You might think the political universe now stands upon its head: the Commonwealth Foundation, a potent conservative force in Pennsylvania politics, is criticizing a labor union for being too tough on crime.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, amidst a growing nationwide movement of conservatives (under the banner “Right on Crime”) embracing criminal justice reform, has proposed reducing the state's prison population. And a labor union representing prison guards is, as Commonwealth phrases it, “fear-mongering” over a proposal to—get this—simply speed the release of people already approved to be released on parole.
“The only way it can be done is they’re going to have to cut people loose that shouldn’t be cut loose,” Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association's Roy Pinto told the Patriot-News.
Commonwealth unleashed a deserved―though perhaps, as I will explore below, exaggerated―barrage of criticism: “While bad policies may have led to the explosion in state prison populations,” wrote Commonwealth's Katrina Currie, “it may be the unions that pose the biggest challenge in getting the inmate numbers down.”
The criticism was echoed one week later by the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune: “Corbett's plan to control escalating state prison costs through better efficiencies in the state Department of Corrections has met with predictable fear-mongering from the head of the prison guards' union.... Leave it to the union mentality to advance a straw-man argument against commonsense solutions.”
Pennsylvania spends at least $463.8 million more on prisons than is reflected in the state's already massive $1.6 billion prison budget, according to a new Vera Institute of Justice and Pew Center on the States report.
The study used a calculation that included various costs tabulated elsewhere in the budget including fringe benefits to employees, underfunded pension and retiree health care plans, spending on inmate health care and education, legal costs and capital projects.
Pennsylvania, according to the study, had one of the largest discrepancies of the 40 states surveyed: 22.6 percent of prison costs are outside the corrections budget, which makes the total spent $2.1 billion. Nationwide, states pay 14 percent more for prisons than is reflected in state budgets—$38.8 billion, or $5.4 billion than officially budgeted.
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation that would mandate the DNA testing of all people arrested for felonies and some misdemeanors.
Pennsylvania is spending $400 million to construct two new prisons at the SCI-Graterford site in Montgomery County after slashing nearly $1 billion in public education funding. The funds are in addition to the $1.8 billion corrections budget signed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, an increase of $208,000 from last year (capital projects are counted separately).
Today, Decarcerate PA staged a protest outside the Philadelphia office of South Jersey-based Hill International, Inc., a major global construction management firm overseeing the "Phoenix East and Phoenix West" project at Graterford.
Last week, City Paper published a story about Harriett Spencer, an African-American woman and a Philadelphia Prisons System employee who claims that she has been a victim of gender discrimination under Commissioner Louis Giorla.
Now, CP has found, another African-American woman in the Prisons System alleges that she, too, has been a victim of gender discrimination under Giorla.
Her name is Joyce Brown Adams, and her claims are remarkably similar to Spencer's. In 2009, the Prisons System was on the hunt for a new deputy commissioner, the second-highest ranking official in that department, and Adams thought she was the woman for the job: She has a bachelor's and a master's degree, she says, and had nearly 30 years of experience in the city's prisons, moving from social worker to employment counselor to her current job as warden.
But Adams, who spoke through her lawyer Nancy Ezold, didn't get the job. Instead, a man named Clyde Gainey did — who, according to Adams, does not have a degree. (A Prisons System spokeswoman and Gainey declined to confirm or deny this.) Adams sees this as the city flouting its own rules: According to the Prisons System's documents, the "minimum acceptable training and experience" for a deputy commissioner is a graduate degree in a relevant field, or a bachelor's degree accompanied by workplace experience.
Adams says the city also didn't formally announce the opening of the deputy commissioner position, even though she expressed interest to Giorla.
So in 2009, Adams filed a charge with both the Pa. Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (By state law, you must do this before filing suit.) Adams and the Prisons System are still in negotiations, but Ezold says it is possible she will file a lawsuit soon.
Prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes declined to comment for this article.
Spencer, the Prisons exmployee who City Paper wrote about last week, filed suit against the city in February for gender discrimination — and she also alleges that she was never able to apply for the deputy commissioner position. And she claims that Gainey doesn't have a degree — whereas she has a bachelor's, master's and law degree, as well as more than 30 years of experience in the Prisons System.
"It's amazing to me that these highly qualified women that are also highly experienced are not getting the position, and are not even getting considered," says Ezold. "It makes no sense."
Ezold also notes that, until a few weeks ago, Adams was a warden at the Philadelphia Detention Center — but then, "without asking her opinion," was reassigned to Riverside Correctional Facility, an all-women's jail. Though this was not a demotion and wasn't accompanied by a pay cut, Ezold argues that it could be construed as retribution for her charge.
In a press release last month, the Prisons System announced that two other women were being promoted to the position of warden, and that Adams, "who has led the Detention Center for the past two years, will take over at the women's jail." In the release, Girola says, "We were fortunate to promote these experienced and talented women to warden."
Tara Timberman, an advocate for prisoners, was scouring the country’s Higher Education Act, and came across a pleasant surprise.
The law bars federal and state inmates from receiving Pell Grants, a major form of federal financial aid. But it doesn’t restrict county inmates from getting aid — in other words, Philly inmates are eligible.
“I was reading it, and not really believing it,” she says.
Timberman (pictured, center) says this law, which is reauthorized by Congress every few years, led to about 500 college-for-inmates programs getting cut “almost overnight" in the 1990s.
Timberman, who teaches English at the Community College of Philadelphia, took this information about financial aid to the Philadelphia Prisons System. According to prisons spokesman Robert Eskind, the city's prisons hadn’t offered college-credit courses to inmates since the ‘90s, at least — until this year, that is.
Thanks in no small part to Timberman’s discovery, a group of 15 inmates at North Philly’s Cambria Community Center celebrated the completion of their first college semester on Friday. (Two other men, who were released before the semester ended, couldn’t attend, but also finished the classes.)
In the 10-week semester, the inmates took courses in reading, writing and acting, which were taught by professors at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP). They read Homer's The Iliad, wrote essays and memorized lengthy monologues.
The inmates were selected from a pool of about 200 inmates at Cambria, based on the duration of their stay, their eligibility for financial aid, and other factors.
Everett Gillison, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, says that this program represents a departure from the justice system’s traditional “lock ‘em up and throw people away” strategy.
Louis Giorla, the prisons commissioner, says the classes faced opposition at first. At city meetings, he says, attendants would ask, “Why should inmates go to college when my kid can’t go?”
The city’s prison system has offered educational opportunities before, such as the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, but this is the first time that inmates received college credits during them since at least the ‘90s. Timberman says this is especially beneficial to inmates because upon release, they don’t need to take any additional application steps to further their educations — they’re already CCP students, with financial aid and all.
City officials hope that this program will hope lower rates of recidivism among participants.
At the ceremony on Friday, many people teared up, including CCP professor Kathleen Murphey.
She says that, on average, her incarcerated students performed better than other students. For instance, in her remedial English course of 20 students at the campus, 14 took the final exam — and only six passed. But in her class with inmates, 17 took the final exam — and 14 passed.
George Mink, a 40-year-old with several tattoos, was among the inmates celebrating on Friday. He says he “never, ever pictured going to college,” and had been out of school for 20 years. He adds that the classes helped kill "all the dead time" in jail.
Now, Mink plans on majoring in behavioral health at CCP upon his release this month. “I realized a lot of the guys in here need behavioral help,” he says.
Timberman says there will be a new class of incarcerated students in the fall, and hopes to expand it even further in the future.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment has granted its approval for a proposed "penal" project at Grays Avenue and 52nd Street, in Southwest Philly.
Last month, City Paper reported on the battle over the project. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and some neighbors support it. The developers call it a "day reporting center," where ex- and non-violent offenders will receive services (and sometimes beds) in lieu of being sent to jail. The supporters of the project argue that it will save the city money and reduce recidivism rates. Some other neighbors who are opposed to the development, however, call it a "prison" and say it's too close to a residential area. According to the city's zoning code, it is a "penal" project — however, it should be noted that the code has not been rewritten since the 1960s, and according to judicial sources, day reporting centers did not exist then.
No matter its name, the Zoning Board has granted a needed use variance for the project.
The developers, Ronald and David Watts, still need to win a contract from the city.
"We're very happy to receive the use variance. … Another hurdle has been crossed," says David. "We realize we have not gotten to the finish line yet."
Marsha Wall, president of the Southwest Community Advisory Group, says that neighbors will continue to fight the project, and will soon be filing an appeal against the Zoning Board's decision.
Read about another proposed "penal" project in the area, which many of the same neighbors oppose, in this week's A Million Stories.
Jordan Brown's case is one of the more fascinating and complicated criminal matters to be heard in Pennsylvania... well, ever. And things will continue to get interesting today.
As theÂ Inky noted via the Associated Press this morning: "A Superior Court panel in Pittsburgh must decide whether a boy who was 11 at the time should be tried as an adult in the slaying of his father's pregnant fiancee."
Which deserves some added information:
In February 2009, when Jordan was 11, his father's girlfriend, Kenzie Houk, was found murdered with a shotgun wound to the head. Investigators concluded that she had been shot while she slept. This took place about an hour's drive north of PittsburghÂ in a rural farmhouse she shared with her boyfriend, one of her daughters, and Jordan.
It took local cops a short time to investigate and gather that Jordan -- whose father had purchased him a shotgun not long earlier -- had committed the act. Though he denied it -- and continues to deny it -- Jordan was incarcerated and held for trial. Last year, aÂ judge concludedÂ (here's the PDF) that the 11-year-old would be tried as an adult for murder. The judge's rationale: Jordan's refusal to admit guilt showed that he was not sorry for what he did and therefore liable for murder as an adult. (Jordan's lawyers have since countered that this decision doesn't make much sense -- and that's pretty much what today's hearing is about).
Admission or not, this is unheard of in most other states. Earlier this month, for example, a 10-year old in Ohio committed anÂ eerily similar crime. There wasÂ zero talk of adult time in that case because in Ohio, a 10-year-old is a child.
In Pennsylvania, however, things aren't so clear. Human Rights Watch hasÂ pointed out that the Keystone State sentences hundreds more kids to life in prison than any other state in the country (and more than most other states in the countryÂ combined). So in Pennsylvania an 11-year-old may not be a child in the eyes of the law. He or she may be an adult. And adults get harsh sentences:Â If Jordan is convicted, he'll face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He'll be the youngest person in recorded history to receive that sentence.
The hearing today will get to that. And it'll also begin the process of answering the following question:
Is an 11-year-old liable for murder as an adult in Pennsylvania?
A panel will hear arguments today and eventually make a decision. One way or the other, that decision -- which will take months, as these types of proceedings tend to -- will have a massive impact on juvenile criminal law nationwide.
* It'sÂ unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death if that person committed a crime before he or she turned 18.
* It's alsoÂ unconstitutional to sentence anyone to life in prison without the possibility of parole if that person committed a non-homicide offense before he or she turned 18.
* Read the whole Jordan Brown story -- and more about his innocence claim --Â here.
* Read about SCI Pine Grove, the institution Jordan will serve time in if he's convicted.
* Read the brief written by Jordan's attorneys and Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of the Philadelphia Juvenile Law Center, in favor of trying Jordan as a juvenile.
UPDATE from the hearing:
*Â WTAE Pittsburgh (with video): "'My daughter is not coming back,' Kenzie Houk's mother, Deborah, told reporters outside court on Tuesday. 'My two little girls lost a mother, and a brother they waited on, so what gives you the right to think that he can walk away?'"
* Guardian UK: "The US is the only country where juveniles are serving life imprisonment without parole under the so-called 'life means life' policy. Only the US and Somalia have refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which rules out life sentences with no chance of release for crimes committed before the age of 18."
|Courtesy of Mother Jones|
The National Women's Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights released a report last week grading each state on its treatment of female prisoners, and it's got lots of interesting (read: depressing) stats: For instance, the number of women in prison some 115,000 as of 2009 has recently increased faster than that of men, largely thanks to new mandatory sentences for drug convictions. Also, most incarcerated females are nonviolent, first-time offenders; two-thirds of them have at least one child less than 18 years old. There's more:
- 43 states do not require medical examinations as a component of prenatal care
- 34 states do not require screening and treatment for women with high-risk pregnancies
- 48 states do not offer pregnant women screening for HIV
- 22 states either have no policy at all addressing when restraints can be used on pregnant women or have a policy which allows for the use of dangerous leg irons or waist chains
- 38 states received failing grades (D/F) for failing to offer prison nurseries to new mothers who are incarcerated
So where does Pennsylvania stand? Mostly thanks to a state bill that passed this year banning the shackling of women in labor, as well as programs like Philly's MOMobile, the Commonwealth got an A-. But does the state deserve it? Ann Schwartzman, the policy director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, isn't so sure.
"Policies don't always materialize, so rating the states on written policy is limited," she told the Clog. "Many women with families need substance abuse treatment, but slots and funding are limited. More community-based alternatives to incarceration need to be established to provide opportunities for families to develop important bonds but facilities are few and far between. Expanded family visiting is an important measure but requires funds and space within the prison. Health care, including nutrition, exercise and trauma-focused treatment, would impact many of the incarcerated moms in the two state prisons."
You can read the report in its entirety here.
Passing this along without much comment: An interview with Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project, which, thanks to DNA, just exonerated Prisoner No. 258.
How do most wrongful convictions come about?
The primary cause is mistaken identification. Actually, I wouldn't call it mistaken identification; I'd call it misidentification, because you often find that there was some sort of misconduct by the police. In a lot of cases, the victim initially wasn't so sure. And then the police say, "Oh, no, you got the right guy. In fact, we think he's done two others that we just couldn't get him for." Or: "Yup, that's who we thought it was all along, great call."
It's disturbing that misidentifications still play such a large role in wrongful convictions, given that we've known about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony for over a century.
In terms of empirical studies, that's right. And 30 or 40 years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged that eyewitness identification is problematic and can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, it instructed lower courts to determine the validity of eyewitness testimony based on a lot of factors that are irrelevant, like the certainty of the witness. But the certainty you express [in court] a year and half later has nothing to do with how certain you felt two days after the event when you picked the photograph out of the array or picked the guy out of the lineup. You become more certain over time; that's just the way the mind works. With the passage of time, your story becomes your reality. You get wedded to your own version.
And the police participate in this. They show the victim the same picture again and again to prepare her for the trial. So at a certain point you're no longer remembering the event; you're just remembering this picture that you keep seeing.
Other than misidentifications, what other factors play a role in wrongful convictions?
The second most common cause is the misuse of forensic science other than DNA. In most of our cases, DNA [identification] didn't exist at the time of the conviction, so prosecutors relied on other types of forensic science. It could be serology, which was the old A/B/O blood typing. It could be bite marks. It could be fingerprints. It could be other forensic disciplines: tire marks, shoe print comparisons, fiber comparisons. None of these is bulletproofsome of them aren't even credibleso we see a lot of wrongful convictions stemming from those.
And there are several other very common causes as well. You have police and prosecutor misconduct. You have incompetent defense attorneys. You have jailhouse snitches, who as you can imagine are not the most reliable sources. And you have false confessions. Twenty-five percent of wrongful convictions involve false confessions. Most people can't imagine why anyone would ever confess to a crime they didn't commit, unless they were beaten into it. But these people weren't beaten. They wouldn't even meet the legal definition of coercion. It's just that the [interrogation] methods that are effective for getting confessions from guilty persons are so powerful that they net innocent people as wellparticularly innocent people who are juveniles or have some kind of intellectual impairment or mental health problem.
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