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April 5, 2013

Potent new quote from AG Eric Holder: "Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason"

I am very pleased to have seen from this new Politico article that Attorney General Eric Holder last night stressed the need for national criminal justice reform at the end of a major speech delivered at the 15th Annual National Action Network Convention. The full text of the lengthy speech is available at this link, and here is some of the context for the potent quotable stressed above:

[W]e must also move to improve our nation’s criminal justice system — and to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness at every level. We’re providing increased support for programs offering quality legal representation to those who cannot afford it, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright — a landmark ruling, handed down 50 years ago last month, which held that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney.

We’re also asking larger questions about the mechanisms of our criminal justice system as a whole – and, where appropriate, exploring ways to recalibrate this system and ensure that it’s as fair and effective as possible.

Already, this urgent need has driven the Administration to advocate — successfully — for the elimination of the unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  As we speak, it is propelling us to become both smarter and tougher on crime by facilitating more effective policing at the state and local levels; broadening the impact of innovative prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs; using intelligence-based strategies to target federal law enforcement resources and assistance to the areas where they’re most needed; and seeking new ways to help crime victims — especially victims of sexual assault — to make their lives whole again.

Our reform efforts are also driving us to engage allies like the Department of Education — and others — to confront the “school-to-prison pipeline” that transforms too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system.  They are informing essential programs like the Department’s Defending Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention — which are helping to rally federal leaders, state officials, private organizations, and community groups to examine how we can better understand, address, and prevent youth exposure to violence — as victims or as witnesses.  And these efforts are inspiring us to forge new partnerships like the Federal Interagency Reentry Council — a group I first convened in 2011, which brings together leaders from 20 federal agencies to address barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face in rejoining their communities, to promote best practices, and to confront these and related issues as more than just criminal justice problems.

The sheer number of Americans contending with these challenges is staggering. Well over two million people are currently behind bars in this country.  As a nation we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. One in 28 children has a parent in prison.  For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9.  In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year.  Nine to 10 million more cycle through local jails.  And 40 percent of former federal prisoners — along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners — are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release.

Now, there’s no question that incarceration has a role to play in our criminal justice system.  But there’s also no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes a significant economic burden — totaling nearly $83 billion in 2009 alone — along with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.  As a nation — and as a people — we pay a high price whenever our criminal justice policies fall short of fairly delivering outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep the American people safe, and ensure that those who pay their debts to society have the chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

This is why — as we look toward the future — we must promote public safety and deterrence while at the same time ensuring efficiency and fairness. I am concerned by a troubling report released by the United States Sentencing Commission in February, which indicates that — in recent years — black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. The Department of Justice is determined to continue working alongside Congressional leaders, judges, law enforcement officials, and independent groups — like the American Bar Association — to study the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions; to address unwarranted sentencing disparities; and — where appropriate — to explore ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences.  Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason.  It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system.  Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works.  We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter — and not simply to warehouse and forget.

I am so excited to now see that our nation's top law enforcement officer is now expressly saying, without reservation and in no uncertaint terms, what I have long believed about the big government waste in our massive modern criminal justice systems: "Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason."  I hope that, in addition encouraging that "ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system," that he will actively take the many possible steps within his power to get some of the people in prison for too long to ensure those who are now being just warehoused are no longer forgotten.

April 5, 2013 at 11:05 AM | Permalink

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Posted by: Any Old Mouse 10^10 | Apr 5, 2013 11:07:58 AM

"It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works."

We already know what works.

When crime has dropped 50% in the last generation, it's not because of good guesses or sunspots. It's because we actually DID examine what we were getting and did something about it.

We did two things in particular: Used prison more and hired more cops.

Holder's talk really does remind me of the story I told once before here, the story of the village and the elephants.

There was a village getting constantly overrun by elephants. After a while, the villagers had enough of this, and decided to build a high stone wall around the village. The stones were heavy, ugly, cost a lot, and took a long time to build into a wall. But when the wall was built, lo and behold, it worked. There were no more elephant rampages through the village.

A generation later, the new chief, a younger fellow, called a meeting of village residents. He eagerly proposed to take down the wall, and use the stones for compassionate purposes like schools and playgrounds.

One of the elders, a fellow who had helped build the wall, got up and said, "But what about the elephants?" Whereupon the young chief smilingly replied, "I don't know what you're talking about. We haven't had an elephant problem for years."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 5, 2013 11:32:59 AM

When crime has dropped 50% in the last generation, it's not because of good guesses or sunspots. It's because we actually DID examine what we were getting and did something about it.

We did two things in particular: Used prison more and hired more cops.

There isn't a contradiction between believing that the use of increased incarceration from the 1970s to the present lowered crime, and that we incarcerate too many people. It simply requires acceptance of diminishing returns to incarceration, a concept that conservatives (quite rightly!) grasp when applied to marginal tax rates but somehow don't seem to accept when applied to criminology. Even Steve Levitt, who you yourself have cited for intellectual defense of increased incarceration, thinks we've gone too far:

“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Few people are proposing policies that would take us to even 1990s level, and I'm sort of baffled as to why it's such a difficult concept to some that increasing the incarceration rate from 150 to 300 could lower crime, from 300 to 500 is mostly useless, and from 500 to 700 is counterproductive. Most everything else in life has diminishing returns, why would prisons be any different?

Posted by: dsfan | Apr 5, 2013 1:12:41 PM

dsfan --

I hardly denied the law of diminishing returns to scale, which is a virtually universal statistical phenomenon that applies to imprisonment, sure -- and everything else.

My post was directed at something quite specific: Holder's inane notion that we need to start "to examine our systems and determine what truly works."

The implication is that we haven't examined and we don't know. Both implications are false.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 5, 2013 1:37:37 PM

Finnish Prisons: No Gates or Armed Guards
NYT January 2, 2003
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9807E4DB103FF931A35752C0A9659C8B63

KERAVA, Finland — Going by the numbers, Antti Syvajarvi is a loser. He is a prison inmate in Finland — the country that jails fewer of its citizens than any other in the European Union.
Still, he counts himself fortunate.
"If I have to be a prisoner," he said, "I'm happy I'm one in Finland because I trust the Finnish system."
So, evidently, do law-abiding Finns, even though their system is Europe's most lenient and would probably be the object of soft-on-criminals derision in many societies outside of the Nordic countries.
In polls measuring what national institutions they admire the most, Finns put their criminal-coddling police in the No. 1 position.
The force is the smallest in per capita terms in Europe, but it has a corruption-free reputation and it solves 90 percent of its serious crimes.
"I know this system sounds like a curiosity," said Markku Salminen, a former beat patrolman and homicide detective who is now the director general of the prison service in charge of punishments. "But if you visit our prisons and walk our streets, you will see that this very mild version of law enforcement works. I don't blame other countries for having harsher systems because they have different histories and politics, but this model works for us."
Finland, a relatively classless culture with a Scandinavian belief in the benevolence of the state and a trust in its civic institutions, is something of a laboratory for gentle justice. The kinds of economic and social disparities that can produce violence don't exist in Finland's welfare state society, street crime is low, and law enforcement officials can count on support from an uncynical public.
Look in on Finland's penal institutions, whether those the system categorizes as "open" or "closed," and it is hard to tell when you've entered the world of custody. "This is a closed prison," Esko Aaltonen, warden of the Hameenlinna penitentiary, said in welcoming a visitor. "But you may have noticed you just drove in, and there was no gate blocking you."
Walls and fences have been removed in favor of unobtrusive camera surveillance and electronic alert networks. Instead of clanging iron gates, metal passageways and grim cells, there are linoleum-floored hallways lined with living spaces for inmates that resemble dormitory rooms more than lockups in a slammer.
Guards are unarmed and wear either civilian clothes or uniforms free of emblems like chevrons and epaulettes. "There are 10 guns in this prison, and they are all in my safe," Mr. Aaltonen said.
"The only time I take them out is for transfer of prisoners."
At the "open" prisons, inmates and guards address each other by first name. Prison superintendents go by nonmilitary titles like manager or governor, and prisoners are sometimes referred to as "clients" or, if they are youths, "pupils."
"We are parents, that's what we are," said Kirsti Njeminen, governor of the Kerava prison that specializes in rehabilitating young offenders like Mr. Syvajarvi.
Generous home leaves are available, particularly as the end of a sentence nears, and for midterm inmates, there are houses on the grounds, with privacy assured, where they can spend up to four days at a time with visiting spouses and children.
"We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible," said Merja Toivonen, a supervisor at Hameenlinna.
Natalia Leppamaki, 39, a Russian immigrant convicted of drunken driving, switched off a sewing machine she was using to make prison clothing and picked up on Ms. Toivonen's point. "Here you have work, you can eat and you can do sports, but home is home, and I don't think you'll see me in here again," she said.
Thirty years ago, Finland had a rigid model, inherited from neighboring Russia, and one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. But then academics provoked a thoroughgoing rethinking of penal policy, with their argument that it ought to reflect the region's liberal theories of social organization.
"Finnish criminal policy is exceptionally expert-oriented," said Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. "We believe in the moral-creating and value-shaping effect of punishment instead of punishment as retribution."
He asserted that over the last two decades, more than 40,000 Finns had been spared prison, $20 million in costs had been saved, and the crime rate had gone down to relatively low Scandinavian levels.
Mr. Salminen, the prison service director, pulled out a piece of paper and drew three horizontal lines. "This first level is self-control, the second is social control and the third is officer control. In Finland," he explained, "we try to intervene at this first level so people won't get to the other two."
The men and women who work in the prisons also back the softer approach. "There are officers who were here 20 and 30 years ago, and they say it was much tougher to work then, with more people trying to escape and more prison violence," said Kaisa Tammi-Moilanen, 32, governor of the open ward at Hameenlinna.
She conceded that there were people who took advantage of the leniency. Risto Nikunen, 41, a grizzled drifter who has never held a job and has been in prison 11 times, was asked outside his drug rehabilitation unit if he might be one of them. "Well," he shrugged, "many people do come to prison to take a break and try to get better again."
Prison officials can give up to 20 days solitary confinement to inmates as punishment for infractions like fighting or possessing drugs, though the usual term is from three to five days. Mr. Aaltonen said he tried to avoid even that by first talking out the problem with the offending inmate.
Finnish courts mete out four general punishments — a fine, a conditional sentence, which amounts to probation, community service and an unconditional sentence. Even this last category is made less harsh by a practice of letting prisoners out after only half their term is served. Like the rest of the countries of the European Union, Finland has no death penalty.
According to the Ministry of Justice in Helsinki, there are a little more than 2,700 prisoners in Finland, a country of 5.2 million people, or 52 for every 100,000 inhabitants. Ministry figures show the comparable rate is 702 per 100,000 in the United States, 664 in Russia and 131 in Portugal, the highest in the European Union.
Finland's chief worry now is the rise in drug-related crimes that do result in prison sentences and the growing number of Russians and Estonians, who Mr. Lappi-Seppala said were introducing organized-crime activities into Finland.
Finns credit their press and their politicians with keeping the law-and- order debate civil and not strident. "Our newspapers are not full of sex and crime," Mr. Salminen said. "And there is no pressure on me to get tough on criminals from populist-issue politicians like there would be in a lot of other countries."
One reason why the Finnish public may tolerate their policy of limited punishment is that victims receive compensation payments from the government. Mrs. Tammi-Moilanen was asked if this was enough to keep them from getting angry over the system of gentle justice.
"My feeling is that victims wouldn't feel that justice is better done by giving very severe punishment," she said. "We don't believe in an eye for an eye, we are a bit more civilized than that, I hope."
Mr. Syvajarvi, a muscular 21-year-old with close-cropped hair who become a heroin addict at age 14, received a six-year sentence for drug selling and assaults. As a young offender, he will serve only a third of that time, and he is expected to be out in a year.
He is now the appointed "big brother" peer counselor to other youths in the jail, must submit to random drug checks to make sure he remains off the habit and has undergone training with anger management specialists that he says has prepared him to rejoin society with a new outlook.
"Before, I wanted to be like those drug dealers in the States," he said, adding in English, "I was a gangster wannabe." He went into a boxer's crouch and popped punches in the air. "I used to think the most important thing was to stand up for yourself.
"Now I've learned that it takes more courage to run away."

Posted by: claudio giusti | Apr 5, 2013 1:52:52 PM

Holder's statement mirrors sentiments expressed by Justice Kennedy on numerous occasions. Rand Paul has an opinion piece in the Washington Times today explaining why mandatory minimums should be repealed.

Ending mandatory minimums, legalizing marijuana and ending crack cocaine disparity will go a long way toward making us safer, more fiscally responsible and respecting civil liberties.

Posted by: beth | Apr 5, 2013 2:20:23 PM

I think Holder is a 100% wind bag.. He has no intention of really doing anything about lowering the prison counts at month-end, yr-end....

He simply is another Washington guy that likes to hear himself talk and has little ambition.

Prison does straighten out many offenders.. But the federal system WAREHIOUSES people so long...Of coarse crime will go down....Yes Watson, when you remove the biggest percent of troubled people
for half a liftime, it should drop to almost nothing..

I'm not sure but I think I have been hearing a lot about gun control and a lot of lives being taken with guns...Now why did this happen.. MAybe we need to lock people up in a futureistic affair.
Like fortune tellers, maybe the government can predict certain infants that are more likely to be recidivist offenders and catch in the cradle.....KInd of the direction the federal government is headed
towards for some time...

When the elephants have left the are for 30 plus years, it should be ok to remove some boulders..

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Apr 5, 2013 3:02:14 PM

I tend to agree, MidWest, that Holder is mostly talk on this. Whatever he believes on this issue--I assume he is being honest--his actions don't seem to reflect his own belief. I'm not aware of any evidence--though I may be misinformed--that DOJ under his watch is prosecuting less or asking for lower sentences.

Posted by: AnonymousOne | Apr 5, 2013 3:40:53 PM

Another way to look at is (or maybe just a different phrasing of points others have made) is that as Bill Otis suggests mass incarceration (however blunt an instrument) did play a significant role in reducing the crime rate but that, as has been rumored to happen with other sorts of government programs, the benefits were reaped up front while many of the substantial costs and negative side-effects were deferred to the out years when the politicians who voted for the program could expect to be retired so it would be someone else's problem to deal with.

Posted by: JWB | Apr 5, 2013 3:41:07 PM

JWB --

"Another way to look at is (or maybe just a different phrasing of points others have made) is that as Bill Otis suggests mass incarceration (however blunt an instrument) did play a significant role in reducing the crime rate but that, as has been rumored to happen with other sorts of government programs, the benefits were reaped up front while many of the substantial costs and negative side-effects were deferred to the out years ..."

Not so. The benefit -- a substantially reduced crime rate -- has been getting lower and lower for 20 years. We are experiencing more of a benefit now, in the "out years," than we did at the front end, and by a considerable margin.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 5, 2013 4:54:26 PM

MidWestGuy --

"When the elephants have left the are for 30 plus years, it should be ok to remove some boulders.."

That's just what the elephants want us to think.

They have long memories. We should too.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 5, 2013 4:58:02 PM

So (elsewhere in the same speech) the AG simultaneously wants to strengthen the already-draconian federal firearms laws while also fretting about perceived racial disparity in the criminal justice system. He might want to look at http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2011/Table04.pdf and note which "primary offense category" has the highest percentage of black convicted defendants in the federal system (ok, if you're too lazy to click through I'll give it away and tell you it's "Firearms") and think about why that might be the case.

Posted by: JWB | Apr 5, 2013 5:10:58 PM

Bill Otis writes "we" ......delusions of grandeur ?

Posted by: Steve Prof | Apr 5, 2013 7:59:41 PM

Using the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports totals for 1965, 1980, and 2010, adjusted for the population of the US in each year:

In 1965 0.975511% of the US population lived their lives untouched by either violent or property crime; in 1980 0.940501%; in 2010 0.966545%.

Yes, both violent and property crime decreased in absolute terms. However, the back-slapping and self-congratulating is nothing but public relations.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 5, 2013 9:35:13 PM

Is there a more loathesome person in our polity than Eric "Marc Rich" Holder? First of all, if a conservative Republican pulled a stunt like successfully recommending a fugitive for a pardon, we all know his political career would be finito, but the media double standard and other considerations means that our politics cannot be rid of this disgusting human being. (By the way, how laughable, and pathetic is it that a law prof is gushing over Holder's demagoguery.) Second of all, Holder is a hack whose legal talent seems vanishingly small. A few years back, when this idiot was discussing the "public safety exception" found in Quarles v. New York, the nitwit actually argued that Quarles, which dealt with an on the spot question posed to a criminal, contemplated a stationhouse interrogation. Perhaps there is some exception that would support the admissibility of such evidence, but Quarles doesn't get the job done. After that, how is there anything that this dishonest hack says that could be taken as the least bit erudite?

Other than stupidity and immorality, Eric Holder has some other unsavory "qualities." Holder supports the race-norming of school discipline. This is positively evil. There is no justification for varying punishments of children according to their race. None. Yet, this POS would inflict racial discrimination on children. Sick is probably the nicest word I can think of to describe him. Then, of course, we have Fast & Furious. Putting aside the appalling mismanagement at DOJ (for which any decent person would have resigned), Holder lied when he repeatedly asserted that F & F was a Bush Administration program which he stopped. Nice touch---your agency gets a bunch of people killed and you lie in pointing the finger at blameless people. And then, of course, you have this asshat's utter lack of respect for the American taxpayer--one of his acolytes at the DOJ decided to take personal trips and expense them as government travel. Ordinarily, this would be a firing offense (imagine, a DOJ lawyer caught cheating like that). yet in Holder's DOJ he got a slap on the wrist. (Daryl Foster is the guy's name.)

But as for this little speech, how disingenuous is it? This guy is in charge of an agency which puts people away--has he identified anyone who doesn't belong in prison? His DOJ put a guy away for 15 years for carrying a hunting rifle after over a decade of no criminal activity. And now he yaps about people in jail? Really?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 5, 2013 10:18:53 PM

Fred --

Over the last 20 years, when the spike in incarceration really kicked in, the crime rate has fallen by 50% (or more). See for yourself: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm

If you don't think this startling reduction in crime (and of course in crime victims) is a cause for celebration, have at it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 5, 2013 10:24:21 PM

Mr. Otis:

We had this same discussion on this blog on December 27, 2011. See the following link:

http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2011/12/effective-washington-post-commentary-talks-up-great-and-still-puzzling-crime-decline.html#comments

The significance of my comments then and my comment upthread is the numbers in 1965: "0.975511% of the US population lived their lives untouched by either violent or property crime."

There was no crime wave in 1965 except in certain unfortunate communities. These local problems justified a local response. There was nothing going on in 1965 to justify the national one-size-fits-all criminal justice policies that followed. The "crisis" was imaginary. Completely made up. The link you provided in your comment upthread clearly demonstrates this.

A 50% reduction of next to nothing is still next to nothing.

The reality is that except for those unfortunate communities we live now and have always lived in a safe and secure society.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 6, 2013 3:41:32 AM

Fred --

Why do you keep talking about 1965? What I said was this (emphasis added): "Over the LAST 20 YEARS, when the spike in incarceration really kicked in, the crime rate has fallen by 50% (or more)."

Twenty years ago was 1993, not 1965 -- and no one was or is complaining that "incarceration nation" started in 1965. Indeed, the phrase didn't even exist, so far as I am aware, until at least the 80's.

In 1993 -- the relevant year for comparison --there were 14,144,800 serious crimes, according to BJS statistics. This last year, near the peak of "incarceration nation," there were fewer than 10,200,000. That is a drop in the NUMBER OF CRIMES of very close to 4,000,000 crimes annually. And you don't dispute, because you can't dispute, that the CRIME RATE has dropped by 50% in the same period.

If you consider over 14,000,000 crimes "next to nothing" -- which is your exact, astonishing phrase -- you have lost contact with reality.

I doubt that that is what happened, however. It's far more likely that you're just desperate to dismiss crime victims -- literally millions of them -- because they are an inconvenient truth. I will readily concede, though, that you aren't alone in this. The defense side has ALWAYS wanted to sweep crime victims under the rug.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 6, 2013 11:57:59 AM

Come on libs. Defend Holder. You can't. And since you can't, then I am going to ask--what about the person at whose pleasure he serves? We have a evil lying hack as AG--that reflects on Obama.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2013 1:13:01 PM

federalist --

They're too busy to defend Holder. They have to scramble to think of some defense for the statement that 14,000,000 serious crimes is "next to nothing." That zinger exposes liberal complacency about crime like few I have seen here. You have to give Fred credit, though, for pulling back the curtain on what they actually think.

Besides, they're not all that interested in defending Holder, because he hasn't (yet) recommended pardons for every federal inmate, thus falling short of his Marc Rich standard.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 6, 2013 1:54:02 PM

Doug shouldn't be gushing over this twit's comments. By the by, note the careful crafting of the blacks fare worse than whites for the same crimes . . . . there's nothing in there about criminal history or anything like that. So Doug's gushing over a speech that has obvious sophistry.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2013 2:13:53 PM

Amusing how much venom Federalist and Otis spew over the unremarkable idea that t that too many are incarcerated for too long.

Posted by: onlooker1 | Apr 6, 2013 5:50:04 PM

onlooker:

I've been reading a lot of comments lately without commenting because, when you get down to it, why bother.

But I agree that the aforementioneds dost protest too much but what do you expect from legends in their own minds.

PS: I think Holder is incompetent, but so is most of government.

Posted by: albeed | Apr 6, 2013 8:19:28 PM

onlooker--amusing how stupid you are. You'll note that I really didn't discuss the substance of Holder's speech-other than to point out the sophistry and his hypocrisy. Holder doesn't deserve to have his speeches taken seriously.

I dare you, onlooker, to challenge a single thing I wrote on this post.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2013 9:04:20 PM

and albeed, when you want to take me on SFB, then go right ahead.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 6, 2013 9:30:15 PM

onlooker1 --

"Amusing how much venom Federalist and Otis spew over the unremarkable idea that...too many are incarcerated for too long."

Let's deconstruct this.

"Amusing" -- Well my goodness! The ole' condescension ploy. When you don't have anything else, there's always that. Still, it's getting a bit weary, don't you think?

"venom," "spew" -- What I actually do is cite numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is the OPPOSITE of spewing venom. Venom should consist of stronger stuff. Same deal with my discussing what everyone knows, to wit, that Holder is making it up when he suggests that we have not examined what works to combat crime, and that we don't know.

Using words like "spew" and "venom" is nothing more than nasty and juvenile. It's like the ninth grade debate team. It also takes zero thinking. Can't you do better?

"...unremarkable idea that...too many are incarcerated for too long."

The question is not whether Holder's statement is unremarkable, but whether it's true. With vague terms like "too many" and "too long," he makes it impossible to tell. How many, specifically, is "too many?" Ten? A hundred? Fifty thousand? And how long is "too long?" I mean, it makes nice rhetoric for an audience that wants to hear this kind of thing, but Holder (like many other political types) makes claims too general to assess their specific meaning, much less their accuracy.

The one decipherable claim he did make is that we need to examine the methods we use to reduce crime and find out what works. The plain implication is that we haven't examined them and we don't know. Both implications are false. We've examined them for years if not decades, in studies and reports often referenced right on this blog. You don't know this? Holder doesn't? And we know what works: Prison and police, together with other approaches. Holder knows that too, but pretends he doesn't, because it's an unpopular thing to say to the Democrats' left wing, trial lawyer constituency.

Rather than admit any of this, which is not only correct but old hat by now, you walk by it and instead talk about how it's "amusing" if "venom," dada, dada, dada.

Am I supposed to be impressed?

Why don't you just admit that more imprisonment and more police HAVE IN FACT played a significant role in reducing crime? Then we can have a discussion grounded in reality rather than middle school debate tactics.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 7, 2013 9:08:31 AM

Federalist says "amusing how stupid you are." I say to federalist that ad hominem attacks, your stock in trade, bring you dishonor--and make readers turn off to the contents of your message.

Bill Otis says "Why don't you just admit that more imprisonment and more police HAVE IN FACT played a significant role in reducing crime?". I admit that. But what has that got to do with the proposition that many sentences are too long? And what has that got to do with the fact that sentences that are too long are unjust and bring the criminal justice system into disrepute?

Posted by: onlooker1 | Apr 7, 2013 10:01:10 PM

onlooker1 --

"Federalist says 'amusing how stupid you are.' I say to federalist that ad hominem attacks, your stock in trade, bring you dishonor--and make readers turn off to the contents of your message."

If you perceive a problem with ad hominem attacks, why do you not also perceive a problem with your own use of condescension and snark? Do you think those things might incentivize readers to "turn off to the contents of your message?"

"Bill Otis says 'Why don't you just admit that more imprisonment and more police HAVE IN FACT played a significant role in reducing crime?'. I admit that."

Excellent, thank you. Why did it take this long? Those are key facts in the debate about "incarceration nation," but getting the defense side to openly acknowledge them is like pulling teeth.

"But what has that got to do with the proposition that many sentences are too long?"

Two things. First, once it is recognized that more prison has helped bring down crime, the cry that "There's too much prison!" is going to lose a lot of steam with the public. Second, we can't even really tell what SPECIFICALLY the critics have in mind, since they don't give particulars about the meaning of "too much" or "too long." How much is too much, and why? And how long is too long, and why?

"And what has that got to do with the fact that sentences that are too long are unjust and bring the criminal justice system into disrepute?"

Again, it's impossible to decipher what your inquiry actually means because it uses non-specific words like "too long" and "unjust." Many right on this blog would consider ANY sentence for meth, Ecstasy, crack, LSD or heroin to be "too long" and "unjust" because it's up to each individual, and never the government, to determine what substance is too dangerous to put into his own body. Under this anything-goes theory of drug policy, the is no such thing as a "just" sentence for drugs (and drugs make up the single largest component of federal sentences).

Yet others would consider almost any sentence to be "unjust" because the whole system is shot through with racism and racism's distortion's.

Still others would consider almost every sentence to be "too long" because we have a financial crisis and prison costs must be slashed across the board.

And more yet would consider almost every sentence to be "too long" because sentencing includes a retributivist element, whereas it should really focus just on rehabilitation.

Generalizations don't advance the ball; they obscure the ball. That's exactly what Holder was doing. But because he was doing it in front of an audience that fully understands the usefulness of the specifics staying out of view, he got away with it.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 8, 2013 9:04:57 AM

There are, of course, other theories, including the banning of lead in gasoline, that correlate with the decrease in crime/crime rates. We actually do still need to "figure out what works" and what is just statistical noise/coincidence...

also, since most people are not incarcerated for life, even taking the current level of incarceration as a given, we need to get better at figuring out what works to rehabilitate/avoid recidivism - for example, data out of NJ and Penn. seems to be suggesting that 'halfway houses' there are *not* working, but there are certainly reentry support programs that have good track records. There is the idea of compensating private prisons in part based on recidivism (so they have some skin in the game, and an institutional interest beyond simply more people in prison)

Posted by: anon | Apr 8, 2013 11:18:32 AM

Bill, you know good and well nobody on this blog thinks that a jail term for the hard drugs you mentioned above is unjust...Sure they need to go away..But not for 20-40 or even a life sentence for drugs... Good gravy, lots of sentences are less than 20 yrs (actual time served) for rape, murder, etc.
Nobody disputes that drug addicts need to go away and not for 3 yrs yrs either...More than 5 but less than 10 in most cases...Some maybe a tad longer....But its what they garner from the time spent that
hopefully can make a diff.. I have no problem, letting them out after say 4-8 yrs...They have 4-10 yrs supervised release to keep them in line...40% go back...But what is the % of drug cases that get there release revoked, 75%....That alone indicates that just turning them loose to run isn't working in the federal facilities....I concede, some can never be helped seemingly....But the more they have to use their brain and learn skills has to better them and us as well...

I think we are on the same page, you have a much bigger book for them to pass thru...

This an intersting theory.. You and I don't encounter drugs in our daily lives...Why, we have more education and a job that floats us up away from the environment....Lets get these people trained in a skill, so the people they encounter in daily jobs are less inclined to be undesireables...

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Apr 8, 2013 11:27:32 AM

I think A.G. Holder is simply stating what most observers have been stating for years.

See U.S. v. Bannister, 786 F.Supp.2d 617 (E.D.N.Y. 2011)(“The increased prison population is due in large part to longer sentences. For the same crimes, American prisoners receive sentences twice as long as English prisoners, three times as long as Canadian prisoners, four times as long as Dutch prisoners, five to 10 times as long as French prisoners, and five times as long as Swedish prisoners. Yet these countries' rates of violent crime are lower than ours, and their rates of property crime are comparable.”); Frank O. Bowman, III, “The Failure of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines: A Structural Analysis” 105 Colum. L. Rev. 1315 (May, 2005) (“At or near the root of virtually every serious criticism of the guidelines is the concern that they are too harsh, that federal law requires imposition of prison sentences too often and for terms that are too long...by any standard the severity and frequency of punishment imposed by the federal criminal process during the guideline era is markedly greater than it had been before...the length of imposed sentences has nearly tripled...as a consequence since the 1980’s federal inmate populations have increased by more than 600 see James Q. Whitman, Harsh Justice (Oxford Press 2003) paperback ed. at 223 n. 72 (“the makers of sentencing guidelines succeeded only in contributing to the making of a law of punishment that shows obstinately little concern for the personhood of offenders...a law that tends to treat offenders as something closer to animals than humans, and that has correspondingly sought, more and more frequently, simply to lock them away”); id at page 19 (“American punishment is comparatively harsh, comparatively degrading, comparatively slow to show mercy”); Michael Tonry, The Handbook of Crime And Punishment (Oxford Press 1998) paperback ed. at page 3 (“Contemporary policies concerning crime and punishment are the harshest in American history and of any Western country.”)

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Apr 8, 2013 1:08:22 PM

MidWestGuy --

"Bill, you know good and well nobody on this blog thinks that a jail term for the hard drugs you mentioned above is unjust."

Actually, on the thread just before this one, Soronel Haetir and AlaJD said they favor the legalization of all drugs, and Scarlett Rose directly implied the same thing, although she refuses to say out loud that her implied stance is her real stance.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 8, 2013 1:37:24 PM

As quoted from Banister above: American Federal prisoners receive sentences much longer than in other countries--and for the few who actually go to trial and dispute their guilt, the penalty is incredibly high. The PSR for my spouse recommended OVER 6000 months. And this was a first and non-violent "offense"--for an offender who was not even in the public eye (no need to bring down the hammer and make a Big Impression of being tough on crime). Left behind is a minor child, two children in college and a spouse of 28 years. But there was nothing to do but plead "Not Guilty" if you truly believe you are not guilty. The price is being paid and possibly paid FOREVER...we await the appeal. The sentence actually meted out is mind-bogglingly long. But hey, anything less than 6000 months is merciful, right?
And yes, totally agree that Holder's statements are truly useless platitudes.

Posted by: folly | Apr 8, 2013 3:15:57 PM

folly:

What did your spouse do, not tell the truth to an FBI agent not under oath, "Obstruction of Justice", or insist on video for interrogation. What a JOKE! They should get a life sentence for not showing the proper respect to the likes of the FBI or the DOJ. (sarcasm)

Bill:

Many sentences for criminals with no (physical, mental or financial) victims are too severe. Ten years for SO non-registration, sentences for accidental and/or unknowing possession of CP, not knowing the many restrictions for the use of your own "wet-lands" property and on and on and on.

That you fail to even acknowledge the many injustices in our "Just-Us" system is telling. I know, it is the "best system" (silly platitude) devised by man and is not perfect. It is FAR from perfect and getting worse.

I maintain that I am more CONSERVATIVE than you. That I fail to stand by and not question the status-quo does not make be a liberal, a term you throw around too frequently and lightly.

Throw the book at pre-meditated violent criminals, even the DP and I might not have an issue. Take a good chunk out of someone's productive life who has caused no harm and I have problems.

PS: Each drug law and substance should be taken on its own, not as they are currently classified (I disagree with the overall legal scheme) as it is archaic. Start with and only with MJ as a Schedule 1 for beginners, and then we may have the beginnings of a useful discussion.

Posted by: albeed | Apr 8, 2013 4:39:01 PM

folly:

What did your spouse do, not tell the truth to an FBI agent not under oath, "Obstruction of Justice", or insist on video for interrogation. What a JOKE! They should get a life sentence for not showing the proper respect to the likes of the FBI or the DOJ. (sarcasm)

Bill:

Many sentences for criminals with no (physical, mental or financial) victims are too severe. Ten years for SO non-registration, sentences for accidental and/or unknowing possession of CP, not knowing the many restrictions for the use of your own "wet-lands" property and on and on and on.

That you fail to even acknowledge the many injustices in our "Just-Us" system is telling. I know, it is the "best system" (silly platitude) devised by man and is not perfect. It is FAR from perfect and getting worse.

I maintain that I am more CONSERVATIVE than you. That I fail to stand by and not question the status-quo does not make be a liberal, a term you throw around too frequently and lightly.

Throw the book at pre-meditated violent criminals, even the DP and I might not have an issue. Take a good chunk out of someone's productive life who has caused no harm and I have problems.

PS: Each drug law and substance should be taken on its own, not as they are currently classified (I disagree with the overall legal scheme) as it is archaic. Start with and only with MJ as a Schedule 1 for beginners, and then we may have the beginnings of a useful discussion.

Posted by: albeed | Apr 8, 2013 4:40:37 PM

Sorry about the double post!

Posted by: albeed | Apr 8, 2013 4:58:35 PM

It is funny--those who whine about my "venom" etc. whine when I call them stupid. Here's the thing--nothing I have said about Eric Holder is debatable. Both personally and professionally, he is a disgrace. We all know it, and we all know (except for the gushing law prof) that Holder was full of it when he made that speech. So what's the issue with my post?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 8, 2013 9:43:05 PM

Federalist, I don't disagree with your criticism of Holder. I do, however, disagree with your juvenile, ad-hominem rhetoric, on this and other threads. I think everyone objects to them. Why not participate in a civil debate here like most others? Aside from civility, which should be reason enough, the rhetoric detracts from your points, and thus does you a double disservice.

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 8, 2013 10:26:47 PM

awwww, so I call Sotomayor and Frost dim----so what?

No one ever defends Sotomayor in here-ever . .. .

Posted by: federalist | Apr 9, 2013 12:32:26 AM

Mr. Otis at April 6, 2013 at 11:56 AM.

I chose 1965 because you turned 18 that year. So my comments span your entire adult life.

There is nothing inaccurate about the raw data in the statistics you quote. (Of course, there is no way any of us could do our own compilation.) But you refuse to examine this data, because to do so would reveal, how do you say it, “an inconvenient truth” about the arguments you’re making, which you would rather, how do you say it, “sweep under the rug”.

So take any year during your entire adult life and then examine the raw data to see what an individual’s risk of being a victim of a violent and/or property crime. And then do the same for every year.

Although the risk rises and falls over time, this risk year-in-and-year-out is next to nothing.

While I acknowledge (and have acknowledged) that certain communities have suffered real crime waves during this period, it is irrefutable that we live now and have always lived in a safe and secure society.

I know that you carried out the policies that led to Incarceration Nation. I know you must defend them and are proud of the part you played. But in reality these policies were a complete waste.

On a national level these policies didn’t reduce the risk of being a crime victim. Doing nothing was a legitimate policy choice. In fact, there is no way that one can disprove that doing nothing would not have resulted in the same “decrease” in crime that you’re so proud of.

When you get down to it, the policies of Incarceration Nation were nothing but a glorified jobs program that should have been administered by the Commerce Department rather than the Department of Justice.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 10, 2013 8:52:32 AM

Fred --

The year of my 18th birthday has nothing to do with the subject matter of this post.

I will rest on the figures I cited for the last generation, figures you concede are correct, and which show that crime is half now what it was then.

"...it is irrefutable that we live now and have always lived in a safe and secure society."

It is not only NOT irrefutable, it's flat-out wrong. Nixon, a known sleaze, won the Presidency largely because he ran against the exploding crime in the late 60's and early 70's. Likewise, Giuliani won the mayorship in a hugely Democratic city because he promised (and succeeded) in making it "safe and secure," something it assuredly was not before he took office.

Talk to anyone who lived there. I have.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 10, 2013 9:44:06 AM

Mr. Otis:

I apologize for disrespecting your life’s work.

While I concede the accuracy of the raw data in the compilations of which you are so proud, you refuse to controvert my assertions that this same raw data demonstrates a next to nothing risk of being a victim of a violent or property crime.

Referring to Nixon and Giuliani proves nothing. They are both panderers and scaremongers.

All they and their kind ever do is infantilize the American people by scaring them until they start wetting their pants and then by offering to protect them, sometimes from criminals, sometimes from terrorists, such as AQ, KSM, and OBL, Ayatollahs, the imminent Financial Armageddon, ect., ect., ect.

So if you really disagree with my contentions that the risk of being a victim of a violent or property crime was next to nothing, why don’t you use this data you're so proud of to calculate what you contend the risk is. You can do any of all of the years during your adult life.

I know old geezers like us didn’t have to take statistics in college. But all you really need is Algebra II.

I’m sure Prof. Berman would feature your analysis in a guest post. For something as important as this, you shouldn’t have to lurk in blog comment threads.

Unless you're afraid.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 12, 2013 9:12:13 AM

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