I recently came to the realization the best way to take this blog was to periodically cover the lessons learned during my work in the trenches of the Federal justice system as an advocate, consultant and reform freak. Going forward, I will focus on prison and legislative reforms while keeping an eye on what I refer to as “The NGO Mafia” and the “private prison industrial complex”.
Here are some observations and lessons learned during an action packed week in the Federal justice system.
My week started out with a trip to Virginia to testify in a “Miller” re-sentencing. The Supreme Court case of Miller vs Alabama overturned mandatory Life sentences for Juveniles, and then Montgomery vs Louisiana made it retroactive.
I was testifying in regards to the remarkable prison adjustment a now 34 year old had made since his confinement at the age of 15. In his adolescence he committed heinous crimes with mother and his adult brother, both who are serving Life sentences.
Given the evolution and study of brain development, the fact that this person was under the influence of his adult family members and his ability to excel as well as avoid assimilation into the prison subculture;, one would hope there would be redemption, compassion and common sense exercised in our federal judicial system. I am not an optimist when it comes to our justice system having served a career in federal prison environments involving daily interaction with thousands of people living in the system. That being said, I went to the hearing with the expectation of a positive outcome with the potential for a second chance. It was a 4 hour emotional hearing and many family members for two murdered victims provided the court with heart wrenching testimony about the impact the crime had on their lives. I have attended victim impact panels and victim trainings before but this was more intense than I had previously experienced. As each person gave their testimonial, my optimism waned. When it was all said and done, the judge imposed a 65 year sentence as recommended by the prosecutor. My perception was that the sentence was long determined before the hearing as the judge read from a prepared statement with a matter of fact demeanor.
You can call it a “second chance’ but this 32 year old will be 70 years old upon release. I have no problem with “punishment” but the mitigating factors warranted something more in the range of the defense attorney’s recommendation for 35 years.
Lesson: Punishment trumps mitigation in Virginia!
On Wednesday, I traveled to Connecticut to conduct prison related training for Federal Judges and United States Probation Officers. I was impressed with the progressive nature of the court staff and their focus on correctional treatment with a desire to better understand out Federal prison system. We travel all over the country to conduct this training and I am constantly reminded of the lack of understanding Federal prison culture, policy and nuances. A wall exists (no pun intended) between the courts, the prison system and the public. The frustration in this lack of accountability and transparency is apparent in my conversations with attorneys, court personnel, families and even law enforcement. It was refreshing to have a positive, upbeat dialogue with the court staff after the let- down suffered at Monday’s sentencing.
Lesson: Our Federal prison system needs to make a better effort on the education, responsiveness and transparency for court personnel and the public so people being sentenced can receive adequate correctional treatment and re-entry preparation.
At the end of the week, I came across an article in my daily reading that hit close to home and covered a point broader in nature which I had never given much consideration to. The Opioid and prescription drug epidemic has decimated both the urban and rural areas of our country where overdoses have skyrocketed. I worked in a Federal jail operation for many years and our saying was “3 hots and a cot”. It’s well known jail populations receive very little correctional treatment services which is a big issue when you consider the information contained in the following article:
Of course the downside to this is the further institutionalization of people with addiction issues; however, it is something to reconsider.
Lesson: More treatment options at the front end has the potential to be built upon during incarceration and could potentially create a safer environment and a reduction in recidivism.