criminal justice reform

  • October 7, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Though the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, the criminal justice system remains a significant stumbling block on the path to racial equality. Nicole Austin-Hillery, the Director and Counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington, D.C. office, explained that “we are still a country that has a lot of hidden fears based on race.” And it’s these fears that have contributed to the quadrupling of the prison population since the 1970s, policies that make reentry more difficult for prisoners, and police practices that disproportionately target people of color.

    In an interview conducted earlier this year, Austin-Hillery offered her views on the path towards eliminating racial profiling and bias in the U.S. criminal justice system. Her work with the Brennan Center often focuses on voting rights as well as racial and criminal justice reform, and experience makes her well-aware of the challenges on the road to reform.  As she discussed in the interview, changing demographics are creating a greater need to educate Americans about racial justice issues and reevaluate programs put in place after the September 11 attacks.

  • July 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The failed “war on drugs” certainly helped the proliferation of for-profit prisons, but the federal government’s increasing reliance on many of the same companies to detain undocumented immigrants and others awaiting court resolutions is not only furthering private prison profits but the need for mass incarceration, a new report from The Sentencing Project reveals.

    In “Dollars and Detainees: The Growth of For-Profit Prisons,” Cody Mason, a program associate for The Sentencing Project, reports that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) have turned to for-profit companies to detainee individuals while the courts decide their fates. ICE detains undocumented immigrants and the USMS, among other things, holds “all federal detainees from the time they enter federal custody until they are either acquitted or convicted,” Mason writes.

    Both of those entities, Mason explains jump-started the for-profit prison industry. ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service first contracted in 1987 with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Today CCA and the GEO Group are the nation’s “largest private prison companies.”

    Mason’s report shows that from 2002 – 2011 ICE detainees in private facilities jumped by 208 percent and the number of USMS detainees in for-profit facilities rose by 355 percent.

    “In contrast there was respective growth of 28 percent and 67 percent in the number of state and federal prisoners held in private facilities. As a result, the combined population of privately-held ICE and USMS detainees nearly equaled the number of federal prisoners in private facilities in 2010,” Mason writes.

    ICE’s increased use of private detention facilities, not surprisingly, provided a big boost to the prison companies’ profits, a $5 billion industry. Mason notes that the private detention centers are run by “many of the same companies that own and manage private prisons, and that it is common for these facilities to house detainees for ICE and USMS alongside persons sentenced for criminal convictions.”

  • March 9, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    After the Supreme Court barred inmates in for-profit private prisons from lodging federal lawsuits alleging constitutional violations against individual corporate employees, the costs and purported benefits of our increasing reliance on private prisons warrant careful consideration.  

    As one local report by the Monmouth County, N.J., Correctional Facility Evaluation Task Force concluded, the legal implications alone question the appeal of private prisons. However, rather than look at the greater legal or policy ramifications of prison privatization, public officials are too quick to embrace private prisons, assuming they will save their states money. 

    For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) recently pushed for the largest private prison plan in the nation with the argument that it was “an opportunity to save money.” Republicans and Democrats in the state senate, however, joined together to defeat the measure. The legislators were dismayed that private prisons already operating in Florida actually cost more money than their state-run counterparts. “They need to start acting like any business in the private sector would and stop using imaginary numbers,” Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland) complained.

    So are private prisons cheaper than state-run alternatives? According to a report last fall by the ACLU, evidence of cost-savings is “mixed at best.” While Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group tout the cost-savings of their prisons, many studies by localities, states, and the General Accounting Office have questioned the veracity of such claims. 

    Even if it can be proven that private prisons save money, the larger concern is whether these savings truly come from productivity innovations only the private sector can provide or from cutting corners on safety, security, and rehabilitation. Adequately overseeing the inner-workings of our prisons is often a challenge, but the issue becomes especially salient with respect to private prisons. 

  • March 11, 2010

    The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously endorsed a compromise to decrease the federal sentencing disparity for possession of crack versus powder cocaine today. Considering Sen. Dick Durbin's bill to eliminate the 100-to-1 sentencing ratio, Democrats acquiesced to an amendment proposed by ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (right), which would reduce the disparity to a 18-to-1 ratio. By a vote of 19-0, the committee reported a bill bearing the reduced disparity to the Senate floor.

    The virtues of ending the sentencing disparity were laid out by Adam Serwer, in The American Prospect this morning: 

    More than 20 years since the passage of the law [responsible for the sentencing disparity], the arbitrarily draconian penalties for crack cocaine have contributed to the increasing racial disparities in the U.S. prison system and helped swell the number of those behind bars to fully more than 1 percent of the entire U.S. population.

    The sheer number of people behind bars isn't just busting state budgets; it's helped destroy families and neighborhoods with not much discernible effect on the drug trade.

  • February 4, 2010
    Picking Cotton
    Our Memoir of Justice and Redemption
    Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo

    [Editors' Note: After the break, this post includes the author's first-hand account of a violent crime that may not be appropriate for all readers.]

    By Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a mother and advocate for judicial reform 

    As I travel across America telling our story, one of the most common questions I hear is, "How long did it take you two to write your book"? It took 25 years.

    In July of 1984, I attended Elon College, a small school nestled beside Burlington, N.C. Living off-campus, I studied hard, worked two jobs, and dated my long-term boyfriend. It was a particularly hot summer, with both the temperature and humidity consistently high. My boyfriend and I spent one of those sticky, July days together playing tennis and later going out to dinner. We planned to attend a party that night, but a raging headache sent me home around 9 p.m. and I went to bed under a loud and rattling air conditioning unit hanging over my bed. I never heard the break-in, but the clock read 3 a.m. when I sensed a presence in the room. The sound of feet sliding on carpet and a brush against my left arm sharpened my consciousness.

    "Who is it? Who's there?" I asked. In the blink of an eye he was on top of me, and I felt a cold, sharp object go to me throat. My screams were quickly muffled with a gloved hand and the violent command "Shut up or I'll kill you!" Every nerve ending was on high alert; I knew that my life was in grave danger, and there was nothing I could do to prevent him from killing me. Images of my mother and father filing into the morgue flashed through my mind. I would never see another sunset, tell my family that I loved them, attend graduate school or be a mom. I could not defend myself, and this horrible monster knew it.