Tag Archives: prison

Families, experts wary of Scott Walker’s plan to abolish Parole Commission

Beverly Walker doubts Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to abolish the Wisconsin Parole Commission will add efficiency to a sluggish system, and she suspects it would make qualifying for parole even more difficult.

Her husband, Baron Walker, has been imprisoned for nearly 22 years on a 60-year sentence for two armed bank robberies. Since 2011, he has been eligible for parole under Wisconsin’s old sentencing scheme, which allowed inmates to petition for release after serving one-fourth of their time.

Baron Walker has met required conditions for behavior and all programming that has been recommended, including a high school equivalency degree and vocational training, according to a 2015 report from the Parole Commission. He now resides in the minimum security Oakhill Correctional Institution, whose primary focus is to “prepare offenders for release into the community.”

“You take full responsibility for your crimes and for the harm you have caused the victims and others. You have engaged in a considerable amount of positive growth and maturity during this incarceration,” the report stated.

Despite that, the commission concluded that Walker’s criminal history — including a previous stint in prison — and the severity of his crimes means “serving additional time for punishment is warranted.”

“It’s horrible that we’re not together, reunited, by now because he’s met the requirements of the law he was sentenced under,” said Beverly Walker of Milwaukee, who has been a single mother to their five children, who now have six children of their own. “He’s met everything that he was supposed to meet. So it’s confusing to the children, you know, when they see that he’s done what he’s supposed to do and he’s still locked up.”

Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to abolish the Parole Commission and put the decision about whether to release thousands of parole-eligible prisoners into the hands of a gubernatorial appointee. Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the change would “streamline” the parole process.

The Parole Commission has operated short-handed during Walker’s tenure; the eight-member board currently has five vacancies.

“It just seems like everything is stagnated when it comes to parole-eligible inmates already, so it’s hard to tell if eliminating the commission is going to help this process move forward or not,” Beverly Walker said.

Under the Republican governor, the commission has released far fewer offenders than it did under his predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. Walker also killed an early-release program launched by Doyle, has refused to issue any pardons and, as a state lawmaker, spearheaded the 1998 Truth in Sentencing law, which abolished parole for most prisoners.

One inmate advocate, the Rev. Jerry Hancock, said cutting funding for parole considerations even more could make a “broken and unfair system” worse.

Parole plan raises questions

An international parole expert said if adopted, Wisconsin’s system would be “a very unique set- up” and one that could be less fair to parolees and more prone to political influence.

“In my history in criminal justice of 30-something years, I’ve seen them (states) add to parole boards and I’ve seen them take away from parole boards but I’ve never seen a situation where they limited the decision-making to one person,” said Monica Morris, chief administrative officer of the Association of Paroling Authorities International, a Huntsville, Texas-based group that helps develop research-based parole policy.

“In my opinion, that is too much power to give to one person,” Morris added. “The whole concept of a parole board is you have two or three or five or seven (people) where you have a deliberative process where people are making a collaborative decision.”

Cecelia Klingele, an assistant law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she cannot imagine how one person could give “fair and full consideration” to the “significant” number of people who are currently parole eligible.

Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said about 3,000 people are serving “parole eligible” sentences in Wisconsin but he did not know how many of those are currently eligible for release.

While no inmate is “entitled” to parole, “they do have a legal right to fair assessment of their case,” said Klingele, who specializes in criminal justice administration and community supervision.

Walker’s two-year budget calls for closing the Parole Commission on Jan. 1, 2018 and moving its duties to the DOC. That would save an estimated $1.8 million over two years, including elimination of 13 positions, Evenson said. Decisions on whether to grant paroles would be handled by a “director of paroles” appointed by the governor, he said.

Evenson said the proposal is a “common sense change” since the chairperson of the Parole Commission, who makes the final decision on releases, is already a gubernatorial appointee.

According to a national survey published in 2016, no state had abolished its parole board in the previous 15 years. Wisconsin was among five states that did not complete the survey, which was conducted by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Parole board members generally have set terms and can be removed only for cause, creating at least some political independence, said Morris, who served under three governors during her 12 years on the Florida Parole Commission.

Putting the board under the purview of the DOC, she said, could reduce some of that independence.

“I would not want … the people that are holding the key to be included in the decision-making process,” Morris said. “What if they have an incentive to keep them in or an incentive to let them out?”

Walker: Boost earned releases

The governor also plans to expand earned-release programs that allow nonviolent offenders to cut short their time in prison by completing drug or alcohol treatment or the military-style Challenge Incarceration Program.

Whether those changes will result in paroles for “old-law” inmates convicted of crimes committed before 2000 remains unclear. For crimes since the beginning of 2000, offenders fall under Truth in Sentencing, which requires them to serve their full time in prison, with no opportunity for parole, unless they complete an earned release program.

The budget proposal calls for expanding the state’s earned-release programs by 250 inmates by adding 16.25 more positions to the DOC, Evenson said. Such programs allow inmates to cut their incarceration time by completing substance abuse treatment or other programming. According to DOC figures, 1,637 inmates were released in 2016 under these programs, in which remaining time behind bars is converted into parole or supervised release.

The expansion is expected to save money by reducing the number of beds rented from county jails to alleviate crowding. The net savings is expected to be $3.7 million over two years, Cook said.

Number of ‘old-law’ releases unknown

According to data from the Wisconsin DOC, 1,002 paroles were granted between July 2011 — when Kathleen Nagle, Walker’s first pick to lead the Parole Commission, took office — and the end of 2016. The DOC database does not disclose what proportion of offenders were old-law prisoners and which were sentenced more recently.

About half of the paroled offenders, or 491, participated in such programs, which include the Wisconsin Substance Abuse Program and the Challenge Incarceration Program, Cook said. Both Cook and Evenson emphasized that under earned release, offenders’ length of sentences do not change; time in custody is cut and converted to time outside of prison under supervision of a probation or parole agent.

Another 141 offenders had reached their mandatory release date, meaning the DOC was legally obligated to parole them, according to department data. Under the old law, inmates were eligible for parole after serving one-fourth of their sentences and had to be released under most circumstances after serving two-thirds of their sentences — factors that judges kept in mind prior to 2000 when sentencing offenders. People on parole are subject to conditions which, if violated, can land them back in prison.

Advocates for parole-eligible inmates had mixed reactions to Walker’s proposal to kill the Parole Commission.

Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project in Madison and a former prosecutor, said the change could make it harder for old-law inmates to gain release. Hancock said the proposal shows Walker’s “complete contempt for the law and the basic justice of parole,” adding, “His continuing refusal to grant the fair hearing that sentencing judges promised the nearly 3,000 inmates still eligible for parole is cruel, inhumane and immoral.”

David Liners, state director of Wisdom, a statewide faith-based group, said it is unclear whether the changes would speed up or slow down parole considerations for old-law inmates.

“It is very hard to imagine that they will deal with parole requests more efficiently with less people,” Liners said.

However, leaving the decision within the DOC could avoid the “bureaucratic nightmares” that some inmates encounter in qualifying for release, he said. Some old-law inmates have said they cannot access programming ordered by the Parole Commission because the DOC does not make it available to them.

“Instead of abolishing the independent Parole Commission,” Hancock said, “the Legislature should require an immediate review of all those prisoners who are eligible for parole and determine who can be safely returned to their families and communities.”

He said there are hundreds of parole-eligible inmates who are already in minimum security or even working in the community. Releasing them from prison — where costs to house them are estimated at $37,994 a year per inmate — would save the state millions of dollars, Hancock said.

Rate of parole unclear

An analysis by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism shows the Parole Commission granted 11.9 percent of parole petitions in 2016 — a number that had been in the single digits for four and a half years. That includes inmates who petitioned more than once in a year.

Whether Wisconsin is typical of other states in its parole release rate is unclear. Wisconsin did not report parole numbers in the most recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance report.

Even so, it is nearly impossible to compare state correctional systems because of variations in how such data are reported, according to a 2015 investigation by The Washington Post and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet that reports on criminal justice issues.

But the investigation did find one common theme: “In many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible … even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.”

Liners said a similar dynamic appears to be at work in Wisconsin, with a Parole Commission “so risk averse that they don’t want to release anyone.”

In the past, the DOC defended the slowing pace of paroles for old-law prisoners, saying those who have not been released earlier have committed the most serious crimes. A DOC report on parole-eligible prisoners as of 2014 found that 73 percent were incarcerated for forcible rape, homicide or non-negligent manslaughter.

Days from parole, offender told ‘no’

Adan Castellano, an old-law inmate, was 17 years old in 1993 when he and six others were involved in the beating of two teens they suspected of being members of a rival gang. One boy, who was determined not to be a gang member, was killed.

Castellano was convicted in Racine County Circuit Court of reckless homicide and other counts and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. After being locked up for 24 years, Castellano — now 41 years old — is a model prisoner, according to his parole report. Considered a low risk to the public, Castellano has earned the right to work for a landscaping company in the Madison area.

“You entered the system at a young age, turned your life around, completed programming, satisfied all owed obligations, saved money for release, secured an approved release plan and demonstrated success at multiple minimum community custody sites with work release,” Parole Commission member Danielle LaCost wrote.

She recommended that Castellano, currently housed at the fenceless Oregon Correctional Center, be released Jan. 24.

However, as one of his first orders of business, Walker’s newly appointed interim Parole Commission chairman, Douglas Drankiewicz, on Feb. 1 rejected that recommendation. He wrote that Castellano needed to serve more time in part because of “the nature and severity of the crime (the senseless taking of an innocent life).”

Lupe Castellano of Waukegan, Ill., who was 1 year old when her brother was sent to prison, said the parole denial was devastating to Adan’s nieces and nephews, four siblings and especially his mother.

“It’s been really hard on my mom,” she said. “Especially to know that she was finally going to have her son home — and to have it taken away like that.”

She said eliminating the Parole Commission would probably result in fewer paroles because it would be impossible for a single official to track the progress of thousands of inmates.

“Your life would be in one person’s hands,” Castellano said.

No release after inmate meets all conditions

Liners said many old-law inmates and their families complain that they are repeatedly denied parole even after demonstrating evidence of rehabilitation and little risk of re-offending.

Kim Szemborski is one such case. Szemborski is serving a 64-year sentence from Racine County as a habitual criminal for a 1987 armed robbery and an escape in which he stole a car with three people in it. They were released unharmed a few blocks later, according to a 2015 Parole summary of Szemborski’s history written by LaCost

The report praises Szemborski for his exemplary behavior and his history of work, including at jobs outside of prison. Szemborski also was credited with extensive participation in programming and treatment.

“There are no identified programs remaining,” LaCost wrote.

Nevertheless, LaCost wrote that the commission had decided Szemborski must serve additional time, noting the seriousness of his crimes and criminal history stretching back to the early 1970s — including an armed robbery committed while on parole for earlier crimes.

“Serving additional time in a productive manner, achieving reduced custody with work release and further preparing for release will help to demonstrate a mitigated level of risk,” the commissioner wrote.

Szemborski, now 62, was recommended for release in 2011, but Walker appointee Nagle overruled that, according to Szemborski’s unsuccessful court challenge of the decision. He has been denied parole six times since then. His mandatory release date is in 2030.

“The reason they (inmates) are given so often is because of the severity of the crime or due to insufficient time served,” Liners said. “These things always harken back to the original crime, and that’s the one thing these guys can’t change.”

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s reporting on criminal justice issues is supported by a grant from the Vital Projects Fund. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

Gov. Scott Walker greets state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers prior to delivering his budget address at the State Capitol in Madison, Feb. 8, 2017. Walker is proposing elimination of the state Parole Commission and placing parole decisions in the hands of a gubernatorial appointee. Advocates for parole-eligible inmates question whether the change would further slow the pace of releases. PHOTO:Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Critics pan Walker’s budget on youth prison

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would keep Wisconsin’s troubled youth prison open but doesn’t provide nearly enough funding to meet federal staffing requirements.

It also orders no systemic changes despite an FBI investigation into alleged inmate abuse and two lawsuits challenging conditions at the remote facility.

The budget the governor unveiled makes no mention of problems at the prison in the woods outside Irma in northern Wisconsin.

The spending plan lays out about $2 million to create eight new guard positions, three new mental health specialist positions for the prison’s female wing and convert nine contract nursing positions to state positions.

But even with the new positions, the boys’ side of the prison would be about 50 guards short of staff-to-inmate ratios mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Walker, a Republican, rejected a Department of Corrections request for $3.7 million for serious juvenile offender care and community supervision and made no move toward returning prison inmates to a facility in Milwaukee County, where most of the prison’s inmates are from, even though Walker said in December he was open to such a transfer.

“This is literally as anemic as it gets,” state Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, said. “It’s as if nothing has ever happened at that prison.”

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the budget builds on reforms DOC has already made at the prison. DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said those include a review of policies in the Division of Juvenile Corrections, a new pre-service training academy for new guards and regional efforts to recruit staff that have helped reduce the number of vacancies from 34 to 23 over the last year.

Cook said the number of guards the boys’ wing needs to satisfy federal ratios was based on population estimates that have fallen since they were first made. He said DOC will determine whether the ratios need adjusting before they go into effect in October. He added that the girls’ wing is already in compliance with PREA ratios.

“DOC is committed to a safe and secure environment for all youth in DOC custody,” Cook said.

The prison has been a flashpoint of controversy since December 2015, when word broke state agents had been investigating allegations of inmate abuse for the past year. The FBI has taken over the investigation. No one has been charged but Corrections Secretary Ed Wall resigned as questions about the prison’s conditions intensified.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Juvenile Law Center filed a federal lawsuit in January asking a judge to limit solitary confinement, and the use of pepper spray at the prison. A former inmate who suffered brain damage in a suicide attempt in her cell has her own federal lawsuit, alleging staff failed to prevent her attempt.

Despite the investigation and the lawsuits, Republicans who control the Legislature introduced bills earlier this month that could land more children in the prison and keep them there longer. The measures would expand the list of crimes that qualify for incarceration at the facility and allow juveniles to be held at the prison for more than three years, the current limit.

Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic Sen. LaTonya Johnson have introduced a bill that would make guards at the prison mandatory child abuse reporters. Goyke said he plans to introduce a bill that would create regional juvenile detention centers and transform the prison into a treatment center for drunken drivers. That measure has almost no chance of passing given Republican control of both chambers.

Walker’s budget does little to help the situation, said Juvenile Law Center attorney Jessica Feierman.

“This proposal would still leave the (prison) so severely underfunded and understaffed that they are not even in compliance with federal standards,” Feierman said in an email to The Associated Press. “A smarter approach would be to spend money on programs that work, serving young people in their homes or communities, and relying on evidence-based approaches to juvenile justice.”

The budget is far from finished. The document now goes to the Legislature’s finance committee, which will spend the spring rewriting it. Spokespeople for the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, didn’t immediately respond to an email message seeking comment on the prison’s budget.

Civil rights groups sue over alleged abuse at youth prison

Civil rights groups sued Wisconsin seeking improvements at a youth prison because guards there are still abusing children despite state and federal investigations.

The American Civil Liberties Union along with the Juvenile Law Center filed a federal lawsuit this week asking a judge to limit solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and the use of pepper spray at the Irma facility. State investigators spent all of 2015 probing allegations of widespread abuse at Lincoln Hills. The FBI has since taken over the probe.

A number of state prison officials have resigned or retired in the midst of the investigations. But no one has been charged and the FBI has said nothing about the investigation’s progress.

ACLU attorney Larry Dupuis said during a Milwaukee news conference that his group had hoped the investigations would prompt changes at the prison. But he said guards continue to violate inmates’ constitutional rights by locking them up in solitary confinement, chaining them to desks and pepper spraying them for minor infractions, prompting the ACLU lawsuit. During a visit to the prison in October, Dupuis said, he saw a boy get pepper sprayed and dragged off because he wouldn’t remove his shoes.

“Usually when ACLU shows up at a prison, (guards are) on their best behavior,” Dupuis said. “We were shocked by what we heard and saw for ourselves. If I had any reason to believe something was coming in the investigations, we may have held off.”

FBI spokesman Leonard Peace declined to comment, saying the investigation was ongoing. State Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook declined comment as well.

The ACLU and the law center filed the lawsuit on behalf of three children currently held at the prison and one child who was held there before he was moved to a mental health facility.

The filing alleges on any day up to 20 percent of the prison’s population is held in solitary confinement in tiny, unfurnished cells. They receive only an hour of education instead of the four or five they would normally get and are chained to their desks or shackled, the lawsuit alleges. Guards needlessly pepper spray inmates for minor, nonviolent infractions, sometimes using a spray meant to stop bears, the lawsuit added.

The practices are unconstitutionally excessive and cruel, the lawsuit said. The filing asks a judge to allow solitary confinement, mechanical restraints and pepper spray only in rare cases to avoid serious physical harm.

Attorney General Brad Schimel declined to defend the state in the lawsuit Tuesday because the Department of Justice ran the state’s portion of the investigation, creating a conflict, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said. That means Gov. Scott Walker’s administration will need to hire private attorneys.

Twenty-nine states have prohibited solitary confinement as punishment for juveniles, according to the pro bono law firm Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest. Wisconsin is one of 15 states that limit the time a juvenile spends in solitary confinement; Wisconsin’s maximum is 60 days. Seven states have no limit on solitary confinement or allow indefinite extensions, according to the center.

Wisconsin lawmakers haven’t passed any measures addressing conditions at the youth prison since word of the investigation broke a year ago. Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Democratic state Sen. LaTonya Johnson began circulating a bill Tuesday that would require prison guards to report child abuse to law enforcement in response to the prison allegations.

Rep. Michael Schraa, chairman of the Assembly’s corrections committee, didn’t immediately return a message. The state Senate doesn’t have a corrections committee; the equivalent body is the judiciary committee, led by Republican Van Wanggaard. His aide, Scott Kelly, said Wanggaard wants to see the FBI’s findings before drawing conclusions but is growing more frustrated with the agency for not releasing any information.

Tougher drunken driving law takes effect Jan. 1

Repeat drunken drivers will face tougher penalties in Wisconsin starting with the new year.

A new law signed by the governor in April makes a fourth drunken driving offense a felony regardless of when it’s committed.

Currently a fourth offense is a felony only if committed within five years of a third offense.

The law also increases the maximum sentence for fifth and sixth offenses from three years to five.

Maximum sentences for seventh, eighth and ninth offenses will increase from five years to seven and a half. The maximum sentence for a 10th or subsequent offense will move from seven and a half years to a decade behind bars.

The measure goes into effect Jan. 1.

Wisconsin remains the only the state that doesn’t criminalize a first offense, however.

On the web

Read about drunken driving laws from MADD.

Wisconsin AG moves to block Brendan Dassey’s release

Wisconsin’s attorney general plans to file an emergency motion to block the conditional release of Steven Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, convicted of homicide in a case made famous by the Netflix series Making a Murderer.

Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement on Nov. 14 that he was filing the motion with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A federal judge ordered Dassey released while prosecutors appeal a ruling that overturned Dassey’s conviction in the 2005 slaying of photographer Teresa Halbach.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin had ruled in August that investigators tricked Dassey into confessing he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape, kill and mutilate Halbach in 2005.

The state has appealed that ruling.

The order to release the 27-year-old Dassey from prison, which also came from Duffin, was contingent on him meeting numerous conditions. He had until noon Tuesday to provide the federal probation and parole office with the address of where he planned to live.

Dassey was 16 when Halbach died. He’s now 27.

Justice Dept: 2 Milwaukee men charged with support for ISIL

Jason Michael Ludke, 35, of Milwaukee, has been charged in a criminal complaint with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a designated foreign terrorist organization.

Yosvany Padylla-Conde, 30, also of Milwaukee, was charged in the same complaint with aiding and abetting Ludke’s attempt to provide material support to ISIL.

The announcement was made by assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin and U.S. Attorney Gregory J. Haanstad of the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Ludke and Padylla-Conde were arrested near San Angelo, Texas. The complaint alleges they were traveling from Wisconsin to Mexico, where they intended to acquire travel documents necessary to travel overseas to join ISIL.

“The United States is committed to identifying and arresting persons intent on providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations. Those organizations pose a threat to United States’ interests at home and abroad.” said Haanstad.

Special Agent in Charge Justin Tolomeo of the FBI’s Milwaukee Division stated in a news release, “The arrest of these two individuals from Wisconsin, underscores how the real threat of terrorism can occur anywhere, at anytime.”

If convicted both men face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.00.

A criminal complaint is an allegation and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes.

Florida Supreme Court rules against death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row — as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder — was put in limbo by a pair of sweeping rulings issued by the Florida Supreme Court.

In two linked cases — each decided by a 5-2 split — the court ruled that death sentences must require a unanimous jury and struck down a newly enacted law that allowed a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 of 12 jurors recommended it.

“Requiring a unanimous jury recommendation before death may be imposed … is a critical step toward ensuring that Florida will continue to have a constitutional and viable death penalty law, which is surely the intent of the Legislature,” the court stated in one of two rulings. “This requirement will dispel most, if not all, doubts about the future validity and long-term viability of the death penalty in Florida.”

At the same time the court ordered a unanimous jury decision, it also opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

Justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — who was convicted of killing a co-worker at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant with a box-cutter in 1998 — deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges to make the ultimate decision.

That ruling led the state to halt two pending executions and state legislators rushed to overhaul the law. They gave more sway to juries, including prohibiting a judge from imposing the death penalty if the jury recommended life in prison.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, however, rejected calls to require a unanimous decision from a jury, settling instead for a supermajority of 10 jurors. Prosecutors were strongly opposed to requiring a unanimous jury decision, pointing out that some of the state’s most notorious criminals including serial killer Ted Bundy did not receive a unanimous jury recommendation. An analysis prepared for the Legislature showed that only 21 percent of death penalty sentences handed down over the past 15 years were recommended unanimously.

But a majority of justices disagreed, and Justice Barbara Pariente noted that Florida was one of the few remaining states in the nation that did not require a unanimous jury decision. She said the only way to keep the death penalty “constitutionally sound” was to require a unanimous decision.

Justice Charles Canady, in a strong dissenting opinion, contended that the majority went far beyond what was required by the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that Hurst’s sentence be reduced to life in prison, but they said that because of the new requirement, he deserved to have a jury reconsider his sentence. That decision could lead other death row inmates to ask for the same consideration.

David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor, said that “based on the way that the opinion is written and the reasoning of the Justices, it would appear that all death penalty sentences imposed in Florida require a new sentencing hearing.” Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said that, at the least, the 43 inmates whose death penalty cases are still on direct appeal deserve to be resentenced.

The sweeping decision got a muted response from Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose offices said they were reviewing it.

Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, said that ongoing murder cases could proceed as long as juries were instructed that a unanimous decision was required. But Marty McClain, a long-standing death penalty attorney who filed a legal brief in one of the cases, contended it would be a risky move for prosecutors to proceed until the Legislature acts.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.

Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran blasted the ruling and said it was an ongoing effort to “subvert the will of the people.”

“This decision is indicative of a court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result,” said Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’ Lakes. “That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state.”

Wisconsin Innocence Project client freed after 24 years in prison

Daryl Dwayne Holloway walked out of Green Bay Correctional Institution a free man Oct. 5 after serving 24 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

Holloway was accompanied by his attorney, Keith Findley, and a team of law students from the Wisconsin Innocence Project who worked on his case, according to a news release from UW-Madison.

A Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge signed the order freeing Holloway on Oct. 4.

Prosecutors in the Milwaukee district attorney’s office had agreed that exculpatory DNA results warranted the reversal of Holloway’s convictions in a 1992 sexual assault case.

“This case represents one example of the power of post-conviction DNA testing to help us achieve justice and of a prosecutor’s office recognizing that power and working with defense attorneys to find the truth, rather than just protect old convictions,” said Findley, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Findley said Holloway’s case received renewed interest in April 2015, when now-retired Assistant District Attorney Norm Gahn conducted a review of the case file.

Gahn discovered conflicting DNA reports issued by separate labs that had previously analyzed evidence in the case. The conflicting reports meant that at least one of the labs made an error in its analysis.

Gahn contacted Holloway’s attorney, who reached out to the Wisconsin Innocence Project for help.

Findley and a team of law students reviewed the file and convinced prosecutors that remaining evidence from the case should be analyzed by an independent third-party laboratory.

The new DNA report identified numerous errors in the previous testing and identified the presence of male DNA from an unknown third party. Test results conclusively excluded Holloway as the perpetrator of the crime for which he spent more than two decades in prison.

The Milwaukee County district attorney’s office cooperated with the Wisconsin Innocence Project to draft a stipulation of facts with a joint recommendation to Judge Jeffrey Wagner to vacate Holloway’s conviction.

Wagner, who presided over the wrongful conviction in 1993, ordered the conviction vacated and dismissed all charges.

“This is a remarkable example of a prosecutor doing the right thing, motivated by the search for justice. The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office deserves tremendous credit for this exoneration,” Findley said in the release.

Politics, shootings undercut criminal justice overhaul in Congress

Hopes for overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system have faded in Congress this year, undercut by a rash of summer shootings involving police and the pressure of election-year politics.

Republicans, including Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, had joined forces with Democrats in hopes of revising the 1980s and ’90s-era federal “tough on crime” laws by reducing some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and giving judges greater discretion in sentencing. The goal is to reduce overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and save taxpayer dollars.

In 1980, the federal prison population was less than 25,000. Today, it is more than 200,000.

The bipartisan group encountered fierce opposition from some Republicans who argue reform could increase crime and pose a greater danger to law enforcement.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump hasn’t commented on the pending legislation but has dubbed himself the “law-and-order candidate” for what he calls a country in crisis, with terrorism in cities and attacks on police.

With Republicans deeply divided, one man could break the legislative deadlock: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has not indicated whether he supports the effort.

If inaction is telling, McConnell so far has declined to put the legislation to vote, suggesting he doesn’t want a messy intraparty fight before the November election.

Unlike McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., strongly supports an overhaul and may bring up a series of bipartisan House bills in September to reduce mandatory sentences and boost rehabilitation programs.

An unusual coalition — President Barack Obama, the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Koch Industries — says the system is broken and supports changes. Obama has made it a priority in his last year.

But Ryan and Obama have a tough job in winning over McConnell, who must deal with opponents such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a handful of other Senate Republicans.

Supporters are also battling the calendar.

Congress is only in session a few weeks before Obama leaves office.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton supports the effort, but if she wins it’s unclear whether there would be momentum for the overhaul in her busy first year in office.

Cotton calls the Senate bill “a dangerous experiment in criminal leniency” that would let violent criminals out of prison.

Supporters say the legislation would do the opposite, making communities safer by focusing on rehabilitation and preserving police resources. Mark Holden of Koch Industries, which has backed the Senate and House bills, points to states that have successfully put similar reforms in place.

Proponents argue that there’s no direct connection between the overhaul and this summer’s shootings of black men in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge — or the shooting of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge — since the measures would primarily deal with incarceration of low-level drug offenders and rehabilitation programs. Opponents counter that reducing mandatory minimum sentences could further endanger law enforcement.

“If you talk to actual officers on the street, almost all of them will tell you their job has gotten more dangerous,” said the Hudson Institute’s John Walters, who was drug czar under President George W. Bush. “The current debate about this isn’t going to give them a voice.”

The House Judiciary Committee is looking at separate action on policing and has created a bipartisan working group on police accountability and aggression toward law enforcement. After meetings in Detroit on Tuesday, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., predicted criminal justice reform will eventually pass.

On policing, Goodlatte said mistrust between law enforcement and the communities will not be solved overnight. “However, this should not deter us from devoting urgent attention to this matter of national importance,” he said.

Republicans who back criminal justice overhaul point to the support of several law enforcement groups and say they are working the party’s grassroots, bringing the message that changes could save billions of federal dollars and help criminals from returning to prison.

“There’s no question that it’s very hard to draw the lines on the conservative movement and where people are on this,” says Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who is working with a group called Right on Crime.

At the heart of the Republican debate on the issue is a philosophical difference between advocates who say rehabilitation and shorter sentences could lower recidivism and opponents who say it will let criminals out and not do enough to stem crime. Advocates point to a dip in overall crime in the U.S., while opponents point to rising crime in some major cities.

The Senate bill was introduced last October, and Cornyn and other supporters revised it this spring to try and win over reluctant GOP colleagues. But Cornyn acknowledged in July that the House would have to move first on its legislation, which is similar but not identical to the Senate bill.

Some advocates are hoping the legislation could be passed as part of the typical last-minute horse-trading in the “lame duck” session in between the election and the end of the year.

To get momentum, “we need a House vote in September, and we need a big House vote in September,” says Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network.

Justice Dept. orders phasing out of private federal prisons

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Aug. 18 that it was ordering the federal Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private prisons.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision in a post on the Justice Department’s website. Yates said the order includes amending the solicitation for five private prisons in Texas from 10,800 prisoners to 3,600.

By May 2017, the Bureau of Prisons is expected to have 14,000 prisoners in private prisons, a decline of about 50 percent from a peak a few years ago. The bureau was instructed that as contracts come up for renewal, it is to reduce the numbers and, if possible, not renew the contracts.

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, responded to the news in a press statement:  “This is an important and groundbreaking decision. With its announcement today, the Justice Department has made clear that the end of the Bureau of Prisons’ two-decade experiment with private prisons is finally in sight. The ACLU applauds today’s decision and calls on other agencies — both state and federal — to stop handing control of prisons to for-profit companies.”

Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the government is taking a “more humane and budget-conscious approach to dealing with one of the country’s most intractable problems.”

Henderson continued, “People in private prisons are more likely to be assaulted, have less access to basic rehabilitative services, and leave worse off than when they arrived.

“This is also a positive indication that the smart-on-crime approach to fair sentencing is slowly shrinking the largest prison population in human history.”

Another outspoken critic of the private prison system, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, applauded the decision.

In a statement issued on Aug. 18, Sanders, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, “Our criminal justice system is broken and in need of major reforms. The Justice Department’s plan to end its use of private prisons is an important step in the right direction. It is exactly what I campaigned on as a candidate for president.

“It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. Study after study after study has shown private prisons are not cheaper, they are not safer, and they do not provide better outcomes for either the prisoners or the state.

“We have got to end the private prison racket in America as quickly as possible. Our focus should be on keeping people out of jail and making sure they stay out when they are released.  This means funding jobs and education not more jails and incarceration.”

On the web

Read Sally Yates’ blog post here.