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Scholars question wisdom of state’s jail library proposal

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A proposal by the state Commission of Correction to eliminate the requirement that law libraries be maintained in local correctional facilities could save Jefferson County a pile of money — more than $5,000 a year, according to officials — but raises ethical questions about inmate rights.

The proposal aims to take advantage of changing technology to offer inmates access to online legal research databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw in lieu of expensive legal texts.

However, according to Tracy L. Thompson-Przylucki, executive director of the New England Law Library Consortium at Albany Law School, the proposal fails to take into account the digital divide and the nonlinear nature of legal research.

“While e-access should be made available, e-access cannot be the only access,” Ms. Thompson-Przylucki said in an email.

Both books and electronic databases can be expensive and e-access comes with its own challenges, said John Boston, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“Computers require maintenance and repair, especially if used by a large number of different users, and computers and legal databases both require training in their use — or they require hiring people with training to use them for the prisoners,” Mr. Boston said in an e-mail.

Legal research does not necessarily follow a straight path.

In the heavy volumes, inmates are searching for precedents and statutes that may help their cases. By virtue of their situation, they have time, Ms. Thompson-Przylucki said.

Because of this and because of the access to law libraries, there are many instances in which inmates have discovered evidence that can help their overworked public defenders.

Without access to books, which can be used as a jumping-off point for research, inmates may not be able to make the connections necessary to build an effective defense.

Often, “you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it,” Ms. Thompson-Przylucki said. “Many of the materials that would be used in this kind of research are annotated. The annotations are where connections are made.”

Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns said that if the proposal becomes a reality, “I would go to the county and tell them that we’d have to have computers and some way to pay for access to electronic databases. By having inmates taking books from the county’s law library, they’d be replacing them every six months. ... I don’t think there’s much of a choice. We’d have to supply them with something. Inmates still have a right to defend themselves.”

Mr. Burns also said that if the rule goes into effect, he will keep the law library’s current collection until the books become outdated.

The way the proposal is written appears to invite the risk that some correctional facilities may elect not to provide a law library at all, Mr. Boston said.

“It appears that the proposed amendment would allow jails to have neither books nor computer databases, but only to obtain materials that the prisoner is capable of describing with specificity, with a three-day delay. Such a system is unworkable for prisoners without legal training working under court deadlines,” Mr. Boston said.

But the option of switching to electronic databases is appealing to corrections officials, who feel it would provide a more efficient system of updating information.

“There are some books that are constantly getting updated — a couple of words changed in a page, and they’ll change the whole book,” said Sgt. Charles F. Zeltwanger, facility supervisor at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

Books can cost anywhere from $350 to $1,200 each, said Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail supervisor.

Some say the switch to electronic databases could have benefits for inmates, as well.

Defense attorney Seth B. Buchman, Three Mile Bay, said the databases are very user-friendly and would enable inmates to conduct focused searches for material pertinent to their cases.

“There’s no comparison,” Mr. Buchman said. “Even a good library is not a replacement for one of these electronic databases.”

And if jails somehow were able to band together to purchase access to the databases, it could save counties a lot of money.

But it would be a delicate balance.

“If costs were significant, they likely would result in restricted access, overtly or covertly,” Mr. Boston said.

Ideally, inmates would have access to a comprehensive law library of books and to electronic databases.

Jefferson County’s jail does not have any computers in its library, though there are laptops available to inmates during General Educational Development classes.

The proposal includes a provision that would allow jails to use profits from the inmate commissary to pay for law library costs.

This would enable the jail to purchase computers, Mr. Spencer said.

Inmates cycle through the library by units and have a regular day for library usage, a “couple times a week,” Mr. Zeltwanger said.

They sometimes can get permission to use the facility at other times, especially if a court date is approaching. They are not allowed to remove the books from the library.

Mr. Zeltwanger said he knows several inmates who have become extremely well-educated about the law due to their frequent encounters with the criminal justice system and their study of legal texts like the ones available in the jail’s law library.

While these “jailhouse lawyers” often are derided by some, Mr. Zeltwanger said they are “actually pretty helpful” and can point neophytes in the right direction when they begin researching their cases.

If adopted, the final rule would go into effect May 18, according to the Associated Press.

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