Injustice for sale — Judges jail children for money

February 24, 2009

Two judges pled guilty in Pennsylvania last week to putting children in jail for money. The Judges accepted more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention center in Pennsylvania in return for giving hundreds of youths and teenagers to unnecessarily long sentences.

Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, Judges of the Court of Common Pleas in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, pled guilty in federal court in Scranton, Pennsylvania, pursuant to plea bargains with the United States Attorney’s office. They admitted that they had accepted payoffs from PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare between 2003 and 2006. They are each facing up to seven years in prison.

The scam worked like this: The judges sent juveniles to the detention center so the company running the facility received money from the county government to pay costs of the incarceration. Thus, as more children were sentenced to the detention center, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare received more money from the government.

The judges sentenced the children to more severe sentences that required incarceration in order to generate more money. Teenagers who were sentenced by Judge Ciavarella in juvenile court were sentenced to detention centers for minor offenses that ordinarily would have been classified as misdemeanors, according to the Juvenile Law Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit group. One seventeen-year-old boy was sentenced to three month’s detention for being in the company of another minor who was caught shoplifting. Others were given similar sentences for simple assault in which the charges stemmed form a scuffle in the school yard, and these would ordinarily merit only a warning.

Although the juveniles were guaranteed the right to a lawyer in court, many of them appeared before Ciavarella without an attorney because the probation service personnel told them that their charges were so minor that they didn’t need an attorney.

The chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, Marsha Levick, estimated that of approximately 5,000 juveniles who appeared before Judge Ciavarella from 2003 and 2006, between 1,000 and 2,000 received excessively harsh detention sentences. She said the center intends to sue the judges, PA Childcare and Western PA Childcare to obtain money damages for their juveniles victims.

Prosecutors were quoted as saying “That judges would allow their greed to trump the rights of defendants is just obscene.” That is always so, but it is especially so here where the defendants were so young and vulnerable. This is an extremely vicious crime because it strikes at the integrity of the system, but it appears even more vicious when considering how young lives may have been damaged so severely, taken from school and parents, put into a detention center where there are likely young predators waiting for someone to prey on.

The judges tried to hide their ill-gotten income from this scheme by creating false records and rouging payments through intermediaries. “Your statement that I have disgraced my judgship is true,” Ciavarella wrote in a letter to the court. “My actions have destroyed everything I worked to accomplish and I have only myself to blame.” Conahan had no comment to make.

Ciavarella and Conahan were removed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as judges when the charges were filed in federal court, and the Supreme Court appointed a judge to review all the cases involved.

Again, we have an instance where innocent people are falsely persecuted. It certainly indicates the need for a defense lawyer who can be the legal advocate in protecting the rights of the accused, even for something that seems minor, at first blush. It’s very possible that many of these children sentenced did not have an attorney because it seemed their situation was such a minor offense but that just made it easier for the judges to get away with this injustice.

Consequently, it’s always advisable to seek advice from a competent criminal attorney, when you or your child is charged with any kind of criminal, even petty, act. Get educated on how to choose the best lawyer and discover how to avoid common mistakes by going to my website at

Cocaine penalties & federal sentencing pitfalls

September 3, 2008

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the penalties for crack cocaine were about 100 times those for powdered cocaine.  These penalties have now been changed last November.  Then the United States Sentencing Commission made the changes retroactive.  That retroactivity has allowed and will allow approximately 19,500 inmates, mostly black, to seek reductions in the sentences they had received.  Four out of five crack defendants are black.

Crack is smoked, so it gets into the bloodstream faster than powdered cocaine, which is ordinarily snorted.  Crack therefore produces a more intense high and is considered more addictive than powdered cocaine.

Experts say the difference between the two types of cocaine do not merit the 100-to-1 disparity that was written into the federal sentencing guidelines in 1986.  Under those guidelines a mandatory minimum of 5 years imprisonment for trafficking in 5 grams of crack, less than the amount of two packets of sugar, whereas it would take 100 times that quantify of powdered cocaine to result in this sentence.

Powered cocaine was typically sold in the mid-1980s by the half-gram or gram for $50 to $100, while crack was sold as small rocks costing as little as $10.  Crack became popular in poor, largely minority urban areas, and it developed a reputation as a drug used mostly by violent, inner-city youths.  It became a “demonic new substance, “ according to Craig Reinarman, a sociology and legal-studies professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, editor of the 1987 book “Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice.”

When crack first became popular, there was an increase in murders and other crimes associated with crack.  But the bloodshed was not necessarily the result of something inherent in crack.  Most of that violence was typical for what happens when any illegal drug is introduced and drug dealers with guns compete for new markets, according to Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Adding fuel to the concern about crack in 1986 was the death of Len Bias.  He was a basketball star at the University of Maryland just drafted by the Boston Celtics.  His much-publicized death made an impact on Congress.    It was blamed on crack cocaine, although months later one of Bias’s teammates testified Bias had actually snorted powdered cocaine.

The American Method of Imprisoning

May 21, 2008

Now the New York Times has compared our method of imprisonment with other countries. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Americans imprison for acts for which many other countries do not, and Americans imprison for much longer than other nations.

Experts from other countries cannot understand the American approach. According to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has 2.3 million inmates behind bars. The second-ranked leader in world numbers of prisoners, however, the Republic of China, with approximately 4 times more population, has only 1.6 million prisoners. (This excludes hundreds of thousands of those held in “administrative detention” in China, usually for political offenses rather than crimes).

In America, there are 751 people in prison or jail per 100,000 population. Russia is the only other industrialized country close with 627 for every 100,000 people. Then the figures drop off dramatically with England at 151, Germany at 88, and Japan at 63 prisoners per 100,000 population. Within the United States, Maine has the lowest rate at 273 per 100,000, and Louisiana has the highest at 1,138 per 100,000.

Practically all experts agree that the high incarceration rate in the United States has driven down crime. By about how much it has done so, there is great disagreement.

In years past, Europeans came to the United States to study our prisons. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, came here in the nineteenth century. No more.

American incarceration rates remained stable from 1925 to 1975, about 110 prisoners per 100,000 population, although those numbers did not include prisoners in state and local jails. Then a movement began to get tough on crime in the late 1970’s. That’s when the numbers mushroomed.

Maybe American crime is different. Although the assault rate is approximately the same in London and New York, the murder rate is much higher in New York. Some experts opine that the greater availability of guns contributes to this. Regardless, the United States has lower rates of burglary and robbery than Canada, England, and Australia.

The “war on drugs” has been a major contributor to the high rate of lock up in the United States. The numbers are clear. From the 40,000 imprisoned in American jails and prisons for drug crimes, this number has grown to 500,000.

Regardless the relative numbers of prisoners in America and the other nations of the world, differences in length of sentence are what truly distinguishes us. That is what gives us more prisoners. Several European countries send more people to prison each year per capita than the United States. But those prisoners get out sooner. Since American prisoners stay in prison longer, the cumulative number becomes much larger over time.

Some experts believe it is the American method that is working, making American more safe. Finding causes for effects in big countries is always elusive, of course. The crime rates in Canada over the last 40 years have risen and fallen pretty much parallel with those in the United States. Imprisonment in Canada, however, has remained stable.

Other experts believe that the higher incarceration rates in the United States are the result of popularly-elected judges responding to the demands of the public. The public always wants more and longer punishment, believing this will lower crime. The lessons from other countries is not so clear on that.

I think it’s time to reevaluate our concentration on being “tough on crime” and look to other programs such as non-mandatory faith based rehabilitative programs.

Being “Tough on Crime” Causing States to Go Broke

April 15, 2008

The Associated Press reports at least eight states are considering freeing prison inmates or sending some of them to rehabilitation programs instead of prison. The Associated Press analyzed legislative proposals of several states to find this trend.

Officials in these states acknowledge this idea carries risks, but they believe they have no choice because of the huge gaps in their state budgets resulting from the slow down in the economy. If these programs are adopted, the early release programs could save an estimated $450 million in California and Kentucky alone.

A Rhode Island proposal would allow inmates to deduct up to 12 days from their sentence for every month they follow rules and work in prison. Even some violent offenders would be eligible but not those serving life sentences.

A Mississippi plan would offer early parole for people convicted of selling marijuana or prescription drugs. New Jersey, South Carolina and Vermont are considering sending drug-addicted offenders into treatment, which is cheaper than prison.

Victim safety is a concern for those focusing on violent crimes, and safety of the community is always stated as a high priority in the stated goals of any proposal. But the legislatures must cut costs somewhere, and prisons are “one of the most expensive parts of the criminal justice system,” said Alsion Lawrence, who studies corrections policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That is where they look to first to cut down some of those costs.”

Rhode Island Corrections Director A.T. Wall was not sure how many prisoners could be freed early. The savings might not even be $1,000,000 for the first year, but that figure would likely increase over time.

In California where everything is bigger, the legislature is trying to cut a $16 billion deficit in half by this summer. Governor Schwarzenegger proposed saving $400 million by releasing more than 22,000 inmates who had less than 20 months remaining on their sentences. Violent and sex offenders would not be eligible. Eliminating prison guard positions and making it more difficult to re-imprison parole violators would contribute to some of these savings.

Of course, California’s proposal has its critics, predictably from law enforcement and conservative lawmakers. Particularly they criticize the impact of the proposal on sentences for car thieves, drunk drivers, forgers and some drug dealers because the typical sentence for these is less than 20 months. The result on those typically convicted for these crimes in California would be zero time behind bars, and the critics say this would take away the deterrence for such crimes.

The Kentucky legislature approved on April 2nd a proposal which would save nearly $50 million toward its $1.3 billion budget deficit. This plan would grant early release to perhaps 2,000 inmates, violent and sexual offenders exempt, once again. The Governor of Kentucky noted it had to do something after a 12% inmate population increase in 2007, the largest in the nation. Kentucky spends $18,600 per year to house one inmate.

Mississippi faces an inmate population which has tripled since the state enacted stricter sentencing policies in 1994. Its legislature is now considering making 7,000 drug offenders eligible for early parole. Currently they are required to serve 85% of their sentences. Under the new proposal they would only have to serve about a quarter of their sentences.

The US is The Number 1 Jailer in the World

March 24, 2008

We’re Number One! The United States incarcerates more bodies than any other nation on the planet earth-even Russia, even India, even than China. This premier spot is not only in terms of percentages of prisoners per total population, but also in terms of raw numbers.

The United States has 2,319,258 of its people locked away in jails, while China has only 1.5 million prisoners in spite of its 1.3 billion population and our population of 230 million. Our per capita percentages are 750 per 100,000 people, compared to Russia’s 625 per 100,000. In the United States, there are 1,596,127 prisoners in state and federal prisons and 723,131 prisoners in local jails.

The Pew Center on the States also tells us that all 50 US states combined spent $49 billion on corrections in the year 2007, up from $11 billion twenty years earlier. Our rate of increase in corrections costs was six times greater than for the increase on spending on higher education. The inmate population increased in 2007 in 36 states and in the federal system.

This growing inmate population is taking money from state budgets that cannot afford the extra money, yet is having no apparent impact on recidivism or overall crime, the report said. States are trying to be creative to cut costs without appearing to be “soft on crime.” Kansas and Texas have acted decisively to slow the growth of inmate population, making more use of community supervision for low-risk offenders and using penalties other than reimprisonment for those who technically violate their rules for probation or parole.

The largest percentage increase was in Kentucky (12%), where the state’s governor pointed out that crime has increased only 3 % over the past 30 years, while the state’s inmate population has increased 60%.  The annual cost per prisoner averaged in the US at $23,876, from Rhode Island’s $44,860 to Louisiana’s $13,009 per prisoner. California spent $8.8 billion for corrections in 2007 (with a $16 billion shortage in their budget), while Texas spent $3.3 billion for corrections.

State budgets average 6.8 % of their general funds on corrections, from Oregon’s 10.9 % to Alabama’s 2.6% of general funds. Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, and Connecticut now spend more on corrections than on higher education.

The breakdown of men behind bars is one in 30 men between the ages between 20 and 34, but for black males in that age group, it is one in 9 of the national population.

This is one instance, where I believe, being number one is not a good thing. It is time to look at our overall system and other alternatives to locking up people and throwing away the keys…. Alternatives like faith and character based voluntary programs in prison. Those programs (which could be a whole other topic of discussion at another time) have had a higher rate of success and I believe they should be offered on a widespread basis.

Perhaps these shocking statistics will cause our correctional system do some serious “remodeling” to fix it’s broken system.

Are Longer Sentences Effective at Deterring Crime?

February 4, 2008

Congress and many state legislatures have, for the past 20 years, shown little restraint in heading toward higher and higher sentences. Getting tough on crime is always popular, and raising sentences is perhaps a legislature’s only way to do its part. There is no such thing as being too tough on crime.

Actually fighting crime is up to the law enforcement agencies, the prosecutors, the judges, and the prisons. But legislatures want to be seen as making their contribution, so they keep raising the maximum penalties and issuing mandatory minimum sentences.

But it hasn’t worked, of course. It pleases the public to hear what the Congress and the state legislatures are doing: No more Mr. Nice Guy on Crime. But it has not deterred crime. And, by the way, the public is tired of paying for all this extra, extra, extra.

A New York Times editorial in October, 2007, in assessing mandatory minimum sentencing, said laws passed in New York during the 1970’s “drove up the prison population tenfold and cost the state a fortune, did nothing to curb the drug trade, tied the hands of judges and destroyed countless young lives by requiring long prison terms in cases where lenience and drug treatment were clearly warranted.”

Michigan has recently gone the other way. Michigan has repealed almost all of the state’s mandatory minimum drug statutes long cited among the toughest in the country, replacing them with drug sentencing guidelines that give discretion back to the Michigan judges.

A 2006 National Center for State Courts survey found 29 states reporting no effort to counter mandatory minium sentence provisions, and six other states were creating new mandatory minimum penalties.
Oklahoma, however, may be learning from its mistakes. The Oklahoma Community Sentencing Act now gives courtroom judges the flexibility to sentence drug offenders to treatment programs instead of mandatory prison time. And an editorial in the Daily Oklahoman on February 3, 2008 suggested the Oklahoma state legislature shape its policies for tomorrow with the following:

“Lawmakers are part of the problem in maintaining a system that pursues justice by locking up too many people for too many crimes for too long. They can be part of the solution with sentencing reform and by admitting that we can’t afford the status quo. Also needed are changes in the parole system.”

It’s time to realize simply lengthening all sentences has not worked, and other avenues for rehabilitation should be examined.