Trump Promotes Prison Reform; Dems Oppose Bill

President Trump holds a meeting on Friday to promote a bill that would help rehabilitate federal prisoners. Democrats call the measure a “step backwards.”

As President Trump holds a White House meeting on Friday to promote a prison reform bill pending in Congress, a cadre of powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign by issuing a five-page opposition letter attempting to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week, Politico reports. The Democrats describe the bill as a “step backwards,” in the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the federal prison system. The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year. It has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter. Among other Democratic signers: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. They contend that the “First Step Act,” which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color. The criminal justice battle has been brewing for months, with unexpected allies joining together on both sides of the issue. In one camp are House and Senate Republican leaders, President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and influential conservatives, including the Koch brothers, all backing the prison reform push. Separately, the Society for Human Resource Management and the Charles Koch Institute released a survey reporting that more than 80 percent of managers and human resource professionals nationwide said they were open to hiring people with criminal records.


Getting Juvenile Probation Right

Nearly 400,000 young people are put on probation each year, pulling them deeper into the justice system without support or guidance that could divert them to a better path. Introducing a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, two juvenile justice experts suggest an agenda to get them there.

Our nation’s juvenile justice systems have made a lot of progress. We’ve reduced detention at the front end of the process and incarceration at the back end, raised the age of criminal responsibility and expanded the use of evidence-based practices—all while preserving public safety.

But this encouraging wave of improvement has yet to influence the most common disposition in juvenile justice: probation.

Handcuffed by conflicting and often unrealistic expectations, and beset by overwhelming caseloads, juvenile probation remains deeply flawed both in concept and execution.

Despite the best efforts of probation professionals, probation often pulls young people deeper into the system without offering the support and guidance that would put them on a better path.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Given research on adolescent behavior and brain development, and evidence about interventions that consistently reduce delinquency, the knowledge exists now to get juvenile probation right. As the most common disposition in juvenile justice, with nearly 400,000 young people put on probation every year, turning that knowledge into action presents an enormous opportunity for improving the entire juvenile justice system.

Turning this opportunity into reality, however, will require far more sweeping changes than have been considered to date. Current reform strategies are beneficial as far as they go, but they ignore several critical areas.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundation has detailed in a new report, probation requires a fundamental transformation with new and expanded priorities.

A Clear Mission

 Probation suffers a crippling lack of clarity around mission and goals. Is it compliance, rehabilitation, behavior change? The answer varies from state to state, and even officer to officer.

Probation transformation cannot succeed until probation leaders and key partners resolve to refashion probation into a targeted, purposeful and developmentally appropriate intervention aimed at promoting personal growth, behavior change and long-term success — not a catch-all disposition focused on surveillance and compliance.

Divert Far More Youth From Formal Processing

 We must start by diverting more youth from juvenile court.

Community organizations, human service agencies and families — not the courts — should be responsible for responding to low-level offenses committed by young people. As the Council of State Governments Justice Center notes, “Juvenile justice systems can do more harm than good by actively intervening with youth who are at low risk of reoffending.”

Yet, many youth placed on probation today have limited or no previous court histories and pose little risk to public safety. That needs to change.

Emphasis on Rewards, Not Sanctions

 For generations, juvenile probation has imposed long standardized lists of probation rules, then threatened punishment (including incarceration) for youth who fail to comply.

Research makes clear that this approach is fundamentally backwards. Youth respond far better to rewards and incentives for positive behavior than to the threat of punishment for misbehavior.

Commitment to Racial and Ethnic Equity

 Probation plays a significant role in perpetuating the vast over-representation of African-American, Latino and other youth of color in juvenile justice. Indeed, 68 percent of youth held in residential custody in 2015 for a technical violation —breaking probation rules — were youth of color.

Yet surveys find that few probation professionals regularly analyze data to determine where disparities are occurring, and few develop new strategies with their colleagues to reduce disparities. This is unacceptable; probation has a duty to lead in the search for solutions.

Stronger Family and Community Partnerships

 The most powerful influences on court-involved youth for the long term come from their families and from others in their communities. Yet relationships between probation departments and families are often fraught, and meaningful partnerships between probation and community organizations are scarce.

The significantly smaller caseloads made possible by the increased use of diversion should enable probation officers not only to develop close, caring and positive relationships with all youth on their caseloads, but also to work intensively with young people’s families.

Meanwhile, probation departments must overcome their longstanding insularity and begin to forge meaningful partnerships with community organizations rooted in neighborhoods, especially those where large concentrations of youth on probation reside.

More Positive Youth Development Opportunities

 Youth involved in the juvenile justice system often live in communities where safe recreational spaces and constructive activities are scarce. Yet juvenile probation typically focuses on imposing rules and monitoring compliance, and perhaps providing treatment for young people’s problems, rather than working with community partners to connect youth with positive role models and provide them opportunities to explore their interests and develop their talents.

Probation transformation means focusing on helping young people build their strengths.

In all these areas, glaring gaps persist between current practices in juvenile probation and the best available information about what works and should work with court-involved youth. We have the knowledge necessary to close these gaps.

Most youth who engage in delinquent conduct, even in serious offending, are amenable to change.

For the sake of our young people, it’s time to get probation right.

Nate Balis directs the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Stephen Bishop is a senior associate at the Casey Foundation and former probation officer. They welcome comments from readers.


Prosecutor-Led Diversion Programs Lead to Reduced Incarceration, Re-Arrest

A study issued by the National Institute of Justice found that diversion programs benefit not only prosecutors, who save time, money and resources that could be spent on more serious cases, but also defendants, who avoid conviction and re-arrest.

Prosecutor-led diversion programs can lead to reduced conviction and incarceration, as well as reduced re-arrest rates, according to a study issued by the National Institute of Justice.

The study examined 16 prosecutor-led diversion programs in 11 jurisdictions across the country and conducted impact evaluations of five programs and cost evaluations of four programs.

Authors found that conviction rates among diversion and comparison cases were nine percent vs. 74 percent in Milwaukee’s Diversion program; 16 percent vs. 64 percent in Chittenden County’s Rapid Intervention Community Court (RICC), and three percent vs. 61 percent among felony defendants in Cook County’s Drug School.

Notably, all five programs also achieved at least some reduction in the use of jail sentences.

In recent years, a growing number of prosecutors have established pretrial diversion programs, either pre-filing—before charges are filed with the court—or post-filing—after the court process begins but before a disposition.

Participating defendants must complete assigned treatment, services, or other diversion requirements. If they do, the charges are typically dismissed, relieving the defendant of jail time and the latter consequences of a criminal record.

Diversion programs are beneficial not only to defendants, but to prosecutors as well, who save time, money and resources that could be allocated towards more serious and complex crimes, said the authors.

Now, prosecutor-led diversion programs are one of several increasingly popular “front-end” interventions targeting cases early in case processing, often before a case reaches the court, they noted.

“Our study confirmed a broader trend towards diverting cases to treatment or services at an extremely early juncture in criminal case processing,” the authors concluded.

Here are some of the other main findings in the study:

  • Case Outcomes: All five programs participating in impact evaluations (two in Cook County, two in Milwaukee, and one in Chittenden County, VT) reduced the likelihood of conviction — often by a sizable magnitude.  All five programs also reduced the likelihood of a jail sentence (significant in four and approaching significance in the fifth program).
  • Re-Arrest: Four of five programs reduced the likelihood of re-arrest at two years from program enrollment (with at least one statistically significant finding for three programs and at least one finding approaching significance in the fourth).  The fifth site did not change re-arrest outcomes.
  • Cost: All four programs whose investment costs were examined (two in Cook County and one each in Chittenden and San Francisco) produced sizable cost and resource savings.  Not surprisingly, savings were greatest in the two pre-filing programs examined, which do not entail any court processing for program completers.  All three programs whose output costs were examined (i.e., omitting the San Francisco site) also produced output savings, mainly stemming from less use of probation and jail sentences.

This study was implemented as a collaboration among the Center for Court Innovation, the RAND Corporation, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the Police Foundation. A full copy of the report can be found here.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


The Rising Cost of Incarcerating the Elderly

The number of older adults in prison and jail is projected to  grow to a “staggering” 400,000 people by 2030, according to a report released Thursday by the Osborne Association. The aging prison population requires a shift in how the U.S. addresses incarceration, the report says.

At least one-third of the U.S. prison population will be over 50 by 2030, according to a white paper released Thursday by the Osborne Association.

The association, a New York-based advocacy group that works with justice-involved people and their families, cited figures showing that even as states are working to reduce prison populations, the number of older adults in prison and jail is projected to grow by a “staggering 4,400 percent” in the 50-year period between 1980 and 2030—to an estimated 400,000 people.

According to statistics quoted by the researchers, adults over 50 comprised just three percent of the total incarcerated population in 1993, representing 26,300 individuals.

“Justice isn’t served by keeping elderly people locked up as their bodies and minds fail them and they grow infirm and die,” said Elizabeth Gaynes, president and CEO of the Osborne Association, which advocates for improved conditions in prisons and jails, better discharge planning, and expanded compassionate release of the elderly and infirm.

“It’s both inhumane and inefficient.”

reportAccording to the report, entitled “The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population,” extreme sentences doled out during the tough- on-crime era, as well as limited mechanisms for compassionate release, have driven what is now a costly and inhumane crisis that the corrections system is unequipped to manage.

The medical costs of caring for a burgeoning elderly population behind bars alone will add to the strains of resource-strapped corrections systems, many experts have said.

According to data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union, it costs twice as much to incarcerate someone over 50; in some cases, it may cost up to five times more when medical costs are added.

Between 40 percent and 60 percent of prisoners over 50 have some type of mental illness or cognitive impairment, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some prisons are setting up makeshift hospice wings and opening nursing wards for people with serious cognitive degeneration.

Elsewhere, inmates suffer from such pronounced dementia that they are unable to follow rules, and may not remember why they are incarcerated. For many with cognitive, visual, or hearing loss, a diminished capacity leads to behaviors that are mistaken for disobedience, subjecting them to punishments such as solitary confinement.

See also: Solitary Confinement Policies at ‘Tipping Point’ in U.S., say Reformers

Prisons were never designed to be geriatric care facilities and this surging elder incarceration comes at a high cost,” wrote the authors of the Osborne report.

At the same time, research by the Pew Center on the States shows that incarcerated people over 50 pose little public safety risk, and have the lowest recidivism rate as any other inmate demographic.

The authors argue that addressing this crisis requires what they call a “new paradigm of justice,” involving a shift in how we respond to violence.

The majority of people graying in detention were arrested for violent crimes in their teens, 20s and 30s, according to the report, Yet, it adds, “the low risk of recidivism for older people described earlier holds true for people who are convicted of the most serious acts of violence, particularly homicide-related offenses.”

See also: When Should Older Americans with Alzheimer’s Lose Access to Guns?

The report cites several victims advocates who argue against incarceration as a primary response to violent crime, since it fails to address underlying causes of individual violence in society, including poverty, trauma, isolation and inequity.

“Exposure to violence is especially prevalent amongst those aging behind bars, though decades may have elapsed since such harm was both survived and committed,” a fact that underscores the potential for preventative interventions that address trauma, wrote the authors.

As one example of a more targeted approach to violence, Michigan last year “became the third state in the country to offer a trauma center for victims of crime within a hospital in Flint to promote healing and prevent future crime.”

Health and Accelerated Aging

The report also calls for improved conditions in prisons and jails, including universal guidelines and training for prison staff to help them recognize age-related issues.

Those who are aging in prison have a higher rate of serious medical issues compared to the general population, in addition to health problems correlated with socioeconomic factors. Communicable and chronic diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, tuberculosis, arthritis, hypertension, ulcer disease, prostate problems, respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer are far more prevalent in the older prison population compared with the overall prison population.

While there is more bipartisan support for decarceration when it comes to nonviolent offenders, the urgent need for a new approach to violent crimes is underlined by the runaway cost of housing elderly inmates: now an estimated $16 billion-a-year burden on taxpayers, and growing.

Narrow doorways, stairs, and lack of handrails all pose architectural problems for inmates with limited mobility, as do facilities like cafeterias and medical units, which can be spread far apart. The report also notes that older individuals may struggle getting to and from their beds, especially a top bunk; and that geriatric incontinence and other physiological issues that accompany old age “can be extremely difficult to handle with dignity in an environment lacking privacy, leading to harassment and feelings of shame, isolation, and depression.”

Upon release, older adults face greater rates of homelessness, low employment, increased anxiety, fragmented community and family ties, chronic medical conditions, and increased mortality rates, according to the report.

Policy Recommendations

“The issue of aging people in prison can be interpreted through several lenses: an unintended consequence of ‘tough-on-crime’ policies, a human rights crisis, a matter of economic urgency, a public health crisis, an extension of a racialized punishment paradigm, or a reflection of the critical shortcomings of our criminal justice system,” write the authors.

“Any serious and sustainable attempt to resolve this crisis must address the needs of those aging in prison,” in addition to shifting our response to violence away from mass incarceration and long sentences.

In support of a solution, the Osborne Association makes a number of specific policy recommendations, grouped into five clusters:

  • Improve conditions inside of prisons and jails for those aging within them,
    including strengthening staff capacity to recognize and address aging issues, and
    adopting policies and practices that are age-considerate;
  • Improve discharge planning and reentry preparation for older people within
    correctional facilities;
  • Expand specific release mechanisms for older people;
  • Improve the reentry experience of older returning citizens by increasing
    community supports and receptivity, including addressing their housing, medical/
    health, mental health, post-incarceration, financial, family, and employment needs;
  • Shift our response to violence by expanding the range of services offered to
    victims and survivors of crime, and by reducing excessively long sentences for all crimes
    of conviction, including for violent crimes, that drive the crisis of aging in prison.

These recommendations and the full report can be explored in more detail here.

This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Why America’s Prisons Need ‘Systemic Change’

On the 10th anniversary of the Second Chance Act, veteran corrections administrator and researcher Stefan LoBuglio says attitudes towards prisoner reentry have undergone a “sea change” since the 1990s. But in an extended chat with TCR, he warns of a retrenchment in programming that threatens the overall functioning of the U.S. corrections system.

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the federal Second Chance Act, which has provided aid for state and federal prisoner reentry programs. President Trump declared April “Second Chance Month” to bring attention to programs that “provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.”

To assess the state of prisoner reentry in 2018, The Crime Report spoke to Stefan LoBuglio, who recently completed a three-year stint as director of the National Reentry Resource Center at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. LoBuglio, a former corrections administrator in Massachusetts and Maryland, will speak in Kigali, Rwanda, next week at the Eighth International Conference on Human Rights and Prison Reform.

The Crime Report: Prisoner reentry became a public issue in the 1990s when then-Attorney General Janet Reno called attention to the fact that more than 600,000 prisoners are released back into society every year. What is your recollection of that era?

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio

Stefan LoBuglio: There were earlier milestones in this field. One was the early-1970s publication of the review by sociologist Robert Martinson, declaring that “nothing works” in inmate rehabilitation. In the 1970s, we saw suspicion of the corrections system amid the large growth of in-prison population that continued roughly until the year 2000. There has been enormous energy, research and support of the prisoner reentry field, starting at least with Jeremy Travis at the National Institute of Justice near the end of the Clinton administration, and continuing through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. When I began working in corrections in 1992, the job was usually defined by the mantra “care, custody and control.” When you asked a corrections administrator about recidivism, you’d be told, “That is not my responsibility.”

In the 25-plus years since then, there has been a sea change. When you go to meetings of corrections administrators now, there is talk about adding “community” to the mantra, and there are hundreds of programs under the Second Chance Act and other laws to improve prisoner reentry. It was once called “reintegration,” but the lexicon did change to “reentry” in the 1990s. One question people were asking is why inmates should have the opportunity to get things like college degrees when people in free society didn’t have that access? Reentry was framed not as a question of what inmates deserved but of necessity—they were going to be released and we had to prepare them.

 TCR: Another, different, anniversary related to the issue of prisoner reentry was marked this year: the “Willie Horton episode,” which many observers at the time believed was a factor in Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ loss to Vice President George W. Bush in the 1988 presidential contest.

Editor’s Note: William Horton, then serving a life sentence for murder, failed to return from a weekend furlough from Massachusetts during Dukakis’ term, and later was convicted of a 1987 rape, robbery and assault in Maryland, where he remains in prison. He was used then, and occasionally even now, as a potent symbol for those arguing that corrections reforms can endanger public safety.

LoBuglio: Horton was a violent and horrible case that had wide repercussions for the field and led to the retrenchment of programs and facilities that allowed individuals to be released gradually back into the community. There was widespread support at the time for such opportunities for people who were soon to be released. Horton was in a furlough program, but there were also many “work-release” programs that were very popular.

Inmates could get jobs, reengage with their families, and seek the support of those community institutions of interest to them. Those programs had become part of the corrections infrastructure, but they disappeared overnight in 1988, and even 30 years later, they are still absent. For 11 years, I worked in the corrections department of Montgomery County, Maryland,, where we ran such programs, and demonstrated the ability to transition violent and non-violent offenders back into the community for those who were soon-to-be released. In corrections, we are not making the sentencing decisions, but rather dealing with the reality that most individuals will leave at some point after serving their court imposed sentence.

campaign button

A campaign button from Michael Dukakis’ doomed 1988 presidential campaign. Photo by palemon escobio via flickr

More recently, in following this area for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, I was struck by how few jurisdictions maintain these release-transition programs. Thirty years after the Horton case, with our better technology and communications, we should be rethinking how to incorporate work-release for the people who are coming back to the community.

 TCR: Were laws like the one that allowed Horton’s furlough common?

LoBuglio: Such programs were not unusual back then. What was so dramatic about the Horton case was that he was a convicted first-degree murderer. After it happened, there were wholesale cancellations of prison systems’ contracts with halfway houses, and those programs that remained were tightly restricted. The debate shouldn’t be focused on transitioning the most heinous criminals but rather whether the vast majority of people in the corrections system have the opportunity to be housed in places like work-release centers.

In my three years at the Council of State Governments, it was clear that programs in prison to prepare inmates for release are not yet robust. Our national conversation on reentry is focused on community corrections, probation and parole. We haven’t really talked much about re-instituting work-release programs in prison. Remember that well over 90 percent of state and federal prisoners are released at some point, and between nine and 12 million people cycle in and out of jails each year.

More people should have the opportunity to use community resources before their release, under strict supervision. Even programs that purport to provide pre-release service don’t. Years ago, I visited the Baltimore pre-release center that housed about 300 people, but only about 30 or 35 were going out on a regular basis for jobs.

TCR: We hear about prisoners who finish their terms just being loaded on a bus. Is that what really happens?

LoBuglio: It used to be predominantly true, and it still is too often true. They might be given just $40 in “gate money.” Much of the support for better reentry procedures in the early 2000s came from reports that people in solitary confinement literally went from being in shackles and chains to being released into the community. In a good corrections system, you want people to be properly classified, for example starting in medium security general population and being able to have their security classifications “stepped-down” to minimum, and to be placed in work-release programs as they neared their release date.

The retrenchment in pre-release centers and the use of halfway-house beds has had an effect of constipating the overall functioning of the corrections system, and having too many individuals “stuck” at medium classification. There should be opportunities for people in prison to behave well, and that if they play by the rules, they should get commensurate privileges. Behavioral change is most likely to happen when you have a clear set of rules to go by.

Years ago, economist Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers University interviewed inmates at the Montgomery County Pre-Release Center and found that most all of them could recite from memory what actions they needed to perform to even receive small benefits. Her paper for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute called the “Powers of Small Rewards” is a reminder that good corrections involves setting up a clear and fair system of rewards and sanctions to encourage behavioral change. If you have the possibility of getting work-release status for a person serving, say, five to seven years, that is a powerful inducement.

Studies of causes of disturbances in prisons have put lack of programming and lack of fairness for inmates at the top of the list. We’re not running correctional institutions as safely as we could. Doing it well provides an element of safety for corrections officers as well as for inmates.

TCR: We’ve mentioned the Second Chance Act. Some people may not realize that it was proposed and signed by President George W. Bush and was pushed by conservatives such as the late Charles Colson.

Editor’s Note: The late Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon, served seven months in prison in the Watergate scandal and later founded the Prison Fellowship.

LoBuglio: Yes, the Second Chance Act was a bipartisan measure that was co-sponsored by Vice President Mike Pence when he was in Congress in 2008. The main sponsors were Republican Rep. Rob Portman, later director of the Office of Management and Budget and now a U.S. Senator, and Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont. There was a remarkable bipartisan consensus for Second Chance, supported also by faith-based organizations.

The law was an acknowledgement that the federal government has a role in determining what works to reduce recidivism. There was a recognition that recidivism rates of people who had been in prisons and jails was too high. Also, states and localities didn’t have the ability to do the research and development. The Second Chance Act helped establish research in this area. The correction system consumes an enormous part of state and local budgets, and almost all of that goes to staffing, building and health care.

The federal system used to be the gold standard in corrections systems, and one part of that was setting the bar high. The National Institute of Corrections [in the Justice Department] plays a role in raising the professionalism in the field. In 2008, there was a recognition that states and localities didn’t have enough information, knowledge and resources to do the experiments to figure out what works in corrections. The legislations provided the funding mechanism for the federal government to seed prisoner reentry of different types across the country. More than 800 programs have been funded.

About $500 million has been spent under the law since 2008. To help create and spread new knowledge, the National Reentry Resource Center was created in the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has run it since 2009. The spending under the law is a relatively small figure, but it is significant because corrections is an $88 billion annual enterprise – this part of it represents the R&D. Without it, there would be nothing. The law plays the role of a catalyst in reentry. There are about 5,000 total correctional institutions in this country including 3,000 county and municipal jails. Not many states have had a major commitment to rehabilitation. In some states there has been a tradition of good corrections systems. Many states have not been able to keep up.

The federal prison system used to be known as the gold standard in corrections. It’s quite startling to see now how denuded the system has become. That has been true in state after state – a wholesale retrenchment in programming. We now have the ability to rebuild the programming infrastructure based on sound evidence. We are much smarter in 2018, knowing much better what we should see in corrections.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center held a “50-state summit” on corrections last November, when Georgia Supreme Court Justice Michael Boggs talked about significant reforms that the state has taken through Justice Reinvestment but he recognized that almost all of them to date dealt with nonviolent offenders. He explained that the next chapter of this work will need to address violent offenders. In 2018 we should be talking about what we can be doing regarding interventions with violent offenders who will be released. That subject needs a dramatic review. We are risk-averse because of Willie Horton-type cases.

As corrections populations nationwide have declined, we need better research to develop a full panoply of correctional innovations, especially because a large proportion of inmates in some correctional facilities are higher-risk people. Those people present generally more complex and more challenging cases.

TCR: The overall recidivism rate is often summarized as two-thirds to three-fourths of former inmates being rearrested in the three years after they are freed. Do we know if that general picture has changed?

LoBuglio: Some states have been able to reduce their recidivism rates. One way it happens is through changes in sanctioning policies so that there are intermediate steps before someone on probation winds up in custody. We have demonstrated that we’re able to reduce recidivism first and foremost through administrative action (changing revocation policy), but also through behavioral change.

Possibly the best study was done by the Urban Institute of Allegheny County, Pa., which found that participation by one group of inmates in a reentry program reduced recidivism by 30 percent.

What concerns me is that the national evaluations have not been very helpful in providing us with good advice. The challenge is to determine whether there are programs with sufficient quality and substance to make a difference. It is very challenging to maintain high quality programs with sufficient dosage. Some discussions with inmates, for example, may devolve into rap sessions. There are many implementation challenges. It’s difficult to give a probationer or parolee sufficient content to make a difference. People have many demands on them, such as maintaining a family. It’s much easier to help them if they are in a correctional setting.

TCR: Some experts have suggested that we should start preparing inmates to leave prison on the day they enter custody. Is that a worthy goal, and does any place actually try to do it?

LoBuglio: I agree with the theory. Some people even say that reentry preparation should begin when someone is arrested. Ideally, there should be a risk-need assessment of someone as soon as they enter custody and a programmatic plan developed. The best implementation of this that I’ve seen was done by Michael Ashe when he was sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts.

There used to be a belief that you can’t start the rehabilitation of individuals until 10 or 15 years down the line. Others say you can’t do much if the person is going to be in jail for only a week. What is the ideal period? This used to be referred as the Goldilocks problem: Is the period to short or too long for rehabilitation, and what is the “just right” period? Well, the answer is “do something” in every case, and recognize that it will be necessarily different based on resources and time remaining.The answer is an individualized treatment plan that takes into consideration sentence length and victims. Some people might have 10 years remaining to serve, but need lots of education and substance abuse treatment. You might have only 50 slots in a program and have to choose between a prisoner who has 20 years to serve and one with six months.

TCR: Where would you say that the U.S. stands generally on prisoner reentry?

LoBuglio: There has been dramatic change in some corrections systems that are paying attention and are focused on change. There have been great gains in the reduction of jail populations, but that can mean more challenges dealing with the people who remain in custody, who are much more difficult to deal with. We shouldn’t be surprised if those people have high rates of failure.

I think we need to look at systemic changes rather than programmatic ones.

We need to change the conditions of confinement, for example, so that some people don’t need to stay in prison so long on the front end, and we can focus on the high-risk individuals who remain there. We need a new type of facility that will wrap in medical and mental health treatment, and we must improve the collaboration between other agencies. We need more businesses as stakeholders. More businesses are rethinking their policies and hiring ex-offenders. It’s new and different to have them at the table—an important part of the conversation on reentry.

We also have more formerly incarcerated people taking part in reentry programs, bringing a level of reality to them.

There are many social service providers involved in prisoner reentry, but the quality of services is very uneven. If there were a rating service like “Yelp” in the social service area, that would be very helpful. It would be good to strengthen the social service community with a smaller number of providers with better quality services.

 TCR: Have programs funded under the Second Chance Act been evaluated?

LoBuglio: The National Institute of Justice has published some, including one on recidivism last year, an October, an evaluation of seven programs.

TCR: What do you make of the Trump administration’s interest in prisoner reentry?

Ted Gest

Ted Gest

LoBuglio: They changed the name of the interagency council established during the Obama administration, to add the term “crime prevention.” It makes sense to have federal agencies working in concert on this issue. The important thing now is for Congress to reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which I’m hoping will happen with all of its bipartisan support.

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


One Opioid Crisis Too Many?

A major thread in public policy discussions is an asserted need to “solve” the opioid crisis by limiting production of opioid analgesics and reducing medical exposure to potentially addicting drugs.   But are such steps actually a remedy?  A pain specialist argues they aren’t.

News media headlines appear daily on the so-called “opioid crisis.” A major thread in public policy discussions is an asserted need to “solve” the crisis by limiting production of opioid analgesics and reducing medical exposure to potentially addicting drugs.   But are such steps actually a remedy?

Will US addiction and overdose problems respond favorably to such a one-size-fits-all policy?

Almost certainly not.

A recent analysis has been performed on data downloaded from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Agency for Healthcare Research Quality (1).

The data characterize medical opioid prescribing, opioid overdose-related deaths from legal and illegal drugs and hospital emergency room admissions from 1999 to 2016 for 50 US States and District of Columbia.  Figure 1 is constructed from the most recent CDC data.


Two insights emerge:

  1. There were major variations but no trends in opioid OD death rates and opioid prescription rates from State to State in 2016.
  2. Opioid OD death rates had no apparent relationship to opioid prescription rates from State to State.  Any effect of medical prescribing on OD deaths was literally “lost in the noise” of other factors.

Examination of individual US States reinforces these insights.  Table 1 compares CDC and AHRQ data on opioid prescribing and overdose-related deaths for five US States and the District of Columbia.  California, New York, and Florida have high populations.  Massachusetts and Oklahoma are less populous.  Oklahoma has the second highest opioid prescription rate, while the District of Columbia has the lowest prescription rate in the US.

Overall risk of opioid-overdose-related death in the US was about 0.015 percent per year, with State rates between 0.01 percent and 0.025 percent in 2016.  District of Columbia, with a population of ~575,000, had the lowest rate of opioid prescribing, but consistently higher opioid-OD related death rates than New York (population ~19 Million) or California (~33.5 Million).

As prescribing rates for medical opioids fell in 2010-2016, opioid OD-related death rates continued to climb.  However, the shape of growth curves is quite different for DC, Massachusetts, Florida and New York (each with sharp upward trends in death rates for 2015 and 2016) versus Oklahoma and California (which remained relatively stable).

Richard Lawhern

Richard A. Lawhern

California OD-related death rates edged upward by 18% from 2006 to 2016, while death rates doubled in New York.  In both States, rates of emergency room visits rose by about 270%.  However, opioid prescription rates in California dropped by 13% while rates in New York were unchanged. (2)

These state to state outcomes suggest that the US is dealing with not one National opioid crisis but many local crises.  In 2016, medical prescribing contributed almost nothing to these crises.


(1) Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D., “US Opioid Prescribing vs. Overdose Deaths and Hospital ER Visits — Implications for Public Policy,” Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain, April 2018.  Original data download and initial graphical analysis performed by John Alan Tucker, Ph.D., used with permission.

(2) Emergency room visit data downloaded from Agency for Healthcare Research Quality (AHRQ) HCUP database, current December 2017;  latest year available for the selected States was 2015.

Richard A. Lawhern, PhD, is Co-Founder and Corresponding Secretary of the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain. A non-physician patient advocate and writer with 20 years of volunteer public service, he has written for The Journal of Medicine, National Pain Report, Pain News Network, and other online media. His wife and daughter are pain patients. Comments from law enforcement professionals are invited and welcome. This article was published today by the American Council on Science and Health and reprinted with author’s permission.



Kushner Heads to Texas to Promote Prison Reform Bill

Presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner will tour Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution outside Dallas Friday to promote the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation modeled after successful reforms in Texas and other states to help ex-offenders reenter society.

White House adviser Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, will travel to Texas on Friday with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a chief sponsors of prison reform legislation aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk offenders, reports the Houston Chronicle.

Kushner will tour Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution outside Dallas. Joined by federal Bureau of Prisons director Mark Inch, they will get briefings on the prison’s community reentry and residential drug treatment programs.

The trip is aimed at promoting of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation modeled after successful reforms in Texas and other states to help ex-offenders reenter society. The legislation, which was approved this week by the House Judiciary Committee, mirrors previous corrections legislation sponsored by Cornyn that he said can reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and cut crime.

Prison reform has been a priority for Kushner, who has become the face of a White House-backed bill that is advancing despite internal GOP differences over sentencing reforms that are favored by Democrats but opposed by Trump. Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is expected to be a key negotiator in moving the bill forward.

See also: Kushner Push on Reform Gets Resistance, and Key Conservative Tells Congress: Pass Sentencing Reform



Kushner, Cornyn Visiting TX to Promote Prison Bill

Presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner will visit a federal prison in Texas to call attention to a pending bill that would improve inmate rehabilitation programs.

White House adviser Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, will travel to Texas on Friday with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a chief sponsors of prison reform legislation aimed at reducing recidivism and rehabilitating low-risk offenders, reports the Houston Chronicle. Kushner will tour Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution outside Dallas. Joined by federal Bureau of Prisons director Mark Inch, they will get briefings on the prison’s community reentry and residential drug treatment programs.

The trip is aimed at promoting of the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation modeled after successful reforms in Texas and other states to help ex-offenders reenter society. The legislation, which was approved this week by the House Judiciary Committee, mirrors previous corrections legislation sponsored by Cornyn that he said can reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars, and cut crime. Prison reform has been a priority for Kushner, who has become the face of a White House-backed bill that is advancing despite internal GOP differences over sentencing reforms that are favored by Democrats but opposed by Trump. Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, is expected to be a key negotiator in moving the bill forward.


Prison Reform Easily Clears House Panel

The House Judiciary Committee backs a bill that would add training for federal prisoners. Some key senators will insist on adding sentencing reform that is opposed by President Trump.

Congress edged closer to a rare bipartisan achievement when a House panel voted overwhelmingly to send a prison reform plan to the floor, despite internal GOP tensions in the Senate over the White House-backed bill, Politico reports. The  legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee. It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago. The bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has allied with Democratic supporters of a broader criminal justice package that includes both sentencing and prison reform provisions. GOP leaders in both chambers want to instead move the narrower prison bill, which would authorize training for prisoners  aimed at reducing recidivism rates. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), a previous backer of the broader criminal justice overhaul who has narrowed his sights to prison reform, hopes to negotiate with Grassley on a path forward. While one option is allowing Grassley’s camp a vote on sentencing provisions as an amendment, Cornyn explained, there may be a chance to give the Iowan floor time for “other issues” that “maybe he’s worried there won’t be enough floor time to get a vote on.” Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), said that, “For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms.” A House floor vote on the bill is possible before the Memorial Day recess.


Experts: CA Police Shooting Case Not Tied to Reforms

Critics blamed California justice reforms for allowing an accused cop killer to be on the streets despite his criminal record. An expert panel blamed local failures, not state criminal justice changes.

In the debate over California’s efforts to slash its prison population, the case of Michael Mejia has become a political rallying cry. An admitted gang member, Mejia was charged with shooting two Whittier police officers, a crime the mayor and many in law enforcement saw as clear evidence of the failure of less strict sentencing laws. Why, they asked, was Mejia even on the streets? The killing of Officer Keith Boyer and wounding of another officer have galvanized a movement to ask state voters this November to reverse some of the recent changes to sentencing laws and the prison system, report the Los Angeles Times and The Marshall Project.

A review of the case found a complex chain of events that allowed Mejia to remain free despite his criminal record. Experts appointed by Los Angeles County to examine the case identified local failures that had little to do with state justice reforms. The group concluded that Mejia was allowed to cycle in and out of jail with little punishment or treatment for drug problems because county agencies failed to document his rule-breaking, didn’t share important information with one another and gave him an excessive number of chances while he continued breaking supervision rules. The district attorney missed an opportunity to send Mejia to jail and drug treatment before the shootings. One expert who reviewed Mejia’s case said the findings did not discredit California’s changes in its prison system or sentencing laws. “If the premise is, this is the golden case to show failures, I just don’t think you can point to this case and say it shows the failures,” said lawyer Cynthia Hernandez. Another panelist, Arcadia Police Chief Bob Guthrie, acknowledged there was no “direct connection” between sentencing reforms and the Whittier police ambush but said the state’s prison downsizing looms as an important backdrop.