More Post-Secondary Education for Inmates Would ‘Cut Recidivism, Reduce Poverty’

Restoring access to Pell Grants for post-secondary education in prison would also increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated people across the United States by nearly 10 percent, says a new study.

Restoring access to Pell Grants for post-secondary education in prison would also increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated people across the United States by nearly 10 percent, says a new study.

Providing opportunities for post-secondary education for prisoners is also likely to reduce recidivism rates and save an estimated $365.5 million a year in incarceration costs for states, concluded a study released jointly Wednesday by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The so-called Pell grants to post-secondary education programs in prison were sharply scaled back by Congress in 1994 in a reflection of  “tough-on-crime” attitudes that perceived such grants as coddling of criminals.

But the study says that research shows that giving inmates access to post-secondary education is critical to reducing mass incarceration, lowering recidivism rates and ensuring public safety.

“This relic of the ‘tough-on-crime’ era has resulted in long-term negative consequences for all of us…as well as lost economic potential for individuals, families, and communities,” said Vera Institute president Nick Turner,, and Georgetown Center director Peter Edelman in their introduction to the study.

“It’s time we repeal the ban and create a more restorative justice system that increases safety and produces better and more cost-effective outcomes for everyone d break the cycle of poverty that comes with it. “

The study found that 64 percent of incarcerees in federal and state prisons had achieved a GED or high school diploma, making them academically eligible to enroll in a postsecondary education program.

Some limited post-secondary education is available through the the federal Second Chance Pell program, but  only 9 percent of incarcerated people completed a postsecondary program while beind bars in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.

The study estimated that if the congressional ban were lifted, about 463,000 incarcerated people would be eligible for Pell Grants.

The study was prepared by Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield, Casey Goldvale, and Laura Tatum of the  Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; and Margaret diZerega and Fred Patrick of the Vera Institute of Justice.

The full study is available here.


Beware of the Backlash Against Reform Prosecutors

Not everyone welcomed the election of reform-minded prosecutors around the country last fall. The case of new Suffolk County. Ma., DA Rachael Rollins is an example of pushback from tough-on-crime advocates, warns a reform advocate.

A month before Suffolk County (Ma.) District Attorney Rachael Rollins was elected to become Boston’s District Attorney—and the first woman to hold that post—she announced that she would not prosecute 15 petty offenses.

They range from charges such as “minor in possession of alcohol,” which needlessly suck normal teenagers and young adults into the criminal justice system, to “disorderly conduct,” a statute so broad that it criminalizes whatever a prosecutor feels like it does.

Now, the National Police Association (NPA), a little-known nonprofit formed in 2017, has filed a bar complaint with the Office of the Bar Counsel in Massachusetts in a presumed attempt to strip Rollins’ law license.

The complaint itself is unlikely to succeed, as it fails to clearly state how she violated the Massachusetts Bar’s ethics rules. But it is worth highlighting as a significant attempt to close the main “safety valve” against American mass incarceration: reform-minded elected prosecutors.

The number of such prosecutors is growing. Last fall’s midterm elections saw the election of prosecutors from both parties committed to reform, in states ranging from Texas to Missouri and Alabama.

For those hoping for a significant shift from the failed “tough on crime” strategies of the 1990s, this was welcome news. But it’s not surprising to see stirrings of a backlash.

The U.S. is the most incarcerated nation on the planet, due to factors such as racism, the politicization of crime, and a victims’ rights movement born out of carceral feminism.

We also lack a culture of restraint when it comes to criminalization and punishment. Unlike most European countries that leave the drafting of penal codes to scholarly experts, our laws are an inconsistent patchwork created by state legislators who generally know nothing about criminology and do not care to know. (Criminal law is a mere fraction of their work.)

However, head county prosecutors, often called District Attorneys, are interested enough in the dynamics of crime and public safety to make criminal justice their entire jobs. While they may be unfamiliar with the academic literature on sound crime control and public safety tactics, they take a more macroscopic and systemic view of potential crimes than the average police officer.

The reason is baked into their job descriptions.

Ultimately, a beat patrol officer in Chelsea, Mass.,—a town with a population of approximately 37,000 people—has one main directive. When there is probable cause a criminal law has been broken, the officer is to arrest a person, drive him or her to the jail, and give a report to prosecutors about what was observed.

In contrast, the District Attorney of Suffolk County (population approximately 800,000) must decide whether the crime is probable beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether it is in the best interest of the public to use limited resources on that case.

That is not to say that policing cannot or should not be more strategic or preventative. David M. Kennedy, now a professor of justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, developed a group violence intervention strategy dubbed the “Boston Miracle,” that was considered responsible for the plummeting of Boston’s homicide rate in the 1990s.

However, the implementation of such strategies by police departments is not bottom-up but top-down—a result of partnerships with police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders.

The U.S. is not about to move to the European model, in which advisory boards of academic experts essentially write state criminal codes in lieu of popularly elected legislators.

We cannot even get states to swallow the Model Penal Code, drafted by the American Law Institute that includes many of America’s most brilliant legal minds.

As such, the closest thing we will get to employing crime expertise to informing criminal justice policy on a day-to-day basis is through our District Attorneys, to whom state legislatures grant nearly unfettered discretion.

This is more or less the conclusion that University of North Carolina Law Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick arrived at in a blog post about Rollins’ petty offense declination policy in September.

In a world of limited resources, District Attorneys cannot prosecute every single crime and petty offense that occurs within their jurisdiction. Instead, they must make decisions on how to use their resources, within the permissive borders of deliberately broad and plentiful criminal laws.

Bill Otis, the Georgetown University law professor whom President Donald Trump nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and who has been sharply criticized for his pro-mass incarceration views—Slate called him “obsessed with black-on-black crime”—has joined the chorus of Rollins critics.

“If I wanted to make a living being a small time thief, would I not be well-advised to move to Suffolk County?” he said, in response to Prof. Hessick.

But Otis ignored the fact that there are many other statutes Rollins could use to crack down on this sort of behavior, one of them being “organized retail crime,” which can fetch up to ten years in state prison.

It is unfair to suggest that Rollins’ plans amount to ineffective crime control measures or will hurt the interests of crime victims. Instead, she is trying to give people a chance to grow from their relatively harmless mistakes without getting clawed into by the criminal justice system.

The same point needs to be emphasized as other reform prosecutors across the country face criticism from those who want to reverse the nationwide movement for justice reform.

It is often said in reform circles that people are more than their worst moments.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

If a person’s worst moment is shoplifting a shirt, making a mean comment on an internet video game, or shooting up heroin while chemically dependent, perhaps desistance from the behavior should be good enough for all of us.

Rory Fleming is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney and he tweets at @RoryFleming8A. Readers’ comments are welcome.


‘Terrified’ Politicians Still Hobble Justice Reform: Commentary

Fordham’s John Pfaff reprises his 2017 book’s critique of the criminal justice reform movement with a new and pessimistic take on the state of play in dismantling mass incarceration.

Despite burgeoning justice reforms around the country, efforts to  reduce mass incarceration ignore some of the “fundamental underlying causes that led to mass incarceration in the first place,” according to Fordham University law professor John F. Pfaff.

John Pfaff

Pfaff, whose recent book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration—and How to Achieve Real Reform,  debunked what he called the predominant myths about mass incarceration, warned that it is misleading to focus on reducing the excessive sentences given to non-violent offenders, largely in drug cases.

In a new commentary for America magazine, a Catholic Jesuit publication, Pfaff wrote that the “politics of crime” still had a greater influence on the scope of reforms than on approaches based on evidence.

“We could send fewer people to prison for violence than we already do, we could incarcerate those we send there for less time, and we could release many of those already in prison for violence far earlier than they are currently slated to be sent home, and as a general matter the public would be just as safe as before, if not safer,” he writes.

“But the politics of crime is not driven by the general outcome. It is driven by politicians who are terrified of that one bad, outlier case that grabs the media’s attention.”

At the same time, Pfaff critiques the current state of the criminal-justice reform movement.

“Unfortunately, here are already some troubling signs that some level of mass incarceration is here to stay. Some states have started to roll back the reforms they just passed, and most reforms continue to ignore several fundamental underlying causes that led to mass incarceration in the first place.”

Calling the politics of criminal justice a “nightmare,” Pfaff writes that the real solutions to mass incarceration face the same long odds that they always have.


NYC Rikers Shutdown Plan Called National ‘Model’ for Ending Mass Incarceration

Plans to create a system of smaller detention facilities around New York City to replace the controversial Rikers Island jail complex could make the city a model for ending the nation’s  “tragic reliance on mass incarceration,” says former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

Plans to create a system of smaller detention facilities around New York City to replace the controversial Rikers Island jail complex could make the city a model for ending the nation’s  “tragic reliance on mass incarceration,” says former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The Hon. Jonathan F. Lippman

But Lippman, now chair of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, warned the city’s 10-year timeline for closing the jail did not remove the immediate need to end the “inhumane” conditions and practices at Rikers, one of the largest jail complexes in the country.

The judge. made his comments in the introduction to a “Progress Report” released this week on the plans to close down the facility.

The report noted that although the jail population had dropped by 1,500 in the past two years—a 15 percent decline—since Mayor Bill De Blasio accepted the commission’s recommendation to phase out the facility, there still remained “massive racial disparities.”

African-Americans and Latinos represent more than 90 percent of the inmates, most of whom are  awaiting trial and had not been convicted of any offenses.

“New York City continues to incarcerate too many people,” the report said. “For example, almost a third of the people admitted to jail are released within four days, suggesting that many should not have been jailed at all.”

Under the plan announced by the city, the Rikers population would gradually be shifted to smaller detention facilities around the city’s five boroughs, allowing inmates to be housed near their homes and local courts. But those plans have run into sharp opposition from community leaders who say their objections and suggestions have not been taken into account.

The study called on city authorities to pay closer attention to community concerns, while making clear the ultimate goal “is not simply to move jails around the city, but to reimagine the justice system for future generations.”

Critical to the goal was reforming some of the outdated bail and sentencing practices that sent too many people into pretrial detention in the first place, said the study authors.

To move reforms along, New York State legislators should begin enacting a set of reforms such as ending cash bail, new laws to speed up the trial and discovery practice, revising the parole system, and decriminalizing selected low-level offenses, said the study.

If the reforms were enacted in next year’s legislative session, they could reduce the number of people in New York City jails “by 3,000 or more” on any given day, and speed up the timeline for closing down Rikers.

But the report also said that in the interim,  meaningful reform at Rikers could not wait for the new, smaller facilities to be built.

Noting that incidents of violence continued to plague the facility, the report called on the city to follow the recommendations of a federal monitor and build a training facility for correction officers “as soon as possible.”

“Out of sight and too often out of mind, the human toll of the status quo at Rikers is unacceptable, for the people who work in the jails, the people who are detained there, and communities across our city,” the report said.

In his introduction to the report, Lippman said the city should not lose sight of the  ultimate goal of creating “a safer criminal justice system that lives up to our city’s values of decency, dignity, and equal treatment, and which can provide a model for ending our nation’s tragic reliance on mass incarceration.”

The full report can be accessed here


Incarceration Data Reveals ‘Sharp Urban-Rural Divide’ Across US

Sharp disparities between the imprisonment rates of urban and rural Americans illustrate the “new dynamics of mass incarceration” in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice said Friday.

Sharp disparities between the imprisonment rates of urban and rural Americans illustrate the “new dynamics of mass incarceration” in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice said Friday.

Vera released the latest data from a new tool exploring incarcerations trends, that drills down into prison admission and incarceration rates at the county level, with breakdowns by race and gender, based on 2015 figures.

“The (data) reveal an important truth,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of outreach and public affairs strategist for Vera, in a statement accompanying the report.

“The problem of mass incarceration is in all our backyards.”

The new data shows, for example, that Broome County, a rural region in upstate New York with about 200, 000 residents, sends people to state prison at a rate 45 percent higher than New York City.

Similarly, although the jail population in Oakland, Ca., and the surrounding Alameda County, CA, declined 33 percent between 2011 and 2015, the number of jail inmates in suburban region of San Bernardino increased 20 percent in the same period.

The figures underline what many have already noted as a “rural jail crisis” of overcrowded and outdated facilities, much of it caused by the increase in mentally ill or substance-abuser populations driven by the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The data also showed a sharp racial disparity in New York City, which has experienced some of the deepest and longest sustained reductions in crime, as well as jail populations.

In 2015, African-Americans were jailed in New York City at over ten times the rate of whites—and Latinx at five times the rate, Vera said.

What Vera described as the “sharp urban-suburban divide” in incarceration trends across the U.S. raises serious challenges for policymakers.

Travis County, Tex., where the upscale university and high tech community of Austin is located, saw a reduction of 23 percent in individuals sent to state prison between 2011 and 2015. But in rural McCulloch County, the geographical heart of Texas, the prison incarceration rate increased by more than 45 percent over the same period.

“In McCulloch County, 2.5 percent of working age males were absent from the county in 2015 because they were in the state prison system,” the Vera report said.

The full dataset available is available for download directly from Vera’s Incarceration Trends Project here.


Do America’s Sick, Aging Inmates Deserve the Right to Die at Home?

Terminally ill Vermont  inmate Bobby Hutt made it home to die, thanks to the fierce advocacy of his sisters. But although nearly all states allow “compassionate release,” it’s often underused.

Two photo albums encompass Bobby Hutt’s 48 years of life.

Black-and-white photos show him as a baby petting a dog, and as a moppy-haired boy playing basketball. The pages lead to an adult Bobby in a blue jumpsuit standing in a prison yard with two other inmates.

Hutt, who died from cancer four years ago shortly after he was granted medical release from prison, spent 30 years struggling with drug addiction, which repeatedly got him in trouble with the law.

His sister Melissa Dumont fought tears as she looked at the photos. Those she prefers are an image of Bobby captured between his prison sentences, wearing a backward baseball.

“That was Bobby, he always wore his hat like that,” Dumont said.

A unrecognizable Bobby stares back from the following page: a skeletal man in a hospital bed. His eyes barely open, he manages a weak smile for the family members who came to say goodbye.


Bobby Hutt’s sisters Janice Hull (left) and Lisa Dumont. It took more than a year of efforts to obtain his release from an Arizona prison on compassionate grounds. Photo by Elizabeth Murray/Free Press

Those final moments would have been impossible without the fierce advocacy of Bobby’s sisters, who lobbied to bring him back to Vermont from an out-of-state prison and then to get him home.

Dumont and Janice Hutt made hundreds of phone calls to navigate a complex and often unclear process while they say their brother wasted away. They can’t imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been fighting for him.

“He would have died in Arizona,” Hutt said.

Vermont is one of 49 states to pass compassionate release legislation, which is a special dispensation for inmates suffering from terminal or serious illnesses to die outside prison.

The need for such laws is likely to grow, as the nation’s aging prison population is at risk of chronic and terminal diseases that corrections officials and inmate advocates say are more appropriately treated outside prison.

Typically, in Vermont, the population of inmates who are 55 and older has increased in the past five years, even as the total number of inmates has dropped.

Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums and a national expert on compassionate release, says the U.S. as whole underuses compassionate release.  She gives Vermont’s laws — officially termed medical furlough and medical parole — a B-minus or C-plus.

Thanks to Bobby’s sisters, he died holding his mother’s hand.

But not all inmates get the chance to end their days close to loved ones.

Vermont offers an example.  While prison officials are supposed to initiate consideration of medical release when an inmate presents severe health issues, those providing inmate health care have sometimes failed to recognize terminal illnesses.

That was likely the case for Roger Brown of Windham County who was among about 270 Vermont inmates sent to SCI-Camp Hill in Pennsylvania in June 2017. He died there in October.

“[From] everything we’ve seen both from Roger and the witnesses, it appears to be obvious that he was ignored,” said James Valente, the lawyer for Brown’s estate.

Valente said he is still collecting evidence, but no information has yet been released publicly that suggests otherwise.

Brown developed cancer while incarcerated, but it’s unclear whether he knew about it.

Brown’s diary chronicles months of illness, for which he was treated with ibuprofen, and was told his chronic pain was not a medical emergency. Weeks before he died, he could barely move from his bed.

“We were continually rebuffed and refused medical attention,” wrote his cellmate Clifton Matthews, 67, who took over the log of Brown’s deterioration when he could no longer write.

“[He was] told repeatedly it was all in his head, even at the point he could no longer stand or sit up.”

Sending people out of state creates an extra layer of issues when trying to identify who might qualify for medical furlough or medical parole, said Vermont Defender General

Matt Valerio, of Vermont’s Prisoner’s Rights Office, said trying to get information from SCI-Camp Hill was “a nightmare,” since the prison contract stipulated that grievances must first go through the Pennsylvania administration.

Valerio said he was unaware of the severity of Brown’s condition since his office never received any complaints or grievances.

Typically, he said, when the office hears an inmate is in that condition, the agency’s staff begins to communicate with the inmate’s family and the Vermont Department of Corrections about options for release.

More than 200 out-of-state inmates from Vermont have since moved to a prison in Mississippi.

 RELATED: Why Vermont inmates eligible for medical release often remain behind bars

‘You Felt Like You Had to Beg’

Bobby began noticing pain while was serving 10 to 15 years in an out-of-state prison for three counts of assault and robbery with a weapon.

He put in multiple sick slips to be seen by a doctor and get an X-ray, his sisters say.

“Everybody always accused him of med-seeking,” Hutt said.

“You’re a drug addict, you’re med-seeking.”

Dumont said she continued to insist, in almost monthly conversations with her brother, that he keep asking for an X-ray.

“It got so bad that he would end up crawling on the floor because he couldn’t stand,” she said.

Bobby’s femur snapped underneath him while he was putting on his pants in November 2013 after months of receiving ibuprofen for pain management, but not much further treatment. That’s when Dumont and Hutt say they began their yearlong fight to secure their brother’s return to Vermont and his eventual release.

In Vermont, the decision about who is eligible for medical release is made by prison staff and officials. There is no formal process for families to advocate for the medically necessitated release of their loved ones. Inmates can request consideration for release through sick slips, but are given no other options to advocate on their own behalf.

The sisters made hundreds of phone calls trying to find someone who could help. Some people hung up on them.

They sent emails. A number went unanswered.

“You felt like you had to beg,” Dumont said.

Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Photo by Glenn Russell/Free Press

When first asked whether the Department of Corrections made information on medical release available to inmates’ families, Commissioner Lisa Menard said all policies were accessible on the agency’s website.

A review of “Friends and Families of a Person Incarcerated in a Vermont Correctional Facility,” which is posted on the department’s website and was last updated in 2017, failed to list any explanation of medical release options.

The other uploaded document, a “Health Services Handbook,” which was last updated in 2007, briefly defines the three types of medical furlough.

The section concludes: “If you have questions about your loved one’s health there are several steps to take.” But, rather than outlining actions that can be taken or listing departments to contact, the Q&A that follows repeatedly instructs concerned family members to consult the inmate.

In a follow-up conversation, Menard said she was unaware that the resources referenced in her previous conversation with the Free Press were so out-of-date and confusing.

“That’s a good catch,” Menard said. “I truly thought that there was more information in those, and that is unfortunate. We will make those more accessible.”

Menard said the handbooks were due for an update and she would like to bring inmates’ families into the process.

“We want family members involved in these cases, we really truly do; and certainly we need to make some more effort to make sure it’s easy and clear to find out how to do that,” Menard said.

Bobby’s sisters say they eventually made contact with Vermont’s out-of-state unit supervisor, who kept them in the loop. That connection gave them a leg up in trying to navigate the process.

Two months after receiving an advanced cancer diagnosis, Bobby was brought back to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vermont. When his family went to visit, the healthy, athletic man they remembered had all but disappeared. Bobby could barely walk.

For their mother, seeing his condition was devastating.

“This damn near killed her,” Janice Hutt said. “I think she lost nearly 60 pounds.”

After that, the sisters say Bobby Hutt didn’t want them to visit as much. It was too painful physically, and he didn’t want them to see him so sick.

The family continued to work with the Vermont Corrections Department to coordinate an approved residence and medical coverage if he was released from prison. Dumont converted her living room into a bedroom where Bobby’s hospital bed was placed, and, in August, Bobby was finally released on medical furlough.

Two months later, Bobby was dead. But, home.

“For all that we went through, he died where he wanted to die,” Dumont said.

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story by Elizabeth Murray, a staff writer with the Burlington Free Press, as part of her 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellowship. The full version and sidebars are available here. A video interview with Hutt’s sister can be accessed here. Follow Murray on Twitter at @LizMurrayBF.


The Unbroken Link Between Slavery, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration

Belton “Money Rock” Platt, a young, flamboyant drug dealer in Charlotte, N.C., spent 20 years in prison before emerging to become a minister.  In a new book, journalist Pam Kelley places his life story in the context of generations of southern racism, and in a chat with TCR she explains why such stories remain painfully relevant today.

Belton “Money Rock” Platt was a young, flamboyant drug dealer who had a near-monopoly on cocaine in the Piedmont Courts housing project in Charlotte, N.C., during the 1980s cocaine epidemic. After spending 20 years in prison, he devoted his life to God and became a minister.

Journalist Pam Kelley, who covered Belton’s trial in 1986 as a 26-year-old reporter for the Charlotte Observer, chronicles his story in Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South. What she found offers some object lessons about race, crime and drugs today. In a chat with TCR’s J. Gabriel Ware, Kelly explains her motives behind writing the book, why she decided to place the Platt’s family generational misfortune, filled with drugs, prison, murder and suicide in the context of Charlotte’s determination to become a prosperous “world-class” city while still suffering from the effects of Jim Crow, and how Belton turned from an interview subject into a friend.

The Crime Report: Before this book, you hadn’t seen or talked to Belton in more than 25 years. What made you track him down? And were you surprised to find out that he was now a Christian preacher?

Pam Kelley: I bought Jay-Z’s autobiography “Decoded” in December 2011. It was Christmas present for my daughter, but I read it and became engrossed in Jay-Z’s life as a young crack dealer in Mary Projects. That made me think about “Money Rock” and Piedmont Courts. I just didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t totally surprised to find out he was a minister. I’ve heard about people coming out prison and becoming ministers. And as I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve learned that he has a number of friends from prison who also became ministers.

TCR: A generational curse appeared to have terrorized Belton and his family—first with his father, and then him, and then with his sons. How did you make sense of that?

Kelley: An important part of the book is the collateral damage of mass incarceration, and I think Belton family, unfortunately, can almost be a case study. I think a lot of Americans are aware of what mass incarceration is, but I don’t think they understand that this gift that keeps giving in terms of creating these terrible problems for our society.

Pam Kelley

Pam Kelley

In the book, I quote an academic book called Children of the Prison Boom where the researchers shows a causal relationship between kids who had a father go to prison are at a higher risk for behavior disorders, etcetera—the authors basically say this is widening inequality. You send these fathers to prison for decades, and their kids grow up without fathers, and the kids have behavior issues and get into trouble and the cycle we’ve created.

TCR: How has your relationship with Belton evolved over these past 30 years?

Kelley: I first met Belton in Central Prison and we were both pretty young. I was 26 and he was 22. When we finally met again, he said to me “I thought you were like in college.” But I didn’t really know him then. I was reporter, so the relationship was professional. But I did kind of like him because he had a sense of humor—even though I was interviewing him for a big story and he lied to me and didn’t tell me very much. But when you write a book and you talk to someone over years, you get to know them and their family. I went to his previous wife’s funeral after she died of cancer. I remember him telling me on the phone and breaking into tears.

I still stop in to see his mom and enjoy talking politics with her. She’s 82 and still very opinionated and wise. When you do these narrative nonfiction book projects and you’re writing about real people, you become part of their lives and they become part of your lives. Today, I regard Belton as friend, and I think he regards me in the same way.

TCR: “Money Rock” is not just a biography. It’s also a history lesson that covers a wide-range of social issues including the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, mass incarceration and racial inequality. What do you want readers take away from the book?

Kelley: This is an American story in pretty much every way. You can tell similar stories in any city in the New South—any city that once had slavery. I want people to be curious about  how our past created our present situation. Because if you don’t understand the past—Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal and lack of opportunity for black people to accumulate wealth—then you’d look at a high-crime neighborhood of black people and say “well, if  those people would just work harder, or have better habits…” But once you know the history, you can’t do that.

Since I began writing “Money Rock,” a lot of things have happened in Charlotte that really throw light on some of the issues I addressed in the book. Exactly two years ago, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by police. There were some protests in Charlotte that got pretty violent—one man was even killed. Charlotte has always managed to smooth over its racial strife, but this kind of unmasked Charlotte and brought it all out in the open. And this narrative is taking place in different ways in many, many cities across the country. They are beginning to see how their past is still affecting their present. So, I think it’s really important for white America to know the history. And I think there are black Americans who don’t know this history, too, because a lot of it wasn’t taught.

TCR:  Is there anything you discovered about yourself personally while working on this book or as you reflect on covering Belton’s story from the 1980s until now?

Kelley: Just how much I didn’t know as young reporter. I grew up in the Midwest in a town where I had no black kids in my classes, and I moved to the South for college—I went to Chapel Hill. There was plenty of racism and segregation in the North but living in the South and covering public housing projects were all pretty new to me. When I went into Piedmont Court and saw that the buildings were run down, and the crime was terrible—right in the middle of this prosperous city—I kind of took it at face value like “Oh this is what a public housing is like.” it didn’t really occur to me to ask why. I didn’t have the context to ask some of the bigger questions that I have explored in this book.

I’m also more aware of my white privilege and how it benefited me. Imagine if somebody came here from another planet and they knew nothing about our history, and you were showing them around town. Suddenly, you stop at a place that looks worse than everywhere else, and the people who live there just happened to have darker skin: how would you explain that? When you start pulling that thread, it goes all the way right back to slavery. We created this construct to justify slavery—that’s the only way to explain it.

I think that’s how a lot of white people go through life because we don’t have to think about that. But the one thing that changed me is that I see it now. I can’t not see.

TCR: What’s your stance on the criminal justice system?

Kelly: First of all, we need to stop putting so many people in prison, and we need to stop putting them in prison for so long. We need to find alternatives to incarceration. Incarceration in the United States has been coming down a bit, but we still have the highest incarceration rate in the world—and the same thing with black men and the incarceration rate. There’s a lot of systemic racism in the system that needs to be address. Also, when people get out of prison. And once people get out of prison we need to make it easier for them to get back into society. It’s so hard now that if you don’t have a family to support you, you can end up homeless.

Gabriel Ware

J. Gabriel Ware

I’ve learned a lot about North Carolina’s state prison policies while writing this book. In the book mention that Belton’s oldest son was in prison and he spent more than three years in solitary confinement. They have since dialed that back, but to me that just has been an embarrassment and a tragedy. I think a lot of states, including North Carolina, need to reduce their use of solitary confinement.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.



A New Way to Forecast State Prison Populations

The Urban Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union have developed companion tools aimed at helping states understand the factors that drive their prison populations, and fashion policies that can reduce them without affecting public safety. The ACLU says its tool can help produce “transformational change” in the nation’s prison system.

With more than two million Americans behind prison and jail bars on any given day, many state leaders have been struggling with how to reduce that total while maintaining public safety.

The Urban Institute released on Wednesday a new tool allowing users to project prison populations state-by-state by experimenting with different variables.

In partnership with the institute, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) simultaneously issued “blueprints” that 24 states could use to cut their inmate totals by 50 percent in the coming years. The ACLU will release similar plans for the other states later.

Imprisonment is mainly a state issue, although the federal government also maintains a large prison system.

The Urban Institute notes that “every state has its own unique set of factors and challenges that contribute to mass incarceration,” adding that “there is no one-size-fits-all national solution for reducing the total number of people in prison.”

The institute offers a few examples. In Arizona, reducing admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would lead to an 11.7 percent decrease in the state’s prison population by 2025.

Doing the same thing in California would lead to only a 1.5 percent decline in inmate numbers in the next seven years.

Much of the discussion in recent years about reducing mass incarceration has focused on non-violent crimes.

The institute says that violent offenses are major drivers of states’ prison populations, and those populations can’t be substantially reduced without dealing with such offenses.

In Minnesota, cutting the length of prison terms for violent offenses in half would reduce the population nearly 25 percent by 2025. A similar reduction for property-crime offenses would lead only to a 5 percent decrease.

Large reductions in a state’s prison population would produce “significant savings in correctional spending, which frees up resources for investment in other public safety priorities such as crime prevention,” the institute says.

Conversely, increasing prison admissions for drug offenses by 50 percent would add $83.7 million to Illinois’ correctional budget, and $150.1 million to Texas’, the institute says.

The institute cautions that reducing the prison population does little to reduce the proportion of the prison population made up of people of color, and in some cases would worsen the racial disparities in incarceration.

As of 2016, there were 487,300 blacks, 440,200 whites and 339,600 Hispanics in state prisons, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The totals for African Americans  and Hispanics far exceeded their proportion of the national population.

The ACLU says that its blueprints based on the Urban Institute’s new tool are the “first-ever analysis of its kind and will serve as a tool for activists, advocates and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.”

Each blueprint analyzes who is being sent to jail and prison, racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the justice system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.

Among examples the ACLU offers:

  • In Louisiana, more than one-third of new prison admissions in 2016 were were convicted of property offenses, and thirty percent of admissions were for drug offenses. Louisiana, which already has passed legislation aimed at cutting prison numbers, could also reclassify drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
  • In Pennsylvania,  the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56.5 percent between 2006 and 2016. That state could focus on reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to violations of probation supervision.

The material issued on Wednesday differs from a 50-state report on public safety put out this year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which was billed as including “tools and strategies to help states reduce crime, recidivism, and costs.”

That report presented more than 300 “data visualizations” comparing crime, recidivism and correctional practices across all 50 states.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.


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.


Incarceration Decrease? Drop in Prison Numbers Called ‘Anemic’

Although the US prison population has begun to decline, researcher Malcolm C. Young says the rate of decrease is so low that the goal of prison reformers to cut prison populations by half would unlikely be reached until 2068.

Although the US prison population has declined over six years, after increasing for nearly four decades, a new analysis by researcher Malcolm C. Young, published by the Center for Community Alternatives, concludes that the nation is not reducing prison populations at a pace that would end mass incarceration in the foreseeable future.

A report issued in January by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of data through 2016 found that prison populations decreased in 33 states that year—more states than had experienced decreases in any recent year. The average decrease was three percent.

In 42 states, prison populations were lower than they had been recently. Just eight states increased their prison populations to record high numbers.

The downturn it documented, while perhaps marking the beginning of an end to three-and-a-half decades of increases, “is anemic to the point of listlessness,” says Young, a longtime advocate of cutting prison populations.

If the numbers of inmates continue to decrease only at the rate they did between 2014 and2016, there will still be more than a million people incarcerated in prison in 2042. The nation wouldn’t reach the goal of groups like to reduce prison populations to half of what they are today for another 50 years, until 2068.

Moreover, the current rate of decrease may not hold, according to Young.

The prospects for a more rapid de-incarceration are poor unless and until many more states use strategies that have been effective in the handful of states that are significantly reducing prison numbers, Young believes.

Only 13 states have significantly reduced their prison populations below the levels they were at the end of 2000. Seven of those 13 states accounted for most of the national inmate population drop.

California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York reduced their collective prison populations by 73,328 between 2000 and 2016, accounting for about two-thirds of the total by which all states reduced prison numbers.

Another 14 states have at times demonstrated a capacity for reducing prison populations.

The experiences in both sets of states show that reductions at rates of three to five percent annually, and even higher, are well within reach of governments motivated to act, Young writes.

The federal prison system, the nation’s largest, contributed to the national decrease. Its population at the end of 2016 was 13 percent under its highest point, in 2011.

Young found that prospects that most of the 13 states responsible for much of the national decrease will continue to reduce their prison populations are good.

For example, Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in the nation (after Maine), and the Vera Institute of Justice predicts further decreases. New Jersey will likely continue to reduce its prison population as a result of pretrial reforms signed by Gov. Chris Christie that took effect last year.

In New York State, further decreases are likely if officials can encourage fewer prison commitments from areas outside of New York City.

On the other hand, California, which decreased its prison population by 40,926 in six years to comply with a US Supreme Court ruling, increased its prison population in 2016 by 0.9 percent. California corrections officials predict an annual 0.8 percent increase in coming years.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner cut the prison population, incurring little opposition from the same Republicans who savaged his Democratic predecessor’s more modest efforts. Were he to lose his bid for reelection, it is not a given that a Democratic administration would carry his plan forward.

Since 2010, Texas decreased its prison population by 6,749 (4.1 percent). Prospects that the trend will continue are iffy because state legislators have been considering new sentencing enhancements.

Young found that decreases in the 14 states that have demonstrated a capacity to reduce prison populations have been “episodic.” Recently enacted reforms have encountered opposition.

In Louisiana, advocates have been concerned that legislators will roll back recently enacted reforms designed to reduce incarceration. In Utah, reforms that relied on treatment and housing programs are at risk because of a lack of funding for alternative programs. In Florida, legislative reforms have not led to the reductions in prison populations for which advocates hoped.

In the federal system, prospects for continued decreases are fading. A bipartisan reform bill that would have reduced some federal sentences seems stalled, while prosecutorial and sentencing policies announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions will soon add to the prison population.

Young’s report identifies a third group of 23 states that have yet to demonstrate a capacity to reduce prison populations. At the end of 2016, their combined prison populations were 86,866, or 31 percent higher than at the end of 2000.

The report recognizes that new developments might bring significant reductions in prison numbers.

The election of reform prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kimberly Foxx in Cook County, Illinois, signal a voter rejection of “tough on crime” and “lock-em-up” policies that have driven incarceration.

Another development lies in an emerging appreciation of the relationship between local jail incarceration and prison numbers by the MacArthur Foundation, which is funding local justice reform through its Safety and Justice Challenge. Were bail reform to spread, there would likely be a significant reduction in prison numbers as well as in jail counts.

Similarly, reforms in policing should reduce the use of jails and, indirectly, the number of people who are sentenced to prison.

The report concludes that if California and the federal system increase their prison populations, it will be difficult to sustain the current rate at which prison populations are decreasing.

Young calls for reexamining the effectiveness of prison-reduction strategies.

“[Hopes to] to end mass incarceration can’t be grounded in a fiction that an annual one percent reduction in prisoners will get us anywhere, or that limited successes in a few jurisdictions will end mass incarceration in the country as whole.”

His report contends that national, state and local officials should turn for guidance to states that have achieved significant, lasting reductions in prison incarceration and steer clear of approaches that have failed to produce results.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.