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April 14, 2014 (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
Felons' rights all over the map

“Felon voting” sounds ominous but in Minnesota, it poses a potent political and civil rights question: When should felons who are trying to rebuild their lives regain their right to vote?

People convicted of a felony lose that right as part of their punishment. The Minnesota Constitution denies the right to “a person convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights.” In Minnesota, such rights cannot be restored until the person has first completed all the terms of the sentence, including incarceration, probation and parole and supervised release.

The issue, which a conservative group once cited on a freeway billboard as the reason Minnesota was “#1 in voter fraud” (an unproven claim), was back at the Legislature this year. It was predictably volatile. The two sides could not agree on a compromise, so current law remains unchanged.

An advocates’ group known as Restore the Vote-Minnesota sought to restore voting rights when a felon leaves prison or jail, even if he or she is still under supervision. They argued that this will eliminate inadvertent illegal votes by released felons who don’t understand the law, help with felons’ transition to life in their communities and reverse a growing disenfranchisement of black males, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Defenders of the current system, including Minnesota Majority, the organization whose political committee put up the “#1” billboard two years ago, says felons are “outlaws” who should not have a hand in creating laws “that the law-abiding live under.” Such voters would, they contend, have an interest in electing lenient judges and prosecutors. 


April 14, 2014 (thinkprogress.org)
The Hidden Price Of Drug-Free Zones

Drug-free zones seem like a common sense solution to what many consider a big problem: to keep drug dealers from selling to children, increase the penalties for drug crimes near schools. States started passing versions of the law in the 1980’s, riding the wave of panic over crack cocaine and the mounting enthusiasm for the War on Drugs.

“Schools have long been the target for drug pushers looking to find new dependent sources to sell their drugs supply,” said former Shelton, Connecticut Mayor Michael Pacowta in a 1989 hearing on the state’s bill. “[This] sends a strong message to the state’s drug dealers to stay away from the children.”

But the zones have ballooned to include entire cities. They now hit almost any urban drug crime with an extra felony, one that was meant to punish dealing to school kids. Meanwhile, drug offenders in whiter, wealthier, spread-out suburbs and towns rarely face the same consequences.

“It comes up in just about every drug case, really,” said New Haven public defender Bevin Salmon. “The intent of the legislation is to target dealers who would sell specifically to children or within a very close proximity to a school, [but] it nets just about everyone. It gives the prosecutor a lot of discretion, a lot of leverage.”


April 11, 2014 (Connectionnewspapers.com)
Considering the Effects of Mass Incarceration

There is a racial disparity in the number of people incarcerated in the United States. Nearly one in ten black men in their thirties is in jail. This number has increased due to the war on drugs, which has also seen a racial disparity in the numbers of those convicted.

“Black men have the highest likelihood of incarceration-one in three are likely to serve a prison sentence at some point in their lives,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst for The Sentencing Project. “For drug convictions, the racial disparities are even higher, and this is even though there is research showing that people of different ethnic backgrounds use drugs at the same rate.” Ghandnoosh joined other leaders in the community at a discussion on this topic at “The Effects of Mass Incarceration: A Public Forum on Criminal Justice Sentencing Reform” hosted by Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church in Burke.

Penalties for crack, the crystallized form of the cocaine, which comes in powder form, are harsh compared to those for cocaine. Although the drugs are pharmaceutically the same, a person possessing 28 grams of crack faces a mandatory five year sentence, while 500 grams of cocaine are required for this mandatory sentence. 


April 11, 2014 (Colorlines.com)
For Missouri Moms, A Past Drug Conviction Means No Food Aid, Ever

Missouri is one of 10 states that still ban people with felony drug convictions from ever receiving food stamps. Overall, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, an estimated 180,000 women and their children, primarily families of color, are disproportionately affected by this little-known holdover from Clinton-era welfare reform. Now for the first time Missouri’s legislature is looking at loosening if not lifting the lifetime ban. Even with bipartisan support however, it’s unclear whether the bill will make it through.

The majority of the other states still riding hard for this War on Drugs-era punishment are located in the South.

 


April 8, 2014 (MediaMatters)
Medicaid Provision Attacked that Reduces Recidivism for Incarcerated People

The April 7 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom debated whether it is "smart money" to cover formerly incarcerated people through Medicaid. Fox contributor Tony Sayegh called enrolling ex-offenders in Medicaid "a loophole of Obamacare" that makes "absolutely no sense."

Yet numerous sources note that health care benefits for incarcerated people not only help them to return to society mentally and physically healthier but also reduce recividism.

According to a report by The Sentencing Project, “the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA could lead to treatment services for inmates that could reduce correctional costs and decrease incarceration.


April 4, 2014 (NJ.com)
Student advocates at Princeton launch prison reform conference

Students at Princeton University have mentored inmates at New Jersey correctional facilities and worked to advocate prison reform throughout the state.

This weekend they are launching their first conference on prison reform.

“This is the biggest civil rights issue that I can think of at this time, and we want to give students the tools to advocate and to understand the different avenues for advocacy,” said Princeton senior Shaina Watrous.

Watrous is a founder of Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR), which today and tomorrow is bringing students, academics, and activists together for a conference titled “Building A New Criminal Justice System: Mobilizing Students for Reform.”

The conference presenters represent a diverse array of interests and backgrounds. Formerly incarcerated persons will present alongside lobbyists, government officials, photographers, and filmmakers. The roster of speakers includes prominent figures such as Jim McGreevy, the former governor of New Jersey, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, and Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project.

“The goal is to establish a network of students and organizations on the East Coast aiming for the same mission of criminal justice reform based on common sense approaches,” said Princeton junior Brett Diehl, the president of SPEAR. “We think there is fertile ground for organizations to have policy reform acting towards attainable goals, rather than proposing a more radical mission.”


April 2, 2014 (The Sentencing Project)
New Publication: Juvenile Life Without Parole

Recent Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of capital punishment for juveniles and mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles (JLWOP). Still, the United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18.

This briefing paper reviews the Supreme Court precedents that limited the use of JLWOP and the challenges that remain.


April 1, 2014 (WVTF Public Radio)
Crisis in Correctional Care: Pressing for Prison Reform

By the end of this year, California must release 9,600 prisoners from the nation’s largest correctional system, because the Supreme Court says overcrowding makes it impossible to provide adequate healthcare for inmates.

Failing to do so constitutes cruel and unusual punishment - a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Virginia’s prisons are also crowded and facing a lawsuit over medical care.

The Supreme Court has said prisons must provide adequate medical services. State legislators know that, and ten years ago they were given a detailed report of serious problems with healthcare behind bars in Virginia.

But Hope Amezquita with Virgnia’s ACLU says they did nothing, and her colleague, lawyer Gabe Eber, says voters probably didn’t care. “A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t have a right to healthcare. I don’t have insurance. I can’t get my cavities filled. Why should this murderer or this thief or this sex offender get free healthcare? That’s probably one of the reasons there hasn’t been more outrage.”


April 1, 2014
Blumenthal Vows Sentencing Reform

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D- Conn., visited a civics class at Common Ground, an environmental, and talked about a gun violence, the “school-to-prison pipeline and how the judicial system seems to disproportionately impact young minority men.

“The prison system is not working,” and sentences need to be lowered, said Blumenthal.

Connecticut has one of the most disparate rates of incarceration between blacks and whites: 12 times as many black people are locked up than white, according to a map at The Sentencing Project.


April 1, 2014 (Socialistworker.org)
Raising babies in prison

shadow of mother and child behind bars

Prison nurseries have existed in this country for a century--the first was established in 1901 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility north of New York City—but there is renewed interest in expanding these programs today.

The expansion of mother-infant programs coincides with the increasing incarceration of women. Over 200,000 women are behind bars and over 1 million are on probation or parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) And the number of prisons for women has multiplied eight times over the last three decades, according to a 2006 report from the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.

The majority of incarcerated women are charged with nonviolent offenses.

Because women tend to be the primary caretakers of children, the massive increase in women's incarceration has had devastating effects on families. According to a report from The Sentencing Project, one of every 50 children in the U.S. has one or more parents incarcerated.