Sesame Street Goes to Prison

By Dianne Frazee Walker

If you dare to watch the video featured in an online kit made for child advocacy groups and prison programs for children of incarcerated parents, be prepared with a box of Kleenex handy.  

Sesame Street producers have done an extraordinary job of animating a puppet character that perfectly portrays a dejected child who misses his dad because he is in prison.

Alex is a Muppet with a face shaped like a football, who wears a grey hoodie and has spiked blue hair. His eyes are drooped in sadness.  “My dad is locked up in jail,” Alex mutters in disgrace. “I miss him so much,” he snuffles with his head to his chin. Alex’s human teacher, Sophie, consoles Alex by telling him she understands because her father was in prison, too, when she was little.

The chances are pretty good there would be at least one person who can relate to having a parent in prison because one in every 18 children have a parent incarcerated.

A retired school teacher explained she realized this social disaster is a sign of the times when she overheard her students comparing what color jumpsuits their daddies wore in prison.       

Leave it to the long-running children’s television series Sesame Street to initiate a workshop for children with incarcerated parents. “Little Children, Big Challenges” is an online tool kit intended to help kids with a parent in prison find support and comfort. The videos provide families with strategies and tips for talking to their children about their struggles with having a parent in prison.

Read More »

Too Many Prisoners Dilemma

By Dan Froomkin

There’s a growing national consensus that, as Attorney General Eric Holder stated in August, “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.”

When Holder proceeded to order federal prosecutors to stop triggering mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders, that was big news. But where were the follow-up stories?

It’s a familiar cycle. Despite the heavy toll that mass incarceration exacts every day and in countless ways on many American communities, families and of course the incarcerated themselves, the topic attracts remarkably little consistent coverage in the mainstream media.

“Traditionally, the coverage of this has been crisis driven,” says Ted Gest, the founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, who also oversees a daily news digest for The Crime Report news service.

Recently, a hunger strike in California and other protests called renewed attention to solitary confinement as a human rights issue. And questions about oversight were briefly raised after Baltimore jail guards were busted in April for allegedly helping a charismatic gang leader, who impregnated four of them, run his drug and money-laundering operations.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, says he’s seen only a modest increase in news coverage of criminal justice reform despite his sense that the nation is starting to turn the corner on mass incarceration. “I’ve been doing this work since 1990 and there’s been no time that things have looked this hopeful for significant reform in the criminal justice system,” he says.

Read More »

Assembly Committee Hears Ideas on Reducing Prison and Jail Populations


SAN FRANCISCO — A state Assembly committee gathered ideas from Bay Area law enforcement and community representatives at a hearing in San Francisco Wednesday on how to help people avoid going to prison and avoid going back.

The purpose of the Select Committee on Justice Reinvestment session was to obtain information that could shape legislation aimed at reducing prison and jail overcrowding and increasing rehabilitation, according to committee co-chair Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco.

“I think we have a long way to go. When you have a (statewide) recidivism rate of 70 to 30, we know there’s a lot more to do,” Ammiano said after the hearing at the State Building.

The San Francisco hearing was one of a series the committee is holding around California on various prison issues.

Programs described by local experts included diversion projects, alternative community courts, gang ceasefire efforts and services for released prisoners making the transition back to their communities.

Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told the committee that such programs make sense not only morally but economically as well.

Read More »

Colorado Restorative Justice

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Dianne Frazee-Walker is the founder of Full Circle Restorative Justice (FCRJ) for the 11th Judicial District of Colorado, Chaffee County. (FCRJ) was formed in 2006 as a non-profit 501(c) 3 entity whose purpose was to provide an alternative route for young adult and juvenile first-time offenders entering the revolving court system.

The mission of (FCRJ) is “To enhance the safety of our community by addressing offender accountability and to empower victims through a supportive conflict resolution process.”  

For the full story of (FCRJ)

There are many advantages to using restorative justice as a form of mediation to resolve crime-related conflict. 

Offenders have an opportunity to face their victims and participate in creating a contract for repairing the harm. Victims, who are willing to participate in the process, are empowered by having a voice about how they were affected by the crime and what can be done to restore the damage.

The dialogue that takes place in a restorative circle has the potential of healing both parties. Offenders who participate in the restorative conversation are less likely to reoffend because hearing how their behavior impacted their victims and giving identity to their victims provides offenders with a sense of empathy, accountability, and responsibility that they do not have access to when there is no contact with their victims.

When restorative justice is used to rehabilitate offenders the recidivism rate is less than 10%.

Pete Lee, Colorado State Representative was reelected to represent House District 18 in 2010. Soon after being reelected, Mr. Lee drafted HB-11-1032, which gives victims of some crimes the right to meet face-to-face with the offender under highly-regulated circumstances, and allows for sentences that focus on compensating and repairing harm to victims. The bill passed unanimously.

Read More »

Los Angeles Jail Reforms

By Mike Brodheim and Alex Friedmann

WITH SEVEN FACILITIES THAT HOUSE from 15,000 to 18,000 prisoners, Los Angeles County’s jail system is the nation’s largest – and, arguably, among the most dangerous in terms of staff-on-prisoner violence.

The jail system, operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), is facing an investigation by the FBI into allegations of corruption and abuse, as well as multiple lawsuits. Sheriff Leroy David “Lee” Baca, 70, has committed to numerous reforms following a report and recommendations by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, but people familiar with long-standing problems in the county’s jails remain skeptical.

A Continuing Culture of Violence

THE LASD JAIL SYSTEM HAS BEEN UNDER federal court oversight since the 1970s when, following a 17-day trial, an injunction was issued that ordered the county to improve jail conditions – including overcrowding, inadequate exercise, and lack of clean clothing and telephone access. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had initially sued Los Angeles County in 1975, alleging that overcrowded conditions, systematic abuse of prisoners by sheriff’s deputies and inadequate medical care violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. See: Rutherford v. Baca, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. CV 75-04111 DDP. [PLN, March 2007, p.35].

A renewed deterioration of jail conditions led to the reopening of the case in 1984. Since then, a number of court-appointed parties and experts, including the ACLU, have been monitoring conditions within the county’s jail system. Other oversight agencies include the Office of Independent Review (OIR) and Special Counsel to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

In December 2010, the ACLU asked the federal court to order a new trial in the case based on what it described as “an escalating crisis of deputy violence, abuse, and inmate suicides.” Between 2006 and 2011 there were 5,630 use of force incidents reported in county jail facilities, and according to the LASD’s own data, deputies are more likely to use force against mentally ill prisoners. Of the 582 use of force incidents reported in 2011, about one-third involved prisoners with mental health problems.

Read More »

New Jim Crow Author Lectures On Criminal Justice Inequalities

Courtesy of Student Life and Senior Sports Editor Alex Leichenger

America’s criminal justice system is racially and socially oppressive, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argued in her recent speech on campus.

Addressing a crowd of undergraduates, law students, adults from the community, and local middle and high school students, Alexander, author of the 2010 bestselling book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” said most Americans believe their justice system only requires minor tinkering.

But, Alexander said, the facts that prison corporations are listed on the New York Stock Exchange and many rural communities are economically reliant on prisons has led her to believe that more fundamental social movement is required to reform the system.

“If you’re not directly impacted by this system, you can easily go your whole life without having any idea of what is going on,” Alexander said.

The Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom in Anheuser-Busch Hall was packed to capacity for Alexander’s speech, and extra chairs were needed even in the overflow room. It was the keynote address at the conference, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Washington University School of Law’s Clinical Education Program.

Alexander talked about how Americans can turn on their televisions and see symbols of African-American social progress like President Barack Obama and the first family but that those examples are not fully representative.

“But then you drive less than a mile from the White House, and you find the other America,” Alexander said.

“Today, millions of children in America grow up believing that one day, they too will go to jail,” she added. “In our poorest, most segregated communities, young people are shuttled from our decrepit, under-funded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”

Read More »

Rep. Bobby Scott leads push to reduce mandatory federal sentences

By Peter Dujardin, [email protected]

NEWPORT NEWS — A federal lawmaker from the Peninsula is helping to lead a bipartisan effort to reduce minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which he and other backers say will translate into fewer prisoners and large cost savings.

U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, the “Smarter Sentencing Act.” It was introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with a companion bill introduced in the Senate in July.

“Mandatory minimums have been studied for a long time,” Scott said in an interview Thursday. “And all these studies conclude that mandatory minimums fail to reduce crime, waste the taxpayers’ money, and often require the judges to impose sentences that violate common sense.”

The legislation would also increase the number of defendants eligible for a waiver that allows judges to sentence particular defendants below the minimums. That is, the bill would allow that “safety valve” to be available for people with more on their criminal records than is now the case.

Reducing the number of people jailed for drug crimes — and giving more sentencing discretion to judges — has become a bipartisan push in both houses of Congress.

Read More »

Survey Finds Disturbing Trends in Childhood Violence, Racial Dynamics for Juvenile Lifers

By Prison Law Blog

An overwhelming majority of prisoners serving life
sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles were exposed to
domestic violence and lived in poverty, while significant numbers failed in
school, were influenced by friends in trouble with the law and grew up in a
home missing at least one parent who was incarcerated, according to a report by
The Sentencing Project.

The report, based on the most comprehensive survey to
date of prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as
juveniles, calls for the elimination of life without parole (LWOP) sentences
for juvenile offenders. The report also recommends a closer inspection of the
racial dynamics of the juvenile justice system, which imposes LWOP sentences on
black youths at an alarmingly higher rate than on white youths.

“Juveniles serving life sentences have had their
lives defined by a serious crime committed in their youth, but it is not a
complete picture of who they are,” wrote Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., a research
analyst for The Sentencing Project and the report’s author.

“Although it does not excuse their crimes,”
she added, “most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by
systems that are intended to protect children.”

Researchers for The Sentencing Project collected data
from 1,579 juvenile lifers across the United States between October 2010 and
August 2011. The average time served by the prisoners surveyed was 15 years,
and almost a fourth had been incarcerated at least 21 years.

Read More »

AG’s Memorandum on Mandatory Minimums and Recidivist Enhancements

By Christopher Zoukis

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Department of Justice either declining to charge or waiving more severe charges for those involved in certain nonviolent, low-level drug cases.  The rumors inside federal prison have run the gambit from the new policy being retroactive to it only affecting those with gun convictions, both of which are categorically incorrect.  In matters of law and policy, it is always best to learn the truth from official U.S. Government documents or directly from judicial opinions, not hearsay, summaries, or third party opinions.

As a service to the Prison Law Blog readers, enclosed below is the memorandum from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder concerning the new policy revisions which his office has put into play.  We implore you to review this memorandum as it clarifies the DOJ’s position on this matter and shows how federal prosecutors will be applying the new guidelines to applicable offenders.  By reading the memorandum, you can understand exactly who it applies to and how federal prosecutors can use it in certain cases.

The memorandum reads as follows:



SUBJECT: Department Policy on Charging Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Recidivist Enhancements in Certain Drug Cases

In Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013), the Supreme Court held that any fact that increases the statutory mandatory minimum sentence is an element of the crime that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that for a defendant to be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors must ensure that the charging document includes those elements of the crime that trigger the statutory minimum penalty.

Read More »

Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013 Explores Federal Criminal Code

By Christopher Zoukis The U.S. House Judiciary Committee is expected to create a panel coined the “Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013” later this week.  This panel will review the entire federal criminal code with the aim of slashing a number of the crimes contained therein, crimes deemed too technical, too petty, or those which should

Read More »