Monday, May 23, 2016
ProPublica takes deep dive to idenitfy statistical biases in risk assessment software
The fine folks at ProPublica have this new important piece of investigative journalism about risk assessment tools. The piece is headlined "Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks." Here is an extended excerpt, with links from the original:
[R]isk assessments are increasingly common in courtrooms across the nation. They are used to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts ... to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom. In Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the results of such assessments are given to judges during criminal sentencing.
Rating a defendant’s risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant’s rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.
In 2014, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that the risk scores might be injecting bias into the courts. He called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study their use. “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice,” he said, adding, “they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”
The sentencing commission did not, however, launch a study of risk scores. So ProPublica did, as part of a larger examination of the powerful, largely hidden effect of algorithms in American life.
We obtained the risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014 and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes over the next two years, the same benchmark used by the creators of the algorithm. The score proved remarkably unreliable in forecasting violent crime: Only 20 percent of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so.
When a full range of crimes were taken into account — including misdemeanors such as driving with an expired license — the algorithm was somewhat more accurate than a coin flip. Of those deemed likely to re-offend, 61 percent were arrested for any subsequent crimes within two years.
We also turned up significant racial disparities, just as Holder feared. In forecasting who would re-offend, the algorithm made mistakes with black and white defendants at roughly the same rate but in very different ways.
- The formula was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.
- White defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants.
Could this disparity be explained by defendants’ prior crimes or the type of crimes they were arrested for? No. We ran a statistical test that isolated the effect of race from criminal history and recidivism, as well as from defendants’ age and gender. Black defendants were still 77 percent more likely to be pegged as at higher risk of committing a future violent crime and 45 percent more likely to be predicted to commit a future crime of any kind. (Read our analysis.)
The algorithm used to create the Florida risk scores is a product of a for-profit company, Northpointe. The company disputes our analysis. In a letter, it criticized ProPublica’s methodology and defended the accuracy of its test: “Northpointe does not agree that the results of your analysis, or the claims being made based upon that analysis, are correct or that they accurately reflect the outcomes from the application of the model.”
Northpointe’s software is among the most widely used assessment tools in the country. The company does not publicly disclose the calculations used to arrive at defendants’ risk scores, so it is not possible for either defendants or the public to see what might be driving the disparity. (On Sunday, Northpointe gave ProPublica the basics of its future-crime formula — which includes factors such as education levels, and whether a defendant has a job. It did not share the specific calculations, which it said are proprietary.)
May 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, May 22, 2016
A bunch of timely and notable new Quick Facts from the US Sentencing Commission
The US Sentencing Commission has its pretty new website up and running, and my only knock on the site is that it is not easy anymore to see exacly what is new on the site. Fortunately, I somehow discovered that the Commission released two notable new Quick Facts covering federal drug sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
In addition to these two new items, the Commission also released two other timely "Quick Facts" last month, and here are links to all four of these reader-friendly USSC products:
Mandatory Minimum Penalties (May 2016)
Drug Trafficking (May 2016)
Illegal Reentry (April 2016)
Alien Smuggling (April 2016)
May 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Notable new BJS report on "Aging of the State Prison Population, 1993–2013"
As detailed in this official press release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released this interesting new report with lots of data about the sentencing and incarceration of older offenders. Here are the statistical basics from the press release:
Prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than one year in state prison increased from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. This represented a growth from 3 percent to 10 percent of the total state prison population during this period. From 1993 to 2013, the median age of state prisoners increased from 30 to 36 years.
Two main factors contributed to the aging of state prisoners between 1993 and 2013: a greater proportion of older prisoners were serving longer sentences, predominantly for violent offenses, and the number of admissions of older persons increased. Both the admission rate and year-end imprisonment rate for state prisoners age 55 or older increased from 1993 to 2013, which indicates that the aging U.S. resident population was not solely responsible for the growth in older offenders in prison.
The imprisonment rate for prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than one year in state prison increased from 49 per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same age in 1993 to 154 per 100,000 in 2013. Forty percent of state prisoners who were age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been admitted to prison when they were at least age 55, and 60 percent turned age 55 while serving time in prison. Additionally, 40 percent of state prisoners age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been imprisoned for at least 10 years, compared to 9 percent in 1993.
Admission to prison of people age 55 or older increased 82 percent between 2003 and 2013. People age 55 or older accounted for 1 percent of state prison admissions in 1993, 2 percent in 2003 and 4 percent in 2013.
In 2013, two-thirds (66 percent) of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving time for a violent offense, compared to a maximum of 58 percent of other age groups. In 2013, nearly half (48 percent) of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving sentences for murder or non-negligent manslaughter or sexual assault, compared to nearly a third (31 percent) of prisoners ages 45 to 54 and more than a quarter (27 percent) of those ages 35 to 44. In 2013, 30 percent of state prisoners age 55 or older were imprisoned for sexual assault, which was more than double the percentage of prisoners age 44 or younger.
The mean sentence length for prisoners age 55 or older admitted on new court commitments was consistently higher than other age groups. Their mean sentence length was 82 months in 2013. In comparison, prisoners ages 18 to 39 had a mean sentence length of 69 months, and the mean sentence length for new inmates ages 40 to 54 was 71 months.
Prisoners age 55 or older convicted of new violent crimes received longer sentences and were expected to serve a higher proportion of their sentences than younger offenders. Prisoners admitted in 2013 when they were age 55 or older could expect to serve an average of 182 months (15 years) for new violent offenses, compared to 116 months (10 years) for those admitted at ages 40 to 54 and 55 months (almost 5 years) for those ages 18 to 39.
Monday, May 16, 2016
"13 Important Questions About Criminal Justice We Can’t Answer. And the government can’t either."
The title of this post is the title of this notable new Marshall Project piece by Tom Meagher. Here are excerpts:
The open secret is that we know very little about much of how the criminal justice system operates in America. These aren’t things the government knows and won’t tell us (though there are plenty of those, too). It’s because state, local and federal governments, which ought to rely on data to inform the policies they enact, just don’t know.
In some cases, the federal government commissions criminal justice surveys that offer national estimates, often years after the fact. But the kind of granular, local, real-time data that powers most industries is all but absent. The number of times police use force or shoot someone in the line of duty are just the most obvious examples in our current national conversation.
Among the things we don’t know about our criminal justice system:
◾ how many people have a criminal record
◾ how many people have served time in prison or jail
◾ how many children are on some type of supervision or probation
◾ how many juvenile offenders graduate to become adult offenders
◾ how often people reoffend after being released from prison
◾ how many shootings there are in America
◾ how many police are investigated or prosecuted for misconduct
◾ how many people in America own guns
◾ how often police stop pedestrians or motorists
◾ how many incidents of domestic violence are reported to police
◾ what percentage of those eligible for parole are granted release from prison
◾ how many corrections officers are disciplined or prosecuted for abusing prisoners
◾ how many criminal cases are referred to prosecutors and how they decide which to pursue
The excuses for why we don’t have better data about our police, our courts and our prisons may sound familiar to anyone who has worked in corporate America: there isn’t enough money to hire analysts; the IT department says it can’t be done; the chief is moving on to another department.
Local autonomy has not been helpful for good criminal justice data. The fraction of the country’s 18,000 police departments that do collect figures on officers’ use of force have no consistent definition of what constitutes force. Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, cites similar issues in other parts of the system, like probation. There are thousands of probation agencies, but they are either run at the state or local level. In one place, probation is part of the executive branch; In another, it’s part of the judiciary. The lack of consistency makes contacting all the agencies a daunting prospect, much less moving them toward timely and uniform reporting of statistics....
There is one part of the Department of Justice tasked with collecting and publishing data: The Bureau of Justice Statistics. But no one argues that the bureau, which is a clearinghouse for all kinds of data on police staffing, prison rape, crime figures and more, should be doing it all by itself.... “I don’t think the BJS can do it,” said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Every year, Congress asks them to do more and more already. I don't think they have the capacity to do any more. They do amazing stuff, but I don't think they can."
When it comes to bad data, police aren’t even the worst offenders. While there is data on policing and corrections and some on the courts themselves, the biggest piece missing is information on how local prosecutors operate. "We have really no data whatsoever on what prosecutors do, almost none,” Pfaff said, adding, “We don't know what they're doing, why they're doing it and what drives their decision process."
And that ignorance has an impact on efforts to reduce incarceration levels and lower sentences. Because we don’t have data on how prosecutors work, we don’t focus on them when we talk about reforms, Pfaff said. Gelb called prosecutors “the biggest and most significant black box to be opened in the system.”
The problem with a lack of data on the criminal justice system is more than just budgetary. It’s a cultural issue that gets to the heart of why criminal justice reform is so very difficult. “For some [police] departments there may be cultural resistance to looking too closely,” Katz said. “Police departments can be very insular, very closed off. Within the closed system they may not even perceive that this may be a best practice.”
This aversion to transparency has rubbed off on lawmakers, who may find the numbers mildly interesting, but not really necessary to guiding policy for a system that largely runs itself, according to Gelb. “If that's the approach and the attitude, why would you need to have real time, actionable data for policy decisions? Policy makers have not seen the need for it,” he said. And what we — and policy makers — don’t know about criminal justice could fill a prison.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
New study suggests California's prison population reduction via realignment has been generally successful
This new entry at The Crime Report, headlined "California's Prison Downsizing Offers a Model for Other States, Study Says," reports on notable new research suggesting that crime has not increased dramatically after California was force in the wake of the Plata ruling to reduce its prison population. Here is the start of the entry describing the research:
The success of California's Public Safety Realignment Act in reducing state prison populations without a corresponding increase in crime suggests that other jurisdictions around the country can enact similar reforms without endangering public safety, according to a study published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, an American Society of Criminology journal.
The study, entitled “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety” [available here], cites already published data showing that the 17 percent reduction in the size of California’s prison population over a 15-month period, beginning with the Act's implementation in 2011, did not have an effect on aggregate rates of violent crime or property crime.
"Moreover, 3 years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels," write authors Jody Sundt of Indiana University, Emily J. Salisbury of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Mark G. Harmon of Portland State University.
The California results demonstrate that "we make a mistake...when we assume that prisons are the only meaningful or viable response to crime,” the authors add.
According to the data referenced in the study, the California Realignment Act reduced the size of the state’s prison population by 27, 527 inmates within 15 months. Many of the inmates were transferred to local jails or released into the community. Critics of the Act linked the policy to recorded increases in offenses such as auto theft. But the authors argued that the slight uptick in such offenses leveled off over time--and was not necessarily linked to realignment.
These results should serve as an object lesson for other jurisdictions, said the authors. "For the first time in decades it appears that a 'window of opportunity' for justice reform is opening to allow for a reevaluation of the effectiveness and wisdom of policies that have created the largest prison population in the world," they wrote, citing a phrase used by criminologist Michael Tonry.
Monday, May 02, 2016
The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new article by Jason Kreag now avaible via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The institution of the prosecutor has more power than any other in the criminal justice system. What is more, prosecutorial power is often unreviewable as a result of limited constitutional regulation and the fact that it is increasingly exercised in private and semi-private settings as the system has become more administrative and less adversarial. Despite this vast, unreviewable power, prosecutors often rely on crude performance measures focused on conviction rates. The focus on conviction rates fails to capture and adequately evaluate the breadth of prosecutorial decision-making.
We can do better by fully implementing analytics as a tool to evaluate the prosecutorial function. This tool has revolutionized crime-fighting. Yet, it has been conspicuously absent as a tool to improve other aspects of the criminal justice system. This Article demonstrates the promise of prosecutorial analytics to improve oversight and to promote systemic interests in justice, fairness, and transparency. It offers concrete examples of how analytics can 1) help eliminate race-based jury selection practices; 2) minimize prosecutorial misconduct; 3) uncover whether undesirable arbitrary factors shape prosecutorial discretion; and 4) provide better metrics for the judiciary, practitioners, and the public to evaluate prosecutorial performance.
Friday, April 29, 2016
"Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015"
The title of htis post is the title of this new reseach paper by Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Since 1976, Louisiana’s experience with capital punishment has been deeply dysfunctional, with a significantly higher case reversal rate than the national average, and marked disparities in sentencing, reversals, and executions depending on the race and gender of the victim and accused. Our comprehensive analysis of each of 241 death-sentence cases in the post-Gregg period suggests that the “modern” death penalty has not resolved the issues of arbitrariness and bias that concerned the US Supreme Court in the 1972 Furman decision, which invalidated previous death penalty statutes throughout the country.
Among 155 resolved death-sentence cases, there have been 127 reversals (of which nine were exonerations) and 28 executions. Since 2000, Louisiana has seen 50 reversals of previous death sentences, including seven exonerations, and only two executions.
Not only are these reversal rates extremely high, but the racial discrepancies are shocking as well. Death sentences are imposed in 0.52% of cases with black male offenders and black male victims, but in 15.56% of cases with black male offenders and white female victims — 30 times more likely. No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed. The racial disparities even extend into the appeals process, where cases of killers of whites are clearly less likely to be reversed. No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Important drug offender data begging hard normative policy question regarding noncitizen US prisoners
I just came across this interesting posting and data analysis via NumbersUSA, a group that describes itself as "moderates, conservatives & liberals working for immigration numbers that serve America's finest goals." The posting is titled "Sentencing Reform Legislation Would Disproportionately Favor Non-Citizens," and here are some excerpts (with one very critical line emphasized by me toward the end of this excerpt):
U.S. prisoner data clearly shows two things. One, the majority of low-level drug offenders are serving their sentences in state, not federal prisons. Two, most of those incarcerated in federal prison for drug charges are non-citizens....
[Only] 3.6 percent of all prisoners, or 48,600, under state jurisdiction are serving time for drug possession. The remaining drug offenders were convicted for trafficking and other related offenses, such as facilitating the illicit drug trade. The distribution of drug prisoners in state prisons is fairly evenly divided among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. A higher proportion of females (24%) than males (15%) are incarcerated for drugs in state prisons.
As of April 7, 2016, there were 196,285 prisoners in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with 46.5 percent of these prisoners, (91,270) sentenced for drug offenses. The percentage of prisoners incarcerated for drugs is just over two and half times greater than the state prison population. However, overall, there are fewer prisoners serving time in federal prison for drug charges than in state prisons (212,000).
The Federal government collects data differently for state and federal prisoners. In order to get the breakdown of offenses for federal drug prisoners, data from the U.S Sentencing Commission is available. Looking at sentencing statistics from FY2007 to FY2015, a clear distinction between federal and state prison populations is that the proportion of federal prisoners serving time for drug possession is much higher than for state prisoners, and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among federal drug inmates.
There is a higher ratio of Hispanics serving drug sentences for both trafficking and possession convictions in federal prisons. As Daniel Horowitz pointed out, this is because many of the drug offenders in federal prison are serving sentences for drug convictions related to the illicit drug trade on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In response to a congressional request regarding sentencing data for federal drug offenses, the U.S. Sentencing Commission sent data showing that 95% of the 305 individuals serving time in federal prison for simple drug offenses are non-citizens and 95.7 % were sentenced in southwest border districts — virtually all of them in Arizona. Furthermore, 95.7 % of the simple possession drug crimes for which offenders are incarcerated involved marijuana and the median weight of the drug involved in cases from border districts was 22,000 grams (approximately 48 pounds). Only 13 simple possession cases were tried in non-border districts in FY 2014.
In a letter sent to Sen. Jeff Sessions last fall, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 77% of individuals convicted of federal drug possession charges and more than 25% of individuals convicted of federal drug trafficking charges in FY2015 were non-citizen.
The profile for federal drug prisoners is different than at the state level, and this is why Congress needs to recognize and address these differences when crafting legislation that will effect this population. Federal drug and immigration enforcement are for now inextricably tied together....
Sentencing reform bills reducing penalties for some federal prisoners (S. 2123 and H.R. 3713) are being portrayed by their supporters as a long overdue corrective to harsh sentencing laws for individuals who violate federal drug laws, which they argue create racial disparities in the nation’s prison population.
Reforming drug sentencing laws is one thing. Releasing criminal aliens back into U.S. interior, is quite another. The Obama Administration has already shown its willingness to do the latter, including those who were deemed to be criminal threats to the public. Without a bill with strong, clear language and, most importantly, a Congress willing to extend oversight over the executive branch, it is plain that the sentencing reform legislation likely to soon come before Congress will accomplish little more than to provide an early release for dangerous criminal aliens, while still failing to hold President Obama to account for his failure to enforce U.S. immigration law.
This data discussion is a bit confusing because of its many references to both federal and state prisoners and both trafficking and possession offense and both percentages and absolute numbers. But, data particulars and confusions aside, the piece rightly highlights a very important data reality integral to any sophisticated discussion of efforts to reduce the federal prison population, especially for drug offenses: a significant percentage (and thus a large total number) of imprisoned and future federal drug offenders who would benefit from federal sentencing reform (perhaps up to 35% or even higher) would be noncitizens.
It understandable that persons deeply concerned about illegal immigration, and likely eager for policy changes always to prioritize benefits to US citizens over noncitizens, would find troublesome the statistical reality that federal sentencing reforms would benefit noncitizens significantly. However, this perspective may change if one realizes that noncitizen serious federal drug offenders who would get reduced sentences under any proposed sentencing reform would not get released "back into the US interior." Rather, any and every noncitizen serious federal drug offender who gets a reduced sentence is always going to be subject to immediate deportation once release from prison.
The important reality the many imprisoned and future noncitizen federal drug offenders are all to be deported after serving their federal prison sentences raises the hard normative policy question that is begged in any discussion of this data. That question is: What normative policy goal are we really achieving — other than spending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to house, feed and provide medical care to criminal noncitizens — by having noncitizens serve extra long federal prison terms if they are all to be deported at the end of these their terms no matter what?
Bill Otis and many others opposing proposed federal reforms are quick to stress the risk of increased domestic crime if we reduce current and future federal sentences and thereby release former offenders back into US communities sooner. But that argument really does not hold up when we are talking about noncitizen offenders who will be forcibly deported to another nation after finishing whatever length of sentence they serve at federal taxpayer expense. (Indeed, I suspect imprisoning noncitizens in the US for long terms actually leads criminal noncitizens to become ever-more connected to US citizens and makes them even more likely to seek illegal return to the US after they are deported).
April 13, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (33)
Monday, April 11, 2016
Has anyone calculated trial rates — or other notable features — of 248 offenders getting Obama commutations?
The question in the title of this post represents my not-so-direct effort to encourage any and all hard-core sentencing researchers — as well as folks involved with Clemency Project 2014 and the St. Thomas Federal Commutation Clinic and the NYU Clemency Resource Center and the CUA Clemency Project — to consider taking a deep dive into case processing realities and all sorts of other offense and offender features of the 248 federal prisoners who have now had their lengthy prison sentences commutted by President Obama. The focus on trial rates in my title query is based to my (educated) speculation that those prisoners who have so far received commutations may have opted to have their guilt tested at trial at a rate quite different from the bulk of convicted federal offenders.
Roughly speaking, only about three out of every hundred convicted federal offenders now have their guilt estabished at trial; all the others admit guilt though a plea. (This chart from the US Sentencing Commission provides these data details on guilty pleas and trial rates for the last five fiscal years.) But my own limited experiences seeking to challenge some extreme federal sentences have often involved federal defendants who exercised their rights to trial. Consequently, I would be quite surprised if it turns out that only around 10 of the 248 federal prisoners whose lengthy prison sentences have been commutted by President Obama had gone to trial.
Unfortunately, this official list of "Commutations Granted by President Barack Obama" does not indicate if the offenders' sentences were imposed after a plea or a trial. Nevertheless, with so many institutions and individuals now so interested in looking at the modern exercise of federal clemency, I am hopeful someone has started or will soon start trying to figure out if there are some distinct and distinctively important features of those cases now garnering the attention of President Obama.
Friday, April 08, 2016
Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings approaching $2 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity
The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated April 2016, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through March 25, 2016 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by March 29, 2016."
The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, now 26,850 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $1.9 billion dollars.
As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provides still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular and of the federal judiciary in general remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.
Saturday, April 02, 2016
"Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new policy brief from The Sentencing Project with lots notable data, which gets started this way:
Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data available), the rate of youth committed to juvenile facilities after an adjudication of delinquency fell by 47 percent Every state witnessed a drop in its commitment rate, including 19 states where the commitment rates fell by more than half. Despite this remarkable achievement, the racial disparities endemic to the juvenile justice system did not improve over these same 10 years. Youth of color remain far more likely to be committed than white youth. Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure commitment increased by 15%.
Both white youth and youth of color attained substantially lower commitment rates over these 10 years. For white juveniles, the rate fell by 51 percent (140 to 69 per 100,000); for black juveniles, it fell 43 percent (519 to 294 per 100,000). The combined effect was to increase the commitment disparity over the decade. The commitment rate for Hispanic juveniles fell by 52 percent (230 to 111), and the commitment rate for American Indian juveniles by 28 percent (354 to 254).
As of 2013, black juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed as white juveniles, Americans Indian juveniles were more than three times as likely, and Hispanic juveniles were 61 percent more likely. Another measurement of disproportionate minority confinement is to compare the committed population to the population of American youth.
Slightly more than 16 percent of American youth are African American. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of committed juveniles who were African American grew from 38 percent to 40 percent. Roughly 56 percent of all American youth are white (non-Hispanic). Between 2003 and 2013, the percent of committed juveniles who were white fell from 39 percent to 32 percent.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
Pew develops new "punishment rate" metric to provide more nuanced perspective on state incarceration levels
Via email today I learned of this intriguing new report from the folks at Pew Trusts titled "The Punishment Rate: New metric evaluates prison use relative to reported crime." Here is the short data-heavy report starts and ends:
Researchers, policymakers, and the public rely on a variety of statistics to measure how society punishes crime. Among the most common is the imprisonment rate — the number of people in prison per 100,000 residents. This metric allows for comparisons of prison use over time and across jurisdictions and is widely seen as a proxy for punishment. States with high imprisonment rates, for example, are considered more punitive than those with low rates.
A more nuanced assessment of punishment than the ratio of inmates to residents is that of inmates to crime— what The Pew Charitable Trusts calls the “punishment rate.” This new metric gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context.
Using the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system, Pew found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed. The analysis also shows that the nation as a whole has become more punitive than the imprisonment rate alone indicates....
The long-term rise in U.S. imprisonment is a familiar story. Although the imprisonment rate is an essential tool in understanding correctional trends, it paints an incomplete picture of the nation’s and individual states’ punitiveness because it does not take crime rates into account. The punishment rate provides a more nuanced assessment by placing each jurisdiction’s imprisonment rate in the context of the severity and frequency of its crime.
Analysis of punishment rates over time and across jurisdictions makes clear that the nation has become more punitive. What’s more, many states punish crime significantly more—or less—than their imprisonment rates alone indicate. States with particularly high or low punishment rates and those that experienced significant increases in their punishment rates over time may benefit from identifying and examining the policy choices responsible for their rankings and trends.
Helpfully, the folks at The Marshall Project have this interesting piece discussing what the new Pew metric does and does not tell us. That piece is headlined "The Tricky Business of Measuring Crime and Punishment: Pew researchers release a new prison scorecard, but it ain’t perfect," and here are excerpts:
We’ve grown accustomed to a quantified world of ever more complicated data available at our fingertips, on everything from how we sleep and eat to how often left-handed pinch hitters hit ground rule doubles on rainy days. “The incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice. It's kind of crazy,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, adding, “We can't answer some of the most basic questions about one of the most important functions of a society.”
Nearly five years ago, Gelb and Pew started by looking at recidivism — how often people released from prisons are arrested again for new offenses. But using recidivism alone to compare how states are doing at rehabilitating prisoners fell short. One state could have a lower recidivism rate simply because it tended to have more low risk offenders in its prisons. So then, Gelb said he began thinking about how to assess whether the “right” people are in prison, that is the serious, violent and repeat offenders most likely to commit new crimes.
Pew’s punishment rate focuses on the most serious felony offenses that lead to a year or more in state prison. The calculation divides each state’s imprisonment rate in a given year by the rate of crimes reported there, using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system. To account for some crimes being more serious and more likely to lead to longer prison sentences, Pew weights the annual crime rates by calculating the average time served for those crimes each year. After all of these calculations, Pew found that as America's imprisonment rate has gone up in the past three decades and as crime has dropped, the “punishment rate” rose by 165 percent.
While the methodology makes sense and is probably the best available considering the shortcomings of federal crime data, the punishment rate is not yet the magic metric. Unpacking the components of Pew’s punishment rate illustrates how tricky measuring criminal justice progress can be. The punishment rate depends on the number of crimes reported by the FBI. But the Uniform Crime Report, created in the 1920s, tracks only seven key crimes: murder, assault, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft. It excludes dozens of offenses — most notably drug crimes, which have been a major factor in the growth of prison populations. Pew’s report readily acknowledges that the Uniform Crime Report omits crimes for which roughly one-fifth of state prisoners are serving time.
“What that means is not to say that drug trafficking is not a serious crime, just that it's not reported and tracked in a way that you can support adding it to this formula,” Gelb said. “It does mean that — other things being equal — a state that has a lot of drug enforcement activity and stiff sentencing for drug offenses will have a higher punishment rate.”
The other trouble with the punishment rate is in the lag between crime and judgment. Pew is comparing the crime rate each year to the current prison population at that moment. It doesn't account for the people being sentenced each year or the prison intakes. It also doesn't look at what crimes those in prison were convicted of. So there is an inherent lag between when crimes happen and when someone might go to prison for them. Despite plummeting crime since the 1990s, the growth in the punishment rate didn’t overtake the rise in imprisonment until 2011. That may be partially explained by the gap in time between crime and incarceration, though Gelb contends that effect is ameliorated by calculating rolling averages for offense severity (but not the crimes themselves or the imprisonment rate). He said the adjustment is meant to be a barometer of the seriousness of crimes in a year rather than a “fine-tuned calculation.” But that lack of precision could undercut Pew’s implicit argument that in some states we are “punishing for punishment’s sake.”
I find especially important and notable Gelb's astute comment that the "incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice." Especially as I am starting to prepare for my upcoming fantasy baseball draft, it is more than a bit disconcerting that I can easily find dozens of statistical projections for the Cleveland Indians' battery but no on-line sources to help predict how many batteries might be committed in Cleveland.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
DOJ bragging about Smart on Crime initiative focusing on "more significant drug cases"
Yesterday the Department of Justice issued this official press release titled "New Smart on Crime Data Reveals Federal Prosecutors Are Focused on More Significant Drug Cases and Fewer Mandatory Minimums for Drug Defendants." Here is how the release gets started:
The Justice Department today revealed new data from its innovative Smart on Crime Initiative that show charging decisions by federal prosecutors in fiscal year 2015 resulted in prosecutors' focusing on more serious drug cases and fewer indictments carrying a mandatory minimum. Meanwhile, prosecutions of high-level drug defendants have risen and cooperation and plea rates remained effectively the same.
“The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders. By ensuring fair and proportional sentencing, these policies engender greater trust in our criminal justice system, save federal resources and make our communities more safe. "
As part of the department’s Smart on Crime Initiative — announced in August 2013 — federal prosecutors were instructed to ensure the department’s finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities implicating substantial federal interests and to promote fair enforcement of our laws, especially for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
Since that announcement, prosecutions of serious drug defendants — such as those involving a weapon or leaders of a conspiracy — have increased, and there has been virtually no change in the rates at which defendants cooperate with the government or plead guilty. During the same time, the department has seen steady reductions in charges that trigger mandatory minimums and fewer federal drug charges for low-level, non-violent offenders.
Notably, this Politico article reports that not everyone may think these developments represent good news:
Some lawmakers have sounded skeptical that lowering the number of federal drug prosecutions is something the Obama administration should be celebrating. "I've heard that argument that 'we're always focusing on higher people that's why the numbers are down' for over 25 years. I do not believe that," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month. "
Sessions acknowledged that the federal prisons are saving money as a result of fewer convicts coming their way, but he questioned the wisdom of that approach as heroin use has picked up dramatically across the country. "The prison population is declining at a rapid rate. It was 5,000 down last year. The budget for the prisons is being reduced as a result of a substantial decline in population. And at the same time, the drug use is surging and death are occurring. And on my opinion, it's going to get worse," Sessions said.
However, Yates said Monday she remains hopeful that Congress will pass criminal justice reform legislation that will give federal prosecutors and judges even more discretion in drug cases. "At the risk of sounding maybe naïve and overly optimistic, I really believe we have a very good chance of getting sentencing reform because it’s one of the few things out there for which there really is bipartisan support," the deputy attorney general said. "We have people on both ends of the spectrum that actually agree that this needs to happen, so you got to hope that when you have that, that we can actually bring this over the finish line.”
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
"Is Proposition 47 to Blame for California's 2015 Increase in Urban Crime?"
The question in the title of this post is a question a lot of persons who are following the broader national debate over sentencing reform are asking (as highlighted via this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences). It is also the title of this new research report authored by a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Here is the full textual of the introduction to the eight-page CJCJ report:
In November 2014, nearly 60 percent of California’s electorate voted to pass Proposition 47. This proposition made substantial sentencing reforms by reducing certain nonviolent, non-serious offenses, such as minor drug possession and shoplifting, from felonies to misdemeanors (CJCJ, 2014). Because the changes made by the new law applied retroactively, incarcerated people serving felony sentences for offenses affected by Proposition 47 were eligible to apply for resentencing to shorten their sentences or to be released outright. Those who already completed felony sentences for Proposition 47 offenses could also apply to change their criminal records to reflect the reforms.
Critics of Proposition 47 contended it would increase crime by releasing those convicted of dangerous or violent felonies early (see “Arguments Against Proposition 47,” 2014). Opponents also suggested that reducing the severity of sentences for certain felonies would fail to deter people from committing crimes or completing court-ordered probation requirements.
In the initial months following the passage of Proposition 47, California’s jail population dropped by about 9,000 between November 2014 and March 2015 (the most recent date for which county jail figures are available at this time) (BSCC, 2016). State prisons reported over 4,500 releases attributed to Proposition 47 (CDCR, 2016), for a total incarcerated population decline of more than 6 percent — a substantial decrease. Similar to the initial year after Public Safety Realignment took effect, January-June 2015 saw general increases in both violent and property crime in California’s cities with populations of 100,000 or more (Table 1). During this period, homicide and burglary showed slight declines, while other Part I violent and property offenses experienced increases.
Is Proposition 47 to blame for the increases in reported urban crimes? This report tests this question by comparing changes in crime rates, from January–June 2014 and January–June 2015, in California’s 68 largest cities to changes in: (a) county jail populations and (b) Proposition 47-related discharges and releases from prison to resentencing counties.
March 15, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4)
Wednesday, March 09, 2016
US Sentencing Commission released big new and timely report on "Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"
I just received via e-mail an alert concerning an important new publication by the US Sentencing Commission, and here is the full text of the email with links from the original:
Today, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a report on the recidivism of federal offenders. The study is groundbreaking in both its breadth—studying all 25,431 U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005, and in its duration—following the releasees over an eight year period. News release.
The Commission found that nearly half (49.3%) of offenders released from prison or placed on a term of probation in 2005 were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or for some other violation of the technical conditions of their probation or release. Summary and key findings.
The Commission also found that:
- Most offenders who recidivated did so within the first two years of the follow up period;
- Assault was the most common serious rearrest offense but most rearrest offenses were non-violent in nature;
- An offender’s criminal history as calculated under the federal sentencing guidelines was closely correlated with recidivism rates (rearrest rates ranged from 34% for offenders in the lowest criminal history category to 80% for offenders in the highest criminal history category);
- An offender’s age at the time of release was also closely correlated with recidivism (rearrest rates ranged from 67% for offenders younger than 21 to 16% for offenders older than 60).
I am going to need some time to really dig into this document to assess what it could and should mean for on-going debates over federal sentencing reforms. But even before I do a deep dive, I am eager to robustly compliment the Commission for producing such a data-rich and timely report for the benefit of everyone thinking about the current state and future direction of the federal sentencing system.
Sunday, March 06, 2016
In praise of (impossible?) request tasking Government Accountability Office with accounting for "the cost of crime in the United States"
I was quite pleased to discover this notable press release from the House Judiciary Committee reporting on a notable letter sent by two Representatives to the Comptroller General. Here is the substantive heart of both the press release and the letter:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study the cost of crime in the United States to better inform members of the House Judiciary Committee as it continues its bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative. In 2014, there were nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States, generating substantial costs for Americans, communities, and the country. In a letter to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, Goodlatte and King request that the GAO study this issue and breakdown the cost of crime for federal, state, and local governments.
Below is the text of the letter....
Dear Comptroller General Dodaro:
In June of last year, the House Judiciary Committee launched a criminal justice reform initiative. Over the ensuing months, the Committee has addressed a variety of criminal justice issues through legislation. In order to assist our efforts in this endeavor, we are writing to you regarding our concerns about the cost of crime in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were an estimated 1,165,383 violent crimes and an estimated 8,277,829 property crimes in 2014. Undoubtedly, these and other crimes generate substantial costs to society at individual, community, and national levels.
Accordingly, we seek the assistance of the Government Accountability Office in fully investigating the cost of crime in the United States. Specifically, we are interested in:
- The cost of Federal and State crimes to victims of crime:
- Total cost
- Cost by state
- The cost of crime to the United States economy and to state economies
- The cost of crime to Federal, State, and local governments
- The cost of crime, per year:
- Per type of criminal offense
- Average cost per criminal
- Average cost per victim
- The rate of recidivism of offenders who are released from terms of imprisonment, and the costs described under #1 through #3 for crimes committed by such offenders subsequent to their release
We look forward to working with you so that GAO can expeditiously complete this important task.
I am already very excited to see what the GAO comes up with as it takes up this request to "study the cost of crime in the United States." Indeed, upon seeing this press release, I started thinking it was quite notable and somewhat curious that there apparently has not been any prior requests for the GAO to engaging in what I agree is an "important task."
That said, I think this task has to start with important and challenging questions that are integral to defining what kinds of "Crimes" and what kinds of "costs" are to be included in this study and its efforts at accounting. Notably, this letter references the "nearly 1.2 million violent crimes and 8.3 million property crimes in the United States" as reported by the FBI, but this accounting leaves out what would seem to be some of the most wide-spread significant crimes in America according to various measures of nationwide illegal behaviors each year, namely drunk driving (with over 100 million estimated yearly incidents) and marijuana trafficking (over 50 million estimated incidents). Should the GAO leave out drunk driving incidents unless one includes a physical harm to persons or property? Should the GAO leave out marijuana offenses altogether in its accounting even though roughly half of all drug arrests nationwide are for these offenses and those arrests have various obvious economic costs to governments?
Ultimately, though, the challenge of defining what "crimes" to consider pales in comparison to defining what "costs" to consider in this kind of study. The majority of violent crimes recorded by the FBI are aggravated assaults, which are "an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury." And these kinds of assaults seem to come in all shapes and sizes in 2014 according to FBI data: Of those reported to law enforcement, "26.9 percent were committed with personal weapons, such as hands, fists, or feet. Firearms were used in 22.5 percent of aggravated assaults, and knives or cutting instruments were used in 18.8 percent. Other weapons were used in 31.9 percent of aggravated assaults." Can GAO reasonably guess that the "costs" to a victim of being severely beaten by fists are less (or perhaps more) than the costs of being shot? Do these costs turn significantly on the nature of the victim based on their age, health, gender or professional activities? If such an assault requires a person to say in bed for a week to recover, should we say the "costs" of missed acitivities are the same or are different for, say, a sales clerk or a student or an unemployed person?
Critically, as the image reprinted here highlights, doing these calculations is possible if you make a lot of assumptions. Indeed, the Rand Corporation has run these numbers in the past, although many questions and concerns could obviously be raised about its accounting decisions.
Thursday, March 03, 2016
"This Morning’s Breakfast, Last Night’s Game: Detecting Extraneous Influences on Judging"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article on SSRN authred by Daniel Chen, which actually has some encouraging federal sentencing findings. Here is the abstract (with the sentencing story highlighted):
We detect intra-judge variation in judicial decisions driven by factors completely unrelated to the merits of the case, or to any case characteristics for that matter. Concretely, we show that asylum grant rates in US immigration courts differ by the success of the court city’s NFL team on the night before, and by the city’s weather on the day of, the decision. Our data including half a million decisions spanning two decades allows us to exclude confounding factors, such as scheduling and seasonal effects. Most importantly, our design holds the identity of the judge constant.
On average, US immigration judges grant an additional 1.5% of asylum petitions on the day after their city’s NFL team won, relative to days after the team lost. Bad weather on the day of the decision has approximately the opposite effect. By way of comparison, the average grant rate is 39%. We do not find comparable effects in sentencing decisions of US district courts, and speculate that this may be due to higher quality of the federal judges, more time for deliberation, or the constraining effect of the federal sentencing guidelines.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
"Does Smarter Sentencing Equal Lower Prison Numbers?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece by Adam Wisnieski at The Crime Report, which is largely a report on what various experts are saying about the impact of modern sentencing reforms on prison populations. I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts (with a few of the original's links preserved):
Most analysts agree that states have been much further ahead than the feds on these issues. For the past year, members of Congress have been debating a variety of bills that would make changes to federal sentencing guidelines similar to some of the revisions already underway at the state level. The proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has received widespread bipartisan support — but is now stalled by the resurgence of concerns that relaxing punishment standards would lead to an increase in crime.
There’s no shortage of voices about what type of impact that bill would have. But few seem to look to states for lessons, regardless of the well-worn phrase about them being “laboratories of democracy.” Have states been successful? Experts contacted by The Crime Report had different views.
Adam Gelb, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project said that the national conversation on criminal justice is undergoing a transformation. “We are really starting to see a culture shift in which policymakers are becoming eager to base decisions on data and evidence rather than emotion or ideology,” Gelb said in an interview. “There’s been a tremendous amount of progress but there’s still a long way to go.”
Other researchers disagree, saying there is more smoke than fire in state efforts. Minor tweaks to sentencing policies, which they say is largely what states have done, have not worked to significantly impact the nation’s mass incarceration problem. “Most states have not made any progress,” says James Austin, who runs the Washington, D.C.- and California-based JFA Institute, a criminal-justice consulting firm. “Those that are making some progress, it’s been pretty miniscule.”
Michael Tonry, director of the Institute on Crime and Public Policy of the University of Minnesota argues the same thing. In his new book, Sentencing Fragments: Penal Reform in America, 1975-2025, Tonry describes states’ approach to reducing prison population through minor changes to sentencing and release policies as “nibbling” around the edges of the problem. “What’s being done is these little tiny tweaking around the edges, and then making big projections,” he said in an interview with The Crime Report. “That’s not how the world is going to change.”...
About 13 percent of our country’s prisoners are serving time in federal prisons. The other 87 percent, more than 1.3 million people according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, are in state prisons.
That number of state prisoners hasn’t changed dramatically in the last decade; it’s leveled off. The number of people in state prisons is about the same as it was ten years ago. From 2004 to 2014, the state prison population went up from roughly 1.32 million to 1.35 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
That most recent number (1.35 million state prisoners in 2014) is down from its high water mark, 1.41 million in 2008. Critics suspect the leveling off could be attributed to harsh sentences imposed in the 1980s and 1990s finally coming to an end. But defenders point to the nation’s decreased incarceration rate as real progress. The nation’s adult incarceration rate, which includes offenders in not only state prisons, but federal prisons and local jails, dropped 10 percent from 2007 to 2014, from 1 in 100 to 1 in 111. “The incarceration rate has declined steadily each year since 2008,” notes the most recent report on the correctional populations in the U.S. by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Last week, The Sentencing Project released an analysis on how well states have handled the problem of growing prison populations. “Relatively modest,” the report concluded. “While 39 states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years, in most states this reduction has been relatively modest,” reads the report. “The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration.”
Tonry says one reason why reforms in certain states haven’t achieved projected gains is that stakeholders like prosecutors, judges and parole boards are not invested in changing the system. “The problem with tweaking things is they have to be implemented by somebody,” he said....
One state that has gotten a lot of press recently for figuring out how to successfully reform harsh sentencing laws is Georgia. In 2011, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that modified mandatory minimum sentences on drug charges, gave judges more discretion in drug sentencing, raised the felony threshold for certain theft crimes. Since the bill was signed, Georgia’s prison population has gone down every year, from 55,944 in 2011 to 52,949 in 2014, a slight decrease but a decrease nonetheless.
If that bill, along with another bill on juvenile justice in 2012, had not been passed, the state says its prison population would have gone up by 8 percent and cost $264 million more to expand capacity. The policy change has saved the state millions, but according to a report last year by the state’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform, Georgia’s prison population is projected to go up every year over the next five years.
So at least for Georgia, success seems to be measured on figuring out how to slow the increase, but not to reverse the trend. There is reason for optimism, though. Despite those projections, the prion population has actually continued its downward trend — and policymakers haven’t given up. After initial reforms were passed in 2011, Georgia has passed reforms every year since 2011, something states like Kentucky haven’t done. “Georgia is back year after year,” said Gelb. “That kind of reform-minded environment can have an impact well beyond specific changes to law and policy.”
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
"Judging Federal White-Collar Fraud Sentencing: An Empirical Study Revealing the Need for Further Reform"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Mark Bennett, Justin Levinson and Koichi Hioki. Here is the abstract:
White-collar federal fraud sentencing has long been fraught with controversy and criticism. As a result, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s intensive multi-year examination of sentencing for fraud crimes generated tremendous interest among the Department of Justice, criminal defense organizations, the academy, and a wide-range of advocacy groups. In November 2015, the Commission’s publicly announced proposed amendments became law without Congressional change. These amendments, while commendable in process and purpose, fall short of sorely needed reforms that would serve to realign white-collar fraud punishments with legitimate penal justifications. This Article portrays the recent historical tension between the Federal Sentencing Commission and federal judges, and presents the results of an original empirical study that demonstrates clearly the continuing need for significant reforms.
The Article begins by framing the problem of fraud sentencing within modern criminal law, and examines the statistical reality of economic crime sentencing since the 1980s, which has been increasingly characterized by downward departures from harsh recommend minimum sentences. It then details an original empirical study we conducted on 240 sitting federal and state judges, just as the new sentencing guideline amendments were passing untouched through Congress. This study presented judges with a realistic pre-sentence report for a multimillion-dollar economic crime, and asked judges to sentence the defendant. We found that a remarkable 75% of federal district court judges sentenced the defendant to the precise minimum sentence of a possible seven year range. The study further compared the judges’ sentences across judicial cohorts and evaluated the role of judges’ individual sentencing philosophies, age, religion, and the political party of the appointing president. Despite a range of interesting differences in sentencing philosophy and self-reported attitudes found based on these factors, federal judges’ overwhelming agreement regarding minimum sentencing largely transcended their other differences.
The Article considers the results of the study in the context of the revised guidelines as well as scholarly reform suggestions, and offers five specific proposals to reform the guidelines, beginning with significant cuts to the so-called “loss table” as well as the specific offense characteristics that frequently lead to near-nonsensical sentencing guidelines.
February 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, February 22, 2016
"The Use of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b)" to reward cooperators after initial sentencing
The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission research report and the second part of the title of this post is intended to highlight exactly why the first part of the title of this post is a sentencing story. The 42-page report is data-rich, and here is the text of this USSC webpage providing background and noting some of the report's key findings:
This report examines sentence reductions for offenders who cooperate with the government in its efforts to investigate or prosecute others. Offenders can receive credit for their “substantial assistance” in at least two ways; at the time of sentencing (USSG §5K1.1 departure motions) and after sentencing (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) motions). In both instances, the government must make a motion for a lower sentence.
This publication discusses the history and current use of Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b). It also presents data on the number of Rule 35(b) reductions and the jurisdictions where they are granted; the effects of Rule 35(b) reductions on sentences; and the offense and demographic characteristics of offenders who receive such reductions. The report also compares the circumstances of offenders receiving Rule 35(b) reductions with those who received USSG §5K1.1 departures.
A review of the 10,811 cases in which Rule 35(b) reductions were granted over the past six years suggests the following conclusions:
Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are used relatively rarely, but a few districts make frequent use of Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions. There is no clear data-based explanation for these differences, as these districts vary substantially from one another in overall case load, offense mix, and demographic composition.
Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were originally sentenced within the guideline range. This suggests that courts are rarely departing or varying for reasons other than substantial assistance with this group of offenders.
Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were convicted of a drug trafficking offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.
Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions generally provide less benefit than do § 5K1.1 substantial assistance departures. This general statement holds true whether the Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction is compared to the §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure in terms of the ultimate sentence length or by the extent of the reduction from the original sentence. The relatively high number of Rule 35(b) offenders who are convicted of drug and firearms offenses, though, as well as the relatively high number of those subject to mandatory minimum penalties, suggests that these offenders may receive a lower reduction because they are more serious offenders.
Although Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are usually less beneficial to offenders than are §5K1.1 substantial assistance departures, offenders who receive both a §5K1.1 departure and a Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction receive the largest overall reduction in their sentences, regardless of how that reduction is measured.
Offenders sentenced in jurisdictions that primarily use Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions overall receive less of a benefit for their substantial assistance than do offenders in jurisdictions that rely primarily on §5K1.1 departures or a combination of Rule 35(b) reductions and §5K1.1 departures.
February 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, February 19, 2016
"Legislating Forgiveness: A Study of Post-Conviction Certificates as Policy to Address the Employment Consequences of a Conviction"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Heather Garretson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Mass incarceration in America is creating an employment paradox that is the result of three facts: an estimated 65 million Americans have a criminal record, a criminal record significantly impairs job opportunities, and a job is a critical component of living a crime-free life. This paradox is perpetuated by thousands of legal and administrative barriers to employment and by employers’ unwillingness to hire someone with a criminal record.
States have recently started addressing the employment paradox with legislation. This legislation authorizes an administrative relief mechanism — often a certificate of some kind — that is intended to lift employment barriers and encourage employers to consider applicants with a criminal record. Such legislation is on the rise: of the ten states that have certificate legislation, eight passed such legislation in the last five years. This passage comes without an understanding of the impact of certificates. The accessibility and relevance of certificates to employment has — until now — been assumed, but not examined.
New York State has the oldest and most robust certificate system, and is a model for much of the recent certificate legislation. This paper contains the first comprehensive research on New York’s certificates. The research asks whether New York’s certificates are accessible and relevant to employment. It combines statutory analysis with qualitative research. It is a study of how certificate legislation is supposed to work — and how it actually does. It examines a statutory scheme that is recently replicated but empirically empty. Through interviews with judges, people with certificates or those eligible but without one, attorneys, current and former probation officials, service providers, and advocates, this paper provides insights into the use of certificates, their challenges, and examines how legislating more of the same can effectively address the employment paradox.
Thursday, February 18, 2016
"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years"
The title of this post is the title of this notable short "fact sheet" from The Sentencing Project. Here is the text that goes with the graphical state-by-state data in the document
The number of people in prison in the United States has stabilized in recent years, but incarceration trends among the states have varied significantly. While 39 states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years, in most states this reduction has been relatively modest. In addition, 11 states have had continuing rises in imprisonment.
Twelve states have produced double-digit declines within this period. Four states have reduced their prison populations by over 20%: New Jersey (31% since 1999), New York (28% since 1999), Rhode Island (25% since 2008), and California (22% since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use). Southern states including Mississippi and South Carolina, which have historically had high rates of incarceration, have also significantly downsized their prison populations. These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. Moreover, the states with the most substantial reductions have had no adverse effect on public safety.
The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration. The total U.S. prison population declined by 2.9% since its peak in 2009. Of those states with declining prison populations, 20 have had less than a 5% decline since their peak years. The reduction in the federal prison population has been of this magnitude as well, 2.9% since 2011. And of the states with rising prison populations, four have experienced double-digit increases in the last five years, led by Nebraska (22%) and Arkansas (18%). While sharing in the national crime drop, these states have resisted the trend toward decarceration.
Just as mass incarceration has developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, so too have declines reflected changes in both policy and practice. These have included such measures as drug policy sentencing reforms, reduced admissions of technical parole violators to prison, and diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level property and drug crimes.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Notable data on racial and gender dynamics of recent changes in incarceration rates
This new Wonkblog post via the Washington Post reports on provides an interesting analysis of modern incarceration data under the headline "There’s been a big decline in the black incarceration rate, and almost nobody’s paying attention." Here are the details:
After decades of growth, the U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for the past six years. Hidden within this welcome overall trend is a sizable and surprising racial disparity: African-Americans are benefitting from the national de-incarceration trend but whites are serving time at increasingly higher rates.
The pattern of results, evident in a series of reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is most stark among women. Since 2000, the imprisonment rate among African-American women has dropped 47 percent, while the rate among white women has risen by 56 percent. These trends have combined to shrink the racial disparity in women’s imprisonment by two-thirds.
A similar pattern emerges for men, who compose a much larger share of the prison population. The rate of imprisonment among African-American men remains very high, but nonetheless it has tumbled 22 percent since 2000. The rate for white men in contrast is 4 percent higher than it was in 2000. As a result, the racial disparity has shrunk by nearly one quarter.
In responding to the data, Fordham University Professor John Pfaff echoed several criminologists when he said that“This is one of the most surprising pattern of results I have seen in corrections in a long time.” Pfaff said that “law enforcement attitudes getting tougher in rural areas and softer in urban areas may be contributing to this change."
Adam Gelb, who directs the public safety performance project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested that “changes in drug use and enforcement over the past 15 years could be at play.” Gelb said the methamphetamine, prescription opioid and heroin epidemics have affected whites more than did the crack cocaine epidemic, which increased incarceration among blacks in the 1980s and 1990s but has since waned.
Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia noted another possible cause: “sex offenders, who are disproportionately white and tend to receive long sentences, are a new target for the war on crime.” Consistent with this explanation, a larger proportion of white inmates have been convicted of sex crimes (16.4 percent) than have black inmates (8 percent)....
Whatever cultural and macroeconomic forces are producing these changes could conceivably also be driving increased involvement in the criminal justice system by whites, including rising imprisonment in an era of de-incarceration.
Saturday, February 06, 2016
"Was there a Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new research paper authored by a quartet of sociologists and criminologists and available now via ResearchGate. Here is the abstract:
Purpose: There has been widespread speculation that the events surrounding the shooting death of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — and a string of similar incidents across the country — have led to increases in crime in the United States. This study tested for the “Ferguson Effect” on crime rates in large U.S. cities.
Methods: Aggregate and disaggregate monthly Part I criminal offense data were gathered 12 months before and after August 2014 from police department data requests and websites in 81 large U.S. cities. The exogenous shock of Ferguson was examined using a discontinuous growth model to determine if there was a redirection in seasonality-adjusted crime trends in the months following the Ferguson shooting.
Results: No evidence was found to support a systematic post-Ferguson change in overall, violent, and property crime trends; however, the disaggregated analyses revealed that robbery rates, declining before Ferguson, increased in the months after Ferguson. Also, there was much greater variation in crime trends in the post-Ferguson era, and select cities did experience increases in homicide. Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.
Conclusions: The national discourse surrounding the “Ferguson Effect” is long on anecdotes and short on data, leaving criminologists largely on the sidelines of a conversation concerning one of the most prominent contemporary issues in criminal justice. Our findings are largely consistent with longstanding criminological knowledge that changes in crime trends are slow and rarely a product of random shocks.
Thursday, February 04, 2016
"Obey All Laws and Be Good: Probation and the Meaning of Recidivism"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Fiona Doherty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Probation is the most commonly imposed criminal sentence in the United States, with nearly four million adults currently under supervision. Yet the law of probation has not been the focus of sustained research or analysis. This Article examines the standard conditions of probation in the sixteen jurisdictions that use probation most expansively. A detailed analysis of these conditions is important, because the extent of the state’s authority to control and punish probationers depends on the substance of the conditions imposed.
Based on the results of my analysis, I argue that the standard conditions of probation, which make a wide variety of noncriminal conduct punishable with criminal sanctions, construct a definition of recidivism that contributes to overcriminalization. At the same time, probationary systems concentrate adjudicative and legislative power in probation officers, often to the detriment of the socially disadvantaged. Although probation is frequently invoked as a potential solution to the problem of overincarceration, I argue that it instead should be analyzed as part of the continuum of excessive penal control.
Monday, February 01, 2016
Notable new parallel studies on comparable execution patterns in two notable states
Frank Baumgartner has recently released these two (short and reader-friendly) reports providing a "review of simple statistics" concerning who has been executed in two states in the modern death penalty era:
There were no data that especially surprised me during my (too quick) review of these reports, though I always find analysis of county-level death penalty patterns especially intriguing. For example, these documents report that "six out of Florida’s 67 counties are responsible for more than half of the state’s 89 executions" and that "four out of Ohio’s 88 counties (Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton) — or just 5% — are responsible for more than half of the state’s 53 executions." These kinds of data serve to highlight, yet again, just how significant county-level actors — particularly district attorneys and trial judges — truly are in the actual administration of the death penalty in the United States.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
"Gender, Risk Assessment, and Sanctioning: The Cost of Treating Women Like Men"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper authored by Jennifer Skeem, John Monahan and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Increasingly, jurisdictions across the U.S. are using risk assessment instruments to scaffold efforts to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety. Despite promising results, critics oppose the use of these instruments to inform sentencing and correctional decisions. One argument is that the use of instruments that include gender as a risk factor will discriminate against men in sanctioning.
Based on a sample of 14,310 federal offenders, we empirically test the predictive fairness of an instrument that omits gender, the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA). We found that the PCRA strongly predicts arrests for both genders — but overestimates women’s likelihood of recidivism. For a given PCRA score, the predicted probability of arrest — which is based on combining both genders — is too high for women. Although gender neutrality is an obviously appealing concept, it may translate into instrument bias and overly harsh sanctions for women. With respect to the moral question of disparate impact, we found that women obtain slightly lower mean scores on the PCRA than men (d= .32); this difference is wholly attributable to men’s greater criminal history, a factor already embedded in sentencing guidelines.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
New FBI data indicates violent crime up, property crime down in first half of 2015
This new official FBI press release reports on preliminary crime data for the first six months on 2015, and the basic story is not encouraging. Here are the details via the parts of the release:
Statistics released today in the FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report revealed overall declines in the number of property crimes reported and overall increases in the number of violent crimes reported for the first six months of 2015 when compared with figures for the first six months of 2014. The report is based on information from 12,879 law enforcement agencies that submitted three to six months of comparable data to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program for the first six months of 2014 and 2015.
All of the offenses in the violent crime category — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape (revised definition), rape (legacy definition), aggravated assault, and robbery — showed increases when data from the first six months of 2015 were compared with data from the first six months of 2014. The number of rapes (legacy definition) increased 9.6 percent, the number of murders increased 6.2 percent, aggravated assaults increased 2.3 percent, the number of rapes (revised definition) rose 1.1 percent, and robbery offenses were up 0.3 percent.
Violent crime increased in all but two city groupings. In cities with populations from 50,000 to 99,999 inhabitants, violent crime was down 0.3 percent, and in cities with 500,000 to 999,999 in population, violent crime decreased 0.1 percent. The largest increase in violent crime, 5.3 percent, was noted in cities with 250,000 to 499,999 in population.
Violent crime decreased 3.3 percent in non-metropolitan counties but rose slightly, 0.1 percent, in metropolitan counties.
Violent crime increased in all but one of the nation’s four regions. These crimes were down 3.2 percent in the Northeast but increased 5.6 percent in the West, followed by rises of 1.6 percent in the South and 1.4 percent in the Midwest.
In the property crime category, burglary offenses dropped 9.8 percent, and larceny-theft offenses decreased 3.2 percent in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same months from 2014. Only motor vehicle theft showed an increase (1.0 percent).
Each of the city population groups had decreases in the overall number of property crimes. Law enforcement agencies in cities with populations under 10,000 inhabitants reported the largest decrease, 7.1 percent.
Property crime decreased 12.3 percent in non-metropolitan counties and 6.0 percent in metropolitan counties.
The West was the only region to show an increase (2.4 percent) in property crime. Reports of these offenses declined 8.0 percent in the Northeast, 7.0 percent in the Midwest, and 6.4 percent in the South.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
"More Prison, Less Probation for Federal Offenders"
The title of this post is the title of this short Pew Charitable Trusts "Fact Sheet" publication which includes a graph highlighting how many more federal offenders are sentenced to prison and how many fewer get just probation in recent years. Here is the heart of the text of the document (with my emphasis added):
Over the past three decades, imprisonment has become the dominant sanction in the federal criminal justice system. Nine in 10 federal offenders received prison sentences in 2014, up from less than half in 1980, as the use of probation declined steadily. (See Figure 1.) Federal courts sentenced 2,300 fewer offenders to probation in 2014 than in 1980, even though their caseload nearly tripled during that span.
Changes in the kinds of offenses and offenders prosecuted in federal court may have contributed to the shift toward prison and away from probation. But sentencing policies established during the 1980s and 1990s also played an important role by mandating prison time for many offenses for which probation had routinely been ordered in the past.
Congress increased imprisonment and decreased the use of probation in several ways. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, lawmakers enacted dozens of laws prohibiting probation and requiring prison terms for many common federal crimes, including drug trafficking and illegal firearms possession.
In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency within the judicial branch, and charged it with establishing guidelines that federal judges were required to follow during sentencing. The guidelines, which were intended to promote consistency in federal criminal penalties and took effect in November 1987, mandated imprisonment for a variety of offenses — including fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion — for which probation was a routine sanction in the past.
Friday, January 08, 2016
Is mass incarceration contributing to the dumbing down of America?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "Oregon Spends Nearly Four Times More on Incarceration than Higher Education." As these excerpts reveal, the article focuses on just one state's investment of more taxpayer resources on locking up young people than on educating them:
According to new data released near the end of 2015, Oregon is among the states with the lowest ratio of higher education spending to prison and incarceration spending. Criminal justice and higher education experts, advocates and reformers told GoLocal that, the state’s disparity in funding is a major issue that needs to be addressed.
According to a study entitled Public Research Universities: Changes in State Funding, published by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, Oregon spends $204 million in higher education each year, only fifth from the bottom in the United States. Meanwhile, the state spends nearly four times that, $802 million in total, on corrections.
That gives them the second largest disparity in the country, trailing only Michigan and leading Arizona, Vermont and Colorado in the top five. According to the Academy, the lack of funding can have major impacts on the U.S. and state economy in the future....
The Partnership for Safety and Justice is also calling for a decrease in the amount of money spent on prisons. The group fights for a decrease in crime and a change in the way the criminal justice system is funded. In an interview with GoLocal, Shannon Wight, Vice President of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said that recent actions taken by the State of Oregon to cut prison spending should be only the beginning....
Business leaders told GoLocal that more spending for schools is crucial, especially given Oregon’s issues with education. "First and foremost, we need to improve the reputation of our education system," John Taponga, President of ECONorthwest, told GoLocal.
In order to do so, groups like the Partnership for Safety and Justice recommend taking a closer look at funding for education and incarceration. “A few years ago Pew did a similar analysis and what we learned from that is that it’s important to note is how much of our general fund we are spending on corrections vs education,” Wight said. “Certainly as a state we want to emphasize education over incarceration if we want to see the state, and its residents, thrive.”
Wight cautioned, however, that spending should be shifted gradually to avoid taking important resources away from those already serving time behind bars. “It’s important to remember that we can’t just spend less on prison and put all that money into schools right away,” Wight said. “We have to thoughtfully reduce the number of people in our correctional systems by evaluating who should be under correctional control and who shouldn’t; who should instead be receiving help from mental health or addiction services and who can be held accountable without doing prison time. Counties need the state investment to do that work effectively.”
The full report published by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences referenced in this article is available at this link. The figure reprinted here comes from the report (which also details how increased spending on health care is another key factor reshaping how states spend limited resources).
Thursday, January 07, 2016
"The Fog Around Cost-Benefit Studies of Crime and Punishment May Finally Be Clearing: Prisoners and Their Kids Suffer Too"
The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Michael Tonry and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness studies of crime control and punishment have proliferated since the late-1980s. Especially in relation to crime prevention programs and punishment policies they have been hugely, and regrettably, influential. “Regrettable” because many have relied on exaggerated estimates of “intangible costs” of victimization so unrealistically high that that almost any sanctioning policy no matter how severe could be shown to be effective.
Likewise, almost any prevention program estimated to have prevented rapes or robberies could be shown to generate benefits in excess of costs. Estimates for rape and homicide were greatly exaggerated because they were initially based on jury damage awards in civil law suits, the right hand tale of any crime distribution because a successful lawsuit depends on the presence of an egregious crime and one or both of a highly sympathetic victim and a wealthy or well-insured defendant. The latter are not common characteristics of rape and homicide defendants.
More recent studies have relied on statistical life valuations ranging from $0.7 to 26.4 million, a range so wide that any number chosen is inherently arbitrary. Recent work, however, has shown that studies relying on estimates of intangible victim costs are fundamentally flawed for the reasons described and others.
Are there any clear data patterns linking marijuana reforms and broader criminal justice developments?
The somewhat cumbersome question in the title of this post is prompted by the number crunching appearing in this interesting data-focused new piece by Jon Gettman via High Times titled ""Pot Matters: Marijuana in the Larger Context of Criminal Justice Reform." Here are excerpts:
The Bureau of Justice Statistics has recently release their annual data on correctional populations in the United States, comparing the latest data (from 2014) with prior years. This data on people under correctional supervision consists of totals of people incarcerated in either jail or prison, those on probation, or released on parole. This data does not include information on the offenses committed by people under correctional supervision. The big headline is that the total population of people under the watchful eye of the correctional supervision is declining.
In 2014, there were 6,851,000 people in the system, a decline of 52,200 offenders from 2013. The overall rate of 2.8 percent of adults in the United States being under some form of correctional supervision is the lowest since 1996. The correction population has been declining by an annual average of one percent since 2007. The incarcerated population increased slightly (by 1,900) in 2014, and most of the decrease over time has been in the area of community supervision (probation and parole). Reducing the number of marijuana arrests in a jurisdiction is an easy way to reduce the burden on probation officers given that many marijuana possession offenses result in probation....
From 2005 to 2014, the total correctional population in the United States fell by 241,000 from 7,055,600 to 6,814,600. Actually, the federal population increased by 33,500 in this period, but the state population fell by 274,500. However, the correction population increased in 26 states by a total of 283,100. It fell in 24 states and the District of Columbia by 557,300.
So which states are increasing their correctional populations? The biggest increases from 2005 to 2014 were in Georgia (48,000), Pennsylvania (47,500), Kentucky (30,700), Colorado (25,500) and Tennessee (20,600). The other states rounding out the top 10 were Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Arizona and Iowa.
The biggest decreases in correctional populations were in California (-160,700), Massachusetts (-101,800), Florida (-49,300), New York (-38,400) and Texas (-34,500). The rest of the top 10 in reduced correctional populations were New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota, Connecticut and North Carolina.
There is no clear pattern here with respect of state marijuana laws, but there is an interesting trend worth noting. States that rely more on community supervision than incarceration often have reformed their marijuana laws....
Of the 15 jurisdictions with the highest levels of community supervision, in addition to Georgia, seven of them have decriminalized or legalized marijuana (Washington D.C., Minnesota, Ohio, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Maryland). Increasing the list to 16 adds Colorado. Other states in this group of 16 have medical marijuana laws (Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan).
Marijuana law reform and legalization are sound policies with great merit, but they are also part of a larger issue in the United States, the reform of the criminal justice system in ways that reduce the number of people under correctional supervision. This has always been part of the argument for legalizing cannabis — the justice system should stop wasting resources on marijuana users and divert them to violent offenders.
The recent trends in correctional supervision data present good news and bad news when it comes to the legalization of cannabis. The good news is that many states are receptive to criminal justice reform, particularly ones that have already made a commitment to community supervision as an alternative to incarceration. These states, and states that are reducing their correctional populations, may be the most receptive to ending arrests for marijuana offenses.
The bad news is that other states remain committed to increasing arrests and increasing correctional populations. These states, their criminal justice professionals and their political leaders will present the greatest challenges to the legalization of cannabis throughout the United States.
I would be very eager for readers to point me to any other research or data sets starting to look at whether and how a state's approach to marijuana reform may (or may not) be incfluencing other criminal justice developments in the state. And, of course, anyone just generally interested in marijuana reform ought to be regularly checking out my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. Here are links to a few recent posts from that locale:
- Should we expect any major federal marijuana reform developments in 2016?
- Two different prespectives on the coming marijuana reform future
- Gearing up for historic 2016 in the arena of marijuana law, policy and reform
- MPP Director provides Top 10 accounting of marijuana reform achievements in 2015
- SAM Prez provides Top 10 accounting of marijuana reform difficulties in 2015
Tuesday, January 05, 2016
Interesting international death penalty data via Amnesty International
Amnesty International (AI) is a human rights organization that has long called for abolition of the death penalty worldwide. Via this New York Times article, headlined "Death Sentences Surge, Even as More Countries Drop Capital Punishment," I see that AI has released its latest accounting on global capital punishment practives in this lengthy report titled "Death Sentences and Executions in 2014." Here is the report's executive summary:
Amnesty International recorded executions in 22 countries in 2014, the same number as in 2013. At least 607 executions were carried out worldwide, a decrease of almost 22% compared with 2013. As in previous years, this figure does not include the number of people executed in China, where data on the death penalty is treated as a state secret. At least 2,466 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 2014, an increase of 28% compared with 2013. This increase was largely due to sharp spikes in death sentences in Egypt and Nigeria, where courts imposed mass sentences against scores of people in some cases.
An alarming number of countries that used the death penalty in 2014 did so in response to real or perceived threats to state security and public safety posed by terrorism, crime or internal instability. For example, Pakistan lifted a six-year-long moratorium on the execution of civilians in the wake of the horrific Peshawar school attack. The government also pledged to execute hundreds of people on death row who had been convicted on terrorism-related charges. China made use of the death penalty as a tool in the “Strike Hard” campaign, which the authorities characterized as a response to terrorism and violent crime in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
There is no evidence that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect on crime than terms of imprisonment. Where governments present the death penalty as a solution to crime or insecurity they are not only misleading the public but — in many cases — failing to take steps to realize the goal of abolition recognized in international law.
Many of those states that retain the death penalty continued to use it in contravention of international law and standards. Unfair trials, “confessions” extracted through torture or other ill-treatment, the use of the death penalty against juveniles and people with mental or intellectual disabilities, and for crimes other than “intentional killing” continued to be concerning features of the use of the death penalty in 2014.
Despite these concerns, the world continues to make progress towards abolition.
With the exception of Europe and Central Asia region, where Belarus — the only country in the region that executes — resumed executions after a 24-month hiatus, Amnesty International documented positive developments in all regions of the world. The Sub-Saharan Africa region saw particular progress, with 46 executions recorded in three countries, compared to 64 executions in five countries in 2013 — a 28% reduction. The number of executions recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region decreased by approximately 23% — from 638 in 2013 to 491 in 2014. In the Americas, the USA is the only country that executes, but executions dropped from 39 in 2013 to 35 in 2014, reflecting a steady decline in executions over recent years. The state of Washington imposed a moratorium on executions.
Fewer executions were recorded in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding China, and debates on abolition began in Fiji, South Korea and Thailand.
Friday, January 01, 2016
Federal criminal caseload highlights from Chief Justice's "2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary"
The Chief Justice of the United States always closes out a calendar year by releasing a year-end report on the federal judiciary. The 2015 version from Chief Justice John G. Roberts is available here, and it includes an Appendix on the Workload of the Courts with some notable federal criminal justice details. Here are those details:
In the 12-month period ending September 30, 2015, caseloads decreased in the Supreme Court, the regional appellate courts, the district courts, the bankruptcy courts, and the pretrial services system. Growth occurred, however, in the number of persons under post-conviction supervision....
In the regional courts of appeals, filings dropped four percent to 52,698. Appeals involving pro se litigants, which amounted to 51 percent of filings, fell four percent. Total civil appeals decreased seven percent. Criminal appeals rose three percent, as did appeals of administrative agency decisions, and bankruptcy appeals grew seven percent....
Cases with the United States as defendant dropped seven percent in response to fewer filings of prisoner petitions and Social Security cases. Cases with the United States as plaintiff went down 10 percent as filings of forfeiture and penalty cases and contract cases decreased.
Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) held relatively steady, declining one percent to 80,069. Defendants accused of immigration violations dropped five percent, with the southwestern border districts receiving 79 percent of national immigration defendant filings. Defendants charged with property offenses (including 15 fraud) fell six percent. Other reductions were reported for filings involving traffic offenses, general offenses, regulatory offenses, and justice system offenses. Drug crime defendants, who accounted for 32 percent of total filings, rose two percent. Increases also occurred in filings related to firearms and explosives, sex offenses, and violent crimes....
A total of 135,468 persons were under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2015, an increase of two percent over the total one year earlier. Of that number, 114,961 persons were serving terms of supervised 16 release after leaving correctional institutions, a three percent increase from the prior year. Cases activated in the pretrial services system, including pretrial diversion cases, fell five percent to 95,013.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US
One of the many joys of the holiday season for data junkies is new releases of new official reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This latest one, excitingly titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014," was released today at this BJS webpage where one can also find this summary of the report's basic coverage main findings:
Presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2014, including offenders supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2014. It details the downward trend in the correctional population and correctional supervision rate since 2007. It also examines the impact of changes in the community supervision and incarcerated populations on the total correctional population in recent years. Findings cover the variation in the size and composition of the total correctional population by jurisdiction at yearend 2014. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for select years.
- Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at yearend 2014, about 52,200 fewer offenders than at yearend 2013.
- About 1 in 36 adults (or 2.8% of adults in the United States) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.
- The correctional population has declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007.
- The community supervision population (down 1.0%) continued to decline during 2014, accounting for all of the decrease in the correctional population.
- The incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014.
Monday, December 28, 2015
Notable (lack of) big crime news emerging from the Big Apple
Sentencing and police reform opponents on the right and gun control advocates on the left have been making much of what appears to be a notable uptick in violent crimes using firearms in many cities. But even if there was strong and consistent data showing widespread increases in violent gun crimes throughout the US throughout 2015, I would be somewhat chary about using short-term crime data alone as the basis for drawing long-term conclusions about the pros and cons of various criminal justice reforms.
Ever the consequentialist, I do view serious violent crime rates as the single most important criminal justice metric for would-be criminal justice analysts and reformers. But I also believe lots of (hard-to-assess in real-time) social and practical factors can have a major short-term impact on how much crime is committed and reported. Consequently, I think it can be problematic and even dangerous for political and legal actors to over-react (positively or negatively) to any seemingly major short-term crime data changes.
That all said, this new New York Times article suggests that, at least in one major city, there may not be any major short-term crime data changes for political and legal actors to over-react to. The article, headlined "Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime," gets started this way:
Homeless encampments proliferated. Two officers, confronting armed men, were shot and killed. And many New Yorkers said they felt less safe. But fears that New York City was slipping back to a more dangerous time contrasted with reality.
As reflected in the reported levels of the most serious types of crime, the city in 2015 was as safe as it had been in its modern history. A modest decrease in reported crime is expected by year’s end.
The Police Department is reporting a 2 percent decline, as measured by seven major felonies that are tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: murder, rape, robbery, serious assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft. At the same time, arrests recorded by officers fell steeply, to 333,115 through Dec. 20, down 13 percent from 384,770 over the same period the year before. The number of criminal summonses dropped to 292,372 from 358,948.
There was a small rise in murders, to 339 as of Dec. 25, already more than last year’s historic low of 333. Still, the number is well below the 536 murders recorded five years ago. And despite an early increase in gun violence, the final tally of shootings for the year is set to come in slightly lower than last year’s figure.
“As we end this year, the City of New York will record the safest year in its history, its modern history, as it relates to crime,” said Commissioner William J. Bratton, summing up 2015 in an address to officers at a Dec. 17 promotion ceremony. But, he added, the past 12 months had also been “terrible” for the department because of the loss of four officers in the line of duty since late last December. “It has been a year of great contradictions,” he said, struggling for words.
The overall crime statistics, of course, do not capture the increasing presence of homeless people on the streets and in shelters that has bedeviled the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, while contributing to a creeping unease among New Yorkers.
But the disconnect may run deeper. Since summer 2014, the country has seen one protest after another over fairness in the criminal justice system, prompted by the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and other black people in confrontations with the police. The outcry, and the occasional outbreaks of protestrelated violence, have led some to argue that criticism of the police has undermined law enforcement, empowering criminals and sowing urban disorder.
Saturday, December 19, 2015
An early set of takes on Prez Obama's clemency work to date
As first reported in this post (with has already generated an interesting set of comments), yesterday Prez Obama granted commutations of prison sentences to 95 federal inmates. And, as stressed in this posting from the White House blog, this development means that Prez Obama has now granted has now granted 184 commutations total -- more than the last five presidents combined." I think it is justifiable that the Obama Administration is now inclined to crow about its clemency record with respect to commutations, although it remains notable that Prez Obama has still granted precious few pardons and is still well behind even the commutation pace set by Republican predecessors like Calvin Coolige and Herbert Hoover.
Helpfully, P.S. Ruckman over at Pardon Power is already hard at work providing lots of historical context (and other types of contexts) for assessing what Prez Obama has done in this space only 24 hours since this latest grant. Here are his recent postings, all of which merit checking out:
Friday, December 18, 2015
Effective accounting of how hard it is to account accurately for intricacies of modern mass incarceration
The strangely named Xenocrypt on the website Medium has a terrific new posting titled "Why You Don’t Understand Mass Incarceration." I recommend a full read of this lengthy post, and here are excerpts highlighting why:
“Mass incarceration” usually refers to the historically high U.S. incarceration rate, which is the share of the population in state and federal prison at any given time. Starting in 1980 or so, incarceration rates had huge growth after decades of relative consistency....
But there’s a big problem. The incarceration rate — who’s in prison right now — follows from two basic questions, which those famous graphs (and phrases like “the prison population”) mash together:
1. Who did we send to prison in the first place, and for what? How much has “mass incarceration” meant expanded incarceration? Which people are going to prison who’d never have gone under other policies? There’s a moral version of the question, too: What should we send people to prison for?
2. How long were they in prison for? How much has “mass incarceration” meant deepened incarceration? Which people would have gone to prison anyway but are spending more time incarcerated, either serving longer sentences or cycling through the system over and over again? Again, there’s a moral version of the question: How long should people be in prison for?
Both of those questions are important, but they’re distinct topics, at right angles to each other analytically and morally: “should drug offenders go to prison at all?” is pretty different from “how long should convicted murderers serve in prison?”. The next time you read an article about incarceration in the popular press or on social media, though, try to see if it’s even aware of the distinction. (For example, “reducing the prison population” is a pretty meaningless phrase — does it mean having fewer people go to prison or having people go to prison for less time? One reason you don’t understand mass incarceration: the phrase “the prison population”.)
It’d be hard enough to understand how those two questions interact if we knew how to answer both of them, but no one knows how to answer either one. There’s been a lot of impressive, interesting work trying to answer who goes to prison for how long (John Pfaff has been a big influence on this piece) and even the best of it is hampered by limited or unreliable data and difficult inferences, while obviously there isn’t much consensus on who should....
Quick: How many people really were sent to state or federal prison in the United States since 1978? Don’t be surprised if you don’t know, since as far as I can tell no one else does either.
If you care about incarceration, then that should trouble you. This is, after all, the set of human beings that we’re talking about when we talk about mass incarceration. If we really understood mass incarceration then we would know a great deal about them. We would know how many were African-American or white, how many served one, two, or ten terms in total, how many had different kinds of criminal histories prior to incarceration, how many only went to prison on drug offenses, how many went to prison on drug offenses then went back on violent offenses, and so on (and how all of those things changed over time and between different states and places).
But we don’t know any of that. We don’t even know how to count them. And if we don’t know how to count how many people have been to prison, then we don’t really know how mass incarceration affected real human beings....
We have some idea of how many prison terms there have been. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) lists about 12.7 million “new court commitments” to state and federal prison since 1978 in their National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) data, which is my main source here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that 12.7 million different people were sent to prison between 1978 and 2014, since some people had multiple prison terms....
Let’s say I’m right that around 7.5 million people were sent to state and federal prison since 1978. Here’s another question that should be simple: How many of them wouldn’t have gone to prison without “mass incarceration” policies — and what does that mean, anyway? It’s clear that new prison terms did increase after 1978, so presumably a lot fewer people would have gone to prison without whatever it was that changed, but how many fewer people? More like two million or more like six million?
Nobody knows, but we can make up some numbers, and maybe that’s a start. For example we can consider a somewhat arbitrary hypothetical: What if new prison terms (new court commitments) had stayed constant per capita since 1978, when the rate was 57 in 100,000? Under that hypothetical, there would have been about 5.6 million new prison terms since 1978, not 12.7 million. I’ve illustrated this in the [reprinted] chart, which has the incarceration rate since 1978 in black, the rate of new prison terms in red, and the hypothetical of constant new terms per capita in blue.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
DPIC releases year-end report highlighting death penalty use "declines sharply" in 2015
This press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Penalty Use in 2015 Declines Sharply: Fewest Executions, Fewest Death Sentences, and Fewest States Employing the Death Penalty in Decades," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2015 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here are excerpts from the press report:
The use of the death penalty in the U.S. declined by virtually every measure in 2015. The 28 executions this year marked the lowest number since 1991, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). As of December 15, fourteen states and the federal government have imposed 49 new death sentences this year, a 33% decline over last year’s total and the lowest number since the early 1970s when the death penalty was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Only six states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states in 27 years. Eighty-six percent of executions this year were concentrated in just three states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5). Executions in 2015 declined 20 percent from 2014, when there were 35. This year was the first time in 24 years that the number of executions was below 30.
Death sentences have been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past 15 years. The country has now imposed fewer death sentences in the past ten years than in the decade just before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report....
Relatively few jurisdictions handed down death sentences in 2015. A single county — Riverside, California — imposed 16% of all death sentences in the U.S., and accounted for more death verdicts than any state, except for Florida. More than a quarter of the death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice barred in all but three states. Texas, by contrast, imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. Nearly two-thirds of all new death sentences this year came from the same two percent of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death-sentenced inmates nationwide.
Even as the use of the death penalty declined, its most dangerous flaw remained apparent. Six death row prisoners were exonerated of all charges this year, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row. The number of people on death row dropped below 3,000 for the first time since 1995, according to the latest survey by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
At least 70 death row prisoners with execution dates in 2015 received stays, reprieves, or commutations, 2.5 times the number who were executed.
I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015"
The title of this post is the title of this valuable new on-line report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Everyone interested in the details essentials of modern mass incarceration ought to check out the full report (and the larger version of the pie graphic reprinted here). Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:
Wait, does the United States have 1.4 million or more than 2 million people in prison? And do the 636,000 people released every year include the people getting out of local jails? Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems of federal, state, local, and other types of confinement — and the data collectors that keep track of them — are so fragmented. There is a lot of interesting and valuable research out there, but varying definitions and other incompatibilities make it hard — for both people new to criminal justice and for experienced policy wonks — to get 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 more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people in the various systems of confinement are locked up.
While the numbers in each slice of this pie chart represent a snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and therefore the many more lives that are affected by the criminal justice system. In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to afford bail and are being held pretrial, or because they have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days. The remainder of the people in jail — almost 200,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year....
Now, armed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities and for what offenses, 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, and it demonstrates why the policymakers and advocates who see ending the War on Drugs as a politically acceptable first step towards ending mass incarceration must take great care that their actions both constitute actual progress for people with drug offenses and do not make further reforms more difficult. 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.
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 also confront the geographically and politically dispersed second largest slice of the pie: the 3,283 local jails? Given that the people behind bars in this country are disproportionately poor and shut out of the economy, does it make sense to lock up millions of people for a few days at a time for minor offenses? Will our leaders be brave enough to ask the public to support smarter investments in community-based drug treatment and job training? Or will they support the continued use of jails as mass incarceration’s front door?
Tuesday, December 08, 2015
"Why Has The Death Penalty Grown Increasingly Rare?"
The title of this post is the headline of this extended NPR piece reported by Nina Totenberg. (She also has this companion shorter piece headlined "As Supreme Court Upholds Death Penalty, Number Of Executions Plummets.") Here is how the big segment gets started:
The last execution scheduled in the U.S. for the year is set for Tuesday in Georgia. But capital punishment has gown rare in America, to the point of near extinction.
Even though polls show that 60 percent of the public still supports the death penalty, and even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld it as constitutional, the number of executions this year so far is almost the same as the number of fatalities from lightning strikes — 27 executions versus 26 deaths by lightning.
It's an ironic statistic. When the Supreme Court briefly banned the death penalty in 1972, it did so, in part, because, as Justice Potter Stewart put it, capital punishment was being imposed so randomly and "freakishly" that it was like being "struck by lightning." Four years later, the court would revive the death penalty, but with new limitations aimed at reserving it for the so-called worst of the worst.
Few could have imagined the trajectory the death penalty would follow in the years after. The number of executions soared in the 1990s — hitting a high of 98 in 1999 and ultimately totaling more than 1,400 — but tailed off dramatically after 2000. With just one more execution set for this year, the current year's total will be the smallest number in almost 25 years.
While the death penalty remains the law in 31 states, that figure is misleading. In many of the 31, capital punishment has largely fallen into disuse. In four states, the governor has put a moratorium on the death penalty, and in 17 there's an executive or judicial hold on executions because of botched procedures or problems in obtaining drugs that courts and legislatures have approved for lethal injection.
Monday, December 07, 2015
Notable new BJS data on veterans in state and federal prisons and local jails
As reported in this official press release, titled "Fewer Veterans In Prison And Jail In 2011-12 Than 2004," the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report on incarcerated vets. Here are excerpts from the first page of this detailed, data-heavy report:
In 2011–12, an estimated 181,500 veterans (8% of all inmates in state and federal prison and local jail excluding military-operated facilities) were serving time in correctional facilities. This represented a decrease from the estimated 206,500 incarcerated veterans (9% of the total incarcerated population) in 2004, and was consistent with the decline in the number of veterans in the U.S. general population. While the number of veterans in prison and jail increased along with growth in the overall number of persons incarcerated between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of incarcerated veterans has declined, down from an estimated 24% of all persons incarcerated in state prison and jail in 1978 (federal inmates were not surveyed in 1978).
In 1978, 19% of U.S. adult residents, 24% of prisoners, and 25% of jail inmates were military veterans. By 2011–12, veterans accounted for 9% of the general population, 8% of state and federal prisoners, and 7% of jail inmates....
The total incarceration rate in 2011–12 for veterans (855 per 100,000 veterans in the United States) was lower than the rate for nonveterans (968 per 100,000 U.S. residents).
Non-Hispanic black and Hispanic inmates made up a significantly smaller proportion of incarcerated veterans (38% in prison and 44% in jail), compared to incarcerated non-Hispanic black and Hispanic nonveterans (63% in prison and 59% in jail).
A greater percentage of veterans (64%) than nonveterans (48%) were sentenced for violent offenses....
More than three-quarters (77%) of incarcerated veterans received military discharges that were honorable or under honorable conditions....
A quarter of veterans in prison (25%) and less than a third of veterans in jail (31%) reported that they had been in combat while in the military.
About half of all veterans in prison (48%) and jail (55%) had been told by a mental health professional they had a mental disorder. Incarcerated veterans who saw combat (60% in prison and 67% in jail) were more likely than noncombat veterans (44% in prison and 49% in jail) to have been told they had a mental disorder.
Sunday, December 06, 2015
Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings over $1.4 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity
I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated December 2015, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782 [the so-called drugs -2 amendment]. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by November 30, 2015.
The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, well over 20,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of just about two years.
So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers over $1.4 billion dollars. As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.
Friday, December 04, 2015
Spotlighting a correlation (and a connection) between police shootings and capital punishment
The always interesting Radley Balko has this especially interesting opinion piece headlined "America’s killingest counties." Here are excerpts:
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Kern County, Calif., had a reputation for being one of the most law-and-order jurisdictions in the United States. Led by longtime tough-guy prosecutor Ed Jagels, the county earned the unofficial motto “Come for vacation, leave on probation.” In 2009, Jagels’s county Web page boasted that Kern had “the highest per capita prison commitment rate of any major California County.” Jagels would retire to great acclaim and praise, despite the fact that at least two dozen of the people his office convicted during the ritual sex-abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s have since been exonerated. Kern County has also sent 26 people to death row since 1976, putting it among the top 25 in the country, and among the 2 percent of U.S. counties that account for more than half of America’s death row population.
Given all of that, it probably isn’t terribly surprising that Kern County is also home to the deadliest cops in the United States.... Kern County, in fact, has seen 79 police killings since 2005, or about 8 per year. That’s 0.9 police killings per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the city’s overall murder rate is 4.6 per 100,000, a figure right at about the national average.
There is, in fact, a pretty remarkable correlation between counties that produce a lot of death sentences and counties where cops kill a lot of people. Oklahoma County, Okla., for example, is second in the nation in both death sentences and per capita killings by police officers. San Bernardino County, Calif., is 11th in death sentences, and third in per capita killings by police. Clark County, Nev., is fourth in police killings, and among the top 50 in death sentences. Santa Clara County, Calif., is fifth in police killings, 19th in death sentences. It goes on like that....
There are more than 3,000 counties in the United States. But the 13 with the highest rates of police killings are not only all in death penalty states; they also all rank among the top 30 in death sentences meted out over the past 40 years. These 13 cities are wide-ranging in size (from Kern’s 875,000 people to Los Angeles’ 10 million), murder rate (from 9.1 in Dallas to 2.3 in San Diego) and demographics.
What does this mean? I pointed out in a post a couple of years ago that the counties that send the most people to death row also tend to be counties with histories of prosecutorial abuse and misconduct. (Jagels’s office in particular was regularly berated by appeals courts for bending — or outright ignoring — the rules.) District attorneys are the chief law enforcement officers within their judicial districts. They set the tone for the entire area. They’re also typically in charge of investigating officer-involved shootings and other allegations of excessive force. It isn’t difficult to see how when a DA takes a “win at all costs” approach to fighting crime, that philosophy would permeate an entire county’s law enforcement apparatus, from the beat cop to the DA herself or himself.
Wednesday, December 02, 2015
"The Promises and Perils of Evidence-Based Corrections"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Cecelia Klingele and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Public beliefs about the best way to respond to crime change over time, and have been doing so at a rapid pace in recent years. After more than forty years of ever more severe penal policies, the punitive sentiment that fueled the growth of mass incarceration in the United States appears to be softening. Across the country, prison growth has slowed and, in some places, has even reversed. Many new laws and policies have enabled this change. The most prominent of these implement or reflect what have been called "evidence-based practices" designed to reduce prison populations and their associated fiscal and human costs. These practices "which broadly include the use of actuarial risk assessment tools, the development of deterrence-based sanctioning programs, and the adoption of new supervision techniques" are based on criminological research about "what works" to reduce convicted individuals' odds of committing future crimes.
Because evidence-based practices focus on reducing crime and recidivism, they are usually promoted as progressive tools for making the criminal justice system more humane. And while many have the potential to do just that, evidence-based practices are not inherently benign with respect to their effect on mass incarceration and the breadth of the penal state. In their reliance on aggregate data and classification, many such practices have as much in common with the "new penology" that enabled mass incarceration as with the neorehabilitationism they are ordinarily thought to represent.
Without denying the contribution that such practices are making to current reform efforts, this Article seeks to highlight the unintended ways in which evidence-based tools could be used to expand, rather than reduce, state correctional control over justice-involved individuals. It explains what evidence-based practices are, why they have gained traction, and how they fit into existing paradigms for understanding the role of the criminal justice system in the lives of those subject to its control. Finally, it calls on policymakers and practitioners to implement these practices in ways that ensure they are used to improve the quality and fairness of the criminal justice system and not to reinforce the institutional constructs that have sustained the growth of the penal state.
December 2, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Friday, November 27, 2015
Spotlighting why ending the drug war could make a big dent in mass incarceration
This new Washington Post Wonkblog posting by Christopher Ingraham, headlined "Drug offenders make up nearly one-third of prison admissions, new analysis shows," details one reason why I think ending the so-called "war on drugs" would be a very important first step toward tackling the problem of modern mass incarceration. Here is how it starts (with links from the source):
Drug policy activists long have said that decriminalizing parts of the drug trade would relieve some of the burden on overcrowded prisons. But some researchers have pushed back against this notion in recent years. They point out that drug offenders account for only about 1 in 5 state and federal inmates. The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would reduce the state prison population by only about 7 percent. Facts like these have led some to conclude that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis.
But in a new analysis published this week, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says that arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations have overlooked one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time, and the number of people moving into and out of prison. Rothwell calls this "stock and flow."
He points out that while drug offenses account for only 20 percent of the prison population, they make up nearly one-third — 31 percent — of the total admissions to prison. The reason for the difference? Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than, say, murderers or other violent criminals. So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration.
"Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades," Rothwell writes. "In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes."
Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't totally solve the incarceration problem. "But it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison," he writes. Even a brief jail or prison sentence — even just an arrest — can have dire consequences for people at the poorer margins of society. A 30-day jail term for a pot bust, for instance, can mean the loss of a job, the loss of income, and an eventual turn to crime to survive.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
"The Gaping Hole in the Prison Early Release Program: Mental Health Care"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy National Journal article which carries this subheadline: "Much has been made of this latest effort, but inmates who suffer mental illness will continue without the services they need — in and out of prison." Here are excerpts:
In October, the Obama administration announced the early release of more than 6,000 federal inmates. While a surfeit of data on America’s over-incarceration appears to support the administration’s rationale for the early-release of inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses, a crucial aspect went unaddressed in the hoopla surrounding the announcement: What kind of mental-health resources are available in communities for inmates designated for early release?
And, across the board, as the administration and advocates undertake strategies to address mass incarceration, what is the fate of the estimated hundreds and thousands of inmates in American jails and prisons who are mentally ill?
The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s early-release program put a point on growing national awareness about the implcations of America’s vast incarceration universe. It resulted from a bipartisan effort to remake harsh drug-related sentencing guidelines that had spurred the mass incarceration of mostly black and Latino men beginning in the mid-1980s. By year end 2014, 2.2 million people were locked up in America’s jails and prisons, representing the highest rate of incarceration among developed nations worldwide. The population of inmates who are scheduled to receive early release is composed primarily of drug offenders who will be under the watch of probation officers after they return to civilian life, according to Sally Yates, Deputy U.S. Attorney General.
But the absence of a comprehensive plan to serve the mental health needs of inmates in the early-release program highlights a long-standing concern among prison reform advocates: the tight intersection of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, and incarceration. Mental health experts cite the “co-occurring” presence of drug or alcohol abuse and mental illness among inmates as a major challenge, one that makes both the daily process of safely housing prisoners particularly complex, and which also complicates the return of inmates to communities....
A 2014 report by the National Resources Council (NRC) showed that mental illness in the nation’s jails and prisons is pervasive. Produced by an interdisciplinary committee of researchers, the report examined data from corrections-department surveys and uncovered the presence of “mental-health concerns” among 64 percent of inmates in the nation’s jails, 54 percent of state prisoners, and among 45 percent of inmates at federal facilities.... Consequently, a growing number of criminal-justice and prisoner-rehabilitation experts are focusing in on mental health as a key component of America’s mass incarceration, both as a primary instigator of imprisonment, and also as a major challenge that must be addressed in shaping release policies and protocols....
America’s journey on the path to becoming the developed nation with the most incarcerated people in the world — and the nation where prisons and jails are de facto mental-health catchments — gained steam with the “War on Drugs,” a collection of regional and federal tough-on-crime policies and harsh sentencing laws that escalated during the 1980s as crack cocaine use in urban locales drove up violent-crime rates and generated nightly news coverage of communities in crisis. But the spark that lit the fire under mass incarceration in the U.S. was struck long before the mid-1980s.
Beginning in the 1960s, states began radically reducing taxpayer-funded mental-health hospitals and inpatient centers, releasing hundreds of thousands of mentally ill or challenged patients into communities. Known as deinstitutionalation, the process was deemed necessary by state lawmakers and governors in order to shutter hospitals that often resembled 19th-century “snake pits” — large, poorly run facilities in which thousands of vulnerable mentally ill citizens were warehoused, under-served, and forgotten....
During the same era, from California to New York, a perfect storm of factors affecting incarceration rates loomed and then broke: nationwide, thousands of residents who needed mental health attention but couldn’t afford private care or access affordable services turned to self-medicating behavior — through drug or alcohol use — which led to criminal activity, which in turn brought them into the criminal-justice system at the very moment when judges and elected officials coast to coast pushed for severe sentencing of those involved in drug-related activity.
In city after city, those without money to afford private drug treatment or mental-health care — or private attorneys — were swept into jails and prisons, sometimes facing terms of a decade or longer under new mandatory-minimum sentencing rules for possessing or selling small or moderate amounts of narcotics. A raft of new sentencing guidelines narrowed avenues for probation for those with multiple drug offenses. These ‘three strikes’ laws, as they came to be known, were approved by a decade’s worth of Congress members, as well as by Democratic and Republican presidents.
Thousands of low-level defendants, many suffering from emotional- or mental-health challenges that they had been "street treating" by using illegal drugs, then produced the co-occurring dynamic of individuals struggling with mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction. Plunged into state or federal penitentiaries, thousands received poor treatment or no treatment, and their mental health deteriorated. In some instances, mentally ill inmates fell prey to violence from other inmates, harmed or killed themselves, or developed deeper drug or alcohol addictions. A February study from the Vera Institute for Justice found that 83 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. do not receive mental-health services or treatment after being admitted....
Justice Department officials and some state judges have started to display activist tendencies, forcing local jurisdictions to begin finding solutions for the growing number of mentally ill inmates within the vast networks of local correctional facilities. In August, for example, Los Angeles County agreed to implement major reforms aimed at improving the conditions of mentally ill inmates following strong pressure from DOJ.... [I]n the state that came to embody the acceleration of mass incarceration, a blueprint is taking shape for achieving humane and fiscally responsible outcomes for mentally ill people who come into contact with the criminal-justice system.
Saturday, November 21, 2015
Latest BJS official data show reduction of offenders on probation and parole
As reported in this official press release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics this past week released this report, titled "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2014," providing the latest official data on offenders under community supervision throughout the nation. Here are some data highlights from the press release:
The one-percent decline in the number of adults supervised in the community on probation or parole between yearend 2013 and 2014 marked the seventh consecutive year of decline in the population, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. In the past seven years, adults under community supervision declined between 0.5 percent and 2.6 percent annually, or by nearly 400,000 offenders over the 7-year period.
Between yearend 2008 and 2014, the probation population fell 10 percent, while the parole population increased nearly 4 percent. Probation is a court-ordered period of supervision in the community, generally used as an alternative to incarceration, and parole is a period of conditional supervised release in the community following a prison term.
An estimated 4.7 million adults were under correctional community supervision in the United States on December 31, 2014, down 45,300 offenders from the same day in 2013. The decline in community supervision was due to a drop in the number on probation that was offset by an increase in the number on parole. Between yearend 2013 and 2014, the probation population decreased by 46,500 offenders (from 3,910,600 to 3,864,100 offenders) while the parole population increase by 1,700 offenders over the same period (from 855,200 to 856,900 offenders)....
Other probation findings include —
- About 25 percent of probationers were female in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2000....
- Of all persons on probation during 2014, the incarceration rate (5 percent) among those violating their conditions of supervision — including incarceration for a new offense, a revocation and other reasons — was similar to the rate observed in 2013 (5.4 percent).
Other parole findings include —
- Twelve percent of parolees were female in 2014, unchanged from 2000.
- In 2014, nearly a third (31 percent) of parolees were being supervised for violent offenses, about a third (31 percent) for drug crimes and nearly a quarter (22 percent) for property offenses....
- Among all persons on parole during the year, an estimated 9 percent were reincarcerated in 2014, a rate similar to 2013.
Friday, November 20, 2015
"Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable Issue Brief released this wqeek by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Here is how it gets started (with notes omitted):
The average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. Across all six major categories of federal crime — violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses — imprisonment periods increased significantly. (See Figure 1.) For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and other policy choices helped drive this growth, which cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 billion in 2012 alone. Despite these expenditures, research shows that longer prison terms have had little or no effect as a crime prevention strategy — a finding supported by data showing that policymakers have safely reduced sentences for thousands of federal offenders in recent years.
Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they remain. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (after reaching a high of 61,712 in 2011). During the same period, the average time served by released federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. These two upward trends ...caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336 percent, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012. One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders — those convicted of drug-related charges — was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”
The long-term growth of this population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. As Pew reported in February 2015, federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and all U.S. attorneys.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
"States of Women's Incarceration: The Global Context"
The title of this post is the title of this effective new on-line report by the Prison Policy Initiative. Here is how it gets started:
We already know that when it comes to incarceration, the United States is truly exceptional. As we have reported previously, the United States incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. Worldwide, and within the U.S., the vast majority of those incarcerated are men. As a result, women's incarceration rates are overshadowed and often lost in the data. As a first step in documenting how women fare in the world's carceral landscape, this report compares the incarceration rates for women of each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for countries around the world.
Across the globe, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerating women are all American states. Thailand, at number 26, is the first non-U.S. government to appear on this high-end list, followed closely at number 27 by the Unites States itself. The next 17 jurisdictions are also American states.
Overall, with the exception of Thailand and the U.S. itself, the top 44 jurisdictions throughout the world with the highest rate of incarcerating women are individual American states. Nearly 30% of the world's incarcerated women are in the United States, twice the percentage as in China and four times as much as in Russia.
Putting U.S. states in a global context is sobering; even the U.S. states that have comparatively low rates of incarceration far out-incarcerate the majority of the world. Illinois' incarceration rate for women is on par with El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and women are routinely jailed for having miscarriages. New Hampshire is on par with Russia, and New York with Rwanda.
Rhode Island, which has the lowest incarceration rate for women in the U.S., would have the 15th highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country. In other words, only 14 countries (not including the United States) incarcerate women at a higher rate than Rhode Island, the U.S. state that incarcerates women at the lowest rate of imprisonment.