Friday, November 25, 2016

what's the harm in a background check?

A church runs background checks on all volunteers who have anything to do with children in an effort to protect the kids. Everyone does it. Liability issues, you know.

Seems reasonable, you say.

Is it?

Children are in no greater danger at church than any other place. Going to church in a car is the most dangerous part of going to church and we accept that danger without blinking.

But, you say, by keeping sex offenders away from children, a background check will prevent sexual abuse.

Does it?

Arrests for sexual abuse of a child are nearly always a first-time arrest, not of someone on the sex offender registry and not of someone who would be caught in a background check. Background checks do not identify those who are abusing children; background checks identify those who stopped abusing children.

There are good reasons to use background checks but eliminating sex offenders from the volunteer pool is not one of them. The assumption that registered sex offenders are a clear and present danger to children is not correct.

But, you say, background checks are harmless.

Are they?

When you use background checks to eliminate registered sex offenders from your world for reasons that do not stand up to scrutiny, you are perpetuating untruths about sex offenders.

You encourage others to think sex offenders are acceptable targets:
According to a recent bail memorandum, Jason Vukovich, a self-styled "avenging angel" according to one of the victims, carried a notebook with a list of names, including Charles Albee, Andres Barbosa and Wesley Demarest. Over five days in June, he entered the homes of the three men, uninvited, and hit them, sometimes with his fists and sometimes with a hammer. He also stole from them, said the bail memorandum signed by assistant district attorney Patrick McKay. 
Vukovich told police that he targeted his victims based on their listings on Alaska's sex-offender registry, the memo says. The online registry includes their home addresses, employer addresses and convictions.
You encourage prosecutors to use the registry to force an outcome:
An Iowa prosecutor is threatening to bring a sexual exploitation charge against a teenage girl who sent two photos of herself to a high school classmate, even though the pictures contain no nudity, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday. 
Marion County Attorney Ed Bull has said the teenager could have to register as a sex offender if a juvenile court judge found her delinquent for sending the Snapchat photos, according to the lawsuit.... 
As recently as Sept. 20, Bull has threatened through a lawyer to prosecute the teenager in juvenile court unless she participates in a diversion program that was completed by other students who were caught in the investigation. The program includes a class about the dangers of sexting, community service, restrictions on the teenager's cellphone and computer use, and a written admission of guilt, according to the lawsuit.
 You encourage people to think that sex offenders are forever dangerous:
A Palm Beach County court petition filed Aug. 31 claims Jack Ehrhart, a hospice patient with end-stage Alzheimer's disease, has been threatened with arrest if he does not move out of Heartland of Boynton Beach, a nursing home near a local preschool. 
The City of Boynton Beach purportedly issued a notice to Ehrhart and the hospice accusing them of violating an ordinance that prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, daycare center or playground.
When you act as if a registered sex offender is a monster, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how someone thinks it is acceptable to indulge in vigilante actions against registrants and that is how three men in Alaska came to be attacked.

When you act as if registration is a fine way to separate good people from the bad, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how prosecutors get the power to use the registry as a lever against people seen as immoral, and that is how an Iowa teen ends up fighting criminal charges when she did nothing criminal.

When you act as if registered citizens are dangerous no matter how long they have been living a law-abiding life, people around you may think you are right, even if you are not. That is how the 2500 foot residence restrictions and presence restrictions came about, and that is why an elderly Florida man is being kicked out of hospice care.

Yes, when you say you will protect children in your care by taking measures that will not protect children, there is a connection between you and those who misuse the registry.

Friday, November 18, 2016

private prisons vs. government-run prisons

Writing at the California Political Review, Katie Modisitt shows us that a focus on private prison problems is too narrow.
In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would start phasing out its contracts with companies that run private prisons in light of disturbing reports of poor medical care, overcrowding and other abuses in their facilities. Although the issue has taken center stage in the debate over mass incarceration, it overshadows and distracts from the actual problem: the prison-industrial complex, which affects government-run prisons in a much more troubling way, and for many more inmates.
Government-run prisons are not inherently better than private prisons. 
Government-run, public prisons operate off the same perverse and monetary incentives to lock up human beings, but do so for more inmates and with much more at stake. ...
We don’t even have to leave California to get a glimpse of the perverse incentives at work in filling government prisons. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) represents approximately 30,000 California prison guards and parole officers. The union wields tremendous power over criminal justice policy, much more than private prison companies, and for nearly 20 times the inmates. While we are worried about private companies’ profit incentive to increase prison populations, shouldn’t we be infuriated about an organization that has job security, salaries and political influence hanging in the balance?
 Political influence.
Over the last 20 years, the CCPOA has contributed over $24 million to lobbying efforts and candidates. For comparison, GEO Group, a leading private prison company criticized for their role in increasing prison populations, spent only $5 million over the same time period. 
And, the activities of the CCPOA are aimed squarely on tougher sentencing laws, therefore preserving the prison-industrial complex that allows them to exist. The union, for example, spent over $100,000 to implement the original Three Strikes Law. More recently, it spent $1 million to defeat Proposition 5, which would have reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes, shifting the focus to rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders.
Rehabilitation for inmates who have to be there is one thing. Keeping them incarcerated for longer than necessary is another and yet that is what the correctional officers' union wanted.

Yes, private prisons can be bad. Not because they are private but because they are prisons.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

calling inmates something other than 'offenders'

The Washington Department of Corrections wants to stop using the word 'offender' when referring to those who are incarcerated.
Acting Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan told agency employees in a memo Tuesday the word will be replaced in policies and programs with terms such as “individuals,” “students” or “patients” depending on the circumstances.

And he encouraged corrections officers to call those serving time by their names and “practice replacing or removing the word ‘offenders’ from your communication and presentations to others.”

“Unfortunately, what starts as a technical term, used to generically describe the people in our care, becomes and is enforced as a stereotype,” he wrote. “As a stereotype, ‘offender’ is a label that impacts more than the person to whom it is applied.

“This label has now been so broadly used that it is not uncommon to see it used to describe others such as ‘offender families’ and ‘offender employers or services,’ ” he wrote.
His decision comes amid a national conversation among correction officials on how the use of certain terms can make it difficult for a person to reintegrate in society upon completing their prison term.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason announced in May the federal Office of Justice Programs would no longer refer to released prisoners as “felon” or “convict.” Instead, terms like “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” would be used. ...
“Rather than use a term that could be offensive or could lead to a stereotype, let’s use a term that can point to a different future for that person who is working to rehabilitate,” Barclay said. “Ninety-five percent of these individuals will be people living next to other people in the community.” [My emphasis.]
A freshening breeze! Let's not label people in a way that will feed stereotypes that make their lives more difficult at a time when we should be encouraging them to improve their circumstances.

And then the hammer comes down.
The term won’t disappear completely as registered sex offenders will still be identified in that manner. 
“That won’t change. They will be known as a registered sex offender,” Barclay said. “That is codified in law.”
He is right. State and federal laws apply the sex offender label. Even if prisons are able to stop using the term, those convicted of sex offenses will face the cold wind of reality on the outside.

Sex offenders will also be living in the community, trying to become a productive member of society again. The language in sex offender laws works against them.

That is the way labels work.

What do victim advocates think of this change in wording?
Marge Fairweather is executive director of the Everett-based Victim Support Services. Founded in 1975, the nonprofit is the oldest victim advocacy agency in the state.

She takes exception to language in the memo in which the corrections secretary used the term “people in our care” to describe inmates.

“Are they really in your care or are they in your custody?” she said. “It seems they are trying to soften the impact of what the individual has done.”
Trying to soften the impact? She ignores the impact incarceration itself has, no matter which words are used. Being separated from loved ones is the punishment.

And yes, inmates are people in our care. When someone is removed from the community and any chance to care for him or herself, they are in our care. The fact of being incarcerated does not mean it is moral to treat inmates poorly.
To Fairweather, they are still serving time for an offense they have committed. That makes them offenders while they are in the prison system.

“At the end of the day, they have victimized someone and they have offended someone’s rights,” Fairweather said. “Why not call it what it is?”
What it is?

Here is what it is: Most inmates will return to the community. Do you want them to come back having had no encouragement that they can change? Treating them--and referring to them--as human beings is encouraging them.

Instead of sending an inmate back to family and employers as someone constantly reminded of something he surely cannot forget, let's send him back as someone who was constantly reminded that he is a person, capable of bettering himself.

Saying that he is in our care will not erase his memory.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

ideas from inmates on improving prisons

Everyone has ideas about what prisons should be like. Some want them to be tougher -- no TVs, hard labor, solitary confinement with no books. Hang 'em high. Others want more programs, more education. No death penalty.

What do inmates want? They live there; they ought to have some ideas about how to improve prisons.

And so they do. Five Texas inmates produced a report about their ideas.

They include thoughtful ideas like this one:
Notification of family deaths should be made uniform. Death notices should be verifiable. P olicy should be written to require the person notifying an inmate of a death to sign and date the form and also have the inmate being notified sign and date the form. If for some reason security has to do the death notice, they should be required to fill out this paperwork as well. If the responsible party fails to notify the inmate of the death, they should be held administratively responsible with proper administrative disciplinary action taken.
Good idea. Delivering the news of a death in the family should always be treated with care and sensitivity. If prison employees bungle that task, they should face consequences.

DCJ should encourage chaplains and re-entry departments to coordinate with churches in various communities to welcome inmates into their congregations as part of the reintegration process. This would encourage inmates to surround themselves with positive influences and not return to a life of crime or the criminal environment. 
Some kind of hotline should be made available for inmates' loved ones to file complaints about unit chaplains. Repeated complaints should result in administrative disciplinary action against the chaplain. This would serve as an incentive for the chaplain to maintain professional behavior that will most likely influence rehabilitation among the inmate population and therefore reduce recidivism.
Reducing the chance for re-offending is a thread that runs throughout the 65-page report. Inmates know what will help them stay out of trouble; we should listen to their ideas.

Reducing the burden on the families of inmates is another theme. Families send money to inmates so they can purchase goods to make them more comfortable. Limited commissary selections drive inmates to the black market, costing families (and taxpayers) more.
Commissary is one of the most cherished privileges inmates have. Approximately 40% of TDCJ's population is indigent, yet they still benefit from commissary, either by friends who provide them with things or as payment for some kind of 'hustle,' such as artwork. Most prison chow halls serve food that is poorly prepared, that tastes bad, and that most of the inmates do not want to eat. Commissary provides the ability to buy alternative foods to supplement or replace prison chow.

Unfortunately, commissary also preserves the black market because of its limited selection. For example, since the prison commissaries do not sell any kind of chlorinated powder, such as Tide or Ajax as they used to, inmates turn to the black market and buy stolen bleach and powder detergent from people who work in the laundry. Likewise, commissary will not sell food seasonings such as onion powder, garlic, dehydrated onions and bell peppers, etc, so inmates buy these stolen goods from the kitchen. As a result, the stolen goods do not get put into the general population's laundry or food, and negative behavior (theft and the purchase of stolen goods) continues among the prison population. Another factor to consider is that these goods are stolen at the expense of the taxpayer. ...
TDCJ commissaries should sale [sic] goods that are regularly stolen from unit kitchens and laundry departments. DCJ recently stopped selling a decent powder detergent called Heritage, and immediately black market sales for laundry detergent and bleach increased in the inmate population.
...inmates overwhelmingly agree that if fruits and vegetables were sold in commissary, they would buy them regularly. DCJ will object that inmates would make wine if fruit were sold in commissary. However; inmates make wine without fruit by using fruit juice, mint sticks, raisins stolen from the kitchen, and other black-market items procured in prison. Trying to eliminate the exceptional activities of a few by prohibiting healthy items for all serves no purpose. The wine is still being made! Raw or pre-packaged vegetables and fresh fruit--not the fruit saturated in sugary syrup--should be sold in commissary. Inmates would buy apples, oranges, onions, salads, pre-packaged sandwiches (similar to vending machines), etc., by the sack load if they were available. [My emphasis.]
Prisons work against their own interests when they prohibit commonly used goods. Prohibition has little effect on the availability of those goods; it only changes the market where inmates can buy them. It also creates opportunity for inmates to break the rules. If buying fruit were allowed, inmates would no longer risk additional punishment for buying fruit.

Families of inmates will nod as they read the report. They will see that these five inmates know how families are affected by prison policies and how inmates in general want to lead good lives.

The full report is worth reading.