January 5, 2009

New Year’s Briefs – Part I

Signs of the times?

Happy New Year to all of my loyal subscribers and readers. As usual, a lot is going on and I have had little time to blog. But here are a few highlights, with more to follow.

California strikes draconian sex offender sentence

Imagine serving the rest of your life in prison for missing a bureaucratic deadline. That's what happened to Cecilio Gonzalez under California's three-strikes sentencing law, when he was three months late one year on his annual sex offender registration with the police. Registration infractions usually carry a maximum sentence of three years, and the prosecutor had originally offered Gonzalez a two-year term. He ended up with life because he decided to take the case to trial, acting as his own attorney. That's cruel and unusual punishment, a California appellate court ruled, because the punishment was grossly disproportionate to his "entirely passive, harmless and technical violation of the registration law." It is unclear what effect the ruling may have on other 3-strikes cases, given that California's Supreme Court has declined two challenges by men whose third strikes were shoplifting - in one case videotapes and in another case golf clubs. The L.A. Times has the full story.

Spotlight on violent vets

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who come home and wreak havoc on their communities are a topic of mounting alarm around the United States. In Fort Carson, Colorado, for example, nine combat soldiers have been accused of killing people in the past three years; sexual assault and domestic violence cases are also up sharply. The New York Times has a follow-up story to its initial coverage a year ago, which traced many homicides by combat veterans to war-related trauma and the stress of deployment. As the Times notes, even military leaders are starting to acknowledge that "multiple deployments strain soldiers and families, and can increase the likelihood of problems like excessive drinking, marital strife and post-traumatic stress disorder."

Judges have also noticed the upsurge and in several jurisdictions around the country they are joining with local prosecutors, defense attorneys, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials to set up special veterans-only courts. The judges say trauma-related stress, brain injuries, and substance abuse are contributing to the rash of crimes. They are hoping the innovative courts can help rehabilitate veterans and avoid convictions that might cost veterans their future military benefits, according to a report in the National Law Journal.

Renewed calls for prison reform

With more than 1 in 100 Americans now behind bars, there are additional signs that some policy makers are getting fed up. Driving the trend may be the current economic downturn. As blog guest writer Eric Lotke pointed out last month, and as more and
more people are finally noticing, the money being spent on prisons could be better spent on social programs. As the Virginian-Pilot editorialized:
In prosperous times, state and federal lawmakers wanting to polish their get-tough-on-crime image pass bills putting more people in prison and keeping them longer for offenses such as drunken driving, drug possession and dog fighting. When the economy tanks, those mandatory sentencing laws stay in place, and budget cuts instead dig into drug treatment and job-training programs.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is getting quite a bit of ink in his vigorous calls for prison reform, and editorials are urging other members of Congress to "show the same courage and rally to the cause."

Perhaps with Barack Obama in the White House, the time will be ripe to reverse course. As we forensic psychologists know, this would be good news for the mentally ill, who make up a large proportion of the millions of Americans behind bars. Indeed, a new study coming out of Texas shows that mentally ill prisoners are not only more likely than others to go to prison, but they are far more likely to recidivate. This "revolving-door" phenomenon owes to a lack of community treatment options, massive downsizing of state hospitals, and a legal system that virtually ignores psychiatric issues. As a result, "many people with serious mental illness move continuously between crisis hospitalization, homelessness, and the criminal justice system," noted the authors of the study, published in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry. The study, "Psychiatric Disorders and Repeat Incarcerations: The Revolving Prison Door," is available upon request from lead researcher Jacques Baillargeon of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas.

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