Wednesday, October 01, 2014
This is your federal sentencing data on drugs (after the minus-2 amendment)
I could not help but think about the famous 1980s "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" campaign from Partnership for a Drug-Free America once I took a close look at the US Sentencing Commission's latest greatest data on federal sentencing appearing now in this Third Quarter FY 2014 Sentencing Update. The famous "egg" ad make clear that drugs could scramble your brain, and a "Note to Readers" appearing early in the latest USSC data report makes clear that a recent amendment to the drug sentencing guidelines has started to scrambling cumulative federal sentencing data.
Here is the USSC's "Note to Readers," which highlights why it will prove especially challenging to fully assess and analyze federal sentencing practices in FY14 because of mid-year drug sentencing reforms:
On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress a proposed amendment to the sentencing guidelines that would revise the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses. That amendment will become effective on November 1, 2014 and will be designated as Amendment 782 in the 2014 edition of Appendix C to the Guidelines Manual. Amendment 782 changes the manner in which the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses are incorporated into the base offense levels in the drug quantity table in section 2D1.1 of the Guidelines Manual. Specifically, the amendment generally reduces by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities described in section 2D1.1 and makes corresponding changes to section 2D1.11. On July 18, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782, beginning on November 1, 2014.
On March 12, 2014, the Department of Justice issued guidance to all United States Attorneys regarding the sentencing of drug trafficking offenders in anticipation of an amendment to the guidelines lowering the base offense levels for drug trafficking cases. In that guidance, the Attorney General authorized prosecutors to not object to a defense request for a two-level variance from the sentencing range calculated under the current version of the Guidelines Manual in drug trafficking offenses, provided that several other conditions were met. Judges and probation offices have informed the Commission that in some districts the prosecutors themselves are requesting that the court depart from the sentencing range calculated under the Guidelines Manual and impose a sentence that is two levels below that range.
The data the Commission is reporting in this Preliminary Quarterly Data Report appears to reflect those practices. On Table 1 of this report, the Commission reports the rate at which the sentence imposed in individual cases was within the applicable guideline range. The rate through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 47.2 percent. This compares with 51.2 percent in fiscal year 2013. However, as can be seen from Tables 1-A and 1-B, most of this decrease is attributable to sentences imposed in drug offenses. As shown on Table 1-A, the within range rate in cases not involving a drug offense was 53.3 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, compared with 54.8 percent in fiscal year 2013.
Table 1-B presents data for drug cases only. As shown on that table, the within range rate for sentences imposed in drug cases through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 30.0 percent, a decrease of more than eight percentage points from the rate of 38.8 percent at the end of fiscal year 2014. This decrease in the within range rate resulted from an increase in the rate at which the government requested a below range sentence, from 39.4 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 45.7 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, as well as an increase in the rate of non-government sponsored below range sentences, from 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 23.5 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014.
Because this change in sentencing practices did not occur until more than five months into the fiscal year, the impact of this change is not fully reflected in the average data presented in this cumulative quarterly report. The Commission expects a further reduction in the within range rate for drug offenses to be reflected in the data for the completed fiscal year 2014.
"The Curious Disappearance of Sociological Research on Probation Supervision"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN. The piece strikes me as timely, intriguing and important. It is authored by sociologist Michelle Phelps, and here is the abstract:
At the start of the prison boom, scholars in the U.S. vigorously debated the future of “alternative” sanctions, particularly community supervision, and whether they represented a true avenue for potential decarceration or a widening of the net of social control. Community supervision, particularly probation, was central to these debates and the empirical literature. Yet as the carceral state ballooned, sociological scholarship on punishment shifted almost entirely to imprisonment (and, to a lesser extent, parole supervision), despite the fact that probationers comprise nearly 60 percent of the correctional population.
This article invites criminologists to turn their attention to sociological or macro-level questions around mass probation. To help start this new wave of research, I provide an intellectual history of sociological research on probation and parole, review the national-level data available on probationers and probationer supervision today, and outline an agenda for future research.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Finding an age-based silver lining — or lead lining — in latest BJS prison data
Regular readers know I am very intrigued by the (often overlooked) social science research that suggests lead exposure levels better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I am happy an eager to note this new data and analysis sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-violent-crime link for many years.
This short new piece by Nevin, titled "Prisoners in 2013: The News Media Buries the Lead," responds to yesterday's report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that the US prison population increased in 2013 for first time since 2009. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's interesting and encouraging age-based data discussion (with bolding in original and a recommendation to click through here to see charts and all the links):
The news media is reporting on U.S. incarceration data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), but the media and BJS have ignored the important news: From 2012 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell 21% for men ages 18-19, 6% for ages 20-24, and 5% for ages 25-29, but increased by 5% for ages 50-54, 7% for ages 55–59, and 8% for ages 60–64.
BJS Prisoner Series data show an ongoing incarceration rate decline for younger males and an increase for older males that has been ignored by the media for more than a decade. From 2002 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell by 61% for men ages 18-19, 34% for ages 20-24, and 25% for ages 25-29, but increased by 30% for ages 40-44.
BJS data for older age groups, reported since 2007, show the same trend through the age of 64. From 2007 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell 37% for ages 18-19, 28% for ages 20-24, 14% for ages 25-29, and 7% for ages 30-44, as the male incarceration rate increased 22% for ages 45-49, 50% for ages 50–54, and 57% for ages 55–64. In 2007, men ages 18-19 were twice as likely to be incarcerated as men ages 60-64. In 2013, men ages 60-64 were almost 20% more likely to be incarcerated than men ages 18-19.
The BJS Prisoners in 2013 report ignores the detailed data on trends in male incarceration rates by age, and highlights an increase in the total prison population of about 4,300 from 2012 to 2013, but notes that the overall incarceration rate (per 100,000 U.S. residents) did fall from 480 in 2012 to 478 in 2013....
The actual BJS data show a long-term trend of falling incarceration rates for younger men that has continued from 2002 through 2013. That decline was the inevitable result of a shift in violent crime arrest rates by age since the 1990s. From 1994 through 2011, the violent crime arrest rate fell by 64% for ages 13-14, 61% t0 52% for ages 15-18, 44% to 39% for ages 19-21, 37% for ages 22-39, and 19% for ages 40-44, as the violent crime arrest rate increased by 6% for ages 45-49, and 13% for ages 50-54.
What is the causal force behind the shift in age-specific violent crime arrest rates and incarceration rates? The Answer is Lead Poisoning.
Some recent related posts:
- Should we thank unleaded gas and the EPA for the great modern crime decline?
- Effective Washington Post commentary talks up great (and still puzzling) crime decline
- Do lead exposure realities continue to best explain modern crime-rate realities?
- Fascinating lead-crime-rate forecast that incarceration levels will decline significantly in coming years
- "Research on [lead]’s effects on the brain bolsters the hypothesis that childhood exposure is linked to criminal acts"
- More useful discussion of the (under-discussed) lead-crime-rate connections
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
After a few modest yearly declines, state prison population ticks up in 2013 according to new BJS data
As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "Number of Prisoners in U.S. Grew Slightly in 2013, Report Finds," a small streak of yearly declines in state prison populations came to a halt in 2013. Here are the details:
Breaking three consecutive years of decline, the number of people in state and federal prisons climbed slightly in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday, a sign that deeper changes in sentencing practices will be necessary if the country’s enormous prison population is to be significantly reduced.
The report by the Justice Department put the prison population last year at 1,574,700, an increase of 4,300 over the previous year, yet below its high of 1,615,487 in 2009. In what criminologists called an encouraging sign, the number of federal prisoners showed a modest drop for the first time in years.
But the federal decline was more than offset by a jump in the number of inmates at state prisons. The report, some experts said, suggested that policy changes adopted by many states, such as giving second chances to probationers and helping nonviolent drug offenders avoid prison, were limited in their reach....
Across the country, drug courts sending addicts to treatment programs rather than jail have proved valuable but are directed mainly at offenders who would not have served much prison time anyway, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group in Washington. At the same time, Mr. Mauer said, more life sentences and other multidecade terms have been imposed than ever, offsetting modest gains in the treatment of low-level offenders.
“Just to halt the year-after-year increase in prisoners since the 1970s was an achievement,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and that shift came about because of changes in state policies and a drop in crime.
But experts say it will take more far-reaching and politically contentious measures to markedly reduce the country’s rate of incarceration, which is far above that in European nations and has imposed especially great burdens on African-Americans. Mandatory sentences and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws that limit parole have not only put more convicts in costly prison cells for longer stretches but have also reduced the discretion of officials to release them on parole....
The size of the federal prison population is closely tied to federal drug laws and penalties. A majority of the 215,866 offenders in federal prisons in 2013 were there on drug charges, often serving lengthy sentences under get-tough policies that have increasingly come under question. Recent changes in federal drug enforcement — a 2010 law to reduce disparities in sentences for crimes involving crack as opposed to powdered cocaine, and a directive from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling for less stringent charges against nonviolent offenders — are too new to have had a large impact in 2013.
The full BJS report, titled excitingly "Prisoners in 2013," is available at this link. I need to grind over the data in the full report before commenting on what this notable new report tells us about the state and direction of modern mass incarceration.
Terrific collection of materials on-line as USSC's "Annual National Seminar Goes Paperless"
Though not nearly as historic or controversial as Bob Dylan going electric, I was still excited and intrigued to see a new item on the US Sentencing Commission's website announcing that this week's upcoming USSC Annual National Seminar "is going paperless." What this means, as the notice explains, is that all of the USSC's Seminar materials are now available online at this link.
I recommend that everyone interested in federal sentencing data and developments take the time to click through and scroll down through the USSC's Seminar agenda. One can find lots of interesting articles, data runs and presentation materials that provide information and insights about modern federal sentencing that would be hard to find anywhere else. Kudos to the Commission for going paperless and for enabling folks like me who cannot make it to this year's event to still access a lot of the materials that are to be presented.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
"An Empirical Evaluation of the Connecticut Death Penalty System Since 1973: Are There Unlawful Racial, Gender, and Geographic Disparities?"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article recently posted on SSRN and authored by John J. Donohue III. Here is the abstract:
This article analyzes the 205 death-eligible murders leading to homicide convictions in Connecticut from 1973-2007 to determine if discriminatory and arbitrary factors influenced capital outcomes. A regression analysis controlling for an array of legitimate factors relevant to the crime, defendant, and victim provides overwhelming evidence that minority defendants who kill white victims are capitally charged at substantially higher rates than minority defendants who kill minorities, that geography influences both capital charging and sentencing decisions (with the location of a crime in Waterbury being the single most potent influence on which death-eligible cases will lead to a sentence of death), and that the Connecticut death penalty system has not limited its application to the worst of the worst death-eligible defendants. The work of an expert hired by the State of Connecticut provided emphatic, independent confirmation of these three findings, and found that women who commit death-eligible crimes are less likely than men to be sentenced to death.
There is also strong and statistically significant evidence that minority defendants who kill whites are more likely to end up with capital sentences than comparable cases with white defendants. Regression estimates of the effect of both race and geography on death sentencing reveal the disparities can be glaring. Considering the most common type of death-eligible murder — a multiple victim homicide — a white on white murder of average egregiousness outside Waterbury has a .57 percent chance of being sentenced to death, while a minority committing the identical crime on white victims in Waterbury would face a 91.2 percent likelihood. In other words, the minority defendant in Waterbury would be 160 times more likely to get a sustained death sentence than the comparable white defendant in the rest of the state.
Among the nine Connecticut defendants to receive sustained death sentences over the study period, only Michael Ross comports with the dictates that “within the category of capital crimes, the death penalty must be reserved for ‘the worst of the worst.’” For the eight defendants on death row (after the 2005 execution of Ross), the median number of equally or more egregious death-eligible cases that did not receive death sentences is between 35 and 46 (depending on the egregiousness measure). In light of the prospective abolition of the Connecticut death penalty in April 2012, which eliminated the deterrence rationale for the death penalty, Atkins v. Virginia teaches that unless the Connecticut death penalty regime “measurably contributes to [the goal of retribution], it is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering, and hence an unconstitutional punishment.” Apart from Ross, the evidence suggests that the eight others residing on death row were not measurably more culpable than the many who were not capitally sentenced.
Moreover, Connecticut imposed sustained death sentences at a rate of 4.4 percent (9 of 205). This rate of death sentencing is among the lowest in the nation and more than two-thirds lower than the 15 percent pre-Furman Georgia rate that was deemed constitutionally problematic in that “freakishly rare” sentences of death are likely to be arbitrary.
Monday, August 04, 2014
"Women in the Federal Offender Population"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new document from the US Sentencing Commission as part of its documents as part of its terrific 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.") Here are some of the data highlights from this new publication that I found especially interesting:
While women continue to make up a small percentage of federal offenders, the proportion of federal offenders who were women rose slightly from 12.1% in fiscal year 2009 to 13.3% in fiscal year 2013....
In fiscal year 2013, more than two-thirds of female offenders were sentenced for drug trafficking (33.7%), fraud (23.9%), or immigration (14.3%) offenses....
The largest racial group of female drug trafficking offenders was Hispanic (43.6%) followed by White (35.6%), Black (16.3%), and Other Races (4.5%).
The largest racial group of female fraud offenders was White (42.5%) followed by Black (35.8%), Hispanic (15.5%), and Other Races (6.2%).
Most female immigration offenders were Hispanic (86.4%), followed by White (5.4%), Other Races (4.9%), and Black (3.3%).
The average age of these offenders at sentencing was 38 years.
Most female offenders (70.8%) had little or no prior criminal history (i.e., assigned to Criminal History Category I).
Weapons were involved less frequently (4.1%) in cases involving females than in cases involving males (8.6%).
Three-quarters (75.6%) of female offenders were sentenced to imprisonment, which is less than the rate for male offenders in fiscal year 2013 (93.5%).
Female drug trafficking offenders were often sentenced to imprisonment (90.3%), although at a lower rate than male drug trafficking offenders in fiscal year 2013 (97.3%).
Female fraud offenders were sentenced to imprisonment at a lower rate (61.1%) than were male fraud offenders (74.1%).
Female offenders were convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty at a lower rate (24.0%) than were male offenders (26.9%).
The average sentence length for females convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 60 months.
The average sentence length for females not convicted of a statute carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 17 months.
For each of the past five years, female offenders were sentenced within the guideline range in less than half of all cases (49.7% in fiscal year 2009 and 40.2% in fiscal year 2013), compared to 55.3% and 49.8% for male offenders.
The rate of government sponsored below range sentences increased from 28.0% in fiscal year 2009 to 32.9% in fiscal year 2013, compared to 26.3% and 28.7% for male offenders.
The percentage of female offenders that received a non-government sponsored below range sentence increased over the last five years (from 21.1% of cases in fiscal year 2009 to 25.8% in fiscal year 2013), compared to 16.3% and 19.2% for male offender
The average guideline minimum for female offenders has increased over the last five years from 36 months in fiscal year 2009 to 41 months in fiscal year 2013.
The average sentence imposed slightly increased over the last five years, from 25 months in fiscal year 2009 to 27 months in fiscal year 2013.
Like all good and detailed and sophisticated sentencing data, there are many ways to "spin" all these numbers. But midst all the numbers, the most glaring of the data points seem to be a not-insignificant increase over the last five year of the average guideline minimum and the average imposed sentence for female offenders in the federal system even despite a significant reduction in crack sentences during that period.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
"Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States"
Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population. But over this period, three states — New York, New Jersey, and California — have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.
• New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.
• California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.
• During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%. Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.
• Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.
These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay. The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations. They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety....
At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety. Individual circumstances vary by state, but policymakers should explore the reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California as a guide for other states.
There is also no reason why a reduction of 25% should be considered the maximum that might be achieved. Even if every state and the federal government were able to produce such reductions, that would still leave the United States with an incarceration rate of more than 500 per 100,000 population — a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.
In recent years a broader range of proposals has emerged for how to reduce the prison population and by various scales of decarceration. In a recent right/ left commentary Newt Gingrich and Van Jones describe how they will “be working together to explore ways to reduce the prison population substantially in the next decade.” The experiences of New York, New Jersey, and California demonstrate that it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in mass incarceration without compromising public safety.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Within-guideline sentences remain below 50% according to latest quarterly USSC data
As reported in this post a few months ago, US Sentencing Commission First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data included some big news: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, in that quarter, only around 49% of the 18,169 sentences imposed were within-guideline sentences.
Today, the USSC released, via this document, its Second Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data, and it remains the case that a slight majority of federal sentences are being imposed outside the guidelines. But, as Table 4 on this latest data run reveals, this reality is partially a product of the fact that in the second quarter of FY14 there was a record-high percentage of above-guideline sentences (2.5%) and a record-high percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (28.6%). In this last quarter, notably, there was actually a small downtick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from 20.7% of all federal cases down to 20.1%).
As I have said before, I believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way both federal prosecutors and federal judges are now using their sentencing discretion. The data from the last few quarters suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Eric Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal prosecutors and federal judges feel ever more justified in seeking/imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
"Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision"
The title of this post is the title of a notable new report Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This press release about the report provides a helpful summary of its main findings, and here are excerpts from the release:
More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
A wide range of laws and policies adopted in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate at which inmates serve their full sentences behind bars, leaving no time at the end for parole or probation agencies to monitor their whereabouts and activities or help them transition back into society by providing substance abuse, mental health, or other intervention programs....
Key findings of the report, Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision, include:
Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.
The max-out rate, the proportion of prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.
Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and left without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.
Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase. In a subset of states with data available by offense type, 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 31 and 32 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.
In the past few years, at least eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—adopted reforms to ensure that authorities can supervise all or most offenders after release from prison. These policies, most of which are too new to evaluate, typically carve out the supervision period from the prison sentence rather than add time for it after release. This allows states to reduce prison spending and reinvest some of the savings in stronger recidivism-reduction programs....
These new policies are backed by data that indicate inmates released to supervision are less likely to commit new crimes than those who max out and return home without oversight....
The report outlines a policy framework to guide state leaders in reducing max-outs and recidivism. It recommends that policies require post-prison supervision, carve out the community supervision period from prison terms, strengthen parole decision-making, tailor conditions to offenders’ risks and needs, adopt evidence-based practices, and reinvest savings in community corrections.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Empirical explorations of modern capital clemency
Michael Heise has recently posted on SSRN two intriguing pieces concerning the modern patterns of capital clemency. Here are links and abstracts:
While America’s appetite for capital punishment continues to wane over time, clemency for death row inmates is all but extinct. Moreover, what little clemency activity that persists continues to distribute unevenly across gender, racial and ethnic groups, geography, governors’ political affiliation, and over time. Insofar as courts appear extremely reluctant to review — let alone interfere with — clemency activity, little, if any, formal legal recourse exists. Results from this study of clemency activity on state death rows (1973-2010) suggest that potential problems arise, however, to the extent that our criminal justice system relies on clemency to function as coherent extrajudicial check.
Conventional wisdom notes persistent regional differences in the application of the death penalty, with southern states’ appetite for capital punishment exceeding that of non-southern states. Scholars analyzing the distributions of death sentences and state executions find a geographic influence. Less explored, however, is a possible regional difference in the distribution of executive clemency even though clemency is an integral component of a criminal justice system that includes capital punishment. If geography influences the distribution of the death penalty, geography should also influence the distribution of clemency. Data, however, reveal some surprises. Using a recently-released data set of all state death row inmates from 1973 to 2010, this paper considers whether clemency is exercised in southern and non-southern states in systematically different ways. No statistically significant differences exist between southern and non-southern states when it came to clemency, even though southern states were more prone to execute and less prone to disturb death sentences through reversal on appeal than northern states. When it comes to the influence of geography in the death penalty context, the findings provide mixed support and convey a complicated picture.
Friday, May 30, 2014
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report
Astute readers who also follow closely a lot of broader media and political discussions of mass incarceration might have noticed that I have given relatively little attention on this blog to the massive report released late last month by the National Research Council (NRC) titled "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences." To date, I only noted the report and some early reactions to it in this post.
One reason for my limited blog coverage is a result of the NRC report running more than 450 pages (accessible at this link); I am always disinclined to do in-depth analysis or commentary on a significant report unless and until I have had adequate time to read most of it. But the primary reasons I have not blogged much about the NRC report is because, as I found time to start reading key parts of the NRC effort, I found myself underwhelmed by the originality and sophistication of the report. I had hoped, for example, that the NRC report would take a close look at the relationship between lead exposure and crime rates and/or would systematically look at critical state and regional differences in US crime and imprisonment rates. Instead, rather than break any new ground, much of the NRC report reads like an effective and lengthy summary of a lot of conventional wisdom.
Fortunately, a leading legal academic and empiricist with a critical eye has started to bring a (very) critical perspective to the NRC report. Through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg (all so far linked below), Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the NRC analysis. John's first post, titled "The Problematic National Research Council's Report on Incarceration: Some Initial Thoughts," previews his series this way:
The National Research Council, the well-respected research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently released a putatively authoritative report on the causes and implications of US incarceration growth. Sadly, it appears to be a deeply, profoundly flawed report. It is, in short, a rehashing of the Standard Story that I have argued time and again lacks real empirical support.
Dangerously, this report gives the Standard Story the NRC’s seal of approval, which will only increase its hold on policy-makers’ perceptions. The New York Times has already written an editorial pushing the NRC’s Standard-Story arguments, and no doubt it will be cited widely in the months to come.
So in the posts ahead, I want to dig into the report more deeply. I will certainly acknowledge what it gets right, but my sense so far is that it is one rife with errors.
From the start, here are John's posts to date highlighting some of the NRC errors he sees:
- The Flawed NRC Report: No Mention of Realignment!
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA
I am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus. As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.
Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:
In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.
Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.
That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.
A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system. Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.
• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally. At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation. That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.
• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months. By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison. Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.
• Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences. For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house. Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.
Here are links to all the article in the series:
- Mortgage fraud assault a Pyrrhic victory
- Rewards uneven in mortgage fraud cases
- She fought charges, got 10-year term
- Pleading guilty could cut defendant's sentence
Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.
May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration
If you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:
At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.
Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies. There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached. So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....
[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”
As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.
Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....
So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations
I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link. Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:
After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....
Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....
Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.
White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.
At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Within-guideline sentences dip below 50% according to latest USSC data
Due to a busy end-of-the-semester schedule, I only just this week got a chance to look at US Sentencing Commission's posting here of its First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data. And, as the title of this post highlights, there is big news in these USSC data: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, only 48.8% of the 18,169 sentences imposed during the last three months of 2013 were within-guideline sentences.
In this post following the previous quarterly USSC data release, I noted a small uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from around 18.5% of all federal cases to 19.3% in the last quarter of FY13). At that time, I hypothesized that perhaps a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases after Attorney General Eric Holder's big August 2013 speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. Now, in this latest quarterly data run, the number of judge-initiated, below-guideline sentences has ticked up again, this time to 20.4% of all sentenced federal cases. I now this this data blip is evidence of a real "Holder effect."
Though still more time and data are needed before firm causal conclusions should be reached here, I do believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way federal judges are now using their post-Booker discretion. The data from the last six month suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal judges feel ever more justified in imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Noting disparities resulting from reservation sentencing being federal sentencing
This local article from North Dakota, which is headlined "Article scrutinizes disparities in sentencing on reservations: American Indians face harsher penalties when tried in fed court vs state courts, advocates say," highlights an often-overlooked pocket of the federal sentencing system. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:
Dana Deegan is serving a 10-year sentence for placing her newborn son in a basket and abandoning him for two weeks, allowing him to die. Deegan, who was 25 years old when her son died in 1998 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, had three older children and suffered from depression and abuse. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to second-degree murder to avoid a possibly harsher sentence.
Advocates have said her sentence was much harsher than those given for similar cases prosecuted in state courts in North Dakota – a disparity that critics say applies generally because American Indians accused of major crimes on reservations are prosecuted in federal courts, which generally have stiffer penalties. The issue, which lawyers, judges and legal scholars have long discussed, will soon be the subject of a national study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Senior Judge Myron Bright of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who is based in Fargo, has for years been an outspoken critic of sentencing disparities involving prosecution of American Indians on reservations. The issue is also the focus of an article calling for changes to address the sentencing gaps in the current issue of the North Dakota Law Review [available at this link], and the study is backed by Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota. The law review authors, one of them a tribal judge in North Dakota, noted the Deegan case as a glaring example of the gap in sentences between the federal courts — whose defendants are overwhelmingly American Indians prosecuted on reservations — and comparable crimes tried in state courts.
Non-Indian women in two similar cases prosecuted in North Dakota state courts received much lighter sentences, authors BJ Jones and Christopher Ironroad noted [in this article, titled "Addressing Sentencing Disparities for Tribal Citizens in the Dakotas: A Tribal Sovereignty Approach"]. In 2000, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced in Cass County for negligent homicide to three years, with imposition suspended for three years of supervised probation, which was terminated less than two years later, according to court records.... In 2007, a 28-year-old woman was sentenced in Burleigh County to 10 years in prison, with eight years suspended, for causing the death of her newborn, which died after being left in a toilet....
Federal courts have jurisdiction on Indian reservations under the Major Crimes Act passed in 1885. Ordinarily, states prosecute “street crimes,” including assault, burglary, sexual assault, murder and vehicular manslaughter. Because of strict sentencing guidelines, with mandatory minimums and no probation or time off for good behavior, sentences in federal court generally are higher than those in state courts, at least in states including North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, lawyers and federal judges agree. “The law needs to be changed and Indians need to be treated on an equal basis, the same as their white neighbors,” Bright said.
But many agree that state penalties for certain crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter, are higher. That, in fact, was a finding the last time the issue of sentencing disparities was studied in 2003 by an advisory group for the Sentencing Commission. But the group found the perception of an unfair disparity in sentences received by American Indians in federal court compared to state court was “well founded,” Purdon wrote the chairman of the Sentencing Commission earlier this month.
Purdon, who serves as chairman of the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said more study is needed into the widespread perception of unfair sentences. “If the court system is perceived as unfair it undermines my ability to make the reservations safer,” he said, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice supports further study of the issue.
Two federal trial judges in North Dakota agreed that, because of federal sentencing guidelines, criminal sentences sometimes are higher than state court sentences, but cautioned that the reverse also is true for certain crimes. “I believe it works both ways,” said Chief Judge Ralph Erickson of U.S. District Court in Fargo. “Some crimes are less than customarily handed down in state courts,” such as vehicular homicide.
Much of the disparity comes from the lack of parole in the federal court system, meaning a defendant serves the entire sentence, Erickson said. “That’s where the rub comes in,” he said. “We’re aware of that and it’s frustrating.”... A comprehensive study is needed to determine if there are, in fact, sentencing disparities, Erickson said. If so, then solutions can be identified.
“There’s an overall disparity in sentencing,” said Judge Daniel Hovland of U.S. District Court in Bismarck. “Generally, federal sentences tend to be more severe,” but he agreed with Erickson that there are exceptions, including manslaughter. “I think the sentencing commission is going to take a much closer look at that issue and it will certainly bode well for everyone in the judicial system,” Hovland said. “I’m confident they’ll reach a fair assessment.”
Sunday, March 09, 2014
LDF releases latest, greatest accounting of death row populations
As reported here by the Death Penalty Information Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has just released its latest version of its periodic accounting of capital punishment developments in the United States. This document, available here, is titled simply "Death Row, USA," and reports on data though July 1, 2013. Here is how DPIC summarizes some of its key findings:
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time.
The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.
Friday, February 28, 2014
More fascinating "Quick Facts" from the US Sentencing Commission
I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce insightful little 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 repeatedly before, I think this is a very valuable innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from all the publications in the series. This latest one on certain firearm offenses, Section 924(c) Offenders , includes these notable data:
From among 84,173 cases reported to the USSC in FY2012, "2,189 involved convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)" which criminalized possession/use of a firearm in furtherance of another offense and:
The average length of sentence for offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was 165 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) was 84 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) and another offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 132 months. When the other offense carried a mandatory minimum penalty the average sentence was 181 months.
- The average length of sentence for section 924(c) offenders who were determined to be career offenders was 252 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) was 358 months.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Notable New Yorker piece reporting on forthcoming federal judicial sentencing patterns
A helpful reader altered me to this notable new piece about sentencing policies and practices from The New Yorker authored by Columbia Law Prof Tim Wu. The full piece ends by stressing one concern I often express about the challenge of using mandatory sentencing laws to try to deal with concerns about judicial sentencing disparity — namely "that they tend to increase the power that prosecutors have over sentencing, and prosecutors, if anything, vary even more than judges." But the piece caught my attention late on a Friday afternoon mostly because of this discussion of some notable forthcoming research on modern federal sentencing patterns:
Sentencing decisions change lives forever, and, for that reason and others, they’re hard to make. It is often suspected that different judges sentence differently, and we now have a better idea of this. A giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary reveals clear patterns: Democrats and women are slightly more lenient. Where you’re sentenced matters even more. Judges in the South are harsher; in the Northeast and on the West Coast, they are more easygoing.
The study’s author is Crystal Yang, a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, who based it on data from more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009. (Impressively, in certain ways her study exceeds the work of the United States Sentencing Commission.) She writes, “Female judges sentenced observably similar defendants to approximately 1.7 months less than their male colleagues.” In addition, judges appointed by a Democratic President were 2.2 per cent more likely to exercise leniency. Regional effects are more challenging to measure, because, for example, the kinds of crime that happen in New York might differ from those in Texas. But recent data suggest that, controlling for cases and defendant types, “there is substantial variation in the sentence that a defendant would receive depending on the district court in which he is sentenced” — as much as eleven months, on average. The results are all statistically significant, according to Yang — and, if the differences sound relatively small, it is also important to remember that what she is measuring are average differences. In straightforward cases, judges may be more likely to issue similar rulings. It’s the hard cases where judges vary. In a case on the edge, the identity of your judge might make an important difference.
Of course, all sophisticated federal sentencing practitioners know that in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the "identity of your judge might make an important difference." And I regularly tell law students that every federal defendant ought to realize from the moment he or she is subject to a federal investigation, in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the identity of the prosecutor and probation officer and defense attorney also "might make an important difference." Consequently, I am not sure Crystal Yang's "giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary" is likely to tell us a lot that we do not already suspect or know.
That all said, I am already jazzed to hear a lot more about what Crystal Yang has collected and analyzed concerning the federal sentencing of "more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009"! That is a whole lot of data, and it spans a remarkable decade in federal sentencing developments which included the passage of the PROTECT Act and the transformation of federal sentencing law and practices wrought by Blakely and Booker and its progeny.
UPDATE: After doing a little research, I think I discovered that an updated version of Crystal Yang's research discussed above is now available here at SSRN, and is soon to be published in the New York University Law Review.