Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Within-guideline sentences remain below 50% according to latest quarterly USSC data
As reported in this post a few months ago, US Sentencing Commission First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data included some big news: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, in that quarter, only around 49% of the 18,169 sentences imposed were within-guideline sentences.
Today, the USSC released, via this document, its Second Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data, and it remains the case that a slight majority of federal sentences are being imposed outside the guidelines. But, as Table 4 on this latest data run reveals, this reality is partially a product of the fact that in the second quarter of FY14 there was a record-high percentage of above-guideline sentences (2.5%) and a record-high percentage of government-sponsored below-guideline sentences (28.6%). In this last quarter, notably, there was actually a small downtick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from 20.7% of all federal cases down to 20.1%).
As I have said before, I believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way both federal prosecutors and federal judges are now using their sentencing discretion. The data from the last few quarters suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Eric Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal prosecutors and federal judges feel ever more justified in seeking/imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
"Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision"
The title of this post is the title of a notable new report Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This press release about the report provides a helpful summary of its main findings, and here are excerpts from the release:
More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
A wide range of laws and policies adopted in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate at which inmates serve their full sentences behind bars, leaving no time at the end for parole or probation agencies to monitor their whereabouts and activities or help them transition back into society by providing substance abuse, mental health, or other intervention programs....
Key findings of the report, Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision, include:
Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.
The max-out rate, the proportion of prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.
Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and left without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.
Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase. In a subset of states with data available by offense type, 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 31 and 32 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.
In the past few years, at least eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—adopted reforms to ensure that authorities can supervise all or most offenders after release from prison. These policies, most of which are too new to evaluate, typically carve out the supervision period from the prison sentence rather than add time for it after release. This allows states to reduce prison spending and reinvest some of the savings in stronger recidivism-reduction programs....
These new policies are backed by data that indicate inmates released to supervision are less likely to commit new crimes than those who max out and return home without oversight....
The report outlines a policy framework to guide state leaders in reducing max-outs and recidivism. It recommends that policies require post-prison supervision, carve out the community supervision period from prison terms, strengthen parole decision-making, tailor conditions to offenders’ risks and needs, adopt evidence-based practices, and reinvest savings in community corrections.
Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Empirical explorations of modern capital clemency
Michael Heise has recently posted on SSRN two intriguing pieces concerning the modern patterns of capital clemency. Here are links and abstracts:
While America’s appetite for capital punishment continues to wane over time, clemency for death row inmates is all but extinct. Moreover, what little clemency activity that persists continues to distribute unevenly across gender, racial and ethnic groups, geography, governors’ political affiliation, and over time. Insofar as courts appear extremely reluctant to review — let alone interfere with — clemency activity, little, if any, formal legal recourse exists. Results from this study of clemency activity on state death rows (1973-2010) suggest that potential problems arise, however, to the extent that our criminal justice system relies on clemency to function as coherent extrajudicial check.
Conventional wisdom notes persistent regional differences in the application of the death penalty, with southern states’ appetite for capital punishment exceeding that of non-southern states. Scholars analyzing the distributions of death sentences and state executions find a geographic influence. Less explored, however, is a possible regional difference in the distribution of executive clemency even though clemency is an integral component of a criminal justice system that includes capital punishment. If geography influences the distribution of the death penalty, geography should also influence the distribution of clemency. Data, however, reveal some surprises. Using a recently-released data set of all state death row inmates from 1973 to 2010, this paper considers whether clemency is exercised in southern and non-southern states in systematically different ways. No statistically significant differences exist between southern and non-southern states when it came to clemency, even though southern states were more prone to execute and less prone to disturb death sentences through reversal on appeal than northern states. When it comes to the influence of geography in the death penalty context, the findings provide mixed support and convey a complicated picture.
Friday, May 30, 2014
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report
Astute readers who also follow closely a lot of broader media and political discussions of mass incarceration might have noticed that I have given relatively little attention on this blog to the massive report released late last month by the National Research Council (NRC) titled "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences." To date, I only noted the report and some early reactions to it in this post.
One reason for my limited blog coverage is a result of the NRC report running more than 450 pages (accessible at this link); I am always disinclined to do in-depth analysis or commentary on a significant report unless and until I have had adequate time to read most of it. But the primary reasons I have not blogged much about the NRC report is because, as I found time to start reading key parts of the NRC effort, I found myself underwhelmed by the originality and sophistication of the report. I had hoped, for example, that the NRC report would take a close look at the relationship between lead exposure and crime rates and/or would systematically look at critical state and regional differences in US crime and imprisonment rates. Instead, rather than break any new ground, much of the NRC report reads like an effective and lengthy summary of a lot of conventional wisdom.
Fortunately, a leading legal academic and empiricist with a critical eye has started to bring a (very) critical perspective to the NRC report. Through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg (all so far linked below), Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the NRC analysis. John's first post, titled "The Problematic National Research Council's Report on Incarceration: Some Initial Thoughts," previews his series this way:
The National Research Council, the well-respected research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently released a putatively authoritative report on the causes and implications of US incarceration growth. Sadly, it appears to be a deeply, profoundly flawed report. It is, in short, a rehashing of the Standard Story that I have argued time and again lacks real empirical support.
Dangerously, this report gives the Standard Story the NRC’s seal of approval, which will only increase its hold on policy-makers’ perceptions. The New York Times has already written an editorial pushing the NRC’s Standard-Story arguments, and no doubt it will be cited widely in the months to come.
So in the posts ahead, I want to dig into the report more deeply. I will certainly acknowledge what it gets right, but my sense so far is that it is one rife with errors.
From the start, here are John's posts to date highlighting some of the NRC errors he sees:
- The Flawed NRC Report: No Mention of Realignment!
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA
I am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus. As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.
Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:
In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.
Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.
That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.
A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system. Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.
• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally. At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation. That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.
• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months. By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison. Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.
• Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences. For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house. Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.
Here are links to all the article in the series:
- Mortgage fraud assault a Pyrrhic victory
- Rewards uneven in mortgage fraud cases
- She fought charges, got 10-year term
- Pleading guilty could cut defendant's sentence
Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.
May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration
If you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:
At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.
Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies. There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached. So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....
[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”
As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.
Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....
So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations
I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link. Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:
After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....
Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....
Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.
White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.
At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Within-guideline sentences dip below 50% according to latest USSC data
Due to a busy end-of-the-semester schedule, I only just this week got a chance to look at US Sentencing Commission's posting here of its First Quarter FY14 Quarterly Sentencing data. And, as the title of this post highlights, there is big news in these USSC data: for the first time, less than half of all federal sentences imposed were technically "within-guideline" sentences. To be exact, only 48.8% of the 18,169 sentences imposed during the last three months of 2013 were within-guideline sentences.
In this post following the previous quarterly USSC data release, I noted a small uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges (from around 18.5% of all federal cases to 19.3% in the last quarter of FY13). At that time, I hypothesized that perhaps a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases after Attorney General Eric Holder's big August 2013 speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. Now, in this latest quarterly data run, the number of judge-initiated, below-guideline sentences has ticked up again, this time to 20.4% of all sentenced federal cases. I now this this data blip is evidence of a real "Holder effect."
Though still more time and data are needed before firm causal conclusions should be reached here, I do believe all the recent talk about the need for federal sentencing reform is likely finding expression in the way federal judges are now using their post-Booker discretion. The data from the last six month suggest that, as we hear ever more public policy groups and politicians on both the right and the left echoing AG Holder's call for less reliance on long terms of incarceration, more federal judges feel ever more justified in imposing more sentences below the guidelines.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Noting disparities resulting from reservation sentencing being federal sentencing
This local article from North Dakota, which is headlined "Article scrutinizes disparities in sentencing on reservations: American Indians face harsher penalties when tried in fed court vs state courts, advocates say," highlights an often-overlooked pocket of the federal sentencing system. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:
Dana Deegan is serving a 10-year sentence for placing her newborn son in a basket and abandoning him for two weeks, allowing him to die. Deegan, who was 25 years old when her son died in 1998 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, had three older children and suffered from depression and abuse. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to second-degree murder to avoid a possibly harsher sentence.
Advocates have said her sentence was much harsher than those given for similar cases prosecuted in state courts in North Dakota – a disparity that critics say applies generally because American Indians accused of major crimes on reservations are prosecuted in federal courts, which generally have stiffer penalties. The issue, which lawyers, judges and legal scholars have long discussed, will soon be the subject of a national study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
Senior Judge Myron Bright of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who is based in Fargo, has for years been an outspoken critic of sentencing disparities involving prosecution of American Indians on reservations. The issue is also the focus of an article calling for changes to address the sentencing gaps in the current issue of the North Dakota Law Review [available at this link], and the study is backed by Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota. The law review authors, one of them a tribal judge in North Dakota, noted the Deegan case as a glaring example of the gap in sentences between the federal courts — whose defendants are overwhelmingly American Indians prosecuted on reservations — and comparable crimes tried in state courts.
Non-Indian women in two similar cases prosecuted in North Dakota state courts received much lighter sentences, authors BJ Jones and Christopher Ironroad noted [in this article, titled "Addressing Sentencing Disparities for Tribal Citizens in the Dakotas: A Tribal Sovereignty Approach"]. In 2000, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced in Cass County for negligent homicide to three years, with imposition suspended for three years of supervised probation, which was terminated less than two years later, according to court records.... In 2007, a 28-year-old woman was sentenced in Burleigh County to 10 years in prison, with eight years suspended, for causing the death of her newborn, which died after being left in a toilet....
Federal courts have jurisdiction on Indian reservations under the Major Crimes Act passed in 1885. Ordinarily, states prosecute “street crimes,” including assault, burglary, sexual assault, murder and vehicular manslaughter. Because of strict sentencing guidelines, with mandatory minimums and no probation or time off for good behavior, sentences in federal court generally are higher than those in state courts, at least in states including North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, lawyers and federal judges agree. “The law needs to be changed and Indians need to be treated on an equal basis, the same as their white neighbors,” Bright said.
But many agree that state penalties for certain crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter, are higher. That, in fact, was a finding the last time the issue of sentencing disparities was studied in 2003 by an advisory group for the Sentencing Commission. But the group found the perception of an unfair disparity in sentences received by American Indians in federal court compared to state court was “well founded,” Purdon wrote the chairman of the Sentencing Commission earlier this month.
Purdon, who serves as chairman of the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said more study is needed into the widespread perception of unfair sentences. “If the court system is perceived as unfair it undermines my ability to make the reservations safer,” he said, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice supports further study of the issue.
Two federal trial judges in North Dakota agreed that, because of federal sentencing guidelines, criminal sentences sometimes are higher than state court sentences, but cautioned that the reverse also is true for certain crimes. “I believe it works both ways,” said Chief Judge Ralph Erickson of U.S. District Court in Fargo. “Some crimes are less than customarily handed down in state courts,” such as vehicular homicide.
Much of the disparity comes from the lack of parole in the federal court system, meaning a defendant serves the entire sentence, Erickson said. “That’s where the rub comes in,” he said. “We’re aware of that and it’s frustrating.”... A comprehensive study is needed to determine if there are, in fact, sentencing disparities, Erickson said. If so, then solutions can be identified.
“There’s an overall disparity in sentencing,” said Judge Daniel Hovland of U.S. District Court in Bismarck. “Generally, federal sentences tend to be more severe,” but he agreed with Erickson that there are exceptions, including manslaughter. “I think the sentencing commission is going to take a much closer look at that issue and it will certainly bode well for everyone in the judicial system,” Hovland said. “I’m confident they’ll reach a fair assessment.”
Sunday, March 09, 2014
LDF releases latest, greatest accounting of death row populations
As reported here by the Death Penalty Information Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has just released its latest version of its periodic accounting of capital punishment developments in the United States. This document, available here, is titled simply "Death Row, USA," and reports on data though July 1, 2013. Here is how DPIC summarizes some of its key findings:
The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time.
The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.
Friday, February 28, 2014
More fascinating "Quick Facts" from the US Sentencing Commission
I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce insightful little documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
As I have said repeatedly before, I think this is a very valuable innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from all the publications in the series. This latest one on certain firearm offenses, Section 924(c) Offenders , includes these notable data:
From among 84,173 cases reported to the USSC in FY2012, "2,189 involved convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)" which criminalized possession/use of a firearm in furtherance of another offense and:
The average length of sentence for offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was 165 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) was 84 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) and another offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 132 months. When the other offense carried a mandatory minimum penalty the average sentence was 181 months.
- The average length of sentence for section 924(c) offenders who were determined to be career offenders was 252 months.
- The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) was 358 months.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Notable New Yorker piece reporting on forthcoming federal judicial sentencing patterns
A helpful reader altered me to this notable new piece about sentencing policies and practices from The New Yorker authored by Columbia Law Prof Tim Wu. The full piece ends by stressing one concern I often express about the challenge of using mandatory sentencing laws to try to deal with concerns about judicial sentencing disparity — namely "that they tend to increase the power that prosecutors have over sentencing, and prosecutors, if anything, vary even more than judges." But the piece caught my attention late on a Friday afternoon mostly because of this discussion of some notable forthcoming research on modern federal sentencing patterns:
Sentencing decisions change lives forever, and, for that reason and others, they’re hard to make. It is often suspected that different judges sentence differently, and we now have a better idea of this. A giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary reveals clear patterns: Democrats and women are slightly more lenient. Where you’re sentenced matters even more. Judges in the South are harsher; in the Northeast and on the West Coast, they are more easygoing.
The study’s author is Crystal Yang, a fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, who based it on data from more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009. (Impressively, in certain ways her study exceeds the work of the United States Sentencing Commission.) She writes, “Female judges sentenced observably similar defendants to approximately 1.7 months less than their male colleagues.” In addition, judges appointed by a Democratic President were 2.2 per cent more likely to exercise leniency. Regional effects are more challenging to measure, because, for example, the kinds of crime that happen in New York might differ from those in Texas. But recent data suggest that, controlling for cases and defendant types, “there is substantial variation in the sentence that a defendant would receive depending on the district court in which he is sentenced” — as much as eleven months, on average. The results are all statistically significant, according to Yang — and, if the differences sound relatively small, it is also important to remember that what she is measuring are average differences. In straightforward cases, judges may be more likely to issue similar rulings. It’s the hard cases where judges vary. In a case on the edge, the identity of your judge might make an important difference.
Of course, all sophisticated federal sentencing practitioners know that in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the "identity of your judge might make an important difference." And I regularly tell law students that every federal defendant ought to realize from the moment he or she is subject to a federal investigation, in all cases, not just those "on the edge," the identity of the prosecutor and probation officer and defense attorney also "might make an important difference." Consequently, I am not sure Crystal Yang's "giant, forthcoming study of the federal judiciary" is likely to tell us a lot that we do not already suspect or know.
That all said, I am already jazzed to hear a lot more about what Crystal Yang has collected and analyzed concerning the federal sentencing of "more than six hundred thousand convicted defendants between 2000 and 2009"! That is a whole lot of data, and it spans a remarkable decade in federal sentencing developments which included the passage of the PROTECT Act and the transformation of federal sentencing law and practices wrought by Blakely and Booker and its progeny.
UPDATE: After doing a little research, I think I discovered that an updated version of Crystal Yang's research discussed above is now available here at SSRN, and is soon to be published in the New York University Law Review.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Latest USSC quarterly data show (thanks to AG Holder?) record number of judge-initiated below-range sentences
I am intrigued to see that, as reported in Table 4 with the Fourth Quarter FY13 Quarterly Sentencing data report posted here at the US Sentencing Commission's website, there was a notable (though still small) uptick in the number of below guideline sentences imposed by federal district judges during the most recent quarter (from July 2013 to September 2013). Specifically, after a full year in which below-guideline sentence were imposed each quarter in just around 18.5% of all federal cases, in the most recent quarter the rate of judge-initiated below-range sentences jumped to 19.1%. This marks, I believe, the highest percentage of judge-initiated below-range sentences in any quarter on record.
As the title of this post hints, I am inclined to hypothesize that a few more judges were willing to impose below-guideline sentences in a few more federal cases in the wake of Attorney General Eric Holder's big early August speech to the ABA lamenting excessive use of incarceration in the United States. When the US Attorney General says "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason," I surely hope federal judges are listening and thinking even harder about whether to follow harsh guidelines that tend to recommend pretty long prison sentences in most cases.
That all said, the latest new data continue to show the same basic story lines and relatively stability in the operation and application of the advisory federal guideline sentencing system: these data show, yet again, that somewhat more than 50% of all federal sentences are within the calculated guidelines range, and that below-guideline sentences are a result of a prosecutor's request (which occurs in well over 25% of all cases).
Friday, December 27, 2013
Fascinating lead-crime-rate forecast that incarceration levels will decline significantly in coming years
Regular readers know I am very intrigued by (but still at least a bit skeptical concerning) the social science research that suggest that lead exposure level better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I have to link to this new item sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin, titled "It Will Not Take 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration," which responds to a recent commentary by sentencing reform advocates (noted in this post) lamenting how little incarceration rates have declined even as crime has continued its historic decline over the last decade. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's concluding sentiments in this interesting little data discussion:
Nevin (2000) showed that per capita use of lead in gasoline from 1941-1975 explained 90% of the variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998. Nevin (2007) showed the same relationship between preschool lead exposure trends and violent and property crime trends in the USA, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia. The time lag in every nation reflected lead-induced neurodevelopmental damage in the first years of life affecting behavior in the late-teens and 20s when offending peaks. The best-fit lag for burglary was 18 years, reflecting property crime arrests that have historically peaked at ages 15-20. The best-fit for violent crime was 23 years, consistent with violent crime arrest rates that have peaked in the early-20s.
The ongoing violent crime rate decline (down 32% from 1998-2012) has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This rise in arrest rates for older adults has occurred even as juvenile arrest rates have fallen to record lows, due to ongoing declines in lead paint exposure over the 1990s.
The Sentencing Project and other advocates for sentencing reform need to acknowledge the extreme divergence in arrest and incarceration trends by age. Opponents of sentencing reform often assume that “mass incarceration” is a key factor behind the USA crime decline over the past two decades, but arrest and incarceration trends by age discredit that theory: The largest arrest rate declines have been recorded by younger age groups that have also recorded large incarceration rate declines, while arrest rates have increased for older age groups despite rising incarceration rates for older adults.
Arrest and incarceration trends by age also cast doubt on the theory that budget constraints and public policy reforms have been a large factor in the overall prison population decline over recent years. The declining prison population is clearly not explained by shorter prison terms or early releases for older prisoners, but by steep arrest rate declines for younger Americans. It isn’t the public policies that have changed: It’s the people, and specifically the percent of people poisoned by lead exposure in early childhood.
Some recent related posts:
- Should we thank unleaded gas and the EPA for the great modern crime decline?
- Effective Washington Post commentary talks up great (and still puzzling) crime decline
- Do lead exposure realities continue to best explain modern crime-rate realities?:
- Uh-oh: BJS reporting significant spike up in violent and property crime for 2012
- FBI releases 2012 crime statistics showing stability in relatively low crime rates
- New National Academy of Sciences effort seeking to unpack the crime decline
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a whole slew of notable new corrections data
I just received an e-mail reporting on these new data publications released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are the bare basics (with analysis perhaps to follow if anything special jumps out from these materials):
Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012 is available at this link: Summarizes data from various correctional collections to provide statistics on the number of offenders supervised by the adult correctional systems in the United States.
Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 is available at this link: Presents final counts on prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2012, collected in the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program.
Probation and Parole in the United States, 2012 is available available at this link: Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole during 2012.
Data Analysis Tool Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners (Updated) is available at this link: This dynamic analysis tool allows you to examine National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) on inmates under the jurisdiction of both federal and state correctional authorities.
UPDATE: For focus especially interested in incarceration data, this lengthy Trends in Admissions and Releases document looks like the most notable and interesting of these reports. Helpfully, this BJS press release provides a lot of the highlights from all these reports, and I found this accounting from the press release of prison developments especially interesting:
- The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900) and New York (54,100).
- California (down 10 percent) had the largest prison population decrease in 2012, followed by Arkansas (down 9 percent), Wisconsin and Colorado (down 7 percent each).
- Overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
- Black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. Among new court commitments to state prison, more than a third each of black and Hispanic offenders, and a quarter of white offenders were convicted of a violent offense.
- Between 1991 and 2011, the number of females admitted to state prison for newly committed violent offenses increased 83 percent.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Latest USSC publication highlights remarkable "disparities"(?) in federal FIP sentences
I am pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission now has up on its website another terrific new data document in its series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")
As I have said before, I think this series is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these publications. This latest document, which "presents data on offenses under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), commonly called 'felon in possession' cases," includes these notable data details:
In fiscal year 2012, 5,768 offenders were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)....
One-quarter (25.2%) of offenders convicted under section 922(g) were assigned to the highest criminal history category (Category VI). The proportion of these offenders in other Criminal History Categories was as follows: 11.7% of these offenders were in Category I; 9.3% were in Category II; 21.1% were in Category III; 18.9% were in Category IV; and 13.8% were in Category V.
10.3% were sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C.§ 924(e))...
The average sentence length for all section 922(g) offenders was 75 months; however, one-quarter of these offenders had an average sentence of 24 months or less while one-quarter had an average sentence of 96 months or more.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) and who were sentenced under ACCA was 180 months.
The average sentence length for offenders convicted of violating only section 922(g) but who were not sentenced under ACCA was 46 months.
The title of this post has the term "disparities" in quotes followed by a question mark because these basic sentencing data about a pretty basic federal crime could be interpreted in many disparate ways. Given that all the offenders sentenced for FIP likely were engaged in pretty similar conduct (simple possession of a firearm) and all of them, by definition, had to have a serious criminal record in order to be subject to federal prosecution, one might see lots of unwarranted disparity among this offender group given the extraordinary outcome variations documented here -- in FY2012, over 10% of FIP offenders are getting sent away for an average of 15 years, but another 25% are going away for only 8 years, while another 25% are going away for only 2 years.
Then again, given the apparently varied criminal histories of the FIP offenders, the sentencing variation here surely reflects various (reasoned and reasonable?) judicial assessments of different levels of recidivism risk for different FIP offenders. I certainly hope that the those being sentenced to decades behind bars for gun possession are generally those with very long rap sheets, and that those getting sent away only for a couple years are those with much more limited criminal histories.
Finally, in addition to noting the profound significance that past crimes clearly have on current sentencing in FIP cases, I must note that it is these past crimes that itself serves to convert the behavior here in to a federal crime. Indeed, if one takes the Second Amendment very seriously (as I do), the actual "offense behavior" in these cases might often be subject to significant protection as the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right unless and until the person has a disqualifying criminal past. Proof yet again that the past, at least when it comes to criminal sentencing and constitutional rights, is often ever-present.
November 19, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 07, 2013
"Free at Last? Judicial Discretion and Racial Disparities in Federal Sentencing"The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Crystal Yang now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were created to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similar defendants. This paper explores the impact of increased judicial discretion on racial disparities in sentencing after the Guidelines were struck down in United States v. Booker (2005). Using data on the universe of federal defendants, I find that black defendants are sentenced to almost two months more in prison compared to their white counterparts after Booker, a 4% increase in average sentence length. To identify the sources of racial disparities, I construct a dataset linking judges to over 400,000 defendants. Exploiting the random assignment of cases to judges, I find that racial disparities are greater among judges appointed after Booker, suggesting acculturation to the Guidelines by judges with experience sentencing under mandatory regime. Prosecutors also respond to increased judicial discretion by charging black defendants with longer mandatory minimums.
I am always interested in sophisticated analyses of the post-Booker sentencing system, so I am looking forward to finding time to review this article closely. But, as with lots of "disparity" sentencing scholarship, I worry that this article is among those spending lots of time worrying about and trying to figure out whose sentences may be longer after Booker rather than worrying about and trying to figure out if all sentence remain way too long in the federal sentencing system.
November 7, 2013 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
The Sentencing Project releases "Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America"
I received an email alerting me to an important new publication about life and LWOP sentence just released by The Sentencing Project. Here is the text of the email, which includes links to the publication as well as a summry of its key findings:
While serious crime rates in the U.S. have been declining for the last 20 years, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984. As documented in our new report, Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America, by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, over 159,000 people were serving life sentences in 2012, with nearly 50,000 serving life without parole.
Key findings from the report include:
In order to reshape our crime policies to facilitaterehabilation, promote public safety, and reduce the high cost of massincarceration, the report recommends eliminating life without parole,increasing the use of executive clemency, preparing persons sentenced to lifefor release from prison, and restoring the role of parole in prisoner release.
- One of every nine individuals in prison is serving a life sentence.
- The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008.
- Approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.
- Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino.
- More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18 and nearly 1 in 4 of them were sentenced to LWOP.
- More than 5,300 (3.4%) of the life-sentenced inmates are female.
September 18, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Thursday, September 12, 2013
US Sentencing Commission releases more documents in its great new "Quick Facts" seriesI am so very pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications. (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.)
As I have said before, I think this is a very valuable new innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from these latest two publications in the series:
- Marijuana Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
- Methamphetamine Trafficking Offenses (September 2013)
September 12, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Thursday, September 05, 2013
ABA Death Penalty Review Project releases its assessment for VIrginiaAs reported in this Richmond Times-Dispatch article, headlined "Study urges fairness reforms in death penalty cases," a big new report on the operation of the death penalty in the Old Dominion has just been released. Here are the basics:
A two-year study of Virginia’s death penalty to improve fairness and accuracy calls for safeguards in the use of suspect lineups and more access by defense lawyers to information to help them prepare cases. The recommendations are among more than a dozen in the study sponsored by the American Bar Association and released this morning.
A top change urged by the Virginia Death Penalty Assessment Team is to require law enforcement agencies to adopt the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ model eyewitness identification policy for suspect photo and live lineups. Misidentification played a role in the wrongful convictions of 18 Virginians later proven innocent in non-death penalty cases. Although the model policy was released in 2011, a recent survey by the University of Virginia Law School found few police departments had adopted it.
According to the Virginia department of Corrections, Virginia has executed 110 killers – 31 by electrocution and 79 by lethal injection since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976. The toll is second nationally only to Texas, which has executed 503. But in Virginia three out of four persons sentenced to death since 1976 have been executed -- a higher rate than even in Texas, which has carried out roughly half its death sentences.
The ABA study complimented Virginia on improvements including the accreditation of the Virginia Department of forensic Science’s four laboratories and the state medical examiner’s office as well as the certification of their employees. Among the recommendations for improvement, however, was requiring law enforcement agencies to electronically record suspect interrogations and confessions. A recent survey found only nine Virginia police agencies record a majority of their interrogations.
The team also recommends that in capital murder cases the Virginia Supreme Court require prosecutors to disclose the identity and any prior statements of testifying witnesses to allow the defense adequate preparation time. Virginia’s pre-trial discovery rules providing the defense with information to prepare its case are more restrictive than in other states, the team concluded. A defendant in a death case could go to trial without knowing who will testify against them....
The assessment team was chaired by John Douglass, a former federal prosecutor and dean of the University of Richmond Law School where he still teaches. The panel also included Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, who won a death sentence against Ricky Gray; Mark L. Earley, a former Virginia attorney general whose office defended many death sentences on appeal; and Craig Cooley, a Richmond lawyer who has represented clients in 70 capital murder trials including Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the two Maryland to Virginia snipers.
The report is the result of the ABA’s Death penalty Assessment project which since 2003 has studied and reported on the death penalty in 10 other states.
A copy of the full report is available via the ABA's website at this link. And the other prior ABA state-specific assessment are available via this page. Without reading this latest Virginia report in some detail, I cannot readily conclude whether this report's conclusions strike me as sound. But I can already note that this new ABA state death penalty review report seems, in both tone and content, to be much more complementary about Virginia's administration of capital punishment than most if not all other ABA state death penalty review reports.