Koch Campaign, Violence Intervention in Hospitals, Mental Illness and Solitary, Legislation Against Over-medicating Foster KidsFebruary 4th, 2015 by Taylor Walker
A FACE FOR THE KOCH BROS’ CAMPAIGN AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCES, CIVIL FORFEITURE, AND MORE
Weldon Angelos will spend 55 years in prison for selling weed while carrying a firearm, a punishment tremendously disproportionate to the crime, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The conservative multi-billionaire Koch brothers want to help free Angelos (only possible through a presidential pardon), and introduce him as the face of their criminal justice system reform campaign. The campaign will target harsh mandatory minimum laws, overcriminalization of non-serious, non-violent offenses, civil asset forfeiture abuse, militarization of police, and reentry services.
The Koch brothers are part of a growing trend of Republican leaders and groups emerging as leaders in the fight against mass incarceration. Another high-profile group, the Texas-based Right on Crime, were integral to the passage of California’s three-strikes reform bill, as well as the more recent Proposition 47.
The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak has the story. Here’s a clip:
Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”
At the time of the trial, Cassell noted that Angelos’ sentence exceeded the minimum required for an individual convicted of airline hijacking, detonating a bomb intended to kill bystanders, and the exploitation of a child for pornography.
Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.
He has more than 40 years left to go. Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.
His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.
“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem. And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.
This is where the Koch brothers come in.
The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.
They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week.
In the same vein, Mother Jones’ Sam Brodey has a roundup of five important criminal justice issues we may see some bipartisan reform on from Congress soon, including sealing and expunging records, good time credits, and mandatory minimums. Here’s a clip:
Earned-time credits: These programs, under which prisoners can work to earn an early release by completing classes, job training, and drug rehab, are highly popular among reformers. Many states already offer them, and they’ve been touted as smart, efficient ways to reduce prison populations as well as recidivism rates. Jay Hurst, a criminal-justice lawyer and commentator at the Hill, says that this is the likeliest issue where Congress could pass legislation this year.
Easing up mandatory minimums: These laws, which broadly require those convicted of certain crimes to serve set sentences regardless of the specifics of the case, are considered hallmarks of the tough-on-crime approach politicians used to embrace. Critics, such as advocacy group Families Against the Mandatory Minimum, argue that these laws “undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual” and that they are one of the main reasons for overcrowded prisons. According to Jesselyn McCurdy, a criminal-justice expert at the American Civil Liberties Union, half of those locked up in federal prison are there for drug offenses, to which mandatory minimums are often rigorously applied.
Last January, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which intended to reduce the size of the prison population and rein in ballooning costs by reducing mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for drug-related crimes. Someone serving a 10-year sentence for a nonviolent crime could theoretically get out in five, under the legislation. The bill also proposed broadening judges’ discretion to sentence below federal minimums, known as the “safety valve” for oversentencing.
The Durbin-Lee bill died in committee—a common fate for criminal-justice legislation—and a total overhaul of mandatory minimums could be a tough ask for this Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s new chair, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), is a vocal defender of sentencing minimums. Still, experts say there’s reason to believe some progress could get made. “Safety valve relief could happen this Congress,” Hurst said, because it’s considered a more moderate path to reducing sentences.
HOSPITAL PROGRAMS BREAKING THE CYCLE OF RETALIATORY VIOLENCE
A growing number of “hospital-based violence intervention programs,” designed to interrupt patterns of violence in kids’ lives, are cropping up in California and across the US.
These programs ensure there are tools and resources to redirect kids and teens from retaliation, when they turn up at hospitals suffering from violent injuries and traumas.
Not only are these methods successfully keeping kids and communities safer by connecting kids with therapy, job training, and other services at a pivotal moment, they are saving criminal justice systems (and hospitals) money.
Pacific Standard Magazine’s Lauren Kirchener has this story (we didn’t want you to miss). Here’s a clip:
When Joel Fein was working in the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, treating a 16-year-old boy for injuries he had suffered in a fight, he felt truly helpless when he heard the boy say: “The guy that did this—I’m gonna cap him.” It would mean another fight, another victim of violence, and another patient in the ER. How could Fein do anything to stop the continuation—and escalation—of violence?
This helpless feeling, and this question, both eventually led Fein to his role as co-chair at a national network of “hospital-based violence intervention programs” (HVIPs) that teach health care workers how to help kids and teenagers who have undergone a trauma, and to divert their energies away from dangerous retaliation. And (not that this should be the primary goal, but) according to a new study out by Drexel University, it might save communities a lot of money, too.
The idea behind an intervention program in the hospital setting is that, while victims of violence might have other opportunities to connect with social workers or other resources at other times in their lives, the time right when they are recovering from their injuries may be the most crucial. So the people who are surrounding them at that time should be trained to help them make the right choices. The national network’s handbook for starting up a new hospital-based program reads:
The philosophy of these programs is that violence is preventable and that trauma centers and emergency rooms offer a unique opportunity at the hospital bedside—the teachable moment—to most effectively engage a victim of violence and stop the cycle of violence.
How programs actualize that philosophy will vary, but, for instance, San Francisco’s Wraparound Project assigns case managers to patients who can organize ongoing home visits or cognitive behavioral therapy, and can help patients get better access to government services. They can also point young people to vocational training and new after-school programs to occupy their time, and even to free or discounted tattoo removal—presumably so the kids can take steps to dissociate themselves from gangs.
WAREHOUSING MENTALLY ILL PRISONERS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, THEN RELEASING THEM WITH A WORSENED MENTAL STATE
In the first of a four-part series for WNYC’s Morning Edition program, Cindy Rodriguez shares the tragic story of Sedlis Dowdy, a severely schizophrenic man who has spent nine years in solitary confinement (seventeen total in prison, with five to go) for violent crimes associated with his mental illness.
Dowdy was released once, at the end of his fourteenth year behind bars, but only made it a few days in transitional housing before he was locked up again for stabbing someone. He will likely be released again in five years.
Among a number of other collateral consequences of how the US uses solitary confinement, a high percentage of people held in solitary confinement are eventually going to leave prison—often with more mental problems than when they arrived. When they are released back into their communities, they take illnesses exacerbated by isolation with them. (California struggles with this problem, as do many other states.)
Here are some clips from the WNYC story:
Dowdy grew up poor in Harlem during the 70s and 80s, as the state’s mental-health system went through a wrenching transformation away from large institutions to the underfunded, underperforming system that it is today.
The illness derailed what could’ve been the story of a young man who beat the odds. Despite frequent fights and dropping out of high school, he did well on his GED and attended college at Morrisville State in central New York.
…in February of 1996, he shot a man at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem.
“I didn’t even know the guy,” Dowdy said. “I couldn’t take the voices no more and they was telling me to do it.”
Dowdy’s violent crime made him an outlier: Research suggests that only 4 percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to the mentally ill. He was sentenced to five to 10 years but ended up serving 14 because of the serious trouble he got into. Within a 15 month period, starting in October of 1997, he became uncontrollable. The state Department of Corrections said he assaulted inmates and staff, had weapons and disobeyed direct orders. Dowdy said he was off his meds and delusional at the time.
And as he acted out, the prison responded with more punishment. Dowdy spent nine years, nearly a quarter of his life, in solitary confinement and was often only fed what’s called “the loaf,” which is a brick of baked bread and vegetables.
Experts say extreme isolation is like physical torture for someone who is mentally ill. Over the last four years, several states have scaled back their use of solitary for more vulnerable populations, including New York, which enacted a new policy last year as the result of a lawsuit.
Dowdy’s situation got so bad, he took to throwing feces on guards. He was prosecuted for it and got four extra years added to his sentence. Soon, according to Dowdy, punishment turned into brutality by guards. He described guards beating him, putting glass in his food and trying to break his legs.
“At the time I was just so angry I didn’t know what to do,” he explained. “And nobody was listening to me, so I would come out of my cell and not go back in.”
When asked about the abuse, the state Department of Corrections said records show Dowdy spent nine months on the loaf and in 2000 was the subject of one excessive use of force report complaint, the details of which were lost when the agency changed computer systems.
The environment inside prisons and jails is known to exacerbate mental illness, making treatment that much more difficult to deliver.
“The more chaotic the environment, the harder it is for somebody who is already having trouble organizing their thoughts and organizing their behavior to deal with it,“ said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University.
UPCOMING CALIFORNIA BILLS TO TARGET UNCHECKED OVERPRESCRIBING OF PSYCHOTROPIC MEDS FOR FOSTER KIDS
Karen de Sá’s alarming five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury exposed the excessive use of psychotropic medications to treat California kids in the foster care system. Last year, the Department of Health Care Services tightened restrictions on how doctors prescribe these meds to kids in the foster care system, as a result of the exposé.
This year a number of California bills are in the works to protect foster kids from dangerous over-medication.
One bill would allow kids to receive alternate treatments to certain psych drugs. Another would provide training to foster parents regarding psychotropic prescriptions.
San Jose Mercury’s Karen de Sá has more on the issue, as well as a rundown on the rest of the upcoming bills. Here’s a clip:
With a half dozen legislators exploring bills, de León’s staff has been working behind the scenes, attending meetings of a statewide reform group and meeting with advocates led by the Oakland-based National Center for Youth Law and lawmakers considering bills.
“When the government takes the extraordinary step of removing a child from their families because of abuse or neglect, it assumes the tremendous responsibility of ensuring they are cared for and not further abused or neglected by the system,” de León said in an email.
This newspaper’s series “on the overprescribing of psychotropic medications has shed a spotlight on a deeply troubling aspect of the system,” de León said. “The Senate will be investigating the plight of the adolescents highlighted in these articles, as well as foster children generally.”
Lawmakers, including state Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, have each submitted early language to the Legislative Counsel’s Office, their staff members confirmed. Other bills that address prescribing psychotropics in group homes are also in the early stages.
The influential California Welfare Directors Association is working with Mitchell’s office on legislation that would provide more information to judges, social workers and others in the lives of foster children about their medication and treatment history. That information would give judges who authorize medications more than just a prescriber’s recommendation. It would include observations from social workers, caregivers and the children themselves.
“We’ve been very concerned about making sure that only kids who really need these drugs are getting them,” said Frank Mecca, the welfare director association’s executive director.
Yet, opposition has already surfaced over the state Department of Health Care Services’ decision last fall to require that doctors receive extra authorization to prescribe antipsychotics to children 18 and younger in the public health system…
Hop over to the SJ Mercury for the rest of the story.