Saturday, April 07, 2018

"Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010: Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable empirical paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by John Kramer, Jeffery Todd Ulmer and Gary Zajac. Here is its abstract:

A study of disparity in the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania by Kramer, Ulmer, and Zajac (2017) was recently completed for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness.  This study collected basic statistical data on 4,274 cases charged with homicide in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2010, and then collected highly detailed data from courts and prosecutors’ offices on a subset of 880 first degree murder convictions in 18 counties accounting for more than 87% of all 2000-2010 first degree murder convictions.  Utilizing propensity score methods in analyses of these first degree murder convictions, the study examined whether defendants’ and victims’ race/ethnicity (separately and in combination), predicted: 1) prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty, 2) prosecutors’ decisions to retract a motion to seek the death penalty once it is filed, and 3) court decisions to sentence defendants to death or life without parole.

Key findings were: 1) No pattern of disparity was found to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants in prosecutors’ decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.  2) Black and Hispanic defendants were not disadvantaged in death penalty sentence decisions relative to White defendants. 3) Cases with White victims, regardless of race of defendant, were 8% more likely to receive the death penalty, while Black victim cases were 6% less likely to receive the death penalty. 4) Prosecutors filed to seek the death penalty in 36% of first degree convictions; but later retracted that filing in 46% of those cases.  Moreover, a predominant pattern emerged in which a death penalty filing strongly predicted a guilty plea in these murder cases, and pleading guilty strongly predicted the retraction of the death penalty filing. 5) There were very large differences between counties in the likelihood of prosecutors filing to seek the death penalty, the likelihood of their retracting that filing, and in courts imposing the death penalty.  In fact, the biggest extra-legal influence on whether defendants faced or received the death penalty was where their cases were handled.  6) Public defenders were less likely than private or court appointed attorneys to have the death penalty filed in cases they represented.  However, public defender cases were more likely to receive the death penalty, and defendants represented by private attorneys were especially unlikely to receive the death penalty.  These defense attorney differences also, in turn, varied greatly between counties.

April 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Examining gender realities and disparities in modern federal sentencing

Dagan-women-prisoners-11David Dagan has this interesting new piece at FiveThirtyEight under the headline "Women Aren’t Always Sentenced By The Book. Maybe Men Shouldn’t Be, Either." As this title suggests, the piece is about gender disparities in sentencing, and here are excerpts:

Official federal sentencing guidelines don’t distinguish between female and male offenders.  They often downplay or outright disregard circumstances that are common among women, such as the role of an offender as the sole caretaker for children or an offender having been coerced into committing a crime.  But judges commonly compensate ad hoc, which has led to women on the whole receiving much shorter sentences than men when facing the same punishments.

Critics say the sentencing benchmarks should provide more flexibility from the start — a change that would benefit women ... but also men in similar circumstances, whose extenuating factors may be even more likely to be overlooked.  “The notion that you simply deal with a complicated situation by saying, ‘Let’s ignore the complexity,’ is idiotic,” said former federal judge Nancy Gertner, now a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984 with the Sentencing Reform Act, partly in response to concerns that sentencing was marred by racial and geographic disparities.  The commission was charged with writing the federal guidelines to remedy those problems, and it updates them occasionally.

But people of different races and genders still fare differently under the guidelines. Race looms large, according to a November 2017 report from the sentencing commission.  It found that black men in federal court are sentenced to 19.1 percent more time, on average, than white men who, at least on paper, committed the same crimes and have similar criminal histories.  Women receive much shorter sentences than even white men — though the difference also varies by race.

That disparity grows even larger when the full scope of discretionary decision-making is considered. Prosecutors exercise at least as much power as judges in sentencing because they decide what charges to bring after an arrest.  A 2015 study from the University of Michigan Law School found that when such decisions are taken into account, sentences for men are on average 63 percent longer than sentences for women.

But women’s criminal involvement often looks different than men’s: They may be minor players in drug rings, are sometimes pushed into crime by a violent partner and often carry trauma from physical and sexual abuse....  More than 56 percent of the women in federal prison are there for drug offenses, compared with about 47 percent of men.  In drug cases involving multiple people, each defendant can be held responsible for the full weight of the drugs involved, even if he or she were far down on the organizational chart.  That approach is hard on women, who are often low-level players in such operations, experts said.

The guidelines do compensate by offering “role adjustments” for people who were merely drug mules, for example. But for many women, Gertner said, “those adjustments don’t begin to capture their insubstantial role.”  So judges, who must consider the guidelines but since 2005 have not been compelled to follow them, may be responding with lower-than-recommended sentences.

Also largely excluded from the guidelines is any consideration of how a defendant got into crime in the first place.  Yet research on incarcerated women shows that abusive relationships can put them on the wrong side of the law. Most women who assault their intimate partners have also been victimized by those partners, and they often cite self-defense as a motive.  Researchers have also turned up many cases of incarcerated women who reported being forced into committing a crime by threats of violence.

A broader history of victimization is also common among female offenders. When researchers interviewed 125 women awaiting release from North Carolina prisons, they found that almost two-thirds had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse and more than a quarter had been sexually victimized in the year before they went to prison.  (Most studies do not draw explicit comparisons with men, but a survey of about 7,500 state prisoners conducted in 2005 found that while men and women had similar rates of childhood physical abuse, women had far higher rates of childhood sexual abuse.)

The sentencing guidelines set a high bar for considering such life experiences, and then only in cases involving nonviolent crimes.  Judges are also discouraged from factoring in the role of drug addiction except in extraordinary circumstances.

The upshot is that the guidelines “disproportionately disadvantage anyone who has a significant trauma,” said Christine Freeman, who runs an Alabama organization that provides lawyers to poor clients charged with federal crimes. The exclusion of life experience may have been motivated by an effort to ensure that people of higher socioeconomic status could not work the system to their advantage, Freeman said.  “But what it did was tell the courts that it was OK to ignore all these factors that obviously have motivated this situation and led a person to this point.”...

And the federal guidelines specifically discourage taking family considerations into account, declaring them “not ordinarily relevant” to sentencing. But they are certainly relevant to defendants like James who face separation from their children — and women appear to be particularly affected. Among federal prisoners in 2004, a higher share of men than women reported being the parents of minor children, but almost 80 percent of the mothers reported that they lived with their children just before incarceration, compared with half of the fathers.  Gertner said that judges might be particularly sensitive to the consideration that sending parents away is bad for public safety: “We know as a public-safety measure that (in) families that have been fractured by imprisonment, there’s actually a risk to the next generation.”...

Whatever contributes to the sentencing difference, there are few voices arguing that the solution is longer sentences for women. Instead, as the University of Michigan study said, “Policymakers could equally sensibly ask: Why not treat men like women are treated?”

March 30, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

"Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new report from the US Sentencing Commission. Here is a summary of its coverage and findings from this USSC webpage:

The publication Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment analyzes recidivism among crack cocaine offenders who were released immediately before and after implementation of the 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment, and followed in the community for three years.

In order to study the impact of retroactive sentence reductions on recidivism rates, staff analyzed the recidivism rate for a group of crack cocaine offenders whose sentences were reduced pursuant to retroactive application of the 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment. Staff then compared that rate to the recidivism rate for a comparison group of offenders who would have been eligible to seek a reduced sentence under the 2011 amendment, but were released before the effective date of that amendment after serving their full prison terms less good time and other earned credits.

Key Findings

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the FSA Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?".

Key findings of the Commission’s study are as follows:

  • The recidivism rates were virtually identical for offenders who were released early through retroactive application of the FSA Guideline Amendment and offenders who had served their full sentences before the FSA guideline reduction retroactively took effect. Over a three-year period following their release, the “FSA Retroactivity Group” and the “Comparison Group” each had a recidivism rate of 37.9 percent.

  • Among offenders who did recidivate, for both groups the category “court or supervision violation” was most often the most serious recidivist event reported. Approximately one-third of the offenders who recidivated in both groups (32.9% for the FSA Retroactivity Group and 30.8% for the Comparison Group) had court or supervision violation as their most serious recidivist event.

  • Among offenders who did recidivate, the time to recidivism for both groups were nearly identical. The median time to recidivism for offenders who recidivated in both groups was approximately 14½ months.

March 28, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"The Scale of Misdemeanor Justice"

the title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Megan Stevenson and Sandra Mayson now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article seeks to inform misdemeanor scholarship and policy by creating the most comprehensive national-level analysis of misdemeanor criminal justice that is currently feasible given the state of data collection in the United States.  First, we estimate that there are 13.2 million misdemeanor cases filed in the United States each year.  Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, this number is not rising.  Both the number of misdemeanor arrests and cases filed have declined markedly in recent years.  In fact, arrest rates for almost every misdemeanor offense category have been declining for at least two decades in almost every state for which data is available.  Third, there is profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate for most — but not all — offense types. This is sobering if not surprising.  More unexpectedly, perhaps, the variation in racial disparity across offense types has remained remarkably constant over the past thirty-seven years; the offenses marked by the greatest racial disparity in arrest rates in 1980 are more or less the same as those marked by greatest racial disparity today.

Our national caseload estimate confirms current perceptions about the scale of misdemeanor justice, but the declining arrest and case-filing rates present a challenge for misdemeanor scholarship.  Contemporary research on misdemeanors has been influenced by the impression that the system is expanding.  As a result, the theoretical contributions made by recent scholars provide no immediate explanation for the decline in misdemeanor arrests and case-filing rates.  In addition, we document what to us was a surprising degree of uniformity in misdemeanor trends.  Such consistency suggests that the misdemeanor system may have a deeper and more uniform structure than we anticipated, and may be subject to common influences across jurisdictions.  As misdemeanor scholarship develops, we believe that an important challenge is to expand our theories of misdemeanor justice to make sense of the statistical patterns presented here.

March 27, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Interesting new US Sentencing Commission analysis of possible impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this recent letter from the USSC's Director of its Office of Research and Data to an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. Here is how the letter gets started:

The Congressional Budget Office has requested the U.S. Sentencing Commission to assist it in its assessment of the budgetary impact of S. 1917, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, were it to be enacted.  Enclosed with this letter is the Commission’s estimate of the impact of several sections of this bill on the sentences that would be imposed on federal offenders as well as the impact on the size of the federal prison population.

As you can see on the enclosed, the Commission has estimated the number of offenders who would be affected by each section of the bill for which an estimate was possible. Some of those sections have both prospective and retroactive impacts.  For the provisions that have both, the Commission has provided separate estimates of the number of offenders affected. The data used for this analysis was Commission data, however the retroactive analyses were based, in part, on information from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as to offenders who were incarcerated as of October 28, 2017.

The detailed "Sentence and Prison Impact Estimate Summary" serves to confirm my long-standing belief that the corrections provisions of SRCA could and would impact many tens of thousands more prisoners than the sentencing reform provisions.  In rough particulars, the USSC analysis suggests about 7,000 current prisoners could benefit from the retroactive sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA, whereas over 75,000 current federal prisoners could be eligible for the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.  (Prospectively, according to the USSC analysis, a few thousand new offenders would benefit from the sentencing provisions of Title I of the SRCA.  And, though not discussed by the USSC, it is also likely tens of thousands of new offenders would also be able to benefit from the corrections credits of Title II of the SRCA.)

As previously reported, though the SRCA passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-5 vote last month, the White House has formally expressed support only for the prison reform components of the bill.  Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated he wants to keep pushing the SRCA in its current form, but other important GOP leaders in the Senate and elsewhere seem prepared and eager only to move forward with prison reform at this time.  In light of these new USSC data, I sincerely hope Senator Grassley and lots of criminal justice reform advocates will appreciate that a huge number of current and future federal prisoners could and would benefit from enacting just the corrections piece of the SRCA.  Given widespread support for reform provisions that could have widespread impact, I hope we see some movement on the corrections front soon.  But, sadly, given an array of problematic personalities and politics, I am not optimistic.

A few prior related posts:

March 22, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Measuring Change: From Rates of Recidivism to Markers of Desistance"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cecelia Klingele now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Reducing the incidence of crime is a primary task of the criminal justice system, and one for which it rightly should be held accountable.  The system’s success is frequently judged by the recidivism rates of those who are subject to various criminal justice interventions, from treatment programs to imprisonment.  This Article suggests that, however popular, recidivism alone is a poor metric for gauging the success of the criminal justice interventions, or of those who participate in them.  This is true primarily because recidivism is a binary measure, and behavioral change is a multi-faceted process. Accepting recidivism as a valid stand-alone metric imposes on the criminal justice system a responsibility outside its capacity, demanding that its success turn on transforming even the most serious and intractable of offenders into fully law-abiding citizens.  Instead of measuring success by simple rates of recidivism, policymakers should seek more nuanced metrics. 

One such alternative is readily-available: markers of desistance. Desistance, which in this context means the process by which individuals move from a life that is crime-involved to one that is not, is evidenced not just by whether a person re-offends at all, but also by increasing intervals between offenses and patterns of de-escalating behavior.  These easily-obtainable metrics, which are already widely relied on by criminologists, can yield more nuanced information about the degree to which criminal justice interventions correlate to positive (or negative) life change.  They also resemble more closely the ways in which other fields that address behavioral change, such as education, attempt to measure change over time.

Measuring the success of criminal justice interventions by reference to their effects on desistance would mean seeking evidence of progress, not perfection.  Such an approach would allow criminal justice agencies to be held accountable for promoting positive change without asking them to do the impossible, thereby creating new pathways by which the criminal justice system could be recognized for achieving real and measurable progress in crime reduction.

March 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"Gender Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

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

Across wide-ranging contexts, academic literature and the popular press have identified pervasive gender disparities favoring men over women in society.  One area in which gender disparities have conversely favored women is the criminal justice system.  Most of the empirical research examining gender disparities in criminal case outcomes has focused on judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that constrain judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining gender disparities in the plea-bargaining process.  The results presented in this article reveal significant gender disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system.

Female defendants are about twenty percent more likely than male defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced.  These gender disparities are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving serious felonies, male and female defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating gender disparities.  While female defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than male defendants with no prior convictions, male and female defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment.  These patterns in gender disparities suggest that in these “low information” cases gender may be being used as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

Building upon these results and the existing literature documenting racial disparities in criminal case outcomes, the article explores the intersection of gender and race in determining disparities in the plea-bargaining process.  The results indicate that gender and racial disparities complement each other in a way that yields additive effects. The charge reduction rate for white female defendants is more than double that of black male defendants.  White male and black female defendants experience similar charge reduction rates, in-between those of white female and black male defendants.  Consistent with the pattern of gender disparities documented in the article, these inter-group disparities are greater in cases involving misdemeanor offenses and defendants with no prior convictions.

Prior related post:

March 20, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018"

Pie2018The Prison Policy Initiative has an updated version of its terrific incarceration "pie" graphic and report now at this link. Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. Meaningful criminal justice reform that reduces the massive scale of incarceration, however, requires that we start with the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people are locked up in all of those different types of facilities.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement. The detailed views bring these overlooked parts of the “pie” to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement. In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily number suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

With a sense of the big picture, a common follow-up question might be: how many people are locked up for a drug offense? We know that almost half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense. The data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system, but play only a supporting role at the state and local levels. While most people in state and local facilities are not locked up for drug offenses, most states’ continued practice of arresting people for drug possession destabilizes individual lives and communities. Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses....

While this “whole pie” provides the most inclusive view of the various systems of confinement in the U.S. justice system available, these snapshots can’t capture all of the important systemic issues. Once we have wrapped our minds around the “whole pie” of mass incarceration, for example, we should zoom out and note that being locked up is just one piece of the larger pie of correctional control. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.7 million people on probation. Particularly given the often onerous conditions of probation, policymakers should be cautious of “alternatives to incarceration” that can easily widen the net of criminalization to people who are not a threat to public safety.

Beyond identifying the parts of the criminal justice system that impact the most people, we should also focus on who is most impacted and who is left behind by policy change. For example, people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Blacks, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. Gender disparities matter too: rates of incarceration have grown even faster for women than for men. As policymakers continue to push for reforms that reduce incarceration, they should avoid changes that will widen disparities, as has happened with juvenile confinement and with women in state prisons....

[A]rmed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States, where, and why, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform. For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, but that the federal government and some states have effectively reduced their incarcerated populations by turning to drug policy reform. Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward. At the same time, how can elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges slow the flow of people into the criminal justice system?
  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?
  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to confront the second largest slice of the pie: the thousands of locally administered jails? And does it even make sense to arrest millions of poor people each year for minor offenses, make them post money bail, and then lock them up when they can’t afford to pay it? Will our leaders be brave enough to redirect corrections spending to smarter investments like community-based drug treatment and job training?
  • Can we implement reforms that both reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the well-known racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system?

March 17, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Firearms Offenses in the Federal Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new 80-page report issued today by the United States Sentencing Commission. Here is the USSC's Summary and account of Key Findings from this webpage:

This publication is the third in the Commission’s series on mandatory minimum penalties. Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analyses of the two statutes carrying a firearms mandatory minimum penalty, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (relating to using or possessing firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking or crimes of violence) and the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), as well as the impact of those provisions on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population. Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report....

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 firearms offenses. As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the following key findings:

Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to result in long sentences although they have decreased since fiscal year 2010.

  • In fiscal year 2016, offenders convicted under section 924(c) received an average sentence of over 12 years (151 months) of imprisonment, which is 13 months less than in fiscal year 2010. The average sentence length depended on the applicable mandatory minimum penalty under section 924(c), increasing from 118 months for the five-year mandatory minimum penalty to 302 months where a 30-year mandatory minimum penalty applied.
  • Similarly, in fiscal year 2016, offenders convicted of an offense carrying the 15-year mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received an average sentence of over 15 years (182 months) of imprisonment, which is nine months less than in fiscal year 2010.
  • As a result of these long sentences, offenders convicted of an offense carrying a firearms mandatory minimum penalty continued to significantly contribute to the size of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ population, constituting 24,905 (14.9%) of the 166,771 offenders in federal prison as of September 30, 2016.

Offenders charged with and convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c) received exceptionally long sentences as a result of the statutory requirement that the sentence for each count be served consecutively.

  • While only 156 (7.9%) of the 1,976 offenders convicted under section 924(c) in fiscal year 2016 were convicted of multiple counts under that statute, they received exceptionally long sentences. The average sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c) exceeded 27 years of imprisonment (327 months), nearly two-and-a-half times the average sentence for offenders convicted of a single count under section 924(c) (136 months).
  • The average sentence for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty required by multiple counts under section 924(c) was even longer at almost 36 years (431 months).

In addition, other charging and plea decisions also play a significant role in the application and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

  • The majority of section 924(c) offenders (85.5%) were also convicted of another offense, which is consistent with the statutory requirement that an offender must have used or possessed a firearm during and in relation to, or in furtherance of, an underlying federal offense in order to be convicted under section 924(c).
  • Conversely, 14.5 percent of offenders were convicted of an offense under section 924(c) alone, although those cases necessarily involved another federal offense for which they were not charged and convicted.
  • Those offenders convicted of an offense under section 924(c) alone received an average sentence that was five years shorter than offenders convicted under section 924(c) and another offense (99 months compared to 159 months).

Statutory relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) for providing substantial assistance to the government plays a significant role in the application and impact of firearms mandatory minimum penalties.

  • The 21.6 percent of offenders who received relief from the mandatory minimum penalty under section 924(c) for providing substantial assistance received average sentences of 95 months, compared to 166 months for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing.
  • The impact of receiving relief is even more pronounced for offenders convicted of multiple counts under section 924(c). Such offenders received average sentences that were less than one-third as long as offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty required under section 924(c)—136 months compared to 431 months.
  • Similarly, almost one-fifth (19.7%) of offenders convicted of an offense carrying the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received relief for providing substantial assistance, and their average sentence was 112 months compared to 200 months for offenders who remained subject to the mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing.

While the rate at which firearms offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum has been stable, the number of offenders convicted of offenses carrying such penalties has decreased significantly since fiscal year 2010.

  • Less than one-third (30.8%) of all firearms offenders in fiscal year 2016 were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, which is almost identical to fiscal year 2010 (30.6%).
  • However, between fiscal years 2010 and 2016, the number of offenders convicted under section 924(c) decreased from 2,360 to 1,976, a 16.2 percent decrease. The number of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act decreased 51.4 percent from 626 to 304, which is the lowest number of such offenders since fiscal year 2002 (n=292).
  • Firearms offenses accounted for 16.8 percent of all offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016 compared to 14.4 percent in fiscal year 2010.

Firearms mandatory minimum penalties continue to impact Black offenders more than any other racial group.

  • Black offenders were convicted of a firearms offense carrying a mandatory minimum more often than any other racial group. In fiscal year 2016, Black offenders accounted for 52.6 percent of offenders convicted under section 924(c), followed by Hispanic offenders (29.5%), White offenders (15.7%) and Other Race offenders (2.2%).
  • The impact on Black offenders was even more pronounced for offenders convicted either of multiple counts under section 924(c) or offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act. Black offenders accounted for more than two-thirds of such offenders (70.5% and 70.4%, respectively).
  • Black offenders also generally received longer average sentences for firearms offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty than any other racial group. In fiscal year 2016, Black offenders convicted under section 924(c) received an average sentence of 165 months, compared to 140 months for White offenders and 130 months for Hispanic offenders. Only Other Race offenders received longer average sentences (170 months), but they accounted for only 2.2 percent of section 924(c) offenders.
  • Similarly, Black offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act received longer average sentences than any other racial group at 185 months, compared to 178 months for White offenders, 173 months for Hispanic offenders, and 147 months for Other Race offenders. 

March 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Interesting data from the US Courts on federal criminal justice caseloads in FY 2017

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday released here is Annual Report on "Judicial Business 2017" providing lots of statistics on the work of the federal Judiciary for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2017. Here are some criminal justice-related items from data pages here and here that caught my eye:

This year, filings in the U.S. courts of appeals declined 16 percent to 50,506. Total filings in the U.S. district courts decreased 7 percent to 344,787 as civil case filings dropped 8 percent to 267,769, although filings for criminal defendants remained relatively stable at 77,018....

Filings in the regional courts of appeals, which rose 15 percent the previous year, dropped 16 percent to 50,506 in 2017. Filings by pro se litigants, which accounted for 50 percent of new cases, went down 20 percent. Civil appeals grew 1 percent. Criminal appeals fell 14 percent.

Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) remained stable, decreasing less than 1 percent to 77,018.

The biggest numeric decline was in filings for defendants charged with property offenses, which fell 6 percent to 10,115 filings and accounted for 13 percent of total criminal filings.  Filings for defendants charged with fraud, which constituted 9 percent of total filings and 71 percent of property offense filings, dropped 5 percent to 7,165.  Fraud filings related to identification documents and information, which are often associated with immigration crimes, decreased 16 percent to 639.

Drug crimes remained the offenses prosecuted most frequently in the U.S. district courts, constituting 32 percent of all defendant filings. Filings for defendants charged with crimes related to marijuana decreased 19 percent to 4,181.  Filings for non-marijuana defendants rose 4 percent to 20,175.  Filings related to the sale, distribution, or dispensing of illegal drugs decreased 17 percent to 2,249 for marijuana and rose 1 percent to 17,560 for all other drugs.

Criminal filings for defendants charged with immigration offenses fell 2 percent to 20,438 and accounted for 27 percent of criminal filings. This was the lowest total since 2007. Defendants charged with improper reentry by an alien decreased 3 percent to 16,554, and those charged with improper entry by an alien dropped 12 percent to 172.  Immigration filings in the five southwestern border districts declined 7 percent to 15,638 and constituted 77 percent of national immigration defendant filings, compared to 81 percent in 2016.  Filings fell 32 percent in the District of New Mexico, 16 percent in the Southern District of Texas, and 5 percent in the District of Arizona, but rose 51 percent in the Southern District of California and 6 percent in the Western District of Texas.

General offense defendants declined 5 percent and amounted to 2 percent of total criminal filings. Reductions also occurred in filings related to violent offenses (down 1 percent) and sex offenses (also down 1 percent); each of these categories constituted 4 percent or less of total criminal filings.

Filings for defendants prosecuted for firearms and explosives offenses rose 11 percent to 9,672 and represented 13 percent of total criminal filings. Filings involving justice system offenses, which increased 5 percent, constituted 1 percent of total criminal filings. Defendants charged with regulatory offenses grew 3 percent and accounted for 2 percent of total criminal filings. Traffic offense filings increased 2 percent to 2,292 and accounted for 3 percent of total criminal filings.

Because FY 2017 ending in Sept 2017 really represents a big transition year at the executive branch, it is way too early to draw too much from these data concerning the patterns of prosecution we might expect during the Trump years. But these data present an interesting baseline from which to look for notable patterns that might develop in the years ahead.

March 14, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Issue Brief from Pew with a message summarized by the document's subtitle: "Data show no relationship between prison terms and drug misuse." Here is the document's overview:

Nearly 300,000 people are held in state and federal prisons in the United States for drug-law violations, up from less than 25,000 in 1980.  These offenders served more time than in the past: Those who left state prisons in 2009 had been behind bars an average of 2.2 years, a 36 percent increase over 1990, while prison terms for federal drug offenders jumped 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from about two to roughly five years.

As the U.S. confronts a growing epidemic of opioid misuse, policymakers and public health officials need a clear understanding of whether, how, and to what degree imprisonment for drug offenses affects the nature and extent of the nation’s drug problems.  To explore this question, The Pew Charitable Trusts examined publicly available 2014 data from federal and state law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies.  The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.

The findings — which Pew sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in a letter dated June 19, 2017 — reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations.  The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.

March 11, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

"Lethal Rejection: An Empirical Analysis of the Astonishing Plunge in Death Sentences in the United States from Their Post-Furman Peak"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by David McCord and Talia Roitberg Harmon now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The authors gathered information on 1665 death-eligible cases nationwide for three years at decade intervals: 1994, 2004, and 2014.  In 517 cases death sentences were imposed; in 311 cases sentencers spared the defendants from death sentences, and in 837 cases prosecutors spared defendants from death sentences.  The Article proceeds in three Parts. Part I explains the methodology for unearthing relevant data and preparing it for analysis.  Part II analyzes declines in death sentences due to decreasing death eligibility, that is, fewer murderers over time meeting the criteria that made death a sentencing option.  Four reasons are examined: fewer death-eligible murders, the United States Supreme Court’s exemptions of juveniles who were less than eighteen years of age at the time of the commission of the murder, and persons with intellectual disability (known to the law as the “mentally retarded”); and the abolition of the death penalty in several states.  This Part concludes that about half of the decline in death sentences is attributable to decreased death-eligibility, mostly due to the steep decrease in the number of death-eligible murders.

Part III examines increasingly narrower perceptions of death-worthiness, that is, the evolution in attitudes among prosecutors and sentencers toward deeming fewer among the many death-eligible defendants worthy of death sentences.  This Part requires the most complicated analysis because unlike death-eligibility decisions, which are dictated by law, death-worthiness decisions emerge from an opaque brew of many factors, including, but not limited to, resource differentials among jurisdictions, prosecutorial attitudes, the wishes of the murder victim’s survivors, defense counsel performance, public opinion, and sentencer reactions.  But while death-worthiness decisions are often opaque in individual cases, each case generates empirical data from which patterns may be discerned. Part III uses such data to analyze ten questions and arrive at tentative answers:

• Did the advent of life-without-parole (hereinafter “LWOP”) reduce death sentences in jurisdictions where it was added as an option? (only in Texas)

• Did sentencers become more reluctant to return death sentences? (no)

• Were death sentences decreasingly imposed in less aggravated cases and increasingly imposed in more aggravated cases? (to some extent)

• Did presentation of greater numbers of mitigating factors conduce to fewer death sentences? (no)

• Did robbery during a murder became a less powerful aggravator? (yes)

• Did 18-to-20 year-olds benefit from a ripple effect from the exemption of juveniles? (yes)

• Did death sentences become less common in multiple perpetrator cases? (yes)

• Did low population counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (yes)

• Did low revenue counties increasingly drop out of death sentencing? (no) and

• Did a few traditionally high-volume death sentencing counties skew the figures by cutting back on the use of the death penalty due to local political factors? (yes)

March 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

US Sentencing Commission releases 2017 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

2017-sourcebook-image_cropVia email, I just received this notice from the US Sentencing Commission about the publication of lots of new federal sentencing data:

Just Released

The United States Sentencing Commission’s 2017 Annual Report and 2017 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics are now available online.

The Annual Report provides an overview of the Commission’s activities and accomplishments in fiscal year 2017.

The Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics presents tables, figures, and charts on selected district, circuit, and national sentencing data for fiscal year 2017. The Commission collected and analyzed data from more than 311,000 court documents in the production of this year’s Sourcebook.

I fear I won't be able to find all the time I would like to churn over all the notable data in these reports.  But I can already see from the start of the 2017 Annual Report some noteworthy data points, embedded in this overview of modern federal sentencing realities (with my emphasis added):

The Commission's data collection, analysis, and reporting requirements are impacted by the high volume of cases sentenced in the federal system annually. The Commission received approximately 310,000 documents for the 66,873 individual original sentencings that occurred in FY 2017.  To put this caseload in perspective, in FY 1995, the Commission received documentation for 38,500 original sentencings.  Select highlights from FY 2017 data are outlined below:

  • In FY 2017, the courts reported 66,873 felony and Class A misdemeanor cases to the Commission. This represents a decrease of 869 cases from the prior fiscal year.

  • The race of federal offenders remained largely unchanged from prior years.  In FY 2017, 53.2 percent of all offenders were Hispanic, 21.5 percent were White, 21.1 percent were Black, and 4.2 percent were of another race.  Non-U.S. citizens accounted for 40.7 percent of all offenders.

  • Drug cases accounted for the largest single group of offenses in FY 2017, comprising 30.8 percent of all reported cases. Cases involving immigration, firearms, and fraud were the next most common types of offenses after drug cases. Together these four types of offenses accounted for 82.4 percent of all cases reported to the Commission in FY 2017.

  • Among drug cases, offenses involving methamphetamine were most common, accounting for 34.6 percent of all drug cases.

  • Drug sentences remained relatively stable across all drug types in fiscal year 2017.  The average length of imprisonment increased slightly from FY 2016 in cases involving methamphetamines, from 90 months to 91 months, and also in marijuana cases, from 28 months to 29 months. In fiscal year 2017, 44.2 percent of drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.

Overall, 79.8 percent of all sentences imposed in FY 2017 were either within the applicable guidelines range, above the range, or below the range at the request of the government.  Slightly less than half (49.1 percent) of all cases were sentenced within the guidelines range, compared to 48.6 percent in FY 2016.  In FY 2017, 20.1 percent of the sentences imposed were departures or variances below the guideline range other than at the government’s request, compared to 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2016.

March 6, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"The State of the Death Penalty Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Ankur Desai.  Here is the abstract:

The death penalty is in decline in America and most death penalty states do not regularly impose death sentences. In 2016 and 2017, states reached modern lows in imposed death sentences, with just thirty-one defendants sentenced to death in 2016 and thirty-nine in 2017, as compared with over three hundred per year in the 1990s.  In 2016, only thirteen states imposed death sentences, and in 2017, fourteen did so, although thirty-one states retain the death penalty.  What explains this remarkable and quite unexpected trend?

In this Article, we present new analysis of state-level legislative changes that might have been expected to impact death sentences.  First, life without parole (LWOP) statutes, now enacted in nearly every state, might have been expected to reduce death sentences because they give jurors a non-capital option at trial.  Second, legislatures have moved, albeit at varying paces, to comply with the Supreme Court’s holding in Ring v. Arizona, which requires that the final decision in capital sentencing be made not by a judge, but by a jury.  Third, states at different times have created state-wide public defender offices to represent capital defendants at trial.  In addition, the decline in homicides and homicide rates could be expected to contribute to the decline in state-level death sentencing.

We find that contrary to the expectations of many observers, changes in the law such as adoption of LWOP and jury sentencing, did not consistently or significantly impact death sentencing. The decline in homicides and homicide rates is correlated with changes in death sentencing at the state level.  However, this Article finds that state provision of capital trial representation is far more strongly and robustly correlated with reduced death sentencing than these other factors.  The findings bolster the argument that adequacy of counsel has greater implications for the administration of the death penalty than other legal factors.  These findings also have implications beyond the death penalty and they underscore the importance of a structural understanding of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in our system of criminal justice.

February 27, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"Reentry Court Research: An Overview of Findings from the National Institute of Justice’s Evaluation of Second Chance Act Adult Reentry Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this new report on findings about eight programs that received funding and technical assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance under the Second Chance Act of 2007.  Here is part of the report's abstract:

Background: There are myriad challenges associated with the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, coupled with a dearth of rigorous research examining reentry courts. It is well known that formerly incarcerated individuals face overwhelming obstacles, such as limited occupational or educational experiences to prepare them for employment, drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical health challenges, strained family relations, and limited opportunities due to the stigma of a criminal record.  Reentry courts seek to address these challenges by assessing the individuals for risks and needs; linking them to appropriate community-based services; and overseeing the treatment process through ongoing court oversight, probation or parole supervision, and case management.  Under the Second Chance Act (SCA) of 2007 (Pub. L. 110-199), the Bureau of Justice Assistance funded reentry programs including the eight sites participating in this National Institute of Justice Evaluation of SCA Adult Reentry Courts.  This document provides a summary overview of the evaluation and complements three annual reports that provide more detailed information on the program processes and populations, research methods, and findings....

Results: Results were mixed across sites.  One site consistently demonstrated positive outcomes across the interview, recidivism, and cost analyses with the reentry court successfully delivering more substance abuse treatment and other services than what was received by the comparison group.  In addition, reentry court participants out-performed the comparison group in reduced recidivism (re-arrests and re-conviction) and reincarceration (revocation and time in jail or prison).  Two sites had neutral, trending toward positive, results with reduced participant re-arrests but with other outcomes (such as convictions and re-incarceration) not significantly different between the participants and the comparison group.  Two other sites had mixed results (e.g., participants had significantly fewer re-arrests but significantly increased re-incarceration) and two had negative results (e.g., participants had significantly more re-arrests and incarceration while other outcomes were no different between groups).  Cost findings were similarly mixed with two sites experiencing cost savings due mainly to lower recidivism costs and fewer victimization costs for reentry court participants ($2,512 and $6,710 saved per participant) and the remainder experiencing loss (ranging from just over -$1,000 to almost -$17,000 loss per participant). The research protocol and process evaluation findings are documented in three annual project reports; research caveats include a lack of detailed treatment service data. Also, reentry court program investment costs are described, but the comparison of cost estimates is limited to outcomes and does not include net benefits based on investment in non-reentry court case processing in the comparison group.

Conclusions: Key processes that set the one site with positive outcomes apart from the other sites was the high level of consistency and intensity of substance abuse treatment, wraparound services for multiple criminogenic needs, high intensity supervision, as well as an increased use of praise from the judge along with other incentives and sanctions.  In addition, the eligibility criteria for this site required that participants have a substance use disorder with risk levels ranging from moderate to high (based on their local risk assessment with a three point scale that ranged from low to high).  In contrast, other site eligibility criteria did not require a substance use disorder and participant risk levels were mostly high to very high (depending on the assessment tool used and their specific scoring and risk category criteria).  It is possible that the sites with less positive results did not have the appropriate level and type of services consistently available to best serve the varying risk levels of their participants.

This detailed report reinforces yet again the conclusion I often, somewhat depressingly, reach when looking at careful research on an important topic: many of our most pressing criminal justice problems are really complicated and lack simple solutions.

February 14, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New Utah death penalty study may add momentum to repeal efforts

This local article, headlined "New study of Utah’s use of the death penalty suggests life without parole costs less, prompts another call to abolish capital punishment," reports on a new report which could help jump start efforts to abolish the death penalty in the Beehive State.  Here are the details and some context:

A group of Utah attorneys, advocates and state staff have spent the last year studying the state’s death penalty. The working group, created by Utah’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, examined several areas, including costs, aggravating factors and public attitude.  The CCJJ report, released Friday [and available here], noted there were “fundamental difficulties inherent in analyzing death penalty policy.” The group did not make any recommendations or proposed changes to Utah’s current capital punishment system.

But a group called Utah Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said the report shows that a significant amount of money has been spent seeking death sentences without much in return.  They called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment in Utah. “This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible,” director Kevin Greene said in a statement. “... The millions of dollars that we have been wasting on the death penalty should either be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a tax cut or used for crime prevention or to help victims of crime.”

Here’s what the study found:

Cost estimates for the price of the death penalty in Utah are limited, the group noted. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and decades of appeals costs $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty eligible cases that have been filed in the last two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence....

Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors in the homicide law that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty — and state lawmakers are contemplating adding even more. At a recent legislative hearing, some expressed concern that Utah may have too many crimes that qualify for the death penalty, and that an appeals court could torpedo the capital punishment law for being too broad. In the CCJJ report, the group noted that they could not come to an agreement about whether the number of aggravating factors should be limited. They noted that most states rarely remove aggravating factors — and instead have been adding more through the years.

The working group looked at several polls about Utahns’ attitude toward the death penalty, noting that there have been conflicting results. Two polls showed Utahns support the death penalty, while two others showed less support for execution in favor of life-without-parole sentences. The group concluded it was “probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs.”

Utah legislators came close to outlawing the death penalty in 2016 — but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session. Criminal justice reforms groups have said another push to end capital punishment in Utah is likely during this legislative session — though a bill to abolish it has not yet been public.

Since 2010, Utah prosecutors have filed 119 aggravated murder cases, according to Utah court data. Such cases can result in punishments of 25 years to life, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or death. Only one of those cases — a retrial of a 1993 case — resulted in a death sentence.

Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction.  All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.

The last execution was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of Michael Burdell, a Salt Lake City lawyer, during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse.

Notably, in the not too distant past, a significant number of states abolished the death penalty formally or functionally.  As reflected in this DPIC page, from 2007 through 2013, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland became abolitionist states.  Since 2013, the only significant legislative action on this front took place in Nebraska; but the death penalty repeal passed by state senators in 2015 was rejected by voters in a 2016 referendum. In light of this recent history, I think it would be a pretty big deal if abolition efforts picked up steam in Utah.

February 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Lamenting latest data on how federal Bureau of Prisons administers its compassionate release program

This new press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "New Data Reveals BOP Still Neglecting Compassionate Release," reports on the release of new data about a notable piece of federal prison law and administration. Here is much of the full release (with links from the original):

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) President Kevin Ring today commented on the release of new data related to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) compassionate release program. Last August, 12 U.S. senators wrote to the BOP seeking information on the number of individuals who were granted early release pursuant to the program. In its response dated January 16, the BOP revealed that the agency has granted a mere 306 petitions while denying more than 2,400 over the past four years.  Prisoners facing unimaginable circumstances wait an average of 4.7 to 6.5 months for a response, and 81 prisoners died while waiting for an answer.

“We are disappointed but not surprised,” Ring said. “Even as interest in prison reform grows, we find that the BOP is not using its authority to reduce the number of low-risk, high-cost individuals in federal prisons. This failure hurts families and taxpayers without improving public safety.

“The fact that 81 individuals died waiting for a response to their petitions for compassionate release is a moral outrage. We as a country can do better than this. Congress should act now to streamline the process and inject some common sense and dignity to this program,” Ring said.

FAMM has been a longtime advocate for expanding federal and state compassionate release programs, which authorize early release for prisoners facing extreme circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness. Last year, FAMM helped to establish the Campaign for Compassionate Release, a coalition of diverse organizations who support the creation, expansion, and robust use of compassionate release.

February 9, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and Its Discontents"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new review essay authored by Katherine Beckett now appearing in Contemporary Sociology.  Here is how the essay gets started:

The contours of mass incarceration are, by now, broadly familiar.  The U.S. incarceration rate began an unprecedented ascent in the 1970s.  This trend continued through 2007, when 760 of every 100,000 U.S. residents — nearly 1 in 100 adults — lived behind bars, five million others were on probation or parole, more than ten million were booked into jail, and nearly one in three U.S. residents had a criminal record (Kaeble and Glaze 2016, Table 4; PEW Center on the States 2008; Sabol 2014; Subramanian et al. 2016).  The scale of confinement now sharply differentiates the United States from comparable countries, where incarceration rates range from a low of 45 per 100,000 residents in Japan to 145 in England and Wales (Walmsley 2015).  By 2015, the U.S. incarceration rate had fallen to 670 per 100,000 residents, a drop of nearly 12 percent (Kaeble and Glaze 2016). Still, the United States remains the world’s leading jailer (Wagner and Walsh 2016).

The emergence of mass incarceration in the United States has spawned a tremendous amount of social scientific research.  A number of studies analyze its proximate causes and show that shifts in policy and practice (rather than rising crime rates) were the primary driver of penal expansion.  Other studies analyze the consequences of mass incarceration, documenting, for example, its disparate and adverse impact on people, families, and communities of color.  Some assess how penal expansion affects not only the incarcerated, but also those who are stopped, frisked, arrested, fined, and surveilled — even in the absence of incarceration or conviction.  And a substantial body of research shows that penal expansion has had far-reaching sociological effects that tend to enhance — and mask — racial and socio-economic inequalities.

Although the decline in incarceration since 2007 has been modest, it has nonetheless triggered much discussion regarding the need for, and prospects of, reform.  Yet researchers are debating more than the likelihood that meaningful change will occur; they also offer competing understandings of the problems that require attention and the solutions that should be enacted.  The books reviewed here — Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court, by Mona Lynch; Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John F. Pfaff; and Sentencing Fragments: Penal Reform in America, 1975–2025, by Michael Tonry — speak to these pressing questions and offer surprisingly different ideas about what needs to be done to reverse mass incarceration and improve the quality of justice produced in American courts.  In particular, and in contrast to the arguments of Lynch and Tonry, Pfaff makes the case that time served has not increased and therefore that efforts to enact comprehensive sentencing reform are misguided and would have little impact.  In my view, this provocative claim is inconsistent with the best available evidence, much of which is brought to life in Mona Lynch’s Hard Bargains.

February 8, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

"Event dependence in U.S. executions"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper authored by Frank Baumgartner, Janet M. Box-Steffensmeier and Benjamin Campbell.  Here is the abstract:

Since 1976, the United States has seen over 1,400 judicial executions, and these have been highly concentrated in only a few states and counties.  The number of executions across counties appears to fit a stretched distribution.  These distributions are typically reflective of self-reinforcing processes where the probability of observing an event increases for each previous event.  To examine these processes, we employ two-pronged empirical strategy.  First, we utilize bootstrapped Kolmogorov-Smirnov tests to determine whether the pattern of executions reflect a stretched distribution, and confirm that they do. Second, we test for event-dependence using the Conditional Frailty Model.

Our tests estimate the monthly hazard of an execution in a given county, accounting for the number of previous executions, homicides, poverty, and population demographics. Controlling for other factors, we find that the number of prior executions in a county increases the probability of the next execution and accelerates its timing.  Once a jurisdiction goes down a given path, the path becomes self-reinforcing, causing the counties to separate out into those never executing (the vast majority of counties) and those which use the punishment frequently.  This finding is of great legal and normative concern, and ultimately, may not be consistent with the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

February 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: New Jim Crow, Class War, or Both?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new empirical paper authored by Nathaniel Lewis. Here is the interesting paper's abstract and conclusion:

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, I analyze racial and class disparities in incarceration.  My analysis shows that class status has a large and statistically significant effect on (1) whether or not men aged 24–32 years have ever been to jail or prison; (2) whether or not men are jailed after being arrested; (3) whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison; and (4) whether or not men have spent more than a year in jail or prison.  After controlling for class, I do not find race to be a statistically significant factor for the first three outcome categories, but I do find that race has a significant impact on whether or not a man has spent more than a year in prison or jail....

This study takes a careful account of class and how it relates to race and incarceration rates.  Previous studies interested in racial disparities across various outcomes all too often fail to control for class at all, or else pick a single variable as a proxy for class, which comes with a set of confounders.  The constructed class variables used here attempt to balance out the confounders lurking in any one proxy variable.  The result, robust across different methods of composite construction, is that class appears to be a larger factor than usually reported when studying racial disparities. It may indeed come as a surprise to many that race is not a statistically significant factor for many incarceration outcomes, once class is adequately controlled for.

To an extent, this study provides weight to the assertion that mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race.  It would be reasonable to conclude then that if policymakers wished to eliminate the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and the negative effects it has on black Americans, they should look to reducing class disparities in universal ways.  For example, single-payer health care, a federal job guarantee, a universal basic income, a livable minimum wage, universal childcare, universal education.  These are all policies that would likely reduce class disparities and provide the material means to lift a large swath of people out of the scope of the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, this study demonstrates a large racial gap, even controlling for class, when it comes to the most devastating outcome: long appearances in jail and prison. The current popular effort to draw attention to racial disparities as racial disparities certainly seems to still hold validity in light of this study. Nevertheless, while a focus on reducing class disparities in a material fashion clearly will not be enough to completely solve the problem of racial bias, it seems evident that this approach would do a lot of good for poor blacks and poor whites alike with respect to the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.

February 1, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"Focused Deterrence Strategies and Crime Control"

The title of this post is the title of this new article in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy authored by Anthony Braga, David Weisburd and Brandon Turchan. Here is its abstract:  

Research Summary

Focused deterrence strategies are increasingly being applied to prevent and control gang and group-involved violence, overt drug markets, and individual repeat offenders.  Our updated examination of the effects of focused deterrence strategies on crime followed the systematic review protocols and conventions of the Campbell Collaboration.  Twenty-four quasi-experimental evaluations were identified in this systematic review.   The results of our meta-analysis demonstrate that focused deterrence strategies are associated with an overall statistically significant, moderate crime reduction effect.  Nevertheless, program effect sizes varied by program type and were smaller for evaluations with more rigorous research designs.

Policy Implications

The available empirical evidence suggests these strategies generate noteworthy crime reduction impacts and should be part of a broader portfolio of crime reduction strategies available to policy makers and practitioners.  Investments still need to be made, however, to strengthen the overall rigor of program evaluations and improve our understanding of key program activities associated with observed crime reduction impacts.

Those unfamiliar with "Focused deterrence strategies" may want to check out this Crime Solutions webpage discussing the concept starting with this description:

Focused deterrence strategies (also referred to as “pulling levers" policing) are problem-oriented policing strategies that follow the core principles of deterrence theory.  The strategies target specific criminal behavior committed by a small number of chronic offenders who are vulnerable to sanctions and punishment.  Offenders are directly confronted and informed that continued criminal behavior will not be tolerated.  Targeted offenders are also told how the criminal justice system (such as the police and prosecutors) will respond to continued criminal behavior; mainly that all potential sanctions, or levers, will be applied.  The deterrence-based message is reinforced through crackdowns on offenders, or groups of offenders (such as gang members), who continue to commit crimes despite the warning.  In addition to deterring violent behavior, the strategies also reward compliance and nonviolent behavior among targeted offenders by providing positive incentives, such as access to social services and job opportunities.

January 31, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2017"

The title of this post is the title of this short "Policy Brief" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it gets started:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration rates and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole.  Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, have produced the nation’s high rate of incarceration.  Scaling back incarceration will require changing policy and practice to reduce prison populations, address racial disparity, and eliminate barriers to reentry. In recent years a number of states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2017.

SENTENCING REFORMS

Lawmakers in several states enacted reforms to reduce the number of persons in prison and improve fairness in the criminal justice system.  Most notably, Louisiana authorized legislation, Senate Bill 139, which expanded probation eligibility to people convicted of third-time nonviolent offenses and first-time low-level violent offenses. The bill also expanded eligibility for treatment alternatives and drug courts.  The state amended parole practices, including lowering time served requirements before parole consideration, and authorized parole consideration for those sentenced to life at a time when their offense-type qualified for parole.  Other states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, and Montana — adopted a range of reforms, including expanding probation eligibility, reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors, streamlining parole review mechanisms, and limiting prison admissions for technical violations.

January 31, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Montgomery Momentum: Two Years of Progress since Montgomery v. Louisiana"

Download (6)The title of this post is the title of this short interesting document produced by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. I recommend the whole document, and here are excerpts (with endnotes removed):

On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, giving hope and a chance for life outside of prison to individuals sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed as children.

When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, over 2,600 individuals in the U.S. were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), a sentence only imposed in the United States. In the two years since Montgomery was decided, seven states and the District of Columbia have banned JLWOP, and the number of individuals serving JLWOP has been cut in half, both through resentencing hearings and state legislative reform.

More than 250 individuals previously serving life without parole for crimes committed as children are now free.  Collectively, they have served thousands of years in prison. These former juvenile lifers now have the chance to contribute meaningfully to their communities....

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana, remains incarcerated.  The U.S. Supreme Court recognized Mr. Montgomery’s “evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” Montgomery was resentenced and is now eligible for parole, but because of delays at the parole board and prosecutor opposition, the 71-year-old remains in prison, where he has been since 1963.

Children of color are disproportionately sentenced to life without parole.  When Montgomery was decided, over 70 percent of all individuals serving JLWOP were people of color. These extreme disparities have persisted during the resentencing process following Montgomery, underscoring the racially disparate imposition of JLWOP....

For the approximately 1,300 individuals whose unconstitutional JLWOP sentences have been altered through legislative reform or judicial resentencing to date, the median sentence nationwide is 25 years before parole or release eligibility. This means that most individuals who were unconstitutionally sent to die in prison as children will not be eligible for review or release until at least their 40s. Although Montgomery suggested that providing review after 25 years is an avenue for minimal compliance with Miller, these lengthy sentences continue to violate international human rights standards and far outstrip terms of incarceration for youth in the rest of the developed world.

UPDATE: A helpful tweet led me to think this is a good place to note that the Juvenile Sentencing Project has lots of great juve LWOP/Graham and Miller resources detailing responsive legislation and significant state case law and leading reseach reports.  That Project also helps maintain this great national map that enables one to see how many juve LWOP prisoners were in each state at the time of Miller and now.

January 27, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Notable new initiative, Safe Streets & Second Chances, taking "evidence-driven approach to the chronic issues of recidivism"

Sssc_socialAs reported in this new article from The Hill, the "donor network helmed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch is putting $4 million behind a pilot program aimed at reducing recidivism rates among former prisoners." Here is more: 

The effort, called Safe Streets and Second Chances, launches Wednesday in four trial states — Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.  The 1,000 participants will come from a mix of rural and urban communities and will receive “individualized reentry” programs and have their progress tracked.

The program is led by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis, an author and professor who says the U.S. prison system is focused too much on punishment and not enough on rehabilitation.

“This unique initiative marries research-driven policy and reentry services reforms,” Pettus-Davis said in a statement.  “Even though incarceration and reentry impacts millions of people’s lives in our country, there is a huge void in research on creating a successful transition of people from prison back home to our communities. We’re closing the gap.”

The webpage announcing the launch of the new Safe Streets & Second Chances initiative provides this additional information:

Today, a new initiative is being launched to reduce the high rate of recidivism by effectively rehabilitating and equipping incarcerated individuals with the tools they need to return home and become productive members of our communities. Called Safe Streets & Second Chances, the new effort uses proven approaches underpinned by academic research to develop comprehensive reentry activities for those releasing from prison to ensure they are successful once home in our communities.

Nearly 700,000 Americans will be released from prison this year, yet close to 70 percent of them are expected to return to prison within five years. This alarmingly high rate of recidivism endangers America’s communities, traps individuals — many of them non-violent offenders — in a cycle of incarceration, and costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year. It’s a problem largely due to criminal justice policies that focus on punishment, but too often fail to implement effective interventions that correct people both in prison and upon release.

Safe Streets & Second Chances takes an evidence-driven approach to the chronic issues of recidivism. This initiative crafts individualized reentry approaches informed by the latest academic research to shift the outcome focus of our criminal justice system from whether individuals are punished to whether they are improved, rehabilitated, and capable of redemption.

Led by author and renowned scholar Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis, the research component of the new effort will include a four-state, eight-site, randomized controlled trial involving more than 1,000 participants in a mix of urban and rural communities. The four states being examined include Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

DISCLOSURE: As detailed in this prior post, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) I am helping to get started at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law was made possible by a gift from the Charles Koch Foundation.

January 24, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Lott available via SSRN that a helpful reader made sure I did not miss.  For a host of reasons, John Lott is a controversial empiricist, and this latest paper could surely stir up some new controversies.  Here is its abstract:

Using newly released detailed data on all prisoners who entered the Arizona state prison from January 1985 through June 2017, we are able to separate non-U.S. citizens by whether they are illegal or legal residents. Unlike other studies, these data do not rely on self-reporting of criminal backgrounds. Undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans. They also tend to commit more serious crimes and serve 10.5% longer sentences, more likely to be classified as dangerous, and 45% more likely to be gang members than U.S. citizens. Yet, there are several reasons that these numbers are likely to underestimate the share of crime committed by undocumented immigrants. There are dramatic differences between in the criminal histories of convicts who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Young convicts are especially likely to be undocumented immigrants. While undocumented immigrants from 15 to 35 years of age make up slightly over two percent of the Arizona population, they make up about eight percent of the prison population. Even after adjusting for the fact that young people commit crime at higher rates, young undocumented immigrants commit crime at twice the rate of young U.S. citizens. These undocumented immigrants also tend to commit more serious crimes.

If undocumented immigrants committed crime nationally as they do in Arizona, in 2016 they would have been responsible for over 1,000 more murders, 5,200 rapes, 8,900 robberies, 25,300 aggravated assaults, and 26,900 burglaries.

January 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

New research findings by computer scientists "cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction"

F1.mediumThis notable new research article in the latest issue of Science Advances provides a notable new perspective on the debate over risk assessment instruments. The article is authored by computer scientists Julia Dressel and Hany Farid and is titled "The accuracy, fairness, and limits of predicting recidivism."  Here are parts of its introduction:

In the criminal justice system, predictive algorithms have been used to predict where crimes will most likely occur, who is most likely to commit a violent crime, who is likely to fail to appear at their court hearing, and who is likely to reoffend at some point in the future.

One widely used criminal risk assessment tool, Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS; Northpointe, which rebranded itself to “equivant” in January 2017), has been used to assess more than 1 million offenders since it was developed in 1998. The recidivism prediction component of COMPAS — the recidivism risk scale — has been in use since 2000.  This software predicts a defendant’s risk of committing a misdemeanor or felony within 2 years of assessment from 137 features about an individual and the individual’s past criminal record.

Although the data used by COMPAS do not include an individual’s race, other aspects of the data may be correlated to race that can lead to racial disparities in the predictions. In May 2016, writing for ProPublica, Angwin et al. analyzed the efficacy of COMPAS on more than 7000 individuals arrested in Broward County, Florida between 2013 and 2014.  This analysis indicated that the predictions were unreliable and racially biased.  COMPAS’s overall accuracy for white defendants is 67.0%, only slightly higher than its accuracy of 63.8% for black defendants.  The mistakes made by COMPAS, however, affected black and white defendants differently: Black defendants who did not recidivate were incorrectly predicted to reoffend at a rate of 44.9%, nearly twice as high as their white counterparts at 23.5%; and white defendants who did recidivate were incorrectly predicted to not reoffend at a rate of 47.7%, nearly twice as high as their black counterparts at 28.0%. In other words, COMPAS scores appeared to favor white defendants over black defendants by underpredicting recidivism for white and overpredicting recidivism for black defendants....

While the debate over algorithmic fairness continues, we consider the more fundamental question of whether these algorithms are any better than untrained humans at predicting recidivism in a fair and accurate way.  We describe the results of a study that shows that people from a popular online crowdsourcing marketplace — who, it can reasonably be assumed, have little to no expertise in criminal justice — are as accurate and fair as COMPAS at predicting recidivism. In addition, although Northpointe has not revealed the inner workings of their recidivism prediction algorithm, we show that the accuracy of COMPAS on one data set can be explained with a simple linear classifier.  We also show that although COMPAS uses 137 features to make a prediction, the same predictive accuracy can be achieved with only two features. We further show that more sophisticated classifiers do not improve prediction accuracy or fairness. Collectively, these results cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction.

A few (of many) prior related posts on risk assessment tools:

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Rate My District Attorney: Toward a Scorecard for Prosecutors’ Offices"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report recently released by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and authored by Katherine Moy, Dennis Martin, and David Alan Sklansky. Here is its executive summary:

Local prosecutor elections can have uniquely consequential results for the American criminal justice system. Paradoxically, however, these elections attract much less voter engagement than other races, and incumbents are repeatedly re-elected.  As a result, activists seeking to convince prosecutors to pursue reforms, or to elect new reform-minded prosecutors, have a hard time communicating just how well a given office is performing.

A prosecutorial rating system is one approach to remedying this information gap. Much like indices used in other public policy areas, such a rating system could be a critical way of communicating to voters and potential electoral challengers whether a prosecutors’ office has effectively pursued the electorate’s policy priorities.

This report begins to chart a path toward building such a rating system.  Drawing on the expertise of experienced public policy index developers, the report outlines a procedure that developers can follow to design and build their own scorecard.  The process described in the report involves several stages, during which developers will need to grapple with key policy and logistical issues.

Although the contours of the process are flexible, the report lays out the following steps to developing a prosecutorial rating system:

1) Gather key personnel and experts and set project benchmarks.

2) Define the index’s goals and target audience, including any intermediaries that might be enlisted to convey the index’s message.

3) Select the variables the index will use to measure performance and decide how much weight to attribute to each variable.

4) Gather data for each variable, including any proxy measurements to use where direct data is unavailable.

5) Aggregate and normalize the data in a coherent, rigorous, digestible format.

6) Disseminate and build support for the index.

Each of these stages involves complex decisions, many of which may need to be revisited throughout the development process. But walking through each of the stages methodically can help highlight areas of dispute and place in a broader procedural context.  By keeping the index’s overall goals in mind as they work through the minute details of each stage, developers are more likely to be able to create a successful index to help meet their reform objectives. 

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Lies, damn lies and fascinating statistics in the US Sentencing Commission FY 2017 sentencing data

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission last week released its latest standard quarterly data report, and this one is extra exciting because it contains preliminary data on all cases sentenced during fiscal year 2017.  Critically, FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017, so a good chunk of the data reflect a period in which Attorney General Loretta Lynch was still in charge of the Justice Department.  Still, a majority of the data reflects sentencings after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took over, and the final third of FY 2017 had all sentencings taking place after AG Sessions issued his May 2017 charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

I provide all this backstory largely as a prelude to highlighting how similar the USSC FY17 data look to FY16 data. I also thought it interesting to compare some of these data to FY13 and FY09, the last two Prez election year USSC data sets. (I am drawing all these data from Table 19, then Table 6 of these USSC data reports.)

USSC FY        Total Sentences (mean in month)     Drug Trafficking Sentences (mean in month)     Immigration Sentences (mean in month)

2009                81,347 (47 months)                                  23,931 (78 months)                                         25,924 (17 months)

2013                80,035 (45 months)                                  22,354 (72 months)                                         24,972 (16 months)

2016                67,740 (44 months)                                  19,231 (66 months)                                         20,052 (13 months)

2017                66,409 (45 months)                                  18,980 (70 months)                                         20,333 (12 months)

One can mine a lot more data from the FY 2017 report to tell a lot more stories about how, at least so far, formal and informal changes by AG Sessions have not yet made a dramatic impact on federal sentencing statistics.  Indeed, one might be heartened by the fact that fewer federal cases were sentenced in FY 2017 than in the last 15 years, and I think fewer federal drug trafficking sentences were imposed in FY17 than in nearly any other year in the past two decades (though the uptick in average sentence is interesting and may prompt a future post). 

Of course, these data may start looking very different in FY 2018 and beyond as new US Attorneys appointed by Prez Trump take over and their new cases make it all the way to sentencing. Still, I think it notable and interesting that the first run of federal sentencing data of the Trump Era shows a continued decline in overall sentences imposed and in drug trafficking sentences imposed.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, January 12, 2018

"Mental Health Courts and Sentencing Disparities"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper now available via SSRN authored by E. Lea Johnston and Conor Flynn.  Here is the abstract:

Despite the proliferation of mental health courts across the United States, virtually no attention has been paid to the criminal justice effects these courts carry for participants.  This article provides the first empirical analysis of differential sentencing practices in mental health and traditional criminal courts.  Using a case study approach, the article compares how Pennsylvania’s Erie County Mental Health Court and county criminal courts sentenced individuals who committed the same offenses and held the same average criminal history score.  Information on the mental health court — including eligibility criteria, plea bargaining and sentencing procedure, sentencing policies, program length, graduation rates, likelihood of early discharge, and consequences of unsuccessful termination — derive from interviews with key mental health court professionals, five years of collected sentencing and dispositional data, and court materials.  The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing provided the county-level data, which were disaggregated by offense and criminal history score. The article analyzes sentencing for twelve offenses spanning four offense grades.

The findings are striking.  First, analysis reveals that anticipated mental health court sentences typically exceed — by years — the supervisory periods that offenders would otherwise receive in a county criminal court.  Second, mental health court participants with multiple convictions were significantly more likely to receive consecutive, as opposed to concurrent, sentences than those sentenced by traditional courts.  Third, the analysis suggests the mental health court usually does not divert individuals from jail or prison sentences — a primary justification for these courts — but instead merely extends state control over individuals with serious mental illnesses.  Fourth, key mental health court actors appear unaware of likely sentencing disparities or the high rate of participant failures.  Thus, offenders choosing between mental health and traditional courts may go uninformed about these fundamental differences.  The article concludes with suggestions for future research.

January 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" reporting another drop in state and federal prison populations in 2016

As reported in this press release, the "number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined." here is more from the release:

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.

The full 36-page BJS report, excitingly titled Prisoners in 2016 and full of data of all sorts, is available at this link.

January 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Noticing the continued decline of the federal prison population (for now) ... and a story embedded with intricacies

PrisonPopuGraphicOver at the Washington Post's WonkBlog, Keith Humphreys has this important little discussion of the federal prison population under the headlined "The number of people in federal prisons is falling, even under Trump."  Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for some follow-up commentary):

When states began shrinking their prison populations almost a decade ago, the federal prison system was still growing each year and thereby undermining progress in reducing mass incarceration. But in the past four years, the federal system has cut its inmate population by one-sixth, a decrease of over 35,000 prisoners.

Because criminal justice is mainly the province of the states, the federal prison system holds only about 13 percent of U.S. inmates. Yet that is still a significant number of people in absolute terms: The system held 219,300 inmates at its peak in 2013. Four subsequent years of significant contraction dropped the federal inmate population to 184,000 by the end of 2017.

Obama-era changes to drug crime prosecution and sentencing coupled with a historic level of clemency grants to federal inmates by President Barack Obama helped bring the federal prison system to its lowest population size since mid-2004 and its lowest incarceration rate (i.e., adjusted for population) since the end of 2002.

Given President Trump’s penchant for “tough on crime” rhetoric, some observers may find it surprising that the federal prison population kept dropping under the first year of the Trump administration. The most likely cause is also the most obvious. When a nation is blessed with two decades of falling crime rates, this eventually translates into lower incarceration rates because there just aren’t as many offenders to arrest, charge and imprison.

Whether the federal prison population continues to decline will depend in part on Trump administration policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed the Obama-era policy of avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases, which could result in some future growth in the federal inmate population even if crime continues to fall.

The other key determinant of the federal prison population’s future is whether Trump will make use of his powers to pardon or commute the sentences of federal inmates. He only did so for one inmate this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t grant more clemencies later.

Though it is important and useful to notice that the federal prison population continued its downward trend in the first year of the Trump Administration, it is not quite accurate to attribute this reality to either "two decades of falling crime rates" or to Presidential commutation practices.  For starters, we had falling crimes rates in the decade from 1992 through 2002, and yet the federal prison population more than doubled from less than 80,000 inmates in 1992 to more than 163,000 inmates in 2002.  And we had another decade of falling crimes rates from 2002 through 2012, and yet the federal prison population rose another 55,000 inmates in that period.  And, of course, crimes rates started ticking up significantly in 2015 and 2016.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, there is actually a very limited (and quite unclear) relationship between the FBI's reported reductions in violent and property crimes — which is the data base for "falling crime rates" — and the federal criminal caseload which is primarily made up of drug and immigration and firearm and fraud offenses.  Indeed, in light of the empirics of the opioid crisis — not to mention increased marijuana activity thanks to state legal reforms — there is reason to speculate that federal drug offenses have actually been rising (perhaps significantly) in recent years.  The dynamics surrounding recent crime rates for federal immigration and firearm and fraud offenses are hard to assess, but that very reality is part of the reason it is hard to link federal prison population changes to what we know (and do not know) about crime rates.  But, without any doubt, there are still plenty of "offenders to arrest, charge and imprison" engaged in the activities that serve as the modern bread-and-butter of federal prosecution.  Though there are a range of linkages between various crime rates and various federal prosecutorial policies and practices, it is very hard to see and measure and assess with any confidence how basic criminal offending (especially as to classic state crimes) may directly impact the size of federal prison populations.

What we can effectively see and measure are changes in federal sentencing laws and federal prosecutorial practices, and these changes suggest a set of intricate stories help account for recent federal prison population changes.  For starters, the US Sentencing Commission enacted a set of broad retroactive changes to the federal drug sentencing guidelines, with crack guideline reductions in 2007 and 2011 and the "Drugs -2" reductions in 2014.  These changes reduced the sentences of, and is continuing to lead to the early release of, many thousands of federal prisoners.  In addition, and perhaps even more statistically important for the very latest federal prison data, federal prosecutors after 2012 began decreasing dramatically the number of cases getting all the way to federal sentencing.  According to US Sentencing Commission data, in Fiscal Year 2012, federal prosecutors brought over 84,000 cases to sentencing, whereas by Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors brought fewer than 67,750 cases to sentencing.  And, especially with a slow transition to new US Attorney positions, it may take some time for the new Attorney General to ramp up yearly federal prosecutions (assuming he even wishes to do so).

In other words, the always dynamic stock and flow story of prison populations provides a somewhat more granular understanding of declines in the federal prison population.  Changes to federal sentencing laws made retroactive has had a significant impact on the "stock" of federal prisons.  (Prez Obama's commutations are a small part of this "stock" story, but not until they really got going in 2016, and in the end more than 25 federal prisoners got reduced sentences thanks to retroactive guideline changes for every prisoner who got a commutation from Prez Obama.)  And while guideline changes were reducing the federal prison "stock," it seems the prosecutorial policies announced by Attorney General Holder in 2013 — and perhaps other factors, including decreased national concerns about crime — finally began to reduce what had previously been, for two decades, an ever-increasing federal prison "flow."

I would predict that the May 2017 Sessions charging/sentencing memo could contribute, over time, to increasing both the stock and the flow of the federal prison population.  But other directions coming from Main Justice might complicate this story.  AG Sessions has urged US Attorneys to focus on violent crimes, and there may well be fewer of these cases to bring and they may take more time to prosecute than lower-level drug and gun and immigration cases.  But, of course, the AG has also expressed concerns about drug and gun and immigration cases, and he has been seeking to hire and empower more federal prosecutors in certain arenas.  I will be especially watching how all these developments ultimately impact the US Sentencing Commission's data on cases sentenced (and average sentence imposed) in order to try to predict where the federal prison population may be headed next.

January 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Detailing increase in felony convictions nationwide in modern times

Stateline has this new piece, headlined "Felony Conviction Rates Have Risen Sharply, But Unevenly," with detailed data on how increases in the number of felony convictions has come to define the modern criminal justice era in the United States. Here are some details:

In recent decades, every state has seen a dramatic increase in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from around 4 percent in 1980. The rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas. Less than 5 percent of the population in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia were felons, but every state had a large increase between 1980 and 2010, when the felony population ranged from 1 to 5 percent, according to a University of Georgia study published in October....

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common. There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared to 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more nonviolent criminals into the stigma and harsh supervision of a felony conviction.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980. “Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation. “Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said....

The findings may help put probation reform on the front burner in some states. In Georgia, a February 2017 report by a state commission called for shorter probation sentences and lighter caseloads for probation officers. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline, assisted with the paper.) Almost 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests, Phelps said. In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

In left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon, one contributor to the growing share of the population with a felony conviction was an increased awareness of new crimes like domestic violence, sexual abuse and animal abuse, said Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon and a 20-year board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

When crime is a major concern in a community, elected district attorneys are especially sensitive to public pressure to file more felony charges, Marquis said. “We are not rewarded for the number of felonies filed,” Marquis said. “But we do face election and accountability to our neighbors who are also our bosses.”

January 3, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Noting executions uncompleted in 2017

This recent Houston Chronicle story, headlined "71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017," provides another perspective on US execution data for the year winding down. Here are some details:

Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country.  That's one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation's killingest state. Nearly a third of the year's 23 executions took place in Texas....

"The process is better than it was a decade ago," said Robert Dunham of DPIC. "And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures."

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said.  The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners' execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.

Prior recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)