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Examining the efficacy of state mandatory minimums January 30, 2008

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This local article provides is some encouraging news from Pennsylvania, as well as a game-plan many states should follow as budgets tighten and prison populations expand:

With many of its prisons near capacity, Pennsylvania is one of 18 states that is taking steps to reform its criminal justice system, according to a national report released last week. Pennsylvania lawmakers directed the state Sentencing Commission to study whether mandatory minimum sentences — long a hot-button issue between the judiciary and the Legislature — are effective.

“We want to try to determine the purpose of mandatories and see if those objectives have been achieved,” said Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Sentencing Commission. “Clearly we have to look at overcrowding — state and local numbers are going up; the Department of Corrections budget is $1.4 billion — but we can’t risk public safety to do it.”….

Experts applauded lawmakers’ decision to consider changes to the system. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant news from the Legislature,” said Al Blumstein, a criminology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “During the crime concerns of the ’80s and ’90s, they passed mandatory sentences, particularly with drug offenses. The result is the criminal justice system is overburdened and it didn’t do much about drug crime.” Blumstein said when older drug dealers and users are put away, younger ones quickly take their places on the streets….

State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, who chairs the Sentencing Commission, said forthcoming changes are not a guarantee. “Let’s see what the results of the study bring,” he said. “Public safety is always No. 1, but we want to get people out of jail who don’t belong there.”


Marion County DA reviewing state pen inmate death by “restraint asphyxia” January 28, 2008

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Prosecutors are reviewing the death of a prison inmate who died during a struggle with correction officers at the Oregon State Penitentiary in December.

Courtland Geyer, a prosecutor in the Marion County District Attorney’s Office, said the Oregon State Police completed an investigation into the Dec. 3. death of David Schmidt, 34, who was in prison for kidnaping, assault and being a felon in possession of weapon.

Geyer said the state police routinely conduct investigations into inmate deaths. He said Marion County prosecutors review such investigations.

An autopsy concluded that Schmidt died of “restraint asphyxia due to exhaustion and chest compression,” Geyer said.

He declined to elaborate.

Prison officials provided few details because the case was under review.

“The Penitentiary is handling the David Schmidt case as a critical incident,” Michelle Whitney Dodson, spokeswoman for the prison, said in a statement. “A critical incident occurs whenever an officer/employee uses force pursuant to the department’s rule on Use of Force, resulting in serious injury or death, shootings of another person, and whenever a firearm is used as a warning.”


Recap of the Second Chance Act of 2007 January 26, 2008

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Attempts to pass the Second Chance Act (H.R. 1593/S. 1060) in the Senate before the end of 2007 were unsuccessful, despite the strong support of Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), Arlen Specter (R-PA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sam Brownback (R-KS) and 31 other cosponsors. The legislation, which was passed by the House of Representatives last November by an overwhelming 347-62 vote, provides critical resources designed to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) stalled the vote, requesting more time to review the provisions in the bill. Senate sponsors of the Second Chance Act are intent to see the bill passed this year and hope to bring it to the floor shortly after Congress reconvenes next week. Once passed in the Senate, the bill will be sent to the President to be signed into law.

The Second Chance Act includes key elements of President Bush’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative, announced in his 2004 State of the Union address. The Initiative provides for community and faith-based organizations to deliver mentoring and transitional services to individuals returning to their communities from jails and prisons. The bill will also help connect individuals released from jails and prisons to mental health and substance abuse treatment, expand job training and placement services, and facilitate transitional housing and case management services.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released—and half of these individuals are expected to return to prison within three years for committing a new crime or violating the conditions of their release. This cycle of recidivism not only compromises public safety, but also increases taxpayer spending. A recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts showed that taxpayers are expected to pay as much as $27.5 billion on new prison construction alone over the next five years if current federal, state, and local policies do not change.


Justice Center Announces Upcoming Reentry Guide for State-Level Policymakers January 23, 2008

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The Council of State Governments Justice Center, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is developing a Reentry Guide that will aid state-level policymakers in establishing, assessing, and improving statewide prisoner reentry plans. The guide will provide a framework for policymakers to organize their reentry plans, as well as a checklist to determine which aspects of their plan are incomplete. The guide will also assist policymakers in collecting data about their state’s reentry efforts over the course of multiple years, allowing them to set specific benchmarks and hold state officials accountable for making progress towards these goals. Policymakers will be able to monitor specific components of their state’s reentry efforts through a web tool that will accompany the policy guide. The Justice Center plans to release these resources in Fall 2008.


States Examine Residency Restrictions for Individuals Convicted of Sex Crimes January 22, 2008

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In the past decade, more than 20 states and hundreds of municipalities across the nation have enacted laws restricting where sex offenders may reside. Most of these laws prohibit sex offenders from living within 500 to 2,500 feet of schools, childcare centers, playgrounds, and other places frequented by children. The purpose of these laws is to decrease opportunities for sex offenders to have contact with vulnerable populations, which lawmakers believe will ultimately reduce the risk of child sexual abuse and sexual assault.

Opponents of residency restriction laws, however, raise questions about their effectiveness in preventing further criminal activity, pointing to studies that show no effect on recidivism (for example, see “Level III Sex Offenders: Residential Placement Issues” from the Minnesota Department of Corrections). They also highlight the unintended consequences of such restrictions, such as greater difficulty monitoring sex offenders who are under community supervision. Residency restrictions often leave many neighborhoods and housing complexes off-limits to registered sex offenders, leading some of these individuals to become homeless and/or transient and making them less likely to report to their parole or probation officers.

In response to these concerns, some state legislatures are re-evaluating their residency restriction laws. Other states have seen challenges to the constitutionality of these laws:

Residency restrictions are among many issues relating to persons convicted of sexual crimes that policymakers, criminal justice officials, advocates, and others are currently discussing in the states. To view examples of recently enacted laws concerning sex offenders, see the Reentry Policy Council’s 2006-2007 legislation roundup.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, which coordinates the Reentry Policy Council, has received funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, to develop a policy guide which will help policymakers and practitioners make thoughtful, informed decisions when examining housing options for adults who have been released to the community after serving time for committing sex crimes. For more information on this project, click here.