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Articles by Joe Watson

Prop 47 Makes Thousands of Drug, Property Offenders Eligible for Release

by Joe Watson

The passage of California's Proposition 47 in November 2014—which reduced many felony drug-possession and property crimes to misdemeanors— might be a harbinger of criminal-justice reform nationwide. But for now, reform advocates will gladly accept the imminent release of as many as 10,000 California state prisoners and thousands more in county jails across the state who are now eligible to go home.

More than 58% of California voters approved Prop 47 in last year's midterm elections, choosing to rethink the tough-on-crime approach that has defined the state's criminal-justice system for decades and overpopulated California's prisons using three-strike laws and harsh mandatory minimums.

The legislation—known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act—reduces the number of people sent to prison for non-serious, nonviolent crimes and redirects money currently spent on financing California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to support crime-prevention programs.

State taxpayers spend $11 billion annually on California's prisons, which have been so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the CDCR in 2011 to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands.

"The fact that (Prop 47) passed by such a wide margin sends a strong ...

Colorado: Demonstrators Clash with Police over Seizure of Jury Nullification Pamphlets

Occupy Denver and other local activists have been engaged in a long-term campaign of jury nullification education outside Denver’s Second Judicial District courthouse. The activists’ attempts to exercise their First Amendment rights have resulted in repeated clashes with police and prosecutors, and more than 20 arrests.

In August 2015, Denver police seized 1,000 pamphlets advocating jury nullification from a group of demonstrators outside the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, where Denver’s first death penalty case in almost 15 years was being argued.

The pamphlets informed potential jurors of their centuries-old right to nullify unjust or immoral laws by finding criminal defendants not guilty even if they had, in fact, broken the law. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.14].

David Lane, a Denver civil rights attorney, filed a motion in federal court on behalf of the demonstrators, calling police “jack booted thugs” and asking for the city and Denver Police Chief Robert White to be held in contempt for violating a court order affirming the protestor’s First Amendment rights.

According to Lane, police seized demonstrators’ property and the pamphlets not due to concerns about violence, but because of the message contained in the literature.

“Whether [demonstrators] are polite or not ...

Study: 95 Percent of Elected Prosecutors are White

A recent study illustrates just how racially skewed the U.S. criminal justice system is with respect to its most powerful participants: prosecutors.

Of 2,437 elected state and local prosecutors holding office in 2014, 95 percent were white and 79% were white men, according to data released by the San Francisco-based Women Donors Network (WDN).

Considering that white males make up just 31 percent of the U.S. population, the paucity of black and Hispanic prosecutors is telling; prosecutors have been empowered by state legislatures to act all but autonomously in determining the fates of hundreds of thousands of criminal defendants, most of whom are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

“The tremendous power and discretion in the hands of prosecutors, combined with the concentration of those positions among one demographic group, virtually guarantees inequality in our criminal justice system,” said Brenda Chores-Carter, director of WDN’s Reflective Democracy Campaign, in a written statement.

The data, compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Technology and Civic Life, indicated that 14 states – Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming – had exclusively elected white prosecutors in 2014. In two other states, Kentucky and Missouri ...

Securus Phone Rates Spark Uprising at Alaska Prison

A riot at an Alaska prison “kind of blew up” because, according to prisoners, the phone service provided by Securus was shoddy and the company charged unreasonable rates.

Sparked by a widespread disconnection of phone calls one Monday night in October 2015, prisoners housed in E Dorm at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC) disabled surveillance cameras, broke a window, ripped a table out of the concrete floor and then stacked the table and mattresses against a door into the dorm, preventing guards from entering.

Shortly after midnight, however, guards were able to break through the barricade and round up an undisclosed number of prisoners, placing them all in segregation. No one was injured according to Alaska DOC officials.

“For weeks, everybody’s been on edge about [the phone rates],” an LCCC prisoner identified only as Alec told the Juneau Empire in a phone interview from the facility. “The most important things we have in here are connections with our family.”

Texas-based Securus entered into a new contract with the Alaska DOC in September 2015. Per the terms of that contract, prisoners would be able to call cell phones (which they had been unable to do previously), but Securus would ...

Ohio Prison Guards Use JPay System to Illegally Download Thousands of Copyrighted Songs

Ohio’s top watchdog has recommended that the use of state owned computers by employees of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) should be heavily restricted to prevent prison guards from again illegally downloading music or other copyrighted material onto their work computers.

The recommendation comes after Ohio’s Office of the Inspector General was tipped off that ODRC guards at four state prisons had downloaded at least 3,764 copyrighted songs (or 48.9 GB of information) for free off the prisons’ data services.

The songs were stored in a computer library of 53,000 ODRC approved audio files available for purchase by state prisoners and sold by Florida based prison profiteer JPay, which, in addition to charging prisoners’ families high fees for money transfers, sells prisoners its own brand of MP3 players and tablets, sold as the JP3 and JP4, respectively.

The inspector general’s investigation of the illegal downloads found that 16 guards total, working at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, and the Chillicothe, Lorain and Madison Correctional Institutions, began downloading copies of the songs as early as July 2012, when JPay first made the music available for purchase at ORDC prisons.

By February 2014 ...

Harsh Sentencing Laws in Washington State to Blame for Growing Lifer Population, Says University Study

Though its forward thinking, beanie-clad baristas façade would suggest otherwise, the State of Washington has a sobering history of abandoning rehabilitative incarceration in favor of some of the most draconian sentencing laws in the country.

First, Washington enacted the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984, a law that effectively eliminated the state’s parole system and pre-dated by a decade the Clinton crime bill of 1994 that kick started a virulent wave of so-called truth-in-sentencing laws in the country.

“At the time (of the SRA’s passage), the conventional wisdom was that rehabilitation didn’t work, and that parole boards were making arbitrary decisions”, said Katherine Beckett, a professor in the University of Washington’s Law, Societies and Justice program.

Nearly 10 years after lawmakers enacted the SRA, Washington’s voters approved the State’s first in the nation three strikes law of 1993, which mandated life without parole for offenders who committed three serious felonies.  And in 1995, voters approved the Hard Time for Armed Crime law, mandating sentence enhancements for crimes involving guns; enhancements that are often so sadistically harsh that some prisoners will never again see the free world because of their weapons charges alone.

Together ...

Are French Prisons Radicalizing Muslim Prisoners?

The demographics inside French prisons have become a hot-button issue in the aftermath of eleven terrorist attacks that have occurred in France since January 2015. At least six individuals involved in those attacks are believed to have been inducted into radical Islam while they were incarcerated in France or Belgium.

According to some estimates, as many as 50% of France’s prison population is Muslim – an outrageous figure if true, considering that Muslims reportedly represent only about 12% of the nation’s overall population. Long before the ISIS-inspired January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed a dozen people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, politicians on the right had been using those statistics to inflame negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants from North Africa and other Islamic countries.

But Muslim leaders and human rights activists have cited similar data, arguing that even if the number of Muslims incarcerated in French prisons is inflated, the system is weighted against Muslims and reflects deep social and ethnic divides in France. The country’s social policies, they contend, have isolated Muslims in dilapidated neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and poor schools, giving Muslim immigrants and their French-born children little hope for upward mobility ...

Phoenix Fire Investigators and Insurance Company Implicated in Wrongful Prosecutions

Following a decision by Arizona prosecutors not to criminally charge a pair of Phoenix Fire Department (PFD) investigators who allegedly lied under oath and trained a dog to implicate innocent people, victims have pursued justice through civil litigation. During the course of one of those lawsuits, a wrongfully-accused woman found strong evidence suggesting that her own insurance company sought to aid in her conviction.

According to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the May 2009 investigation of a fire in an east Phoenix neighborhood, led by PFD Captains Sam Richardson and Fred Andes, involved “an utter breakdown in basic investigative techniques and procedures.”

However, while Richardson and Andes made “incorrect or impeachable statements” in the case, Montgomery declined to prosecute them in October 2014, saying the pair had skirted prosecution because Arizona law requires that they knowingly made false statements.

“Not bringing criminal charges obviously did not result in us saying that there was nothing wrong with what happened here, or with what the investigation identified,” Montgomery said.

Carl Caples was charged with arson in the east Phoenix fire after an arson dog named Sadie signaled to investigators that she smelled accelerants at the scene. Although Caples insisted during interrogation that ...

More Suicides, Overdoses and Murders in California Prisons, According to Death Review Report

While California’s prison population is down, homicides among state prisoners in 2013 were up sharply over previous years. Deaths from drug overdoses in California prisons were up, too, and the suicide rate among state prisoners was more than 40% above the national average.

That was the analysis of the federal Receiver’s office, which since 2006 has been tasked with fixing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s broken medical care system. In October 2014, the Receiver issued a report that examined 366 prisoner deaths that occurred across the state during the previous year.

“A major piece of the quality improvement program is the death review,” Kent Imai, M.D., wrote in his report for the federal Receiver’s office. “Rigorous peer review of all prison deaths identifies serious lapses in care and records numbers of preventable deaths. The death review has been used to find opportunities for systemic improvement and to identify, counsel, and sanction any unsafe [medical] providers.”

Of the 366 prisoners who died in 2013, the death reviews found that 35 were “possibly preventable,” meaning that more adequate medical care “might have prevented or significantly delayed the patient’s death,” according to Imai’s analysis ...

Local Jails Increasingly Refuse to Comply with ICE Detainers

Hundreds of municipalities across the country – including major cities such as Los Angeles and others with large populations of immigrants – are refusing to honor requests from federal officials to hold undocumented immigrants in jail for possible deportation after a judge ruled that doing so was unconstitutional. The policy change has ...


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