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Freeing people and resources by shrinking community supervision


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Freeing people and resources by shrinking community supervision

  • Houston homicide under new scrutiny after misconduct allegations about DEA agent emerge

  • I worked as a bail bond agent. Here’s what I learned.

  • The Appeal podcast: The risks of risk assessment

  • Arkansas will soon have a law to keep the sources of its execution drugs secret

  • Manhattan DA spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars in forfeiture funds on expensive meals and travel

  • For 10 years, Texas prisons wouldn’t give him a cotton blanket

In the Spotlight

Freeing people and resources by shrinking community supervision

In addition to the nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, there are another estimated 4.5 million people under community supervision, more widely known as probation or parole. To be on probation or parole means to live in a maze of rules that make ordinarily legal conduct a basis for punishment, even reincarceration. Ostensibly “free” people—who are already disproportionately poor, unemployed, homeless, and in the grip of substance use disorders and mental illness—have to get through daily life while also complying with burdensome, unhelpful, punitive supervision requirements. Not surprisingly, many cannot. Every year, approximately 350,000 people go from probation or parole supervision to jail or prison, frequently for “technical violations” rather than for committing crimes. [Pew Research Trust]  

Today in The Appeal, Raven Rakia writes about Richard Cannon, who after decades in prison in New York had succeeded in achieving some stability post-release, then arrested and held in jail for six months awaiting adjudication on an alleged parole violation. The charges were eventually dismissed and he was released, but Cannon “lost his psychiatrist and the social worker that has been assigned to him,” his housing, and his hard-won stability. [Raven Rakia / The Appeal]

In Philadelphia, where rates of supervision are double the national average, District Attorney Larry Krasner has, in recent weeks, announced several policies to address his office’s contribution to the problem of mass supervision. He has pledged to seek shorter probation and parole terms, in line with the research on when these terms cross the line from helpful or neutral to counterproductive and harmful.

This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Krasner sent a letter to the city’s judges with proposals for how to streamline the early termination of probation and parole supervision. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer] This proposal is based on research showing that: “Supervision of less than 3 years does some good especially in the first year and less so thereafter. Supervision of more than 3 years makes things worse—it causes failure on probation and parole and harms public safety.” [Letter from District Attorney Larry Krasner]

Under Krasner’s proposal, a judge could grant a group of petitions for early termination of probation or parole without hearings, after the probation and parole department had an opportunity to weigh in, and only if petitions met criteria previously laid out by the judge. The proposal explicitly states that it would be up to individual judges to determine early termination criteria. [Letter from District Attorney Larry Krasner]

The recognition that community corrections—originally envisioned as an alternative to incarceration—has been a feeder of mass incarceration has become more widespread in recent years. Perhaps nothing has drawn attention to the problem as much as the rapper Meek Mill’s reincarceration in Philadelphia in 2017. An arrest and conviction of disputed legal validity when he was 19 spawned an over a decade-long saga of control and punishment. Thanks to his fame, when he was thrown in jail and faced prison time for violations of probation it helped spur a national conversation about the abuse of community supervision. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox]

His decade on probation would not have been possible in many other places. “Pennsylvania is oddly and significantly out of step with the rest of the nation,” a report published in 2018 read. At issue was the state’s overuse of community supervision—probation and parole supervision—even relative to the rest of the country. (The United States as a whole imposes these forms of control on people at rates much higher than European countries.) The 2018 report was from the Columbia University Justice Lab and built on the Justice Lab’s previous work on the problem of mass supervision nationwide. [Columbia University Justice Lab]

The report came out amid the outcry over Meek Mill’s harsh treatment. Meek Mill, whose given name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, became an exemplar of the abuse permissible under Pennsylvania laws and the problem of probation—and parole—supervision that was too long, and gave too much power to judges to send people to jail or prison.

As the Justice Lab’s report pointed out, and as other researchers have noted, though the problem is a national one, Pennsylvania is an outlier. Its laws permit supervision terms that are unheard of in other states. Felony and misdemeanor probation sentences can equal the maximum prison sentences permitted under the law.

Shrinking community supervision, as with shrinking correctional control as a whole, would free people and should free resources. In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Meek Mill wrote: “The money saved from imprisoning fewer people could then be used for employment programs and mental health counseling that would equip the formerly incarcerated with the tools for reintegration into society.” [Meek Mill / New York Times]

In a piece published last year, the sociologist Bruce Western, co-director of the Justice Lab, wrote about what should replace our systems of punishment and control. What we need, he wrote, are “socially integrative measures.” These would enable communities to “provide housing, health care, and education build opportunity and human capacity.” The ultimate goal, he wrote, was that “social integration will replace punishment,” and importantly, “much of this work will be done outside of traditional criminal justice agencies.” [Bruce Western / The Square One Project]

Stories From The Appeal

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo by Darwin Brandis/Getty Images

Houston Homicide Under New Scrutiny After Misconduct Allegations About DEA Agent Emerge. In 2000, Lamar Burks was convicted of murder and given a 70-year sentence. But the federal indictment of a DEA agent and witnesses who say Burks is innocent have raised new questions about his case. [Mike Hayes]

I Worked as a Bail Bond Agent. Here’s What I Learned. Low-income women are fueling bail industry profits—and getting harmed in the process, a sociology and law professor writes. [Joshua Page]

The Appeal Podcast: The Risks of Risk Assessment. Hannah Sassaman, policy director of Media Mobilizing Project, and Matt Henry, chief technologist and legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative, discuss this notoriously fraught topic and why relying on algorithms doesn’t ensure justice. [Adam H. Johnson]

Stories From Around the Country

Arkansas will soon have a law to keep the sources of its execution drugs secret: Arkansas, where 30 people are on death row, has not carried out an execution since last year. Now state legislators have passed the second of two bills meant to lead to the resumption of executions. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would allow the corrections department to keep information about its supply of execution drugs secret and would make it a felony to “recklessly disclose” records about, or the identities of, the makers of the drugs. The law is meant to make it harder for pharmaceutical companies to fight the use of their drugs in executions. Governor Asa Hutchinson has said he will sign the bill. [John Moritz / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette] Last month, the Daily Appeal looked at the bill and what the fight over using drugs for executions says about capital punishment: “If the stigma of producing tools for execution is so great that no drug manufacturing company will put its name on the product, that should tell us something about executions. It should tell us that executions are beyond the pale.”

Manhattan DA spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars in forfeiture funds on expensive meals and travel: An analysis by the news website The City reveals that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance “spent $249,716 on meals and work trips … over the past five years, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request.” Among the expenses were “a $4,780 roundtrip flight to London and a $2,800 stay at a five-star Paris hotel.” The money came out of state asset forfeiture funds from settlements with banks. Vance’s office has access to more than $600 million. A senior budget analyst with the city’s Independent Budget Office told The City that, “There’s very little transparency when it comes to how the DAs use state asset forfeiture funds.” District attorneys from the city’s other four boroughs all told The City that they do not use asset forfeiture money for work-related travel expenses. [Reuven Blau / The City]

For 10 years, Texas prisons wouldn’t give him a cotton blanket: Calvin Weaver sued Texas prison officials last year, after 10 years of asking for a cotton blanket. Weaver alleges that he is allergic to the materials used in the blankets issued in prison and has suffered from open sores and sleepless nights as a result. In 2001, prison medical staff diagnosed him with a wool allergy and gave him a pass to get a cotton blanket. But in 2009 the pass was not renewed when all the blankets in the state prison system were replaced with blankets made from what Weaver describes as “recycled waste” and the corrections department says are a blend of recycled natural fibers and cotton. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled last week that the lawsuit can continue: “It appears from the complaint that each of these defendants is in a position of authority and could, presumably, order that Weaver receive another blanket, or that he receive a medical evaluation.” But Weaver will not be eligible for damages, only injunctive relief—in the form of a new blanket. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you on Monday.

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