[Pnews] Most States Saw Prison Reforms in 2019, But Incarceration Rates Remain High

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 13 11:03:54 EST 2020


  Most States Saw Prison Reforms in 2019, But Incarceration Rates Remain

Victoria Law - January 11, 2020

On December 20, 2019, criminal justice advocates celebrated the news 
that President Trump signed the Fair Chance Act into law. Tucked into a 
massive defense spending bill, the law is a federal version of “ban the 
box,” prohibiting the government and its contractors from asking job 
applicants about their criminal history before extending a conditional 
offer of employment. Thirty-five states and over 150 cities already have 
versions of “ban the box” laws 

That’s not the only criminal justice success this year. 2019 has seen an 
outpouring of local and state efforts to stem the tide of mass 
incarceration, from bail reform 
and mass bailouts <https://nationalbailout.org/black-mamas-bail-out/>, 
to efforts to close jails 
and legislation to divert people from lengthy prison sentences 
Criminal justice reform has even become a talking point for candidates 
seeking the presidential nomination in 2020.

But what can we expect in 2020? Will reform efforts lead to a 
substantial decrease in mass incarceration and criminalization across 
the nation? Or will mass incarceration and criminalization shift to 
regions with less organizing and fewer resources?

Prison populations are dropping, but only minutely: From 2016 to 2017 
(the latest year for which numbers are available), state and federal 
prison populations decreased 1.2 percent 
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf> (or 18,766 people). In a 
nation where nearly 1.5 million people are in prison 
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p17.pdf> and at least 4.9 million 
people are arrested 
and jailed annually, the drop is not precipitous.

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for Prison Policy Initiative, 
said that most of these changes are driven by declines in the federal 
prison population and in a handful of states. “These declines are real 
and those lives are important,” Bertram told /Truthout/. But, she noted, 
reforms have not taken hold in every state or even within a given state, 
leading to unevenly distributed progress not only between states, but 
also between different counties. For instance, while jail populations 
have been decreasing in urban areas, they have been increasing in rural 
At the same time, law enforcement may undercut prosecutorial reforms. In 
Baltimore, for instance, police continue to arrest and jail people for 
that prosecutor Marilyn Mosby has stated that she will no longer prosecute.

Reforms also seem to have left many women behind bars. While men’s 
incarceration — both jail and prison — has decreased, women’s 
incarceration has not seen similar declines 
and, in some states, is even increasing. “That’s because people aren’t 
catching onto the reality that women are [still] going to prison at 
higher rates and getting out at lower ones,” Justine Moore, a founding 
member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly 
Incarcerated Women and Girls, told /Truthout/.

The contrast has been particularly striking in local jails: Since 2008, 
men’s jail admissions have declined by 26 percent. Women’s admissions, 
however, have increased both as a total number and as a proportion of 
all jail admissions 
Today, women comprise nearly one of every four jail admissions; in 1983, 
they made up fewer than one in ten. As of 2013, nearly 110,000 women 
were in jail, accounting for approximately half of all women behind bars.

 From 2016 to 2017 the number of women in prison nationwide dropped by 
470 (or 0.4 percent) 
in contrast, the number of men in prison dropped by almost 18,300 (1.3 
percent). Texas had the greatest reduction in its women’s prison 
population; during that same time period, Tennessee increased its 
women’s prison population. The imprisonment rate for women remains 
highest in Oklahoma (157 per 100,000 female residents of the state). 
Women make up over 30 percent (or 3,863 women) 
<https://drc.ohio.gov/Portals/0/Annual%20report%20final%20ODRC.pdf> of 
Ohio’s prison population; the most common convictions are drug-related 
As reported previously by/Truthout/ 
women are offered fewer alternative-to-incarceration and diversion 
programs than their male counterparts.

Despite these seemingly small numbers, advocates, including formerly 
incarcerated people, have been organizing to bring these numbers down 
even further. “I think we can expect legislators to remain intransigent, 
but grassroots movements to get stronger,” predicted Bertram.

    *Closing Mass Incarceration’s Front Door*

In New York and California, advocates have pushed for — and won — bail 
reform <https://gothamist.com/news/bail-reform-explained-nyc>, 
eliminating cash bail for certain charges 
(though many remain wary that risk assessment tools could lead to 
greater surveillance). New Jersey and Alaska largely eliminated cash 
bail, utilizing instead a point-based system to determine whether people 
should be released from custody, held in jail until trial, or subjected 
to other types of monitoring (such as house arrest or electronic 

But such efforts have also faced backlash: In New York, even before bail 
reform took effect on January 1, district attorneys, judges and 
legislators on both sides of the aisle charged that it endangered public 
safety andcalled for the law’s revision, if not outright repeal. During 
the first week of the new law, some assistant district attorneys 
continued to request bail 
in others, prosecutors filed more serious charges 
<https://twitter.com/CourtWatchNYC/status/1215290014864674817>, allowing 
judges to set bail. Both the governor, who signed bail reform into law, 
and the state senate majority leader have stated that they are open to 
re-examining the law 

In New Orleans, grassroots organizers partially stymied the sheriff’s 
proposal to build a 6,000-bed jail; the city council gave preliminary 
approval to cap the jail’s population 
at 1,250 people. In Arapahoe County, Colorado, voters rejected a tax 
that would build a $400 million new jail. “If people at the grassroots 
level can organize against jail expansion, then we can really start to 
close mass incarceration’s front door,” said Bertram.

Other efforts to close that front door focus on sentencing reform. In 
May 2019, formerly and currently incarcerated women in New York 
celebrated when the governor signed the Domestic Violence Survivors 
Justice Act into law 
The Act allows judges to mete out sentences that are significantly 
shorter than the sentencing guidelines or divert a survivor from prison 
altogether if abuse played a significant factor in the conviction. The 
Act applies to survivors who harmed their abusers as well as those 
coerced into crimes by abusive partners.

In one of the first hearings after the law took effect, the judge 
decided against applying the law’s sentencing provisions to 26-year-old 
Taylor Partlow, whose manslaughter trial included five witness 
testimonies about her boyfriend’s abuse. “The abuse, number one, was not 
substantial abuse and not a significant contributing factor to your 
behavior,” he said at the sentencing hearing 
“But I do agree there was domestic abuse.” Despite his declaration, the 
judge sentenced Partlow to eight years in prison, the sentence suggested 
for manslaughter under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, 
instead of the 25 years recommended by the state’s sentencing guidelines.

    *Expanding Opportunities to Come Home*

Advocates have also worked to expand opportunities for release. New 
York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act also allows imprisoned 
survivors to petition for resentencing 
if they can provide evidence that abuse was a significant factor in 
their conviction. Advocates are currently working with incarcerated 
survivors to apply for and gather evidence of abuse to bolster their 
petitions for resentencing.

Organizers with Release Aging People in Prison 
<http://rappcampaign.com/> (RAPP) and the Parole Preparation Project 
<https://www.paroleprepny.org/> have demanded that New York’s governor 
not reappoint parole commissioners known to be punitive and instead 
appoint new commissioners with backgrounds outside of law enforcement, 
resulting in the appointment of six new commissioners in June 2017. The 
previous month, according to RAPP, New York parole commissioners had 
released only 24 percent of those applying for parole.

The board’s new composition seems to be increasing the number of 
releases: By December 2018, the parole rate had increased to 40 percent. 
Among those released were people who had been denied parole repeatedly, 
including Jose Saldana 
who was imprisoned 38 years and denied parole four times; and two former 
Black Panthers — Herman Bell 
who was imprisoned 45 years and denied parole seven times, and Robert 
Seth Hayes 
who was imprisoned 45 years and denied parole 10 times. In 2019, the 
parole rate hovered between 36 and 45 percent.

This month, parole justice advocates will again head to Albany to push 
for the Elder Parole bill 
<https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/S2144>, which would 
require an immediate parole interview for people ages 55 and older who 
have served at least 15 years. Of New York’s 45,986 prisoners, 5,767 (or 
12 percent) are ages 55 or older.

Saldana, now the director of RAPP, notes that many people currently 
aging in New York’s prisons have sentences leaving them ineligible to 
apply for parole for decades. He points to 61-year-old Valerie Gaiter 
who died in prison in August 2019. During her 40 years in prison, Gaiter 
trained service dogs for wounded veterans, ran the photography program, 
facilitated the prison’s anger management program, earned multiple 
degrees and mentored other women. Gaiter had been sentenced to 50 years 
to life, rendering her ineligible to appear before the parole board 
until she had spent half a century in prison. She died of cancer 10 
years before reaching that date. “That’s why it’s so important that this 
bill is passed, because if it isn’t, we’re going to have more tragedies 
like Val Gaiter’s,” Saldana said.

In Missouri, advocates with the Smart Sentencing Coalition pushed HB192, 
which changed the state’s minimum prison terms for people with prior 
prison records 
Previously, people with prior prison sentences were required to serve 40 
to 80 percent of their sentences before becoming parole eligible. Signed 
into law in July 2019, HB192 changed that requirement for people 
sentenced to Missouri state prisons for nonviolent convictions; it also 
made the change retroactive. “We’ve been working on this for a few 
years,” said Patty Berger, an organizer with the St. Louis chapter of 
All of Us or None, a nationwide advocacy network of formerly 
incarcerated people, whose members met with Missouri legislators to 
convince them of the bill’s importance. Between September and December, 
approximately 200 people were released early due to HB192. Next year, 
the coalition will be advocating for the Primary Caretakers Act, which 
encourages judges to consider non-prison sentences for parents and 
caregivers. (Similar laws have already passed in Massachusetts and 

In California, where more than 5,000 people are serving life without 
(LWOP), organizers with the Drop LWOP campaign <https://droplwop.com/> 
are pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom to commute LWOP sentences into 
parole-eligible sentences. Among these organizers is Kelly Savage who, 
in 1998, was sentenced to LWOP after her husband killed her 3-year-old 
In December 2017, Savage learned that then-Gov. Jerry Brown had commuted 
her sentence to 25 years to life, making her eligible to appear before 
the parole board. She recalls walking back to her unit, thinking, “I’m 
not gonna die here.” Eleven months later, she was released.

Now the program coordinator for Drop LWOP, Savage is organizing to push 
the new governor to extend the same opportunity for a second chance to 
the thousands in California’s prisons. She’s also educating legislators 
about the issue as well as engaging and organizing with family members 
whose voices, she said, “have been silenced for so long. We’re trying to 
show them that it is possible to engage and speak up for their loved 
ones and educate people around them.”

Not every state is embracing reform. Alaska lawmakers are currently 
unraveling the state’s recent reforms 
Alaska passed Senate Bill 91 
a 2016 bill that reduced the use of both cash bail and incarceration, 
decreasing the number of people behind bars by 7 percent (or 430 
people). In 2018, however, Republican Mike Dunleavy swept into the 
governor’s office under the slogan “Make Alaska Safe Again” and began 
efforts to repeat Senate Bill 91. He also signed a new crime bill making 
simple drug possession an arrestable offense and increasing prison time 
for offenses whose sentences had been previously reduced. These efforts 
have already increased the prison population by 5 percent. The increase, 
coupled with a shortage of prison staff, has spurred officials to 
consider contracting with private prison corporations to imprison people 
in other states 
a contrast to other states’ elimination of private prison contracts 
“It seems like the whole country /except /Alaska is moving forward on 
prison reform,” “Kayla,” currently in an Alaska prison and who asked 
that her real name not be used, wrote in a letter to Truthout. “We’re 
moving terrifyingly backwards.”

That’s why Bertram and others believe that stopping mass incarceration 
needs to come from grassroots organizing, not politicians. “There’s 
always new opportunities for lawmakers to garner support with their 
constituents by appearing tough on crime,” Bertram said. “To really 
bring down incarceration, we’re going to have to collectively force the 
people that represent us to stop relying on that kind of pandering. I 
think we can expect legislators to remain intransigent but grassroots 
movements to get stronger.”

 From Missouri, Berger agrees. Noting the significance of prison reform 
in a red state, Berger said, “Not only is it good for incarcerated 
people, but it was good for us to have a victory.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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