Violence, Mental Illness, and the need for Prison Reform

According to a recent New York Times article, “Over the past decade, the use of force by correction officers has jumped nearly 240 percent, even as the daily population has declined by almost 15 percent over the same period.” Such an increase is extremely concerning to those who oversee the prison system as well as those who advocate for those who are incarcerated.

What is the explanation for this increase?

Some attribute the increase in violence, in part, to the surge of prisoners who have some sort of mental illness. Such conditions often make following the rules of prison difficult, and often these prisoners lash out. Additionally, it is concerning to learn that “The proportion of inmates with a diagnosed mental illness has grown to 40 percent, from 20 percent, over the last eight years, according to the Correction Department.” While there has been some increase in the training received by corrections officers as to how these inmates differ from the general population, it appears more needs to be done.  Even with an increase in training, the lack of sound procedures seem to be directly linked to the tragic death of one mentally ill inmate, Mr. Echevarria. Mr. Echevarria ingested a toxic cleaning agent, and corrections officers ignored his pleas, him vomiting blood, and he eventually died in his cell.

Some of the violence is being attributed to inmates being abused at the hands of corrections officers. One former inmate who was interviewed in this article recounts some of the abuse he suffered: ““I was cuffed, they kicked us, punched us, threw garbage on us, and Maced me all at the same time.” This same inmate, in another incident with corrections officers, was “beaten by at least 10 correction officers in April 2012 after he refused to leave his cell.” As a result, he suffered a fractured nose and vertebra and said he “was choked until he passed out.”

While prison reform has never bee a popular topic, these articles certainly beg the question of when will be enough. How much more abuse will people who are incarcerated have to suffer before changes are made? It seems horribly wrong to treat incarcerated individuals differently because they are incarcerated.


14 Year Old Boy Sentenced to a De Facto Life Sentence

“A 70-year sentence imposed upon a 14-year-old is just as cruel and unusual as a sentence of life without parole,” Shimeek’s public defender, Gail Anderson, argued before the Florida court in September. “Mr. Gridine will most likely die in prison.”

Shimeek Gridine was fourteen years old when a Florida state court judge sentenced him to 70 years in prison. Shimeek pled guilty to attempted murder and robbery as an adult. His attorneys are now in the process of appealing this sentence.

The United States Supreme Court has issued decisions in recent years alleviating some of the harsh penalties prescribed to young offenders. For example, in 2005 the Court held that offenders under 18 years old were not eligible for the death penalty (Roper v. Simmons). In 2010 the Court ruled it was also unconstitutional to sentence an offender under 18 years old to life without the possibility of parole in non-murder cases (Grahm v. Florida).

However, the problem in Shimeek’s case is he was sentenced to 70 years without the possibility of parole. Under his current sentence he will remain in prison until well into his 80’s, he essentially received a life sentence… without the label.

While there is certainly something to be said in favor of punishing any individual to the level deemed sufficient to match his or her crime, there seems to be a strong argument against sentencing a teenager to essentially a life term. I certainly do not mean to suggest that offenders under 18 do not commit serious crimes that should be punished accordingly. But I do not agree that a 14 year old boy should receive a de facto life sentence. Structuring punishments in such a way is far too harsh, and arguably is ineffective. One of the main goals behind punishing individuals is the idea that he or she will be rehabilitated through his or her incarceration so that one day they may re-enter society. Punishing a youth to this level does not comport with the goals of punishment in that way. In Shikeem’s case, there is no point to try and re-habilitate him while he is in prison because he now faces living his entire life behind bars for a crime he committed as a teenager.

There has to be a more effective and just way to punish youth for their criminal conduct.

Relevant New York Times Articles can be found here and here.



How far have we really come?

A fellow student passed this article along to me. It briefly outlines a horrific miscarriage of justice from 1944. A 14 year old boy was sentenced to death for allegedly killing two white girls; the young boy was black. Advocates for this case have pushed for its re-opening so as to exonerate the name of this young boy. The attorneys working on this case, according to the article, have discovered substantial evidence pointing to the innocence of this young man.

In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I really wonder if we, as a society, have come all that far from the days of MLK. Certainly the standards for sentencing individuals to death have improved (you can no longer sentence a mentally disabled person to death nor a child under the age of 18), but have we come much farther than that?

Articles such as this one really make me question, more than I usually do, what our criminal justice system stands for. If the system were truly interested in seeking justice the argument certainly could be made that cases such as this one would be reviewed without such hesitation and stagnation. Why wouldn’t South Carolina want to uncover the truth and give the young boy’s remaining family members some closure and vindication of his innocence? Are they so scared of facing their past wrongs that they are unwilling to do what is right? Even if the evidence continues to point to the boy’s guilt after all this time, what is the harm in re-examining the case?

The Innocence Project has time and again proved many convictions contain faults. Primarily, wrongful convictions rested on eyewitness testimony, unvalidated or improper forensics, false confessions or admissions, or informants or snitches.

It is no longer a secret that mistakes can be and are made. Why, then, do governments continually try to turn a blind eye to cases such as this one?



The Problem of Over Criminalization in America

The Heritage Foundation  defines over criminalization as “the trend to use the criminal law rather than the civil law to solve every problem, to punish every mistake, and to compel compliance with regulatory objectives.” In today’s society, most states have laws on the books for just about anything you could think of.   Criminalizing every behavior a person can engage in is said to chill the effects that punishing criminal behavior was originally intended to produce. The Heritage Foundation issued a report entitled “Without Intent: How Congress Is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law.” For more information, see their webpage on the topic.  In sum, this article details that Congress continues to create new crimes through legislation that do not possess the characteristics of what is typically referred to as a “crime.” Here are some of the brief findings outlined in this article:

” A core principle of the American system of justice is that no one should be subjected to criminal punishment for conduct that he did not know was illegal or otherwise wrongful. This principle of fair notice, which has been a cornerstone of our criminal justice system since the nation’s founding, is embodied in the requirement that, with rare exceptions, the government must prove the defendant acted with mens rea—a “guilty mind”—before subjecting him to criminal punishment. Members of the 109th Congress (2005–2006) proposed 446 criminal offenses that did not involve violence, firearms, drugs and drug trafficking, pornography, or immigration violations. Of these 446 proposed non-violent criminal offenses, 57 percent lacked an adequate mens rea requirement. Worse, during the 109th Congress, 23 new criminal offenses that lack an adequate mens rea requirement were enacted into law.” This quote can be found here.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers notes that there are over 4,450 crimes throughout the Federal criminal code. Americans are expected to know and understand the laws so they can conform their behavior to them. Ignorance to the law is said to not be a defense to criminal conduct. However, can our society really expect the average citizen to be fully informed of what conduct is punishable when there are that many offenses?

For more examples of this problem, see this article.


“Ordinary Injustice”

The book “Ordinary Injustice” was assigned by one of my professors. As a disclaimer, the author is a lawyer, but only practiced for a short time. She then spent eight years researching, and ultimately wrote this book. She focuses on several specific locations, but the themes that she emphasizes are derived from problems the criminal justice system as a whole suffers from. These include under funding, over and under criminalization, and corrupt or biased judges, to name a few. The overall message of the book, however, made evident through the situations she focused on, is this: many of the problems the criminal justice system faces often go unnoticed because they are so common place.

In her introduction, Amy Bach sets forth several conceptions of “ordinary injustice.” First, “Ordinary injustice results when a community of legal professionals becomes so accustomed to a pattern of lapses that they can no longer see their role in them” (p.3). Second, “Ordinary injustice seems to occur in a blind spot” (p.4). Third, “ordinary injustice flourishes in the shadows where these deals are cut and decisions are made” (p.7). Fourth, “Ordinary injustice is virtually always rooted in an incomplete story” (p.8). Fifth, “ordinary injustice cannot be explained away by any one variable” (p.9).

It is no secret that the criminal justice system does have its fair share of problems. For instance, scholars who study the system constantly point to the lack of indigent defense as one of the main problems within the system. Some scholars analogize that the criminal justice system is a triangle in nature- that is, the judge rules over both the defense attorney and prosecutor. If this balance/hierarchy is not maintained, and the three separate roles of these parties lose their distinctive shape, the system begins to collapse.

For instance, in one chapter of “Ordinary Injustice” Bach focused on one severe instance of judicial misconduct. There, the judge set exorbitantly high bail amounts, would not always assign a lawyer to defendants, and in many instances would enter pleas for defendants who were not present in the courtroom. However, in this situation, the prosecutor and defense attorneys were complacent with the judge’s actions. While there is a whole separate argument to be made whether attorneys legitimately have the option to report instances of misconduct (despite their professional obligations to do so), the point is the judge’s misconduct continued for years without anyone questioning whether he was following the law.

The overall point is from an outsider’s perspective the system may appear to function and be fair. Few tend to question the system and how it operates. Complacency seems to plague the system to a high degree. Those who want to change the system face high levels of resistance. Change in this area does occur, but at a painfully slow rate.