IS THE CURRENT CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM DESIGNED TO HELP PEOPLE STAY OUT OF PRISON UPON REENTRY? THOSE WITH FELONY CONVICTIONS HAVE THEIR DOUBTS. A STUDY CONDUCTED FROM 2005 TO 2010 BY THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE FOUND THAT OUT OF 404,638 STATE PRISONERS RELEASED IN 30 STATES IN 2005, 76.6 PERCENT WERE ARRESTED AGAIN WITHIN FIVE YEARS. PHOTO BY XIAO ZHENG/FLICKR COMMONS.
“Divine mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are,” Pope Francis said earlier this year from inside a prison in Juarez, Mexico. “We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that these policies really solve problems.”
By this logic, it might be hard for Francis to view America as the “Land of the Free” considering it houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population, despite being home to only 5 percent of the people on Earth. In 2015, when Francis addressed inmates at a prison while visiting Philadelphia, he spoke to the ailments of a society that struggles to lend forgiveness. “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.”
Forty-six states made at least 201 changes to their laws on sentencing and corrections in 2014 and 2015, an “increase in pace” since an analysis of state changes three years ago, reports the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. The Vera report said most of the state actions focused on three stages of the criminal justice system: creating or expanding diversion of people from entering the system; reducing prison populations by making some offenses eligible for community-based sentences, reducing the length and severity of sentences, adding early release options, reducing the number of people re-admitted for violating probation or parole, and supporting prisoner reentry into the community.
Vera singled out several legislative trends in criminal justice reform. In the bail area, several states have addressed the overuse of pretrial detention, especially for those unable to make bail. Some states are enacting legislation to waive some fees for defendants, allow payment plans for restitution, and limit the use of incarceration as a penalty for non-payment. To deal with the opioid crisis, some states are passing laws incorporating medical-assisted treatment to supplement existing or new treatment approaches, both in custody and in the community. States also are reducing the use of solitary confinement and improving conditions and treatment for those in solitary.
Washington, D.C. — Holly Harris may wear cowboy boots to work, but the Kentucky mom and Executive Director for the US Justice Action Network (USJAN) is far from your average southerner.
This past Saturday, June 25th, Harris talked about her work to a group of journalists and bloggers who traveled to Washington D.C. from different corners of the country to hear from leaders of the criminal justice reform movement. Harris was the first speaker at FreedomWorks’ #JusticeForAll event, and as the leader of USJAN, she set the tone for what turned out to be a fascinating conference.
The veteran litigator opened her speech by outlining USJAN’s goals, explaining the organization believes “our [criminal] code just doesn’t make sense.” That’s why their “goal is to shrink criminal codes” and “get rid of these unfair, unnecessary duplicative and inconsistent laws.”
But it was something else she told the crowd a few minutes later that got attendees worked up.
“The fastest growing segment of the prison population in America,” Harris articulated, “is women … and nobody is talking about that.”
From a small room in Center City, radio activist Vanessa Graber wants to broadcast the realities of post-prison life to thousands of Philadelphians. Next week, PhillyCam, the public-access media nonprofit, will launch WPPM 106.5. It’s one of three new radio stations created following a grassroots push to carve out more slots on FM dials across the country. Graber’s show — hosted by four women with rap sheets — is one of the programs that will air on the community-centric station, which will also reach parts of North and South Philadelphia, as well as across the river in Camden. It’s believed to be the first radio show about re-entry that’s hosted by women ex-offenders.
IT’S AN OFT-REPEATED statistic: The United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but it’s home to almost 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
The Obama administration believes better data within the criminal justice system could correct that imbalance. Which is why today, the White House announced its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative, through which 67 cities and states will work with each other, as well as with leading tech companies like Amazon and Palantir, to find new ways to use data to shrink the size of their local prison populations.
“What we’ve seen as we’ve engaged with state and local leaders across the country is that there are people who simply do not need to be in our jails,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President, said on a call with journalists today. Taking a closer look at the data, she said, can help identify who those people are.