Friday, December 23, 2011

The Best Present is a Parent's Presence

It’s the holiday season, which means that the days are shorter and the holiday treats (and subsequent sugar rushes) are plentiful. Here at the FAMM office in Washington, D.C. it means we have our mini Christmas tree up and decorated and our lovely holiday cards from prisoners, supporters, family and friends proudly displayed.

It also means that we’ve started collecting toys to donate to the National Women’s Prison Project’s annual toy drive. The Baltimore-based group collects toys to give to the children of incarcerated women during the holidays.

This wonderful toy drive also serves as an unpleasant reminder that the devastating consequences of mandatory sentencing extend far beyond those who are convicted and sentenced – they affect whole families and entire communities, and they affect children who aren’t old enough to understand why mommy won’t be home for Christmas, and those who are.

Having a parent in prison can have significant consequences for children, including an increased likelihood of being incarcerated themselves. Sadly, this is not an uncommon experience – according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data in 2007, 1.7 million children had an incarcerated parent, up 79 percent from 1991.

Now, we understand that when people violate the law there needs to be consequences. We understand that sometimes those consequences include incarceration. We also understand that having a child is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. However, as lawmakers continue to make policies that result in long, inflexible sentences, and as Congress considers adding even more mandatory minimums to the books, we hope that they will consider all of the consequences of these laws – the costs for taxpayers of incarcerating nonviolent, low-risk offenders for decades, the effects on public safety, the fairness of these policies for all people, and last, but certainly not least, the consequences for the littlest among us – those who know all too well what it is like to celebrate another Christmas, another New Year, without their mother or father.

By allowing judges to consider all of the facts of a case, all of the circumstances – good and bad – of a person’s life, perhaps fewer children will have to experience the holidays without their parents, and more parents will be able to see the joy on their children’s faces when they receive the best gift of all – a parent home in time for the holidays.

This holiday season, hundreds of families will be reunited with loved ones sooner than they originally thought due to the retroactive changes to the crack cocaine guidelines. This was a victory for justice and for families. We hope to have additional victories in the New Year that will allow more families to spend the holidays together. Stay tuned – you’ll be hearing from us in the New Year as we continue to fight hard to achieve these goals in 2012 and beyond. 

From all of us at FAMM, Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for the New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Spirit

This holiday I have something special to gives thanks for – both my sons are home. After serving 13 years in federal prison, Lamont Garrison just came home one month ago. His twin brother Lawrence served 11 ½ years and has been home since 2009. This will be the first holiday we’ve spent together in over a decade. But while my sons were in prison, I made sure we celebrated them together in a different way.

Mail is the most appreciated vehicle in prison communication. I never wanted my sons to miss the daily mail call, especially at the holidays. Around December 15th, I would get special cards to start sending so they would get a bunch of holiday mail from me. I knew that other family members and their friends would send holiday cards and Season’s Greetings, but I wanted to fill the gap myself.

Not just cards, but magazines too – specialty magazines like Robb Report, 4 Wheels, Hot Wheels – the list is long. I would just wait for the phone call of joy that they got some magazines, cards, and pictures. That was our holiday together.

This year it is just a little different.

They are both in town. I can kiss them, touch them, talk to them, listen to them talk to each other, look at them and smell them as much as I want. This year, yes this year has finally come. I am not buying any gifts because what I wanted for so, so many years is here with us.

Karen Garrison is a staff member here at FAMM. Read her Story of Success on FAMM’s website here.

Will California's "3 Strikes" Be Out?

As sentencing reformers in California ready a ballot initiative to reform the state's three-strikes mandatory minimum sentencing law, their efforts got a boost from the editors of Bloomberg. The entire editorial is worth reading, but we liked this passage in particular:

Many of the more than 8,000 prisoners serving third-strike sentences in California are hardened, violent criminals who have earned lengthy terms, or life, behind bars. Their sentences would not be shortened by the ballot initiative. But more than 3,600 third-strikers have committed crimes that were neither violent nor serious. In addition, local prosecutors and judges exercise broad discretion on third-strike sentencing, producing vast disparities among the state’s counties.

The original three-strikes law was written too broadly to provide just punishment in the thousands of circumstances it covers. With the state buckling under the strain of chronic budget deficits and a sagging economy, it is now too expensive to maintain. According to the state auditor, the cost of imprisoning nonviolent three-strikes offenders for 25 years is $4.8 billion. (California will spend roughly $10 billion on prisons this year -- more than it spends on its once-renowned higher education system.) Backers of the initiative say it will save at least tens of millions of dollars a year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"I can't change it."

Nothing captures the insanity and misery of mandatory minimum sentencing laws than hearing a federal judge utter those four words while imposing a decades-long sentence to a first-time offender. "I can't change it." This time, those four words of futility came from U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell as she sentenced a 24-year-old man to 57 years in prison for armed robbery.

Armed robbery is a violent, serious crime. We at SentenceSpeak have no interest in defending gang members who commit crimes with guns. But we think it's fair to ask if this young man's egregious lapse in judgment should result in his rotting in jail until he's 81 years old. Is that the best solution our society can come up with in 2011?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Better Way to Reduce Crime

Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) published this op-ed in today's Politico. The bipartisan Senate duo support investing in smart-on-crime policies that help reduce recidivism and save taxpayer money. The ideas aren't new, but the growing support for them is. Good work, Senators!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Another Judge Goes Public

In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, federal appeals court judge Andre Davis sets forth a compelling case against federal mandatory minimums. Judge Davis recounts the story of Tony Gregg, a drug addict who resorted to selling cocaine and is now serving a mandatory life sentence. Davis writes:

After 25 years of watching countless Tony Greggs serve out impossibly long sentences for transgressions that would be better served by drug treatment and social safety nets, I say with certainty that mandatory minimums are unfair and unjust. They cost taxpayers too much money and make very little sense.
FAMM is grateful to judges like Judge Davis who continue to speak out against mandatory sentencing, a stain on our nation's criminal justice system.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Want a Pardon?: Be White, Be Connected

Those are the appalling findings in a two-part, in-depth expose in the Washington Post.

The opening salvo came on Sunday, with this shocker:  white applicants for presidential pardons are four times as likely to succeed as minority applicants!

And this stunning article reports findings that

Applicants with a member of Congress in their corner were three times as likely to win a pardon as those without such backing. Interviews and documents show a lawmaker’s support can speed up a stalled application, counter negative information and ratchet up pressure for an approval.
The articles are part of a riveting series by journalists Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that specializes in good, ole-fashioned investigative muckraking.

The series of articles includes this compelling call to action:
Once in a great while, journalists unearth a story that shocks the conscience and demands immediate action. Today's article on the racial disparities in the awarding of presidential pardons is one such instance. ...

Linzer and LaFleur's reporting shows a claim of innocence is virtually disqualifying. Instead of using their powers as a remedy for unfair prosecutions, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have largely delegated their pardon authority to a Justice Department office staffed by career prosecutors. ...

Pardon applicants are required to demonstrate "stability" -- defined as long-term marriages, low credit-card and bank debts, and a solid job history. Never mind that many Americans in today's economy would have trouble meeting these tests. The documents reviewed by Linzer and LaFleur show that whites who failed to meet some of these standards were approved while blacks with similar applications were rejected. It is clear that whatever rules exist, they are inconsistently applied.
The pardon office is an ideal subject for investigative reporting since it does not explain its decisions, gets little if any congressional oversight, and was, until recently, able to shield its key data from the Freedom of Information Act. ...

President Obama could restart the work undertaken by Gregory Craig, his former White House counsel, toward creating an independent group to advise the White House on pardon applications. Such a step would parallel what is done in some states, and would likely remove some of the pro-prosecution leanings of the current process. Specifically, the president could announce that claims of innocence will not disqualify those seeking pardons. This could be done by Executive Order (with a tiny shift in appropriated money by Congress).
Over the past several decades, the United States has reacted to rising crime rates by arresting, charging and convicting growing numbers of people. That increased emphasis on incarceration has been accompanied by a steady drop in the number of presidential pardons.
That can change.
FAMM could not agree more.  The federal prison system is overcrowded and filled with people serving draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  Granting commutations to reformed offenders to reduce some of their unjust sentences would make the system fairer, without endangering the public.  But the pardon process is clearly broken.

It's time to fix it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Florida Conservatives Understand the Need for Reform

Right on Crime, the conservative criminal justice reform project based out of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has been advocating sound reforms around the country since its launch last year. The group’s “Statement of Principles” has been signed by conservative heavyweights like Grover Norquist, Bill Bennett, and even the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Interestingly, Right on Crime is “Florida-heavy.” For instance, the following notable Florida conservatives and business leaders have signed the Statement of Principles:

  • Jeb Bush, Former Governor
  • Allan Bense, Former Speaker of the Florida House
  • Richard Doran, Former Florida Attorney General
  • Barney Bishop, President and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida
  • Dominic Calabro, President of Florida TaxWatch
  • J. Robert McClure III, President and CEO of the James Madison Institute
  • Allison DeFoor, Former Chair of the Florida Republican Party, former Sheriff of Monroe County and former candidate for Lieutenant Governor Former Chair of Gov. Bush’s Ex-Offender Task Force Vicki Lukis
  • Tom Slade, Former Chair of the Florida Republican Party
The number of Florida signatories is no coincidence. Put plainly, Florida’s criminal justice system is broken. Florida taxpayers are paying far too much and receiving far too little in return.

Take Florida’s drug laws, for instance. For too long, Florida has relied too heavily on incarceration to solve its drug problem. Yet despite harsh mandatory minimum sentences, Florida’s drug usage rate has remained fairly constant, and in some areas has become dramatically worse. For instance, Florida adopted mandatory minimum sentences for prescription drug trafficking in 1999. In 2000, a year later, 869 people died of opiate-related overdoses. In 2009, a decade into Florida’s experiment with those mandatory minimums, that number was 2,905. Between 2003 and 2009, the death rate from Oxycodone overdoses in Florida increased 246%. If anything is clear from that data, it is that mandatory minimum sentences have utterly failed to stop Florida’s prescription drug problem.

Meanwhile, Florida’s prison population has skyrocketed, along with its Corrections budget. In 1993 Florida housed 53,000 prisoners. In 2007 the prison population had ballooned to 97,000. Today it stands above 100,000. In other words, Florida has nearly doubled its prison population in twenty years. Our incarceration rate is 26% higher than the national average, and we have the fastest growing prison population in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that Florida’s Corrections budget is nearly $2.5 billion annually. Worse, Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimates that Florida’s prison population will hit 115,000 by 2015. According to OPPAGA, “The projected increase of 15,000 inmates by 2015 would require building nine prisons at a total cost of over $862 million. Each new prison adds $27 million to the department’s annual operating budget.” This, while Florida faces multi-billion dollar deficits year after year, and after legislators have already cut billions from the state budget.

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos recently said in the Gainesville Sun, “I think I speak for the majority of Floridians when I say that I would much rather spend taxpayer money on our state’s education system, road projects, health care or economic development than I would on our state’s prison system.”

He’s right. And judging from the number of Florida conservatives and business leaders who have signed the Right on Crime Statement of Principles, he’s not alone.

What can be done? How can conservatives protect public safety, reduce recidivism and return millions of dollars to Florida taxpayers?

That sounds like a fine reason to check FAMM’s blog next week. 

Greg Newburn, the author of this post, is the Director of FAMM's Florida Project. Find out more about FAMM’s work in Florida here. You can also follow FAMM’s Florida Project on Twitter: @FloridaFAMM.