Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Behind the Statistics

Linda Greenhouse, an always insightful observer of law and courts, has written an excellent column for the New York Times about the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama’s policy phasing out private prisons.

For Trump loyalist who keep pointing out that the stock market is doing well, she provides a “think about this” example of just what is fueling that optimism:

So the Trump administration is putting the welcome mat back out for private prisons, just as candidate Donald Trump said he would do, reversing the Obama administration’s policy of phasing them out for federal prisoners. It’s no wonder that shares in some of the nation’s biggest for-profit prison companies soared by double digits the day after the presidential election, making them among the biggest winners in the immediate postelection rally.

Greenhouse also provides us with a stark reminder of the “cost controls” that allow private prisons to make money. Her example comes from Indiana.

A decision on Feb. 21 by the federal appeals court in Chicago came just in time to remind us that privatization is a really bad idea. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a federal district judge’s dismissal and sent back for trial a case with the most appalling facts, brought by a dead prisoner’s mother against the company to which the Indiana Department of Corrections had outsourced its inmates’ medical care.

The opening paragraph of the opinion by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood tells the story: “Nicholas Glisson entered the custody of the Indiana Department of Corrections on September 3, 2010, upon being sentenced for dealing in a controlled substance (selling one prescription pill to a friend who turned out to be a confidential informant). Thirty-seven days later, he was dead from starvation, acute renal failure, and associated conditions.”

After reciting the facts of this particular, egregious example, Greenhouse notes that she has two reasons for her focus on the Indiana case.

The first is to show the recklessness of President Trump’s wave-of-the-hand decision to retain the private prisons that a Justice Department study last year concluded “do not maintain the same level of safety and security” as those operated by the Bureau of Prisons. Sally Q. Yates, the holdover deputy attorney general whom President Trump fired last month for refusing to defend his travel ban, relied on that conclusion in announcing that private prison contracts would not be renewed and that the 22,000 federal inmates housed in those prisons would be cut to 14,700 by May 2017 and eventually to zero.

Greenhouse’s second reason was to highlight the stark differences between the judge’s opinion upholding the right of the mother to sue and the original decision, by a different judge, dismissing the suit. As she pointed out, the choice of the people who render judgment in our system–the judges nominated by the President  and confirmed by the Senate–is important. Those choices matter.

When I read about this case, and the absolutely unnecessary death of a “felon” whose crime consisted of the sale of one prescription pill, it reminded me of something else that matters:  the harm done by policies rooted in nothing other than social disapproval –what the Founders called “the passions of the majority.” Greenhouse has provided us with one example–drug laws that sweep far too widely and impose penalties wildly disproportionate to the offenses. The Trump Administration is in the process of providing us with another–the indiscriminate deportation of people whose only “crime” is coming to our communities without documentation.

Everyone disapproves of drug abuse, but not everyone agrees on the difference between “use” and “abuse”–or even the difference between harmful and harmless substances.

Similarly, everyone disapproves of illegal entry into the country in the abstract, but when we fail to distinguish between people who were brought here as young children by their parents,  people who have been longtime assets to their communities or who have served in America’s armed forces, and the “bad hombres” of Trump’s rash rhetoric, we aren’t just being inhumane, we are supporting measures that are both costly and stupid.

It matters who our judges are. It really matters who the President is.

 

The Social Safety Net and the Ideologues

I know I tend to harp on the difference between thoughtful policymaking and ideology. Good policymaking depends significantly upon expertise and research, learning from experience (otherwise known as trial and error) and careful empirical observation; ideology dismisses poor results and unfortunate side-effects as irrelevancies or attributes them to insufficiently thorough implementation.

Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, and with the likely concurrence of the Senate GOP and Mitch McConnell, are determined to make drastic changes to American social policy. To the extent they are not prompted by corruption (that is, acting on behalf of and at the behest of their donor base), their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.

It has long been an article of Rightwing faith that welfare programs—indeed, social insurance of any sort—creates unhealthy dependency. (Somehow, that belief does not extend to corporate welfare. But that is a post for another time.)

The evidence, not unsurprisingly, suggests otherwise.

There is substantial research suggesting that countries with more robust social safety networks experience fewer socially undesirable behaviors: less crime, less divorce, less child abuse…the list goes on. Rates of murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are generally much higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations offering universal health care and other social supports. Homicide rates in the U.S. have consistently ranged between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

It is particularly notable that Canada’s murder rate is far below that of the U.S. (running around a fourth of our levels). For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels. Yet Canadians watch American television, log onto American websites, read American publications, share our culture. There is also widespread gun ownership in Canada.

What most differentiates us is the fact that Canadians have guaranteed health care and less social insecurity.

The U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations. Scholars tell us that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates; in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As a 2015 article in The Week noted, the differences in approach to social welfare are ideologically based.

Conservatives often want to tie safety net programs to having a job, so that people aren’t tempted by handouts to hold off working. There are work requirements for food stamps. More heavy requirements were added to traditional welfare in the late 1990s. And now Republicans are suggesting requirements for Medicaid as well. This makes little sense. The much more generous European systems have higher labor force participation, and the U.S. economy has done progressively worse over the last three decades at actually creating enough jobs for everyone to have.

Add it all up, and it’s not surprising that most other advanced Western countries have much lower poverty rates than America.

Recent research has tied declining rates of marriage to poverty, and has confirmed that “failing schools” are typically those trying to educate children from impoverished homes—that growing up in poverty creates identifiable physical and emotional impediments to learning.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that a strong social safety net reduces crime and other social dysfunctions that cost Americans significant tax dollars—and that the availability of such social supports does not discourage workforce participation.

Evidence, however, is no match for rigid ideology. Americans should expect a full-court effort to gut Social Security and Medicare by zealots impervious to evidence.

Following the Money, Prison Edition

Recent research from In the Public Interest reports that “graduates” of private prisons have higher rates of recidivism than ex-offenders leaving public institutions.

The brief shows that people incarcerated in prisons operated by for-profit companies, like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, have higher rates of recidivism than people incarcerated in publicly managed prisons. Evidence also suggests that prison telephone and video call companies make business decisions that increase the likelihood that prisoners subjected to their services will return to prison or jail.

The research attributes the higher recidivism rates to several factors: Private prisons are, on average, more violent than public prisons; the emphasis upon filling empty beds in their often far-flung facilities results in incarceration of offenders in locations that are often far away from their homes, with a resulting loss of contact with families and home communities; prison telephone companies charge high calling rates and many ban prisoner cell phones, which further reduces contacts between prisoners and their homes. (Adding to the problem, private prisons often ban in-person visitation and then charge prisoners and their families prohibitive rates to make video calls.)

The report notes that private prison companies have long histories of neglecting prisoners’ basic needs, focusing instead on their company’s revenues and profits. For example,

To reduce normal business risks around fluctuating prison populations, private prison companies add occupancy guarantee clauses to many contracts, which compel states and local governments to pay the companies for unused beds if the population drops below a certain threshold, typically around 90 percent of a facility’s capacity.

During the past few years, there has been growing concern about the operation and consequences of placing offenders in private prisons. As the New Yorker has reported,

Going into Election Day, few industries seemed in worse shape than America’s private prisons. Prison populations, which had been rising for decades, were falling. In 2014, Corrections Corporation of America, the biggest private-prison company in the U.S., lost its contract to run Idaho’s largest prison, after lawsuits relating to understaffing and violence that had earned the place the nickname Gladiator School. There were press exposés of shocking conditions in the industry and signs of a policy shift toward it….In August, the Justice Department said that private federal prisons were less safe and less secure than government-run ones. The same month, the department announced that it would phase out the use of private prisons at the federal level. Although most of the private-prison industry operates on the state level (immigrant-detention centers are its other big business), the news sent C.C.A.’s stock down by thirty-five per cent.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, that all changed. C.C.A.’s stock jumped forty-seven per cent. (It wasn’t just private prisons, either; Trump’s privatization promises caused sharp increases in the stock prices of for-profit schools .) As the New Yorker pointed out, the outlook for private prisons is particularly rosy, because so many of Trump’s policies will–if implemented– benefit them.

The Justice Department’s plan to phase out private prisons will likely be scrapped, and a growing bipartisan movement for prison and sentencing reform is about to run up against a President who campaigned as a defender of “law and order.” Above all, Trump’s hard-line position on immigration seems certain to fill detention centers, one of the biggest money spinners for private-prison operators.

As the article concludes,

It’s become common to speak of “the prison-industrial complex,” and the analogy to the military-industrial complex is a good one: in both cases, government spending helps fund very profitable businesses, which, in turn, lobby legislators and regulators to keep the funds flowing. Just as we spend billions on weapons systems that we may not need, so, too, we jail more people than we need for longer than necessary, because it keeps someone’s balance sheet healthy. In recent years, an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals had made some progress in weakening this system, going after policies like mandatory sentences. Trump’s election will make it much harder to sustain that progress. Private prisons, he said earlier this year, “work a lot better,” and he’ll doubtless look to expand their reach. And he has a simple and grim answer to how many people we should put in prisons and detention centers: More.

Welcome to policymaking in the Trump era, where evidence and experience are irrelevant, expertise and research are scorned as “elitist” and private profit is king.

Comey, Continued….

Yesterday, while editing an post that I intended to send out this morning. I inadvertently hit “publish” rather than “save,” so subscribers received an extra transmittal yesterday.

Sorry about that! But let’s continue that discussion….

I don’t know what the effect of Comey’s actions will be on the election; we still have 8 days, and given the magnitude of the criticism he has received, perhaps he will clarify or otherwise clean up his mess prior to election day. There is speculation that his action will generate more enthusiasm and higher turnout among Trump voters, but it is also possible that anger at what will seem to many Democrats a “dirty trick” will motivate Clinton voters.

My own concern is the potential effect on the down-ticket races. Who knows? We’re in uncharted waters here.

That said, let’s revisit the ethics of Comey’s action.

letter in yesterday’s New York Times addressing that issue deserves broad readership. It was from Richard W. Painter, currently a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who formerly served as the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, during George W. Bush’s administration.

Mr. Painter has filed a complaint against the F.B.I. with the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations.

The opening paragraphs of his letter explain the reasons for the rules that are in place–the rules Comey disregarded.

The F.B.I. is currently investigating the hacking of Americans’ computers by foreign governments. Russia is a prime suspect.

Imagine a possible connection between a candidate for president in the United States and the Russian computer hacking. Imagine the candidate has business dealings in Russia, and has publicly encouraged the Russians to hack the email of his opponent and her associates.

It would not be surprising for the F.B.I. to include this candidate and his campaign staff in its confidential investigation of Russian computer hacking.

But it would be highly improper, and an abuse of power, for the F.B.I. to conduct such an investigation in the public eye, particularly on the eve of the election. It would be an abuse of power for the director of the F.B.I., absent compelling circumstances, to notify members of Congress from the party opposing the candidate that the candidate or his associates were under investigation. It would be an abuse of power if F.B.I. agents went so far as to obtain a search warrant and raid the candidate’s office tower, hauling out boxes of documents and computers in front of television cameras.

The F.B.I.’s job is to investigate, not to influence the outcome of an election.

The letter deserves to be read in its entirety, but here is Painter’s conclusion.

Absent extraordinary circumstances that might justify it, a public communication about a pending F.B.I. investigation involving a candidate for public office that is made on the eve of an election is thus very likely to be a violation of the Hatch Act and a misuse of an official position. Serious questions also arise under lawyers’ professional conduct rules that require prosecutors to avoid excessive publicity and unnecessary statements that could cause public condemnation even of people who have been accused of a crime, not to mention people like Mrs. Clinton, who have never been charged with a crime.

This is no trivial matter. We cannot allow F.B.I. or Justice Department officials to unnecessarily publicize pending investigations concerning candidates of either party while an election is underway. That is an abuse of power. Allowing such a precedent to stand will invite more, and even worse, abuses of power in the future.

The Price of Justice

The fact that politicians seem to get away with incredibly slanderous and libelous comments has been a particular annoyance during this election campaign. Granted, it’s hard to match the invective of Donald Trump, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that he has simply normalized and amplified the growing nastiness of too much of American politics and culture.

Seen any Senate ads lately?

Of course, candidates know what they are getting into, and I suppose they can slug it out (although it does make you wonder how many nice, qualified people who would do a good job simply decline to get down and dirty), but other objects of vitriol and unsubstantiated accusations are rarely in a position to fight back.

Think about the women (I believe the number is currently 12) who summoned their courage and shared their “Trump experiences” following disclosure of the appalling “pussy tape.” They probably anticipated his rage and bluster and denial, but those reactions have been accompanied by threats of lawsuits. Trump is clearly someone who issues empty and even ludicrous threats (see: letter to the New York Times), but he has also been involved in literally thousands of actual lawsuits, and not always as a defendant. In fact, as Ed Brayton reports, 

The New York Times reports that the American Bar Association prepared a report calling Donald Trump a libel bully for his decades-long use of defamation suits to stifle criticism of him, but they chickened out on releasing it because — drumroll, please — he might sue them.

The New York Times can take care of itself, but if the threat of litigation can chill and intimidate the ABA, think of the effect on even the most blameless and resolute accuser. If you lack the financial wherewithal to mount an adequate defense to a lawsuit, no matter how unfounded, the person pursuing that lawsuit starts out with a grossly unfair advantage. Even a loss is a win, when the real goal is to inflict damage.

This problem goes well beyond the antics of the spoiled brat running for President, and it isn’t simply relevant to libel cases. Ask any lawyer who has defended  or sued on behalf of a “little guy” against a large corporation represented by a major law firm. For that matter, ask the twenty-year-old stuck in the Marion County Jail awaiting trial on a relatively minor charge, who doesn’t have money to post bail and is represented by an overworked public defender because he can’t afford private counsel.

In far too many situations–not all, but too many–justice is something only the affluent can hope for.

Americans talk a lot about the obvious problems with our justice system: (1) inexcusable delays in the federal courts because there aren’t enough judges (thanks to Mitch McConnell and the GOP lawmakers who simply refuse to fill judicial vacancies so long as Obama is nominating the candidates for those positions), (2) unarmed people getting killed because police departments’ training programs–especially in smaller communities– are spotty at best and nonexistent at worst, (3) hundreds of thousands of people–mostly black– suffering mass incarceration and lifelong stigma thanks to a Drug War that we now know had little to do with controlling drugs and lots to do with continuing Jim Crow practices (I urge everyone reading this to watch Netflix’ documentary, “13th.” It gives chapter and verse.)

There’s much more.

The good news is that there finally seems to be a bipartisan recognition of at least some of these problems and even some evidence of a willingness to address them.

Bottom line: your chances of achieving justice–whether that’s redress of a wrong done to you, or the fair and timely resolution of a charge against you–shouldn’t depend upon  who is in office or what’s in your wallet.

The American justice system needs to be fixed, sooner rather than later.