Monday, February 27, 2006

life decisions

this week a judge in new mexico sentenced cody posey, 16, as a juvenile, and ordered him held in state custody until he turns 21. posey, you may remember, was convicted of killing his family on sam donaldson's ranch in july 2004. he was fourteen years old at the time he shot and killed his father, stepmother, and 13-year-old stepsister. in deciding how to sentence the teenage defendant, state district judge james waylon counts found that posey suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and had acted out after years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his father and stepmother. had he been sentenced as an adult, posey would have faced 50 years in prison.

this case brings to mind the case of nathaniel abraham, the youngest person ever convicted of murder in michigan. abraham was eleven years old, 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 65 pounds when he killed 18-year-old Ronnie Green with a sniper shot. he was 13 in january, 2000 when the judge handed down his sentence. judge eugene arthur moore had three options: to sentence abraham as an adult, where he faced life in prison; to sentence abraham as a juvenile, in which case he would be released on his 21st birthday; or to hand down a blended sentence in which abraham could be evaluated after his time in the juvenile system and sent to prison if he was not felt to be rehabilitated. judge moore chose to sentence abraham as a juvenile, suggesting in his comments that knowing nathaniel would be released in eight years would add urgency to his care and rehabilitation. judge moore explained:

"if we were to impose a delayed sentence, we take everyone off the hook. Sentencing Nathaniel as a juvenile gives us eight more years to rehabilitate him. We as a community know that he will be back among us at age 21. If we are committed to preventing future criiminal behavior, we will use our collective efforts and financial resources to rehabilitate him and all the other at-risk youth in our community...The danger is that we won't take rehabilitation seriously if we know we can utilize prison in the future. Adult incarceration is a vital immediate solution to danger, but it does nothing to address future criminality."
nathaniel abraham is now twenty years old and will be released within the year. his court-appointed psychologist describes his progress as a "mixed picture, mostly positive." the question now is whether abraham will be released to a halfway house to transition back into the community in the last months of his sentence. at this point, those working on his case do not think he is ready. ready or not, however, within a year he will be released without supervision.

what strikes me most about these cases is the courage of the judges to take what is certainly an unpopular stand in these punitive times. there are a number of ways to argue these cases; what do you prioritize--the safety of the community, the possibility for rehabilitation, the financial cost of sentencing a boy to an entire lifetime behind bars? whatever their specific reasoning, judge moore and judge counts offer us a glimpse back into the original goals of the juvenile court and the belief that young people deserve special consideration. the world will be watching when nathaniel abraham gets out. judge moore has stayed in close contact with him. for both of their sakes, i hope he offers evidence that the juvenile system can still work and fulfill its original purpose and its ultimate promise.

Friday, February 24, 2006

americorps/vista jobs for reentry work

are you interested in doing full-time reentry work in the fabulous twin cities? michael bischoff, a project manager at the council on crime and justice sends word of two americorps/vista positions. one is for an assistant case advocate for formerly incarcerated people. the other is for program evaluation and research related to reentry. click the links for details and contact information.

either position could be a great opportunity to get some real hands-on program and research experience. the jobs are full-time, pay a basic living stipend, provide health insurance, and offer a grant for education.

the council is a fine local non-profit with an excellent national reputation. i can personally vouch for its leadership and core mission: to build community capacity to address the causes and consequences of crime and violence through research, demonstration and advocacy.

to apply, submit a resume and cover letter by friday, march 31 to: council on crime and justice, attn: human resources, 822 south third street, suite 100, minneapolis, mn 55415 or the positions are anticipated to begin June 21, 2006 and go through June 20, 2007.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

now what would you pay?

adam liptak's thoughtful piece in the times today highlights a significant barrier to felon reintegration: money. i'm not talking about how hard it is to earn a decent living with a criminal record. i'm talking about direct financial obligations to the state.

today, clients in the criminal justice system must pay fines, court costs, restitution to victims, lab costs (e.g., for drug testing, and sampling their dna), treatment costs (e.g., for chemical dependency or anger management), surveillance costs (e.g., for ankle bracelets), and because-we-said-so costs. liptak profiles one man who owes $127,000 to the state of louisiana, though six-figure debts are rare. it is not at all unusual, however, for "average" felons to owe thousands of dollars upon release.

when i analyzed applications for voting rights restoration in florida, i noticed that many such applications were never even reviewed. this is because applicants with any outstanding court costs or unpaid restitution were considered ineligible by definition. such practices seriously exacerbated racial inequalities in the system's operation. like florida, washington state is among the most aggressive in wringing money from felons. here's liptak:

Washington has one of the longest lists of fees assessed to criminals, and it is diligent in trying to collect them. Ms. Dubois, disabled after a car accident, makes payments of $10 a month toward what was once a $1,610 debt — $1,000 for a county "drug enforcement fund," a $500 "victim assessment fee" and $110 in court costs. "I still don't know who the victim was," she said. Her efforts notwithstanding, her debt is growing because of the 12 percent interest assessed annually by the State of Washington. As of September, it stood at $1,895.69.

until she pays it all back, however, she will remain ineligible to vote. just think about that for a moment. do such requirements exact a poll tax on the poor? how many other citizens -- of any socioeconomic stratum -- would pay $1,900 to vote in the next election? what if people remained ineligible to vote until they had completely paid off all student loans and other financial obligations to the state?

most students, of course, are not felons. while the state can make all felons debtors, i question the wisdom of imposing onerous financial obligations across-the-board. in my opinion, such policies needlessly prolong punishment. to the extent that former felons are marked as debtors and outsiders, it is more difficult for them to become "insiders" -- stakeholding and tax-paying citizens in good standing. that said, i grant that adhering to a reasonable restitution schedule might serve a reintegrative or rehabilitative function. making even nominal payments to victims might be part of a broader strategy of "earned redemption."

but that's not what we're talking about here. thoughtlessly dumping four-figure fees on the poorest of the poor serves no such purpose. this is either "piling on" to further stigmatize and criminalize the indigent or a misguided attempt to squeeze blood from turnips:

"The difference between 30 years ago and today," said George H. Kendall, a lawyer with Holland & Knight in New York who represents Mr. Rideau, "is that people who everyone agrees are poor are leaving the courthouse significantly poorer."

Monday, February 20, 2006

age, ski jumping, and desistance

according to olympic commentators, the best ski jumpers are baby ski jumpers. this is because ski jumping involves convincing one's body to do something that one's brain regards as, well, stupid. as any former teenager will tell you, really stupid physical tasks are most reliably accomplished in youth.

one would think that older athletes might fare better at events privileging mind control, whereas the kids might prevail in events privileging speed and strength. instead, fortysomething cross-country skiers such as hilde pedersen sieze medals in grueling tests of endurance, while nervy nineteen year olds take gold in ski jumping.

watching the broadcast, i saw close parallels between ski jumping and desistance from crime and other risk behaviors. i'll bet that the age/ski-jumping curve follows the age/crime and age/accident curves. no, i'm not always thinking about crime. for instance, i also wondered whether jumpers and spectators might enjoy a warm landing pool of delicious banana cream pudding. more seriously, i marveled at the quaint sexist rationale that keeps women from participating: international ski federation president gian franco kasper says ski jumping "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view." sounds like pre-rosie the riveter talk to me, gian franco.

like many boys and girls, i recall summoning up the courage to do really stupid things as a teenager (just jump! do it!) that today i'd reject without a second thought. i suppose this is why keeping the edge becomes such a preoccupation as we get a little older. i'm tempted to challenge my lad to a ski jumping contest, but not until i get some action on this pudding idea.

Friday, February 17, 2006

prison dogs

toby young ran the safe harbor prison dog program in kansas, teaching inmates to train dogs for adoption. this week, she left lansing prison with inmate john manard packed into a dog crate in the back of her van.

this is tough news for dog training programs. i'm most familiar with more intensive efforts to train dogs as helpers for disabled persons. i've spoken with inmates at shakopee correctional facility in minnesota about the powerful influence that such programs had on them. they devote considerable time, attention, and (yes) love to the animals, in the hope that the animals will do some good on the outside. the minnesota program fell victim to budget cuts, but the inmates swore by it.

i'm not aware of a rigorous program evaluation or cost-benefit analysis, but i like such programs for three reasons: (1) they make productive use of inmates' time and affections; (2) they provide a needed public service; and, (3) they help civilize prisons, offering a "carrot" with which administrators can reward good behavior (dog-time is much prized) and an opportunity for inmates to teach discipline. i can second or verify this blurb from ms. young's website:

Safe Harbor has more than 90 inmates in the dog program and the effect on these inmates is very profound. These inmates have something positive that they can be proud of. They write to their families and tell them every last detail about their current dog. They subscribe to dog magazines and research training methods and dog breeds. They attend weekly classes to teach them a bridge and target training method that we use in our program. They have formed teams to help each otherwith specific training issues. They ‘baby-sit’ each other’s dogs. The impact of this program is more far reaching than we will probably ever know. The prison store recently started carrying dog treats that inmates can buy at a cost of 45 cents for a pound of treats. It has been the fastest selling item in the store – inmates who aren’t even dog handlers have been buying treats for the dogs and so have officers who love having the dogs around. The dogs are the highlight of prison tours and visit inmates in the hospice center.

argh. i don't know whether ms. young hatched the escape for love or whether she was an unwitting pawn of the prisoners. i just hope that this escape doesn't compromise the good work of such programs.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

harsh democrats versus draconian republicans

despite strict sentencing guidelines that limit their discretion, federal judges still exert some control over punishment severity. principally, they can adjust offense levels based on the facts of the case and depart from the guidelines altogether based on the fit between law and facts.

the chicago tribune reports a new article by max schanzenbach and emerson tiller on the political orientation of judges and sentencing outcomes. the analysis suggests that Republican appointees to federal district courts punish drug trafficking, theft, and violent offenses more harshly than Democratic appointees. conversely, there is some evidence that Democratic appointees raise punishments for white collar offenses by adjusting offense levels upward.

max is a phd economist as well as a jd, exemplifying the trend toward law profs with disciplinary phds and advanced methods skills (he was also my gracious host during an informal lunch talk at northwestern law). this project would seem to present some tricky level-of-analysis ecological issues and nonlinearities. nevertheless, after a very quick read of the full paper, i think the model is generally well-specified, at least within the limits of the data. the substantive story is reasonable and the authors seem both sensitive to and authoritative about the underlying mechanisms linking the putative cause (partisanship) and effect (outcomes).

for a couple reasons, i think the estimated effects of partisanship might be conservative (too low rather than too high). first, the federal courts do not see a lot of "street" crime. relative to state courts, violent offenses in the federal system tend to be acts such as bank robbery rather than, say, strongarm robbery; drug offenses tend to be moderate-to-large-scale trafficking rather than small-time dealing or possession. so, detecting any difference between street versus suite crime would be difficult within the federal system.

second, these effects were observed from 1992 to 2001, a period in which partisan effects may have been muted rather than exaggerated. it would be laughable to characterize Democrats of the era as "soft on crime." rather than soft versus hard, it might be more apt to characterize the contrast as harsh versus draconian.

since i haven't done any sentencing research, however, i'll need a sentencing expert such as celesta albonetti or rod engen to break the full implications down for me. provisionally, however, i've reached the following conclusions: (1) if (when?) i'm hauled into federal court for illegally trading oil stocks, i'll angle for a bush appointee; and, (2) if (when?) i'm hauled in for possessing my 500-count bottle of generic sudafed, i'll shop for a clinton appointee.

Monday, February 6, 2006

silenced voices, liberties, and change

as anticipated, i learned much at the minnversity's silenced voices conference on felon disenfranchisement last saturday. in particular, i got a little insight into processes of legal change -- in the courts, the legislature, and executives' offices.

in the courts, catherine weiss of the brennan center and art eisenberg of the nyclu gave tight presentations of the constitutional issues involved in felon disenfranchisement -- mainly 14th/15th amendment and voting rights act stuff. ms. weiss gave a thoughtful reply to a question about the supreme court's refusal to hear johnson v. bush. she speculated that this florida case would have (a) reopened fresh wounds surrounding bush v. gore; and, (b) dumped the court into some turbulent civil liberties waters in these uncertain times.

in the legislature, we heard from minnesota representative keith ellison, who introduced legislation to reenfranchise probationers and parolees. ellison discussed his patriotism as rooted in the slow but inexorable extension of the franchise beyond the propertied white male framers. he also noted that a Republican briefing sheet portrayed his bill as "good policy, but bad politics," pointing to its likely partisan impact.

the executive branch story came from gary dickey, counsel and advisor to iowa governor tom vilsack. mr. dickey related an all-american/after-school-special story of legal change. a high school class in cedar rapids iowa sunk their teeth into felon voting rights as a class project. they bombarded mr. dickey and state legislators with daily emails -- sometimes, i'll immodestly add, citing my research with jeff manza -- and phone calls lobbying for personal meetings and legal change. though not much happened in the legislature, mr. dickey and the governor began thinking about an executive order issuing a blanket pardon and voting rights restoration. at least a portion of this plan was hatched in a pickup basketball game with various staffpersons. so that's how it works...

somebody's gotta make a movie about this. dickey named his dogs liberty and justice, yet even he was astounded by the kids' commitment to full democratic participation. the conference also featured characteristically clear and authoritative overviews from marc mauer and carl warren, who organized the conference with minnversity law students. nevertheless, i'm still thinking about cedar rapids, iowa and those high school true believers. as mr. jefferson smith himself once speechified,

Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!

i understand that a webcast is planned for the entire conference, including longer presentations by me, marc mauer, and catherine weiss. locals in minnesota can see video replays at the law school on february 10, february 24, and march 31.