Tuesday, August 30, 2011

PSI Reports in Dakota County

On July 12, I attended a continuing legal education seminar on probation and pre-sentence investigations. The session was presented by two supervisors at Dakota County Community Corrections, Heidi Siebenaler and Phyllis Grubb.

I was especially interested in this particular CLE for two reasons.

For one thing, I worked in state government as a criminal justice planner for six years, from 1997 to 2003. In the early 2000s, I worked in the Minnesota Department of Corrections under then-Deputy Commissioner Mark Carey, who previously directed Dakota County Community Corrections.

The other reason I was so interested was that, in law school in the mid-1980s, I’d written my student law review note on pre-sentence reports. More precisely, my topic was the discoverability of federal pre-sentence reports under the Freedom of Information Act. Though I chose not to publish the piece, writing it earned me the job of articles editor on the Valparaiso University Law Review for my third year of law school.

Interestingly, one of the specific issues regarding pre-sentence investigation (PSI) reports that the two presenters raised was confidentiality. According to Siebenaler, some Minnesota counties bifurcate the PSI into confidential and non-confidential parts. In Dakota County, however, the entire report is considered confidential.

At first glance, it may seem odd, or even Kafkaesque, not to provide the offender with a copy of his own report. That is the rule, though, in Dakota County. The defense attorney is allowed to see it, but not the offender..

On further analysis, however, the rationale for the rule becomes clearer. In domestic abuse cases, for example, information that other parties have communicated to investigators about the offender can be very sensitive. In fact, Siebenaler said, this can even be a concern when information is communicated to the offender indirectly through the defense attorney.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lipstick on a Prison Pig

California’s long-standing corrections crisis continues to unfold. The state has been under federal court order to address severe overcrowding that so severely impacted access to healthcare that the court found it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Though the case has been playing out for years, the situation remains tense. Recently, over 6,000 inmates went on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of incarceration. They claimed that many inmates are subjected to sensory deprivation in soundproofed cells without windows for 22 ½ hours a day.

The hunger strike went on for three weeks and involved 13 of the 33 prisons in the California system, according to press accounts.

Prison officials sought to rebut the allegations of inhumane treatment by holding an open house at the Pelican Bay State Prison. Legislatures and journalists were invited in to look around and, as it were, smell the (lack of) roses.

Prison spokesperson Oscar Hidalgo did not exactly give a ringing endorsement of the prison conditions. He called them “far from what we think is tortuous.”

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, of the General Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, had a different take. Borrowing a line from the 2008 presidential campaign, he said the Pelican Bay officials’ attempts to dress things up were like “lipstick on a pig.”

That phrase is certainly evocative. But the image of even the most bloated pig does not really capture the reality of the American prison system. Don't think pig; think Leviathan.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Webb Hasn't Given Up On Sentencing Reform

Jim Webb hasn’t given up on sentencing reform. He did announce in February that he’s retiring from the Senate when his term ends next year. In June, however, he published a Huff post essay reiterating the case for fundamental changes iu criminal justice policy and practice.

The talking points are painfully familiar to anyone who follows this under-reported issue. For example, let’s start with this: Why does a country with 5 percent of the world’s population hold 25 percent of the world’s prison population?

As Webb has pointed out, this figure could be taken one of two ways. It could be that we have a disproportionate share of bad actors in America. Or it could be that our criminal justice system is badly broken, so that is no longer able to distinguish between good and bad as it once did.

Which, dear reader, do you think it is? I’ve stated my view repeatedly in this blog for 2 ½ years. But I’d like to know your thoughts too.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bar Exam Journey II

As soon as the bar exam was over, at the end of July in 1986, I checked out of my motel in Jefferson City, Mo. and drove to Kansas City. Twenty-five years later, I don’t remember exactly where I parked when I got there.

My best guess is that it was in the parking lot of Rockhurst College, where I’d taken the bar review course and stayed in an on-campus dorm while doing so. But it could also have been at KCI airport.

In any case, I didn’t tarry long in KC. My parents were waiting for me in Valparaiso, Ind., where I’d graduated from law school at the end of May. They had driven out from Minnesota, out of the goodness of their hearts, to help me clean out my apartment and get packed up for my move to Kansas City.

Kansas City was where I was due to begin a judicial clerkship at the beginning of August with the Hon. Charles Shangler at the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Changing Minds About Sentencing Policy

How does significant change in a society’s operative perceptions come about?

Heuristic devices for explaining this are not in short supply. A generation ago, Thomas Kuhn talked of the structure of scientific revolutions. More recently, Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion of a “tipping point.”

And then there is the noted educator Howard Gardner, who published a book called Changing Minds seven years ago. He offers seven “levers of mind change,” of which the fourth is “representation redescriptions.”

The reason I originally launched this blog 2 ½ years ago was to focus on such redescriptions of a reformed criminal sentencing system. Now real world events (another Gardner lever) like gaping budget deficits increasingly call costly incarceration into question.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Joseph's Dreamcoat Journey: In Prison, Then Out - on a Whim

Sentencing in the Ancient world was often an exercise in arbitrary will. The decision about whether to incarcerate, and for how long, depended almost entirely upon the discretion of those in power.

Inevitably, that discretion was often completely capricous. Witness the experience of the biblical character Joseph – he of the Thomas Mann novel and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Joseph is framed by Potiphar’s wife on a bogus rape charge, and Potiphar sends him, as the Monopoly phrase goes, directly to jail.

Yet when Joseph proves useful to Pharaoh in interpreting dreams, he is quickly released. Expedited executive clemency, we might call it in today’s parlance.