Tag Archives: prison

‘Cruel and unusual’: NY governor signs measure to stop sending teens to adult prison

Under a new law in New York, juveniles under 18 will no longer be funneled through adult jails, where studies show they face a higher risk of suicide and sexual assault. However, opponents warn the measure serves as a recruiting tool for gangs.

On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation to “raise the age” of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 as a part of the state’s $163 billion budget.

Previously, The Empire State was one of only two states that automatically prosecuted 16 and 17-year-old offenders as adults, regardless of their offense. The new measures will first raise the age of juvenile delinquency to 17 by October 2018. Then the age of criminal responsibility will be raised to 18 by October 2019.

In a press release, Cuomo cited evidence that recidivism among young people who are processed as adults is 34 percent higher than young people housed in the youth justice system.

Cuomo took recommendations from the Commission on Youth, Public Safety & Justice, which found young people are more than five times as likely to become the victims of sexual assault and eight times more to commit suicide while in adult prisons, compared to teens housed in juvenile prisons.

“Putting aside the fact that psychologists will testify that 16- and 17-year-olds often are not mentally mature, the reality of putting a 16 or 17-year-old in the same facility as hardened adult criminals is, on its face, cruel and unusual,” Cuomo said, according to the Guardian.

Young minorities have also been disproportionately incarcerated under the current laws, with African-Americans and Hispanics accounting for 82 percent of juveniles in adult facilities throughout the state and 95 percent in New York City.

Cuomo estimates that raising the age will prevent between 1,500 and 2,400 crimes every five years.

Under the new law, cases involving juveniles under 18 with violent felony charges would be handled by a newly established Youth Part of the criminal court. Those teens would be subjected to a three-part test to determine if their case is serious enough to be transferred to Family Court.

Teens who are not transferred could still be tried as an adult, although judges can consider the defendant’s age when imposing incarceration.

Lawmakers and prosecutors who oppose the measure said that it would make young gang members more difficult to prosecute.

“What you call ‘raise the age’, I call the gang recruitment act,” Assemblyman Al Graf (R-Long Island) said during debates according to the Times Union.

“This is a great tool to be able to recruit younger members of our community to enter gangs,” Graf continued.

The bill also ensures that teens under the age of 18 will be housed in specialized juvenile detention facilities that are certified by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and the State’s Office of Children and Family Services, as well as the creation of task force to ensure the measure is implemented correctly.

“We have won a tremendous victory for communities across the state that have endured senseless tragedies and called on the Legislature to deliver a justice system that recognizes the difference between a child and an adult,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, according to a press release.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter in New York State where young people are given a chance to grow up and recover from their past wrongdoing without forfeiting their futures,” Heastie continued.

From Russia Today

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Changes coming to LA criminal justice system to reduce high incarceration rate

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, Louisiana lawmakers are taking steps to change that.

Image result for louisiana and incarceration rate and highest
Image: NOLA.com

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, Louisiana lawmakers are taking steps to change that.

The Justice Reinvestment Task Force approved five measures, amending criminal justice laws.

Rep. Terry Landry, who sits on the committee said, “What we’ve been doing for the past 20, 30 years have not worked. So, if you keep doing the same thing and getting the same results, they tell you you have to change course.”

The reform is something many have look forward to for decades.

New Orleans resident Fox Rich said, “They sentenced my husband to 60 years as a first-time felony offender in LA in a crime that no injury was sustained by any of our victims. So, this is an opportunity that we’ve waited a very long time for and we’ve worked a very long time for to make sure we have prepared ourselves for his return into society.”

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House Pushes Ahead With $611 Billion Defense Policy Bill

Image: CBS Dallas

The Republican-led House is pushing ahead with a $611 billion defense policy bill that prohibits closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and forbids the Pentagon from trimming the number of military bases.

The annual policy bill also awards U.S. troops their largest pay raise in six years.

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FCC decides to slash prison phone rates — and maybe recidivism

Federal regulators will vote on capping the cost of phone calls from prison, which are far more expensive than ordinary calls.
Image: Istockphoto via NPR

It costs a lot of money to talk on the phone to someone in jail — so much that those phone bills have drawn the attention of federal regulators. Now the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Thursday to limit the price of prison phone calls.

“We’re cutting off necessities, just so we can keep this communication going,” says Miguel Saucedo, a Ph.D. student and community activist in Chicago. His brother Luis is in prison in Illinois, where he has been incarcerated since 1996.

For roughly 20 years, Miguel Saucedo and his family have been setting aside money to talk to Luis on the phone — money that could have gone to those necessities. Saucedo doesn’t know exactly how much his family has paid over the years. But he estimates “it would have to be” over $10,000 or $20,000.

For most of us, those phone calls would cost just a few cents per minute. But for inmates and their families, phone rates and fees can be many times higher. It’s common for them to pay $13 for a 15-minute call.

“I see the clearest, most egregious case of market failure ever,” says FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has been working on this issue for several years. “This is a major cost that families pay. And these families are the most economically vulnerable in our nation.”

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“I executed 62 people. I’m sorry”: An executioner turned death-penalty opponent tells all

They say you can’t put a price on life, but what about death? Earlier this year I spoke to Jerry Givens, a former state executioner turned death penalty abolitionist. He told me that for people who carry out the death penalty, the real, enduring cost is emotional.

“If I had known what I’d have to go through as an executioner, I wouldn’t have done it. It took a lot out of me to do it. You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal.”

Givens executed 62 people during his 17 years working for Virginia’s Department of Corrections, and like many executioners, he felt the consequences long after the act itself. It was clear from speaking with Givens that he couldn’t shake the lasting weight of his actions, and he’s certainly not alone: a startling 31 percent of prison staff who perform executions will suffer from post-traumatic stress. Flashbacks, nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD are habitually seen among correctional officers and executioners, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

It isn’t just the prison staff who suffer. California Gov. Edmund Brown had the unenviable task of deciding whether to commute death sentences to life without parole — absolute judgments over life and death that continued to haunt him through his later years:

“The longer I live, the larger loom those decisions I had to make as governor. Looking back over their names and files now, I realize that each decision took something out of me that nothing – not family or work or hope for the future – has ever been able to replace.”

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Rep. Hakeem Jeffries Proposes Bill To Restore Voting Rights To Ex-Felons

NY  Rep. Hakeem Jeffries discusses his proposed bill that will restore the right to vote to ex-felons who have served their time.

Chart of State Felon Voting Laws
Image: felonvoting.procon.org/

The premise of Rep. Jeffries’ bill is that “as the nation moves towards criminal justice reform, reducing mandatory minimums and improving opportunities for people to reenter society, we have to look at the holistic individual in terms of their participation and their reentry.”

Jeffries continued, “Part of that is regaining their franchise as it relates to someone’s ability to vote, to participate, to have their voices heard.”

When asked how felony disenfranchisement started, Rep. Jeffries said the effort to disenfranchise felons “is largely concentrated in many of the deep South states.”

“I would argue that it’s a legacy from slavery and Jim Crow and a consistent effort to disenfranchise individuals. You see it in other context in terms of trying to prevent people on the front-end from being able to vote, along with these harsh voter ID laws and efforts that are underway in many of the Southern states and other parts of the country,” said Jeffries.

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My mother, the drug war and me: Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and forgiving my own black family in the age of mass incarceration

If you think you feel pressured to watch all of the good TV out there, imagine having to watch for a living. It’s impossible to keep up — and here I will confess to having skipped the ratings juggernaut “The Walking Dead.” I can’t stomach zombies; I made it through about four episodes before I gave up. It wasn’t until I saw the movie “Requiem for a Dream” that I realized why. Now I know there are two types of characters on-screen I can’t watch—zombies and drug addicts. The terrifying, dark eyes, the sagging limbs—to me, they look precisely the same. They look like my mother.

Or, I should say, they look like how I imagine my birth mother looked. Unlike my older siblings, I don’t have a strong recollection of our mother before she turned us over to the state of Massachusetts. And up until this point, I’ve never understood her, or the very large Houston family who looked on silently while she gave up six children, all under the age of 10. The only reason I can even begin to understand what happened to us now is because of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent article for the Atlantic, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”

Before that, an article about a possible end to the war on drugs and “The Wire’s” David Simon’s concerns about decriminalization already had me rethinking my biological family. My adoption at the age of 7 had, among other things, granted me the privilege of not having to consider certain things about the world I came from — I’d dodged that bullet. But today, the hypothetical question of whether my life and the lives of my five siblings would have been different in a society that treated drug users differently seems relevant. Coates argues that imagining such a world demands that we go far beyond the question of decriminalization. Legalizing marijuana is fine and good, but in no way does it acknowledge the centuries of work that went into the mass incarceration of black families and the systematic destruction of families like mine.

One of the biggest takeaways from “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” is that it is no accident that the black family has, in many respects, been destroyed. Slavery may have been abolished in 1865, but various forms of unfreedom—the most successful version being mass incarceration—exist and operate today. Coates uses the narratives of individuals like Tonya (a woman who became an addict after years of abuse from her biological family and foster parents), and families like Patricia Lowe’s to show how mass incarceration is both a political and personal attack against the black family—a direct descendant of slavery and Patrick Moynihan’s 1950 report “The Negro Family.” What that means for many people like me is that there is now a piece of writing that functions as the beginning of an answer to a question all kids who have been in the system have asked: “Why did my family abandon me?”

Coates offers up some statistics that help illuminate things: “From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled, from about 150 people per 100,000 to about 300 per 100,000.” These numbers refer to people like my biological mother’s father, who was in and out of prison countless times during this time. “From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again,” he writes. During these years, at least one of her older brothers was incarcerated, too. My mother would go on to serve her own time as well. For me, these statistics offer up a helpful framing for the world that was in place in 1988 when Crystal Houston called the Department of Social Services in Boston and asked them to come pick up her six children.


If you ask my mother why she turned her six children over to the State, she will never speak of her struggles with drugs, and she will certainly make no mention of her being a victim of a system meant to criminalize black women like her and black men like those in her family, and those with whom she chose to create families. She will tell you one true story, and she will tell it over and over again, with the occasional variation in detail.

When she was 23 and pregnant with her twins, her mother went missing for a couple of days. My grandmother had recently divorced her husband, my mother’s stepfather, and remarried. My mother grew worried and, along with her siblings, went looking for her mother. She visited the shoe store owned by her stepfather and mother. Upon finding him there, she asked if he knew where her mother was. She’ll tell you she saw something in his eyes, and in a panic, began searching through the store, and went into the back where she stumbled upon her mother’s corpse. The woman who’d always been there for her, the woman who never made her feel judged or like less of a person, the one who was helping her raise her children, had been stabbed to death in what a judge would later rule was a crime of passion. This is why she couldn’t raise her kids, she’ll tell you.

She won’t tell you that she’d already developed a drug habit. She won’t tell you that her oldest daughter (still well under the age of 10) had already grown accustomed to being left alone for long stretches of time—sometimes days—with her younger brothers and her baby sister. She’ll just tell you that finding her mother’s body, while pregnant with the twins, was too much for her to bear. “I knew I was going someplace dark after that, and I couldn’t take you all there with me,” she once told me—the only allusion to her addiction I’ve ever been able to decipher in our conversations, which are few and far between.

The words of Margaret Garner, the enslaved woman who became the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” are the first words Coates uses to begin his historical narrative: “Never marry again in slavery.” Garner was a mother who also had no desire to take her children where she was going. And while the connection between these two women might seem loose, I can’t help but marvel at how their boldest and most terrifying personal choices were rooted in political doctrine against the survival of the black family.

My mother may not have been fully aware of it, but in the ‘80s, she was living in an era of unfreedom as well. That she was going to further shackle her wrists and ankles together with crack cocaine and heroin was, for her, all the more reason to find a different space for her children. Like Garner, she wanted a better life for those innocent bodies she’d brought into circumstances that would surely hinder them. Unlike Garner, she didn’t attempt to kill us. She probably thought that she was saving us — and in some way, I know she did. But the system, as Coates explains, isn’t designed to save individual members of the black family, no matter how well-meaning one’s parents might be.

My two oldest brothers were separated from my sister and me, and put into a foster home. The twins went to live with their father and his family. My sister and I were separated after just one year together, when our foster parents believed she was showing signs of difficulty. Neither of us remember it this way (I have memories of her pinching the hell out of me, like big sisters have been doing to little sisters the world over, since the beginning of time), but if she showed any signs of anger or difficulty, it was certainly easier to move her into an institution than to get her help, so that’s what they did.

When my brothers became too old or too difficult (or too much like preteens, or too black—whatever they were guilty of), they were also separated and sent to various group homes. It is a well-known fact that these places are, for many young black boys, a fast-track to jail and prison. After turning 18, the boys and my sister were all released from the State. All of them, including the twins, at some point or another, found their way back to our birth mother.

Both of my older brothers and at least one of the younger have served time, a fact that comes to mind when I read sociologist Devah Pager’s quote in Coates’ piece: “Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups… Rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood.” My oldest brother is inside right now. He’s been selling drugs for many years, and was recently caught with a large amount of heroin. My sister told me a story I still cannot believe—that he once sold to our mother. It’s probably true.

If it is, Coates tells us, then this is also proof that the system is working just fine. Indeed, it may be an indictment of my brother’s character, but it’s also proof that some black men might become so destroyed by a system that set out to do just that, that they’d sell drugs to their own mothers. But this knowledge of a political system at work — at work when the men are in prison, and still at work when they are released — does not take away from the fact that this is personal. This is my family, my blood.


What’s strange about having been adopted by a historian is that even the intelligent, politically and socially aware mother who raised me would get angry with my biological family. Before she passed away when I was 15, every once in a while she’d go on a mini-rant about how she couldn’t comprehend an entire family letting four kids get swallowed up by the system. When I was 13, I met my biological father at my sister’s birthday party in Boston. My mother was furious that this had happened without her permission. How dare these people try to come back into your life after all these years (and, subtext: after all her hard work earning my trust and love). She was the smartest woman I knew, but looking back it seemed that even she couldn’t see how my blood family was not really flawed, but was instead a shining example that the American system was working.

More from Shannon M. Houston/Salon

Posted by The NON-Conformist