Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

By ALYSIA SANTO

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. TheConnecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.

Punished for being poor? Lawyers ask SJC to take up bail issue

From The Salem Daily News

BY JULIE MANGANIS STAFF WRITER Aug 5, 2016

SALEM — The state public defender’s office and an advocacy group are asking the state’s highest court to take up the question of whether cash bail is fundamentally unfair to poor people, citing a North Shore woman’s case.

In a filing on Friday, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the group Equal Justice Under Law are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take up the case of Jessica Wagle, a woman who is currently being held on $250 bail in a heroin possession case brought by Lynn police.

Wagle’s case was heard on Wednesday in Salem Superior Court, where her attorney argued that her $250 bail should be reduced to personal recognizance because she cannot afford to pay it and has no family in the area who are willing to post the bail.

Wagle’s lawyer, Shira Diner, told Judge Timothy Feeley on Wednesday that Wagle was being “punished for being poor.”

Feeley disagreed, pointing to a history of missed court appearances, or “defaults,” in her past cases as a reason to keep the bail at $250, the amount originally set on July 19 by Lynn District Court Judge Richard Mori, four days after her arrest.

Wagle, 32, who has struggled with heroin addiction for six years, her lawyers said, had been free during those four days after her arrest, until she walked into court and prosecutors sought to have her taken into custody on bail.

Her lawyers argue that both the SJC and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly held that no person can be kept in jail solely because of poverty — and argue that neither Feeley nor Mori took into account Wagle’s ability to pay.

“This case raises an issue of fundamental importance to the Massachusetts justice system: Can a person be kept in a jail cell because she cannot make a monetary payment?” the attorneys for Wagle say in their filing.

“Although that basic rule has long been a pillar of our legal system, it is overlooked as a matter of daily practice in courtrooms and jails throughout the Commonwealth. This case is about the irrationality and harmfulness of wealth-based pretrial detention. Such a practice is terrible for public safety and grossly unjust,” the filing says.

In his decision on Wednesday, Feeley concluded that, based on Wagle’s record and a history of missed court appearances, the $250 bail was appropriate, and that her inability to pay doesn’t make it unreasonable.

Wagle’s lawyers say judges routinely “misuse” the bail statute and ignore the question of a defendant’s ability to pay.

If economic status cannot be used in determining a sentence or a probation violation, “it has no place in pre-trial release decisions,” especially when a person is still presumed innocent, Wagle’s attorneys write.
http://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/punished-for-being-poor/article_a1c9e610-a056-516e-9ae3-79a9b571584c.html

Bills Related To Increasing Penalties for Interfering with Police

In response to the Dallas massacre, our Massachusetts state legislature has introduced the following bills.

1. HB4440: An act relative to assault and battery on a police officer

Amends various GLs to punish whoever commits an assault and battery upon a

police officer and causes the officer serious bodily injury, by 1 to 10 years in state

prison or 1 to 2½ years in the house of correction, with a minimum mandatory 1

year to serve, and a fine between $500 and $10,000; and provides that a judge

may consider that a defendant charged with this offense is dangerous enough to

justify setting bail on the defendant or ordering such defendant's release, but with

Lead sponsor: Governor Charlie Baker (R)

Co-sponsors: None

Status: In Judiciary Committee. Hearing held 7/13/16. 4 testimonies in

opposition, 6 testimonies in support.

2. HB4466: An act protecting police officers

Section 13D of Chapter 265, as appearing in the 2014 Official Edition, is

hereby amended by adding at the end thereof the following new paragraph:

Whoever commits an assault or an assault and battery upon a law enforcement

officer, when such an officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, that

results in bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for

not more than 5 years or in the house of correction for not more than 2 1/2 years,

or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Second or subsequent assaults upon a law enforcement officer, when such an

officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, or assaults and battery,

resulting in bodily injury shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000,

and imprisonment for not less than 1 year in a house of correction or more than

10 years in state prison.

Lead sponsor: Rep. Paul Frost (R-Auburn)

Co-sponsors: Rep. Ashe, Brian (D); Rep. Berthiaume Jr., Donald (R); Rep.

Boldyga, Nicholas (R); Rep. Campanale, Kate (R); Rep. Cantwell, James (D);

Rep. DeCoste, David (R); Rep. Diehl, Geoff (R); Rep. Dooley, Shawn (R); Rep.

Durant, Peter (R); Rep. Dwyer, James (D); Rep. Ferguson, Kimberly (R);Rep.

Fiola, Carole (D); Rep. Gordon, Kenneth (D); Rep. Gregoire, Danielle (D); Rep.

Haddad, Patricia (D); Rep. Hill, Bradford (R); Rep. Howitt, Steven (R); Rep. Hunt,

Randy (R); Rep. Kane, Hannah (R); Rep. Kelcourse, James (R); Rep. Kuros,

Kevin (R); Rep. Lombardo, Marc (R); Rep. McKenna, Joseph (R); Rep.

McMurtry, Paul (D); Rep. Miceli, James (D); Rep. Muratore, Mathew (R); Rep.

Orrall, Keiko (R); Rep. Poirier, Elizabeth (R);Rep. Puppolo, Jr., Angelo (D); Rep.

Rogers, John (D); Rep. Smola, Todd (R); Rep. Vieira, David (R); Rep. Vincent,

RoseLee (D); Rep. Whelan, Timothy (R); Rep. Wong, Donald (R); Rep. Zlotnik,

Who Will Be Your Next Sheriff?

In the voting booth, do you know anything about the office SHERIFF? Before I became an activist, I had no idea what a sheriff does and why I should care. The 14 sheriffs in Massachusetts have their own kingdoms, complete with jails — also known as Houses of Corrections, which house about 10,000 of the state’s 20,000 incarcerated people.  Read this article published by Boston.com, written by activist Jean Trounstein, and share with your friends. Get involved!
A new project aims to educate Massachusetts voters on how they can have a voice in who’ll be in charge of more than half the state’s incarcerated population for the next six years.

 You might not think a sheriff’s important to your life, but guess what? Massachusetts sheriffs are in office for six years, even longer than the four years that governors serve. And since this coming November 2016, in all 14 counties, sheriffs are up for reelection, you might want to consider who’s going to manage your county’s prisons and jails, and determine how more than half a billion dollarsof taxpayer money will be spent.

To that end, for the first time, extensive materials for voters in every Massachusetts county are now available, describing the role of sheriffs and detailing who’s running to be top dog in your county jails and prisons— also called houses of correction (HOC) in the Commonwealth. According to the in-depth fact sheets and candidate questionnaires, it’s clear that what’s at stake include sheriffs’ positions on substance use/mental health programs, medical care, solitary confinement, prisoner education and re-entry services, job training for employees, and where and how women prisoners are held, as well as the sheriffs’ willingness to track data and issue public reports.

COUNTY STATUS OF RACE
Barnstable Sheriff Cummings (R) is running for reelection. Randy Azzato (D) is running against him.
Berkshire Sheriff Bowler (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
Bristol Sheriff Hodgson (R) is running unopposed for reelection.
Dukes Current sheriff Michael McCormack is retiring. Two Democrats are running to replace him, Robert Odgen and Marc Rivers.
Essex Current sheriff Frank Cousins is retiring. Thirteen candidates are running to replace him. Democrats: William Castro, Kevin Coppinger, Michael Marks, Edward,O’Reilly, Jerry Robito, and Paul Russell. Republicans: Kenneth Berg, Jeffrey Gallo, James Jajuga, Craig Lane, and Ann Manning-Martin. No Party: Mark Archer and Kevin Leach.
Franklin Sheriff Donelan (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
Hampden Current Sheriff Michael Ashe is retiring. Five candidates are running to replace him. Democrats: Michael Albano, Tom Ashe, and Nick Cocchi. Republican: John Comerford. No party: James Gill.
Hampshire Current sheriff Robert Garvey is retiring. Four candidates are running to replace him, Democrats: Patrick Cahillane, Kavern Lewis, and Melissa Perry. Republican: David Isakson
Middlesex Sheriff Koutoujian (D) is running for reelection. Barry Kelleher (D) is running against him.
Nantucket Sheriff Perelman (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
Norfolk Sheriff Bellotti (D) is running unopposed for reelection.
Plymouth Sheriff McDonald (R) is running for reelection. Scott Vecchi (D) is running against him.
Suffolk Sheriff Tompkins (D) is running for reelection. Alexander Rhalimi (D) is running against him.
Worcester Sheriff Evangelidis (R) is running unopposed for reelection.


Chart information courtesy of the
Sheriffs 2016 Election Project

The materials were developed by an activist group called the Ad Hoc Coalition to Stop New Jails. The group originally organized to oppose the building of new jails in Massachusetts—instead backing measures that support community-based corrections and bail reform. According to Lois Ahrens, founding director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project (RCPP) and one of the organizers behind the Sheriffs 2016 Election Project, “This is an opportunity to have the races be actually contested. Even in some counties like Plymouth, where a sitting sheriff is running, there’s an opportunity for people to question those sheriffs using our questionnaire and encourage the sheriffs to respond.”

Attorney Barbara J. Dougan, from the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who drafted the materials with help from others in the coalition, said in a telephone interview that sheriffs are “a position with a lot of clout and money in their budgets, but I would bet the average voter knows very little about the Massachusetts county prison system.”

Unlike state prisons where prisoners can receive any term of years up to life, HOCs hold prisoners for up to 2½ years for a single offense. Leslie Walker, an attorney and executive director of the Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services, clarified that HOC sentences “can run after each other so that if prisoners don’t receive parole, some people technically could do five years.” She added that in Massachusetts “some HOCs hold people awaiting trial, and in some counties there are free-standing jails for that purpose.”

Masslive.com reported in June 2016 that a study conducted by the public sector firm, Public Consulting Group (PCG), determined that sheriffs’ budgets vary from county to county. Middlesex and Suffolk have two of the largest operating budgets, respectively, at $68,262,063 (or $68,058 per prisoner) and $104,029,929 (or $65,358 per prisoner). Sheriffs supervise 10,400 prisoners serving HOC sentences and those awaiting trial in jails, and according to an Executive Office of Public Safety 2015 report, as of March 2015, that was approximately half the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts.

Attorney Dougan said sheriffs “have an enormous effect on how people will come out after their sentences. If you want people to lead law abiding lives, then it also should be important for you to see how the sheriffs are running their shops, from a public safety perspective since all county prisoners are coming back home.”

While the Coalition aims to have individuals become more engaged, they also hope to educate legislators and the press through this project. Ahrens said, “In most states, constituents not only elect their sheriff but vote on how much of their tax dollars should go toward building new jails and running them so that voters have more say in what sheriffs do and don’t do. In Massachusetts, elections are the time to hold sheriffs accountable.”

A press release that went out from the Coalition on Monday indicated that materials will be updated after the September 8 primaries to reflect the final slate of candidates.

Massachusetts needs DATA DRIVEN info on justice

This opinion piece — “MA is MIA on criminal justice reform” — in The Boston Globe on July 17, 2016, highlights how Massachusetts lacks one comprehensive system to collect and analyze data on our justice and corrections systems. With a common tool, all of the various agencies — the 14 jails jails, state Department of Corrections, sex offender registry, local and state police and more — could all share data for the common good.

Other states, such as Colorado, have invested in such technology, which officials and electeds from across the state meet monthly to analyze for economies of scale, service delivery, cost/benefit savings and more.

Right now, a working group appointed by Gov. Baker is working with the Council of State Governments [CSG] to evaluate the Massachusetts justice and corrections systems to make recommendations for legislative reform in Jan. 2017. A chronic complaint by the working group is the lack of accurate data. It’s ironic that the bureaucrats and electeds who have created, maintained and defend the broken system, now attack the poor data the CSG researchers present as indicators for needed reform. This article highlights the value of good data.

By Stephen Goldsmith and Jane Wiseman

LOCKING UP MILLIONS of Americans costs a lot of money. It comes with devastating social consequences. And it has produced a vast archipelago of institutions at the local, state, and federal level that’s too complicated for even those who administer small corners of it to understand in full.

The White House’s newly announced Data-Driven Justice Initiative aims to tackle these interwoven problems simultaneously by reducing the number of criminal defendants held in our local jails on pretrial detention orders. Seven states and 60 counties across the country have signed up so far.

Notably absent from this coalition: Massachusetts, which continues its silence on the critical issue of local criminal justice reform.

One of the cornerstones of data-driven justice is the use of risk assessment in the pretrial process — to keep dangerous defendants in jail awaiting trial and let low-risk ones remain in the community, staying connected to family and work, and paying their rent and their taxes. Keeping low-risk defendants out of jail awaiting trial has been shown to result in less crime and lower costs — in short, good government.

A thoughtful and ambitious bill crafted by Representative Tom Sannicandro of Ashland and Senator Ken Donnelly of Arlington would finally incorporate data into the pretrial decision-making process and bring Massachusetts in line with this growing reform movement. The bill is long overdue — the current statute governing bail and pretrial in Massachusetts dates to 1836. A hodgepodge of updates has been made over the years, but the law is in need of a total overhaul.

Beacon Hill should move on this timely and important legislation. Delay in moving to data-driven justice increases crime and cost and decreases fairness in our administration of justice.

The decision about release or detention should be based on a defendant’s risk of flight and likelihood of committing a crime before trial. Analyzing existing data about the defendant’s risk is far more objective than the current methods, too often a judge’s best guess about the defendant’s risk and a defendant’s ability to scrounge up bail money.

The tragic murder of Jennifer Martel at the hands of Jared Remy demonstrates the horrific result when data are not used in pretrial release decisions. Remy had 20 prior arrests, mostly for violent offenses. Yet a few days before he killed his girlfriend, after being arrested on assault charges, he paid a $40 fee and was released on his own recognizance.

For every Jared Remy, there are just as many indigent nonviolent offenders incarcerated for minor drug or petty larceny charges who cannot scrape together bail money and sit in our local jails while posing no threats to our communities.

How do data help? By looking at factual prior records and current circumstances, judges can have objective information to guide the decision about pretrial release. Data are blind to famous names and expensive lawyers. Nor are data swayed by a defendant’s ability to make bail.

Jurisdictions that do use data to make pretrial decisions have achieved greater fairness, lower crime, and lower costs. Washington, D.C., releases 85 percent of defendants awaiting trial. Compared to the national average, those released in D.C. are two and a half times more likely to remain arrest free and one a half times as likely to show up for court. The results are lower jail costs and lower crime.

This approach can also help stamp out some of the inequity in the criminal justice system because we know that under the current approach defendants who already have advantages (higher income, employment, stable housing, etc.) are released more often than those with fewer advantages (lower income, ethnic or racial minority, etc.), even for the same crime.

Data-driven justice is also cheaper. Defendants released on their own recognizance cost essentially nothing. For a defendant released and supervised while awaiting trial, the cost is 90 percent lower than the cost to incarcerate. How much could be saved by moving to risk-based pretrial decision-making? Experts say that up to 25 percent of those detained pretrial might be safely released.

While precise estimates are difficult to determine, assuming Massachusetts mirrors the national rate incarcerating 60 percent of criminal defendants while awaiting trial, data driven reforms in line with this new White House initiative have the possibility of saving taxpayers anywhere from $60 million to $150 million annually. One of the few states to quantify the value is Kentucky, which saves $100 million a year with risk-based pretrial decision-making.

With Governor Charlie Baker and State House leaders looking to fill a significant budget gap, we can’t think of a better way to save Massachusetts taxpayers millions annually while reforming a broken system that perpetuates inequality and does little to protect the public’s safety.

Stephen Goldsmith is the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center. He previously served as a prosecutor in Marion County, Ind. Jane Wiseman is a senior fellow at the Ash Center. Previously she served as assistant secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety.

The inhumanity of solitary

U.S. faith leaders push for prison reform of solitary confinement

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015. Photo: CNS/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media

The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.

The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.

The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.

Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.

In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.

“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.

“It was dehumanising.”

Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”

It was an environment where the men in neighbouring cells screamed, acted out their frustration in anger and cut themselves. And there was suicide.

About halfway through his sentence Perez began to realise “my mother didn’t give birth to me to sit in a jail cell”. He had a daughter who was born two days before he was arrested and he had barely seen her.

Perez enrolled in college classes while incarcerated, studying criminal justice and is set to graduate from St Francis College next year. His studies and change of heart helped prepare him for his first job when he was released from prison two and a half years ago. Today, he is a safe re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project in New York City helping the newly released adjust to life outside of prison.

He also is a vocal advocate for solitary confinement reform.

Perez’s stay in solitary was relatively short. Some incarcerated people have spent 30 years or more in isolation.

Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statementResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.

Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.

The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organisations calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.

“For us as people of faith, we really see this effort as a profoundly moral effort, that we would deny any person access to community, access to restorative justice, to, what I would say as a Methodist minister, access to redemption and a belief in God’s ability give us all a second and third and 23rd chance,” Rev Downton told Catholic News Service.

“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a documentary on solitary confinement titled Breaking Down the Box. The organisation also has built a replica 1.8-metre-by-2.7-metre cell that it displays at programs.

In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones”.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to limit solitary confinement have been introduced in several states in response to concerns raised by once incarcerated people and psychologists. They have met with mixed results.

Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilising Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.

In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice. In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.

The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany told CNS that the state’s bishops have worked on restorative justice issues for more than a decade. He said their concern always has been for the dignity of the inmates.

He also welcomed a settlement agreement reached in December in a lawsuit over incarceration practices in New York prisons. The agreement calls for a step-down unit to help inmates reintegrate into the general prison population, a substance abuse treatment program, a community re-entry program for people being released, incentivising good behaviour, ending the use of a restrictive diet as punishment, and disciplinary guidelines to end the use of arbitrary sanctions.

Cross country, the California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.

“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.

“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals’,” the bishop said.

Over the years, the committee has been instrumental in gaining reforms in California solitary confinement practices. It played a major role in ending a two-month hunger strike in 2013 that involved nearly 10 per cent of California’s inmate population over solitary confinement policies, particularly at Pelican Bay State Prison.

“When the men were not eating at Pelican Bay, certainly we advocated for them and against what was happening to them there,” Bishop Garcia said.

“I think the SHU is improved, especially at Pelican Bay, from what I’ve been hearing,” he added.

Perez is pleased that reform campaigns are gaining attention. The reform efforts are not meant to prevent prison officials from doing their job, he explained, but to ensure that administrators remember that incarcerated people must make amends for their wrong-doing and not to be further punished in isolation for even minimal rules violations.

“We’re not saying you can’t not hold people accountable,” Perez said. “But you don’t have to treat them inhumanely.”

States Lead the Way on Justice Reform

CreditDandy/John J. Custer

In New Jersey, voters and lawmakers gave judges more power to release low-risk defendants who can’t afford bail, letting them go home rather than sit in jail while they await trial. In Idaho, a new law created 24-hour crisis centers to help keep people with mental health issues from being locked up unnecessarily. Georgia and Louisiana established courts for military veterans accused of crimes. Hawaii funded programs to help reunify children with parents who are behind bars.

These are just a few of the hundreds of criminal-justice reforms that states around the country have put in place over the last two years, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

While Congress continues to dither over a package of sentencing and corrections reforms for the federal prison system, the pace of bipartisan, state-level innovation is an encouraging reminder that there are ways to reduce the devastating impact of mass incarceration on families, communities and public safety. Nationwide, more than nine in 10 inmatesare housed in state facilities, so state reforms reach the vast majority of people in the justice system.

The Vera report draws three lessons from state experiences. First, long sentences do little, if anything, to deter crime. Second, community supervision is often safer, cheaper and more effective than prison for those convicted of low-level crimes. And third, the path from prison back to full participation in society is too often blocked by state and federal post-imprisonment penalties that make it extremely hard to establish a law-abiding life.

For decades, it was politically impossible to tackle these issues. But in 2014 and 2015, nearly every state adopted at least one measure to reduce the prison population, steer people away from prison (for example, through substance-abuse treatment programs) and smooth the way to re-entry for those coming out.

Many states have also taken steps to reduce or eliminate the use of long-term solitary confinement. In 2014, Colorado banned long-term solitary for those with serious mental illnesses, unless they pose a physical threat to themselves or others. In 2015, Nebraska banned the severest form of solitary, which isolated an inmate completely from all contact with other people.

Other states lowered sentences for drug and property crimes, increased opportunities for early release, and created housing and jobs programs to reduce the chances that those leaving prison would end up back behind bars.

Reforms like these are often associated with decreases in crime, or at least no increase in crime, which undermines the argument that public safety depends on doling out the harshest punishments available. For example, after California voters in 2014 overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, a measure that sharply reduced penalties for low-level drug and property offenses, critics warned that jail populations would spike. In fact, the opposite has happened.

In Congress, however, some recalcitrant lawmakers still cling to outdated or incorrect beliefs about crime and punishment in America. They need to pay close attention to the ingenuity and the record of the states.