Thursday, August 30, 2007

It's time for politicians to take a radical approach to criminal justice

By Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, THE INDEPENDENT
30 August 2007

Britain's prison system is on the verge of collapse. Our crumbling jails have reached breaking point, prisoners are being released early and now, for the first time in their history, the men and women paid to guard the inmates have left their posts.

It's a desperate situation made worse by the grim truth that prison has failed to stop inmates re-offending. And suicide rates remain alarmingly high, a fact brought home by the death of another inmate yesterday.

How long can politicians continue to tell us that the only way to avert this crisis is by building more prisons? Britain already imprisons more people per capita than any other country in Western Europe and if the trend continues the number of inmates will pass 100,000 in the next decade.

Labour's response is to pledge 10,000 more prison places by 2012. The Tories have committed to using prison ships and disused army camps so that all inmates see out their sentences.

For many years Britain's penal reformers have been warning of where these increasingly draconian policies will lead.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says we are using a Victorian invention to tackle a 21st-century problem: "Prison does nothing to deter offending. Yet our obsession with placing punishment... over cutting crime has led to gross overcrowding."

Justice, the human rights group, says it is impossible to have a sensible debate about penal reform because it has been become bogged down in "electioneering rhetoric and swamped by legislative hyperactivity".

This week an ICM poll showed that only 40 per cent of the public thought the government should aim to send more criminals to prison, against 57 per cent who want to see other, non-custodial forms of punishment.

Now that politicians can see that radical alternatives to prison may no longer alienate the electorate they have little excuse for not trying something different.
An impossible task for a beleaguered institution

Published: 30 August 2007

Yesterday saw the first national walkout by members of the Prison Officers' Association in its 68-year history. The strike was, on the face of it, about pay. But there is more to it than that. The dispute is an alarming barometer of the state of the nation's prisons where staff morale is at rock-bottom.

As ever with the issue of prisons, the fact of low morale and the reasons for it should take no one by surprise. Earlier this month a national ballot among prison officers revealed 87 per cent ready to take industrial action. This time last year a strike was only narrowly averted. And statistics on stress, sickness and staff turnover have long revealed a dispirited workforce. That is because they are asked to do an impossible task in conditions of under-funding, overcrowding, and in a system which has never resolved whether it is about punishment or rehabilitation.

David Cameron yesterday emphasised the punishment agenda, in launching what the party's right wing heralded as his most significant policy pledges yet. He promised that a Conservative government would build or create more prisons, using prison ships and disused army camps. It would also abolish early release and make convicts serve their full sentences.

But the grim fact is that there are already too many people in the nation's jails. And in 10 years of government Labour has offered no new solutions, despite Tony Blair's pledge to address the causes of crime. Large numbers of people are imprisoned for comparatively trivial offences. Many prisoners are addicted to drugs or mentally ill and would be better treated elsewhere.

Building more prisons cannot be the answer. In the past decade 12 new jails have opened and most are already overcrowded. A result is that record numbers of inmates are committing suicide, staff sickness is higher than ever, drug use is widespread and purposeful activity such as education, employment or exercise for each prisoner is declining. Many prisoners are locked up idle for most of the day. Some prisons have even had to re-introduce slopping out.

We need to send fewer people to prison. The Sentencing Guidelines Council should gear its work towards reducing sentence lengths, cutting the number of short-term prisoners and countering the sentence-inflation built into the present system. The police and Crown Prosecution Service must divert more low-risk offenders from prosecution. Magistrates should cut the numbers on remand. Politicians must seek alternatives to prison for the large numbers of offenders who are no real danger to the community. The prison service must seek a new flexibility in mixing prison and community punishment in a single sentence – with halfway houses, weekend prisons, individual curfews, exclusion orders and other innovations.

Inside jails we need better education and drug rehabilitation programmes. Half of all burglary, vehicle crime and shoplifting is committed by drug-users, yet very few prisoners ever receive help with their drug problems, despite a host of government pledges. Half of all prisoners have the reading age of an 11-year-old or below. Yet although it famously costs £38,000 a year to keep someone in prison – sending them to Eton would be cheaper – less than 3 per cent of that goes on education. Small wonder that 58 per cent of all prisoners are reconvicted of a further offence within two years of leaving prison.

There is more to justice than locking people up. Prisoners are often multiply disadvantaged, in education, moral training and lack of family support. Addressing this would go a long way to reducing re-offending. And we would need to send far fewer people to prison in the first place.

Perry Commutes Death Sentence

August 30, 2007

Perry Commutes Death Sentence

AUSTIN -- Gov. Rick Perry today commuted the death sentence of Kenneth Eugene Foster of San Antonio to life imprisonment after the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (TBPP) recommended such action.

On May 6, 1997, Foster was sentenced to death for his role in the 1996 capital murder of Michael LaHood. Foster sought to have his death sentence commuted to a life sentence arguing that he did not shoot the victim, but merely drove the car in which that the actual killer was riding. In addition, Foster was tried along side the actual killer, Maurecio Brown, and the jury that convicted Foster also considered punishment for both him and his co-defendant in the same proceeding.

"After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster's sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment," Gov. Perry said. "I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine."

The TBPP voted 6-1 to recommend commutation, and the governor signed the commutation papers Thursday morning.

The governor's action means Foster's sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment as soon as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can process this change.

Foster Transferred Clandestinely

Haramia KiNassor/Kenneth Foster, Jr. Transferred Clandestinely
By Walidah Imarisha

The indignities in Haramia KiNassor/Kenneth Foster, Jr.’s case climbs as KiNassor was transferred to Huntsville Prison, aka the Walls, where the executions take place. Death row Inmates are usually transferred to Huntsville at noon the day of their execution. But because KiNassor has been deemed a “security threat,” he was transferred early, without prior notice to him or his family and supporters. In fact, it was through unofficial channels that his family found out about the transfer; otherwise they would have showed up at the Polunsky Unit for their last visit with him as usual.

At first, it was unclear whether or not KiNassor’s family and supporters would be able to visit him tomorrow, but his father received a call from the administration saying they would be allowed to visit at Huntsville, which is 45 miles from Livingston, where everyone is staying. Visiting starts at 8 am.

This clandestine transfer comes at a time when KiNassor’s supporters are still awaiting word back from the Board of Pardons and Paroles (He also still has an emergency appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court). It was originally thought a positive sign that they had not responded. Usually, the Board summarily denies an appeal by 1 p.m. The fact that they chose not to give a response today, and to wait until tomorrow, was taken to mean they were intensely discussing this situation.

But in light of this transfer, there is a new theory: that perhaps the Board of Pardons and Paroles has not responded to delay the response of KiNassor’s supporters, both inside and outside the walls.

The DRIVE Movement, which KiNassor helped to found, is an organization of death row inmates who engage in non violent civil disobedience to protest the inhumanity of the death penalty. KiNassor is one of the spokespeople and prison authorities are apparently very nervous that the execution of an innocent man who has organized so tirelessly against the death penalty will spark a protest in the prison they will not be able to control.

At this point, the officials’ motivations are all speculation.

What is known is that the same day KiNassor was being called a “security threat” and transferred to Huntsville, 16 Texas state representatives encouraged Governor Rick Perry, collectively and individually, to grant him clemency. They joined the ranks of thousands of people around the globe calling for KiNassor’s clemency, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

What is also known is that KiNassor’s death is scheduled to be the third one this week. First was Deroyce Mosley, with John Amador being executed today at 6:20 p.m.

KiNassor’s supporters are asking everyone to act now, to organize all out right now without waiting for a response as the hours slip away, and pressure Governor Perry for a stay. Perry has the power to veto the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ decision, regardless of what it is.

Perry’s contact information is:
Gov. Rick Perry:
Phone (512) 463-1782
Fax (512) 463-1849


Austin, Thursday, August 30, 5:00 PM, Governor's Mansion (Lavaca at 11th)?EXECUTION PROTEST AND VIGIL?Even in the eleventh hour things could turn for Kenneth. If you can't make it to Huntsville, come out to stand with others against the execution.

Thursday, August 30:
3pm-7pm: Protest the execution of Kenneth Foster Jr .outside the Ellis Unit in Huntsville Texas. Groups from all over the state will converge to stand against this injustice and demand until the very end that the State of Texas do the right thing and stop this execution.

Help Stop The Execution Of Kenneth Foster!

The State of Texas plans to execute Kenneth Foster, Jr, TODAY for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood, Jr, although the state agrees that he didn't kill anyone. We are told that the Death
Penalty is reserved for "the worst of the worst", so how is this possible?

In Texas, the "Law of Parties" allows the state to hold everyone involved in a crime legally responsible for the actions of every other person involved in the crime. The actual killer was riding in a car driven by Kenneth Foster. He got out of the car to talk to a young women, got in an argument with her boyfriend, and shot the man. Kenneth had remained in the car 80 feet away with the radio on and the windows rolled up. The shooter testified that Foster couldn't have known that he had a gun when he left the car. But Kenneth Foster was a poor young black man with an inexperienced attorney, and he didn't stand a chance in a Texas courtroom.

Texas has just executed its 400th person since 1982. The case of Kenneth Foster, Jr--a black man sent to death row for driving a car--is testament to how rotten Texas' death machinery really is.


Phone 512-463-1782
(You can just leave a message on a recording)
FAX a letter to 512-463-1849

For more information on what you can do to help Kenneth and on the struggle of Texas death row prisoners against executions and rotten conditions, go to: or

Using Muscle to Improve Health Care for Prisoners

August 27, 2007 - NY Times

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Last year, shortly after receiving extraordinary powers to overhaul the medical system in California’s prisons, Robert Sillen, armed with a stack of court papers, issued a blunt warning to cabinet officials at the governor’s office in Sacramento.

“Every one of you is subject to being in contempt of court if you thwart my efforts or impede my progress,” said Mr. Sillen, a silver-haired former hospital administrator chosen to carry out the overhaul of the prison medical system as the result of a class-action suit brought by a prison advocacy group.

Backing up his warning, Mr. Sillen handed out copies of a federal court order that named him the health care receiver for the California prison system.

In a subsequent warning, Mr. Sillen threatened to “back up the Brink’s truck” to the state’s treasury, if need be, to finance better medical services for the state’s 173,000 inmates.

State figures show that court-ordered changes to California’s prison system, including those in Mr. Sillen’s health care domain, have cost more than $1.3 billion, and the meter is still running.

For decades, California officials have tried to bring order to the state’s prison system, which is the largest in the nation. There have been lawsuits, special legislative committees and a declaration of a state of emergency by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but never has one person attacked a problem, piece by piece, with such blunt force and disregard for political convention as Mr. Sillen has the prison system.

Mr. Sillen, whose $500,000 annual salary puts him among California’s highest paid public officials, said he had never visited a prison or thought much about the penal system until a recruiter called last year to persuade him to accept what the recruiter called a “mission impossible.”

Now he has the power to hire, fire, raise salaries, build facilities, waive laws, tap the state treasury and have jailed any bureaucrat who tries to thwart him.

“In my opinion, Robert Sillen is not going to be happy until he’s running the entire prison system,” said a state assemblyman, Todd Spitzer, an Orange County Republican and one of Mr. Sillen’s detractors. “He’s a man who has utter disdain for the legislature despite the fact that we’re the appropriate body for budgeting.”

Mr. Sillen asked the federal courts last month to take on the costly — and politically contentious — task of reducing California’s prison population, including the early release of some felons.

The appointment of Mr. Sillen as federal receiver in February 2006 resulted from a class-action lawsuit brought by the Prison Law Office, an advocacy group based at San Quentin. A federal court in the suit found an average of 65 preventable inmate deaths a year in the prison medical system, which the court ruled was tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

The California prison medical system was the biggest state agency ever ordered to be taken over by a federal court. The takeover was the most aggressive of several federal interventions into dysfunctional prison operations in California in the past 12 years. The federal courts also involved themselves in the prison system’s mental health, dental care, access for disabled inmates and juvenile detention operations, and in the use of force by corrections officers.

Mr. Sillen, 64, had been the executive director of the Santa Clara County Valley Health and Hospital System. Since beginning his new duties in May 2006, he has attracted hundreds of new employees to the prison medical work force. The medical staff had been experiencing a 20 percent vacancy rate, but Mr. Sillen raised salaries, in some cases by as much as 64 percent. He has siphoned off so many clinicians from other public health agencies that some now face shortages.

Mr. Sillen’s critics say that he has an authoritarian streak that has led him to wrest more control than he was given in his appointment by the court. Most troubling to some of his opponents is Mr. Sillen’s acknowledgment that he has no idea how long the changes will take or what they will cost.

The Prison Law Office filed a complaint in federal court in June saying that Mr. Sillen’s plans have “no concrete details of how any of the goals or objectives are to be accomplished, no real timelines and no metrics.”

In an interview in his office in San Jose, Mr. Sillen dismissed the group’s assertions. “When people ask me how long and how much,” he said, “I have a stock answer: Long. Much.”

Mr. Sillen speaks in rapid-fire, thrust-and-parry sentences often punctuated with profanity. He said his confrontational approach and broad federal powers were essential in trying to turn around an agency that had repeatedly failed to comply with court-ordered changes.

In a response to a demand by state lawmakers that he abide by state budgeting rules, Mr. Sillen wrote in a letter to the California Department of Finance last year that California’s appropriation process was “an immense waste of time (read taxpayer dollars) for little, if any, redeeming value” and that he felt “neither compelled nor obligated” to abide by state budget requirements.

Mr. Sillen says California politicians are reaping what they have sown. He attributed the state’s prison problems to tough-on-crime lawmakers who made political hay out of sentencing laws that filled the state prisons without expanding either the facilities or their services.

He has a standard diatribe concerning the criminal justice system that includes issues like the neglect of poor neighborhoods and the lack of alcohol treatment programs.

“I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the politics,” Mr. Sillen said. “No one gets elected in Sacramento without a platform that says, ‘Let’s get rid of rapists, pedophiles and murderers.’ ”

Mr. Sillen says he has no need to curry public favor because he is backed by the federal court. He adds that, although few will say so publicly, his mission has given some politicians the political cover to embrace changes that might otherwise have been deemed too soft on crime.

Aides to Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said the threat of further court intervention was used to enact a $7.7 billion prison plan in April. The law will expand capacity by means of new construction and the transfer of 8,000 inmates to private facilities outside California.

Mr. Sillen, however, was unimpressed. Having made the governor aware of the need for new prison medical facilities, Mr. Sillen carved $1 billion out of the plan for his own projects and publicly criticized the expansion of prison space without adequate budgeting for medical workers.

After 15 months on the job, Mr. Sillen acknowledges that sick prisoners still suffer in ways deemed unconstitutional by the federal court and points to recent deaths as an indication of a long road ahead. In one case, Jonathan J. Smith, 32, a quadriplegic serving time for armed robbery, died while shackled in a prison van. The van, which had no air-conditioning and no medical staff, became lost for five hours last summer while returning to Centinela State Prison in Imperial County after a doctor’s appointment. Temperatures reached 109 degrees that day, contributing to Mr. Smith’s death, according to corrections officials.

In another case, a child molester, Melvin Fergerson, 61, died in December in his infirmary cell at Avenal State Prison. Prison officials said that Mr. Fergerson, who suffered from heart disease, had sat naked and nearly motionless for two days before his death.

Those incidents were among 552 inmate deaths in the prison system since 2006, according to the most recent state figures. Of those deaths, 161 warranted investigation of potential poor medical practices, according to an internal report. The report marked the first time in years that state officials had conducted thorough reviews of prisoner fatalities.

The poor state of medical care in California’s prisons was evident in the West Block clinic at San Quentin, the state’s oldest penitentiary and the first to be visited by Mr. Sillen. “It was unclean, it was unkempt, and there were no sinks, no phones, no faxes, no way to communicate, no nothing,” Mr. Sillen said. “And that’s the clinic. It was just worse than Third World conditions.”

Mr. Sillen announced that he would put San Quentin “under a microscope” and began a three-month program to address the problems.

He has since built a $1.6 million triage center and has broken ground on a larger, $150 million medical center, but the West Block clinic is such a low priority that it is still in the same small dirty room at the back of a prison gymnasium that had been converted into a dormitory to relieve overcrowding.

Women who work there as nurses avert their eyes as they pass 380 inmates who are lounging on rows of double bunk beds, standing in open showers or sitting on exposed toilets that line one wall of the former gymnasium.

A doctor who visits three times a week sits at a desk next to a toilet. He treats some 80 to 100 inmates each visit and cleans his hands with antibacterial sanitizer. There is still no sink.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Commutation hearing scheduled for Arnie King

Warm Greetings! I want you to know that the commutation hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, October 25th, 2007 at 10:00 am. The location is the Parole Board Central Office at 12 Mercer Road in Natick. In the upcoming weeks, the transportation plan from Boston/Cambridge and directions to the Natick site will be available. In subsequent letters to the advisory (parole) board, please express appreciation for the hearing date and your intention to be in the room. It's important for a large attendance, so invite family members and friends as well. Thanks for the continued prayers, presence, and patience.

One Love,

How You Can Help:

Monday, August 27, 2007

Online resource about women offenders

Its from the 2006 Scholar & Feminist Conference: Engendering Justice: Women, Prisons and Change. It contains transcripts as well as video clips and audio of some panel discussions. The address is

Friday, August 24, 2007

US Farmers Using Prison Labor

By Nicole Hill
The Christian Science Monitor

Wednesday 22 August 2007

With tightening restrictions on migrant workers, some farmers are turning to the incarcerated.

Picacho, Arizona - Near this dusty town in southeastern Arizona, Manuel Reyna pitches watermelons into the back of a trailer hitched to a tractor. His father was a migrant farm worker, but growing up, Mr. Reyna never saw himself following his father's footsteps. Now, as an inmate at the Picacho Prison Unit here, Reyna works under the blazing desert sun alongside Mexican farmers the way his father did.

"My dad tried to keep me out of trouble," he says, wearing a bandanna to keep the sweat out of his eyes. "But I always got back into the easy money, because it was faster and a lot more money." He's serving a 6-1/2 year sentence for possession and sale of rock cocaine.

As states increasingly crack down on hiring undocumented workers, western farmers are looking at inmates to harvest their fields. Colorado started sending female inmates to harvest onions, corn, and melons this summer. Iowa is considering a similar program. In Arizona, inmates have been working for private agriculture businesses for almost 20 years. But with legislation signed this summer that would fine employers for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, more farmers are turning to the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) for help.

"We are contacted almost daily by different companies needing labor," says Bruce Farely, manager of the business development unit of Arizona Correctional Industries (ACI). ACI is a state labor program that holds contracts with government and private companies. "Maybe it was labor that was undocumented before, and they don't want to take the risk anymore because of possible consequences, so they are looking to inmate labor as a possible alternative."

Reyna and about 20 other low-risk, nonviolent offenders work at LBJ Farm, a family-owned watermelon farm, as part of ADC's mission to employ every inmate, either behind prison walls or in outside companies. The idea is to help inmates develop job skills and save money for their release. "It helps them really pay their debt back to the folks who have been harmed in society, as well as make adequate preparation for their release back onto the streets." says ADC director Dora Schriro.

If it weren't for a steady flow of inmates year-round, says Jack Dixon, owner of LBJ, one of the largest watermelon farms in the western US, he'd have sold out long ago. Even so, last year 400 acres of his watermelons rotted on the ground - a $640,000 loss - because there weren't enough harvesters. Mr. Dixon had applied for 60 H2-A guest worker visas, but only 14 were approved because of previous visa violations.

"We are in desperate need for hand labor," says Dixon, who started working on the farm when he was 9, alongside mostly migrant workers. "It's hard to get migrant workers up here anymore, with all the laws preventing them. It's not what it used to be," Dixon says. "It's dangerous for them with all the coyote wars and smuggling."

Other farmers wonder if inmates could be their solution. Dixon has received calls from a yellow-squash farmer in Texas inquiring about how to set up an inmate labor contract as well as from another watermelon farmer in Colorado seeking advice on how to manage inmate crews.

For labor-rights activists, federal immigration reform is the only viable solution to worker shortages.

Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers of America, says inmate labor undermines what unionized farmworkers have wanted for years: to be paid based on skill and experience. "It's rather insulting that the state [Arizona] would look so poorly on farm workers that they would attempt to use inmates," Grossman says. There is also the food-safety aspect, he says: Experienced workers understand sanitary harvesting.

"Agriculture does not have a reliable workforce, and the answer does not lie with prison labor," says Paul Simonds of the Western Growers Association, a trade association representing California and Arizona. "This just underscores the need for legislation to be passed to provide a legal, stable workforce." A prison lockdown would be disastrous, he points out, with perishable crops awaiting harvest. Other crops, like asparagus and broccoli, require skilled workers.

Although the ADC is considering innovative solutions - including satellite prisons - to fulfill companies' requests for inmate labor, prison officials agree that, in the end, the demand is too high. "To go into a state where agriculture is worth $9.2 billion and expect to meet a workforce need is impossible," says Katie Decker, spokeswoman for ADC. At any given time only about 3,300 prisoners statewide (out of a prison population of about 37,000) are cleared to work outside.

ACI provides inmates to nine private agricultural companies in Arizona, ranging from a hydroponics greenhouse tomato plant to a green Chile cannery. Unlike other sectors where federal regulations require that inmate workers be paid a prevailing wage and receive worker compensation, agricultural companies can hire state inmates on a contract basis. They must be paid a minimum of $2 per hour. Thirty percent of their wages go to room and board in prison. The rest goes to court-ordered restitution for victims, any child support, and a mandatory savings account. Private companies are required to pay for transportation from the prison to the worksite and for prison guards.

For Reyna, his work on farms over the past couple of years has added $9,000 in his savings account and given him a renewed respect for his Mexican father's lifetime of stoop labor.

At Dixon's farm, it's 103 degrees F. The inmate crews, wearing orange jumpsuits, work in a rhythmic line, calling out the number of the watermelons, and alongside the trailer. Just a few yards away, Mexican workers also work in a line. The inmates will quit at 4 p.m., while the immigrant laborers may work 13-hour days. "We go back, they stay out here," Reyna says. "It really isn't the same."

In the farm's office, watermelons line the counter, and photos of migrant workers hang in dusty frames. When asked why he doesn't sell the farm, Dixon says, "the inmates, the migrants, these people are part of the family - that's why I keep this darn place."

Dixon says he supports the idea of a reformed, guest-worker program that would employ migrant workers during the harvest and return them to Mexico in the winter. But until that happens, he's willing to fight for the workers he's shared the land with for most of his life.

"People are crossing the border because they are starving to death," Dixon says, "I don't care what their status is. If they are hungry and thirsty, I am going to feed them."

"I could sell this and quit," he continues, "But I believe in supporting the American farming industry."

Source URL:

Sentencing Commission Reports on Cocaine Sentencing Policy

News Release

U.S. Sentencing Commission
One Columbus Circle NE
Washington, DC 20002-8002

For Immediate Release
May 22, 2002

Contact: Michael Courlander
Public Affairs Officer
(202) 502-4597


WASHINGTON, D.C. (May 22, 2002) – Asserting its role as an advisor to Congress on federal sentencing policy, the United States Sentencing Commission today released a comprehensive 112-page report to Congress advocating a reassessment of federal cocaine penalties. The chair of the Commission, Judge Diana E. Murphy of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, also appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to outline the Commission’s position.

In her testimony before the Senate, Judge Murphy asked Congress to modify federal drug laws to target the most dangerous offenders for greater punishment while also addressing the wide disparity in treatment between crack and powder cocaine. The current laws, enacted by Congress in the mid-1980s, treat trafficking and mere possession of crack, an inexpensive smoked form of cocaine, significantly more severely than powder cocaine. Based upon an extensive year-long study, which includes an examination of thousands of federally prosecuted cocaine cases sentenced between 1995 and 2000, expert testimony gathered from a series of public hearings, and a survey of United States district and appellate judges, the Sentencing Commission unanimously concluded that while greater punishment for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine is clearly warranted, specifically in cases involving violence, the current 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio between the two forms of cocaine is not appropriate.

The Sentencing Commission’s report to Congress, entitled Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, sets forth concrete recommendations for statutory and guideline modifications to the federal sentencing structure for cocaine offenses. The Sentencing Commission recommends that Congress adopt a three-pronged approach for revising federal cocaine sentencing policy:

(1) increase the quantity of crack cocaine required that triggers an automatic mandatory minium sentence. Specifically, the five-year mandatory minimum threshold quantity for crack cocaine offenses should be adjusted from the current 5 grams trigger to at least 25 grams and the current ten-year threshold quantity from 50 grams to at least 250 grams (and repeal the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine);

(2) direct the Sentencing Commission to provide appropriate sentencing enhancements to increase penalties should the drug crime involve: (a) a dangerous weapon (including a firearm); (b) bodily injury resulting from violence; (c) distribution to protected individuals and/or locations; (d) repeat felony drug trafficking offenders; and (e) importation of drugs by offenders who do not perform a mitigating role in the offense; and

(3) maintain the current statutory minimum threshold quantities for powder cocaine offenses at 500 grams triggering the five-year mandatory minimum penalty and 5,000 grams for the ten-year mandatory minimum penalty (understanding that the contemplated specific guideline sentencing enhancements would effectively increase penalties for the more dangerous and more culpable powder cocaine offenders).

The recommendations, if adopted, would narrow the difference between average sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from 44 months to approximately one year. Specifically, the Commission estimates that the average sentence for crack cocaine offenses would decrease from 118 months to 95 months, and the average sentence for powder cocaine offenses would increase from 74 months to 83 months. Importantly, the guideline sentencing range based solely on drug quantity for crack cocaine offenses still would be significantly longer (approximately two-to-four times longer) than powder cocaine offenses involving equivalent drug quantities.

The Sentencing Commission undertook the study following a series of events, including the introduction of legislation by Senators Jeff Sessions and Orrin Hatch to modify cocaine penalties and a joint letter to the Commission from Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy and Ranking Minority Member Hatch, requesting a report on the subject.

"The Commission seeks to brings about adjustments in cocaine sentencing policy," said Commission Chair Judge Diana E. Murphy. "It is our hope that this report and recommendation will prove helpful to Congress and lead to adjustments in federal cocaine penalties."

In justifying its recommendations, the Commission made the following major findings about cocaine offender profiles examined between fiscal years 1995 and 2000:

• Contrary to the general objective of the 1986 legislation to target "serious" and "major" traffickers, two-thirds of federal crack cocaine offenders were street-level dealers. Only 5.9 percent of federal crack cocaine offenders performed trafficking functions most consistent with the functions described in the legislative history of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 as warranting a five-year penalty, and 15.2 percent performed trafficking functions most consistent with the functions described as warranting a ten-year penalty;

• The current penalty structure was based on beliefs about the association of crack cocaine offenses with certain harmful conduct – particularly violence – that are no longer accurate. In 2000, for example, three quarters of federal crack cocaine offenders had no personal weapon involvement, and only 2.3 percent discharged a weapon. Therefore, to the extent that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio was designed in part to account for this harmful conduct, it sweeps too broadly by treating all crack cocaine offenders as if they committed those more harmful acts, even though most crack cocaine offenders, in fact, had not;

• The negative effects of prenatal crack cocaine exposure are identical to the negative effects of prenatal powder cocaine exposure and are significantly less severe than previously believed;

• The overwhelming majority of offenders subject to the heightened crack cocaine penalties are black, about 85 percent in 2000. This has contributed to a widely held perception that the current penalty structure promotes unwarranted disparity based on race. Although this assertion cannot be scientifically evaluated, the Commission finds even the perception of racial disparity problematic because it fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.

These conclusions led the Commission to unanimously conclude that the various congressional objectives can be achieved more effectively by decreasing the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal government, was organized in 1985 to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines, which went into effect November 1, 1987, structure the courts’ sentencing discretion to ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive a similar sentence. The Commission has ongoing responsibility to monitor and amend the guidelines.

Source URL:

Running Down the Walls

Note: Jericho Boston is a SHaRC coalition member. Andrea

From: Jericho Boston
Date: 8/23/2007 3:15:42 PM
Subject: [jericho_boston_announce] Register now for Running Down the Walls!

Running Down the Walls - a fundraiser for political prisoners

Sunday, September 9th, 2007 @ 10:00 am
Jamaica Pond Boat House

Download a pledge form from

On September 9th, folks from all over will be coming together in the spirit of justice and health. Inside and outside the prison walls, people will be participating in Running Down the Walls, a 5K run/walk to raise funds for U.S.-held Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. U.S.-held PP/POW's are constantly in need of financial support due to legal appeals, medical needs, commissary needs, etc. Jericho Boston's goal is to raise $1,000 through community
participation in the event, as well as raise consciousness and mobilize our communities to liberate these Freedom Fighters and put an end to the repression of peoples' movements worldwide. Please come down to the pond this September 9th, where we will be collectively getting in shape and providing much needed resources for our comrades. A healthy lunch will be provided to all participant's.

Jamaica Pond is located on the Jamaica Way in Jamaica Plain. It is reachable by taking the Orange line to Green St., Green line to Heath St. or the 39 bus.

Please call Jericho Boston if you need more detailed directions.

Jericho Boston (617)830-0732 or


PO Box 301057
Boston, MA 02130
jericho_boston (at) yahoo (dot) com

Update on the San Francisco 8 case

From: NYC Jericho Movement
Date: 8/24/2007 2:08:19 AM
Subject: [Pickupthework] Wednesday 8/22 SF8 Court Report: bail, discovery, DNA

Bail Reduced!

Addressing a tense courtroom packed with both supporters and police, Judge Philip Moscone electrified supporters when he announced major bail reductions for the six bailable defendants in the SF 8 case.

Ray Boudreaux: $ 385,000
Richard Brown: $ 420,000
Hank Jones: $ 600,000
Richard O'Neal: $ 200,000
Harold Taylor: $ 350,000
Francisco Torres: $ 660,000

Moscone noted that "danger to public safety" was not an issue in his decision, and arrived at the varying amounts based on 1) the seriousness of allegations against each individual in the Ingleside charge and the overt acts of the conspiracy charge, and 2) likelihood of appearance, noting that all the men have had stable residences for a long time and have strong family and community ties.

Moscone preceded his announcement with the statement that "not everyone" would be happy with what he was going to do. Following the bail announcement, scores of police, including Detective Erdelatz (the SFDP zealot who has pursued the men for three decades) left the

Family members and supporters stated that they expected to be able to raise the reduced bails. Supporters who wish to discuss offering their property as collateral towards bail should call for an explanation of the process: (415) 226-1120.

Problems with discovery compliance

The rest of the morning addressed discovery issues.

Stuart Hanlon, attorney for Herman Bell, summarized a major problem: Although the prosecution has turned over the equivalent of more than 200,000 pages, the documents are so disorganized it is as if those pages were strewn on the floor randomly. After months of effort by 20 workers over hundreds of hours, the defense still cannot locate the documents it needs. In addition, countless portions of the documents, including contact information for every single witness, have been blacked out.

Hanlon also argued that the basis of the current prosecution was supposed to be "new" evidence relating to DNA and ballistics. But where was the evidence?


Michael Burt, attorney for Ray Boudreaux, added that the prosecution denied having DNA reports for over a year, but when reports were provided a few days ago, it was clear the government had had them since 2006 - and they were still incomplete. "We need every test that they have done," Burt said. The defense noted that the partial DNA reports released by the state recently not only show no matches to any of the eight, one of them matches the profile of one of the state's experts, indicating contamination of evidence.

Hanlon added that instead of ballistics reports the prosecution has given them statements by police. "Declarations don't mean a thing," Hanlon asserted. "After 25 years of seeing police lie outright in the case of Geronimo Pratt, I want to see evidence, not declarations."

Next court date

Moscone ordered the discovery issues to continue on Tuesday, August 28. He will meet with the attorneys alone at 9:30, and the official court hearing will begin at 1:30. Motions about timeliness and prosecutorial delay will be filed after discovery is resolved.

Free All Political Prisoners!

SHaRC meeting on 8/29

Join us at the next SHaRC prison moratorium meeting. We have begun a very exciting work plan including short- and long-term goals to implement a moratorium on jail and prison construction/expansion in MA, in support of HB 1723, "an act relative to incarceration..." We will continue with this at our August meeting. Please join us!

Wednesday, August 29th 6-8pm
Community Church of Boston
565 Bolyston St. (Copley Square)

Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC)

Download Petition Text of HB 1723:

Contact us:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Union of Minority Neighborhoods Communique

Hello Friends and Supporters:

We are heading into some very exciting times. The issue of CORI reform is more vital than ever, and there is movement around the state building towards movement on the Public Safety Act of 2007 (HR 1416). We just wanted to give you a brief update on some things that are ongoing.

Have you been denied a job because of a CORI?

Do you have a resume that proves your work skills?

The Boston Workers Alliance and the Union of Minority Neighborhoods are collecting hundreds of resumes from people who have been denied a job because of their CORI.

Help the movement to reform CORI by donating your resume to our Resume Bank. If you work with people who have CORIs, see if they want to be part of the CORI Resume Bank.

1) Be seen, be heard and be counted! Once we collect enough resumes, we will deliver them to the State House to bring attention to the wasted potential of our workforce due to the CORI.

2) Be notified of any job opportunities that match your work experience

3) If you do not have a resume and you need help creating one, contact us and we will do our best to help you.

Drop your resume off at:

City Councilor Chuck Turner's Office in Dudley Square, 51 Roxbury Street, Roxbury

Or email your resume to

For any questions, leave a message for Aaron at the BWA at (617) 359-0336 or Sean at UMN at (617) 257 2962.


We at UMN have recognized the unique needs of women who are affected by CORI. A new group called Sisters United has formed to provide an opportunity for women to gather together, develop their collective strength, and organize for political and economic empowerment.


WHEN: 1ST AND 3RD Monday of Every Month
WHERE: Harriet Tubman House
566 Columbus Ave.
Boston, Ma 02118

Call Jackie Lageson for details: (617) 201-3238 or email


50th Anniversary of the integration of Central High School.

Celebrate the lives & achievements of those in Little Rock who helped spark the struggle against segregation .

September 23rd @ The Freedom House in Dorchester

Call UMN for more details: (617) 541-4111

Enjoy the rest of the summer and we look forward to seeing you at one of our many upcoming events.


Union of Minority Neighborhoods
83 Highland St.
Roxbury, Ma 02119
(617) 541-4111

Jailing Nation: How Did Our Prison System Become Such a Nightmare?

By Daniel Lazare, The Nation
August 20, 2007

How can you tell when a democracy is dead? When concentration camps spring up and everyone shivers in fear? Or is it when concentration camps spring up and no one shivers in fear because everyone knows they're not for "people like us" (in Woody Allen's marvelous phrase) but for the others, the troublemakers, the ones you can tell are guilty merely by the color of their skin, the shape of their nose or their social class?

Questions like these are unavoidable in the face of America's homegrown gulag archipelago, a vast network of jails, prisons and "supermax" tombs for the living dead that, without anyone quite noticing, has metastasized into the largest detention system in the advanced industrial world. The proportion of the US population languishing in such facilities now stands at 737 per 100,000, the highest rate on earth and some five to twelve times that of Britain, France and other Western European countries or Japan. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has close to a quarter of the world's prisoners, which, curiously enough, is the same as its annual contribution to global warming.

With 2.2 million people behind bars and another 5 million on probation or parole, it has approximately 3.2 percent of the adult population under some form of criminal-justice supervision, which is to say one person in thirty-two. For African-Americans, the numbers are even more astonishing. By the mid-1990s, 7 percent of black males were behind bars, while the rate of imprisonment for black males between the ages of 25 and 29 now stands at one in eight.

While conservatives have spent the past three or four decades bemoaning the growth of single-parent families, there is a very simple reason some 1.5 million American children are fatherless or (less often) motherless: Their parents are locked up. Because they are confined for the most part in distant rural prisons, moreover, only about one child in five gets to visit them as often as once a month.

What's that you say? Who cares whether a bunch of "rapists, murderers, robbers, and even terrorists and spies," as Republican Senator Mitch McConnell once characterized America's prison population, get to see their kids? In fact, surprisingly few denizens of the American gulag have been sent away for violent crimes. In 2002 just 19 percent of the felony sentences handed down at the state level were for violent offenses, and of those only about 5 percent were for murder. Nonviolent drug offenses involving trafficking or possession (the modern equivalent of rum-running or getting caught with a bottle of bathtub gin) accounted for 31 percent of the total, while purely economic crimes such as burglary and fraud made up an additional 32 percent. If the incarceration rate continues to rise and violent crime continues to drop, we can expect the nonviolent sector of the prison population to expand accordingly.

A normal society might lighten up in such circumstances. After all, if violence is under control, isn't it time to come up with a more humane way of dealing with a dwindling number of miscreants? But America is not a normal country and only grows more punitive.

It has also been extremely reluctant to face up to the cancer in its midst. Several of the leading Democratic candidates, for example, have recently come out against the infamous 100-to-1 ratio that subjects someone carrying ten grams of crack to the same penalty as someone caught with a kilo of powdered cocaine. Senator Joe Biden has actually introduced legislation to eliminate the disparity -- without, however, acknowledging his role as a leading drug warrior back in the 1980s, when he sponsored the bill that set it in stone in the first place. At a recent forum at Howard University, Hillary Clinton promised to "deal" with the disparity as well, although it would have been nice if she had done so back in the '90s, when, during the first Clinton Administration, the prison population was soaring by some 50 percent.

Although he is not running this time around, Jesse Jackson recently castigated Dems for their hesitancy in addressing "failed, wasteful, and unfair drug policies" that have sent "so many young African-Americans" to jail. Yet Jackson forgot to mention his own drug-war past when, as a leading hardliner, he specifically called for "stiffer prison sentences" for black drug users and "wartime consequences" for smugglers. "Since the flow of drugs into the US is an act of terrorism, antiterrorist policies must be applied," he declared in a 1989 interview, a textbook example of how the antidrug rhetoric of the late twentieth century helped pave the way for the "global war on terror" of the early twenty-first.

In other words, cowardice and hypocrisy abound. Fortunately, a small number of academics and at least one journalist have begun training an eye on America's growing prison crisis. Since there is more than enough injustice to go around, each has zeroed in on different aspects of the phenomenon -- on the political and economic consequences of stigmatizing so many young people for life, on the racial consequences of disproportionately punishing young black males and on the sheer moral horror of needlessly locking away real, live human beings in supermax prisons that are little more than high-tech dungeons. Their findings, to make a long story short, are that the damage cannot be reduced to a simple matter of so many person-years of lost time. To the contrary, the effects promise to multiply for years to come.

In American Furies Sasha Abramsky, a Sacramento-based journalist and longtime Nation contributor, convincingly argues that the best way to understand US prison policies is to think of them as a GI Bill in reverse. Just as the original GI Bill laid the basis for a major social advance by making college available to millions of veterans, mass incarceration is laying the basis for an enormous social regression by stigmatizing and brutalizing millions of young people and "de-skilling" them by removing them from the workforce. America will be feeling the effects for generations.

Bruce Western, a Princeton sociologist, offers the best overview. He notes in his new study, Punishment and Inequality in America, that mass imprisonment is actually a novel development. For much of the twentieth century, the US incarceration rate held steady at around 100 per 100,000, which would put it in the same ballpark as Western Europe today. But after a slight dip following the liberal reforms of the 1960s, the curve reversed direction in the mid-'70s and then rose more steeply in the '80s and '90s. Considering that Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Austria succeeded in reducing or holding their incarceration rates steady during this period, the US pattern was highly exceptional. But so are US crime rates. Between 1980 and 1991, US homicides hovered at between 7.9 and 10.2 per 100,000, as much as ten times the European average. (The rate has since fallen to around 5.7.) Combined with the crack wave that also exploded in the 1980s, the result was a deepening sense of panic that peaked in mid-1986 with the death of basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose.

Although there was no evidence that crack had anything to do with Bias's death -- police found only powdered cocaine in his car -- the incident somehow confirmed crack as the new devil substance, "the most addictive drug known to man," in the words of Newsweek, and a threat comparable to the "medieval plagues," in the considered opinion of U.S. News and World Report (which would have meant that the country was facing an imminent population loss of up to 33 percent). Within a matter of months, Joe Biden had helped shepherd through to victory the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, an unusually horrendous piece of legislation that etched in stone the 100-to-1 penalty ratio for crack.

Still, it is always interesting to consider which deaths fill people with horror and which ones don't. The year before Bias's death not only saw 19,000 homicides in the United States but nearly 46,000 highway fatalities too, and yet Congress somehow refrained from criminalizing motor vehicles. Crack's status as the drug du jour of a certain class of inner-city blacks should have been the giveaway. What had Congress in a tizzy was not cocaine consumption so much as black cocaine consumption, which is why the subsequent repression was bound to be far harder on African-Americans than on whites. Although there is no evidence that blacks use drugs more than whites and indeed some evidence that they use them less, Western notes that black users are now twice as likely to be arrested for drugs and, once arrested, more likely to go to prison or jail. None of this is necessarily racist, at least not in the crudely explicit way we associate with men in white sheets.

The reason the police concentrate their efforts in black inner-city neighborhoods, Western notes, is that users congregate there in large numbers, and buying, selling and using tend to take place in public. (It's harder to make arrests behind the closed doors of some suburban McMansion.) If a judge is more inclined to send a poor black defendant to prison, similarly, it is not necessarily because he or she enjoys punishing someone with dark skin but because the judge, according to Western, may "see poor defendants as having fewer prospects and social supports, thus as having less potential for rehabilitation." If your weeping parents can afford to send you to private rehab, you're excused. If not, it's off to the state pen.

Racial and class biases are thus built into the very structure of the drug war. Western is particularly effective on the economic consequences of such grossly disproportionate policies. The standard account of American economic development since the 1970s, told and retold in countless undergraduate classrooms, is that economic deregulation and growth have done much to narrow the once-yawning wage gap between white and black workers. To quote the New York Times: "Unemployment rates among blacks and Hispanic people...are at or near record lows. Joblessness among high school dropouts has fallen to about half the rate in 1992. And wages for the lowest paid are rising faster than inflation for the first time in decades."

A rising tide lifts all boats, whereas all that labor-market rigidity has done for "Old Europe" is to saddle it with persistently high levels of unemployment, an alienated underclass and riots in the banlieues. But as Punishment and Inequality in America points out, if US economic policies look good, it is only because the country's enormous prison population is not factored into the equation. If workers behind bars are counted, then it quickly becomes apparent "that young black men have experienced virtually no real economic gains on young whites" and that the real black unemployment rate is up to 20 percent greater than official statistics indicate. Rather than freeing up the markets, Western writes, the United States has "adopted policies that massively and coercively regulated the poor." Where the Danes provide their unemployed with up to 80 percent of their previous salary and the Germans provide them with 60 percent, America has deregulated the rich while throwing a growing portion of its working class in jail.

In Marked, Devah Pager, who also teaches sociology at Princeton, uses a simple technique to show how mass incarceration has undone the small amount of racial progress achieved in the 1960s and '70s. Working with two pairs of male college students in Milwaukee, one white and the other black, she drilled them on how to present themselves and answer questions. Then, arming them with phony résumés, she sent them out to apply for entry-level jobs. The résumés were identical in all respects but one. Where one member of each team had nothing indicating a criminal record, the other's résumé showed an eighteen-month sentence for drugs. To help insure that the results were uniform, the résumés were then rotated back and forth among the testers.

The results? The white applicant with a prison record was half as likely to be called back for a second interview as the white applicant without. But the black applicant without a criminal record was no more likely to be called back than the white applicant with a record, while the black applicant with a record was two-thirds less likely to be called back than the black applicant without. The black applicant with a record therefore wound up doubly penalized -- as a black man and as an ex-con. With the chances of a call-back reduced to just 5 percent, the overall effect, Pager writes, was "almost total exclusion from this labor market." Considering that there are as many as 12 million ex-felons in the United States, a major portion of them black, the result has been to create a huge pool of the semipermanently unemployed where one might otherwise not exist. This is not to disprove sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose study The Declining Significance of Race caused an uproar when it was published in 1978. Wilson may have been right: The significance of race may well have been declining by the late '70s. But thanks to a government policy of mass stigmatization, it has come roaring back.

This is not only bad news for those arrested but bad news for those who have to foot the bill for their incarceration and for dealing with the social problems that labor-market exclusion on this scale helps generate. But there are other costs too. In Locked Out, Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen, professors of sociology at Northwestern and the University of Minnesota, respectively, point out that only two states, Maine and Vermont, permit felons to vote while incarcerated, that most limit felons' voting rights after they complete their terms and that, even if not legally disenfranchised, some 600,000 jail inmates and pretrial detainees are effectively prevented from voting as well. All told, this means that 6 million Americans were unable to vote on election day in 2004. This is not peanuts. Nationwide, one black man in seven has been disenfranchised as a consequence, while in Florida, the state with the most sweeping disenfranchisement laws, the number of those prevented from voting now exceeds 1.1 million.

From a right-wing perspective, this is nothing short of brilliant. After all, what could be better than disenfranchising an unfriendly racial group while persuading the rest of the nation that the group deserves it because its ranks are filled with violent criminals? Since felons and ex-felons tend to be poor and members of oppressed racial minorities, they tend to vote Democratic. Even though the poor are less likely to vote than those higher up on the socioeconomic ladder, Manza and Uggen say there is little doubt that, had the disenfranchisement laws not existed in Florida in November 2000, the extra votes would have provided Al Gore with a margin of victory so comfortable that not even the Republican state legislature could have taken it away. If the ranks of prison inmates and hence of disenfranchised ex-inmates had not multiplied since the '70s, much of the wind would also have been taken out of the sails of the great GOP offensive. Americans have not gone right, in other words. Rather, by taking control of the criminal-justice issue, the right wing has winnowed down the electorate so as to artificially boost the power of the conservative minority.

But how did the right gain control of this all-important issue in the first place? This is the problem that Marie Gottschalk, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, wrestles with in The Prison and the Gallows, an eccentric but compelling study of mass incarceration's ideological origins. While taking aim at the usual right-wing villains, The Prison and the Gallows also goes after various liberals and radicals who, inadvertently or not, also contributed to the construction of "the carceral state." Bill Clinton, for example, not only embraced the drug war and capital punishment -- he interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign to fly back to Arkansas and sign the death warrant for a mentally disabled prisoner named Rickey Ray Rector -- but also endorsed what Gottschalk calls "a virulently punitive victims' rights movement," going so far as to call for a constitutional amendment in 1996 as "the only way to give victims equal and due consideration."

This was important because the victims' rights movement represented an effort to inject a dose of vengeance into the judicial process and thereby blur the distinction between the private interest of the victim and the public's interest in maintaining order and justice. In Europe, reformers were also concerned with victims' rights. But "extending a hand to victims was seen from the start as primarily an extension of the welfare state," Gottschalk observes, whereas in America, where welfare is a dirty word, it was seen as a way of steering criminal justice in a more punitive direction.

Gottschalk's assault on '70s feminism is sure to raise the most eyebrows. She argues that the women's movement helped facilitate the carceral state by promoting a punitive approach to sexual violence that was unmitigated by any larger political considerations. This single-minded focus led to what The Prison and the Gallows describes as unsavory coalitions with tough-on-crime types. In the State of Washington, women's groups successfully marketed rape reform as a law-and-order issue so that, when the measure finally passed in 1975, it was "in part by riding on the coattails of a new death penalty statute."

In California a new rape shield became known as the Robbins Rape Evidence Law, in honor of one of its legislative sponsors, a conservative Republican named Alan Robbins. In pressing for limits on the cross-examination of alleged rape victims, feminists "generally did not consider what effect such measures would have on a defendant's right to due process," Gottschalk adds, even though due process at the time was under assault from a growing war on crime.

More radical elements, meanwhile, strayed into outright vigilantism. In Berkeley, antirape activists picketed an accused rapist's home. In East Lansing in 1973, they "reportedly scrawled Rapist on a suspect's car, spray-painted the word across a front porch and made warning telephone calls late at night." In Los Angeles, a self-styled "antirape squad" vowed to shave rapists' heads, cover them with dye and then photograph them for posters reading, This Man Rapes Women. A feminist publication called Aegis ran a notorious cover showing a gun with the warning, "You can't rape a .38; we will defend ourselves."

The National Rifle Association was no doubt delighted. Gottschalk contends that such activists wound up "profoundly co-opted," since "by framing the rape issue around 'horror stories,' they fed into the victims' movement's compelling image of a society held hostage to a growing number of depraved, marauding criminals." She notes that feminists threw themselves into the battle for the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 as part of an omnibus anticrime bill that "allocated nearly $10 billion for new prison construction, expanded the death penalty to cover more than fifty federal crimes, and added a 'three strikes and you're out' provision mandating life imprisonment for federal offenders convicted of three violent offenses."

Yet feminists' involvement was relatively modest two years later when a few liberals tried to rally opposition to Clinton's plan to abolish Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which heavily benefited poor women. Like their nineteenth-century forebears, who advocated bringing back the whipping post to deal with wife beaters, late-twentieth-century feminists got more excited about punishment than defending the welfare state.

Gottschalk is more than a bit brave in pointing this out. Still, her choice of historical examples to explain the growth of an increasingly vindictive national mood seems incomplete. As much damage as radical feminists may have done in undermining due process, they seem less important than certain antidrug activists -- in particular, certain black Democratic antidrug activists -- whose efforts ran on parallel tracks.

This means not just Jesse Jackson, who backed vigilante-style antidrug patrols by the Nation of Islam ("As long as this type of solution is within the law, it should be encouraged") but also Congressman Charles Rangel, the Manhattan Democrat who, as head of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse, spent much of the '80s baiting Reagan for being soft on drugs. "I haven't seen a national drug policy since Nixon was in office," Rangel lamented at one point. "So far, the Administration hasn't given it any priority." This is as clear a case of an ostensible liberal cheering on the forces of right-wing reaction as one could hope to find. US prisons are not bulging with rapists and wife beaters, but they are filled with drug offenders, some 458,000 as of 2000, which makes the brief space that Gottschalk allots to the drug war somewhat hard to fathom. It's like discussing Al Capone without mentioning Prohibition.

Sasha Abramsky is less interested in the ideological currents that helped pave the way for mass incarceration, although in American Furies he does spotlight the fascinating role played by a Berkeley-educated sociologist named Robert Martinson, who, after several years investigating the cornucopia of rehabilitation programs offered at the time by the New York State prison system, summed up his findings in a sensational 1974 article titled "What Works?" His answer: nothing. Martinson's frustration is understandable to anyone who has ever suffered through an encounter group. Yet his conclusions, published in the neoconservative journal Public Interest, were grossly one-sided: While many programs do not work, some clearly have a positive effect.

In short order, Martinson's article became the bible of the vengeance-and-punishment set, which seized on it as proof that rehabilitation was a lost cause and that the only purpose of prison was to penalize wrongdoers. Once this ideological impediment was removed, the criminal-justice system slid downhill with remarkable speed. If punishment was good, then more punishment was better. In short order, Massachusetts Governor William Weld was declaring that life in prison should be "akin to a walk through hell," while right-wing Senator Phil Gramm was promising "to string barbed wire on every military base in America" to contain all the criminals he wanted to round up. In Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix, a colorful local character named Joe Arpaio got himself re-elected sheriff time and again by parading his inmates about on chain gangs, dressing the men among them in fluorescent pink underwear and serving prisoners food that, as he cheerfully admits, costs less than what he gives to his cats and dogs. "Voters like it everywhere," Abramsky quotes Arpaio as saying of such policies.

"I'm on thousands of talk shows. I never get a negative. I get letters from all over the world -- and I answer every one. They say, 'Come up here and be our sheriff.'" What makes this all the more repellent is that the people subjected to such humiliation and abuse are rarely killers or rapists but alcoholics, vagrants and other small fry doing time for such misdemeanors as possession and shoplifting.

Amazing how much damage a single article can do, eh? Yet when a conscience-stricken Martinson published a mea culpa in the Hofstra Law Review five years later ("contrary to my previous position, some treatment programs do have an appreciable effect on recidivism"), the media yawned. No big shots interviewed him on TV, and no politicians called to solicit his views. No one wanted to hear that rehabilitation programs work, only that they don't. Beset by personal troubles, professional setbacks and perhaps the realization of how grievously he had allowed himself to be misused, Martinson committed suicide by throwing himself out of a ninth-floor Manhattan apartment in 1980.

American Furies provides us with a vivid account of the horrors that have followed -- the low-level pot dealers and shoplifters sentenced to life in prison in California, Oklahoma, Alabama and other states where various "three strikes" or other habitual-offender laws pertain; the supermax prisoners condemned to spend twenty-three hours a day in barren concrete cells the size of walk-in closets; the epidemics of suicide and self-mutilation; and the stubbornly high levels of violence between and among prisoners and guards -- which law-and-order advocates seize upon as reason to build yet more supermax facilities. US prison policy is like a computer program that is designed to spit out the same answers no matter what data are fed into it: Arrest more people, put more of them in prison, build more cells to accommodate them.

Where will it end? As Martinson's story shows, American mass incarceration is not what social scientists call "evidence based." It is not a policy designed to achieve certain practical, utilitarian ends that can then be weighed and evaluated from time to time to determine if it is performing as intended. Rather, it is a moral policy whose purpose is to satisfy certain passions that have grown more and more brutal over the years. The important thing about moralism of this sort is that it is its own justification. For true believers, it is something that everyone should endorse regardless of the consequences. As right-wing political scientist James Q. Wilson once remarked, "Drug use is wrong because it is immoral," a comment that not only sums up the tautological nature of US drug policies but also shows how they are structured to render irrelevant questions about wasted dollars and blighted lives.

Moralism of this sort is neither rational nor democratic, and the fact that it has triumphed so completely is an indication of how deeply the United States has sunk into authoritarianism since the 1980s. With the prison population continuing to rise at a 2.7 percent annual clip, there is no reason to think there will be a turnaround soon. Indeed, Gottschalk writes that mass incarceration is so taken for granted nowadays that "it seems almost unimaginable that the country will veer off in a new direction and begin to empty and board up its prisons."

Still, she ends on a quasi-optimistic note by quoting Norwegian sociologist Thomas Mathiesen to the effect that "major repressive systems have succeeded in looking extremely stable almost until the day they have collapsed." Indeed, repression is itself often a sign of instability bubbling up from below. This is not much to pin one's hopes on, but it will have to do.

Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy (Verso). He is currently at work on a book about the politics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for Pantheon.

View this story online at:

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Government Study Confirms Systemic Sexual Violence in Detention


Government Study Confirms Systemic Sexual Violence in Detention - Highlights Serious Under-Reporting of Such Abuse

LOS ANGELES, August 16, 2007. International human rights organization Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) welcomes the release today of the third annual statistical report on prisoner rape, issued by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The BJS study, which analyzes administrative reports of sexual violence behind bars, found that 6,528 official complaints were filed about such abuse occurring in 2006, or 2.9 allegations per 1,000 inmates. In 2004, the first year for which the BJS published these data, the number of complaints was 5,386.

While offering important insights into the patterns and dynamics of the sexual violence in detention that is reported to corrections officials, the study reveals only a small fraction of the overall problem. The BJS itself is in the process of conducting the first-ever large-scale, nationwide, anonymous inmate survey about sexual violence. In the pre-testing of its survey tool last year, the BJS found that 4.4 percent of inmates had experienced sexual abuse in the preceding 12 months - a rate 15 times higher than that captured in today's analysis of official administrative reports.

"We know for a fact that very few survivors of prisoner rape ever file a formal complaint. By comparing today's report with the early results of the BJS' inmate survey, it becomes clear that serious attempts to understand the problem of sexual violence in detention must go well beyond an analysis of formal reports of abuse," said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of SPR. "Survivors contact SPR every day, the vast majority of whom are too afraid or ashamed to report the abuse they have endured."

Today's BJS report also reveals a shocking failure on the part of corrections officials to respond appropriately to the sexual abuse of inmates. The report found that, even in substantiated cases of staff sexual misconduct and harassment of inmates, 76 percent of the survivors were offered no medical treatment or mental health counseling. SPR believes that all survivors of sexual violence in detention should be offered such services, to ensure that physical injuries, acute trauma, and the long-term psychological effect of sexual abuse are addressed.

"Corrections facilities must, as a matter of urgency, make sure that all inmates who have been sexually abused are given an opportunity to begin the healing process, especially when the abusers are the very people charged with protecting them," said Ms. Stannow. "This is not only a matter of human rights, it's about public health. Some 95 percent of inmates eventually return to their communities, bringing with them the full range of their prison experiences, including learned violent behavior, psychological trauma, and infectious disease."

The BJS report, which is based entirely on information provided by corrections officials, also found that officials concluded that "abuse of power" was a factor in only five percent of substantiated cases of staff sexual misconduct. "It's disheartening to see that corrections staff still do not recognize that there is an inherent abuse of power involved in every single one of these cases," said Ms. Stannow. Sexual contact between a corrections official and an inmate is illegal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

SPR is the only non-governmental organization in the country dedicated exclusively to eliminating sexual violence against men, women, and youth in detention. SPR was instrumental in securing the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, which mandated the BJS to publish today's report and to undertake the anonymous inmate survey currently underway.

For a copy of the BJS report, "Sexual Violence Reported by Correctional Authorities, 2006," please go to

For more information, contact Lovisa Stannow at 213-384-1400 (ext. 103).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Readings By a Race Traitor


Challenging Structural Racism since 1968



September 19, 2007
6:00 PM—8:00 PM
Simmons College
The Linda K. Paresky Conference Center
300 The Fenway, Boston, MA

MAB SEGREST is a scholar, writer and activist with three decades’ experience in feminist, anti-racist, and lesbian/gay organizing. Currently she chairs the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Connecticut College. Memoirs of a Race Traitor reflects on her experience as a white lesbian organizing against a virulent Far Right movement in North Carolina as part of a larger meditation on the meanings of whiteness in Southern and U. S. history. Howard Zinn commented “…it is a political memoir but its language is poetic and its tone passionate.” In Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice, Segrest uses travel memoirs in a search for alternatives to the apartheid of her Southern childhood, negotiating history, philosophy, theology, autobiography and reporting. Segrest will also reflect on her current work on understanding Hurricane Katrina and on activism within and beyond the academy.

Please RSVP to
For directions to Simmons College, please visit

Suggested Donation: $20 (more if you can, less if you can’t); Free to students of Simmons College; Your donation is tax-deductible; All proceeds benefit Community Change, Inc.

Readings by a Race Traitor: an Evening with Mab Segrest, is hosted by the
Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change Connecting Simmons to the Community and the Community to Simmons

Community Change, Inc.
14 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108

Sunday, August 12, 2007

ABA considers plan restricting access to arrest, court records

Media groups call proposal a violation of First Amendment
Associated Press
August 9, 2007

WASHINGTON--The public could lose access to certain arrest and court records, even those of people convicted of serious crimes, under a proposal being considered by the nation's largest organization of lawyers.

An American Bar Association committee that drafted the proposal says ready access to court records has led to employment and housing discrimination against people who were arrested but never convicted of crimes or who have completed sentences and returned to society.

News media organizations say limiting public access to records, which would require changes to state and federal law, would violate the First Amendment and make it harder to expose misconduct by police and prosecutors.

The American Bar Association is expected to consider the measure next week at its annual meeting in San Francisco.

The ABA committee pushing for the change says landlords and employers who have easy access to court files through records-checking services sometimes unfairly refuse to hire or rent to people who have not been arrested or convicted.

Stephen A. Saltzburg, a George Washington University law professor who is co-chairman of the ABA's Commission on Effective Criminal Sanctions, said the panel spent two years looking at ways "to improve the chances of people who have criminal records getting jobs and balancing re-entry versus safety."

What the committee found, Saltzburg said, is that when employers or landlords conduct background checks on applicants and "a record shows up, they just don't consider the person, even if there are anti-discrimination laws."

More than 70 million people have criminal records, the ABA said, citing Justice Department statistics.

The proposal urges governments to seal files immediately in cases of people who were arrested but never convicted of crimes, or whose convictions were later set aside. O.J. Simpson, the four Los Angeles police officers accused of assaulting motorist Rodney King and actor Robert Blake, acquitted of murdering his wife, are among those whose state court records would be sealed in California if the state adopted a law closing records on criminal acquittals.

The records of those convicted of misdemeanors and felonies should be closed after an undefined period of law-abiding conduct, the measure says. Violent crimes, large-scale drug trafficking and similarly grave offenses would not be included.

"What most people want, except the press, is a genuine opportunity for people to have a second chance," Saltzburg said.

News media organizations as well as ABA committees on the First Amendment and the media are lobbying against the proposal. The Associated Press Managing Editors is among the media groups opposing the proposal.

"They're asking to dramatically rewrite the law in terms of access to public records," said Kelli L. Sager, a Los Angeles lawyer who co-chairs an ABA First Amendment group.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Jailing Juveniles

Children should not be held in adult jails.

Friday, August 10, 2007 - Washington Post

MORE CHILDREN are going to jail -- too often even before they have been convicted.

In the District, the average daily count of juveniles being held in adult jail before trial has nearly tripled in the past year, according to a recent report from the Campaign for Youth Justice. It's unclear whether this rise is attributable to an increase in serious crimes by juveniles, a surge in police patrols or tougher decisions by prosecutors who choose when to try teenagers as adults. Whatever the cause, the increase in children held in adult jails should be reversed as a matter of public safety and decency.

Studies have shown that children incarcerated in adult jails are more likely to be arrested again and to commit graver new offenses. In the D.C. Jail, which holds inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences, juveniles are kept apart from adults, but they benefit from little of the rehabilitative programming and structure required at juvenile detention centers. Currently, only those needing special education, for example, can go to class. Devon Brown, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, said the agency has negotiated with the D.C. public school system to begin providing classes for all juveniles at the D.C Jail starting on Oct. 1. These efforts are laudable, but, as Mr. Brown agrees, an adult jail does not have the resources, staffing or training to treat these youths.

Children are developmentally different from adults. Neurological research, including a study presented before the 2005 Supreme Court decision striking down capital punishment for juveniles, has shown that the parts of the brain that manage moral reasoning and impulse control do not fully develop until a person reaches his or her early to mid 20s. Experts agree that teenagers who've gotten themselves into trouble need structure, counseling and directed programming. Troubled youths should not be allowed -- as they currently are at the D.C. Jail -- to spend most of their days sleeping.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons knows this. In the District, juveniles who are tried as adults and convicted and sentenced to prison time of more than six months are turned over to the Bureau of Prisons for incarceration. But even though they were held in adult jails before trial, the agency is legally barred from keeping them in adult prisons after conviction, according to bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley. Instead, they must be transferred to juvenile facilities, where they remain until age 18.

Surely this law exists because exposing troubled children to less structured and more dangerous adult jails can only harden them and lead to more crime, more arrests and more expensive imprisonment. Jailing juveniles in adult facilities is a bad investment of public funds and an investment in worse fortroubled American youths.

The Drug War’s Collateral Damage

Those victimized by a crackdown on marijuana since the early ’90s can be denied everything from food stamps to voting rights to the right to adopt a child

By Silja J.A. Talvi

When a person is sent to prison for the first time on a drug-related felony charge, there is little chance that he or she will be told about the “collateral consequences” of their sentence.

The severity of these residual punishments depends on the state. “Life Sentences: The Collateral Sanctions Associated with Marijuana Offenses,” a report released in July by the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics (CCLE), ranks Florida, Delaware, Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia, Utah, Arizona and South Carolina as the 10 states with the worst records for continuing the punishments of people who have already served their time.

“Life Sentences” author Richard Boire writes that the long-term sanctions for drug crimes, even for relatively benign drugs like marijuana, can exceed those of violent crimes like premeditated assault, rape and murder. Intense criminalization of drugs began with the Nixon administration, which ignored its own appointed “marihuana” commission’s recommendation that legalization for personal use was a logical alternative to costly and ineffective criminalization. The drug war intensified during the Reagan era and has since grown worse: Today, fully 45 percent of 1.5 million annual drug arrests are related to marijuana.

Up until the early ’90s, people who smoked pot were rarely arrested in large numbers. If sentenced, most users and small-time dealers did not face long sentences. That has changed. According to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project, marijuana-related arrests jumped up by 113 percent from 1990 to 2002, while overall drug arrests only increased by three percent during that time. Meanwhile, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has linked smoking weed to everything from teen violence to terrorism.

“ONDCP’s crusade seems to get more incoherent and detached from reality every day,” says Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “One minute they say marijuana makes you an apathetic slug, the next they say it turns you into a violent gangbanger. Neither has the remotest connection with reality, and these latest claims of a link between marijuana and violence are based on shameless manipulation of statistics taken completely out of context.”

Government-funded propaganda has been disseminated everywhere, from ads in some progressive magazines, to press releases regurgitated as “news” on cable stations like FOX News, to websites such as, which recently posted an ONDCP article, “Early Marijuana Use an Early Warning Sign for Gang Involvement.” For all of its hoopla about the consequences of drug use, the ONDCP hasn’t shown an interest in documenting the problems faced by those convicted of felony drug charges after release.

Job applicants must inform potential employers, upon request, of past felonies, no matter how long ago they happened. The resulting job discrimination pushes many former prisoners back into the underground economy, contributing to the fact that two-thirds of former prisoners recidivate.

Former drug-related offenders have been further punished by stipulations signed into law in 1996, without congressional or public debate, as a part of the Welfare Reform Act. Former convicts can now be denied public housing, food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and scholarships for higher education. Other limits on freedoms include the denial of vocational licensing and certification for some professions, voting rights, suspension of driver’s licenses—regardless of whether the offense had anything to do with an automobile—and lifetime bans on the adoption of a child.

Equally serious is that incarcerated men and women, especially those who do not have the physical size or prowess to fight off predators, can be extorted, bullied, beaten, molested or raped by guards and fellow inmates. “Stories from Inside: Prison Rape and the War on Drugs,” a study released earlier this year by Los Angeles-based Stop Prisoner Rape, estimates that as many as one in four female and one in five male prisoners experience sexual violence while incarcerated. The real numbers are likely to be higher because of underreporting related to fear of repercussion or stigma.

“While anyone can be a victim of prisoner rape,” the report states, “inmates convicted of a non-violent drug offense typically possess characteristics that put them at great risk for abuse. They tend to be young, unschooled in the ways of prison life, and lacking the street smarts necessary to protect themselves from other detainees.”

Silja J.A. Talvi is a senior editor at In These Times, an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor. She is at work on a book about women in prison (Seal Press/Avalon/Perseus).

Social Gathering

From: Arnie King
Date: 8/10/2007 10:43:31 AM
Subject: Social Gathering for August's Fourth Friday Event

Warm Greetings,

As we prepare for 2007 Commutation Hearing our energies flow towards writing letters of support, preparing statements and compiling documents. In appreciation for your continued assistance and your genuine presence with this effort, you are invited to a social gathering at the Community Church of Boston, 565 Boylston Street, (Copley Square), to meet, greet and eat with folks on Friday, 8/24/07 at 7:00 pm.

There will be a discussion of previous hearings, updates on this petition and an opportunity to ask questions and offer comments. Please attend, bring a friend or some homemade treat. See you soon.

One Love,

Chicopee jail opening soon

Friday, August 10, 2007

CHICOPEE - A Sept. 13 dedication is planned for the $26.1 million Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center on Center Street.

Following the dedication, between 190 and 195 inmates will be transferred to the jail at the end of September or early October, Patricia A. Murphy, the superintendent of the facility, said yesterday.

The jail was originally slated to open in early June, but a snag in the delivery and installation of the electronic security system delayed the opening. The system is being installed and tested, Murphy said.

"We'll be close to capacity when we transfer over," Murphy said. "We're thrilled about it because it's really going to offer an opportunity for elbow room. The facility in Ludlow is really overcrowded."

The 210-bed facility, operated by the Hampden County Sheriff's Department, will hold female inmates from Hampden, Hampshire, Berkshire and Franklin counties who are sentenced to terms of 2½ years or less. There will be 46 beds set aside for minimum-security inmates and 164 beds for medium-security inmates.

Since medium-security inmates require a higher level of security, they must wear uniforms and can only go outside the facility for appointments such as court dates if they're escorted. Minimum-security inmates have access to the community, whether it's to attend a job or perform community service, and wear street clothes.

"There will be a lot of focus on substance abuse treatment and family work," Murphy said. "Our focus will be on re-entry."

Murphy said most of the female inmates have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, such as drugs and prostitution. About 85 percent arrive at jail with some level of addiction.

Training of the 134 staff members is scheduled to be completed next week. Two weeks before the jail opens, staff will complete another two weeks of training regarding their individual posts. Of the 134, 68 are correctional officers and nine are correctional supervisors. There are also food services, health services, maintenance, processing, human services, clinical, information systems technology and administrative staff.

Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette said he believes the jail will be an asset to the city.

Not only did the city receive $1.34 million from the state for the land on which the jail was built, it will also receive $10,000 for every bed at the facility. In addition, Bissonnette said the city will benefit from the more than 100 employees who commute to the jail every day. "It's spurring more interest (in development) from the Springfield line to Chicopee Center," Bissonnette said.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?

Race and the transformation of criminal justice
By Glenn C. Loury

The early 1990s were the age of drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad, crack cocaine, and gangsta rap. Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven rose from six to 31, the number of rapes from four to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent. Crime was concentrated in central cities: in 1990, two fifths of Pennsylvania’s violent crimes were committed in Philadelphia, home to one seventh of the state’s population. The subject of crime dominated American domestic-policy debates.

Most observers at the time expected things to get worse. Consulting demographic tables and extrapolating trends, scholars and pundits warned the public to prepare for an onslaught, and for a new kind of criminal—the anomic, vicious, irreligious, amoral juvenile “super-predator.” In 1996, one academic commentator predicted a “bloodbath” of juvenile homicides in 2005.

And so we prepared. Stoked by fear and political opportunism, but also by the need to address a very real social problem, we threw lots of people in jail, and when the old prisons were filled we built new ones.

But the onslaught never came. Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply since. Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates remained high and continued their upward march. The result, the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.

According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.

How did it come to this? One argument is that the massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, we responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. This argument is not entirely misguided. Increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from five percent to 25 percent. Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.

A more convincing argument is that imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.

One simple measure of punitiveness is the likelihood that a person who is arrested will be subsequently incarcerated. Between 1980 and 2001, there was no real change in the chances of being arrested in response to a complaint: the rate was just under 50 percent. But the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. And because the amount of time served and the rate of prison admission both increased, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite the decline in the level of violence. The incarceration rate for nonviolent and drug offenses increased at an even faster pace: between 1980 and 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by a factor of 11. Indeed, the criminal-justice researcher Alfred Blumstein has argued that none of the growth in incarceration between 1980 and 1996 can be attributed to more crime:

The growth was entirely attributable to a growth in punitiveness, about equally to growth in prison commitments per arrest (an indication of tougher prosecution or judicial sentencing) and to longer time served (an indication of longer sentences, elimination of parole or later parole release, or greater readiness to recommit parolees to prison for either technical violations or new crimes).
This growth in punitiveness was accompanied by a shift in thinking about the basic purpose of criminal justice. In the 1970s, the sociologist David Garland argues, the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there. Felons are no longer persons to be supported, but risks to be dealt with. And the way to deal with the risks is to keep them locked up. As of 2000, 33 states had abolished limited parole (up from 17 in 1980); 24 states had introduced three-strikes laws (up from zero); and 40 states had introduced truth-in-sentencing laws (up from three). The vast majority of these changes occurred in the 1990s, as crime rates fell.

This new system of punitive ideas is aided by a new relationship between the media, the politicians, and the public. A handful of cases—in which a predator does an awful thing to an innocent—get excessive media attention and engender public outrage. This attention typically bears no relation to the frequency of the particular type of crime, and yet laws—such as three-strikes laws that give mandatory life sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—and political careers are made on the basis of the public’s reaction to the media coverage of such crimes.

* * *

Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring than it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why?

The question has no simple answer, but the racial composition of prisons is a good place to start. The punitive turn in the nation’s social policy—intimately connected with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order—can be fully grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of America’s often ugly and violent racial history: there is a reason why our inclination toward forgiveness and the extension of a second chance to those who have violated our behavioral strictures is so stunted, and why our mainstream political discourses are so bereft of self-examination and searching social criticism. This historical resonance between the stigma of race and the stigma of imprisonment serves to keep alive in our public culture the subordinating social meanings that have always been associated with blackness. Race helps to explain why the United States is exceptional among the democratic industrial societies in the severity and extent of its punitive policy and in the paucity of its social-welfare institutions.

Slavery ended a long time ago, but the institution of chattel slavery and the ideology of racial subordination that accompanied it have cast a long shadow. I speak here of the history of lynching throughout the country; the racially biased policing and judging in the South under Jim Crow and in the cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and West to which blacks migrated after the First and Second World Wars; and the history of racial apartheid that ended only as a matter of law with the civil-rights movement. It should come as no surprise that in the post–civil rights era, race, far from being peripheral, has been central to the evolution of American social policy.

The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively, I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to the success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of “frontlash” in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George Wallace’s campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime:

Once the clutch of Jim Crow had loosened, opponents of civil rights shifted the “locus of attack” by injecting crime onto the agenda. Through the process of frontlash, rivals of civil rights progress defined racial discord as criminal and argued that crime legislation would be a panacea to racial unrest. This strategy both imbued crime with race and depoliticized racial struggle, a formula which foreclosed earlier “root causes” alternatives. Fusing anxiety about crime to anxiety over racial change and riots, civil rights and racial disorder—initially defined as a problem of minority disenfranchisement—were defined as a crime problem, which helped shift debate from social reform to punishment.
Of course, this argument (for which Weaver adduces considerable circumstantial evidence) is speculative. But something interesting seems to have been going on in the late 1960s regarding the relationship between attitudes on race and social policy.

Before 1965, public attitudes on the welfare state and on race, as measured by the annually administered General Social Survey, varied year to year independently of one another: you could not predict much about a person’s attitudes on welfare politics by knowing their attitudes about race. After 1965, the attitudes moved in tandem, as welfare came to be seen as a race issue. Indeed, the year-to-year correlation between an index measuring liberalism of racial attitudes and attitudes toward the welfare state over the interval 1950–1965 was .03. These same two series had a correlation of .68 over the period 1966–1996. The association in the American mind of race with welfare, and of race with crime, has been achieved at a common historical moment. Crime-control institutions are part of a larger social-policy complex—they relate to and interact with the labor market, family-welfare efforts, and health and social-work activities. Indeed, Garland argues that the ideological approaches to welfare and crime control have marched rightward to a common beat: “The institutional and cultural changes that have occurred in the crime control field are analogous to those that have occurred in the welfare state more generally.” Just as the welfare state came to be seen as a race issue, so, too, crime came to be seen as a race issue, and policies have been shaped by this perception.

Consider the tortured racial history of the War on Drugs. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a drug offense in 1975 but four times as likely by 1989. Throughout the 1990s, drug-arrest rates remained at historically unprecedented levels. Yet according to the National Survey on Drug Abuse, drug use among adults fell from 20 percent in 1979 to 11 percent in 2000. A similar trend occurred among adolescents. In the age groups 12–17 and 18–25, use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin all peaked in the late 1970s and began a steady decline thereafter. Thus, a decline in drug use across the board had begun a decade before the draconian anti-drug efforts of the 1990s were initiated.

Of course, most drug arrests are for trafficking, not possession, so usage rates and arrest rates needn’t be expected to be identical. Still, we do well to bear in mind that the social problem of illicit drug use is endemic to our whole society. Significantly, throughout the period 1979–2000, white high-school seniors reported using drugs at a significantly higher rate than black high-school seniors. High drug-usage rates in white, middle-class American communities in the early 1980s accounts for the urgency many citizens felt to mount a national attack on the problem. But how successful has the effort been, and at what cost?

Think of the cost this way: to save middle-class kids from the threat of a drug epidemic that might not have even existed by the time that drug incarceration began its rapid increase in the 1980s, we criminalized underclass kids. Arrests went up, but drug prices have fallen sharply over the past 20 years—suggesting that the ratcheting up of enforcement has not made drugs harder to get on the street. The strategy clearly wasn’t keeping drugs away from those who sought them. Not only are prices down, but the data show that drug-related visits to emergency rooms also rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

An interesting case in point is New York City. Analyzing arrests by residential neighborhood and police precinct, the criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues Valerie West and Jan Holland found that incarceration was highest in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, though these were often not the neighborhoods in which crime rates were the highest. Moreover, they discovered a perverse effect of incarceration on crime: higher incarceration in a given neighborhood in one year seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later. This growth and persistence of incarceration over time, the authors concluded, was due primarily to the drug enforcement practices of police and to sentencing laws that require imprisonment for repeat felons. Police scrutiny was more intensive and less forgiving in high-incarceration neighborhoods, and parolees returning to such neighborhoods were more closely monitored. Thus, discretionary and spatially discriminatory police behavior led to a high and increasing rate of repeat prison admissions in the designated neighborhoods, even as crime rates fell.

Fagan, West, and Holland explain the effects of spatially concentrated urban anti-drug-law enforcement in the contemporary American metropolis. Buyers may come from any neighborhood and any social stratum. But the sellers—at least the ones who can be readily found hawking their wares on street corners and in public vestibules—come predominantly from the poorest, most non-white parts of the city. The police, with arrest quotas to meet, know precisely where to find them. The researchers conclude:

Incarceration begets more incarceration, and incarceration also begets more crime, which in turn invites more aggressive enforcement, which then re-supplies incarceration . . . three mechanisms . . . contribute to and reinforce incarceration in neighborhoods: the declining economic fortunes of former inmates and the effects on neighborhoods where they tend to reside, resource and relationship strains on families of prisoners that weaken the family’s ability to supervise children, and voter disenfranchisement that weakens the political economy of neighborhoods.

The effects of imprisonment on life chances are profound. For incarcerated black men, hourly wages are ten percent lower after prison than before. For all incarcerated men, the number of weeks worked per year falls by at least a third after their release.

So consider the nearly 60 percent of black male high-school dropouts born in the late 1960s who are imprisoned before their 40th year. While locked up, these felons are stigmatized—they are regarded as fit subjects for shaming. Their links to family are disrupted; their opportunities for work are diminished; their voting rights may be permanently revoked. They suffer civic excommunication. Our zeal for social discipline consigns these men to a permanent nether caste. And yet, since these men—whatever their shortcomings—have emotional and sexual and family needs, including the need to be fathers and lovers and husbands, we are creating a situation where the children of this nether caste are likely to join a new generation of untouchables. This cycle will continue so long as incarceration is viewed as the primary path to social hygiene.

* * *

I have been exploring the issue of causes: of why we took the punitive turn that has resulted in mass incarceration. But even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear. To be sure, in the United States, as in any society, public order is maintained by the threat and use of force. We enjoy our good lives only because we are shielded by the forces of law and order, which keep the unruly at bay. Yet in this society, to a degree virtually unmatched in any other, those bearing the brunt of order enforcement belong in vastly disproportionate numbers to historically marginalized racial groups. Crime and punishment in America has a color.

In his fine study Punishment and Inequality in America (2006), the Princeton University sociologist Bruce Western powerfully describes the scope, nature, and consequences of contemporary imprisonment. He finds that the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any other major arena of American social life: at eight to one, the black–white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the two-to-one ratio of unemployment rates, the three-to-one ration of non-marital childbearing, the two-to-one ratio of infant-mortality rates and one-to-five ratio of net worth. While three out of 200 young whites were incarcerated in 2000, the rate for young blacks was one in nine. A black male resident of the state of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.

The scandalous truth is that the police and penal apparatus are now the primary contact between adult black American men and the American state. Among black male high-school dropouts aged 20 to 40, a third were locked up on any given day in 2000, fewer than three percent belonged to a union, and less than one quarter were enrolled in any kind of social program. Coercion is the most salient meaning of government for these young men. Western estimates that nearly 60 percent of black male dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 were sent to prison on a felony conviction at least once before they reached the age of 35.

One cannot reckon the world-historic American prison build-up over the past 35 years without calculating the enormous costs imposed upon the persons imprisoned, their families, and their communities. (Of course, this has not stopped many social scientists from pronouncing on the net benefits of incarceration without doing so.) Deciding on the weight to give to a “thug’s” well-being—or to that of his wife or daughter or son—is a question of social morality, not social science. Nor can social science tell us how much additional cost borne by the offending class is justified in order to obtain a given increment of security or property or peace of mind for the rest of us. These are questions about the nature of the American state and its relationship to its people that transcend the categories of benefits and costs.

Yet the discourse surrounding punishment policy invariably discounts the humanity of the thieves, drug sellers, prostitutes, rapists, and, yes, those whom we put to death. It gives insufficient weight to the welfare, to the humanity, of those who are knitted together with offenders in webs of social and psychic affiliation. What is more, institutional arrangements for dealing with criminal offenders in the United States have evolved to serve expressive as well as instrumental ends. We have wanted to “send a message,” and we have done so with a vengeance. In the process, we have created facts. We have answered the question, who is to blame for the domestic maladies that beset us? We have constructed a national narrative. We have created scapegoats, indulged our need to feel virtuous, and assuaged our fears. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is them.

Incarceration keeps them away from us. Thus Garland: “The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety.” The boundary between prison and community, Garland continues, is “heavily patrolled and carefully monitored to prevent risks leaking out from one to the other. Those offenders who are released ‘into the community’ are subject to much tighter control than previously, and frequently find themselves returned to custody for failure to comply with the conditions that continue to restrict their freedom. For many of these parolees and ex-convicts, the ‘community’ into which they are released is actually a closely monitored terrain, a supervised space, lacking much of the liberty that one associates with ‘normal life’.”

Deciding how citizens of varied social rank within a common polity ought to relate to one another is a more fundamental consideration than deciding which crime-control policy is most efficient. The question of relationship, of solidarity, of who belongs to the body politic and who deserves exclusion—these are philosophical concerns of the highest order. A decent society will on occasion resist the efficient course of action, for the simple reason that to follow it would be to act as though we were not the people we have determined ourselves to be: a people conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we all are created equal. Assessing the propriety of creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities at the start of the 21st century presents us with just such a case.

My recitation of the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America may sound to some like a primal scream at this monstrous social machine that is grinding poor black communities to dust. And I confess that these brutal facts do at times incline me to cry out in despair. But my argument is analytical, not existential. Its principal thesis is this: we law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request. We had choices and we decided to be more punitive. Our society—the society we have made—creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.

This situation raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid. We cannot pretend that there are more important problems in our society, or that this circumstance is the necessary solution to other, more pressing problems—unless we are also prepared to say that we have turned our backs on the ideal of equality for all citizens and abandoned the principles of justice. We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens—even those who break our laws?

* * *

To address these questions, we need to think about the evaluation of our prison system as a problem in the theory of distributive justice—not the purely procedural idea of ensuring equal treatment before the law and thereafter letting the chips fall where they may, but the rather more demanding ideal of substantive racial justice. The goal is to bring about through conventional social policy and far-reaching institutional reforms a situation in which the history of racial oppression is no longer so evident in the disparate life experiences of those who descend from slaves.

And I suggest we approach that problem from the perspective of John Rawls’s theory of justice: first, that we think about justice from an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” that obstructs from view our own situation, including our class, race, gender, and talents. We need to ask what rules we would pick if we seriously imagined that we could turn out to be anyone in the society. Second, following Rawls’s “difference principle,” we should permit inequalities only if they work to improve the circumstances of the least advantaged members of society. But here, the object of moral inquiry is not the distribution among individuals of wealth and income, but instead the distribution of a negative good, punishment, among individuals and, importantly, racial groups.

So put yourself in John Rawls’s original position and imagine that you could occupy any rank in the social hierarchy. Let me be more concrete: imagine that you could be born a black American male outcast shuffling between prison and the labor market on his way to an early death to the chorus of nigger or criminal or dummy. Suppose we had to stop thinking of us and them. What social rules would we pick if we actually thought that they could be us? I expect that we would still pick some set of punishment institutions to contain bad behavior and protect society. But wouldn’t we pick arrangements that respected the humanity of each individual and of those they are connected to through bonds of social and psychic affiliation? If any one of us had a real chance of being one of those faces looking up from the bottom of the well—of being the least among us—then how would we talk publicly about those who break our laws? What would we do with juveniles who go awry, who roam the streets with guns and sometimes commit acts of violence? What weight would we give to various elements in the deterrence-retribution-incapacitation-rehabilitation calculus, if we thought that calculus could end up being applied to our own children, or to us? How would we apportion blame and affix responsibility for the cultural and social pathologies evident in some quarters of our society if we envisioned that we ourselves might well have been born into the social margins where such pathology flourishes?

If we take these questions as seriously as we should, then we would, I expect, reject a pure ethic of personal responsibility as the basis for distributing punishment. Issues about responsibility are complex, and involve a kind of division of labor—what John Rawls called a “social division of responsibility” between “citizens as a collective body” and individuals: when we hold a person responsible for his or her conduct—by establishing laws, investing in their enforcement, and consigning some persons to prisons—we need also to think about whether we have done our share in ensuring that each person faces a decent set of opportunities for a good life. We need to ask whether we as a society have fulfilled our collective responsibility to ensure fair conditions for each person—for each life that might turn out to be our life.

We would, in short, recognize a kind of social responsibility, even for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons. I am not arguing that people commit crimes because they have no choices, and that in this sense the “root causes” of crime are social; individuals always have choices. My point is that responsibility is a matter of ethics, not social science. Society at large is implicated in an individual person’s choices because we have acquiesced in—perhaps actively supported, through our taxes and votes, words and deeds—social arrangements that work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of identity in such a way that the choices he makes, which we may condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him—an entirely understandable response to circumstance. Closed and bounded social structures—like racially homogeneous urban ghettos—create contexts where “pathological” and “dysfunctional” cultural forms emerge; but these forms are neither intrinsic to the people caught in these structures nor independent of the behavior of people who stand outside them.

Thus, a central reality of our time is the fact that there has opened a wide racial gap in the acquisition of cognitive skills, the extent of law-abidingness, the stability of family relations, the attachment to the work force, and the like. This disparity in human development is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history: it is a societal, not communal or personal, achievement. At the level of the individual case we must, of course, act as if this were not so. There could be no law, no civilization, without the imputation to particular persons of responsibility for their wrongful acts. But the sum of a million cases, each one rightly judged on its merits to be individually fair, may nevertheless constitute a great historic wrong. The state does not only deal with individual cases. It also makes policies in the aggregate, and the consequences of these policies are more or less knowable. And who can honestly say—who can look in the mirror and say with a straight face—that we now have laws and policies that we would endorse if we did not know our own situation and genuinely considered the possibility that we might be the least advantaged?

Even if the current racial disparity in punishment in our country gave evidence of no overt racial discrimination—and, perhaps needless to say, I view that as a wildly optimistic supposition—it would still be true that powerful forces are at work to perpetuate the consequences of a universally acknowledged wrongful past. This is in the first instance a matter of interpretation—of the narrative overlay that we impose upon the facts.

The tacit association in the American public’s imagination of “blackness” with “unworthiness” or “dangerousness” has obscured a fundamental ethical point about responsibility, both collective and individual, and promoted essentialist causal misattributions: when confronted by the facts of racially disparate achievement, racially disproportionate crime rates, and racially unequal school achievement, observers will have difficulty identifying with the plight of a group of people whom they (mistakenly) think are simply “reaping what they have sown.” Thus, the enormous racial disparity in the imposition of social exclusion, civic ex-communication, and lifelong disgrace has come to seem legitimate, even necessary: we fail to see how our failures as a collective body are implicated in this disparity. We shift all the responsibility onto their shoulders, only by irresponsibly—indeed, immorally—denying our own. And yet, this entire dynamic has its roots in past unjust acts that were perpetrated on the basis of race.

Given our history, producing a racially defined nether caste through the ostensibly neutral application of law should be profoundly offensive to our ethical sensibilities—to the principles we proudly assert as our own. Mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society. Our country’s policymakers need to do something about it. And all of us are ultimately responsible for making sure that they do.

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences in the department of economics at Brown University. He is the author of The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, and he was a 2002 Carnegie Scholar.

Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Boston Review.

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