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Causes and Collateral Damage of Mass Incarceration, Fewer Kids Dying from Abuse in LA County…and More

May 2nd, 2014 by Taylor Walker

NEW NATIONAL REPORT ON THE U.S. INCARCERATION CRISIS: THE FISCAL, FAMILIAL, AND SOCIETAL COST, AND HOW TO REVERSE THE DAMAGES

On Tuesday we shared an NY Times story about what sparked the United States’ prison crisis, in anticipation of an important 464-page report on the causes and repercussions of mass incarceration over the last 40 years.

On Wednesday the National Academy of Sciences released the extensive report, which analyzes in-depth America’s racially disproportionate incarceration epidemic which has had minimal benefit and has, instead, been disastrously damaging to children, families, and communities.

The Washington Post’s Emily Badger has a breakdown of the report’s findings (complete with helpful graphs). Here are some clips:

…black men younger than 35 without a high school degree are now more likely in America to be imprisoned than employed in the labor market.

These disproportionate impacts extend to their children: As of 2009, 62 percent of black children under 17, whose parents had not completed high school, have had a parent in prison. The same was true for 17 percent of Hispanic children and 15 percent of white children (with similarly educated parents).

Prisoners are more likely to come out of poor communities (and to return to them). This means that communities with the least capacity to absorb former prisoners are home to the largest share of them. This also means that economic, social and political problems tied to incarceration tend to fall on communities that have many other related challenges.

“There is little question,” as the report puts it, “that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities.”

[SNIP]

That concentrated disadvantage is also passed to the next generation. Research has linked incarceration to frayed relationships between parents and between men and their children. It’s linked to economic distress for families, housing insecurity and reliance on public assistance. Incarceration reduces fathers’ involvement with their children, even after their release from prison, and it undermines their roles as parents and earners. Having an incarcerated father also increases a child’s chances of having behavioral problems, bad grades and lower educational attainment.

[SNIP]

The National Research Council calls for reform on three fronts. On sentencing policy, we could reduce the length of sentences and the harshness of drug laws. With prison policy, we could work to improve the programs and conditions for people serving in prison, while trying to make the consequences of incarceration less harmful on their families and communities on the outside.

There’s also much we could do in the realm of social policy, far beyond the typical reach of the criminal justice system. Given that incarceration has become deeply intertwined with other problems within impoverished communities, policies that reduce school dropout rates, that ameliorate neighborhood poverty or mental illness would also have an impact.

The U.S. also needs to recall principles that have been “notably missing,” in the report’s language, in public discussion of criminal justice policy as incarceration rates have skyrocketed. Namely, these:

Proportionality: Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness.

Parsimony: The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy.

Citizenship: The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one’s fundamental status as a member of society.

Social justice: Prisons should be instruments of justice, and as such their collective effect should be to promote society’s aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources and opportunities.

Executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann, says America must bring down its lock-up rates significantly to “re-join the family of civilized nations”—that we cannot be satisfied with reducing the prison population without solving the underlying issues, or trading our overloaded prison system for excessive supervision. Here’s a clip:

The report calls for a significant reduction in rates of imprisonment and says that the rise in the U.S. prison population is “not serving the country well.” It concludes that in order to significantly lower prison rates, the U.S. should revise its drug enforcement and sentencing laws.

Even as bipartisan support for reducing incarceration grows across the country, I have two fears. The first is that we will succeed in reducing incarceration rates by 10 percent or so over the next few years, pat ourselves on the back, and think enough has been done. The second is that we will reduce incarceration by at least that much but increase by millions more the number of people on probation, parole and otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Transforming America from a maximum incarceration society to a maximum surveillance society will be a very mixed blessing.

Reducing incarceration involves more than just eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and harsh criminal penalties for nonviolent drug crimes. Removing marijuana from the criminal justice system through responsible regulation and taxation of legal markets would make a meaningful difference. So would ending the criminalization of drug use and possession of all drugs and making a true commitment to treating drug use and addiction as health issues.

Ultimately we need to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control as much as possible while protecting public safety and health.


DEATHS FROM CHILD ABUSE DOWN IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY

Child abuse-related deaths in 2012 dropped to the lowest in 25 years in Los Angeles County, while reports of suspected child abuse or neglect increased, according to the latest annual reports by the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and Child Death Review Team. (We at WLA hope for a deeper examination of what these numbers mean.)

The reports follow on the heels of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s final recommendations for fixing the county’s dysfunctional Department of Children and Family Services.

The LA Daily News’ Christina Villacorte has the story. Here’s a clip:

“One can conclude that the number of referrals is not indicative of a bigger problem, but indicative of more awareness and better opportunity to help children, protect them and keep them safe,” Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect Director Deanne Tilton-Durfee said.

Even though child abuse deaths dropped nearly 40 percent from 238 in 2011 to 219 in 2012 — the latest data available — gaping holes remain in the county’s safety net for the most vulnerable.

[SNIP]

ICAN’s report comes just a few weeks after the county Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection said the system was in a “state of emergency” and called for various reforms.

ICAN’s Child Death Review Team found more than half of the children killed by a parent, relative or caregiver in 2012 were babies who had yet to celebrate their first birthday. Almost all of them were under age 5.

About 60 percent of the homicides were committed by a woman, usually the child’s own mother. In the preceding year, the vast majority of the killers were men.

Most of the children died as a result of inflicted trauma, likely from beatings. A few were drowned or abandoned as newborns. There was a death each from stabbing, strangulation and poisoning.

The team, led by District Attorney’s Family Violence Division chief Michele Daniels and Harbor/UCLA Medical Center pediatrics division chair Dr. Carol Berkowitz, recommended that law enforcement officers responding to domestic violence calls also check on the children in the home.

“Violence between adults impacts children in the home as they are at risk for emotional and/or physical abuse as a result of the violence,” they said.

The team also called for training workers to spot high risk factors when they come into contact with families, including multiple referrals to DCFS, parents or caregivers having a history of being abused themselves, substance abuse, and social isolation.


STATE USING HALF-EMPTY MEDICAL PRISON TO LOWER OVERALL OVERCROWDING AVERAGE

Two weeks ago, Governor Jerry Brown has began the process of releasing certain low-level offenders early in compliance with federal judges’ order to reduce California’s prison population.

The judges’ first population goal for the state was an average of 143% prison capacity by June 30. According to the state’s April status update to the judges, the average prison population has already made it to 141%.

But inmate attorneys say the state is counting beds at a problematic medical prison that is currently half-empty and closed to new admissions. The lawyers say this is a workaround that lets the state leave other facilities at a higher-than-allowed capacity, and asked the judges to remove the facility from the calculated average.

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has this update on California’s continuing prison overcrowding saga. Here’s a clip:

A panel of three federal judges gave California until June 30 to reduce crowding to a statewide average of 143% of what its prisons can hold, the first of a series of increasingly lower population limits. In an April update to the court, lawyers for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said the system is now at 141% of capacity.

They reached that average by including 1,500 empty beds at a new medical prison outside of Stockton. The facility is at 47% capacity, and was closed to new medical admissions earlier this year after the death of an inmate and concerns it was poorly run.

In a court motion filed Friday, lawyers from the Prison Law Office representing inmates argue that counting empty cells and medical beds allows California to keep 4,000 more inmates in other prisons than would be permitted.

They have asked judges to calculate the crowding average by looking at only the state’s 33 other prisons. State population reports show 16 of those prisons currently exceed what the court will allow as a statewide average June 30.

There’s more, so read the rest.

Posted in DCFS, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), prison policy, Sentencing, War on Drugs | 2 Comments »

2 Responses

  1. Stickler Says:

    Dear WLA,
    Something wrong with your stats in today’s piece about the reduction in child deaths due to abuse.
    “…child abuse deaths dropped nearly 40 percent from 238 in 2011 to 219 in 2012.”
    The nineteen point drop from 238 to 219 is 8% not 40%. A welcome reduction, if it is a trend and not just a small statistical blip, but not a revolution.
    In general, of course, I am an admirer of your coverage of these and other important public policy issues.
    Stickler

  2. Jerrie Says:

    Dear WLA,
    I have more of a question than a comment. I am looking for numbers of repeat cases in dependency court, where the same family has returned to the system within 1 to 5 years. Are there any stats for this and where can I find them?

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