North Carolina

Minnesota's Proposed Parole Board, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Deciding whether an inmate has changed and merits the opportunity to be returned to society shouldn’t rest with one person.” 

The Minnesota Legislature is considering resurrecting a parole board similar to the one the state had in the early 1980s. Under current law, Minnesota’s commissioner of the Department of Corrections is the only person authorized to grant or deny parole requests for individuals serving a term of life in prison. The proposed board would consist of five panelists recommended by leaders of both political parties, each of whom have at least five years of criminal-justice related experience. Paul Schnell, who was recently appointed to head the Department of Corrections, has endorsed the reform.

“This is a perfect opportunity for our partners and stakeholders to come to the table with us, and look at ways of streamlining and improving our system of releasing eligible state offenders in a timely manner.”

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has put forward a proposal to bring the DOC, county clerks and sheriffs together to ensure that people are not held in jails and prisons past their official release dates. The proposal comes after a NOLA.com and Times-Picayune investigation found that hundreds and possibly thousands of people had been incarcerated longer than their sentences required.  In a review of 200 cases in which people were eligible for immediate release, the DOC found they had to wait an average of 49 additional days beyond their official release date, at an annual taxpayer expense of $2.8 million.

“For a lot of people, once you get into this cycle, you don’t get out.”

A new study from the Duke University School of Law found 1,225,000 active driver’s license suspensions for non-driving related reasons in North Carolina, comprising nearly 15% of all adult drivers in the state. Overall, 67.5% of those suspensions were for failure to appear in court, 21.4% were for failure to pay traffic costs, fines or fees, and 11% were for both. The researchers also found a disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic drivers, who made up 29% of driving-age North Carolinians, and 58% of suspensions for failure to pay fines and costs.

“The time has come for us to engage in a deep and critical reflection on the fairness of our juvenile justice system.”

Oregon lawmakers heard testimony this week about a series of reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system, including removing the mandate that juveniles aged 15 or older be tried as adults for some serious crimes. The bills have garnered support from Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters, and Oregon Youth Authority Director Joe O’Leary. Recent polling by GBAO showed 88% of Oregonians want the youth justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than punishment and incarceration.  

“Before considering what additional reforms are needed to fix a severely broken criminal justice system, U.S. elected leaders must first stop supporting the very mechanisms that cause the failure in the first place.”

The Center for American Progress released a report this week on the legacy of the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, arguing that the law’s effects—particularly financial incentives for stricter state laws—continue to undercut reform efforts. The authors point to several areas of concern, including the expansion of federal offenses and criminal penalties and the funding of jail and prison construction.

Broad Support for Justice Reform in Tennessee, and the news in criminal justice this week

“There is incredible support with very little opposition.”

According to new polling from the Justice Action Network, the ACLU of Tennessee and Right on Crime, 69% of Tennesseans believe the state’s criminal justice system “needs significant improvements,” 90% favored reducing prison time for nonviolent offenders and 89% favored getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences. Support for the reforms was strong across demographic and partisan categories. The promising poll numbers came just as Governor Bill Lee unveiled his criminal justice agenda, including eliminating the state’s $180 expungement fee, broadening  educational programming for incarcerated people, and expanding recovery courts.

“This investment offers a path to self-sufficiency for impacted people and a rightful level of dignity in society.”

The Coalition for Public Safety announced a partnership with Covington, Kentucky’s Life Learning Center (LLC) and Kenton County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders at an event on Thursday. As part of a new diversion program, prosecutors will identify at-risk defendants, and the LLC will provide recidivism-reduction programming and access to social services, and help participants find employment or enroll in continuing education. Upon completion of the LLC’s 12-week curriculum, individuals will be eligible for reduced or even dismissed charges. Senator Rand Paul and Kelley Paul were on-hand for the event, along with FAMM justice reform fellow Matthew Charles.

“I believe that early and open discovery is just and fair, and I look forward to publicly endorsing a discovery reform bill and seeing it signed into law.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez called for reforms to New York’s discovery rules, calling the current system “trial by ambush.” Gonzalez noted that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office has employed an “open file discovery” practice for years, while protecting the safety of victims and witnesses. In a departure from their previous stance, the District Attorney’s Association of the State of New York also endorsed changes to the system. “For the first time in the history of our organization,” said DAASNY President and Albany County DA David Soares, “we are openly calling on our lawmakers to take action and enact criminal justice reform.”

“There are people in every community who don’t need to be back out during the pendency of their cases. But the great majority of people do.”  

Judges in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County have replaced monetary bail schedules with individualized assessments based on a defendant’s likelihood of fleeing, reoffending, or tampering with witnesses. In their announcement of the new policy, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge W. Robert Bell and Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller also said that they plan to review their bail policies on a biennial basis. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman told the Charlotte Observer she was studying the data and may change their bail policy, noting that “we certainly don’t want to be in the business of criminalizing poverty.”

“It’s an economic development tool for folks to get better jobs as well as public safety. Folks know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and won’t go back to criminal behavior.”

New Mexico House Bill 370, which allow people to petition a court to have their criminal records sealed from public view, is heading to the full Senate for consideration. Expungement would be available not just to those with criminal convictions, but also people who were wrongfully arrested, whose charges were dismissed, or who were acquitted at trial. Under the new law, judges, prosecutors and police would still have access to sealed records. HB 370 garnered broad, bipartisan support and passed in the house by a vote of 52-17.

Debt and Incarceration, and the news in criminal justice this week

“But what we’re seeing in these situations is that not only are the poor in the United States treated differently than people with means, but that the courts are actually aggravating and perpetuating poverty.”

Corinth, Mississippi is the subject of a New York Times investigation into the cycle of debt and incarceration, and the ways fines and fees are used to finance the justice system. Prior to a settlement last fall, defendants who were unable to pay fines and fees could reduce their debt by $25 for each day they spent in the Alcorn County Jail. The settlement grants additional time for people to pay fines and fees, and does not allow imprisonment for people who are unable to pay. The problem is not limited to Mississippi, or to criminal infractions—Oregon courts have issued significant fines to parents whose children are truant, and Louisiana’s pretrial diversion laws allow people with traffic offenses to pay quickly and avoid a record, while those who cannot pay may end up with additional court fees.

“There’s really no guidance for future courts, for future clemency request, for future governors making requests, as to why certain ones might get blocked and certain ones won’t.”

The California Supreme Court blocked ten clemency actions from then-Governor Jerry Brown, the first time since 1930 that it had rejected executive pardons or commutation requests. Those individuals will now have to reapply for clemency from Governor Gavin Newsom. And in The New Republic, Matt Ford looks at grants of clemency and questions why certain governors aren’t pardoning more incarcerated people. Ford suggests that governors could fast-track pardons and commutations for elderly prisoners, who are expected to comprise 30% of state prison populations by 2030.

“We could do all this punishment all day. But then they’re still going to come out into the neighborhood. We’re just trying to prepare somebody to re-enter society.”

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden closed the county jail’s disciplinary detention unit, which had been used to keep juvenile offenders in solitary confinement. Incarcerated youth are now let out of the cells for at least seven hours per day; have access to phones, television, the library, and family visits; and can attend classes. Sheriff McFadden also said he plans to restore in-person visits with family members and friends, which the previous sheriff had restricted to video monitors.

“It was in this context that Dayton waded in: innovating, trying, failing, and trying again. And while nobody will tell you that the problem is solved, our community has made enormous strides.”

One of the cities hardest hit by the opioid crisis, Dayton, Ohio has become a model for its creative, collaborative, and compassionate response.Since 2011, Dayton’s Montgomery County has had one of the highest rates of overdose fatalities in the state; but fatalities were down 65% in 2018 as compared to the same time period in 2017. A report from the Center for American Progress analyzed key elements of the city’s response, including rapid and targeted data collection and use, increased access to treatment, and a law enforcement strategy focused on support and prevention rather than criminalization.

“It raises the spirit of the community as its residents strengthen their opportunities for better jobs and better housing.”

Leavenworth, Kansas Mayor Jermaine Wilson and Leavenworth County Attorney announced a new 60-day expungement assistance program this week. Prosecutors and volunteer attorneys will review cases, answer questions about eligibility, and help people apply for fee waivers. Wilson, who was incarcerated for three years, had his record expunged in 2015, was elected to the city commission in 2017, and was unanimously chosen by the commission to serve as mayor on Tuesday.  

Second Chance Month, and the news in criminal justice this week

“We encourage expanded opportunities for those who have worked to overcome bad decisions earlier in life and emphasize our belief in second chance for those who are willing to work hard to turn their lives around.”

President Trump designated April 2018 “Second Chance Month,” and urged federal, state and local corrections systems to implement evidence-based programs that focus on job training, mentoring, mental health treatment, and addiction treatment. Similar proclamations have been introduced in the Senate by Republican Rob Portman and in the house by Democrat Tony Cardenas, and April 2018 has been declared Second Chance Month in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Alabama, Michigan, Texas, Minnesota, the District of Columbia, and the city of Minneapolis.

“The program humanizes incarcerated people and allows them to be seen—both by prison staff, and themselves—as valuable members of the communities to which they belong.”

A new pilot program in New York prisons trains incarcerated people to act as emergency responders for overdose victims. State correctional and public health authorities educate incarcerated people on the proper use of naloxone, and on their rights as “Good Samaritans,” and equip them with naloxone kits upon release.

“Tennesseans should not have their property seized without being charged with, or convicted of a crime.”

The Tennessee Senate unanimously passed a bill to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture system, requiring formal notice of a property seizure or forfeiture-warrant hearing, clarifying the legal process to seek the return of seized property, and holding agencies responsible for attorneys’ fees in cases where they are found to have wrongly seized assets. This is the latest in a series of civil asset forfeiture reforms undertaken at the state level, including those passed this year in Idaho, Wisconsin and Kansas. Lawmakers in Michigan are expected to take up reforms when they return from spring break.

“Everything about this unit is supposed to replicate life more on the outside than a jail does, to prepare them for reentry by giving them some of the skill sets they didn’t have.”

The Middlesex, Massachusetts House of Correction’s new initiative, supported by the Vera Institute, is focused on changing the trajectory for young adult offenders. Inside the People Achieving Change Together (“PACT”) Unit, young adult inmates have greater freedom and access to family members, meet with therapists and anger-management specialists, and report for work every day.

“They keep a close eye on their clients, but in many places, no one is keeping a close eye on them.”

In the New York Times, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan examined the extraordinary powers and lax regulation of the $2 billion bail bond industry. They found complaints of kidnapping, extortion, forged property liens, theft and embezzlement that rarely resulted in meaningful punishment for the bail bond agents. This remarkable piece includes particularly shocking stories of people, families, and their liberty impacted by this industry, and don’t miss what happened to Christopher Franklin in North Carolina.