Friday, April 29, 2011

The Straight Dope

Bill Moyers interviews David Simon, April 2011, Guernica Mag

David Simon would be happy to find out that The Wire was hyperbolic and ridiculous, and that the “American Century” is still to come. But he's not betting on it. An excerpt from Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, forthcoming from The New Press.
Simon-577.jpgPhotograph by Robin Holland
Watching movie and television versions of Charles Dickens’s novels, I often have imagined him back from the beyond, only this time living in America, putting his remarkable powers of observation to the dramatization of life in our inner cities. Then one day, while screening some episodes of HBO’s The Wire, it hit me: Dickens was back and his name is David Simon.
What Charles Dickens learned walking the streets and alleys of Victorian London, Simon saw and heard over twelve years as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He turned his experiences first into a book and the NBC television series Homicide, then the HBO series The Corner. Next, with Ed Burns, a real-life cop turned teacher, he created The Wire. Simon’s meticulous and brutally honest storytelling made Baltimore a metaphor for America’s urban tragedy. During its five seasons, The Wire held up a mirror to an America most of us never see, where drugs, mayhem, and corruption routinely betray the promise of “ life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that is so ingrained in our political DNA.
For The Wire and his other work, David Simon received a MacArthur Fellowship, the no-strings-attached $500,000 grant that honors singular creativity and innovation. In the last few years, Simon also has produced Generation Kill, a brutal and realistic depiction of combat in Iraq, and Treme, a series that dissects post-Katrina New Orleans much as The Wire did Baltimore. Yet “when television history is written,” one critic wrote, “ little else will rival The Wire.” Nor, when historians come to tell the story of America in our time, will they be able to ignore this Dickensian portrayal of America’s expendable people.
[Eds.: Simon was back in the news last month weighing in on those expendable people. On March 11, Felicia (Snoop) Pearson, an actor from The Wire, was arrested on drug-related charges. Simon wrote in the Baltimore Sun that she deserved the presumption of innocence, adding, “America now jails more of its people than any country, including all totalitarian states. We pretend to a war against narcotics, but in truth, we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply.”]
Bill Moyers: There is a fellow in city government here in New York who’s a policy wonk and a die-hard Wire fan. He was hoping I would ask you the one question on his mind: “David Simon has painted the most vivid and compelling portrait of the modern American city. Has he walked away from that story? And if he has, will he come back to it?”
David Simon: I’ve walked away from the Wire universe. It’s had its five years. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. If you keep stuff open-ended and you keep trying to stretch character and plot, they eventually break or bend.
Bill Moyers: What is it about the crime scene that gives you a keyhole, the best keyhole perhaps, into how American society really works?
David Simon: You see the equivocations. You see the stuff that doesn’t make it into the civics books, and you also see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a street corner. Or where parenting comes in. The decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because The Wire was not a story about America, it’s about the America that got left behind.
Bill Moyers: I was struck by something that you said. You were wrestling with this one big existential question. You talked about drug addicts who would come out of detox and then try to steel-jaw themselves through their neighborhood. And then they’d come face-to-face with the question—which is…?
David Simon: “What am I doing here?” You know, a guy coming out of addiction at thirty, thirty-five, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. These really are the excess people in America. Our economy doesn’t need them—we don’t need 10 or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones who are undereducated, who have been ill-served by the inner-city school system, who have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy, we pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we’re actually including them in the American ideal, but we’re not. And they’re not foolish. They get it. They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multibillion-dollar drug trade.
And I would think, “Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.” When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.
Bill Moyers: I did a documentary about the South Bronx called The Fire Next Door and what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.
David Simon: Absolutely. In some ways it’s the most destructive form of welfare that we’ve established, the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It’s basically like opening up a Bethlehem Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, “You guys are all steelworkers.” Just say no? That’s our answer to that? And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it did.

Learned friends keep mum about DPP job as critics advocate change

Geesche Jacobsen | SMH | April 29, 2011
THE office of the Director of Public Prosecutions needs a shake-up, some senior Sydney lawyers said, as applications for the office's top job were about to close.
One lawyer described the office as a ''sheltered workshop''; another said ''it would be a challenge to improve the standard of the place''.
Some potential candidates appear to have been put off by the terms and conditions of the $368,550 job, the perceived amount of administration, or the task of reforming the office.
Despite a handful of candidates rumoured to be applying, no firm favourite has emerged and the government has engaged consultants to canvass candidates nationwide.
Applications close today, and the Attorney-General's Department will draw up a shortlist, from which the Attorney-General, Greg Smith, will select a candidate to propose to the cabinet. This can be vetoed by a parliamentary committee.
Two early favourites whose names had been doing the rounds of legal circles for months - the senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, QC, and the District Court judge Martin Blackmore - are now understood not to be applying.
The successful candidate is likely to be a silk with extensive criminal experience.
The previous DPP, Nicholas Cowdery, resigned in March after nearly 17 years, and Ian Temby, QC, is acting in the position until mid-May.
After changes to the law the next DPP can serve only one 10-year term, which might suit someone near the end of their career.
Senior lawyers say the office needs to be reformed. One said many prosecutors were ''precious'' and refused to work outside of the city.
Another lamented that many of the staff ''haven't had much experience in life'' and were ''zealots''.
One senior barrister suggested more cases should be contracted out to the private bar to allow prosecutors to be assigned to a case and follow it through, preventing changes in the indictments just before a trial.
Staff inside the office are understood to be anxious about the pending appointment, and senior current and former prosecutors were lobbied at the recent prosecutors' conferences to apply for the job.
Among the names circulating as potential candidates are the crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, who had not decided yesterday if she would apply, and her colleague Chris Maxwell, QC.
The current Commonwealth DPP, Chris Craigie, SC, and former South Australian deputy DPP, Wendy Abraham, QC, were also named as potential candidates along with crown advocate Lloyd Babb, SC, and Mark Ierace, SC. Mr Babb did not wish to comment and Ms Abraham did not take the Herald's call. Mr Craigie said his current role was ''fulfilling''.
The position is believed to be less attractive for senior private barristers who would take a pay cut to accept it.
Two experienced barristers, John Agius, SC, and Peter Hastings, QC, were rumoured to be interested, but neither would comment on the suggestions yesterday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Obama v. Obama on signing statements

Glenn Greenwald | | April 17, 2011
The issue of signing statements is more complex than the political controversy over them suggests. When condemning Bush/Cheney lawlessness, I rarely focused on their use of signing statements. That was true for several reasons.
There's nothing inherently illegitimate about a President's expressing his view on various laws. It's vastly preferable for a President to openly declare his intent to violate the law than to do so secretly. Signing statements themselves are just instruments for conveying constitutional views of the law; whether they're truly odious depends upon the view that is being expressed (what made Bush so radical were the theories of executive omnipotence he embraced, not his use of signing statements to express those views).
And a reasonable argument can be made (though it's not one I share) that a President's duty to uphold the Constitution can sometimes be advanced more by refusing to execute an unconstitutional law than by enforcing it; that view, at least for some, is a critical part of the formal definition of the "unitary theory of the executive" and is something right-wing theorists (and now Obama supporters) have long maintained (I ultimately reject that view because the constitutionally legitimate means for a President to object to an unconstitutional law is to veto it, not violate it; moreover, the power to declare laws unconstitutional lies with courts, not the President). But all of those issues introduce nuance into the question of signing statements that is often lacking in the political discussions they've triggered.
But there was no such nuance present when Barack Obama, during a 2008 campaign rally, made his position known on signing statements. After being asked by an audience member whether he would "promise" not to use signing statements to override Congressional statutes, he stated simply "yes," and then elaborated as follows:

Monday, April 25, 2011

Multiple Sentencing Inequities

Editorial | New York Times | April 24, 2011
For a generation, in one of the law’s gross inequities that has fallen unduly on African-Americans, 1 gram of crack cocaine was treated the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine in federal courts. It didn’t matter that the theory behind the law that crack — cocaine cooked in baking powder — was somehow more addictive and led to more violent crime soon proved false.
Congress moderated, but unfortunately didn’t eliminate, that disparity last year by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reducing the ratio to 18 to 1. For anyone, that is, who committed a crack offense after the law went into effect last August. For those who committed crack-related crimes before then but have yet to be sentenced, it doesn’t. They are subject to the old mandatory minimum sentences — 5 years for 5 grams, 10 years for 50 grams.
As Adam Liptak reported in The Times, federal judges have expressed outrage about being forced to impose the harsher treatment with no discretion. While courts decide if the new law can be applied retroactively, the Justice Department has the discretion to do something now, building on a policy Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. began last May.
He called for the “reasoned exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” authorizing a tough but flexible approach. He asked prosecutors to take into account the kind of gross unfairness that results from applying the Fair Sentencing Act to someone who committed a crack offense in August 2010 but not to someone who did so the month before.
By statute, judges must give the mandatory minimum sentences to offenders subject to the old law. Even under the old law, however, prosecutors have considerable discretion. Through plea bargaining, they can also ask for sentences of five years rather than 10. If they decide not to prosecute in federal court, they can let a state prosecute with more flexibility in sentencing.
Under the Holder approach, they can still recommend that dangerous offenders serve the maximum sentence.
Prosecutors often fret about upsetting a judge when they don’t press for the maximum sentence. The judges who say they don’t want to perpetuate what Judge Michael Ponsor called “a Congressionally recognized injustice” are apt to be just fine with prosecutorial discretion. Meanwhile, Congress needs to try again and equalize the penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaine.

Paying Drug Addicts to Get Clean?

This Just In | Opposing Views | 19 April 2011
What would it be worth to you in cold, hard cash to kick smack? Would you stay clean for $50 a day plus expenses? Get a job pushing paper for $100? Live in a drug-free house for $200?
Pay-for-performance is all the rage in health-care policy as the US and other nations struggle to cut runaway costs and waste. The new approach organizes services from doctors, hospitals, and other providers around the health outcome for the patient. Where the current system, fee-for-service, rewards providers to pile on the tests and treatments, pay-for-performance incentivizes—at least in theory—providers to achieve the best possible result at the least possible expense. Although this model is viewed by virtually the entire health-care industry as not only innovative but inevitable, the Republican Party slammed it as “rationing,” which helped the GOP win by a landslide in the 2010 midterm elections.
Britain is far ahead of the US in its application of the reward-for-outcomes approach. The Brits are already testing it in efforts to prompt recipients of welfare to return to work and to prevent ex-cons from returning to prison. Now the government is expanding these experiments to include the drug-treatment industry. A new governmental agency called the Public Health Service is unrolling pilot projects at eight organizations and companies that provide methadone and other services to people recovering from heroin or cocaine use. This marks the first time that any nation has directly linked payment to drug-free outcomes.
As with most social policy, the new approach to drug treatment is as much a result of politics as anything else. The recently elected coalition government has ushered in an age of austerity after both its far-right Tories and center-right Conservatives campaigned against Labor, long the ruling party, for its supposed wasteful tax-and-spend policies. Labor’s harm-reduction approach to drug addiction, once applauded as enlightened, was roundly denounced by conservatives for “parking” junkies on methadone—and the dole—for months and even years.

On a path to prison, Jake, 16, found a bridge back to hope

Peter Munro | The Age | April 24, 2011
JAKE Eldridge started off small time, getting up to mischief and petty crime. Then a brawl saw him expelled from school in year 9. The ''wrong people'' he was hanging with were being locked away in juvenile detention for theft. If there's a certain path to prison, he was on it.
''It starts as something small then it builds up to bigger stuff and eventually it gets you in too much trouble,'' he says now. ''It got to the point where I nearly got locked up. If I didn't have a good solicitor I would probably be in jail now.''
At 16 and on a community-based corrections order, he realised ''I don't want to be in trouble for the rest of my life''. Soon after, he was referred, through a juvenile justice worker, to the YMCA's Bridge Project, a program that helps young offenders find work and a way back into the community.
Amid the ''tough on crime'' political agenda, this award-winning Victorian program has helped find jobs for 120 young people in the past five years - 80 per cent of whom remain in full-time work. A further 200 offenders aged 17 to 22 have received work readiness training, education and mentoring.
Typically, two out of every three young people who have been in custody will reoffend. For Bridge Project participants the reoffending rate is less than 4 per cent - which is thought to save about $60,000 a year per person in detention costs.

Monday, April 18, 2011

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Low IQ and in jail

ABC Radio 576, Background Briefing | Cathy Van Extel | 17 April 2010
Many intellectually disabled people end up in jail. They plead guilty to minor crimes not understanding either social rules or the consequences. Hear the story of Melisa who has an IQ of 57, which is in the lowest l%, and who still faces jail. 

Why are deaths in custody rising?

Inga Ting | Crikey | 15 April 2011
Twenty years today after the Royal Commission report into Aboriginal deaths in custody was released, fatalities in prison custody are rising and inmates are still dying as a result of the same lethal practices the Commission sought to eliminate.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, which is responsible for compiling national statistics on deaths in custody, the number of prison deaths since 2006 has risen nationwide, despite the size of the Australian prison population remaining fairly stable. In the decade to 2008 — the last year for which verifiable figures are available — 471 people died in Australian prison custody, an increase of nearly 50% from the decade to 1989, when the Royal Commission was conducting its investigations.
The AIC has not yet released statistics for 2009 and 2010. But figures obtained by Crikey — a spreadsheet can be downloaded here (4.4MB) — reveal deaths in prison custody have increased by about 50% in the past decade in both NSW and Queensland, the two states with the worst records in the country. NSW — which accounts for more than one third of the 1260 prison deaths recorded between 1980 and 2008 — recorded 161 prison custody deaths in the decade to 2009, compared to 106 during the time of the Royal Commission. Ninety-two people have died in Queensland prison custody in the decade to 2009, compared to 64 during the time of the Commission.
While figures for 2009 could only be obtained for half of all Australian jurisdictions, data provided by state and territory coroners indicates more than 438 prisoners died in Australian jails in the decade to 2009, compared to 323 in the decade to 1989. Twenty-six prison deaths were reported to coroners in NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT in 2009 — 12 in NSW, 12 in Queensland, one in Tasmania and one in the ACT. The Northern Territory, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia refused to supply figures to Crikey.
Fremantle-based PhD law researcher and convenor of the Human Rights Alliance, Gerry Georgatos, says Australia has one of the world’s worst deaths in custody records and a Senate inquiry is urgently needed. Georgatos has been independently monitoring Australian deaths in custody through information published on Corrective Services websites, media reports and other sources.
“During the last two years there have been an additional 160 deaths in custody Australia-wide. The annual average of deaths in custody in 1991 was 71; it is now 78, with the last verifiable year, 2008, recording 86 deaths,” he said, adding that 63% of deaths in custody occur in prisons.
“From February 20 to April 4, 2010 there were six prison deaths in Queensland, WA and NSW jails, plus a seventh death in NSW of an 18-year-old escapee shot to death — this high rate is left unexplored.”
The rate of death in privatised prisons is far higher than in state prisons, which Georgatos cites as a serious concern given the drive towards privatisation in NSW and other states. “People die in privatised prisons at three times the rate they die in government prisons: 4.5 deaths per 1000 prisoners in privatised prisons in Australia, compared to 1.3 in government prisons,” he said.

Kenneth Clarke: prison is a waste of money

Ben Quinn | The Guardian | 16 April 2011
Rise in prison numbers unsustainable, says justice secretary, who blames media for creating image that prison life is easy

Ken Clarke said the current prison system offered 'very, very bad value for taxpayers' money'.

The rate of jail sentencing is "financially unsustainable", the justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has said, delivering a defiant riposte to critics within his own party and the tabloid press who have suggested that his plans to overhaul the penal system are soft on crime.
Clarke last year unveiled a green paper on sentencing as part of government plans to cut the £4bn prison and probation budget by 20% over four years, promising to end a Victorian-style "bang 'em up" culture and reduce high reoffending rates by tackling the root causes.
But after facing sustained criticism, he used an interview with The Times to dismiss characterisation of him as a minister who is "soft on crime."
He is preparing to publish a bill next month which will include proposals to allow for large sentence discounts in return for early guilty pleas and diverting the mentally ill away from jail. The goal is a 3,000 cut in the record 85,000 jail population in England and Wales in four years.
"[The rise in prison numbers is] financially unsustainable. That is not my principal motivation but it is pointless and very bad value for taxpayers' money," Clarke said.
He blamed the media and lobby groups for helping to create a public perception that prison life was easy, adding: "Prisons are not hotels, they are not comfortable, they are overcrowded, they are noisy. Anyone who visits a prison soon realises the prevailing atmosphere is one of stupefying boredom on the part of inmates.
"It is just very, very bad value for taxpayers' money to keep banging them up and warehousing them in overcrowded prisons where most of them get toughened up."
He said that too many prisoners sit idly in their cells when they could be doing something more productive with their time. "I would like to see prisons where there is a working environment, where people get into the habits of the rest of the population."
Private firms would be encouraged to operate in jails and help endow inmates with skills that would make them employable when they entered into free society again.
"The firms are cautious about advertising it because the newspapers write them up as 'employing jailbirds'," he said.
However, Clarke did pledge to make community punishments tougher by insisting offenders do unpaid work for eight hours a day.
"I want them to be more punitive, effective and organised. Unpaid work should require offenders to work at a proper pace in a disciplined manner rather than youths just hanging around doing odd bits tidying up derelict sites," he added.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cruel but Not Unusual

By Dahlia Lithwick | Slate | Friday, April 1, 2011:
Clarence Thomas writes one of the meanest Supreme Court decisions ever.
In 1985, John Thompson was convicted of murder in Louisiana. Having already been convicted in a separate armed robbery case, he opted not to testify on his own behalf in his murder trial. He was sentenced to death and spent 18 years in prison—14 of them isolated on death row—and watched as seven executions were planned for him. Several weeks before an execution scheduled for May 1999, Thompson's private investigators learned that prosecutors had failed to turn over evidencethat would have cleared him at his robbery trial. This evidence included the fact that the main informant against him had received a reward from the victim's family, that the eyewitness identification done at the time described someone who looked nothing like him, and that a blood sample taken from the crime scene did not match Thompson's blood type.
In 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant's innocence. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant's constitutional rights. Yet the four prosecutors in Thompson's case managed to keep secret the fact that they had hidden exculpatory evidence for 20 years. Were it not for Thompson's investigators, he would have been executed for a murder he did not commit.
Both of Thompson's convictions were overturned. When he was retried on the murder charges, a jury acquitted him after 35 minutes. He sued the former Louisiana district attorney for Orleans Parish, Harry Connick Sr. (yes, his dad) for failing to train his prosecutors about their legal obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense. A jury awarded Thompson $14 million for this civil rights violation, one for every year he spent wrongfully incarcerated. The district court judge added another $1 million in attorneys' fees. A panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the verdict. An equally divided 5th Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed again.
But this week, writing on behalf of the five conservatives on the Supreme Court and in his first majority opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas tossed out the verdict, finding that the district attorney can't be responsible for the single act of a lone prosecutor. The Thomas opinion is an extraordinary piece of workmanship, matched only by Justice Antonin Scalia's concurring opinion, in which he takes a few extra whacks at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent. (Ginsburg was so bothered by the majority decision that she read her dissent from the bench for the first time this term.) Both Thomas and Scalia have produced what can only be described as a master class in human apathy. Their disregard for the facts of Thompson's thrashed life and near-death emerges as a moral flat line. Scalia opens his concurrence with a swipe at Ginsburg's "lengthy excavation of the trial record" and states that "the question presented for our review is whether a municipality is liable for a single Brady violation by one of its prosecutors." But only by willfully ignoring that entire trial record can he and Thomas reduce the entire constitutional question to a single misdeed by a single bad actor.

What Would A "Good Lawyer" Do?

By Simple Justice | 15 April 2011
The WSJ Law Blog posts about the impending cuts to public defense, because there was all that fat in the budget to pay for PDs sitting in their oak paneled offices eating bon bons in the spare time. The combination of the populist ideology of sharing the pain and the perpetual issue with the public's prioritization of indigent defense falling slightly below limos for lesser public officials makes this a gimme.
Public defenders maintain that they should be insulated from budget cuts for two reasons, the first being that they were sorely underfunded before the recession came along. Secondly, they point to the fact that states have a duty, enshrined in Gideon v. Wainwright, to provide indigent criminal defendants with the right to counsel.
[Head of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, Edward] Monahan told the WSJ that public defenders offices in the state already have average caseloads in excess of 450 per lawyer and that, with budget cuts, lawyers will have to represent more than 500 clients at any given time.
To the initiated, the arguments against cuts to public defense are obvious, strong and incontrovertible. If it was severely underfunded before, what's left to cut? The answer is in the numbers, which Monahan says will be "more than 500 clients at any given time."
Forget about the public defenders laid off in a climate of unemployment and few options. There is no massive group of well-heeled criminal defendants with cash to burn unable to find counsel because lawyers are flush with retained cases. 
The counter is that funding to prosecutors is being cut as well, though the attempt at comparison would cause giggles but for the fact that there is nothing funny about any of this. Prosecutors always have the option of not bringing more charges then they can prosecute, or clearing their desks when the caseload interfered with binge drinking. Public defenders have to fit their binge drinking in whenever they can.
Of course, there's nothing new about PDs suffering for their calling. Public pretenders, tossed aside at the first opportunity for "real lawyers" without regard to anything other than the fact that defendants would rather be represented by a paid muskrat. No respect. This is reflected well in a comment to the WSJ post.
What trials? Almost every criminal case is plea bargained, no trial unless the defendant has a good lawyer. “Good lawyer” does not describe a public defender or court-appointed lawyer, for the most part. If the taxpayer paid defense counsel was any good, that guy wouldn’t be accepting a 500 client caseload.
Inside this deliberate smack is a bit of unexpected truth. Would a "good lawyer" accept a 500 client caseload?

Rights lawyer slams WA on jail conditions

By Lloyd Jones | SMH | 7 April 2011
Overcrowding in Western Australian prisons has created substandard jail conditions that could lead prisoners to take legal action against the state, a leading rights lawyer says.
Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns was responding to a damning report on WA's Roebourne Regional Prison in the Pilbara by the state's Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan.
The report, tabled in the WA parliament this week, slammed the prison's cramped, rodent-infested cells, unsafe bunks and lack of air-conditioning in the harsh Pilbara heat.
Mr Morgan's report warned of the "dehumanising effects of overcrowding and inadequate climate control" at the facility.
"The heat can be ferocious, and the conditions pose risks to the health and safety of prisoners, especially as many of them have health problems such as diabetes," it said.
The medium-security jail, which houses largely Aboriginal inmates, had 166 prisoners at the time of Mr Morgan's inspection in September last year, despite being designed to hold only 116.
Mr Barns said the WA government had international human rights obligations and had to follow state and national prison guidelines to ensure a duty of care to prisoners so their physical and mental health was not harmed.

The faces behind the statistics

By Ramahn Allam | Living Black | 15 April 2011 
Ramahn Allam met the people behind the juvenile justice statistics.
“On an average day in 2008–09, an Indigenous young person aged 10–17 years was almost 14 times as likely to be under community-based supervision as a non-Indigenous young person of the same age. The level of over-representation was even higher for detention. On an average day, an Indigenous young person aged 10–17 years was 24 times as likely to be detained as a non-Indigenous 10–17 year old. Although only 5% of young Australians are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, half of those in detention on an average day were Indigenous.” 
Source: AIHW 2011. Juvenile justice in Australia, 2008-09. Juvenile justice series. Cat. no. JUV 7. Canberra: AIHW. 
When did you stop reading? 
My guess is by the time you got to the third set of numbers in that quote from the above report, your eyes glazed over, you started thinking about talking cats on Youtube and got up from your armchair to make a cup of tea. 
Maybe not exactly all that detail, but the point is, almost 60 per cent of all prisoners in New South Wales detention centres are Aboriginal. 
When our legal team was checking this weekend’s story on the Youth Corroboree, seasoned lawyers were surprised at the statistic. But when presented with the human face of these statistics in the form of Aboriginal youth who have been through the juvenile justice system, statistics and numbers are almost irrelevant as it becomes apparent any of the young people that have been in the system from a very young age began life ‘behind the eight ball’. 
Sixteen-year-old Roderick Doolan’s story features in this package. It is depressingly far from unique.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Do more prisons mean less crime?

By Rina Palta, The Informant, March 28, 2011:

After 30 years of prison boom in the United States, people are starting to question the usefulness of incarcerating large numbers of people, especially for less serious crimes. In New York, where prison populations skyrocketed after the state passed a series of tough sentencing laws for drug offenders, recent changes have dramatically reduced the prison population. In California, budget woes and federal lawsuits have inspired things like the introduction of non-revocable parole and an expansion in good-time credits for prison inmates–both policies designed to cut down the prison population.
Now, Governor Jerry Brown wants to do more. The current budget calls for less restrictive supervision for a whole host of lower level crimes. That means that fewer crimes carry the penalty of state prison, fewer people getting out go under the strict supervision of state parole, and those that violate parole would likely not go back to prison for the violation.
The Parole Agent Association is starting to push back against these changes–because less parole means the elimination of jobs, but also because parole agents and correctional officers believe in what they do.
In a recent memo to membership, Parole Agent Association of California President Todd Gillam wrote:
According to the Attorney General, California is experiencing the lowest level of criminal activity since the 1980’s. The crime rate is not only low, it is still declining. The entire California criminal justice system, to include CDCR and DAPO, are to be commended for the safety in which Californians live.
It’s an argument we’re likely to hear a lot in the coming months and years as California and states around the nation look to scale back their prison systems. And the timing is hard to ignore: over the past 20 years, as the prison population has skyrocketed, crime has gone down. Does that mean the prison boom and the dramatic rise in incarceration rates have cut crime and kept Americans (at least those not in prison) safer?
The consensus among scholars seems to be that are many factors that contribute to crime levels and its hard to pinpoint any one change as the source of their rise and fall–but that the uptick in incarceration likely accounts for about 25 percent of the nation’s drop in crime.
In 2008, the Pew Center on the States interviewed two preeminent criminologists, Carnegie Mellon’s James Wilson and Pepperdine’s Alfred Blumstein on the impact of incarceration on crime. The interview revealed the reasoning and meaning behind this 25 percent figure.
Blumstein told Pew, “there is little question that incarceration can contribute to crime reduction, but rarely as much as its advocates claim.” The combined factors of deterrence and taking those committing crimes out of commission by locking them up can reduce crime to a point. But that model doesn’t work for crimes that involve market demands, “like theft rings and drug dealing.” If a drug dealer is taken out of commission, they’re simply replaced, Blumstein said, often with someone younger and perhaps less restrained in what they’re willing to do.
Blumstein goes on to say that it’s not so much that incarceration isn’t effective, but that it’s effectiveness has been diluted through over-use. If we were more selective about who is incarcerated he said, we’d have “the highest yield in crimes averted per prisoner.”
Wilson concludes that it’s “too easy to make up a list of all of the things that are true of American society and then attribute changes in the crime rate to them.”
In an era where we extrapolate a lot from what we see–a high profile crime always provokes cries that there are systemic flaws, and we’re constantly looking for broad, sweeping changes that will yield tangible results–both men recommend thinking small: stick to programs and projects that have proved they’ve impacted individuals.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

NSW tackles prison population

Lateline, ABC1, 06/04/2011 (link for report):
New NSW Attorney General Greg Smith wants sweeping reforms of the state's over-crowded prison system.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Over the past decade, the New South Wales prison population has soared as politicians, pressure groups and media have called for longer sentences and tougher bail laws.
NSW is well behind Victoria when it comes to diverting offenders away from the prison system and reducing the rate of re-offending.
With the Liberal Party now in power in NSW, the new Attorney General Greg Smith wants to bring sweeping reforms to the state's prison system and reduce Australia's largest jail population.
John Stewart reports.
JOHN STEWART, REPORTER: In NSW, longer sentences and tougher bail laws have produced a booming prison population. There are now more than 10,000 inmates. The NSW imprisonment rate is about twice that of Victoria and changes to the state's bail laws have also seen a sharp rise in the juvenile prison population. 
The state's new Attorney General, Greg Smith, says he's determined to change the system. 
GREG SMITH, NSW ATTORNEY GENERAL: A couple of years ago, premier Nathan Rees seemed to think it was a badge of honour to have over 10,000 people in the jails. I thought it was a disgrace. And it just reflects either that we've got a lot more crime in this state or that somehow our policies on sentencing and that have been skewed.
JOHN STEWART: More than half of all Australian prisons are in NSW. It's a system which costs taxpayers more than $1 billion a year to build and maintain. Greg Smith says he'll review the state's Bail Act and consider non-custodial sentences and new drug treatment programs. 
GREG SMITH: We need to divert as many people as we can from the system, people with problems, such as people with mental issues, and in the case of people with drug addiction and that, I want to set up a 300-bed, serious drug place where we can rehabilitate them intensively so that we can get them off drugs. Now you'd have to follow that up with I think probably NGOs in the main, non-government organisations, helping them after they leave prison, get a job and find somewhere to live.
JOHN STEWART: Harold Sperling is a former Supreme Court judge. During the past decade he's watched with alarm as the NSW prison population continued to climb. 
HAROLD SPERLING, CRIME AND JUSTICE REFORM COMMITTEE: Increasing at about five per cent per annum over the last 10 years. If we keep on going at that pace, we'll be like California, with more money being spent on prisons than being spent on education. Now that's just not sustainable.
JOHN STEWART: Mr Sperling is now campaigning to reform criminal laws and the state's prisons. 
HAROLD SPERLING: There are four times as many juveniles in detention awaiting trial in NSW as there are in Victoria. There are almost twice as many adults in prison in NSW as there are in Victoria, and the crime rates are no different.
JOHN STEWART: The man in charge of the state's gaols, Commissioner Ron Woodham, has been working in the prison system for over 40 years. He's been in the top job since 2002 and has a reputation for being tough on prisoners and keeping a lid on the system. 
The new Attorney General's plans for sweeping reforms include greater scrutiny of Woodham's administration. 
GREG SMITH: Well I don't expect that Mr Woodham wants to retire or will retire at this stage. We'll see how we can work together. I think I'm putting a lot of reforms up that seem to go against the culture that's existed in recent years such as an inspector of corrections. That position was previously abolished.
JOHN STEWART: Greg Smith is not all sweetness and light. He's also talking about jailing repeat offender graffiti artists, a crime which he says is not investigated enough.
John Stewart, Lateline.

This American Life: Very Tough Love

Drug Court's a good option right? 

Listen to this incredible story on the This American Life podcast entitled "Very Tough Love", and you won't believe what you're hearing ...