Women in the Justice System

Reentry Court in Oregon, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Right now, these guys are not gaining the tools or assistance that allows them to be successful. Reentry Court takes a holistic approach to those barriers.”

In Oregon, Lane County’s Reentry Court provides people returning from federal prison with support to achieve sobriety, gain employment, and develop coping and problem-solving skills. Those who complete the 12-month program without a violation receive a one-year reduction of their probation term. Reentry team members seek to address the main barriers to successful transition from prison: substance abuse, mental health issues, inadequate housing, and a lack of peer support and guided programming. The revocation rate for participants is 26% lower than the rest of the state’s supervised release programs.

“The benefits of Clean Slate are clear: lower crime rates, taxpayer money saved as a result of reduced incarceration, and a stronger economy that allows more qualified job seekers to participate.”

Writing in the Hartford Courant, Right on Crime’s Marc Levin and the Center for American Progress’s Rebecca Vallas urged Connecticut lawmakers to pass the Clean Slate Act pending in the legislature. The Clean Slate Act would provide for the automatic expungement of criminal records for those who have completed their sentence and remained crime free for five years after a non-violent felony, or three years after a misdemeanor. Clean Slate laws have gained traction across the country—Pennsylvania and Utah both passed automatic expungement laws, and Kentucky and New Mexico expanded opportunities for expungement this year.

“It should be more open. It shouldn’t be so closed that we don’t know what their decisions are based on.”

The Ohio Parole Board is under scrutiny from a wide array of critics, including crime victims, incarcerated people, lawyers and lawmakers. Much of the criticism focuses on a lack of transparency: hearings are not open to the public, records are kept secret, and board debate and votes are conducted behind closed doors. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith expressed confidence in the current board, but said she planned to appoint four new members with more diverse backgrounds, ask outside experts to recommend reforms, and look for ways they can be more transparent.

“The city has a reputation as liberal, but these data evidence quite authoritarian policing practices compared to other large Texas jurisdictions.”

Researcher Scott Henson analyzed data from 4.6 million traffic stops conducted across 38 of the largest jurisdictions in Texas, found wide disparities in the use of force and arrests for minor misdemeanors, and identified the Austin Police Department as “among the worst in each category.” Police in Austin were more likely to use injury-causing force against drivers than any other large jurisdiction—four times more often than state troopers and twenty times the rate of the San Antonio Police Department. Austin was also in the top ten for arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanor charges, and in the top five on arrests for outstanding warrants.

“To have to be shackled with chains around their ankles, wrists and waist, even when they’re in the delivery room—it’s humiliating.”

Georgia House Bill 345, which would ban the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons, and prohibit placing them in solitary confinement during their postpartum recovery, was approved in the Senate by a vote of 52-1. The legislation would also mandate that vaginal exams of pregnant incarcerated women be conducted by licensed medical professionals. A similar version of the bill was approved by the House earlier this year. Legislators have until Tuesday, when the General Assembly adjourns, to iron out differences between the two versions.

The Case for Expungement, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Our research suggests that expungement is a powerful tool for improving outcomes for people with records, without risk (and possibly with benefits) to public safety.”

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Law analyzed data on expungement recipients and comparable non-recipients and found extremely low subsequent crime rates for those who have expunged their records. People who obtained expungement also saw their wages go up by 25% within two years when compared with their pre-expungement trajectory. The researchers also pointed to a serious “uptake gap”: only 6.5% of those legally eligible for expungement obtain it within their first five years of eligibility.

“Florida is locking up too many people for too long. It’s burdening taxpayers, and it’s doing little to rehabilitate offenders and make communities safer.”

Legislators in Florida are debating a wide range of reforms to the state’s justice system, including ending driver’s license suspensions for low-level crimes or unpaid court fees, limiting solitary confinement for inmates aged 19 or younger, among other reforms. Florida’s First Step Act would also allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug cases, require people to be placed in prisons within 300 miles of their primary residence, and provide sentence reductions for people who complete an entrepreneurship program. The state’s correctional system has an annual budget of $2.4 billion, more than 96,000 people in state prisons and 166,000 under community supervision.  

“It is the most amazing feeling to work with the many lawyers who are filing and beginning to win compassionate release motions for prisoners who I know would never have made it to court, were it up to the BOP.”

Richard Evans became one of the first beneficiaries of the First Step Act’s reforms to the federal compassionate release program. Individuals whose release requests are denied now have the right to petition the courts for relief, and this week U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt reduced Evans’ sentence to time served and ordered three years of supervised release. Hoyt found that the Bureau of Prisons was not equipped to deal with Evans’s malignant melanoma. “Without the court process, our client would die in prison,” Evans’ lawyers said in a prepared statement. “Instead, we had an independent judge and fair-minded prosecutor, and the law worked.”

“It would just create a barrier where people would have to chase down a money order for $15 here, or this, or that—it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons voted unanimously to get rid of application fees as of March 18th. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who also chairs the Board of Pardons, said the previous fees—$8 to download the application, $20 for a background check, $10 for a driving record, and $25 for processing—were too small to be meaningful for the Commonwealth but too burdensome for applicants. Fetterman also announced plans to make the application available online, and proposed a series of changes that would need to be made legislatively, including changing the requirements for commutations of life or death sentences.

“Data from our study can be used to develop national standards of care for incarcerated pregnant women ...”

A survey conducted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that nearly 1,396 pregnant women were admitted to prisons in 22 state prisons and the federal prison system over a 12-month period from 2016 to 2017, nearly 4% of all new female admissions. Rates of pregnancy prevalence for women who were incarcerated varied widely by state—from 4.4% in Vermont and 3.8% in Rhode Island to 0.4% in Mississippi and 0.2% in Tennessee. There were 753 live births, 46 miscarriages, and no maternal deaths. The survey is believed to be the first systematic assessment of pregnancy outcomes for women who are incarcerated.

Women in Prison Disciplined More Often than Men, and the news in criminal justice reform

“Women right now are being punished for coping with their trauma by a workforce that doesn’t understand them.”

An investigation by NPR and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found that women in prison are disciplined at higher rates and for smaller infractions than men. Infractions can be small or vague, including “reckless eye-balling,” “insolence,” and “disrespect,” but the consequences are significant. Women can lose good time credits, be placed in solitary confinement, lose visitation privileges and be denied access to feminine hygiene products. Experts consulted in the investigation recommended “gender responsive” training to deal with higher rates of substance abuse and trauma for women who are imprisoned, and to facilitate communication between the women and mostly male prison staff.

“The notion that we’re delivering behavioral health services and mental health services in the criminal justice system more than any other system is a national embarrassment. We have to have the courage to start by saying that we’re doing a terrible job.”

Pennsylvania’s Stepping Up Technical Assistance Center provides counties with support and resources to help reduce the number of people with mental illness in county jails, and ensure those who are incarcerated receive the treatment they need. The center is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and will use in-person and distance-based training to improve screenings and assessments and establish a baseline to track progress. To date, 29 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have committed to reducing prison populations with mental illness, and officials are optimistic that Stepping Up’s resources and information-sharing will help achieve that goal.

“I hope it gives them hope for the future, a reason to be a good role model, a reason to make tough decisions.”

Colorado’s Division of Youth Services is implementing a “two-gen” approach for incarcerated youth and their children, in an effort to maintain family relationships and reduce recidivism. Officials surveyed youth in their detention facilities in August and found 25 were parents, with children ranging from infants to 5 years old. Between 2010 and 2017, the division held 111 girls who were pregnant, and two who gave birth while incarcerated. Changes made under the new approach include expanded visiting hours, more welcoming spaces for family visits, and the development of parenting classes for incarcerated teen parents.

“We are deeply concerned that those charged with enforcing our laws are instead breaking them. No one is above the law – this includes Alabama’s sheriffs.”

The American Conservative Union Foundation, FreedomWorks, Southern Center for Human Rights, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center wrote to Alabama’s U.S. attorneys this week asking for an investigation into the continued use of jail food funds by county sheriffs. Earlier this year, reporting by AL.com exposed insufficient or spoiled food served to people jailed in Etowah County, while Sheriff Todd Entrekin kept $750,000 of jail food money for his personal use. SCHR and Alabama Appleseed have also sued to obtain public records in 49 counties to determine whether, and by how much, sheriffs have personally profited from jail food funds.  

“What’s refreshing with these dashboards is that before no one understood the basis of their efforts or the impact of their efforts. No one knew how their decisions impacted the jail population, and now we do.”

The Urban Institute conducted an examination of data dashboards in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and the City and County of San Francisco California, and released a report on model structures and lessons learned for other jurisdictions looking to increase data-driven decision-making. Officials have created dashboards “to guide high-level decisions across agencies, and to support program and line-staff in their daily responsibilities,” and were able to monitor real-time effects of decisions on outcomes including jail populations and probation-related detainers.

Philadelphia reforms its civil asset forfeiture program, and the news in criminal justice this week

“For too long, Philadelphia treated its citizens like ATMs, ensnaring thousands of people in a system designed to strip people of their property and their rights…”

In a settlement, the city of Philadelphia has agreed to reform its civil asset forfeiture program, and pay $3 million to people whose property had been unfairly seized. The lawsuit was filed by the Institute for Justice, which called the city’s program “one of the worst civil forfeiture schemes in America.” Officials agreed to increased judicial supervision, stronger notification procedures for defendants and limits on the seizure of cash and property. The settlement also bans the district attorney’s office and police department from using forfeiture revenue to fund payroll. But the reforms aren’t universal: District Attorney Larry Krasner said future forfeitures would “generally” require a conviction, and would be targeted toward assets that were used as instruments of the crime or were profits of committing the crime.

“The average person would think, well we have a lot of people in prison, that must mean there’s a lot of crime in Arizona. That’s absolutely not true.”

A report from FWD.us, the first in a series examining Arizona’s imprisonment crisis, blamed poor policy choices, not rising crime, for the state’s growing prison population. The growth in prison population has outpaced residential growth, and the imprisonment rate has grown during a period of declining crime. Arizona has the 4th highest rate of imprisonment in the country, which costs taxpayers more than $1 billion each year. The authors note that the state could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually if its imprisonment rate was similar to neighboring states.

“BOP’s approach to managing female inmates has not been strategic, resulting in weaknesses in its ability to meet their specific needs.” 

new report from the Department of Justice concluded that staffing shortages in the Federal Bureau of Prisons were restricting access to care and services for female inmates. The Inspector General’s report makes ten recommendations to improve BOP performance, including additional training, expanded trauma treatment programs, better communication about pregnancy programs, and clearer guidelines on the distribution of feminine hygiene products. Acting BOP Director Hugh Hurwitz agreed with the recommendations and pledged to improve staffing and training.

“I am excited about the people who have gone through it, that are staying clean and sober, that are not resorting to crime.”

Cache Achieve, a diversion program created by officials in Utah’s Cache County, allows people accused of low-level offenses to pursue education and job-training rather than being sentenced to jail time. Qualified defendants must complete a program at Bridgerland Technical College, and maintain an 80% attendance rate and a B average. Upon successful completion of the program, charges may be dismissed. Thirteen people completed the program in 2017, saving the county an estimated $50,000.

“This is going to eliminate subjective decision making in low-risk cases while preserving the Parole Board’s ability to deny parole to low risk prisoners based on legitimate safety concerns.”

In Michigan, a new law created a list of 11 “substantial and compelling reasons” the State Parole board may use to depart from guidelines and deny parole. The reasons include a refusal to participate in risk-reduction programming, major misconduct while incarcerated, and pending felony charges or detainer requests. In addition to the codified guidelines, the parole board must give individuals a reason why their parole was denied. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Holly Kramer said the explanation would give people a clearer understanding of “what they need to do to work toward parole going forward.”

Minnesota's federal reentry court, and the news in criminal justice this week

“That interaction tells them that the justice system is not just about punishment; that it also is invested in helping former inmates when they leave prison.”

Minnesota’s federal re-entry court matches participants with community mentors and does away with the adversarial system of normal court proceedings. Returning citizens who are deemed to be at high risk of re-offending work with judges and federal law-enforcement officials to help find housing, employment and addiction treatment. Program participants have a 27% recidivism rate, well below the 73% rate for high-risk individuals outside the program. Chief U.S. Probation Officer Kevin Lowry said the re-entry court saved up to $30,000 per participant each year by reducing recidivism and allowing people to remain on community supervision.

“It is recovery, not incarceration, which allows people to become productive members of society—citizens with jobs and families who can contribute and make our communities better places to work, grow and live.”

In the Herald-Leader, author Kelley Paul recounted a visit to Lexington’s Hope Center, and pushed for an end to the cycle of trauma, addiction and incarceration. The Hope Center provides emergency shelter and addiction treatment services, and recently expanded its women’s recovery center.  Paul pointed to legislative solutions, including Kentucky’s Dignity Bill, the FIRST STEP Act, and federal bail reform sponsored by her husband Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).

“That’s where a text-messaging service helps. Defendants may not read a letter…but they will look at their cell phones.”

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office has been using a text messaging service to remind some clients of upcoming court dates, and hopes to expand the program to include juvenile and municipal court defendants soon. Many defendants do not have stable addresses, or miss mailed notifications, but are more likely to see a notice on their cell phones. A similar program, run by Uptrust, is in use in counties in California, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania. Uptrust’s CEO says failure-to-appear rates have gone from 15-20 percent to 5-6 percent in their service areas.

“The idea that a pregnant woman is going to escape anywhere when she can barely walk is ludicrous. Shackling women on the wrists, waist and legs is a dangerous practice and a cruel practice.”

Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA) and Mia Love (R-UT) introduced The Protecting the Health and Wellness of Babies and Pregnant Women in Custody Act, which is cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 57 congresswomen. The bill would create anational standard of care for women who are incarcerated during pregnancy, labor, delivery and the post-partum period. Representatives Love and Bass announced their intention to file the bill at the Coalition for Public Safety’s Women Unshackled: The Next Step, earlier this year. In The Hill, the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Kaitlin Owens and R Street’s Emily Mooney argued for the passage of the bill and similar reforms at the state level.

“Housing, education, job opportunities are all basic needs, and if the needs are met then the likelihood of someone engaging in criminal behavior is reduced.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz and Lisa Schencker looked at programs to help people with criminal records gain employment, and the businesses that are giving people a second chance. Chicago logistics provider C.H. Robinson doesn’t do background checks until the final stage of the hiring process, and considers the number of convictions, the nature of the offense, and the time elapsed when evaluating applicants. Illinois has passed several laws in the past four years that have reduced barriers to employment, including banning the box on initial applications, expanding convictions eligible for record sealing, and reforming state licensing requirements.

Pardons in Tennessee, and the news in criminal justice this week

“…I believe exercising the executive clemency power will helm further these individuals’ positive influence on their communities and the lives of fellow Tennesseans.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to four people this week, and said more pardons were in process. Three of the pardon recipients—Ralph Randall Reagan, Robert James Sheard, Jr., and Steven Lee Kennedy—were already out of prison; Michelle Lea Martin received a sentence commutation and will be released into supervised parole. Their convictions will remain on their records, but the Governor’s actions could facilitate expungement and help with employment, housing and certifications.

“Those old outstanding complaints and open warrants in minor matters raise questions of fairness…”

New Jersey’s State Supreme Court has initiated a process to dismiss nearly 800,000 open warrants for minor offenses that were issued more than 15 years ago. The warrants include 355,619 cases related to parking tickets and 348,631 moving violations. Chief Justice Rabner also issued an order limiting the number and amount of fines that can be imposed for failure to appear in court or failure to pay fines. The Supreme Court’s actions come after their report on municipal court operations, fines and fees, which recommended 49 reforms to ensure access, fairness, independence and confidence in the court system.

“Her profound belief is that answers to vexing criminal justice problems can be best assessed from the ground up.”

The Bail Project, a five-year, $52 million plan to bail out 160,000 people, started in New York and now operates in Tulsa, St. Louis, Detroit and Louisville. In the Bronx, the average bail posted was $768, and the project’s staff worked with clients to ensure that they showed up for court dates. More than half of their cases resulted in dismissal of all charges, and only 2% of clients were sentenced to jail for the original charges.

“I am hoping to go back to the Legislature this coming year and say, ‘So here’s what we’ve done, here are some preliminary results, it’s working. We need more money to expand across the state.’”

Missouri state officials have approved $5 million for a Justice Reinvestment Initiative treatment pilot program, aimed at creating more effective drug treatment and reducing recidivism. The appropriation is the first step towards the recommended 5-year, $133.5 million investment in recovery supports recommended by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe admitted the program was starting small, but described it as a blessing in the face of state budgetary constraints.

“When they’re in my class, they aren’t criminals. They’re beekeepers.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections works with the University of Georgia Master Beekeeping program, the Georgia Beekeepers Association, and Brushy Mountain Bee Farm to run programs in multiple facilities, including one for women at Arrendale State Prison. Participants work toward certification in beekeeping, and produce a monthly newsletter called the Nectar Collector. Honey collected by Arrendale beekeepers placed second in a special category of the 2016 Georgia Beekeepers Association honey contest.

Women Unshackled, and the news in criminal justice this week

“Our prison system and our jail system are just not equipped to deal with all the issues women are facing right now.”

Lawmakers, advocates, judges, law enforcement, and formerly incarcerated women gathered in Austin on Wednesday for “Women Unshackled: The Next Step,” hosted by CPS and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The forum, which was simulcast on Facebook and livestreamed into the Travis County Correctional Complex, focused on the unique challenges women face in our justice system, and potential reforms to better address their needs. As part of the event, Congresswomen Karen Bass (D-CA) and Mia Love (R-UT), announced upcoming federal dignity legislation. If you missed it, you can still watch the conference here:  https://www.facebook.com/coalitionforpublicsafety/.

“People who choose to learn from their mistakes and want to live productive lives should be able to do just that.”

Pennsylvania’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Clean Slate legislation that had previously been passed by the House. The bill would automatically seal the records of those who had committed certain misdemeanors and gone 10 years without another offense. The measure has strong bipartisan support in both chambers, and the backing of business, organized labor, and district attorneys from across the commonwealth.

“...If the audits are allowed to fail, the Prison Rape Elimination Act will fail, and the shameful scourge of prison rape will continue.”

Just Detention International’s Lovisa Stannow drew attention to the First Step Act’s strengthening of protections under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.  The First Step Act would establish stronger guidelines for conducting audits, harsher penalties for auditors who do not comply with the guidelines, and more transparency in the audit process. The bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House last month, awaits action in the Senate.

“Forfeiture only makes it more challenging for people in my position to clean up and become contributing members of society.”

The Supreme Court granted a cert petition in a civil asset forfeiture case, Timbs v. Indiana, which could determine whether the Eighth Amendment’s excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states. Timbs’s case has attracted a broad range of supporters, with amicus briefs filed by the Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Cato Institute, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“American voters are ready to move forward with this important legislation, and politicians should take their lead and bring clean slate to fruition...”

70% of voters support automatically sealing the records of nonviolent offenders, according to new polling from the Center for American Progress and GBA Strategies. Clean Slate legislation has the support of 75% of Democrats, 66% of Republicans, and 61% Independents. 

Ohio's high rate of license suspension and revocation, and the news in criminal justice this week

“…The practice of suspending licenses for failing to pay traffic tickets or to appear in court traps many low-income Ohioans in the criminal justice system.”

A new report reveals 5.62% of Ohio’s nearly 8 million licensed drivers have a suspended or revoked license, the second-highest rate in the country. In addition to punishing driving infractions, the state suspends licenses for people who are unable to provide proof of insurance, or who fail to pay court fees or child support. Previous reporting by the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed that neighborhood suspension rates were directly correlated with the percentage of residents making less than 200% of the poverty level. Other states with high rates of suspended or revoked licenses include Minnesota (4.88%) and Iowa (4.79%)

"Experts have warned Oklahoma policymakers for years of our criminal justice system’s impending disaster. We have made great progress, but we can’t rest now."

Joe Allbaugh, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, argued for continuing reforms to the state’s criminal justice system. While previous efforts have slowed the rate of growth, the prison population is still expected to grow by 2,367 by 2026. Allbaugh seeks to continue working with legislative leaders and the governor on additional reforms, and specifically cited the need for improved access to treatment for mental illness and addiction.

“This common-sense piece of legislation seeks to accomplish what we all want: safer communities.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged legislators to follow Texas’ lead in criminal justice reform and pass the FIRST STEP Act.  And in Foreign Affairs, our own Holly Harris argues that prison reform legislation could be a political winner for both parties.

"They have experience, and that experience lessens the stigma of their criminal record."

In Pennsylvania’s Cambridge Springs women’s prison, incarcerated women make more than 15,000 pairs of eyeglasses per year, and can train to become certified opticians. Cambridge Springs is home to the only accredited prep course for optician certification in the commonwealth, and the program has a 200-person waiting list. Women in the program learn to use and repair every machine in the eyeglass-making process, perform prescription calculations in computers and by hand, and write a resume.

“…The widely heralded ‘era of reform’ seems never to have arrived in some jurisdictions, where growth has continued unchecked.”

Analysis from the Vera Institute showed that overall prison admissions have declined 24% since 2006, but the decline was concentrated in 10 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Vermont), with California accounting for 37% of the total national decline. The report includes state-by-state analysis of incarceration, including pretrial jail population, sentenced jail population, and prison population and admissions.

Alice Johnson is released from prison, and the news in criminal justice this week

“I’m feeling no handcuffs on me. I’m free to hug my family.”
Alice Johnson’s sentence was commuted by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, and she was released from prison the same day. Johnson had served 22 years of a life sentence without parole for federal drug and money laundering charges. Her cause was championed by groups including #cut50 and CAN-DO, and by Kim Kardashian, who met with the President last week to discuss the case.
“The MPD wishes to be a partner with our community stakeholders in these efforts that reduce the number of African-American males entering our criminal justice system.”
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced Thursday that city police officers would no longer conduct stings targeting low-level marijuana sales with felony charges, and dismissed charges against 47 people arrested in 2018. City officials were alerted to racial disparities in arrests by the county’s chief public defender, who noted that 46 of the 47 people arrested were black. In his announcement, Chief Arradondo said they would seek alternatives to incarceration, including treatment, counseling and diversion.
“The people who served time in prison and work with families of the incarcerated every day understand that we should not wait to fix anything until we can fix everything.”
Forty bipartisan and formerly incarcerated advocates sent a letter to Senate leaders in support of the First Step Act, arguing that the bill would “provide some long overdue relief and hope to more than 180,000 people in federal prison and millions of their family members and loved ones on the outside.” Signatories included Georgetown University Law Professor Shon Hopwood, #cut50’s Topeka Sam, Families Against Mandatory Minimums’ Kevin Ring, and American Conservative Union’s Pat Nolan.
“Amid all the algebra and essay-writing, this is ultimately the core curriculum at Travis Hill: demonstrating that it is a real school, and its hope is real hope.”
New Orleans is one of only three cities in the U.S. whose jail has a full-day high school offering real credits. Travis Hill High School is housed in the Orleans Parish jail, and offers classes in math, science, social studies, English and art with a chance to earn a diploma, rather than a G.E.D. The profile of the school, a joint multimedia production from The Marshall Project and This American Life, will be broadcast on public radio stations this weekend.
“’[We should] scale fines and fees so that they’re fair and people are punished, but do it in a way that doesn’t further exacerbate inequality in society.”
A new law took effect this week in Washington that helps formerly incarcerated people lower their debt burden. Passed earlier this year, the reform eliminates the 12% interest added to balances owed and lifts some debt obligations for those who qualify as indigent. In addition to the statewide changes, cities are experimenting with local reforms—Tukwila has a local program to help former offenders regain their drivers’ licenses, and Edmonds is working with Microsoft to develop a calculator to help judges assess appropriate fines and fees.

The FIRST STEP Act passes in the house, and the news in criminal justice this week

“This bill will transform lives by providing access to the mental health counseling, education, vocational services and substance abuse treatment needed to help incarcerated individuals get back on their feet and become productive members of society.”

The FIRST STEP Act passed in the U.S. House with overwhelming bipartisan support this week; 99% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats voted in favor. The bill includes an increase in recidivism reduction program funding, expanded access to compassionate release programs, an increase in good time credits, broad new requirements for data collection, and a ban on shackling pregnant women.

“Without that support then we are just simply setting them up to fail.”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill called for reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems, including offering early discharge for those who follow the program, and limiting supervision fees. James Hudspeth, the Director of Utah Adult Probation and Parole, agreed that some reforms are necessary, and cited large caseloads and a need to better prepare individuals for release.

“…Drug treatment courts provide a range of services and support that aid recovery. But it’s not just treatment that benefits participants. It’s learning how to live a clean and sober life.”

A report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Center for Law and Policy Solutions examined drug treatment courts, using New York’s 3rd Judicial District as a case study. Despite the court’s initial success, they found lingering challenges with accessibility, cost, and stigma for participants. Their recommendations include an increase in data transparency, expanded access, and increased funding for substance abuse treatment, education, and prevention services.

“…The collection of revenue, and not the pursuit of justice or protecting the public, has become the driving force for civil and criminal enforcement.”

A lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice alleges that Doraville, Georgia has turned the local justice system into a cash machine for the city’s budget. Fines, fees, and forfeitures accounted for 19 to 30 percent of Doraville’s budget over the past five years, and residents face steep fines for chipped paint, cracked concrete, and improperly stacked firewood. The practice is not limited to Georgia—fines and fees provided 30.4% of the budget in Saint Ann, Missouri, 25.6% in North Hills, New York, and 14.5% in Sunset, Utah.

“…Addiction is driving skyrocketing rates of incarcerated women, tearing apart families while squeezing communities that lack money, treatment programs and permanent solutions to close the revolving door.”

The AP’s Sharon Cohen visited women in jail in Campbell County, Tennessee, where opioids are prescribed at five times the national average, and the local prosecutor says as much as 90 percent of crime in the area is connected to drugs. The county jail, which houses an average of 60 women per day, offers a high school equivalency diploma program, but no addiction treatment, mental health counseling, or vocational training for women.