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.
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.
While the unusual coalition of President Barack Obama and conservative groups hold out hope for the chance at what they call the most meaningful reform to criminal sentencing laws in a generation, frontline law enforcement officials are debating what the changes would mean for their communities. Steven Cook, whose organization represents more than 5,500 assistant United States attorneys, believes Congress’ attempts to reduce prison sentences for certain low-level offenders will “substantially harm” law enforcement’s ability to “dismantle and disrupt drug trafficking organizations.” William Fitzpatrick, the president of the official body representing state-level district attorneys across the U.S., views the issue differently, recently writing to congressional leaders that a Senate plan to reduce sentences for drug crimes allows “lower level offenders a chance for redemption.” Continue reading “Is It Time for Criminal Justice Reform? Two Law Enforcement Groups Are at Odds”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch tours a factory where inmates work at the Talladega Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. on April 29, 2016.
The nation’s top law enforcement officer walked past a barbed-wire fence, through passages lined with rust-colored walls, to meet with a special audience. But this was not a normal meet-and-greet — a stern-looking FBI security detail tracked her every move.
Inside the visitation room in this federal correctional institution, five men in khaki uniforms and black Crocs slippers were waiting to give Attorney General Loretta Lynch a glimpse of their struggles.
“Just because we’re locked up doesn’t make us bad people,” says Tony Moses, 47, a self-assured, tall man who’s locked up until January 2041 on armed robbery charges. “We just made some bad choices.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch chairs the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, which works to identify the barriers to successful homecoming for “our formerly incarcerated family members,” as she said it on April 7, 2016.
The U.S. Justice Department, as part of its attempt to ease the transition from prison to homecoming, has designated the last week in April as National Reentry Week.
“From job fairs to family day, to father-daughter dances, to mock interview programs, all the ways in which we can provide the support so that our brothers, our sisters, our fathers and our mothers — so that when our fellow Americans leave these institutions, they can truly, truly find their way home,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said