Friday, November 20, 2009
US Sentencing Commission hears testimony on alternatives to incarceration, reentry
Yesterday morning I attended a portion of the regional hearing in Austin of the US Sentencing Commission, in particular a panel on "Alternatives to Incarceration, Reentry, and Community Impact."
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins was one of the panelists, and his comments were featured in coverage by the Associated Press. He opened by declaring that traditional crime fighting reacted to the offender but in the future should be proactive to prevent crime. Most prisoners are uneducated, unskilled and may have drug abuse issues, he said, so the public tends to have little sympathy for them. Yet the chances of improving public safety are greater, he said, if such folks can be raised up from their degraded circumstances and encouraged to change their lives - something that's not always encouraged by greater punishment.
Watkins described a program in his office for offenders aged 17-25 who commit "youthful indiscretions" in which they use "memo agreements" to dispose of misdemeanor charges without taking the case to court. He said this both saves the county money and reduces collateral consequences to the offender and community from a criminal conviction. Those who can't or won't be rehabilitated, he said, were identified in his office as "impact offenders" - folks who may have committed repeated low-level offenses, and he uses all the enhancement tools available to boost penalties higher and maximize their sentences.
Diana Dinitto of the UT School of Social Work told the Commission that US law improperly conflated drug use with drug crime. She said that most people in prison who need treatment don't get it, and that providing treatment while incarcerated creates additional barriers to success - particularly overcoming the troublesome transition period during reentry after leaving prison. She urged greater use of community-based treatments to avoid that transition period, and greater focus of supervision and treatment resources to ensuring "continuity of care" so offenders can maximize "sequential gains" accumulated during treatment.
Another major barrier to reentry, she said, is "discrimination" against people who commit drug crimes, particularly banning ex-offenders from receiving financial aid for college or participating in federal assistance programs. She pointed out that drug crimes are the only offenses that trigger the ban on college assistance, and said at a minimum students should only lose aid if the offense is committed while they're receiving it. She also complained that health insurance plans tend not to provide adequate coverage for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States gave an excellent presentation that featured Texas' recent reforms as a prime example. See the detailed written materials he gave to the Commission here (pdf). The charts and graphs he presented make a strong case that mass incarceration is at best disassociated with recent crime reductions, since states that reduced incarceration have lowered crime as much or more than states with higher incarceration rates, getting a greater return on investment for criminal justice dollars.
One of the Commission members was particularly interested in Texas' legislation (see p. 13 of the presentation), but Gelb unfortunately gave a slightly incomplete depiction, telling the Commission there wasn't legislation per se but that the expansion of community corrections and treatment capacity was primarily done through the budget. That's not precisely accurate.
There actually was an accompanying bill in 2007 (several, really, but one main one) that included policy changes along with the new resources. The biggest change was to reduce probation lengths from 10 to 5 years for a wide range of nonviolent offenses from third degree felonies down, and to give offenders a chance to earn early release from probation through good behavior (at the judge's discretion) at either two years or half their probation term, whichever is later. In addition, the state used fiscal incentives to encourage local probation departments to implement progressive sanctions instead of revoking offenders to prison for low-level violations of their supervision conditions. Those changes combined to help reduce expanding probation rolls and hence the number of probation revocations.
Gelb said Texas' example showed that it isn't just the recent economic downturn causing states to reevaluate corrections policy, since Texas made our changes before the recent Wall Street collapse. That's true to an extent, but Texas definitely made those changes out of a desire to save money and avoid raising taxes, which would have been necessary if we'd built new prisons. That's the angle that got Republican leaders like Tom Craddick and Steve Ogden on board.
The fourth panelist, St. Louis University law prof Eric Miller, discussed the use of drug courts or "offender supervision courts," to use his phrase, arguing that in many cases drug courts are a "well meaning but flawed exit strategy" to keep offenders out of prison. They tend to have a "net widening" effect, he said, because they're too open ended and channel offenders into the system instead of away from it. He thinks judges should play a less active and more "managerial" role in drug courts.
Miller also made an excellent point that accountability is a "two-way street." He said if the offender must take responsibility for their actions, so should the government take responsibility for the harm caused by collateral consequences.
One commissioner suggested the testimony of the panelists meant that the idea of "expanding community correctional centers" in every jurisdiction was a "no brainer." I don't know much about federal community correctional centers, but this memo from the Bureau of Prisons describes them as "facilities in which offenders are free to leave the institution during approved hours for the purpose of participating in employment and other community programming activities." Sounds like a federal version of work-release.
There was also discussion of whether spending too much time - more than 3-4 months - in a halfway house upon leaving prison might be "counterproductive," which is the stance, commissioners said, taken by the head of the Bureau of Prisons. Nobody on the panel had an opinion on that question, but I'd be interested in learning more about the debate and the BOP's reasoning behind that stance.
After this panel I gave Mr. Watkins a ride to the airport then headed out to the state Judicial Advisory Council's biennial sentencing conference, some of which I'll be writing up this weekend. But the Sentencing Commission heard much more and written testimony from presenters who submitted it is available here, linked under the name of the presenter.
Posted by Gritsforbreakfast at 7:44 AM