President Trump commutes the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson following lobbying from Kim Kardashian West, Wisconsin juvenile prison officials agree to end pepper spraying and solitary confinement in response to ACLU lawsuit, and Texas counties are being forced to shore up public defense due to lack of state funds. All of this and much more below in our latest edition of the JPO Friday News Roundup.
Criminal Justice News
Trump commutes sentence of Alice Marie Johnson – President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time nonviolent drug offender, a week after Kim Kardashian West pleaded her case during an Oval Office meeting with Trump. Johnson has already served 21 years of a life sentence after she was convicted on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine, according to the nonprofit Can-Do, which advocates for clemency for non-violent drug offenders. She is expected to be released from prison soon. (CNN, 6/6/18).
Utah pushes reform to parole, probation – An effort to reduce the number of people on probation and parole is gaining widespread popularity in deeply conservative Utah. This month, Gill and other state officials joined prosecutors from 20 other states — many of them liberal — and the District of Columbia in calling for probation and parole to be used more sparingly and only for offenders who seem to require it. Earlier this year, the overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature demanded new guidelines for probation and parole and eliminated mandatory parole for some charges. (HJnews.com, UT, 5/31/18).
State backpedals on $600K funding cut after commissioner complaints – A major financial cut to an important program in Richland County’s justice system was avoided on Thursday after vocal opposition from state and local officials. Thanks in part to action from the Richland County Commissioners, State Rep. Mark Romanchuk and State Sen. Larry Obhof, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ORDC) reversed their decision to cut pre-sentence investigation (PSI) funding from 11 counties in Ohio, including Richland County. Robinson explained that pre-sentence investigations are conducted to understand an offender’s background, including prior convictions, family history, medical history including any addictions, and mental health, and help the court decide an appropriate sentence for that individual. A PSI is also needed to direct an individual to a specialty court. (Richland Source, OH, 5/31/18).
State Agrees to End Pepper Spray, Solitary at Youth Prison – Wisconsin prison officials reached a legal settlement Friday that calls for broad changes at the state’s troubled youth prison, including banning guards from using pepper spray, ending solitary confinement for rule-breakers and limiting mechanical restraints and strip searches. The agreement needs approval from a judge but is aimed at ending a federal lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. The lawsuit alleges the facility’s guards have long abused inmates. The state would pay the groups’ attorney fees and costs, which the ACLU pegs at $1 million (U.S. News, WI, 6/1/18).
After years of scandal, Texas’ juvenile justice agency sets new goals to rehabilitate teen lawbreakers – After years of turmoil, scandal and inconsistency in its top ranks, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has given Gov. Greg Abbott a new set of goals to get the agency back on track with its core function — rehabilitating underage lawbreakers. Executive Director Camille Cain explained the goals to The Dallas Morning News after the release of her 10-page report Friday. Since her appointment in January, Cain said she’s focused on cutting the number of kids in the state’s five juvenile prisons to improve safety and security. In the long term, she has two hopes — to shore up the facilities while moving more offenders closer to their homes and families, and to shift the state’s perception of the kids, recognizing the trauma they likely endured that landed them behind bars. (The Dallas Morning News, TX, 6/1/18).
In Remote Immigrant Detention Centers, It’s Pro Bono Or Bust – Absent a universal right to counsel, the availability of legal representation for noncitizens in immigration proceedings has hit a crisis point nationwide, but none are worse off than individuals detained in remote facilities. Some legal aid groups and law firms have recognized the representation gap in such areas and have made strides in filling the void. Among them are the Dilley Pro Bono Project — a joint venture of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Council, Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc. — and Jones Day’s Laredo Project, both of which have set up operations near remote detention facilities in Texas and provide legal services to detainees, particularly women and children, on a daily basis. (Law 360, 6/1/18).
Texas counties forced to Shoulder Public Defender Costs – A program that’s supposed to be fully funded by the state now has local tax dollars covering about 90 percent of the costs. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission, formed in 2001, is tasked with paying for public defenders. Statewide, public defenders handle 76 percent of felony cases and 46 percent of misdemeanors. The total indigent defense costs for 2017 were $265 million, of which the state covered less than $32 million. County leaders say they’re at a tipping point and need state lawmakers to fully fund the program. (Spectrum News San Antonio, TX, 5/31/18).
Veterans Treatment Court
Missoula veterans court seeks help with funding – State funding cuts put money for the Missoula Veterans Treatment Court in jeopardy. Now backers are asking the city and county to come up with permanent funding. Right now eight veterans come here for help. It costs about $70,000 a year to run veterans court. Backers are asking for $125,000 divided between the city and county due to state budget cuts. They say they could do more with more money in a state with more veterans than most. Veterans Court presented the program in front of the county. They will present in front of City Council in June. (NBC Montana, MT, 5/31/18).