Sunday, January 12, 2014

Notable new data showing pot arrests way down in Colorado after reforms

This new Denver Post article, headlined "Marijuana case filings plummet in Colorado following legalization," spotlights one notable criminal justice metric that has been dramatically impacted by legal developments in the Centennial State. Here are some details:

Charges for all manner of marijuana crimes plummeted in the months after Colorado voters legalized limited possession of cannabis for people over 21.

According to a Denver Post analysis of data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch, the number of cases filed in state court alleging at least one marijuana offense plunged 77 percent between 2012 and 2013.  The decline is most notable for charges of petty marijuana possession, which dropped from an average of 714 per month during the first nine months of 2012 to 133 per month during the same period in 2013 — a decline of 81 percent.

That may have been expected — after all, people over 21 can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana. But The Post's analysis shows state prosecutors also pursued far fewer cases for marijuana crimes that remain illegal in Colorado. For instance, charges for possessing more than 12 ounces of marijuana dropped by 73 percent, and cases alleging possession with intent to distribute fewer than 5 pounds of marijuana dipped by 70 percent. Even charges for public consumption of marijuana fell statewide, by 17 percent, although Denver police have increased their number of citations issued for public consumption.

While marijuana prosecutions against people over 21 declined, so did prosecutions against people under 21, for whom all marijuana possession remains illegal except for medical marijuana patients.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said he thinks the drop in cases may be due to police not wanting to parse the complexities of the state's marijuana law. "I think they've kind of thrown their arms up in the air," he said.

Marijuana advocates, meanwhile, praised the drop in prosecutions — even for things that remain illegal under state law — because it lessens what they say is the racially biased impact of marijuana enforcement. A report last year from the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks in Colorado were arrested for marijuana crimes at a rate nearly double that of whites. Overall, the report found arrests for marijuana possession in 2010 made up more than 60 percent of all drug-offense arrests.

"We're talking about not only saving the state time and money," said Art Way, a policy manager in Colorado for the Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of legalization, "but we're no longer criminalizing primarily young adults, black and brown males primarily, with the collateral consequences of a drug charge."

The Post's analysis is not a comprehensive look at marijuana prosecutions in Colorado because prosecutors can also file cases in municipal courts, which aren't tracked by the data provided. Even though Colorado voters partially legalized marijuana for adults in 2012, there are still numerous marijuana crimes on the books. Possession of more than an ounce, cultivation of more than six plants and sales without a special state license all remain illegal and can be punished.

But Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys Council, said the state's new marijuana laws are likely making it tougher for police to crack down on the remaining marijuana crimes. Because some marijuana possession and use is now legal, Raynes said that means police are no longer allowed to investigate in depth purely because they smell pot. "Just because your car smells like marijuana doesn't give an officer enough probable cause to initiate an arrest or a search," Raynes said....

[T]here is no evidence so far that Colorado's new laws on marijuana have resulted in a dramatic reduction in caseloads for prosecutors or police. Denver police, for instance, recorded only 3 percent fewer arrests for any crime in the first 11 months of 2013 when compared with the first 11 months of 2012.

What also appears relatively unchanged is the treatment of petty marijuana-possession charges: It is far more likely that those charges will be dismissed by either a judge or a prosecutor than it is the charges will result in a finding of guilty for the defendant, according to the data. For the charges filed in September 2012, 79 percent were ultimately dismissed. In September 2013, it was 84 percent.

But Raynes said those similarities belie the uncertainty police and prosecutors now feel when approaching marijuana cases. "With small quantities especially," he said, "I think law enforcement feels like they don't know which way to turn."

Though I obviously cannot speak for the blue line on the ground in Colorado, it seems to me that these data show law enforcement in the state knows exactly which way to turn: away from wasting time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on low-level marijuana matters and instead focusing more time and energy and other scarce law enforcement resources on more serious and harmful matters.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

January 12, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Holiday references and caseload details in Chief Justice's 2013 year-end report

The headlines generated by the traditional "Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary" from the Chief Justice of the United States (collected here at How Appealing) are justifiably all about the Chief's extended discussion of budget issues. But this year's report, which can be accessed here, also it includes a couple notable criminal justice caseload statistics as well as introductory paragraphs worthy of a poetic blogger.  Here is the how the 15-page report gets started and its criminal caseload details:

The year’s end brings predictable constants, including the revival of favorite phantoms —Scrooge’s ghosts and George Bailey’s guardian angel — who step out from the shadows for their annual appearance and then fade away.  Who doesn’t welcome the familiarity of the seasonal cycles, or retelling classic stories that, at their core, contain important truths? There are, however, some cycles from which we would all wish a break.  At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to provide adequate funding for the Judiciary.

I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls.  The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts.  This year, however, let’s take a page from Dickens and Capra.  Let’s look at what has made our federal court system work in the past, what we are doing in the present to preserve it in an era of fiscal constraint, and what the future holds if the Judiciary does not receive the funding it needs....

After rising four percent in 2012, filings in the regional courts of appeals dropped two percent to 56,475 in 2013.  Appeals involving pro se litigants, which amounted to 51 percent of filings, fell one percent.  Criminal appeals decreased 13 percent....

Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) decreased three percent to 91,266.  Excluding transfers, fewer defendants were reported for most types of major offenses, including drug crimes.  Filings for defendants charged with immigration violations dropped five percent.  The southwestern border districts accounted for 75 percent of the nation’s immigration defendant filings.  Defendants prosecuted for sex offenses rose 10 percent.  There also were increases in defendants charged with violent crimes and regulatory offenses....

The 131,869 persons under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2013, was less than one percent below the total one year earlier. Persons serving terms of supervised release after leaving correctional institutions increased one percent to 109,379 and constituted 83 percent of all persons under supervision. Cases opened in the pretrial services system in 2013, including pretrial diversion cases, declined six percent to 103,003.

January 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Latest USSC quarterly data show (thanks to AG Holder?) record number of judge-initiated below-range sentences

I am intrigued to see that, as reported in Table 4 with the Fourth Quarter FY13 Quarterly Sentencing data report posted here at the US Sentencing Commission's website, there was a notable (though still small) uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges during the most recent quarter (from July 2013 to September 2013). Specifically, after a full year in which below-guideline sentence were imposed each quarter in just around 18.5% of all federal cases, in the most recent quarter the rate of judge-initiated below-range sentences jumped to 19.1%.  This marks, I believe, the highest percentage of judge-initiated below-range sentences in any quarter on record.

As the title of this post hints, I am inclined to hypothesize that a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder's big early August speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. When the US Attorney General says "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," I surely hope federal judges are listening and thinking even harder about whether to follow harsh guidelines that tend to recommend pretty long prison sentences in most cases.

That all said, the latest new data continue to show the same basic story lines and relatively stability in the operation and application of the advisory federal guideline sentencing system: these data show, yet again, that somewhat more than 50% of all federal sentences are within the calculated guidelines range, and that below-guideline sentences are a result of a prosecutor's request (which occurs in well over 25% of all cases).

December 29, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, December 27, 2013

Fascinating lead-crime-rate forecast that incarceration levels will decline significantly in coming years

Regular readers know I am very intrigued by (but still at least a bit skeptical concerning) the social science research that suggest that lead exposure level better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable.  Consequently, I have to link to this new item sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin, titled "It Will Not Take 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration," which responds to a recent commentary by sentencing reform advocates (noted in this post) lamenting how little incarceration rates have declined even as crime has continued its historic decline over the last decade. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's concluding sentiments in this interesting little data discussion:

Nevin (2000) showed that per capita use of lead in gasoline from 1941-1975 explained 90% of the variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998.  Nevin (2007) showed the same relationship between preschool lead exposure trends and violent and property crime trends in the USA, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia.  The time lag in every nation reflected lead-induced neurodevelopmental damage in the first years of life affecting behavior in the late-teens and 20s when offending peaks.  The best-fit lag for burglary was 18 years, reflecting property crime arrests that have historically peaked at ages 15-20.  The best-fit for violent crime was 23 years, consistent with violent crime arrest rates that have peaked in the early-20s.

The ongoing violent crime rate decline (down 32% from 1998-2012) has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning.  This has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This rise in arrest rates for older adults has occurred even as juvenile arrest rates have fallen to record lows, due to ongoing declines in lead paint exposure over the 1990s.

The Sentencing Project and other advocates for sentencing reform need to acknowledge the extreme divergence in arrest and incarceration trends by age. Opponents of sentencing reform often assume that “mass incarceration” is a key factor behind the USA crime decline over the past two decades, but arrest and incarceration trends by age discredit that theory: The largest arrest rate declines have been recorded by younger age groups that have also recorded large incarceration rate declines, while arrest rates have increased for older age groups despite rising incarceration rates for older adults.

Arrest and incarceration trends by age also cast doubt on the theory that budget constraints and public policy reforms have been a large factor in the overall prison population decline over recent years. The declining prison population is clearly not explained by shorter prison terms or early releases for older prisoners, but by steep arrest rate declines for younger Americans. It isn’t the public policies that have changed: It’s the people, and specifically the percent of people poisoned by lead exposure in early childhood.

Some recent related posts:

December 27, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reviewing the state of the death penalty in the Buckeye state

One of many reasons I am so very grateful to be able to teach and research sentencing law and policy at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law is because Ohio is an especially interesting and dynamic state with respect to its application of the death penalty.  And this local article, headlined "Ohio executes inmates more than most states: State is 4th among 32 with death penalty, while support, availability of drugs wane," provides an effective review of the state of the death penalty in the state these days. Here are excerpts:

Three ... executions occurred in Ohio [in 2013], which ranked fourth in executions behind Texas, Florida and Oklahoma.... Those executed were Frederick Treesh for the 1984 murder of Henry Dupree in Lake County; Steven T. Smith for the 1998 murder of Autumn Carter in Richland County; and Harry Mitts Jr. for the 1994 murders of John Bryant and Sgt. Dennis Glivar in Cuyahoga County. Billy Slagle was set to be executed this year for the 1988 murder of Mari Anne Pope in Cuyahoga County, but he committed suicide just days before the scheduled date.

Mitts was the last prisoner executed before the state’s supply of pentobarbital expired. Ohio’s new policy would use a never-tested combination of midazolam and hydromorphone if pentobarbital became unavailable.

Convicted murderer Ronald Phillips was scheduled to be the first recipient of the drug combination, but Gov. John Kasich delayed Phillips’ execution until July to see whether the inmate could donate his organs to ailing relatives.

Now, Dennis McGuire, who raped and fatally stabbed a pregnant woman, is set to be the first executed with the new combination. He is seeking a reprieve of his execution, which is scheduled for Jan. 16....

The number of inmates on Ohio’s death row, currently 140, has declined every year since 2003, according to December population counts from the state prison system.

A task force assembled by the Ohio Supreme Court and Ohio State Bar Association in 2011 to review Ohio’s use of the death penalty has made several suggestions for changes to state law. Those include eliminating the death penalty for inmates with serious mental illness during the time of the offense and standardizing pay for attorneys defending capital cases....

Several bills introduced this year address the death penalty, yet none has received a committee vote. One introduced by House Democrats would abolish the death penalty, whereas another backed by Senate Democrats would spare anyone sentenced to death because of race. A Cincinnati Republican wants to expand the death penalty to repeat sex offenders....

Ohio has executed 52 inmates since 1999 — all were men and nearly two-thirds were white. The highest number of executions in a year since Ohio reinstated the death penalty in 1981 was eight in 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Ohio has set six executions for 2014, six for 2015 and one for 2016.

Eleven prisoners have been executed during Kasich’s tenure compared with nine in the first three years of predecessor Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and two in the first three years of Republican Bob Taft’s tenure. Kasich has commuted four death row inmates’ sentences to life in prison without parole; Strickland commuted five death sentences over four years.

None of the states that surround Ohio executed a prisoner in 2013. Michigan and West Virginia are among the 18 states that do not have a death penalty.

December 23, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating commentary by lawprof Rosa Brooks, which merits a read in full.  Here are just a few highlights from a very interesting piece:

You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.

A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia.  This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?

Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:

Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain and Iceland....

Population Density:  No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India.  Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates....

Demographics:

A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."...

Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.

Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil.  Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed....

Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress."...

Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.

Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.

Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor.

December 21, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a whole slew of notable new corrections data

I just received an e-mail reporting on these new data publications released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are the bare basics (with analysis perhaps to follow if anything special jumps out from these materials):

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012 is available at this link: Summarizes data from various correctional collections to provide statistics on the number of offenders supervised by the adult correctional systems in the United States.

Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 is available at this link: Presents final counts on prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2012, collected in the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2012 is available available at this link: Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole during 2012.

Data Analysis Tool Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners (Updated) is available at this link: This dynamic analysis tool allows you to examine National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) on inmates under the jurisdiction of both federal and state correctional authorities.

UPDATE: For focus especially interested in incarceration data, this lengthy Trends in Admissions and Releases document looks like the most notable and interesting of these reports.  Helpfully, this BJS press release provides a lot of the highlights from all these reports, and I found this accounting from the press release of prison developments especially interesting:

Prisoners

  • The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900) and New York (54,100).
  • California (down 10 percent) had the largest prison population decrease in 2012, followed by Arkansas (down 9 percent), Wisconsin and Colorado (down 7 percent each).
  • Overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
  • Black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. Among new court commitments to state prison, more than a third each of black and Hispanic offenders, and a quarter of white offenders were convicted of a violent offense.
  • Between 1991 and 2011, the number of females admitted to state prison for newly committed violent offenses increased 83 percent.

December 19, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Death Penalty Information Center releases annual report on capital punishment developments in 2013

This morning, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on death penalty developments under the sparkling title, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." The eight-page report is available at this link, and here are its list of "key findings" followed by the first part of the report's conclusion:

The number of executions, the size of death row, and the number of death penalty states all declined in 2013. Death sentences were near their lowest level since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Even many southern states, including South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana, had no death sentences in 2013. With Maryland’s repeal of capital punishment, the number of states without the death penalty grew to 18. Public support for the death penalty is at a 40-year low.

It is likely these trends will continue as more state legislatures consider repealing what has become a very expensive and unpredictable punishment. Nevertheless, over 3,000 people remain on death row, and some states like Florida and North Carolina have taken measures to expand the use of the death penalty.

The problems of mistakes, unfairness, and even the method of execution have exasperated many supporters of the death penalty, contributing to less reliance on capital punishment. Death sentences in Texas have declined by almost 80% since 1999. When examined on a county basis, only 2% of U.S. counties are responsible for the majority of executions and prisoners on death row. Because of restrictions by drug manufacturers, states have been forced to try new combinations of lethal drugs, some obtained from questionable sources, to carry out executions.

Though the DPIC's work is always impacted by its anti-death-penalty perspectives, I am always impressed by and grateful for the various ways the group collected and disseminates important information about the application of the death penalty throughout the United States.

December 19, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

Monday, November 25, 2013

New Brennan Center report urges "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration"

REFORM_FUND_MASS_INCARC_v6_Page_01As reported in this press release, late last week The Brennan Center for Justice published a notable new report setting out a notable new proposal under the title "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration." Here are highlights via the press release:

The proposal, dubbed by the authors “Success-Oriented Funding,” would recast the federal government’s $352 million Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, by changing the measures used to determine success of its grants. It reflects a broader proposed shift in criminal justice programs at all levels of government. The proposal could be implemented without legislation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Funding what works and demanding success is critical, especially given the stakes in criminal justice policy. This report marks an important step toward implementing this funding approach in Washington and beyond,” said Peter Orszag, former Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who wrote the proposal’s foreword.

The Center proposes major changes to the program’s “performance measures”, which are used to track a grant recipient’s use of the funds....

“What gets measured gets done,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center and one of the report’s authors. “Criminal justice funding should reflect what works. Too often, today, it is on autopilot. This proposal reflects an innovative new wave of law enforcement priorities that already have begun to transform policy. That is the way to keep streets safe, while reducing mass incarceration.”

Success-Oriented Funding would hold grant recipients accountable for what they do with the money they receive. By implementing direct links between funding and proven results, the government can ensure the criminal justice system is achieving goals while not increasing unintended social costs or widening the pipeline to prison.

The JAG program was launched nearly three decades ago at the height of the crime wave. As such, its performance measures center on questions about the quantity of arrests and prosecutions. Although funding levels are not based on rates of arrests and prosecutions, interviews with over 100 state and local officials and recipients found that many grant recipients interpreted the performance measure questions as indicating how they should focus their activity.

The Brennan Center’s new, more robust performance measures would better record how effective grant recipients are at reducing crime in their state or locality. For example, current volume-based performance measures record activity, such as total number of arrests, number of people charged with gun crimes, or number of cases prosecuted. The Brennan Center’s proposed new Success-Oriented performance measures record results, such as the increase or decrease in violent crime rate or what percentage of violent crime arrests resulted in convictions.

A Blue Ribbon Panel of criminal justice experts also provided guidance and comments on the measures, including leaders in law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, former government officials, and federal grant recipients. Participants included David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; John Firman, research director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police; and Jerry Madden, a senior fellow at Right on Crime....

In addition to implementing new metrics, the Brennan Center recommends the Justice Department require grant recipients to submit reports. By mandating that grant recipients answer the questions, the Justice Department can align state and local practices with modern criminal justice priorities of reducing both crime and mass incarceration. The reported data should then be publicly available for further analysis.

The full Brennan Center report can be accessed at this link.

November 25, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences

I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications.  This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:

In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....

One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.

10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...

The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.

The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.

The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.

Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders.  I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.

Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime.  Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past.  Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.

November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 14, 2013

If concerned principally about saving lives and public safety, can one reasonably oppose mass use red-light cameras?

The question in title of this post is prompted by this local news item from my own local paper headlined "Coalition says red-light cameras reducing accidents, saving lives." Here are excerpts:

The battle over whether red-light cameras are primarily lifesavers or money-makers is being re-fought in the General Assembly seven years after it began. Cameras placed at critical intersections, including 38 in Columbus, help dramatically reduce accidents and save lives, a statewide coalition said yesterday, pushing back against a legislative proposal that would all but eliminate the devices in Ohio.

House Bill 69, passed by the House this year, “is bad public policy that puts people at risk on Ohio roads,” Sgt. Brett Bauer of the Springfield Police Department said at a Statehouse news conference. Red-light cameras “are making roads safer in Springfield and across the state,” he said. The bill would limit cameras to school zones — and then only when an officer was present.

A coalition of police officials from Columbus and other cities, plus municipal officials, bicycle enthusiasts and safety advocates, appeared at the news conference alongside Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, who is planning legislation to reform how the cameras may be used rather than repeal the use of cameras, as the House bill would do.

The most emotional advocate in favor of continuing using the cameras was Paul Oberhauser of Somerset, whose 31-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed in 2002 when a motorist ran a red light and hit her car in an intersection at 55 mph. “The year Sarah died, about 1,000 people nationally were killed in red-light accidents,” Oberhauser said. “I know you understand this carnage has got to stop.”...

Right-angle crashes are down 74 percent in Columbus, while rear-end crashes have dropped 25 percent at intersections with cameras, said Lt. Brenton Mull of the Columbus Division of Police. The city has 38 cameras at intersections scattered across the city. “It is a model program that should be emulated, not thrown out because someone doesn’t like getting a ticket from a red-light camera,” he said.

As regular readers (and my students) know well, I like to focus on traffic laws as a means to test whether and when citizens are really prepared to live up to oft-heard claims about the importance of public safety and saving innocent lives. In the context of debates over gun control, the death penalty, mass incarceration and other high-profile public policy criminal justice debates, there is often considerable competing claims and evidence concerning whether and when certain government policies actually do or do not save innocent lives and improve public safety. But this local article confirms my understanding that red-light cameras do tend to improve public safety at least somewhat (and does so in a way that actually raises revenue for localities rather than require significant expenditures).

I fully understand why persons principally concerned about privacy rights or due process or government graft might have real problems with widespread use and potential abuse of red-light cameras. But I really want to hear from readers if they think that those persons who say their principally criminal justice concerns relate to saving lives and public safety (as I do) have any sound basis for opposing mass use of these cameras.

November 14, 2013 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants.  This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005).  Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length.  To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants.  Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.

I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.

November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parole precogs: computerized risk assessments impacting state parole decision-making

PrecogsPredicting who is likely to commit a crime in the future is no easy task, as fans of "Minority Report" know well.   But states that retain discretionary parole release mechanisms to some extent require its officials to do just that.  And, as this lengthy Wall Street Journal article explains, state officials are (in my view, wisely) relying more and more on computerized risk assessment instruments when making parole decisions.  The WSJ piece is headlined "State Parole Boards Use Software to Decide Which Inmates to Release: Programs look at prisoners' biographies for patterns that predict future crime," and here are excerpts:

Driven to cut ballooning corrections costs, more states are requiring parole boards to make better decisions about which convicts to keep in prison and which to release. Increasingly, parole officials are adopting data- and evidence-based methods, many involving software programs, to calculate an inmate's odds of recidivism.

The policy changes are leading to a quiet and surprising shift across the U.S. in how parole decisions are made. Officials accustomed to relying heavily on experience and intuition when making parole rulings now find they also must take computerized inmate assessments and personality tests into account.

In the traditional system, factors like the severity of a crime or whether an offender shows remorse weigh heavily in parole rulings, criminologists say. By contrast, automated assessments based on inmate interviews and biographical data such as age at first arrest are designed to recognize patterns that may predict future crime and make release decisions more objective, advocates of the new tools say.

In the past several years, at least 15 states including Louisiana, Kentucky, Hawaii and Ohio have implemented policies requiring corrections systems to adopt modern risk-assessment methods, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project. California is using computerized inmate assessments to make decisions about levels of supervision for individual parolees. This year, West Virginia began requiring that all felons receive risk assessments; judges receive the reports before sentencing with the option to incorporate the scores into their decisions.

Such methods can contradict the instincts of corrections officials, by classifying violent offenders as a lower recidivism risk than someone convicted of a nonviolent robbery or drug offense. Criminologists say people convicted of crimes like murder often are older when considered for release, making them less likely to reoffend. Inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes like property theft, meanwhile, tend to be younger, more impulsive and adventurous—all predictors of repeat criminality....

Wider acceptance of computerized risk assessments, along with other measures to reduce state corrections budgets, has coincided with the first declines in the national incarceration rate in more than a decade.

The number of inmates in state and federal facilities fell nearly 1% in 2011 to 1.6 million, after edging down 0.1% in the prior year. The 2011 decline came entirely from state prisons, which shed 21,600 inmates, offsetting an increase of 6,600 federal prisoners. Preliminary 2012 data shows an even larger fall in state inmates of 29,000.

Experts say one reason for the decline is that fewer parolees are returning to prison. About 12% of parolees were re-incarcerated at some point in 2011 compared with 15% in 2006, representing the fifth straight year of decline, according to Justice Department data.

Texas, by reputation a tough-on-crime state, has been consistently using risk assessment longer than many states and is boosting the number of prisoners it paroles each year. With its current system, in use since 2001, it released 37% of parole applicants in 2012 versus 28% in 2005 — some 10,000 more prisoners released in 2012.

Officials in Michigan credit computerized assessments, introduced in 2006 and adopted statewide in 2008, with helping reduce the state's prison population by more than 15% from its peak in 2007 and with lowering the three-year recidivism rate by 10 percentage points since 2005.

Still, experts say it is difficult to measure the direct impact of risk prediction because states have also taken other steps to rein in corrections costs, such as reducing penalties for drug offenses and transferring inmates to local jails.

Michigan's assessments withstood a legal challenge in 2011, when prosecutors sought to reverse the parole of Michelle Elias, who had served 25 years for murdering her lover's husband. A lower court, siding with the prosecutor, ruled the parole board hadn't placed enough weight on the "egregious nature of the crime," court documents say. The Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the decision and upheld Ms. Elias's release.

Yet earlier this month, the same appeals court ruled the Michigan parole board had abused its discretion by releasing a man convicted of molesting his daughter. He hadn't received sex-offender therapy while in prison, but three assessments, including one using [the computer program] Compas, had deemed him a low risk of reoffending. The appeals court, in an unpublished decision that echoed a lower court, said that Compas could be manipulated if presented "with inadequate data or individuals who lie."

The Compas software designer, Northpointe Inc., says the assessments are meant to improve, not replace, human intelligence. Tim Brennan, chief scientist at Northpointe, a unit of Volaris Group, said the Compas system has features that help detect lying, but data-entry mistakes or inmate deceptiveness can affect accuracy, he said. The company says that officials should override the system's decisions at rates of 8% to 15%.

P1-BN518_PAROLE_G_20131011180304Many assessment systems lean heavily on research by criminologists including Edward Latessa, professor at the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati. Parole boards, typically staffed with political appointees, have lacked the information, training and time to make sound decisions about who should be released, Dr. Latessa said. The process, he said, is one factor contributing to the population surge in the nation's prisons, including a fivefold increase in the number of prisoners nationwide from 1978 to 2009, according to the Department of Justice.

"The problem with a judge or a parole board is they can't pull together all the information they need to make good decisions," said Dr. Latessa, who developed an open-source software assessment system called ORAS used in Ohio and other states. Ohio adopted ORAS last year as the result of legislation aimed at addressing overcrowded prisons and containing corrections spending. Dr. Latessa does paid consulting work with state corrections agencies but isn't paid for use of the system. "They look at one or two things," he said. "Good assessment tools look at 50 things."

Some assessments analyze as many as 100 factors, including whether the offender is married, the age of first arrest and whether he believes his conviction is unfair. In Texas, a rudimentary risk-assessment measures just 10 factors. Data gathered in interviews with inmates is transmitted to the offices of Texas parole board members, who vote remotely, often by computer.

Parole officials say assessment scores are just one factor they consider. Some experts say relying on statistics can result in racial bias, even though questionnaires don't explicitly ask about race. Data such as how many times a person has been incarcerated can act as an unfair proxy for race, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science. "There's a real connection between race and prior criminal history, and a real link between prior criminal history and prediction," Mr. Harcourt said. "The two combine in a toxic and combustive way."

Christopher Baird, former head of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said statistical tools are best used to help set supervision guidelines for parolees rather than determine prison sentences or decide who should be released. "It's very important to realize what their limitations are," said Mr. Baird, who developed one of the earliest risk-assessment tools, for the state of Wisconsin in the late 1970s. "That's lost when you start introducing the word 'prediction' and start applying that to individual cases."

October 13, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Prison Accountability and Performance Measures"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Alexander Volokh now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A few decades of comparative studies of public vs. private performance have failed to give a strong edge to either sector in terms of quality.  That supposed market incentives haven’t delivered spectacular results is unsurprising, since by and large market incentives haven’t been allowed to work: outcomes are rarely measured and are even more rarely made the basis of compensation, and prison providers are rarely given substantial flexibility to experiment with alternative models.

This Article argues that performance measures should be implemented more widely in evaluating prisons.  Implementing performance measures would advance our knowledge of which sector does a better job, facilitate a regime of competitive neutrality between the public and private sectors, promote greater clarity about the goals of prisons, and, perhaps most importantly, allow the use of performance-based contracts.

Performance measures and performance-based contracts have their critiques, for instance: (1) the theoretical impossibility of knowing the proper prices, (2) the ways they would change the composition of the industry, for instance by reducing public-interestedness or discouraging risk-averse providers, and (3) potentially undesirable strategic behavior that would result, for instance manipulation in the choice of goals, distortion of effort away from hard-to-measure dimensions or away from hard-to-serve inmates, or outright falsification of the numbers.  I argue that these concerns are serious but aren’t so serious as to preclude substantial further experimentation.

October 13, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, October 07, 2013

"Evidence, Ideology, and Politics in the Making of American Criminal Justice Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by the prolific and profound Michael Tonry. Here is the abstract:

The development of a large and productive community of criminal justice programs, scholars, and researchers in the United States since the 1970s has not led to the emergence of a general norm of evidence-based policy making. Nor on many subjects have accumulations of improved knowledge had much influence. On a few they have.

The two best examples of influence are policing and early childhood prevention programs. Concerning policing, a plausible story can be told of an iterative process of research showing that police practices and methods do and do not achieve sought-after results, followed by successive changes in how policing is done. Concerning early childhood programs, a conventional scientific process of hypothesis testing and repeated pilot projects with strong evaluations led to widespread adoption of improved programs and techniques.

Concerning sentencing, sanctioning policies, firearms and violence, and drug policy, by contrast, strong bodies of accumulating evidence have consistently been ignored. Correctional rehabilitation research is a hybrid. Eclipsed in the 1970s by a gloomy view that “nothing works,” research on correctional treatment in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that a wide variety of programs can improve offenders’ lives and reduce reoffending. The findings have influenced the development of reentry and other programs that focus primarily on risk classification and reduction of recidivism rates, but only incidentally on addressing offenders’ social welfare needs.

October 7, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Sentencing Project releases "Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America"

I received an email alerting me to an important new publication about life and LWOP sentence just released by The Sentencing Project.   Here is the text of the email, which includes links to the publication as well as a summry of its key findings: 

While serious crime rates in the U.S. have been declining for the last 20 years, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.  As documented in our new report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, with nearly 50,000 serving life without parole.

Key findings from the report include:

  • One of every nine individuals in prison is serving a life sentence.
  • The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008.
  • Approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.
  • Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino. 
  • More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18 and nearly 1 in 4 of them were sentenced to LWOP.
  • More than 5,300 (3.4%) of the life-sentenced inmates are female.
In order to reshape our crime policies to facilitaterehabilation, promote public safety, and reduce the high cost of massincarceration, the report recommends eliminating life without parole,increasing the use of executive clemency, preparing persons sentenced to lifefor release from prison, and restoring the role of parole in prisoner release.

September 18, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 12, 2013

US Sentencing Commission releases more documents in its great new "Quick Facts" series

I am so very pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.)

As I have said before, I think this is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these latest two publications in the series:

September 12, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

How could and should folks view (or "spin") latest results from national survey on drug use and health?

Released today were the findings from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Helpfully, thanks to our modern digital world, everyone can look at the full reported results from HHS here and a collections of "highlights" at this link.  Or one can look at these headlines from some early major media reports:

As these headlines highlight, there are lots of ways to view the latest survey data.  (Moreover, because the stigma associated with marijuana use has declined with evolving laws and policy perspectives, I cannot help but wonder if the measured increase in reported use of marijuana might, at least to some degree, reflect an increase in the willingness of persons to admit to marijuana use rather than an actual increase in use.)

Usefully, because the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also explores alcohol and tobacco use, as well as reported rates of "substantance dependence/abuse," there are a number of notable (though less reported) seemingly positive stories emerging from this latest government report concerning drug use and abuse over the last decade.  Specifically (and quoting now directly from the HHS highlights):

I am inclined to ultimately view the data emerging from 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health as evidence that, all things considered, Americans are somewhat healthier now than we were a year ago and a lot healthier now than we were a decade ago.  But most of the headlines I see from the media seem to be emphasizing reported increases in the use of certain substantances rather than reported decreases in the use of other substances.

September 4, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

"Evidence-Based Sentencing and the Scientific Rationalization of Discrimination"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper by Sonja Starr now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper critiques, on legal and empirical grounds, the growing trend of basing criminal sentences on actuarial recidivism risk prediction instruments that include demographic and socioeconomic variables.  I argue that this practice violates the Equal Protection Clause and is bad policy: an explicit embrace of otherwise-condemned discrimination, sanitized by scientific language.

To demonstrate that this practice should be subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny, I comprehensively review the relevant case law, much of which has been ignored by existing literature.  To demonstrate that it cannot survive that scrutiny and is undesirable policy, I review the empirical evidence underlying the instruments.  I show that they provide wildly imprecise individual risk predictions, that there is no compelling evidence that they outperform judges’ informal predictions, that less discriminatory alternatives would likely perform as well, and that the instruments do not even address the right question: the effect of a given sentencing decision on recidivism risk.  Finally, I also present new, suggestive empirical evidence, based on a randomized experiment using fictional cases, that these instruments should not be expected merely to substitute actuarial predictions for less scientific risk assessments, but instead to increase the weight given to recidivism risk versus other sentencing considerations.

September 3, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In praise of the US Sentencing Commission's new "Quick Facts" series

I am very pelased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission has launched a notable new series of reader-friendly publications.  This posting from the USSC's webpage explains:

NEW Quick Facts Publication Series Launched

The Commission presents a new publication series called "Quick Facts." These publications will give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.

I think this is a terrific new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a few things from these first two publications in the series:

August 27, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack