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"The death penalty is reserved of the worst of the worst, and we think Mr. Muhammad fell into that category." ~ Paul Ebert, prosecutor

"How in the world could anyone imagine a place like this, where men scream tales of nothing just to prove they're alive and exist, if only to themselves, in cell block six?" -- Convicted murderer Frank Gilbert Koehler in a letter to his lawyer from prison; as published in A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch

Behind Bars, Girls Earn Badges, Sell Cookies, Do Service

January 5, 2004 UNION GROVE, Wis. -- The 16-year-old stole cars, shoplifted and landed in a maximum-security juvenile facility for beating a rival gang member. Now, as a member of arguably the nation's most unusual Girl Scout troop, she raises her right hand at least once a week and vows to change her life.

"I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do," she says, reciting the Girl Scout Law from memory. Raising their hands along with her are teenage girls convicted of murder, drug dealing, assault and other crimes.

Unlike the 2.8 million Girl Scouts worldwide who recite the same pledge, these approximately 80 girls do it behind a chain-link fence rimmed with razor wire. Instead of wearing traditional sashes and pins, they wear blue and white inmates' uniforms at the Southern Oaks Girls School, where Girl Scouting is as mandatory as going to school or getting drug treatment.

For nearly a decade, this has been the only juvenile detention facility in the country with a Girl Scout troop, one that even sells the traditional cookies. And by next fall, Troop 344 hopes to make history again by having an inmate earn a Gold Award, the most prestigious prize for Girl Scouts.

Each year, about 3,500 Girl Scouts nationwide receive the award, equivalent to the Eagle Scout rank for Boy Scouts. To get it, they are required to spend more than 50 hours organizing community service programs.

"I don't think anybody would have ever thought that a girl who is incarcerated could start earning a Gold Award," said Kimberlie Kelly of the Girl Scouts of Racine County, Wis., which works with Troop 344. "This is something unprecedented in Girl Scout history."

The girls typically range in age from 12 to 19 and stay an average of 9 months at the state's only female juvenile correctional institution. More than 30 of them agreed to participate in the Gold Award program when it was announced last month.

"It's going to be kinda hard. I'll probably get it started in here and then I'll try to join a troop on the `outs,' " said the girl from Baraboo, Wis., who led the others in the pledge. Her name and the names of other Scouts weren't used in this story because they are juveniles.

Like most of her fellow inmates, the teen says her enthusiasm for Girl Scouting is far different from her attitude when she was sentenced in March to Southern Oaks, about 20 miles northwest of Kenosha, Wis.

During their first week, all inmates receive a Girl Scout membership card and, since pins can be used as a weapon, they get a clip-on insignia designed for the prison troop.

"I thought it was stupid. I thought Girl Scouts was, I don't know, for little kids," one girl said while threading a holiday coaster for a veterans group.

The troop was started a few months after the prison opened in 1994, when an official with the Girl Scouts of Racine County read about the new facility.

She suggested the idea of a prison troop to Southern Oaks superintendent Patricia Ogren, who agreed it seemed ideal for an institution with goals similar to those of the Girl Scouts: developing self-potential, relating to others, developing values and contributing to society.

Southern Oaks social workers double as troop leaders. The girls participate in weekly troop activities and earn badges for putting together a financial budget, developing a career plan, learning about other cultures and participating in numerous community service projects.

The Scouts have stuffed empty lipstick tubes with information about domestic violence, crocheted infant booties and caps, made Easter baskets for veterans, designed T-shirts for the Racine Emergency Shelter and sent hundreds of cards to soldiers serving overseas. For those activities, they've earned the community service badge.

Some of them received the gardening badge by planting and growing vegetables last summer. They ran the breast cancer Relay for Life within prison boundaries, earning a breast cancer awareness badge.

Because the teens can't leave Southern Oaks, activities often come to them. To earn the car care badge, for example, a mechanic showed them how to change oil and windshield wipers.

The girls have even gone camping. Last year, they spent four days and three nights in a secure wooded area a few feet from the prison. They learned to pitch tents and cook over an open fire.

"We work hard to make Girl Scouts as comparable inside the fence as outside," Ogren said.

And just like other troops nationwide, they survive financially by selling cookies.

Six years after the troop starting selling cookies to other Wisconsin prisons, sales this year brought in a record $2,361, money used to pay for the badges, $10 membership fees and supplies.

Since the girls can't sell the cookies at grocery stores or anywhere else in the community, Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials agreed to let them sell to inmates in the state's other prisons. Last year, they sold cookies to 12 prisons.

The girls make posters advertising the sale to hang in the prisons; inmates sign up to buy the cookies, and the bakery sends them directly to the prisoners.

Many girls say they look forward to the Girl Scout programs in what can otherwise be a structured, cinder-blocked existence as they sleep, eat and go to school within units that resemble wings of a hospital.

The girls sleep on bunk beds in sparsely decorated rooms with only a desk and a square space on the wall to post pictures, letters from home and Girl Scout accolades. Most of them have a roommate.

One teen had a note from Ogren, congratulating her on leading a Girl Scout activity, taped to the wall. She stored her 11 badges in an envelope between school textbooks and "Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul," but had plans for the badges - and plans to join a community troop - after she left.

"I want to get a vest to put them on," she said.

Within days of leaving Southern Oaks less than two weeks ago, she contacted Racine troop leaders. "It will keep me out of trouble," she said. "I'll be doing something positive and won't just have time on my hands."

She said she will continue working on her Gold Award project related to law enforcement.

Another girl said she plans to teach fellow inmates about her Native American culture by showing them how to make dream catchers and perform a Pow-Wow dance.

A 16-year-old from Madison, Wis., convicted of assaulting a teacher, is planning a Gold Award project related to music. "When you're in a place like this, you can look out there and it doesn't feel good to know there is a fence all around us. It will give us something to look forward to," she said.

Ogren hopes the award also will help keep girls involved with Girl Scouting after they leave. A 2001 survey of former inmates found only 5 percent joined community troops.

Next October, on Southern Oaks' 10th anniversary, Ogren would like to see Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle hand out the Gold Award. "It would be sending a message that this is something special they can do," she said.

Troop 344, Kelly said, exemplifies one of the national program's mottoes, plastered on lawn signs along the walkway to the locked entrance of Southern Oaks:

"Girl Scouts. For every girl, everywhere." -- JewishWorldReview.com

James Driskell Free on Bail Until Case Reviewed

November 28, 2003 Winnipeg, Canada -- James Driskell said his legs were shaking Friday when a guard took the shackles off to set him free after more than 12 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn't commit. For all that time, he kept pressing and pressing to re-open his case. Now he has his wish.

But if the experience of other wrongly accused is any guide transition back to a normal life will not be easy for him. Additionally, there is the question of whether he'll have to face a new trial, or be fully exonerated.

Driskell will be staying with family while his case is reviewed. The review board may call for a new trial, but there may be too much new evidence exonerating him.

Driskell, 45, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1991 for the fatal shooting of his friend, Perry Dean Harder. He was convicted without a witness, confession or murder weapon and has always maintained his innocence.

A judge decided to release him on bail while the Justice Department reviews his conviction. The Manitoba government has ordered a review amid concerns that a "miscarriage of justice likely occurred" in the case.

Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh said the probe will look at whether police handed over key evidence in the case to prosecutors and whether the prosecutors in turn handed it over to Driskell's lawyer.

"I have very serious concerns with the accuracy of the conviction," Queen's Bench Justice John Scurfield said Friday. "A (key) piece of evidence that the jury relied on was wrong."

That evidence includes DNA tests conducted on three hairs found in Driskell's van. The tests concluded the hairs did not belong to the victim, as claimed by the police in the original investigation. The DNA actually came from three other people.

Crown attorney Bill Olson conceded Thursday that there were "material irregularities" in Driskell's original trial, but said they weren't enough to warrant his release.

Earlier this week, a confidential report on his case was unsealed. The internal police review of the case raised new questions about his conviction. The review was written 10 years ago by then Insp. Jack Ewatski -- now Winnipeg's chief of police -- and others in the police service.

It shows police had doubts about the credibility of the key witness in the trial -- Ray Zanidean. His testimony was key to Driskell's conviction but was secured in a deal that saw Zanidean testify in exchange for immunity on an arson charge in Saskatchewan.

Driskell's lawyer at the time of the case, Greg Brodsky, said he was never made aware of the deal.

That's when the finger-pointing began.

Winnipeg Police said they had forwarded all the evidence to the Crown, who were responsible for passing it on to the defence. But Manitoba's prosecution service said it appears they were not given all the evidence.

To clear up the confusion, Manitoba Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh has launched a review of the Crown's handling of the case to determine whether police or prosecutors withheld evidence from Driskell.

Driskell's lawyer, James Lockyer, thanked Scurfield at an news conference. "This bail hearing has been expedited in an extraordinary way," he said. "We only field for this bail hearing three weeks ago. .it was good of him to come down with a decision as quickly as he did this morning."

Lockyer expressed disappointment at the creation of another internal review, rather than an independent inquiry or an admission that the case was mishandled.

"You'd have thought that after what happened with the last internal review which was suppressed for 10 years ... you'd think Manitoba justice would have learned its lesson," Lockyer said.

Lockyer is a Toronto lawyer who serves as senior counsel with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. He helped win a similar bail application earlier this year for Romeo Phillion, who he says was wrongly convicted of the 1967 murder of an Ottawa firefighter.

Driskell told reporters he's relieved that he's free and plans a small family party to celebrate. He said he planned to celebrate his freedom quietly, getting reacquainted with his eight children and 12 grandchildren. He said he has several job offers to consider.

Driskell later told a news conference he is angry at a justice system that has taken away a large piece of his life.


-- Edited and excerpted from articles Driskill Free on Bail, Manitoba Orders Review of James Driskell Case, Confidential Report Unsealed in Driskell Case, and Newsday.com's Canadian Briefs

Congressman Investigates Radioactive Contamination at Atwater Federal Prison

June 09, 2003 CASTLE -- Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, was told little during a briefing by Pentagon officials about the possibility that radioactive waste is buried beneath Atwater's federal prison. He had said he was prepared to ask hard questions, but came out of the briefing with few hard answers.

"Based on the information received in this initial briefing, there is certainly no reason to panic," Cardoza said, "but we will closely monitor the investigation and keep the community informed as more details become available."

The land on which the United Sates Penitentiary, Atwater, sits was once a segment of the former Castle Air Force Base. The prison land was transferred from the Air Force to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1997.

While cleaning up the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, the Air Force discovered a two-acre disposal pit that contained barrels of low-grade radioactive materials, along with a half-dozen vials of weapons-grade plutonium. The Air Force conducted radiological research at that base.

The news that radioactive waste may be buried at the Atwater site was a surprise to Cardoza and others because the US Air Force has maintained over the years that there were no nuclear weapons at Castle. Radioactive waste, if present, would consist of materials used by military staff to clean nuclear weapons.

According to Greg Gangnuss, base environmental coordinator for the Air Force Real Property Agency, nuclear weapons were on the air base during the 1950s and 1960s, but officials are unsure whether a radioactive waste burial site exists.

Cardoza said last Friday that, at the time nuclear weapons were present at the base, the interests of national security "could tolerate an omission." He also said he planned to question the radioactive potential of any toxins, as well as any methods employed to protect the area from radioactive leakage.

The answers, however, were not forthcoming and, until further investigation is performed at the site, it's really too soon to tell. The Air Force's answers "were very general because there's a lot they still don't know," according to Cardoza's press secretary.

"I'm heartened to know that the Pentagon is taking this seriously," Cardoza said Monday. "I look forward to working closely with the Air Force to reach definitive answers. We will get to the bottom of this."

If radioactive waste is found beneath the prison, the Air Force will be responsible for its removal. It is currently overseeing cleanup of contaminated groundwater at the former base.

Air Force officials told Cardoza that the agency has spent $132 million for cleanups at Castle since 1991- and that remediation efforts actually date back to 1980. Officials from the Air Force Real Property Agency and Office of Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health assured Cardoza that Merced County residents will be kept apprised of the situation and invited the congressman's office to monitor the investigation.

A preliminary examination of the potentially toxic area at Castle by a team of Air Force inspectors was expected within the next two weeks, and, if necessary, a more detailed analysis will be conducted within 120 days. Cardoza may make presentations at meetings of the Merced County Board of Supervisors or the Atwater City Council once he has gleaned information to share with the public.

A meeting between officials from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Air Force Real Property Agency was scheduled for June 11. A team of Air Force inspectors is set to arrive at Castle Airport within two weeks to check for radioactive wastes that might have been dumped on the former Air Force Base. If anything turns up, the Air Force plans to do a more detailed analysis of the site within 120 days, said Rep. Cardoza. -- Edited and excerpted from The Turlock JournalCongressman Dennis Cardoza's press releaseand The Modesto Bee

U.S. Prison Population Tops 2 Million For The First Time

The federal government accounted for more inmates than any state, with almost 162,000, says a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Justice Department. That number includes the transfer of about 8,900 D.C. prisoners to the federal system.

California, Texas, Florida and New York were the four biggest state prison systems, mirroring their status as the most populous states. But Texas, California, New York, Illinois and five other states saw their inmate populations drop compared with the previous year as prison releases outpaced admissions.

The total inmate population on June 30, 2002, was 2.1 million, an increase of 2.8 percent from the previous year. Two-thirds were in federal or state prisons, with the other third held in jails, the report said.

The report did not count all juvenile offenders, which if included in the past would have driven the nation's inmate population over the 2 million mark years ago. But the report did note that more than 10,000 inmates younger than 18 were held in adult prisons and jails last year.

Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the increase continues a prison growth trend stemming from tough penalties meted out to drug abusers and traffickers as well as "three strikes" laws that can mandate life sentences for repeat offenders. This is especially true at the federal level, where efforts to reduce sentences for such crimes as crack cocaine trafficking have failed in Congress.

The Supreme Court this month upheld California's "three strikes" law even though the defendant's final crime involved the theft of golf clubs.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has pushed for tougher prison sentences, including a recent directive barring many people convicted of white-collar and nonviolent crimes from doing their time in halfway houses.

Executing the Innocent: Murderous Errors

August 13, 2003 -- Since 1973, 111 people waiting execution on death row have been released because they are actually innocent. That means 111 could have been wrongly executed in our names. How many of the nearly 900 executed during these years have been innocent? We will never know for sure, though there is a long list of possibilities based on reporting by journalists and filings by attorneys.

A handful of federal judges are troubled by the thought of innocent people dying. But as welcome as it was to hear that Boston federal district court Judge Mark A. Wolf is troubled by this prospect, his refusal to act on his misgivings makes one wonder. What in the world has happened to "justice" in a country that will let one innocent man die? And think it is just fine?

According to a report in The New York Times, Wolf said, "In the past decade, substantial evidence has emerged to demonstrate that innocent individuals are sentenced to death, and undoubtedly executed, much more often than previously understood."

But...(and that there is a "but" is appalling), he said, "The day may come the when a court properly can and should declare the ultimate sanction to be unconstitutional in all cases. However, that day has not yet come."

The case that gave rise to Wolf's ruling has John Ashcroft's dirty bootprints all over it. Gary Lee Sampson admitted to killing three men while he was hitchhiking in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 2001. He offered to plead guilty to state murder charges in Massachusetts and receive the maximum punishment of life in prison without parole. The State of Massachusetts does not have the death penalty.

Enter John Ashcroft and his war on state's rights, especially states with antipathy toward the death penalty. In his admitted effort to bring the death penalty to every state that does not have this sanction, Ashcroft directed the prosecutors to bring federal kidnapping charges against Sampson that would make him eligible for the federal death penalty. Ashcroft did this recently in Alexandria, Virginia, in the case of Jay Lentz. Not content to see Lentz tried for the murder of his ex-wife (this was a case with no body, no crime scene, and no weapon) in state court, Ashcroft had him charged with murder and kidnapping. Though the jury convicted Lentz, they spared his life, much to the distress of Ashcroft and his prosecutors.

But Judge Gerald Bruce Lee threw out the conviction, saying there was no evidence at all of kidnapping to warrant the federal charge, let alone to support a conviction. Naturally, the government is appealing that decision.

Judge Wolf, a Reagan appointee and former federal prosecutor, noted that "juries have recently been regularly disagreeing with the attorney general's contention that the death penalty is justified in the most egregious federal cases involving murder."

Wolf is right. The latest count shows that Ashcroft is 1 for 20 in his making a federal case out of murder just to get the defendant executed. The most recent acquittals were this month in Puerto Rico, which does not have the death penalty. The Lentz case, in which the jury rejected the death penalty, preceded that one. Virginians have no problem with the death penalty--their love for it is second only to George Bush's Texas.

What does Ashcroft have to say about executing innocent people? As reported by The Times, a "Justice" spokesperson, Monica Goodling, said the Department has an obligation to ensure the fair and consistent application of the federal death penalty.

And what does that mean, pray tell? It means to kill everyone that is remotely eligible.

Ashcroft is a blight on America. State and federal governments kill in our name. We all have the blood of innocents on our hands.

How much blood is too much?


-- Excerpts from the article by Elaine Cassel in CounterPunch

The Rise of Female Guards In Male Prisons

Trend engenders debate over safety

January 5, 2004 -- An unlikely debate is percolating in the testosterone-fuelled world of Canada's penitentiaries for men. It has to do with pregnancy leave.

The union representing federal prison guards is demanding the right for female members to stay home with pay virtually from the moment they conceive, a sticking point in contract talks that have dragged on for more than a year.

The union says one woman miscarried recently after helping quell a vicious fight between inmates, and it believes others should not have to face such hazards.

"A penitentiary is not a normal place of employment. It's not like working in a bank or a grocery store," says Sylvain Martel, president of the Union of Correctional Officers of Canada. "You never know what is going to happen, especially when you're exposed to all sorts of situations -- like violence and infectious disease."

The Correctional Service of Canada responds that paid leave is unnecessary, since expectant officers can be re-assigned to safer posts.

That the issue is even being discussed, however, underlines a growing and little-known trend. The number of female guards patrolling the ranges and staffing the towers of the nation's prisons for men has expanded rapidly in the past 20 years, even as the service considers removing male staff completely from women's penitentiaries.

Since female guards were introduced into male facilities in 1981, their ranks in the prison system have swollen to more than 1,700, making up 26% of the total, according to government figures. And there is little evidence of a glass ceiling. Women fill many of the top posts, from Lucie McClung, the commissioner, to six female deputy and assistant commissioners and 11 women wardens of men's prisons, including Kingston penitentiary, the country's most infamous.

"The women are catching up," said Leslie Moors, a guard at Pittsburgh Institution in Kingston. "There are more of us in the service than there has ever been."

But the growing female presence in men's prisons has raised some thorny issues, and not just how to deal with pregnancy. Some critics question whether the proportion of women is too high at times, making it potentially more difficult to handle disturbances.

Some male officers feel the large percentage of female guards gives them an extra burden: protecting their colleagues when the going gets tough.

Men also are generally the only ones who are allowed to carry out strip searches, which some male guards say makes them more susceptible to the infectious diseases, from HIV to hepatitis, that run rampant behind bars.

"I just don't think the fairer sex is built to withstand the rigors of prison life when it goes full throttle -- emotionally, physically, mentally," said one male officer, who did not want to be identified for fear of offending female colleagues.

An internal Correctional Service of Canada report revealed female staff were sexually assaulted in almost a third of 33 hostage-taking incidents over a 10-year period. The report suggested rethinking the standard stall-and-negotiate approach to such incidents, which could inadvertently give inmates more opportunity to sexually attack their hostages.

And while the phenomenon is still rare, a steady string of female staff have become romantically involved with male offenders.

Some female guards complain about a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment, with one $11-million lawsuit accusing several senior managers of sexual misconduct. A former deputy warden named in the suit goes on trial this year for allegedly kidnapping and threatening to kill a female employee whom he had dated.

On the other hand, managers, union leaders and most of the female officers interviewed for this article insist the growing contingent of women does not undermine security or put male guards at higher risk. Instead, they argue, female guards help make prisons more like the outside world, and they employ a less aggressive approach that emphasizes defusing tense situations rather than resorting to physical force.

Glenda Downing, 42, a correctional officer for 20 years, was pregnant with her daughter while working at Collins Bay Institution, a medium-security prison in Kingston. She acknowledged she and the two other guards expectant at the same time would not have been able to mix it up with unruly inmates.

"We had concerns about our safety and our babies' safety. But our fellow officers would look on us as a potential safety concern to them," she said.

"What good are you if you're seven, eight months pregnant? You can't get around much yourself, in terms of responding to an emergency."

But Ms. Downing said female guards are generally able to look after themselves, especially since disturbances are usually handled by groups of officers. In a group, women are no more vulnerable than men, she said.

One female guard in Manitoba, who asked not to be named, recalled one of her own most vulnerable moments, which took place in the segregation unit of Stony Mountain, a medium-security penitentiary outside Winnipeg.

"We were opening up this inmate to go for exercise and clean his cell.... He came out swinging. I guess he was in a bad mood that day," she recalled. She was injured in the melee that followed, one of several assaults she endured at Stony. Later, another inmate involved in the disturbance divulged he had contemplated taking her hostage.

"That wasn't a really pleasant experience," she said. But with the training the correctional service gave her and the additional self-defense courses she has taken, she feels she can hold her own.

"The bottom line is that I want to go home at night. You have to do what you have to do to ensure that you and your fellow staff members get home. Physically, I'm capable of it."

The female officers say their most valuable skill is an ability, perhaps not shared by all their male colleagues, to reason with offenders and calm them down before they get violent.

"At first, I tried coming off very authoritative: 'This is the way it is; it's black and white. Do it, do it now,' " said Leslie Moors, who started her career at Kingston's medium-security Warkworth Institution.

"It's funny, inmates have an uncanny ability to know that isn't you. It doesn't fit.... The way I did it, eventually, was just to be who I am. I would rather take 15 minutes to discuss something than have an argument."

Kathy Ferguson, an officer at Joyceville, another Kingston-area prison, says offenders can be crude and verbally abusive, yet sometimes they confide in the female guards.

"The men traditionally think of women as more caring and empathetic and stuff like that," she said. "I've had a few guys [inmates] who have told me they've come to me with their problems because they feel they can talk to me more than the guy I'm working with."

By contrast, male guards are barred from working in the cell ranges of women's prisons, though they can staff other parts of the facilities. Two reports have suggested male officers be removed from the institutions entirely, although the correctional service is still grappling with that issue, said Nancy Stableforth, deputy commissioner for the Ontario region.

The law, at least, says there is nothing wrong with the different roles for guards of the opposite sex. In a 1993 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada said the fact that women conduct frisk searches of male prisoners, while the converse does not happen in female prisons, does not discriminate against male offenders.

"Given the historical, biological and sociological differences between men and women, it is clear that the effect of cross-gender searching is different and more threatening for women than for men," the court said.

And, the judges said, "the important government objectives of inmate rehabilitation and security of the institution are promoted as a result of the humanizing effect of having women in the positions."

Regardless, the women themselves may still have more to fear from prison life than their male counterparts.

A pregnant officer at a Quebec penitentiary was assigned to the facility's segregation unit last March, only to be involved in containing a clash between inmates. Soon after, she suffered a miscarriage. No one can say for sure what caused it, but the timing seems more than coincidence, said Mr. Martel, the union president.

Ms. Downing does not believe women need paid leave while pregnant, arguing they can be accommodated in safer jobs, if necessary. She also said many offenders had a strangely protective attitude toward her when she was pregnant, sometimes locking themselves in their cells at night to save her the effort. But that, she says, does not mean danger is not lurking around the next corner.

"The shit can hit the fan at any time, and if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, well, guess what?" -- by Tom Blackwell for the (Canada) National Post

Texas Objects To County's Bail Practice

An opinion released last week by the Texas attorney general's office challenges a practice used for decades in Travis County that allows many people to get out of jail by posting a small percentage of their bail with a court. Defendants get their money back if they show up for their court hearings.

The opinion, which does not change any current law, says people who want to post a cash-percentage bond must do so through a licensed bail bondsman. The opinion is an interpretation of the law and can be challenged in court.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said the opinion would ruin a practice that is good for the county. When people show up for hearings and get their cash-percentage bonds refunded, they have money to pay for a lawyer, instead of having taxpayers foot the bill for a court-appointed attorney. Bail bondsmen's fees are nonrefundable.

Judges also can impose certain conditions with cash- percentage bonds that bail bondsmen cannot, such as requiring a defendant to go to anger management classes or get alcohol counseling, Earle said.

The opinion, signed by Attorney General Greg Abbott, said Texas' code of criminal procedure "does not authorize a deposit of anything less than the face amount of the bond." The opinion was requested by Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, who had said the practice of cash-percentage bonds was "some hybrid form of personal bond and cash bond." Armbrister could not be reached for comment.

Travis County continues to accept the cash-percentage bonds despite the opinion, a county spokesman said Friday. Judge Bob Perkins of the 331st District Court in Austin said he uses the cash percentage bond in one or two cases per month. Perkins said he allows them in cases in which a person might have one conviction and is charged with a nonviolent offense.

From excerpts of the full story:

After Exoneration, Then What?

It's bad enough to be locked up for years for a crime you didn't commit. What's worse is to get out and find that you're on your own.

Most of the innocent get little or nothing because only 15 states and the District of Columbia have laws to help the exonerated collect damages. And some of the statutes aid very few people, either because they severely restrict awards - in California the ceiling is $10,000, no matter how long the unwarranted prison sentence - or limit relief to those lucky enough to get a pardon from the governor instead of relief from a judge.

As a result, the innocent usually leave prison without the resources to build new lives. Louisiana, for instance, gives the innocent what it gives all other released prisoners: $10 and a denim jacket. Gary Gauger, profiled in the play "The Exonerated," was pardoned by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois last year after the FBI found evidence that a biker gang had killed Mr. Gauger's parents, the crime for which he'd been convicted. After two years wrongfully imprisoned on death row, Mr. Gauger got from the state a pair of prison-issue shoes. The state of Florida mailed Sunny Jacobs $100 a few months after she was exonerated in two murders for which she'd served 16 years of a life sentence.

In the past 10 years, at least 220 people have been exonerated across the country. Of this total, 127 were released on the basis of DNA testing. (The rest were exonerated based on other evidence, like a retraction by an eyewitness.) The wave of releases has received much public attention but prompted little action by legislatures.

Relatively standard awards, which judges are more likely to mete out, make sense in most of these cases. No matter how much the innocent have suffered, their claims are usually about error, not malice or even negligence. The right model isn't a $10 million award for personal injury, based on punishing misconduct. It's like workers' compensation, which gives those who have been injured what they need to be "made whole".

That's why the exonerated usually lose when they file personal-injury claims, as they can in every state. It's extremely difficult to prove "malicious prosecution" or "wrongful arrest". To make either claim stick, an innocent person has to show that the arresting officer lacked "probable cause" - an umbrella that covers virtually any kind of suspicious behavior. And if he gets past that hurdle, the police and prosecutors are generally immune from suit for errors they make in investigating a crime, unless they acted in bad faith.

The case for compensating the innocent for inadvertent errors by investigators has been made from time to time since the 1930's, but gathered new force with the certitudes of DNA testing. Now that there's scientific proof of innocence, the lack of a remedy in most states is incongruous.

But political solutions remain out of reach. The wrongfully convicted lack clout - they're still, after all, former prisoners, about half of them with prior records. And when a compelling case grabs public attention, the momentum for reform is often spent on "moral obligation" bills, which state legislatures enact to award damages to one innocent person at a time. -- Excerpts from the Op/Ed by Emily Bazelon online at the New York Times

Let Our People Go

According to an editorial in the New York Times, there are too many people in prison:

When violent crime rates were higher, many politicians were afraid to be seen as soft on crime. But now that crime has receded and the public is more worried about taxes and budget deficits, it would not require extraordinary courage for elected officials to do the right thing and scale back our overuse of jails and prison cells.

According to the Wall Street Journal, if they take the Times' advice, violent crime rates will then become higher once again.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the prison population in France is also at an all-time high.

The center-right's crackdown on crime following its victory at the polls last year could be the cause of the rise.

In February, the government passed tough new anti-crime legislation that introduced a wide range of new offences, such as booing the national anthem.

The figures released by the prison authorities also show the rise has put pressure on the prison system, with French jails now operating at 22% above capacity. As of April 1st, France had 59,155 inmates, and increase of several hundred over 1996 records.

Justice Kennedy Speaks Out Against Sentencing Guidelines

August 12, 2003 -- We hope that both the members of Congress and the Bush administration were paying attention last weekend when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a tough-on-crime Reagan appointee, decried harsh and inflexible sentencing policies. Justice Kennedy was speaking for legal experts from across the political spectrum when he said the current rules misspent America's criminal justice resources by locking up people for irrationally long amounts of time.

One major factor behind the increase [in the nation's inmate population] has been the imposition of the mandatory minimum sentences contained in many federal laws, especially drug laws. A second reason for the rise is the effect of federal sentencing guidelines, which were adopted in the mid-1980's to make criminal sentences in federal cases more uniform. These two measures have both pressured judges to give longer sentences than they otherwise would.

Justice Kennedy, speaking to the American Bar Association's annual convention, said he supported sentencing guidelines in principle, but that they must be "revised downward" to less draconian levels. As for the mandatory minimums, the inflexible minimum sentences written into some laws, Justice Kennedy said he could accept neither their "necessity" nor their "wisdom."

Even as these objections are being raised, the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans are making the situation worse. They have enacted a new law, called the Feeney Amendment, that reduces judges' discretion to impose sentences less severe than those called for by the guidelines. And Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced plans to track individual judges' sentencing records, an intimidating move that critics are calling a judicial blacklist.

Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote this year in upholding lengthy sentences for minor crimes under California's "three strikes" law. But as he told the association, a court can call something permissible that is not necessarily "wise or just." Mandatory minimums and overly harsh federal sentencing guidelines are not wise or just. If the Bush administration does not believe the liberal critics, it should take the word of the growing number of conservatives who are calling for reform.
-- Excerpts from the article from the New York Times, as archived at the Media Awareness Project

References:

Bureau of Justice statistics

The Sentencing Project  Independent source of criminal justice policy data. Find details about publications, events, and programs.

The Restorative Justice Project  Includes details on the upcoming conference. Find principles of restorative justice, a history and papers.

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