Tag Archive: prison

“Locking Teens Away”

Myth or Reality?

Juvenile offenders cannot receive a sentence of life in prison.

In the recent case of Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court barred juveniles from receiving life sentences. However, despite the barrage of media coverage of the case, the ruling obscured the fact that the ban on life sentences only applies to non-homicide cases. Kids who kill can still be put away for life even if they are emotionally immature or mentally unstable.  Take for example the recent conviction and sentencing of John Odgren  in Massachusetts. On January 19, 2007, a then 16 year old John Odgren followed James Alenson, a young boy he had never met, into the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, drew out a long knife and stabbed him to death. Because he was16 at the time, Massachusetts law required that Odgren be tried as an adult and he was charged with first degree murder.  Odgren’s attorney defended him by suggesting that he was delusional and psychotic at the time of the murder:  “Why did a geeky, uncoordinated, awkward 16-year-old who had never been in any trouble with the law suddenly and without provocation ferociously stab to death a 15-year-old classmate who he did not even know?”  He further told the jury: “The illnesses that John Odgren suffers from made him lose touch with reality”.    Odgren has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and possibly bipolar disorder, and also suffers from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism whose symptoms include significant difficulties in social interaction, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language.  The prosecution did not deny that Odgren had a history of mental illness but his condition was not serious enough to be considered legal insanity; he was not delusional and knew that his actions were a crime. The jury heard that Odgren had a history of secretly bringing knives to school and enjoying violent novels, as if he were carefully planning the “perfect murder’’. After two weeks of testimony, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder a conviction that carries a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Odgren case shows that juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison even if they suffer from serious mental disturbance short of insanity. The Court has ruled that it is illegal to sentence teens to death because of their immaturity and to life in prison for non-capital crimes presumably for the same reason. Yet age is not a bar for a life sentence if the crime committed is murder.

Writing Assignment

In an essay address the issue of whether a minor’s immaturity, lack of judgment and risk taking should affect their treatment. Is it fair to an innocent victim like James Alenson to excuse or shorten the punishment of his teenage killer because he was “immature”?

Source:  Patricia Wen, “Odgren sentenced to life in prison, No parole option for teen killer; Lawyer brands ruling ‘barbaric’,” Boston Globe, May 1, 2010


Myth or Reality?

There is not much that can be done to help an inmate improve his or her chances of success upon re-entering society.

More than half of all inmates return to prison soon after their release and some people believe that nothing can be done to help them succeed. Not true. The Boston Reentry Initiative (BRI) seems to do just that. The BRI is a partnership between the Sheriff’s Department, the Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office that aims at providing an inter-agency support system for inmates both before and after their release from the House of Correction, the facility that houses incarcerated misdemeanants in the Boston area. The BRI team targets a group of younger male inmates (18 to 32) who are considered to be high risk for failure. In the first few months of incarceration, a BRI official meets with the client and discusses issues that may affect a successful transition back into the community.  Within 45 days of their initial booking into the House of Correction, selected inmates are given two messages: First, the law enforcement community is aware of the offenders’ past criminal activity and is prepared to act quickly and decisively should the offender resume those activities upon release. Second, there are significant resources – employment, housing, educational and other support services – available to aid their transition back into community life. Every inmate is assigned a mentor from a faith-based organization or community service provider who assists them in implementing the discharge plan they receive upon release.

They are enrolled in education, substance abuse, and other institutional programs that are customized to address their individual needs. The returning prisoners are encouraged to continue to work with their caseworkers, mentors, and social service providers during their reentry periods.

A recent evaluation of the BRI by Anthony Braga and his associates found that relative to a comparison group of inmates, BRI participants were found to have 30 percent lower rates of recidivism.   This program shows that if prison re-entry is to be dealt with in an effective manner, it will take the cooperation of a variety of treatment and law enforcement agencies working together in an integrated fashion with a common goal.

Writing Assignment: During a period of economic uncertainty, where a great many people are out of work, should hard to come by resources be spent on convicted criminals? What are the economic benefits of helping former criminals “go straight”?

Source: Anthony. Braga, Anne Piehl, and David Hureau, “Controlling Violent Offenders Released to the Community: An Evaluation of the Boston Reentry Initiative”
Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 46 (2009): 411-436

Myth or Reality?

U.S. prison populations continue to grow.

America has for decades locked up record numbers of offenders. Prison populations have grown year-to-year since 1972. Until recently, that is. For the first time in nearly 40 years, state prison populations have started to decline. According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, as of January of this year, there were 1,403,091 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 5,739 than at the end of 2008. There is still great variation from one jurisdiction to the next. The prison population declined in 27 states, but increased in 23 of them. Also, it is not clear whether 5,739 is a number worth getting excited about, as it is less than one-half of one percent of all prisoners. Finally, though no one knows whether or not this is the start of a new trend, the point is that for the first time in four decades, we have seen a reduction.

What explanations are offered for the overall reduction in state prison populations? One answer is diversion. Prosecutors who divert low-level offenders into probation, intermediate sanctions, and other programs help ensure fewer offenders are put behind bars. Another explanation is improved re-entry programs. Many prisoners are returning parolees, so when parole is improved and released inmates receive the treatment and benefits they need to be successful it is less likely they will go back to prison, which is reflected in prison population statistics. Yet another explanation is that people are becoming less willing to pay for incarceration and prison expansion, and instead favoring treatment and community-based programs.

Writing assignment: How has the current economic climate contributed to prison population reductions? Which states have released the most prisoners and what reasons have they offered for doing so?

Myth or Reality?

The best way to deal with drug-addicted offenders is through residential drug treatment while they are incarcerated.

Our long-term love affair with incarcerating offenders has resulted in a prison and jail population exceeding 2 million. Is this the best way to deal with people who commit crime and take drugs?  Are we better off locking them up or treating them in the community? While those concerned about public safety might suggest taking the safer path and treating offenders behind bars, new evidence suggests that community-based programs may be a better and more cost effective way to go.  A recent study by Christopher Krebs and his associates compared outcomes of large groups of drug-involved offenders in Florida.  The subjects were separated into three groups receiving either a) community-based treatment, b) residential treatment, or c) no treatment.  Krebs found that in comparison with no treatment, nonresidential drug treatment reduced the chances for a subsequent arrest for a felony for drug-involved probationers by 22%. Residential treatment, which costs 3 times more than community-based treatments, did not have similar success. Considering that there are so many offenders with substance abuse problems in the correctional system, the use of community-based treatment can result in significant increases in public safety, rather than doing nothing, and at a far less cost than locking up offenders.  At a time of declining budgets and high caseloads, the effectiveness of relatively inexpensive community treatment can be critical.

Writing Assignment:

Why do you suppose community based drug treatment may be more effective than a prison/or jail experience?  What is it about an institutional experience that neutralizes the benefits of drug treatment that are not present in community based programs?

Christopher P. Krebs, Kevin J. Strom, Willem H. Koetse, and Pamela K. Lattimore, The Impact of Residential and Nonresidential Drug Treatment on Recidivism Among Drug-Involved Probationers: A Survival Analysis
Crime & Delinquency 2009 55: 442-471