A1 A1
An interesting article in today's newspaper

Yellow Brick Road: Murals depicting scenes from “The Wizard of Oz” decorate Greensboro. Page A4

N.C. turns to technology to help incarcerated people stay out of prison once leaving it

RALEIGH — Nearly half of the people released from prison in North Carolina are arrested again within two years of re-entering society — a troubling statistic that the state is trying to chip away at with new technology.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is hoping a new app, called Pokket, will put a dent in the rate of recidivism by integrating it into the prison system’s new re-entry program for inmates. Prisoners would be introduced to the app — which helps them plan out their return to their communities — six months before their release date. They would keep using it for six months to a year after that.

A 2015 study of North Carolina showed that 49% of released prisoners were arrested within two years of leaving prison, and Nicole Sullivan, director of re-entry programs and services at NCDPS, said that correctional institutions across the country are looking at new ways to use technology to improve outcomes.

The state is beginning to deploy tablet computers at several of its re-entry prison units, where it will provide access to Pokket to a subgroup of individuals. The re-entry units are the final holding centers for people about to leave the system, putting them closer to their home communities and providing educational and vocational resources.

“Around 95% of these people are going to leave prison — at some point,” Sullivan said. “They will be our neighbors. ... We want to afford them opportunities to learn new skills, so they will be in a better place when they leave our facilities.”

A re-entry plan

The Pokket app helps inmates map out what their first months after prison will look like, developing a schedule of what appointments they need to make and what resources are available in their local community. It also helps them track their progress, download important documents and communicate more effectively with their probation officers.

The app is promising, Sullivan believes, because it makes an incarcerated person active in planning their life, rather than passively getting instructions from a state employee.

“We are trying to move away from staff making a plan for a person and hoping and praying they will use it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the focus on re-entry programs has intensified in the past decade. There is more of a realization that it’s a critical component of the justice system, and she noted that the state, in general, has approached corrections differently since the 2011 criminal justice reform.

Gov. Roy Cooper told an entrepreneurial conference earlier this week that reintegrating prisoners into the community is crucial.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to try and help them assimilate and get back into society,” Cooper said at the NC IDEA Ecosystem Summit. “... We want them contributing to society.”

The pilot program will start with 500 people in prisons in Wake, Orange, Caldwell, Davidson and Lincoln counties. Those counties were chosen because they have robust re-entry councils ready to supply resources.

Study involved

To evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot, North Carolina research institute RTI International will conduct a study of the app’s effectiveness. The pilot will only include male prisoners.

Christine H. Lindquist, a senior research sociologist at RTI International’s Division for Applied Justice Research, said RTI will evaluate statistically the effectiveness of DPS’ implementation of the app.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, will last five years — though it will have some preliminary findings after three.

Lindquist added that North Carolina could prove to be an example for the rest of the country considering use of this technology.

“It is timely because this will be the first empirically objective test of what outcomes other departments of correction can expect to see,” Lindquist said. “It will inform the field.”

The use of smart tablets is a hot conversation within corrections, Sullivan and Lindquist said, because they provide solutions to staffing and space shortages.

Traditionally, education for prisoners means finding time and staff to fill a classroom full of people. Providing lessons, books and other material on the tablet can be more efficient.

“We live in a technology age, and they don’t have those tools while they are incarcerated,” Sullivan said. “We want them to be more digitally savvy when they come out.”

The tablets can only be used in a common area and there are strict limits on what they can be used for. They cannot be taken to individual cells and there is one tablet for about every seven prisoners in the re-entry step.

Once the prisoner is released, he will need access to a computer or handheld device to keep using Pokket, which could hamper its effectiveness.

“We are really going to be working to find how well this tech is going to work with all affected users,” Lindquist said. “It may be that re-entering individuals don’t trust the technology. They might be reluctant to use it.”

White House review turns up emails showing extensive effort to justify Trump's decision to block Ukraine military aid

A confidential White House review of President Donald Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal, according to three people familiar with the records.

The research by the White House Counsel’s Office, which was triggered by a congressional impeachment inquiry announced in September, includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after Trump had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance, according to the three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

One person briefed on the records examination said White House lawyers are expressing concern that the review has turned up some unflattering exchanges and facts that could at a minimum embarrass the president. It’s unclear if the Mulvaney discussions or other records pose any legal problems for Trump in the impeachment inquiry, but some fear they could pose political problems if revealed publicly.

People familiar with the Office of Budget and Management’s handling of the holdup in aid acknowledged the internal discussions going on during August, but characterized the conversations as calm, routine and focused on the legal question of how to comply with the congressional Budget and Impoundment Act, which requires the executive branch to spend congressionally appropriated funds unless Congress agrees they can be rescinded.

“There was a legal consensus at every step of the way that the money could be withheld to conduct the policy review,” said OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel. “OMB works closely with agencies on executing the budget. Routine practices and procedures were followed, not scrambling.”

The hold on the military aid is at the heart of House Democrats’ investigation into whether the president should be removed from office for allegedly trying to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals in exchange for the U.S. support that President Volodymyr Zelensky desperately wanted in the face of Russian military aggression.

In the early August email exchanges, Mulvaney asked acting Office of Management and Budget director Russell Vought for an update on the legal rationale for withholding the aid and how much longer it could be delayed. Trump had made the decision the previous month without an assessment of the reasoning or legal justification, according to two White House officials. Emails show Vought and OMB staffers arguing that withholding aid was legal, while officials at the National Security Council and State Department protested. OMB lawyers said that it was legal to withhold the aid, as long as they deemed it a “temporary” hold, according to people familiar with the review.

A senior budget lawyer crafted a memo on July 25 that defended the hold for at least a short period of time, an administration official said.

Mulvaney’s request for information came days after the White House Counsel’s Office was put on notice that an anonymous CIA official had made a complaint to the agency’s general counsel about Trump’s July 25 call to Zelensky during which he requested Ukraine investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as a rumor that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This official would later file a whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general, which ignited the impeachment push.

The White House released the funds to Ukraine on Sept. 11. The timing has drawn scrutiny because it came two days after the House announced it was launching an inquiry into the whistleblower complaint, which raised concerns about the call and whether the president was using his public office for personal political gain.

Trump has acknowledged ordering the hold on military aid and also pressing Ukraine’s president to investigate his potential Democratic presidential opponent, Joe Biden, but said the release of the funds was not conditioned on Ukraine launching any investigations.

The office of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone oversaw the records review. The White House press office and the White House Counsel’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. Mulvaney’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, declined to comment.

The document research has only exacerbated growing tension between Cipollone and Mulvaney and their offices, with Cipollone tightly controlling access to his findings, and Mulvaney’s aides complaining Cipollone isn’t briefing other White House officials or sharing important material they need to respond to public inquiries, according to people familiar with their relationship.

Mulvaney is a critical player in the Ukraine saga, as he has acknowledged that he asked OMB to block the release of congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine — at the president’s request — in early to mid-July of 2019.

The emails revealed by White House lawyers include some in which Mulvaney urges Vought to immediately focus on Ukraine’s aid package, making clear it was a top priority for the administration.

The legal office launched this fact-finding review of internal records in a protective mode, both to determine what the records might reveal about internal administration conversations and also to help the White House produce a timeline for defending Trump’s decision and his public comments. Along with examining documents, the review has also involved interviewing some key White House officials involved in handling Ukraine aid and dealing with complaints and concerns in the aftermath of the call between Trump and Zelensky.

Cipollone’s office has focused closely on correspondence that could be subject to public records requests, those which involve discussions between staff at the White House and at other agencies. Internal White House records are not subject to federal public records law but messages that include officials at federal agencies are.

Also included in the review are email conversations between OMB and State Department officials and others discussing why the White House was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid and whether the hold might violate the law, one person said. In December 2018, months before the Ukraine issue surfaced as a top priority for the president, the Government Accountability Office had warned OMB it was not following the law in how it chose to disburse and withhold congressionally-approved funds.

Cipollone has told House impeachment investigators that the White House will not cooperate with the inquiry in any way, including by greenlighting witnesses or turning over documents.

While some officials from the departments of State and Defense have testified publicly about their concerns over whether the administration was seeking to leverage the aid and a White House visit for the political investigations, only one OMB official has appeared before the congressional committees.

Mark Sandy, a career OMB official, has testified that the decision to delay aid to Ukraine was highly unusual, and senior political appointees in his office wanted to be involved in reviewing the aid package. Sandy testified that he had never in his career seen a senior political OMB official assume control of a portfolio in such a fashion, according to the people familiar with his testimony.