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.