Note About Massachusetts

When Lael Chester and I completed our three-country tour, we did so with a delegation of 20 representatives from the Massachusetts legislature, judiciary, prosecution, defense, law enforcement, executive branch, youth corrections, advocacy and treatment community.

Interestingly, they are busy positioning the Commonwealth to become the “grandmother” of emerging adult reforms in the US, although they’re vying with several other jurisdictions in doing so.


Visiting Massachusetts delegation with Judge Tobias Kaehne, Director of the Berlin Youth Court, at the courthouse in Berlin: Photo courtesy the Justice Lab at Columbia University

This was as smart, hard-working and decent a group of officials as one could ask for. They were and are involved in innovating with this population of young people in myriad ways. Since 2015, after the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice issued a report I co-authored with Bruce Western examining the US response to emerging adults, Roca’s CEO Molly Baldwin and I have been convening key stakeholders to foment innovation in this space, many of whom came on the Germany trip.

Also in 2015, MassINC issued a report on emerging adults and held a forum I spoke at along with Sen. Will Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Judiciary Joint Committee. Senator Brownsberger joined us in Germany; check out his excellent blog post about Germany’s approach. The Senator and I have had ongoing conversations about this population each time we’ve run into one another since the MassINC event.

A host of potential reforms have flowed from—or at least corresponded with—this vibrant set of convenings, as well as from Mass leaders’ own creativity:

  • the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants announced at a MassINC event last year plans to create specialized court sessions in the District Courts for emerging adults (Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Mass Trial Court, joined the Germany delegation);
  • Middlesex County Sheriff, Peter Koutoujian recently opened a specialized living unit in the Billerica House of Correction in consultation with the Vera Institute of Justice, and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins (who was on this trip) is also planning to open a specialized unit in his jail later this spring; and
  • The non-profit Citizens for Juvenile Justice (whose executive director, Naoka Carey, joined the trip) has a state-wide advocacy campaign geared towards raising the age of juvenile court to 21. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s Department of Youth Services, or DYS, (whose Commissioner, Peter Forbes, participated in the trip) already allows youth who “age out” to voluntarily continue receiving services beyond the expiration of their terms. Programs like Roca and UTEC (Yotem Zeira and Gregg Croteau, respectively, represented those organizations on the trip) exclusively service an emerging adult population.

This year, the Massachusetts Legislature, six of whose members joined the Germany tour, grappled with several bills to raise the age of juvenile court to either 19 or 21. Literally the day before leaving for Germany, a conference committee of the Massachusetts House and Senate announced a 121-page criminal justice bill, the most sweeping reforms in Massachusetts in decades, which they passed overwhelmingly the week after returning from Germany!

While raising the upper age of juvenile court past 18 did not make it out of committee (although it had passed the Senate), the committee’s provisions affecting emerging adults included allowing youth up to age 21 to expunge their felony and misdemeanor records if they remain crime-free for 7 or 3 years, respectively.

The committee also formed a task force to study and make recommendations specific to emerging adults – an age cohort with whom a recent report found the Massachusetts criminal justice system has its worst outcomes (for more about that bill, check out this Boston Globe editorial which ran while we were in Germany and which mentions the trip).

To say that this group was focused on this issue is a gross understatement.

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi is senior research scientist at the Columbia University Justice Lab. He has served as New York City Probation Commissioner and director of juvenile corrections for Washington, DC. This is the final installment of a series of columns reporting on a trip taken with his colleague to explore the innovative ways three European countries–Croatia, the Netherlands and Germany–respond to offending by emerging adults. To read his earlier columns, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Why Jail is No Place for the Mentally Troubled

For lack of alternatives, thousands of mentally ill individuals are trapped in the justice system. In a conversation with TCR, Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” says change will only happen when we reexamine our attitudes towards mental illness.

In her career as a journalist, Alisa Roth has written about people in what she calls “forgotten communities,” such as immigrants and the poor. But when she began focusing on the mentally ill trapped in the U.S. justice system, after a friend’s brother was locked up, Roth discovered what she came to realize was the most forgotten community of all.

“I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood,” she told TCR. In a discussion with staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez about her new book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” Roth, a former Soros Justice Fellow, describes how jails and prisons have become the nation’s principal institutions for treating mentally troubled individuals, and suggests that strategies for developing more humane, treatment-oriented alternatives have to begin at the state and local levels.

The Crime Report: What was the catalyst for writing this book?


Courtesy Basic Books

Alisa Roth: I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood than people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. We talk about the issue of race in the criminal justice system, we talk about the issue of poverty in the criminal justice system, but we don’t talk about mental illness. These three intersect and overlap, but we can’t think about global reform without addressing the mental health question.

As I mention in the book, I have a friend whose brother developed a severe mental illness and committed a horrible crime. As I was thinking about this whole system, it kept coming back to him. If we as a society can allow him to see an alternative outcome, and not spend the rest of his life in prison, we can allow that for other people who have done less morally or criminally complicated things.

TCR: Through the process of this book, what hurdles did you have to overcome?

AR: I chose two of the most closed systems to look into. The criminal justice system is extremely closed in terms of access, in terms of data, and in terms of information. Likewise, the mental health care system is bureaucratic and complicated. So just figuring out where treatment is being provided, and who should be providing that treatment is difficult.

Then there’s the whole health care aspect. People are not allowed to, or are unwilling to, share information about treatment. And there’s the stigma question in both systems. There is still shame attached to having a mental illness or having a family member with mental illness. We march for breast cancer or AIDS, but we don’t want to talk about mental illness and we don’t want to admit it. So, getting people to open up and say “yes, I do have this issue” or “yes, my child does have this issue and these are the struggles we are going through,” is very difficult. I am very grateful to all the people who were willing to share their stories with me.

TCR: How did dealing with this affect you, and how do you move forward after seeing what you have seen?

AR: I feel a great responsibility and duty to share these stories and spread them. I have the means to tell the world about these horrible situations, whether it’s the really awful abuses or just the day-to-day low-level abuses of being locked up with a mental illness. So, I feel privileged to share that.

Keeping that in mind was a way to mitigate the awfulness of it, but it’s traumatic reporting. I had a lot of nightmares about jail and prisons. I have a lot of friends who work in this universe, so it was great to be able to compare notes and talk about what we have seen. It is traumatizing and exhausting, but I kept thinking that I got to walk out of there at the end of the day, and I needed to take advantage of that to tell the world about how bad the problem is.

TCR: One of the subjects in your book is the practice of solitary, and you note that it is still in effect despite being considered a form of torture by the United Nations. Why do you think it is still being practiced in the U.S.?

AR: There are a lot of pieces that go into this answer. Unfortunately, we have abandoned the notion of reform and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. We’ve moved back to the punitive notion. In some measure we think that people who are locked up in jail or prison deserve what they get. There is a dehumanizing aspect to the whole criminal justice system, and solitary confinement is part of that. If we don’t think of somebody as a full human being, then it becomes easier to do something really awful to them. If you think of this person as your brother, or our uncle, or your husband, it’s much harder to lock them in a box 23/7.

There’s also the fact that so many of us don’t know what goes on in the criminal justice system. The system as a whole is so abstract for such a large portion of our population, that we just don’t think or know about it. People have no idea that there are tens of thousands of people locked in solitary confinement on any given day. In a lot of places and for a very long time it’s just been how it’s done. It’s a very easy solution to put someone who is being unruly or difficult out of sight and out of mind. I think it speaks to a larger issue: We take people with mental illness, we lock them away, someplace we don’t need to see them. If we put them in jail or prison we don’t need to see them or step over them on our way to Starbucks in the morning. Solitary confinement is a reflection of that. But it makes everything so much worse.

Alisa Roth

Alisa Roth. Photo by Matthew Spence

TCR: Your book also criticizes the dangerous mistakes made by judges, and attorneys, who have no experience with the mentally ill. One example is your story of Jamie Wallace, a young boy suffering from mental illness and multiple physical disabilities, who eventually killed himself in prison due, in part, to a judge’s inability to understand his circumstances. How do we increase awareness and understanding of mental illness so that we may better avoid tragedies such as this?

AR: As awareness of the problem of large numbers of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system grows, judges and attorneys are more attuned to it. It’s not that people don’t know it’s there, but it’s as much as about changing attitudes as anything else. I talk to a lot of judges and I’ve said “Hey, in a lot of cases you’re being asked to make what’s effectively a medical decision and you’re not a doctor; you’re a judge. ‘

The best answer I heard, and it makes sense to me to a degree, is the judge who that’s what he does all the time. He takes the best information he can get and makes a decision based on that. So, he’s not making a medical judgement, per se; he’s taking the information that the psychiatrist, the therapist, and the attorneys give him and using that to make a decision. Jamie Wallace’s case was particularly egregious. He was so young, so sick, and had a developmental disability on top of it. I found it heartbreaking to think that the judge couldn’t see a way to understand. And the judge was playing very much by the rules.

Jamie Wallace was failed by the system at every level, over and over again. A forensic psychiatrist who read about him said he should never have been declared competent or even been standing in that courtroom. The judge made an awful decision, but he also made a mistake in letting him even be in that courtroom that day. You have to wonder how it would have been different if he had been wealthier, or his parents had been more educated, or if he had been in a different state.

TCR: Jamie Wallace’s story is an example of the mistakes that can be made as a result of the disorganized bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. At a time when so many are pushing for better training within that system to fix the problem, and others are fighting to keep the mentally ill out of that system entirely, which do you feel is the better option?

AR: In an ideal world, we would be able to keep everybody with a serious mental illness out of the criminal justice system. In an ideal world, we’d be able to keep a lot of people without a mental illness out of the criminal justice system. We lock up a lot of people very easily. I think that diversion is absolutely critical, but in order to make wide scale diversion possible, we can’t just look at this little tiny piece of the problem. We have to remember that we are operating in a very large ecosystem, not just of criminal justice but also of mental healthcare. We need to see wide-scale reform of both these systems so that people aren’t getting to the point where they’re so sick.

You see people in jail and prison who are sicker than a lot of people you see in psychiatric hospitals. We need to be catching the diseases earlier and treating them earlier. It’s great to train the cops to not arrest people, but if you don’t have some place for the cops to take them that’s not jail, they’re still going to wind up in jail. That’s what happened in San Antonio when they created their crisis center system. [They realized] you can train cops as much as you want, but they’re still going to take people to jail if there’s no other option. The other part of it is, as long as we are going to have people that end up in the criminal justice system, we have to make sure that when they’re there, they’re getting the treatment that they need and not just being warehoused in prisons.

TCR:A popular talking point now is de-institutionalization, starting when the majority of state-run mental health hospitals were closed during the 1960s. However, your book insists that there were other, more important, causes for the problem. Can you expand on that?

AR: De-institutionalization is a fabulous talking point. It has this very neat narrative: Dorothy Dix found people locked up in jail; realized this was not the place for them; they weren’t getting the treatment they needed; wardens were saying they couldn’t handle this; she pushed for the creation of the asylum system; everything was great until it all went to hell and we had to open up the doors and let everyone out. Then, without treatment, people were ending up in the criminal justice system. And it has a very neat solution: if this is how we got there, then all we have to do is treat the mental illness and we’ll get people out of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, it’s way more complicated than that. Even when you look at the heyday of institutionalization, during the middle of the last century, there were a lot of people in institutions, but it was not the majority. There were still a lot of people living at home or elsewhere, or getting treatment in the community. The population in institutions tended to be older, white, female, and very heavy on people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The people now locked in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly young, male, and not white.

I think we also have to look at the story of mass incarceration. We’ve started locking up way more people than we ever did…and when you cast such a big net, of course you’re going to pull in a lot of people with mental illness. When you break it down even further and look at co-occurring substance use disorders, a very large majority of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system have a co-occurring substance use disorder. So, if we’re arresting tons of people for drug possession, drug use, drug selling, drug dealing, it makes perfect sense that we’ll pick up people with mental illness.

Using policing tactics such as “broken windows” and “stop and frisk,” allowed us to lock up huge amounts of people [and] made it easier to arrest people with mental illness. I think that the story of mental illness in the criminal justice system is as much a story of mass incarceration as it is of de-institutionalization. The one piece of the story that is important, even if we don’t quite tell it right, is that we do have a severe lack of mental health care in the community and we have made it extremely difficult to get treatment for mental illness. But it’s not that everybody was getting treatment in a hospital and now they can’t get it, we just don’t have that and we’ve never had it.

TCR: How can we get people to start viewing mental illness seriously?

AR: I think we’re starting to move in that direction, very slowly. We’re seeing more people acknowledging an issue with depression or anxiety. We’re still not seeing a lot of actors come up at the Oscars and mention that they have schizophrenia, but I think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to talk about these things. We know that people can change, and society can change. There was a time that people didn’t talk about HIV or cancer, and now we wave flags for it. We need to get over the fear and stigma [attached to] mental illness in our society. The narrative in the media and in politics that links mental illness and violence is very damaging. And it’s hard to get over that stigma when every time something bad happens somebody is out there pointing a finger at mental illness.

TCR: Are tools such as Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), deescalation and community policing having a positive effect on the problem?

AR: Like so many things in criminal justice, there is not a ton of data or evidence-based research to show one way or another. The data in places such as Miami or San Antonio show that these things work. Miami says that it’s cut the number of officer-involved shootings. In San Antonio, the system has prevented them from expanding the jail. People who study policing say that CIT is just good policing—-going back to the kind of policing we had before “professionalized” law enforcement. It was the cop walking the beat who knew the people in the community. There’s no reason to run into every situation like it’s a battleground. Police officers always talk about how they see people on the worst day of their lives. That narrative is used sometimes as a reason why you need to be on your guard. But I’ve also heard it used as a reason to be gentle, kind, and thoughtful because they’re there to help.

Getting police to respond in a more thoughtful, more community/medically oriented way, instead of the tough, warrior way, is terrific. The big caveat is that if you don’t have the whole system set up to accommodate this it can only get you so far. You might deescalate a particular situation, but if you don’t have any longer-term solutions, you’re going to be back picking up the same person with no place to go. Often communities think CIT will be a step to solving the problem, but you have to think about how you’re going to divert, what’s the mental health treatment going to be, and how do we make sure we’re not picking people up again next week or next month.

TCR: Does change need to start at a federal level?  And do you see potential for change under the current administration?

AR: The thing about criminal justice is that so much of it happens on such a local level that, on the flip side, a lot of reform can also happen on a local level. If I’m in Manhattan, and get arrested, it could potentially be a different outcome then if I’m in the Bronx or New Jersey. Because it’s so local, I think the federal question is almost irrelevant. Even the laws of involuntary commitment are handled at a local level.  I think with a lot of laws, particularly with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and involuntary commitment, it really comes down to a very narrow line of navigating between civil liberties and safety for the person and the public.

We obviously don’t want to go back to the time when somebody could have a child committed to a hospital for not being religious enough or dating the wrong person.  On the other hand, I think we’ve made it so difficult to get somebody hospitalized that we’re in this perpetual crisis management mode.  The way it’s set up now is that you really have to be at a crisis point in order to make involuntary commitment possible.  Likewise, with HIPAA, I don’t want my business broadcast all over the place.  On the other hand, the very nature of mental illness means that the person is not, necessarily, capable of making decisions for himself, or even providing the information that the doctors need.  I’ve heard families talk about managing to get their adult child hospitalized, but then not being able to convince the doctor to talk to them about what has or hasn’t worked in the past.  As with any other illness, the more information the clinician has, the better they can treat the problem.

Isidoro Rodririguez

HIPAA is also widely misunderstood. It’s used as an excuse for stonewalling families and other people trying to get information.  I think the more important question, is how do we figure out how to loosen these laws a little bit to make things easier and more effective without throwing all the civil liberties out with it.  As for the current administration, I think this is a big wildcard.  It doesn’t seem to be a big priority except on those occasions when something awful happens and suddenly there’s talk of bringing back asylums and more mental health care.  Between seeing real change at a local level or at a federal level, I have a little bit of hope that at the local level there is potential for reform.

Isidoro Rodriguez, a staff writer for The Crime Report, covers policing and mental health issues. He welcomes comments from readers.


Why the Prosecutor’s Role in Officer-Involved Deaths Has Become Critical

When police kill unarmed civilians, the path towards accountability begins with prosecutors. Elected to serve their communities as the chief law enforcement official, they have the means and mandate to confront the injustices that arise from systemic racism, writes the director of John Jay’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution.

As California Attorney General Xavier Becerra begins overseeing the investigation of the killing of Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old African-American father of two shot by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, Ca., nearly two weeks ago, an important question should be on the minds of every American.

If the investigation finds evidence of misconduct, how likely is there to be a charge, let alone a conviction?

The track record of officer-involved fatalities in the United States suggests the answer: Not likely.

Approximately 1,000 lives are lost at the hands of U.S. law enforcement every year, a number that has remained remarkably consistent. Every week, there are new reports of officer-involved fatalities from across the country. Earlier this week, the New York Police Department shot and killed a man in Brooklyn.

And still, over the course of a decade, from 2005 to 2015, only 54 officers nationwide were criminally charged, with nearly half of these cases resulting in acquittals or dismissals.

How can that be when, in most of these cases, there is ample evidence—hard data, and even live video—of the extent of force used?

This paradox was addressed recently by 35 experts participating in the launch of a new working group on officer-involved fatalities at the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Comprised of prosecutors, directly impacted individuals, police, academics, and activists from around the nation, the group was formed to address the prosecutor’s role in dealing with these incidents—and in particular to devise and implement mechanisms of accountability.

Such an effort couldn’t be more crucial.

Prosecutors wield significant power in the criminal justice system. They have discretion over charging, pre-trial recommendations and plea conditions, and their decisions affect a case at nearly every stage of the criminal justice process. Yet, as the figures cited above demonstrate, even with this significant power, prosecutors have found it challenging to charge and convict police officers for excessive use of force.

The working group identified various obstacles to accountability. For example, most state statutes require a “standard of reasonableness” when evaluating the use of force by law enforcement. Another example: the public, the media and, often, jury pools are inclined to offer the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement while criminalizing those killed. Moreover, the process is stymied by systemically racist policies and practices, and a culture that impedes transparency.

The working group—including the prosecutors and police who participated—took these challenges as opportunities for reform, rather than as excuses.

There was widespread consensus that, as communities demand justice for the victims and families of police violence, prosecutors—as democratically elected officials directly accountable to the communities they serve—have the opportunity and the mandate to use their platform to demand accountability, both within the legal system and beyond it.

To do this, prosecutors must partner with those whose deep awareness of the absence of accountability can show the path forward. In other words, those who have lost loved ones to police violence.

As one directly impacted family member said during the working group discussions, “We become the experts unwillingly …We study this because we can’t sleep at night.”

That tragic “expertise” has motivated the victims of police violence to address the systemic inequities of the criminal justice system. We should join them.

Communities, particularly communities of color, that are disproportionately affected by excessive police use-of-force tend also to be those bearing the brunt of policies and practices that contribute to mass incarceration. The over-criminalization of communities of color cannot be separated from the disproportionately high rate of force that these communities experience at the hands of law enforcement.

Philando Castile was stopped in his car nearly 50 times before July 6, 2016. Eric Garner was reported to have been selling individual cigarettes when the police were called on July 17, 2014, though the cigarettes were never found.

According to Baltimore Police Department (BPD) data from January 2010 to May 2015 that the U.S. Department of Justice examined, BPD officers stopped 410 pedestrians at least 10 times. Some 95 percent of these pedestrians were black, although just 60 percent of the city’s population is black.

If officers did not routinely stop—and if prosecutors did not routinely charge—people of color for crimes that arguably pose no significant risk to public safety, perhaps we could expect fewer fateful encounters.

And if law enforcement did not routinely stop and prosecute people of color, perhaps they would stop feeding the myth of the “inherent danger” that people of color pose to public safety.

The belief in this inherent danger is tied to an implicit bias that is manifested in a variety of ways.

“Black male, maybe 20,” is how the Cleveland officer referred to Tamir Rice after he arrived at the playground and shot the 12-year-old within seconds of seeing him brandish what later proved to be a toy gun.

Stephon Clark

Stephon Clark/Facebook Photo via Wikipedia

The two Sacramento officers who shot Stephon Clark explained afterwards that they “fear[ed] for their safety.” Responding to reports of someone breaking into parked cars with a toolbar, they described Clark as advancing towards them with an “object” in his hand. The officers fired ten rounds each at him. The object was a cell phone.

The racial stereotyping that leads police to automatically assume the worst when they are involved in a tense confrontation with individuals of color surprised none of the members of the working group.

As a directly impacted family member observed during the working group discussion, “We have to say Black Lives Matter today because of this country’s history … The legacy of the Three-Fifths rule is [evident] in how we are [criminalized, and how no one is held accountable] when our lives are taken.”

One conclusion seems inescapable: The path towards accountability for officer-involved fatalities and excessive police use of force must move beyond body cameras and de-escalation training to confront the injustices that arise from systematic racism, both past and present.

As the chief local law enforcement and democratically elected official, a prosecutor has both the means and the mandate to do just that.

There already are instructive examples around the nation:

  • In Washington State and California, prosecutors are using their platforms to support calls for reform of the “standard of reasonableness” statutes.
  • Campaign Zero, whose website describes it as a “research collaborative collecting comprehensive data on police killings nationwide to quantify the impact of police violence in communities,” harnesses the power of data science to develop new policies and practices in partnership with police departments.
  • Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, in Baltimore, offers useful suggestions for exploring alternative paths to accountability by using independent community-centered tools.

And lessons are being learned even in those cases where justice has yet to be found.

John Choi

John Choi

The jury in the Philando Castile case did not convict the officer who was charged with killing him. But the investigation and prosecution, led by County Attorney John Choi of Minnesota’s Ramsey County, provided vital lessons for the field.

Choi, who participated in the working group discussion, was asked by the mother of a victim of police violence about his continuing relationship with Castile’s family. He responded with an anecdote.

After the trial, Castile’s mother presented Choi with her son’s “Certificate of Class Completion” for a driving-diversion program established to help those whose licenses had been suspended due to unpaid fines and fees drive legally again. The program was launched when Choi had been Saint Paul’s City Attorney.

Meg Reiss

Meg Reiss

Showing the group a picture of the driving certificate, Choi said he lamented the fact that, while he had been able to help Castile in one aspect of the justice system, he was ultimately unable to achieve justice for him, his family, and his community in his death.

It’s the kind of humility and compassion that can help prosecutors build–and fight for–means of accountability that recognize the humanity and dignity of victims, families, and communities directly affected by police violence.

Prosecutors have the platform. And they are starting to use it.

Meg Reiss is executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.


A Lesson from Camden: Fixing Jails and Health Care Together

Two-thirds of the people who cycle in and out of jails also cycle in and out of hospitals in this resource-starved New Jersey city. The connection led authorities to try an experiment that focused on the needs of individuals poorly served by both systems. Here’s what happened.

It’s no secret that both our criminal justice system and our health care system are failing.

Yet there is a growing awareness among social policy experts and scholars that something surprising happens when you look at these two systems together: Opportunities for meaningful solutions emerge because the majority of individuals cycling through the criminal justice system are also frequent users of the health care system.

Consider the story of Abe. (We’ve kept his real name private.)

In 2010, he arrived at the emergency room covered with cuts and bruises. Abe had been living in the streets in Camden, New Jersey, and got into a fight with a friend. At the hospital, the doctors noted that he was suffering from chronic illnesses, including severe depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction.

The treatment? The doctors gave him antibiotics to prevent infection of his cuts and discharged him that day.

He returned to the emergency room two weeks later. Because he was homeless, Abe had difficulty taking the antibiotics, and his cuts became infected. A few months after that, Abe was hit by a car, and treated at the hospital for three days. This was only the beginning of a long pattern. Over the next five years, Abe visited Camden emergency rooms 24 times, spending roughly forty-five days in the hospital. In short, ambulances became all-too familiar for Abe.

So did police cars.

From 2010 to 2014, Abe was arrested more than 15 times, mostly for low-level offenses. He was picked up several times by police for shoplifting from a store outside the hospital, just moments after he had walked out of the emergency room.

In between, Abe was also commonly booked for being intoxicated in front of the same handful of liquor stores. Each time, he was booked by police, given a summons to appear in court, and then released. After failing to show up in court and pay fees, a warrant was put out for his arrest, and the next time Abe was picked up, he spent a month in the Camden County Jail. Over that five-year period, Camden police officers spent over 120 hours handling Abe’s criminal violations.

Scott Thomson

Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson. Courtesy Camden Police Dept.

Three years ago, we set up a meeting with Camden County Chief of Police J. Scott Thomson. We had an idea. One of us (Anne Milgram) had been the New Jersey Attorney General, where she was in charge of overseeing the Camden Police Department. The other (Dr. Brenner) was running the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.

The Coalition had already discovered that frequent users took up an extremely high amount of medical professionals’ time and accounted for the majority of the costs in the Camden health care system. We wondered: was this the same population that interacted so frequently with the police?

By integrating existing healthcare, police, and jail data sets, the Coalition broke down the traditional information silos that isolate the health care and criminal justice systems. What they found surprised all of us.

Sixty-seven percent of the frequent users of the criminal justice system were also frequent users of the health care system. Two-thirds of the people who cycled in and out of jails also cycled in and out of hospitals. The data also showed that a small percentage of the population accounted for a disproportionate amount of interactions with police and hospitals.

Normally, health care and criminal justice professionals do not compare notes or combine data, but when we did, a clear pattern emerged. We found Abe, and others just like him who are caught in a revolving door in which their immediate, acute symptoms are treated while their underlying struggles, such as mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, remain untouched.

As a result, they return time and time again.

The Camden study taught us a simple lesson: people do not experience the health care and criminal justice systems in isolation. It should not be surprising, then, that when we work in, study and reform these systems in isolation, we miss a lot.

In short, Abe teaches us that we must move upstream and focus on individuals, not institutions. We draw from this and other lessons in a new report we have co-authored on the integration of health and criminal justice data, published by the Program in Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Jeffrey Brenner

Dr. Jeffrey Brenner

Integrating health care and criminal justice data has enormous potential for tracking underlying issues and addressing them head on. By viewing individuals’ data holistically, we are able to shift the focus of analysis from system providers to system users. Doing so provides more opportunities to develop programs that will prevent medical and criminal problems before they occur.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of how to prevent crime and unnecessary hospitalizations by integrating data. There is much more to be learned about when and how we should intervene to detect underlying issues causing individuals to end up in jail or an emergency room.

Anne Milgram

Anne Milgram

These areas of research could have a transformative impact on the many Americans revolving in and out of jails and hospitals and, ultimately, could save countless lives.

It may be that the criminal justice and health care systems pose overwhelming challenges on their own, but when you put these two challenging problems together, a new set of solutions emerges.

Anne Milgram is a former New Jersey Attorney General and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at NYU School of Law. Dr. Jeffrey Brenner is the Senior VP of Integrated Health and Social Services at UnitedHealth Group and the former Executive Director of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. Together, they are co-authors of a new report on the intersection of health and criminal justice published by the Program in Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.