Monday, March 30, 2015

Another area where our criminal justice system is failing

This time it's prisons.  The N.Y. Times Magazine took a close look at our prison system and it isn't pretty. The first article is about our SuperMax.  It's really really bad:
Inmates at the ADX spend approximately 23 hours of each day in solitary confinement. Jones had never been so isolated before. Other prisoners on his cellblock screamed and banged on their doors for hours. Jones said the staff psychiatrist stopped his prescription for Seroquel, a drug taken for bipolar disorder, telling him, “We don’t give out feel-good drugs here.” Jones experienced severe mood swings. To cope, he would work out in his cell until he was too tired to move. Sometimes he cut himself. In response, guards fastened his arms and legs to his bed with a medieval quartet of restraints, a process known as four-pointing.
 The second is about Norway's prison system and its attempt to rehabilitate:
To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well-­appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.
The treatment of inmates at Halden is wholly focused on helping to prepare them for a life after they get out. Not only is there no death penalty in Norway, there are no life sentences. The maximum term for any crime is 21 years — even for Anders Behring Breivik, who is responsible for probably the deadliest recorded rampage in the world, in which he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in 2011 by detonating a bomb at a government building in Oslo and then opening fire at a nearby summer camp. “Better out than in” is an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service, which makes a reintegration guarantee to all released inmates. It works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens. With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products of any country in the world, thanks to the profits from oil production in the North Sea, Norway is in a good position to provide all of this, and spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
 That might sound expensive. But if the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year. At a time when the American correctional system is under scrutiny — over the harshness of its sentences, its overreliance on solitary confinement, its racial disparities — citizens might ask themselves what all that money is getting them, besides 2.2 million incarcerated people and the hardships that fall on the families they leave behind. The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.
 Our system clearly isn't working.  Both Republicans and Democrats agree on this.  Think about that for a second -- both sides, who can't agree on anything, agree our criminal justice system is not working: from overcriminalization, to our prisons, to our sentencing guidelines, to Brady issues, and on and on.  People want change.

But our judges are awfully quiet on these topics.  Sure, the Supreme Court talks the talk about overcriminalization (Yeager), and the occasional judge (see, e.g., Judge Gleeson and Judge Kozinski) actually does something about the executive going too far.  But by and large, the judiciary hasn't stepped up as a check against the executive branch on criminal justice issues, and unfortunately, that's why we find ourselves where we do. 

Come on, Southern District of Florida Judges! Giving a 3 or 6 month variance here and there isn't going to change the system.  It's time to act and make a difference.  Where the government overcharges, dismiss an indictment.  Where the sentencing guidelines are absurd for first time non-violent offenders, give a reasonable sentence that doesn't include jail.  Where our executive branch -- including BOP -- goes too far, step up!  Avengers Assemble!


Bob Becerra said...

Agree; the judiciary needs to fulfill its function,(or at least what I always thought was its function) which sadly, it often does not.

Anonymous said...

You are ignoring the mountain of 11th precedent that says they can't do any of these things. And if they do it anyway, they will get reversed ... and not just an ordinary reversal, but a likely embarrassing bench slap.

Anonymous said...

Bench slap? They have life tenure for a reason. These judges should do the right thing. The only consequence is that someone disagrees with them in writing. (perish the thought!)

P. Guyotat said...

Judges really can't do that much (apart from ruling on a case-by-case basis, which won't materially affect the problem of overcrowded prisons, among other things), and you're probably overstating the case with Judges Gleeson and Kozinski (though notable rulings do bring, at least momentarily, public attention to otherwise unknown concerns). The federal and state legislatures could step up, however. As could community leaders, schools, and families.

Anonymous said...

disagree; crime has gone down year after year since people have been put away regularly, especially in gun cases. so even though the cost is high we need to keep it up or else violent crime will only get worse. no problem with modifying drug sentences (which I think is a great deal of the problem you speak of) but that should be a systemic adjustment to the guidelines.

real life sarcasm said...

The CJS is working for law-abiding citizens. For convicted felons, not so much.

Law-abiding citizens of ‘merika have more important things to do than worry about a bunch of convicted felons, many of whom are black, or some other minority, and not like us whites.

$31,000 annual expense for prisoners in the United States is way too much. I say get rid of the prisons, sedate or freeze (cryogenics) the convicted felons, and store them in a morgue-like refrigerator, with IV-drip feeding, for their entire incarceration. Each inmate will be fitted with headphones playing rehabilitative messages during their slumber. Just prior to release, the inmate will be revived or thawed, and will awake as a freshly reprogrammed go-getter for corporate ‘merika.

What Say You?