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U.S. House Passes the Second Chance Act on Prisoner Reentry November 13, 2007

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Leaders of the Council of State Governments Justice Center commended Members of the U.S. House of Representatives for passage today of the Second Chance Act of 2007, H.R. 1593—a bill that will increase the likelihood that people’s transition from prisons and jails to the community is safe and successful. The bill, introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and Rep. Chris Cannon (R-UT) received broad bipartisan support, passing the House 347-62.

“The Second Chance Act’s goals and provisions support the kinds of policy changes and programs that the Justice Center’s federally funded Re-entry Policy Council Report recommends to lower recidivism rates,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, Justice Center board member and chair of the New York State Assembly Correction Committee. “We urge the Senate to take swift action in support of this bill.”

The House bill authorizes up to $55 million dollars in grants to state and local governments to develop reentry initiatives to help keep people released from prisons and jails from re-offending and a $15 million reentry program for community and faith-based organizations to deliver mentoring and transitional services.

“The passage of the Second Chance Act illustrates the extraordinary bipartisan consensus that exists among elected officials that we need to reduce the rates at which people return to prison after they’re released,” said Rep. Davis.

Approximately 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), half will return to prison within three years and even more will be re-arrested. In part, these recidivism rates are driving the continued growth of prison and jail populations across the country and associated costs. As of 2004, national spending on local, state, and federal corrections totaled $61 billion. That figure is poised to increase; a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts stated that if current federal, state, and local policies and practices do not change, taxpayers are expected to pay as much as $27.5 billion on prisons alone over the next five years on top of current corrections spending.

“Enacting the Second Chance Act and funding the programs it authorizes will enable us to save taxpayer dollars, increase public safety, strengthen families, and make sure the gates to our prisons are not just revolving doors,” said Rep. Cannon.


Care needs of prisoners put Oregon in a bind November 12, 2007

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A lawsuit by an Oregon inmate demanding a sex-change operation spotlights the increasing complexity and cost of providing health services to the state’s 13,500 prisoners.

Anny May Stevens, a Portland man serving an 18-year sentence for manslaughter, contends in court papers that prison officials denied him medical treatment for transsexualism.

“I didn’t ask to be born this way,” Stevens, 45, said in an interview from Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario. “But I sure don’t want to die this way.”

Prison officials don’t dispute Stevens’ diagnosis, but they rejected his request, arguing in court papers that neither hormone treatment nor surgery is medically necessary.

Though transsexual inmates are rare, prison officials report a surging demand from inmates for a wide array of conditions, diseases and mental illnesses.

Since 1995, the annual cost of providing health services to Oregon inmates has risen from about $20 million to $60 million. That threefold jump far exceeds the inmate population increase over that period.

“When you lock them up, there is an obligation to feed them, to shelter them, to clothe them and give medically necessary care,” said Dr. Steven Shelton, medical director of Oregon’s prison system. “I don’t get to choose who comes in the front door, and I can’t turn away anybody.”

Mandatory prison sentences helped increase the Oregon prison population by 80 percent in the past decade.

And inmates are arriving sicker than they used to, with higher percentages suffering from diseases and mental health conditions, according to Oregon prison health officials.

Longer sentences also increase the number of elderly inmates with all the health problems associated with age.

And although Oregon officials refuse to give Stevens a sex change, they agree that they are required to provide the level of medical treatment an inmate would receive in the community — regardless of cost. For instance, cancer treatment that required taking inmates outside prisons cost $3.5 million in 2005-07.

Involving the courts

Not providing medical treatment invites lawsuits.

Last summer, Oregon agreed to pay nearly $800,000 in damages and attorney fees to settle a class-action lawsuit about the treatment of prison inmates with hepatitis C.

More dramatically, a federal judge in 2005 took control of California’s prison health care system after ruling that it was so inadequate that it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Obviously, we don’t want to go there,” said William Hoefel, state corrections health services administrator.

Stevens, who stabbed a man in downtown Portland in 1997, is one of more than a dozen transsexual prison inmates across the country who have sued over medical treatment in recent years. A federal judge last summer ordered Idaho prison officials to provide hormones to a transsexual inmate while his lawsuit is under way.

In Wisconsin, a lawsuit by a transsexual inmate sparked a political backlash. The Wisconsin State Assembly in 2006 passed a law prohibiting prison officials from providing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery to transsexuals.

“Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for people desiring to enhance their breasts or change their sexual organs,” Rep. Mark D. Gundrum, a Republican from suburban Milwaukee, said in an interview.

Michelle Burrows, a Portland attorney who has frequently filed lawsuits on behalf of inmates, criticized state prison officials for their treatment of transsexuals.

“They won’t even let them shave their legs,” Burrows said.

Burrows filed the hepatitis C lawsuit against the Oregon prison system. There were 3,000 to 3,500 inmates involved, and prison officials “were saying we can’t afford to do it,” she said. “Well, you can’t say you can’t afford to do it.”

For more than 30 years, the federal courts have said it is cruel and unusual punishment to deliberately withhold medical care from inmates.

Still, Burrows credits Max Williams, the state corrections director, with making improvements in recent years: “I think Max Williams has made a concerted effort to do the right thing.”

Inmate health declines

Prison officials will not discuss Stevens’ case, but they said providing medical treatment is growing more complex and expensive. Shelton, the prison system’s medical director since 1993, said he has seen a huge change in the health of the inmate population.

“Almost 27 percent in the prison system have severe or moderate mental illness, up from 15 percent,” Shelton said. “The percentage of people with heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, cancer — all have increased at a faster rate than the population in general.”

Part of the increase can be attributed to older inmates, those held much longer under mandatory prison sentences. But Shelton said that doesn’t explain all of it, and he doesn’t know the answer.

“They’re just coming in sicker,” he said.

Medical advances increase the costs. Knee surgery wasn’t commonplace 15 years ago, Shelton said, but inmates now receive it when necessary. Drugs for diseases such as AIDS are multiple — and expensive.

“If we do an appendix surgery, we will do it with aproperly qualified surgeon,” he said.

The California prison system, with 173,000 inmates, is an example of what can happen when health care is mismanaged.

A 2001 lawsuit culminated in a takeover of the system by a federal judge, who appointed an outside administrator to run it last year.

The administrator — not the California Legislature — will decide whether to raise salaries, streamline drug-buying policies and more.

Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for the administrator, said there is a $1.5 billion annual budget for health, mental health and dental care in California prisons.

“It is very likely that that amount will go up,” Kagan said.


Job form changed to drop felony question November 8, 2007

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Patty Katz seemed like a perfect fit for the job as a drug and alcohol prevention specialist at Clark County, but one question on the application ruined her chances.

Her resume highlighted stints as an employee and a volunteer with drug and alcohol treatment programs. Her background as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict gave her personal insight into her work.

The application seemed little more than a formality. But then she had to answer: Have you been convicted of a felony in the past seven years?

Katz’s substance abuse had been intertwined with a long criminal history that had ended more than six years earlier when she was convicted for possession of cocaine. When she checked the box, the county automatically rejected her application.

“I’m really strong in my recovery,” said Katz, now clean for almost eight years. “But it just made me feel like what’s the use? Why bother?”

It’s an experience that countless people with convictions encounter each year, as otherwise qualified applicants are turned away from jobs because of past wrongdoing.

Katz, however, quickly landed on her feet. She got a job as a program director for the Portland-based nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice, where she has focused, in part, on convincing governments and businesses to drop the conviction question from initial job applications.

This month, the organization scored its first major success when Multnomah County agreed to remove the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” from its standard application.

“The county is in the business of rehabilitating offenders,” said Travis Graves, county human resources director. “We’re not really walking our talk if we have processes that discourage people from even applying for jobs.”

Instead, interviewers will ask applicants later in the hiring process about convictions, giving people a chance to tell their story. Graves said staff members should consider the age when the crime was committed, the time elapsed since the crime, the nature of the crime and positive changes the applicant has made.

The question will remain on applications for jobs that require a clean record, such as probation officers, Graves said.

“We’re not saying conviction history shouldn’t be considered at all,” said David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. “We’re saying it shouldn’t be considered on the initial job application because we don’t want people to be indiscriminately screened out and we don’t want to discourage people who could be the most qualified applicant from applying.”

Some major cities — including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco — have adopted similar laws. But the question remains standard at many businesses and governments. Clackamas County, for example, asks any job applicants who have been convicted of any offense as an adult, other than a minor traffic offense, to fill out a separate criminal conviction disclosure form.

Rogers said the nonprofit will lobby for similar changes to state law and possibly at other government agencies and private businesses.