Four Deaths in NC Jail Prompt Calls for Reform

Inmate advocates and families wonder why four people died in two months in the Mecklenburg County, N.C., jail. The facility, with 1,900 beds, had only one death per year from 2014 to 2017.

After a Mecklenburg County, N.C., jail inmate died Thursday — the fourth to die in two months — prisoner advocates and families of the deceased are calling for reform, the Charlotte Observer reports. Jerome Thompson, 52, jumped from the second floor of a general housing pod Wednesday around 10:30 p.m., the sheriff’s office said. He suffered a fractured skull and was taken to a hospital for surgery. Thompson, in jail on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, died the next morning. “The most basic duty of jail officials is to keep people who are in custody and awaiting trial safe and alive. At that, Mecklenburg County is failing,” said Susanna Birdsong of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The deaths of four people in two months is a clear pattern and an urgent crisis that requires full and immediate intervention from the State Bureau of Investigation.”

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said she is disturbed by the number of recent deaths inside the Mecklenburg jail. The jail, which has about 1,900 beds, registered one death a year from 2014 through 2017. “Those statistics are extremely high,” Forbes said. “Why? … I’m absolutely convinced a review of these deaths should by done by an outside agency.” Barbara Allen, whose son died in the jail last week, agrees. Lavarchio Allen called family members from the jail on July 4, wishing them a happy holiday, Allen said. He died the next morning of undetermined causes. “Regardless of what he did and what he was, he was a human being,” Allen said. “He was a son. He was a father.” Allen was in jail on charges of breaking-and-entering and larceny.


Four Deaths in NC Jail Prompt Calls for Reform

Inmate advocates and families wonder why four people died in two months in the Mecklenburg County, N.C., jail. The facility, with 1,900 beds, had only one death per year from 2014 to 2017.

After a Mecklenburg County, N.C., jail inmate died Thursday — the fourth to die in two months — prisoner advocates and families of the deceased are calling for reform, the Charlotte Observer reports. Jerome Thompson, 52, jumped from the second floor of a general housing pod Wednesday around 10:30 p.m., the sheriff’s office said. He suffered a fractured skull and was taken to a hospital for surgery. Thompson, in jail on charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, died the next morning. “The most basic duty of jail officials is to keep people who are in custody and awaiting trial safe and alive. At that, Mecklenburg County is failing,” said Susanna Birdsong of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The deaths of four people in two months is a clear pattern and an urgent crisis that requires full and immediate intervention from the State Bureau of Investigation.”

Elizabeth Forbes, who heads the criminal justice reform group NC CURE, said she is disturbed by the number of recent deaths inside the Mecklenburg jail. The jail, which has about 1,900 beds, registered one death a year from 2014 through 2017. “Those statistics are extremely high,” Forbes said. “Why? … I’m absolutely convinced a review of these deaths should by done by an outside agency.” Barbara Allen, whose son died in the jail last week, agrees. Lavarchio Allen called family members from the jail on July 4, wishing them a happy holiday, Allen said. He died the next morning of undetermined causes. “Regardless of what he did and what he was, he was a human being,” Allen said. “He was a son. He was a father.” Allen was in jail on charges of breaking-and-entering and larceny.


Lucas County, Ohio: A Case Study in Fixing America’s Broken Jails

Justice stakeholders in Lucas County, in Ohio, used a grant from the MacArthur Safety +Justice Challenge to tackle jail overcrowding. They achieved significant reductions of 24 percent in pretrial population alone.

For years, the jail in Lucas County, Ohio was an embarrassment.

Elevators didn’t work; inmates slept on floors because of overcrowding; and living conditions resembled an “overall cesspool,” recalls Sheriff John Tharp.

John Tharp

Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp

But today overcrowding has eased with a 24 percent reduction in the pretrial jail population, and a spirit of optimism is shared across the county that they are on their way to significant change.

What happened?

The answer, Tharp and other Lucas County officials told a conference at John Jay College this week, came from a shift in perspectives that involved rethinking how all the parts of the justice system could work together efficiently.

And it involved listening to the individuals who were at the system’s short end: the jail inmates themselves.

“People felt that the system was listening to them,” said Holly Matthews, executive director of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a multi-stakeholder group formed to guide the county’s painstaking journey towards reform.

“They felt they had a voice in the system…[and] this is the outcome you want,” she said.

Holly Matthews

Holly Matthews. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

In 2016, Lucas County was one of ten “core” sites selected as part of a nationwide effort by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Safety + Justice Challenge” to explore ways to fix the nation’s broken jail system. Over the past several decades, jails have emerged as the hidden drivers behind the rise in mass incarceration, with jail populations—particularly in rural areas—tripling since 1980 even as prison numbers fell.

“Research has shown that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration,” the foundation said in a statement describing the program. “(It makes) jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system.”

See also: Rural (InJustice): The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

The $25 million program, which will expand to an estimated 40 jurisdictions, aims to incubate innovative approaches that could serve as models across America of ways to relieve overcrowding.

The county received a grant of $1.76 million to implement its plan for change over a two-year period.

The key stakeholders gathered at John Jay to discuss the results of what was, in effect, a case study in changing hearts and minds before a group of rural reporting fellows participating in a two-day conference exploring the roots of the jail crisis.

The Challenge

The growth of the jail population in Lucas County and the consequent overcrowding reached a degree which demanded a reform in Lucas County’s method of making pretrial release and detention decisions.

In 2014, a year after Tharp was elected sheriff , his focus became building a new jail to remedy these pressing issues. His fervor helped initiate the process of positive change.

Gene Zmuda

The Hon. Gene Zmuda. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

The obvious first question in constructing a new jail is “What size does it need to be?’

It was a seemingly simple question, but it caused county officials to step back and examine what was driving their increase in jail numbers. They singled out an assessment instrument used in determining whether defendants would be offered bail—a tool used for decades but provided little useful information about the arrestee’s background.

“It was the gospel tool, but it really wasn’t efficient,”  said Judge Gene Zmuda of the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, who became one of the prime players in the criminal justice coordinating council.

Zmuda said the tool, which had been used for decades in many jurisdictions around the country, contributed to the harmful system in which high-risk, wealthy individuals are frequently released from jail pending trial, while low-risk—usually nonviolent—defendants spend a significant amount of time in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

In order to holistically consider the factors that contribute to an individual’s risk to society and therefore their release, Lucas County adapted the Arnold Foundation Public Safety Assessment (PSA) tool in 2015.

As defined by the Arnold Foundation, the PSA pretrial risk assessment tool “uses evidence-based, neutral information to predict the likelihood that an individual will commit a new crime if released before trial, and to predict the likelihood that he will fail to return for a future court hearing.”

Additionally, the tool indicates individuals who have a heightened probability of committing a violent crime while release on recognizance.

Race and gender neutral, this tool considers the answers to nine questions, gathering information on factors such as age, current offense, and prior convictions (including violent offenses).

“Because this is a risk-based tool, it allows judges to make more informed decisions,” explained Zmuda.

Within three years, this new method resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the average Failure to Appear (FTA) rate, and a 50 percent reduction in the average crime committed, including violent crime, said Matthews.

These figures underscored the county’s goal of keeping the community safe while lessening the strain, both fiscal and social, that a swollen jail population creates.

The positive effects that this one change induced led officials to examine additional areas of their justice system where reform seemed promising and impactful.

“We know we can do [even] better while still maintaining public safety and providing the appropriate services to our community,” says Matthews.

At that point, Lucas County applied for and was selected to participate in the Safety + Justice Challenge.

Strategies for Change

Lucas County selected five strategies to implement after sitting down with stakeholders to fully understand their system and identify problem areas.

One: Pre-arrest Deflection

The main goal of this first strategy is to prevent an individual from coming in contact with the jail (and the justice system) in the first place.

This “pre-arrest” phase revolved around law enforcement. Police have the discretion to determine the next step for an individual: take him or her into custody, send the individual  home, or refer her to a crisis center. Officers received training in skills needed for crisis intervention.

In partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, Lucas County planned to implement a four-hour deflection curriculum class for individuals who commit specific targeted offenses including drug possession, disorderly conduct, and obstructing official business.

If an individual completes this course within a month of eligibility, no charges will be filled against. This breaks the revolving door,  and reduces the amount of low-risk, nonviolent offenders being sent to jail.

The reason for the delay in complete implementation, notes Matthews, is finding a place where officers feel comfortable bringing an individual eligible for this deflection class, but who needs to be removed from the scene and assessed.

For example, an intoxicated individual arrested for disorderly conduct will not understand the conditions of the diversion course until after he or she is sober.

Two: Managing Based on Risk

The notion of whether or not someone will be released from custody after  arrest using a validated risk tool is just the beginning, says Zmuda.

“Once you decide that a [person] is not really a threat to the community or themselves, and therefore shall be released,… how do we deal with it?” he said.

It’s important to get an individual who poses no threat released as quickly as possible from jail,because even a few days in jail can make someone more “criminal minded” and therefore more likely to commit additional offenses, said the judge.

The question then becomes what extent of oversight should the justice system have on that released individual?

Strategy Two has created a “risk score” using the PSA tool to determine the amount of connection that an individual has with the court. The higher the score, the more the connection.

This score, along with the results from the PSA questions, are entered into a digital dashboard allowing officials to easily find comprehensive information for specific offenders in a timely manner.

Zmuda also notes the effectiveness of electronic monitoring as a risk oversight tool, saying that the person is not taking up resources in custody, yet is still not free; there are considerable restrictions placed upon those individuals.

With the digital dashboards, information of offenders supervised by electronic monitoring who enter a restricted zone is immediately added to the dashboard, notifying officers, officials, as well as victims (if applicable).

Three: Population Review Team

The sharing of information is crucial to understanding the whole picture, especially in the case of an offender. Under this strategy, the digital dashboards are shared with all stakeholders involved. This is especially useful for judges, who can now see information on an individual in real-time on the bench when making sentencing or bail decisions.

In order to compile this data, Lucas County has formed a population review team, consisting of a group of officials who review the pretrial jail population on a weekly basis. They look at each specific case to determine exactly who is in the jail and why, including examining documents such as arrest reports, affidavits, and plea negotiations.

According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review saved 1,800 contracted jail bed days in 2017, effectively eliminating the county jail’s sentence-serving population.

In addition, this team of pretrial service professionals reviews bond recommendations which includes prosecutors, public defenders, pretrial service professionals, mental health personnel, the Lucas County Sheriff’s office and Commissioners’ office. This results in the identification of individuals who are suitable for expedited case resolution or bond modification, getting a defendant through the system as quickly as possible.

This strategy is very effective in quantifying trends that show who is being put in jail, why and for how long, allowing officials to pinpoint potential issues within the jail system.

Four: Diversion of the Underserved Population

Reaching populations that are under-served and overlooked within the system is imperative to addressing underlying issues driving jail numbers.

With the PSA tool, there are no disparities in the release decision of an offender. When determining an individual’s situation, a judge has no racial or gender-based bias that would lead to inequality in this decision (if based solely on the PSA).

In this implementation, as well as the deflection curriculum course, Matthews reported that the feedback of these strategies was overwhelmingly positive.

Five: Coordinated Probation Practices

When reviewing exactly who was in the Lucas County Jail, officials found that over30 percent of the population comprised individuals who violated parole.

One of the reasons why this number is so high is due to the lack of coordinated probation practices. Lucas County maintains five adult probation authorities which serve each of the five independent criminal courts within the county jurisdiction.

These different authorities did not coordinate in operating policies and procedures for offender supervision or case management for offenders serving probation in more than one court. This forces individuals on parole to juggle different, sometimes conflicting, standards and obligations, resulting in technical violations of parole, landing the individual in jail for a minor infraction.

To facilitate coordination, Lucas County hired a community corrections coordinator who brought training and evidence-based practices to the facilities; stressing the importance again of sharing information.


Since the implementation of these strategies in 2016, the Lucas County average daily jail population has undergone a 26.3 percent reduction.

Not only is the general total on a decline but the population of inmates in jail for pretrial detention was reduced by 20 percent.

Lucas County found that African Americans represent 58 percent of the arrested jail population while they represent only 19 percent of the general community population and 29 percent of those diverted from the system.

This made it clear that in order to address racial and ethnic disparities within the justice system, the focus must be on arrest and diversion.

As Lucas County shows, the role that pretrial deflection and post-conviction supervision plays in the reducing the jail population is critical.

After seeing the success that the SJC brought about within the jail system, Lucas County is currently applying to multiple foundations for additional grants, striving to expand these efforts and bring about greater positive results.

Laura Binczewski is a TCR News Intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


AL Gov Acts on Sheriffs’ Inmate Food Funds

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey took a small step this week toward stopping the state from allowing sheriffs to pocket public money allocated to feeding local inmates that they do not spend. Ivey cannot and did not end the longstanding practice.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey took a small step this week toward stopping the state from allowing sheriffs to pocket public money allocated to feeding local inmates that they do not spend. Ivey cannot and did not end the longstanding practice, reports Ivey directed the state comptroller’s office to stop depositing some of the jail food money into sheriffs’ personal accounts and instead pay it into sheriffs’ official county accounts. The move will not actually bar sheriffs from ultimately receiving that money, said Ivey spokesman Daniel Sparkman. “The intention of this is it’s the first step in making sure public funds stay public funds. Another step in this would be that the legislature …  clarify the law.”

Robert Timmons of the Alabama Sheriffs Association said he would like to see oversight of inmate-feeding taken away from sheriffs and handed over to county governments or the state, but such a change can only be made via a new state law. In most cases, the state currently deposits $1.75 per day into sheriffs’ official county accounts for each inmate housed in the county jails they oversee. Fewer than 20 counties have passed laws that hand over control of inmate-feeding from sheriffs to the counties themselves. In those counties, the state instead deposits the $1.75 per day into accounts managed by the county government. In March, reported that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin personally kept more than $750,000 in local, state and federal funds allocated to feed inmates in his jail over the past three years and went on to purchase a $740,000 beach house in September. Chris Henrichson of the Vera Institute of Justice, called on the state to find a way to stop sheriffs from pocketing “leftover” inmate-feeding funds.


Re-think Sentencing for Violent Offenders: Philly DA Larry Krasner

Six months after taking office, Philadelphia’s controversial DA says incarceration levels have dropped as a result of his reforms, with no increase in most categories of violent crime. But he argues that further reductions require changes in the way the justice system deals with individuals convicted of violent offenses.

The nation cannot effectively reduce prison populations unless the justice system changes the way it handles violent offenders and sex criminals, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Tuesday.

“This is the topic that the left and the press never want to talk about, because this is the tough one,” he told journalists at a John Jay College conference.

“Young people are all in favor of legalizing weed, but as soon as you say violent, there’s a certain visceral response,” said Krasner, who delivered the keynote luncheon address at the conference on “Rural (In)Justice: America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

“And yet the reality is, if you’re going to take a serious shot at reducing levels of incarceration, you do have to address this issue.”

While he acknowledged that the gravest offenses necessitate long sentences—“none of us are going to tolerate stranger rape, none of us are going to tolerate serial murder, none of us want Charles Manson walking around”—Krasner stressed the exorbitant cost of incarceration, and the potential good those funds could do in other areas.

He estimated that a five-year sentence in Philadelphia cost $210,000–roughly the same price tag as five public school teachers’ annual salaries.

“We disconnected all of this from the discussion of where the assets might otherwise have gone,” he said.

“Somehow we got to the point where one year just felt like five years, because we’re not talking about $210,000, or $420,000, and what that could have meant in terms of prevention in the long term.”

Krasner acknowledged that perpetrators should pay a price for crime, but “the price doesn’t have to be much higher than in every other country, and so debilitating that we bankrupt the public schools in Philly.”

The DA, who was elected last November after a long career as an outspoken public defender in America’s sixth-largest city, entered office with a sweeping plan to transform Philadelphia’s prosecutorial practices.

Less than three months after taking office in January, he issued a memo instructing assistant district attorneys to cease charging certain offenses entirely, and to charge lower gradations for others.

In addition to declining and lowering charges, Krasner recommended that district attorneys utilize diversion more frequently, implement bail reform, and opt for lower sentences when they do seek convictions.

“Don’t come up with artificial obstacles” to decarceration, he said, citing the example of a statute that prevented undocumented immigrants from being sent to diversion when charged with driving under the influence because they were prohibited from owning a driver’s license.

“What’s the big deal? So you expand it,” he said. “You expand the provisions that allow people to get in, and maybe you require more of those people so that there’s a level playing field. But you expand it.”

Currently, one of Philadelphia’s four jails stands empty, the result of efforts that Krasner conceded began before he was elected but accelerated since he took office. He said he expected the jail population to continue declining, a boon to taxpayers that, he pointed out, has done no discernable harm to public safety.

“The result of all these people getting out of jail is a reduction in homicides, a reduction in rapes, a reduction in armed robbery,” he said. “Shootings are up four percent, everything else in the violent category is down.

“Among the property offenses, the bottom line is a zero percent change.”

Krasner said the media and political opponents had warned during his election campaign that his policies would result in Philadelphia being overrun by violent criminals and “zombies.”

“But it turns out when you let some of the zombies out of the jail, they’re not really zombies,” he said.

He added that while he continued to face opposition from tough-on-crime advocates and from the Fraternal Order of Police, a substantial number of Philadelphians welcomed his reforms—including, he noted, the Guardians, the association representing African-American police officers in Philadelphia.

“The jail population…is dropping 13 a day [since] our policies went into effect,” he said. “So there’s no question there’s an impact, and there’s no question that the impact is significant.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


Rural (In)Justice: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

The use of jails to house individuals with serious mental illness is contributing to the skyrocketing growth in jail populations across the U.S.—particularly in rural and small counties—experts told a conference at John Jay College Tuesday.

Soaring jail populations, particularly in rural areas, are now driving America’s crisis of mass incarceration, a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.

Christian Henrichson, research director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the number of individuals in pretrial detention in rural or small counties with fewer than 250,000 inhabitants began surpassing urban detention rates in 2008—and continues to increase even as urban jail populations are falling.

“In the last couple of decades, mass incarceration has metastasized from the largest cities to almost every community in America,” Henrichson, author of a recently released Vera study on incarceration trends, told rural journalists participating in a conference on “Rural (In)Justice:Covering America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

More than 11 million jail admissions are recorded every year, yet few Americans realize that jails are a primary engine of mass incarceration in the U.S. Polls show that rural residents continue to think of it as a problem largely facing urban areas, Henrichson said.

Among the factors driving the increase is the growing use of jails to house the mentally ill.

Srteven Leifman

Judge Steven Leifman, 11th Judicial Circuit, Florida. Photos by John Ramsey/TCR

“When I became a judge, I had no idea I was actually becoming the gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida,” said Judge Steven Leifman, Associate Administrative Judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, referring to the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Judge Leifman said people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and that at any given time, about 550,000 people with serious mental illnesses are in jails or prisons, and another 900,000 are under correctional supervision.

It’s a “horrible, shameful American tragedy,” but it can be reversed with targeted crisis intervention programs for law enforcement working in collaboration with health and social services, he said.

Judge Leifman noted that since Miami-Dade implemented a program eight years ago that trains police officers how to identify people in crisis, and direct them to treatment and counseling services rather than arrest them, the county’s jail population has sharply reduced with no discernible increase in threats to public safety.

More than 450 counties across the U.S. are now implementing some version of the program, called the Stepping Up Initiative, a collaboration with the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

The swelling number of mentally ill individuals who are locked up is a consequence of the reduction of psychiatric beds in state facilities across the country. But analysts say it is part of a much larger problem: an increase in the numbers of individuals held awaiting trial because they or their relatives cannot afford the cost of money bonds.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO, Pretrial Justice Institute

“Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial detention,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, DC-based non-profit.

“If you’re a person of color, you’re more likely to have a high bond for the same offense than your white counterpart, as well as being less likely to make that bond.”

Other factors contributing to the high jail numbers include the opioid epidemic that has ravaged much of the American heartland, a rise in referrals of state inmates to county jails to relieve overcrowding in penitentiaries, and an increase in the use of jails to house undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, conference speakers said.

Authorities in cash-strapped regions across rural America initially welcomed the referrals as an additional source of revenues, but many are now rethinking the practice.

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff of Pueblo County, Co., said the population of his jail has almost doubled because of state referrals.

Kirk Taylor

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff, Pueblo County, Colorado

“The legislature is …absolutely killing the counties,” Taylor said. “I have a list of 50 legislative changes that have deferred inmates to the counties.”

Larry Amerson, retired Sheriff of Calhoun County, Al., and former president of the National Sheriffs Association, said that 250 of the 600 prisoners currently held in his county come from state prisons—yet the expected boost in revenue never materialized.

According to Amerson, his county receives just $1.75 per person to cover food costs.

“Legislators often have no empathy for the problems we face,” he said.

The pressure on county authorities to meet the burden of rising correctional costs is so high that they are often faced with the unpalatable choice of building a new jail at the cost of other crucial infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals, the conference was told.

G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of “Trouble in the Heartland,” said the most common way to fund county jails is through property taxes, but because many smaller counties reassess property infrequently, it can be hard for them to keep up with costs.

“Jails in rural counties suffer from both political conservativism and fiscal conservativism,” said Mays.

Both sheriffs said more attention to pretrial services and risk assessment tools were important ways of reducing recidivism as well as helping individuals receive counseling or treatment for mental illness or substance abuse issues, particularly in the midst of an opioid epidemic which has hit rural areas the hardest.

For Amerson, the jail crisis is personal. Three people in his family died of opioid overdoses—a tragedy he said might have been avoided if they had taken advantage of pretrial services providing substance-abuse counseling or treatment after they were arrested.

“I begged the parents not to make bond, but they said it wasn’t fair,” he recalled.

“The purpose of pretrial services is not to decrease the amount of people in your jails—that is a byproduct, we hope—but that is not the primary purpose,” said Taylor.

“It’s designed to find the people who are supposed to be in jail through your assessments and identify those people who are a risk to public safety.”

Bail Reform

According to Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute, reforming bail practices is one of the easier strategies to reduce jail populations.

She cited data indicating money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety.

“Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety,” said Burdeen.

She pointed out that money bond is simply a condition of bail, and that there are other alternatives, such as providing access to public defenders at hearings, expanding the use of citations instead of arrest, and getting prosecutors to review cases to see if defendants are eligible for referral to specialty courts.

Burdeen also noted that many places set high bonds on high-risk individuals because they don’t have preventive detention protocols, which allow the courts to find dangerous individuals and detain them.

The Pretrial Justice Institute believes elimination of money bonds could reduce sharply reduce the numbers of individuals held in pretrial detention, noting that programs underway in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey have made important progress in that area.

But solutions to the larger issues driving jail growth, such as the failure to find alternative ways to deal with individuals with mental illness and addiction issues, continue to elude policymakers, the conference was told.

“There’s something wrong with a society that is willing to spend more to incarcerate people than to treat them,” said Judge Leifman.

Marianne Dodson and Dane Stallone are TCR News Interns. The conference on Rural (In)Justice was organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported with grants from the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Safety + Justice Challenge. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Do Jail Diversion Programs Really Work?

The ACLU has filed suit in Kansas, alleging that the state has failed to give defendants sufficient opportunity to benefit from diversion programs. But a TCR investigation finds many experts who argue that the effectiveness of such programs depends on how well they are executed.

Melissa Braham, 27, had no adult criminal history when she was apprehended by police in Kansas last fall while moving from Colorado to Missouri. After searching her car, officers charged Braham and her boyfriend with misdemeanor marijuana and paraphernalia possession.

Under state law, she was entitled to receive notice that she could apply for a diversion program to avoid criminal charges. Instead, she was jailed for a month, during which time she lost her job and had her children taken from her and placed in foster care.

“My kids came to see me in jail, and it was really hard to see my baby crying,” Braham said in a video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas. “They’re still in foster care and I’m still trying to get them back.”

“All of this big heartache really could have been avoided if I had known about diversion.”

Braham is one of thousands of Kansas defendants who could have benefitted from diversion programs had they been given the opportunity. According to figures collected by the ACLU of Kansas, elected prosecutors in the state use diversion in only about five percent of felony cases—about half the rate diversion is used nationally.

The ACLU brought a lawsuit against a county prosecutor in Kansas in June for failing to disclose diversion opportunities to defendants in accordance with state law.

“These programs are essential to establish a rehabilitative rather than punitive criminal justice system,” said Somil Trivedi, a National ACLU attorney who is partnering with the ACLU of Kansas in the lawsuit, in a press release on June 8.

“We’re taking action in Kansas to send a message to prosecutors that it’s their obligation to uphold the law and serve their community, not just rack up as many convictions as they can.”

But how effective is diversion in the first place?

Diversion allows low-level defendants to avoid criminal charges, and thus divert them from the criminal justice system, if they follow a prescribed program set out by a prosecutor. Conditions can include some combination of classes, community service, addiction treatment, mental health counseling, and restitution.

The central promise, should defendants complete diversion successfully: a clean record.

Diversion programs seek to address the root causes of crime. Proponents say they can be a means of relieving overburdened courts and crowded jails, and can save offenders from the adverse consequences of a criminal conviction.

Nearly every state has some form of diversion program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but advocates claim the programs are vastly underutilized and are often inaccessible to low-income defendants.

Prosecutors exert almost total control over diversion: they alone have discretion over whether to grant a diversion, and have exclusive responsibility for determining whether a defendant is complying with the diversion agreement’s terms. The district attorney’s decision is almost always final, and defendants have no way to appeal a rejection.

Rules about who is eligible are different in different jurisdictions. Drunk drivers are eligible for diversion in Oregon, but not in Tennessee. In Saline County, Kansas, diversion is not offered for drug offense; three counties south, it is.

Does Diversion Work?

But the availability of diversion does not always successfully prevent defendants from becoming ensnared in the justice system.

Even in cases where diversion is offered, the fines and fees that come with it prove prohibitive for many defendants.

In 2016, the New York Times analyzed 225 adult diversion programs run by prosecutors in 37 states. Two-thirds of lawyers who answered a Times questionnaire about diversion reported that fees were a barrier for their clients.

The exact cost of diversion varies widely. In some places, prosecutors charge nonrefundable application fees that can go up to $250. Additional charges—for counseling, classes, drug tests, monthly supervision, charitable contributions, court costs—mount quickly. The ACLU estimates that a defendant in diversion could pay up to $5,283 for a marijuana possession charge.

“To tell somebody that if you can pay for this, you can get your charges dismissed, but if you are poor you are going to go through the system? That’s completely unfair,” Mark Kammer, who runs diversion programs for the Cook County State’s Attorney in Chicago, told the Times.

Sometimes even after a defendant successfully completes diversion, the promise of a clean record can prove false.

Prosecutors can opt to leave a case open until diversion has been completed, and the resulting pending charge can then stymie defendants’ efforts to find work or housing. Once the case has been closed, expungement is often not automatic, meaning a dismissed case can still show up in a background check.

Diversion vs Punishment

Some district attorneys require defendants to enter a guilty plea that can later be used to prosecute them, undermining the benefits of diversion. And when requirements are strict—hundreds of hours of community service, years of probation—diversion can look very similar to punishment.

A widespread lack of data about fees, success rates, recidivism, and who is accepted or rejected from diversion programs, precludes accountability and improvement almost nationwide.

When diversion is done well, however, its results can be significant. Cook County’s diversion program (in Illinois), which is widely recognized as a model, is an example: a year after finishing felony diversion, 97 percent of graduates have no new felony arrests, and 86 percent have no new arrests of any kind. The program’s drug school alone saves the county an estimated $1.5 million annually.

In the Cook County program, which handles about 5,000 defendants a year, participants are not obliged to plead guilty, and they pay no fee for participation. If they do not successfully complete their program, they are either returned to traditional prosecution with no penalty or are switched to a more comprehensive program.

The intensity of the program is proportionate to the offense: misdemeanor defendants might be required to attend only two counseling sessions, while those charged with high-level felonies can be sent to Branch 9, a yearlong program that connects members to services such as classes for a high school equivalency diploma, substance abuse evaluations, and health insurance.

The Miami-Dade diversion program in Florida, another oft-cited example, focuses specifically on redirecting people with mental illness away from the criminal justice system. In the 18 years it has been in operation, the Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP) has both reduced the county’s jailed population and improved public safety.

County Judge Steven Leifman began the program in 2000 after realizing that while 9.1 percent of the county’s population has a serious mental illness, only about one percent receive services in the public mental health system, leading to preventable crime and arrests.

CMHP includes a pre-booking program and a post-booking program that divert mentally ill people who might otherwise be arrested for minor offenses or who are already jailed to crisis units for treatment.

To be eligible for the program, a defendant must have a primary diagnosis of a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, or PTSD. They may also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Defendants can be charged with any non-traffic misdemeanor case, as well as third-degree felonies and second-degree felonies in select cases.

All cases must be approved by the state attorney’s office.

“People with serious mental illnesses need access to the treatments and services that will help them to get better, and they don’t get better in jail,” said Cindy Schwartz, the jail diversion program director.

“We believe this a much better alternative for the people we serve, and it’s a much better alternative for our community.”

In 2016, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that CMHP had facilitated 4,000 diversions, and that the annual recidivism rate among participants was about 20 percent—less than a third of the 75-percent recidivism rate among defendants not in the program.

In some places, diversion takes the form of specialty courts, such as drug courts and veterans’ courts. In these cases, judges take the lead. Generally, however, diversion is a prosecutors’ game: it falls to the district attorney to give or withhold.

Many opt for the second option. Diversion is currently utilized in a small minority of felony cases nationwide, about nine percent.

“The incentives within a prosecutor’s office are skewed towards conviction and long sentences—it’s how they justify their existence,” Trivedi said. “So that is the default approach.”

“If somebody has broken the law, then the only approach to rectifying that wrong is to convict someone of a crime and send them to jail. That’s deeply ingrained in the culture.”

But Trivedi believes it’s time for that culture to change.

“The reason that this issue is so important is that it addresses all the issues we want the criminal justice system to address, but in a smarter way,” he told The Crime Report.

“If prosecutors say they want to keep their communities safe, well, getting people with substance abuse problems the proper treatment they need is a much smarter long-term solution to keeping the community safe, because you’ve eliminated the problem that was driving the criminal activity.”

“If we say we want to save taxpayer money…well, diversion programs save money, because having the state take care of you from morning to night is much more expensive than keeping tabs on someone while they’re in an outpatient program.”

“And if we’re reducing recidivism and keeping people from reoffending, we’re also reducing the cost of the overall system,” he said.

“If states and municipalities and district attorneys and police were serious about keeping the community safer long-term, then these would be much more frequently used programs.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Rats, Bugs, Poor Medical Care Cited at NYC Federal Jail

The Metropolitan Corrections Center, the federal jail in New York City, has been condemned by a United National human rights expert for exposing inmates to conditions akin to torture. Recent inmates describe a “rat-infested, high-rise hell.”

Half a block behind Manhattan’s federal courthouse sits a detention center that has been condemned by a United Nations human rights expert for exposing its inmates to conditions akin to torture, reports Gothamist. While reports of the horrendous conditions on Rikers Island helped convince Mayor Bill de Blasio to shutter the jail’s violence-plagued facilities, far less attention has been paid to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), the federal jail which mainly holds people who have been charged but not yet convicted of crimes. Those locked up at the MCC are subject to their own indignities and rights violations, say those who have spent time there. These include filthy conditions, vermin infestations, substandard medical care, and violence and abuse at the hands of guards.

Interviews with a dozen people who have spent time locked up at MCC, as well as with attorneys who have represented clients there and others with direct knowledge of the prison confirm that MCC inmates often endure a rat-infested, high-rise hell. “I thought there was nowhere worse than Rikers Island,” said Melvin Rodriguez, who spent three weeks at MCC on a drug charge. He said the bug and rodent infestation at MCC was particularly horrifying. “The cells [are] very small and at nighttime you hear the mouses, see waterbugs in the shower,” he said. A former MCC prisoner said the mice would find their way into commissary boxes, and gnaw away at their food. Ricardo Stewart, another former inmate, said, “We saw rats so big it seemed like they could only be in the sewer … But they wasn’t in the streets or the sewers. They were more like roommates.” In a special jail-within-a-jail called 10 South, alleged terrorists, mobsters and drug kingpins are subject to some of the nation’s most brutal conditions of solitary confinement.


Why Decarceration Still Eludes Prison Reformers

Local jails have become critical drivers for the growth in US prison populations, says a study released Thursday by the Vera Institute of Justice. Reversing that trend  is now one of the nation’s biggest challenges, say the study authors.

The number of people confined in prison has been in incremental decline for the last ten years, but mass incarceration is far from over, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration,” released Thursday, unpacks the perception that the country has reached an age of decarceration, and explores the complex relationship between local jails and state prisons to illuminate where decarceration has happened─and where true change has eluded reformers.

Between 2013 and 2015, at least 286 bills, executive orders, or ballot initiatives targeting sentencing or corrections reform were adopted across 46 states. But whether reform has had its intended effect is complicated.

According to the report, written by Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu, and released through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the single trend of carceral growth has fragmented since the turn of the century into distinct trends of that vary from state to state and county to county.

As a result, using state prison populations as the metric for incarceration has become obsolete.

The prison population is a misleading measure for a number of reasons. First, it is slow to respond to changes in policy, because many individuals in prison are serving multiyear sentences. Second, as an aggregate measure, it can obscure important county-to-county differences. Third, it entirely overlooks the population held in jails, a problem given that jail and prison trends do not necessarily move in the same direction, and may move at different paces even when they do.

In response, the report’s authors advocate using a wider set of metrics in addition to state prison population to identify incarceration trends: jail admissions, pretrial jail population, sentenced jail population, and prison admission.

Jail admission, or the count of people sent to jail in a given year, provides the best estimate of how many people are directly impacted by local incarceration.

The pretrial population, or the number of people held in jail awaiting the resolution of their charges, is easily comparable across counties and states and is important to understanding the effects of incarceration on people even when they are not ultimately convicted of any crime.

Tracking changes in the sentenced population alongside changes in the prison population yields a useful measure of when a state shifts individuals between prisons and jails rather than reducing the total number of individuals incarcerated.

Finally, prison admissions are a more responsive indicator than prison population of whether a policy, legislative, or practice change has had an effect on prison incarceration.

Using these standards, the report identifies a number of notable trends in recent incarceration.

While smaller towns exhibit continual growth in their incarceration rates, the most populous cities are sending fewer and fewer people to prison. This pattern cuts across political lines: “blue states” such as New York have seen decarceration driven by their largest cities, but so have “red” states including Texas and Missouri.

In certain states, each of the aforementioned metrics is relatively flat. In these places, stagnation can mean different things, as a county-by-county analysis reveals. Virginia, for instance, has seen the growth in prison admissions in rural areas and the decline in urban ones, generating what appears to be a stagnant pattern.

The report also uses multi-metric analysis to identify games of carceral “hot potato” between jails and prisons in certain states. States are incentivized to shift prison populations to jails by reclassifying former felonies as misdemeanors, thereby giving the appearance of reducing incarceration without actually changing the number of people locked up.

Counties, meanwhile, have a financial incentive to send more people to prison rather than jail so that they do not foot the bill for local custody.

Understanding these and other patterns in mass incarceration requires multiple measures and a resistance to aggregation: national and even state trends can obscure important shifts on a local level.

Although “The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration” undercuts the optimistic claim that the U.S. incarceration rate has leveled off, “the aim of this report is not to throw cold water on reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire,” writes Christian Henrichson, Research Director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

“With this information, researchers can evaluate how a state uses incarceration in a way that is sensitive and responsive to state and local policy shifts, and policymakers and advocates can better craft – and adjust – strategic, targeted reforms that will safeguard progress and truly undo the nation’s collective overreliance on incarceration.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.


AL Sheriff Who Took Inmate Food Money Loses Primary

Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etoway County legally received more than $750,000 from a fund allocated to feed inmates in a jail he oversaw. He was voted out of office on Tuesday by a margin of nearly two to one.

After an Alabama newspaper reported that Sheriff Todd Entrekin received more than $750,000 from a fund allocated to feed inmates in a jail he oversaw, the law enforcement official was defiant, employing a line of defense that has been increasingly trotted out of late by embattled politicians. Entrekin, the sheriff of Etowah County and a Republican, played the victim, assailing the “liberal media” and lambasting the “miscellaneous fake news stories” that he said had made his family into targets. He did not deny that he had legally received money from the fund. On Tuesday, Entrekin was effectively voted out of office after losing in the primary by a margin of nearly two to one, the Washington Post reports. The winning challenger, Jonathan Horton, who had pledged during his campaign not to keep any of the feeding funds, “rode a wave of anti-Entrekin sentiment,” after the story made national news and followed Entrekin throughout the campaign.

The reports about Entrekin’s use of the food funds made national headlines. Entrekin and his wife last year purchased a four-bedroom house with a pool in an upscale neighborhood in Orange Beach, a Gulf Coast beach town. It was one of multiple properties worth more than $1.7 million that the couple owned together in the state. Entrekin’s salary is about $93,000 a year, but Entrekin filed disclosure forms that revealed that he had “received more than $750,000 worth of additional ‘compensation’ from a source he identified as ‘Food Provisions,’ ” reported. After news reports brought the issue to prominence, he held a news conference, defending the quality of the meals he provided inmates and even bringing a sample breakfast to show reporters.