December 2016 News Briefs

Arizona — After the 2012 decision barring mandatory sentences of life without parole for offenders who were juveniles when they committed their crimes—and making the law retroactive—the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state courts to review the sentences in several cases, SCOTUSblog reports. Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained that the sentencing judges in these cases did not consider whether or not the offender was among the very “rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

Houston, Texas — Every year 16,000 to 18,000 felons return to the city after being released from state prisons, Courthouse News Service reports. Assisting the returning citizens is the City of Houston Community Reentry Network Program, which since 2008 has graduated more than 500 people from a 12-week program that offers clients counseling services with case managers, life skills classes, computer and job interview training, help with resumes and job referrals.

Kansas City, Mo.Buzzfeed News reporter Christopher McDaniel is suing the state’s decision barring him from witnessing executions. McDaniel says he has a right “to ensure that executions are carried out in a constitutional manner,” The Associated Press reports. The state said that “McDaniel is asking this court to go where no court has gone before: declare that watching an execution is a ‘benefit’ from the government.” There’s no authority for that “or that McDaniel has a property interest or a liberty interest in watching Missouri carry out an execution,” the state’s dismissal motion read. McDaniel, a former St. Louis public radio reporter whose stories have been critical of Missouri’s death penalty procedures, applied in January 2014 to be a witness. However, McDaniel never got an official response and 17 executions have since been carried out by the state, where 26 inmates remain on death row.

New York City — Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city jails will end using solitary confinement to inmates 21 years old and younger. According to The Crime Report, solitary confinement is used to punish jailhouse infractions, in addition to securing a high profile inmate or separating suspected gang members from the general population. The practice goes by many names: Administrative Segregation, Special Housing Unit, Secured Housing Unit, “The Box,” “The Hole,” and on Rikers Island, it is called “The Bing.” Nevertheless, they all have similarities: 23 hours inside a cell roughly the size of a parking spot, no meaningful human contact, with a food tray passed through a flap in the door.

Washington — In an attempt to avoid the negative stigma connected with the word “offender,” prison officials are phasing out the word and replacing it with “individual,” The Seattle Times reports. Staff are now using the word “student” for those in classes, and “patients” for those in the infirmary. The action follows similar efforts by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and U.S. Department of Justice.

Delaware — The state received a $741,847 federal grant to improve access to free attorneys for juveniles facing criminal charges or seeking an expungement, The News Journal reports. The funding will be used to improve access to and the quality of attorneys appointed to represent juveniles. “This grant places Delaware at the forefront of juvenile justice reform,” Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services, said in a statement. “Access to counsel is a constitutional right and this grant will help ensure that all children have a qualified advocate at their side and the ability to pursue a bright future.” The grant comes nine months after the state received a $147,983 federal grant to develop a plan to address juvenile justice reform.

Washington, D.C. — President Obama has commuted the sentences of 944 inmates thus far, more than any other president in U.S. history, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The White House released a list of those granted more lenient sentences, many of whom were originally serving sentences that ranged from several decades to life, mostly for drug related crimes. “The President is committed to reinvigorating the clemency authority, demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances, where mistakes from the past will not deprive deserving individuals of the opportunity to rejoin society and contribute to their families and communities,” wrote White House counsel Neil Eggleston in a blog post. In August, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer use private prisons, institutions that have long been known for high rates of violence and safety violations.

Nashville, Tenn. —The private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America is renaming itself CoreCivic, The Wall Street Journal reports. The rebranding move was announced by CEO Damon Hininger in an attempt to diversify the company into prisoner re-entry programs, building jails, and maintaining them, rather than just guarding and operating facilities. The move comes during a public debate about whether federal, state and local governments should use private prisons and facilities to hold convicted criminals, suspects awaiting trial, and immigrants awaiting deportation.

Alabama — The execution of Thomas Arthur was put on hold by the US Supreme Court, The Christian Science Monitor reports. Arthur was sentenced to death after being convicted of the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, his girlfriend’s husband. Though the court order did not state its reasons for the stay of execution, Arthur’s lawyers have been challenging Alabama’s lethal injection procedure, saying it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

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