Monthly Archives: December 2016

Did Voter ID Laws Contribute to Clinton Defeat?

LA Times reporter Jaweed Kaleem  examines Milwaukee in particular, and Wisconsin in general, as a case study of whether new rules requiring ID for voting blocked enough largely young and racial minority Democrats from casting ballots to contribute to Clinton’s defeat.

Wisconsin as a state had its lowest turnout in 20 years, and the 248,000 people who voted in Milwaukee were roughly 41,000 fewer than in the last presidential election.

“I believe it was voter suppression laws from the state government that crushed turnout,” said Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, one of two officials who oversees local elections. “They tend to hit hardest on people who are poor, who don’t drive and don’t have a license, who are minorities.”


Repurposing Prisons

The Sentencing Project reports on the range of new purposes for prisons closed due to the drops in prison population over the past 5 years. Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million. The new uses include a movie studio (Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, New York), a distillery (Brushy Mt. State Penitentiary, Tennessee), urban redevelopment (Dawson State Jail, Texas), and a variety of reentry centers and homeless shelters in Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere.


Lack of Reentry Services Challenges Reforms

A coalition of newspapers examining the effects of California’s Proposition 47 – the Desert Sun, Ventura County Star, Record Searchlight and Salinas Californian – found that the law had in fact scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, freeing at least 13,500 inmates. The investigation also found that Prop 47 had done little to help those freed to restart their lives:

“Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.”

The newspapers also found:

  • California police have dramatically deprioritized drug busts in the wake of Prop 47, arresting and citing about 22,000 fewer people in 2015, a 9.5 percent decrease in the first year since the possession of meth, heroin and cocaine was downgraded to a misdemeanor.
  • Nearly 200,000 felony convictions have been retroactively erased by Prop 47 as of September, according to a first-ever analysis. Government agencies were not required to track how many convictions were reduced, so journalists gathered public records from 21 counties to calculate a statewide estimate. Many former felons will be slow to take advantage of their restored rights because they are unaware their convictions have been downgrade.-
  • Prop 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent. Meanwhile, the state’s shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

Tough on Kids

New report from The Sentencing Project, “How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids,” discusses how the tough-on-crime era resulted in many juvenile drug cases (in addition to the more obvious serious and violent crimes) being eligible for adult court adjudication. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia permit juveniles to be tried as adults on drug charges. The report summarizes the data: from 1989 to 1992, drug offense cases were more likely to be judicially waived to adult courts than any other offense category. The conclusion:
“The ability of states to send teenagers into the adult system on nonviolent offenses, a relic of the war on drugs, threatens the futures of those teenagers who are arrested on drug charges, regardless of whether or not they are convicted (much less incarcerated) on those charges. Transfer laws have been shown to increase recidivism, particularly violent recidivism, among those convicted in adult courts. Research shows waiver laws are disproportionately used on youth of color. Moreover, an adult arrest record can carry collateral consequences that a juvenile record might not. Since very few criminal charges ever enter the trial phase, the mere threat of adult prison time contributes to some teenagers’ guilty pleas. This policy report reviews the methods by which juveniles can be tried as adults for drug offenses and the consequences of the unchecked power of some local prosecutors.”

Spotlight on San Antonio

The Boston Globe “Spotlight” team reports on the mental health care system in San Antonio, where the behavioral health care system has come to be considered a national model. In addition to improving coordination between law enforcement, the courts, and treatment providers, and improving law enforcement training, they have pursued the controversial strategy of taking decisions on treatment and medication out of the hands of the most severely ill.

San Antonio and the surrounding Bear County built a crisis center for psychiatric and substance abuse emergencies and a 22-acre campus for the homeless that resembles a community college. Thousands of emergency responders in San Antonio and Bexar County have been trained to manage mental health crises. Local judges devised an involuntary outpatient treatment program for people resistant to help and special juvenile court sessions for teens struggling with mental illness. An alliance of mental health specialists set up a transitional clinic to make sure people released from hospitals have immediate access to therapy and medication. And in May, the county opened a $2 million reentry center designed in part to help mentally ill inmates transition to society.

To date, more than 100,000 people have been diverted from jail and emergency rooms to treatment, local officials say, resulting in a savings of nearly $100 million over an eight-year period.

Mass Incarceration, Cont.

The Brennan Center for Justice has released a report on “How Many American Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” Based on  3 years of research by criminologists, criminal justice lawyers, and statisticians, covering the the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories), the report concludes that 39% are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. The report suggests that alternatives to incarceration are more effective penalties for many lower-level crimes, and proposes that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a number of more serious crimes.

The recommendations:

  • Those persons incarcerated with little public safety rationale could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay. If these prisoners were released, it would result in cost savings of nearly $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years. Treatment, community service, or probation are demonstrably more effective for rehabilitate and reducing recidivism.
  • Change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead.
  • Reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate.
  • Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.


Drug Court Promises

On Dec 7, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which included provisions for spending on drug treatment and prevention, as well as drug courts. The president-elect has said he would expand access to treatment and provide incentives for states to use drug courts and mandatory treatment programs. Here are some drug court facts and figures:

  • At latest count there are more than 3,400 drug courts in the US, serving at least 55,000 defendants annually, according to a recent report from the surgeon general.
  • They were a significant part of the Obama administration’s drug control policy, receiving nearly $100 million in annual funding for the last eight years.
  • Numerous studies show court-ordered addiction treatment reduces relapse and recidivism rates. Inmates receiving treatment are less likely to exhibit conduct problems, and they’re more likely to pursue education or employment after leaving incarceration.
  • Drug courts can be an effective forum for communication because they rely on partnerships between community health care providers, law enforcement agencies and social service programs. The effectiveness of the programs varies by state and county because they’re administered locally.
  • In 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported that many drug courts were overwhelmed with defendants facing marijuana charges. One consequence of this, the Times reported, was that expensive treatment designed for people with severe substance use disorders was administered to individuals arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
  • the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) statistics show 75 percent of drug-court graduates don’t get arrested within two years of graduation. The same statistics suggest drug courts save taxpayers more than $3 in criminal justice costs for every $1 invested.
  • the Office of National Drug Control Policy found drug courts reduced crime by between 8 and 26 percentage points. The most effective drug courts reduced crime by up to 35 percent compared to traditional criminal justice efforts.
  • Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent report on alcohol, drugs and health said DUI courts reduced recidivism at rates similar to adult drug courts. It also found that nonviolent offenders were the most likely to avoid incarceration after being accepted into a drug court.


Bail Reform on the Agenda

A number of California legislators are pushing for bail reform as part of the next legislative session. According to the LA Times , Assemblyman Rob Bonta and Sen. Bob Hertzberg plan to introduce bills to reduce the number of people detained before trial and address the racial and economic disparities in the bail process.

The details of upcoming legislation are still unspecified, but Bonta and Hertzberg said there is a bi-partisan coalition of organizations and lawmakers interested in addressing the issue this year.

Bail reform bills have consistently failed in California in the past, although California relies on pretrial detention at much higher rates than other states. About 63% of people in state jails, or 46,000 inmates, had not been sentenced in 2015, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

Underground Scholars Initiative

Formerly incarcerated undergraduates at UC Berkeley formed a support group called the Underground Scholars Initiative, as this article in the New Yorker explains. The founders of the group, Steven Czifra and Danny Murillo, have been named 2016 Soros Justice Fellows by the Open Society Foundation, which sponsors fellows to challenge problems with the U.S. criminal justice system and push for change.

Steven Czifra will help formerly incarcerated community college students reach their full academic and professional potential by creating a pathway for admission to the University of California, Berkeley.’

Danny Murillo will work to empower formerly incarcerated students by creating a network of people throughout California who have successfully made the transition from incarceration to higher education.’

More information is available at the USI website,

Interest Rates v. Crime Rates

James Austin and Gregory Squires in The Crime Report examine the  “almost perfect” correlation (.77, with 1.00 being a perfect correlation) between the rise and fall of interest rates and crime rates in the US since 1953:×229.png

The authors link interest rates to economic stress on families and individuals, and link this to findings by criminologists Arnold Linsky and Murray Strauss that states with higher homicide and suicide rates had higher levels of social stress, as measured by such factors as business failures, personal bankruptcies, and unemployment claims.

If the analysis holds, current economic trends suggesting no long-term increases in interest rates would suggest that crime rates will continue to remain at historically low numbers. On the other hand, if interest rates in the U.S. are starting to rise, and if the national debt expands quickly under the new administration, the consequences of cutting taxes without an associated increase in economic growth could also result in higher crime rates.