Thursday, September 1, 2016

America Can’t Reduce Incarceration Without Addressing Violent Crime

Marc Schindler
JPI Executive Director
This piece originally appeared on Open Society Foundations' blog. 

Recently, I had the privilege of spending time with three men who had served a total of over 100 years in prison after having been convicted of violent crimes. The three included Roach Brown, whose life sentence for a murder committed during a robbery was commuted after he served over 30 years; Stanley Mitchell, who was released in 2013 after serving 34 years of a life sentence for being the getaway driver in a fatal robbery; and Walter Lomax, who was exonerated and released in 2006 after serving nearly 40 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. 
In addition to serving extremely long sentences following convictions for violent crimes, what these three men have in common is that they are all doing well and all contribute to their communities.
As we discussed their experiences during a radio show hosted by Roach Brown, I was again struck by the folly of America’s approach to addressing violent crime. As the National Academy of Sciences notes in its seminal work on the causes of prison population growth, “The change in penal policy over the past four decades may have had a wide range of unwanted social costs, and the magnitude of crime reduction benefits is highly uncertain.”

As a number of states across the country have shown, including New York, New Jersey and California, we can have fewer people in prison and lower crime rates.

Our discussion took place during a time when there is more support than ever on both sides of the political aisle for criminal justice reform. But the national conversation and policy reforms have focused almost exclusively on reducing the incarceration of people convicted of nonviolent offenses. Yet almost half of the people in prison have been convicted of a violent crime. That means there is no way the U.S. will meaningfully reduce its incarceration rate without changing how the justice system treats so-called violent crimes.
Thankfully, there are signs policymakers may be willing to try a different approach. In the juvenile justice system, along with declines in juvenile crime, there has been a concerted effort to meet the needs of youth in the community through effective and less costly alternatives to incarceration, resulting in more than a 50 percent drop in the number of youth confined in juvenile facilities over the past decade. We have also seen Supreme Court rulings prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those who commit a crime before their 18th birthday. 
From California to New York, fewer parole decisions simply consider “the nature of the crime,” instead taking into account how likely someone is to reoffend if released. There has also been some chipping away at mandatory minimum sentences for violent offenses. And when faced with spikes in violent crime, some city leaders are rejecting approaches that simply rely on enhanced penalties and are investing more in the communities hit hardest.
These modest steps are encouraging, though they need to be tempered with reality. The latest surveys show only a one percent reduction in the national prison population, along with a slight increase in jailed populations. The United States still has the highest incarceration rate and the largest prison population in the world. And many of the proposals to improve how we respond to violent crime failed to pass during congressional or state legislative sessions in 2016.   
The data is clear: America will not significantly reduce incarceration unless the justice system changes its approach to violence. We need to ask who defines a behavior as violent, how the justice system treats these behaviors, and whether the approach to violent crime makes us safer.
In our new report, Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America’s Approach to Violence, the Justice Policy Institute looks more closely at these issues.
It’s important to note that behavior may be defined as a violent crime in one place and as a nonviolent crime somewhere else, and that context matters in the way violent and nonviolent crimes are treated by the justice system. For example, behavior that wouldn’t otherwise be defined as a violent crime can be classified as violent and mean a much longer term of imprisonment when a gun is involved. So while it is true that gun violence is a serious problem in many communities, we also know that there has been almost zero political will to actually remove guns from our streets.
Finally, the report examines the significant disconnect between current policies and the evidence of what actually makes us safer. For instance, while research shows that people convicted of some of the most serious offenses—such as homicide or sex offenses—can have the lowest recidivism rates, this is often not taken into consideration when considering sentence lengths.

If America is going to truly come to grips with our addiction to incarceration, we need to have a serious and informed conversation about how we respond to people charged with and convicted of violent crimes. Otherwise, all of the energy and effort to reduce incarceration will result only in marginal changes, which unfortunately won’t move us much closer to a fair and effective justice system. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

How We Can Stop Solitary For Kids

By Ned Loughran
Executive Director of The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.
Guest Blogger


Is it possible to end the use of isolation for punishment and administrative convenience in youth detention and correctional facilities in the next three years? The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) answers emphatically, yes and is committed to doing just that!

Ever since Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) administrator Robert Listenbee met with the CJCA Board of Directors in his first session with us in August 2013 and delivered the challenge “if not isolation, then what”, we have responded to his urging.

We chose “Reducing the Use of Isolation” as the theme of our Second Leadership Institute in 2014, which featured a keynote address by Administrator Listenbee, panel discussions, breakout groups and a concluding roundtable on the topic. In 2015, CJCA created a Toolkit for Reducing the Use of Isolation, a publication intended to guide youth correctional administrators and their directors of institutions and secure facilities in changing cultures that rely on isolation as a behavior management tool.

CJCA also recently joined the Children’s Center for Law and Policy (CCLP), the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University (CJJR) and Justice Policy Institute (JPI) to launch a campaign to end the solitary confinement of youth. Launched this spring, the Stop Solitary Confinement for Youth (SSK) Campaign has already garnered the support of more than thirty national organizations such as the American Correctional Association, American Psychological Association and the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute (PbS LI). The campaign will provide support to state and local agencies working to end the use of isolation. The Crime Report, an online criminal justice resource from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recently published and OP-ED piece I wrote on ending solitary for youth and the work of the campaign.

And just a little over a month ago, OJJDP hosted a national convening: “Eliminating the Use of Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Justice Facilities: A Multi-systemic Approach” for more than 60 juvenile justice professionals from across the country. Advocates, juvenile justice administrators, and high level officials from the White House and the Department of Justice came together to review data around solitary confinement and discuss best practices. You can read more about the OJJDP convening here.

And finally, President Obama himself has weighed in on this issue, authoring an Opinion piece in the Washington Post urging the criminal and juvenile justice systems to rethink the use of solitary confinement, particularly for young offenders and those with mental health problems. A day later, he followed up and banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Although his ban does not affect youth in locally run pre-trial detention centers or long-term youth correctional facilities, he appealed to those system’s leaders to end the use of solitary confinement. Between the President’s Executive Action, the leadership of OJJDP, and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, we are excited to see so many forces coming together to end this harmful and counterproductive practice. CJCA, more than any other organization in the country, has the ability and capacity to end solitary/isolation for youths in state youth correctional systems!



Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What I really want for Father’s Day: Stop Solitary for Kids

By Marc Schindler
Executive Director of JPI
Originally Posted on Huffington Post's Blog

As Father’s Day approached, and I watched my kids excitedly make plans to celebrate, I couldn’t help but reflect on my juvenile justice reform work. As a former youth corrections administrator, I noticed their excitement is so different than the isolation we know is too often experienced by kids in facilities.

Based on my experience working with incarcerated youth, I know that many families do not get to enjoy Father’s Day. Across the country, too many families are torn apart by our criminal and juvenile justice systems, with loved ones locked away in facilities, often far away from their families. In particular, I think about kids in solitary confinement. Stuck in isolation, all alone in a cell, I know kids in solitary confinement are having a very different Father’s Day than my own children.

Solitary confinement is the involuntary placement of youth alone in a room or cell, for any reason other than a temporary response to behavior. Solitary is often used when there are insufficient staff or resources in facilities, particularly critical mental health services and appropriate training for all staff. This means that solitary confinement often prevents kids from getting the treatment and services they need. It can have long-lasting and devastating effects on youth, including trauma, psychosis, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide and self-harm. In fact, over half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occur in solitary confinement.
That’s why my organization, the Justice Policy Institute, is working on a national campaign to end the use of solitary confinement for youth. Along with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, we launchedStop Solitary for Kids, with a focus on ending solitary confinement of youth at the local, state and national level. Through this campaign, research experts, advocates, correctional administrators, parents of incarcerated youth, medical professionals, and elected officials have all come together in an effort to end solitary confinement of youth.

At the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign launch on April 19th, US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke about the need to end solitary confinement, in order to do better for our kids. “We are engaging in a practice that human rights activists, and other countries, consider torture,” said Booker. He highlighted the growing consensus among activists, experts, and corrections administrators that solitary confinement is a harmful practice. The Senator also showed why this damaging practice is so harmful and counterintuitive in a juvenile justice system intended to rehabilitate youth, stating, “we’re being robbed of their beauty and their glory because we are punishing them and torturing them, harming them and traumatizing them.”

Our campaign builds off the momentum of the action of President Obama, who made history by calling for a ban on solitary confinement for youth in federal facilities. Obama wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that rightly called solitary confinement “an affront to our common humanity.” Though few youth are in federal custody, Obama’s Executive Action is influential in raising the bar across our country. The President is using the bully pulpit to spread the message that solitary confinement of youth is not only counterproductive, but inhumane, providing strong leadership to encourage the end of this practice.

Even in my own community, here in Washington, D.C., great strides are being made towards ending the solitary confinement of youth. DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced the Comprehensive Youth Justice Act of 2016, proposing sweeping reforms to juvenile justice in the District. One of these reforms includes limiting the use of solitary confinement for all youth under the age of 18, whether held in a juvenile or adult facility, and requiring stringent reporting when it is used. These are the types of approaches we need in working with our young people. At the end of the day, it will make our kids healthier and our communities safer.
Altogether, these efforts show a growing consensus in America that we must stop solitary for kids. From national elected officials such as President Obama and Senator Cory Booker, to local decision makers like DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, reforms are being advanced to end solitary confinement. The campaign also includes important supporters such as corrections administrators from Ohio, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Indiana who are doing this in their own facilities and setting an example for facilities nationwide. Dozens of organizations across America, from the ACLU to the American Correctional Association, have also joined in support of the campaign. With such a wide variety of groups coming together, we know that true reform is possible.



This movement gives me hope that we can truly Stop Solitary for Kids. As a dad, I’m grateful for a day to celebrate my relationship with my kids, and I’m even more grateful that there will soon be a day where no kids will have to endure the harms of solitary confinement.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What Mass Incarceration Means For Families

By Wendy Pacheco
JPI Intern

Since I could remember, my life has been shaped by courts, cops, and jails. My grandmother and I used to walk hand in hand through the East Los Angeles Civic Center toward the local courthouse to watch a judge decide the fate of my mother.

I remember blaming her, reprimanding her for her choice in clothing, her decisions to walk through the alleys at night, and for her overall state of well-being. My feelings shifted my 2nd year of college, when a professor offered a course to formerly incarcerated students where we spent hours on end discussing our own experiences and deconstructing the historical relationship between people of color and the criminal justice system. I realized that my mother’s experiences speak largely to the experiences of women across the United States who are suffering from drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, or other forms of abuse. I realized that due to mass incarceration, my mother and I were unknowingly a part of a community of millions of women who experienced what my mother and I had.

My mother’s relapse lasted about 8 years before she was mandated by a judge to participate in a rehabilitation program or serve a minimum of 1 year in a federal prison. As a witness to my mother’s journey with reentry I recall the difficulties she faced in trying to rebuild her life. Finding stable housing was especially difficult, because the waiting list for public housing and the formal processes for renting an apartment hindered my mother from taking the necessary steps to reintegrate into society. Many leasing agencies and landlords require potential tenants to provide proof of income that reflects twice the amount of rent. But for someone like my mother, whose income primarily consisted of government assistance that did not amount to anything near twice the amount of rent for an apartment in Los Angeles, her options were limited.

I found my everyday realities continue to be enmeshed with the criminal justice system after my father's arrest in 2011. At the time, he was the head of household, and so his arrest resulted in a shift of financial responsibilities and ultimately bore severe financial hardships on my family. As a senior in high school my only option, as I saw it, was to completely immerse myself in the possibility of higher education as a means to move beyond my circumstances. As a 1st year student at UC Berkeley my priorities were driven by the necessity to care for my family: bearing the financial responsibility of paying for phone calls to maintain steady communication, sending my father money for his monthly commissary visits, and carrying out the emotional labor for my family in dealing with the incarceration of a parent.

As my mother celebrates her third year of recovery, my father completes five years of being incarcerated; I still carry the psychological and emotional trauma from those experiences. The stigma, isolation, and trauma associated with incarceration have direct impacts across families and communities that last well beyond release. Since 2011, as many as 100,000 mothers who are were primary caregivers have been incarcerated in prison alone; additionally, when it is not the woman who is incarcerated, women tend to be the ones who bear the financial and emotional responsibility after a loved one has been locked away. It is not enough to address mass incarceration as a racial issue, an economic issue, or a queer issue, we must also view mass incarceration as a reproductive rights issue, and as an overall women’s issue, that bears collateral consequences on families including increased poverty, destabilized neighborhoods, and generations of trauma.

Wendy Pacheco is a graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Ethnic Studies.










Monday, February 22, 2016

Prison Labor: Trauma as a “marketable job skill”

By Jacqueline Conn
Guest Blogger

The fields on the William P. Hobby unit in Marlin, TX had watermelons, green onions, okra, sweet potatoes—and I’m sure other crops that I don’t remember because they aren’t tied to a trauma. It was plantation fields with a disproportionate amount of Blacks and Latinos working under mostly white guards on horses.

I was on the “aggravated hoe squad” for women with violent charges, many of whom I‘d learn were lifetime victims of abuse themselves.

After we were pat down and out the gates, the Lieutenant—an older White man on horseback—gave a brief orientation, “. . . I only break fights if someone ain't fightin back an’s gettin a head kicked in . . . nothin worse than a wimp.”

With that we started running in a tight line of pairs, with an aggie (or hoe, hence “hoe squad”) balanced on the palms of our hands. Our bosses herded us, sitting over us horseback with shotguns.

I should pause for a definition of terms. Prison labor, job training, and humanizing the carceral state are used interchangeably to talk about modern day slavery. Texas Correctional Industries (TCI) redefined its slavery program as one that provides “participants with marketable job skills to help reduce recidivism through . . . job skills training.” These redefinitions help us forget the 13th amendment banned slavery, with the exception of prisoners.

Eventually I saw the parallels to slavery: neither are a choice, and both motivate workers with coercion and fear. Hoe squad bosses put the fastest at the front and punished anyone in back who couldn’t keep up. Bosses reprimanded us and rewarded fast workers for bullying “lazy” ones. Other women became our enemies and bosses were our merciful masters.

There were porta-potties and a water tank; we got to use both if we were lucky. Some days the heat climbed up to 114 degrees. I got sick the first winter, but there are no sick days and “only sorry hoes complain.” The boss told me to vomit as I worked, as long as I didn’t stop moving.

I didn’t have friends on the field at first. They called me weak, lazy, or dirty because I looked different than them, and no one wanted to work by me. We had no sympathy for each other, or ourselves. Each morning we picked a partner. The wrong partner meant a case or a beating, and so I was always the last person picked. One morning, too beat down for pretense, I mumbled to myself: “why doesn’t anyone want to be my partner, what’s wrong with me?” One woman heard me, and made the choice to be my friend. “I remember what it was like when I first started,” she said. This is the only disruptive, radically compassionate moment I remember.

It’s impossible for me to fully describe a world that for some may only exist in the 1800’s. But I can say this: none of the “job skills” I learned from prison slave labor—like how to hold my pee, or work through dehydration, or avoid physical violence with jokes—have proved marketable in any of my job searches. I still don’t know how to talk about my experience as a prison laborer free from the trauma and shame that comes with having once been an object of the state. Maybe TCI could also offer a resume template on their website, or advice for the growing number of men and women returning home with a lack of marketable job skills, but an abundance of trauma and shame.

Jacqueline Conn is a writer and activist living in Austin, Texas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Justice Reform in 2015 and Beyond

By Marc Schindler
Executive Director of JPI
Originally Posted on Huffington Post's Crime Blog

Scout J. Photography via Getty Images
Criminal justice reform is enjoying a moment of mainstream support: Mass incarceration is now widely recognized as wasteful, in terms of dollars and lives, and the language of reform has been echoed by politicians, pundits and the media throughout 2015.
Among the important milestones of 2015, President Obama made history as the first sitting president to prioritize comprehensive criminal justice reforms. During a speech to the NAACP, the President outlined a sweeping criminal justice reform agenda to roll back mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of drug offenses, review the use of solitary confinement, and invest in alternatives to incarceration. The President instructed Federal agencies to stop asking potential employees about criminal histories at the beginning of the selection process and became the first sitting chief executive to visit a federal prison. And with his most recent executive action, Obama also has commuted the sentences of more people than the last five presidents combined. Finally, changes to federal sentencing guidelines by the U.S. Sentencing Commission resulted in the historic release of more than six thousand people from federal prisons, and other changes to the guidelines will lead to over 10,000 prisoners having slightly shorter sentences in years to come.
The President and the Sentencing Commission are not the only catalysts for change. In California, the state began implementing voter initiated Prop 47, which changed low level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors for thousands of people, and created pathways for people with a conviction to expunge their records. In Connecticut, Governor Malloy proposed developmentally appropriate treatment of young adults in the justice system by raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction in his state to age 21, and providing special confidentiality protections for adults under 25. And in states across the South, there have been bipartisan efforts to reduce incarceration and reinvest the savings towards efforts to keep people out of prison and reduce crime. Congress is also poised to pass bi-partisan criminal justice reform legislation, hopefully in early 2016.
For a country that far and away leads the world in incarceration, these are important signs of progress.
However, we cannot pop the champagne corks just yet. The latest prisoner statistics showed that there has only been a one percent reduction in the state and federal prison population -- nothing near the dramatic changes we need to see to bring real relief to the communities most impacted by incarceration. And we need to ensure that these efforts to include reducing incarceration for those imprisoned for violent crimes, not just non-violent drug offenders.
How can we ensure that recent and important efforts are the prequel to lasting and comprehensive reforms that dramatically reduce the use of incarceration?
First, policymakers could follow the President's lead: Like Obama, political leaders need to witness firsthand the failures of these institutions, and commit to substantial reform.
Second, we need transparency and oversight of the corrections system, and to engage those most impacted by the system in the movement to reduce prison populations. As the Marshall Project editor-in-chief Bill Keller laid out in a recent essay, there needs to be more media access to prisons and jails, to provide for accountability in our corrections systems, sustainability for the reform taking place, and as a way to engage the most impacted communities in reform. Keller notes that, "unless the men and women and children we incarcerate are visible, the clamor for reform is likely to be unsustainable -- a moment, but not a movement."
Shining a spotlight on what is happening in prisons, and building a movement of the most impacted communities to close prisons will make more money available to be reinvested in the kinds of services that promote safe and healthy communities. We should take the billions we are currently spending on prisons and jails, and make bigger investments in a public infrastructure that can house, employ, and meet people's treatment needs outside the criminal justice system.
Finally, while the communities most impacted by incarceration will build this movement, this work needs to be owned by everyone. The reach of the justice system is far and wide, and there are countless individuals whose direct experiences and leadership should shape the direction of reform.
Mass incarceration has reshaped and torn at the very fabric of our nation. To turn the tide, we all need to be a part of a broad and deep movement for reform. Together, we can make sure the next chapter is one built on promise rather than failure.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Reflections of a Hypocrite

By Leo Kim
Guest Blogger

What happens when you learn that you’re a hypocrite?

That was the thought bouncing around my head as I fumbled around a row of black trash bags lining the street, dealing with the aftermath of a sudden eviction.

A few hours earlier, I had been at my desk at Justice Policy Institute’s office working when I got a call. “You need to get here right away,” a panicked neighbor told me. “The guy you’re subletting from is being evicted and the marshals are taking out everything.”

First, I thought it was a joke. There’s no way, I thought. It was too ironic. After all, I had only recently finished helping with research for JPI on the intersection of homelessness and the criminal justice system in Maryland.

Thirty minutes later, when I got to the apartment and saw my entire life in D.C. tossed indiscriminately into trash bags on the side of the street, I knew it was no joke. I had received no word of the eviction. No forewarning. But there it was.

It was quite a scene and on a busy Georgetown afternoon; I stuck out.

Most passersby tried to avoid eye contact. Some talked amongst themselves about what could have happened. A select few actually came up and asked me themselves, leaving with words that, while comforting, amounted to little more than “I’m sorry, I wish I could help.”

It was at that point that a man of about 50 approached me. Despite looking worn and tired, he told me that he wanted to help. He told me that something similar had happened to him, and he understood. If I needed anything, I should come get him— he’d be across the street.

This man, homeless, was the only stranger to offer me help that day.

All this started to get me thinking. What would I have done had I been one of the people walking by? After all, I should have known how swift and terrible something like this could be. I had spent the better part of a summer specifically researching it, and I knew that for most people, the same event would have been far worse than I could ever hope to comprehend. I knew from my research that homelessness could have devastating impacts and often lead to involvement in the justice system.

I, who could rattle off dozens of facts about the worst parts of homelessness, wouldn’t have offered substantial help. And while I’m sure there are better souls out there, I think most people would do the same— they did do the same.

So where does this leave me?

The thing is, I’m a little bit of a dork. But not just any kind of dork, I’m a philosophy dork. So naturally, that’s where my mind went.

There’s a theory in philosophy that essentially says that your beliefs are intimately linked to your actions. If  you believe something, you’ll act in accordance with that belief. If you act in a way seemingly contradictory, we can say that you never believed that thing in the first place. After all, it makes sense to say a person who acts bigoted doesn’t believe in equality, even if they explicitly say they do.

Plus, if beliefs don’t cause action, then why would we bother teaching correct information? What’s the purpose of teaching people about global warming if we don’t think it’ll lead to positive change, to something happening?

So how would someone who believed in the inequity surrounding homelessness have acted in that situation? The obvious answer seems to be that they would have helped. But, contrary to my belief that people who are homeless need more than a few meaningless words, that’s exactly what I would’ve done, like so many did that day.

What conclusion did I have? I was a hypocrite.

I thought I had done all the right things to help myself become more understanding of the world around me— to become more understanding of the privilege I have that so many lack, of the obligation we all have towards one another. I had researched, written, and learned about the relevant issues. I had taken classes on ethics and waxed philosophical.

But at the end of the day, this intellectual education wasn’t enough to ensure that my beliefs translated into actions consistent with those beliefs. I didn’t have the right beliefs in the sense that we want them, beliefs in the sense that they matter in a tangible way. There was still a vast chasm separating my intellectual knowledge, and this visceral, acting knowledge.

It’s probably safe to assume that many reading this, like me, are interested in reform and have a genuine desire to—pardon the hackneyed expression— “be the change that they wish to see in the world.”

Yet, this isn’t something that can be achieved in a purely academic setting, as so many of my university peers may think. Rather, there needs to be something connecting you to the people the problem affects; it needs to be human, not solely intellectual.

Fighting this abstraction through personal involvement is important. With it, the divide between the two kinds of knowledge can start to inch closer and closer together.

When I came to my internship at JPI, I was told that my primary job was to “learn.” By the end of my internship, I realized that the most valuable kind of learning I did was unlike the academic kind I had become so accustomed to in the past 15 years of my life.

Getting a chance to meet those that the problem affected and becoming more personally conscientious of the issues at hand gave me something I could have never taken away from a report or a classroom. And this is precisely what we need if we are to become more like the person we all want to be, rather than the ones we so often are.




Leo Kim is a student at Yale where he studies philosophy and writes for the Opinion Section of the Yale Daily News. He is also a former JPI Research Intern.