‘I Feel Like a Dead Man Walking’

There is no national legal standard on how many years is too many for a juvenile to serve. Across the country, juvenile offenders are being released from prison based on recognition that human brains continue to develop for the first two and a half decades of life. That’s not the case in Illinois, write two reporters who investigated 11 cases of youths serving sentences of 50 years or longer.

The order came from a 15-year-old on a bicycle near a Chicago park in 2001: “Shoot him, shoot him.”

Benard McKinley, 16, obliged. And Abdo Serna-Ibarra, 23, never made his way to the soccer field.

Benard McKinley

Benard McKinley. Graphic by Jeanne Kuang/Injustice Watch

McKinley was later arrested and charged as an adult with first degree murder for the killing of Serna-Ibarra. In 2004, Cook County jurors found him guilty.

The sentencing judge, Kenneth J. Wadas, went on to make an example of McKinley and his murder, condemning the young man to 100 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections — 50 years for the murder, and a consecutive 50 years for the fatal use of a firearm. The sentence was necessary to deter other criminals, Wadas said in court, and would enable others to play soccer with “one less Benard McKinley out there with a handgun blowing them away.”

With no chance of parole or early release, McKinley was doomed to either live to celebrate and surpass his 116th birthday, or grow old and die within the fortress of the state’s prison system.

Over the past two decades, scientific researchers and courts began grappling with a question that could dramatically shift the course of McKinley’s life: When it comes to crime, are children and adults different?

Courts across the country slowly began to address the issue, bolstered by research showing that the human brain, particularly parts responsible for controlling impulses and assessing consequences, is not fully developed until one’s early 20s. And so courts ushered in a new era of decision-making, ruling again and again that children accused and convicted of crimes must be treated differently than adults.

The decisions culminated in Miller v. Alabama, a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that laws declaring mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, even for those convicted of murder, are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. In the opinion, authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the court found that the mandatory sentences precluded judges from considering the defendant’s “chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

The Court reasoned that the youngest offenders have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform,” and to require those mandatory sentences without considering features of youth constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

That ruling applies to anyone under the age of 18, and was made retroactive in 2016 after another Supreme Court ruling, Montgomery v. Alabama. “What is with this magical moment?,” asked former Cook County Circuit Court Judge Daniel M. Locallo, now a defense attorney. “You’re 17 and 364 days, the day before your 18 birthday, allegedly your brain isn’t developed enough.”

But one day later, he mused, “it is?”

With the new standard set, a wave of prisoners across the country with mandatory life sentences, including some 80 inmates in Illinois, have or are in the process of receiving sentences that take their youth into consideration.

But McKinley is not among them.

Though Wadas imposed a 100-year sentence, to be served in its entirety, the judge was not mandated to sentence McKinley to spend his life in prison; in fact, he was only required under Illinois law to issue a minimum punishment of 45 years in prison.

After his conviction was upheld in the Illinois appellate courts, McKinley turned to the federal courts contending that his sentence was not constitutional.

In March 2014, U.S. District Judge John J. Tharp Jr. refused to strike down the sentence, reasoning that a judge’s imposition of consecutive 50-year sentences, while possibly amounting to a life sentence, was not based on a mandatory sentencing scheme that the Supreme Court prohibited in Miller:

“Whether McKinley’s sentence should have been lower due to his age is not for this Court to say; the Illinois courts held that the sentence was not excessive, and that conclusion is not in conflict with the federal Constitution,” Tharp wrote.

Those Left Behind

In Illinois, it is rare for juveniles who did not receive automatic life prison terms to win new chances at sentencing, leaving most of those with long sentences to languish in prison for decades, an Injustice Watch review found.

A review of custody data from the Illinois Department of Corrections revealed that, as of last December, at least 167 current inmates were arrested for crimes as juveniles and are set to serve 50 years or more in prison without parole eligibility, leaving them likely to die in custody but not eligible for resentencing under the dictates of Miller.

(It is not possible to know the exact number of young offenders serving long sentences at the Illinois Department of Corrections because the agency does not specifically keep track of that information.)

The imposition of long sentences is especially harsh in Illinois, a state which does not afford parole to most prisoners and which requires offenders convicted of murder to serve 100 percent of their punishment, with no chance of early release based on factors like good conduct or rehabilitation. Such sentences almost certainly lead these inmates to either spend the rest of their lives incarcerated or be released with precious little life left.

Research indicates that incarceration has a jarring effect on life expectancy. In studying a group of inmates released from New York state correctional facilities over a 10-year period, Vanderbilt University Professor Evelyn Patterson found that the former prisoners could expect to shave two years off of their average life expectancy for every one year of incarceration. Furthermore, Patterson found, undoing the negative effect on longevity takes time.

It took former inmates two-thirds of the time spent in custody back on the outside to recover from the harm of incarceration on life expectancy.

The United States Sentencing Commission considers a 39-year prison sentence the equivalent of life.

Because Illinois almost entirely abolished parole in 1978, these juvenile offenders do not get the same chance to show rehabilitation and change that they might get in other states. About a third of states do not currently employ the traditional practice of parole for newly convicted inmates, according to a report published by the University of Minnesota’s Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, but Illinois is one of three states nationwide that stopped utilizing parole four decades ago, making it nearly non-existent for the current prison population.

The approximately 80 juvenile offenders in Illinois who became eligible to have their sentences reconsidered all were convicted of killing more than one person — Illinois law mandates life for anyone convicted of multiple murders. By contrast, Illinois state appellate judges have mostly declined to find that the cases of other violent youthful offenders, like McKinley, fall under the protections outlined in Miller.

There is no national legal standard on how many years is too many for a juvenile to serve. Courts across the country have differed on the issue, creating varied standards on what length of a prison term can legally be considered a life sentence.

“Getting rid of formal life without parole was the tip of the iceberg,” said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Pennsylvania-based Juvenile Law Center, which has advocated for lesser sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes.

Across the country, about a dozen states have passed laws requiring that young defendants sentenced to long prison terms get a chance at parole. Legislators in Illinois have proposed a bill that would give periodic parole opportunities to newly convicted young offenders; so far those efforts have stalled.

Injustice Watch interviewed 11 Illinois inmates serving prison sentences of 50 years or longer for crimes they committed before they were 18. They spoke about their childhoods, often marred by poverty and violence; their hopes of one day re-entering the outside world; and their sense that, despite the growth and progress they said they have made entering adulthood in prison, society has already thrown them away.

Childhoods Marked by Death, Addiction, Drugs

Andrew Anderson and Ramirez Taylor both grew up in south suburban Cook County with childhoods marked by death, addiction and drugs.

As young teens they became friends. But as they grew older, the blocks between where each grew up, and the gang alliances associated with them, turned the pair into rivals. “He became the enemy because someone made him the enemy,” Taylor said.

Anderson said the gang rivalries that bound them both were so powerful that the childhood friends could have marked the other for death had they encountered each other on the streets.

After their friendship fractured, both were accused of committing separate murders before entering adulthood. They were charged and detained simultaneously in the Cook County Jail.

Anderson was arrested first, for the February 2006 shooting of 25-year-old Troy Pickett, a man he first met when he was 11 years old, selling candy bars and drinks with a friend at a housing project. Pickett told the boys they had hustle, Anderson said. The older gang member would go on to recruit Anderson into the Gangster Disciples, and train the boy to sell crack cocaine.

But by the time he turned 17, Anderson said he began distancing himself from his mentor, weary of the daily drumbeat of shootings and murders around him, and afraid he could soon be the next victim.

A month shy of Anderson’s 18th birthday, Pickett drove up to Anderson and a friend who were standing near a friend’s home in Robbins, Illinois, and told them to get in the car for a drug pickup. They climbed in. As they drove, Anderson said he saw Pickett reach for his gun. Anderson recalled what Pickett — a “real killer” whom Anderson said he once saw pointing a gun at a young girl — was capable of, and said he feared for his life. He reached for his own gun, and shot Pickett.

Five months after Anderson was booked into the jail on murder charges, 17-year-old Taylor was brought in on charges of unlawfully possessing a firearm while wearing a bulletproof vest as he fled from police.

Police sent the gun in for forensic testing, and connected it with the unsolved August 2006 shooting death of Shone Matthews in Riverdale, Illinois, during a game of dice. Taylor admitted in a videotaped statement to police that he was present during the killing, but said he was unaware of the plan beforehand and that he fired his weapon into the dirt, not at Matthews. Police found ammunition cartridges from two different firearms at the scene.

Taylor was charged with Matthews’s murder; no other suspects were charged in that case.

In jail, Taylor said a fight almost erupted between his allies and Anderson’s. But, Taylor said, the fight never happened, and instead the two former friends hashed out their differences.

“If it wasn’t for jail, I don’t think we’d ever be able to come eye to eye,” Taylor said.

In jail, Anderson said he tried to take his education seriously and earned his GED. After seven years — his entire adult life — behind bars, he went to trial. He claimed self-defense, but jurors were unconvinced, finding him guilty of first degree murder. The judge sentenced Anderson to 60 years in custody.

“To me, that meant the death penalty, like you gotta die in prison,” Anderson said. “No matter what you do, you can’t change and if you do change, we don’t care. Just go die in prison.”

Taylor was tried and convicted separately of both the weapons charge and the murder, and was sentenced to serve a combined 68 years in prison.

“They socked it to him, as far as they could jam it,” said Judith Taylor, his grandmother.

Both Anderson and Ramirez Taylor are now incarcerated at the Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, where they said they talk regularly about what led them to be enemies and the older gang members who took advantage of their ignorance. They offer their renewed friendship as proof that teenagers, once easily manipulated, can mature.

Anderson said he is asking to be transferred to a different state prison to access college courses. He said he refuses to dwell on the fact that he could die in prison, focusing instead on being a role model for his younger siblings. He said he wants to one day help youths at risk of choosing life on the streets.

“I grew up in prison… I learned to think 20, 30 years down the line,” he said, adding, “That’s something I didn’t see when I was living on the streets.”

In the ensuing 12 years since Taylor was arrested, both his aunt who raised him following his mother’s death, and his grandmother, said they have seen change in their relative.

The sentence has weighed heavily on Taylor, now 29. “I feel like a dead man walking,” he said in one telephone interview from Menard.

Different States, Different Rules

Inmates like Taylor and Anderson face a complex web of legal rulings as they try to ask the courts to reconsider their sentences in light of their youth.

Following the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller, a judge must order a new hearing upon finding that a juvenile offender’s prison term amounts to a life sentence, and that the sentence was ordered without consideration of the defendant’s “age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it.”

In May 2016, an Illinois appeals court rejected Taylor’s request for a new sentence, acknowledging the consequential length of his 60-year term for the murder conviction, but finding his trial judge had exercised appropriate discretion after noting his age and difficult childhood during sentencing. Anderson’s re-sentencing request has yet to be heard by a Cook County court.

Other juvenile offenders in Illinois have had mixed luck asking for their long sentences to be overturned. A state appeals court rejected Randy Royer’s request to reconsider his discretionary 60-year sentence, but a different court allowed Erick Ortiz’s sentence, also 60 years, to be reconsidered, finding that his trial judge considered Ortiz’s age but not “the corresponding characteristics of his youth.” The Illinois Supreme Court in 2016 overturned Zachary Reyes’s automatic aggregate 97-year prison term as a functional life sentence.

Citing that decision, a state appeals court last year threw out 16-year-old offender Dimitri Buffer’s 50-year sentence. But a different appellate court last year said the state supreme court decision did not apply to Rafael Santos, and upheld his discretionary 70-year sentence.

Nationwide, courts have created a patchwork of legal standards regarding juvenile sentences. Rulings by judges across the country show stark differences in the lengths of prison sentences that are upheld for youthful offenders.

In neighboring Iowa, for example, the state supreme court in 2013 threw out a sentence that made a juvenile offender parole-eligible only after serving 52 and a half years, because it afforded him only “the prospect of geriatric release” without a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation. Citing that decision, the Wyoming Supreme Court in 2014 ruled the same way on a sentence that required a juvenile offender to serve 45 years before having a chance at parole.

“The challenge that all these courts are facing is literally where to draw the line and how to pick a number,” Levick said.

The Ohio Supreme Court so far has only drawn the line at a 112-year sentence; in Minnesota, the state supreme court has declined to draw the line for an aggregate sentence that included parole eligibility after 90 years.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Miller decision banning mandatory juvenile life without parole was narrow, said Perry Moriearty, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who has represented juvenile offenders seeking shorter sentences in that state.

The decision “doesn’t say what is an alternative sentence, and left open for interpretation lots of questions,” Moriearty said. “Do we accept disunity [among states]? Should we be consistent when it comes to interpretation of the 8th Amendment?”

“These kids will languish” in prison without more explicit national legal standards on lengthy sentences, she added.

The Parole Possibility

In Illinois, one solution advocates are pushing to help this group of offenders is bringing back parole.

Under current state law, the only juvenile offenders with parole opportunities are the aging handful who were convicted before 1978, when the state’s sentencing laws drastically changed. That year, the state’s criminal justice system shifted from sentencing convicted criminals to a range of years with the chance to ask for early release through parole, to applying fixed sentences to all inmates. A later law, enacted in the 1990s, curtailed the ability for offenders convicted of violent crimes to shorten their prison sentences through good behavior and eliminated the opportunity altogether for those convicted of murder.

A 2017 bill filed in the Illinois legislature would have given newly convicted inmates who committed crimes before the age of 21 the periodic chance to ask for parole, after first serving 10 years for lesser crimes and 20 years for first degree murder or aggravated sexual assault. The bill sat in a House committee, never called. The bill was re-filed this year and passed a Senate committee last month.

Advocates like Levick and Moriearty point to California law as one solution to long sentences: it requires all young offenders to be eligible for parole after serving 15 years of their sentences for lighter crimes, and 25 years for homicides. After a minimum of 15 years, advocates say youths’ brains are developed enough with age for a “second look” to see if they have sufficiently changed in prison, or for parole boards to set goals for rehabilitation if they have not.

At least 13 other states and Washington, D.C. have passed similar laws, giving young offenders a chance to ask for parole release or a sentence reduction after first serving as few as 12 and as many as 35 years in prison, depending on the state and severity of the crime.

Such measures are not without opponents. Before voting against the prior version of the Illinois bill last May, State Senator Michael Connelly (R – Naperville) suggested that 10 years was too short a term for violent offenders to serve before having “an opportunity to be back on the street.”

“We need to start thinking about the people who are victims of these crimes and the families of the victims and the neighborhoods that these crime victim families live in,” Connelly said.

Illinois victims’ rights advocate Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins said frequent parole reviews would force victims to relive the traumatizing memories of their loved ones’ death, which she said is more painful the more often the memories come up again, and akin to “torturing the victim.”

Bishop-Jenkins, who began advocating for crime victims after her sister, brother-in-law, and their unborn child were murdered in their home by a 16-year-old boy in Winnetka in 1990, said she supports greater consideration of a defendant’s age and mental health at sentencing, and more programming in prisons for rehabilitation. But she said victims should not be subjected to the prospect of an offender’s release unless the inmate is a good candidate for parole, and said she believes one “mid-sentence review” is appropriate for those who are rehabilitated.

“If you’ve got a big sentence, and the purpose [of a parole opportunity] is to show they’ve changed, all you need is one” chance, she said. “It’s the cost versus benefits. Every five or 10 years makes it so that the victims’ family members can never get away from it.”

Another opponent, Senator Chapin Rose (R – Champaign), raised concerns that an un-elected parole board could undo a prison sentence set by state lawmakers.

Matt Jones, associate director of Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor’s Office, said the age of 18 is a “pretty bright line” for extending parole eligibility.

“We think that accepting that premise creates some serious questions or concerns,” Jones said. “If they have diminished culpability…what does that mean for their ability to join the military, or get married or choose to have an abortion.”

Prosecutors statewide are divided on allowing parole opportunities for offenders under 18, he said.

While Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx supports the current bill, last month, state’s attorneys in 7 counties surrounding Cook County signed a letter to all 118 Illinois House representatives strongly opposing it, arguing the bill would lead to an increase in violent crime.

“It is naïve to suggest that allowing violent offenders to be released from prison early will do anything other than increase violent crime committed by juveniles,” the letter, issued by DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert B. Berlin, reads. “The General Assembly should be looking at ways to incapacitate violent offenders instead of letting them out early.”

This March, a group of inmates at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, who are students in a class held a mock debate about the best way to reintroduce parole in the state. It was attended by state legislators and public officials.

Benard McKinley, convicted of shooting Serna-Ibarra on his way to a soccer game, was one member of the debate class. He described at the event the “emotional numbness” he felt as a young adult facing a 100-year sentence. Soft-spoken and bespectacled, he said he’s tried to better himself in prison, participating in a letter-writing program and completing paralegal training. In two days, he would start taking a DePaul University course in the hopes of one day getting a bachelor’s degree and attending law school.

He made a plea to legislators to allow inmates like him to get a chance at parole.

“There are other stories out there that are better than mine,” he said.

Tides Turning in Illinois

After Judge Tharp turned down McKinley’s petition, the inmate appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where his attorneys argued that during sentencing the judge had barely acknowledged his young age, and ignored the rehabilitative strides McKinley made in jail, including obtaining his GED, and enrolling and excelling in classes.

Less than a year later, by a 2-1 vote, McKinley became one of the rare lucky ones.

His case was sent back to the trial court to review his sentence. Now-retired appellate Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner authored the opinion, writing that the trial judge “should have considered whether, in a situation of excitement, McKinley had the maturity to consider whether to obey his confederate’s order, or was prevented by the circumstances from making a rational decision about whether to obey.”

Instead, Posner wrote, the judge “treated McKinley as if he were not 16 but 26 and as such obviously deserving of effectively a life sentence.” The decision deemed McKinley’s sentence, though discretionary, still in need of another look.

Attorneys for McKinley and prosecutors came to a joint agreement to carry out a new sentencing hearing for the 33-year-old, one that would consider his young age and developing brain at the time he pulled the trigger. Judge Wadas has not yet issued a ruling vacating McKinley’s sentence.

Exoneration Project attorney Karl Leonard, who is one of the lawyers representing McKinley, said the legal team is now gathering mitigating evidence and preparing to bring in an expert witness in the hopes of getting McKinley a lower sentence.

Leonard said he hopes to be able to reach an agreement with the state on a sentence, but does not yet know what amount of years that would be. As to whether Leonard thinks McKinley would fare well if parole was brought back for young people like his client, he said he did not know.

“I think the better solution is just to not be sending children away to prison for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Emily Hoerner and Jeanne Kuang are writers with Injustice Watch. This story is re-published with the permission of Injustice Watch, a Chicago-based non-partisan multimedia project. The complete version is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome. 

from https://thecrimereport.org

‘The Day I Came Out of the Shadows’

Former parolees in a Syracuse, N.Y. pilot program lead efforts to help individuals returning from prison adjust to civilian society and reunite with their families. It’s an uphill task that often starts with finding a place to live.

In just one day last year, Charles Rivers went from being a supervised parolee to a welcomed professional in the same state office building where one individual held the power to revoke his freedom.

That day, he was on his final scheduled office visit with his parole officer, known as a “PO,” and he was nervous.

“As a parolee, you look at your parole [officer] as an adversary,” Rivers said. “You go in thinking, ‘I got to go see this guy that could violate me at any time.’ ”

But Karen Loftin, another returning citizen who had worked with Rivers for just over two months at that point in the Syracuse, N.Y., community center that Rivers directs, pushed him into it.

‘You’re going,’” she told him firmly. “‘You’re a coordinator now.’”

Rivers now calls it “the day I came out of the shadows.”

For the past three years, Rivers has overseen PEACE, Inc.’s Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center. He came there after spending more than 19 years in prison.

When Rivers met with his PO that last time, relief should have been instant. But the nerve-wracking feelings of stress, intimidation and mistrust, even after hearing praise for all he had accomplished were hard to shake—even after purchasing a home, earning a bachelor’s degree, and mentoring parolees.

Even for those who have managed the uphill journey of remaking their lives after years behind bars, it’s a common occupational hazard.

It’s no coincidence that the organization Rivers directs now has as one of its principal missions easing the difficult transition between prison and normal life.

PEACE, a nonprofit agency which describes its mission as helping to “empower people to thrive,” focuses on re-entry support for people like Rivers fresh out of prison as one of its core activities.


The Emma L. Johnston Southside Family Resource Center offers wraparound services to South Side residents in need. This center, run as an extension of PEACE, Inc., offers a food pantry, computers for job searches and re-entry support for ex-offenders. Photo courtesy The Stand/File Photo

In December 2016, PEACE was awarded a $95,000 grant by New York State to launch a pilot program for family reunification. Many experts in the field say that the struggle of ex-offenders to reconcile with family members who may have spent years or even decades without them is as critical a barrier as finding employment, adequate housing, and even attaining photo identification.

Rivers says it takes time to reconnect, and to figure out what day-to-day life will be like moving forward. The grant allowed Rivers to focus on the needs of offenders’ family members as well.

Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, was hired in February 2017 to serve as the re-entry case manager.

The grant — also awarded to two other cities —allowed each resource center to craft its own plan modeled on the successful New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) initiative launched in 2013 called the Family Re-entry Pilot Program (FRPP).

According to a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, New York ranks ninth nationally in recidivism. According to the report, individuals released on parole are more likely to be imprisoned again—not for new convictions, but for violating the conditions of their parole.

According to a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) fact sheet, in 2012, 9,372 people were released from DOCCS facilities and placed on parole. Within three years of their release, more than half were reincarcerated — 83.7 percent for violating the conditions of their parole and 16.3 percent for committing a new crime.

The aim of the NYC pilot was to reconnect individuals with their families and provide stable housing after incarceration. Because many public housing authorities and private landlords have strict policies that exclude individuals with criminal records from being added to a lease, finding a safe and supportive place to live is a challenge.

When individuals apply for housing, the public housing authority runs a criminal background check of the applicant; everyone 16 or older who might also live there; any biological parent of children who will be living in the household, even parents who do not plan to live there and who are not part of the application.

Rules governing who may be denied are very broad, allowing housing authorities to exclude people it believes will risk the health and safety of other tenants. Federal Law (42 USC § 13661(c)) gives public housing authorities the power to deny people based on criminal activity.

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons is the executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority Directors Association. Photo courtesy The Stand.

However, Bill Simmons, executive director and president of the New York State Public Housing Authority, says the Syracuse Housing Authority (SHA) has a long history of embracing individuals with criminal backgrounds, citing a past re-entry job-training initiative, the Altamont Program, as one example.

“We never flat out denied them housing,” he said, noting the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two bright-line rules: you cannot live in public housing if you are a level-one sex offender or were convicted of producing methamphetamine.

“Outside of that, it was up to the individual housing authorities to have their own policy. Traditionally, we were case by case already,” he said.

On March 3, 2017, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly announced the Family Reunification Pilot Program. In addition to Syracuse, authorities in two other New York cities—Schenectady and White Plains—also launched pilots in partnership with Schenectady County Community Action Program, Inc. and the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (Westcop).

The goal of each pilot was to enroll 12 individuals by year’s end.

Individuals found their way to PEACE by word of mouth.

“Many times, a family member reached out to us from housing who knew of someone that was up for parole,” Loftin said.

Once an individual was vetted by parole, the family member on the lease also had to agree to serve as host. Loftin met with both the potential participant and the lease-holder to go over the program, its requirements and rules.

An agreement was signed and next sent to housing, which then conducted its own review. SHA had the final say if a participant could move into a unit or not.

The clearance of property managers was key, Loftin says, because they are privy to details that may not be part of someone’s official record. They often remember the individual and know the family situation they are returning to.

“Syracuse is a small enough town that if the property manager knows the name, they’ll know any issues that could surround that family,” said Annette Abdelaziz, an SHA grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.

Charles Rivers

Charles Rivers greets a resident one Thursday evening as they arrive to the center to visit the food pantry. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

Currently six individuals are enrolled under the grant, having extended-stay guest status, which is a policy adjustment SHA made for enrollees of this initiative. The governor’s release stated that at the conclusion of the pilot program, successful participants could be added to a household’s lease.

By the end of the grant period, PEACE had seen eight individuals enrolled and living in public housing. Two of those eight, however, dropped out of the program by December 2017 — one by choice; and one violated parole and was reincarcerated for a minor offense.

With the goal of 12 parolee participants falling short, the stipulation on requiring participants to live in public housing was lifted by the state, and the pilot period was extended until grant money ran dry.

In Syracuse, that allowed a continuation into mid-February 2018. In White Plains, that extended into April 2018, but with no set closing date because additional avenues of funding had been incorporated into its plan. For example, two of the 12 participants were veterans and funded through HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers, an exception HUD allows for veterans with convictions.

With removal of the requirement of living in public housing, Syracuse instantly jumped from six participants to 17, because of PEACE’s long-standing practice of supporting individuals’ re-entry. Rivers said he was able to pull participants from that pool and bring them into the pilot.

All three cities regularly stayed in touch over the course of the pilot, and staff in both Syracuse and White Plains noted that Schenectady’s initiative never seemed to take off. Staff with the Schenectady Community Action Program declined to speak for this story.

By March of this year, the state asked only Syracuse and White Plains to submit for a grant renewal.

Lessons Learned

The problems faced in enrolling participants provided a few lessons learned.

In the weeks leading up to being released, prisoners are asked to provide an address. Typically, they give a family member’s, spouse’s or partner’s home address. In Syracuse, if there’s no family immediately available to contact, they’ll often end up at the Rescue Mission.

James Rivers

James Rivers, Charles’ uncle, an ex-offender, sits at a computer in the center’s public computer lab, offered for residents to complete online job applications and print resumes. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

When released, they’re given $40 and a bus pass to return home. Rivers describes this as “the symbolic 40 acres and a mule.”

Next, they have 24 hours to report to parole, where an assessment of their mental health and level of risk to the community is conducted.

An individual’s most urgent needs during the transition are housing, health and income, says Bruce Western, author of the forthcoming “Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison.” The book, scheduled to be released May 15, examines what individuals face upon returning home through detailed accounts from more than 100 individuals on probation.

Researchers on Western’s team also spoke with family members.

In these in-depth interviews, conducted five separate times along the span of a year, participants in the book’s study shared that probation officers chiefly focus on compliance and monitoring.

“For most, we found that there was no process with probation to develop a plan and tackle priorities,” Western said in a phone interview with The Stand, noting only a few went above that level to also discuss with a probationer goals for the year ahead. “There is a deficit of that kind of support.”

Western calls it an unmet need right now.

Rivers and Loftin would agree. When working with their clients, they first share: “We are not your parole officer.”

It helps.

“After telling them that, the air clears,” Rivers said. “It’s like a big sigh of relief, and in that meeting, we can tell tension has left the room.”

In describing a successful model, Western, who also teaches sociology at Harvard University and is co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, says case managers would engage parolees for long periods of time, serving as advocates.

“Coercive treatment is a difficult model,” Western said. “This type of role should involve noncriminal justice actors that don’t wield the threat of arrest and revocation. People view it as a continuation of surveillance and control, and many times we heard from respondents that ‘the system just wants to make money off of us.’”

For this pilot, gaining such trust took time.

“If they can feel it, they will be willing to work with you,” said John Fuller, who oversees the pilot program in White Plains, N.Y., stressing that consistency is key.

“You have to be able to follow up and deliver something tangible.”

He said if released offenders trust the case manager, they’ll pass on the referral to others.

‘Reentry Malaise’

 Fuller says that, once enrolled, the majority of his new participants exhibit what he terms “re-entry malaise,” where people struggle with their self-worth, settling for their current limitations.

In an open group discussion with Syracuse participants in February, one man shared that “you know you are doing your best, but your best is never enough.”

Later, Rivers paused, locking eyes with another grant participant.

“We said one day we’d be out,” he said while maintaining eye contact.

Both walked the yard together and lived in the same cell block, at various prisons, at different points in their pasts.

“On those walks, we said we’d have a second chance, and that time is now,” Rivers concluded.

Next he encouraged the men to share their personal stories in order to illustrate to others what barriers they face in their transition from incarceration to free society.

Re-entry support is not all hand-holding, the case managers note. There is a spectrum with some requiring help as minimal as a bus pass to make a job interview. But for others, support offered by a case manager could be in tackling their staggering issues of self-doubt when rejections seem to be at every turn — “no” from a landlord; “no” to callbacks on potential jobs; even “no” to requests to reconcile with an estranged child.

Karen Loftin

Karen Loftin, 52, was hired by PEACE under the Family Reunification Pilot grant to work as the program’s re-entry case manager. She worked one-on-one with each ex-offender to support their needs during transition from prison back to their family. Photo by Zachary Krahmer/The Stand

For Loftin, patience is what she stresses to each of her clients. “It takes time to get back to a sold foothold,” she tells them. “But when parolees come home from prison, they want everything back immediately.”

She adds that society tells them the same thing: Be productive now.

“That’s where the frustration comes,” Loftin said of her clients’ feelings, “and as a case manager that’s where I come in and can be advantageous and tell them ‘listen, it’s not going to happen overnight.’”

It takes time.

Lots of time.

Loftin says the “top priority” is to ensure they meet their parole conditions.

“Whatever the commissioner said for you to do upon release — education, drug treatment, counseling — everything else has to be met around those.”

She gives an example. Several clients wanted jobs because they felt having money in their pockets was empowering, but if assigned by parole to be in a substance-abuse program four days a week, you first have to complete the program, she says.

This works as good discipline, discouraging hopes of the quick fix. “That hustling mindset,” she began, “has to be changed. While those actions may be quick money, they come with greater consequences. Let that patience have its perfect work to get a greater reward.”

Fuller has also found this to be a population full of fear.

“They are afraid to fail, afraid of rejection,” Fuller said. Some he has worked with have such high levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress that they aren’t mentally ready for a group training.

Even scheduling a meeting during peak office hours when foot traffic is high is too overwhelming.

In substance-abuse counseling, there’s a common saying. “Recovery is the bridge back to life,” Fuller said. “But if you’ve never had much of a life, there’s really no point of reference for what you’re trying to return to. You never had glory; you never had direction; you never had good counsel.”

Deep trauma was the most surprising factor Western learned in the process of interviewing subjects for his book.

“The extreme level of violence people have had to contend with over a lifetime,” he said, “may seem obvious, but we learned that nearly everyone we spoke to had been seriously victimized by violence.”

After Prison, Resilience

He noted many had done very violent things themselves, but they also had serious histories of victimization. Despite this, he said, many displayed resilience.

Fuller says a major component of his role is teaching individuals how to find value in themselves. He said this is something they’ve been missing.

“For some — all of their lives.”

Many are scared to death, he added: Scared to go to that job interview, to try, for fear of failing yet again. “Then when we get that spark, we fan it,” Fuller said with enthusiasm. He noted that success isn’t always employment. “Sometimes success is getting a guy to BOCES to complete a basic course, because sometimes we have to set up wins for them in order to grow their confidence and show them what’s possible.”

Still he views this as a collaborative effort, not simply him telling them what to do. “They have to be invested,” he said “… be part of their own rescue.”

Even if the grant is not renewed, Rivers says, PEACE will continue its re-entry efforts.

“This is something I’ve done since I started and something we were doing before the grant,” he stressed. “The support I offer is not dependent on this grant continuing.”

Neither is the passion the others in this field feel.

Loftin, who spent over a decade in prison and has been off parole for 16 years, says serving as a mentor is ingrained to her core. Rivers’ and Loftin’s past experience, they say, helps to connect with their clients and to show what is possible in the long term. The pair’s combination of having both experienced prison makes them uniquely qualified for this work, making their role instrumental in the grant’s success.

As well, Rivers has earned his master’s degree in social services, while Loftin is pursuing her master’s.

For housing, grant continuation is a major factor in future approval of a tenant with a criminal background.

“A participant’s willingness to participate in case management services is an important indicator of their commitment to change,” said Annette Abdelaziz, the SHA’s grant procurement specialist, whose main job function is ensuring residents stay housed.

Currently, three potential enrollees serving out their sentences are in the pipeline to join family in public housing when up for parole. SHA says no decision to approve their move will be made until a release date is near.

The stall is due to the uncertainty of the grant. If the grant is not renewed, SHA staff would not confirm if their efforts will cease, noting that decisions on individual approval will continue on a case-by-case basis.

“While we want to ensure the case management will be there,” Abdelaziz said, “we won’t tell people ‘no’ yet.”

 This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story published in The Stand, a community newspaper produced in Syracuse, NY in partnership with S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Ashley Kang, director of The Stand, is a 2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Will Getting Tough on Dealers Curb the Opioid Crisis?

A number of prosecutors, apparently backed by President Trump and his attorney general, think the death penalty should be among the punishments for dealers found to have caused opioid deaths. Public health experts aren’t so sure.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans 50 and under. But can a “get-tough” approach to drug dealers—including the death penalty—address the country’s spiraling opioid epidemic?

Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has called on federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for dealers who are found to cause opioid-related deaths,  and President Donald Trump appears to back him.

“If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Trump said last month to an audience in Manchester, NH, a community hit hard by overdoses. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.”

As the crowd applauded, Trump added cautiously, “Maybe our country is not ready for that.”

But a few jurisdictions seem to be.

In Florida, overdoses are traced back to suspected dealers, who are then charged with first-degree murder for the unlawful distribution of a controlled substance which results in death. First-degree murder in that state is punishable by life without parole, and the death penalty.

Such charges have already been brought against at least two drug dealers.  One dealer, in Lakeland, is facing a life sentence, and another, in Palm Beach County, was given a 30-year sentence.

Emboldened by the renewed “get-tough” approach on drugs, prosecutors elsewhere have been moving fast to charge dealers with murder.

Another example is Broome County in New York State, where County District Attorney Steve Cornwell, assisted by his first-ever “overdose investigator,”  moved last September to upgrade  charges against Richard Gaworecki , 29, of Union, N.Y., to second-degree manslaughter, in a case involving a heroin sale that led to the death of Nicholas McKiernan, 26.

The manslaughter charge meant that Gaworecki now faced 14 years in prison instead of four.

“Whenever we can, we separate out dealers and users,” Cornwell said, in an explanation of his actions.

“That’s the goal. But when someone is selling drugs that kill somebody, then they can expect to be charged. We’re going to find those people and target that investigation to get to the root of the crime.”

However, public health and legal experts are skeptical of such hard-line approaches, and fear that drug users addicted to opioids—not dealers and major traffickers—will face unduly harsh sentences.

A Broome County attorney with direct knowledge of Gaworecki’s charges, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the case, told In Justice Today that Gaworecki was a heroin user, not a drug dealer.

“I believe the underlying drug deal here was the result of Gaworecki supporting his own habit,” the attorney said.

“I also believe that the proposed manslaughter charges against Gaworecki were completely unjust and politically motivated by the ambitions of District Attorney Cornwell.”

Public health activists and families who have lost loved ones to overdoses in Broome County are growing increasingly critical of Cornwell’s approach to “treat overdose deaths as crime scenes.”

Out of over 95 overdose deaths in 2016, 84 have become potential homicide investigations, according to local news reports. Cornwell’s critics say that most of those designated dealers are actually users themselves who, like Gaworecki, sell small amounts of drugs to their peers to support their habit, and that locking them up is counterproductive.

The number of overdose deaths in Broome County, which jumped 55 percent in 2016, appears to support that argument. There were just 10 fewer overdoses in 2017, according to Cornwell’s final count.

“Our elected officials’ actions do not match their words,” Broome County resident Alexis Pleus told In Justice Today.

Pleus started Truth Pharm, a nonprofit that helps families deal with the legal consequences of addiction, after losing her son to an overdose shortly after he was released from jail in August 2014.

“At every turn, it seems District Attorney Cornwell promotes arrests while saying, ‘We can’t arrest our way of out of this crisis,’” she said.

Cornwell’s office did not return multiple requests for comment from In Justice Today.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared earlier in In Justice Today. Zachary Siegel is a 2017-2018 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

‘Tough Love’ for Mississippi Gun Offenders: An Out-of-State Prison Term

Under an initiative inspired by the Trump Administration’s crime crackdown, the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Ms., plans to expel convicted gun offenders outside the state. But criminologists say “Project EJECT” will complicate efforts to help returning prisoners rebuild their lives.

On a cool, breezy and overcast morning this past December, U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst called a press conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court in downtown Jackson, Ms.

President Donald Trump, who had appointed Hurst the previous June in a second wave of U.S. attorney nominees, described him as sharing “the president’s vision for ‘Making America Safe Again.'”

A sign with a large red button and “Project EJECT” written across the center leaned on a tripod easel.

Hurst had invited media, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Christopher Freeze, and clergy to stand by him as he unveiled Project EJECT (Empower Jackson Expel Crime Together).

“Today is a new day,” Hurst began, adding, “(T)he message to violent criminals in Jackson is simple: you break the law, you terrorize our neighborhoods, and you will be ejected from our community.”

Hurst has charged 35 people since he first announced the anti-crime initiative in late 2017. In the next two months, 13 people are going to trial before a federal jury of their peers to decide whether they will be among the first ejected from Jackson under the strategy that Hurst, Freeze and Sessions embrace, with (qualified) support from the City of Jackson.

But the program has already prompted skepticism from community residents, criminologists and reformers from all sides of the political spectrum.

John Koufos, the national director of re-entry initiatives for the Koch family-funded Right on Crime, who was in Jackson recently to urge conservatives to support prison reform and re-entry, slammed the idea of ejecting offenders to another state.

“Many times … you’ve got people locked up all over the country. How are you supposed to re-integrate these folks back into the community when they’re in Kansas?” said Koufos, a former felon in New Jersey, in a speech at Jackson’s Old Capitol Inn.

Phillip Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there were risks involved in removing people from their social supports.

“The people making decisions about removing folks, shunning folks, and excommunicating them from their homes are often not the same people who are in community with those committing crimes,” said Goff in a phone interview.

“That’s a fundamental flaw with the way that we handle the criminal-legal system right now.”

The system tends to be comprised of the poorest, most vulnerable, poorly educated, least advantaged and least connected to opportunities, and those prosecuting them do not tend to be of that demographic, he added.

Sending Firearms Offenders into ‘Exile”

Every single case Hurst is pursuing under Project EJECT involves illegal use or possession of firearms in some way under an initiative U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resuscitated from the years before Barack Obama became president.

Many begin as cases that would normally put them under state jurisdiction, even for acts committed with guns. But Hurst takes the cases when they can be shown to involve interstate commerce.

In example, three individuals charged with armed robbery used a stolen Grand Am car for their getaway. But the fact that the Grand Am had been transported, shipped and received through interstate commerce made them candidates for Project EJECT.

Similarly, two individuals who allegedly held up a store in October 2017 came under Hurst’s scrutiny because their offense involved a plan to steal a getaway car manufactured outside the state.

“Carjacking is a federal crime because the car was manufactured in interstate commerce,” Hurst said in his office in February.

Hurst’s goal to “eject” violent criminals into federal court and then prisons outside the state is much like Project 
Exile in Richmond, Va., in the 1990s, which sent felons into “exile” for firearm violations.

The FBI’s Freeze, who joined Hurst at his December press conference, in fact, worked for the agency in Richmond at the time, back when James Comey was the U.S. attorney leading the program there. Freeze started pushing a version of Exile in Mississippi soon after he arrived in late 2016.

“Project Exile was founded and based on the concept that if you’re a convicted felon, caught in commission of a crime, with a weapon, there’s a five-year automatic sentence to federal prison,” Freeze told WDAM in Hattiesburg in April 2017.

Under the program, special agents from both federal and state agencies join local law enforcement to identify crimes Hurst can prosecute. A task force determines if there is enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the federal system.

Authorities will lock suspects up immediately in detention without bond, and law enforcement will not cut a deal so the suspect could be out in a few months. Once convicted, the theory goes, the felon would spend time without parole in the federal system “far, far away from Mississippi so that they cannot continue their criminal activity behind bars,” Hurst said in December.

The federal system no longer offers parole.

The idea is that the criminals would be away from their criminal networks and, thus, be likely to commit less crime.

Hurst acknowledged that they would also be removed from their families and existing support networks, while in prisons known for rough gang activity.

Nevertheless, Project EJECT won early praise from local police. Then-Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance, said at Hurst’s press conference that his “greatest wish” for the strategy is that a young man in Jackson rethinks a life of crime and will rethink his actions after watching others go to federal prison “for a long time, perhaps thousands of miles away from here.”

But some local critics have their doubts. One called it a “sinister law-and-order initiative aimed at criminalizing, victimizing and ethnically cleansing poor black people from Jackson while using violence and crime reduction as a way to cover its nefarious intent.”

The critics say they are also angered by the silence from Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, who has offered few public statements on Project EJECT.

Calandra Davis

Jacksonian Calandra Davis expressed her dissatisfaction with Project Eject in Jackson over the last year at a city council meeting on February 27, 2018. Photo by Stephen Wilson.

Meanwhile, citizens are forcing a public conversation about Project EJECT.

“(Since) police in the City have implemented the Project EJECT program…there have been at least seven officer-involved shootings,” Calandra Davis said at a Jackson City Council meeting on Feb. 27.

“And to realize that this program and these shootings affect African-Americans disproportionately should raise concern for all of us….”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has since put some distance between the program and city government.

“Project EJECT is (not) and has never been an initiative of the City,” Lumumba said at the council meeting. “… This administration has never said it is in favor of Project EJECT.”

Chokwe Lumbumba

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has both distanced himself and the City from Project EJECT and criticized it. Photo by Stephen Wilson

But he added: “I will say that some of the comments that were made during the (Hurst) press conference where it talked about people not getting bonds and everything else was inappropriate.”

Hurst insisted in an interview with the Jackson Free Press that his initial statement had been “misconstrued.”

“We are only a part of the judicial process, and our part will be to move for detention,” he said.

He pushed back on the suggestion that his promises meant violating people’s rights to bond; prosecutors will not suggest bond, he said.

“We’re moving for detention, and the judge makes a decision based upon the facts.”

He argued that the program was really part of the federal government’s “reboot” of  Project Safe Neighborhoods, a pre-Obama-era program that Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was re-invigorating, according to an October, 2017 statement, to “reduce the rising tide of violent crime in America.” He announced that he was allocating 40 new prosecutors to approximately 20 United States Attorney’s Offices to focus on violent crime reduction.

The George W. Bush-era initiative, which had cost the government about $2 billion since its inception in 2001, was highly controversial, and drew charges of racial bias.

But former U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis said Project EJECT is not precisely the same as the Jackson Violent Crime Initiative launched by his office in 2015.

Davis said in an interview that his program did not specifically threaten to send convicted criminals far away from Mississippi.

“Our issue was more so that violent people need to be prosecuted, the law needs to be enforced, and once they’re sentenced, they will be sent to a prison,” he said. “More than likely, that would be at a different location other than a local area.”

Some of those convicted were imprisoned in state. Others went to Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida or Georgia, but Davis made clear he did not set out to have people who commit violent crimes sent far away like Hurst; that is where they landed.

Ceasefire Fires Back

What rankles many observers is Hurst’s insistence that the program is a natural continuation of violence intervention programs like Richmond’s Project Exile or Operation Ceasefire in Boston.

“On the prosecution side, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” he explained. “We’re taking a lot of what has been done in other cities.”

But David Kennedy, the violence expert who helped design Operation Ceasefire—which launched as the Boston Gun Project in 1996—did not mince words when asked about Project EJECT and its earlier models in Richmond, Va., Rochester, N.Y., and other cities in the U.S.

Kennedy calls Sessions’ crime strategies “evidence-free”, despite violence statistics its proponents cite to prove otherwise. Not to mention, he said, strategies like EJECT and Exile have little to do with his Ceasefire approach, which is often referred to as the “Kennedy model” of violence deterrence.

“One of the innumerable mistakes is to say that Project Safe Neighborhood was built on Kennedy’s work,” Kennedy said in his office at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York where he is a professor.

“… That’s not right. It was in a small way based on my stuff. … We produced the first research that really showed there was such a thing as illicit markets in firearms.”

But the approach that became Project Exile under U.S. Attorney James Comey in Richmond ignored vital aspects of his team’s work to decrease group violence, Kennedy said, calling his work “a partnership approach focused on groups.”

David Kennedy

David Kennedy

“The other (approach) was Exile, which actually has its roots in opposition to my work,” Kennedy added.

Unlike Operation Ceasefire, Project Safe Neighborhoods declined to focus on how violent people get firearms, whether legally or illegally. The Exile approach, which was also endorsed by the National Rifle Association, puts the prosecutorial onus on the street-level shooters with little attention to where the supply of weapons came from or how to stop it. That led to charges of racial disparities, and contributed to increased distrust between police and communities of color, Kennedy said.

The Operation Ceasefire approach, which Kennedy’s team now brings to cities through the National Network for Safe Communities, is about prior engagement with those believed likely to commit gun violence, offering them help and services, and also threatening them with arrest on the state or federal levels if they or their associates commit violence. It is also about identifying illicit markets for weapons. And those who traffick the weapons aren’t usually the young black people who get caught up in federal Exile-type enforcement.

Initially, the NRA liked his approach, Kennedy said, but redirected its support away from a program that identified illicit markets to supporting the street-level federal arrests the Bush administration adopted.

Those arrests sent a disparate number of people of color to a gang-packed prison thousands of miles away for additional years, while not bothering to also focus on how they got the guns in the first place. Kennedy also said the federal prosecutions were brought unevenly, deepening distrust in communities toward law enforcement.

In his office, Hurst backed away from Ceasefire when asked if his alliance was also including the services and prevention side of the strategy, as Kennedy’s approach requires.

“It’s really not something, that aspect of Ceasefire, we have not really considered. (EJECT is) really going to be more in line with Exile. It’s almost Exile Plus in the sense of Exile was very strong. But I don’t know how much of the prevention and, yeah, re-entry they did, but it’s hard to argue with their numbers during the time.”

Kennedy does argue with the numbers of Richmond’s Exile and all its clones. Violent gun crime did fall dramatically in Richmond then, but it did not in other cities that emulated the strategy, raising his suspicion that more was going on, he said.

“The reason we know Exile doesn’t work is … because there’s a small body of really good formal evaluations … that say it doesn’t work,” Kennedy said. “I’m not aware of any place where (Exile) was associated with violent crime reduction.”

“What else was going in Richmond at the time? Was there something else that accounted for the reduction?” he added.

Jackson ostensibly tried an Operation Ceasefire approach at one time called “MACE” supposedly modeled on Baton Rouge’s BRAVE strategy, but a Jackson Free Press investigation found that local law enforcement just left out the services and outreach components and used the resources for massive enforcement, which violates the principles of Ceasefire.

Juan Cloy, a former Jackson police officer who was assigned to the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, is the Mississippi project director of Fight Crime, a nonprofit to help prevent youth crime.

In a perfect world, Cloy said, no one would need to go to prison. He wants to approach the justice system with the kind of equilibrium David Kennedy talks about—balancing the stick of arrest with compassion and programs that preempt people from entering the system, especially kids.

“So what we’re trying to do is keep young people from even being introduced into the federal system or into the local or state system…,” Cloy said.

“That way we don’t have to worry about any acronyms at all, right?”

Gregory Davis

Former U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis said Project EJECT differs somewhat from his violent-crime initiative. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Greg Davis agrees. While in office, the former U.S. attorney had an initiative called LEAD: Mississippi’s Legal Enrichment and Decision Making Program. Through it, he spoke to students around the state about staying on the right path—but still focusing on what would happen if they did not.

“One of my primary goals as a prosecutor is to prevent crimes from happening in the first place,” Davis told a group of students at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg in October 2014.

“Educating students about the social and legal consequences of their decisions is essential to reducing negative behavior and making our communities safe,” he added.

Does “Tough Love” Work? 

When Hurst announced Project EJECT, he grinned as he drew connections between his initiative and basketball—particularly what happens when you commit a foul against another player.

“Goodness knows, I had my fair share of fouls,” Hurst said in December. “But, if you intentionally, flagrantly violate the rules, you will be ejected. That’s the consequence. What we’re announcing today with Project EJECT are consequences, but also hope.”

Hurst added that even if you get ejected from a basketball game, you don’t have to leave the sport for life. Rather, you can come back the next game and abide by the rules. He sees the same thing happening for people sentenced far from home under Project EJECT.

“Come back after you serve your sentence, be rehabilitated, abide by our rules, and we will welcome you back with open arms in our community,” Hurst said.

Hurst maintains that the threat of being shipped away can have a “deterrent effect.”

“I know that’s tough love, but it’s combined with the fact that if you want to come back and follow along, we really will help you re-enter society. It can’t just be tough love; it’s got to be that (promise of help).”

The non-law enforcement piece of Project EJECT involves the faith-based community, nonprofits, neighborhood associations and businesses, Hurst said.

In fact, local stakeholders represent the “T” in EJECT—together. Hurst wants business owners to give people a second chance once they have served their time and returned.

He does talk about getting to the root cause of crime through prevention, education, rehabilitation, communication and collaboration, but it is not built into Project EJECT with federal resources and strategies behind it. Hurst made his limitations clear, and leaned on the community behind him instead to achieve better communities.

“We don’t have all the answers, guys,” Hurst said in December. “Project EJECT is fluid, flexible for a reason so we can adapt to the changes and circumstances, and frankly rely upon the expertise of these men and women standing behind me.”

However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been less clear—quiet even—on re-entry, especially when compared to his predecessors. In his October 2017 Safe Neighborhoods memo, Sessions promised a “comprehensive approach” to public safety, including prevention, enforcement and re-entry efforts.

But he mentions re-entry only twice, and suggested supporting locally based groups’ re-entry efforts, as Hurst later echoed.

That is, the feds bring the big stick, and locals fund the prevention carrot.

Former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch had zeroed in on re-entry efforts as well. Lynch, in particular, had a National Re-entry Week that Davis implemented in Jackson.

Davis stressed the importance of re-entry efforts for both the offender and the citizens in community.

“Re-entry is important because what happens is this,” he said before pausing and releasing a long sigh. “Once someone has paid their debt to society, they need to have an opportunity to re-enter society and be a productive member.

“If they re-enter society and they’re not prepared, unable to get a job, unable to have a driver’s license, unable to get health care needs, unable to get whatever services that they should have to allow them to be productive, then they run the risk of re-offending.”

Recidivism after spending time in violent prisons is an epidemic.

“If somebody re-offends, they have another victim …” Davis said. “And that’s one way you reduce crime, by not having people who get out re-offend.”

Phillip Goff of the Center for Policing Equity does not consider programs like EJECT, which hat remove people from their support networks, to be forward-looking. In fact, he argued, they make re-integration more problematic.

“What are the chances of when that person gets out, their lives can be transformed?” Goff said.

“Who among us … can be removed from social networks and become better for it? Any policy that removes someone from their social support is not a policy that is aimed at making them more likely to succeed when they re-enter….”

This is a condensed and edited version of a story published earlier in the Jackson Free Press. The complete story is available here. Donna Ladd, founder and editor of the Free Press, is a 2018 John Jay/Quattrone Justice Reporting Fellow. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School assisted with research. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Prison Deaths Pile Up in South Carolina: Does Anybody Care?

Last year was the deadliest year in the history of the state’s prison system, but a spike in suicides this year may top even that. Authorities blame rising violence inside the prisons. A writer for Charleston’s Post and Courier also points to inadequate mental health care for inmates—and a troubling lack of attention from officialdom.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections website is a wealth of information. You can track the inmate population over almost a half century. It slices and dices the data in dozens of ways: by gender, race, age, marital status, type of crime and length of sentence.

You can see the number of people on death row, the escapes, and the mentally ill.

But what the state does not want you to know is that 2017 may have been the deadliest year in the history of the prison system. And this year, so far, is even worse — including a dramatic spike in suicides.

Eighteen people died in state prisons last year — 12 of them murdered by other inmates and six by suicide, according to the Department of Corrections. It took a Freedom of Information Act filing by me to pry these basic numbers out of the prison system and compare them with previous years.

That shouldn’t have been necessary.

No previous year came close, the data the prison system finally coughed up show. The body count has risen four years in a row. The record in 2017 exceeded the record in 2016, when five inmates were murdered and six committed suicide. In 2009, there were two deaths total.

Keep in mind the prison population has fallen every year since 2010 as the state has diverted low-level offenders from the system, a good thing. But the rising death toll has been driven by a desperate shortage of correctional officers — one in four jobs are vacant — and by the power of the gangs, who increasingly run the prisons.

Mental health care remains woefully inadequate.

The corrections department blames the rising violence on contraband cellphones “and the illegal activity conducted with them.” South Carolina is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to allow the state to become the first in the nation to use cellphone jamming technology.

The last two years saw an explosion in inmate-on-inmate assaults. Put simply, anyone who can has a knife. There were 250 assaults that required taking inmates to outside hospitals in 2016 and 2017. That was more than double the previous two years. Attacks on correctional officers also spiked.

Overall, deaths and serious assaults are running at a record pace this year. In the first two months, there were two murders and a shocking four suicides. There were six suicides in the three months from December through February. That compares with six suicides in each of the last two years. This mirrors a rise in prison suicides nationally, suggesting this is less a bad patch and more a deadly trend.

And this does not even include what is going on in the county jails, which typically house about 12,000 inmates compared with 20,000 in the state prisons.

In 2016, the Department of Corrections settled a decade-old class-action suit that committed the state to upgrade mental health treatment. In a ruling, South Carolina Judge Michael Baxley wrote that the state’s care of mentally ill inmates amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the S.C. Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care,” Baxley said.

Gloria Prevost, executive director of South Carolina’s Protection & Advocacy, which brought the lawsuit, said the violence continues because of inadequate security and medical staff.

“Understaffing of security staff significantly impacts the mental health programs, causing increased lockdown time and lack of access to programs,” she said.

Without more funding for staff, “the problems will not diminish,” Prevost added.

There were three suicides alone in January. One of those was Travis Marshall Steffey, convicted of distribution of methamphetamines in Aiken, S.C.

Travis Steffey

Travis Steffey. Photo courtesy The Post and Courier

Steffey was kicked out of two Georgia high schools and had a series of minor scrapes with the law for things like petty larceny, public drunkenness and assault and battery. Then in the spring of 2015, at the age of 19, he was busted for dealing drugs.

In years of Facebook posts, Steffey is a profane, angry gangster-wannabe. He likes Confederate flags and doesn’t like cops or snitches. But by December 2015, facing real prison time, Steffey’s posts were changing:

“#GOD #Sobriety #Happiness #FAT #Leader #Positive Many more hashtags of new me,” he wrote five days before Christmas.

And later the same day:

Pray pray pray things will make changes not fast but they do — and it feels good to spend a lot of money on stuff I want besides dope it was a waste when I did that … love y’all goodnight and God bless u all who are in need and even the ones that ain’t.

It was too late.

That May, at the age of 20, Steffey was incarcerated in Columbia; his projected release date was June 2019. He never made it.

Twenty-one months after going in, Steffey killed himself at Kirkland Correctional, a maximum security prison, by swallowing paper clips, according to Richland County Coroner Gary Watts. It would not have been an easy death, Watts said.

Steffey was 22.

The question, of course: Does anyone care?

The state prisons are filled with poor, uneducated men — 93 percent are male — and there are no Boy Scouts in there. Sixty-one percent are black, twice the statewide population. The average inmate has a 10th-grade education; 17 percent are considered mentally ill. And if the tepid reaction to my previous prison columns is any measure, nobody cares.

We don’t care at our peril.

As Bryan Stirling, the state’s prison director, likes to say, we should care because more than 85 percent of current inmates will be back in our communities in less than five years. These people aren’t going away.

This article was published earlier in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier, and reproduced with permission. Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Post and Courier’s Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com. Follow @sjbailey1060. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

The Dangers of ‘Toxic Masculinity’ on Campus

Campuses around the country are facing up to sexual assault and violence—often committed by star athletes. At the University of Arizona, now hit with a number of lawsuits, looking the other way is no longer an option, according to an Arizona Daily Star report.

Universities should take a more aggressive approach to address “toxic masculinity” on campus, particularly in their athletic programs, according to a New Jersey-based sports psychologist.

“People want to pretend that they’re doing something about it,” said Mitch Abrams, a psychologist who specializes in anger management and violence in sports. “(But) what’s been done, in my opinion, is the equivalence of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Mitch Abrams

Mitch Abrams/courtesy Arizona Daily Star

Noting that sexual violence perpetrated by athletes is sadly common on college campuses, Abrams said many schools are using outdated or ineffective models to teach violence-prevention to athletes.

“The problems of sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual abuse are ubiquitous,” he said.

The University of Arizona, currently defending itself against lawsuits that claim the school’s athletic department failed to protect students from violence and sexual harassment, is taking Abrams’ warnings to heart.

Starting this week, an attorney who specializes in gender discrimination law will lead a comprehensive review of the university’s processes and policies and also examine how the UA coordinates with supporting agencies such as law enforcement and health care.

“There is no place for sexual misconduct and discrimination at the University of Arizona and we’re working to ensure that a positive and supportive culture reaches across the entire university,” UA president Robert C. Robbins wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.

Robert Robbins

UA president Robert Robbins, left, pictured with AD Dave Heeke, says sexual misconduct “will not be tolerated” on campus. Photo by Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star.

“I’m committed to investing in the people and resources needed to place our prevention, support and response measures among the very best in the country. Our students, employees and the university community deserve no less.”

But Abrams noted that bystander intervention training, such as Arizona’s Step UP! program, is ineffective and difficult to implement. Step UP! teaches students how to be proactive in helping others in situations involving alcohol, dating violence, gambling, hazing and depression.

“If these programs work, then why isn’t the problem ameliorating?” Abrams said. “Bystander intervention as a primary approach is deliberate indifference.”

The UA has hired San Francisco-based attorney Natasha Baker, who trains campus administrators about Title IX compliance and campus investigations, to guide a review of its processes and policies.

In his email to the Star, Robbins said that while the university “cannot guarantee that the incidents will not happen,” he is committed to making it a “top priority for us to do all we can within our roles as educators and employers to prevent them.”

Robbins’ email emphasized that the university is no different from colleges and universities across the country that are also “wrestling with reports of sexual assault, relationship violence, sexual harassment and discrimination.”

The UA has more than a dozen offices that provide education, counseling, health care, investigative and other support services related to Title IX, a federal law that protects students from gender discrimination.

While the quantity of those services demonstrates the school’s commitment to students, they will be better served by “gathering our existing resources in a more coordinated and enhanced fashion,” Robbins wrote.

The university, which has over 34,000 students on its Tucson campus, is defending itself in two federal lawsuits and one local civil lawsuit, all of which claim the school failed to protect students.

In 2015, assistant track coach Craig Carter was arrested after reportedly threatening an athlete with a box cutter while his other hand was wrapped around her throat.

After the incident, Carter sent dozens of text messages and emails to the woman, threatening her and her family members, Pima County Superior Court documents say. The woman is suing the UA in Pima County Superior Court for not protecting her. Carter and the student-athlete were engaged in a sexual relationship that the coach says was consensual.

Orlando Bradford

Orlando Bradford, a former Arizona Wildcats football player, will serve five years in prison for two felony counts of aggravated assault. Two of his victims are suing the UA in federal court. Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

In 2016, running back Orlando Bradford was arrested and charged in connection with choking two ex-girlfriends. A third woman told campus police that Bradford had choked her, but hasn’t filed a claim or sued. Bradford is serving five years in prison.

The two victims have sued the UA in federal court and one of the suits has since been amended to include allegations of gang rapes by football players. No details were provided in the claim, and it’s unclear if anyone has been charged.

Legal troubles involving coaches and athletes extend beyond the suits against the university.

Football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired Jan. 2, the same day a sexual harassment and hostile workplace claim against him became public. The notice of claim, filed by Rodriguez’s former assistant, says the coach fostered an environment where Title IX “did not exist.”

In 2016, the university issued UA basketball player Elliott Pitts a one-year suspension for sexual misconduct related to the alleged sexual assault of a fellow student.

Arizona officials learned the limitations of “bystander intervention” first-hand in the Bradford case.

Tucson police reports show that four of Bradford’s roommates — all UA football players — routinely witnessed him abuse women, but failed to intervene on all but one occasion. All four teammates, and Bradford, had been trained in the Step UP! program.

Rather than teach bystander intervention, Abrams said, schools must increase accountability among their athletes.

Some athletes and coaches “believe they have different types of rules,” he said. “When we hold coaches and athletes up like that, we can’t be surprised when they take liberties.”

Toxic masculinity plays a key role in violence against women, in that low self-esteem in men causes them to use physical power to regain control, Abrams said.

“These people can change, but they need treatment,” Abrams said, adding that schools often expel players when they recognize a problem, rather than offering help. “If we don’t treat people, we aren’t reducing the number of victims.”

He said that when schools learn athletes or coaches are violent toward women, many cover it up or kick them out — often depending on how valuable the player or coach is to their program.

When UA officials learned of the situation involving Carter, they quickly took action and fired him, even banning him from campus. Carter coached a sport that receives little national attention and doesn’t generate revenue.

University of Arizona

University of Arizona stadium, home of the Wildcats. Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star.

Bradford, a potential starter for one of the UA’s two showcase programs, seemingly received more slack. Police reports show school officials were made aware of his violent tendencies nearly a year before his dismissal.

Abrams said sweeping changes are necessary to fix the problem. Without trying to understand how perpetrators think, it’s impossible to reduce the incidents of violence by athletes.

“It’s pennywise and pound foolish. Schools are prioritizing things to save their reputations but not addressing the long-term solution,” Abrams said.

“I think people would rather pretend they’re doing something about it rather than saying, ‘I really don’t know and I need to bring in people who do.’”

Admitting and addressing the problem is smart fiscally as well as morally, Abrams said.

“Risk management is cheaper than damage control,” he said.

Caitlin Schmidt is a 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of her story published in the Arizona Daily Star, as part of her journalism project for the fellowship. The full version is available here. Caitlin welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Bad Cell Signal? If You Wear a GPS Ankle Bracelet, It Can Send You Back to Jail

Persistent malfunctions in the electronic tracking devices worn by released Wisconsin inmates are prompting some experts in the state to question whether lifetime GPS monitoring is fair, effective, and worth the cost.

Cody McCormick spent much of the past seven years incarcerated or on probation after being convicted of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in Minnesota.

Since he had his supervision transferred to his home state of Wisconsin in late 2016, McCormick has been repeatedly thrown in jail. He lost a job. And he continues to be disturbed by corrections officials calling him — sometimes in the middle of the night.

McCormick says these barriers to reintegrating into the community stem from a GPS ankle bracelet, which he was not required to wear in Minnesota but is required by Wisconsin to wear for life. As of January, Wisconsin monitored 1,258 offenders on GPS devices at an annual cost of about $9.7 million.

Five years after the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism documented serious problems with the state’s GPS monitoring program for offenders — false alerts that have landed offenders in jail, disrupting family lives and causing them to lose jobs — inefficiencies and inaccuracies with the system remain, according to state and county records and 16 offenders interviewed for this story.

Such problems have led some law enforcement and other officials to doubt the program’s ability to ensure public safety and assist offenders in reintegrating into their communities.

Since the Center’s 2013 report, the cost of the program and the number of offenders under monitoring have roughly doubled. Lawmakers never followed through on calls to study the system in the wake of the Center’s report. State officials have been unable to produce records of any evaluation of the system’s reliability or effectiveness.

In this current report, the Center found numerous service requests and complaints related to bracelets failing to hold a charge. In February, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it a felony for anyone on GPS monitoring to intentionally fail to charge his or her bracelet.

The state is drawing up a new request for bids for GPS monitoring equipment. Lawmakers are considering extending the length of the contract from three years to seven to entice additional bidders. Bill sponsor Rep. Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, said the current vendor, Boulder, Colorado-based BI Inc., is planning a 50 percent price hike unless the contract is lengthened.

Missed Signals

McCormick, 29, said his troubles with GPS monitoring began soon after being fitted with an ankle bracelet in February 2017. Records show the BI Inc. tracker was not communicating with the Department of Corrections’ Electronic Monitoring Center in Madison because of poor cellular reception at his grandmother’s house, where he lived in rural Monroe County.

And even though police found him exactly where he was supposed to be, McCormick was taken to jail for about three days. As a result, he lost his job at his family’s restaurant.

Cody McCormick. Photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Ten months later, McCormick was incarcerated again, this time for five days. Records from the Sparta Police Department show the arrest stemmed from McCormick allegedly being located next to a library — a zone off-limits for him — for an hour. McCormick said he only drove past it; his roommate, who was driving with him, affirmed this version of the incident.

McCormick’s difficulties persisted. This January, McCormick was briefly jailed on a warrant for allegedly tampering with the bracelet. A police report said McCormick showed them he had not tampered with it. He was later fitted with a new bracelet. Officials did not charge him with a crime — although tampering is a felony offense.

“It’s not just the people who are on monitoring devices (who are affected),” McCormick said. “It’s their family, their jobs, their social life.”

McCormick’s story illustrates broader flaws with Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring program, which relies on both cell phone and satellite service to track offenders.

The Center reviewed data from a single month, May 2017, to more deeply explore the large volume of alerts being triggered by Wisconsin’s monitored offenders. In all, Wisconsin offenders in May generated more than 260,000 GPS alerts, 81,000 of which corrections officials sorted through manually.

The review found:

  • The state monitoring center lost cell connection 56,853 times with 895 offenders — or an average of about 64 times per offender, according to DOC records.
  • Most offenders on monitoring across the state experienced loss of satellite signal, generating 32,766 alerts — half of which were serious enough to be investigated.
  • Of the 52 arrest warrants issued by the DOC monitoring center, service request records indicate 13 involved offenders whose equipment was having technical problems around the same time.
  • DOC employees submitted 135 requests for technical problems with GPS tracking devices— 93 for charging or battery issues with ankle bracelets, 12 for signals lost, 14 for false tamper alerts.

Other records showed:

  • Several offenders have been jailed between one and three times since 2013 for what DOC records indicated or they reported were technical malfunctions.
  • Since January 2015, DOC has filed 1,360 reports when offenders damaged, lost or absconded with DOC-issued equipment, including GPS equipment, sobriety monitors and home-confinement monitoring. An examination of a portion of those reports found at least 89 offenders had evaded GPS monitoring for some length of time, subverting the program’s goal of enhancing public safety.
  • Some offenders claim their GPS shows them to be in places they are not or that they are arrested for tamper alerts when their devices’ ankle straps wear out.

Tech Glitches Put Public ‘In Imminent Danger’

A 2017 examination by the University College London and Australian National University of 33 studies on electronic monitoring effectiveness worldwide found one of the most frequent barriers to success was technological problems, including equipment malfunction, loss of signal or power, battery failure and inadequate broadband capacity.

California replaced half of the state’s ankle bracelets after testing showed that brand, 3M, was so inaccurate and unreliable that its use put the public “in imminent danger.” In 2013, a Los Angeles County audit found one in four of its bracelets had defective batteries or excessive false alerts.Massachusetts replaced all 3,000 of its GPS bracelets in 2016, citing poor cell coverage. A 2015 investigation by Northeastern University journalism students in Boston had found wrongful arrests caused by GPS false alerts.

Wisconsin DOC officials said the benefits of the program outweigh any technical drawbacks. Spokesman Tristan Cook noted that the program is aimed at public safety.

“GPS tracking provides a deterrent effect since offenders know they are being tracked and allows the department to review an offender’s location history to aid the prosecution of any crimes or identify supervision violations,” Cook said.

BI Inc., which supplies the ankle bracelets and other monitoring equipment, declined to answer questions about reported problems with the technology.

Technology does continue to improve, however, and states are aggressively increasing the number of offenders on GPS.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 88,000 offenders were strapped with GPS bracelets in 2015 — 30 times more than the 2,900 offenders who were tracked a decade earlier. Wisconsin had a daily average of about 1,500 offenders on tracking in 2017-18 — a nearly 10-fold increase from 158 offenders in 2008-09.

Some experts say GPS monitoring can be a useful tool in providing structure, reducing recidivism, allowing offenders to work and lowering costs compared to incarceration. But technological problems can get in the way of those benefits.

Mike Nellis, editor of the Journal of Offender Monitoring, believes that GPS monitoring in the United States has taken on a punitive approach that hampers offender reintegration. The journal focuses on monitoring technology and its use in enhancing public safety.

“If (offenders) are trying to reintegrate themselves … to suddenly find yourself carted back to prison for something that is in no way your fault seems to me to be quite an unnecessary disruption in the life of an offender — and quite at odds with good practice in reintegrating them,” Nellis said.

DOC has the authority to detain offenders on monitoring for up to three work days while it investigates violations, although extensions may be granted.

Cecelia Klingele. Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Madison/Wisc Center for Investigative Journalism.

Cecelia Klingele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison associate law professor who specializes in correctional policy, said DOC is put in a difficult position when it knows some, or even many, of the alerts it receives are caused by equipment malfunctions. But she argues the agency should investigate such alerts with minimal harm to the offender, especially in the case of false alerts.

“Even short periods of jail are highly disruptive and can cause a person to lose his job, be unable to care for children, or even lose stable housing,” Klingele said.

‘It’s a Wilderness Up Here’

Some officials in law enforcement and the judiciary who deal with Wisconsin’s GPS program have seen false alerts firsthand and have reservations about the program.

“It’s wilderness up here,” Price County Sheriff Brian Schmidt said of his county in northern Wisconsin. “When you’re dealing with that, you’re dealing with cell coverage issues. DOC needs to recognize those things. County taxpayers pay for these issues.”

Schmidt recalled an incident in which he refused to detain a GPS-monitored offender with a warrant because it appeared to stem from a device malfunction.

“If there’s a violation, I understand, but if … you find a gentleman in bed, and the monitor is failing, even though I have the (apprehension) request, I’m less likely to put that person in jail,” Schmidt said.

DOC sees it another way.

“There is no such thing as a ‘false alert,’ ” Cook said. “If the monitoring center is not able to successfully resolve an alert, an offender is taken into custody to protect the public and comply with state statutes requiring continuous tracking.”

Judge James Morrison of Marinette County, a sprawling, heavily forested county on the Michigan border, said concern about the reach of GPS tracking in rural areas was one factor that led him to reject the placement of a sex offender in July.

“It’s just common sense that we’re not getting a tremendous amount of protection out of this system,” Morrison said.

Nellis said when states conflate GPS monitoring with public safety, they are “giving the public quite excessive expectations at what GPS is capable of.”

Research shows that at least two-thirds of sexual assaults are perpetrated by individuals known to the victim — family members or acquaintances — not by strangers who might visit common GPS exclusion zones such as schools, day-care centers or parks.

Morrison regularly sees offenders remove their ankle bracelets to evade monitoring in Marinette County. This reflects the Center’s findings, which show at least 36 offenders since January 2015 have illegally removed their devices.

Given the sprawling size of Marinette County — 1,400 square miles — and the three to four officers on hand to patrol it, responding to GPS apprehension requests would take too long to be effective, the judge said.

“(If) somebody cuts off their GPS monitor and decides they’re going to go bash in the skull of a witness in a case against them, what kind of protection do we get?” Morrison said. “They’ve (the monitoring center) got to tell our cops. Our cops are 70 miles away.”

Such is the case in records obtained by the Center. They show it can take days or even weeks for DOC or the police to locate errant offenders, especially if they are homeless or have removed their bracelets.

Other states, weighed down by excessive alerts, have seen tracked offenders commit serious crimes when officials delay in responding to alerts. In one case in Colorado, officials took five days to respond to a tamper alert from a paroled white supremacist, who had killed two people, including the then-head of the state’s Department of Corrections.

In Germany, an offender on electronic monitoring fled the country to join ISIS. *A Kenosha offender removed his GPS bracelet and was found by police knocking on the door of his victim.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) cannot always determine remotely whether alerts signify a technical issue or legitimate violation; they sometimes jail offenders while they investigate the alleged violation.

For instance, in May, DOC received 14 alerts for strap tampers — a felony in Wisconsin and seen as one of the most severe violations — that ended up being false alarms after no evidence of tampering was found upon inspection, a review of DOC records showed.

On the other hand, offenders can commit serious crimes without generating any alerts at all.

In July 2016, for instance, four offenders, three on electronic monitoring, allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl at a halfway house near Madison. The crime was not detected because the three monitored offenders were right where they were supposed to be.

Spurred by the high-profile kidnapping, rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl in 2005, Florida began requiring lifetime GPS monitoring of certain sex offenders, and California, Wisconsin and other states followed.

But evidence is mixed on whether it prevents new sex crimes.

Recent studies show that electronic monitoring combined with traditional parole methods and treatment could lower rates of arrests, convictions and returns to custody. But a University College London study speculates that any positive effects may be due to increased compliance with treatment programs, not the monitoring itself.

Other studies show that even if GPS does produce some benefits, it may not be worth the cost.

Susan Turner, a professor of criminology, law and society at University of California-Irvine, has studied California’s GPS monitoring program. Turner argues such systems do not provide much benefit for the cost.

In a 2015 study on California’s GPS program that she co-authored, Turner found the system does reduce recidivism, but only for administrative violations such as failure to register as a sex offender, not for criminal sex and assault violations, where recidivism is already “very low.”

“I think they (lawmakers) had the tail wagging the dog,” Turner said. “They hadn’t really thought through what exactly they hoped to accomplish by putting it on, other than just saying we got the GPS on the sex offender.”

In her paper, Turner concluded that “although knowing the whereabouts of sex offenders is important, the cost of monitoring sex offenders on GPS may outweigh these benefits.”

In another Turner study from 2012, she found California’s program cost $4,600 per year more per high-risk sex offender than for those not on GPS because it takes more agents to keep up with the constant monitoring.

About 96 full-time equivalent staff work at the DOC’s electronic monitoring center in Madison to investigate GPS alerts, notify agents or law enforcement of violations and pursue arrest warrants when necessary.

Warrants are issued when an offender allegedly removes his ankle bracelet or otherwise absconds from supervision, misses curfew or spends too long in an “exclusion zone” such as a park or school.

Offenders interviewed by the Center say they generally have experienced fewer malfunctions as time passes. Jessa Nicholson Goetz, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney, said that technological improvements have largely resolved the malfunctions her clients experienced.

Still, problems do remain.

Arrested for a Malfunctioning Bracelet

James Morgan, a sex offender profiled in the Center’s original report who was jailed for alleged GPS violations at least eight times between 2011 and March 2013, has been arrested three times since then for alleged GPS violations. DOC records show that one time was for a lost signal, which was not Morgan’s fault. In another case, Morgan said, his bracelet malfunctioned.

If found guilty of violating the terms of his monitoring, Morgan, 58, could be returned to prison for years. That prospect keeps him up at night.

James Morgan, pictured with his wife and daughter, wears a GPS ankle bracelet for life after having spent 26 years in prison for sexual assault and other crimes. He has been arrested several times due to GPS problems. Photo by Coburn Dukehart /Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

“I could potentially never walk out,” Morgan said as his daughter, Angela, and new wife, Rachel, listened beside him. He thinks about that every time he is arrested, Morgan said.

“He’s not going to be the same when he comes back,” Angela chimed in. “Even if it’s for 48 hours. How do you give me my father back — but not really?”

For corrections departments, however, creating more tolerant policies comes with risk. In New York, where officials set up a program to notify them only if an alert lasted for more than five minutes, an offender evaded monitoring and raped a 10-year-old girl and killed her mother in 2013.

The system’s ability to accurately locate offenders in rural areas, where cell service is poor, also can be spotty.

Several offenders told the Center they have received repeated phone calls from the monitoring center or their probation agents asking them to regain a signal or informing them they are located in places where offenders claim not to be.

David Bay, a sex offender on GPS from Ashland County, has been arrested three times on probation violations since 2013. He claimed the problem was with his monitoring bracelet. Bay said he is afraid to stray too far from the beacon at his home.

“My signal is so weak I spend very little time outside because if they lose me, they just come and get me. I’m in there two to three days for what? For nothing,” the 69-year-old Bay said on the phone from his home in Glidden.

Battery malfunctions are widely reported, according to DOC records. Of the 93 service requests submitted in May for battery problems, some were for batteries that failed to take a charge or drained within a few hours. BI Inc., the device manufacturer, advertises that its devices can hold a charge for up to 80 hours.

When GPS bracelets lose their charge prematurely, offenders who are outside of their homes must race to find a place to gain a charge, or face jail time.

“When they go dead, they go dead fast,” said Steven Nichols, 48, of Whitehall. “You’ll notice the battery gets hot and burns my leg and takes two hours to charge. … I once charged it fully and drove to Eau Claire (a 50-minute drive), and it was beeping that the battery was dead.”

Offenders say new devices take around 30 minutes to charge. But Jason Wolford, a 37-year-old offender on lifetime GPS and off of probation, said he has spent up to five hours sitting in one place to charge an older unit. GPS service requests show reports of charging taking up to seven hours.

After the Center’s 2013 report on troubles with Wisconsin’s GPS program, lawmakers requested a study on the reliability of the technology, but it never happened.

Former state Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, who co-chaired the Joint Legislative Council in 2013, told the Center that the study died for lack of interest, failing to gain support among 90 suggested studies that session.

On an early August evening with the summer sun setting behind them, McCormick, his fiancé Breanna Kerssen and a friend hauled up from his grandmother’s basement boxes of clothes, an oscillating fan and a used canvas that Breanna hoped to paint over someday.

They carefully placed everything into two aging Acura sedans and drove down a winding country road to an apartment in Sparta where McCormick hoped better cellular reception would give him a life less interrupted by the corrections system.

The apartment, a shabby second-floor walk-up, was only four miles from his grandmother’s. For McCormick, it might as well have been 4,000 miles.

“I was tired about getting phone calls (from the monitoring center),” McCormick said as he surveyed his new yard. “Here, I don’t have to worry about that as much.”

McCormick’s optimism, it turns out, was misplaced.

In addition to two more arrests since moving to Sparta, the monitoring center called McCormick in October when he came within half a block of a liquor store, which is one of his exclusion zones. Another time, he had to return home early from helping with his grandmother’s fall yard cleanup.

The monitoring center said it could not gain a signal.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of an article published this month by the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.  The full version is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

L.A. County Introduces ‘Lighter Touch’ for Juvenile Offenders

The nation’s most populous county is embarking on an overhaul of its juvenile justice system that could in the long run, all but end the practice of arresting and prosecuting youth under 18, except for the most serious crimes.

Los Angeles County—the birthplace of heavy-handed police tactics like S.W.A.T. teams, helicopter patrols and gang injunctions—is embarking on an effort that could make the nation’s most populous county a model for using a lighter touch with juvenile offenders.

Late last year, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a sweeping plan that will make diversion the centerpiece of the county’s juvenile justice system, and could in the long run, all but end the practice of arresting and prosecuting youth under 18, except for the most serious crimes.

“This is a huge sea change and represents a whole new era in dealing with youth, especially youth of color,” said Peter Espinosa, a former Los Angeles County Superior Court judge who is leading the effort.

Espinosa heads the new Division of Youth Diversion & Development, which county supervisors created within the Department of Health Services when they approved the plan last November. The department is tasked with designing a program that will ultimately serve all 46 police agencies within the county borders, including the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the juvenile probation division, and the many smaller police departments within the county borders.

County health officials cite so-far unpublished U.S. Department of Justice figures that show youth arrests have plummeted in Los Angeles County over the past decade –from 56,285 in 2005 to 11,399 in 2016.Yet they estimate that in as many as 9,000 of those 2016 cases, young people could have been offered a diversion program had there been proper resources in place.

The only offenses not eligible for diversion under the plan are felonies committed with a firearm and serious juvenile crimes which the state Welfare and Institutions Code has declared ineligible for diversion. That includes: assaults that result in serious bodily injury, robbery, rape and sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and attempted murder, and several other violent felonies.

“We are trying to emphasize prevention and we don’t believe the most effective solution is incarceration,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who first proposed the plan in early 2017 and shepherded it through the county supervisors’ vote in November.

“We believe that is better for the young person involved as well as better for taxpayers.”

When Ridley-Thomas mentions taxpayers, he is alluding to the estimated $233,000 it costs to house a young offender in one of the county’s juvenile lockups for one year.

Espinosa acknowledges that bringing the plan to fruition “will be a heavy lift,” especially when considering the current state of diversion in the county. While there are diversion programs operating now, they exist in pockets of the county and are inconsistently offered.

Youth advocates have long complained that whether a juvenile is offered diversion depends on where in the county he or she is arrested, and the color of their skin. A number of studies have shown that white youth in Los Angeles and elsewhere are far more likely to be offered diversion than youth of color. Because the new diversion plan will cover the entire county, officials and advocates are optimistic that it will help reduce these disparities.

Despite the daunting nature of the undertaking, there is a palpable excitement for the plan in law enforcement as well as among youth advocates.

“It’s been a thrill to watch it unfold,” said Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment, which has invested heavily in efforts to limit youth incarceration. Because the LA system is so large, we think the direction they are headed in will have national implications.”

Breaking New Ground

Ross and others say the plan is groundbreaking because it prioritizes pre-charge diversion, meaning that a youth alleged to have committed a crime will be diverted before being booked and fingerprinted. This means that as long as he or she completes a diversion program, there will be no record of the arrest.

This is crucial, youth advocates say, because studies have shown that any contact with the juvenile justice system, even just an arrest and one court date, makes a child less likely to finish school and more likely to become further ensnared in the system.

 While advocates have long pined for pre-charge diversion, it’s traditionally been a deal-breaker for many in law enforcement who have feared it would remove an important crime deterrent. But successful large-scale diversion programs in a handful of other places, such as Miami-Dade and San Francisco counties, have suggested that those fears are largely unfounded.

High-level officials in the LAPD have bought into pre-charge diversion thanks to a five-year-old partnership with Centinela Youth Services, a local nonprofit focused on youth and community development.

The program started in the LAPD’s South Division, with officers referring 49 pre-charge cases to Centinela in 2013. Since then, the program has expanded to a dozen divisions, with officers referring 254 cases to Centinela in 2017, according to Cmdr. Jeffery Bert, the LAPD’s Risk Manager.

And though those cases represent a small fraction of all juvenile arrests by LAPD officers during those five years, the recidivism rates opened a lot of eyes.

The recidivism rate for youths who go through the county’s juvenile justice system without the offer of diversion is between 30 percent and 60 percent, Bert said.

Meanwhile, the rate for youth in the Centinela program has hovered around 11 percent.

“This program has really blossomed for us in the past two years,” Bert said. “We believe in it and would like to see its smart expansion.”

The LAPD’s experience notwithstanding, advocates say getting system-wide buy-in for the pre-charge model was an uphill battle, and likely wouldn’t have happened had they not elbowed their way into the development process, starting in March 2017 when a committee established by the supervisors began meeting to design the plan.

“Usually system change is driven by county players and law enforcement, and it gears too much toward suppression and a hammer-only approach,” said Kim McGill, an organizer with LA County’s Youth Justice Coalition.

“If we didn’t push hard and bring four or five young people to every meeting, we wouldn’t have gotten this plan.”

One young person who joined the lobbying effort is Tanisha Denard, who was charged with petty theft and sent to juvenile hall as a 16-year-old after getting caught stealing personal hygiene items from a store in South Central Los Angeles.

In an interview, Denard, now 23, claimed she hasn’t been in any trouble with the law since, and that she stole the items because her mom was in the process of losing her house to foreclosure and she didn’t want to burden her with more expenses.

But her record has been a severe hindrance as she’s tried to get through college.

“For a long time, it held me back as I tried to find jobs and pay for college,” said Denard, who is currently attending Long Beach City College. “I would do good in the interviews, but then it would come to the background check and they’d say your background didn’t pass…if I’d gone through diversion I’d be at a university by now.”

Sheila Mitchell, who heads the county’s juvenile probation division, said she was excited to see the groups that in past haven’t seen eye-to-eye come together.

“Fundamentally and philosophically, we need to help our children do well, and help them avoid the path that takes them deep into the juvenile justice system,” Mitchell said. “The beauty of this undertaking is all hands are on deck—courts, law enforcement, supervisors, and community-based organizations.”

Finding the Money

Over $26 million has been budgeted for the plan, which will be phased in over four years. Mitchell is being credited for offering up nearly half of the funding from her budget in the probation department.

Advocates characterize the $26 million as “a good start,” but add there is concern as to whether the county will dedicate the resources necessary to build capacity within community-based organizations that would sustain a countywide diversion program over the long haul.

“The county has invested a lot of money in blue ribbon panels and task forces in the past, but unfortunately they often sit on the shelf and collect dust,” said McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition.

“So, it will take the same vigilance and united effort among county players and [community-based organizations] that we’ve had so far to make sure this plan is implemented.”

County officials say they’re confident they’ll be able to find other funding for the program, including state grant money. And they are counting on charities to provide increased funding to community organizations that will serve the diverted youth.

“There’s a lot of energy for criminal justice reform in the philanthropic community,” said Ridley-Thomas, who gave the opening remarks to a crowd of more than 300 at the Youth Diversion & Development Summit, held March 1 at the Carson Community Center.

“I think charities are already stepping up because they want to see certain kind of results.”

Ross of the California Endowment said his institution is dedicated to helping to make the plan work, so much so that he showed up and spoke at the supervisors’ meeting when the plan was approved. But he cautioned against expecting too much from philanthropies, adding that the largest pool of potentially available money is the billions in taxpayer dollars currently being spent on California’s “incarceration infrastructure.”

“I think the philanthropic community will be emboldened and bolstered should the LA County plan go forward,” Ross said.

David Washburn

David Washburn

“We see our role and supporting the development and evaluating the effectiveness of the approaches. But it’s the public and taxpayer dollars that will be the main driver of change – the philanthropic money won’t be able to save the day.”

The Crime Report is pleased to co-publish this story with the California Health Report, a statewide nonprofit news service that covers health and health policy. David Washburn is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Voice of San Diego and Dateline NBC. In recent years, he’s focused on issues related to juvenile justice and school discipline. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Where Do the Guns Come From?

The current gun debate has focused on background checks for legal firearms purchases. But gun violence is often committed by criminals who obtained their weapons illegally, according to podcasters who talked with youths and with researcher Philip J. Cook of Duke University about Chicago’s flourishing underground gun market.

“Oh, it’s not hard to use a gun. All you got to do is pull the trigger,” says Samuel.

Samuel, a former Chicago gang member, grew up in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project in Chicago. In a recent podcast of Ways & Means, he agreed to discuss his life with guns, using an alias that would allow him to talk freely.

Guns were easy to obtain when he was a youngster, Samuel told us. Adults would shoot dice in front of the building, and he would offer to hold their guns. Sometimes he’d be sitting on a nearby bench with 10 guns on him.

“I had them all around my waist, in my pants pocket,” he says. He’d lean back in his seat, loaded with guns, as if to say, “Just look at me now.”

At the time, he was only 11 or 12 years old.

“Holding a gun … it’s power,” he says. “To see the gangsters in the neighborhood, I wanted to be a reflection of them.”

Pretty soon, Samuel had his own gun. At first, he would climb to the roof of the project, 15 floors up, and shoot towards the sky. But before he turned 15, Samuel had shot someone – and been shot himself.

When he was 20, Samuel was convicted of murdering a rival gang member.

None of this would have happened, Samuel says now, if he had not had such easy access to guns.


Philip J. Cook, a professor emeritus at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, is one of the top researchers on the costs and consequences of the widespread availability of guns in America. For one study, his team conducted interviews with inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail.

Philip J. Cook

Philip J. Cook

They asked 99 inmates a simple question: where do you get your guns?

And the research is clear: while policymakers argue about background checks for legal gun purchases, criminals, for the most part, are not getting guns through legal means. Most of the young men the researchers consulted couldn’t have legally owned a gun, either because they were too young, or because they already had criminal records.

The young men definitely didn’t have an Illinois Firearm Owners’ ID card. Instead, most of the men said they got the gun from someone they knew.

Samuel agrees. In his Chicago neighborhood, he says he had access to a huge variety of guns: shotguns, handguns, carbines, even Uzis. And there were plenty of people around who could get him any kind of gun he needed, even when he was underage.

“It’s very easy,” he remembers. “I mean, just like you go and order beer, you go ask one of your gang members and say you need a gun. And being that they’re much older than you, they knew exactly where to go get the guns from.”

But even though it was relatively easy to get guns, gang members, for the most part, aren’t really in the business of selling guns— especially to outsiders, researchers say.

“They might acquire guns and keep them in the stash and pass them around within the membership, but this was not a business proposition for them,” Cook says.

Inmates who were interviewed for the study even said they conducted street-level “background checks” before selling guns to someone they didn’t know.

Editor’s Note: Prof. Cook and other researchers discussed the “underground gun market” at last month’s H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. Watch the panel here.

The widespread ease of access to guns—all kinds of guns—matters.

Because even though gun rights advocates argue that it’s people who kill people—not guns who kill people—Cook says his research is clear: the choice of weapon often determines if a victim lives or dies.

Emily Hanford

Emily Hanford

“There are no drive-by knifings,” Cook told us. “The type of weapon matters a lot … People who resist the idea that that the type of weapon matters take the view that whether the victim lives or dies is simply a reflection of the intention of the assailant.

“(They argue that) if the assailant is deprived of a high-powered pistol, for example, then they’ll make do with some other type of weapon and do whatever is necessary to see the job done. And that is a myth. It’s a belief based on no evidence, and every bit of evidence we have would point in the other direction.”

Cook’s research shows lawmakers do have the power to stop the flow of guns into urban neighborhoods like the one Samuel grew up in. For example, laws designed to regulate legal gun sales can significantly affect the underground market.

After Maryland passed a Firearm Safety Act in 2013, 41 percent of surveyed parolees in the state reported that it was more difficult to get a handgun. And a study of over three decades of data on handguns recovered in Boston shows that fewer guns are illegally obtained from states where people are restricted to legally buying just one gun a month.

Cook also advocates for a change in the way law enforcement deals with guns when they make an arrest.

Carol Jackson

Carol Jackson

“When a dangerous person gets picked up and has a gun, there needs to be a lot of questions asked about where that gun came from,” Cook says.

He argues that if detectives spent time tracking the history of the gun, law enforcement might ultimately be able to arrest the person who sold that gun, and presumably other guns, into the underground market.

Soon, Cook says, law enforcement could begin to chip away at the stream of guns getting into the wrong hands.

This story originally appeared as an episode from the Ways & Means podcast which offers bright ideas for how to improve society. Readers are invited to listen to the entire episode, and subscribe.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Montgomery Case Reveals ‘Uncharted Territory’ for Juveniles on Life Sentences

The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that individuals serving life terms for crimes committed as juveniles should be given a “meaningful opportunity” for release. But that didn’t help Henry Montgomery, now 71, who killed a sheriff’s deputy when he was 17.

Last month marked two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Henry Montgomery, a quiet prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Montgomery was 17 when he killed Deputy Charles Hurt in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. A teen with a low IQ and oversized incisors that earned him the nickname “Wolf Man,” he did poorly in school and was playing hooky that day, taking a nap in a grassy area of a park when Hurt, a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy, found him while trying to clear truants from that area.

Though his lawyer claimed that he was not guilty because of insanity, because of what his lawyers described as “the mentality of a three-year-old,” Montgomery was convicted of first-degree murder. First he got the death penalty. Then, after a new trial and conviction, he was, in accordance with state law, automatically sentenced to life without parole.

But in 2016, the Supreme Court read the pleadings of Henry Montgomery and ruled that a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” should be given to prisoners like him, who were serving times for crimes they had committed as juveniles.

Last week, Montgomery was given that chance and was formally denied parole by a three-person panel.

Peggy Moriearty. Photo courtesy JJIE

The decision raises the question of what a “meaningful opportunity” is for prisoners like Montgomery, said Perry Moriearty, who co-directs the Child Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Minnesota.

“Part of the problem is that this is uncharted territory,” she said. “Parole boards across the country are struggling with how to review the sentences of adults who were incarcerated decades earlier for offenses they committed as children.”

Because the state’s powerful law enforcement organizations had submitted letters pushing for a denial, some also saw the decision as an indication that the parole board couldn’t look beyond Montgomery’s crime.

“It’s the one thing he can’t change,” said lawyer Carol Kolinchak, who consults on juvenile cases in Louisiana and trains lawyers working on such cases. “And the Supreme Court knew that he had killed a sheriff’s deputy when they decided this case.”

In 2016, in the case Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court found that mandatory life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional for Montgomery and other prisoners who had been convicted of crimes they committed as juveniles.

Only the rare, incorrigible person would likely be deserving of such a sentence, the court found.

“The penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of the ‘distinctive attributes of youth,’” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Montgomery decision. It outlined the science about still-developing adolescent brains, which causes adolescents to be impulsive but also gives them capacity for change.

Defense lawyers knew that from the outset that, in many ways, it would be an uphill battle to resentence these cases and move people toward parole, Kolinchak said. “Every one of these is a murder. Every one of these is horrible. In every one of these, there are loved ones that won’t come back,” she said.

Still, since the decision, about half the 2,600 inmates are no longer serving life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, according to the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. Some have been released, and the rest have been resentenced to something other than JLWOP.

“Model Prisoner”

Montgomery, now 71, also seemed to be moving toward freedom. He was re-sentenced last year by a judge who called him a “model prisoner.” He made his way onto the docket of the Louisiana Board of Pardons & Parole on Feb. 19.

The board heard how Montgomery has been a role model and a coach for decades and how he helped form a boxing team at Angola, according to reports from the hearing’s observers and from press accounts written by the Associated Press and the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Board members also heard how he was active in his church, how he’d worked in the prison’s silk-screen shop for 20 years and was named employee of the month eight times. He had not earned a GED, but he had earned a waiver for that, because of his borderline IQ, which is in the low 70s. Though he’s taken only two classes, classes weren’t offered at Angola until about 20 years ago and he was considered ineligible for any classes that require reading and writing, advocates said.

He was denied, in a 2-1 vote, by parole board members who questioned the number of classes he’d taken, asked about his role in the murder a half-century ago and noted that his release was opposed by Hurt’s family, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

Access to letters the Department of Corrections sent for Montgomery’s hearing was denied under a parole board regulation that precludes the release of anything submitted by a private entity on behalf of a victim.

Parole board member Alvin Roche Jr., the designated victims’ advocate on the board, was the only vote for Montgomery.

“In my opinion, Henry Montgomery will become a productive member of society, if allowed a second chance,” Roche said.

Montgomery needed a unanimous decision. James Kuhn, a retired appellate judge, cast one of two opposing votes.

“One of the things that society demands, and police officers certainly demand, is that everyone abide by the rule of law. One of the rules of law is that you don’t kill somebody, and when you do, there’s consequences,” Kuhn said during the hearing.

As board chair, Kuhn is designated as the person who can publicly comment on cases; he did not return phone calls for this story.

Did the Parole Board Look Beyond the Crime?

Defense attorneys and experts who work on juvenile cases said the parole board somehow looked past the Supreme Court’s directive that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

They pointed to the hearing itself, which did not focus on whether Montgomery was the rare prisoner who could not be released, as the Supreme Court had described.

“Nothing was presented to show that he was incorrigible. The argument about not taking enough education courses seems to be a fig leaf,” said lawyer George Kendall. He directs the Squire Sanders’ Public Service Initiative, which has worked pro bono on a number of juvenile cases across the country, though not Montgomery’s.

George Kendall

George Kendall. Photo courtesy JJIE

Instead, the parole board should have focused on something very different, given its charge by the Supreme Court, he said. “This individual committed this crime at a very young age, when, as we know now, the most important parts of his brain were not fully developed. So the question is: How did he turn out when nature was done with him?”

Moriearty agreed.

“In the case of a juvenile who’s served 54 years of an unconstitutional mandatory life-without-parole sentence, Montgomery says that you should begin with the presumption that he’s not permanently incorrigible and therefore eligible for release. The state can try to rebut it,” she said.

Certainly, determinations of rehabilitation can be more complicated for people more recently convicted, Kendall said. “But these old guys, we can look at their records. We don’t have to guess at all.”

Until the Feb 19 ruling, hopes were high that Montgomery might also be able to earn parole after 54 years of incarceration, since he hadn’t had a disciplinary write-up for years and had been given a very low risk-assessment score, clocking in with a negative-one score in the Louisiana Risk Needs Assessment, or LaRNA.

Still, those hopes had always been tempered by the reality that Montgomery is seen as a cop-killer, as a person who gunned down a sheriff’s deputy who had three young kids. “That was always going to be the problem with this case,” Kendall said.

Hurdles and Different Procedures

It’s a tough hurdle to overcome, one not isolated to Louisiana or to people who were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

In New York state last year, Supreme Court Justice Maria Rosa issued a contempt order against the state’s parole board over the case of John MacKenzie, an exemplary prisoner who was an adult when he shot an officer in 1975 and has been denied parole repeatedly. Rosa found that the board’s decision gave undue weight to the crime of conviction instead of MacKenzie’s rehabilitation.

Beyond that, what a highly publicized case like Montgomery’s makes clear is that the Supreme Court’s instructions about “a meaningful opportunity” are being interpreted through parole procedures that differ broadly from state to state. For instance, some states allow defendants to appear in person: Montgomery, who is hard of hearing and has trouble understanding complicated questions, was connected to the procedures by video and was clearly confused during the process, observers said.

Guidelines about these cases published in May by the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole noted that “juveniles are constitutionally different from adults” and instructed the parole panel to “give great weight to the fact that youth are less responsible than adults are for their actions.”

To understand the barriers that Montgomery defendants face, Sarah French Russell, a professor at Quinnipiac University of Law in Connecticut, sent a survey to 49 states with parole boards and received answers from 45 of them.

“State parole boards have traditionally had great flexibility in terms of the criteria that they use in making release decisions,” she wrote in a report on the matter, “and they have not been required to provide a realistic opportunity for release to prisoners.” That’s particularly true if the defendant’s offense was violent, she noted.

But Russell’s analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court directives on the matter notes that a 2010 decision, Graham v. Florida, requires that states “give defendants like Graham some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” She believes that “a releasing authority that relies too heavily on the severity of the initial offense in denying release will run afoul of the Eighth Amendment.”

Yet, Russell also acknowledges what observers saw at Montgomery’s hearing, that juveniles who have been incarcerated since their teen years likely had limited education, didn’t have opportunities to develop communication skills and may have difficulty refuting information that’s kept in private parole-board folders.

By their very nature, hearings like Montgomery’s are meant to convey conflicting information, Russell wrote. Parole board members want to hear about genuine remorse but also understand how the crime was affected by the defendant being a juvenile, all during a short time period.

“It is difficult for someone to focus on remorse for a terrible act while at the same time cataloging one’s accomplishments,” Russell wrote. “And it is extremely hard for a person to express remorse and responsibility for the crime at the same time as he or she suggests mitigation regarding an offense.”

The May directive to the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole notes, in one sentence, the importance of their role. “The availability of a meaningful opportunity for release on parole is what makes the juvenile’s life sentence constitutionally proportionate,” it reads.

This story was written for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily, and crossposted by agreement in The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org