Leah Sakala will be attending graduate school at Brandeis, and we are hiring a Policy and Communications Associate.

by Peter Wagner, April 29, 2014

I am pleased to announce that a long-time member of the PPI team, Policy Analyst Leah Sakala, will be this fall attending the Masters of Public Policy Program at Brandeis University. Leah has worked full time with PPI for three years, and prior to that, another three years part-time while she was an undergraduate at Smith College.

PPI has grown by leaps and bounds since Leah first joined us in 2008. She’s helped us develop new ways to explain our work, new ways to share our findings and helped us tackle new issues. Much of Leah’s work has been transformative behind the scenes, but she’s most well known for some of her reports. She is the author of Return to Sender: Postcard-only Mail Policies in Jail, which the National Institute of Corrections called “required reading for policy makers and anyone working with individuals in jail custody.” She also co-authored Reaching too far, coming up short: How large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark, Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry, and Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.

She’ll remain full-time with us through June 20th, and after taking some much deserved time off and starting her new graduate school program, she’ll be returning this fall to us one day a week as a Senior Policy Analyst.

And yes, since Leah will no longer be working full time at the Prison Policy Initiative, there is a new employment opportunity opening up. We’ve posted an opening for a Policy & Communications Associate. Please spread the word, and if you think the position is for you, please apply.

In the mean time, please congratulate Leah on her next steps at Brandeis!

Bill H.1434 proposes to build a whole new "Women's Pretrial Facility." More jail cells should never be the first response to overcrowding problems.

by Leah Sakala, April 25, 2014

Yesterday we submitted testimony in opposition of Massachusetts bill H.1434, which would build a new jail in Middlesex County specifically for women who are awaiting trial and thus haven’t been convicted.

It’s true that we’re facing some pretty serious overcrowding problems here in Massachusetts, and that continuing to cram more women into MCI Framingham is by no means a solution. But throwing taxpayer money into building new jail cells for women who are just waiting for their trial dates isn’t a smart or sustainable solution either. As we explained to the Joint Committee on The Judiciary:

Many people who are in pretrial detention are incarcerated only because they lack sufficient funds to pay their own bail fees, which are sometimes as little as $500. It would irresponsible and misguided for the Legislature to invest millions of Massachusetts taxpayers’ dollars in constructing a facility that is designed to confine women who simply cannot afford to buy their freedom while they await trial.

We know that reforming our bail and sentencing policies, relying on already-existing methods of reducing the number of people in jail, and investing in community services would all be a far more healthy, humane, and efficient ways to solve the overcrowding problem.

If you are a Massachusetts resident and want to weigh in on jail expansion in our state, you can contact your legislator, too.

"I am treated as a fellow colleague, and my experience at PPI has helped me to gain an in-depth understanding of the latest issues affecting the U.S. criminal justice system."

by Yoo Eun Kim, April 24, 2014

I am currently a sophomore at Smith College, pursuing a major in economics and a minor in religion, and I’ve been a work-study Research Associate at PPI since December 2013. Throughout my academic career, public service has allowed me to understand and combat social ills. By working in the White House and Key Club International, I was able to broaden my perspective regarding social advocacy. Interacting with American citizens and service leaders and hearing their concerns about social and economic disparities motivated me to improve the wellbeing of underserved populations. So when my friend talked about Prison Policy Initiative, I became interested in prison gerrymandering and wanted to help the members of socially marginalized groups affected by mass incarceration. I applied to be one of the Prison Policy Initiative’s work-study Research Associates; few weeks after my submission, I received an invitation to work at the organization’s Easthampton office.

As a Research Associate, I have handled multiple projects. One of my first assignments was using Google Earth and Google Maps to crosscheck the data in the Prison Policy Initiative’s Locator database with the information provided by the United States Census. Following fellow intern Catie‘s departure, I have led the state legislator outreach project in order to identify state legislators who have sponsored bills that aligned with PPI’s mission. Other projects have included helping with PPI outreach mailings, conducting research on district school boards, assisting with informational video filming, and of course, recording my experience in PPI!

I highly admire PPI because the organization provides a lot of opportunities for its work-study students and holds high expectations. When I come to work, there is something productive to do. I don’t make coffee or push pencils. I am treated as a fellow colleague, and my experience at PPI has helped me to gain an in-depth understanding of the latest issues affecting the U.S. criminal justice system, such as sentencing enhancement zones. Another memorable experience was learning about the ways that prisons and jails restrict incarcerated people’s communication with their loved ones. Prisons and jails overcharge phone calls to receive higher commission rates, and jails also limit incarcerated people’s access to letters – actions that hinder an incarcerated person’s wellbeing during and even after his or her release.

Learning about the lack of socioeconomic mobility and opportunities for oppressed groups made me realize the significant effects of mass incarceration on both individual and national welfare. At PPI, Peter, Leah, and Aleks encourage interns to read articles, see presentations, and borrow books that focus on mass incarceration. After analyzing graphs and reading books written by prisoners, I became even more aware of how many people, especially those of color, are often marginalized by our society.

My work here helps strengthen my analytical and communication skills to inform the public about current U.S. criminal justice policy. Working in PPI will not only equip me with the resources and knowledge to become a steward of change, but also understand the current strategies for creating lasting and sustainable improvement in the American criminal justice system.

Heather's nominated article reveals the many ways that our nation's unprecedented use of incarceration has distorted our political landscape.

by Leah Sakala, April 16, 2014

We are thrilled to announce that historian and Prison Policy Initiative board member Heather Thompson has been chosen by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency as a 2014 Media for a Just Society Award Finalist for her fantastic piece in The Atlantic, “How Prisons Change the Balance of Power in America.”

Heather’s piece reveals the many ways that our nation’s unprecedented use of incarceration has distorted our political landscape. As she explained,

…locking up unprecedented numbers of citizens over the last forty years has itself made the prison system highly resistant to reform through the democratic process. To an extent that few Americans have yet appreciated, record rates of incarceration have, in fact, undermined our American democracy, both by impacting who gets to vote and how votes are counted.

Of course, one of the ways mass incarceration distorts democracy is via prison gerrymandering:

Today, just as it did more than a hundred years earlier, the way the Census calculates resident population also plays a subtle but significant role. As ex-Confederates knew well, prisoners would be counted as residents of a given county, even if they could not themselves vote: High numbers of prisoners could easily translate to greater political power for those who put them behind bars.

Congratulations, Heather!

Think Progress covers the push for the APA to recognize that pharmacists have a moral imperative to refuse to participate in the state-sanctioned administration of death.

by Leah Sakala, April 14, 2014

Our friend and colleague Kelsey Kauffman is urging the American Pharmacist Association to join virtually all other leading medical associations in declaring that the Hippocratic Oath bars medical professionals from participating in executions. As Tara Culp-Ressler reported in Think Progress:

States are turning to so-called “compounding pharmacies” — facilities that are outside of the regulatory scope of the Food and Drug Administration — to get the ingredients they need for untested cocktails like the one that killed McGuire. Compounding pharmacies, which repackage drugs to keep down the cost of filling prescriptions, are already controversial from a public health perspective. For instance, in 2012, a compounding pharmacy was identified as the source of a deadly meningitis outbreak that killed 36 people. Since then, Congress has worked to crack down on these unregulated facilities, although some public health advocates don’t believe the recent legislative push goes far enough.

Some compounding pharmacies have agreed to manufacture the drugs that states need to kill people, but state officials won’t always reveal the details. States like Oklahoma and Missouri claim that publicizing where they’re getting their lethal drugs will result in too much public pressure on the compounding pharmacies to stop producing them. So the methods they’re using for executions are increasingly kept secret, and it’s not entirely clear whether they’re violating the Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Kauffman hopes that, if the American Pharmacist Association adopts a new policy position that forbids pharmacists from assisting in executions, this will all become moot because the employees at compounding facilities won’t be able to continue supplying these drugs. And, after attending APhA’s annual meeting at the end of last month, Kauffman believes senior officials in the pharmaceutical industry are receptive.

“I look at the American Pharmacist Association as a partner in this process, and when it comes to almost all of the pharmacists I spoke to, I see them as future allies,” she said, pointing out that medical professionals don’t have to be personally opposed to the death penalty to agree that it’s against their code of ethics to participate in them.

Kelsey is working with corporate accountability organization SumOfUs on a petition collecting 50,000 signatures to urge the American Pharmacists Association to ban its members “from participating in executions in any way.” Please sign if you haven’t already!

John Green responds to Hank's video about Mass Incarceration with his own insightful comments on racial disparities and why the U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate.

by Peter Wagner, April 11, 2014

The other half of the Vlog Brothers, John Green, responds to his brother Hank’s amazing animated video about Mass Incarceration in the U.S. with his own insightful comments on racial disparities in prison and the one of the key reasons why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world: because sentences in this country are so much longer than for the same offense in other countries.

The best part is from 0:47 to 1:35:

I was also thrilled to see that one of John’s sources was this excellent article in The Economist America’s prison population: Who, what, where and why which was based on our briefing Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.

by Peter Wagner, April 5, 2014

We’re thrilled to have helped Hank Green of Vlog Brothers, Kurzgesagt, and Visual.ly produce this amazing under-4-minute video about Mass Incarceration in the United States.

Conn. legislators continue to support over-reaching, diluted, version of sentencing enhancement law creating urban penalty, failing to protect children.

by Aleks Kajstura, April 4, 2014

As I watched the Connecticut Judiciary Committee’s discussion of sentence enhancement zone reform (SB 259) before its successful vote on Wednesday (SB 259 begins at 02:09:35), I was struck by how many Connecticut legislators continue to support an over-reaching, diluted, version of the state’s sentencing enhancement law. It’s frustrating to see that legislators who have had years to study this issue still misunderstand both, the law’s function and the bill to strengthen it.

Senator Kissell explained the long-held support for the law in his region of the state (at 02:12:15):

Former Rep. Bill Kiner, who was in the House of Representatives over 20 years ago, helped champion the underlying law. And, at least in my neck of the woods… when I said, “Well, should the whole state have that enhanced penalty?” They said, “Sure!” …. [R]educing the distance to the schools goes in the wrong direction… They [constituents] don’t want us to weaken the underlying laws.

It may be counter-intuitive, but by shrinking the zones, the bill would actually strengthen the law. The law relies on the protected spaces to have harsher sentences than other areas. But the 1,500-foot distance, creates no such protected spaces, because nearly entire cities are covered – leaving no specially protected area around schools. The effect is in essence no different than what Sen. Kissell’s constituents say they want, everywhere having an “enhanced penalty”. But when everywhere has an enhanced penalty, then that’s just the penalty, there is nothing “enhanced” about it. If the legislature would like to reconsider the penalties for drug offenses that’s a separate question, but the mechanism of this law, meant to protect children from drug activity, relies on additional – enhanced – penalties around specific protected places.

Sen. Kissell concluded (at 12:18:02) that: “there’s not an easy answer to this… because on the one hand, I think that we want to be fair and even handed but on the other hand we don’t want to say that ‘we are ok with people selling drugs’ and ‘let’s cut back the barriers’…. I’m not so sure that enhancing penalties but reducing the distance gets us to where we wanna go”

I disagree, the bill actually does present a simple answer without giving the message that the legislature would be “ok with people selling drugs”. This bill would not legalize any drug offense. The sentences for the underlying offense would remain unchanged, and the bill would in fact concentrate the state’s enforcement resources around schools to actually protect kids from drug activity. As Representative Meyer explained (at 02:28:40):

When you charge a person, an adult selling drugs to another adult, more than a quarter mile from the school and when the law, as this law does, imposes a mandatory a one year extra imprisonment… it doesn’t relate any longer to creating a school safety zone….

…in concept it’s very important to create a school safety zone, but once you make it 1,500 feet and you’re having one adult selling to another and it doesn’t involve school safety in any respect… [T]he Sentencing Commission is bringing us some reality here and actually is making the school safety penalty stronger by its proposal and now by this bill.

Sen. Kissell points to arrests as proof that the law works (at 02:15:57). But in fact, these arrests prove the law doesn’t work, in several ways. First, the law is meant to move drug offenses out of these zones, so if the law worked, we would see few arrests in the zones (and possibly more outside the zones as the law’s deterrent effect takes hold). Arrests inside the zones prove that the law is not working to move those activities elsewhere. Second, to have a better sense of the law’s imact we need to look at the type of arrests made, not just their number. Sen. Kissell stated (at 02:16:47) that “If the argument is that … people are being put behind bars, then it [the law] is having some kind of impact.” Sure, the law has an impact, but the question is: does it have the desired impact?

The goal of the law is to keep drug activity away from children, but as Rep. Meyer hinted at, nearly all of the arrests do not involve students – and those that do, involve only students (in one case a few students sitting outside the school smoking marijuana). Reducing the zones to the 200 feet proposed by the bill would allow the law to have a meaningful impact by setting aside specific uniquely protected spaces. Connecticut would still maintain serious penalties for drug offenses, and the extra mandatory minimum penalty would be reserved for those offenses committed near a school.

For more information about the law and proposed solutions, check out our sentencing enhancement issue page, and my recent report.

New report analyzes Connecticut's failed sentencing enhancement zones, reveals law doesn’t work, can’t work, and creates urban penalty.

April 3, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, April 3, 2014

Aleks Kajstura, 413-527-0845

Easthampton, Mass. — The Prison Policy Initiative released a report, “Reaching too far: How Connecticut’s large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark”, that analyzes Connecticut’s failed 1,500-foot sentencing enhancement zones. Connecticut’s law, meant to protect children from drug activity, requires an additional sentence for certain drug offenses committed within 1,500 feet of schools, day care centers, and public housing projects. The resulting sentencing enhancement zones are some of the largest in the country.

“The law’s sheer expanse means it fails to actually set apart any meaningfully protected areas and it arbitrarily increases penalties for urban residents,” explains Aleks Kajstura, Legal Director at the Prison Policy Initiative, and the report’s author.

The report mapped eight of the zones in the state’s cities and towns and demonstrates that the law doesn’t work, and in fact cannot possibly work as written. In addition to failing to achieve its goal of creating protected spaces, the report found, the law creates an “urban penalty” that increases the sentence imposed for a given offense simply because it was committed in a city rather than in a town. For example, 92% of the City of Bridgeport residents live in a sentencing enhancement zone while only 8% of the Town of Bridgewater’s residents do.

The report recommends the sentencing enhancement zones be shrunk to 100 feet. This would allow the law to actually create the specially protected places as intended. Connecticut Senate Bill 259, which just passed out of the Judiciary Committee, takes a similar approach and would decrease that size to 200 feet. At these shorter distances the zones would come much closer to the law’s original intent of protecting children, and significantly reduce the urban penalty effect.

The report “Reaching too far: How Connecticut’s large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark” is available at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html

About the Prison Policy Initiative
The Prison Policy Initiative is a national, non-profit, non-partisan research and policy organization, with a focus on how geography impacts criminal justice policy.

About the Author
Aleks Kajstura is the Legal Director at the Prison Policy Initiative. Among other publications, she co-authored two reports on sentencing enhancement zones in Massachusetts: The Geography of Punishment: How Huge Sentencing Enhancement Zones Harm Communities, Fail to Protect Children (2008), and Reaching too far, coming up short: How large sentencing enhancement zones miss the mark (2009). These reports helped lead Massachusetts to roll back their enhancement zone law in August 2012.

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Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown's ban on incoming letters in the county jail is breaking critical family communication.

by Leah Sakala, April 2, 2014

Youth CineMedia, a non-profit in Santa Barbara, California, just released an excellent short video about how Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown’s ban on incoming letters in the county jail is breaking critical family communication:

For more on why the Santa Barbara jail letter ban trend needs to end and how you can get involved, check out the local campaign Right to Write SB. You’ll also find Prison Policy Initiative reports, news coverage, and multimedia on this issue our resource page.

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