Sunday, December 17, 2017

Looking at latest notable Texas death penalty realities

Number_of_executions_between_2000-2017_the_united_states_texas_harris_county_chartbuilder_8a62cc520e6ffbae4480cedf31ee36ed.nbcnews-ux-600-480This new NBC News article, headlined "Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people," reviews how Texas has become fairly representative of the entire United States with a more limited use of capital punishment. Here are excerpts:

Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people.  That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.  Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death an astonishing number of people: zero. This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole. The number of executions has been trending downward across the United States, but it's particularly noticeable in Texas and Harris County.

“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country — and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country. Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county’s district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn’t say she would abandon it altogether.  Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the “worst of the worst” — such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases.  It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases. “The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing,” Ogg said. “We’re reframing the issues.  It’s no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It’s making sure the punishment meets the crime....”

But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions.  The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas’ new sentencing option of life without parole.  The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances — such as an abusive childhood or mental illness — for an alleged murderer’s crime.

Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide. “We’ve seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others,” said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.

December 17, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Looking at the changing demographics of modern mass incarceration

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "A Mass Incarceration Mystery: Why are black imprisonment rates going down? Four theories." Here is the start of the extended analysis along with the basics of the propounded "four theories":

One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.  The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that for the last 15 years, racial disparities in the American prison system have actually been on the decline, according to a Marshall Project analysis of yearly reports by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

Among women, the trend is even more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate shot upward by 53 percent. As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has pointed out, the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.

Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable given the “churn” of inmates into and out of those facilities. Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100. The charts below from the Vera Institute of Justicealso reveal significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.  (In both the prison and jail data, the total number of incarcerated Latinos has increased, but their actual incarceration rate has remained steady or also fallen, attributable to their increasing numbers in the U.S. population generally.)

Taken together, these statistics change the narrative of mass incarceration, and that may be one reason why the data has been widely overlooked in policy debates. The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news," said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on trends in prison statistics. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate.  How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?'”

According to Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”  In other words, how much of any shift in the imprisonment rate can be attributed to changes in demographics, crime rates, policing, prosecutors, sentencing laws and jail admissions versus lengths of stay? And is it even possible to know, empirically, whether specific reforms, such as implicit bias training, are having an effect on the trend line?....

[H]ere are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall....

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids....

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement....

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas....

Even with all of these factors at work, the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades.

I think a lot of other possible factors may be at least marginally contributing to the changing demographics of prison populations between 2000 and 2015, factors ranging from more diversity in the ranks of police, prosecutors and the judiciary to greater concerns with sentencing decision-making (and advocacy) by courts (and lawyers).  And perhaps readers have some additional (sensible?) theories on this front that could be shared in the comments.

December 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"Second Chance Reforms in 2017: Roundup of new expungement and restoration laws"

2017-Report-Cover-Image-791x1024The title of this post is the title of this notable new publication from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center documenting how states are, in various ways, expanding opportunities to avoid or mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record. Here is the report's executive summary following the start of its "overview" section:

The national trend toward expanding opportunities for restoration of rights and status after conviction, first documented in Four Years of Second Chance Reforms, 2013 – 2016, has accelerated in 2017. In the past year, 23 states broadened existing second chance laws or enacted entirely new ones, enhancing the prospects for successful reentry and reintegration for many thousands of Americans.  Some of these laws significantly expanded the availability of relief, while others involved relatively minor changes to existing law.

The most frequent type of reform involved limiting public access to criminal records: new sealing or expungement laws were enacted in several states that previously had none, eligibility requirements were relaxed for many existing record-sealing authorities, and new limits were imposed on access to non-conviction and juvenile records -- all making it easier for more individuals to get relief at an earlier date.  However, there is remarkably little consistency among state record-closing schemes, and most states extend relief only to less serious offenses after lengthy eligibility waiting periods.  Moreover, eligibility criteria are frequently so complex as to defeat the sharpest legal minds. Other recurring reforms limit employer inquiries into criminal history at the application stage.  A few states enacted administratively enforceable standards for consideration of criminal history in employment and licensing. To date there has been very little empirical research into the relative effectiveness of different forms of relief, so it is perhaps not surprising that experimentation seems to be the order of the day.

This report documents changes in state restoration laws in 2017, many of which are quite significant.  It is based on research from the Restoration of Rights Project (RRP), an online resource maintained by the CCRC that catalogs and analyzes the restoration laws of all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal system.  Following an overview of 2017 reforms, specific changes to the law in each state are briefly described along with relevant citations. More detailed information about each state’s laws is available in the RRP state profiles.

• In 2017, 23 states enacted laws aimed at reducing barriers faced by people with criminal records in the workplace and elsewhere.  Some of these laws significantly expanded the availability of relief, while others involved relatively minor changes to existing laws.

• Most of the new laws involved either restrictions on public access to records or limits on employer inquiries into criminal history.  A few states enacted administratively enforceable standards for consideration of criminal history in employment and licensing.

• Important new record-sealing schemes were enacted in Illinois, Montana and New York, and nine other states either relaxed eligibility requirements or otherwise supplemented their existing sealing or expungement authorities to make relief more broadly available at an earlier date.  Of these nine, the most ambitious reforms were enacted by Nevada, which was one of several states that created a presumption in favor of relief for eligible persons.

• Seven states enacted substantial revisions to their juvenile expungement and sealing laws in 2017, some of which require courts to order relief automatically after a brief waiting period.

• Ten states enacted state-wide “ban-the-box” laws limiting inquiries into criminal record by public employers at preliminary stages of the hiring process.  California, Connecticut and Vermont extended these limits to private employers as well.

• In California and Nevada, restrictions on application-stage inquiries are part of a broader nondiscrimination scheme that prohibits consideration of certain kinds of criminal records, and establishes standards for individualized determinations in all other cases.  Both states provide additional procedural protections.

• While reforms are moving at a fast pace, there is no consensus about the most effective way to avoid or mitigate the adverse effects of a criminal record, and very little relevant empirical research.

December 14, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

DPIC releases 2017 year-end report noting "second lowest" executions and death sentences in a quarter century

SentencingTrendsThis press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "U.S. Sees Second Fewest Death Sentences and Executions in 25 Years," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2017 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here are excerpts from the press report:

Executions and death sentences remained near historically low levels in 2017, as public support for the death penalty fell to its lowest level in 45 years, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).  Eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991.  Only the 20 executions in 2016 were lower.  Fourteen states and the federal government are projected to impose 39 new death sentences in 2017, the second lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.  It was the seventh year in a row that fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed nationwide.

“Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States.  For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.

“Across the political spectrum, more people are coming to the view that there are better ways to keep us safe than executing a handful of offenders selected from a random death-penalty lottery.  There will be times when numbers fluctuate — particularly following historic highs or lows – but the steady long-term decline in the death penalty since the 1990s suggests that in most of the country, the death penalty is becoming obsolete,” Dunham said.  DPIC provides information and analysis and tracks data on the death penalty, but does not take a position for or against capital punishment.

The new death sentences imposed in 2017 highlight the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty, Dunham said.  “By themselves, three outlier counties  — Riverside, CA; Clark, NV; and Maricopa, AZ —  were responsible for more than 30% of all the death sentences imposed nationwide. The other 3,140 counties and parishes imposed fewer new death sentences than even last year’s record low.”  Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two.  It was the second time in three years that Riverside sentenced more people to death than any other county.

States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them — more than 70 percent — were never carried out.  Nearly 75 percent of executions took place in four states: Texas (7); Arkansas (4); Florida (3); and Alabama (3).  But Texas’s state courts stayed seven other executions using new laws to permit those prisoners to obtain judicial review of false or misleading evidence, and its execution total tied 2016 for the fewest conducted by the state since 1996.

December 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

"Make or Buy? The Provision of Indigent Defense Services in the U.S"

I blogged here in August 2016 about an interesting draft paper authored by Yotam Shem-Tov then titled "Public Defenders vs. Private Court Appointed Attorneys: An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems."  The draft sought to empirically examine different outcomes for defendants assigned different types of counsel.  The authored of that draft emailed me today to report that the paper is now "much more complete" compared to the prior noted draft.  The revised paper, available here via SSRN, is now going by the title that is the title of this post, and here is the new abstract:

U.S. courts provide constitutionally mandated legal services to indigent defendants via private court-appointed attorneys and public defenders' organizations.  I investigate the relative efficacy of these two modes of indigent defense by comparing outcomes of co-defendants assigned either a public defender or a private court-appointed attorney within the same case. Using data from San Francisco and federal district courts, I argue and show empirically that in multiple defendant cases public defender assignment is as good as random. Estimates show that public defenders reduce the probability of any prison sentence by 22%, as well as the length of prison by 10%.

Interestingly, as noted in a prior post, the early draft's abstract indicated a finding that "defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes."  But then, as blogged here in January 2017, the author can to the inverse conclusion after checking his data and receiving feedback about his draft analysis.  And now it seems that, after finalizing the numbers, the author has seemingly concluded once-and-for-all that his data show that public defendants generally producing better outcomes than private court-appointed attorneys.

Prior related posts:

December 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

"The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the US Sentencing Commission. Here is how the USSC describes the report and its highlights on this webpage:

The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders is the fourth report in a series examining a group of 25,431 federal offenders who were released from prison or placed on probation in calendar year 2005. This report analyzes the impact of the aging process on federal offender recidivism and, once age is accounted for, the impact of other offense and offender characteristics. The findings included in this report build on those in the Commission’s 2016 Recidivism Overview report. (Published December 7, 2017)...

Report Highlights

Older offenders were substantially less likely than younger offenders to recidivate following release.  Over an eight-year follow-up period, 13.4 percent of offenders age 65 or older at the time of release were rearrested compared to 67.6 percent of offenders younger than age 21 at the time of release.  The pattern was consistent across age groupings, and recidivism measured by rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration declined as age increased.

For federal offenders under age 30 at the time of release, over one-fourth (26.6%) who recidivated had assault as their most common new charge.  By comparison, for offenders 60 years old or older at the time of release, almost one quarter (23.7%) who recidivated had a public order offense6 as their most serious new charge.

Age and criminal history exerted a strong influence on recidivism.  For offenders in Criminal History Category I, the rearrest rate ranged from 53.0 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 11.3 percent for offenders age 60 or older.  For offenders in Criminal History Category VI, the rearrest rate ranged from 89.7 percent for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 37.7 percent for offenders age 60 or older.

Education level influenced recidivism across almost all categories.  For example, among offenders under age 30 at the time of release, college graduates had a substantially lower rearrest rate (27.0%) than offenders who did not complete high school (74.4%).  Similarly, among offenders age 60 or older at the time of release, college graduates had a somewhat lower rearrest rate (11.6%) than offenders who did not complete high school (17.2%).

Age exerted a strong influence on recidivism across all sentence length categories.  Older offenders were less likely to recidivate after release than younger offenders who had served similar sentences, regardless of the length of sentence imposed.  In addition, for younger offenders there was some association between the length of the original federal sentence and the rearrest rates, as younger offenders with sentences of up to six months generally had lower rearrest rates than younger offenders with longer sentences. However, among all offenders sentenced to one year or more of imprisonment, there was no clear association between the length of sentence and the rearrest rate.

For certain major offense types, the type of federal offense that offenders had committed also had an effect on recidivism across age groups.  For example, firearms offenders had a substantially higher rearrest rate across all age categories than drug trafficking offenders, who in turn had a higher rearrest rate across all age categories than fraud offenders.  For example, for offenders under age 30 at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 79.3 percent (firearms), 62.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 53.6 percent (fraud).  Similarly, for offenders age 60 and older at the time of release, the rearrest rates were 30.2 percent (firearms), 17.5 percent (drug trafficking), and 12.5 percent (fraud).

At every age group, federal prisoners had a substantially lower recidivism rate than state prisoners who also were released in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  For example, for offenders age 24 or younger at the time of release, 63.2 percent of federal prisoners were rearrested within five years compared to over four-fifths (84.1%) of state prisoners.  Like federal prisoners, older state prisoners were less likely to recidivate than younger state prisoners.

December 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and executions statistics for the first year of recent presidential terms

This recent story, reporting that Texas' last scheduled execution of the year was canceled, suggests it is not too early to start taking stock of 2017 with respect to the application of the death penalty.  This DPIC upcoming execution page reports that no more executions are slated to go forward in 2017, meaning that Ohio closed the books on 2017 executions with its failed efforts to kill Alva Campbell (details here) and that Texas and Florida were the last states to actually complete executions with their separate executions on November 8th (details here).  Notably, the AP has this new accounting headlined "US executions increase slightly in 2017," which includes these details:

The year-end numbers also show that Texas will regain its standing as the nation’s most active state in carrying out capital punishment....

Texas put to death seven prisoners this year, matching the state total from 2016. They were among the 23 inmates — up from 20 last year — put to death in eight states in 2017. Arkansas carried out four executions, followed by Alabama and Florida with three each, and Ohio and Virginia with two each. Georgia, which topped the nation in 2016 with nine, executed one prisoner this year, as did Missouri.

Oklahoma, which typically has one of the busiest execution chambers in the country, went another year without putting any inmates to death as the state struggles with implementing a new execution protocol. Oklahoma put all executions on hold two years ago after several mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015, and the state’s attorney general’s office has said it won’t request any execution dates until at least 150 days after new protocols are released....

Executions in the U.S. peaked in 1999, when 98 inmates were put to death. The following year, Texas alone carried out a record 40 executions. As recently as 2010, the national total was 46, but it has been declining steadily. “Partly it’s because of impediments to execution, like the embargo of the optimum drugs,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.  “Although Texas seems to have found ways to get them, many states have not.” Scheidegger also attributed the decline to a “dramatically lower” homicide rate compared with the 1990s and “greater selectivity in which defendants are sentenced to death, by both prosecutors and juries.”...

At least eight inmates — five from Texas and one each from Missouri, Alabama and Ohio — are set to die in the first quarter of 2018. The first, scheduled for Jan. 18 in Texas, is Anthony Allen Shore, who confessed to killing multiple people and is known in the Houston area as the “Tourniquet Killer.”

As the title of this post hints, one (distorting?) way to look at this year's execution numbers is to reflect on the impact (or lack of impact) from a change in presidential leadership in 2017. Because executions take place almost exclusively at the state level — there has not been a federal execution in nearly 15 years — arguably the politics and actions of the person in the Oval Office has little or no impact on yearly execution realities. But I actually think a President (and an Attorney General) can and historically have, at least in subtle ways, an impact on capital policies and practices nationwide. And, as the accounting below suggests, the raw first-year-of-term US execution numbers (drawn from DPIC here) are just intriguing:

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977

 

Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985

 

George H.W. Bush only term: 16 executions in 1989

 

Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997

 

George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005

 

Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013

 

Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017

 

So, in last four decades we have had: five Democratic Prez first terms with a total of 204 executions (40.8/year); six Republican Prez first terms with a total of 184 executions (30.7/year). 

This fact that there have been, in modern times, an average of 10 more executions in the year starting Democratic terms than in the year starting Republican terms is itself perhaps proof that who is in the Oval Office is of no matter to state execution practices. But I still find even this facile sort of number crunching interesting, as will be watching whether Prez Trump and his Department of Justice gives any attention to these matters in the years ahead.

December 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Might we soon see Top 10 rankings of state criminal justice systems emerging from the Bureau of Justice Statistics?

The question in the title of this post is my slightly tongue-in-cheek reaction to the news reported here by The Crime Report

President Trump has announced his intention to appoint a director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) who has no apparent experience in the field. He’s Jeffrey H. Anderson, a former senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who is described by the White House as a “constitutional scholar” and a “leader in formulating domestic policy proposals.”... 

This year, the Trump administration named him to direct the Office of Health Reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where the White House said he led efforts “to reduce insurance premiums, regulatory burdens, and opioid abuse.”

The only statistical experience cited by the White House in Anderson’s background was co-creating the Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings, which boast of computing college football’s “most accurate strength of schedule ratings,” taking into account the quality of teams’ opponents.

The Crime Report article goes on to explain why this really is not a laughing matter:

BJS directors under President Obama, James Lynch of the University of Maryland and William Sabol, now of Georgia State University, both were long-time criminologists and recognized experts in crime and justice statistics.

In May, under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, four former BJS directors wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that “serious consideration” to head BJS, which operates in Sessions’ Department of Justice, [be given] “to individuals who have strong leadership, management, and scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products; visibility in the nation’s statistical community; ability to interact productively with Congress and senior DOJ staff; and acceptance of the National Academies’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency.”

The letter was signed by Lynch, Sabol, Jeffrey Sedgwick, who served as BJS director in the last three years of the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Justice Research and Statistics Association, and Lawrence Greenfeld, who headed BJS in the first five years of the Bush administration.

Anderson does not appear to have any of those qualifications.

The same four recent BJS directors wrote in May to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees arguing that the requirement for Senate confirmation for the BJS director should “be restored and that the director’s status be changed from serving at the will of the president to serving a fixed term of at least four years, staggered from the presidential election.”  The ex-directors said in their letter: “It is imperative that policy discussions about the often-contentious issues regarding crime and justice be informed by statistical data trusted by the public to be objective, valid, and reliable…”

“To ensure BJS data are viewed as objective and of highest quality, BJS must be seen as an independent statistical agency wherein data collection, analysis, and dissemination are under the sole control of the BJS.”

As of this writing, the current Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings has Wisconsin ranked #1, University of Central Florida #2, Clemson #3, Georgia #4 and Alabama #5.  What this might portend fore the future of the Bureau of Justice Statistics is anyone's guess?

November 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Demographic Differences in Sentencing"

Via this webpage, the US Sentencing Commission provides a helpful summary and some key findings from its latest data publication titled ""Demographic Difference in Sentencing." The full 49-page report is available at this link, and here is the USSC's summary and accounting of key findings:

For this report [link in] prior two reports, The Commission used multivariate regression analyses to explore the relationships between demographic factors, such as race and gender, and sentencing outcomes.  These analyses were aimed at determining whether there were demographic differences in sentencing outcomes that were statistically significant, and whether those findings changed during the periods studied.

The Commission once again updated its analysis by examining cases in which the offender was sentenced during the period following the 2012 report.  This new time period, from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2016, is referred to as the “Post-Report period” in this publication.  Also, the Commission has collected data about an additional variable — violence in an offender’s criminal history — that the Commission had previously noted was missing from its analysis but that might help explain some of the differences in sentencing noted in its work. This report presents the results observed from adding that new data to the Commission’s analysis....

Key Findings

Consistent with its previous reports, the Commission found that sentence length continues to be associated with some demographic factors. In particular, after controlling for a wide variety of sentencing factors, the Commission found:

1. Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied. The differences in sentence length remained relatively unchanged compared to the Post-Gall period.

2. Non-government sponsored departures and variances appear to contribute significantly to the difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders. Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance during the Post-Report period. Furthermore, when Black male offenders did receive a non-government sponsored departure or variance, they received sentences 16.8 percent longer than White male offenders who received a non-government sponsored departure or variance. In contrast, there was a 7.9 percent difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received sentences within the applicable sentencing guidelines range, and there was no statistically significant difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received a substantial assistance departure.

3. Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing. Black male offenders received sentences on average 20.4 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders, accounting for violence in an offender’s past in fiscal year 2016, the only year for which such data is available. This figure is almost the same as the 20.7 percent difference without accounting for past violence. Thus, violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to contribute to the sentence imposed to any extent beyond its contribution to the offender’s criminal history score determined under the sentencing guidelines.

4. Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders during the Post-Report period, as they had for the prior four periods. The differences in sentence length decreased slightly during the five-year period after the 2012 Booker Report for most offenders. The differences in sentence length fluctuated across all time periods studied for White females, Black females, Hispanic females, and Other Race female offenders.

These are really interesting (though not especially surprising) findings, and it will be interesting to see how the US Department of Justice and members of Congress pushing for federal sentencing reform might respond. I will need to take a little time to dig into some of the particular because providing my own assessment and spin, but I have always feared (and wrote an article a long time ago) that differences in the resources and abilities of defense counsel may create or enhance disparities in federal sentencing outcomes in ways that can not be easily measured or remedied.

November 14, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System"

Cover_drug-mand-minVia email, I just learned that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released another big notable data report on mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system.  This latest report it titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System," and this USSC webpage provides links to the full report and particular chapters. That same pages also provides this summary and overview of the report's key findings:

Summary

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analysis similar to that in the 2017 Overview Publication, providing sentencing data on offenses carrying drug mandatory minimums, the impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population, and differences observed when analyzing each of five main drug types.  Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.  Because drug offenses are the most common offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, many of the trends in this publication mirror the trends seen in the 2017 Overview Publication.

Key Findings

Building directly on previous reports and the analyses set forth in the 2017 Overview Publication, this publication examines the use and impact of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the 10 key findings:

1. Drug mandatory minimum penalties continued to result in long sentences in the federal system.  

2. Mandatory minimum penalties continued to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the federal prison population.  

3. Offenses carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty were used less often, as the number and percentage of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty has decreased since fiscal year 2010.  

4. While fewer offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in recent years, those who were tended to be more serious.  

5. Drug mandatory minimum penalties applied more broadly than Congress may have anticipated.  

6. Statutory relief plays a significant role in the application and impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties and results in significantly reduced sentences when applied.  

7. Additionally, drug mandatory minimum penalties appear to provide a significant incentive to provide substantial assistance to the government pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and the related guideline provision at USSG §5K1.1.  

8. However, neither the statutory safety valve provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) nor the substantial assistance provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) fully ameliorate the impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties on relatively low-level offenders.  

9. There were significant demographic shifts in the data relating to mandatory minimum penalties.  

10. Although likely due in part to an older age at release, drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty had a lower recidivism rate than those drug trafficking offenders not convicted of such an offense.

Kudos to the USSC for continuing to release timely and informative reports as debates over federal sentencing policies and practices continue.  I hope in coming days to find time to mine some more findings from this report that I would consider "key," and I welcome comments that flag any and all elements of this latest report that folks consider especially interesting or important.

October 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"In Defense of Risk-Assessment Tools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project commentary authored by Adam Neufeld. its subheadline highlights its main theme: " Algorithms can help the criminal justice system, but only alongside thoughtful humans." And here is an excerpt:

It may seem weird to rely on an impersonal algorithm to predict a person’s behavior given the enormous stakes.  But the gravity of the outcome — in cost, crime, and wasted human potential — is exactly why we should use an algorithm.

Studies suggest that well-designed algorithms may be far more accurate than a judge alone.  For example, a recent study of New York City’s pretrial decisions found that an algorithm’s assessment of risk would far outperform judges’ track record.  If the city relied on the algorithm, an estimated 42 percent of detainees could be set free without any increase in people skipping trial or committing crimes pretrial, the study found.

But we are far from where we need to be in the use of these algorithms in the criminal justice system.  Most jurisdictions don’t use any algorithms, relying instead on each individual judge or decisionmaker to make critical decisions based on their personal experience, intuition, and whatever they decide is relevant. Jurisdictions that do use algorithms only use them in a few areas, in some instances with algorithms that have not been critically evaluated and implemented.

Used appropriately, algorithms could help in many more areas, from predicting who needs confinement in a maximum security prison to who needs support resources after release from prison.

However, with great (algorithmic) power comes great (human) responsibility.  First, before racing to adopt an algorithm, jurisdictions need to have the foundational conversation with relevant stakeholders about what their goals are in adopting an algorithm.  Certain goals will be consistent across jurisdictions, such as reducing the number of people who skip trial, but other goals will be specific to a jurisdiction and cannot just be delegated to the algorithm’s creator....

Many criticisms of algorithms to date point out where they fall short.  However, an algorithm should be evaluated not just against some perfect ideal, but also against the very imperfect status quo.  Preliminary studies suggest these tools improve accuracy, but the research base must be expanded.  Only well-designed evaluations will tell us when algorithms will improve fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

Public officials have a social responsibility to pursue the opportunities that algorithms present, but to do so thoughtfully and rigorously.  That is a hard balance, but the stakes are too high not to try.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017"

Women_pie_2017The title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by Aleks Kajstura and released by the Prison Policy Initiative jointly with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice. In the tradition of other great "whole pie" efforts (see, e.g., here), this latest report details the number of women who are locked up by various correctional systems and why.  Here is part of the text of the report:

With growing public attention to the problem of mass incarceration, people want to know about women’s experience with incarceration. How many women are held in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities in the United States? And why are they there? While these are important questions, finding those answers requires not only disentangling the country’s decentralized and overlapping criminal justice systems, but also unearthing the frustratingly hard to find and often altogether missing data on gender.

This report provides a first-of-its-kind detailed view of the 219,000 women incarcerated in the United States, and how they fit into the even larger picture of correctional control.  Since 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative has quantified the number of people incarcerated in the United States, and calculated the breakdown of people held by each correctional system by offense in an annual Whole Pie: Mass Incarceration report.  This report, done in collaboration with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, finally provides similar data on women incarcerated in the Unites States....

In stark contrast to the total incarcerated population, where the state prison systems hold twice as many people as are held in jails, incarcerated women are nearly evenly split between state prisons and local jails.

The explanation for exactly what happened, when, and why does not yet exist because the data on women has long been obscured by the larger picture of men’s incarceration. The disaggregated numbers presented here are an important first step to ensuring that women are not left behind in the effort to end mass incarceration.

A staggering number of women who are incarcerated are not even convicted: more than a quarter of women who are behind bars have not yet had a trial.  Moreover, 60% of women in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

Avoiding pre-trial incarceration is uniquely challenging for women.  The number of unconvicted women stuck in jail is surely not because courts are considering women, who are generally the primary caregivers of children, to be a flight risk.  The far more likely answer is that incarcerated women, who have lower incomes than incarcerated men, have an even harder time affording cash bail.  A previous study found that women who could not make bail had an annual median income of just $11,071.  And among those women, Black women had a median annual income of only $9,083 (just 20% that of a white non-incarcerated man). When the typical $10,000 bail amounts to a full year’s income, it’s no wonder that women are stuck in jail awaiting trial.

Even once convicted, the system funnels women into jails: About a quarter of convicted incarcerated women are held in jails, compared to about 10% of all people incarcerated with a conviction.

So what does it mean that large numbers of women are held in jail - for them, and for their families? While stays in jail are generally shorter than in stays in prison, jails make it harder to stay in touch with family than prisons do.  Phone calls are more expensive, up to $1.50 per minute, and other forms of communication are more restricted - some jails don’t even allow real letters, limiting mail to postcards.  This is especially troubling given that 80% of women in jails are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children.  Thus children are particularly susceptible to the domino effect of burdens placed on incarcerated women.  Women in jails are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems and experience serious psychological distress than either women in prisons or men in either correctional setting.

The numbers revealed by this report enable a national conversation about the policies that impact incarcerated women held in various facilities, and also serve as the foundation for discussions to change the policies that lead to incarcerating women in the first place.  All too often, the conversation about criminal justice reform starts and stops with the question of non-violent drug and property offenses.  While drug and property offenses make up more than half of the offenses for which women are incarcerated, the chart reveals that all offenses, including violent offenses that account for roughly a quarter of all incarcerated women, must be considered in the effort to reduce the number of incarcerated women in this country.  This new data on women underlines the need for reform discussions to focus not just on the easier choices but on choices that can lead to impactful policy changes.

October 19, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment Across States and over Time"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical article now available via SSRN authored by Walter Enders, Paul Pecorino and Anne-Charlotte Souto.  Here is the abstract:

The overall incarceration rate in the United States is extremely high by international standards. Moreover, there are large racial disparities, with the black male rate of imprisonment being 5.5 times the white male rate in 2014.  This paper focus on how this black-white imprisonment ratio has behaved over time within and across states. We show that the large increase in black imprisonment between 1978 and 1999 was driven by increases in the overall rate of imprisonment, while the smaller decrease which occurred between 1999 and 2014 was driven by reductions in the black-white ratio.

For many states, the black-white ratio turned upward in the mid-1980s, where this upturn may have been linked to the crack epidemic.  Many states experienced a downturn in the black-white ratio starting in the 1990s.  Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment. California’s experience has been strongly counter to national trends with a large increase in the racial disparity beginning in the early 1990s and continuing until near the end of our sample.

October 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Texas carries out 20th execution in US in 2017

With only 20 executions carried out in the United States in 2016, last year saw the fewest total nationwide executions in a quarter century.  The national execution pace in 2017 is not much quicker, but an execution completed tonight in Texas means the US will not in 2017 see a decline in total executions for the first time in a number of years.   The Texas execution is number 20 for the US in 2017, and this AP article reports on its particulars:

A Texas inmate convicted in the death of a prison guard has been put to death after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his lawyer's attempts to halt the execution.

Robert Pruett was given a lethal injection Thursday evening for the December 1999 death of corrections officer Daniel Nagle at a prison southeast of San Antonio. Nagle was repeatedly stabbed with a tape-wrapped metal rod, though an autopsy showed he died from a heart attack that the assault caused. Prosecutors have said the attack stemmed from a dispute over a peanut butter sandwich that Pruett wanted to take into a recreation yard against prison rules.

The 38-year-old Pruett was already serving a 99-year sentence for a neighbor's killing near Houston when he was convicted in Nagle's death. Pruett's execution is the sixth this year in Texas.

This Death Penalty Information Center page indicates that there are nine more serious execution dates in 2017. Even if all these executions are completed (which seems a bit unlikely), there would still be fewer executions in the US in 2017 than in every single year between 1992 and 2014.

October 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (18)

New Sentencing Project fact sheets on disparities in youth incarceration and comments to USSC on incarceration alternatives

Via email I learned of these two new fact sheets from The Sentencing Project highlighting incarceration disparities among youth of color:

In addition, the folks at the Sentencing Project have recently posted here public comment submitted to the US Sentencing Commission on the USSC's "First Offenders/Alternatives to Incarceration" proposed amendment.  The comments to the USSC starts this way:

The undersigned applaud the Sentencing Commission’s consideration of an amendment to increase the availability of sentences of alternatives to incarceration within the federal sentencing guidelines.  The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 which created the guideline system wisely recognized the appropriateness of non-incarceration sentences in certain cases.  Since that time criminological research has underscored Congress’s assumptions, and evidence suggests that a broader cohort of people than at present could be sentenced within the federal system more efficiently without incarceration. Doing so would not compromise public safety, but would save tax dollars, preserve families and enhance rehabilitation.

October 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Official FBI crime data confirms that 2016 saw another notable increase in violent crime and further reductions in property crime

Early markers suggested that violent crime was increasing in 2016 in the United States, after having increased in 2015 following record low violent crime rates in 2014.  This official FBI press release provides these basics:

The estimated number of violent crimes in the nation increased for the second straight year, rising 4.1 percent in 2016 when compared with 2015 data, according to FBI figures released today. Property crimes dropped 1.3 percent, marking the 14th consecutive year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.

The 2016 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 386.3 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the estimated rate of property crime was 2,450.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants.  The violent crime rate rose 3.4 percent compared with the 2015 rate, and the property crime rate declined 2.0 percent.

These and additional data are presented in the 2016 edition of the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States.  This publication is a statistical compilation of offense, arrest, and police employee data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.  The UCR Program streamlined the 2016 edition by reducing the number of tables from 81 to 29, but still presented the major topics, such as offenses known, clearances, and persons arrested.  Limited federal crime, human trafficking, and cargo theft data are also included....

Of the 18,481 city, county, university and college, state, tribal, and federal agencies eligible to participate in the UCR Program, 16,782 submitted

  • In 2016, there were an estimated 1,248,185 violent crimes. Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses increased 8.6 percent when compared with estimates from 2015.  Aggravated assault and rape (legacy definition) offenses increased 5.1 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively, and robbery increased 1.2 percent.
  • Nationwide, there were an estimated 7,919,035 property crimes. The estimated numbers for two of the three property crimes show declines when compared with the previous year’s estimates. Burglaries dropped 4.6 percent, larceny-thefts declined 1.5 percent, but motor vehicle thefts rose 7.4 percent.
As readers surely know, rising crime rates always provide fodder for politicians and others to championing tougher sentencing regimes, and we have heard both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions stress rising violent crime as a justification for certain policies. I suspect we may soon see these new FBI data appearing in speeches by DOJ officials and others, though folks eager to push back on concerns about a modern new crime wave have already been talking up the recent Brennan Center analysis discussed here suggesting crime rates may be stabilizing or declining in 2017.

At the risk of seeming a bit too Pollyannaish, I think the FBI report that property crimes in 2016 dropped for the 14th consecutive year is a big piece of the national crime story very much worth celebrating. Though violent crimes rates understandably get the most attention, property crimes impact the most people — there are, roughly speaking, more than five property crimes for every violent crime — so drops property crimes can end up meaning a lot more persons and families experienced a crime-free year even when there are spikes in violent crime.

I expect various policy folks will be mining this latest FBI data for crime-specific and region-specific stories. I will try to cover some of the coming coverage and analysis in coming posts.

September 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Carlos Berdejó available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints — the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.

The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime.  As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony.  Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.

Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities.  While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors.  These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

September 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Notable accounting and review of federal collateral consequences facing nonviolent drug offenders

RId15_image2Last week the Government Accountability Office released this interesting new report titled "Nonviolent Drug Convictions: Stakeholders' Views on Potential Actions to Address Collateral Consequences." The 47-page report is worth a full read, and this highlights page provides these highlights (and the graphic reprinted here):

Collateral consequences are the penalties and disadvantages that can be imposed upon an individual with a criminal conviction, in addition to those directly associated with a sentence (such as a fine, prison, or community service). GAO’s review of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC) found that, in federal laws and regulations, there are 641 collateral consequences that can be triggered by nonviolent drug convictions (NVDC).  For example, individuals with NVDC may be ineligible for certain professional licenses and federal housing assistance.  The NICCC data that GAO reviewed indicate that these 641 collateral consequences can limit many aspects of an individual’s life, such as employment, business licenses, education, and government benefits.  In addition, GAO also found that the NICCC identified that 497 (78 percent) of the 641 collateral consequences can potentially last a lifetime.

Of the 641 federal collateral consequences for NVDC, GAO found that the NICCC identified 131 (20 percent) as having a relief mechanism in a related law or regulation that prescribed how an individual could potentially obtain relief from the consequence.  For example, individuals may be relieved if they successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program or receive a pardon.

Thirteen of the 14 stakeholders GAO interviewed said the federal government should consider taking action to reduce the severity of (i.e., mitigate) federal collateral consequences for NVDC, such as conducting a comprehensive review of these collateral consequences and implementing a new relief mechanism.  Additional mitigation could, according to some stakeholders, help individuals with NVDC obtain employment, housing, or education; and almost all the stakeholders said mitigation could potentially reduce the likelihood of reoffending.  At the same time, federal collateral consequences can serve public safety functions and protect government interests.  Some stakeholders cautioned that federal action should strike the appropriate balance between preserving collateral consequences that provide a public safety benefit, and addressing consequences that can cause unnecessary burdens and potentially increase the likelihood that individuals with NVDC reoffend.

September 11, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Does latest US Sentencing Commission data hint at the emerging impact of the new Sessions memo?

The question in the title of this post is the result of my (perhaps premature) effort to see the development of a (slight) new trend in the latest federal sentencing data reported this past week by the US Sentencing Commission.  These latest data appear in this standard quarterly data report from the USSC titled simply FY 2017 Quarterly Report on Federal Sentencing Data, which "contains preliminary data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2017."  The first three quarters of FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, which in turn means nearly the last two months of the most recent reported data reflect sentencings that took place after Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued in early May 2017 his charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

Critically, lots of predictable and not-so-predictable factors can impact federal sentencing data from month to month and year to year.  So, it can be a mistake to see trends or assert causal links based on just a little bit of data.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but find notable and note here the data points on Table 12 of the new USSC data, which provides quarter-by-quarter data on within-guideline and outside-guideline sentence.  That Table shows that in every full quarter after former Attorney General Eric Holder announced his "Smart on Crime" policies in August 2013, at least 20% of all sentences were judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences.  But in the very last quarter now, the USSC data show than only 19.8% of sentences were judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences.

Of course, this is a really small change and one might reasonable suggest that we ought to focus mostly on changes to government-sponsored below-guideline sentences when thinking about the impact of the new Sessions memo.  But I still thought this little data development was worthy of noting in this post; it is certainly one I will be watching in the months ahead as we get more USSC data on federal sentencing patterns in the second half of 2017.

September 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Helpful new Sentencing Project fact sheet on "Private Prisons in the United States"

The fine folks at The Sentencing Project have this fine new two-page fact sheet providing state-by-state data on the use of private prisons.  Here is some of the text that accompanies the charts in the publication:

Private prisons in the United States incarcerated 126,272 people in 2015, representing 8% of the total state and federal prison population.  Since 2000, the number of people housed in private prisons has increased 45%.

States show significant variation in their use of private correctional facilities.  For example, New Mexico and Montana incarcerate over 40% of their prison populations in private facilities, while states such as Illinois and New York do not employ for-profit prisons.

Data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show that in 2015, 28 states and the federal government incarcerated people in private facilities run by corporations including GEO Group, Core Civic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), and Management and Training Corporation.

According to BJS data, 21 of the states with private prison contracts incarcerate more than 500 people in for-profit prisons.  Texas, the first state to adopt private prisons in 1985, incarcerated the largest number of people under state jurisdiction, 14,293.

Since 2000, the number of people in private prisons has increased 45%, compared to an overall rise in the prison population of 10%. In five states, the private prison population has increased 100% or more during this period.  The federal prison system experienced a 125% increase in use of private prisons since 2000 reaching 34,934 people in private facilities in 2015.

Despite the significant growth in private prisons since 2000, the number of people housed in these facilities has declined 8% since reaching a national peak population of 137,220 in 2012.  Since 2000 six states — Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Utah and Wisconsin — have eliminated their use of private prisons due to concerns about safety and cost-cutting.  An additional six states saw reductions of 40% or more in the use of private prisons during this period.

August 28, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Still more interesting new "Quick Facts" publications on federal drug sentencing from the US Sentencing Commission

In this post a few month ago, I noted that the US Sentencing Commission had released a notable new Quick Facts covering all "Drug Trafficking Offenses"  (As the USSC explains and reglar readers know, "Quick Facts" are official publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")   Now I see that the USSC has just released this big set of new Quick Facts covering individual drugs:

The data appearing these publications runs through Fiscal Year 2016, which is end of September 2016, and thus they set something of a benchmark for the end of the Obama era before the start of the Trump era of federal criminal policies and practices.

August 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Should an uptick in federal gun prosecutions garner bipartisan praise?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought upon seeing this press release from the Justice Department released Friday under the heading "Federal Gun Prosecutions Up 23 Percent After Sessions Memo."  Here is the full text of the press release:

Today, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that, following the memorandum from Attorney General Sessions to prioritize firearm prosecutions, the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm increased nearly 23 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (2,637) from the same time period in 2016 (2,149).

“Violent crime is on the rise in many parts of this country, with 27 of our biggest 35 cities in the country coping with rising homicide rates,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  “Law abiding people in some of these communities are living in fear, as they see families torn apart and young lives cut short by gangs and drug traffickers.  Following President Trump’s Executive Order to focus on reducing crime, I directed federal prosecutors to prioritize taking illegal guns off of our streets, and as a result, we are now prosecuting hundreds more firearms defendants. In the first three months since the memo went into effect, charges of unlawful possession of a gun -- mostly by previously convicted felons -- are up by 23 percent.  That sends a clear message to criminals all over this country that if you carry a gun illegally, you will be held accountable.  I am grateful to the many federal prosecutors and agents who are working hard every day to make America safe again.”

In February, immediately after the swearing-in of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Trump signed an Executive Order that directs the Attorney General to seek to reduce crime and to set up the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  The Task Force has provided Sessions with recommendations on a rolling basis.  In March, based on these recommendations, Attorney General Sessions sent a memorandum to Department of Justice prosecutors, ordering them to prioritize firearms offenses.

In the three months immediately following the Attorney General’s memo -- April, May and June -- the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm (18 U.S.C. 922) increased by nearly 23 percent compared to those charged over the same time period in 2016.  The number of defendants charged with the crime of using a firearm in a crime of violence or drug trafficking (18 U.S.C. 924), increased by 10 percent.

Based on data from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA), in Fiscal Year 2016 (starting October 1), 11,656 defendants were charged with firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. 922 or 924.  EOUSA projects that in Fiscal Year 2017, the Department is on pace to charge 12,626 defendants with these firearms crimes.  That would be the most federal firearms cases since 2005.  It would also be an increase of eight percent from Fiscal Year 2016, 20 percent from 2015, and an increase of 23 percent from 2014.

Of course, as regular readers on this blog know well, many on the political left have been critical of various efforts by AG Sessions to ramp up federal prosecutions. But much of the criticism is based on concerns about escalating the federal drug war, especially as it applies to lower-lever and nonviolent offenders. As the title of this post is meant to suggest, perhaps this latest data showing a ramp up of gun prosecutions could be met with some applause from political left given the tendency of the left to support tougher restrictions on gun possession. (Of course, some parts of the libertarian-faction of the political right has also expressed concerns about recent work by AG Sessions, and they might be more troubled by these data.)

Critically, without having more information about the "who and how" of increased federal gun prosecutions, I do not feel sufficiently informed to robustly praise or criticize these developments. But I do think it interesting and notably that the first new data being stressed by the Sessions DOJ involves a type of prosecution that could garner support from both sides of the political aisle.

July 30, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Reviewing data and lessons of recent Urban Institute report on rising prison time

German Lopez has this new Vox piece that effectively reviews the data and lessons on the recent Urban Institute big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." (This prior post covered that report when it was first released a few weeks ago.)  The full title of this piece captures its primary themes: "Liberals often blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs.  That’s not quite right. A new report shows that the real increase in prison sentences has come from violent offenses, not lower-level crimes."  Here are excerpts:

“Longer sentences are stacking up,” Ryan King, the lead researcher for the Urban report, told me.  “And in many states, the data suggest that they’re stacking up at a rate significant enough that it can offset reforms for the less serious offenses.”

The report includes various other findings.  It found there are vast racial disparities in the top 10 percent of prison sentences, just as there are for lower-level offenses.  The people locked up also tend to be fairly young, which robs communities — particularly black neighborhoods — of people who could grow up to be productive citizens instead of serving out disproportionately harsh sentences. It also told the stories of a few people who suffered through some of these long sentences.  You should really read the whole thing.

But I want to home in on the big finding because it shows what the traditional story about mass incarceration has gotten wrong.  Much of the attention has gone to harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, but they seem to have had a fairly small impact on overall incarceration rates.  What seemed to change, instead, is that the system enforced longer prison sentences for some of the worst offenses — and that led to a lot more imprisonment....

To really address the problem of mass incarceration, then, it’s not enough to just focus on drug crimes; it’s also important to focus on violent offenses. It’s also not enough to just focus on the laws guiding prison sentences; it’s also necessary to look at how those laws are enforced in the real world. And addressing all of these issues will require a truly systemic effort — from addressing what the local prosecutor is doing to what laws state policymakers pass to what the president and his attorney general are asking the US Department of Justice to do.

It will be a long, arduous effort.  After years of lawmakers building up incarceration at every level of government, it will likely take years of more policymaking at every level of government to unwind what previous generations of leaders have done.  “This is a long-term project,” King of Urban said. “But we do see it as one that’s ringing a bell saying, look, we’re going to have to deal with this.”

July 27, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Helpful summary of USSC's recent overview of mandatory minimums in federal system

As reported in this prior post, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month released a lengthy new publication titled "An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System" reviewing the use of federal mandatory minimum penalties and their impact on the federal prison population. Now the USSC has released this two-page publication with the big report's highlights. Here are highlights of these highlights:

July 27, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Immediate Consequences of Pretrial Detention: Evidence from Federal Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting empirical paper authored by Stephanie Holmes Didwania that was recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper presents evidence of the effects of pretrial detention status on criminal case outcomes in federal criminal cases. I find that criminal defendants who are released pending trial earn a roughly 72 percent decrease in sentence length and a 36 percentage-point increase in the probability of receiving a sentence below the recommended federal sentencing Guidelines range. Pretrial release also reduces the probability that a defendant will receive at least the mandatory minimum sentence — when one is charged — by 39 percentage points, but does not affect the probability that the defendant will face a mandatory minimum sentence.

To address the identification problem inherent in using pretrial detention status as an explanatory variable, I take advantage of the fact that pretrial release in federal courts is typically determined by magistrate judges who vary in their propensities to release defendants pending trial. This setting allows magistrate judge leniency to serve as an instrumental variable for pretrial release. I also present suggestive evidence of the mechanism at work. It appears that pretrial release affects case outcomes in two distinct ways: most importantly, by giving defendants the opportunity to present mitigating evidence at sentencing and, secondly, by making it easier for defendants to earn a sentencing reduction by providing substantial assistance to the government. In contrast, this paper does not find evidence that pretrial release improves defendants’ abilities to bargain with prosecutors. I also find that the effects of pretrial detention status on case outcomes are heterogeneous, and most pronounced for drug offenders.

July 20, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Urban Institute releases "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons"

Logo-simpleThis morning the Urban Institute released online here a big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." As explained in an email I received, this "online feature examines the causes and consequences of rising time served in America’s prisons [t]hrough visualizations, analysis of trends and demographics, and stories told by people who have served long prison terms." An executive summary can be found at this link, and here are excerpts from it:

People are spending more time in prison, and the longest prison terms are getting longer.  Since 2000, average time served has risen in all 44 states that reported complete data to the National Corrections Reporting Program.  In states with more extensive data, we can trace the rise back to the 1980s and 1990s. In nearly half the states we looked at, the average length of the top 10 percent of prison terms increased by more than five years between 2000 and 2014.

The increase in time served has been sharpest among people convicted of violent offenses.  These changes have an outsized effect on prison populations because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long terms.

Longer terms are growing in number and as a share of the prison population.  In 35 states, at least 1 in 10 people in prison have been there for a decade or more.  This is even higher — nearly 1 in 4 people — in states like California and Michigan.  In at least 11 states, the number of people who have served at least a decade has more than doubled since 2000.

These trends aren’t accidental, and that they vary so much across states suggests that the growth in time served is driven by state-level decisionmaking.  States grappling with expanding prison populations must include those serving the longest prison terms in their efforts to curb mass incarceration.

Incarceration affects some people and communities more than others, and these patterns are often more pronounced among those who spend the most time in prison.  In 35 of the 44 states we looked at, racial disparities in prisons were starkest among people serving the longest 10 percent of terms.  In recent years, racial disparities have decreased among people serving less than 10 years, but 18 states actually saw an increase in disparities among people serving longer terms.

Nearly two in five people serving the longest prison terms were incarcerated before age 25, despite research that shows the brain is still developing through age 24 and that people tend to age out of criminal behavior.  Thousands have been in prison for more than half their lives.  One in five people in prison for at least 10 years is a black man incarcerated before age 25.

A growing share of women in prison have served more than 10 years.  In Michigan, for example, 8 percent of women in prison had served at least a decade as of 2000; by 2013, that number was 13 percent.  In Wisconsin, this figure rose from 1.8 to 6.5 percent over the same period.  In light of this trend, more research is needed to understand how women are uniquely affected by long-term incarceration.

More than one in three people serving the longest prison terms is at least 55 years old.  More people serving longer terms means that more people are growing old in prison, yet prisons are typically ill-equipped to address the needs of the elderly and disabled.

July 13, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases new overview of mandatory minimums in federal system

As reported in this official press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission today released a new publication — An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2017 Overview) — that examines the use of federal mandatory minimum penalties and the impact of those penalties on the federal prison population." Here is more from the press release about this new publication and its findings:

The new publication updates much of the data contained in its 2011 Report to the Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System and compiles data through 2016, the most recent full fiscal year for which federal sentencing data is available.

Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., Acting Chair of the Commission stated, "This publication examines the latest data about the use of mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal justice system.  When Congress created the Commission, Congress empowered it to serve 'as a clearinghouse and information center' about federal sentencing and to assist Congress, the federal courts, and federal departments in the development of sound sentencing policies.  See 28 U.S.C. § 995(a)(12)(A). The Commission has published this report to fulfill that Congressional mandate."

Among the key data findings in the publication are:

  • The average sentence length for federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 was 110 months of prison, nearly four times the average sentence (28 months) for offenders whose offense did not carry a mandatory minimum.

  • Slightly more than half (55.7%) of federal inmates in custody as of September 30, 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum.

  • Over one-third (38.7%) of federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 received relief from the mandatory minimum at sentencing, which is a decrease from 46.7 percent in fiscal year 2010.

  • Hispanic offenders continued to represent the largest group of federal offenders (40.4%) convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016.

  • White offenders had the longest average sentence (127 months) among federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016, which is a shift from fiscal year 2010 when Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty had the longest average sentence (127 months).

  • While Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty continued to receive relief from the mandatory minimum penalty least often, the gap between Black offenders and White offenders has narrowed from a difference of 11.6 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 3.2 percent in fiscal year 2016.

The 2017 Overview is part of a multi-year study included in the Commission’s policy priorities over the past several amendment cycles and is intended to be the first in a series of reports on mandatory minimum penalties.  Continuation of the study is listed as a tentative policy priority for the amendment year ending May 1, 2018.  The Commission will accept public comment on proposed priorities through July 31, 2017.

The full USSC report, which runs 89 pages, is available at this link. I hope to find some time in the coming weeks to highlights some additional data from this latest review of the latest mandatory minimum realities.

July 11, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

DPIC provides mid-year review of of 2017 death penalty developments

I just noticed that the Death Penalty Information Center recently provided this effective review of 2017 death penalty developments to date. Here are the details with links from the original:

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States.  As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled.  By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued.

Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low.  However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27 — that state's first executions since 2005 — there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990.  

New death sentences also remain near historically low levels.  DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional.

Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017 — Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida — bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness.  A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases.  In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

Other states that have carried out executions so far in 2017 are Texas (4), Alabama (2), Georgia (1), Missouri (1), and Virginia (1).

July 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (30)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Are federal judges already getting a little tougher at sentencing in the Trump era?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought after looking through this new federal sentencing data released by the US Sentencing Commission today.  The data that really caught my eye is on Table 12, which shows that in the most recent quarter (running from January 1 to March 31), less than 20% of federal cases involved a judge-initiated departure/variance below the guideline range (19.9% to be exact), and 2.9% of cases involved a judge-initiated departure/variance above the guideline range.  The last time that less than 20% of federal cases involved a judge-initiated departure/variance below the guideline range was in the fourth quarter of 2013, and I do not believe there has ever been a quarter in which so many cases involved an above-guideline sentence.

Because federal sentencing data moves always around a bit from quarter-to-quarter, and because case-load mixes can vary from quarter-to-quarter, these small statistical changes I have noticed here may just be a coincidental blip rather than a reflection of the impact of tough-on-crime talk from the Trump Administration and its Department of Justice.  (Nevertheless, because the federal system currently sentences over 16,000 cases per quarter, even small statistical changes represent hundreds of defendants.)  We will have to see in subsequent USSC data runs whether this new pattern of fewer below-guideline sentences and more above-guideline sentences persists.

Critically, the period covered by this USSC federal sentencing data predates the May issuance by Attorney General Jeff Sessions of new charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors.   I find it notable and interesting that federal judges may have already been responding in some (small) sentencing ways to the tough-on-crime talk from the Trump Administration even before AG Sessions formally toughened up federal prosecutorial policies and practices.

June 22, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A misdirected attack on two notable sentences in Justice Alito's Packingham concurrence

There is a lot worth discussing concerning the Supreme Court's decision in Packingham earlier this week (basics here), and this new Washington Post "Fact Checker" piece decides to give particular attention to two lines from Justice Alito's concurrence in a piece headlined "Justice Alito’s misleading claim about sex offender rearrests."  I find the WaPo piece itself somewhat misleading (or really misdirected) because it is focused too much on the second of these two sentences in Justices Alito's opinion rather than the first:

“Repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children. ‘When convicted sex offenders reenter society, they are much more likely than any other type of offender to be rearrested for a new rape or sexual assault.’”

After reviewing a bunch of statistics, this WaPo piece comes to this conclusion:

The reference to sex offender rearrest trends in Alito’s opinion is quite misleading.  It measures the likelihood of sex offenders to be arrested for sex crimes after release from prison, and compares it to the likelihood of non-sex offenders to be arrested for sex crimes after release.  This makes it seem like recidivism among sex offenders to be a uniquely bad problem, but it is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

This opinion cites previous opinions that use outdated data going back to the 1980s — more than 30 years ago.  Moreover, it obscures the fact according to 2005 data, the percentage of sex offenders getting rearrested for the same crime is low compared to non-sex offenders, with the exception of people convicted of homicide.   It does the public no service when the Supreme Court justices make a misleading characterization like this.  We award Three Pinocchios.

I find disconcerting that what this WaPo piece is calling " quite misleading" is a sentence (the second one above) that is factually accurate.  The piece strikes me as especially problematic because it fails to stress that what might make the second sentence about "sex offender rearrest trends" potentially misleading is that it follows the forceful assertion that "repeat sex offenders pose an especially grave risk to children."  In my reading, it is the phrase "especially grave risk to children" that contributes to the impression that "recidivism among sex offenders [is] a uniquely bad problem."

That all said, the ever bigger problem with the law at issue in Packingham and lots of other similar laws and the WaPo commentary itself is use of the always-way-too-broad offender category of "sex offender."  This board label necessarily lumps together some relatively minor adult offenders and some relatively very serious offenders who consistently victimize children.  There are certainly some serious sex offender who do pose an "especially grave risk to children," but many folks on sex offender registries may pose less of a risk to children than do the average person.

Ultimately, these are challenging issues to discuss with precision both conceptually and statistically.  And though I am always pleased to see detailed discussion of crime data in the Washington Post, I am troubled by its decision to "award Three Pinocchios" to a statement that is factually true. 

UPDATE: I just noticed that Ed Whelan over at Bench Memos has this more thorough review of this WaPo piece under the titled "Fact-checking the fact Checker."

June 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

New Sentencing Project policy brief on "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads"

The Sentencing Project has this notable new six-page policy brief titled "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads."  Here is how the data-rich little publication gets started:

The number of people incarcerated in federal prisons has declined substantially in recent years.  In fact, while most states enacted reforms to reduce their prison populations over the past decade, the federal prison system has downsized at twice the nationwide rate.  But recently enacted policy changes at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and certain Congressional proposals appear poised to reverse this progress.

Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the DOJ reduced the federal prison population by reforming sentencing laws, revising sentencing guidelines, and modifying charging directives, respectively.  But the DOJ’s budget proposal for 2018 forecasts a 2% increase in the federal prison population.

The policy changes contributing to this reversal include:

• Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive instructing federal prosecutors to increase their reliance on mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug convictions.

• The Attorney General’s instruction to federal prosecutors to increasingly pursue criminal convictions for immigration law violations and his memorandum paving the way for greater use of private prisons.

• Congressional proposals to create new mandatory minimum sentences or increase existing ones for a range of drug, immigration, and violent crimes.

These policy shifts run counter to research and practice on effective crime policy.  This brief explains why increasing the use and length of prison terms for people with drug convictions in particular — who account for half of the federal prison population — will produce little public safety benefit while carrying heavy fiscal, social, and human costs. Experience with criminal justice policy changes at the federal and state levels shows it is possible to substantially cut reliance on prisons without any adverse effects on public safety.

June 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Measuring the Creative Plea Bargain"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking paper authored by Thea Johnson available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A great deal of criminal law scholarship and practice turns on whether a defendant gets a good deal through plea bargaining.  But what is a good deal?  And how do defense attorneys secure such deals?  Much scholarship measures plea bargains by one metric: how many years the defendant receives at sentencing. In the era of collateral consequences, however, this is no longer an adequate metric as it misses a world of bargaining that happens outside of the sentence.  Through empirical research, this Article examines the measure of a good plea and the work that goes into negotiating such a plea.  Through in-depth interviews with twenty-five public defenders in four states, I investigate the ways in which collateral consequences impact the negotiation of the plea.  What emerges is a picture of creative plea bargaining that takes into account a host of noncriminal sanctions that fall outside of the charge and sentence.  Public defenders assess the priorities of their clients — regarding both the direct and collateral consequences of the case — and piece together pleas that meet these varied needs.  The length of sentence after a plea does not tell the full story about whether a defendant got a good deal because a successful plea now encompasses much beyond the final sentence.

These findings have broad implications for the way we think about assessing public defense offices and individual defenders.  Much of what goes into a plea — particularly at the misdemeanor level — is a product of the client’s desire to avoid certain collateral consequences, and those desires generally do not enter the formal record or off-the-record negotiations with prosecutors.  As a result, pleas that look bad on paper may actually be meeting the needs of the client.  Therefore, in order to assess pleas and the defenders who negotiate them, we must understand the limits of publicly available data and focus on creating a more robust data set by which to judge public defenders.  Additionally, this Article provides a fuller picture of prevailing professional norms at the plea phase after Padilla, Lafler, and Frye.  As courts grapple with the role of the defense attorney during plea bargaining, it is critical that they understand that in many cases lawyers achieve optimal outcomes by providing advice and advocacy for their clients on concerns outside of the immediate criminal case.  Finally, this Article serves as a renewed call for attention and funding for the holistic model of public defense.

June 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

More interesting new "Quick Facts" publications from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released two notable new Quick Facts covering "Drug Trafficking Offenses" and "Federal Offenders in Prison" as of February 2017. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the many intriguing data details from these two small data-filled publications:

June 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth"

Era_MassIncarceration_250The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. This PPI press release provide context and summary for the report's coverage:

State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.

The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.

The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:

  • An increasing number of people held pre-trial.

  • Growing demand from federal and state agencies to rent cell space from local jails.

Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:

  • In some states, state officials have not utilized their ability to regulate the commercial bail industry, which has profited from the increased reliance on money bail and increased bail amounts. These trends have expanded the pre-trial population dramatically over time.

  • In other states, state lawmakers have expanded criminal codes, enabled overzealous prosecutors, and allowed police practices to play a paramount role in driving up jail populations, while underfunding pre-trial programs and alternatives to incarceration.

  • In 25 states, 10% or more of the people confined in local jails are being held for state or federal agencies, with some counties even adding capacity to meet the demand. This report is the first to be able to address the local jail population separately from the troubling issue of renting jail space.

Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.

For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”

May 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 29, 2017

"Predicting Sex Offender Recidivism: Using the Federal Post-Conviction Risk Assessment Instrument to Assess the Likelihood of Recidivism Among Federal Sex Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by Thomas Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Sex offenses are among the crimes that provoke serious public concern.  The federal response to the problem of sex offending has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of sex offenders on federal post-conviction supervision; however, relatively few studies have explored whether and how well the actuarial risk instrument currently used by federal probation officers — the federal Post Conviction Risk Assessment instrument or PCRA for short — accurately predicts reoffending behavior among the federal sex offender population.

This study provided an exploration of the PCRA’s capacity to effectively predict subsequent recidivism activity for convicted federal sex offenders.  Results show that the PCRA accurately predicts recidivistic behavior involving the commission of any felony or misdemeanor offenses, violent offenses, and probation revocations for this population. However, the PCRA’s predicative capacities deteriorate when the instrument is used to assess the likelihood of sexual recidivism.  In addition, this study showed that offenders convicted of online child pornography offenses presented some challenges in terms of predicting their reoffending behavior because they manifested lower PCRA risk scores and recidivism rates compared to offenders convicted of other major federal sexual offenses that typically involve more hands-on behavior.

May 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 26, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases report on "Youthful Offenders in the Federal System"

Cover_youthful-offendersThe US Sentencing Commission released this notable new report today titled simply "Youthful Offenders in the Federal System." Here is the report's introduction and "key findings" from its first two pages:

Introduction

Although youthful offenders account for about 18 percent of all federal offenders sentenced between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, there is little current information published about them.  In this publication, the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) presents information about youthful offenders, who for purposes of this report are defined as persons age 25 or younger at the time they are sentenced in the federal system.

Recent studies on brain development and age, coupled with recent Supreme Court decisions recognizing differences in offender culpability due to age, have led some policymakers to reconsider how youthful offenders should be punished.  This report reviews those studies and provides an overview of youthful federal offenders, including their demographic characteristics, what type of offenses they were sentenced for, how they were sentenced, and the extent of their criminal histories.

The report also discusses the intersection of neuroscience and law, and how this intersection has influenced the treatment of youthful offenders in the criminal justice system. The Commission is releasing this report as part of its review of the sentencing of youthful offenders.  In June 2016, the Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) issued a report that proposed several guideline and policy changes relating to youthful offenders, including departure provisions and alternatives to incarceration.

Because many of the TIAG recommendations on this topic apply to all youthful offenders, and not just Native Americans, the Commission voted to study the treatment of youthful offenders as a policy priority for the 2016-2017 amendment cycle.

The key findings in this report are that:

• There were 86,309 offenders (18.0% of the federal offender population) age 25 or younger sentenced in the federal system between 2010 and 2015.

• The majority (57.8%) of youthful offenders are Hispanic.

• There were very few youthful offenders under the age of 18 sentenced in the federal system (52 between 2010 and 2015).

• Almost 92 percent of offenses committed by youthful offenders were nonviolent offenses.

• Similar to the overall federal offender population (or non-youthful offenders group) the most common offenses that youthful offenders committed were drug trafficking (30.9%), immigration (28.6%), and firearms offenses (13.7%).

• The average sentence for youthful offenders was 34.9 months.

• Youthful offenders were more likely to be sentenced within the guidelines range than non-youthful offenders (56.1% compared to 50.1%).

• Youthful offenders recidivated at a much higher rate than their older counterparts — about 67 percent versus 41 percent.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2015: Modest Reductions with Significant Variation"

The title of this post is the title of this brief "Fact Sheet" from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

While states and the federal government have modestly reduced their prison populations in recent years, incarceration trends continue to vary significantly across jurisdictions. Overall, the number of people held in state and federal prisons has declined by 4.9% since reaching its peak in 2009.  Sixteen states have achieved double-digit rates of decline and the federal system has downsized at almost twice the national rate.  But while 38 states have reduced their prison populations, in most states this change has been relatively modest.  In addition, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations even though most have shared in the nationwide crime drop.

Six states have reduced their prison populations by over 20% since reaching their peak levels:

• New Jersey (35% decline since 1999)

• New York (29% decline since 1999)

• Alaska (27% decline since 2006)

• California (26% decline since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use)

• Vermont (25% decline since 2009)

• Connecticut (22% decline since 2007)

Southern states including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, have also begun to significantly downsize their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial prison population reductions have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.

The pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states, especially given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991.  Despite often sharing in these crime trends, 15 states had less than a 5% prison population decline since their peak year.  Moreover, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing doubledigit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"The portal itself is like a video game for criminal justice nerds."

The title of this post is a sentence that got me (too) excited about this new criminal justice resource called "Measure for Justice."  The sentence is found in this Marshall Project article, fully headlined "The New Tool That Could Revolutionize How We Measure Justice: A small nonprofit gathers criminal justice statistics, one county at a time." Here are excerpts from the article describing what is revolutionary about Measures for Justice:

The enormity of the country’s criminal justice system — 15,000 state and local courts, 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, more than two million prisoners — looks even more daunting when you consider how little we know about what is actually going on in there. Want to know who we prosecute and why? Good luck. Curious about how many people are charged with misdemeanors each year? Can’t tell you. How about how many people reoffend after prison? We don’t really know that, either.

In an age when everything is measured — when data determines the television we watch, the clothes we buy and the posts we see on Facebook — the justice system is a disturbing exception. Agencies exist in silos, and their data stays with them. Instead, we make policy based on anecdote, heavily filtered through a political lens.

This week the nonprofit Measures for Justice is launching an online tool meant to shine a high beam into these dark corners. It is gathering numbers from key criminal justice players — prosecutors offices, public defenders, courts, probation departments — in each of America’s more than 3,000 counties. Staffers clean the data, assemble it in an apples-to-apples format, use it to answer a standard set of basic questions, and make the results free and easy to access and understand.

It’s the kind of task you’d expect a federal agency like the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has an average annual budget of $97 million, to take on. Instead, the 22 people at Measures for Justice’s Rochester, N.Y., offices are doing the work themselves on an annual budget of $4.6 million, donated mostly from foundations. So far they’ve tackled six states: Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, gathering most of the numbers one county at a time. Together, these make up 10 percent of the nation’s counties. The team chose those six states for their geographical diversity and — to ease the data gathering in the project’s early phases — because they had unified statewide court databases. The hope is to complete 15 more states by 2020, while updating the statistics from the first six states every two years.

“We’re giving people data they’ve never had access to before,” says Amy Bach, the founder and executive director of Measures for Justice. “We’re telling them stories about their communities and their counties that they’ve never heard before.” The project, which has as its motto “you can’t change what you can’t see,” centers on 32 “core measures”: yardsticks to determine how well local criminal justice systems are working. How often do people plead guilty without a lawyer? How often do prosecutors dismiss charges? How long do people have to wait for a court hearing? Users can also slice the answers to these questions in different ways, using “companion measures” such as race and political affiliation.

The portal itself is like a video game for criminal justice nerds. Users can compare counties, click on interactive maps and bar charts, and layer one data point upon another. The interface is clean and easy to use, if a little wonky. (The organization wants to present data in context, so each infographic is followed by a screen full of fine print and footnotes.) It’s meant for everyone — not just professors and policy wonks.

May 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010 - 2015"

Images (2)The title of this post is the title of this notable new Vera Institute of Justice report. Here is its introduction:

After decades of a stable rate of incarceration, the U.S. prison population experienced unprecedented growth from the early 1970s into the new millennium — with the number of people confined to state prisons increasing by more than 600 percent, reaching just over 1.4 million people by the end of 2009.The engine driving this growth was the enactment and implementation over time of a broad array of tough-on-crime policies, including the rapid and continuous expansion of the criminal code; the adoption of zero-tolerance policing tactics, particularly around minor street-level drug and quality-of-life offenses; and the proliferation of harsh sentencing and release policies aimed at keeping people in prison for longer periods of time (such as mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing statutes, and habitual offender laws).

Unsurprisingly, this explosion in the use of incarceration had a direct financial influence on state budgets.  Creating and sustaining such a sprawling penal system has been expensive.  With more people under their care, state prison systems were compelled to build new prison facilities and expand existing ones.  To staff these new and expanded facilities, they also had to hire, train, and retain ever more employees.  In addition to expanding the state-operated prison system, some states also began to board out increasing numbers of people to county jails, privately-run facilities, and other states’ prison systems.

After hitting a high of 1.4 million people in 2009, however, the overall state prison population has since declined by 5 percent, or 77,000 people.  Lawmakers in nearly every state and from across the political spectrum — some prompted by the 2008 recession — have enacted new laws to reduce prison populations and spending, often guided by a now-large body of research supporting alternative, more effective responses to crime.7 In addition to fiscal pressures, the push for reform has been further bolstered by other factors, including low crime rates; shifting public opinion that now favors less incarceration and more rehabilitation; and dissatisfaction with past punitive policies that have failed to moderate persistently high recidivism rates among those sent to prison.

With these various political, institutional, and economic forces at play, most states have adopted a variety of different policies, including those that increase opportunities to divert people away from the traditional criminal justice process; expand the use of community-based sanctions; reduce the length and severity of prison sentences for certain offenses, including the rollback of mandatory penalties; increase opportunities for people to gain early release; and better provide enhanced reentry support for those leaving prison or jail.

In light of nearly a decade of broad-based criminal justice reform, this report seeks to determine where state prison spending stands today and how it has changed in recent years.  In particular, if a goal of recent reforms has been to make deep and lasting cuts to prison spending by reducing the prison population, have states who have witnessed the desired downward shift in prison size also witnessed it in spending?  To answer this question, researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed a survey to measure changes in state prison population and expenditures between 2010 and 2015, and conducted follow-up interviews with state prison budget officials to better understand spending and population trends.

Vera’s study confirms that prisons remain an expensive enterprise, despite the success of many states — including Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina —in simultaneously reducing their prison populations while achieving budget savings.  The first part of this report describes 2015 prison expenditures, identifying the main driver of corrections spending across responding states.  The second half of the report then discusses how changes in prison populations during the study period, and other trends largely outside the control of departments of corrections have affected prison spending. What is clear is that increased spending is not inevitable, since nearly half of states have cut their spending on prisons between 2010 and 2015.  But while one might expect that states with shrinking prison populations are uniformly spending less on prisons, or conversely that states with growing populations are spending more, Vera’s findings paint a more complicated picture.  Indeed, often there is no single reason that explains a rise or fall in spending, but a multitude of factors that push and pull expenditures in different directions.

May 24, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reviewing some historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases

Some of the copious commentary critical of the new Sessions Memo complains that he is "bringing back" the War on Drugs.  See, for example, Salon here, "Jeff Sessions is bringing back the drug war — and making it worse"; New York here, "Sessions Takes First Big Step Toward Bringing Back the War on Drugs."  I find this charge a bit curious because I do not think the drug war or its footprint on human lives ever really went away notwithstanding some recent efforts at the federal and state level to temper a bit its reach and impact. 

In an effort to try to see if the federal drug war at some point went away, and also driven by a desire to try to gauge the impact of federal charging policies before the Sessions Memo (as discussed here), I decided it might be useful to take a dive into US Sentencing Commission data over the past two decades to see what we could see.  The USSC has great yearly data assembled here going back to 1996, and basic federal prison population numbers are accessible here going back all the way to 1980.  Though my weak empirical skills and this imperfect blogging space will surely limit my ability to tell detailed data stories here effectively, I hope a few posts reviewing federal case processing and sentencing basics might be of some use and interest.  Here I will start with just the most basic of basics, historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases:

Year        Federal Prison Population         Federal Sentences Imposed         Drug Sentences Imposed

1996                105,443                                        42,436                                    17,267

1998                122,316                                        50,754                                    20,368

2000                145,125                                        59,846                                    23,542

2002                163,436                                        64,366                                    25,920        

2004                179,895                                        70,068                                    24,532

2006                192,584                                        72,585                                    26,122

2008                201,668                                        76,478                                    25,500

2010                210,227                                        83,946                                    24,713

2012                218,687                                        84,173                                    25,712

2014                214,149                                        75,836                                    22,193

2016                192,170                                        67,742                                    19,945

May 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, May 08, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases report providing overview of FY 2016 federal sentencing cases

Fig1_fy16overviewThe US Sentencing Commission just released this helpful and relatively brief data report titled simply "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases Fiscal Year 2016."  Among other useful realities, this report provides a certain kind of data marker for the end of the "Obama era" for federal caseload and sentencing patterns.  (The chart reprinted here from the report shows how the number of persons federal sentenced significantly increased during Obama's first term and significantly decreased during Obama's second term.) Here is the overview of the USSC report and key findings via this USSC webpage:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 67,874 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2016. Among these cases, 67,742 involved an individual offender and 132 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 11,991 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases.

Key Findings

A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 reveal the following:

  • The 67,742 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 represent a decrease of 21.4% since fiscal year 2011, the year in which the largest number of offenders were sentenced. Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case, accounting for 31.6% of all cases.

  • Methamphetamine offenses continued to be the most common drug cases, representing 30.8% of all drug crimes.  The proportion of methamphetamine cases has increased substantially since fiscal year 1994, when those cases accounted for only 6.4% of all drug cases.

  • Just under half (44.5%) of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty; however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since fiscal year 1993.

  • Immigration cases were the second most common, accounting for 29.6% of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime — however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • Crimes involving firearms were the third most common offense, accounting for 10.8% of the total number of federal criminal convictions in fiscal year 2016.  The average sentence imposed in firearms cases was 75 months.

  • There were 6,517 fraud cases in fiscal year 2016, accounting for 9.6% of the total federal caseload; however, this number represents a 12.2% reduction from the year before.

May 8, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Reflecting on decreasing death sentences and increasing life sentences

The Washington Post has this "trendy" article headlined "The steady decline of America’s death rows," which reviews some of the latest notable numbers about death sentences and executions and also throws in a paragraph about life sentences based on this week's new Sentencing Project report on the topic (discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

Capital punishment in the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year.  In 1999, the country executed 98 inmates, a modern record for a single year.  In 2016, there were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.

Death sentences also sharply declined. Fewer states that have the death penalty as a sentencing option are carrying out executions, a trend that has continued despite two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past decade upholding lethal injection practices. States that would otherwise carry out executions have found themselves stymied by court orders, other legal uncertainty, logistical issues or an ongoing shortage of deadly drugs. Fewer states have it on the books than did a decade ago, and some that do retain the practice have declared moratoriums or otherwise stopped executions without formally declaring an outright ban....

Another way to see the changing nature of the American death penalty: The gradual decline of death row populations. At the death penalty’s modern peak around the turn of the century, death rows housed more than 3,500 inmates. That number is falling, and it has been falling for some time. New Justice Department data show that death-row populations shrank in 2015, marking the 15th consecutive year with a decline.

There were 2,881 inmates on state and federal death rows in 2015, the last year for which the Justice Department has nationwide data available. That was down 61 from the year before.  States carried out 28 death penalties in 2015, but nearly three times as many inmates — 82 — were removed from death rows “by means other than execution,” the Justice Department’s report states. (Another 49 inmates arrived on death row in 2015.)

In some cases, inmates left death row after being cleared of the crimes for which they were sentenced. Five people sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. Other inmates died of other causes before their executions could occur. In Alabama, three inmates died of natural causes in 2015 and a fourth hanged himself that year inside a prison infirmary, according to corrections officials and local media reports. North Carolina officials say one death-row inmate died of natural causes that year, another was resentenced to life without parole and a third had his death sentence vacated and a new trial ordered. Death sentences were thrown out in some cases. Four death-row inmates in Maryland had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole in 2015, a decision made by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley after that state formally abolished the death penalty....

Another shift also has occurred: The number of people sentenced to life in prison has ballooned, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report released this week from the Sentencing Project. The report states that more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences last year, with another 44,000 people serving what are called “virtual life sentences,” defined as long-term imprisonment effectively extending through the end of a person’s life. Similar to overall prison populations, people of color are disproportionately represented; black people account for nearly half of the life or virtual-life sentences tallied in the report.

Long-time readers likely know that these numbers provide one of the primary reasons why I have long worried that some criminal justice reforms advocates worry far too much about capital punishment and worry far too little about extreme prison sentences.  The fact that there are seven times as many persons serving life sentence as are on death row leads me to believe that nearly any and every concern raised about death sentencing may well be a problem of far greater magnitude with respect to lifers.

Most critically for those concerned about proportionate sentencing, every one of the almost 3000 persons on death row is an adult who was convicted of some form of aggravated murder and had a chance to argue to a jury for a lesser sentence.  But, according to the Sentencing Project data, nearly "12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles" and over "17,000 individuals with [some kind of life sentence] have been convicted of nonviolent crimes" and a significant percentage of lifers were subject to a mandatory sentencing scheme that required imposition of a severe prison sentence without any input by a jury or a judge.  

Though I fully understand why the death penalty has so much salience for both advocates and the general public, I still wish some portion of the extraordinary attention and energy always given to capital punishment might be redirected toward lifer laws, policies and practices.  

May 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

"The Use of Risk Assessment at Sentencing: Implications for Research and Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Jordan Hyatt and Steven Chanenson recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

At-sentencing risk assessments are predictions of an individual’s statistically likely future criminal conduct.  These assessments can be derived from a number of methodologies ranging from unstructured clinical judgment to advanced statistical and actuarial processes.  Some assessments consider only correlates of criminal recidivism, while others also take into account criminogenic needs.  Assessments of this nature have long been used to classify defendants for treatment and supervision within prisons and on community supervision, but they have only relatively recently begun to be used — or considered for use — during the sentencing process.  This shift in application has raised substantial practical and policy challenges and questions.

This paper, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, directly addresses these issues and provides information and examples from a range of jurisdictions, including some which have integrated at-sentencing risk assessment programs in place or are in the process of doing so.  Derived from a survey of judges, as well as a series of interviews with stakeholders from across the nation, opportunities for future research and planning to guide the cautious engagement with at-sentencing risk assessment are identified.

May 4, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Sentencing Project reports on "America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences"

The Sentencing Project yesterday released this significant new report titled "Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences." Here is its introduction:

The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence -- one of every nine people in prison.  An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016.  This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed.  This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system. Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences.  Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.

KEY FINDINGS

• As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.

• An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.

• The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.

• There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.

• Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.

• Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.

• More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

• The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

May 4, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

US Justice Department releases "data on incarcerated aliens"

I just received notice of this new Department of Justice press release titled "Pursuant to Executive Order on Public Safety, Department of Justice Releases Data on Incarcerated Aliens." Here are excerpts:

President Trump’s Executive Order on Public Safety in the Interior of the United States requires the Department of Justice to collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports on data collection efforts. The data in this release shows a significant prison population of incarcerated aliens.

“Illegal aliens who commit additional crimes in the United States are a threat to public safety and a burden on our criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “This is why we must secure our borders through a wall and effective law enforcement, and we must strengthen cooperation between federal, state and local governments as we strive to fulfill our sacred duty of protecting and serving the American people.”

Below is a summary of data collected under Section 16 of the Order, which directs “the Secretary [of Homeland Security] and the Attorney General . . . to collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports” regarding the following subjects: (a) the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated under the supervision of the Bureau of Prisons; (b) the immigration status of all aliens incarcerated as federal pretrial detainees; and (c) the immigration status of all convicted aliens in state prisons and local detention centers throughout the United States....

By way of satisfying the department’s first quarterly report of this data, below is information regarding aliens currently incarcerated under the supervision of BOP. This data is current as of March 25, 2017:

There are 45,493 foreign-born inmates currently in BOP custody, of which 3,939 are U.S. citizens (either naturalized or derivative). Of the remaining 41,554 foreign-born inmates (aliens):

  • Approximately 22,541 (54.2 percent) are aliens for which final immigration orders have been issued for their removal;

  • Approximately 13,886 (33.4 percent) are aliens who are under ICE investigation for possible removal;

  • Approximately 5,101 (12.3 percent) are aliens still pending adjudication (in other words, ICE has charged these aliens as removal cases, but a final disposition has not yet been reached); and

  • Approximately 26 (0.1 percent) are aliens who have been granted relief on the basis of asylum claims.... 

At the department’s direction, US [Marshals Service] has begun providing ICE with complete data on all foreign-born detainees on a daily basis.  The first of these data transfers to ICE took place on April 5, 2017, with a transfer of data associated with approximately 19,000 foreign-born detainees.  ICE anticipates that its analysis of this data will soon be complete, and the department will then provide an updated status report.

May 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Spotlighting again the use of risk-assessment computations at sentencing (under an inaccurate headline)

Adam Liptak has this new column discussing the Loomis risk-assessment sentencing case pending SCOTUS cert review, but the column bears the inaccurate headline "Sent to Prison by a Software Program’s Secret Algorithms."  As of this writing, software programs alone have not sent any persons to prison, not in the Wisconsin case before SCOTUS or any other that I know about.  Software may be making recommendations to sentencing decision-makers, and that certainly justifies scrutiny, but we have not quite yet reached the brave new world that this headline suggests.  That said, the headline did grab my attention, and here are parts of the article that follows:

[A] Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.

In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes. The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Loomis. The report added valuable information, it said, and Mr. Loomis would have gotten the same sentence based solely on the usual factors, including his crime — fleeing the police in a car — and his criminal history.

At the same time, the court seemed uneasy with using a secret algorithm to send a man to prison. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, writing for the court, discussed, for instance, a report from ProPublica about Compas that concluded that black defendants in Broward County, Fla., “were far more likely than white defendants to be incorrectly judged to be at a higher rate of recidivism.”

Justice Bradley noted that Northpointe had disputed the analysis. Still, she wrote, “this study and others raise concerns regarding how a Compas assessment’s risk factors correlate with race.” In the end, though, Justice Bradley allowed sentencing judges to use Compas. They must take account of the algorithm’s limitations and the secrecy surrounding it, she wrote, but said the software could be helpful “in providing the sentencing court with as much information as possible in order to arrive at an individualized sentence.”

Justice Bradley made Compas’s role in sentencing sound like the consideration of race in a selective university’s holistic admissions program. It could be one factor among many, she wrote, but not the determinative one.

In urging the United States Supreme Court not to hear the case, Wisconsin’s attorney general, Brad D. Schimel, seemed to acknowledge that the questions in the case were substantial ones. But he said the justices should not move too fast. “The use of risk assessments by sentencing courts is a novel issue, which needs time for further percolation,” Mr. Schimel wrote.

He added that Mr. Loomis “was free to question the assessment and explain its possible flaws.” But it is a little hard to see how he could do that without access to the algorithm itself. The company that markets Compas says its formula is a trade secret. “The key to our product is the algorithms, and they’re proprietary,” one of its executives said last year. “We’ve created them, and we don’t release them because it’s certainly a core piece of our business.”

Compas and other products with similar algorithms play a role in many states’ criminal justice systems. “These proprietary techniques are used to set bail, determine sentences, and even contribute to determinations about guilt or innocence,” a report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center found [available here]. “Yet the inner workings of these tools are largely hidden from public view.”...

There are good reasons to use data to ensure uniformity in sentencing. It is less clear that uniformity must come at the price of secrecy, particularly when the justification for secrecy is the protection of a private company’s profits. The government can surely develop its own algorithms and allow defense lawyers to evaluate them. At Rensselaer last month, Chief Justice Roberts said that judges had work to do in an era of rapid change. “The impact of technology has been across the board,” he said, “and we haven’t yet really absorbed how it’s going to change the way we do business.” 

Some prior related posts on Loomis case:

May 1, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Unwarranted Disparity: Effectively Using Statistics in Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this recent practitioner-oriented piece authored by Alan Ellis and Mark Allenbaugh. Here is its introduction:

Now in their 30th year, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) have been used to sentence well over 1.5 million defendants nationwide since Nov. 1, 1987, when they first went into effect. (See U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, 1996-2015 Sourcebooks on Federal Sentencing Statistics, Tbl. 10; U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, Quarterly Data Report (4th Quarter Release), Tbl. 1 (Sept. 30, 2016).  From these sources, there were approximately 1.4 million individuals sentenced under the Guidelines.)

Eliminating unwarranted sentencing disparity was the primary goal of the Sentencing Reform Act. (See U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing, 79 (2004)). The act created the U.S. Sentencing Commission (Commission), tasking it with the creation of the Guidelines, and the authority to amend and promulgate new Guidelines from time to time. (See 28 U.S.C. § 994).

Since their inception, the Guidelines have been amended hundreds of times.  This process largely has been informed by the data the Commission collects, publishes and analyzes regarding the application of the Guidelines, including sentences imposed, and departures or variances.  Although in many instances the Commission has been directed by Congress to make certain changes.  In short, the Guidelines have evolved primarily, although not exclusively, as a result of the Commission’s ‘‘empirical approach’’ to sentencing. (See USSG, Ch. 1, Pt. A.)

The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with an overview of what data are available, and to provide suggestions as to how the data may most effectively be used by practitioners in mitigation of punishment.

May 1, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Mandatory Minimum Policy Reform and the Sentencing of Crack Cocaine Defendants: An Analysis of the Fair Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Bjerk just published by the Journal of Empirical Studies. Here is the abstract:

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) affected the U.S. federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenders, and represented the first congressional reform of sentencing laws in over 20 years.  A primary goal of this legislation was to lessen the harshness of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and decrease the sentencing gap between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants.  While the mean sentence length for crack offenders fell following the implementation of the FSA, these changes appear to primarily reflect the continuation of ongoing sentencing trends that were initiated by a variety of noncongressional reforms to federal sentencing policy that commenced around 2007.  However, the FSA appears to have been helpful in allowing these trends to continue past 2010.

April 27, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (0)