Pretense, Prison and the Free World

Corrections authorities believe encouraging “family-friendly” events inside penal institutions will motivate prisoners to change their behavior when they are released. But this is wishful thinking unless there’s better social support for reentry, writes an inmate at a Washington State penitentiary.

Pretense—the attempt to make something that is not the case appear to be true. It’s the word that comes to mind when so-called family-friendly events take place at the facility in which I am confined.

Every six to eight weeks, the visiting room at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington State is reserved for prisoners who (due to their good behavior) are allowed to attend special events such as Family Fun Night, the Back to School Event, Summer Family BBQ, and the Significant Women’s Event.

On any other visitation day, the rules of decorum are quite restrictive.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Hands must remain above the table and, if intertwined, cannot move above the wrist. Prisoners are only allowed to briefly hug and kiss their visitor at the beginning and end of the visit. And as for the children, they have little entertainment other than a small play area with a television to babysit them.

In contrast, the atmosphere is far less repressive during these special family events. Prisoners can embrace the “significant women” in their life without repercussions. They can frolic with their kids outside in the sunshine; and everyone can engage with other visitors’ families in wholesome activities.

Sounds awesome if you’re stuck in the penitentiary—and it is.

Still, you might wonder, “What kind of prisoners attend these events?” Devoted fathers who are anxious to get back to raising their children properly? Faithful partners who treat the women in their lives with reverence?

Of course not—let’s be serious.

For the most part they were absent from their children’s lives or, worse yet, negligent parents. They were philanders who had many women in the free world convinced that their relationship was exclusive.

Pretense—all pretense.

In spite of this, many prisons hold family events under the auspice that maybe—just maybe—such interactions will strengthen a prisoner’s relationship with his loved ones and, in turn, better enable him to transition successfully into society.

But in fact, it is well understood that the quality of social support that is available to a prisoner upon release impacts their likelihood of returning to the penitentiary.

For instance, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders who stayed in homeless shelters post-release was increased by 17% in one large-scale study. The reality is that trying to find employment with no place to sleep is a daunting feat.

As one former prisoner explained to researcher Keesha M. Middlemass in Convicted and Condemned: The Politics and Policies of Prisoner Reentry:

When you ain’t got a place to sleep, you ain’t thinking about nothing else, you only can think about a place to sleep. You sure ain’t thinking about voting and stuff like that. Maybe you think about a job to get a place to sleep, maybe, but really nothing else matters except where you goin’ sleep tonight.

As for family members opening their home to prisoners once they are freed, many are sympathetic—but nevertheless unwilling to tolerate the intrusion of parole officers into their residence to interfere with their peace and tranquility.

In other cases, those in the free world have become disconnected from their imprisoned family member and, frankly, had enough of them due to their years of offending.

When prisoners have nowhere to go and no one awaiting them upon release, recidivism is increased. As Middlemass explains, the “effects of homelessness and [ ] weak family bonds” in conjunction with a “lack of social capital among [ex-offenders] exacerbates negative reentry outcomes.”

As such, there is a rational basis for prisons to host events aimed at strengthening the bonds between prisoners and their families, even if many of the prisoner attendees were deadbeat dads who treated women shabbily.

It is, so it seems, better that we go home to our “significant women” and children that were treated so poorly, than to end up homeless and on the precipice of reoffending.

There is a flip side to this. As with many things in life there are winners and losers; and, in this instance, those on the short end of the stick are often the children who are now put at risk.

Children whose fathers have a penchant for beating the women in their lives are 60 percent more likely to engage in serious youth violence than children who do not bear witness to domestic violence.

Children who do not have their physical and emotional needs met due to neglect have a greater risk for adult violence than if they were physically abused instead.

Children whose fathers fail to provide guidance and structure do not develop self-control and, as a consequence, are more prone to aggression, according to psychologist Ervin Staub.

This is what the future will bring when many prisoners enter their children’s household upon being released. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

We know who we’re dealing with.

My life illustrates the most extreme example of what can unfold when a child is under the care and influence of such men.

Growing up, my alcoholic father was a sphinx who never fulfilled my emotional needs. He broke my mother’s jaw and let her drive herself to the hospital when I was an adolescent. He used to drop me off in the middle of the night on the corner in the projects knowing that I was selling crack and carrying weapons in the process.

By the age of 14, I was confined for murder and I have not set foot on the streets since.

Sometimes a child is better off without any father in his life, rather than one who “parents” like this.

Far too many prisoners’ lives have been defined by irresponsibility, violence, drug addiction, or just plain ignorance. Moreover, research reveals that maladaptive behaviors—from violence to child neglect—become family scripts that are conveyed both verbally and by example from one generation to the next as “parents reenact patterns of caregiving they experienced as children,” according to Susan Crockenberg.

Prisoners need only review their family scripts to see the truth in this.

One should therefore wonder why prison officials take pains to increase the prospect that the welcome mat will be laid out for prisoners upon release—knowing full well there is a high probability that they are hazardous to their children’s wellbeing.

Then again, the Department of Corrections is concerned with reducing prisoners’ likelihood of re-offending as opposed to reducing the likelihood that children will become offenders.

Indeed, maybe ensuring that the next generation of convicts is developing properly is an ingenious way to ensure one’s job safety.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he is awaiting a decision on parole, after serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He welcomes comments from readers.


How Philadelphia Police Are Cutting Gun Violence

Officers are collecting and disseminating intelligence more quickly in crime-plagued neighborhoods. Shootings are down six percent this year, and violent crime overall also is dropping.

In Philadelphia, a city with more than 1,000 shootings a year, shootings are down six percent this year and violent crime overall is dropping. says police tactics are changing. Before an officer stepped out of his car to investigate a recent shooting, a team of officers in a room five miles away already was working the case, remotely scanning for surveillance cameras in the neighborhood and diving into databases to find potential leads about the victim and who might have had reason to target him.

In minutes, that intelligence bureau’s handiwork landed in the officer’s email inbox, easily accessible from his phone. It’s part of a new effort that the department says reflects its continued attempt to drill down on blocks plagued by gun violence.

In recent weeks, the Inquirer and Daily News shadowed investigators in Southwest Philadelphia from crime scenes to hospital rooms and to the intelligence bureau. Along with interviews of beat cops, district commanders, and police brass, the newspapers took a close look at the police department’s strategies for combating gun violence and the challenges that remain in one of the nation’s most violent cities.

“We are not declaring success here,” said one deputy commissioner, Joseph Sullivan. “We just feel we’re moving in the right direction.”


Why Community Corrections Systems Fail

“If we didn’t exist, no one would invent us,” says former New York Commissioner of Probation Vincent Schiraldi. Speaking this week at the Smart on Crime conference at John Jay College, he said the punitive approach taken by probation and parole agencies made them major drivers of mass incarceration.

The punitive approach taken by community corrections agencies around the U.S. has made them major drivers of mass incarceration, a New York conference on justice reform was told this week.

Releasing more individuals under supervisory conditions of probation or parole was meant to reduce America’s high prison population. But insufficient funding, over-zealous officers, and bureaucratic red tape have produced the opposite result, according to participants in a panel at John Jay College’s “Smart on Crime” conference, which ended Wednesday.

Violation of any one of the supervisory conditions—ranging from prohibition against firearms possession to travel restrictions—can result in re-incarceration, said Vincent Schiraldi, who served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation between 2010-2014.

“That’s why 40% of people get arrested on parole,” he told the panel. “Half of the intakes to prison are violations of parole and probation.”

Making things worse, the lack of funding has forced some agencies to assess fees for their services—which further complicates the lives of those under supervised release, the panel was told.

Cheryl Wilkins. Photo courtesy Columbia University

“The payment (request) is dangled in front of your face like a carrot,” said Cheryl Wilkins, a former parolee.

“For instance, say you want to get a driver’s license (which you need) to help you stay out of prison —you would have to pay your supervision fee regularly.”

Paying fees while under supervision by community correction agencies is “absurd,” said Wilkins, who now serves as Senior Program Manager at Columbia University’s Center for Justice).

Bruce Western (left) and Vincent Schiraldi, speaking at John Jay panel on community corrections. Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR

“These (corrections) systems hinder your progress.”

Schiraldi, who recently left a research fellowship post at Harvard to join the Columbia center, agreed that such fees and other red tape “skew incentives” for the formerly incarcerated to qualify for early release.

“If you were a black man facing three to four months of parole as opposed to a year in prison, you would take the year in prison,” he said.

Nevertheless, the number of Americans now under some form of community supervision—about four million—is twice the number of those behind bars, Schiraldi pointed out, adding that this should make reform of the system a priority.

“If we didn’t exist, no one would invent us,” said Schiraldi.

Bruce Western, departing faculty chair of the program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, agreed.

“Incarceration should never be the fault response to violations,” he said. “It should be eliminated for violation of parole.”

Community corrections agencies’ power to arrest people should be used minimally, advised Western.

“If you have power, you are at risk of the abuse of power,” he said.

John Wetzel

John Wetzel. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Department of Correctons

John E. Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections, noted “the pretty damn low bar” society has for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Instead, community corrections agencies use spurious concerns about “public safety” as excuses to send more individuals back to prison—especially poor people and people of color, he said.

Megan Hadley is a news intern at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Eight in 10 Americans Back Gun Control After Vegas: Poll

An NPR/Ipsos survey finds that support for bans on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines and “bump stocks” is rising, though Dems remain stronger on the issue than Republicans and independents. A pollster cautions that there have been similar reactions to other mass shootings–and the impact on public opinion may be temporary.

After the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, most Americans regardless of party favor tightening restrictions on firearms, NPR reports. Eight in 10 Americans told an NPR/Ipsos survey that they favor bans on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition magazines and “bump stocks,” an accessory used by the Las Vegas shooter that allows a semi-automatic rifle to fire like an automatic weapon.

Eight in 10 also said they favor a federal database to track all gun sales. On each question, majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans all were in favor of the restrictions to some degree.

The share in favor of new curbs, as well as the intensity of their agreement, varied by party, sometimes widely. For example, 91 percent of Democrats, along with 76 percent of independents and 70 percent of Republicans,favor banning assault-style weapons. However, 74 percent of Democrats “strongly favor” this kind of restriction, compared to only 48 percent of Republicans “strongly” in favor and 45 percent of independents who said so.

There are similar divides on other restrictions. Fully 88 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans, and 82 percent of independents favor banning bump stocks. While three-quarters of Democrats “strongly favor” this kind of ban, only around half of Republicans and independents do.

Much interest in gun control is short-lived. Ipsos Public Affairs President Cliff Young said, “Gun violence like this typically has a short-term effect on public opinion where there’s a crystallizing event” that temporarily bumps support for gun control upward.


Want Friendlier Cops? Hire More Blacks and Latinos, says Study

Does the race or ethnicity of police officers make a difference in how they behave on the streets of the neighborhoods they patrol—and how they see their jobs? A study released Friday suggests it does, and the authors—both from the University of Central Florida—say it supports arguments that law enforcement diversity is crucial to restoring trust and legitimacy in America’s police forces.

Does the race or ethnicity of police officers make a difference in how they behave on the streets of the neighborhoods they patrol—and how they see their jobs?

A Florida study released Friday suggests it does, although the authors admit their findings aren’t conclusive.

The study found “significant” variation among African-American, Latino and white police officers in West Palm Beach, FL, not only in their attitudes towards community policing, but in the way they regarded citizens who needed help—even in cases that did not involve serious crimes.

“Officers of color harbor much less negativity toward citizens and are more willing to see them as worthy of help, including for matters not involving serious crimes,” said the study, which also found that black and Latino officers displayed less cynicism about their jobs than their white colleagues.

The authors of the study, Jacinta M. Gau and Eugene A. Paoline III, both of the University of Central Florida, based their findings on responses to a survey administered during morning roll call over a week-long period in July 2016 to 149 beat cops—representing more than half the 228-member West Palm Beach Police Department.

Some 35% of the department’s uniformed personnel are black or Latino. While that was still not reflective of West Palm Beach’s population—the authors cited U.S. Census Bureau figures showing that over half the city’s 107,000 residents were persons of color— they argued that the racial breakdown of the city’s force reflected the nationwide trend towards increased diversity in hiring, and was substantial enough to make it the focus of their survey.

Although more than 200 officers actually participated in the study, the authors focused on beat cops whose responses they felt would more clearly reflect street knowledge and experience.

Their findings offered some statistical support for arguments by police reformers that diversity is crucial to improving police-community relations—particularly in at-risk neighborhoods where trust and confidence in law enforcement are at a low ebb.

The authors said the survey results suggested that black and Latino officers “may be uniquely important to fostering the reliable public support” that allows police to effectively protect public safety.

“A greater representation of minority officers may translate into better service provision and police–community relationships,” they said, noting that both black and Latino officers were more “favorably disposed than whites” towards partnerships with businesses and community groups in crime-prevention efforts.

While nearly all the officers shared similar opinions about the importance of the law-and-order aspects of their job (catching criminals), “Black and Latino officers seem to view citizens more favorably than white officers do (and) are significantly more likely to believe that victims deserve police assistance and that they are genuinely helping people when they answer calls for service.”

The authors made clear their study did not attempt to analyze the reasons for the disparity, and they notably avoided any suggestion that racist attitudes played any role in the differing responses.

They noted that other studies have shown that much of the cynicism ascribed to police was the result of attitudes learned from colleagues over time as they acquired more experience in their jobs—and as they dealt with commanders and supervisors.

The study did not provide more detailed data on the officers’ gender, experience or economic background, and the authors made clear that more studies of other law enforcement agencies around the country, conducted over longer periods of time, were essential before drawing any definitive conclusions about the influence of an officer’s race on his or her behavior.

But they said their findings underlined the need for police leaders and supervisors to pay more attention to keeping officers of “all races sensitized to the importance of their actions during face-to-face interactions with citizens,” which is also among the conclusions of former President Barack Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“Without calling white officers out,” the authors said, “(their) negative leaning seems to suggest a need for police leaders to pay attention to officers’ attitudes and the way in which they approach citizens.”

At a minimum, they said, their findings made clear that increasing the diversity of police forces should continue to be high on the agenda of police managers and policymakers.

Officers of color are increasing in number across the country.

The authors cited figures showing that the ranks of minority officers in municipal and county agencies nearly doubled between 1987 and 2013, from 15% to 27% .

A full copy of the study, which will be published in Justice Quarterly under the title “Officer Race, Role Orientations, and Cynicism toward Citizens,” is available here.

This summary was prepared by Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


How to Create Anti-Violence Strategies That Work

Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled. In most of them homicides are confined to identifiable “hot spots” which require more focused intervention, according to experts at the New York “Smart on Crime” conference Wednesday.

Some of the urban neighborhoods singled out as the most violent places in the country are mislabeled, says a former senior Department of Justice official.

According to Thomas Abt, a former chief of staff for the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs who is now a Senior Research Fellow with the Center for International Development at Harvard University, a better description of them would be peaceful places plagued by a “few hot spots.”

Thomas Abt

Thomas Abt

Redefining them in that way can help shape more effective programs to reduce violent crime—and especially gun violence— in America, Abt told participants Wednesday, at a panel in the second and final day of the “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College.

“The most effective strategies are the specific ones,” said Abt, who is also a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State. “(These) engage the highest risk places and people.”

Experts who advocate focusing on issues like poverty, guns or “cultural values,” are in effect concentrating on “everything besides the problem, which is that violence concentrates in hot spots,” he said.

Other members of the panel, entitled “Reducing Crime and Violence,” agreed.

“We can reduce crime with less law enforcement,” said David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at John  Jay College and director of the National Network for Safe Communities.

“Most murderers are not serial killers—locking up one does not affect the next one,” said Kennedy, who moderated the panel.

He added that there were now many examples of anti-violence programs that  work, where “ordinary people can make a difference.”

Violence in a few at-risk neighborhoods probably accounted for the startling 60% increase in Chicago’s homicide rate between 2015 and 2016, suggested Roseanna Ander, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Roseanna Ander

Roseanna Ander. Photo courtesy Harvard Club of NY

“When you have three million people in the city, 60% is a lot of people—it was a historical event (in which) the increase in homicide each month was higher than the homicide rate for the same month the year before.”

Policymakers’ failure to fund local community intervention programs might also have accounted for the increase, she said.

“In the state of Illinois, we had two years of not passing a budget,” Anders said. “The institutions set up in neighborhoods that work with highest risk population were decimated by the budget crisis.”

Devone Boggan, Founding Director of Advance Peace also noted the lack of programs and institutions in place to prevent gun violence in many cities.

Advance Peace works with “a targeted group of individuals at the core of gun hostilities, and bridges the gap between anti-violence programming and a hard-to-reach population at the center of violence in urban areas,” he said.

“What I found out trying to locate the right people is that we didn’t have any place to take them,” said Boggan. “What became real for us was…the options we had weren’t attractive, legitimate, or credible to the population”

Boggan and his team then decided to meet face to face with active firearm offenders and ask, “what can work?”

“What we found is these active firearm offenders are waiting for us to show up with something, they wanted to be engaged every day,” he said. “They wanted to trust social services, but found it difficult to. They needed to be taken to those social services.

“They needed to be walked through that door and stayed with until they said ‘I’m ready to do this on my own.’”

It can be difficult for those in the criminal justice system to trust social service providers, as well as the police officers in their community.

megan hadley

Megan Hadley

In communities where gun violence is prominent, most community members know who the violent offenders are, and they expect their local policemen to know as well.

“We keep officers in the same area to gain the trust of the community” said Robert Tracy, Police Chief of the Wilmington, Del. Police Department. “We are not about arresting everyone, just the most violent individuals.

“Lowering crime, reducing murders, and arresting less people. Isn’t that the goal?”

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Is the U.S. Prepared for a Resurgent Al Qaeda?

The terror group appears poised to turn its attention back to Western targets. But counter-terrorism expert Ali Soufan says Washington has been too slow to understand the threat.

As a resurgent Al Qaeda threatens to turn its attention away from violent sectarian conflicts in the Middle East and target the West again, a leading counter-terrorism expert questions whether Washington can devise an effective strategy when “we still don’t have deep knowledge of the enemy.”

According to Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent and current member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, even the most aggressively planned and executed military tactics against Islamic terror groups are doomed without psychological insight and appreciation of centuries of Middle East history.

“We need to have a vision going forward,” he told a recent seminar sponsored by the John Jay College Center on Terrorism.

“Why do you have individuals willing to blow themselves up for an evil ideology?” said Soufan, himself a Muslim—and he noted that answering that question has never been so critical.

Ali Soufan

Ali Soufan. Photo by Nancy Bilyeau/TCR

“The most potent weapon is not a gun, a knife, or a bomb; it’s an ideology.”

Soufran was expanding on points raised in his new book “Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State,” which describes the history of Al Qaeda before and after 9/11, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), and the waning threat of ISIS just as a rejuvenated Al Qaeda presents itself to the West—possibly with Osama Bin Laden’s son Hazma as its new leader.

Soufan said understanding the enemy requires what he defined as “clinical empathy.”

When asked about his repeated use of the word “evil” in descriptions of the individuals and groups written about in Anatomy of Terror, Soufan said the word choice is deliberate.

He dislikes the phrase “radical Islam,” saying, “It’s not radical and it’s not Islam.”

He also disagrees with the theory of economic forces forging the leaders of these terrorist groups.

“Most of these people are not poor,” he pointed out.

Soufan was largely dismissive of claims of a “dwindling” ISIS, and ridiculed its taking credit for the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month that killed 58 people.

“If I were to fall down the stairs, they would take credit for it,” he said.

Anatomy of TerrorNevertheless, for Soufan, who was the FBI’s lead investigator of Al Qaeda after the 9/11 terror attacks, the group founded by Osama bin Laden is definitely now the greater threat.

Ironically, America’s $2 trillion war on terror has turned a core of some 400 committed members of Al Qaeda pre-9/11 into a far larger group, even after Osama Bin Laden was shot to death and Khalid Sheik Mohammed was captured.

“Sixteen years after 9/11, we have thousands and thousands of followers adhering to Bin Laden’s ideas,” Soufan said.

The West’s lack of political engagement with the leaders in the Middle East after the Arab Spring was a missed opportunity, Soufan said.

Now, he added, the U.S. urgently needs to pursue full political and diplomatic engagement with those leaders.

“We need to use all the tools in our toolbox to fight the extremist narrative and create a counter- narrative,” Soufan told the October 6 seminar.

One of those tools is discrediting Al Qaeda whenever possible with sophisticated public relations efforts, utilizing social media, to discourage recruitment.

But the U.S. also needs to form local alliances, and demanding more of the nation’s existing allies in the region is critical, argued Soufan.

“We talk about democracy and human rights, but when it comes down to it, we don’t care about those things,” he said.

“We must have the courage to force our allies to do what they need to do.”

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital) at The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


‘Red-Blue Divide’ Won’t Prevent Change, Vow Justice Reformers

Some of the most embattled elements of the U.S. justice system, ranging from prisons to prosecutors, are emerging as targets of a rejuvenated bipartisan reform movement in the Trump-era. The broad outlines of that movement emerged this week during a conference at John Jay College in New York.

Some of the most embattled elements of the U.S. justice system, ranging from prisons to prosecutors, are emerging as targets of a rejuvenated reform movement in the Trump era, led by partisans on both sides of the political divide.

The broad outlines of that movement emerged Wednesday during the final day of a “Smart on Crime” conference at John Jay College, where prominent conservatives joined liberals and activists in setting a shared agenda for fixing a system that one said was “impoverishing American society.”

“The issue is bigger than any red-blue divide,” said Mark Holden, General Counsel of Koch Industries, Inc., often vilified by liberals for spending millions on ultra-conservative causes.

Mark Holden

Mark Holden

“It’s about transforming lives.”

Holden said the transformation had to include preparing incarcerated individuals to re-enter civilian society from the first day they were locked behind bars.

“There needs to be a personalized plan that sets them up for success—we owe them that,” he said, suggesting that programs for counseling, employment and education should become central to correction authorities’ thinking.

Later in the conference, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark NJ, said efforts to reduce prison populations needed to include re-thinking the lengthy punishments meted out to individuals convicted of violent offenses.

Not all “violent” offenders deserved being locked up for decades—especially when they could demonstrate a change in behavior and attitudes during their time inside, he said.

“Does society stop its ideals of redemption and forgiveness when somebody raises a fist?” Booker asked.

Speakers said the urgency of making major system-change had increased under a new administration in Washington that seemed bent on reversing even the initial reforms of the past decade.

Cyrus Vance, Jr.

“At a time when the government is moving off the playing field, and the White House is asking us to solve our own problems, we have to collaborate,” said Manhattan (NY) District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., who argued prosecutors around the country need to focus more attention on preventing people from going to prison, rather than on sending them there.

Is Trump a Boon to Reformers?

Some speakers in fact said the election of Donald Trump has helped revive a reform movement which had taken for granted that the positive trend begun during the Obama era would continue.

“One of the best things that could have happened is Trump as president,” said former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who retired last year after a celebrated 14-year career in the National Football League to devote time to his foundation devoted to helping underprivileged youth, as well as engage in justice reform causes.

“When Obama was in office everybody felt protected, but with Trump a lot of people feel the need to empower themselves,” said Boldin, who recalled his cousin had been killed two years ago during an encounter with police.

Anquan Boldin

The recent controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem was an example of players realizing their power to promote change, he said.

“When I get pulled over by a cop, and he recognizes who I am, he starts asking me for an autograph for his son, but had I not been in the NFL that interaction would be a lot different.”

Vance said changing prosecutors’ approach was a way of eliminating the entrenched bias of the justice system.

When he began working the “lobster shift” from 1 am to 9 am as a young assistant DA in New York in the 1980s, 90 percent of the individuals waiting for their cases to be adjudicated were people of color.

“Thirty-five years later when I returned to the system, it was the same,” he said.

Calling on the 2,800 elected DA’s around the country to “step outside their roles and focus on prevention,” Vance said measures his office had already instituted to slash criminal court dockets by diverting low-level offenders to alternative courts and working with police to reduce “quality of life” arrests had not caused any uptick in crime rates.

“We’ve rethought our decisions about who comes into the justice system,” said Vance, noting that his office had also begun to finance prevention, diversion and counseling programs with over $800 million in funds provided from fines and penalties assessed against banks accused of violating U.S. sanctions.

He was echoed by Mark Gonzalez, a former defense lawyer recently elected DA of Nueces County in south Texas, who said he had persuaded prosecutors on his staff as well as the conservative politicians in his area to consider the “collateral damage” done to individuals sentenced to harsh prison terms, and develop a less-adversarial approach.

“Being tougher on crime is easy,” he said. “Being smart on crime is a challenge.”

Most of Wednesday’s speakers agreed that fundamental reform would allow authorities to focus on individuals who were genuine dangers to public safety and needed to be kept in detention for long periods.

Americans Under Stress

But Booker said the reform movement also needed to take into account both the system’s deep racist roots and the burden it placed on Americans already under economic stress.

Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker

“Half of American workers make $15 or less an hour,” said Booker. “With one encounter with the criminal justice system—especially if you can’t pay bail—you could lose your job or housing and spiral downwards in the richest country on earth.”

Booker said the problem was aggravated by the fact that those hardest hit by both economic stress and the inequities of the justice system were African Americans and Latinos.

“In a nation that desperately needs all its players on the field, how can you have a system that systematically oppresses people of color?” asked Booker, who last June co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, intended to walk the country back from the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s.

Supporters of the bill—a similar one was introduced in the House last month by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA)—claim it will reduce the number of incarcerated by 20 percent under a 10-year plan of providing some $20 billion in federal incentive grants.

“We have to educate people to the outrageousness of the system,” said Booker, who also introduced with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), the REDEEM Act, which included a series of federal measures aimed at helping both adults and young people seal criminal records for nonviolent offenses in an effort to improve their chances of rejoining civil society as productive citizens.

These and similar reform measures, such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, are languishing in Congress because of the opposition of powerful conservatives, including former Sen. Jeff Sessions—now Attorney General.

But Holden of Koch Industries pointed out that the case for making fundamental change was shared by many who felt the justice system was just another example of a “failed big government program.”

“It spends millions of dollars each year with poor results,” observed Holden, citing as an example the War on Drugs, which he said has left illegal drug use at a higher level than it was four decades after the war was declared.

“Drugs won the war on drugs,” said Holden.

What became clear over the course of sessions dealing with the opiate crisis, community corrections technology, and violence reduction, was that many of the most vocal advocates for change shared a poignant awareness that they could have been caught in the justice system themselves.

Holden, who said he grew up in an impoverished neighborhood in Worcester, MA, said many of his former high school classmates had been locked up for drug and other offenses.

“I could easily have ended up the same way, given our circumstances,” he said, noting that how you were treated by courts and police was determined by race and class.

In a “two-tier” justice system, he said, “Rich people always get a better deal.”

Booker said he is the only U.S. senator he knows who goes home to a constituency where most families live below the poverty line median annual income of $14,000.

“When I walk around my neighborhood I can’t tell you how many young people want to talk to be about their convictions.”

Alfonso David

Alphonso David, General Counsel for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the racial inequities of the system were hard to miss.

“When I visit any of the 54 prisons in New York State, I’m still struck by the (awareness) that I am a black man walking into a prison operated by white officers,” he said.

David acknowledged that reforms to correction systems also had to take into account that resistance to closing prisons was led by corrections unions and politicians in areas where they were the only source of good jobs.

He said legislators needed to develop new sources of economic support for those communities.

But there was broad consensus among speakers at this week’s conference that reducing prison numbers, combined with a smarter strategy, to help the incarcerated re-enter society was critical.

“Real reformation starts inside the prison, not outside,” said Daryl Harris, who runs TLC Ministries in inner-city Detroit.

Harris, noting that his neighborhood was nicknamed by local residents “1482-Die” because it registered the majority of Detroit homicides, told the conference that reform had to begin with support for restorative justice that included faith-based programs established inside the prison system itself.

Without attention to developing an inmate’s “good heart,” the problems that “brought you into prison in the first place will lead you right back inside,” he said.

Attendees at the conference included community activists, advocates and justice practitioners around the U.S.

John Jay College President Karol Mason told them that the conference left a clear message; “Do not be discouraged.”

Karol Mason

She called on them to return to their communities and continue to advocate “that the system lives up to the ideals this country was founded on.”

She appealed for their help in preserving some of the programs instituted during her years in the Justice Department, such as assistance to the children of incarcerated parents, the Second Chance Pell Grants, and help for male survivors of violence.

“It’s our job,” said Mason, who was a former senior Justice official before taking up her John Jay appointment in August. “To make sure that the tools that we need to be able to make our communities safer still exist.”

Editor’s Note: Portions of the two-day conference are available through theYouTube video on the John Jay channel. For Day One, click here. For Day Two, click here.

Stephen Handelman is executive editor of the Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Study Finds ‘Significant’ Increase in State Juvenile Justice Reforms

At least 36 states have passed legislation to keep young people out of adult prisons or jails since 2005—and more states are on track to limit youth exposure to the adult justice system over the next two years, according to a study released Wednesday by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

At least 36 states have passed legislation to keep young people out of adult prisons or jails since 2005—and more states are on track to limit youth exposure to the adult justice system over the next two years, according to a study released Wednesday.

In its third “State Trends” report, the Campaign for Youth Justice (CYJ) said reforms to the juvenile justice system aimed at treating children who ran afoul of the law “in a developmentally appropriate way” represented a “significant” increase over the past decade.

By 2014, for example, the number of young people under 18 who were automatically excluded from juvenile court had been cut in half to 90,900 from 175,000 in 2007.

Just in the past two years alone, some nine states and the District of Columbia passed laws removing young people from adult facilities or limiting their detention in such facilities, the report said.

At the same time, 19 states have raised the age at which youth are eligible to be tried or transferred in adult court or limited the types of offenses that would send them there.

“We are no longer giving up on our young people,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bell Edwards, who was quoted in the report. “Rather we are giving them a chance to get their lives back on track.”

Citing some 70 pieces of legislation to reform juvenile justice practices enacted by states since 2005, Campaign for Youth Justice CEO Marcy Mistrett said the measures represented “positive momentum.”

“These legislative victories are not just good for youth—they set an historic precedent in our country,” she said in a press release accompanying the report.

“Once New York and North Carolina fully implement their (raise-the-age) laws, it will be the first time since the creation of the juvenile court in the United States that 16-year-olds are not automatically treated as adult simply because of their age.”

Meanwhile California and Vermont restored the discretion of juvenile court judges to make “individualized determinations” on sentencing, thereby ending prosecutors’ ability to decide unilaterally whether a young person should be tried in the adult system.

The CYJ first began publishing state trends reports in 2011. The third update includes legislative achievements between January 2015 and August 2017.

But Mistrett said the newest “Raising the Bar” report still made clear that there was “still a lot of work to do”—especially under a new administration in Washington whose focus is on crime reduction and law enforcement rather than crime prevention.

She noted that five states still treat 17-year-olds as adults, and young people sent to adult facilities there suffer “physical and sexual trauma.” At the same time, racial disparities in the treatment of young people in trouble with the law have increased, she said.

“Advocates must be incredibly vigilant to ensure that legislative victories are fully implemented and preserved for ALL children,” she wrote in the introduction to the report.

At the same time, she called for “resisting legislation that does not reflect the overwhelming research in favor of serving youth in a developmentally appropriate, evidence-informed, community-based juvenile justice system rather than the adult system.”

“Further, we must embrace solutions that reduce, and don’t exacerbate penalties for youth of color.”

For additional reading, see also, “Kids Kept in Solitary at LA’s Largest Juvenile Hall” (LA Witness)

The full report can be downloaded here.


How Hiring the Formerly Incarcerated Helps Rebuild Lives—and Communities

Many states are making it possible for individuals released from prison to find decent jobs, but more work needs to be done to give them a “fair chance” at turning the skills they learned behind bars into employment opportunities, the Smart on Crime forum was told Tuesday.

“When you sentence someone, do you sentence them to 10 years plus one year of unemployment? Or 10 years plus three years of unemployment?”

Nena Walker-Staley, Assistant Deputy Director of Programs and Reentry at the South Carolina Department of Corrections, raised the question during the opening day of the “Smart on Crime” innovations conference held at John Jay College Tuesday.

Despite having done their time, many incarcerated men and women struggle to find a job after they leave prison, Walker-Staley said at a panel entitled “Fair Chance Hiring.”

“When they come out, the barriers they face are the businesses that won’t hire them” she said.

But it’s not because they don’t have the necessary skills to succeed.

“They learn all kinds of skills inside,” Walker-Staley noted.  “When I look at these hardwood floors I know our guys scraped hardwood floors. They make furniture. They do welding. They run the asphalt machines that make our highways better.

“We work them inside, but when it’s time to go home, they’re rejected.”

She cited businesses such as Greyston Social Enterprise , which specifically hire formerly incarcerated men and women to end this cycle of rejection.

According to Walker-Staley, they have an open-hiring initiative, stating in effect that, “anyone who comes to our bakery is given the chance to work, no questions asked.”


Workers at Greyston Social Enterprise. Photo by Dion Shay courtesy Greyston

External Affairs Jonathan Halperin, who heads Greyston’s external affairs department, said the company’s goal is to create not just thriving businesses, but thriving communities.

“If we are not dealing with creating jobs for the formerly incarcerated, as businesses we will struggle because the communities will struggle,” he said.

“There is now a more robust dialogue about the role of business innovation and how that can drive social inclusion.”

Even if federal support isn’t forthcoming, states can create employment opportunities for the formerly incarcerated population, the conference was told.

New York’s Fair Chance Act, passed in October of 2015, mandates that businesses owners cannot ask about the criminal record of a job applicant before making an offer.

That allows applicants to be judged by their qualifications and not their previous criminal history. If after a job offer is made, employers want to revoke their decision, they must explain why.

Photo by Megan Hadley/TCR

Some 287 organizations in the state signed a pledge committing them to hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds.

“But there was no accountability in the pledge,” observed Genevieve Martin, Executive Director at Dave’s Killer Bread, an Oregon-based company established to provide employment for the formerly incarcerated.

“There isn’t a body that is able to usher it forward and do more with it”

That leaves the question “what does it means to have an open hiring system, or a fair chance hiring system?” unclear, said Martin.

“Simply, we need a completely new set of recruiting techniques” Martin noted.

The new techniques must challenge your perception, your gut feeling, about hiring someone with a criminal record, she said.

“Once we challenge the perception on an individual level, then we can start to challenge our professional beliefs,” she said.

It’s all about the dignity of work, said Greyston’s Halperin.

“If anyone wants a job and is willing to work,” Halperin said. “He or she should be afforded the opportunity to experience the dignity of work.”

Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.