Monday, September 26, 2016

FBI releases "official" 2015 US crime statistics showing increase in violent crime (especially murderes) and decreased property crime

As reported in this official FBI press release, "[a]fter two years of decline, the estimated number of violent crimes in the nation increased 3.9 percent in 2015 when compared with 2014 data, according to FBI figures released today. Property crimes dropped 2.6 percent, marking the 13th straight year the collective estimates for these offenses declined." This short FBI report on its latest data provides these additional particulars and helpful context:

Today, the FBI released its annual compilation of crimes reported to its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program by law enforcement agencies from around the nation. Crime in the United States, 2015 reveals a 3.9 percent increase in the estimated number of violent crimes and a 2.6 percent decrease in the estimated number of property crimes last year when compared to 2014 data.

According to the report, there were an estimated 1,197,704 violent crimes committed around the nation.  While that was an increase from 2014 figures, the 2015 violent crime total was 0.7 percent lower than the 2011 level and 16.5 percent below the 2006 level.

Among some of the other statistics contained in Crime in the United States, 2015:

  • The estimated number of murders in the nation was 15,696. [This is a roughly 11% increase from 2014.]

  • During the year, there were an estimated 90,185 rapes. (This figure currently reflects UCR’s legacy definition.....) [This is a roughly 6% increase from 2014.]

  • There were an estimated 327,374 robberies nationwide, which accounted for an estimated $390 million in losses (average dollar value of stolen property per reported robbery was $1,190).

  • Firearms were used in 71.5 percent of the nation’s murders, 40.8 percent of robberies, and 24.2 percent of aggravated assaults.

  • Property crimes resulted in losses estimated at $14.3 billion. The total value of reported stolen property (i.e., currency, jewelry, motor vehicles, electronics, firearms) was $12,420,364,454.

Like all detailed and intricate numbers about crime and punishment, these latest data can (and surely will) be spun in all sorts of ways.  For some early examples of the spin, here are some early commentaries about the data:

From Crime & Consequences here, "Complacency Mongers, Start Your Engines!"

From the Daily Beast here, "Violent Crime Is Up, but Trump Is Still Wrong"

From the Huffington Post here, "2015 Was One Of The Safest Years In The Past 2 Decades, According To FBI Crime Stats"

September 26, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Great new US Sentencing Commission report on "simple possession" federal drug cases raises array of hard follow-up questions

Simplepossession_coverI find crime and punishment data so interesting and so important in large part because (1) even seemingly basic and simple data often can only be fully understood after one takes time to examine closely the backstories that surround that data, and (2) only if and when a researcher or advocate has deep understanding of data can that person even start to appreciate all the challenging policy and practical questions that important data implicate.  These realities are on full display in the context of an interesting and important new report released this week by the US Sentencing Commission titled "Weighing the Charges: Simple Possession of Drugs in the Federal Criminal Justice System." Here is the introduction to the short report, which explains the notable backstories concerning a dramatic recent change in the number of federal "simple possession" cases:

The simple possession of illegal drugs is a criminal offense under federal law and in many state jurisdictions. The offense occurs “when someone has on his or her person, or available for his or her use, a small amount of an illegal substance for the purpose of consuming or using it but without the intent to sell or give it to anyone else.”

Simple drug possession is a misdemeanor under federal law which provides that an offender may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than one year, fined a minimum of $1,000, or both. However, if an offender is convicted of simple possession after a prior drug related offense has become final, the offender can be charged with a felony simple possession offense.

The number of federal offenders whose most serious offense was simple drug possession increased nearly 400 percent during the six-year period between fiscal years 2008 and 2013. A change of this magnitude over a relatively short period of time triggered further investigation into these cases using data on offender and offense characteristics routinely collected by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), as well as additional data collected specifically for this project.

At first, this dramatic increase in the number of offenders sentenced for the simple possession of drugs seems to suggest a substantially increased focus on this offense by federal law enforcement personnel. Further analysis, however, does not support such a conclusion. A closer inspection of the data demonstrates that this increase is almost entirely attributable to a single drug type — marijuana — and to offenders who were arrested at or near the U.S./Mexico border (a group almost entirely composed of offenders from the District of Arizona). For simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at locations other than the U.S./Mexico border, the median quantity of marijuana involved in the offense was 5.2 grams (0.2 ounces).  In contrast, the offense conduct of simple possession of marijuana offenders arrested at that border involved a median quantity of 22,000 grams (48.5 pounds or 776.0 ounces) — a quantity that appears in excess of a personal use quantity.

In other words, the USSC noticed data showing a huge increase in the charging of misdemeanor federal drug crimes, which at first might suggest a curious new commitment by federal prosecutors to pursue low-level drug offenders. But, upon closer examination, the USSC discovers that what is really going on is that a whole lot of (low-level?) drug traffickers (mules?) found with huge quantities of marijuana are having their cases prosecuted through "simple possession" charges even though that label hardly seems like a factually fitting description of their drug crimes.

I am extraordinarily pleased to see the USSC detailing and explaining this interesting new data trend, and I am extraordinarily interested to hear from readers as to whether they think federal prosecutors in border regions ought to be praised or pilloried for their new misdemeanor approach to dealing with marijuana offenders arrested at the border with an average of 50 pounds of mary jane. This USSC report not only documents one tangible way that state marijuana reforms would seem to be having a profound impact on how the federal government is now waging the so-called "war on weed," but it also prompts a lot of hard questions about whether the new behaviors by federal drug prosecutors are appropriate given the absence of any formal changes to federal drug laws.

September 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

"The 'Cost of Crime' and Benefit-Cost Analysis of Criminal Justice Policy: Understanding and Improving Upon the State-of-The-Art"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Mark Cohen and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The use of benefit-cost analyses by criminal justice researchers has slowly been increasing over the past 30 years. While still in its infancy, benefit-cost analyses of criminal justice policies have recently moved from the academic arena to actual use by policy makers.  The growing use of benefit-cost analysis in crime policy tends to be lauded by economists; however, criminologists and legal scholars are less than unanimous in their views.  A recent issue of Criminology and Public Policy on the “Role of the Cost-of-Crime Literature,” highlights this controversy.

Two main themes can be distilled from critiques of the literature: first, the considerable uncertainty that exists in cost and benefit estimates; and second, the fact that important social costs are not being taken into account in current models.  A related critique is that current methodologies to estimate the cost of crime are affected by income; bringing with it a concern that criminal justice policies based on a benefit-cost analysis will favor the rich.

This research note addresses these broad questions about the role of benefit-cost analysis in the criminal justice policy arena and attempts to clear up some misunderstandings on the methodologies used to estimate the cost of crime.  I also highlight some of the most important gaps in the literature for those interested in helping to improve the state-of-the-art in estimating the “cost of crime.”  Perhaps equally important, I hope to demystify benefit-cost analysis and unmask it for what it really is — an important tool that can help policy makers systematically and transparently assess and compare options with the goal of making better policy decisions.

September 4, 2016 in Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Important "Real Clear" debate explores whether Texas "smart on crime" reforms have really been successful

A series of dueling posts over at the Real Clear Policy blog has been engaging with crime and punishment data from Texas to provide different views on whether so-called "smart on crime" reforms in the Lone Star State have proven truly effective at reducing both crime and imprisonment.  The discussion is too intricate to summarize here, so I encourage readers interested in this important debate to check out these post in order:

August 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

New Fair Punishment Project report takes close look at small number of US counties still actively utilizing the death penalty

FairJustIn this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   I received an email this morning highlighting a new big project and report from the the FPP.  Here are excerpts from the email:

Today [FPP] released a new report offering an in-depth look at how the death penalty is operating in the small handful of counties across the country that are still using it.  Of the 3,143 county or county equivalents in the United States, only 16—or one half of one percent—imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015.  Part I of the report, titled Too Broken to Fix: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties examined 10 years of court opinions and records from eight of these 16 “outlier counties,” including Caddo Parish (LA), Clark (NV), Duval (FL), Harris (TX), Maricopa (AZ), Mobile (AL), Kern (CA) and Riverside (CA). The report also analyzed all of the new death sentences handed down in these counties since 2010....

The report notes that these “outlier counties” are plagued by persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias. Researchers found that the impact of these systemic problems included the conviction of innocent people, and the excessively harsh punishment of people with significant impairments.  The report notes that many of the defendants appear to have one or more impairments that are on par with, or worse than, those that the U.S. Supreme Court has said should categorically exempt individuals from execution due to lessened culpability.  The Court previously found that individuals with intellectual disabilities (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and juveniles under the age of 18 (Roper v. Simmons, 2005) should not be subject to the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.

In conducting its analysis, we reviewed more than 200 direct appeals opinions handed down between 2006 and 2015 in these eight counties. We found:

  • Sixty percent of cases involved defendants with significant mental impairments or other forms of mitigation.
  • Eighteen percent of cases involved a defendant who was under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In Riverside County, 16 percent of the defendants were age 18 at the time of the offense.
  • Forty-four percent of cases involved a defendant who had an intellectual disability, brain damage, or severe mental illness. In four of the counties, half or more of the defendants had mental impairments: Maricopa (62 percent), Mobile (60 percent), Caddo Parish (57 percent), and Kern (50 percent).
  • Approximately one in seven cases involved a finding of prosecutorial misconduct. Maricopa and Clark counties had misconduct in 21 percent and 47 percent of cases respectively.
  • Bad lawyering was a persistent problem across all of the counties. In most of the counties, the average mitigation presentation at the penalty phase of the trial, in which the defense lawyer is supposed to present all of the evidence showing that the defendant’s life should be spared -- including testimony from mental health and other experts, lasted approximately one day. While this is just one data point for determining the quality of legal representation, this finding reveals appalling inadequacies. In Duval County, Florida, the entire penalty phase of the trial and the jury verdict often came in the same day.
  • A relatively small group of defense lawyers represented a substantial number of the individuals who ended up on death row. In Kern County, one lawyer represented half of the individuals who ended up on death row between 2010 and 2015.

Additional findings:

  • Five of the eight counties had at least one person exonerated from death row since 1976. Harris County has had three death row exonerations, and Maricopa has had five.
  • Out of all of the death sentences obtained in these counties between 2010 and 2015, 41 percent were given to African-American defendants, and 69 percent were given to people of color.  In Duval, 87 percent of defendants were Black in this period. In Harris, 100 percent of the defendants who were newly sentenced to death since November 2004 have been people of color.
  • The race of the victim is also a significant factor in who is sentenced to death in many of these counties. In Mobile County, 67 percent of the Black defendants, and 88% of all defendants, who were sentenced to death were convicted of killing white victims. In Clark County, 71 percent of all of the victims were white in cases resulting in a death sentence. The report noted just three white defendants sentenced to death for killing Black victims between 2010 and 2015. One of those cases was from Riverside, and in that case the defendant was also convicted of killing two additional white victims. The two other cases were from Duval.
  • Five of the 16 “outlier counties” are from Florida and Alabama, the only two states that currently allow non-unanimous jury verdicts.  In Duval, 88 percent of the decisions in the review period were non-unanimous, and in Mobile the figure was 80 percent. 

Part II of this report, which will be released in September, will look at the remaining eight “outlier counties,” including: Dallas (TX), Jefferson (AL), Pinellas (FL), Miami-Dade (FL), Hillsborough (FL), Los Angeles (CA), San Bernardino (CA), and Orange (CA).

August 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some surprising racial realities to discover when taking a deep dive into modern mass incarceration data

U.S._incarceration_rates_1925_onwardsA couple of folks have pointed me to this recent interesting analysis at Wonkblog by Keith Humphreys under the headline "Black incarceration hasn’t been this low in a generation." Here are some of the data and discussion that explain the headline (with links from the original):

The African American imprisonment rate has been declining for many years. Indeed, the likelihood of African American men and women being in prison today is lower than it was a generation ago ... [because the] rate of black male incarceration in the U.S. has declined by 23 percent from a recent peak in 2001 [and the] rate of incarcerated black women has decreased 49 percent since the recent peak of 1999....

In the 1990s, the explosive growth in imprisonment that began in the mid-1970s was slowing but still underway, affecting people of all races but African Americans worst of all.  But around the turn of the millennium, the African American imprisonment rate began declining year after year....

At the end of 2014, the African American male imprisonment rate had dropped to a level not seen since early 1993. The change for African American women is even more marked, with the 2014 imprisonment rate being the lowest point in the quarter-century of data available. It can’t be overemphasized that these are trends unique to blacks rather than being part of a broader pattern of de-incarceration: The white imprisonment rate has been rising rather than falling.

A 23 percent decline in the black male imprisonment rate and a 49 percent decline in the black female imprisonment rate would seem to warrant some serious attention. But if you point out to the average person or even a seasoned criminologist that the United States is at a more than 20-year low in the black incarceration rate, you are likely to be met with stunned silence.

These data should not be all that surprising for those who realize that the years from 1970 to 2000 marked the modern period with the most significant increase in incarceration rates for all Americans and particularly for African Americans.  Since 2000, the overall US prison population has not grown much, and overall prison populations and the rate of incarceration has even turned downward in recent years.  I believe that, during this more recent period of flat or declining prison growth, the emphasis in long prison terms less for drug offenders than for violent/sexual offenders has contributing to altering the racial mix of prison populations (perhaps epsecially in big states like California and Texas that have made big cuts in their prison populations).

That all said, these data should not obscure the reality that incarceration rates for black males remain extraordinarily high both in absolute and in relative terms throughout the United States.  Moreover, digging into state-by-state incarceration data highlights that some perhaps unexpected states rise to the top of an accounting of the rate and relative levels of minority incarceration.  A few months ago (as noted here), The Sentencing Project released this interesting report providing state-by-state analyses of the racial data for state prison populations, and here were some of the report's "Key Findings":

August 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Public Defenders vs. Private Court Appointed Attorneys: An Investigation of Indigent Defense Systems"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing empirical paper recently posted on SSRN authored by Yotam Shem-Tov. Here is the abstract (with one line emphasized by me):

Individuals facing criminal charges in the U.S. have a constitutional right to attorney representation.  If they cannot afford one, the court is required to appoint and finance a legal counsel. Indigent defense systems are usually composed of private court appointed attorneys and/or a public defenders’ organization.  I investigate the causal effect of being assigned a public defender as oppose to a private court appointed attorney on defendants’ trial outcomes using a new “twins design” identification strategy.

I argue and show empirically that in co-defendant cases, the decision of who is assigned to the public defender organization can be treated as close to a randomized experiment, which can be exploited to measure the effectiveness of court appointed private attorneys relative to public defenders.  Using data from all multiple defendant cases in federal courts between 2001-2014, I find that defendants assigned a public defender in co-defendant cases had slightly worse outcomes: a higher probability of being convicted, an average of three months longer expected prison sentence, longer court proceedings and a higher probability of reaching a plea bargain.  However, there is large heterogeneity in public defender effectiveness across federal districts ranging from a 13.8 month longer prison term to a 16.1 month shorter prison term.

I lack the empirical skills to question or assess the new “twins design” identification strategy used in this paper, and the full paper is full of challenging empirical jargon like "The main regression specications is Yit = B . PDi + aj(I) + X'it􀀀 + Eit".  That said, my first reaction is to be quite suspicious of these findings/conclusions due to (1) my own experiences and high regard for the work of nearly all federal public defenders, and (2) my own normative instinct that, at least for a significant number of federal defendants, experiencing "longer court proceedings and a higher probability of reaching a plea bargain" is not at all a marker of a "worse outcome."

August 11, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?

The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):

In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.  In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline.  Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.

We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well.  Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines.  This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence.  Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.

Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here.  Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):

A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.

August 3, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report urging reform of career offender enhancements

As detailed in this official press release, the US Sentencing Commission today released a big new report (running over 100 pages!) under the title "Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements." Here is how the press release summarizes this important new release from the USSC:

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) issued a Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, analyzing career offenders’ prior criminal history, incarceration terms and recidivism rates.

Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, stated, “The Commission’s research shows that there are important differences between violent career offenders and drug trafficking career offenders. Based on these findings, Congress should amend the statutory criteria such that career offender status would not be based solely on drug trafficking offenses.”

Currently, a defendant qualifies as a career offender if he or she: 1) is convicted of an offense that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and 2) has at least two prior felony convictions.  Career offenders face longer incarceration terms, receiving an average sentence of more than 12 years (147 months).  As a result of these longer sentences, career offenders now account for more than 11 percent of the total federal prison population.  Yet, career offenders are increasingly receiving sentences below the federal sentencing guideline range, often at the request of the government.  The research also shows that, compared to “drug trafficking only” offenders, violent career offenders generally have a more serious and extensive criminal history, recidivate at a higher rate, and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future.  In fiscal year 2014, 45% of “drug trafficking only” offenders received sentences that were reduced at the government’s request.

In fiscal year 2014, nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of career offenders were convicted of a drug trafficking offense. Drug trafficking offenders often face higher statutory maximum penalties, including life imprisonment.  These offenders were also more likely to receive a sentence below the federal sentencing guideline range.

Earlier this year, the Commission voted unanimously to amend the definition of “crime of violence” in the federal sentencing guidelines, with an effective date of August 1, 2016.  Chair Saris added, “Based on the report’s findings and recommendations, Congress should adopt a new, single definition of ‘crime of violence’ that is consistent with the Commission’s revised approach.”

July 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

New report highlights huge role of a handful of local prosecutors on the size of death rows

20160628_FPP-ShareableThis notable new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project highlights the consequential role of just a handful of local prosecutors on the modern US death penalty.  The report, titled "America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive The Death Penalty," gets started this way (with footnotes removed):

Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not commit.  Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.” “Revenge,” he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”  Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.

Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States,” Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.”  There are more than 3,100 counties, 2,400 head prosecutors, and thousands of line prosecutors in America — yet only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?

This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors.  Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina.  These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost.  For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36% of his death penalty prosecutions, said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” The remaining two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death sentences against a staggering 108 and 201 people, respectively, during their terms.

Of these five prosecutors, only one — Donnie Myers — remains in office, and he plans to retire at the end of the year. One of the most remarkable findings from our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions — a pattern that has only become clear in the years since their departures.

We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming members of this notorious group.  These runners-up have egregious records in their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.

Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued beyond the tenure of these prosecutors.  Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death sentences than in years past.  Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death sentences, the fewest in recent history.  This number represents an 84.4% drop from the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts.  However, in the increasingly small number of the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors dominate death-sentencing statistics.

In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.  Taken together, the profiles featured in this report demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.

June 30, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015"

On Monday, the US Sentencing Commission released this new data report, excitingly titled "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015."   This USSC webpage provides this summary of the report's contents and findings:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 71,184 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2015. Among these cases, 71,003 involved an individual offender and 181 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 24,743 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases [and includes these key findings]:

  • The 71,003 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 represent a decrease of 4,833 (6.4%) cases from fiscal year 2014.

  • Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case.  The 22,631 drug cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 accounted for 31.8 percent of all cases report to the Commission.

  • Immigration cases were the next most common, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime; however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • In fiscal year 2015, an imprisonment sentence was imposed on 87.3 percent of all offenders. Another 7.2 percent of offenders received a sentence of probation (i.e., where no type of confinement was imposed), a rate that has decreased over time from a high of 15.3 percent in 1990.

  • Almost three-quarters of offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 received a sentence of less than five years.

  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug trafficking offenses and were the most severely punished drug crime in fiscal year 2015.

  • The proportion of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was the lowest it has been since 1993.

June 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"The Criminal Justice Black Box"

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

“Big data” — the collection and statistical analysis of numerous digital data points — has transformed the commercial and policy realms, changing firms’ understanding of consumer behavior and improving problems ranging from traffic congestion to drug interactions.  In the criminal justice field, police now use data from widely-dispersed monitoring equipment, crime databases, and statistical analysis to predict where and when crimes will occur, and police body cameras have the potential to both provide key evidence and reduce misconduct.

But in many jurisdictions, digital access to basic criminal court records remains surprisingly limited, and, in contrast to the civil context, no lucrative market for the data (apart from that for background checks) exists to induce the private sector to step in to fill the gap.  As a result, bulk criminal justice data is largely limited to survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Unlocking the “black box” by uniformly collecting and reporting basic, anonymized data from criminal cases — including, e.g., the charges, pretrial release decision, appointment of counsel, and case disposition — would have significant benefits. It would allow researchers, reformers, and government actors to both more effectively study the system as a whole and to more easily identify jurisdictions violating the Constitution by, for example, routinely denying counsel or pretrial release and imprisoning defendants for inability (rather than unwillingness) to pay a fine or fee.

This Article documents this problem, explores its causes, and proposes a solution, arguing that the federal government should form a framework for the uniform collection of anonymized local, state, and federal criminal justice data. While participation in this uniform system is likely to be incremental, even partial data would improve our understanding of the system as a whole and aid efforts to enforce well established, but frequently violated, constitutional rights.

June 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases new detailed report on recidivism of federal offenders

This official press release reports on some of the interesting highlights of this interesting new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics about recidivism rates and patterns for federal offenders.  The report is formally titled "Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010." Here is the text of the BJS press release on the report:

Of the nearly 43,000 federal offenders who were placed on federal community supervision in fiscal year 2005, an estimated 43 percent were arrested at least once within five years of their placement, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.  An estimated 18 percent of these offenders were arrested at least once within one year of placement on community supervision and 35 percent were arrested at least once within three years of placement.

An estimated 80 percent of offenders who were placed on federal community supervision in 2005 were male.  More than a third (41 percent) were white and nearly a third (31 percent) were black. An estimated 28 percent were age 29 or younger and about 42 percent were age 40 or older.

The first arrest offense for federal offenders after placement on community supervision varied by federal and nonfederal offenses.  Among federal offenses, public order offenses, such as probation violations, accounted for 90 percent of first arrests of federal offenders after placement on community supervision, compared to 33 percent of first arrests for nonfederal offenses.

In comparing federal and state prisoners placed on community supervision, almost half (47 percent) of federal prisoners were arrested within five years, compared to more than three-quarters (77 percent) of state prisoners. Nearly a third (32 percent) of federal prisoners returned to prison within five years of their release to community supervision, compared to more than half (59 percent) of the state prisoners.

Other findings include —

  • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of federal offenders on community supervision were directly sentenced to probation, while more than three-quarters (77 percent) began a term of community supervision following release from prison.

  • An estimated 70 percent of federal offenders on community supervision had at least one prior nonfederal arrest, and more than a third (35 percent) had four or more prior nonfederal arrests.

June 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative. This press release from PPI provides an overview of the context and contents of this report:

How does your state compare to the international community when it comes to the use of incarceration? Not very well, says a new report and infographic by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“When compared against each other, some U.S. states appear to be far more restrained in their use of incarceration than high incarcerators like Louisiana,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and co-author of the report. “But all U.S. states are out of step with the rest of the world.”

This report, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2016,” updates our 2014 briefing that, for the first time, directly situated individual U.S. states in the global context.

“Massachusetts and Vermont have the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S.,” said Alison Walsh, report co-author and Policy & Communications Associate. “Compared to Louisiana, these states look progressive. But if these states were independent nations, they would rank as the 11th and 12th greatest users of incarceration on the planet, following the United States and a group of nations whose recent history often includes wars, military coups and genocides.”

The report includes an interactive graphic showing the incarceration rates for individual U.S. states and the District of Columbia and all countries with a population of at least 500,000. The report also includes a separate graphic comparing the incarceration rates of the U.S. to several NATO nations. “I hope that this data helps all states prioritize further criminal justice reforms. Lower incarceration rates are not only possible, in the rest of the world they are a reality,” said Wagner.

The report and infographic draw international figures on incarceration from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief and state-level figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Easthampton, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization is most well known for sparking the movement to end prison gerrymandering and for its big picture data visualization “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie.”

June 16, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 10, 2016

"The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this notable data-heavy new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is part of the reports "Overview" section:

Growing awareness of America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration has prompted changes at the state and federal level that aim to reduce the scale of imprisonment. Lawmakers and practitioners are proposing “smart on crime” approaches to public safety that favor alternatives to incarceration and reduce odds of recidivism.  As a result of strategic reforms across the criminal justice spectrum, combined with steadily declining crime rates since the mid-1990s, prison populations have begun to stabilize and even decline slightly after decades of unprecedented growth. In states such as New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and California, prison depopulation has been substantial, declining by 20-30%.  Still, America maintains its distinction as the world leader in its use of incarceration, including more than 1.3 million people held in state prisons around the country.

At the same time of productive bipartisan discussions about improving criminal justice policies and reducing prison populations, the U.S. continues to grapple with troubling racial tensions.  The focus of most recent concern lies in regular reports of police brutality against people of color, some of which have resulted in deaths of black men by law enforcement officers after little or no apparent provocation.

Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of racial and ethnic disparities in the prison system, and focused attention on reduction of disparities. Since the majority of people in prison are sentenced at the state level rather than the federal level, it is critical to understand the variation in racial and ethnic composition across states, and the policies and the day-to-day practices that contribute to this variance.  Incarceration creates a host of collateral consequences that include restricted employment prospects, housing instability, family disruption, stigma, and disenfranchisement.  These consequences set individuals back by imposing new punishments after prison.  Collateral consequences are felt disproportionately by people of color, and because of concentrations of poverty and imprisonment in certain jurisdictions, it is now the case that entire communities experience these negative effects.  Evidence suggests that some individuals are incarcerated not solely because of their crime, but because of racially disparate policies, beliefs, and practices, rendering these collateral consequences all the more troubling.  An unwarranted level of incarceration that worsens racial disparities is problematic not only for the impacted group, but for society as whole, weakening the justice system’s potential and undermining perceptions of justice.

This report documents the rates of incarceration for whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, providing racial and ethnic composition as well as rates of disparity for each state.

June 10, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Unpacking the (never-simplistic and never-certain) stories of state crimes and incarceration levels

This new Atlantic story, headlined "Crime Is Down, Sort Of: New stats on U.S. imprisonment rates suggest a complicated future for criminal-justice reform," provides a usefully nuanced account of this new Brennen Center report titled simply "Update: Changes in State Imprisonment Rates." Here first is what the Brennan Center sets up its report: 

Today, there are 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the last forty years. With almost one in 100 American adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the world’s highest. This fact sheet provides an update to findings on state imprisonment trends originally outlined in The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It analyzes data from all 50 states on imprisonment and crime from 2006 (as bipartisan criminal justice reforms generally began around 2007) through 2014 (the most recent year of data).

Two overarching findings:

1. Many argue that increased incarceration is necessary to reduce crime.  Yet the data shows the opposite.  Over the last ten years, 27 states have decreased both crime and imprisonment.  Not only is this trend possible, it’s played out in the majority of states. Nationally, imprisonment and crime have fallen together, 7 percent and 23 percent respectively since 2006.  Crime continued its downward trend while incarceration also decreased.

2. In recent years, states in the South have seen some of the largest decreases in imprisonment.  Yet, they also remain the largest incarcerators in the country.  Mississippi reduced imprisonment by 10 percent but still has the nation’s 5th highest incarceration rate.  Texas has reduced imprisonment by 15 percent yet still has the 7th highest imprisonment rate in the country.

And here is a snippet from the Atlantic's discussion of the report:

Many Americans might make a basic mathematical error in looking at the country’s criminal-justice system: They assume more people in jail or prison always equals less crime, and more crime necessarily calls for putting more people behind bars. Both conclusions are wrong. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice provides some illuminating data on this point.

The report’s most fascinating finding is that imprisonment and overall crime rates were down 7 percent and 23 percent, respectively, from 2006 to 2014. “States will continue to decrease imprisonment slowly; we might perhaps see crime leveling out,” Chettiar said. “Criminologists say we have reached an all-time low in crime. I expect we’ll continue to see low crime and lowered imprisonment rates.”...

In the analysis, high achievers included Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii, Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Colorado, and South Carolina. All saw double-digit drops in their rates of imprisonment per 100,000 residents. That does not necessarily indicate a dramatic drop in the actual number of people behind bars—an overall decrease in the rate at which a state imprisons people can result from many factors, including the release of current inmates, diversion efforts to keep those arrested out of jail, and the reclassification of low-level crimes that may let some offenders bypass custody....

In terms of overall crime, Vermont, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana reduced their rates most. Each saw a decrease of 30 percent or more in their crime rates per 100,000 residents. States such as New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota each saw big increases in their in crime rates, all 30 percent or higher.

As policymakers are paying increased attention to the shortcomings of the criminal-justice system and more citizens seem to accept the need for policy changes, these facts suggest reform will look very different in different states—and above all, it will be complicated.

June 9, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Looking into the Wisconsin case looking into the use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing

The Wall Street Journal has this effective new article discussing the case now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court considering a defendant's challenge to the use of a risk assessment tool in the state's sentencing process.  The article's full headline notes the essentials: "Wisconsin Supreme Court to Rule on Predictive Algorithms Used in Sentencing: Ruling would be among first to speak to legality of risk assessments as aid in meting out punishments." And here is more from the body of the article:

Algorithms used by authorities to predict the likelihood of criminal conduct are facing a major legal test in Wisconsin.  The state’s highest court is set to rule on whether such algorithms, known as risk assessments, violate due process and discriminate against men when judges rely on them in sentencing.  The ruling, which could come any time, would be among the first to speak to the legality of risk assessments as an aid in meting out punishments.

Criminal justice experts skeptical of such tools say they are inherently biased, treating poor people as riskier than those who are well off. Proponents of risk assessments say they have elevated sentencing to something closer to a science. “Evidence has a better track record for assessing risks and needs than intuition alone,” wrote Christine Remington, an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin, in a legal brief filed in January defending the state’s use of the evaluations.

Risk-evaluation tools have gained in popularity amid efforts around the country to curb the number of repeat offenders.  They help authorities sort prisoners, set bail and weigh parole decisions. But their use in sentencing is more controversial.

Before the sentencing of 34-year-old Eric Loomis, whose case is before the state’s high court, Wisconsin authorities evaluated his criminal risk with a widely used tool called COMPAS, or Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, a 137-question test that covers criminal and parole history, age, employment status, social life, education level, community ties, drug use and beliefs.  The assessment includes queries like, “Did a parent figure who raised you ever have a drug or alcohol problem?” and “Do you feel that the things you do are boring or dull?”  Scores are generated by comparing an offender’s characteristics to a representative criminal population of the same sex.

Prosecutors said Mr. Loomis was the driver of a car involved in a drive-by shooting in La Crosse, Wis., on Feb. 11, 2013. Mr. Loomis denied any involvement in the shooting, saying he drove the car only after it had occurred. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to attempting to flee police in a car and operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent and was sentenced to six years in prison and five years of supervision.  “The risk assessment tools that have been utilized suggest that you’re extremely high risk to reoffend,” Judge Scott Horne in La Crosse County said at Mr. Loomis’s sentencing.

Mr. Loomis said in his appeal that Judge Horne’s reliance on COMPAS violated his right to due process, because the company that makes the test, Northpointe, doesn’t reveal how it weighs the answers to arrive at a risk score. Northpointe General Manager Jeffrey Harmon declined to comment on Mr. Loomis’s case but said algorithms that perform the risk assessments are proprietary. The outcome, he said, is all that is needed to validate the tools.  Northpointe says its studies have shown COMPAS’s recidivism risk score to have an accuracy rate of 68% to 70%. Independent evaluations have produced mixed findings.

Mr. Loomis also challenged COMPAS on the grounds that the evaluation treats men as higher risk than women.  COMPAS compares women only to other women because they “commit violent acts at a much lower rate than men,” wrote Ms. Remington, the state’s lawyer, in her response brief filed earlier this year in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Having two scales — one for men and one for women — is good science, not gender bias, she said.

The parties appeared to find common ground on at least one issue. “A court cannot decide to place a defendant in prison solely because of his score on COMPAS,” Ms. Remington acknowledged, describing it as “one of many factors a court can consider at sentencing.” Her comments echoed a 2010 ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court holding that risk assessments “do not replace but may inform a trial court’s sentencing determinations.”

June 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, May 27, 2016

"The Story of Federal Probation"

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

Critics of the modern federal sentencing system regularly assert that the sentencing guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”), pursuant to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”), have resulted in unnecessarily harsh prison sentences and overcrowded federal prisons.  As a central part of their critique, they specifically claim that the Commission’s policy choices, as reflected in the guidelines, have been responsible for the steep decline in the rate of federal probationary sentences (and other non-incarceration sentences, such as a fine only) imposed during the past three decades. That rate has fallen from around half of all federal sentences in the decades before the guidelines went into effect in late 1987, to slightly less than a quarter of federal sentences shortly after the guidelines were first implemented nationwide in the early 1990s, and to one in ten federal sentences today.

This Article assesses those critics’ claims about federal probation sentences and, in the process, tells the story of federal probation — beginning with a short history of federal probation from its creation in 1925, leading up to when the SRA created the Commission, and continuing through the ensuing three decades to the present time.  This Article discusses how the original Commission followed Congress’s directive to increase the overall rate of federal prison sentences (and thus reduce the rate of probation), but also analyzes how several factors unrelated to the guidelines are as much — or even more — responsible for the substantial decrease in the rate of federal probationary sentences since the guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987.

In particular, the current low rate of federal probationary sentences is in large part explained by: (1) significant changes in the types of federal offenses prosecuted during the past three decades (with two-thirds of federal cases today involving substantial drug-trafficking offenses, firearms offenses, or immigration offenses, which typically do not involve realistic candidates for probation); (2) a significant increase in the average federal defendant’s criminal history during the past three decades; (3) the enactment of several federal penal statutes either requiring a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment or otherwise prohibiting probation as a sentence; (4) the implementation of the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which today results in the pre-sentencing detention of three-quarters of federal offenders (and creates a strong incentive for detained defendants not to ask for probation); and (5) a significant increase in the percentage of non-citizen offenders in the federal criminal justice system (who are not eligible for probation as a practical matter).

May 27, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 23, 2016

ProPublica takes deep dive to idenitfy statistical biases in risk assessment software

Propublica-logoThe fine folks at ProPublica have this new important piece of investigative journalism about risk assessment tools.  The piece is headlined "Machine Bias: There’s software used across the country to predict future criminals. And it’s biased against blacks." Here is an extended excerpt, with links from the original:

[R]isk assessments are increasingly common in courtrooms across the nation. They are used to inform decisions about who can be set free at every stage of the criminal justice system, from assigning bond amounts ... to even more fundamental decisions about defendants’ freedom.  In Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, the results of such assessments are given to judges during criminal sentencing.

Rating a defendant’s risk of future crime is often done in conjunction with an evaluation of a defendant’s rehabilitation needs. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such combined assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process. And a landmark sentencing reform bill currently pending in Congress would mandate the use of such assessments in federal prisons.

In 2014, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder warned that the risk scores might be injecting bias into the courts. He called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study their use. “Although these measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice,” he said, adding, “they may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.” 

The sentencing commission did not, however, launch a study of risk scores.  So ProPublica did, as part of a larger examination of the powerful, largely hidden effect of algorithms in American life.

We obtained the risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014 and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes over the next two years, the same benchmark used by the creators of the algorithm.   The score proved remarkably unreliable in forecasting violent crime: Only 20 percent of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so.

When a full range of crimes were taken into account — including misdemeanors such as driving with an expired license — the algorithm was somewhat more accurate than a coin flip. Of those deemed likely to re-offend, 61 percent were arrested for any subsequent crimes within two years.

We also turned up significant racial disparities, just as Holder feared. In forecasting who would re-offend, the algorithm made mistakes with black and white defendants at roughly the same rate but in very different ways.

  • The formula was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.
  • White defendants were mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants.

Could this disparity be explained by defendants’ prior crimes or the type of crimes they were arrested for? No. We ran a statistical test that isolated the effect of race from criminal history and recidivism, as well as from defendants’ age and gender. Black defendants were still 77 percent more likely to be pegged as at higher risk of committing a future violent crime and 45 percent more likely to be predicted to commit a future crime of any kind. (Read our analysis.)

The algorithm used to create the Florida risk scores is a product of a for-profit company, Northpointe. The company disputes our analysis.  In a letter, it criticized ProPublica’s methodology and defended the accuracy of its test: “Northpointe does not agree that the results of your analysis, or the claims being made based upon that analysis, are correct or that they accurately reflect the outcomes from the application of the model.”

Northpointe’s software is among the most widely used assessment tools in the country. The company does not publicly disclose the calculations used to arrive at defendants’ risk scores, so it is not possible for either defendants or the public to see what might be driving the disparity. (On Sunday, Northpointe gave ProPublica the basics of its future-crime formula — which includes factors such as education levels, and whether a defendant has a job. It did not share the specific calculations, which it said are proprietary.)

May 23, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A bunch of timely and notable new Quick Facts from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has its pretty new website up and running, and my only knock on the site is that it is not easy anymore to see exacly what is new on the site.  Fortunately, I somehow discovered that the Commission released two notable new Quick Facts covering federal drug sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences.  (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

In addition to these two new items, the Commission also released two other timely "Quick Facts" last month, and here are links to all four of these reader-friendly USSC products:

May 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Notable new BJS report on "Aging of the State Prison Population, 1993–2013"

As detailed in this official press release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released this interesting new report with lots of data about the sentencing and incarceration of older offenders. Here are the statistical basics from the press release:

Prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than one year in state prison increased from 26,300 in 1993 to 131,500 in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.  This represented a growth from 3 percent to 10 percent of the total state prison population during this period.  From 1993 to 2013, the median age of state prisoners increased from 30 to 36 years.

Two main factors contributed to the aging of state prisoners between 1993 and 2013: a greater proportion of older prisoners were serving longer sentences, predominantly for violent offenses, and the number of admissions of older persons increased.  Both the admission rate and year-end imprisonment rate for state prisoners age 55 or older increased from 1993 to 2013, which indicates that the aging U.S. resident population was not solely responsible for the growth in older offenders in prison.

The imprisonment rate for prisoners age 55 or older sentenced to more than one year in state prison increased from 49 per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same age in 1993 to 154 per 100,000 in 2013.  Forty percent of state prisoners who were age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been admitted to prison when they were at least age 55, and 60 percent turned age 55 while serving time in prison.  Additionally, 40 percent of state prisoners age 55 or older on December 31, 2013, had been imprisoned for at least 10 years, compared to 9 percent in 1993.

Admission to prison of people age 55 or older increased 82 percent between 2003 and 2013.  People age 55 or older accounted for 1 percent of state prison admissions in 1993, 2 percent in 2003 and 4 percent in 2013.

In 2013, two-thirds (66 percent) of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving time for a violent offense, compared to a maximum of 58 percent of other age groups.  In 2013, nearly half (48 percent) of state prisoners age 55 or older were serving sentences for murder or non-negligent manslaughter or sexual assault, compared to nearly a third (31 percent) of prisoners ages 45 to 54 and more than a quarter (27 percent) of those ages 35 to 44. In 2013, 30 percent of state prisoners age 55 or older were imprisoned for sexual assault, which was more than double the percentage of prisoners age 44 or younger.

The mean sentence length for prisoners age 55 or older admitted on new court commitments was consistently higher than other age groups.  Their mean sentence length was 82 months in 2013.  In comparison, prisoners ages 18 to 39 had a mean sentence length of 69 months, and the mean sentence length for new inmates ages 40 to 54 was 71 months.

Prisoners age 55 or older convicted of new violent crimes received longer sentences and were expected to serve a higher proportion of their sentences than younger offenders.  Prisoners admitted in 2013 when they were age 55 or older could expect to serve an average of 182 months (15 years) for new violent offenses, compared to 116 months (10 years) for those admitted at ages 40 to 54 and 55 months (almost 5 years) for those ages 18 to 39.

May 19, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 16, 2016

"13 Important Questions About Criminal Justice We Can’t Answer. And the government can’t either."

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Marshall Project piece by Tom Meagher. Here are excerpts:

The open secret is that we know very little about much of how the criminal justice system operates in America. These aren’t things the government knows and won’t tell us (though there are plenty of those, too). It’s because state, local and federal governments, which ought to rely on data to inform the policies they enact, just don’t know.

In some cases, the federal government commissions criminal justice surveys that offer national estimates, often years after the fact. But the kind of granular, local, real-time data that powers most industries is all but absent. The number of times police use force or shoot someone in the line of duty are just the most obvious examples in our current national conversation.

Among the things we don’t know about our criminal justice system:

◾ how many people have a criminal record

◾ how many people have served time in prison or jail

◾ how many children are on some type of supervision or probation

◾ how many juvenile offenders graduate to become adult offenders

◾ how often people reoffend after being released from prison

◾ how many shootings there are in America

◾ how many police are investigated or prosecuted for misconduct

◾ how many people in America own guns

◾ how often police stop pedestrians or motorists

◾ how many incidents of domestic violence are reported to police

◾ what percentage of those eligible for parole are granted release from prison

◾ how many corrections officers are disciplined or prosecuted for abusing prisoners

◾ how many criminal cases are referred to prosecutors and how they decide which to pursue

The excuses for why we don’t have better data about our police, our courts and our prisons may sound familiar to anyone who has worked in corporate America: there isn’t enough money to hire analysts; the IT department says it can’t be done; the chief is moving on to another department.

Local autonomy has not been helpful for good criminal justice data. The fraction of the country’s 18,000 police departments that do collect figures on officers’ use of force have no consistent definition of what constitutes force. Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, cites similar issues in other parts of the system, like probation. There are thousands of probation agencies, but they are either run at the state or local level. In one place, probation is part of the executive branch; In another, it’s part of the judiciary. The lack of consistency makes contacting all the agencies a daunting prospect, much less moving them toward timely and uniform reporting of statistics....

There is one part of the Department of Justice tasked with collecting and publishing data: The Bureau of Justice Statistics. But no one argues that the bureau, which is a clearinghouse for all kinds of data on police staffing, prison rape, crime figures and more, should be doing it all by itself.... “I don’t think the BJS can do it,” said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Every year, Congress asks them to do more and more already. I don't think they have the capacity to do any more. They do amazing stuff, but I don't think they can."

When it comes to bad data, police aren’t even the worst offenders. While there is data on policing and corrections and some on the courts themselves, the biggest piece missing is information on how local prosecutors operate. "We have really no data whatsoever on what prosecutors do, almost none,” Pfaff said, adding, “We don't know what they're doing, why they're doing it and what drives their decision process."

And that ignorance has an impact on efforts to reduce incarceration levels and lower sentences. Because we don’t have data on how prosecutors work, we don’t focus on them when we talk about reforms, Pfaff said. Gelb called prosecutors “the biggest and most significant black box to be opened in the system.”

The problem with a lack of data on the criminal justice system is more than just budgetary. It’s a cultural issue that gets to the heart of why criminal justice reform is so very difficult. “For some [police] departments there may be cultural resistance to looking too closely,” Katz said. “Police departments can be very insular, very closed off. Within the closed system they may not even perceive that this may be a best practice.”

This aversion to transparency has rubbed off on lawmakers, who may find the numbers mildly interesting, but not really necessary to guiding policy for a system that largely runs itself, according to Gelb. “If that's the approach and the attitude, why would you need to have real time, actionable data for policy decisions? Policy makers have not seen the need for it,” he said. And what we — and policy makers — don’t know about criminal justice could fill a prison.

May 16, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, May 02, 2016

"Prosecutorial Analytics"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new article by Jason Kreag now avaible via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The institution of the prosecutor has more power than any other in the criminal justice system. What is more, prosecutorial power is often unreviewable as a result of limited constitutional regulation and the fact that it is increasingly exercised in private and semi-private settings as the system has become more administrative and less adversarial. Despite this vast, unreviewable power, prosecutors often rely on crude performance measures focused on conviction rates.  The focus on conviction rates fails to capture and adequately evaluate the breadth of prosecutorial decision-making.

We can do better by fully implementing analytics as a tool to evaluate the prosecutorial function.  This tool has revolutionized crime-fighting.  Yet, it has been conspicuously absent as a tool to improve other aspects of the criminal justice system.  This Article demonstrates the promise of prosecutorial analytics to improve oversight and to promote systemic interests in justice, fairness, and transparency. It offers concrete examples of how analytics can 1) help eliminate race-based jury selection practices; 2) minimize prosecutorial misconduct; 3) uncover whether undesirable arbitrary factors shape prosecutorial discretion; and 4) provide better metrics for the judiciary, practitioners, and the public to evaluate prosecutorial performance.

May 2, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015"

The title of htis post is the title of this new reseach paper by Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since 1976, Louisiana’s experience with capital punishment has been deeply dysfunctional, with a significantly higher case reversal rate than the national average, and marked disparities in sentencing, reversals, and executions depending on the race and gender of the victim and accused.  Our comprehensive analysis of each of 241 death-sentence cases in the post-Gregg period suggests that the “modern” death penalty has not resolved the issues of arbitrariness and bias that concerned the US Supreme Court in the 1972 Furman decision, which invalidated previous death penalty statutes throughout the country.

Among 155 resolved death-sentence cases, there have been 127 reversals (of which nine were exonerations) and 28 executions.  Since 2000, Louisiana has seen 50 reversals of previous death sentences, including seven exonerations, and only two executions.

Not only are these reversal rates extremely high, but the racial discrepancies are shocking as well.  Death sentences are imposed in 0.52% of cases with black male offenders and black male victims, but in 15.56% of cases with black male offenders and white female victims — 30 times more likely.  No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed.  The racial disparities even extend into the appeals process, where cases of killers of whites are clearly less likely to be reversed.  No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752.

April 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Important drug offender data begging hard normative policy question regarding noncitizen US prisoners

Attachment-1I just came across this interesting posting and data analysis via NumbersUSA, a group that describes itself as "moderates, conservatives & liberals working for immigration numbers that serve America's finest goals."  The posting is titled "Sentencing Reform Legislation Would Disproportionately Favor Non-Citizens," and here are some excerpts (with one very critical line emphasized by me toward the end of this excerpt):

U.S. prisoner data clearly shows two things. One, the majority of low-level drug offenders are serving their sentences in state, not federal prisons. Two, most of those incarcerated in federal prison for drug charges are non-citizens....

[Only] 3.6 percent of all prisoners, or 48,600, under state jurisdiction are serving time for drug possession. The remaining drug offenders were convicted for trafficking and other related offenses, such as facilitating the illicit drug trade. The distribution of drug prisoners in state prisons is fairly evenly divided among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. A higher proportion of females (24%) than males (15%) are incarcerated for drugs in state prisons.

As of April 7, 2016, there were 196,285 prisoners in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with 46.5 percent of these prisoners, (91,270) sentenced for drug offenses. The percentage of prisoners incarcerated for drugs is just over two and half times greater than the state prison population. However, overall, there are fewer prisoners serving time in federal prison for drug charges than in state prisons (212,000).

The Federal government collects data differently for state and federal prisoners. In order to get the breakdown of offenses for federal drug prisoners, data from the U.S Sentencing Commission is available. Looking at sentencing statistics from FY2007 to FY2015, a clear distinction between federal and state prison populations is that the proportion of federal prisoners serving time for drug possession is much higher than for state prisoners, and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among federal drug inmates.

There is a higher ratio of Hispanics serving drug sentences for both trafficking and possession convictions in federal prisons.  As Daniel Horowitz pointed out, this is because many of the drug offenders in federal prison are serving sentences for drug convictions related to the illicit drug trade on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In response to a congressional request regarding sentencing data for federal drug offenses, the U.S. Sentencing Commission sent data showing that 95% of the 305 individuals serving time in federal prison for simple drug offenses are non-citizens and 95.7 % were sentenced in southwest border districts — virtually all of them in Arizona. Furthermore, 95.7 % of the simple possession drug crimes for which offenders are incarcerated involved marijuana and the median weight of the drug involved in cases from border districts was 22,000 grams (approximately 48 pounds). Only 13 simple possession cases were tried in non-border districts in FY 2014.

In a letter sent to Sen. Jeff Sessions last fall, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 77% of individuals convicted of federal drug possession charges and more than 25% of individuals convicted of federal drug trafficking charges in FY2015 were non-citizen.

The profile for federal drug prisoners is different than at the state level, and this is why Congress needs to recognize and address these differences when crafting legislation that will effect this population.  Federal drug and immigration enforcement are for now inextricably tied together....

Sentencing reform bills reducing penalties for some federal prisoners (S. 2123 and H.R. 3713) are being portrayed by their supporters as a long overdue corrective to harsh sentencing laws for individuals who violate federal drug laws, which they argue create racial disparities in the nation’s prison population.

Reforming drug sentencing laws is one thing.  Releasing criminal aliens back into U.S. interior, is quite another.  The Obama Administration has already shown its willingness to do the latter, including those who were deemed to be criminal threats to the public.  Without a bill with strong, clear language and, most importantly, a Congress willing to extend oversight over the executive branch, it is plain that the sentencing reform legislation likely to soon come before Congress will accomplish little more than to provide an early release for dangerous criminal aliens, while still failing to hold President Obama to account for his failure to enforce U.S. immigration law.

This data discussion is a bit confusing because of its many references to both federal and state prisoners and both trafficking and possession offense and both percentages and absolute numbers. But, data particulars and confusions aside, the piece rightly highlights a very important data reality integral to any sophisticated discussion of efforts to reduce the federal prison population, especially for drug offenses: a significant percentage (and thus a large total number) of imprisoned and future federal drug offenders who would benefit from federal sentencing reform (perhaps up to 35% or even higher) would be noncitizens.

It understandable that persons deeply concerned about illegal immigration, and likely eager for policy changes always to prioritize benefits to US citizens over noncitizens, would find troublesome the statistical reality that federal sentencing reforms would benefit noncitizens significantly. However, this perspective may change if one realizes that noncitizen serious federal drug offenders who would get reduced sentences under any proposed sentencing reform would not get released "back into the US interior." Rather, any and every noncitizen serious federal drug offender who gets a reduced sentence is always going to be subject to immediate deportation once release from prison.

The important reality the many imprisoned and future noncitizen federal drug offenders are all to be deported after serving their federal prison sentences raises the hard normative policy question that is begged in any discussion of this data. That question is: What normative policy goal are we really achieving — other than spending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to house, feed and provide medical care to criminal noncitizens — by having noncitizens serve extra long federal prison terms if they are all to be deported at the end of these their terms no matter what?

Bill Otis and many others opposing proposed federal reforms are quick to stress the risk of increased domestic crime if we reduce current and future federal sentences and thereby release former offenders back into US communities sooner.  But that argument really does not hold up when we are talking about noncitizen offenders who will be forcibly deported to another nation after finishing whatever length of sentence they serve at federal taxpayer expense. (Indeed, I suspect imprisoning noncitizens in the US for long terms actually leads criminal noncitizens to become ever-more connected to US citizens and makes them even more likely to seek illegal return to the US after they are deported).

April 13, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (33)

Friday, April 08, 2016

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings approaching $2 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated April 2016, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through March 25, 2016 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by March 29, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, now 26,850 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of two years.  So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $1.9 billion dollars.  

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.  Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provides still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular and of the federal judiciary in general remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

April 8, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new policy brief from The Sentencing Project with lots notable data, which gets started this way:

Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data available), the rate of youth committed to juvenile facilities after an adjudication of delinquency fell by 47 percent Every state witnessed a drop in its commitment rate, including 19 states where the commitment rates fell by more than half.  Despite this remarkable achievement, the racial disparities endemic to the juvenile justice system did not improve over these same 10 years.  Youth of color remain far more likely to be committed than white youth. Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure commitment increased by 15%.

Both white youth and youth of color attained substantially lower commitment rates over these 10 years.  For white juveniles, the rate fell by 51 percent (140 to 69 per 100,000); for black juveniles, it fell 43 percent (519 to 294 per 100,000).  The combined effect was to increase the commitment disparity over the decade.  The commitment rate for Hispanic juveniles fell by 52 percent (230 to 111), and the commitment rate for American Indian juveniles by 28 percent (354 to 254).

As of 2013, black juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed as white juveniles, Americans Indian juveniles were more than three times as likely, and Hispanic juveniles were 61 percent more likely.  Another measurement of disproportionate minority confinement is to compare the committed population to the population of American youth.

Slightly more than 16 percent of American youth are African American. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of committed juveniles who were African American grew from 38 percent to 40 percent.  Roughly 56 percent of all American youth are white (non-Hispanic). Between 2003 and 2013, the percent of committed juveniles who were white fell from 39 percent to 32 percent.

April 2, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pew develops new "punishment rate" metric to provide more nuanced perspective on state incarceration levels

Via email today I learned of this intriguing new report from the folks at Pew Trusts titled "The Punishment Rate: New metric evaluates prison use relative to reported crime." Here is the short data-heavy report starts and ends:

Researchers, policymakers, and the public rely on a variety of statistics to measure how society punishes crime. Among the most common is the imprisonment rate — the number of people in prison per 100,000 residents. This metric allows for comparisons of prison use over time and across jurisdictions and is widely seen as a proxy for punishment. States with high imprisonment rates, for example, are considered more punitive than those with low rates.

A more nuanced assessment of punishment than the ratio of inmates to residents is that of inmates to crime— what The Pew Charitable Trusts calls the “punishment rate.” This new metric gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context.

Using the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system, Pew found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed. The analysis also shows that the nation as a whole has become more punitive than the imprisonment rate alone indicates....

The long-term rise in U.S. imprisonment is a familiar story. Although the imprisonment rate is an essential tool in understanding correctional trends, it paints an incomplete picture of the nation’s and individual states’ punitiveness because it does not take crime rates into account. The punishment rate provides a more nuanced assessment by placing each jurisdiction’s imprisonment rate in the context of the severity and frequency of its crime.

Analysis of punishment rates over time and across jurisdictions makes clear that the nation has become more punitive. What’s more, many states punish crime significantly more—or less—than their imprisonment rates alone indicate. States with particularly high or low punishment rates and those that experienced significant increases in their punishment rates over time may benefit from identifying and examining the policy choices responsible for their rankings and trends.

Helpfully, the folks at The Marshall Project have this interesting piece discussing what the new Pew metric does and does not tell us. That piece is headlined "The Tricky Business of Measuring Crime and Punishment: Pew researchers release a new prison scorecard, but it ain’t perfect," and here are excerpts:

We’ve grown accustomed to a quantified world of ever more complicated data available at our fingertips, on everything from how we sleep and eat to how often left-handed pinch hitters hit ground rule doubles on rainy days.  “The incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice.  It's kind of crazy,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, adding, “We can't answer some of the most basic questions about one of the most important functions of a society.”

Nearly five years ago, Gelb and Pew started by looking at recidivism — how often people released from prisons are arrested again for new offenses. But using recidivism alone to compare how states are doing at rehabilitating prisoners fell short.  One state could have a lower recidivism rate simply because it tended to have more low risk offenders in its prisons.  So then, Gelb said he began thinking about how to assess whether the “right” people are in prison, that is the serious, violent and repeat offenders most likely to commit new crimes.

Pew’s punishment rate focuses on the most serious felony offenses that lead to a year or more in state prison.  The calculation divides each state’s imprisonment rate in a given year by the rate of crimes reported there, using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  To account for some crimes being more serious and more likely to lead to longer prison sentences, Pew weights the annual crime rates by calculating the average time served for those crimes each year.  After all of these calculations, Pew found that as America's imprisonment rate has gone up in the past three decades and as crime has dropped, the “punishment rate” rose by 165 percent.

While the methodology makes sense and is probably the best available considering the shortcomings of federal crime data, the punishment rate is not yet the magic metric. Unpacking the components of Pew’s punishment rate illustrates how tricky measuring criminal justice progress can be.  The punishment rate depends on the number of crimes reported by the FBI.  But the Uniform Crime Report, created in the 1920s, tracks only seven key crimes: murder, assault, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft.  It excludes dozens of offenses — most notably drug crimes, which have been a major factor in the growth of prison populations.  Pew’s report readily acknowledges that the Uniform Crime Report omits crimes for which roughly one-fifth of state prisoners are serving time.

“What that means is not to say that drug trafficking is not a serious crime, just that it's not reported and tracked in a way that you can support adding it to this formula,” Gelb said.  “It does mean that — other things being equal — a state that has a lot of drug enforcement activity and stiff sentencing for drug offenses will have a higher punishment rate.”

The other trouble with the punishment rate is in the lag between crime and judgment.  Pew is comparing the crime rate each year to the current prison population at that moment. It doesn't account for the people being sentenced each year or the prison intakes.  It also doesn't look at what crimes those in prison were convicted of.  So there is an inherent lag between when crimes happen and when someone might go to prison for them. Despite plummeting crime since the 1990s, the growth in the punishment rate didn’t overtake the rise in imprisonment until 2011.  That may be partially explained by the gap in time between crime and incarceration, though Gelb contends that effect is ameliorated by calculating rolling averages for offense severity (but not the crimes themselves or the imprisonment rate). He said the adjustment is meant to be a barometer of the seriousness of crimes in a year rather than a “fine-tuned calculation.”  But that lack of precision could undercut Pew’s implicit argument that in some states we are “punishing for punishment’s sake.”

I find especially important and notable Gelb's astute comment that the "incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice." Especially as I am starting to prepare for my upcoming fantasy baseball draft, it is more than a bit disconcerting that I can easily find dozens of statistical projections for the Cleveland Indians' battery but no on-line sources to help predict how many batteries might be committed in Cleveland.

March 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

"Is Proposition 47 to Blame for California's 2015 Increase in Urban Crime?"

The question in the title of this post is a question a lot of persons who are following the broader national debate over sentencing reform are asking (as highlighted via this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences). It is also the title of this new research report authored by a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Here is the full textual of the introduction to the eight-page CJCJ report:

In November 2014, nearly 60 percent of California’s electorate voted to pass Proposition 47. This proposition made substantial sentencing reforms by reducing certain nonviolent, non-serious offenses, such as minor drug possession and shoplifting, from felonies to misdemeanors (CJCJ, 2014). Because the changes made by the new law applied retroactively, incarcerated people serving felony sentences for offenses affected by Proposition 47 were eligible to apply for resentencing to shorten their sentences or to be released outright.  Those who already completed felony sentences for Proposition 47 offenses could also apply to change their criminal records to reflect the reforms.

Critics of Proposition 47 contended it would increase crime by releasing those convicted of dangerous or violent felonies early (see “Arguments Against Proposition 47,” 2014). Opponents also suggested that reducing the severity of sentences for certain felonies would fail to deter people from committing crimes or completing court-ordered probation requirements.

In the initial months following the passage of Proposition 47, California’s jail population dropped by about 9,000 between November 2014 and March 2015 (the most recent date for which county jail figures are available at this time) (BSCC, 2016).  State prisons reported over 4,500 releases attributed to Proposition 47 (CDCR, 2016), for a total incarcerated population decline of more than 6 percent — a substantial decrease. Similar to the initial year after Public Safety Realignment took effect, January-June 2015 saw general increases in both violent and property crime in California’s cities with populations of 100,000 or more (Table 1).  During this period, homicide and burglary showed slight declines, while other Part I violent and property offenses experienced increases.

Is Proposition 47 to blame for the increases in reported urban crimes?  This report tests this question by comparing changes in crime rates, from January–June 2014 and January–June 2015, in California’s 68 largest cities to changes in: (a) county jail populations and (b) Proposition 47-related discharges and releases from prison to resentencing counties.

March 15, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

US Sentencing Commission released big new and timely report on "Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"

I just received via e-mail an alert concerning an important new publication by the US Sentencing Commission, and here is the full text of the email with links from the original:

Today, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a report on the recidivism of federal offenders. The study is groundbreaking in both its breadth—studying all 25,431 U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005, and in its duration—following the releasees over an eight year period. News release.

The Commission found that nearly half (49.3%) of offenders released from prison or placed on a term of probation in 2005 were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or for some other violation of the technical conditions of their probation or release. Summary and key findings.  

The Commission also found that:

  • Most offenders who recidivated did so within the first two years of the follow up period;
  • Assault was the most common serious rearrest offense but most rearrest offenses were non-violent in nature;
  • An offender’s criminal history as calculated under the federal sentencing guidelines was closely correlated with recidivism rates (rearrest rates ranged from 34% for offenders in the lowest criminal history category to 80% for offenders in the highest criminal history category);
  • An offender’s age at the time of release was also closely correlated with recidivism (rearrest rates ranged from 67% for offenders younger than 21 to 16% for offenders older than 60).

Download the full report.

I am going to need some time to really dig into this document to assess what it could and should mean for on-going debates over federal sentencing reforms. But even before I do a deep dive, I am eager to robustly compliment the Commission for producing such a data-rich and timely report for the benefit of everyone thinking about the current state and future direction of the federal sentencing system.

March 9, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

"This Morning’s Breakfast, Last Night’s Game: Detecting Extraneous Influences on Judging"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical article on SSRN authred by Daniel Chen, which actually has some encouraging federal sentencing findings. Here is the abstract (with the sentencing story highlighted):

We detect intra-judge variation in judicial decisions driven by factors completely unrelated to the merits of the case, or to any case characteristics for that matter.  Concretely, we show that asylum grant rates in US immigration courts differ by the success of the court city’s NFL team on the night before, and by the city’s weather on the day of, the decision.  Our data including half a million decisions spanning two decades allows us to exclude confounding factors, such as scheduling and seasonal effects.  Most importantly, our design holds the identity of the judge constant.

On average, US immigration judges grant an additional 1.5% of asylum petitions on the day after their city’s NFL team won, relative to days after the team lost.  Bad weather on the day of the decision has approximately the opposite effect. By way of comparison, the average grant rate is 39%.  We do not find comparable effects in sentencing decisions of US district courts, and speculate that this may be due to higher quality of the federal judges, more time for deliberation, or the constraining effect of the federal sentencing guidelines.

March 3, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Use of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b)" to reward cooperators after initial sentencing

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission research report and the second part of the title of this post is intended to highlight exactly why the first part of the title of this post is a sentencing story.  The 42-page report is data-rich, and here is the text of this USSC webpage providing background and noting some of the report's key findings:

This report examines sentence reductions for offenders who cooperate with the government in its efforts to investigate or prosecute others.  Offenders can receive credit for their “substantial assistance” in at least two ways; at the time of sentencing (USSG §5K1.1 departure motions) and after sentencing (Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) motions).  In both instances, the government must make a motion for a lower sentence.

This publication discusses the history and current use of Fed. R. Crim. P. 35(b).  It also presents data on the number of Rule 35(b) reductions and the jurisdictions where they are granted; the effects of Rule 35(b) reductions on sentences; and the offense and demographic characteristics of offenders who receive such reductions.  The report also compares the circumstances of offenders receiving Rule 35(b) reductions with those who received USSG §5K1.1 departures. 

Key Findings

A review of the 10,811 cases in which Rule 35(b) reductions were granted over the past six years suggests the following conclusions:

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are used relatively rarely, but a few districts make frequent use of Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions.  There is no clear data-based explanation for these differences, as these districts vary substantially from one another in overall case load, offense mix, and demographic composition.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were originally sentenced within the guideline range.  This suggests that courts are rarely departing or varying for reasons other than substantial assistance with this group of offenders.

  • Most offenders receiving a Rule 35(b) reduction were convicted of a drug trafficking offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty.

  • Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions generally provide less benefit than do § 5K1.1 substantial assistance departures.  This general statement holds true whether the Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction is compared to the §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure in terms of the ultimate sentence length or by the extent of the reduction from the original sentence.  The relatively high number of Rule 35(b) offenders who are convicted of drug and firearms offenses, though, as well as the relatively high number of those subject to mandatory minimum penalties, suggests that these offenders may receive a lower reduction because they are more serious offenders.

  • Although Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions are usually less beneficial to offenders than are §5K1.1 substantial assistance departures, offenders who receive both a §5K1.1 departure and a Rule 35(b) sentencing reduction receive the largest overall reduction in their sentences, regardless of how that reduction is measured.

  • Offenders sentenced in jurisdictions that primarily use Rule 35(b) sentencing reductions overall receive less of a benefit for their substantial assistance than do offenders in jurisdictions that rely primarily on §5K1.1 departures or a combination of Rule 35(b) reductions and §5K1.1 departures.

February 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years"

The title of this post is the title of this notable short "fact sheet" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is the text that goes with the graphical state-by-state data in the document

The number of people in prison in the United States has stabilized in recent years, but incarceration trends among the states have varied significantly. While 39 states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years, in most states this reduction has been relatively modest.  In addition, 11 states have had continuing rises in imprisonment.

Twelve states have produced double-digit declines within this period.  Four states have reduced their prison populations by over 20%: New Jersey (31% since 1999), New York (28% since 1999), Rhode Island (25% since 2008), and California (22% since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use).  Southern states including Mississippi and South Carolina, which have historically had high rates of incarceration, have also significantly downsized their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial reductions have had no adverse effect on public safety.

The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration.  The total U.S. prison population declined by 2.9% since its peak in 2009.  Of those states with declining prison populations, 20 have had less than a 5% decline since their peak years.  The reduction in the federal prison population has been of this magnitude as well, 2.9% since 2011.  And of the states with rising prison populations, four have experienced double-digit increases in the last five years, led by Nebraska (22%) and Arkansas (18%). While sharing in the national crime drop, these states have resisted the trend toward decarceration.

Just as mass incarceration has developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, so too have declines reflected changes in both policy and practice.  These have included such measures as drug policy sentencing reforms, reduced admissions of technical parole violators to prison, and diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level property and drug crimes.

February 18, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Notable data on racial and gender dynamics of recent changes in incarceration rates

This new Wonkblog post via the Washington Post reports on provides an interesting analysis of modern incarceration data under the headline "There’s been a big decline in the black incarceration rate, and almost nobody’s paying attention." Here are the details:

After decades of growth, the U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for the past six years.  Hidden within this welcome overall trend is a sizable and surprising racial disparity: African-Americans are benefitting from the national de-incarceration trend but whites are serving time at increasingly higher rates.

The pattern of results, evident in a series of reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is most stark among women. Since 2000, the imprisonment rate among African-American women has dropped 47 percent, while the rate among white women has risen by 56 percent.  These trends have combined to shrink the racial disparity in women’s imprisonment by two-thirds.

A similar pattern emerges for men, who compose a much larger share of the prison population.  The rate of imprisonment among African-American men remains very high, but nonetheless it has tumbled 22 percent since 2000. The rate for white men in contrast is 4 percent higher than it was in 2000.  As a result, the racial disparity has shrunk by nearly one quarter.

In responding to the data, Fordham University Professor John Pfaff echoed several criminologists when he said that“This is one of the most surprising pattern of results I have seen in corrections in a long time.”  Pfaff said that “law enforcement attitudes getting tougher in rural areas and softer in urban areas may be contributing to this change."

Adam Gelb, who directs the public safety performance project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested that “changes in drug use and enforcement over the past 15 years could be at play.”  Gelb said the methamphetamine, prescription opioid and heroin epidemics have affected whites more than did the crack cocaine epidemic, which increased incarceration among blacks in the 1980s and 1990s but has since waned.

Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia noted another possible cause: “sex offenders, who are disproportionately white and tend to receive long sentences, are a new target for the war on crime.”  Consistent with this explanation, a larger proportion of white inmates have been convicted of sex crimes (16.4 percent) than have black inmates (8 percent)....

Whatever cultural and macroeconomic forces are producing these changes could conceivably also be driving increased involvement in the criminal justice system by whites, including rising imprisonment in an era of de-incarceration.

February 11, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 04, 2016

"Obey All Laws and Be Good: Probation and the Meaning of Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Fiona Doherty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Probation is the most commonly imposed criminal sentence in the United States, with nearly four million adults currently under supervision.  Yet the law of probation has not been the focus of sustained research or analysis.  This Article examines the standard conditions of probation in the sixteen jurisdictions that use probation most expansively.  A detailed analysis of these conditions is important, because the extent of the state’s authority to control and punish probationers depends on the substance of the conditions imposed.

Based on the results of my analysis, I argue that the standard conditions of probation, which make a wide variety of noncriminal conduct punishable with criminal sanctions, construct a definition of recidivism that contributes to overcriminalization.  At the same time, probationary systems concentrate adjudicative and legislative power in probation officers, often to the detriment of the socially disadvantaged.  Although probation is frequently invoked as a potential solution to the problem of overincarceration, I argue that it instead should be analyzed as part of the continuum of excessive penal control.

February 4, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 01, 2016

Notable new parallel studies on comparable execution patterns in two notable states

Frank Baumgartner has recently released these two (short and reader-friendly) reports providing a "review of simple statistics" concerning who has been executed in two states in the modern death penalty era:

There were no data that especially surprised me during my (too quick) review of these reports, though I always find analysis of county-level death penalty patterns especially intriguing.  For example, these documents report that "six out of Florida’s 67 counties are responsible for more than half of the state’s 89 executions" and that "four out of Ohio’s 88 counties (Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton) — or just 5% — are responsible for more than half of the state’s 53 executions."  These kinds of data serve to highlight, yet again, just how significant county-level actors — particularly district attorneys and trial judges — truly are in the actual administration of the death penalty in the United States.

February 1, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Gender, Risk Assessment, and Sanctioning: The Cost of Treating Women Like Men"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper authored by Jennifer Skeem, John Monahan and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the U.S. are using risk assessment instruments to scaffold efforts to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety. Despite promising results, critics oppose the use of these instruments to inform sentencing and correctional decisions. One argument is that the use of instruments that include gender as a risk factor will discriminate against men in sanctioning.

Based on a sample of 14,310 federal offenders, we empirically test the predictive fairness of an instrument that omits gender, the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA). We found that the PCRA strongly predicts arrests for both genders — but overestimates women’s likelihood of recidivism.  For a given PCRA score, the predicted probability of arrest — which is based on combining both genders — is too high for women.  Although gender neutrality is an obviously appealing concept, it may translate into instrument bias and overly harsh sanctions for women.  With respect to the moral question of disparate impact, we found that women obtain slightly lower mean scores on the PCRA than men (d= .32); this difference is wholly attributable to men’s greater criminal history, a factor already embedded in sentencing guidelines.

January 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US

One of the many joys of the holiday season for data junkies is new releases of new official reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  This latest one, excitingly titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014," was released today at this BJS webpage where one can also find this summary of the report's basic coverage main findings:

Presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2014, including offenders supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2014. It details the downward trend in the correctional population and correctional supervision rate since 2007. It also examines the impact of changes in the community supervision and incarcerated populations on the total correctional population in recent years. Findings cover the variation in the size and composition of the total correctional population by jurisdiction at yearend 2014. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for select years.

Highlights:

  • Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at yearend 2014, about 52,200 fewer offenders than at yearend 2013.
  • About 1 in 36 adults (or 2.8% of adults in the United States) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.
  • The correctional population has declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007.
  • The community supervision population (down 1.0%) continued to decline during 2014, accounting for all of the decrease in the correctional population.
  • The incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014.

December 29, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Recuenco and review of Blakely error, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Effective accounting of how hard it is to account accurately for intricacies of modern mass incarceration

1-OdMX2oryFZyj4uCuqW5n8wThe strangely named Xenocrypt on the website Medium has a terrific new posting titled "Why You Don’t Understand Mass Incarceration." I recommend a full read of this lengthy post, and here are excerpts highlighting why:

“Mass incarceration” usually refers to the historically high U.S. incarceration rate, which is the share of the population in state and federal prison at any given time.  Starting in 1980 or so, incarceration rates had huge growth after decades of relative consistency....

But there’s a big problem.  The incarceration rate  —  who’s in prison right now — follows from two basic questions, which those famous graphs (and phrases like “the prison population”) mash together:

1. Who did we send to prison in the first place, and for what?  How much has “mass incarceration” meant expanded incarceration?  Which people are going to prison who’d never have gone under other policies? There’s a moral version of the question, too: What should we send people to prison for?

2. How long were they in prison for?  How much has “mass incarceration” meant deepened incarceration?  Which people would have gone to prison anyway but are spending more time incarcerated, either serving longer sentences or cycling through the system over and over again?  Again, there’s a moral version of the question: How long should people be in prison for?

Both of those questions are important, but they’re distinct topics, at right angles to each other analytically and morally: “should drug offenders go to prison at all?” is pretty different from “how long should convicted murderers serve in prison?”.  The next time you read an article about incarceration in the popular press or on social media, though, try to see if it’s even aware of the distinction. (For example, “reducing the prison population” is a pretty meaningless phrase  —  does it mean having fewer people go to prison or having people go to prison for less time?  One reason you don’t understand mass incarceration: the phrase “the prison population”.)

It’d be hard enough to understand how those two questions interact if we knew how to answer both of them, but no one knows how to answer either one.  There’s been a lot of impressive, interesting work trying to answer who goes to prison for how long (John Pfaff has been a big influence on this piece) and even the best of it is hampered by limited or unreliable data and difficult inferences, while obviously there isn’t much consensus on who should....

Quick: How many people really were sent to state or federal prison in the United States since 1978?  Don’t be surprised if you don’t know, since as far as I can tell no one else does either.

If you care about incarceration, then that should trouble you. This is, after all, the set of human beings that we’re talking about when we talk about mass incarceration. If we really understood mass incarceration then we would know a great deal about them.  We would know how many were African-American or white, how many served one, two, or ten terms in total, how many had different kinds of criminal histories prior to incarceration, how many only went to prison on drug offenses, how many went to prison on drug offenses then went back on violent offenses, and so on (and how all of those things changed over time and between different states and places).

But we don’t know any of that.  We don’t even know how to count them.  And if we don’t know how to count how many people have been to prison, then we don’t really know how mass incarceration affected real human beings....

We have some idea of how many prison terms there have been. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) lists about 12.7 million “new court commitments” to state and federal prison since 1978 in their National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) data, which is my main source here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that 12.7 million different people were sent to prison between 1978 and 2014, since some people had multiple prison terms....

Let’s say I’m right that around 7.5 million people were sent to state and federal prison since 1978.  Here’s another question that should be simple: How many of them wouldn’t have gone to prison without “mass incarceration” policies  — and what does that mean, anyway?  It’s clear that new prison terms did increase after 1978, so presumably a lot fewer people would have gone to prison without whatever it was that changed, but how many fewer people?  More like two million or more like six million?

Nobody knows, but we can make up some numbers, and maybe that’s a start.  For example we can consider a somewhat arbitrary hypothetical: What if new prison terms (new court commitments) had stayed constant per capita since 1978, when the rate was 57 in 100,000?  Under that hypothetical, there would have been about 5.6 million new prison terms since 1978, not 12.7 million.  I’ve illustrated this in the [reprinted] chart, which has the incarceration rate since 1978 in black, the rate of new prison terms in red, and the hypothetical of constant new terms per capita in blue.

December 18, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

DPIC releases year-end report highlighting death penalty use "declines sharply" in 2015

Yr2015sentences-fbThis press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Penalty Use in 2015 Declines Sharply: Fewest Executions, Fewest Death Sentences, and Fewest States Employing the Death Penalty in Decades," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2015 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here are excerpts from the press report:

The use of the death penalty in the U.S. declined by virtually every measure in 2015.  The 28 executions this year marked the lowest number since 1991, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).  As of December 15, fourteen states and the federal government have imposed 49 new death sentences this year, a 33% decline over last year’s total and the lowest number since the early 1970s when the death penalty was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only six states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states in 27 years. Eighty-six percent of executions this year were concentrated in just three states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5).  Executions in 2015 declined 20 percent from 2014, when there were 35.   This year was the first time in 24 years that the number of executions was below 30.

Death sentences have been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past 15 years. The country has now imposed fewer death sentences in the past ten years than in the decade just before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report....

Relatively few jurisdictions handed down death sentences in 2015. A single county — Riverside, California — imposed 16% of all death sentences in the U.S., and accounted for more death verdicts than any state, except for Florida. More than a quarter of the death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice barred in all but three states.  Texas, by contrast, imposed only two new death sentences in 2015.  Nearly two-thirds of all new death sentences this year came from the same two percent of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death-sentenced inmates nationwide.

Even as the use of the death penalty declined, its most dangerous flaw remained apparent.  Six death row prisoners were exonerated of all charges this year, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row.  The number of people on death row dropped below 3,000 for the first time since 1995, according to the latest survey by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

At least 70 death row prisoners with execution dates in 2015 received stays, reprieves, or commutations, 2.5 times the number who were executed.

I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.

December 16, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015"

Pie2015The title of this post is the title of this valuable new on-line report from the Prison Policy Initiative. Everyone interested in the details essentials of modern mass incarceration ought to check out the full report (and the larger version of the pie graphic reprinted here). Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Wait, does the United States have 1.4 million or more than 2 million people in prison? And do the 636,000 people released every year include the people getting out of local jails?  Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems of federal, state, local, and other types of confinement — and the data collectors that keep track of them — are so fragmented.  There is a lot of interesting and valuable research out there, but varying definitions and other incompatibilities make it hard — for both people new to criminal justice and for experienced policy wonks — to get the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement.  The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.  And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people in the various systems of confinement are locked up.

While the numbers in each slice of this pie chart represent a snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and therefore the many more lives that are affected by the criminal justice system.  In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to afford bail and are being held pretrial, or because they have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days.  The remainder of the people in jail — almost 200,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.... 

Now, armed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities and for what offenses, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform.  For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, and it demonstrates why the policymakers and advocates who see ending the War on Drugs as a politically acceptable first step towards ending mass incarceration must take great care that their actions both constitute actual progress for people with drug offenses and do not make further reforms more difficult.  Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward.

  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?

  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to also confront the geographically and politically dispersed second largest slice of the pie: the 3,283 local jails? Given that the people behind bars in this country are disproportionately poor and shut out of the economy, does it make sense to lock up millions of people for a few days at a time for minor offenses? Will our leaders be brave enough to ask the public to support smarter investments in community-based drug treatment and job training? Or will they support the continued use of jails as mass incarceration’s front door?

December 10, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Latest USSC retroctivity data suggest prison savings over $1.4 billion from drugs-2 guideline amendment retroactivity

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated December 2015, provides "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782 [the so-called drugs -2 amendment]. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by November 30, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, well over 20,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of just about two years.

So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers over $1.4 billion dollars. As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

December 6, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Spotlighting why ending the drug war could make a big dent in mass incarceration

This new Washington Post Wonkblog posting by Christopher Ingraham, headlined "Drug offenders make up nearly one-third of prison admissions, new analysis shows," details one reason why I think ending the so-called "war on drugs" would be a very important first step toward tackling the problem of modern mass incarceration.  Here is how it starts (with links from the source):

Drug policy activists long have said that decriminalizing parts of the drug trade would relieve some of the burden on overcrowded prisons.  But some researchers have pushed back against this notion in recent years.  They point out that drug offenders account for only about 1 in 5 state and federal inmates.  The Urban Institute showed earlier this year that cutting drug admissions in half would reduce the state prison population by only about 7 percent.  Facts like these have led some to conclude that ending the drug war will do little to end the mass incarceration crisis.

But in a new analysis published this week, Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rothwell says that arguments about the impact of drug reforms on prison populations have overlooked one key distinction: the difference between the number of people in prison at any given time, and the number of people moving into and out of prison.  Rothwell calls this "stock and flow."

He points out that while drug offenses account for only 20 percent of the prison population, they make up nearly one-third — 31 percent — of the total admissions to prison.  The reason for the difference?  Drug offenders typically serve shorter sentences than, say, murderers or other violent criminals.  So simply looking at the number of people in prison at a given point in time understates the true impact of drug laws on incarceration.

"Drug crimes have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades," Rothwell writes.  "In every year from 1993 to 2009, more people were admitted for drug crimes than violent crimes."

Rothwell agrees that rolling back the drug war won't totally solve the incarceration problem. "But it could help a great deal, by reducing exposure to prison," he writes.  Even a brief jail or prison sentence — even just an arrest — can have dire consequences for people at the poorer margins of society.  A 30-day jail term for a pot bust, for instance, can mean the loss of a job, the loss of income, and an eventual turn to crime to survive.

November 27, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Latest BJS official data show reduction of offenders on probation and parole

As reported in this official press release, the Bureau of Justice Statistics this past week released this report, titled "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2014," providing the latest official data on offenders under community supervision throughout the nation. Here are some data highlights from the press release:

The one-percent decline in the number of adults supervised in the community on probation or parole between yearend 2013 and 2014 marked the seventh consecutive year of decline in the population, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today.  In the past seven years, adults under community supervision declined between 0.5 percent and 2.6 percent annually, or by nearly 400,000 offenders over the 7-year period.

Between yearend 2008 and 2014, the probation population fell 10 percent, while the parole population increased nearly 4 percent.  Probation is a court-ordered period of supervision in the community, generally used as an alternative to incarceration, and parole is a period of conditional supervised release in the community following a prison term.

An estimated 4.7 million adults were under correctional community supervision in the United States on December 31, 2014, down 45,300 offenders from the same day in 2013. The decline in community supervision was due to a drop in the number on probation that was offset by an increase in the number on parole. Between yearend 2013 and 2014, the probation population decreased by 46,500 offenders (from 3,910,600 to 3,864,100 offenders) while the parole population increase by 1,700 offenders over the same period (from 855,200 to 856,900 offenders)....

Other probation findings include —

  • About 25 percent of probationers were female in 2014, up from 22 percent in 2000....
  • Of all persons on probation during 2014, the incarceration rate (5 percent) among those violating their conditions of supervision — including incarceration for a new offense, a revocation and other reasons — was similar to the rate observed in 2013 (5.4 percent).

Other parole findings include —

  • Twelve percent of parolees were female in 2014, unchanged from 2000.
  • In 2014, nearly a third (31 percent) of parolees were being supervised for violent offenses, about a third (31 percent) for drug crimes and nearly a quarter (22 percent) for property offenses....
  • Among all persons on parole during the year, an estimated 9 percent were reincarcerated in 2014, a rate similar to 2013.

November 21, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 20, 2015

"Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates"

PSPP_PrisonTime_fig1The title of this post is the headline of this notable Issue Brief released this wqeek by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Here is how it gets started (with notes omitted):

The average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. Across all six major categories of federal crime — violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses — imprisonment periods increased significantly. (See Figure 1.)  For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and other policy choices helped drive this growth, which cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 billion in 2012 alone.  Despite these expenditures, research shows that longer prison terms have had little or no effect as a crime prevention strategy — a finding supported by data showing that policymakers have safely reduced sentences for thousands of federal offenders in recent years.

Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they remain. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (after reaching a high of 61,712 in 2011). During the same period, the average time served by released federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months.  These two upward trends ...caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336 percent, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012.  One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders — those convicted of drug-related charges — was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”

The long-term growth of this population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending.  As Pew reported in February 2015, federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and all U.S. attorneys.

November 20, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"States of Women's Incarceration: The Global Context"

The title of this post is the title of this effective new on-line report by the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is how it gets started:

We already know that when it comes to incarceration, the United States is truly exceptional.  As we have reported previously, the United States incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. Worldwide, and within the U.S., the vast majority of those incarcerated are men.  As a result, women's incarceration rates are overshadowed and often lost in the data.  As a first step in documenting how women fare in the world's carceral landscape, this report compares the incarceration rates for women of each U.S. state with the equivalent rates for countries around the world.

Across the globe, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rates of incarcerating women are all American states.  Thailand, at number 26, is the first non-U.S. government to appear on this high-end list, followed closely at number 27 by the Unites States itself.  The next 17 jurisdictions are also American states.

Overall, with the exception of Thailand and the U.S. itself, the top 44 jurisdictions throughout the world with the highest rate of incarcerating women are individual American states.  Nearly 30% of the world's incarcerated women are in the United States, twice the percentage as in China and four times as much as in Russia.

Putting U.S. states in a global context is sobering; even the U.S. states that have comparatively low rates of incarceration far out-incarcerate the majority of the world. Illinois' incarceration rate for women is on par with El Salvador, where abortion is illegal and women are routinely jailed for having miscarriages.  New Hampshire is on par with Russia, and New York with Rwanda.

Rhode Island, which has the lowest incarceration rate for women in the U.S., would have the 15th highest incarceration rate in the world if it were a country.  In other words, only 14 countries (not including the United States) incarcerate women at a higher rate than Rhode Island, the U.S. state that incarcerates women at the lowest rate of imprisonment.

November 19, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 16, 2015

"Risk, Race, & Recidivism: Predictive Bias and Disparate Impact"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely empirical paper by Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

One way to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety is to use risk assessment instruments in sentencing and corrections.  These instruments figure prominently in current reforms, but controversy has begun to swirl around their use.  The principal concern is that benefits in crime control will be offset by costs in social justice — a disparate and adverse effect on racial minorities and the poor.  Based on a sample of 34,794 federal offenders, we empirically examine the relationships among race (Black vs. White), actuarial risk assessment (the Post Conviction Risk Assessment [PCRA]), and re-arrest (for any/violent crime).

First, application of well-established principles of psychological science revealed no real evidence of test bias for the PCRA — the instrument strongly predicts re-arrest for both Black and White offenders and a given score has essentially the same meaning — i.e., same probability of recidivism — across groups. Second, Black offenders obtain modestly higher average scores on the PCRA than White offenders (d = .43; appx. 27% non-overlap in groups’ scores).  So some applications of the PCRA could create disparate impact — which is defined by moral rather than empirical criteria.  Third, most (69%) of the racial difference in PCRA scores is attributable to criminal history — which strongly predicts recidivism for both groups and is embedded in sentencing guidelines.  Finally, criminal history is not a proxy for race — instead, it fully mediates the otherwise weak relationship between race and re-arrest.  Data may be more helpful than rhetoric, if the goal is to improve practice at this opportune moment in history.

November 16, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Who's Really Sentenced to Life Without Parole?: Searching for 'Ugly Disproportionalities' in the American Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and important new paper by Craig Lerner digging deeply into the realities of LWOP sentencing in eight states. Here is the abstract:

Critics argue that the American criminal justice system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities” and “brutal penalties on the undeserving.”  One particularly brutal punishment is the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).  The punishment, conceived decades ago as a substitute for the death penalty, scarcely exists in the rest of the world. Today, while capital punishment wanes in the United States, steadily increasing numbers of defendants are sentenced to LWOP.  Furthermore, according to a recent ACLU Report, over 3,000 of the 50,000 inmates serving LWOP were convicted of nonviolent offenses.  There is no uglier disproportionality than a defendant, guilty of a minor crime, banished to prison for the remainder of his life.

This Article questions this narrative and therewith the contemporary wisdom as to the brutality of American criminal justice, at least in its imposition of LWOP sentences.  The author conducted a detailed study of every inmate sentenced to LWOP in eight states.  In a few states, it is impossible to find a single inmate sentenced to LWOP for any crime other than murder or the most serious violent crimes.  Even in jurisdictions that impose LWOP for crimes labeled “nonviolent,” the inmates are few in number and often present aggravating factors, such as extensive criminal histories or previous violent crimes. Inevitably, criminals sentenced to LWOP will vary in culpability, and some will appear not to merit this punishment.  Drawing attention to their plight can spur executive clemency in individual cases. But accusations that the American legal system is rife with “ugly disproportionalities,” at least insofar as this claim is applied to LWOP sentences in the states, appear to have little merit.

November 15, 2015 in Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, November 09, 2015

New research suggests overcrowding in California prisons increased post-release parole violations

Opponents of modern sentencing reform efforts are often quick and eager to highlight research showing high rates of recidivism among those released from prison to argue that public safety could be adversely affected by any and all sentencing reform.  In light of such claims, I find notable this new published empirical research suggesting that prison overcrowding in California may be in part responsible for high recidivism rates.    The published research is titled "Does Prison Crowding Predict Higher Rates of Substance Use Related Parole Violations? A Recurrent Events Multi-Level Survival Analysis," and here are excerpts from the abstract:

Objective

This administrative data-linkage cohort study examines the association between prison crowding and the rate of post-release parole violations in a random sample of prisoners released with parole conditions in California, for an observation period of two years (January 2003 through December 2004).

Background

Crowding overextends prison resources needed to adequately protect inmates and provide drug rehabilitation services. Violence and lack of access to treatment are known risk factors for drug use and substance use disorders. These and other psychosocial effects of crowding may lead to higher rates of recidivism in California parolees.

Methods

Rates of parole violation for parolees exposed to high and medium levels of prison crowding were compared to parolees with low prison crowding exposure. Hazard ratios (HRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) were estimated using a Cox model for recurrent events. Our dataset included 13070 parolees in California, combining individual level parolee data with aggregate level crowding data for multilevel analysis....

Conclusions

Prison crowding predicted higher rates of parole violations after release from prison. The effect was magnitude-dependent and particularly strong for drug charges. Further research into whether adverse prison experiences, such as crowding, are associated with recidivism and drug use in particular may be warranted.

November 9, 2015 in Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

BJS releases big new statistical study on "Federal Sentencing Disparity: 2005–2012"

As detailed at this webpage, the Bureau of Justice Statistics today released a notable new study, excitingly titled " "Federal Sentencing Disparity: 2005–2012," which is described this way:  

Examines patterns of federal sentencing disparity among white and black offenders, by sentence received, and looks at judicial variation in sentencing since Booker v. United States, regardless of race. It summarizes U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, discusses how approaches of other researchers to the study of sentencing practices differ from this approach, defines disparity as used in this study, and explains the methodology.  This working paper was prepared by Abt Associates for BJS in response to a request by the Department of Justice's Racial Disparities Working Group to design a study of federal sentencing disparity.  Data are from BJS's Federal Justice Statistics Program, which annually collects federal criminal justice processing data from various federal agencies. The analysis uses data mainly from the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The full lengthy study is available at this link, and this one-page summary highlights some of these notable substantive findings:

Racial disparity

In the 8-year period between 2005 and 2012, black men received roughly 5% to 10% longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes, after accounting for the facts surrounding the case.  While there has been a trend toward more lenient sentences overall, white males have seen larger declines in average prison sentences than black males.  Black males did not benefit as much from this increased leniency, which widened the existing racial sentencing disparity between these two groups.  The disparity between black and white males narrowed as crimes became more serious.  Race probably correlated with other characteristics — such as education, income, demeanor, and location — which might have accounted partially for the differing sentences among white and black males.

Judge effect

The exercise of prosecutorial discretion did not change much during the study period, although racial disparity increased during that time.  The trend is likely attributable to individual judges’ behavior.  Evidence from the study suggests considerable differences in the sentences that judges assigned for white and black offenders.  Judges disagreed about the relative sentences for white and black males, and some judges gave black males especially longer sentences.  However, judges who imposed above-average prison terms on black offenders also tended to impose above-average prison terms on white offenders.  And judges who sentenced white offenders to below-average prison terms also commonly gave below-average prison terms to black offenders.  Sentences were disparate in that similarly situated offenders who had committed similar crimes received sentences that differed depending on the judge who imposed the sentence.

Female sentencing

Judges were found to disagree more about the sentences for females than the sentences to be imposed on males.  As a whole, females and white males received less severe sentences than black males over the 8-year study period.  Black females were found to not be disadvantaged compared to white females.

October 22, 2015 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11)