Tags: prison | reform | mandatory sentencing | Colson Commission | Richard Hartunian | Charles Samuels

Prison System Weighs Putting Focus on Rehab

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Wednesday, 28 January 2015 08:57 AM Current | Bio | Archive

If the initial hearing Tuesday of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections was any firm indication, then the U.S. prison system is headed toward a revolutionary change from simply incarcerating convicted criminals to focusing on their rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

This was the strong emphasis of statements and comments by key figures in the American justice system during the session in Washington, D.C. Named for the late founder of Prison Fellowship and chaired by former Rep. J.C. Watts (R.-Oklahoma), the Colson Task Force is a product of the Urban Institute.

"The Urban Institute made this [task force] happen because it wants a recommendation on a better prison system," Watts told Newsmax during a break in the four-hour session. As to how the former congressman came to chair the panel, Watts said that "[then Rep.] Frank Wolf, R-Va., and [Rep.] Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., are very interested in this issue and kept staying on me to do it."

The vice-chairman of the Task Force is a former Democratic congressman, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.

Other members of the Colson Commission include George Mason University professor of Criminology Laurie O. Robinson, who has been an assistant attorney general under Presidents Clinton and Obama, and David Iglesias, one of eight U.S. attorneys fired during the Bush administration, a move that created a national uproar, and now director of the J. Dennis Hastert Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.

"More prison spending means less funds for treatment," Richard Hartunian, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York and vice chairman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, told the panel, adding that every that every dollar spent on prisons is "a dollar we can’t spend on victims or fighting drug cartels."

Hartunian strongly pushed the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime program, which emphasizes working with faith-based organizations as well as community-oriented policing.

He also boosted drug courts, stressing that there is "a benefit treating drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime."

Asked by Robinson if it is difficult to persuade young assistant U.S. Attorneys that this different way of looking at crime is better than simply tough prosecution in pursuit of stiff sentences, Hartunian replied: "In this process, you might have a little consternation."

But, he quickly added, the "Smart on Crime" program has conducted seminars to educate young prosecutors on the need on emphasizing re-entry into society over long incarceration. They are receptive to it in part because they understand "how many prosecutors and how many agents" can be hired if less is spent on prison upkeep, Hartunian said.

As for rehabilitation, Hartunian recalled his own experience as prosecutor of the notorious Jungle Junkies street gang in Albany, New York, a decade ago. Following the recent release of gang members, Hartunian said, he appeared at their hearing before a magistrate judge.

"Some [of the former Jungle Junkies] were receiving family counseling, others were working," he said. "This was a great opportunity.

"We need to start thinking a little differently."

Also weighing in was Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. The BOP chief pointed out that there were approximately 211,000 prisoners nationwide incarcerated in 121 federal prisons, 12 private prisons and numerous state penal institutions.

Where the average number in the same prisons was roughly 23,000 every year from 1940-80, Samuels pointed out that after 1980 "there was an explosion [in the number of prisoners]" for reasons ranging from abolition of parole to determinant sentencing.

Now the ratio of inmate to staff in prisons is 10-1, he said, "and it’s not safe to operate a prison with that much crowding."

Citing an old axiom from the corrections community that "re-entry begins on the first day of incarceration," Samuels, who worked his way up from corrections officer to prison warden, cited several examples of steps modern prisons are taking toward re-entry: puppet shows, petting farms, camps for children of offenders, "daddy-daughter dances" with children of offenders, and even sleepovers at prisons by parents and children.

The ranks of prisoners reached a high point of nearly 220,000 in 2014, but has now experienced its first decline in 34 years, he said.

"Eighty percent of prisoners released in the federal system don’t come back," Samuels said. "But we can do better."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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If the initial hearing Tuesday of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections was any firm indication, then the U.S. prison system is headed toward a revolutionary change from simply incarcerating criminals to focusing on their rehabilitation and re-entry into society.
prison, reform, mandatory sentencing, Colson Commission, Richard Hartunian, Charles Samuels
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2015-57-28
Wednesday, 28 January 2015 08:57 AM
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