Category: juvenile justice

The political roots of mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

If you want to know how America became the incarceration nation, locking up six times as many of our citizens as most western democracies, look no further than this story.

I’ll admit it, my blood boils when I think of the reckless behavior of a pampered kid from a wealthy family destroying so many innocent lives.  And experience (and prejudice) leads me to suspect that an indigent defendant would not have fared nearly as well.

But you don’t change legislation in response to a single case.  This is always how it works in America.  The populous gets up in arms about an isolated case bristling with unusually bad facts.  Next, the politicians chime in with promises of vengeance.  They sense a political opportunity and fear the consequences of appearing soft.  Finally, bad laws are passed giving rise to a host of unintended consequences.

Hopefully this story will be long forgotten by the time legislators have a chance to exploit it.  But if a law is passed to ensure that rich kids are held accountable, the first to suffer will be the usual suspects from the wrong side of the tracks.

Would Texas be a safer place if the young man at the heart of this story had been sentenced to 20 years?  Inmates are released back into society in 95% of cases and generally re-enter the community as walking time bombs ticking loudly.  Prison crushes the human spirit–that is what it is designed to do.  We stopped talking about rehabilitation forty years ago.

The desire for revenge is natural and understandable, but it makes for incredibly bad public policy.  If you aren’t sure what I mean, read on . . . (more…)

Supreme Court addresses Juvenile Life without Parole issue

Matthew Bentley was fourteen when he shot an killed the owner of a home he thought was unoccupied

It appears I was misled by some of the early AP reporting on the Court’s ruling.  Here is law professor Mark Osler’s clarification as it appeared on his blog.  AGB

Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down part (but not all) of the Arizona immigration law. That gobbled up a lot of the news cycle.

Buried beneath that story was another dramatic decision. The Supreme Court also issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, ruling that it is unconstitutional for a state to use a mandatory sentencing scheme which mandates life without parole sentences where the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the crime. This affects a lot of cases– 29 states and the federal government have such sentencing schemes.

Unfortunately, initial reports (over the AP wire and elsewhere) said that all JLWOP sentences were struck down, but that is not true. Sentences where the judge or jury had other options available (such as life with parole) seem to survive this decision.

My commentary on this important can be found over at the motherlode of sentencing info, Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Bryan Stephenson of the Equal Justice Institute summed up today’s ruling by the Supreme Court nicely,

“The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change.  The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.” (more…)

The “unbelievable brutality” at Walnut Grove

Michael McIntosh

In 2010, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against GEO Group when reports emerged of sexual abuse, improper medical care, extended prisoner isolation, and violence among inmates at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility located near Jackson, Mississippi.  Earlier this year, a settlement in the case required the state of Mississippi to remove all youth from the Walnut Grove facility. 

Unfortunately, the damage was already done.

One of the kids at the facility, Mike, suffered from severe brain damage from youth-on-youth violence incited by a prison guard.  Dozens of other kids at the facility were also severely injured.  Last fall, Friends of Justice had the opportunity to meet with Mike’s father, Michael McIntosh, during a trip to Mississippi.  He told us the tragic story of his son’s experience at Walnut Grove.  You can read more about Mike’s story in the article below.  MWN

The Unbelievable Brutality Unleashed on Kids in For-Profit Prisons

By Booth Gunter

Michael McIntosh couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had come to visit his son at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility near Jackson, Miss., only to be turned away. His son wasn’t there.

“I said, ‘Well, where is he?’ They said, ‘We don’t know.’”

Thus began a search for his son Mike that lasted more than six weeks. Desperate for answers, he repeatedly called the prison and the Mississippi Department of Corrections. “I was running out of options. Nobody would give me an answer, from the warden all the way to the commissioner.”

Finally, a nurse at the prison gave him a clue: Check the area hospitals. (more…)

Listening to Broderick’s aunt

patterson outburstBy Alan Bean

Americans of a conservative bent are having a hard time with the Trayvon Martin saga.  The story suggests serious flaws in our system of criminal justice.  The conservative mind has no problem with George Zimmerman stalking a young man he considered suspicious and isn’t troubled by the fact that Zimmerman killed an unarmed man yet wasn’t arrested. 

But there are also narratives that those of the liberal persuasion tend to ignore because they reinforce the punitive consensus.  Take, for instance, the story of  Broderick Patterson, an eighteen year old Black male who was recently sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Eric Forrester, a seventeen year old White male.  The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has been following the story for the past two years.

The Black-on-White nature of the slaying conforms to a familiar pattern, but this case goes deeper than that.  When the sentence was handed down, young Broderick directed a profane tirade (see the article below) at everyone associated with his sad fate.  The jury received the brunt of his venom. (more…)

Police arrest 6-year-old in Georgia

In case you missed it in the news last week, police in Georgia handcuffed and arrested Salecia Johnson, 6, for throwing a tantrum at school.  The girl, a kindergarten student at Creekside Elementary, was taken to a local police station in a squad car.  She was later released and the charges were dropped.  This story is an unfortunate example of how zero-tolerance policies can lead to extreme discipline practices and the criminalization of youth.  Salecia’s case highlights school-to-prison pipeline issues and the need for more positive discipline practices in schools.  Check out the Washington Post article below for more details.  MWN

Just as Fairfax County schools is considering major changes to its much-maligned disciplinary policies, a story about a Georgia 6-year-old suggests that zero-tolerance policies remain entrenched across the country — and can lead to evermore bizarre scenarios.

In this instance, a little girl named Salecia Johnson had what seems to be a torrential tantrum in her elementary school class. She apparently threw books and toys, tore at wall hangings and threw a shelf that hit her principal in the leg, according to the Associated Press.

A school official called the police. Yes, the police.

The police arrived. An officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs. He snapped them on the girl’s pint-sized wrists.

Police later told the AP that policy mandates they handcuff everyone who is arrested, regardless of age.

Those policy-following police then put Salecia in a squad car and drove her to the local police station. There, they gave her a soda and decided against not charging her with a crime.

Oh, the humanity. (more…)

Private prison group ends contracts with Mississippi

In the wake of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional facility scandal, the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) announced that GEO Group — one of the largest private prison corporations in the U.S. — will no longer operate three correctional facilities in the state.  By July 20, the corporation will no longer manage the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional, East Mississippi Correctional, or the Marshall County Correctional facilities.

In 2010, reports emerged of sexual abuse, improper medical care, extended prisoner isolation, and violence among inmates at the Walnut Grove facility.  These reports sparked a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  The lawsuit resulted in the removal of youth from the Walnut Grove facility. According to the Associated Press, MDOC also had concerns about incidents that occurred at the other GEO Group facilities in the state.

This could be an opportunity for MDOC to re-think its practice of contracting with private prison corporations.  Unfortunately, it may be a lost opportunity.  It seems that Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps is still interested in privatization.  Epps told the Associated Press that MDOC is “reaching out to those private operators” in their search for new groups to manage the three facilities.  See the article below for more details.  -MWN

Florida group to end Miss. prison contracts

BY JACK ELLIOTT JR.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Department of Corrections says GEO Group Inc., one of the country’s largest private prison operators, will no longer manage three facilities in Mississippi.

On Thursday, the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company said it was backing out of a contract to manage the East Mississippi Correctional Facility near the Lost Gap community by July 19. Company officials told The Associated Press on Friday that it had nothing else to say.

Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps told the AP on Friday that the department felt it might get a better price if all three prisons were presented as a package to other corrections management companies.

Epps said he would expect GEO Group to end its ties to the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Walnut Grove and Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs by July 20.

“We feel this may be a golden opportunity to provide a better price for the taxpayers of the state and at the same time maybe do a better job in the operation of the facilities,” Epps said. “That’s what I would like to see.” (more…)

Criminal Justice Reform and Schools

By Sofia Rasmussen

In the wake of the Columbine shootings, the Westside Middle School massacre and other violent incidents within America’s schools in the late 1990s, there has been a heightened awareness of the importance of safety within a school and university setting.  According to the National Institute of Justice, more monitoring and awareness of the issue has, at least by one measure, been successful: by 2005, violent crimes, homicides and thefts within schools had all markedly decreased nationwide.  It is worth noting that cyber crimes such as attacks on a school’s computer network or attempted hacks on internet school initiatives such as online PhD degree programs, are on the rise.

However, this statistical decline is not the only side to the story. Recently, several new studies, which are highlighted within Radley Balko’s article for the Huffington Post, suggest that the methods used for suppressing crime may be overly intrusive. For example: a higher proportion of people under the age of 23 are going to prison than ever before. The statistics are overwhelming: in the United States, one in three youths will be arrested prior to the age of 23. Additionally, the number of law enforcement personnel assigned solely to schools has increased by 37 percent between 1997 and 2007 and it is believed that the number of arrests that have originated in schools has also risen significantly in the past ten to twenty years. The result has been a situation where many schools have abandoned their duty to educate and treat difficult children.
(more…)