Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States

by The Sentencing Project, 2014

Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population. But over this period, three states – New York, New Jersey, and California – have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.

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John Oliver’s Satire Illustrates Prison Reform Needs

John Oliver, formerly of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has a new show on HBO, Last Week Tonight, and they dedicated a remarkable (and hilarious) 17-minutes to critique prisons and show the need for prison reform. It’s perhaps the most entertaining way to get acquainted with the issues!

In the video, he:

  • Shows how minorities are affected out of all proportion with their portion of society
  • How the United States has 2,000,000 prisoners at the moment, even more than China
  • How even Sesame Street has been forced to deal with the issue, it being so common
  • How mandatory minimums for drug offences causes longer-than-necessary sentences
  • The condition of prisoners in solitary confinement
  • How nonviolent offenders can be handled separately from more serious offenders
  • How a significant fraction of offenders are subjected to rape
  • How cost cutting at prisons is done with little regard to prisoner conditions

All done with the usual intelligent comedy we expect from such spoof news shows.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip G. Zimbardo, 1971

On a quiet Sunday morning in August, a Palo Alto, California, police car swept through the town picking up college students as part of a mass arrest for violation of Penal Codes 211, Armed Robbery, and Burglary, a 459 PC. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, spread-eagled against the police car, searched, and handcuffed — often as surprised and curious neighbors looked on.

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Pain and Retribution: A Short History of British Prisons 1066 to the Present

David Wilson, April 15 2014

Today, the Tower of London is a tourist site, home only to the crown jewels, but not long ago the imposing structure held traitors, political prisoners, and more, often on their way to the chopping block. Even outside of this famous building, prisons have changed radically since the Norman Conquest in 1066. In the first book on the history of prisons in Britain, former prison governor and professor of criminology David Wilson offers unrivaled insight into the penal system in England, Scotland, and Wales, charting the rise and fall of forms of punishments that take place behind their walls.

Pain and Retribution explores prisons as an institution and examines how they are designed, organized, and managed. Wilson reveals that prisons have to satisfy the demands of three interested parties: the public, from politicians and media commentators to everyday citizens; the prison staff; and the prisoners themselves. He shows how prevailing concerns and issues of the times allow one faction or another to have more power at varying points in history, and he considers how prisons are unable to satisfy all three at the same time—leading to the system being seen as a failure, despite rising numbers of prisoners and growing funds invested in keeping them incarcerated. With intriguing comparisons between the prisons of New York City and Britain and searching questions about the purposes of the current penal system, Pain and Retribution provides unparalleled access to prison landings, staffs, and the people behind the locked doors.

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Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice

Paul Butler, June 1, 2010

Paul Butler was an ambitious federal prosecutor, a Harvard Law grad who gave up his corporate law salary to fight the good fight—until one day he was arrested on the street and charged with a crime he didn’t commit. The Volokh Conspiracy calls Butler’s account of his trial “the most riveting first chapter I have ever read.”

In a book Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree calls “a must read,” Butler looks at places where ordinary citizens meet the justice system—as jurors, witnesses, and in encounters with the police—and explores what “doing the right thing” means in a corrupt system.

Since Let’s Get Free’s publication in spring 2009, Butler has become the go-to person for commentary on criminal justice and race relations: he appeared on ABC News, Good Morning America, and Fox News, published op-eds in the New York Times and other national papers, and is in demand to speak across the country. The paperback edition brings Butler’s groundbreaking and highly controversial arguments—jury nullification (voting “not guilty” in drug cases as a form of protest), just saying “no” when the police request your permission to search, and refusing to work inside the system as a snitch or a prosecutor—to a whole new audience.

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Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy

Joy James, July 20, 2007

The United States has more than two million people locked away in federal, state, and local prisons. Although most of the U.S. population is non-Hispanic and white, the vast majority of the incarcerated—and policed—is not. In this compelling collection, scholars, activists, and current and former prisoners examine the sensibilities that enable a penal democracy to thrive. Some pieces are new to this volume; others are classic critiques of U.S. state power. Through biography, diary entries, and criticism, the contributors collectively assert that the United States wages war against enemies abroad and against its own people at home.

Contributors consider the interning or policing of citizens of color, the activism of radicals, structural racism, destruction and death in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and the FBI Counterintelligence Program designed to quash domestic dissent. Among the first-person accounts are an interview with Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a Black Panther and former political prisoner; a portrayal of life in prison by a Plowshares nun jailed for her antinuclear and antiwar activism; a discussion of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement by one of its members, now serving a seventy-year prison sentence for sedition; and an excerpt from a 1970 letter by the Black Panther George Jackson chronicling the abuses of inmates in California’s Soledad Prison. Warfare in the American Homeland also includes the first English translation of an excerpt from a pamphlet by Michel Foucault and others. They argue that the 1971 shooting of George Jackson by prison guards was a murder premeditated in response to human-rights and justice organizing by black and brown prisoners and their supporters.

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The Prison Index: Taking the Pulse of the Crime Control Industry

Prison Policy Initiative, 2013

Ten years ago, the Prison Policy Initiative and the Western Prison Project set out to compile a reliable and compelling set of statistics about the rapidly growing criminal justice system. In 611 facts and 17 graphs and charts, we gave advocates, journalists and policymakers a view on where the country was, where it had been, and what the future of criminal justice could be.

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An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform

Newt Gingrich and Pat NolanJuly 14, 2014

Congress returns to Capitol Hill this week, but there’s little reason to expect substantial legislation between now and the November election. In one policy area, however, Congress can and should act now: reforming the federal prison system.

Half of all federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, not violent crimes. The federal prison population, currently 216,381, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is expected to increase by 5,400 in fiscal years 2013-14. Prison costs are projected to reach $6.9 billion.

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Fourth marijuana conviction gets Slidell man life in prison

Ramon Antonio VargasMay 5, 2011

Cornell Hood II got off with probation after three marijuana convictions in New Orleans.

He didn’t fare too well after moving to St. Tammany Parish, however. A single such conviction on the north shore landed the 35-year-old in prison for the rest of his life.

State Judge Raymond S. Childress punished Hood under Louisiana’s repeat-offender law in his courtroom in Covington on Thursday. A jury on Feb. 15 found the defendant guilty of attempting to possess and distribute marijuana at his Slidell home, court records show.

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