Friday, May 10, 2013


Scission Prison Friday presents a Bill Berkowitz double header.  The Oracle from Oakland (and my old bud) hits the nail on the head twice today with  pieces that discuss prisons' return to the past while marching into the future.  Sometimes it is hard to know what century you are in.  Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter.

The first Billy B piece is from AlterNet   and the second glides our way via BuzzFlash or TruthOut  (too complicated for me).

Cruel Country: Debtors Prisons Are Punishing the Poor Across America

"In the 1990s, Jack [Dawley's] drug and alcohol addictions led to convictions for domestic violence and driving under the influence, resulting in nearly $1,500 in fines and costs in the Norwalk Municipal Court. Jack was also behind on his child support, which led to an out-of-state jail sentence." After serving three and a half years in Wisconsin, Dawley, now sober for 14 years, is still trying to catch up with the fines he owes, and it has "continue[d] to wreak havoc on his life."
Tricia Metcalf is a mother with sole custody of two teenagers. In 2006, Metcalf "was convicted of passing multiple bad checks. The fines mounted into the thousands. Unable to pay the total amount owed, Tricia entered into a payment plan of $50 per month." Although she's worked temporary jobs, a long-term job has been hard to find. "Whenever Tricia missed a payment, a warrant was issued and she was taken to jail."
The stories of Jack Dawley and Tricia Metcalf are only two of several compelling accounts in the ACLU's new report, The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio's Debtors' Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities [3].
The jailing of people unable to pay fines and court costs is no longer a relic of the 19th century American judicial system. Debtors' prisons are alive and well in one-third of the states in this country.
In 2011, Think Progress' Marie Diamond wrote: "Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It's a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor's prisons."
In 2010, the ACLU did a study titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons, which revealed the use of debtors prison practices in five states, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia and Washington.
In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson said: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope - some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity."
Nearly 50 years after Johnson's address, which launched the "War on Poverty," "poverty in America has not dissipated," the ACLU's report states that "the number of people living in poverty in Ohio grew by 57.7% from 1999 to 2011, with the largest increase coming from suburban counties."
This year's ACLU report - which takes its name from a phrase in Johnson's speech - points out that many poor "Ohioans ... convicted of a criminal or traffic offense and sentenced to pay a fine an affluent defendant may simply pay ... and go on with his or her life [find the fine] unaffordable [launching] the beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines."
According to the report, Ohio courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties "are among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges."
Debtors' prisons are unconstitutional
If you are thinking that debtors' prisons must be unconstitutional, you are right. The ACLU report points out that the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code "all prohibit debtors' prisons."
"The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts and mayors' courts across the state continue this draconian practice."
The phenomenon of jailing people because they are unable to pay their fines and/or court costs isn't limited to Ohio. CBS Money Watch's Alain Sherter recently reported that "Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions' Equal Protection Clause."
Wreaking havoc on ordinary peoples' lives
Jack Dawley: "You'd go do your ten days, and they'd set you up a court date and give you another 90 days to pay or go back to jail... It was hard for me to obtain work, so I fell back into the cycle of going to jail every three months."
"I tried to pay my fines several times in multiple ways," Tricia Metcalf said. "I had even gone to churches and asked if there was any way they could help. There was nothing I could do. I asked the judge about community service." She even sold personal possessions, including her only mode of transportation to keep up with paying the fines. "Since 2006, Tricia has been incarcerated five times for failure to pay fines," causing major disruptions for her family.
There are several other compelling personal stories in the report.
Perhaps the most irrational aspect of the growing use of debtors' prisons during tough economic times when counties are stretched beyond their financial capabilities, is that they "actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them."
The ACLU is calling on the Ohio Supreme Court "to institute administrative rules to ensure that all courts properly determine whether a person can afford to pay her criminal fines, in order to ensure that those who are unable to pay are not incarcerated for these debts."
"....Until the state Supreme Court takes action, thousands of Ohioans will continue to be relegated to the outskirts of hope, where the crime of poverty sentences them to a vicious cycle of incarceration, burdensome fees, and diminishing optimism for a better life. Our constitution - and our conscience - demand that Ohio courts do better.

Felon Disenfranchisement: The New Jim Crow

When we think of electoral shenanigans, we often think of blatantly rigged elections with uncounted votes and hanging chads, overcrowded and understaffed polling places, blatant voter intimidation, the purging of voter rolls, pushing false information about when and where to vote, and forcing legitimately registered voters, whose names do not appear on voting rolls, to cast provisional ballots.
More recently we have heard a great deal about new legislative efforts in a number of states to suppress the vote, including, making it harder to register, cutting down on the period for early voting, implementing photo ID laws, and ending Election Day simultaneous registration and voting.
However, when we think of voter suppression, we don't often think about felon disenfranchisement.
According to a 2010 report by The Sentencing Project titled Expanding The Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform 1997-2010, while things have been slowly changing for the better in a number of states, "more than 5 million citizens ... [were] ineligible to vote in the midterm elections in November [2010], including nearly 4 million who reside in the 35 states that still prohibit some combination of persons on probation, parole, and/or people who have completed their sentence from voting."
In addition, "Racial disparities in the criminal justice system also translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every eight adult black males being ineligible to vote."

Florida is one of the states with an extraordinarily egregious record regarding felon disenfranchisement. A mid-April report by the South Florida Times' Bill Kaczon pointed out that Florida Governor Rick Scott has "made it more difficult for Floridians with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored-a situation critics say has suppressed the minority vote and hurt Democratic candidates."

According to Kaczor, "As one of his first actions after taking office in 2011, Scott, as chairman of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, undid automatic restoration of voting rights for nonviolent ex-offenders that previous Gov. Charlie Crist helped adopt in 2007. Since then, the number of former felons who have had their voting rights restored has slowed to a trickle, even compared with the year before Crist and the clemency board helped make the process easier."

Susan Greenbaum, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at The University of South Florida, recently prepared a briefing paper for Florida Rep. Dan Raulerson (R) on felon disenfranchisement in the state. The paper, titled "Permanent felon disenfranchisement in Florida," appeared in the April 2013 issue of the "LWV (League of Women Voters) Voter."

Greenbaum pointed out that "A bad law that originated for the wrong reasons, not only has negative effects on ex-felons, but their families, communities, and the state budget" also suffers.

Greenbaum wrote:

In a democratic society, "Measures that reduce the size of the electorate are regressive ... and an inability to vote renders ex-felons into what has been called 'civil death.' This outcast status has been described as an 'invisible punishment' that offers no obvious deterrent example, but hinders the capacity of released inmates to achieve successful re-entry [into society]. There is no evidence of harm to elections if ex-felons are permitted to vote, and [there is] considerable evidence ... that this ban increases reoffending, rather than discouraging it."

Further, "There is consensus that these laws (which are unusual internationally) are an historical artifact of Jim Crow restrictions and reflect persistently large racial disparities in arrest and sentencing. Florida, which imprisons a very disproportionate number of African Americans (and Latinos), shares this history, [and] is distinctively harsh with regard to felon voters.

Greenbaum found:

· "Florida is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchise individuals who have been convicted of felonies. (Most states permit immediate or eventual re-enfranchisement.) As incarceration rates have soared, both in Florida and elsewhere, the number of people affected by this restriction has grown very large (about 6 million in the U.S.). Florida accounts for 1.5 million, 1.3 million of whom have completed their sentences (NAACP 2012). Although Florida comprises only 6% of the U.S. population, 25% of disenfranchised felons and ex-felons reside in the state."

· "Criminologists have compiled ample evidence that voting bans do nothing to deter future criminals and promotes recidivism. A recent study by the Florida Parole Commission of ex-felons restored since 2007 found rates of re- offending that are 50% lower than other released convicts."

· "Felon disenfranchisement has direct links to post Civil War 'Black Codes' in Florida and many other Southern states as laws were enacted to prevent African Americans from voting. Other measures followed; poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc. The Voting Rights Act outlawed most of these practices, but voting restrictions for felons have survived numerous court challenges. Felon disenfranchisement currently affects nearly one quarter of Florida's black voting age population -- the highest rate in the nation."

· "The scope of crimes falling under the definition of 'felony' is extremely broad, including many non-violent offenses. Minor drug possession accounts for a very large share. The expanding use of plea agreements that avoid long sentences in exchange for shorter ones has been shown too often to convict the innocent. Low-income defendants who may be innocent but have no effective legal assistance are convinced to plead to lesser degree offenses rather than risk almost certain conviction on more serious charges . This practice helps ease court dockets and reduce the costs of jury trials, but is ballooning the prison population and bringing increased numbers of low income minority citizens unjustly into felon status; essentially 'second-class citizenship.' Among the other life-long costs of this awful dilemma is having to forgo the right to vote.?"

· "The right to vote can be restored only by individual considerations of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency, an excruciatingly slow and unpredictable process. In early 2007, then Gov. Charlie Crist, eased rules to provide automatic restoration for lesser felonies, with review for more serious cases. Although still a very small fraction, in three years more than 150,000 ex-felons had their rights restored. Almost immediately upon entering office, Gov. Rick Scott repealed Crist's changes and added new restrictions, resulting in fewer than 300 individuals' rights restored during his tenure. Applicants must wait at least 5 years before commencing a process that, if successful, will take another 7 years or longer. In effect, they currently have no path to restoration."

Although several states have initiated legislation that would ease requirements allowing released felons the franchise. "No such legislation has been filed in Florida," the South Florida Times' Bill Kaczon reported. "House Democratic Leader Perry Thurman of Plantation said that nothing short of electing a new governor will change Florida's policy unless [Gov.] Scott has a `'change of heart.'"

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