This week in the news: Read two human interest stories of people who were previously incarcerated who now hold or are pursuing college degrees, about the newest legislation in criminal justice reform, the wave of banks exiting the private prison industry, a District Attorney’s out-of-the-ordinary reverse on a tough-on-crime stance, and so much more.
Criminal Justice News
The pilot program Second Chance Pell, that launched in 2016, is helping formerly incarcerated individuals earn college degrees with the help of federal pell grants. The program doled out $35.6 million to educate 8,800 students who were incarcerated at forty institutions in its first two years. In this human interest story, we read about Maurice Smith, forty-seven, who is admired by a bipartisan and ideologically diverse coalition that has pressed the case for criminal justice as he went from an incarcerated person to college graduate. (Green, The New York Times, July 8, 2019).
Alaska increased prison sentences for lesser and nonviolent crimes on Monday, repealing 2016 criminal justice reform legislation known as Senate Bill 91. The bill aimed to reduce recidivism, but has been blamed for contributing to a surge in crime statewide. Anchorage Daily News reports that funding is still to be determined, but costs will increase as the state expects more people in prison and for longer. The repeal and replace was a campaign promise made by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and is being criticized by the Alaska chapter of the ACLU. (Brook, Anchorage Daily News, July 9, 2019)
After being a leader in prison population, Missouri is moving away from imprisoning people with non-violent offenses to serve long sentences. Backed by a bipartisan group of legislators and activists, Gov. Mike Parson signed a series of bills Tuesday including measures to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses and to prohibit added prison time as punishment for people who can’t pay jail board bills. The measures are estimated to reduce the prison population and save the state upwards of five million dollars in the first year after being fully implemented. The legislation follows after reporter Tony Messenger published a series of stories about Missouri’s ‘debtor’s prisons’ that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary. (Thomas, The Kansas City Star, July 10, 2019)
From dropping out, to detention, to dean’s list. Danielle Metz was granted clemency in 2016 after twenty-three years incarcerated and is working towards her college degree. Metz took advantage of “ban the box” reform, that prohibits public colleges and universities from asking if an applicant has a criminal record. Nationwide, less than four percent of people formerly incarcerated have a bachelor’s degree, according to a report released last year. The chances seemed especially low in Metz’s home state. Louisiana had long held twin records, the world’s highest incarceration rate, and the country’s lowest rate of black college graduates. Put together, this meant tens of thousands of residents lacked a viable pathway to middle-class security. (Parks, USA Today, July 10, 2019)
On Wednesday, US Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY-14) introduced the Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019, legislation to remove barriers to obtaining federal housing assistance for individuals with criminal records and their families. The proposal is a comprehensive reform of the eviction and screening policies so individuals with a criminal history have a fair chance at housing assistance. Read more about it in a press release from Harris. (Harris, Kamala D. Harris US Senator for California, Washington, DC, July 10, 2019)
In this emotional human interest story, Jeremiah Bourgeois, a person in a Washington State prison, who has been serving a life sentence since age fourteen, weighs in on what it is like to reform oneself if freedom is always out of reach. Bourgeois also discusses Victor Hassine, who committed suicide after he was denied release for the sixth time, following decades of imprisonment in Pennsylvania while achieving remarkable things; from receiving awards for his writing to the publication of Life Without Parole: Living and Dying in Prison Today. (Bourgeois, The Crime Report, July 9, 2019)
Over the weekend, Joe Biden declared that he would drastically shrink US prison populations when a voter asked him if he would commit to a 50 percent reduction of incarcerations. The 2020 Democratic candidate said enthusiastically, “More than that. We can do it more than that.” (Bufkin, Washington Examiner, July 10, 2019)
SunTrust Bank announced Monday that they are ready to join other major banks in moving away from the private prison industry, in the wake of deep public sentiment against their role in mass incarceration and family detention. SunTrust is the fourth major bank to make such an announcement this year, and according to Forbes it’s safe to say the private prison system is feeling the heat. (Simon, Forbes, July 8, 2019)
This OpEd piece from The Hill demands reform to improve health and safety for those in detention in jails, prisons, and ICE detention centers. Concerns about a lack of transparency are cited as every year about 5,000 people die behind bars in the US. The author estimates 15 to 30 percent of these deaths are attributable to errors or abuse by security or health services. (Venters, The Hill, July 5, 2019)
Public Defense News
In this human interest story, the early release of a woman convicted of armed robbery in Georgia raises questions. Advocates, including the Georgia Justice Project, have wondered why District Attorney Howard—whom they see as an opponent to criminal justice reform measures like pretrial release for people with violent offenses and bail reform—agreed to the early release of Michelle Horne, who is one of thousands of people convicted of a violent crime with no prior record. While supporting efforts to release people from prison, this motion seems out of reach for defendants lacking the money to hire counsel after appeal. (Morrison, The Appeal, July 9, 2019)