Opening Session: Sarah Hart Addresses Attendees during Opening Session

By Buisch, Michele D.; Clayton, Susan L. | Corrections Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Opening Session: Sarah Hart Addresses Attendees during Opening Session


Buisch, Michele D., Clayton, Susan L., Corrections Today


When Sarah V. Hart, director of the National Institute of Justice, served as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office as lead counsel in institutional litigation involving the Philadelphia Prison System, the advice she gave her clients was: "Don't worry, it's not as bad as you think. Everybody gets sued in this job."

At that time, lawsuits were an unfortunate and all too frequent fact of life for corrections practitioners. To illustrate that point, Hart asked audience members during her keynote speech at the Opening Session Monday, Jan. 13, if they had been sued during the course of their correctional careers--nearly half raised their hands.

Today, however, 50 percent fewer lawsuits have been filed in the nation since the enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Hart provided substantial assistance to the U.S. Congress in drafting the federal legislation while serving the Pennsylvania correctional system.

During her time in Philadelphia, Hart realized that the criminal justice system really was a unified system "that is only as strong as each of its parts. If there is a problem in one of them, it really does affect the way you do business in all the others." The city was on the verge of bankruptcy, and as a result, city administrators, who were not involved in the day-to-day operations of the prison or court systems, decided they could save money by capping the prison population.

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City officials decided that the way to control the prison population was to preclude the detention of people charged with nonviolent offenses, said Hart. It did not matter if the offender had a drug or alcohol problem, if he or she was on probation or parole, or how many times he or she failed to appear for court. Selling drugs was considered nonviolent; so drug dealers would be arrested and told they did not have to pay bail, and that if they came to court, they might be convicted of a mandatory sentence and go to state prison. However, if they did not come to court and they were arrested again, they still could not be incarcerated. "You can imagine what happened," said Hart. "We had in Philadelphia a 76 percent failure-to-appear rate in our drug dealing cases. That compared with a 3 percent failure-to-appear rate in our aggravated assault cases, which were not covered by the prison cap."

A tremendous amount of money had been spent on law enforcement trying to detect crimes and there were pretrial bail programs designed to deal with drug-addicted offenders that were rendered useless by the consent decree because prosecutors did not have the ability to force offenders to go into the programs, explained Hart. "There was nothing that had a bigger impact on our ability to handle cases and process cases than that consent decree," she said. As a result, more than 9,000 offenders who were released by the prison cap order were arrested for new crimes, including 79 murders during the following 18 months.

Philadelphia was not alone, continued Hart. There were many jurisdictions around the country that had launched prison orders to control the management of their prison systems. Some decrees were incredibly detailed and micromanaged the facilities--one even detailed the brand of cleaner to be used in the correctional facilities. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when prison systems were facing budget crises, many agreed to the consent decrees, which provided them with some leverage during appropriations since the system was court-ordered to do certain things. However, correctional managers found that the consent decrees tied their hands and were difficult to change, even if it was not the best way to do business. Staff were disempowered and correctional administrators found they needed the ability to manage their prisons.

PLRA allowed federal judges to fix constitutional violations within the prison systems, but administrators were given the primary responsibility of running their facilities. …

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