This week in the news: A new report about racial disparities in incarceration and prison sentences since 2000, second chances in the form of diversion and restorative programs, a public defense crisis in Utah, and more.
Race and Justice
Racial disparities have narrowed across the US criminal justice system over 16 years, though black people are still significantly more likely to be behind bars than white people, new federal figures show. Racial gaps broadly declined in local jails, state prisons, and among people on probation and parole, according to a study released Tuesday by the nonpartisan think tank, the Council on Criminal Justice.The divide in state imprisonment rates dropped for all major crimes but was most pronounced for drug offenses. Black people were 15 times more likely than white people to be in state prisons for drug crimes in 2000, but that dropped to five times as likely by 2016. (Thompson, AP, Sacramento, December 3, 2019)
While arrest and prison admission rates are dropping for black people, they are sitting in prison longer than their white peers. For drug and property crimes, black people are serving increasingly more time, growing at a rate of 1 percent or more on average every year, as the time served in prison by white offenders has dropped. This larger trend was noted in the same aforementioned report published by the Council on Criminal Justice Monday, and The Marshall Project looks at why, considering discretionary actors in the system, criminal histories built disproportionately during decades of rising incarceration, biased risk-assessment tools, and more. (Li, The Marshall Project, December 3, 2019)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner quietly launched an interim version of an unprecedented “diversion” program, in which prosecutors simply withdraw charges for those who show proof they’re in drug treatment. “We’re on the cusp of sending every single case involving mere possession of drugs to diversion,” Krasner said in an interview, favoring treatment as best-practice and expert-recommended. The district attorney’s effort is a radical shift from previous approaches in Philadelphia, where diversion programs have been selective, limited to those with few or no previous convictions, exposed defendants who fail out of treatment to consequences including criminal convictions and incarceration, and often required hundreds of dollars in court costs. (Melamed, The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 3, 2019)
Hope and redemption are relatively new themes in prisons, especially for those convicted of the most serious offenses, but a California prison program run by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition facilitates self-evaluation, accountability, and healing. This LA-based nonprofit serves formerly and currently incarcerated people. The course is run by the coalition’s Hope and Redemption Team (HART), a group of former “lifers” who were all paroled after being sentenced to life in prison and are now dedicated to helping other men still behind bars. (Wing, Barry, The Appeal, December 3, 2019)
Public defender caseloads in Utah County have more than doubled since 2000, but the county has not put forward money to hire more attorneys in nearly 12 years. It is one of only two counties in the state with an office dedicated to providing legal defense to low-income people unable to afford representation. There are less than two dozen attorneys on staff, despite receiving thousands of felony, misdemeanor, and juvenile cases each year and a rapidly growing population. These defense attorneys are “passionate, caring, [and] diligent,” as Utah County public defender Margaret Lindsay described her colleagues, but more cases mean less time allotted to each. (Richards, Daily Herald, December 2, 2019)
Some states are passing laws abolishing private prisons and businesses are cutting ties with the facilities. The number of people in private prisons is trending down from its peak in 2012 of about 136,220 people, with a population decrease of about 12 percent in the past five years. As more facilities are closing, the for-profit prison industry has established an advocacy group called Day 1 Alliance (D1A). The Washington Post reported that the largest companies in the industry, the two behind D1A, still saw profit increases as of October. (Kim, Vox, December 1, 2019)