Prisons Aren’t the Answer on Immigration

SEPT. 5, 2016

The Department of Homeland Security announced late last month that it is considering ending its use of private prisons, as the Justice Department has decided to do. The Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, told his department’s advisory council to study the issue and report back to him by the end of November.

That gives him only a few weeks to read, review and act before everything gets bumped to the Trump or Clinton administration. To save time, Mr. Johnson could do the wise thing and end the contracts now.

There is no need to further study the failings of the private prison industry. Mr. Johnson only has to read the Justice Department inspector general’s report in August about the prevalence of safety and security problems at private prisons, or a recent Mother Jones article that looks inside a brutal, mismanaged Louisiana prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, one of two companies that dominate the immigrant-prison business.

Whether private prison contracts should be canceled or simply not renewed, or whether Homeland Security should contract with state or county lockups, or run its own, will need to be answered. But the administration should first be asking itself why it locks up so many immigrants who are not safety threats, who are not there to be punished, who in many cases are refugees and who are the mothers of young children or are young children.

The Obama administration has spent years endorsing and enacting smart criminal-justice reforms, including pushing back against decades of useless, degrading imprisonment of nonviolent and petty offenders. But there is one huge area where it seems immune to enlightenment: immigration enforcement.

Sentences Full of Errors


Inmates going to a Sunday morning service at the Jester State Prison Farm, near Richmond, Tex. Credit Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images

Washington — As a college student in Virginia, Corey Jacobs started selling drugs with the help of a group of friends to make some extra money. A Bronx native, Mr. Jacobs was no kingpin, and no aspect of their drug conspiracy involved violence. Now age 46, Mr. Jacobs has served 16 years of a sentence of life without parole in the federal system.

 No question, Corey Jacobs should have gone to prison for his felony. But does he deserve to die there?

His sentencing judge does not think so. Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. wrote in a letter supporting clemency for Mr. Jacobs that had the law not mandated a life sentence, he would not have imposed one for a first felony conviction.

Sadly, Mr. Jacobs is no anomaly. There are thousands like him serving sentences in our federal and state systems that are disproportionate to their crimes. The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable.

 Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s criminal justice system. But to build on this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers — including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — to build support for sweeping reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that “we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at historic lows. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the first place.

A few numbers help to illustrate the scale of the problem. From the late 1970s, America’s incarceration rate more than quadrupled, to over 700 per 100,000 people from about 130; compare that with Russia, for example, which imprisons about 450 people per 100,000. Between 1970 and 2005, America’s prison and jail population increased sevenfold, to approximately 2.2 million from about 300,000.

The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, yet about 22 percent of its known prisoner population. In 2010, it cost about $80 billion per year to house these people in our prisons and jails.

Some more numbers: Controlling for other factors, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in state prisons for drug offenses.

Individual responsibility must always be a primary consideration in deciding sentences, but we must also acknowledge that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system. The disparity in incarceration rates has bred distrust, alienating communities of color from those who serve valiantly in law enforcement.

The Justice Department has pioneered reform. Three years ago, as attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism.

The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in less than half of them — the lowest rate on record. The initiative may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum sentence defendants won’t cooperate are wrong — in fact, the rate of cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became fairer. Reform has not made us less safe.

But there’s a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own. Both the Senate and House are now considering comprehensive criminal justice reform bills that could limit the use of mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more power to not impose them. This would be a promising start, but reform must go much further.

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in seeking them.

Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their designated risk level, should get credit for participating in rehabilitation programs.

Federal drug courts provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women willing to do the hard work of recovery. We should increase investment in these programs, with a target of a court in every federal district within five years.

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the policy’s differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent events, we can’t afford criminal justice policies that reduce the already fragile trust between minority communities and law enforcement agencies.

The recidivism rate remains too high. We must remember that at least 95 percent of prisoners in state jails will eventually be released. They should have more support for their return to society, and we can increase their chances of making a successful transition by offering them the tools they need.

Mere familiarity is not a good reason to prolong a policy that’s not working. There can be no compromise on public safety, but we need a new approach: About a third of the Justice Department’s budget now goes to the Bureau of Prisons — and in the absence of change, that proportion will grow. Reform would bring not only more fairness, but also fiscal benefits. Today, the rate and length of incarceration in this country is unprecedented and unsustainable. The success of the Smart on Crime initiative proves we can be safely bold about reform.

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 percent of the prison population. For the federal effort to be a template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, Congress must lead.

The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation. An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.

The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end. Corey Jacobs — and others like him — have paid their debt to society.

Family Preservation Project restoration an act of justice

by SR editorial board | 6 Aug 2015

What saved this program was less about budgeting and more about tapping the power of transformation 

A still frame from Brian Lindstrom’s documentary “Mothering Inside,” about the Family Preservation Project for incarcerated mothers.   Photo courtesy of Brian Lindstrom

A still frame from Brian Lindstrom’s documentary “Mothering Inside,” about the Family Preservation Project for incarcerated mothers. Photo courtesy of Brian Lindstrom

It was the little things that meant so much, Nova Sweet recalls. All the little things mothers who aren’t in prison take for granted.

“They would let me have a hairbrush and a comb. I could groom her when she came here,” Sweet says ecstatically of those weekly visits with her young daughter. “Everything you got to do with your kids in the real world, you got to do with them for three hours — from the nervousness of ‘hello’ to playing games to helping with school work. It was major.”

Sweet says it was while she was in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility that she learned to be a mom. A lesson that would have been lost, she says, if it hadn’t been for the Family Preservation Project that helps mothers like Sweet stay connected with their children during incarceration.

At the end of last year, the state announced it was closing the door on the acclaimed project and using the $300,000 a year expenditure to plug holes in the Department of Corrections’ budget. It was headed for extinction under DOC’s direction.

This week, however, the tide turned. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill that transfers administration of the program from the DOC to the YWCA, along with $400,000 in general fund money for operations.

What saved this program was less about budgeting — $400,000 barely registers in the expanse of a state budget — and more about a community that saw tangible and positive results in bucking our nation’s archaic stereotypes of felons. This country is winning the race to the bottom when it comes to locking people up — repeatedly and generationally. Where the prevailing image is one of irreparable damage, this program tapped into the power of transformation — and hope.

The program also caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, who directed the edgy “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse.” An advocate for the cause, Lindstrom went to work on a documentary to raise awareness about the program and the lives it has changed, titled “Mothering Inside.”From the moment the women in the all-female Coffee Creek Correctional Facility learned that the program was going to be phased out, they went into action. They sought approval from their supervisors to start a letter-writing campaign. Sweet was integral in the effort, writing six-page letters, over and over again, she says. They organized, stayed connected with the legislative session through the League of Woman Voters, and got the word out to anyone who would listen, specifically state lawmakers.

Because beyond the little things — the moments between mother and child — is the bigger, essential network. Peer mentoring, workshops, training sessions and an ear to bend when the pressure of doubt or shame becomes too much. Sweet says that the lessons and techniques learned in the program extended beyond those enrolled to others in the prison.

Sweet takes full responsibility for her crimes committed and time served — she was incarcerated for 18 months on a drug-related conviction and burglary. She had a drug problem and she screwed up, she says frankly and often. She made bad decisions and she doesn’t hide from them.

But even before her incarceration, she felt she didn’t measure up to all the expectations of being a mother. And once she was in prison, she knew her children were paying for it. They were ages 5 and 12 when she went inside. The shame was crippling and defeating, compounded by the social isolation of prison. “All the judgment you say about your worst enemy, you put on yourself,” Sweet says.

The Family Preservation Project allowed her to “flip the switch,” she says. She was released on Feb. 26 to her family and that evening attended the premiere of “Mothering Inside.” She is clean and sober and committed to sobriety for life. She lives at home now with her son and daughter, now ages 8 and 15.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES:  Director’s Desk: Inmates need Coffee Creek’s Family Preservation Program

State Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, who championed the program’s funding, said it was the voices of the women and children in the program that made the difference.

“I can say without a doubt that FPP would not have been restored were it not for the courageous advocacy of the mothers in the program,” Shields told Street Roots. “FPP participants came down to Salem with little experience in the legislative process, but blew us away with their powerful stories of the program’s positive impact on their families. Many mothers spoke about how the program taught them not only how to be a parent, but how to question the cycle of low self-esteem that threatened their ability to succeed and stay clean after prison. They also brought their children, who told us how FPP was the only time they were able to hug their mom, play and read with them in a child-friendly place.”

And the evidence bore out that this is more than a compassionate gesture to prisoners and their families.

“Programs like FPP can reduce costs associated with the child welfare system, foster care placement, intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system, and economic consequences of poor school performance and our safety net system,” Shields says. “Programs like FPP turn lives around, and we can’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to helping children who have incarcerated parents.”

Sweet’s life was among those turned around.

“Finding out that I could still follow my dream was enourmous to me,” says Sweet, who has master’s degrees in social work and criminal justice.

She might go back into that line of work, but for now, her focus is on how the program — and the attitude that surrounds it — can be expanded. “I want Oregon to be on the map,” she says. “I think our state has the right mentality to have this restorative justice rather than criminal justice. I really feel like I’m restored from the process.”

Well done, Nova Sweet, and your colleagues, and all the people from the State Capitol and beyond who saved this important program. We too agree that Oregon could serve as a national example. When we focus on people’s potential and match it with opportunity, we truly can transform lives.

Parenting Program At Oregon’s Women’s Prison Funded For 2 More Years

by   August 05, 2015



The Portland YWCA and state lawmakers have stepped in to continue a program that helps some mothers at Oregon’s women’s prison bond with their kids.

The program, called the Family Preservation Project, targets women serving time for non-violent offenses at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Willsonville. It serves about a dozen families at a time.

The Department of Corrections cut the program earlier this year, saying it cost too much — $300,000 a year — and served too few people.

That prompted the mothers in the Family Preservation Project to spend weeks in Salem lobbying the legislature to restore funding.

“When you’re able to reach out to your kids, and console them or help them with homework while you’re incarcerated, it’s priceless,” said Nova Sweet, who spent 36 months in Coffee Creek on burglary and drug charges.

The program allows mothers to connect with their children twice a month in a room stocked with books and art supplies. Social workers counsel the mothers on the inside and run a support group for caregivers raising the kids on the outside.

Sweet said the program made it easier for her and her two children to transition into life as a family after her release.

“I went straight to making lunches, taking my kids to school, putting them to bed, setting expectations. I know without a doubt that’s because of the program, because there’s no way my kids would have been able to trust me, had I not had all that practice before I left prison,” she said.

Sweet estimated she traveled to Salem once or twice a week for three months to make her case to lawmakers.

Senator Chip Shields, a Democrat who represents North and Northeast Portland, helped write the end of session budget bill that included $400,000 to keep the program running for two more years.

“The funding for this is one-time funding, so it’s going to be a battle for the next legislative session,” Shields said.

As part of the funding deal, the YWCA of Portland agreed to administer the program.

Susan Stoltenberg, the YWCA’s executive director, said she expects the Family Preservation Project to re-launch in September.

“We’re looking, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, to see if we can serve more women, just as deeply, and to expand on our work with the women to support each other inside the prison,” she said.

Why Is It So Hard for Wrongfully Convicted Women to Get Justice?


Imagine going to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now imagine it’s for murdering your child. Meet the lawyers who are fighting to bring justice to wrongfully convicted women.

Kristine Bunch spent 16 years in prison before a court overturned her conviction for killing her son. Photograph by Narayan Mahon

Kristine Bunch spent 16 years in prison before a court overturned her conviction for killing her son. Photograph by Narayan Mahon

In the early morning hours of June 30, 1995, a fire sparked to life in Kristine Bunch’s mobile home. It fanned out across the floor and climbed up the walls, then formed an impassable barrier across the middle of the trailer. Bunch, 21, snapped awake in the living room. Her three-year-old son, Tony, shrieked for her on the other side of the flames.

Bunch staggered outside and howled for a neighbor. She bashed Tony’s window with a tricycle. As the flames lashed 30 feet into the dawn sky, a fire engine tore up to the house. A firefighter, crawling on his belly, found Tony’s charred body in the bedroom.

Bunch told police she had no idea what caused the fire. Soon, though, arson investigators determined that a liquid accelerant such as kerosene or lighter fluid had been poured in Tony’s bedroom and the living room. Police arrested Bunch on charges of arson and felony murder. Eight months later, Bunch went on trial. By then, she was 22 and unexpectedly pregnant with a second child. The evidence against her seemed overwhelming. Two arson investigators gave compelling testimony for the prosecution, and the jury took only a few hours to convict her on both counts.

At sentencing, Bunch recalled, the judge sneered down at her belly.

“I understand that you have arranged to have yourself impregnated,” he said. “You thought it would work to your advantage somehow in this process. It will not. You will not raise that child.”

The judge gave her the maximum sentence: 60 years.

Karen Daniel [1] and Judy Royal [2] are obsessed with people like Bunch.

During their nearly 30 combined years at the Center on Wrongful Convictions [3] at Northwestern University Law School, the two lawyers have helped exonerate more than two dozen people once found guilty of horrendous crimes. Most of the people they have freed are men; just four are women. And for a long time, Daniel and Royal thought that disparity made perfect sense. Men are convicted of crimes, especially violent crimes, at much higher rates than are women. So it follows that most people exonerated of crimes are also men: The National Registry of Exonerations [4], a University of Michigan Law School database that has cataloged information on more than 1,600 exonerations nationwide since 1989, includes just 148 women [5].

About three years ago, however, Daniel and Royal began to question whether that number was too low. Women make up about 11 percent of the people convicted of violent crimes, but just 6 percent of those exonerated of violent crimes. At the urging of a former client, Julie Rea Harper [6]—who spent four years in prison for the murder of her son before a serial killer confessed to the crime—Daniel and Royal decided to try to figure out if there was anything that set exonerated women apart.

They started by looking at the few women whose cases they had worked on themselves. “I haven’t had any men’s cases that looked like these four cases,” Daniel recalls thinking. “Could that really be a coincidence?”

After three years of pursuing that question, Daniel and Royal have concluded that most innocence projects—including their own legal clinic—are failing to bring justice to wrongly convicted women. They have identified factors that make female clients more difficult to exonerate, and uncovered startling facts that distinguish the cases of wrongly convicted women from those of men. And they have launched a project that could change how the American innocence movement helps these women get justice.
Daniel and Royal started by digging deep into the exonerations database. Their first insight had to do with DNA evidence—the very breakthrough that launched the innocence movement a quarter century ago. “Women tend not to be convicted of the types of crimes that can be overturned based on the results of DNA testing,” Daniel explained. Men perpetrate the overwhelming majority of rapes and murders of strangers. These crimes are much more likely to leave behind DNA evidence that can rule out an innocent suspect, or point to the real rapist or killer.

But when women kill, they usually kill someone close to them. And in most of those cases, DNA isn’t relevant. When a woman is suspected of killing her husband or her child, investigators are likely to find her DNA all over the crime scene whether she’s guilty or innocent—so DNA testing can do little to exonerate her. Sure enough, 27 percent of the men in the exonerations registry were freed using DNA evidence. The same was true of only 7.6 percent of the women.

Yet many exoneration projects, including the original Innocence Project [7] founded in 1992, only work with convicts who can be absolved through DNA. Because courts consider DNA tests definitive and trustworthy, genetic evidence is often the most effective way to overturn a wrongful conviction. Innocence projects have tended to avoid cases in which the offender knew the victim, because it can be hard to disentangle what happened in a domestic crime. In some cases, Daniel said, “you almost have to look into that person’s brain to know what happened.” About half the women in the registry went to prison for harming someone in their care.

But reliance on DNA and aversion to domestic cases weren’t the only hurdles for wrongly convicted women. In a whopping 63 percent of the women’s cases, Daniel and Royal realized, it turned out that there was never a crime to begin with—the death was actually a suicide or an accident. That was true in only 21 percent of the men’s cases.

This was a critical discovery. The tools innocence projects rely on are designed to solve crimes. When DNA evidence isn’t available, innocence investigators may seek to establish alibis, interview witnesses overlooked by police, undermine mistaken witness identifications, or track down alternative suspects with a history of similar crimes. Attorneys have a much easier time getting a wrongful conviction reopened when they can point to the real culprit.

Yet if a woman is wrongly convicted for an accident that kills her child, there is no crime to solve, no “real killer,” and probably no alibi.

Overturning convictions for crimes that were really accidents is difficult and time-consuming. Attorneys may have to prove that the prosecution misused or misunderstood forensic science or withheld crucial evidence. Proving that something was an accident may require attorneys to understand highly technical and controversial evidence on fire science, shaken-baby syndrome, toxicology, or rare medical conditions, and hire expensive expert witnesses to bolster their arguments. These hurdles disproportionately affect women: Daniel and Royal have found that 37 percent of the women (but around 20 percent of the men) in the exonerations registry were cleared because their original convictions used false or misleading forensic evidence.

There was one more thing that set exonerated women apart: Daniel and Royal have come to believe that, in many cases in which women were freed because no crime had been committed, sexist stereotypes had been used to conjure up a motive.

Northwestern lawyers Judy Royal (left) and Andrea Louise Lewis (right) have helped reshape how wrongfully convicted women seek justice. Photograph by Narayan Mahon

“Almost every case has something like this,” Daniel told me, recounting one trial in which a prosecutor suggested a mother had killed her son so she could pursue a career in modeling. “That was based on one tiny conversation expressing slight interest in maybe having a nice photo taken,” Daniel said. The woman spent years in prison before the real perpetrator came forward.

When Harper, the woman blamed after a serial killer murdered her son, was on trial, the prosecution portrayed her variously as thirsty for revenge on her ex-husband or, pointing out her pursuit of a postgraduate degree, career-obsessed with no time for a child. Her ex-husband testified that Harper considered an abortion when she first became pregnant (which Harper denied). “And that was used to show she was capable of murder,” Royal said, noting that the trial—and jury selection—took place in a rural, heavily conservative county in Illinois.

In the case of Kristine Bunch, the prosecutor said he didn’t think the blaze burned Bunch badly enough. Wouldn’t a mother walk through fire to save her child? He offered evidence that Bunch was a bad mother, telling the jury in his closing argument that she had asked a friend to take custody of Tony, even though the friend had denied this rumor in her testimony. Not to mention the judge’s comments about Bunch’s pregnancy.

These sorts of narratives have “nothing to do with whether the evidence shows that a person did what they’re being accused of,” said Andrea Louise Lewis, an attorney who works for Royal and Daniel. “And these women get wrongfully convicted in these cases where nothing happened. Nothing criminal happened at all.”
After Kristine Bunch gave birth to her second son, correctional officers put her in an ankle chain just long enough for her to reach the toilet in her hospital room. It had been three months since she went to prison. Bunch held her baby for a fleeting moment before her parents took him home with them. Then she made it her single-minded mission to find someone to help reopen her case.

“I realized, I’m going to have to fight,” Bunch recalled. She sent out hundreds of letters and received hundreds of rejections.

Daniel and Royal have come to believe that in many cases  sexist stereotypes had been used to conjure up a motive.

While Bunch despaired in prison, new research emerged showing that the signatures of an accidental fire are easy to confuse with signs of arson; as a result, many old arson cases have been called into question. In a similar vein, child abuse investigators once took it as gospel that a baby with brain swelling and certain forms of internal bleeding had been violently shaken within the past several hours. But a new body of evidence suggests that infections, infant strokes, and accidental falls can also cause the telltale symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome (SBS). Meanwhile, child abuse researchers now believe that a symptom like brain bleeding can take days—not hours—to cause serious problems. If a child has several caregivers—a babysitter, relatives, and immediate family members—it can be impossible to say with certainty who abused her.

But it’s prosecutors who decide whether to file charges or fight appeals, and not all of them buy the new science. When I sent questions about wrongly convicted women to the National District Attorneys Association [8], I was referred to Josh Marquis [9], an NDAA board member and Oregon district attorney who is a strident skeptic of the innocence community. Daniel and Royal noted that a disproportionate number of women are exonerated because new science cast doubt on their original conviction—or even moved medical experts who once testified against them to change their minds. But Marquis said that he and many of his fellow prosecutors don’t trust the developing science. New doubts about SBS, he said, are shared by only “a very small group of doctors” whose voices have been amplified by the defense bar. As for developments in arson science, he said, “arson investigation is more of an art than a science.”

It was only when Bunch connected with an Indianapolis attorney named Hilary Bowe Ricks, and scraped together a modest fee using her $1.30-a-day prison earnings, that she learned that new arson science could cast her conviction into doubt. In 2006, Ricks convinced the Northwestern center to join the case, and the team, which by then included Daniel, soon found a bevy of problems with the conviction. Bunch’s original defense attorney had argued that one of the trailer home’s many electrical problems probably caused the fire. Any accelerant, he insisted, was likely from a kerosene heater the family sometimes ran in the living room. However, state investigators working on-site (using now-questionable science) observed burn patterns in Tony’s bedroom that fire experts at the time saw as undisputed evidence of arson. And a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives chemist who examined 10 samples sent to his Washington, DC, lab testified at Bunch’s original trial that the floor of both the living room and the bedroom tested positive for liquid accelerant.

Bunch’s new legal team obtained the raw data that the ATF chemist had analyzed. According to lawsuits her attorneys have since filed against the investigators for withholding evidence, someone had altered the result for the sample in Tony’s bedroom, which was negative for accelerant, making Bunch seem guilty. It appeared to Ricks as though investigators hadn’t found accelerant anywhere in the trailer home, except in the living room, where the heater stood.

The fire that had taken Tony’s life now looked like an accident. (The state investigators have denied any wrongdoing, and an ATF spokeswoman declined to comment.)

Bunch’s legal team brought this undisclosed evidence to the Indiana Court of Appeals. On March 21, 2012, a three-judge panel reversed Bunch’s conviction. The state Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in August, and she walked out of prison, a free woman for the first time in more than 16 years. By Christmas, prosecutors quietly declined to retry her.

“When you walk out, you’re exonerated, and you’re free and clear. But that hurt, that humiliation, that shame—it doesn’t go away.”

A few months after Bunch was released, Daniel and Royal launched Northwestern’s Women’s Project [10], an exoneration effort focused exclusively on freeing wrongly convicted women. They have already agreed to represent six women—cases that will involve child head trauma and arson science—and in December, they asked the Illinois Supreme Court to grant their first appeal. Meanwhile, their team is poring over files from dozens of suspicious convictions around the country and amassing court transcripts for an in-depth study of wrongful convictions of women accused of killing their children.

Daniel and Royal’s tiny project may wind up in the vanguard of work to exonerate both men and women. More wrongful convictions are overturned each year, but fewer and fewer of them involve DNA: Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, told me that investigators have now cleared many “easy” DNA cases—such as convictions that can be overturned by testing a single previously untested rape kit. Instead, more cases now involve complex DNA evidence, or none at all, and many more of those cases are ultimately found to involve an accident. Last year, a record 125 people were exonerated across the country; in 58 of those cases, courts found no crime was committed at all.

Today, Kristine Bunch volunteers for the Women’s Project, sorting through inmates’ letters. She reads each one carefully, remembering the decade she spent writing pleas just like theirs. “You live with this freaky numbness,” she said. “It’s almost like you’re underwater and everything is in slow motion. And you can’t seem to pull yourself up out of it.”

She is thrilled that there is now an outfit giving convictions like hers its full attention, run by attorneys who understand that everything about a woman—her career, her ambitions, how much she cries—is ripe for judgment. In her off-hours, she is trying to get to know her 19-year-old son. Even though she saw him nearly every weekend in prison, she missed out on raising him, and building a strong relationship has proved difficult.

So has the healing process. Many men who were wrongfully convicted didn’t know their supposed victims. But with Bunch, the accident she was blamed for not only took 17 years of her life—it took her child.

“You’re accused of this horrible, horrible crime, you’re put away, you have newspapers saying horrible, horrible things about you,” she said. “When you walk out, you’re exonerated, and you’re free and clear. But that hurt, that humiliation, that shame—it doesn’t go away because you’ve been exonerated. It’s hard to step back out and act like you’re normal and part of the world.”

Chips or Children: Preserving Families at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility

Elleanor Chin  (NOW-Oregon Board Member

The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODC) is shutting down the Family Preservation Project at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) in Wilsonville Oregon. The program provides not just visitation for children with their incarcerated mothers, but parenting skill training and support groups. It is an intensive program serving a relatively small population of inmates, but with a high success rate. Few, if any participants in the program, are re-admitted to prison.

The program costs approximately $300,000 a year and in 2014 it served 11 women, 17 children and 22 caregivers (typically family caring for the children while their mothers are incarcerated). That’s about $27,000 per family served, per year. The prison officials say that it’s not fiscally responsible to continue a program that serves so few people and they should use the money for something that benefits a larger percentage of the inmate population.

I took a quick look at the ODC budget and publicly available statistics about Oregon incarceration costs and the suggestion that $300,000 will make a meaningful difference anywhere else in the prison system is questionable. On the other hand the Family Preservation program is a high value, high success program for the people who participate. It provides skills and nurturing opportunities that the inmates did not have earlier in their lives and reduces recidivism. Incarceration is an expensive proposition and as a society we have chosen not to invest in education or other programs that prevent incarceration, so we pay the price.

There are 14,588 prison inmates in Oregon, of whom just over 8 percent (1,265) are women. CCCF houses roughly 650 inmates. The ODC annual budget is roughly $1.4 billion (including programs for probationary, incarcerated and paroled populations). The ODC’s own estimate of daily costs per inmate for incarceration is $87.08 (about $463 million annually for the incarcerated population or $37,700 per year per inmate).

Given these numbers what else could the ODC do with the $300,000 annually that it is presently using to teach incarcerated women how to be better mothers, and give children a chance to see, hug and be read to by their mothers?

*It could house the entire CCF population for a little less than 6 days. (Put another way, it could release close to 700 inmates less than a week early and save the same amount of money).

*It could house a single inmate for about 9.4 years (the median incarceration period is about 5 and half years).

*It could (almost) pay a single ODC invoice to the Frito-Lay company in Illinois for the year 2014.

I also checked the public data for Oregon government agency expenditure. There are plenty of things that the ODC spends $300,000 or more on (besides snack foods). There are a lot of things (advertising, consultants, vehicles, legal fees, postage) on which other Oregon State government agencies spend 300K bucks a pop. There could be any number of explanations for the Lottery Board’s advertising or the Health Authority’s professional services expenditures, and they might be covered by other revenue sources. But the idea that the State of Oregon or even the ODC couldn’t find another place to cut $300,000 is questionable. (and it appears that the State could save a good deal of money on legal fees and crisis management by a change in leadership)

Put another way, the State is already spending close to $40,000 per year on each of the women in the program. This program reduces recidivism. On the other hand, if any two inmates are incarcerated for the median period of five years, it will cost more than the annual cost of the program.

As a percentage of the annual incarceration costs (of all inmates) as a whole, about $6 per year of that is the CCCF Family Preservation program. $6 per person per year won’t do much for the whole prison population. It won’t do much for the entire population of incarcerated women, or even the other 600 or more prisoners at CCCF. It is doing a lot for the children and families who participate in the program. I urge the legislature and the Department of Corrections to reconsider their priorities.