Mass Incarceration

  • September 30, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Jessica M. Eaglin, Associate Professor, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

    Fees and fines provide an appealing method of punishment in states facing the pressures of mass incarceration and continued budget constraints. But until courts receive meaningful guidance on how and when to impose fees and fines, and unless legislatures exercise meaningful restraint on the creation of user fees in particular, this punitive practice will continue to do more harm than good for defendants, local justice systems and society at large.

    Fees and fines are the economic sanctions imposed on defendants through the criminal justice system. Unlike punitive fines or restitution to compensate the victim of crimes, “user fees” are imposed solely to raise revenue. User fees range from nominal fees to obtain free public defender services to daily fines for use of GPS monitoring systems that supervise defendants pretrial or on probation to daily fines for incarceration in jail, and more.

    As states face severe budget constraints, the “offender-funded” model of criminal justice – where critical costs to running the justice system are pushed onto the defendants in the system – becomes more prevalent. Many state courts simply cannot function with the amount of money allocated by their legislatures, so they are resorting to creative alternatives that are often costly for defendants entering the justice system. Offensive examples spatter the news weekly: defendant fees cover toilet paper in jail; court-imposed home supervision technology; or unmet court expenses like coffee and office supplies and court support staff and other government operations

  • September 30, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The New York Times, Tatiana Schlossberg reports that the New York City Bar Association released a report Monday “urging federal and state leaders ‘to make the reduction of mass incarceration a top priority.’”

    In the Huffington Post, Steve Sanders opines that the Indiana legislature’s quick fix of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act clearly demonstrates where the mainstream now lies on LGBT issues.

    Michelle Chen at The Nation discusses systematic inequalities that hinder the social mobility of children from low-income households.

    Jon Swaine and Oliver Laughland write in The Guardian that the FBI is continuing to resist outside pressure for “the creation of a fully comprehensive count of all killings by American police officers.”

    In The American Prospect, David Dayen argues that the Volkswagen emission scandal proves why the Department of Justice should prosecute individuals for corporate crime.

  • September 15, 2015

    by Jim Thompson

    In The Atlantic, ACS President Caroline Fredrickson denounces the treatment of adjunct professors at many universities, arguing that colleges may be evading their legal responsibilities as employers.

    Jason Rosenbaum at NPR provides an overview of the Ferguson Commission Report released Monday morning. The 189-page document offers recommendations for addressing the city’s systemic racial discrimination problems.

    In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a frank, honest look at the residual effects of mass incarceration on black families. When reforming our criminal justice system, he argues, we must remedy the sustained influence of prison on one’s socioeconomic standing.

    Chris Johnson reports in The Washington Blade that the governor and attorney general of Mississippi intend to defend in court the state law banning same-sex couples from adopting children.

  • September 11, 2015

    by Paul Guequierre

    Solitary confinement has been described as a living death. Jack Henry Abbot said about the practice: “Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you. When you neither move nor think in your cell, you are awash in pure nothingness. . . . Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”

    Solitary confinement, the topic of a new Issue Brief by law professor Laura Rovner released today by ACS, is viewed by much of the developed world as torture. The international community has almost universally condemned the use of long-term isolation. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that prolonged solitary confinement is prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and the Convention Against Torture, and declared that the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. So why then, is use of the practice so rampant in the United States? The good news is it’s gaining renewed scrutiny in the court of public opinion. The question is: How will federal courts respond?

    As long ago as 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court criticized the use of solitary confinement. Justice Samuel Miller, who was a physician as well as a lawyer, observed that: “A considerable number of the prisoners [subjected to solitary confinement] fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

    And as recently as this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the practice, practically asking for a solitary confinement case, saying: “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.

  • July 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Washington Office

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

    I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.

    I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.

    President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.