This week in the news: Children 6 and up taught how to reverse an opioid overdose, women receive harsher punishments in prison than men, 70 percent of the public supports “second look” policy, and more.
A federal judge in Philadelphia ruled Tuesday that a proposed supervised injection site (also known as a safe consumption site) would not violate federal law. Spokespersons for Safehouse, the nonprofit that formed to open and run the site, announced within hours of the ruling that they plan to open in South Philadelphia next week. The city has issued a public-safety plan for the area outside a site, and Safehouse has been training volunteer escorts. The Safehouse site would be the first official supervised-injection site in the nation if it opens. The US attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, William M. McSwain, said his office would appeal the ruling. (Whelan, Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 2020)
Hundreds of cities and towns in Ohio have until March 6th to sign onto an agreement, known as “One Ohio,” that would solidify the division of any money that might come from a major federal case against opioid manufacturers and distributors. The goal is to ensure fairness in the allocation of a potential settlement as recompense for the ravages of the nation’s opioid epidemic. It would guarantee that the state presents a united front during negotiations, with municipalities directly receiving, in cash, 30 percent of any settlement funds. The state would receive 15 percent, and 55 percent would go toward a new nonprofit foundation that would support research into, and education about, opioids. (Zezima, The Washington Post, February 24, 2020)
In a small rural county in Tennessee that is struggling with the opioid crisis, health officials are teaching children as young as 6 how to administer Narcan, a nasal spray that can stop an opioid overdose from being fatal. In the past three years, the county’s drug prevention coalition has given Narcan training to an estimated 600 young children and teenagers in after-school programs, babysitting classes, and vaping cessation courses. However, it is a region where socially conservative attitudes prevail, and substance-use is often seen as a sin, health workers have encountered strong opposition from residents, school boards and police officers consider Narcan to be a waste of resources, and the training is viewed as inappropriate for children. (Leftin, The New York Times, Elizabethton, February 23, 2020)
Justice and Justice Reform
Women in prison, when compared with men who are incarcerated, often receive disproportionately harsh punishments for minor violations of prison rules, according to a report released Wednesday by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, a federal fact-finding agency. The commission’s report, “Women in Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars,” looks at a range of issues for women in prison, including the discrepancies in discipline, and offers several recommendations. For example addressing the high rates of trauma among these women, with NPR reporting that 75 percent of women in prison have experienced previous physical or sexual trauma. (Shapiro, NPR’s Morning Edition, February 26, 2020)
The Colorado General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to a bill ending capital punishment in Colorado, sending it to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. The governor has already said he will sign it into law, but has not commented on whether he will intervene for the three individuals currently on death row. The legislation does not affect the three individuals directly, so many are questioning whether Gov. Polis will intervene in the cases of Nathan Dunlap, Robert Ray, and Sir Mario Owens. (Paul, The Colorado Sun, February 26, 2020)
The Supreme Court is weighing in on the constitutionality of an Oregon law that allows a jury to convict a defendant without a unanimous vote, the last in the nation. There is widespread agreement among defense lawyers and prosecutors in Oregon that the law is deeply flawed, and may have sent innocent people to prison. Both the Oregon District Attorneys Association and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association oppose the law, and there is bipartisan opposition in the state legislature. And there are questions about what will happen to the thousands of convictions made on split juries, if the law is found unconstitutional. (Williams, The New York Times, Pendleton, February 23, 2020)
Arbitrary book censorship is faced by people who are incarcerated nationwide, which can make it harder to get an education behind bars. A recent report from PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for free expression, found that book censorship in US prisons is the largest book ban policy in the nation. Guidelines vary in different systems, but the restrictions “are often arbitrary, overbroad, opaque, [and] subject to little meaningful review.” Rebecca Ginsburg of the Education Justice Project said, “It’s so important for people who are in prison to be able to have access to materials that give them hope and a reason to want to be part of society again, to want to engage, to see the future.” (Gaines, NPR’s WAMU Radio, February 22, 2020)
In the midst of record-low unemployment rates, a staggering 27 percent of people formerly incarcerated don’t have jobs. That’s higher than the national unemployment rate during the height of the Great Depression, which in 1933 was about 25 percent. The country’s overall 3.6 percent unemployment rate has employers across industries struggling to find skilled workers in a barren labor pool. USA Today reports that this is in large part due to an overwhelming education gap. State policies across the country prevent people who have criminal records from accessing continued education both within correctional facilities and after their release. (Wetzel, Ward, USA Today, February 20, 2020)
Virginia will give hundreds of people who have been incarcerated for decades, ever since they were kids, a shot at petitioning for release. House Bill 35 will make people who have been convicted of an offense committed before the age of 18 eligible for parole after 20 years in prison. The legislature adopted the bill last week and the governor signed it into law today, effective July 1, 2020. But there is no guarantee that anyone will receive parole. The impact hinges on Virginia’s parole board no longer denying the vast majority of applications. The Appeal offers more context for this, describing it as “modest reform.” (Nichanian, The Appeal, February 24, 2020).
A new study finds bipartisan public support for policies reevaluating past sentences. Sixty-nine percent of voters support “second look” legislation that allows for “the re-examination of old sentences to provide a second chance for people who have been in prison for more than ten years and who can be safely returned to the community.” The report was released Monday by the Data for Progress in collaboration with The Justice Collaborative Institute, and Fair and Just Prosecution. (Barry, Miller, Aroni Krinsky, McElwee, Data for Progress, February 2020)