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Breaking the Addiction to Incarceration: Weekly Highlights

Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
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February 3, 2012

Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.

The State of Sentencing in 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice
The Sentencing Project recently released its report of state-level criminal justice reforms passed in 2011. A summary of 55 reforms passed in 29 states, the report documents the newest state laws in a growing national trend to reduce our dependence on incarceration. Examples include: Florida’s expansion of drug court eligibility, Texas’s introduction of “earned time credits” — opportunities for prisoners to reduce their sentence by completing educational, therapeutic, or vocational training — and Louisiana’s alternative penalties for technical parole violations, such as missing a meeting with a parole officer.

GOP Seeks Big Changes In Federal Prison Sentences
More than 20 years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission created guidelines for federal sentencing. A Supreme Court decision in 2005 made those guidelines advisory rather than mandatory. That allows federal judges to exercise more discretion in sentencing. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) is calling for more consistency in federal sentencing, and some Republicans want more mandatory sentencing.

California’s Youth Prisons Nearing an End
Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown announced his plan to shut down all state youth prisons by 2014. If backed by the Legislature, Governor Brown’s proposal would require counties to develop prudent local alternatives to state custodial facilities. The proposal has met significant opposition from stakeholders, such as youth advocates and district attorneys, who have raised concerns that the counties do not have the programs and resources to manage the current juvenile prisoner population. This San Francisco Chronicle article outlines some of the steps California will have to take to make this transition feasible.

Florida Prison Closings Are a Legacy of Wrong Guess
Last month, Florida Governor Rick Scott decided to close seven of Florida’s 62 prisons because they’re simply not needed. Why? Twenty years ago, lawmakers forecasted a crime increase that never materialized, and commissioned the construction of prisons that they now don’t need.

Texas Officials Seeking Room for Mentally Ill Inmates
Texas officials are scrambling to find beds in state mental hospitals for 400 mentally incompetent local jail inmates in anticipation of a judge’s ruling that jail isn’t the right place for the mentally incompetent. For the last two years, incompetent detainees have had to wait an average of six months for a bed to open up so that a doctor could evaluate them and determine whether and how they could be restored to a stable state for trial. In a letter written last week, Austin Judge Orlinda Naranjo stated that a wait that long for a spot at a state mental hospital violates the constitutional rights of inmates who have been found incompetent to stand trial.

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