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First Step Act is a Good Start

Posted by Janice L. Bailey on January 13, 2019 at 8:50 PM Comments comments (0)

By George Kevin Jordan

Published: January 2, 2019 - originally appeared on Afro-American Newspapers.

In 2019 organizations that supported the recently passed First Step Act, which helps reform the prison system, are calling for proper implementation and transparency, officials said.


“I think the take away from folks supporting and opposing this bill is that it’s well titled – in that it’s the first step,” said Ryan King, director of Research and Policy at the Justice Policy Institute. “I think it’s been a contentious piece of legislation even within the community of people working in criminal justice reform.”


On Dec. 18 after a rare bipartisan push from senators across the aisle the First Step Act was passed.


“Tonight the Senate took an important first step to reform our broken criminal justice system. The First Step Act is backed by a diverse group of supporters – from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Fraternal Order of Police,” said U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md), in a statement. “ It includes crucial reforms to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, end juvenile solitary confinement, and provide more people with a second chance. While we’ve got much more to do, I was proud to support this bipartisan bill, and I will continue working to implement more reforms in the days ahead.”


The bill – co sponsored by Van Hollen, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D- RI) and Sen. John Cornyn (R – TX), would do several things including:


Hike earned credit up to 54 days per year per inmate rather than the current standard of 47 days that the Bureau of Prisons has in place.

Provide over $250 million in educational classes and training to assist with transition for returning citizens.

Ban the shackling of female inmates when they are pregnant and up to three months after their pregnancy

Institute home confinement for low risk prisoners

Provide proper ID to individuals released from prison.

While there has been debate about how substantive the bill is to the entire prison population and system, King pointed out the real time benefits can be had from the legislation.


“These are positive reforms where thousands of people will be impacted by them,” King said. “There are a number of people who have the opportunity to be released immediately. There is no question that that’s a positive.”


According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons there are about 180,000 federal inmates in the system now. This number is compared to more than 2.3 million people in the entire prison system in the U.S., according to numbers by the Prison Policy Initiative.


King noted that legislation tends to help push more legislation in the long run.


“You will see these smaller reforms have led to more ambitious reform,” King said. “People who were reluctant later become supporters.”


Some critics are wary of the Risk Assessment part of the bill, which some would say may leave an opportunity for racial and other biases to creep into who is deemed a risk to the public.


“Risk is linked to race and earned time would disadvantage people of color,” King said. “How is the risk decision being made? Those are the points of debate.”


“The reality is this is where people and organizations need to be pushing for transparency making sure they are holding hearings with folks from the Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons. For me, those are the two agencies we need to be pushing for transparency from.”


Kara Gotsch, director of Strategic Initiatives at the Sentencing Project worked with legislators on the bill. Her organization is not only focused on reduced sentencing but making sure the educational components are actually working and make sense.


“Sentencing reform was a critical piece,” Gotsch said, “The success of the bill will depend on implementation.”


Implementation is key not only because of all the moving parts but because there is no permanent Attorney General in place as of yet of oversee all the processes associated with the bill.


Gotsch added that the system’s current educational program for those incarcerated is lacking.


“It’s a basic common sense issue,” Gotsch said. “Programming isn’t going to materialize unless we reduce the prison populations.”


Officials at the Attorney General’s Office could not be reached for comment.

Paroling Elderly Inmates is Humane Solution to Costly Mass Incarceration

Posted by Janice L. Bailey on January 13, 2019 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)

By Marc Schindler Original article published on The Hill

As the United States enters its fourth decade of the mass incarceration crisis, state and federal policymakers are taking steps to push back against a wasteful system that costs billions of taxpayer dollars and does little to deliver on promises of public safety. It has put enormous strain on state budgets, while disproportionately impacting people of color and destroying lives, families and communities. The number of people serving life sentences is four times what it was in 1984 — currently imposed on one of every seven people in a U.S. prison.

This growth in long prison sentences has done little to improve public safety, with states that have reduced incarceration levels experiencing larger drops in crime than states that continue to incarcerate people at very high rates. But it has contributed to a rapidly expanding population of incarcerated elderly people, so that our prisons now essentially function as expensive yet inhumane nursing homes. In 1993, there were 45,000 incarcerated individuals over 50 years old; with the continuous growth, it is estimated that number will reach 400,000 by 2030.

For policymakers to significantly reduce the growing and costly prison population, strategies must include reform to long sentences for violent crimes. Focusing reforms on reducing incarceration of geriatric people is an effective way to safely reduce the prison population. Research indicates they are the least likely to pose a risk to public safety; criminal behavior typically peaks at 17 years old and then drops as an individual develops into adulthood. While many states, such as California, Texas and New York, have expanded geriatric parole eligibility, it is infrequently used.

A naturally-occurring experiment, just a few miles from the nation’s capital, provides a roadmap for this strategy to safely reduce incarceration, create a more humane justice system and save significant taxpayer dollars. A landmark court ruling — Unger v. Maryland — and the opportunities it created, offer powerful lessons for policymakers and stakeholders in tackling mass incarceration. The 2012 case, centered on remedying improper jury instructions, applied to a cohort of 235 people sentenced prior to 1981. In the six years since the decision, 188 people have been released; at release, the average age of the Ungers was 64, and the average term served was 40 years.

As with everything in America’s justice system, the issue of racial disparity is deeply intertwined and ever-present. The Unger group were deeply impacted by racial discrimination: almost 90 percent of the Unger group are black, despite only 18 percent of Maryland’s population being black at the time of their convictions. Almost all were convicted by all white judges, juries and prosecutors.

In the six years since the decision, we have learned a number of important lessons, the most significant of which is that the Unger experience proves we can safely release people who have committed a serious, violent offense. And since they’ve been home, the Ungers have been contributing to their communities; as volunteers and mentors they help keep us all safer by encouraging youths to avoid the mistakes they made when they were younger.


One of the things that make the Ungers unique is that, thanks to an investment by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, they received specialized reentry programming before and after release. With that individualized support, the Ungers have had a less than 3 percent recidivism rate, a fraction of the Maryland rate of 40 percent. This support is a significant advance over what most people receive and should be a model for governments across the country to replicate.


The Ungers were primarily convicted of homicide and rape, yet they have safely returned to the community. Too often we fail to take into consideration a research-based assessment of the risk of reoffending when making release decisions. It is time to reconsider parole policies and assessment tools that disregard rehabilitation and continue to keep people locked up based solely on the severity of their underlying offense.


Imposing extremely long sentences, alongside low rates of parole, serves political motivations, not increased public safety. By pivoting away from a parole approach focused solely on the crime committed, to one that assesses the current risk of re-offending and provides tailored re-entry services, states can safely reduce their prison population, save taxpayer money and create a fairer and more effective justice system in the process. There are hundreds of thousands of geriatric-aged individuals in prisons across the country, many with the same profile as the Ungers. Maryland alone could save over $100 million in the first year by reducing its low-risk geriatric population.


Extreme sentencing has been justified in the name of public safety, but the evidence demonstrates it is a failed policy. Even crime victims have said long sentences don’t serve their needs, and that money could be better spent on crime prevention and victims services. Keeping someone locked up when they are elderly and infirm, in a wheelchair or on oxygen, until they die alone and far away from loved ones, doesn’t create a safe and healthy society.The Unger experience demonstrates that we can safely release older individuals. It is long past time we rethink our approach to preventing, and responding to, violent crime.

Gun Deaths Dropped in 2018, Excluding Suicides

Posted by Janice L. Bailey on January 13, 2019 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (0)

For the first time in Gun Violence Archive’s 5-year history, it recorded a decline in fatal shootings.


At least 14,611 Americans were killed by guns last year, excluding most suicides, according to data collected by Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings through media and law enforcement reports. That’s a nearly 7 percent drop compared to last year, and the first decline recorded by GVA in its five-year history.

GVA records and publishes data on gun incidents in real time, and this figure represents one of the earliest estimates of gun violence in 2018. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks firearms mortality, typically takes almost a year to release data on gun deaths. Since 2014, when GVA launched, its tallies of firearm deaths have been within 5 percent of the CDC’s.

The GVA data is not without caveats, however: Because of the nonprofit’s reliance on police and media reports, its final estimate may change as more detail becomes available. The data also excludes most suicides, which account for the majority of annual gun deaths — and which are rising. Last month, the CDC reported that 39,773 people in the United States died from gunshot wounds in 2017, the most single-year gun deaths in half a century. The increase was driven by suicides.

GVA recorded 28,159 firearm injuries in 2018, a 10 percent decrease over 2017. Unlike its gun death counts, GVA’s tallies of nonfatal shootings are significantly lower than estimates produced by the CDC. GVA director Mark Bryant said the discrepancy can be chalked up to issues with the CDC’s methodology.

Child shootings were down in 2018. But even with a 12 percent drop, at least 3,493 kids under 18 were shot last year. Mass shootings, which GVA defines as incidents in which at least four people are shot, registered a very slight drop between 2017 and 2018: GVA tallied 340, six fewer than in 2017. The number of people killed in mass shootings also fell, from 437 to 373, while the number of people injured in such incidents dropped sharply to 1,347 — a 25 percent decline. Mass shooting deaths represent a mere 1 percent of annual gun deaths.

Unintentional shootings dropped 21 percent year-over-year, to 1,597; such incidents also dropped 9 percent between 2016 and 2017. Murder-suicides, however, were up slightly, from 602 in 2017 to 613 last year, a 2 percent increase.

It's not exactly known what has caused the apparent drop in gun violence. We have some indication of why gun violence is falling in cities like Chicago, where police have teamed up with crime analysts to employ data-driven policing in several violent hotspots. New Orleans’s homicide rate was down for the third year in a row in 2018; police credit the drop to an increase in the use of surveillance cameras and the launch of a tactical team tasked with arresting repeat violent offenders, while crime analysts say a population decrease is partly responsible. At the same time, shooting deaths have risen in places including Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.