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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 #Cut50.org 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.
GOP-appointed judges hand down longer sentences to African Americans than whites for similar offenses, according to a study by two Harvard professors. They argue the current polarized political climate in judicial politics is a “source of persistent racial and gender disparities.”
The political affiliations of judges contribute to racial and gender federal sentencing disparities, according to a forthcoming study in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.
The study found that Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants three months longer than they do for non-blacks, and female defendants two months less than males, who committed similar offenses, compared to Democratic-appointed judges.
The researchers by two Harvard Professors of Law, Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang, used data from 1999-2015, analyzing over 500,000 federal defendants, and 1,400 judges. They found these disparities account for 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap, and 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap.
“Our findings suggest that judicial politics may be a source of the persistent racial and gender disparities in the federal criminal justice system, and that politics may play an even larger role today under the current state of increased sentencing discretion,” the authors said.
The authors went on to note that since the federal justice system is the “source of the largest and fastest growing prison population,” the appointment of federal judges is a critical contributing factor in racial disparities.
The study quotes other researchers as saying, “Seldom has (judicial selection) seemed more acrimonious and dysfunctional than in recent years.”
Earlier research indicates that black defendants receive harsher sentencing than similar white offenders, the authors say, and that male defendants are given substantially higher sentences than similar female offenders.
Research cited by the authors also indicates that Republican-appointed judges give longer sentences for the same crime than Democratic-appointed judges. This study builds off these studies and applies it to racial and gender sentencing gaps.
Lower federal judge appointments have gotten more attention in recent years as a result of the increasingly polarized political climate.
Judges are confirmed unanimously less often now, and appointments are more fervently debated among senators on different sides of the political spectrum.
An important factor the researchers analyzed was the effect of a Supreme Court decision in 2005, United States v. Booker, which gave judges more discretion in sentencing. Before Booker, judges were mandated by the United States Sentencing Commission to use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
This mandate applied to all federal offenses committed after November 1, 1987. After Booker, the guidelines were ruled as advisory, as opposed to mandatory.
“Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to 4.7 months longer in prison relative to non-blacks compared to their Democratic counterparts in the post-Booker period, a doubling of the gap prior to Booker,” the study said.
Additionally, the gap increased post-Booker because Democratic-appointed judges reduced their sentencing for Black offenders compared to non-black offenders.
The researchers also found that the sentencing disparities were substantially larger for more severe crimes, and that, “the magnitudes of the gaps are twice as large among the more serious offenses.”
The study also found a number of other disparities in sentencing. Defendants who are non-U.S. citizens receive longer sentences than U.S. citizens, and defendants with more dependents receive longer sentences that defendants with fewer dependents.
Additionally, “Defendants who plead guilty and defendants with higher education receive lower sentences than their respective counterparts.”
The researchers also detail how prosecutors factor into sentencing disparities when it comes to charging and plea bargaining. They found that prosecutors can adapt their initial charges or plea bargain offers, based on their prior knowledge of the judge and his affiliations or propensities. This is called bargaining “in the shadow of the judge.”
The study also stated, “Prosecutors are significantly less likely to offer substantial assistance motions to black defendants relative to non-black defendants, while they are more likely to offer substantial assistance motions to female defendants relative to male defendants.”
The researchers note that while prosecutors do have a substantial effect, their data still indicates that judges play an important role in sentencing disparities.
This summary was prepared by Dane Stallone, a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.
For lack of alternatives, thousands of mentally ill individuals are trapped in the justice system. In a conversation with TCR, Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” says change will only happen when we reexamine our attitudes towards mental illness.
In her career as a journalist, Alisa Roth has written about people in what she calls “forgotten communities,” such as immigrants and the poor. But when she began focusing on the mentally ill trapped in the U.S. justice system, after a friend’s brother was locked up, Roth discovered what she came to realize was the most forgotten community of all.
“I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood,” she told TCR. In a discussion with staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez about her new book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” Roth, a former Soros Justice Fellow, describes how jails and prisons have become the nation’s principal institutions for treating mentally troubled individuals, and suggests that strategies for developing more humane, treatment-oriented alternatives have to begin at the state and local levels.
The Crime Report: What was the catalyst for writing this book?
Courtesy Basic Books
Alisa Roth: I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood than people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. We talk about the issue of race in the criminal justice system, we talk about the issue of poverty in the criminal justice system, but we don’t talk about mental illness. These three intersect and overlap, but we can’t think about global reform without addressing the mental health question.
As I mention in the book, I have a friend whose brother developed a severe mental illness and committed a horrible crime. As I was thinking about this whole system, it kept coming back to him. If we as a society can allow him to see an alternative outcome, and not spend the rest of his life in prison, we can allow that for other people who have done less morally or criminally complicated things.
TCR: Through the process of this book, what hurdles did you have to overcome?
AR: I chose two of the most closed systems to look into. The criminal justice system is extremely closed in terms of access, in terms of data, and in terms of information. Likewise, the mental health care system is bureaucratic and complicated. So just figuring out where treatment is being provided, and who should be providing that treatment is difficult.
Then there’s the whole health care aspect. People are not allowed to, or are unwilling to, share information about treatment. And there’s the stigma question in both systems. There is still shame attached to having a mental illness or having a family member with mental illness. We march for breast cancer or AIDS, but we don’t want to talk about mental illness and we don’t want to admit it. So, getting people to open up and say “yes, I do have this issue” or “yes, my child does have this issue and these are the struggles we are going through,” is very difficult. I am very grateful to all the people who were willing to share their stories with me.
TCR: How did dealing with this affect you, and how do you move forward after seeing what you have seen?
AR: I feel a great responsibility and duty to share these stories and spread them. I have the means to tell the world about these horrible situations, whether it’s the really awful abuses or just the day-to-day low-level abuses of being locked up with a mental illness. So, I feel privileged to share that.
Keeping that in mind was a way to mitigate the awfulness of it, but it’s traumatic reporting. I had a lot of nightmares about jail and prisons. I have a lot of friends who work in this universe, so it was great to be able to compare notes and talk about what we have seen. It is traumatizing and exhausting, but I kept thinking that I got to walk out of there at the end of the day, and I needed to take advantage of that to tell the world about how bad the problem is.
TCR: One of the subjects in your book is the practice of solitary, and you note that it is still in effect despite being considered a form of torture by the United Nations. Why do you think it is still being practiced in the U.S.?
AR: There are a lot of pieces that go into this answer. Unfortunately, we have abandoned the notion of reform and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. We’ve moved back to the punitive notion. In some measure we think that people who are locked up in jail or prison deserve what they get. There is a dehumanizing aspect to the whole criminal justice system, and solitary confinement is part of that. If we don’t think of somebody as a full human being, then it becomes easier to do something really awful to them. If you think of this person as your brother, or our uncle, or your husband, it’s much harder to lock them in a box 23/7.
There’s also the fact that so many of us don’t know what goes on in the criminal justice system. The system as a whole is so abstract for such a large portion of our population, that we just don’t think or know about it. People have no idea that there are tens of thousands of people locked in solitary confinement on any given day. In a lot of places and for a very long time it’s just been how it’s done. It’s a very easy solution to put someone who is being unruly or difficult out of sight and out of mind. I think it speaks to a larger issue: We take people with mental illness, we lock them away, someplace we don’t need to see them. If we put them in jail or prison we don’t need to see them or step over them on our way to Starbucks in the morning. Solitary confinement is a reflection of that. But it makes everything so much worse.
Alisa Roth. Photo by Matthew Spence
TCR: Your book also criticizes the dangerous mistakes made by judges, and attorneys, who have no experience with the mentally ill. One example is your story of Jamie Wallace, a young boy suffering from mental illness and multiple physical disabilities, who eventually killed himself in prison due, in part, to a judge’s inability to understand his circumstances. How do we increase awareness and understanding of mental illness so that we may better avoid tragedies such as this?
AR: As awareness of the problem of large numbers of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system grows, judges and attorneys are more attuned to it. It’s not that people don’t know it’s there, but it’s as much as about changing attitudes as anything else. I talk to a lot of judges and I’ve said “Hey, in a lot of cases you’re being asked to make what’s effectively a medical decision and you’re not a doctor; you’re a judge. ‘
The best answer I heard, and it makes sense to me to a degree, is the judge who that’s what he does all the time. He takes the best information he can get and makes a decision based on that. So, he’s not making a medical judgement, per se; he’s taking the information that the psychiatrist, the therapist, and the attorneys give him and using that to make a decision. Jamie Wallace’s case was particularly egregious. He was so young, so sick, and had a developmental disability on top of it. I found it heartbreaking to think that the judge couldn’t see a way to understand. And the judge was playing very much by the rules.
Jamie Wallace was failed by the system at every level, over and over again. A forensic psychiatrist who read about him said he should never have been declared competent or even been standing in that courtroom. The judge made an awful decision, but he also made a mistake in letting him even be in that courtroom that day. You have to wonder how it would have been different if he had been wealthier, or his parents had been more educated, or if he had been in a different state.
TCR: Jamie Wallace’s story is an example of the mistakes that can be made as a result of the disorganized bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. At a time when so many are pushing for better training within that system to fix the problem, and others are fighting to keep the mentally ill out of that system entirely, which do you feel is the better option?
AR: In an ideal world, we would be able to keep everybody with a serious mental illness out of the criminal justice system. In an ideal world, we’d be able to keep a lot of people without a mental illness out of the criminal justice system. We lock up a lot of people very easily. I think that diversion is absolutely critical, but in order to make wide scale diversion possible, we can’t just look at this little tiny piece of the problem. We have to remember that we are operating in a very large ecosystem, not just of criminal justice but also of mental healthcare. We need to see wide-scale reform of both these systems so that people aren’t getting to the point where they’re so sick.
You see people in jail and prison who are sicker than a lot of people you see in psychiatric hospitals. We need to be catching the diseases earlier and treating them earlier. It’s great to train the cops to not arrest people, but if you don’t have some place for the cops to take them that’s not jail, they’re still going to wind up in jail. That’s what happened in San Antonio when they created their crisis center system. [They realized] you can train cops as much as you want, but they’re still going to take people to jail if there’s no other option. The other part of it is, as long as we are going to have people that end up in the criminal justice system, we have to make sure that when they’re there, they’re getting the treatment that they need and not just being warehoused in prisons.
TCR:A popular talking point now is de-institutionalization, starting when the majority of state-run mental health hospitals were closed during the 1960s. However, your book insists that there were other, more important, causes for the problem. Can you expand on that?
AR: De-institutionalization is a fabulous talking point. It has this very neat narrative: Dorothy Dix found people locked up in jail; realized this was not the place for them; they weren’t getting the treatment they needed; wardens were saying they couldn’t handle this; she pushed for the creation of the asylum system; everything was great until it all went to hell and we had to open up the doors and let everyone out. Then, without treatment, people were ending up in the criminal justice system. And it has a very neat solution: if this is how we got there, then all we have to do is treat the mental illness and we’ll get people out of the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, it’s way more complicated than that. Even when you look at the heyday of institutionalization, during the middle of the last century, there were a lot of people in institutions, but it was not the majority. There were still a lot of people living at home or elsewhere, or getting treatment in the community. The population in institutions tended to be older, white, female, and very heavy on people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The people now locked in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly young, male, and not white.
I think we also have to look at the story of mass incarceration. We’ve started locking up way more people than we ever did…and when you cast such a big net, of course you’re going to pull in a lot of people with mental illness. When you break it down even further and look at co-occurring substance use disorders, a very large majority of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system have a co-occurring substance use disorder. So, if we’re arresting tons of people for drug possession, drug use, drug selling, drug dealing, it makes perfect sense that we’ll pick up people with mental illness.
Using policing tactics such as “broken windows” and “stop and frisk,” allowed us to lock up huge amounts of people [and] made it easier to arrest people with mental illness. I think that the story of mental illness in the criminal justice system is as much a story of mass incarceration as it is of de-institutionalization. The one piece of the story that is important, even if we don’t quite tell it right, is that we do have a severe lack of mental health care in the community and we have made it extremely difficult to get treatment for mental illness. But it’s not that everybody was getting treatment in a hospital and now they can’t get it, we just don’t have that and we’ve never had it.
TCR: How can we get people to start viewing mental illness seriously?
AR: I think we’re starting to move in that direction, very slowly. We’re seeing more people acknowledging an issue with depression or anxiety. We’re still not seeing a lot of actors come up at the Oscars and mention that they have schizophrenia, but I think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to talk about these things. We know that people can change, and society can change. There was a time that people didn’t talk about HIV or cancer, and now we wave flags for it. We need to get over the fear and stigma [attached to] mental illness in our society. The narrative in the media and in politics that links mental illness and violence is very damaging. And it’s hard to get over that stigma when every time something bad happens somebody is out there pointing a finger at mental illness.
TCR: Are tools such as Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), deescalation and community policing having a positive effect on the problem?
AR: Like so many things in criminal justice, there is not a ton of data or evidence-based research to show one way or another. The data in places such as Miami or San Antonio show that these things work. Miami says that it’s cut the number of officer-involved shootings. In San Antonio, the system has prevented them from expanding the jail. People who study policing say that CIT is just good policing—-going back to the kind of policing we had before “professionalized” law enforcement. It was the cop walking the beat who knew the people in the community. There’s no reason to run into every situation like it’s a battleground. Police officers always talk about how they see people on the worst day of their lives. That narrative is used sometimes as a reason why you need to be on your guard. But I’ve also heard it used as a reason to be gentle, kind, and thoughtful because they’re there to help.
Getting police to respond in a more thoughtful, more community/medically oriented way, instead of the tough, warrior way, is terrific. The big caveat is that if you don’t have the whole system set up to accommodate this it can only get you so far. You might deescalate a particular situation, but if you don’t have any longer-term solutions, you’re going to be back picking up the same person with no place to go. Often communities think CIT will be a step to solving the problem, but you have to think about how you’re going to divert, what’s the mental health treatment going to be, and how do we make sure we’re not picking people up again next week or next month.
TCR: Does change need to start at a federal level? And do you see potential for change under the current administration?
AR: The thing about criminal justice is that so much of it happens on such a local level that, on the flip side, a lot of reform can also happen on a local level. If I’m in Manhattan, and get arrested, it could potentially be a different outcome then if I’m in the Bronx or New Jersey. Because it’s so local, I think the federal question is almost irrelevant. Even the laws of involuntary commitment are handled at a local level. I think with a lot of laws, particularly with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and involuntary commitment, it really comes down to a very narrow line of navigating between civil liberties and safety for the person and the public.
We obviously don’t want to go back to the time when somebody could have a child committed to a hospital for not being religious enough or dating the wrong person. On the other hand, I think we’ve made it so difficult to get somebody hospitalized that we’re in this perpetual crisis management mode. The way it’s set up now is that you really have to be at a crisis point in order to make involuntary commitment possible. Likewise, with HIPAA, I don’t want my business broadcast all over the place. On the other hand, the very nature of mental illness means that the person is not, necessarily, capable of making decisions for himself, or even providing the information that the doctors need. I’ve heard families talk about managing to get their adult child hospitalized, but then not being able to convince the doctor to talk to them about what has or hasn’t worked in the past. As with any other illness, the more information the clinician has, the better they can treat the problem.
HIPAA is also widely misunderstood. It’s used as an excuse for stonewalling families and other people trying to get information. I think the more important question, is how do we figure out how to loosen these laws a little bit to make things easier and more effective without throwing all the civil liberties out with it. As for the current administration, I think this is a big wildcard. It doesn’t seem to be a big priority except on those occasions when something awful happens and suddenly there’s talk of bringing back asylums and more mental health care. Between seeing real change at a local level or at a federal level, I have a little bit of hope that at the local level there is potential for reform.
Isidoro Rodriguez, a staff writer for The Crime Report, covers policing and mental health issues. He welcomes comments from readers.
Reducing US prison populations requires a strategy that engages all the players in the justice system, from courts to community residents to the media, a panel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice was told.
Changing state and federal guidelines on sentencing and bail won’t be enough to reduce America’s prison population, according to two of the nation’s foremost advocates for justice reform.
“It’s going to involve litigation, it’s going to involve organizing, it’s going to involve academia, (and) it’s going to involve elevating and honoring the voices and efforts of those who are most impacted by the system,” says Robin Steinberg, a co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, which has been a prominent player in the movement for bail reform in New York City.
“There is no one strategy that works,” Steinberg, who is now CEO of The Bail Project , a national effort to reduce racial inequities in bail, told a panel last week at the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.
“So it’s going to involve the media, it’s going to involve certain communications strategies….whatever leads us to change the narrative.”
Judith Greene. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR
Steinberg’s comments were echoed by Judith A. Greene, a former Soros Senior Justice Fellow and contributor to the new book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health, who described how a combination of “organizing, litigation, public education, and ballot measures” was responsible for a 31 percent decline in New Jersey’s prison population between 1999 and 2014—one of the highest decarceration rates in the country.
New Jersey’s effort began with “litigation against a parole board that wasn’t doing its job,” received a boost from a report by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) group advocating the elimination of mandatory-minimum drug sentences, and was reinforced by changes in plea guidelines established by the state attorney general’s office, Greene said.
“Then finally about three or four years ago, about the same time New York dropped the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state legislature essentially took the last legal legs out from under the drug school zone laws,” she added.
“So it was a combination….they didn’t have ballot measures, but they had organizing, they had civic engagement. And they had an elite body in the state’s highest court pushing to effect major drug reform.”
Speaking about bail reform, Robin Steinberg commented that the Bronx Freedom Fund, founded in 2005, was borne out of frustration “at watching bail get set on clients, and watching our clients get hauled into jail cells and the inevitable plea of guilty…and at some point my co-founder said we should just start a bail fund to bail people out.”
It took the Bronx Freedom Fund two years to find Jason and Joe Flom, the primary investors in their project. The fund finally took off in 2007 and began to bail people out.
“The lawyers in the Bronx Defenders would refer clients that they thought would be eligible for the bail to the Bronx Freedom Fund,” she said. “The [fund] would then do an interview and began to pay bail.”
What the Bronx Freedom Fund learned after being in operation for eleven years “exploded our beliefs” about bail, Steinberg said.
Counter-intuitively, the results of the Bronx Freedom Fund showed that people do come back to court even when their cash isn’t at stake.
“Once we started using donated dollars to pay people’s bail and we began to learn that 96 percent of our clients came back to court even though it wasn’t their money, and they had nothing at stake in terms of the money,” she continued. “[That] kind of exploded our ideas about money being an incentive to bring people back to court.”
Freedom Fund staff discovered that “97 percent of clients held on misdemeanors in The Bronx were pleading guilty, and when we paid people’s bail with philanthropic dollars, what wound up happening was almost half the cases got dismissed,” said Steinberg.
“The majority of the other half of the cases wound up in non-criminal dispositions—which have far fewer collateral consequences.”
The strategy of paying for defendants’ bail utilized by the Bronx Freedom Fund is known as a revolving-bail system.
The panel, titled “Decarcerating America,” was moderated by Nicole Fortier, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Program.
In another, earlier, example of a multi-pronged decarceration approach, Greene described how New York City evolved from a gang enforcement strategy, which had led to the over-incarceration of youth in poor, minority neighborhoods during the 1950s, to programs involving street workers who could help young people find alternatives to gang involvement.
After reform-minded Mayor John Lindsay was elected in 1966, “the city…. listened to sociologists who said this was a youth problem more than a crime problem, pointing out that most kids who are in gangs are not marauding and shooting people,” she said.
New York began applying a “social intervention” strategy that involved a range of innovative approaches, including hiring former gang leaders as mediators.
As a result, said Greene, New York was able to avoid the kind of gang violence that plagued Chicago and Los Angeles.
Officials in many cities across America still haven’t picked up on the lesson, she said.
“It breaks my heart to see the gang enforcement strategy travel east,” said Greene.
Files for this story were provided by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.
On an average day in an average year, around 1,700 people are released from federal penitentiaries and state prisons. The odds of successfully reintegrating into civilian life are stacked against most of them, says a California researcher.
They join what amounts to a mid-sized city, with a population that grew by 626,000 just in 2016, that does not appear on any map of the United States. The residents of this “virtual city” are scattered across the country, but they share some important characteristics.
Many are Black or Latino/a, and the vast majority are poor, unemployed, modestly educated, insecurely housed, politically disenfranchised, affected by some physical or mental illness, and exposed to heavy surveillance by a range of law enforcement agencies.
All have criminal records—a state-sanctioned stigma that normalizes their status as second-class citizens and de facto legitimizes their discrimination by employers, welfare officers, lenders, landlords, and neighbors, among others.
This is the ongoing reality of prisoner reentry in the U.S., a social emergency largely ignored by mainstream society and its media.
In an attempt to document the multiple forms of social suffering endured by these returning citizens, I conducted ethnographic research into one population group of that “city” between 2011 and 2014: a group of formerly incarcerated men who had been recently released from prison and were facing the challenge of reintegrating into a racially segregated neighborhood in West Oakland, CA.
The entry point into the field was provided by a community clinic situated in the heart of West Oakland, which provided free basic healthcare services to poor residents of the area. In addition, the non-profit organization that ran the clinic offered some volunteer and employment opportunities as staff members to a small number of recently released prisoners.
During the years of fieldwork, I developed close relationships with 15-20 people. All of them were either African-American or Latino men, mostly in their 40s, with long histories of confinement in juvenile facilities, jails, prisons, and federal penitentiaries. Their most frequent convictions were for drug-related crimes.
For three years I shadowed these men while they looked for jobs, applied for social services, hunted for affordable housing, battled their addictions, became homeless, slept in their cars, tried to obtain a driver’s license, lost their jobs, were rearrested, and released again.
During those months I gave them rides to the welfare office, waited in line with them at the DMV, picked them (and sometimes their partners) up from jail, sat next to them while they were panhandling in the parking lots of local supermarkets, gave them money when they were penniless and bought them groceries when their fridges were empty.
Many of the individuals released from incarceration are not fortunate enough to be picked up at the prison gates by some friend or relative. So when they are discharged—often in the middle of the night—at the closest bus station, with a bag of clothes and a few dollars of “gate money” as their only possessions, they’re on their own.
West Oakland, CA. Photo by De Giorgi
Back on the street, sheltered in some halfway house when not homeless, they must struggle to survive, either in the secondary labor market as low-wage, part-time, disposable workers, or more often in the underground economy as chronically unemployed hustlers, recyclers, and panhandlers.
A large number of them face this lonely struggle for daily subsistence at the same time as they cope with severe psychological traumas, long-term addictions, and of course the looming threat of reincarceration if they violate any condition of their parole.
The initial goal of my research was to study prisoner reentry. I expected to return from my fieldwork documenting an extensive network of (post) carceral control, ongoing surveillance, aggressive policing, unrealistic parole and probation conditions, and that these intrusive penal technologies would emerge as the main obstacles to the successful reintegration of former prisoners.
Instead, during my three years in the field I ended up documenting widespread public neglect, institutional indifference, and programmatic abandonment of these marginalized populations by both the social and penal arms of the state.
Darryl, one of the men I interviewed during my research, offered a powerful assessment of the widespread economic abandonment people face when coming out of prison:
One thing that we face as being African-Americans and living in an inner-city neighborhood is coming back to this neighborhood being rehabilitated, changing our life and doing stuff different, and at the same time have to deal with the same type of economic issues that we dealt with before we left […]. We have no opportunity where we lay our heads. […]. So this is one of the challenges that we face: we come back to nothing. We left from nothing and we’re back to it.
Darryl’s case was not isolated.
Besides lacking access to any employment opportunities, most people were unable to receive any form of welfare assistance—either because none was available or because they were “ineligible” as a consequence of the many welfare bans attached to their convictions. A lifetime ban on food stamps eligibility for felony drug offenders was introduced as part of the 1996 welfare reform.
Since 2015 the ban on food stamps and some other benefits has been lifted in California. Nonetheless, many people with criminal records don’t apply, often because they are simply unaware of their entitlement to these limited benefits, and in some cases because they have pending issues with the criminal justice system (such as unpaid child support) that make them wary of providing identification to any public official.
West Oakland, CA. Photo by De Giorgi
As for subsidized housing, at the time of the study the Housing Authority of the County of Alameda was not accepting applications for Section 8. The only way to get into the wait list for public housing was through a lottery system that has been closed since 2015. In any case, applicants can still be discretionally screened out due to prior criminal convictions, particularly if drug related.
Of course, besides housing, the most urgent need people face upon release is access to cash for the basic necessities of life; but the only cash allowance available to single men is General Assistance: a county-level emergency program that offers a maximum of 336 dollars per month, for a maximum of 3 months per year.
However, it would be misleading to even consider this as welfare assistance, since GA is considered a loan, and its prospective recipients must sign a reimbursement agreement as a condition of eligibility.
This is not to suggest, of course, that the incapacitating and disempowering effects of mass incarceration were absent from the experiences of the people I followed, but rather that those effects were magnified by the state’s retraction from (as much as presence in) the lives of returning prisoners.
Indeed, I observed the emergence in the postindustrial ghetto of a low-intensity model of urban containment of surplus populations largely devolved to what Jennifer Wolch has defined as the “shadow state”: a barely coordinated network of actors including nonprofit agencies, faith-based organizations, rehabilitation centers, transitional housing programs, etc.
These private or semi-private entities are charged with the low-cost management not only of former prisoners, but also of the variously disenfranchised populations inhabiting the urban margins—mentally ill individuals, homeless people, drug addicts, chronically unemployed men and women, etc.
They operate under a neoliberal model of social governance, in which market-friendly solutions are systematically devised as the only response to a broad range of structural issues faced by former prisoners and other marginalized populations. Thus, so called reentry services usually offer plenty of resume-preparation sessions, job interview workshops, anger management classes, computer literacy courses, rehab and group counseling programs—but much less in terms of affordable housing, free health care, accessible education, or a basic income.
This model of service provision is perfectly consistent with the neoliberal ideology of free choice, individual responsibility, and personal change that is inculcated into criminalized populations at every step of their journey through the US carceral state, from arrest to release.
In other words, whether they sleep in a bed or in a car, have a job or push a cart, have access to medications or go untreated, their reentry process is considered successful as long as they don’t commit any crimes.
A good case in point here is Ray, a 49-year-old African American who was released from prison in 2010, after serving 11 years for a violent crime.
While on parole, Ray kept struggling with alcohol dependence and used crystal meth and other drugs on a regular basis. Since he was homeless, for almost one year he slept with his girlfriend in a car that was parked in the rear of the fast food restaurant where Ray worked during the day.
Throughout my time in the field, Ray’s addictions were essentially ignored by his parole officer as long as Ray maintained a crime-free lifestyle. As for his homeless status, the officer reassured Ray that living in the car was OK, as long as he notified the parole officer whenever he decided to move the car to some other location (something Ray had to do frequently in order to avoid parking tickets).
It should therefore not be surprising that—despite the dreadful conditions of neglect and abuse endemic to the US prison system—penal institutions now represent one of the few remaining sources of public relief to the poor in the postindustrial ghetto. After all, even as living conditions in prisons keep spiraling down due to chronic overcrowding, ongoing state violence, and punitive deprivations, prisoners must nonetheless be granted access to food, shelter, and sporadic health care.
Formerly incarcerated people are aware of this, and it was not uncommon for me to hear the people I followed say that their material standards of living had deteriorated since their return to “freedom.”
Alessandro De Giorgi
In light of this, the recent mainstream campaigns for penal reform, some of which are inspired by budget concerns rather than by any public reckoning with the social suffering imposed upon criminalized populations, signal the intention of the nation’s power elites to defund even prisons, since these have become the residual providers of (carceral) welfare services to America’s racialized poor.
As long as living conditions at the bottom of the US racial and class hierarchy will be characterized by widespread economic destitution, institutional abandonment, and public neglect, “prisoner reentry” will be little more than a self-absolutory figure of speech, and formerly incarcerated people will keep coming back to nothing.
The percentage of U.S. residents in jail dropped 3.4 percent from midyear 2012 to midyear 2016, says U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. County and city jails held 740,700 inmates at midyear 2016, far below the peak of 785,500 in 2008.
The percentage of U.S. residents in jail dropped 3.4 percent from midyear 2012 to midyear 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported on Thursday. The jail incarceration rate fell from 237 inmates per 100,000 residents at midyear 2012 to 229 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear 2016. The incarceration rate fell 11.2 percent from midyear 2008, when there were 258 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, to midyear 2016.
County and city jails held 740,700 inmates at midyear 2016. This was below the peak of 785,500 inmates in 2008, the year with the most jail inmates since 1982, when the agency began its annual jail survey. In 2016, jails reported 10.6 million admissions, continuing a steady decline since 2008, when there were 13.6 million. On average, those admitted to jail in 2016 stayed 25 days. At the end of 2016, 65 percent of those in jail were not convicted of an offense but were awaiting court action on a current charge. The remaining 35 percent were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. Nearly 7 in 10 inmates were held in jail on felony charges, while 1 in 4 were held for misdemeanor offenses.
The rate at which people were held in local jails varied widely by racial and ethnic groups. At year-end 2016, non-Hispanic blacks (599 per 100,000 black U.S. residents) had the highest jail incarceration rate, followed by American Indian or Alaska Natives (359 per 100,000 American Indian or Alaska Natives residents). Hispanics (185 per 100,000 Hispanic residents) and non-Hispanic whites (171 per 100,000 white residents) were incarcerated in jails at a similar rate at year-end 2016. Blacks were incarcerated in jail at a rate 3.5 times that of whites at year-end 2016. This was down from 5.6 times the rate in 2000.
The sentencing overhaul championed by Gov. Bruce Rauner has already cut inmate numbers by 7,000. But reforms at the county level, influencing who goes to prison in the first place, have been a critical ingredient in the state’s success—and could be a model for jurisdictions elsewhere.
As states grapple with persistently high incarceration numbers, with more than two million people still in prisons and jails nationwide, the main focus has been on the back end of the justice system: reducing the time inmates stay behind bars.
Some reformers are urging a similar focus on the front end: incarcerating fewer people in the first place.
One state that is trying to do both, with some success, is Illinois.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has set an ambitious goal of cutting the prison rolls 25 percent by 2025. Illinois’ incarcerated population jumped from fewer than 10,000 inmates three decades ago to more than 48,000 in 2015—the nation’s eighth largest state inmate total. Providing cells, food, medical care and other services costs taxpayers $1.3 billion annually.
Under Rauner’s policies, the state has already cut that number by almost 7,000.
If prison is the caboose of the criminal justice train for offenders, the local criminal justice system is the engine, the place where decisions are made on who goes to prison.
One of the first Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC) was started in central Illinois’ McLean County in 2011 to address chronic overcrowding at the county jail.
At the time, McLean ranked highest among the state’s 20 largest counties in its rate of sending drug defendants to state prison, with a total of 92.1 per 100,000 residents, according to Malcolm C. Young, former Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, who studied variations in crime and arrest rates and commitments to state prisons among Illinois counties when he directed a program on prison reentry strategies at the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University.
The McLean coordinating council, comprising elected and appointed policy makers, community members, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, met around the same table for the first time to examine the strengths and shortcomings of the local system.
“The CJCC erased the boundaries between the departments as we all worked together for the overall criminal justice system,” former County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped initiate new policies to prune the jail population, said in a recent interview. Emery did not seek re-election in 2014 and now is law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield, Illinois.
Emery started the practice of letting judges and other decision makers know when his jail was nearing capacity, putting more emphasis on the possible release of low-level offenders at bond hearings. The decision of who would be released remained with judges, but the sheriff’s alert added jail population to the court’s list of considerations.
Defendants’ participation in a pre-trial release program allowed them to build a record of conduct for use later in their cases, he said.
The pre-trial release reports “gave judges more options than incarceration,” when it came to sentencing, he added.
Before the reform measures, inmates who were unable to pay as little as $100 to be released on bail sat for months while their cases moved slowly through the court system.
Former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped establish the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Photo by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler/The Pantagraph
In one of his first alerts to the chief judge, Emery pointed out that ten inmates were in jail on ordinance violations— the lowest form of criminal conduct. Now defendants on such infractions and similar non-violent offenses require only their agreement to appear for future court dates to avoid a jail stay, a major change in previous policy.
Data compiled by the McLean County justice council has since documented major changes in the jail population that reflect changes in both the number of inmates and the composition of the jail’s population.
By 2015, as jail usage began to tip significantly towards serious felony defendants, the total bed days for low-level felonies and misdemeanors—a measurement of overnight stays—were down an average of about 30 percent compared with 2007.
The county’s crime rate was also decreasing during this period, and police agencies have reported fewer arrests this year. The county’s total of 1,462 felony cases filed in 2016 was slightly below the previous year but generally were up since 2011, when about 1,100 felonies were charged.
The shift in McLean County to using the county jail mostly for holding defendants charged with the most severe offenses is a likely contributor to the lower numbers sent to state prison, David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University in Chicago,who served on Rauner’s commission, said in an interview.
“We know from research that if people are not detained pre-trial, their chances of going to prison are less,” Olson said.
The ability to remain out of jail while a case is pending allows people to keep their jobs, take care of their families and, in some cases, begin efforts to address mental health and substance issues that may have contributed to their offenses. Defendants also have greater opportunity to meet with their lawyers and assist with their defense when they are not sitting in jail.
Illinois Adult Redeploy, a state program that grants funds to community-based county-level services, provides financial incentives for counties to divert people from prison by keeping them in the community. It also played a part in reducing the number of defendants McLean County sends to state prisons each year. The state program returns money to communities to invest in local efforts in exchange for reducing the number of people sent to prison.
There also has been a policy shift towards probation as the preferred disposition in non-violent criminal cases. The move to provide defendants with several chances to succeed before sending them to prison has the support of all levels of the local justice system, including the judiciary, whose representatives serve on the council.
Cassy Taylor, director of McLean County Court Services and a member of the council, said in an interview the collaboration between local and state agencies “creates data-driven decision making, so we are making smart decisions with the resources we have.”
The result, added said Taylor, is an agreement on what she terms “the philosophy of community corrections.”
The preliminary results of these changes have been promising, according to data compiled recently by The Pantagraph from local circuit court records. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a steady decrease in the percentage of convicted defendants from McLean County sentenced to state prison. In 2011, 42 percent went to prison and 57 percent were put on probation. By 2016, 29 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison and 70 percent went on probation.
In all, state prison admissions from the country dropped from 385 in 2011 to 293 in 2016, court data showed.
Loyola’s Olson has been studying the impact of local criminal justice councils on justice systems in five Illinois communities, including McLean County.
The reduction in the number of McLean defendants heading to prison is indicative of what collaboration can accomplish, said Olson. “You’ve got this drop in admissions to prisons because in part they’re using prison less as a sanction,” he said.
Redeploy Illinois helped Kenneth Williams get back on his feet in 2013 following legal problems. The program offers financial incentives to counties in return for keeping offenders in community-based programs instead of prison. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph
Almost seven years after it started, the McLean County council is still going strong. At its mid-January meeting in the local government center, members reviewed a report on the numbers of mentally ill people booked into the jail.
The broad base of knowledge developed by the council since its inception on the inner workings of the criminal justice system supports robust discussion on what the numbers mean—something that was not possible before 2011.
Illinois officials hope that four other counties that have created local criminal justice counties with the help of the state will have results similar to McLean County’s.
The local councils are just one ingredient in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.
Another is a sentencing reform law that that went into effect Jan. 1. Several provisions allow defendants who violate conditions of probation to be jailed locally instead of going to state prison. Another section provides that cases of minor offenders who would normally spend about nine months in state prison remain in counties instead, under probation supervision.
The law also allows state prison officials to give “supplemental sentencing credits” that offer an expanded group of inmates reduced prison stays for taking part in rehabilitation programs behind bars.
Finally, the law repealed mandatory prison terms for selected offenses, many of them drug crimes.
James Austin, a consultant based in Washington, D.C. and California who has studied the Illinois correctional system, estimates that the law’s provisions will reduce the state prison rolls by between 5,000 and 7,000, depending on how it is implemented across the state.
Overall, Austin says, the prison total could drop to 35,400 by 2024, a 27 percent reduction under Rauner’s governorship.
The new Illinois law was termed “unique” by Lenore Anderson, president of the national Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for survivors of crime, because it combines state-level and local reforms and adds new aid for crime victims.
“This is a model that other states should take a look at,” she said.
The Illinois reforms also got national recognition when the state was one of the first three chosen to take part in an ongoing National Criminal Justice Reform Project sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the National Governors Association (NGA) to promote system-wide criminal justice reform that requires on evidence-based policies.
“Illinois’ work provides a good example of how states can better support and partner with local entities to address crime and strengthen public safety,” says NCJA’s Tammy Woodhams.
Much criminal justice reform in recent years has been focused exclusively on governors and state legislatures, who have the power to set maximum prison terms and to have much control over the amount of time prisoners end up spending behind bars.
Young, who studied Illinois counties’ justice practices, said that “all criminal justice is local,” adding that justice policies are “highly individualized among localities,” and that “extensive variations in government responses demonstrate the significant part local discretion and preference play in determining how criminal justice resources, including prison incarceration, are allocated.”
Eric Cadora, of the New York City-based Justice Mapping organization, originated the term “justice reinvestment” that is now used as shorthand for cutting prison populations and using the money saved for providing services to offenders.
Cadora welcomes state-level reforms but says that local criminal justice systems like those in McLean County also should be a key source of changes.
“Local jurisdictions are in a unique position to share the risk for … substantial reform efforts because they are more directly accountable for both the potential costs and benefits associated with the impact of such reforms on their constituents,” he said.
This story is jointly published as a partnership between The Pantagraph and The Crime Report. Edith Brady-Lunny covers crime and justice affairs for The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Il., and is a former John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. They welcome comments from readers.