» Big Discrepancies in Sentences for Teenage Killers, Juvie Prisons….and More

Once again in California, those in the state with any kind of experience and/or knowledge
of juvenile justice, are trying to persuade California lawmakers to please, please, please pass a law that gives kids sentenced to prison for life a chance—just a chance, no kind of guarantee—to one day make the case that they are worthy of parole.

So far, as was true last year and the year before, nearly all the Republicans and far too many spineless Democrats, are unwilling to pass the thing. Thus SB9—as the bill is numbered—still is a few votes shy of being able to pass.

And while advocates are not giving up, the fact that our supposedly liberal state cannot pass this watered down bill is discouraging.

As I’ve stated here a zillion times, the United States is the only country in the world that puts kids in prison for life without parole—LWOP. The only one. Really. Nobody else does it. Nobody.

And….as that battle goes on in Sacramento, it is instructive to read this investigation by three reporters from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting about the discrepancy in sentencing in Massachusetts for juvenile murders. It is likely that California could use such an investigation.

Read the whole thing, but here’s how it opens:

Shrewsbury teen Valerie N. Hall pushed her mother down a flight of stairs in 2000, smashed her head in with a hammer and left Kathleen Thompsen Hall to die while she went for a ride with her boyfriend. For her mother’s murder, Hall, a depressed and suicidal 16-year-old at the time, served nine years in prison.

Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student John Odgren, who suffers from depression and other mental ailments, fatally stabbed schoolmate James Alenson in the boy’s bathroom in 2007 when he was 16, and after realizing what he had done, tried to get help. Odgren is serving life without the possibility of parole at Bridgewater State Hospital.

Both crimes were ghastly. Both teens suffered from mental illness. Both were charged with first-degree murder.

But their punishments could not have been more different.

The dispositions of the Hall and Odgren cases illustrate the profound inequities that have grown up in the Massachusetts juvenile justice system since the passage of a tough sentencing law enacted 15 years ago and designed to punish the most depraved “super-predators” among teen killers.

An investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting reveals, for the first time, that that law is not being applied consistently to the most horrific juvenile murder cases, as it was intended. The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this spring to tackle whether it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to sentence juveniles 14 and under to life without parole for murder.

As the investigation points out, even law-and-order Texas has repealed life without parole for juveniles. But not Massachusetts…..and not California.


Juvenile crime reached an all time low in California in 2010.

For this and other reasons, Jerry Brown wants to shut down the state’s incarceration facilities for kids by 2014, and move all of those juveniles to camps or other facilities at a county level.

Most of the juvenile justice experts I know see this idea as a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition.

On one hand the facilities we used to call CYA (California Youth Authority), that we now call DJJ (Department of Juvenile Justice) are lousy places, where kids don’t get what they need. What is more they’re insanely expensive to run.

On the other hand, some of the kids sent to DJJ are mentally ill and very difficult to handle. To toss them into, say, Los Angeles County’s already troubled probation camps, would be difficult.

James Bell, the founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, talks to KALW News about whether or not it’s practical or not for the young people in DJJ to be brought back to their home counties.

Here’s a couple of clips from the transcript for the broadcast:

The whole point of juvenile justice system is to make sure that we do some habilitation and some rehabilitation, so that you won’t go on to be an adult chronic offender. You are supposed to be there to be getting needs addressed that you have expressed as a juvenile, as a young person. Essentially, this was the place where it was guards in a pod, hundreds of young people in dorms, and if anything happens the guards would throw tear gas left, throw tear gas right, and call for backup or the SWAT team. So, you would have to declare a gang affiliation to be protected. It was just horrible!

There was no real interactive model between the young people and the people that were supposed to be serving them. So it just became custody and control. And as we know, there were beatings, there were deaths. There were absurd instances where kids with special education needs were supposed to get education but the facilities people thought they were too dangerous. So your classroom was just cage! Literally, you can imagine the absurdity that has to happen when you are non-interactive and you go to custody and control. That’s what it was.

KERNAN: Now the call is to shut down the DJJ altogether. Why is that happening now do you think?

BELL: There have been calls to shut down these facilities for many, many years. And the reasons were what we’ve just talked about: Treatment wasn’t right, it was extremely expensive for that kind of treatment. Recidivism rates were crazy – between 60-70% range. It was like, why are we doing this? But those arguments had no salience because of fear, the way politicians frame public safety… it just got no traction. Literally, the state’s fiscal crisis is the reason because folks are looking at why shouldn’t we do something differently.

Now in fairness, the populations were going down and I believe that’s because the locals were beginning to see that sending their young people away to the Youth Authority as it was then, wasn’t productive, wasn’t helpful. And so there is a movement out there in the youth justice field to look at rational policies, to become less anecdotal, more based on data and objective screens and probation violation grids and those kinds of things. That resulted in less counties sending their people anyway.

And you could really see a north-south split. Southern California being the one that are most sending, and northern California sending least….

Read or listen to the rest. Bell is very good at laying things out.


Chris Kirkham, writing for the Huffington Post has the story (actually two stories) on this new and alarming trend that brings with it a moral conundrum: If prisons become privatized is there not a budget incentive for prison inc. to get or keep customers?

In any case, here’s how Kirkhan opens his story:

As state governments wrestle with massive budget shortfalls, a Wall Street giant is offering a solution: cash in exchange for state property. Prisons, to be exact.

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for “challenging corrections budgets.” In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Huffington Post.

The move reflects a significant shift in strategy for the private prison industry, which until now has expanded by building prisons of its own or managing state-controlled prisons. It also represents an unprecedented bid for more control of state prison systems.

Corrections Corporation has been a swiftly growing business, with revenues expanding more than fivefold since the mid-1990s. The company capitalized on the expansion of state prison systems in the ’80s and ’90s at the height of the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ contracting with state governments to build or manage new prisons to house an influx of drug offenders. During the past 10 years, it has found new opportunity in the business of locking up undocumented immigrants, as the federal government has contracted with private companies in an aggressive immigrant-detention campaign.

And Corrections Corporation’s offer of $250 million toward purchasing existing state prisons is yet another avenue for potential growth. The company has billed the “corrections investment initiative” as a convenient option for states in need of fresh revenue streams: The state benefits from a one-time infusion of cash, while the prison corporation wins a new long-term contract. a businessl

Kirkham also reports that the state of Florida just narrowly escaped selling a bunch of it’s prison facilities to a large prison corp.


IF Governor Pat Quinn orders the closure of the Tamms supermax prison at in southern Illinois, it will be for fiscal reasons, but many experts across the country are applauding the possibility. As with California’s Pelican Bay and the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado, Tamms utilizes the kind of extreme isolation that many believe constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. What is more, for those who are eventually released from prison, research suggests that supermax isolation causes psychological damage, which makes an individual’s behavior worse, not better. Thus human rights organizations would like to see Tamms and places like it close their doors, sooner rather than later..

Yet shutting down the facility is anything but simple. Prisons have become central to the economy of certain rural areas of the country, so the closure can wreak local havoc.

As the Chicago Tribune puts it:

From the moment it opened in 1998, the super-max Tamms prison has been controversial for its high costs and the harsh treatment of its inmates.

Gov.Pat Quinn’s plan to close Tamms to save millions of dollars did not end the controversy.

Critics say it is long past time to shutter a prison known for conditions that were often compared with those at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Opponents of Quinn’s proposal say closing Tamms would be devastating to the community in far southern Illinois where it is located, a place where jobs are hard to come by.

Other states may soon face similar dilemmas as a dropping crime rate meets tight budgets,

In California, however, the prisons are still so overcrowded, and our recidivism rate still so high, that despite a diving crime rate, closures are not close on the horizon.

» L.A. County should be careful on jails

In the coming weeks, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to decide whether to approve a $1.4-billion jail construction project that would help ease overcrowding at Men’s Central Jail and prevent the early release of some inmates. The county’s chief executive and Sheriff Lee Baca argue that the plan, which calls for rebuilding one facility and expanding a second, would make the nation’s largest jail system safer and cheaper to operate.

It’s hard to argue with the need or the logic.The Men’s Central building is so dilapidated and so overcrowded that in 2006, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson described conditions as “not consistent with human values.” Renovations would make it safer for deputies as well as for inmates. What is questionable, however, is whether Bacashould be given new or refurbished jails when he’s so clearly struggling to run the ones he has.

"The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath. Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man."

Troy Davis, The Nation (via goodsoulvibes)

(Source: newwavefeminism, via daughtersofdig)

» Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration by Marc Mauer

….If current trends continue, 1 of every 3 African American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can 1 of every 6 Latino males, compared to 1 in 17 White males. For women, the overall figures are considerably lower, but the racial/ethnic disparities are similar: 1 of every 18 African American females, 1 of every 45 Hispanic females, and 1 of every 111 White females can expect to spend time in prison….

» Too Important to Fail