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In Test For Biden, Frustrated Cops Line Up Against Prison Reform

By Julia Edwards

(Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s push for sentencing reforms that would decrease the number of Americans imprisoned – a key focus of his remaining time in office – has won support from an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives that includes civil rights groups, tea party Republicans and Koch Industries.

But the effort is running into opposition from a crucial constituency: the law-and-order lobby that represents American police.

Law enforcement groups have stepped up their efforts against proposals circulating in Congress to roll back tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes and focus more resources on reducing recidivism and alternatives to incarceration.

The opposition represents a personal and political challenge to Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime ally of law enforcement, who has been tasked by the White House with winning over skeptical cops even as he weighs whether to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Law enforcement will always be the bigfoot in the conversation,” said Jesslyn McCurdy, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports sentencing reform. “If they are not on board with any deal, it would be difficult to get it through.”

While Obama has made the public case for criminal justice reform himself, including a first-of-its-kind visit to a federal prison outside Oklahoma City in July, he has turned to Biden and Justice Department officials to make the case to police groups, people involved in those closed-door meetings say.

A former public defender, Biden has been a long-time advocate for police funding. In 1994, he was the Senate sponsor of a landmark crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton that put more cops on the street, imposed tougher sentences and set aside nearly $10 billion for prisons and new police hires.

At a time when relations between the Obama White House and police have been strained by a series of deadly altercations between officers and unarmed black men, including the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Biden has been a voice of solidarity with the beat cop.

In an essay published in April, and then in a breakfast meeting at the White House with police representatives in May, Biden has made the case for increased federal funding for policing as part of a more sweeping prison reform effort.

But, in what amounts to a rebuff of Biden’s outreach, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the oldest U.S. law enforcement lobby, has come out against any move to lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

Biden continues to express optimism. “The Vice President has been asked to help lead reform efforts and use his unique standing with the law enforcement community to find consensus on a path forward,” his office said in a statement.

Police advocates say the White House’s push to reduce the prison population would risk a spike in drug-related crime and strain many local departments at a time when they face increased scrutiny, simmering tensions with the communities they serve and reduced federal funding.

State and local police departments are funded by local taxes, but the amount of federal funding to support hiring has plunged since the late 1990s.

In 1998, the Justice Department sent $1.4 billion to police through a grant program known as COPS. By 2014 that had dropped to $127 million, prompting hiring freezes or layoffs in departments across the United States in recent years.

In private meetings with police groups, the Justice Department has promised to back legislation that would allocate at least some of any savings from prison reform to policing, two officials said.

But so far, the bipartisan Senate bill the White House is strongly supporting, the Smarter Sentencing Act, makes no guarantees of funding for police.

A bill recently introduced in the House, the SAFE Justice Act, would specifically allocate funding for things such as body armor and law enforcement pensions. But the White House is still considering whether it will support that bill, introduced by Representatives James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Robert Scott, a Virginia Democrat.

‘AS SMOOTH AS SANDPAPER’

It is not clear, however, whether even a bill that tied prison reforms to increased police funding would win law enforcement support.

Some groups, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, oppose lowering sentences on principle. Others, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police organization, has expressed skepticism about sentencing reform, but has said it would be willing to consider changes that redirected savings from any reform to state and local law enforcement agencies if the money was approved by Congress.

“The White House and Justice Departments can hold out a carrot to law enforcement saying, ‘We can save all this money and give it out in state and local grants.’ But no president or attorney general can make that promise. It’s up to Congress,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

A breakfast meeting with Biden and law enforcement groups at the White House in May went “as smooth as sandpaper,” said Jonathan Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

In the meeting, Biden said he would do everything he could to bring more resources to police but also made the case that it was time to reexamine the U.S. incarceration rate, the highest in the world, participants said.

Adler said Biden’s support for reduced sentences for prisoners serving time for drug crimes had cost him support. “The White House is not really assessing the wider damage these people cause,” said Adler, whose group was one of at least six police groups invited to meetings at the White House.

Conservative proponents of reform, including Charles and David Koch, the billionaire backers of conservative causes, point to the more than $80 billion the United States spends on prisons annually as unsustainable. Among Republican presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have both urged easing mandatory minimum sentences.

Since the early 1970s, the number of Americans in prisons has increased seven-fold. More than 2.2 million people, including a disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons.

Some law enforcement groups have expressed support for sentencing reform, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the American Correctional Association, which represents workers in the prison system.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Sue Horton)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks prior to the kickoff of the Allegheny County Labor Day Parade in Pittsburgh, PA September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk   

Endorse This: President Obama vs. The War On Drugs

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For the first time ever, a sitting President of the United States not only visited a federal prison — he also expressed empathy for the plight of prisoners, and called for reforms of the way society treats non-violent drug offenders.

“When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” President Obama told reporters. “The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”

Video via The White House.

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Looking To End Time In ‘The Box’ For Youthful Offenders

By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Daivion Davis, 21, was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and voluntary manslaughter in 2009 after he opened fire in a gang shooting that killed a 16-year-old honors student attending the homecoming football game at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif.

During his time at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, he made more than three dozen trips to the solitary confinement unit, Davis says.

Those stays, he says, ranged from four hours to 17 days. A few times, guards sent him there for fighting. At other times, they put him in “the box” for walking too slowly, not going to his room when ordered, for disrespecting staff or for drug possession. Over time, he says, his anger grew, trips to solitary became more frequent, and his stays became longer.

In 2011, he says, he was transferred to a facility in Ventura where, for whatever reason, guards never put him into solitary confinement. “That’s when I finally started thinking better,” says Davis, who is now living in an apartment provided by a charity and attending Los Angeles Mission College.

Juvenile and mental health advocates and officials nationwide have long debated whether placing young inmates like Davis in “the box,” or any form of solitary confinement, does more harm than good.

In May, Contra Costa County settled a lawsuit brought by two public interest law firms. The county agreed to stop putting juveniles in solitary confinement as a form of punishment or when doing so simply seemed expedient.

State legislators are pushing to pass a bill by summer’s end that would eliminate solitary confinement for juveniles except for detainees who become a physical threat to themselves or others — and prohibiting it even in those cases if the threat is caused by a mental illness. If the bill becomes law, California will join a national trend moving away from solitary confinement for juveniles.

Detention facility officials’ use of terms such as “special handling unit” and “administrative segregation” make it difficult to track the number of juveniles in solitary confinement. As of 2011, the Department of Justice reported that 61,423 minors were being held in 2,047 juvenile facilities nationally, of which roughly 1 in 5 appear to have used some form of isolation.

In recent years, 19 states and the District of Columbia have ended the practice of punishing detainees younger than 18 by isolating them. New York City went one step further and banned solitary confinement for Rikers Island inmates up to age 21.

Anyone who has sat on the stainless steel stools of the spare day rooms or walked the grass-tufted concrete of California’s juvenile detention facilities has heard young detainees and guards talk about “the box” to describe the constantly looming threat.

A recent report showed that 43 percent of the youths at Camp Scudder in Santa Clarita spent more than 24 hours in solitary confinement. The department did not release the reasons behind the placements nor the mental health conditions of those affected.

According to Los Angeles County’s Probation Department handbook, guards can send inmates to solitary confinement for “readjustment or administrative purposes” or to monitor them for mental health issues. The purpose, it says, is “to maintain order, safety and security.”

Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers says that his department uses solitary confinement as little as possible and only to keep facilities safe, adding that when guards use it to punish detainees who do not pose a safety threat, the youths are sent there only for a matter of hours. “There is no box. You think of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ when you think of the box.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, defines solitary confinement as any time a youth is restricted to a room or cell alone during waking hours.

“We know it’s going on,” says Leno, D-San Francisco. “We know it’s being used abusively. We need to define it, document it and limit it.”

Leno’s bill stipulates that inmates can be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk and establishes strict reporting requirements. It would allow guards to use solitary confinement in juvenile correctional centers only when an inmate poses an immediate and substantial risk of harming others or threatening the security of the facility — and after less harmful options have been exhausted.

Juvenile solitary confinement map jail

Advocates pushing a similar proposal in 2012 failed when they hit resistance from probation system bosses and union representatives who said they used the practice as a last resort to maintain security.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Division of Juvenile Justice, said at the time.

But Powers, a longtime leader in the state association for county probation department heads, says that he does not expect the organization to oppose the proposal this time.

“Sen. Leno has a lot of credibility among the probation chiefs, and he is a pretty reasonable guy,” Powers says. “There is a willingness by the chiefs to make this bill workable for probation and still satisfy the author and the advocates.”

Sticking points remain.

One recent study found that 92 percent of the incarcerated youths in Los Angeles County have at least a minor mental health diagnosis. The bill prohibits using solitary confinement on those whose mental illness is severe. But some experts expressed skepticism about the proposed solutions.

The bill requires staff to use their training, rather than solitary confinement, to restore calm, but training procedures don’t always work — especially when an inmate becomes detached from reality.

The bill also requires staff to send detainees to a mental health treatment facility rather than to solitary confinement, but regulations limit emergency hospitalizations to 72 hours, and hospitals often discharge youths sooner.

“It’s like Sacramento gives us no option,” Powers says. “In some ways, they are going to force us to violate the law on the first day it is passed. What would they have me do?”
Leno says he understands the concern and will find a solution. “I can’t be more specific at this time.”

But he remains steadfast that solitary confinement is something “we can all agree will ultimately only exacerbate that situation when it comes to the severely mentally ill.”

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the United Nations, have announced opposition to solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study showed that juvenile wards in solitary committed half of the 110 suicides over a four-year period in the late 1990s. More than two-thirds had been put into facilities for nonviolent offenses.

A 2002 Justice Department investigation of young inmates showed that many become anxious, paranoid and depressed even after very short periods of isolation.

“Solitary just leaves the kid floundering in his own island. It doesn’t show the way out,” says Cheryl Bonacci, a longtime chaplain in the county’s camps and halls. She says she has watched the use of solitary confinement diminish over the years, but she still believes that it is sometimes used not to protect detainees or staff, but for punishment or the staff’s convenience.

Davis, the former detainee, remembers “the box” vividly.

He recalls what it felt like to walk into the room whose white walls were covered with years of gang moniker etchings, carrying only a Bible and wearing a sweatshirt, underwear and socks but no pants.

“It was freezing cold. I slept on a thin mattress on the floor with no sheets, under a strong air-conditioning vent that never stopped,” he says.

Sometimes a guard would give him a book, then another guard would find it with him and give him more time in solitary, he says.

Each day, guards arrived to strip-search Davis. They allowed him to visit the restroom only on their own erratic schedules. Sometimes, he says, he had to urinate into his sweatshirt in the corner of his cell.

Felicia Cotton, a deputy director for the Probation Department, says confidentiality rules bar her from commenting on specific cases, but she notes that policies require guards to check in on youth every 15 minutes to ensure they are safe and have access to the bathroom. “We have zero tolerance for staff who violate these policies.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says studies convinced her that incarcerated youths can become more violent after solitary confinement. She says she hopes a state ban will be followed locally by the creation of a citizens’ oversight commission and professional monitor. Their responsibilities, she says, would include keeping solitary confinement in check.

“If they are prone to stab their fellow kids,” she says, “then isolation is an appropriate factor, and it would be more humane to have a guard and mental health worker there to talk to them than to just keep them in their cell and hope the problem goes away.”

Photo: Daivion Davis sits in his apartment on May 7, 2015 in Los Angeles. Davis, 21, just got out of prison, where he went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder. There is currently a bill in Sacramento to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Time/TNS)

Retired Justice Stevens Says Some Guantanamo Captives May Deserve Reparations

By Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens shattered the taboo on talking about reparations for Guantanamo captives this week in a speech that said some of the nearly 800 men and boys held at the Pentagon’s prison camps in Cuba may be entitled to compensation, like Japanese-Americans who were interned in World War II.

“I by no means suggest that every Guantanamo detainee, such as those who have been convicted by a military commission, is entitled to compensation,” he said Monday in prepared remarks for meeting of the nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Justice group. “But detainees who have been deemed not to be a security threat to the United States and have thereafter remained in custody for years are differently situated.”

In doing so, the 95-year-old justice who was appointed by Gerald Ford, retired in 2010 and replaced by Elena Kagan stepped into an ongoing tug-of-war between the White House and Congress about what to do with the last 122 captives at Guantanamo — 57 of them approved for release, with host country security assurances.

Many of them are Yemeni, and many of them were provisionally approved for transfer by Bush administration review boards and then again by a 2009 task force set up by President Barack Obama. Neither administration would repatriate them, citing insecurity in their country. The Obama administration, however, has been trying to fashion individual resettlement deals for some of them in other countries on a case-by-case basis.

But Congress has made that increasingly difficult. Successive legislation has forbidden the transfer of detainees to the United States for any reason, and imposed other restrictions. Now, the GOP-led House Armed Services Committee has adopted legislation that would expand the restrictions to require Secretary of Defense certification that a detainee’s future dangerousness has been mitigated and forbid transfer to certain countries likely seen as suitable locations by the Obama administration, such as Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

At the White House on Wednesday, spokesman Josh Earnest lamented congressional “barriers” to Obama’s goal of closing the detention center, calling the prison “not consistent with the wise use of our government resources” and “counterproductive.”

He did not, however, offer an opinion on the idea of reparations.

A few former detainees have tried to sue the United States for compensation, using different legal theories. But U.S. government lawyers have successfully thwarted having the cases heard. In 2010, Britain paid undisclosed millions in compensation to former Guantanamo prisoners who accused the British government of complicity in their U.S. detention.

Stevens, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, called the detention center a “wasteful extravagance” that should be closed “as promptly as possible.” He adopted a calculus that currently estimates it costs three million dollars a year to keep a single detainee at Guantanamo — a formula the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Marine General John F. Kelly, disputed a year ago in sworn testimony.

Stevens’ talk, which was posted on the U.S. Supreme Court website, invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to intern thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and noted that the United States twice paid reparations — $37 million in 1948 and $1.2 billion in 1988. He also noted that the Bush administration released the overwhelming majority of detainees released from the prison camps opened in Cuba.

His remarks come as four former Guantanamo captives who were released in December to resettlement in Montevideo, Uruguay, have been protesting at the U.S. Embassy seeking compensation for their lost years at the prison camps in Cuba. Those men included Syrians who had been cleared for a long portion of their time at Guantanamo but whom the U.S. concluded could not be safely repatriated.

Stevens wrote the Supreme Court’s landmark 2006 decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that struck down Bush’s first effort at trying war-on-terror captives by military commission, forcing the president to obtain congressional approval for the war court. Two years earlier, he wrote the majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush, which held that Guantanamo captives were entitled to habeas corpus review — something Congress for a time thwarted through legislation. Neither mentioned reparations.

Photo: Legal Times via Twitter