Category: The politics of crime

Tougher sentencing laws = More guilty pleas

Tougher sentencing laws over the last several decades have resulted in fewer criminal cases going to trial. Instead, defendants are choosing plea bargains, rather than going to court and facing the possibility of harsher, lengthier sentences. The New York Times article below gives a good overview of the sentencing shift since the 1980s and how this shift gives “new leverage to prosecutors.” MW

Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors

By  Jr.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After decades of new laws to toughen sentencing for criminals, prosecutors have gained greater leverage to extract guilty pleas from defendants and reduce the number of cases that go to trial, often by using the threat of more serious charges with mandatory sentences or other harsher penalties.

Some experts say the process has become coercive in many state and federal jurisdictions, forcing defendants to weigh their options based on the relative risks of facing a judge and jury rather

than simple matters of guilt or innocence. In effect, prosecutors are giving defendants more reasons to avoid having their day in court.

“We now have an incredible concentration of power in the hands of prosecutors,” said Richard E. Myers II, a former assistant United States attorney who is now an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina. He said that so much influence now resides with prosecutors that “in the wrong hands, the criminal justice system can be held hostage.”

One crucial, if unheralded, effect of this shift is now coming into sharper view, according to academics who study the issue. Growing prosecutorial power is a significant reason that the percentage of felony cases that go to trial has dropped sharply in many places.

Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts. (more…)

Former FBI Chief says Troy Davis should not die

By Alan Bean

In an op-ed written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, William Sessions asks the State of Georgia not to execute Troy Davis.

Four Months ago I predicted that the State of Georgia would not execute Troy Davis

It wasn’t suggesting that mercy tinged with common sense would prevail. 

In the absence of outside scrutiny, there is no question that Georgia would send Mr. Davis to God without a single qualm.   (more…)

When the prison boom goes bust

By Alan Bean

Scott Henson’s Grits for Breakfast blog offered a couple of terrific posts over the weekend.  “Private prisons and faux privatization” was inspired by a Forbes piece in which E. D. Kain asserts that running prisons is a government responsibility even if the work is subcontracted to a private prison company.

Thus any ‘privatization’ that occurs is simply the transfer of the provision of a government service (in this case, incarceration) to a private contractor. The contractor still operates with the full force of the law. In other words, it’s still government, just government-for-hire or for-profit government.

If there is any saving to the tax payer it is only because private prisons pay their workers less than state-run prisons.  Since this translates into less capable workers nothing of value is gained and much is lost.

“Texas prison  boom going bust” argues that county commissioners in small Texas towns can no longer build lock-ups far exceeding local needs on the assumption that a steadily growing prison population will fill the excess beds.

Jail-bed supply significantly exceeds demand statewide. With the exception of immigration detention, the bubble has burst. As has, hopefully, the “jail as profit center” myth among Texas county commissioners.

Prison privatization and the proliferation of the The Texas Gulag are two of the primary symptoms of America’s failed attempt to make crime pay.  Public officials have believed for years that everybody wins when we lock up more people this year than we did last year. Small towns get jobs; private prison companies slash wages and rake in profits, politicians get campaign contributions from the private prison industry and jobs in that sector when they leave politics.  Who could ask for anything more? (more…)

Texas offers Bible classes while vocational training is slashed

By Alan Bean

According to stories published this weekend in the Texas press, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will soon be offering a four-year course in biblical studies to forty inmates.

The training isn’t intended to prepare inmates for pastoral ministry in the outside world–most of the students are serving long sentences and will be locked up for many years.  Prison officials know that gangs and God are the most popular survival mechanisms for inmates.  Gangs create grief; a focus on God encourages compliance and reduces violent behavior.  By enhancing the God-option, state officials hope to create more disciplined and less violent prisons.

If you have been reading my recent posts on Burl Cain, the evangelical warden of Louisiana’s Angola prison, you will be wondering if the fledgling Texas program is a Louisiana import.  Yes, it is.  State Senators Dan Patrick (R-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston) were recently introduced to the Angola program and came away impressed.

Part of me thinks likes this idea.  Having preached, sang and prayed with prisoners in the past, I know how important faith can become for people who have been stripped of everything but God.

But there are problems.  Lots of problems.

As Scott Henson points out in Grits for Breakfast, vocational programs for Texas inmates were slashed during the recent legislative session.  In effect, prison officials have diverted resources from a program geared to assist with post-release employment for a program promising to instill obedience and reduce violence.

Why can’t we have both?

Henson is also concerned that TDCJ is giving preferential treatment to the fundamentalist wing of the religious community.  It isn’t just that the new program amounts to state sanction of a single religion; it awards all the marbles to sectarian Baptists who, in recent years, have ruthlessly disenfranchised moderate churches and pastors.

Between 1980 and the mid-nineties, Southern Baptists across the South mounted a brutal purge against the denomination’s “moderate” element (there were few real “liberals” in the SBC).  I was working on a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky between 1989 and 1994. When I arrived, the faculty was little changed from the folks who taught my wife, Nancy, and me back in the 1970s.  Two years later, all four professors in the church history department had been forced out and the same dismal pattern was being replicated throughout the seminary. Then many of the conservative replacements suffered the same fate (most commonly because they believed women were worthy of ordination).

The General Baptist Convention of Texas, a conservative organization if ever there was one, was deeply troubled with these developments, especially as they played out in Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Seminary.  The ouster of the irenic Russell Dilday as seminary president created an ideological cleavage among Texas Baptists that will take at least a generation to heal.

As a result, Southwestern Seminary is no longer affiliated with the General Baptist Convention of Texas, having thrown in its lot with the fundamentalist (and highly politicized) Southern Baptists of Texas.

By throwing in its lot with radical fundamentalists without creating opportunities for other faith groups, the TDCJ is favoring folks aligned with the pro-Republican religious right. (more…)

Private prisons, juvenile justice, and a little town called Walnut Grove

Families of youth incarcerated at the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi listen to testimony at a hearing about alleged inmate abuse.By Alan Bean

Walnut Grove, MS is pleased to be located next to a private juvenile prison. The facility provides the tiny community with much-needed employment and a solid revenue stream.  Although the population of Walnut Grove, located northeast of Jackson, is only  1,737, that represents a 255.9% increase from the 488 residents recorded by the 2000 census.  1200 of the new resident are juvenile inmates prosecuted as adults on felony charges.  The rest, one assumes, moved to the Mississippi town shortly after the private juvenile prison opened its doors.  No wonder the locals are happy.

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center beg to differ.  Five months ago, a feature story on NPR’s All Things Considered highlighted what goes on behind locked doors in Walnut Grove.    In November of 2010, the two groups (represented by Jackson civil rights attorney Rob McDuff) filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Walnut Grove facility on behalf of all the young men incarcerated at the prison.

According to the ACLU press release, the suit alleged “that the children there are forced to live in barbaric and unconstitutional conditions and are subjected to excessive uses of force by prison staff.”

The Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation.  Meanwhile, the ACLU-SPLC case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson.

A companion piece to the NPR story provided some interesting (and troubling) background information about the Florida-based Geo Group.  “GEO has had a rocky reputation in the youth prison business,” the story said. “In 2007, the Texas Youth Commission canceled a contract with GEO to manage the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center after auditors conducted an unannounced visit and found rampant mismanagement.”

Now, as the Yuma Sun story below makes clear, Geo’s ugly reputation has damaged her corporate bottom line once again.  “We are making good progress with settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project told a reporter with the Yuma Sun, “But the very terrible conditions (there) still exist. GEO has done nothing significant yet to remedy them.”

For-profit prisons have supported every piece of tough-on-crime to come down the legislative pike.  Why not?  Feeding America’s punitive consensus is great for business.  (For more on the case against private prisons, read Joe Atkins recent piece for the Institute of Southern Studies.)

Michael Mcintosh, the father of a youth involved in the lawsuit and a founder of Friends and Family of Youth Incarcerated at Walnut Grove, a coalition of individuals who advocate for WGYCF youth, makes the case bluntly: “Our children’s lives shouldn’t be at risk because corporations cut corners in order to increase their profits. This abuse must end immediately and the youth at Walnut Grove should be moved to juvenile justice facilities that can provide for their care.”

Private prison firms bidding on San Luis expansion are in hot water

August 13, 2011 5:16 PM

Two private prison companies — GEO Group and Management and Training Corp. — ­­involved in proposals for a prison expansion in San Luis, Ariz., are embroiled in legal battles.

GEO Group, the second-largest private prison company in the country, is currently a defendant in a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union for violations at its juvenile detention center in Walnut Grove, Miss.

The lawsuit contends the prison’s management caused a culture of violence and exploitation by selling drugs inside the facility and entering into sexual relationships with the inmates.

According to the ACLU, inmates were beaten by staff members while handcuffed and defenseless or sprayed with chemicals while locked in their cells. Others were subjected to multiple stabbings and beatings, leaving one prisoner with permanent brain damage.

The case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Miss.

“We are making good progress with settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Department of Corrections,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “But the very terrible conditions (there) still exist. GEO has done nothing significant yet to remedy them.”

In addition to the juvenile center, the ACLU is also monitoring another GEO managed site, the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, the only mental health prison in that state.

“We have found really atrocious conditions at EMCF,” Winter said. “(We found) really shocking deprivations of basic treatment for the mentally ill.”

Prisoners at the facility allegedly are subjected to extreme caloric restrictions, physical abuse and extensive lockdowns.

“We had a medical expert document that it was not uncommon for a person to lose between 20 and 50 pounds in the course of several months because the food is so inadequate,” Winter said. “We have seen in some cases prisoners physically abused for behaviors that are clearly triggered by untreated, serious mental illness.”

Winter said they are working closely with state officials to develop a corrective action plan to remedy the conditions at the prison.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division opened an investigation into some of the violations at the Walnut Grove facility. The DOJ declined to comment on the case.

Management and Training Corp., the third-largest private prison company in the country, operates the Kingman prison where three violent offenders escaped last July.

Two of the three inmates who escaped, John McCluskey and Tracy Province, are charged in New Mexico with killing Gary and Linda Haas, an Oklahoma couple, while the inmates were on the run, according to an Associated Press article.

A security review of the prison concluded there were multiple violations at the site.

The review mentioned a malfunctioning perimeter alarm system, guards not patrolling the fence, burned-out bulbs on a control panel showing the status of the fence, and a door to a dormitory that should have been locked was propped open with a rock, facilitating the inmates’ escape, according to a previous Yuma Sun article.

Relatives of the Haases filed a wrongful death suit against MTC in March 2011. The case is still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Arizona Department of Corrections revised and reissued its request for proposals in January after a review prompted by the Kingman escape.

“Part of the bid proposal was to include issues from the past,” said Barret Marson, DOC spokesman. “That information is weighed in our decision and is part of the evaluation.”

The new request includes detailed provisions on security, including ones requiring both random and scheduled perimeter checks of prisons.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Darren DaRonco can be reached at or 539-685 .

A public hearing on the proposed prison expansion will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the City Council Chambers in San Luis.

“It will be an open hearing,” said Barret Marson, Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman. “The two companies will give their presentations, and then members of the audience can submit requests to speak and ask questions.”

In July, DOC announced that GEO Group and Management and Training Corp. were among the four finalists to receive the 2,000- to 3,000-bed project. The hearing will focus on the specifics of each proposal.


We need a new vision

Paul Krugman thinks Washington should drop its phoney preoccupation with things like debt and inflation and get down to the real issue–employment.

I agree.  Unfortunately, the political-economic tides have been running in the other direction for over three decades.  Between 1932 and 1980, American presidents tried to bring the nation as close to full employment as possible–it was their primary preoccupation.  In his book, The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence, Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson argues that everything changed for the better following the recession of 1980.  The goal of full employment was replaced by the goal of stimulating economic growth by controlling inflation and creating a corporate-friendly environment.  (more…)

Federal law scales back crack sentences

By Victoria Frayre

It’s official. Well . . .  almost. With the passing of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which ultimately admitted how big of a FAIL the “War onDrugs” has been, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has decided to retroactively apply the law to inmates convicted of federal crack related crimes prior to 2010. Unless Congress intervenes by October, retroactively applying the law could potentially reduce sentences for some 12 thousand federal inmates, 85% ofwhom are African-American.

The average reduced sentence will cut off approximately 3 years of jail time for most inmates, although a judge and lawyer, most of whom are public defenders, will bear the brunt of pushing paperwork through thecourts for prisoners seeking reductions. And what about violent crack relatedoffenders? How will releasing convicts back into society effect the safety ofthe general public? What about recidivism rates of freshly released prisoners? Will most released prisoners end up back in jail? (more…)

Jimmy Carter: Call Off the Global Drug War

This op-ed in the NY Times from President Jimmy Carter speaks for itself.  Now, if we can just get Bill Clinton to admit that he extended Ronald
Reagan’s militaristic solution to the drug probelm, we might be getting somewhere.  AGB

Call Off the Global Drug War

Published: June 16, 2011



IN an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. The commission includes the former presidents or prime ministers of five countries, a former secretary general of the United Nations, human rights leaders, and business and government leaders, including Richard Branson, George P. Shultz and Paul A. Volcker.

The report describes the total failure of the present global antidrug effort, and in particular America’s “war on drugs,” which was declared 40 years ago today. It notes that the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008. Its primary recommendations are to substitute treatment for imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to concentrate more coordinated international effort on combating violent criminal organizations rather than nonviolent, low-level offenders.

These recommendations are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago. In a message to Congress in 1977, I said the country should decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, with a full program of treatment for addicts. I also cautioned against filling our prisons with young people who were no threat to society, and summarized by saying: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

These ideas were widely accepted at the time. But in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and Congress began to shift from balanced drug policies, including the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, toward futile efforts to control drug imports from foreign countries.

This approach entailed an enormous expenditure of resources and the dependence on police and military forces to reduce the foreign cultivation of marijuana, coca and opium poppy and the production of cocaine and heroin. One result has been a terrible escalation in drug-related violence, corruption and gross violations of human rights in a growing number of Latin American countries.

The commission’s facts and arguments are persuasive. It recommends that governments be encouraged to experiment “with models of legal regulation of drugs … that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” For effective examples, they can look to policies that have shown promising results in Europe, Australia and other places.

But they probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!

Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.

Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out that, in 1980, 10 percent of his state’s budget went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.

Maybe the increased tax burden on wealthy citizens necessary to pay for the war on drugs will help to bring about a reform of America’s drug policies. At least the recommendations of the Global Commission will give some cover to political leaders who wish to do what is right.

A few years ago I worked side by side for four months with a group of prison inmates, who were learning the building trade, to renovate some public buildings in my hometown of Plains, Ga. They were intelligent and dedicated young men, each preparing for a productive life after the completion of his sentence. More than half of them were in prison for drug-related crimes, and would have been better off in college or trade school.

To help such men remain valuable members of society, and to make drug policies more humane and more effective, the American government should support and enact the reforms laid out by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

Tina Dupuy: We Get the Media we Want

Tina Dupuy

By Alan Bean

Tina Dupuy is a Los Angeles-based comedian and freelance writer.  She thinks we get the kind of media we want.

“If we wanted a somber and serious Edward R. Murrow to deliver the important news of the day – we’d all tune in and the ratings would be gangbusters. But we don’t. Most media criticism comes from the assumption that we want Murrow but we get TMZ – instead of the empirical (and slightly embarrassing) fact: We want TMZ.”

The rest of her column is pasted below. (more…)

European Union supports commutation for Troy Davis

Baronness Catherine Ashton

By Alan BeanNo one was particularly surprised when Jesse Jackson called on the state of Georgia to commute the death sentence against Troy Davis.  Now the European Union is going to bat for Davis.  According to the Canadian Press, the EU is concerned that an innocent man may soon be scheduled for execution.

Popes and former presidents have previously gone to bat for Mr. Davis and this isn’t the first time the European Union has expressed its concerns about the case.  International outrage over this case is understandable–the United States is the only western democracy that uses the death penalty.  It’s a key ingredient of what Sarah Palin calls “that American exceptionalism”.  (more…)