Friday, January 30, 2009

Wisconsin Innocence Project wins release of wrongfully convicted man

Robert Lee Stinson, who has served nearly 29 years in jail on a murder conviction, had his conviction vacated by a judge today in Milwaukee County, thanks in part to the work of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Park of the state's case against Stinson was that he had bit the victim, but

[f]our forensic odontologists who evaluated the dental evidence for the [Wisconsin] innocence project found that the bite marks were not Stinson's, the project said. The innocence project also said DNA found on the victim's sweater did not match Stinson's DNA.

The state will have until a September hearing to decide whether they can go forward without the bite mark evidence, though, with the DNA exclusion coming to light, it seems difficult for the state to establish Stinson's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

We congratulate the Wisconsin Innocence Project for this momentous achievement.

A call for sentencing rationality in Florida

Sentencing Law and Policy has a snippet of a compelling Florida Bar Journal article this morning.

Here's what they cite:

Americans love to be number one. Unfortunately, we are now tops in two negative areas: debt and prisons....

[O]ur nation imprisons more people per capita than any other nation. Florida is leading this trend with the fastest growth of any state. A recent Pew Report noted that Florida “will run out of prison capacity by early 2009 and will need to add another 16,500 beds to keep pace.” With $65,000 per bed “as the best approximation for a typical medium security facility” and $19,308 per year for each Florida inmate, Florida must raise taxes, cut programs, or finance this $1.1 billion in initial capital costs plus an additional $314 million in annual recurring costs....

Our current approach to criminal justice sentencing is not only fiscally irresponsible — it is morally questionable. This approach will result in a continuing, chronic economic crisis.

It's a good point that I've mentioned before: if the obvious moral failings of the corrections system aren't enough to motivate serious reforms, then perhaps the deepening economic crisis in America will have legislators looking for human solutions to the problem. It's embarrassing that SentLaw called out Florida in particular, and the statistic that we lead the nation in prison population growth is a sin and a shame.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Those cleared by DNA tests struggle to be free

Media coverage of exonerations is usually pretty good. There are newspaper articles, television clips, interviews and most often an editorial or two about the horrors of wrongful incarceration. But what happens after the cameras stop rolling and the reporters move on to new stories?

As the following USA TODAY story by Kevin Johnson points out, for many exonerees, the nightmare of their wrongful incarceration doesn't end when they walk out of prison.

ST. LOUIS — Johnny Briscoe thought his nightmare was over in the summer of 2006 when, after 23 years of proclaiming his innocence, he finally walked out of a Missouri prison.

DNA evidence lifted from a cigarette butt should have stripped away any doubt that another man — not Briscoe — had raped and robbed a woman in her suburban St. Louis apartment on Oct. 21, 1982. Yet Briscoe's exoneration, featured by national news organizations, did not fully free him from the persistent doubts of acquaintances and family members about his innocence, or from the emotional scars seared by more than two decades in prison.
That's one of the problems. There will always be people who wonder, or worse who insist, despite DNA evidence to the contrary, that the exonerated person was guilty. Thankfully, these misguided individuals are few, but their affect on an innocent person who has spent decades in prison can be devastating.
Nearly 90% of the 227 people cleared by DNA evidence since 1989 were convicted of some of the most heinous sex crimes, according to the Innocence Project, which helps inmates prove their innocence through DNA testing. DNA — present in blood, semen and body cells — can be particularly useful in solving sex crimes and often is the most definitive way of determining innocence.

Yet not even DNA washes away the lasting stigma that shadows once-convicted sex offenders who are cleared by genetic testing, and the criminal justice system that wrongly jailed them offers little help. Briscoe's plight is part of a silent struggle for a rising number of exonerees. After high-profile releases from prison, they often fend for themselves.
Add to the stigma a financial wall that most exonerees encounter as soon as they are released.
Most states did not account for the exonerated when officials started re-entry programs for the hundreds of thousands of offenders released in the U.S. each year. Most are ineligible for basic benefits, such as counseling and job training, that states give guilty offenders when they re-enter society.
So exonerees have no money (almost all are indigent by the time they’re released) and no job. They have no place to live, no driver’s license, and sadly, by the time they get out, some have no family or friends. From an exoneree's talk in 2003:
Financially I was broke. No family. Occupationally I was 44 years old. Nobody was going to hire me. Nothing was available when I walked out of prison. Absolutely nothing.
The transition is never easy. And for those without an intact supportive family, it can be lonely as well as stressful.

At least in Florida we are fortunate to have a full-time social worker on staff to help our exonerees with their transition. (The paperwork alone can be daunting.) Our social worker coordinates an array of transitional services to meet their immediate and long-term needs including medical, psychological, and social support; occupational training and assistance; housing assistance; family support; and education.

And although we do have a compensation law on the books in Florida, it can still take one to two years to receive payment, if the individual even qualifies. (Florida's law prohibits compensation for any exoneree who has a previous felony conviction, or a conviction incurred while wrongfully incarcerated.) Most of Florida's exonerees would not be eligible under the bill as it now stands. Their only recourse has been, and continues to be, seeking compensation through a personal claims bill, a long and arduous process whose outcome is entirely dependent on the whim (and political makeup) of that particular legislative session.

So, in 2007 we established the Exoneree Emergency Fund to provide financial assistance for basic necessities during their transition. The fund, which is entirely dependent on contributions from the public, helps our clients buy groceries and gas, pay bills, purchase clothes for work, and secure job training. Each individual's needs vary, as does the length of time they require assistance, but we are thankful that, so far, we've received enough contributions to enable the Fund to continue.

Read the complete article.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here. (If you want your donation to go directly to the Exoneree Emergency Fund, please include a note with that request.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scientific American on false confessions

Here's a podcast from Scientific American's series called "60-second Psych" on false confessions. They relate a study published in the journal of Psychological Science.

According to the Innocence Project, false confessions contributed to 25% of wrongful convictions in the U.S. in 2008...

Despite the presumption in law that different types of evidence are to be considered independent, this research shows just how tough it is to keep human nature from seeping in and tainting hard logic.

More information can be found on false confessions here.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

Van de Kamp decision undercuts accountability

A few days ago, the Supreme Court rendered an opinion in the case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein. The case revolved around the sharing of information between prosecutors and public defenders, and whether a prosecutor who failed to share potentially exculpatory evidence with a public defender is vulnerable to damage liability.

The SCOUTUSwiki has the background and a good analysis of the opinion written by Lyle Denniston. In part:

The case of Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (07-854) involved a plea to the Court by a former chief prosecutor in Los Angeles, John Van de Kamp, and his chief deputy, Curt Livesay. They were seeking to head off a civil rights damages lawsuit by a man who had been prosecuted and convicted of murder in 1980. That conviction had been based in part upon the testimony of a jailhouse informant about a confession to the murder by Thomas Lee Goldstein.

After Goldstein served 24 years in prison, he was released based upon a court finding that the jailhouse informant had been given favorable treatment for his information, but that fact was never shared — as it should have been — with Goldstein’s defense lawyer. Goldstein then brought his civil rights lawsuit, claiming that some prosecutors knew about the informant’s favorable treatment, but the word did not get passed to defense counsel, mainly because the leaders of the office failed to train line prosecutors to share such information, failed to supervise the line attorneys, and failed to create a system for retaining and sharing information about informants. (emphasis added)

And to answer the "So what?" question, "The Court’s ruling continued a process that began in 1976, in Imbler v. Pachtman. In that decision, the Court said that, just as judges, jurors and legislators need absolute immunity to damage liability in order to perform their duties without facing harassing litigation against them, so do prosecutors."

Without disagreeing with too much precedent, I feel there are very good arguments to be made on the other side of this issue. For example, if the goal is to protect all of those parties from harassing litigation, why not make an effort to distinguish when litigation is frivolous and harassing (and when it is appropriate), rather than toss out the litigating baby with the bathwater?

It can't be the case that prosecutors enjoy total immunity, and it's not. (The Court makes a distinction between administrative and court-related activities, the former alone enjoying immunity.) But, in this case, the Court seems to have faulted, and here is why I think that's so: The negligence – or purposeful obfuscation, take your pick – of the prosecutor Van de Kamp in this case was found to be enough to overturn a man's conviction and release him from his sentence after he had served 24 years. That evidences to me that, even if this were a careless slip-up, it was one that was consequential enough that it would have changed the course of trial if it were known back then.

Second, Goldstein had been wrongfully incarcerated for 24 years before he was released. Most people would agree he is entitled to compensation. Goldstein has already tried to sue for damages the most appropriate target. What recourse has he left?

Jailhouse snitches are a notoriously unreliable source of information. See our page here on other ways to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

Interview with LBN Studios on Jimmy Ates

Have a look at this video posted on YouTube, it contains an interview with IPF's Executive Director Seth Miller about the release of Jimmy Ates.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Convicting the Innocent

From the Death Penalty Information Center,

A new law review, “Convicting the Innocent,” by Samuel Gross, explores the rate of false convictions among death sentences and demographical and procedural predictors of such errors. Gross’ research shows the exoneration rate is 2.3% for “inmates who had been on death row at least 15 years as of 2004 and for those who had been on death row for at least 20 years.” Gross continues, “This figure – 2.3% - is the actual proportion of exonerations for death sentences imposed in the United States between 1973 and 1979.” He concludes, “The proportion of capital exonerations is almost certainly an underestimate of the true rate of false capital convictions.”

The obvious question, then, which Gross hints at, is how many innocent people have been executed without being exonerated. The United States has executed 1,138 people with another 3,308 waiting on death row. At 2.3%, that would mean over 100 people have been falsely convicted and sentenced to death.

Do prisoners have the right to starve themselves?

There's an intriguing article today in the Hartford Courant today about a prisoner named William Coleman going on hunger strike and the ensuring debate over whether he has the right to starve himself, even to death. The prison has begun force-feeding him after his weight has dwindled from 250 lbs to 125. Coleman believes he was wrongly convicted and sees himself as protesting a corrupt correctional establishment.

In a Superior Court hearing that begins Thursday in Hartford, Judge James T. Graham will hear arguments that pit First Amendment and privacy rights — including the right to refuse medical treatment — against the state's interest in preventing suicide, maintaining control of its prisons and resisting inmate coercion.

I'm not entirely sympathetic to the prisoner's claim that starving himself amounts to Constitutionally protected free-speech, but I feel he has the right nonetheless. My question is, if a person is allowed to commit suicide outside of a prison, why should it be different inside?

Meanwhile, I came across this excellent post by Cecil Adams over at the Straight Dope on the history and cultural morality of suicide.

In the U.S. suicide has never been treated as a crime nor punished by property forfeiture or ignominious burial. (Some states listed it on the books as a felony but imposed no penalty.) Curiously, as of 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a crime--North and South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma.

It's a thorny issue, and there's probably not a neat and tidy answer. (I might even have my understanding entirely wrong: "But Dr. Michael Grodin, director of medical ethics at the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, said hunger strikes are not suicide attempts because the intent is not to die, but to produce a change.")

Either way, Coleman seems determined to carry out the strike "to the end," and also has the support of his family. I'm not sure that the state's interests overpower those wishes, but, then again, our culture has struggled with "the right to die" for a few decades now. Just some food for thought.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fifth circuit stays planned execution of Swearingen

On Thursday, the Houston Chronicle ran an editorial on Thursday about the impending execution of Larry Ray Swearingen, convicted of a rape-murder in 1998. The evidence tying him to the murder of a coed was circumstantial. Swearingen, a convicted rapist, had been seen near the location on the day the victim disappeared, and a sock in his trailer was matched to a fiber found on the body.

But there is growing evidence that he was not the murderer. Notably, four pathologists have since come forward after reviewing the evidence and have said they believed the victim died much later than first reported at trial. In fact, they believe the victim was killed at a time when Swearingen was in state custody on traffic warrants.

What is even more remarkable is that a pubic hair taken from the victim's rape kit and the scrapings from under her fingernails prove that Swearingen was not the murderer.

The question is whether these new opinions, and the other scientific evidence, constitute new evidence in the legal sense, enough to get Swearingen a new trial. On that, the state has contradicted itself:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals correctly stayed Swearingen’s execution last year on the basis of the new evidence. It inexplicably later denied his appeal for a new trial without addressing the seeming impossibility of his involvement in the woman’s killing.

...Dr. Glenn Larkin, a retired forensic pathologist who reviewed the case, told Texas Monthly that "no rational and intellectually honest person can look at the evidence and conclude Larry Swearingen is guilty of this horrible crime."

The Innocence Project of Florida joins the Houston Chronicle and others in asking Governor Perry to stay Swearingen's execution so that the most probative evidence in the case can be thoroughly DNA tested. The worst that could happen is that Swearingen is shown to be the murderer beyond a reasonable doubt – a doubt which has just now meteorically risen. On the other hand, Texas is only four days away from executing what many people reasonably believe is an innocent man.

Update: Today the Fifth circuit in Texas stayed Swearingen's execution. "The federal appeals court gave Swearingen permission to bring another appeal — focused on the pathologists’ opinions — to a U.S. district court." Article here.

Prison population and the economy

Another day, another series of posts about the shrinking economy's effect on the prison population. It's not news that prisons in America are overpopulated – one in every one hundred Americans is behind bars. But it's a bitter-sweet development that economic considerations, rather than compassion or human rights concerns, constitute the impetus behind these new movements toward prison reform.

While Grits for Breakfast has a post encouraging a reduction in pre-trial detentions, Sentencing Law and Policy relates an article from the Concord Monitor in West Virginia about that state's search for solutions to their worsening budget crisis. The article contains this gem, in which I detect echoes of President Obama's inaugural speech:

"It's not about being tough on crime or soft on crime," [state Commissioner William Wrenn] said. "We are facing a huge economic challenge here. Are we doing the right thing?"

("The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...")

Inside the prison, Wrenn had reinstated a past practice of allowing well-behaved, successful inmates to request early release before they'd otherwise be able to do so through the courts. Inmates can petition Wrenn and a review board to recommend them for a sentence modification; if the board approves the request, it sends the petition onto the sentencing judge for a final decision.

...What Wrenn is most passionate about may be the hardest of the solutions to pull off: alternative sentencing for defendants who suffer mental illness or substance abuse addiction. He and a lot of others believe that if that population could be supervised and treated in their own communities and not housed in prison cells, the benefits would be many and not only monetary.

...In a recent study, The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies compared that cost by looking at a year inside prison against a year in Strafford County's Drug Court, an intensive supervision and treatment program that lets inmates live at home. The difference was staggering: $32,000 a year in prison versus about $11,400 a year in the Strafford County's alternative program.

Instead of outsourcing their prison system or fostering an environment akin to a concentration camp, West Virginia is seeking a more compassionate solution to prison overpopulation. Wrenn's proposals are strikingly sensible while being fair in the truest sense, and are also crafted with an eye toward protecting public safety. These approaches constitute more than an incremental improvement in prisoner treatment. It just took an economic downturn to bring this kind of "new" thinking to the forefront. Meanwhile, we hope other states adopt similar proposals in an attempt to humanize our correctional institutions.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Evolving minimum sentences

Interesting post today on the blog Grits for Breakfast that draws attention to a proposal in Texas to reduce the prison population, thereby reducing the costs of maintaining the prison system, freeing up funds to properly pay security personnel, etc.

The key recommendation of the proposal, known as the Michigan model, is "[requiring] most prisoners to be released after serving 120% of their minimum sentence."

I think that single proposal gives an interesting look into the back-and-forth that takes place between the political elements in favor more- and less-harsh punishment. You can see a narrative, thesis-antithesis process that is taking place, like a haggling process.

In the beginning, judges handed down sentences to convicts. The legislature proscribed what sentences were appropriate, the default sentences, if you will. Eventually there developed a lot of leeway for prisoners to be released on good behavior, parole, etc. Those in favor of stricter punishments pushed back, requiring minimum prison terms. Now, there is another development, that would force prisoners to be released after a certain percentage of their minimum sentence has elapsed, shrinking again the possible window of imprisonment between minimum and maximum time to be served. Or, possibly, proscribing an exact date that has everything to do with the minimum sentence and nothing to do with the default sentence. (Comparing this latest arrangement with a time when prisoners actually served their default sentence to the day makes me scratch my head a little.) Just an interesting thought about how the concept of a sentence has evolved through so many constrictions, expansions and proscriptions.

Further reading. There's a fantastic GFB post here and an AP article here on the same subject.

New Law Review Articles Address Forensics, False Confessions and the Un-Exonerated Innocent

From the national Innocence Project blog:

The newly released 2008 Annual Review of Law and Social Science includes three articles by leading researchers and thinkers on the causes of wrongful convictions and their frequency.

An article by University of Michigan School of Law Professor Sam Gross “explores some of the types of false convictions that almost never come to light— innocent defendants who plead guilty rather than go to trial, who receive comparatively light sentences, who are convicted of crimes that did not occur (as opposed to crimes committed by other people), who are sentenced in juvenile court—in fact, almost all innocent defendants who are convicted of any crimes other than rape or murder. Judging from what we can piece together, the vast majority of false convictions fall in these categories. They are commonplace events, inconspicuous mistakes in ordinary criminal investigations that never get anything close to the level of attention that sometimes leads to exoneration.”

Professors Michael Saks and David Faigman author an article about “how forensic science lost is way and how it might yet find it,” and false confession expert Saul Kassin, a professor at John Jay College, writes about the psychology that’s at play when innocent people admit to crimes they didn’t commit.

See the whole post here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

NYT: Report Faults Treatment of Women Held at Immigration Centers

An alarming article was published in the New York Times yesterday, relaying the results of a study of immigration detention facilities done by the University of Arizona.

Some 300 women held at immigration detention centers in Arizona face dangerous delays in health care and widespread mistreatment, according to [the study], the latest report to criticize conditions at such centers throughout the United States...

The study concluded that immigration authorities were too aggressive in detaining the women, who rarely posed a flight risk, and that as a result, they experienced severe hardships, including a lack of prenatal care, treatment for cancer, ovarian cysts and other serious medical conditions, and, in some cases, being mixed in with federal prisoners.

The article details some of the terrible conditions at these facilities that the report unearthed, and includes the perfunctory dismissal by the Federal authorities. It's worth noting that these prisons were not Federally run, but were privately owned enterprises, run "by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department and the Corrections Corporation of America." Such institutions have exhibited a chronic lack of oversight and accountability in the past. Hopefully the horrors that this study brought to light will be remedied by the new administration, or forces within Arizona. (In the long term, I hope to see Corrections Departments around the country wrested back from the hands of the lowest bidder.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What Today Means

The national Innocence Project has a short blog post today titled, "A Historic Day and What it Means for Criminal Justice Reform."

Today Barack Obama took the oath of office in Washington, D.C., becoming the 44th President of the United States. The new administration has pledged to tackle our nation’s pressing issues head-on, and preventing wrongful convictions should be a priority for the federal government and states nationwide.

One of their recommendations is a nationwide review of forensic standards. As we have seen in cases like William Dillon's, where fraudulent scientific testimony was given, and in Jimmy Ates', where a review of now-discredited science merited a new trial, expert testimony is often hugely important to a jury's deliberation. For that reason, it is important to make sure that only sound science is heard on the stand.

President Obama promised in his inaugural address to "restore science to its rightful place." While he was speaking specifically about wielding scientific advancements and innovation to solve the problems of healthcare and education in America, the national Innocence Project, and we as well, are hopeful that President Obama is also serious about scrutinizing science to prevent wrongful convictions.

Update 4:28: Sentencing Law and Policy points to the Civil Rights Division of the new White House website, including some of Obama's priorities concerning criminal justice.

New Orleans exoneree starts business

Today, a historic day, I'm conflicted on whether to post at all, as it might draw attention away from the momentousness of Mr. Obama's inauguration. I've decided, then, instead of posting a somber policy discussion or critique of the prison system, to post a feel-good story out of New Orleans.

Rickie Johnson was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in Louisiana's notorious Angola prison. Rather than resign himself to his fate, he dedicated his time to learning about how to run a business, and discovered he had a penchant for leatherwork. In January of last year, Johnson was cleared by DNA testing in the case of the 1983 rape for which he was convicted. He was released soon after, with the dream of opening a leather goods store.

Johnson's dream came true on Jan. 14, when he opened R.J. Leather Shop in Leesville, La. The grand opening came on the one-year anniversary of his release from prison...

[Johnson's] new shop, which is open six days a week, has handmade belts, wallets, purses, Bible covers – anything you could want made out of leather, he said.

It's heartwarming to consider success stories like this one, of people not only vindicated by the system, but able to become a productive member of society. It gives me hope for present and future exonerees, that a markedly better life is still open to them after their innocence is proven.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Day for Extremists

In a contemporary America in which Martin Luther King is embraced near-universally as a symbol of American freedom, it's easy to forget that in his own time, King's vision for America was controversial – even radical. 

In response to the Civil Rights Movement, Southern populist politicians rallied the electorate around pledges to preserve Jim Crow in defiance of federal law and federal troops. College students were murdered for having the audacity to help register their fellow citizens to vote. Even many white moderates who, in the abstract, favored the end of American apartheid, urged King to be patient, to seek consensus, to avoid disharmony.

It is in that atmosphere of conflict, of controversy, of confrontation that Martin Luther King is most appropriately remembered. He was a polarizing figure who stood for unpopular ideals in the face of massive and at times violent resistance. As usual, King himself said it best

I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a might stream."... Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?... Maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Even today – and tomorrow – as we rightfully celebrate the great distance we have travelled, we might also take some time to consider the ways in which the South, the nation and the world remain in dire need of creative extremists. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Denver DAs move to discard DNA

An article in the Denver Post today details a move by the District Attorney to limit the rules requiring the preservation of DNA evidence.

They are now, they say, "too sweeping to be practical," a charge which I find hard to believe. I would imagine that, were a police officer to err on either side, they would choose to err on the side of having too much evidence.

House Bill 1121 would change the law so authorities have to preserve DNA evidence only in the case of felonies or sexual-assault cases and only when that evidence could be relevant to a disputed issue in the case.

The bill does, however, leave some checks in place, such as

...requiring a hearing before discarding evidence and requiring evidence in murder and rape cases to be stored for the life of the defendant.

Judicial oversight before the destruction of evidence is an important, yet necessary, inclusion in the bill. (That is, I can't imagine the police being granted the authority to destroy evidence on their own.)

As for the list of crimes with which the bill is concerned, I find it lacking. Rapes and murders will almost always have biological evidence involved, but a list that contains just those two crimes is far from comprehensive. Any crime in which the perpetrator leaves biological evidence that could be tested to reveal their identity is a case in which that evidence should be preserved. It's conceivable, for example, that DNA could be an issue in assaults, robberies, burglaries, and other crimes as well.

Ted Tow, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council, furnished an example of when it would be "impractical" to retain DNA evidence from a crime:

"There's a bar fight with 27 witnesses. It's not a whodunit," Tow said. "Pretty much anything anybody comes into contact with" is being stored under the current legislation.

This might seem like a good point, but it's a bit of a straw man. Every chair, railing and table that gets touched might not need to be preserved, but certainly the broken glass bottle wielded as a weapon, or the bloodstained shirt of the victim. Those seem like awfully probative pieces of evidence. Keep in mind, if the DA had their way, they would retain none of this evidence, since a bar fight is not a rape or a murder.

The fact that there are 27 witnesses makes this hypothetical a bit amusing, but we should remember that witness testimony has certainly proven to be problematic before. What happens when there's only 3 witnesses, or as many as 9 witnesses, as in the case of Troy Davis in Georgia, in which seven of the nine eyewitnesses recanted after the fact?

DNA is a powerful scientific tool used both to convict and exculpate suspects. Its importance and probative value can hardly be understated, but we hamstring ourselves as a society if we begin destroying biological evidence before it is tested.

Visit IPF's Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Photos from Jimmy Ates' Release

IPF Executive Director Seth Miller and Legal Director David Menschel talk to a reporter outside the Okaloosa County Courthouse after Jimmy Ates' conviction is vacated.

IPF Staff Attorney Bobbi Madonna and Director of Social Services Anthony Scott talk outside the Okaloosa County Courthouse.

Jimmy Ates and his daughter embrace moments after he is released from jail.

Jimmy Ates and his daughter moments after he is released from jail.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Said Money Can't Buy Everything?

It can apparently buy one's freedom. This alert just in from The New York Times:

Madoff to Remain Free on Bail With New Restrictions

A federal judge on Monday rejected the prosecution's request to revoke Bernard L. Madoff's bail and send him to jail. Instead, the financier, who is accused of running a huge Ponzi scheme, will remain under house arrest in his luxury apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, guarded by private security guards paid for by his wife.
What do you think your odds are of receiving the same treatment?

When Fear Dictates Public Policy

As Yankee Interloper mentioned in a previous post, Florida's prison population has passed 100,000, and unsurprisingly, the release of this information was accompanied by an outcry for more prisons. The more things change....

The January 4th edition of
The Tallahassee Democrat carried a column by Jim McDonough, former drug czar of the state of Florida and former director of the state's Department of Corrections (DOC). According to McDonough:

Huge cost savings can be realized by not building several of the almost 20 new prisons now projected as "necessary." With construction costs at $100 million a copy and operating costs at $26 million for each one every year thereafter (for perpetuity, if we keep going as we are now), the financial drain is staggering, pulling money from other essential and productive programs the state will have to cut in order to pay the incarceration bill.
Yes, you read that right. The state believes it's "necessary" to build almost 20 new prisons. Has the state even considered that perhaps, just perhaps, the present system is not working? Look at the numbers. We've gone from 81,974 inmates in June 2004, to 98,192 in June 2008, and over 100,000 today. For the fiscal year that began July 1, 2008, the DOC's total operating budget is approximately $2.3 billion. Just imagine what it will be with all of those new prisons.

So what can we do? For starters, McDonough suggests:
The quick answer is to cut the recidivism rate (now at one-third within three years and progressively worse thereafter). Lower recidivism means less crime, and it is predictable if we put some effort into substance-abuse treatment (lowers recidivism by more than 10 percent), education (3-percent to 4-percent decrease per year of education level increase) and job training (5-percent decrease). These are solid data, consistent over many years.
And further:
Also immediately effective would be greater use of work-release centers. A program that currently places 3,000 inmates within 14 months of their release to unsecured barracks in communities where they go to work like everybody else, turn their pay over to corrections officials (who set it aside for them) and have local sponsors (usually family members), it has established a long-term record of low criminal incidence (any infractions are met with quick return to prison) and high employment rates.
Finding a job is probably the single biggest barrier to a former inmate's reintegration into society. If more of the DOC's budget were put into this program, it would certainly translate into savings in the future.

Some other considerations:

  • The mentally ill -- In 2004, William Kanapaux wrote in an article in Psychiatric Times: "Prisons hold three times more people with mental illness than do psychiatric hospitals, and U.S. prisoners have rates of mental illness that are up to four times greater than rates for the general population." His information came from a report by Human Rights Watch, released in October 2003. No matter how progressive prison systems might aspire to be, they are in no way equipped to deal with mental illness on such a large scale. Should we substitute mental hospitals for one or more of those projected prisons?
  • Technical parole violations -- Individuals who violate their parole on a technicality continue to be re-incarcerated to complete the remainder of their original sentence. This is ridiculous. (Technical violations can include changing one's address without permission or missing an appointment with the Parole and Probation Officer.) Some of these people are on parole for the rest of their life, increasing the odds of a technical violation. Surely there is some alternative that makes more sense?
  • Education -- A 2000 study found that 75% of Florida's prison population scored at less than a 9th grade level in reading. I don't know if the requirement has since changed, but low reading scores used to prevent prisoners from entering DOC's vocational program. Is reducing the number of functionally illiterate inmates a priority?
  • Non-violent drug offenders -- This one regularly crops up during such discussions, but, in Florida at least, not much changes. Do non-violent drug offenders even belong in prison? Wouldn't it make sense to build more rehab/treatment facilities? Maybe then we wouldn't need quite so many new prisons.
I could also mention mandatory minimums and other sentencing fiascos, but I'll save that whole subject for another day. It's so frustrating to try to make sense of the way we currently just lock people up...then lock more people up. Now, with one in every hundred Americans behind bars, we've achieved a certain international notoriety that should at least make us reconsider what we're doing. I'm still waiting for the day when a politician who dares to question the workings of our criminal justice system can still win an election.

Here's a final word from Mr. McDonough:
Continuing as we have in recent years makes no sense. Other states have figured this out and are taking proactive steps, with no signs of increases in crime. Florida, once a leader in the field of criminal justice, should be out in front once again. All we seem to lack is political courage, much of it in the unspoken fear of being seen as "soft on crime."

Alabama Sheriff Successfully Sued for Mistreating Prisoners

A judge sided with the Southern Center for Human Rights in their suit against an Alabama jail after they were able to demonstrate that prisoners had been severely malnourished there. The Sheriff, Greg Bartlett, had been tasked with feeding the inmates on an allowance of $1.75 per day. But, in addition to that, an Alabama law dated to the early 20th century allowed the Sheriff to pocket anything left over after he had fed the inmates.

Bartlett had managed to shave off $212,000 from the allowance over the last three years. Considering the jail houses "around 300 inmates," and doing some rough math, that means the jail had been allotted about $574,000 dollars for food over the last three years. That means Bartlett pocketed 36% of the food allowance for himself, and managed to feed the inmates on $1.10 per day.

A dollar and ten cents per day translated to a few spoonfuls of grits for breakfast with part of an egg, and "undercooked, bloody chicken parts" for dinner.

"Yeah, you stay hungry," Mr. Draper [an inmate] said. "Hunger is something you live with."

What's worse is the profoundly ignorant and disturbingly callous attitude expressed by the head of the Alabama Sheriffs Association:

"You’re never going to satisfy any incarcerated individual," grumbled the head of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, Bobby Timmons. Besides, Mr. Timmons said, "an inmate is not in jail for singing too loud in choir on Sunday."

It's not about satisfying the outlandish or opulent desires of some unreasonable serial killers. It's about feeding human beings enough to sustain their existence. And, as we know all too well, sometimes people are in jail for no good reason at all.

We applaud this victory for human rights in general and the treatment of prisoners specifically.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Not the Kind of Juror I Like

It's not enough that the Brevard State Attorney's Office uses snitches and fraudulent scientists. According to the Florida Supreme Court (FSC), they also exclude jurors on the basis of race in violation of the Constitution. See, for example, last week's ruling in Nowell v. State in which the FSC overturned a first-degree murder conviction because of the state attorney's shenanigans.

State Attorney Parker excluded a Hispanic juror because Parker did not "particularly like" the juror and didn't think the juror was "going to be the kind of juror that [Parker] would like." Realizing that this excuse wasn't gonna fly, Parker claimed that he excluded the Hispanic juror because "he appears young." Here's the thing: Parker had no problem with and did not seek to exclude a similarly young white juror. The FSC saw through these and other prosecutorial excuses for striking the Hispanic juror, calling them "pretextual" and "based upon reasons that [are] not genuine." In other words, the FSC told prosecutors, stop excluding jurors on the basis of race and claiming it's really about something else. 

Note to Brevard prosecutors: It's 2009. If you're gonna unconstitutionally exclude a juror on the basis of race, you'd better come up with a better excuse than that. Kudos to the FSC for calling the state attorney out. 

And nice job Brevard prosecutors. In your overzealousness and close-mindedness you lost yet another conviction. I feel safer already.