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Articles by David Reutter

Two Alabama State Court Judges Disciplined

by David M. Reutter

Almost 35 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed “debtors’ prisons” – in which defendants are threatened with jail if they fail to pay fees and fines – courts continue to struggle to follow the ruling. The recent troubles of an Alabama judge demonstrate that ongoing struggle.

According to an October 2015 complaint filed by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission against Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wayne Wiggins, poor defendants in his courtroom were given a stark choice: Donate blood or go to jail.

In a recording made by one defendant, Wiggins spoke from the bench about a blood drive underway outside the courthouse and added, “... if you do not have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today ... or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.”

Of the 47 defendants who gave blood outside the courthouse that day, only six were not from Wiggins’ court.

 “Judge Wiggins’ conduct regarding the incarceration of criminal defendants and his conduct in threatening to incarcerate those defendants who do not have ‘any money’ unless they gave blood were so coercive as to ...

Pennsylvania: Compassionate Release Reforms Fail to Achieve Aim

by David M. Reutter

Despite a 2008 change in state law intended to make it easier for Pennsylvania prisoners to be granted compassionate release, it is still rare for such releases to be granted.

In 1971, shortly after turning 18, Leon Jesse James was involved in a fatal shooting and sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). Such sentences effectively impose a living death penalty. Advocates of LWOP call it justice for victims, while critics assert that life without parole sentences are overbearing and result in unnecessary punishment that imposes substantial costs on taxpayers when prisoners grow old behind bars. It costs an estimated $872,036 to incarcerate each Pennsylvania lifer over their lifetime – an average of 23.4 years.

Lawmakers revised the state’s compassionate release law, 42 Pa. C.S. § 9777, almost a decade ago as part of a broader criminal justice bill. Julie Hall, a criminologist and gerontologist at Drexel University, believes the change actually made compassionate release more difficult.

The law currently allows prisoners to be released to an outside hospital or nursing facility if their petition is granted by a judge who considers strict criteria; a prisoner must show that he or she is seriously ill ...

Another Florida Prisoner Death, Another Cover Up?

by David M. Reutter

Faced with the death of yet another prisoner – one of 346 in 2014 alone – Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) officials have refused to release video surveillance of the prisoner’s cell, citing security concerns. The Miami Herald has sued for the video’s release.

Questions surround the circumstances of the June 2014 death of prisoner Steven Michael Zerbe, 37, at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution – one of the state’s toughest and most punitive facilities. Zerbe, who was legally deaf and blind, told his mother and prison officials that in the eight months he was held by the FDOC he had been beaten, raped and knifed. When transported to a hospital in Pensacola six days before he died, Zerbe – who was serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated battery – was suffering from respiratory failure, acute liver failure and pneumonia.

In the nearly three years since his death, Zerbe’s mother, Bonnie Zerbe, has tried to obtain answers as to how and why he died. Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard, who initially did not want to perform an autopsy until pressured by Bonnie, concluded that Zerbe’s death was due to complications of lymphoma. Yet he was never diagnosed ...

Attorneys with Disciplinary Records Part of Flaw in Pennsylvania’s Death Penalty System

In February 2015, just a month into his term as Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in the state, calling it “error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.44].

Afterwards, the Reading Eagle issued a report that pinpointed the largest problem with the state’s death penalty system: poor representation by ineffective attorneys who have histories of discipline for professional misconduct.

The system is “flawed,” said Governor Wolf. “If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible.”

As noted by Slate, Pennsylvania’s criminal justice process is indeed flawed – with no law on the books requiring the recording of police interviews and no guidelines for eyewitness identification of suspects, for example. And perhaps most troubling, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not contribute funding to indigent defense, instead leaving such matters in the hands of often cash-strapped counties.

Such conditions, according to some critics, have resulted in a grave state of injustice – especially where poor defendants facing capital charges are concerned. These criticisms seem to be supported by strong statistical evidence ...

Louisiana’s High Incarceration Rate Economically Motivated

It’s a well-known fact that the United States has around five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates approximately 25% of the world’s prisoners. Within that disturbing statistic is Louisiana, which has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation – with the U.S. Department of Justice reporting that, based on 2015 data, 776 out of every 100,000 residents in the state were in prison. That is substantially higher than Russia’s rate of incarceration (492 per hundred thousand) and China’s (119 per hundred thousand). As such, Louisiana is the global leader in imprisonment.

The average incarceration rate in the U.S., for both state and federal prison populations, was 458 per 100,000 in 2015. In the view of most public officials, jails and prisons are a necessary evil.

“I wish we didn’t have to have jails, but as long as there are human beings, we’re going to have them,” said Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington. “Not everybody’s going to follow the law, we’re adequately prepared, we have plenty of room and we’re set for the future.... And I don’t have apologies for what we do.”

Whittington ...

Overcrowding in Arkansas Prisons, Jails Spurs Call for Reforms

Overcrowding in Arkansas prisons and jails is straining resources, fomenting violence and resulting in an increase in lawsuits. The underlying cause is apparently tighter rules mandating tougher parole guidelines – which has resulted in a state prison system increasingly filled by prisoners denied parole and those re-incarcerated due to (often minor) parole violations.

In May 2013, two days following his release from prison, Darrell Dennis kidnapped and murdered 18-year-old Forrest Abrams. In the wake of that high-profile crime, the Arkansas Board of Corrections implemented new rules that restricted parole availability and triggered harsher penalties for technical violations of supervised release.

The tighter rules had an immediate impact on the prison population, resulting in a 17.7% increase from the previous year. That jump in 2013 was more than seven times the national average.

By August 2015, the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADOC) set a new population record, reaching around 19,000 prisoners – 3,000 more than its manageable population limit.

As reported by the Arkansas Times in June 2016, the ADOC took in 4,243 more prisoners in 2015 than it had in 2008. Of these, 4,158 were incarcerated due to parole or probation violations. Further, as reported by the ...

Georgia: Dozens of Indictments for Prison Contraband Smuggling

The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) has had a rough couple of years. Through several rounds of law enforcement stings and federal indictments, scores of prison employees, prisoners and outside collaborators have been charged for their alleged roles in schemes to smuggle and benefit from a lucrative trade in contraband. This black market, asserted federal authorities, traded in liquor, tobacco, illicit drugs, prescription drugs and, perhaps most importantly, cell phones. According to authorities, cell phones have been integral in the commission of fraud and identity theft, as well as in the orchestration of other criminal activity from behind prison walls.

In February 2016, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia announced indictments related to illicit contraband smuggling against 46 active and former GDC guards, two outside collaborators and one prisoner. The indictments included charges related to the importation of contraband into nine GDC facilities around the state.

The FBI, based on long-term investigations that resulted in the indictments, alleged that several GDC officers had essentially rented out their law enforcement credentials, taking thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for facilitating and protecting drug deals – actions the guards undertook while in uniform or in ...

Youths Still Dying in Florida Juvenile Detention Centers from Abuse, Neglect

Detention centers operated by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have become infamous over the years for incidents of abuse and neglect inflicted on youths held by the agency. The DJJ operates 21 detention centers and 56 residential facilities throughout the state – several of which have been scenes of misconduct, homicide and negligent deaths.

One of those recent deaths exposed allegations that guards put bounties on youths’ heads, resulting in assaults by other juvenile offenders.

On August 28, 2015, the day after he was booked into the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center, Elord Revolte, 17, was jumped and severely beaten by 15 to 20 other prisoners. The reason for the attack was uncertain.

A DJJ incident report stated that immediately after the incident, Revolte was assessed by facility medical personnel. The next day, according to the report, he was “vomiting and complained of nausea.” The report continued, “[he] was taken to medical and assessed by the facility nurse, who made a decision to send him out as a precaution.” There was a delay in transporting him to a local hospital, where he died a short time later.

A Miami Herald reporter learned that guards were using honey buns as ...

Michigan Prison Officials Held in Contempt for Violating Ramadan Order

A Michigan federal district court twice found state prison officials in contempt for failing to comply with its orders regarding the provision of “adequate nutrition during the Islamic Month of Ramadan.” As a result, they were ordered to pay monetary damages.

The orders came in a lawsuit filed by four Michigan prisoners who alleged violations of their rights under the First and Eighth Amendments, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction on June 14, 2013, requesting that they receive adequate nutrition during the 2013 Ramadan observance, during which devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. The court denied the motion, but later clarified its order to require prison officials to provide fasting prisoners with at least 2,350 calories per day during Ramadan. Prior to the end of the month-long religious observance, the prisoners moved for contempt due to prison officials’ failure to provide the required calorie count. Although the defendants argued they had supplied an average of 2,350 calories per day, the court order specified a minimum 2,350 calories per day. Thus, the district court ordered the defendants to pay each plaintiff $200 in damages ...

Florida’s Civil Commitment Center a “Living Death Sentence”

According to state officials, the Florida Civil Commitment Center (FCCC), which holds up to 720 residents billed as the worst sexual predators in the state, is necessary to ensure public safety. For Correct Care Recovery Solutions, a spin-off company of the GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors, it’s the source of $272 million in revenue.

Twenty states have laws that allow for the involuntary and indefinite civil commitment of sexually violent predators (SVPs), but only Florida has turned the operation of its commitment center over to a for-profit contractor.

“Florida is the only state whose entire SVP program is being run by a private company,” said Shan Jumper, president of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Programs Network. “A few other states contract out pieces of their operations (psychological treatment or testing, community release supervision) to private companies.”

Moreover, Florida involuntarily commits more people than any other state (California ranks second). A new law that increases the pool of offenders Florida can consider for civil commitment will likely increase the number of FCCC residents. To accommodate the anticipated influx, state officials are considering adding a new wing at FCCC or converting a prison to handle ...


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