Mn. Legislature's Proposed Dept. of Corrections' Budget Cut Delivers One-Two Punch To Chemically Dependent Inmates

Minnesota prisons are not Party City, nor should they be. Instead, inmates are-first and foremost-imprisoned for retribution, then rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the education emphasized is the prison-style Three R’s(Respect, Reputation and Revenge).

So, when an authentic, effective drug treatment program is operating within the prison walls with documented success, it is in every one’s interest to maintain the program. You would think.

The Minnesota Legislature feels differently. As reported in the May 26, 2011, StarTribune, the legislure proposes a 25 percent cut in treatment funds. This, from a program that reduces the recidivism rate by 25 percent!

How important is this program? It serves up to 1,200 inmates per year in a state with 85-90 percent of its inmates chemically dependent. The degree of dependency does not surprise me. As someone who was nurtured on a wide array of drugs in my teen years, from alcohol to hallucinogens to shoot-dope, and then spent 7-8 years in and out of juvenile and adult “corrections” facilities, followed by the last 32 years as a criminal defense attorney, it was common knowledge among inmates the extent to which inmates were addicted.

In fact, it was the inmate who never drank or did drugs that stood out as the exception to the population. Interestingly, I found as I progressed through the county and then state institutions a marked increase in drug abuse. Many times the addiction would overlay and cloud numerous personal issues, including illiteracy and abandonment, as a child and as an adult. 

As Sen.Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, stated in justifying the budget cut proposal,  the priority is having task forces knocking down doors to drug houses to make the communities safer. But who do the drug houses serve? As a criminal defense attorney who handles a large number of drug cases in both state and federal courts, it is extremely rare to find a drug seller or a patron of a drug house who is not chemically dependent.

Focusing on eliminating drug houses while deemphasizing treatment is a disaster in the making. People go to prison because we-the community-want them in prison. And people will receive treatment when we-the community- decide we want them to have treatment. As Dianne Seger, director of chemical dependency services at the Dept. of Corrections, stated, “They’re going to be your neighbor. Do you want them sober, or do you want them doing what they were doing?”

Surely, not all inmates in the program are genuinely interested in treatment. Undoubtedly, some are gaming the system. But at least they positioned themselves to become exposed to a healthy lifestyle alternative. With them, it might work.

But if we support a reduction in funds, we consciously reduce bed space and counselors dedicated to protecting society through drug rehabilitation, one inmate at a time.

Sen. Limmer, is that not an immediate priority?

Draconian Prison Sentences Smack Up Against Economic Reality

The announcement of the May 24, 2011, 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that  the California Dept. of Corrections  reduce its bloated inmate population by 33,000 from approximately 144,000 is a long time coming, and directly results from the state’s short-sighted, “law and order” campaign carried out by politicians who had effectively  highjacked the prison reform discussion years ago so as to derail meaningful reform policies.

Apparently, California believed in a corrections model premised on the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Well, now that the consequences- or downside- of this overarching, myopic view  is in California’s face, the state must grapple with what it has created for its people, inside and out of prison. That is, the disgorgement of 33,000 inmates who will be ill-prepared for life on the streets.

This conundrum was a long time coming. Prisoners, on the whole, are politically impotent. That is, those advocating for prisoner’s rights may as well spit into the wind. For most states, it is easier to implement “get tough” legislation than to provide the necessary funds to carry out these legislative mandates.

California is a case study for the devastating effects of implementing harsh sentencing practices without recognizing that non-violent offenders outnumber violent offenders and that most non-violent offenders will return to society. A quick read of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion underscores the prison conditions and practices that gave rise to the lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment violative of the U.S. Constitution’s  Eighth Amendment.

References to suicides, inmate deaths from non-existent or substandard medical care and overcrowded conditions are peppered throughout J. Kennedy’s opinion. Too bad California could not have foreseen this burgeoning crisis in the early 90′s when this lawsuit began. Yet, since the begining of this litigation California has failed miserably in addressing their problem.

Most states, I suspect, are facing this looming debacle. Why? Because most states were swept up in this “law and order” publicity campaign throughout the country in the mid-70′s and up to a year or two ago. With the economy tanking and a lack of resources to  remedy inmate overpopulation, states will have to resolve their ”prison problem” or risk having the courts intervene and dictate how the states will address this crisis.

It is not enough to turn a blind eye to the problem,  hoping the it will correct itself. I don’t know how deep and pervasive this attitude of denial runs, but I’m reminded of a criminal defendant I represented in Sacramento, Ca., federal court. During the proceeding my client, similar to many of the other defendants in this narcotics conspiracy case, was detained. He spent an inordinate amount of time in the jail.

After negotiating a settlement and during sentencing, I explained to the judge the horrific conditions I had been told existed in the Sacramento County Jail. Requesting jail credit for the time my client spent in custody, I asked the Court to consider granting my client twice as much jail credit based on the deplorable conditions my client endured on a daily basis.

The judge quickly rejected my request, noting that if the defendant didn’t want to endure such conditions, then he should stay out of Sacramento. Apparently, it was lost on the judge that my client had never stepped foot in California; he was indicted in the Northern District-Eastern Division while residing in Minnesota.

Hopefully, my knowledge of the conditions at that jail is not typical of the community at large. Unfortunately, the jail’s conditions were well known by the criminal defense bar as well as the law enforcement community in Sacramento.

Maybe the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate will be the impetus for true, genuine prison reform. If not, then we must wait for the next court to intervene. Until then, “out of sight, out of mind.”