December 4, 2007

Top criminal justice stories today

Felony murder, juvenile recidivism,
racist sentencing, and prison evangelism

Wow! There is just so much to blog about today, and so little time!

Liptak on the felony murder rule

My favorite today is Adam Liptak's editorial on felony murder. As Liptak points out, only the United States still invokes this archaic construct in which someone can be punished equally for loaning their car or for committing the actual murder in which the car was used. Realizing the injustice of punishing someone for something that someone else did, a few brave states, including Hawaii, Kentucky and Michigan, have abolished the rule. Others continue to routinely use it, despite its unjust effects and its slim-to-nonexistent deterrent value.

Perhaps the New York Times editorial resonated for me today in particular because I was just involved in a case in which the prosecution is using the felony murder rule to seek a life sentence against a 15-year-old boy. The boy, who had no arrest history and was unarmed, was at the scene when two older youths committed a robbery in which a clerk was killed.

Liptak's editorial, "American Exception: Serving Life for Providing Car to Killers," is online here. Hat tip to the ever-helpful Jane for alerting me to it first.

Juveniles: Go to prison, become violent

Runner-up today is the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on juvenile recidivism. Transferring juveniles to the adult system and sending them to adult prisons makes them more criminal and more violent, the expert panel concluded.

No, duh! Another government report concluding the obvious. But I'm hoping that the CDC imprimatur leads to change. The report goes hand in hand with a recent report by the Campaign for Youth Justice finding that youths detained in adult jails are more likely to be sexually victimized and to commit suicide. The two reports come as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

The Washington Post has full coverage here. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has additional research findings on juvenile recidivism. No surprise – for juveniles, TREATMENT WORKS. And incarceration doesn't. Listen up, legislators!

Loss for prison evangelism

Also in today's news, a federal appeals court has struck down an evangelical prison program that had milked the government of Iowa for $1.5 million. The InnerChange program, run by Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, afforded better housing and expedited access to parole resources to participating prisoners. Prisoners of other faiths were demeaned as "unsaved," "lost," "pagan" and "sinful.” The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that government support for the program violated the Constitutionally required separation of church and state.

Coverage is in the San Francisco Chronicle and at the Real Cost of Prisons blog. See also Slate magazine's 2000 story on the program's leader, Charles Colson: "How a Watergate crook became America's greatest Christian conservative."

Racial disparities in sentencing

And yet another study, this one on racial disparities in sentencing, by the Justice Policy Institute. Once again, the San Francisco Chronicle has a fine report, focusing on the enormous racial discrepancies in that fair city. And, once again, the reports are in. So, now let's get on to the public policy changes.