Crime Rates Are Lower, Prisons Have Little Impact, Vera Says

The Vera Institute of Justice issues briefing papers on basic crime and justice issues, contending that criminal justice policy “is too often swayed by political rhetoric and unfounded assumptions.”

U.S. violent crime rates are lower than they have been for four decades, and prisons’ impact as a crime deterrent “is minimal at best,” the Vera Institute of Justice says in two new briefing papers it issued because criminal justice policy “is too often swayed by political rhetoric and unfounded assumptions.” Summarizing crime trends, Vera says that “some media reports and public commentary” wrongly conclude that “violent crime increases in a few cities equal a sweeping national problem.” It declares that, “Recent increases in crime rates have been concentrated mostly among gun-related homicides in a few neighborhoods in a few major cities, where violent crime rates were already persistently high.”

In Vera’s view, “Overgeneralization from partial-year data on homicides in a small sample of major U.S. cities led to premature conclusions being drawn about a nationwide reversal of the general decline in violent crime.” Such reports were “unfounded,” the institute says, adding that today’s relatively lower crime rates are “not a cause for complacency; some of our communities are experiencing significant increases in violent crime.” On the prison issue, Vera says that, “Increased incarceration has no effect on violent crime and may actually lead to higher crime rates when incarceration is concentrated in certain communities.” The institute suggests that policymakers should adopt “crime reduction strategies that seek to engage the community, provide needed services to those who are criminally involved, and begin to address the underlying
causes of crime.”



Judge Orders Air Conditioning for Some TX Inmates

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison says 475 vulnerable inmates at the state’s Pack Unit prison should be able to live in units cooled to no more than 88 degrees. Critic says “human beings have been baked inside Texas prisons.”

In what the Houston Chronicle calls “a searing 100-page rebuke of the Texas prison system,” a federal judge ordered the state to provide air-conditioned living quarters for elderly, disabled and other heat-sensitive inmates at the Pack Unit prison northwest of Houston. The ruling — which chastises prison officials for “obstruction” and “deliberate indifference” to inmate suffering — gives the state 15 days to draft a plan to ensure that 475 vulnerable inmates have living units cooled to no more than 88 degrees and that 1,000 others have easy access to indoor respite areas. The prison must develop a heat-wave policy to prevent further injuries and install insect-proof window screens. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ‘s ruling does not require air conditioning throughout the prison, but suggests staff could adjust housing assignments to make sure inmates with health problems sleep in cooled dormitories.

Ellison, who spent five hours at the prison in 2014 to feel the heat for himself, cited Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s writing on Siberian prison conditions. “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Ellison wrote. Rejecting the argument that air conditioning wasn’t available to inmates in past generations, he said, “No one suggests that inmates should be denied up-to-date medical and psychiatric care, or that they should be denied access to radio or television, or that construction of prison facilities should not use modern building materials. The treatment of prisoners must necessarily evolve as society evolves.” The state vowed to appeal to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Texas taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay for expensive prison air conditioning systems, which are unnecessary and not constitutionally mandated,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Wallis Nader of the Texas Civil Rights Project said “human beings have been baked inside Texas prisons.”


Florida Inmates Deprived of Toilet Paper, Sheets

State legislator David Richardson visits prisons and finds inmates routinely without basic necessities. One warden was embarrassed about the shortages.

The four wings of Florida’s Tomoka Correctional Institution’s E cell block is home to some of the prison’s most menacing inmates. They have arrived there because of administrative and disciplinary problems but, in addition to restricting them to confined, two-man cells, the prison also deprives them of society’s most basic necessities, reports the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau. In prison after prison over seven months, state Rep. David Richardson reported that toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, pillows, sheets, shirts and soap were often withheld from inmates, especially those in confinement.

Richardson, who has been on a one-man mission to hold the state’s troubled prison agency accountable, first observed the toilet paper troubles during a visit to Baker Correctional Institution in northern Florida. After finding dozens of inmates without toilet paper, toothbrushes and other supplies, he asked the prison warden to open the storage unit just feet away from the inmate dorms, and deliver hygiene products with him to more than 50 inmates. “It is behavior that is intended to dehumanize them — treating them like an animal,’’ Richardson said. The warden at Baker Correctional “was embarrassed,’’ he said, as they walked from cell to cell delivering the tissue paper rolls. He complained to headquarters and “they were apologetic and put out an all-points bulletin that this was wrong.” Richardson found one inmate so sick he was throwing up and his roommate had been deprived of his inhaler for more than a month. Another inmate had an “open, weeping wound” and for days had no treatment. Windows in many of the dorms that have no air conditioning wouldn’t crank open for proper ventilation.


How OK Is Reducing its Female Incarceration Rate

Gov. Mary Fallin tells a national conference on “Women Unshackled” about efforts to keep mothers from going behind bars, The Oklahoman reports. Fallin Cited “a large, growing body of research that shows that prison isn’t the … best option for everyone.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin took center stage yesterday at a conference on female incarceration, speaking about the state’s dismal prison rate and her efforts to keep mothers from going behind bars, The Oklahoman reports. Fallin gave the keynote address at a forum called “Women Unshackled,” sponsored by the Justice Action Network in Washington, D.C. (Oklahoma has been called the nation’s capital of female incarceration.) Fallin told the crowd of advocates, lawmakers and former inmates that “there’s a large, growing body of research that shows that prison isn’t the answer and the best option for everyone.” She added, “For many of our nonviolent, low-level offenders, there are alternatives that work better.”

More than four out of every five women sent to prison in Oklahoma are sent for nonviolent offenses and 42 percent are there for drug-related convictions. Oklahoma has partnered with a “Women in Recovery” group through the Pay for Success plan, in which the state pays for every woman who successfully completes the program and stays out of state corrections department custody. The nonprofit is eligible to receive up to four payments of $5,646 per client if they stay out of trouble for 4.5 years after starting the program. “We know in the state of Oklahoma, it costs around $30,000 a year to incarcerate a woman, but when you put them through (a program), it is a lot less because they come out in a shorter period of time and it’s less expensive,” Fallin said.


It’s Still Not Clear Why an Illinois Inmate Died in 2015

The state is still investigating, and a lawsuit is one file, over the death of prisoner Terrance Jenkins. Five small, crumpled balls of what looked like notebook paper were found lodged in his throat, blocking his airway.

The moments after a confrontation with prison guards left Illinois inmate Terrance Jenkins unresponsive in 2015, the paramedics trying to save his life made a troubling discovery: five small, crumpled balls of what looked like notebook paper lodged in his throat, blocking his airway, the Chicago Tribune reports. The death of the inmate, serving a life sentence for murder, set off an immediate investigation by Illinois State Police. Within hours, teams of agents had descended on the maximum-security prison to interview guards, inmates and medical personnel. Months later, State Police submitted a nearly 400-page report to prosecutors. Documents showed that Jenkins died from a blocked airway and compression asphyxiation from the way the guards had restrained him, putting their weight on his body as his hands were cuffed behind his back and his feet were shackled. Prosecutors declined to bring charges against anyone involved. No explanation ever emerged for how paper became lodged in his throat.

Police did not resolve the sometimes significant differences in the accounts of guards and prisoners, according to interviews and a review of documents and videos obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act. Guards were not pressed to explain how the balls of paper got into Jenkins’ throat, nor were they pushed to say what happened to a rag or tissue Jenkins tried to bring from his cell to the recreation yard, the incident that supposedly violated rules and touched off the confrontation. The Illinois corrections department still is investigating the death. Jenkins’ ex-wife and son have filed a lawsuit alleging that guards caused Jenkins’ death by “shoving” paper down his throat when he was restrained.


Federal Prisons Still Have Mentally Ill in Solitary

Despite the new restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for federal inmates ordered by former President Obama, federal lockups still keep some mentally ill inmates in solitary for 22 hours a day, sometimes for years.

Federal prisons keep some mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day, sometimes for years, says a new report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the Wall Street Journal reports. The study was issued 18 months after the Obama administration hailed new restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for federal inmates, including the mentally ill, as a model for state correctional facilities. Former President Obama barred solitary confinement for the handful of juveniles in federal prison and called the excessive or unnecessary isolation of adult inmates “an affront to our common humanity.” Federal investigators found a wide disconnect between policy and practice, supporting longstanding complaints by civil-rights activists that some prisons amount to human warehouses. Cumulative time in solitary confinement isn’t tracked, and many mentally ill inmates are receiving insufficient treatment or none at all, the report said.

One prison psychologist described solitary confinement this way: “You have no contact, you don’t speak to anybody and it’s a form of torture, on some level.” Federal prison officials agreed with all 15 of the audit’s recommendations, which included clear policies for solitary confinement, tracking of cumulative time in single cells, and careful monitoring of the mentally ill. Amid a national debate over the economic and social costs of incarceration, a number of states have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Colorado, Maine and Pennsylvania, for example, have barred the practice for inmates with serious mental illness in state prisons. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation last year that would have allowed solitary confinement only as a last resort and not at all for the mentally ill. In one of the audit’s notable findings about federal inmates, only 3 percent receive regular treatment for mental illness, though a recent study said the proportion with a history of mental health problems is about 19 percent.


Mass Incarceration: Prisoners of Time

Under get-tough anticrime laws from the 1980s and 1990s, prisoners’ average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000, a report by the Urban Institute finds.

Despite the enactment of justice reforms in many states, the nation’s prison and jail population has dropped only slightly in recent years. Well over two million people remain behind bars, and there has been little dent in the “mass incarceration” that that has been criticized by many on both the left and the right.

A new report from the Urban Institute tells much of the reason why: Prisoners sentenced to long terms under laws passed in previous decades still are locked up, and there is little hope for many of them to get out soon.

The key phrase used by those who follow the criminal justice system is “length of stay,” or the amount of time that a convicted person ends up spending in prison despite the stated sentence.

In “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons,” the institute said that “more people have been going to prison and staying there longer, mostly because of “tough-on-crime” policies that swept the country in the 1980s and ’90s. The prison population boomed as sentences got longer and release policies got more restrictive.”

In the past, many convicts were released by parole boards or by other policies well before the maximum time they could have served. Reacting to criticism of these so-called early releases, many states enacted laws requiring all prisoners to stay through at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Urban Institute report found that the average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000. In almost half of states, the top 10 percent of prison terms increased in length by more than 5 years between 2000 and 2014.

States that have data going back further reported numbers that the institute called even more dramatic. In Michigan, the average time served among the 10 percent longest- serving prisoners was 10 years in 1989 and 26 years in 2013. In California, it was 9.7 years in 1992 and 24.9 years in 2014.

The report took a look at “stark racial disparities” that it said grow as people serve longer terms in prison, judging from figures in the 35 of 44 states with complete data. In Pennsylvania, black people make up 49 percent of the state prison population but 60 percent of those serving long prison terms.

One in five people in prison for 10 years or more is a black man who was incarcerated before age 25.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of those serving the longest prison terms went to prison before 25, despite research showing that brain development is not complete at younger ages.

Advocacy groups in recent years have touted reforms states have adopted to reduce their prison populations. Yet those changes have focused mainly on low-level crimes. Some new laws have reduced prison time for minor offenses, but the “the narrow focus of these reforms has intentionally excluded those who stay in prison the longest,” says the new report. “These changes have an outsized effect on the prison population, because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long prison terms.”

One effect of the longer terms is that states are spending millions of dollars caring for an aging prison population although many inmates could be safely released, the institute says. Also, people serving long terms leave their families behind, a problem confronted disproportionately by minorities. Many who finally are released are unprepared to live in a different world, and recidivism rates are high.

To get a realistic view of the impact of long terms, authors of the study interviewed several people who have served long terms.

One of them was Stanley Mitchell, who spent 35 years in a Maryland prison. Sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he was released in 2013 at 63. “Does prison, long-term incarceration, change people?,” he said. “Sure it does. Does it change them for the better? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. More times than not, it doesn’t. It makes a person more bitter, more hateful, especially when…the rules are not applied fairly.”

Another ex-inmate, Elvin Garcia, said, “I’ve seen individuals do long sentences…[and] by the time they’re released, both parents died. They have no immediate family left. No one.”

Advocates of the tough-on-crime policies that resulted in today’s long sentences argued that they would improve public safety and bring healing to crime victims. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s Attorney General, is a proponent of longer prison terms.

The institute’s report argues that “decades of experience have revealed long prison terms to be a weak antidote to the problems that cause violence and a painfully inadequate answer to victims’ calls for resolution and healing.”

The report notes that long-term inmates often are among the last in line to get educational programming behind the walls and may have little incentive to take part if they don’t see release coming any time soon.

The institute suggested a series of principles for reform, including that sentences should be proportionate to the offense and the circumstances surrounding it, that punishments should be no more severe than necessary, that victims be offered a variety of ways to support justice, that everyone deserves a meaningful chance of release, and that “reforms must seek to dismantle systemic disparities” along racial and ethnic lines.

A series of specific recommendations to implement changes includes: assessing candidates for parole based on who they are now, not on their original offense; and establishing a standard of “presumptive parole,” releasing prisoners when they are first eligible “unless there is clear evidence that their release poses a significant threat to public safety.”

Several reform advocates have proposed significant shortening of prison terms. For example, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project maintains that most prison terms should be no longer than 20 years. And a group called “#cut50” contends that “we can smartly and safely reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails by 50 percent and keep communities safe while doing it.”

No states have enacted such a plan, and most have not even seriously considered it.

In Louisiana, the state with one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, the legislature approved changes this year that would reduce penalties for low-level offenders, but elected sheriffs and district attorneys blocked more sweeping bills that would have affected violent criminals.

The Urban Institute’s report aims at convincing policymakers to “dismantle the disastrous policies that have inflicted so much damage while doing little to address the real problems of crime.”

The report was funded by the Open Society Foundations, which did not determine the research findings. The authors are Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King, and Serena Lei.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


‘Game-Changing’ Settlement in FL Suit by Disabled Inmates

Agreement gives the state four years to add resources for inmates and make its facilities more accessible to those with disabilities. The changes include making qualified interpreters available for disciplinary hearings and doctor’s appointments, providing functioning canes to inmates with visual disabilities and removing architectural barriers in prisons for wheelchair users and others with mobility issues.

For years, inmates with disabilities in Florida have doubly struggled to navigate its prison system. Inmates with hearing problems were denied interpreters or hearing aids that would help them understand orders or announcements in their facilities. Inmates who are blind alleged that their canes were not replaced when broken, making it impossible to navigate the halls. Some with mobility problems reported that they were not allowed to have wheelchairs inside their cells or that their prosthetic limbs were confiscated, meaning they had to drag themselves around in their cells or wait in long lines for the few wheelchair-accessible showers or tables in their prisons, reports the Miami Herald.

The state has agreed to a major settlement with a statewide disability advocacy group to address those complaints, setting a timeline to bring its facilities into compliance with federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Eighth Amendment. The settlement in a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Florida gives the agency four years to add resources for inmates and make its facilities more accessible to those with disabilities. The changes include making qualified interpreters available for disciplinary hearings and doctor’s appointments, providing functioning canes to inmates with visual disabilities and removing architectural barriers in prisons for wheelchair users and others with mobility issues. “It’s going to be game-changing,” said Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute.


Right, Left ‘Still’ United on Reform: John Jay College President

In a farewell interview before stepping down after 13 years as president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jeremy Travis predicts the fear-mongering rhetoric about crime from the current administration won’t slow down reforms at the state and local levels. “The American people are smarter than that,” he says.

Local and state politicians can overcome the tough-on-crime rhetoric coming from Washington if they take advantage of the still-viable left-right consensus on justice system reforms, as well as the groundswell of public support for those reforms, says Jeremy Travis, the departing president of the John Jay College of Justice in New York.

Travis, one of the country’s most forceful advocates for reducing prison populations, acknowledged that fear-mongering has ratcheted up in the aftermath of the election, buttressed by the early efforts of President Donald Trump’s administration to reverse some of his predecessor’s moves to reduce prison overcrowding and promote policing reform.

But, he said, “I think the American people are smarter than that.”

Entrance to main campus, John Jay College

Travis, who has served as head of the National Institute of Justice and as a senior official in New York City’s government, steps down next month after 13 years at the helm of the country’s preeminent academic institution for criminal justice.

He said those who worry that justice reform will go backwards under Washington’s current leadership are losing sight of the momentum for change already underway in states and cities across the nation.

“A number of states continue to be every bit as serious as they were before the election about reducing levels of incarceration,” he said, noting that a handful have already seen incarceration numbers drop by 20 percent in the last decade.

And despite spikes of violent crime in some cities, such as Chicago, many others are experiencing a continued decline.

“New York is on track for another record year (of crime reduction),” Travis said.

Fears that bipartisan support for reform is weakening are also misplaced, added Travis.


Louisiana legislature passes justice reinvestment package, 2017

“After the election, a number of us received calls from colleagues on the conservative side of the spectrum who said we’re still on, we’re still committed to reform,” he said, calling the sustained level of support from both sides “unprecedented.”

“The left-right consensus still holds,” he maintained.

Travis’ tenure as the fourth president of John Jay was marked by the college’s emergence as a major influence on policy changes both federally and locally.

Over 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students attend John Jay

Under his leadership, John Jay faculty led a major study on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy that influenced a court ruling curtailing the practice, and began a pioneering effort to reduce gang violence in cities across the country under the National Network for Safe Communities.

Travis also chaired a landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences on mass incarceration.

More recently, Travis, 69, was give the “Disruptor/Innovation” award by the city’s Tribeca Film Festival—an honor that he said recognized the college’s emerging role as an advocate for innovative, evidence-based justice reform.

Travis said the success of John Jay, one of the senior colleges of the financially strained City University of New York (CUNY), with over 14,000 students, proved why publicly financed higher education was important to the future of New York and America.

“When we talk about issues like income inequality, upward mobility, the integration of immigrants, the City University of New York is at the center,” he said. “My hope is that these successes will point the way towards a different financing model for public higher education.

“The future of our city depends on the success of CUNY.”

Incoming John Jay President Karol Mason

Travis will resume his research and activism on criminal justice issues, with appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center and Harvard, but he said the college will be in good hands under his designated successor, Karol Mason, whom he termed a “friend.”

Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs at DOJ, is going to bring to John Jay a new level of excellence, relevance and engagement,” Travis said.

The complete televised interview with President Travis by Crime Report editor Stephen Handelman can be seen here. The Crime Report is published by the college’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.




Drone Suspected As Aid to SC Prison Escape

Expert says there is no easy way for prisons to protect against the use of small, unmanned aircraft, other than hiring more guards to watch the fences. Escapee is caught in Texas.

A South Carolina inmate broke out of a maximum-security prison using wire cutters apparently flown in by drone, what the Associated Press calls “a new and devilishly hard-to-stop means of escape.” Kidnapper Jimmy Causey, 46, was recaptured at a Texas motel before daybreak, more than two days after bolting to freedom in a plot worthy of a Hollywood script. It was the second time in 12 years that he escaped. This time, he used a smuggled-in cellphone to coordinate the delivery of the breakout tools, investigators said. With dusk approaching on July 4, he cut through four fences and left a dummy in his bed that fooled his guards. He got an 18-hour head start.

When he was caught, he had $47,000 in cash, an ID card and two guns, authorities said. “We believe a drone was used to fly in the tools that allowed him to escape,” said South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. There is an expanse of more than 50 yards between the prison perimeter and the cellblocks, making it unlikely someone could have thrown or catapulted tools to him. Kevin Tamez, who consults on prison security as managing partner of the New Jersey-based MPM Group, wasn’t aware of any other U.S. prison escapes aided by drones. He said that delivering something heavy such as wire or bolt cutters via drone would require a sophisticated plan and a powerful machine. Tamez said there is no easy way for prisons to protect against the use of small, unmanned aircraft, other than hiring more guards to watch the fences.