Category Archives: bail reform

The Newest Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander

Recent criminal justice reforms contain the seeds of a frightening system of “e-carceration.”

By Michelle Alexander  Opinion Columnist   New York Times

 

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CreditCreditIllustration by Yoshi Sodeoka; Photographs by Juanmonino and SensorSpot/E+, via Getty Images

In the midterms, Michigan became the first state in the Midwest to legalize marijuana, Florida restored the vote to over 1.4 million people with felony convictions, and Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials. These are the latest examples of the astonishing progress that has been made in the last several years on a wide range of criminal justice issues. Since 2010, when I published “The New Jim Crow” — which argued that a system of legal discrimination and segregation had been born again in this country because of the war on drugs and mass incarceration — there have been significant changes to drug policy, sentencing and re-entry, including “ban the box” initiatives aimed at eliminating barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people.

This progress is unquestionably good news, but there are warning signs blinking brightly. Many of the current reform efforts contain the seeds of the next generation of racial and social control, a system of “e-carceration” that may prove more dangerous and more difficult to challenge than the one we hope to leave behind.

Bail reform is a case in point. Thanks in part to new laws and policies — as well as actions like the mass bailout of inmates in New York City jails that’s underway — the unconscionable practice of cash bail is finally coming to an end. In August, California became the first state to decide to get rid of its cash bail system; last year, New Jersey virtually eliminated the use of money bonds.

But what’s taking the place of cash bail may prove even worse in the long run. In California, a presumption of detention will effectively replace eligibility for immediate release when the new law takes effect in October 2019. And increasingly, computer algorithms are helping to determine who should be caged and who should be set “free.” Freedom — even when it’s granted, it turns out — isn’t really free.

Under new policies in California, New Jersey, New York and beyond, “risk assessment” algorithms recommend to judges whether a person who’s been arrested should be released. These advanced mathematical models — or “weapons of math destruction” as data scientist Cathy O’Neil calls them — appear colorblind on the surface but they are based on factors that are not only highly correlated with race and class, but are also significantly influenced by pervasive bias in the criminal justice system.

As O’Neil explains, “It’s tempting to believe that computers will be neutral and objective, but algorithms are nothing more than opinions embedded in mathematics.”

Challenging these biased algorithms may be more difficult than challenging discrimination by the police, prosecutors and judges. Many algorithms are fiercely guarded corporate secrets. Those that are transparent — you can actually read the code — lack a public audit so it’s impossible to know how much more often they fail for people of color.

Even if you’re lucky enough to be set “free” from a brick-and-mortar jail thanks to a computer algorithm, an expensive monitoring device likely will be shackled to your ankle — a GPS tracking device provided by a private company that may charge you around $300 per month, an involuntary leasing fee. Your permitted zones of movement may make it difficult or impossible to get or keep a job, attend school, care for your kids or visit family members. You’re effectively sentenced to an open-air digital prison, one that may not extend beyond your house, your block or your neighborhood. One false step (or one malfunction of the GPS tracking device) will bring cops to your front door, your workplace, or wherever they find you and snatch you right back to jail.

Who benefits from this? Private corporations. According to a report released last month by the Center for Media Justice, four large corporations — including the GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies — have most of the private contracts to provide electronic monitoring for people on parole in some 30 states, giving them a combined annual revenue of more than $200 million just for e-monitoring. Companies that earned millions on contracts to run or serve prisons have, in an era of prison restructuring, begun to shift their business model to add electronic surveillance and monitoring of the same population. Even if old-fashioned prisons fade away, the profit margins of these companies will widen so long as growing numbers of people find themselves subject to perpetual criminalization, surveillance, monitoring and control.

 

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Omnibus Bill Released

The conference committee released the compromises and many reforms to the Massachusetts justice and corrections systems on Friday, March 24. Their fellow state representatives and senators will vote YES or NO, with no opportunity for amendments, and the bill will go to Governor Baker, who has not yet stated his position.  Advocates are hopeful we would have sufficient votes to override a veto, if necessary.

Below are highlights of the comprehensive bill, which are mostly positive steps in the right direction. There are a few glaring contradictions, such as increasing mandatory minimum sentencing for opiate trafficking and  new laws to protect police officers.

For greater details, open this 7-page PDF:CORRECT_Omnibusbill_2018

HIGHLIGHTS of the Conference Committee’s decisions

Decriminalize minor offenses

Divert minor offenses away from prosecution/incarceration

Reform Bail to reduce unnecessary incarceration

Repeal/limit mandatory minimums for non-opiate, non-weight retail drug offenses

Strengthen minimum mandatories for opiate trafficking

Strengthen Protections for Public Safety

Reduce solitary confinement

Generally improve prison conditions

Release prisoners who are permanently incapacitated and pose no safety risk

Make it easier for people to get back on their feet

Take better care of juveniles and young adults

Improve transparency of the criminal justice system

Better protect women in the criminal justice system

Reduce and remedy errors of justice

 

 

Bail reform emanates from MA High court

Last month, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that judges must take into account a defendant’s financial resources when setting bail. The original intent of bail was to be sure a defendant returned to court, but in today’s environment, where approximately 97 percent of criminal cases are settled with plea bargain agreements, the setting of bail that people cannot pay, serves to guarantee more convictions.

When one is incarcerated pretrial, one is more likely to accept a plea, and a criminal conviction, in order to go home.

It is unclear what the impact will be for this ruling. The practice of bail will continue, and the court can use it when their is a flight risk.  Dangerousness hearings are also part of Massachusetts law, so that defendants deemed a danger to the public can be retained pretrial.  At this time the Mass Bail Fund is meeting with others to determine what kind of monitoring can be done to determine compliance with the new ruling.

See more here about the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling.

–Submitted by Louellyn Lambros of Scituate, an EMIT CORE member.

It’s time for justice reform in Mass.

A poll out today from the policy group Mass INC is encouraging with 2-1 support for ending the long Mandatory Minimum sentences on drug convictions and for other reforms on CORI reform, felony theft threshold, reducing or ending fines and fees on ex-prisoners

WHEN IT COMES TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM, VOTERS WANT MORE — At least according to a new poll out this morning from MassINC Polling Group, which finds a bipartisan support for getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences and pursuing second chance reforms by a 2-1 margin.

Some 53 percent of voters believe incarceration currently does more harm than good – potentially opening the door for more aggressive reforms than are in the current criminal justice reform bill rolled out by Gov. Charlie Baker in February and backed by state House Speaker Robert DeLeo. State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who supports the proposal, has also stated he wants to go further than Baker’s bill to delve into sentencing policy and bail practices – things this poll indicates the public has more of an appetite to pursue.

The poll also reveals bipartisan interest in reform, which could provide cover for both chambers in the legislature to pursue more progressive policies, like getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences and an emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention of future crimes – two things specifically favored on both sides of the aisle. “You see an appetite for changing things around, for trying something new and changing the realities of the criminal justice system of Massachusetts,” MassINC Polling Group President Steve Koczela told POLITICO. – Check out the toplines. Click on “Check out the toplines” for details of the  question and responses in the poll.

It’s important to organize meetings, calls, and letters to both your state representatives and senators that you support criminal justice reform and specifically name what that includes such as Ending Mandatory Minimum’s drug convictions and returning sentences to Judges, CORI Reform including reducing the number of years employers can see CORI’s to 7 years on felonies and 3 years on misdemeanors, reducing ending fines and fees like the $65 a month fee those on probation must pay, raising the threshold for what’s a felony from the 30 year old $250 level up to $1500, Diversion to Treatment, Juvenile Expungement and Raising the Age of Juvenile Court coverage.

–Thanks to Lew Finfer and Jobs not Jails for this update. Please submit YOUR post for this blog to emit.susan@gmail.com.

MA – follow suit & eliminate cash bail

NEW YORK TIMES March 9, 2017.

HOUSTON — It was an awkward scene for officials of Harris County, Texas, who are defending themselves in federal court against a claim that they keep poor defendants locked up just because they cannot afford bail.

On Wednesday a judge and the county sheriff testified for the other side.

“When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was elected after the case was filed.

Both the judge and the sheriff are defendants in the suit. Their defections were yet another sign of the growing skepticism over the fairness of the long-used system of money bail, especially when it is applied to those who cannot afford it.

The class-action lawsuit contends that on any given night, several hundred people are in the Harris County jail on misdemeanor charges solely because they cannot make bail. If defendants with bail bond amounts of $500 or less had simply been released, the county would have saved $20 million over six years, according to a “very conservative” estimate by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania.

The practice of setting money bail, particularly for low-level offenses, has come under heavy criticism, and states like New Jersey and Maryland have sharply curtailed its use in recent months. A growing body of evidence shows that even a brief detention before trial can disrupt lives and livelihoods, make case outcomes worse and increase the likelihood that the defendant will commit future crimes. Putting a price on pretrial liberty can allow those with money to go free even if they are dangerous, and keep the poor in jail even if they are not.

Civil rights lawyers have mounted a series of lawsuits against bail practices like those in Harris County, where people without ready money can spend up to four days in jail before getting a chance to even contest their bond amount. Almost a dozen similar cases across the country have been settled with significant changes to the local bail system.

But two of the biggest challenges, in Houston and San Francisco, are still in play. And in both places, key officials have sided with the bail critics.

In San Francisco, the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, and the state attorney general at the time, Kamala Harris, declined to defend against the lawsuit, saying the bail system was unfair. In Houston the district attorney, Kim Ogg, weighed in with an impassioned friend-of-the-court brief, writing, “It makes no sense to spend public funds to house misdemeanor offenders in a high-security penal facility when the crimes themselves may not merit jail time.” Like Sheriff Gonzalez, Ms. Ogg is newly elected.

Those left to defend the system have had a lonely uphill fight. James Munisteri, a private lawyer hired by Harris County, faced calls for his removal after he told the court at an earlier hearing that misdemeanor defendants might be in jail not because they couldn’t afford to post bond, but because they “want” to be there. “If it’s a cold week,” he added.

The judge, Lee H. Rosenthal of Federal District Court, was skeptical of that contention, calling it “uncomfortably reminiscent of the historical argument that used to be made that people enjoyed slavery, because they were afraid of the alternative.”

The case was filed last May on behalf of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, who was arrested on charges of driving with an invalid license. She spent over two days in jail because she couldn’t afford to pay her $2,500 bond. Civil Rights Corps, the organization whose director, Alec Karakatsanis, has led the legal attacks on unaffordable bail across the country, joined with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a nonprofit legal defense organization, and Susman Godfrey, a law firm, to bring the case.

So far, the county has spent $1.2 million on outside lawyers to defend itself.

The Supreme Court has held that liberty before trial should be the norm, and that bail conditions must be set based on the individual’s circumstances. Bail is not meant to be punitive; it is intended simply to ensure that defendants return to court. Texas law requires consideration of “the ability to make bail.”

But the videos made it clear that bail was routinely set with no inquiry into defendants’ ability to pay — or with the full knowledge that they could not. When suspects are first booked, their bail is set using a fee schedule based on the charge and on criminal history. At the probable cause hearing, where typically no lawyer is present, the hearing officer can raise or lower the bond, or grant a personal bond, which allows the defendant to go without an upfront payment.

The county argued that it began reforming its pretrial release system before the lawsuit was filed. It recently issued guidelines recommending the use of personal bonds for people accused of 12 low-level misdemeanors. Beginning on July 1, it plans to make public defenders available at the probable cause hearing. The bail fee schedule will disappear, to be replaced by a risk assessment, a more sophisticated method of determining an arrestee’s likelihood of fleeing or of committing a new crime.

Any injunction striking down parts of its pretrial release system would hamper these ongoing reforms, county lawyers argued. They also contended that a court order would tie judges’ hands, reducing their discretion and potentially allowing dangerous detainees back onto the streets. “There are a category of high-risk detainees who should not be released,” Melissa Lynn Spinks, a lawyer representing the county, said.

Besides the sheriff, another star witness for the plaintiffs was Darrell Jordan, elected as a Harris County criminal court judge last November. At first, Mr. Jordan said, he followed the bail practices of his 15 fellow judges. But he radically changed his approach after learning of research showing that locking people up makes them more likely to be repeat offenders.

Mr. Jordan began releasing nearly all defendants, either on a personal bond or on one they could afford. .

A homeless man who recently came before Mr. Jordan was prepared to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge just to gain release, but changed his mind when he realized that the judge was willing to let him out of jail immediately.

”He had never heard of a personal bond,” the judge remembered. “He started crying when I told him he could go home.”

Send holiday REFORM greetings

EMIT doesn’t ask for money [we are all-volunteer] during the holidays. Instead, all year round, we ask for a thin slice of your time to add to the chorus in the wave of justice & corrections systems reform in Massachusetts.
With the CSG report due out imminently, take a minute to contact Gov. Charlie Baker and/or Speaker Robert DeLeo and encourage them to adopt  justice reinvestment — which means investing in jobs, education, job training and support for small business startups in urban communities hardest hit by mass incarceration.
The theory is to roll over money saved by fewer people behind bars and use it productively to start a new life for formerly incarcerated people.
See more info here in this Globe story from yesterday on the outdated state of our justice and corrections systems.  Here’s Speaker DeLeo’s and Gov. Baker’s contact info. My sample email follows- feel free to copy and paste and edit in your correspondence.
Dear Speaker DeLeo:
During this time of hope and celebration, I urge you to think of the 10,000 people in free public housing in our state’s prisons and jails. 
We are not the worst offender in the Union for lack of justice, however, there are MANY more reforms possible than covered by the CSG. I urge you to go further and rollover the money saved by incarcerating fewer people, getting rid of the bail system that favors the rich and guilty, and reinvesting it in urban communities hardest hit by incarceration. Please do everything in your power to adopt justice re-investment in the coming legislative session.
THANKS AND Happy Holidays from the EMIT team.

UUCM speaker tackles mass incarcerations

This story ran in the Marblehead Wicked Local Paper. Meghann Perry and I are available to speak, fill the pulpit, set up a table to share solutions on what voters in Massachusetts can do to volunteer in prison or jail and to reform our justice and corrections systems.

Proponents of justice system reform believe that drug addiction should be treated as a health problem and not a crime, and that over-incarceration of the poor, mostly black males, is the civil rights issue of our time.”Reform takes baby steps and it takes a lot of people working together to make it happen,” said Susan Tordella, co-founder of End Mass Incarceration Together (EMIT), a task force of the Unitarian Universalist Church Mass Action Network. “It’s about breaking down barriers and

Source: UUCM speaker tackles mass incarcerations