September 20, 2007

State Should Take Leadership Role In Prison Reform

Jackie Lee Thompson after his 1969 arrest at age 15, and in 2004 at age 49 (Elmira Star-Gazette)

By David A. Love
Published in the Legal Intelligencer
Monday, March 26, 2007

Pennsylvania is a leader in prisons, ranking second nationally in per capita growth in prison spending. Prisons cost Pennsylvania taxpayers more each year, but with little to show for it. Now is the time to seek alternatives to this drain on the state’s resources.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of inmates incarcerated in Pennsylvania's prisons will increase 17 percent— from 42,345 in 2005 to 51,596 by 2011. Meanwhile, the commonwealth spends $33,814 per prisoner per year, far more than the national average of $23,876.

Prisons are the third largest expenditure in the state budget, behind education and welfare. If current trends continue, it will surpass education spending.

Mandatory minimum sentences and harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenders have created prison overcrowding. Recently, prisoners represented by the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP) and David Rudovsky successfully sued the City of Philadelphia in federal court over the deplorable, unconstitutional conditions in the city's jails, including unsanitary facilities, a lack of personal hygiene items and detainees forced to sleep on concrete floors.

The state’s prison boom breeds inequities. An Associated Press investigation in 2000 revealed that blacks in Pennsylvania are more likely to receive prison sentences, or longer ones, than white defendants accused of the same crimes. Further, the black incarceration rate is 14 times that of whites, the greatest racial disparity in the nation. African Americans, 10 percent of Pennsylvania's population, are 56 percent of the inmates. This is shameful.

And as the female prison population steadily grows, the abuse and rape of female prisoners by male corrections officers with unsupervised access is an ongoing problem.

Pennsylvania's capricious parole system impedes efforts to incorporate rehabilitated prisoners into society. Parole is an illusion for most prisoners, particularly those serving a life sentence. The 1997 amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution require that a recommendation for a pardon or commutation by the board of pardons be unanimous before it may be considered by the governor. The law serves no penological interest, and only keeps more rehabilitated people behind bars, separated from their families and communities. A coalition of organizations, including PILP under executive director Angus Love, the Pennsylvania Prison Society and others, are challenging the law in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The dysfunction of Pennsylvania's parole system came to light when Governor Rendell recently commuted the life sentence of Michael Howard Anderson, 53, who has served 36 years for the 1971 stabbing death of William Edwards. On the day of the murder, Anderson found a butcher knife on the ground as he boarded a bus headed for a concert at the Spectrum. When a fight broke out during the bus ride, Raynard Gregory grabbed the knife from a fallen Anderson and stabbed Edwards. Meanwhile, Gregory spent only seven years behind bars.

Other deserving prisoners seek a commutation. Keith Smith, 52, has spent 32 years in prison. He has had much time to reflect on his role as accomplice to a 1974 robbery that resulted in a shooting death— he was the lookout, never entered the store and did not pull the trigger. One of his co-defendants was retried and released in 1978, while the other committed suicide in prison in 1980.

Smith is a perfect example of the promise of rehabilitation in a society that often turns its back on the concept. Smith formed an anti-violence program for youth, produced an educational video, raises money for charities, and provides Thanksgiving turkeys for needy families. Society does not benefit from his continued incarceration. Indeed, violence-torn, poverty-stricken Philadelphia needs the help of reformed men such as Keith Smith to tackle the city's troubles.

Jackie Lee Thompson, 51, was convicted on first degree murder at age 15. He was a foster child in rural Tioga County whose mother died when he was 10. On the advice of his court-appointed counsel, Thompson confessed to his role in the shooting and drowning death of a 15-year old girl. The judge told him that with good behavior and a trade, he could be paroled in a few years. Of the two other teens involved, one was tried as a juvenile, while the other was released and never tried.

Thompson has been a model prisoner. He received his G.E.D. and an associate's degree in business management, and teaches advanced computer classes. Among the most staunch proponents of Thompson's release are the family members of the victim, who testified before the Board of Pardons on his behalf.

While Anderson had received the required unanimous recommendation by the board, Thompson and Smith received the approval of only four of the five board members.

As unfair and arbitrary laws at the state level stand in the way of prison reform, draconian federal statutes limit prisoners' access to the federal courts to seek redress.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), enacted ostensibly to stem a tide of frivolous prison lawsuits— such as an inmate who sued over receiving chunky-style rather than creamy peanut butter—has crippled inmates' ability to protect their constitutional rights. The PLRA restricts the federal courts' authority to provide equitable relief when prisons violate the law; imposes a severe cap on attorneys' fees; penalizes indigent prisoners; requires exhaustion of administrative remedies, and requires that prisoners suffer a physical injury in order to recover for mental or emotional injuries.

Consequently, the PLRA blocks valid federal claims of prisoner mistreatment and abuse. The ABA recently urged Congress to repeal or amend its provisions. In light of the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison—the ringleader once abused inmates as a guard at SCI-Greene –prisoners' rights should concern everyone. Pennsylvania must seek bold, effective alternatives to its prison machine. The prison boom separates families and destroys communities, diverts crucial resources, and does not alleviate crime. According to the Sentencing Project, at least 22 states have enacted reforms to their sentencing, probation and parole policies, focusing on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, expanded drug treatment, and reducing recidivism. Pennsylvania must lead the way in prison reform before it is too late.

Copyright © 2007 by David A. Love

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