Friday News Roundup: May 10, 2019

Friday News Roundup

This week in the news: Read about leading states and candidates in justice system reform, the racial disparities recently unveiled within opioid addiction treatment, several legislative updates on public defense and education after reentry, and more.

Criminal Justice News

Mississippi Leads the Nation in Criminal Justice Reform

Mississippi lawmakers, in an effort to give returning citizens a second chance, signed legislation that will allow such persons to obtain professional licenses despite their criminal record. Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill known as the Mississippi Fresh Start Act, which prevents occupational licensing boards from creating policies that restrict returning citizens from holding certain jobs. Bryant also signed another bill the same day that expands the state’s intervention courts to include mental health, veterans, and drug courts. The new law also prevents driver’s license suspensions for unpaid legal fees and fines. (Liens, US News, May 3, 2019)

Criminal Justice Reforms Headed to Governor, but Are They Enough?

Florida state lawmakers have approved a criminal justice reform package that some say is only a “baby step” forward in undoing decades of bias, over-incarceration, and unfair sentencing. The bill heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk is missing controversial items that would have freed inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses earlier and given judges more leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for persons with drug offenses. Faced with pressure from the governor and House, the Senate stripped out language that would have freed up an estimated 9,000 prison beds and saved taxpayers $860 million over the next five years. That provision would have lowered the minimum time persons with nonviolent offenses are required to serve from 85% of their sentence to 65%. The compromised legislation does, however, increase the threshold for felony theft from $300 to $750 and also reduces the penalty for the third violation of driving on a suspended license from a felony to a misdemeanor. (Swisher, Sun Sentinel, May 3, 2019)

Thousands of Americans Are Jailed Before Trial. A New Report Shows the Lasting Impact.

A new report shows that the number of people in pretrial detention is rising even as crime rates fall. It specifically shows that this type of detention has an especially severe effect on marginalized communities. One significant reason for this increase is that more local jurisdictions are requiring bail money be paid upfront in order to be released pretrial, even for relatively low-level offenses. However, the Vera Institute report says that there is “little evidence” of bail’s effectiveness to get a person to appear in court. (Lockhart, Vox, May 7, 2019)

Bail Reform Should Include Efforts to End Pretrial Incarceration

This OpEd addresses why bail reform is needed and how groups advocating for the end of pretrial incarceration in conjunction with bail reform have gained traction. Bail reform is a struggle at the very center of criminal legal reform, but recent proposals to reform bail have failed to effectively address the pervasive problems wrapped up in pretrial detention. Bail reform measures generally seek to reduce the number of people held on pretrial incarceration and to dismantle the $2 billion-annual-for-profit bond industry that the cash bail system is built on. For example, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner directed his office to stop seeking bail for a list of 25 low-level crimes.  (Meredith, The Truthout, May 8 2019)  

In 2020, We Need Bold Ideas for Criminal Justice Reform Too

In this opinion piece, Hill writers argue no Democratic candidates have proposed radical enough changes to how we approach crime and punishment in America. They suggest Sen. Cory Booker currently comes closest to a bold proposal in his Next Step Act that takes on police officer training, the conditions of confinement, and expungement procedures, yet even this proposal includes reform and assistance we’re used to seeing. Ultimitaley, they want to see presidential candidates who consider how much America’s justice system impacts lives after someone has served time, since in 2016, almost 7 million people were under some form of correctional supervision, such as parole or probation. (Wakefield and Turney, The Hill, May 5, 2019)

Removing Education Barriers Is Key to Success for Formerly Incarcerated People

In this opinion piece, it is addressed that policymakers, academics, and criminal-justice reformers all agree that access to education is both a front-end and back-end tool that decreases crime, increases social and economic mobility, and supports informed, engaged citizenship. So why has investment in prisons grown at three times the rate of investment in K-12 education? Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz is working on three bills to address this issue, one being the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act. He also plans to introduce related legislation, including the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act, which would introduce quality control for prison education programs, and the Beyond the Box for Higher Education Act, which would ensure that people with criminal convictions who apply for college admission are evaluated by their academic promise, not conviction status. (Nixon, The Hill, May 6, 2019)

Drug Court News

Prison Policy Initiative Proposes Ways to Stop Jailing of People Who Use Drugs

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) questions officials pushing for jail expansion. In a report published on May 6, PPI compiles data, questions, and best practices for local decision-makers to consider moving forward. Recommendations include the use of “diversion” courts, such as drug, mental health, and/or veterans treatment court as a more effective treatment than jailing. The report also dictates that 68% of the jail population meets standards for diagnosis of a substance use disorder. (Filter Staff, Filter, May 6, 2019)

Opioid News

Opioid Addiction Drug Going Mostly to Whites, Even as Black Death Rate Rises

A study released Wednesday unveils that white drug users addicted to heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids have had near exclusive access to buprenorphine, a medication that curbs the craving for opioids and reduces the chance of a fatal overdose. Specifically, white populations are almost 35 times as likely to have a treatment-related visit than black populations. Furthermore, the dominant use of buprenorphine to treat whites occurred at the same time opioid overdose deaths were rising faster for blacks than for whites. Most white patients either paid in cash (40%) or relied on private insurance (35%) to fund their treatment, while only 25% of the visits were paid for through Medicaid or Medicare, which does highlight that many of these visits could be very costly for people with low-income. Physicians who study racial disparities in addiction treatment are even saying the root causes go back to 2000, when buprenorphine was first approved. (Bebinger, National Public Radio, May 8, 2019)

Setting Precedent, a Federal Court Rules Jail Must Give Inmate Addiction Treatment

This week, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled in favor for the right to treatment for an inmate who suffers from opioid addiction. This is the first federal appeals court in the country to address the right to treatment for opioid addiction in jail. The rural Maine jail involved in this ruling must now provide the person involved with medication to treat their opioid use disorder. (Arnold, National Public Radio, May 4, 2019)

No Strings Attached: More Opioid Addicts Get Meds Without Talk Therapy

This human interest story challenges traditional opioid treatment programs that tie medication to a long list of requirements: support groups, individual counseling, and negative drug screens. Now, clinics known as “low-threshold” are becoming increasingly popular; a clinic where those resources are available but rarely required. The priority is getting people onto buprenorphine as quickly as possible and keeping them on it. This new approach turns medication-assisted treatment on its head: the medication is the treatment. A small but growing number of the 65,000 buprenorphine providers nationwide are taking this new approach. (Schwartzapfel, USA Today, May 10, 2019)

Public Defense News

How Sen. Kamala Harris Would Assist Public Defenders

Sen. Kamala Harris recently unveiled a new plan to financially assist public defenders and prevent burnout: the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act. Harris’ proposal would create a $250 million grant program within the Justice Department that would go toward establishing workload limits for full-time public defenders, making sure public defenders and prosecutors are paid similarly, and collecting more data about public defender workloads. In addition, the proposal would allocate $5 million for nonprofits and governments to train public defenders. It would also boost funding for a student loan repayment program housed under the Justice Department. The legislation has been backed by civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Levine, Politico, May 8, 2019)

Flatbush Among Worst Neighborhoods for Eviction, New Data Shows

Flatbush, Brooklyn was one of the worst neighborhoods for evictions in 2018, according to a newly released map of data tracking evictors in New York City. The hundreds of evictions all happened within a Right to Counsel district, where city officials found low-income renters are most vulnerable to eviction. Public advocate Jumaane Williams championed the recently passed Right to Counsel law, which mandates tenants be provided attorneys in housing court as a possible means of curbing this trend. New Yorkers curious about the eviction practices in their own neighborhood can use this new tool to track trends. (Culliton, Patch, Brooklyn, NY, May 6, 2019)