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Economics Trumps Retribution in Minnesota Prisons

In an Opinion piece contained in the May 19, 2011, Minneapolis Star and Tribune, Hennepin(Minneapolis) County Sheriff Rich Stanek co-authored an article advocating that tough budget times dictate that we consider releasing non-violent offenders from prison and, instead, use some of the $33,000.00 spent on each inmate each year towards rehabilitation in community-based programs.

If escalating costs drive the argument for reducing prison expenses through utilizing community-based programs, so be it. The recognition that citizens simply cannot afford to subsidize this folly of warehousing  non-violent offenders, regardless of the costs-including sheer economics-is way past due.

Non-violent felons is one of the most exploitable groups by politicians who wrap themselves in the mantel of law and order, to say nothing of the fact that this group politically impotent. Yet, repeatedly, most return to their communities and try to regain some semblance of normalcy while struggling with their demons.

If society as a whole is concerned only with costs, then the most efficient and most rewarding means to dealing with this nagging problem in our prisons is to reduce the inmate population by utilizing community-based programs.

Simply put, we can no longer financially afford to subsidize the illusion of security through incarceration. It is a concept that, if not abandoned, will drag down our economy while continuing to prop up a very wobbly and demonstrably inefficient fallacy.

What Price Innocence for Ex-IMF Dominque Strauss-Kahn?

The focus and visibility brought to bear on the criminal justice system with the charging of Dominque Strauss- Kahn highlights two recurring, but troubling, issues that seem to be part and partial of our justice system. The first is the ubiquitous perpetrator walk or “perp walk.”

Regardless of your opinion of his guilt or innocence, how can we, as a nation that has enshrined the presumption of innocence in the federal and state constitutions,  reconcile the media feeding frenzy tainting a suspect’s right to a fair trial with that same suspect’s right to be presumed innocent? Even Mother Theresa would look guilty during a perp walk.

Why do we simply give lip service to this precious constitutional right? If Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty, then the evidence will seal his fate. Rape, in any form and of anyone is, by definition, indefensible. 

However, the jury’s  determination of whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty should be based on legally admissible evidence in a court of law, not in the court of public opinion. And the question for the jury is guilty or not guilty; it is never guilty or innocent as the jury never passes on the issue of innocence. A defendant is presumed to be innocent!

The dissemination of information to the media by the law enforcement community, including press releases by the prosecution, invariably is done so with the objective being to reach and, ultimately, taint the jury pool. We should not passively accept a defendant’s broadside attack on the character of the complainant anymore than such an attack on the defendant’s right to a fair trial with a fair jury.

And this leads to the second recurring issue. That is, the undermining and eroding of the presumption of innocence. The recent press releases state that the investigation is uncovering more damaging evidence. Why is this so important for public consumption? You can see this on full display in the Casey Anthony trial in Florida.

As to the Casey Anthony trial, I am not concerned with her guilt or innocence for purposes of this discussion. I am only concerned with each citizen’s right to a fair trial before a fair and impartial jury.

I guess most people will recognize the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial when it hits close to home:  one of their own is charged with a crime. That is not the threshold test for a defendant being tried fairly in the United States, nor should it be.

Post Script to Apr.13, 2011, Post regarding Mn. Gov. Dayton's selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Yesterday,  I posted my opinion as to why I believe rehabilitation is not more successful in Minnesota. Although anecdotal and limited to Minnesota, one can extrapolate the consequences of poorly conceived and executed rehabilitation policies nationwide and witness the results.

Today,  I became aware of the Pew Center’s most recent study detailing recidivism rates state-by-state. Guess what? Minnesota has the highest recidivism rate (61%) of all states! And the national rate? 40% of felons return to prison within three years of being released to the streets. These are not statistics to be proud of, especially since so much money has been thrown at the problem.

These numbers are bothersome. But what is really disturbing is a quote from Mr. Jim Reams, a New Hampshire prosecutor, who apparently spoke on behalf of the National District Attorneys Assoc. regarding this study. His remark, partly  paraphrased, allegedly reflects a  common perception that people in prison are choir boys and if they were let out of prison, “all will be well.”

That opinion reflects a naivete certainly not shared by those working in the criminal justice system, or by the population as a whole.

  As a criminal defense attorney in Minnesota for the past 32 years, I have not known the National District Attorneys Assoc. to aggressively support any treatment-based alternatives to incarceration. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the prosecutor’s association listens intently to the law enforcement community, and that community strongly supports prison, not probation, for the majority of felons. And to take this a step further, I believe the association supported the implementation of sentencing guidelines that ushered in determinate sentencing. Why would they support determinate sentencing?  To limit the sentencing discretion of judges. What has been the effect of the guidelines in state and federal courts? To shift the power to prosecutors who, based on which crime is charged, can increase or decrease the severity level of the crime and, consequently, the sentence to be imposed.

It is a well-known fact that most of the money pouring into the prison system is for security, not rehabilitation. And the emphasis on most treatment programs is at the front end.  That is, while incarcerated. Relatively speaking, most of the  money is not allocated toward the transitional phase from these programs and back to the community when felons are most vulnerable. Felons need assistance in finding jobs, places to live just like the rest of us.

Until the criminal justice system- as a whole- takes a more realistic approach to grappling with the recurring problems felons encounter upon release from prison, the states’ recidivism rates will continue to remain inexcusably  high.

Treatment-based alternatives to prison and continuity of treatment through the transitional phase from prison to streetside for the majority of felons is sorely lacking. Why is this so difficult to see?

Mn. Governor Dayton steps into the sunlight of rehabilitation with his selection for Commissioner of Corrections

Mn. Gov. Dayton has selected Mr.Tom Roy, a veteran probation and parole officer to head the Mn. Dept. of Corrections. Wow! Finally, someone to lead state corrections who sees beyond retribution and confinement!

Let me share  Minnesota’s flirtation with prisoner rehabilitation. It’s a short chapter in “prison reform.”

In 1970 I sat in the auditorium at Red Wing State Training School for Boys in Red Wing, Mn., listening to Harry Vorath speak glowingly of the salient aspects of positive peer culture (“ppc”) introduced at the instituion. For the next 8-9 months I took part in the group therapy program. Obviously, it didn”t work for me as I was sitting in a prison cell a couple of years later, having been convicted of a commercial burglary.

Did it not work because there was no follow-up once I hit the streets? Once I was released from Red Wing I was on my own, save for periodic contact with a parole officer. However, when I entered St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn., it was a different story.

At St.Cloud I again took part in a ppc program. This time it was Project Newgate, a college-level program with its initial phase at St.Cloud and subsequent transition to the University of Minnesota Mpls. campus. After nine months in the prison program I was released to campus where I eventually completed my B.A. in political science and then a J.D. from Hamline University School of Law.

While in undergraduate school I participated in the Legal Advocacy Project representing inmates before disciplinary (“due process”) hearings in Stillwater Prison and St.Cloud Reformatory. I also filled the “ex-offender” slot for the Ramsey County (St.Paul, Mn.) Corrections Advisory Board.

It was during this period of time that I became aware of a disturbing trend: the inevitable rollback of funding for community corrections, which directly impacted such programs as Project Newgate that was essential to my surviving after being released from prison and going on to become an attorney.

I watched with increasing frustration as effective community programs appeared before the advisory board pleading for the ever shrinking dollar. From my perspective, the process was complete when the Minnesota legislature encted the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines that restricted the sentencing judge’s discretion and required application of a presumptive sentence based on severity level of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history score.

Many states, including the federal government, followed suit with their version of “equitable” sentencing policies. With determinate sentences,  there is little an inmate can do to secure an early release from prison. Sure, there has been a tweeking of the system to alleviate overcrowding in our prisons.

Maybe Gov. Dayton, through his commissioner- designate, can undue some of  the damage to our communities heaped upon us by having embraced this myopic and draconian view of “corrections.” If not, then we-as a nation- can continue to enjoy our well-deserved status as the country to lock up more people than any country in the world.

Off to war?

What is our position in Libya? And where is the money coming from to finance our involvement in this non-war?

How about taking the 50 million dollars it costs the United States each day to be in Libya and redirect it to our wars at home? The war on poverty. The war on environmental pollution. The war on crime, and the untold collateral consequences to communities.

What about more aggressive investment in our crumbling infrastructure? Our educational institutions? The homeless?

If we are going to spend money we don’t have, at least spend it where we get the greatest return. In my opinion, investing in our country can never be a mistake. I recall the late 60’s-early 70’s when there were many community-based  corrections programs that worked tirelessly to rehabilitate felons. 

These programs helped make the transition from prison to community easier. It was done through therapy, education and employment. But then the focus shifted from rehabilitation to retribution or, as one judge affectionately referred to it, “just desserts.”

As an ex-felon who had many tours of Minnesota’s juvenile and adult “correctional” institutions, and benefited from participating in a  community-based program that resulted in a pardon and eventually becoming a criminal defense attorney, I hope that we, as a society, can find our way.

Dire economic conditions awaken Ohio Govenor to reality of non-violent offenders

Ohio Gov. Kasich, in an effort to grapple with Ohio’s economy, recently stated  during an interview his plan to release some non-violent offenders early from their prison sentence.

While there may be much to criticize in Kasich’s plan, his early release of non-violent felons is premised on two well-founded observations. First, most non-violent felons are housed with, and exposed to, extemely violent felons. Consequently, these non-violent felons return to society more bitter and frustrated than they were when entering prison.

Secondly, the cost of custodial containment in prison is significantly more expensive than confinement in a community-based program.

In addressing Ohio’s economic plight, Gov. Kasich’s early release of non-violent felons may have a salutory effect on Ohio: early reintegration of some of its citizens who have the opportunity to contribute to the economy and save Ohio.

Jobs for Ex-Offenders

There has been much discussion recently about Chicago Mayor Daley aggressively reaching out to unemployed felons. Wow!

It is indisbutable that most felons return to prison due to an inability to find stable, respectable work. This problem is only compounded by the irrefutable studies confirming what most reasonably intelligent people know: the vast majority of felons return to society.

It is not that Mayor Daley was the most enlightened public servant to recognize this phenomenon. Rather, he simply acknowledged the obvious. Felons, as all of us, are part of the essential fabric of society and recognize their concomitant responsibility to family and community.

And many of them, when given the opportunity, have become rehabilitated and are successful, contributing citizens.  They inspire the rest of us.

Charlie Sheen: Zone defense

As Charlie Sheen’s awkward and bizarre rantings are in full bloom-courtesy of the ever accommodating media-I’m left with the nagging issue of whether he is or is not in the midst of a psychotic breakdown fueled by drug abuse.

I don’t know if he is abusing drugs, but I recognize his behavior. No, I’m not a psychiatrist or a drug abuse interventionist. I am a criminal defense attorney who, as a teenager, wasted my years abusing most drugs-from herbs to chemicals and shoot -dope-punctuated by stints in juvenile and adult “correctional” facilities.

As I struggled to free myself from the shackles of chemical dependency, eventually completing a prison sentence followed by a govenor’s pardon and law school, I remember three incidents that I cannot forget. The first occurred while in prison at St.Cloud Reformatory for Men in St.Cloud, Mn. A person I’ll call Lenny approached my cell one day.  I’d known Lenny on the streets and we’d gotten high a few times together.

I’d noticed in the joint that Lenny was starting to act bizarre so I avoided him. One day I could not. As he approached my cell,  he looked up and down the galley and then said, “Hey, you got any speed?” I told him I didn’t do drugs anymore. He then said, “You ain’t got to do any or have any. Jus’ lemme touch your hand. I can get high from that!”

I simply dismissed Lenny as crazy and let it go.  Until it happened again. This time it occurred while I was attending the University of Minnesota working on my B.A. in political science. I had come out of prison through a community-based therapy program to attend college. While there I ran into an old partner who I had run with in the streets and had been locked down with  in the joint. Larry was going to the U of M as well, but now when I saw him his personality had changed dramatically. It was a warm summer day and Larry stood off the sidewalk, on the grass. He was wearing a judo uniform and his hair and beard were flowing down his shoulders.

When he saw me looking at him,  he asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I replied. He then asked if I wanted some energy to help me study.  I said no, believing he was referring to dope. He wasn’t. Instead, when I rejected the offer, he stated that he wanted me to reach to the sky with him and we could absorb the sun’s energy together.

The last encounter occurred when I bumped  into an old friend.  Michael had moved out of state, but now he was back. When I saw him, and after superficial talk,  he said to me, “Barry, you ever feel like you’re standing over there when you’re really standing over here?” He then  accused me of standing on his feet.  I abruptly ended the conversation and left Michael standing by himself.

All three persons  shared two traits. They all had been long-term drug abusers.  And  they tenaciously clung to their Zone where they had developed and nutured their alter ego-the hip, slick-talking , easy-go-lucky player living on the edge, while their loved ones died a little each day as they watched  him/her descend  into chaos and personal torment.

Intervention may or may not work. Charlie Sheen needs to get out of this Zone to survive. Hopefully, someone other than the media can reach him and he can wake up from what appears to be a drug-induced state.

Until someone connects  with Charlie Sheen, all one can do is wish him and his family well.


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