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Correctional Reform Associations - More Recent Sentencing Reforms And Ngos

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The pace of new NGOs that have taken up the cause of sentencing corrections reform has not slowed over the last several decades. These groups have aggressively pursued litigation on behalf of prisoners' rights, raised awareness about the human rights violations committed by the U.S. justice system, and campaigned against mandatory prison sentences.

In 1961 Lois Schweitzer established the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. The Vera Institute took on the issue of crowding in jails, and through its Manhattan Bail Project tested new methods by which indigent defendants could be released from jail without having to make large payments to bail bondsmen. The research promulgated by Vera led to a nationwide movement to create pretrial service agencies to allow poor people with community ties to effect release on their own recognizance. The Vera Institute has also launched a number of demonstration projects proving the public safety of a variety of alternatives to incarceration. The institute works closely with New York City government to initiate innovative service programs for drug addicts, the homeless, and mentally ill offenders.

An outgrowth of the ACLU, the National Prison Project (NPP) launched a successful effort to advance the constitutional rights of prisoners. NPP lawsuits led to numerous legal orders and agreements to improve the conditions of confinement and to protect the rights of prisoners. The work of the NPP caused many states to end the practice of double- and triple-celling inmates, thus creating the need either to consider alternatives to incarceration or to construct costly new prisons. In the juvenile arena, the Youth Law Center and the National Center for Youth Law filed lawsuits challenging conditions of confinement in youth corrections facilities. In particular, these juvenile litigation groups focused on the horrendous practice of holding children in adult jails. Besides litigation, all three of these NGOs have produced resource materials and conducted training for correctional practitioners to teach them how to avoid further legal actions.

Human Rights Watch was formed in 1978 in Helsinki in response to complaints about human rights violations taking place in Soviet bloc nations. The group set out to monitor and support the provisions of the historic Helsinki Accords. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan argued that human rights violations in democratic nations were more "tolerable" than violations occurring in totalitarian counties. Human Rights Watch/America was founded to counteract this thinking. Human Rights Watch has produced a series of investigative reports pointing to human rights violations in areas such as capital punishment, the use of super maximum security prisons, and the growing practice of sentencing children to adult prisons. Human Rights Watch has assisted community organizing efforts in the United States, and has raised international consciousness about grave problems of the American criminal law system.

An interesting recent NGO is Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). Founded in 1991, FAMM was created by family members of persons who were sentenced to extremely long mandatory prisons terms, often for relatively minor drug offenses. FAMM conducts public education efforts, and actively opposes tougher penalties at the state and federal level. FAMM has worked to gain clemency for those serving unduly harsh sentences. A related group is Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), which is a nationwide advocacy group that opposes the death penalty, looks for creative alternatives to incarceration, and fights for the humane treatment of inmates. CURE includes a diverse membership, including exoffenders and the families of current prison inmates. In 2000 CURE organized a voter registration drive for inmates of the Baltimore City Jail to dramatize the disenfranchisement of offenders. Another goal for CURE is to make telephones more accessible to inmates and to lower the cost of the phone calls, so that incarcerated persons can stay in touch with their families.

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