« July 29, 2018 - August 4, 2018 | Main | August 12, 2018 - August 18, 2018 »

August 11, 2018

Does Prez Trump have the courage to visit the largest maximum security prison in the country?

The question in the title of this post reflects my weak effort to try to goad Prez Donald Trump into accepting an invitation from Louisiana's governor as reported in this article:

Gov. John Bel Edwards has invited President Donald Trump to visit Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the country.

In a letter sent Thursday (Aug. 9) [available here], Edwards said Angola would be a good place for Trump to explore the benefits of Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul last year. Edwards touted the vocational, victim reconciliation and faith-based programs housed at the prison, where nearly 6,000 inmates live.

Specifically, Edwards said Trump should see the accredited Bible college located at Angola and the prison's hospice program, which has received national recognition. "It is not a secret that the implementation of these types of programs is what helped to transform LSP from one of the bloodiest prisons in America to a place of hope, transformation and reconciliation," Edwards wrote to Trump.

Both the Bible college and the hospice program at Angola predate by several years the criminal justice overhaul Edwards spearheaded. In fact, inmates at Angola were not as significantly affected by the criminal justice law changes in 2017 as people in other parts of the prison system.

Edwards' criminal justice overhaul dealt mostly with shortening sentences and expanding parole and probation opportunities for nonviolent offenders. It has resulted in Louisiana losing its title of incarceration capital of the country, but the drop in the prison population has occurred almost entirely among people serving time for lower-level offenses.

Angola is home predominantly to people serving life sentences for violent crimes who will never be released from prison. Those inmates mostly did not see substantial changes in their sentences as a result of the criminal justice overhaul.

The governor also attended a meeting in New Jersey with Trump and several other elected officials on criminal justice issues Thursday. Other governors attending included Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, Gov. Phil Bryant, R-Mississippi, and Gov. Nathan Deal, R-Georgia. Edwards was the only Democrat invited to the meeting.

Notably, a little more than three years ago as detailed in this post, Prez Obama got lots of good press for making history by being the first occupant of the White House to visit a federal correctional facility.  Back in 2015, I had this to say in the wake of this historic visit: "Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated."  It would be amazing for Prez Trump to be the one who turns visiting a prison into a tradition, and perhaps Prez Trump could even be goaded into trying to  Prez Obama's visitation record by visiting both a state and a federal prison as he advocates for Congress to pass criminal justice reform.

Interestingly, earlier today Prez Trump had this tweet which mention his advocacy for prison reform in this way: "I'm pushing for prison reform to give people who have paid their debt to society a second chance. I will never stop fighting for ALL Americans!"  I hope part of his push will include a visit to Angola and other prisons and jails, where millions of Americans reside.

A few older related posts:

August 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

A closing thanks to Prof Drinan ... and an open invitation

As readers know, I was fortunate to have Professor Cara Drinan guest-blogging on her book, titled "The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way," while I was on the road this past week. In addition to here expressing my thanks for her great work keeping this space warm while I was away, I also wanted to link all her postings here:

On Prof Drinan's book:

 Other postings:

In addition to closing out Prof Drinan's guest-blogging, I figured I would also use this post to note my general eagerness to help all sorts of folks utilize this soap-box in all sorts of ways.  As regular readers know, I can and often will do a single guest-post when someone sends me new information or thoughtful commentaries on sentencing topics.  And I am ever interested in having an array of authors guest-post about recent articles, reports or books.  I also welcome comments with suggestions on ways to get other voices in this space.

August 11, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, On blogging | Permalink | Comments (0)

August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

The War on Kids Post #5

In my last substantive guest post on Sentencing, Law & Policy, I’d like to address some of the juvenile justice reform measures that I think are achievable and worth pursuing in the post-Miller era. In the book, I devote a whole chapter to the reform frontier, and I refer to these measures as part of a war for kids.

Put kids back in juvenile court

For most of the 20th century, it was difficult and rare to move a child into adult court; juvenile court was the default for juveniles. We only moved away from that model because of fear-based and now-debunked theories about juvenile super-predators. As I mentioned in my first guest post, transfer laws have exposed juveniles to sentences that were drafted with adults in mind, including mandatory minimums and decades-long terms. Given what we know about adolescent brain development, and given that the Supreme Court has held that children are different for constitutional purposes, we should return to the default of keeping kids in juvenile court. Even in such a regime, a judge could still determine that extraordinary circumstances warranted transfer to adult court. But those rare, outlier cases should not dictate the norm for juveniles. Today, in the wake of the Miller trilogy, there is newfound traction to the claim that transfer laws (especially direct file laws) are unconstitutional and nonsensical.

Provide age-appropriate sentencing for juveniles

While children continue to be charged in adult criminal court, advocates should insist upon age-appropriate sentencing for them. At a minimum, this means seeking the abolition of juvenile life without parole, and that goal is on the horizon and achievable. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court declares a categorical ban, states are moving in this direction. Beyond this measure, advocates should insist that youth always be a relevant, mitigating variable at sentencing. In particular, consistent with the science of the Miller trilogy, it means that mandatory minimums should never apply to juveniles. I have made this argument before here, and I do in THE WAR ON KIDS, as well. Two states, Washington and Iowa, have already come to this conclusion, as I mentioned earlier this week.

Argue against incarceration for kids as a general matter

In my mind, a key component of a war for kids is the concept that incarceration is fundamentally damaging for juveniles and that we should avoid it whenever possible. This is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of my agenda for juvenile justice reform, and I know it is the one that draws the most attention. I regularly hear from people who point to the unspeakable cruelty and violence of adolescents in the news, and I certainly do not claim that no juvenile requires secure detention. What I do claim is that we use correctional institutions in too many instances when we need not and that we do damage to juveniles in the process. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s recent report on probation makes clear, there are diversion and probation alternatives that are designed to develop youth and keep them out of the cycle of the correctional system.

Create periodic, youth-informed panels for juvenile sentencing review

Neuroscience tells us that the juvenile brain is developing well into the mid-20’s. This means that, even when youth commit serious crimes, if given the right opportunities at rehabilitation, they can mature and outgrow that criminal behavior. Two things follow from this reality. First, even youth who are sentenced to lengthy term-of-year sentences should be eligible for educational and other rehabilitative programs. How else will they embark on a path to demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation, an opportunity the Supreme Court requires? Second, juvenile sentences – especially lengthy ones – should be reviewed periodically for their ongoing legitimacy. Given that the Supreme Court has elevated youth to be a mitigating quality of constitutional significance, the punishment rationale for juvenile sentences cannot be what it is for similarly situated adults. Ongoing, periodic review for youth offenders can serve as a check against the Court’s concern that states not make a judgment at the outset that juvenile “offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”

It’s worth noting that, in order to secure any of these juvenile-specific measures, we must continue to push for criminal justice reform more broadly. This is harder than ever in some ways. We must vigilantly counter the growing rhetoric that says we are a crime-ridden nation and that urges prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence in all cases. And we must insist upon equality in our criminal justice system – a goal our system has espoused but never achieved.

Thank you, Doug and the Sentencing, Law & Policy community for letting me share my work! CHD

August 10, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 9, 2018

The Modern Eighth Amendment

The title of this post was the name for one of yesterday's panels at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools ("SEALS") Conference. Organized by Will Berry (Ole Miss) and Meghan Ryan (SMU), the panel addressed the history of the Eighth Amendment, Eighth Amendment doctrine and its future. Panelists (myself included) covered everything from the original meaning of "cruel and unusual" to the Court's problematic use of the "evolving standards of decency" doctrine and the future of the death penalty and JLWOP.

There really was something for everyone (well, everyone interested in Eighth Amendment issues)!

Corinna Lain (Richmond) provides a full summary here.

August 9, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Recommended reading, Science | Permalink | Comments (4)

White House emails "startling facts about America’s prison system"

Though I will not be back on-line regularly for a few more days, I  am finding ways to check my emails and felt inspired to report here on what appeared at the very top of the daily email blast from the White House today.  Specifically, this text and these links appeared under the heading "The startling facts about America’s prison system":

Following successful bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House of Representatives, President Trump is hosting a roundtable with a number of America’s governors today to discuss implementing prison reform in their states.

President Trump supports efforts to reduce recidivism — the return of former inmates to prison—as a way to make America’s streets safer. The Administration has worked closely with Congress to find a solution that reduces crime, enhances public safety, and increases opportunity for those who have earned a second chance.

“The facts about America’s prison system are startling,” Senior Advisor Jared Kushner wrote in The Wall Street Journal in April. “The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population, but roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. . . . Of the 650,000 people who leave prison every year, two-thirds will commit a new crime within three years.”

The bottom line, says Kushner: “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country—and that includes those in prison.”

The starting facts about America’s prison system.

Taking action: President Trump’s principles for reforming our prisons

No White House gets any credit or congratulations from me unless and until actual legislation gets enacted into law.  But this email, which also noted that today "President Donald J. Trump is hosting a roundtable discussion with governors on prison reform and the FIRST STEP Act before Congress," reinforces my sense that this White House is going to keep talking up at least some measure of criminal justice reform until at least something actually gets done. Or, at least, they are fooling me into believing this is a real priority for this Administration.

August 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 8, 2018

The War on Kids Post #4

In my last post, I discussed the Miller trilogy and states’ attempts to implement those Supreme Court decisions. Today I want to focus on one especially challenging implementation issue: parole.

When the Supreme Court held Miller retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana, it suggested that states could comply with the Miller mandate by employing parole procedures, evidently in an attempt to head off potential state concerns of finality and efficiency. As the Court explained: “Giving Miller retroactive effect. . . does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole. A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.” However, parole post-Miller has proven to be problematic in several respects.

First, typically parole applicants enjoy very few procedural rights because the Supreme Court has treated parole as a privilege – a proceeding in which the prisoner has no liberty interest. Even when the Supreme Court has construed a state’s parole statute to create some liberty interest for prisoners, it has not gone so far as to hold that prisoners are entitled to the aid of counsel. As a result, in 35 states a prisoner has no right to counsel at a parole hearing. In contrast, when a state employs parole as a method for remedying a now-unconstitutional sentence, the prisoner does have a liberty interest at stake, as some lower courts have recognized. At the same time, because juvenile lifers are entitled to a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release,” parole boards across the country are now tasked with examining factors deemed relevant in Miller, including childhood environment and efforts at rehabilitation. Thus, youth offenders seeking parole may be entitled to procedural safeguards, including the right to counsel, never before seen in the parole context.

Second, while parole largely disappeared from the criminal justice landscape in the late 20th century, it has been making a comeback as part of the smart on crime movement – only modern parole is new and different. While discretion and instinct are still relevant, modern parole is largely dependent upon actuarial assessments of prisoners’ risks if released. These risk assessment tools rely upon statistical relationships between both static (e.g. age at date of conviction) and dynamic (e.g. level of education obtained during incarceration) factors. Almost all states employ these risk assessment tools in the parole process.

Here’s the concern post-Miller: the risk assessment tools may rely on factors that defy the Supreme Court’s holding that children are categorically less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation. For example, in many jurisdictions, the tools consider the inmate’s age at first commitment; the younger the age at first commitment, the higher the risk factor and the less likely the inmate is to be released. Similarly, many tools consider factors such as employment history and marital status before incarceration; being single and unemployed increases one’s risk assessment score. Juvenile offenders as a group, precisely because of their youth at the time of conviction, were unlikely to have been married or to have had an employment history. In other words, the risk assessment tools treat youth as an aggravating variable, while the entire logic of the Miller trilogy hangs on youth as a mitigating variable.

Finally, there are several other thorny questions implicated in jurisdictions that employ parole as a Miller remedy. Should states be expected to release a certain percentage of youth offenders seeking parole in order to satisfy the “meaningful opportunity” standard? When a parole board denies release, must it issue a decision and rationale in writing beyond the generic statement that an applicant is not a suitable candidate? What is an appropriate wait period for a board to impose before reconsidering a case? Henry Montgomery himself was denied parole earlier this year and given a two-year setoff period; he’s already 71 and surely at some age a two-year setoff violates the meaningful opportunity standard.

By my count, 11 states today are employing some kind of new, youth-informed parole procedure in order to address prisoners with claims under Miller. Other jurisdictions are employing their previously existing parole mechanisms to do so. Litigation challenging the adequacy of these procedures is already underway, and time will tell how helpful it was for the Court to suggest that states rely upon parole as a Miller remedy.

August 8, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12)

August 6, 2018

The War on Kids Post #3

As Doug’s readers know, in recent years the Supreme Court has limited the extent to which states can expose kids to the most serious sanctions on the books. In a series of cases known as the Miller trilogy (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama) the Court has held that states cannot execute people for juvenile crimes (Roper); that the Eighth Amendment bars life without parole for juvenile, non-homicide offenders (Graham); and that it similarly precludes mandatory life without parole even for juveniles who commit homicide (Miller). With these decisions, the Court has underscored the idea that “kids are different” for constitutional purposes and state sentencing practices must reflect that fact.

While I address these decisions in some detail in The War on Kids, I know that most of Doug’s readers are familiar with the basics of these decisions and the social science on which they relied. So I want to focus this post on the implementation of the Miller trilogy.

Implementing the Miller trilogy has been messy. First, there was the question of who benefitted from these cases. Roper and Graham were clearly retroactive decisions – they took off the table a form of punishment as it applied to a category of individuals – and each case affected a relatively small pool of prisoners. At the time of Roper, there were 72 death row inmates who had been convicted as juveniles, and according to the Supreme Court, there were 129 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving LWOP at the time of Graham.

Miller, on the other hand, called into question the validity of approximately 2,500 cases nationwide. After some initial confusion among lower courts, the Supreme Court clarified in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision applied retroactively. As a result, those 2,500 prisoners whose cases were squarely within the purview of Miller became eligible for some modification of their sentence. (I’ll return in my next post to the Montgomery Court’s suggested and yet problematic method for compliance, parole). In addition, youth offenders across the nation who had been sentenced to de facto life sentences or to sentences of life with parole began to seek judicial relief, arguing that the reasoning of Miller applied to their cases too. In sum, there are now thousands of individuals across the country with legitimate claims to relief under the Miller trilogy.

Second, states have grappled with how to implement a Miller remedy: what should it be? and who should provide it? In recent years, many state legislatures have banned JLWOP. In 2011, the year before Miller, only five states banned JLWOP; today 20 states and D.C. ban the sentence. At the same time, states like West Virginia and Nevada have enacted legislation that not only bans JLWOP, but also permits ongoing, periodic review for youth serving lengthy terms and requires sentencing judges to consider the mitigating aspects of youth. Courts have also focused on the rehabilitative ideals of the Miller trilogy and have struck down lengthy term-of-year sentences as the de facto equivalent of JLWOP. The Massachusetts high court has banned JLWOP and held that youth offenders seeking parole have the right to counsel and expert assistance. The Iowa Supreme Court found that the Miller rationale precludes any mandatory sentence for youth. In sum, many courts and legislative bodies are grappling with when youth offenders should receive a second-look, what term of year sentence is appropriate in lieu of LWOP, and what procedural safeguards apply post-Miller to inmates seeking relief.

As I discuss in the book, this implementation process has been slow and the results have been mixed. Not all states have embraced the science and reasoning behind the Miller trilogy. For example, Michigan incarcerates 363 of the roughly 2,500 inmates nationwide serving JLWOP. Under Miller, those 363 individuals should receive a new sentence that takes into account their youth and other relevant mitigating factors. Moreover, the Miller Court expressly said that, given what we know about adolescent brain development, “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” Yet prosecutors in Michigan are seeking to resentence more than half of these individuals to LWOP over great protest from the defense community. Some prosecutors in counties of Pennsylvania and Louisiana have taken equally harsh positions on resentencing JLWOP inmates. At the same time, courts have been split on the question whether Graham and Miller apply to aggregate juvenile sentences that result in a death-in-custody term.

And prisoners feel the geographic disparity post-Miller. Consider Florida, where Terrence Graham originally received JLWOP for the attempted armed robbery of a barbeque restaurant. After the Supreme Court found his JLWOP sentence unconstitutional in 2010, he received a resentencing hearing and a 25-year sentence for his non-homicide crime. In contrast, juvenile homicide offenders in Massachusetts are now parole eligible after serving 15 years and they enjoy a number of procedural rights in the parole process. Post-Miller it is clear that justice can be slow and uneven as a function of federalism.

In my next post, I’ll focus specifically on state attempts to use parole in order to comply with Miller.

August 6, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

August 5, 2018

Prison Nurseries?

I'll be back tomorrow blogging about the war on kids, but I wanted to share this NBC news story about prison nurseries.

According to the piece, there are eight prison nurseries in the United States, and as the number of women in prison has exploded in recent years, their existence raises several interesting questions. Is separation from one's infant a just part of a sentence? Does that sentence inflict more harm on the child than the mother? Is it safe/desirable/cost-effective to allow mothers and infants to remain in prison together? More here:

Bedford Hills has the nation’s longest-running prison nursery. Opened in 1901, it has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences pregnant to bond with their babies while behind bars — something advocates say is best for babies and lowers the mothers’ recidivism rate, but some critics argue violates the children’s constitutional rights using taxpayer money, while placing a burden on prison staff by requiring them to double as day care workers.

Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States. The number of such programs has fluctuated as funding and sentiment toward them has risen and fallen, but now, more than ever, their effectiveness is under scrutiny as the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed.

There are nearly 214,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. — an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project. There is no official count of how many of these women give birth while imprisoned.

In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.

 

August 5, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)