Saturday, February 25, 2017

"Conservative Criminal Justice Advocates Try To Change The System — Even In The Trump Era"

The title of this post is the title of this new BuzzFeed News piece which follows up with this subheadline: "Conservative groups pushing for changes to the criminal justice system flooded this year’s conservative confab known as CPAC hoping to convince more people on the right to embrace their cause." Here are excerpts:

Groups, like the American Conservative Union Foundation, an arm of the ACU, which hosts CPAC, hope to convince more people on the political right to embrace the cause as a conservative one by leveraging their recent successes at the state level and reminding lawmakers that it’s an issue with support from multiple conservative groups.

“I do feel that letting politicians know that we are large in numbers and we do support this, and we are present at all of these events, we’re not going to go away; it’s something that’s important and it’s […] a part of the conservative movement,” says Christina Delgado, a spokesperson for the conservative group FreedomWorks....

But some, especially members of the Republican conference in Congress, have expressed concerns over whether reforms — which aim to reduce mass incarceration, rising prison costs, and recidivism rates — represent a soft-on-crime approach to the criminal justice system that could jeopardize public safety. “You do have people that have a bit more of a reactionary tough-on-crime approach that have come up to the booth and talked to us about it,” says Derek Cohen, deputy director of Texas-based Right on Crime, which is also attending CPAC. “But once you start talking to them about, you know, the practicalities of running a criminal justice system, they actually get it very quickly.”...

Delgado says the issue came up in questions during a Thursday event hosted by FreedomWorks that featured Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican who recently signed an order to try to help ex-offenders land jobs after their sentence is up.  Delgado says Bevin noted “it’s not about going softer on crime, it’s about just making sure that we’re addressing the more important aspects of crime, and that is the actual danger, the actual criminals, the actual problem.”

Cohen says different types of conservatives — social, fiscal, libertarian — “all have their own reasons for actually being interested in the reform campaign.”  For many libertarians, it’s issues such as civil asset forfeiture that make the case for criminal justice reform.  For fiscal conservatives, it’s about cutting rising corrections costs.”...

But even with progress happening in Republican-leaning states, it remains to be seen where exactly the new Trump administration will fall on specific federal criminal justice issues. Trump said he wanted to “bring back law and order” during the election campaign, but has not detailed what that will mean.

Though not all are convinced Trump will be swayed by the arguments for criminal justice reform — his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a vocal opponent during his time in the Senate — pro-reform groups are hoping state successes appeal to Trump.  “As President Trump considers how best to reduce crime and restore public safety, we hope that he can learn from reform champions in states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kentucky to chart a new path for America,” Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety — another CPAC attendee — said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

Cohen says Right on Crime, which has attended the last five CPACs, has met with members of Congress recently, and that “there seems to be renewed energy” in passing reform legislation.  Judiciary Committee members Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley have said they plan on re-introducing the bill in the current sessions of Congress.  “Now, what shape that reform’s going to be in, I think is a bit premature to say,” Cohen said, “but there definitely is the same appetite if not a greater one.”

Recent prior related post:

February 25, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A few notable criminal justice panels at CPAC

It is around that time of year for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and the misbehavior of one conservative is generating all the pre-CPAC buzz. But, as has been the story for the last few years, sentencing fans should be intrigued by some of the criminal justice reform programming appearing on the CPAC 2017 agenda. Specifically, I found notable these two panels scheduled for Friday this week:

Prosecutors Gone Wild

Moderator: Pat Nolan, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform

David A. Keene, The Washington Times

Sidney Powell, Former U.S. Attorney

Kevin Ring, Families Against Mandatory Minimums

 

Conservatives Leading the Way on Criminal Justice Reform in State Capitals

Moderator: David Safavian, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform

State Rep. Julie Emerson (LA-39)

Marc Levin, Right on Crime, Texas Public Policy Foundation

Pat Nolan, ACU Foundation Center for Criminal Justice Reform

February 21, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Noting central place of Texas in (incomplete) consensus disfavoring increased use of incarceration

Today's New York Times has this extended commentary about incarceration authored by Tina Rosenberg running under the headline "Even in Texas, Mass Imprisonment Is Going Out of Style."  Here are excerpts:

It promises to be a bleak four years for liberals, who will spend it trying — and, most likely, failing — to defend health care, women’s rights, climate change action and other good things.  But on one serious problem, continued progress is not only possible, it’s probable. That is reducing incarceration.  In an era of what seems like unprecedented polarization and rancor, this idea has bipartisan support. The Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter agree.  The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union Foundation agree.  Bernie Sanders and Newt Gingrich agree.

Here’s what they agree on:

• The United States went overboard on mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

• This has ruined a lot of lives — of those incarcerated, yes, but also others among their families and communities.

• The evidence says that harsher sentences don’t prevent crime and may even lead to more crime.

• Jailing people is really, really expensive.

• Prison brings no help and much harm to the 80 percent of prisoners who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

• There are alternatives to imprisonment that keep Americans safe.

(There are also crime and justice issues that these liberals and conservatives do not agree on, such as the death penalty, the merits of private prisons and, of course, guns.)

Even all this agreement is no guarantee of progress in Washington.  President Trump’s policies on crime are whatever slogans get the crowd roaring. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a D-plus record on this issue as a senator.  He supported reducing the disparity in sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. He did vote for the Prison Rape Elimination Act — kudos for that, I suppose.  But last year, Mr. Sessions, along with a few other Republican senators, blocked the major bill on this issue, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, from coming to a vote.  So the administration can be expected to be unhelpful, with Congress a question mark.

While Washington’s actions are important, however, federal prisons hold only one in eight imprisoned Americans.  So mass incarceration is really a state issue. And in the states, momentum is heartening. After quintupling between 1974 and 2007, the imprisonment rate is now dropping in a majority of states.  Overall, it fell by 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2015, while crime dropped by 14.6 percent, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

California slashed its incarceration rate by 27 percent between 2006 and 2014 after a court order. New York cut its rate by 18 percent, largely because of reform of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandated long sentences for possession. New Jersey’s rate dropped by 24 percent.

More remarkable — and probably more persuasive to other states and to Congress now — is the shift in red states, where incarceration rates have been the highest. In the last decade, they have dropped substantially in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and, notably, in lock-’em-up Texas....

The cost of prisons was a huge issue.  In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board projected that the state would need more than 17,000 new prison beds over five years, a building project that would cost $530 million, never mind the operating costs. That pushed the ultraconservative House speaker, Tom Craddick, to a breaking point. Jerry Madden, the Republican chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in an interview that Craddick took him aside. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick told him. “They cost too much.”

Madden was an engineer and took that approach, asking: What is proven to work to keep people out of prison? How much of that do we need to buy in order to not build more of them? For ideas, he and his staff talked to research and advocacy groups, including the liberal coalition and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which gave birth to and houses Right on Crime.

That there was a conservative research group to consult was in itself remarkable. “No one in conservative think tanks worked on criminal justice, other than to advocate for more prisons and more incarceration,” said the foundation’s director, Brooke Rollins, who had been Gov. Rick Perry’s policy director. But in 2004, Rollins got a call from Tim Dunn, an oilman who helps fund the foundation and serves on its board. Dunn has put millions of his own money into pushing the Texas legislature further to the right. Texas Monthly called him “probably the most influential person many Texans have never heard of.”

“Conservatives are wrong on crime,” he told a startled Rollins. “Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” Dunn believes that crime victims want restitution and repentance, while the prison system merely incapacitates. On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.”

At Dunn’s urging, Rollins hired Levin part time to work on a conservative approach to criminal justice reform. “We found the conservative and liberal think tanks agreed on 70, 80 percent of the stuff,” said Madden.  And it’s those areas of agreement that were put in the bill. The reforms passed nearly unanimously — and although Perry had previously vetoed narrower reforms, this time he signed them. (He now endorses the Right on Crime agenda.)  Reforms continue today: 16 bills passed in the last legislative session, including one allowing people to erase their criminal records in some circumstances....

The state now has drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. “They are there to provide help, but at the same time, structure,” said Madden, who is retired from the legislature.  “You have a problem and we’re going to help you with your problem.”  Many inmates were in prison for technical violations of their probation or parole. Now those violations often bring rapid sanctions and supervision instead of a return to prison.

The rate of incarceration in Texas state prisons fell by 17 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the coalition, and the juvenile incarceration rate fell by nearly three-quarters. Recidivism is dropping steadily. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped by 27 percent.

Texas still has much to do. It ranks sixth or seventh in the nation in imprisonment rates. Some 8,900 people are in the state jail system for crimes that are neither violent nor sexual. Many are there for drug charges, but they often can’t get treatment in jail.  Thousands of people are sent back to prison each year for technical revocation of parole or probation.  As for juveniles, 22,000 are in the adult system, where they are at high risk of sexual assault and suicide....

The fall in crime rates — itself a reason incarceration has dropped — has made reform politically possible. Conservative leadership in states like Texas gives everybody cover. And Americans support criminal justice reform by large majorities.  One telling example: in his re-election campaign in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, highlighted his reforms that lowered the rate of incarceration among African-Americans by 20 percent.  Twenty years ago, a Republican in Georgia would have boasted about the opposite.

If crime rates begin rising again, could hard-line thinking once more prevail? Yañez-Correa doesn’t think so. “Many legislators want to work on these issues jointly because other issues are so polarized,” she said. “People on both sides are genuinely interested and devoted.”

This story is important and encouraging, but it fails I think it connect fully with the import and impact of Prez Trump campaigning on a "law and order" platform and his eagerness to make much of the uptick in murder and other violent crimes in some big cities in recent years.  The folks over at Crime & Consequences and many others are quick and keen to link any and every increase in crime to recent decreased use of incarceration, and that perspective is certainly some element of how Prez Trump and AG Sessions think about crime and punishment issues.

I remain hopeful that, especially at the state level, there is continued interest in, and bipartisan support for, an array of "smart on crime" alternatives to incarceration for a range of less serious and less dangerous offenders.  But I do not think that Prez Trump and AG Sessions, arguably the two most important criminal justice policy-makers for the next few years, subscribe to all or even most of what is listed above in the commentary as points of agreement.  And that is a very big deal that must always be front and center as one considers the future of criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level.

February 14, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Is VP Pence going to be a key player for possible federal sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new Daily Caller article headlined "Want Drug-Sentencing Reform? Look To Mike Pence, Congressman Says. Here are the details:

Criminal-sentencing reform proponents in Congress are “hopeful” that Vice President Mike Pence will be an ally, helping them to work with the new law-and-order administration to pass legislation to cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-law offenders. “I’ve got reason to be hopeful,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told reporters at a morning session of the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy libertarian and conservative donors gathered in Palm Springs by Charles and David Koch....

Speaking to reporters alongside Sen. Mike Lee, also of Utah, Chaffetz said, “Gov. Pence, having been a governor, he understands this. In the end, he’s done some wise things. And I also think you will see concerted support from conservative governors who will buoy up any support in the White House.”

“If you’re going to be tough on crime, you better be smart about it.  And there are hardened criminals who do need to spend the rest of their lives in prison.” But, he added, we need to fix the problem of repeat offenders spending years in prison for drug crimes.

Doug Deason, a Seminar Network donor with an interest in sentencing reform, highlighted the White House’s new legislative director, Marc Short, as another reason to be hopeful. Before joining the administration, Short was a longtime adviser to Pence and a lead deputy in the libertarian Koch network. “He cares passionately about criminal justice reform,” Deason said.  Deason, a Texas businessman who is president of Deason Capital Services, was less enthusiastic about Sessions, telling reporters, “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, they got him out of the way!”

Chaffetz defended Sessions, however, pointing to the Fairness in Sentencing Act the Alabama senator shepherded through in 2010, reducing the difference between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. “I think last year we were caught up in presidential politics… and I think he’s in a different position now,” Chaffetz said....

“We were so close last time,” Lee, a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, lamented to reporters at the seminar.

January 30, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Dear President Trump: Here’s How to get Right on Crime, Part 2"

As noted in this prior post, the Marshall Project this week has a timely three-part series in which leading conservatives working on and advocating for criminal justice reform are setting out the conservative case for reforms. The first commentary was authored by Pat Nolan and carried the subheadline "Focus on intent, tailor the punishment to the crime, prepare prisoners for life after incarceration."

The second in the series here is authored by Vikrant Reddy and carries the subheadline "End overcriminalization, reward success, pay attention to the heroin crisis." Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform advocates are pessimistic about the prospects for federal sentencing reform under the new presidential administration. Federal sentencing, however, is only one component of America’s vast criminal justice system. There are several other areas where the administration and reformers could find common cause.  Here are just three reforms widely supported by advocates which are also consistent with a “Trumpian” worldview.  They should be at the forefront of a serious federal reform agenda over the next four years.

Scaling Back Overcriminalization

There are now over 5,000 obscure federal crimes, such as shipping lobster in plastic rather than cardboard boxes, that are more appropriately treated as administrative or regulatory matters. Furthermore, the mens rea or “state of mind” portions of many criminal statutes (which specify whether the conduct must be purposeful, knowing, reckless, or negligent) are frequently left out when laws are drafted. Reversing this “overcriminalization” has long been a priority for conservatives. Yet it has also been a priority for prominent progressive voices, such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and U.S. Representatives John Conyers and Bobby Scott....

Performance-Incentive Funding

One of the most widely-admired strategies for improving criminal justice outcomes is performance-incentive funding (PIF). The idea is simple: Governments should fund prisons (and community corrections programs, for that matter) based on outcomes achieved, not merely on the number of people incarcerated. A government that contracts for lower recidivism rates and increased restitution payments to victims is more likely to find that its prisons are encouraging education and job training behind bars. People from the business world who are more concerned with results than with ideologies — such as Donald Trump — are likely to understand this truth intuitively: You get what you pay for....

Combating Heroin Addiction

On Election Day, Trump performed unusually well in communities ravaged by heroin abuse. He seemed to understand that he owes it to these voters — his base — to take the issue seriously. His administration will likely pursue a law enforcement solution that attacks the “supply side” of the heroin problem, as Trump frequently promised on the campaign trail. There is also a “demand side” to the problem, however, and Trump must treat this side of the problem with equal urgency.  This means redirecting scarce resources from incarceration to less costly and more effective diversion programs that treat addiction.

Prior related post:

January 19, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Dear President Trump: Here’s How to get Right on Crime, Part 1"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that is the start of a timely three-part series.  Here is how the Marshall Project editors set up the series:

The election of Donald Trump, who ran a swaggering tough-on-crime campaign, disheartened many advocates of bipartisan criminal justice reform.  The Marshall Project invited conservatives active in that cause to make a case to the president-elect — a conservative case — for ways to make the system more fair, humane and effective.  This is the first of three commentaries.

The commentary to kick this off comes from Pat Nolan and carries the subheadline "Focus on intent, tailor the punishment to the crime, prepare prisoners for life after incarceration."  Here is how it gets started:

Conservatives believe that the core function of government is keeping the public safe from harm within the constraints of individual liberty and limited government. We know it is the nature of bureaucracy that government agencies grow in size and inefficiency. The justice system must be held accountable for wise use of tax dollars just as it holds offenders accountable for their actions.

Crime is more than lawbreaking — it is victim harming. Victims should be involved at all stages of the justice process, and the system should aim to repair the harm caused by the crime whenever possible. Offenders should be held accountable to make restitution to their victims.

Evil intent (mens rea) has long been an essential element of all crimes. In recent years, however, the mens rea requirement has been dropped in favor of finding criminality even if there is no intent to break the law. Thus, an act committed in good faith can become the basis for a criminal conviction and a prison sentence. This is wrong, and mens rea must be restored as a key element of every crime.

The greatest power we cede to government is the ability to put someone in prison. While prisons are necessary to isolate offenders who threaten the safety of the community, there is a growing tendency to overuse prisons even when the public is not endangered. There are proven ways to hold non-dangerous offenders accountable without sending them to prison. We should use costly prison beds for the truly dangerous. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but too often they are used for people we are merely mad at.

Cases should be decided individually, not as an assembly line of one-size-fits-all sentences. The harm done by a sentence should never be greater than the harm caused by the crime.

Crime that crosses state lines and national borders is the proper purview of federal laws. Other than those limited situations, crime is an inherently local problem and should be governed by local and state laws. However, in recent years Congress has federalized many crimes such as carjacking which have no national scope merely to strike a politically popular pose.  Only those crimes that have a national reach should be federalized. Other crimes should be left to local law enforcement that is more responsive to their residents.

We recommend greater use of problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts tailored to the special problems faced by these populations.

Prisons should do more than warehouse inmates. They should prepare offenders for their return to society by providing educational programs such as GED classes, drug treatment, anger management, and job skills. The cost of these programs is far exceeded by the savings from the resulting drop in crime rates.

January 18, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Great political and practical "state of reform" reviews via Jacobin

ImagesThe magazine Jacobin has recently run two effective pieces by two effective writers about the politics and practicalities of modern sentencing reform efforts. Here are links to the lengthy pieces, both of which I recommend in full, with their introductions:

"Conservatives Against Incarceration?: Fiscal conservatives were never going to bring down the carceral state. A broader fight against social inequality is needed." by Marie Gottschalk

Many are mourning the death of comprehensive criminal justice reform at the federal level in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, who unabashedly campaigned as the law-and-order candidate. They fear we may be at the beginning of the end of the “smart-on-crime” era, in which historic adversaries across the political spectrum joined forces to reverse the punitive policies and politics that have turned the United States into the world’s leading warden.

Some have sought solace in the belief that Trump’s victory will have a limited impact because most people are apprehended, tried, and sentenced subject to state and local statutes and authorities, not federal ones, and that 90 percent of the more than 2 million people incarcerated today in the United States are serving their time in state prisons and county jails, not federal penitentiaries. They view Trump as a political meteorite that may have blown up the elite bipartisan reform coalition in Washington as it blazed through an uncharted political universe but left promising reform coalitions at the state and local levels largely intact.

This conventional postmortem paradoxically overestimates Trump’s responsibility for imperiling criminal justice reform at the national level while underestimating his likely impact on state and local reform efforts.

Trump’s outsized personality and spectacular victory obscure the reality that the smart-on-crime approach had severe limitations and weaknesses that have been hiding in plain sight for years. The politics that gave birth to this strange bedfellows coalition engineered by Right on Crime — a group of brand-name conservatives and libertarians that included Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and Charles and David Koch — helps explain both its limited accomplishments and the triumph of Trumpism.

"America’s Durable Monstrosity: New figures show that the US prison population has dropped. But mass incarceration remains firmly intact." by Daniel Denvir

A ray of sunshine recently poked through the otherwise gloomy holiday headlines: “US prison population falling as crime rates stay low.”  The prison population has indeed fallen, and crime rates are still down.  But while the crime that politicians exploited to create mass incarceration has plummeted, the number of prisoners locked up in the name of public safety has only budged.

Mass incarceration, in short, remains a durable monstrosity.

As of 2015, an estimated 2,173,800 Americans were behind bars — 1,526,800 in prison and 728,200 in jails — according to recently released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  That’s 16,400 fewer people in jail and 35,500 fewer prisoners than in 2014 — a 2.3 percent decline and, for prisoners, the largest single-year drop since 1978. The 2015 figure also marks the lowest overall prison population since 2005. Crime rates have plunged, falling “to levels not seen since the late 1960s.”

But even as the US becomes a much safer country, it still incarcerates its citizens at much higher rates than most any other on earth.  To put things in perspective, our prison archipelago today confines a population similar in size to the city of Houston or the borough of Queens.

At the dawn of mass incarceration in 1980, the US’s already-quite-large prison population was estimated at 329,821. To return to that number, the governments would have to replicate the recent 35,500-prisoner reduction for roughly thirty-four years in a row.  That’s a very long time to wait for the poor communities — particularly but not exclusively brown and black ones — that mass incarceration devastates.

The criminal justice reform movement has stopped losing. But it hasn’t really started to win.

January 11, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Detailing how global financier George Soros has been funding efforts to take out local prosecutors

161215_soros-map_v1I often think about the slogan "Think globally, act locally," and that phrase jumped to mind when I saw this fascinating Daily Signal article headlined "The ‘Staggering’ Campaign of Liberal Billionaire George Soros to Swing Local Prosecutor Elections." Soros is a "global player" in many respects, and yet this lengthy article highlights his latest local efforts. Here are excerpts:

Soros, 86, an American hedge fund manager and philanthropist, is No. 22 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, with a net worth estimated at $20 billion. He finances a variety of liberal political causes, including ones related to education, immigration, climate change, and the environment. Soros’ philanthropic network, the Open Society Foundations, has spent more than $13 billion over the past three decades on initiatives to defend human rights abroad and shape the democratic process in Eastern Europe.

Soros gave an unprecedented $27 million to various 527 groups trying to defeat President George W. Bush in his 2004 re-election campaign, describing the effort as a “matter of life and death.” Soros also helped launch the Democracy Alliance, a group of major liberal donors seeking to advance progressive policymaking by investing in organizations such as Center for American Progress, Media Matters for America, and Organizing for Action, which was set up to advance the agenda of President Barack Obama.

Soros has not personally spoken with or met any of the candidates he supported in district attorney races this year and last, his advisers say. In most of the dozen prosecutor races he helped finance, Soros did not coordinate at all with the candidate he supported, they said. Instead, he operated independently by giving money to various state-level political action committees (PACs) and a national “527” unlimited-money group, each identified by a variation on “Safety and Justice.”

The form of his contributions depended on local and state campaign finance laws, Soros’ advisers say, and in some cases, as in Harris County, the collaboration was more direct.

Soros’ efforts are part of a new, broader push by progressives to locate, prepare, and fund challengers to unseat incumbent prosecutors. Such upsets are notoriously difficult to achieve in local district attorney races, where name recognition and outside interest are usually low and voters give deference to the candidate with a record. “Criminal justice reform efforts must take many forms,” Whitney Tymas, an adviser on Soros’ project challenging sitting prosecutors, said in a statement to The Daily Signal. Tymas added:

Changing laws and redirecting funding streams is critical. Because of the enormous discretion vested in those who enforce the laws, including prosecutors, it is also important to elect officials who are committed to public safety and equal justice. These officials are a key leverage point in a complicated system.

David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford University professor and former federal prosecutor, told The Daily Signal that only a “handful” of races for the 2,500 district attorneys’ offices nationwide included candidates with “reform-oriented” agendas, and of those that did, most did not involve contributions from Soros. “In a number of high-visibility district attorney races around the country, incumbents this year were unseated by challengers who promised a more moderate approach to criminal justice, backing away from a simple ‘tough on crime’ agenda and paying more attention to fairness, proportionality, and equity,” Sklansky said. “Many of these successful candidates also pledged to improve the investigation of police shootings, to rein in prosecutorial misconduct, and to be more vigilant in avoiding and correcting wrongful convictions.”

Still, Soros’ role in local prosecutor races is significant. It touches counties big and small, urban and rural; northern, southern, western, eastern, and midwestern. In total, Soros spent nearly $11 million on 12 district attorney races this election cycle, campaign filings show. A Democrat candidate supported by Soros ultimately won in 10 of the 12 races.

The trend of outside funding worries opponents of Soros’ tactics, including veteran district attorneys who say the outsize contributions threaten prosecutorial independence, which is especially important in a role as powerful and all-encompassing as theirs. “The amount of money we are talking about is staggering,” said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County, Oregon, since 1994 and a board member of the National District Attorneys Association. “And it’s amplified because it’s extremely difficult to raise money as a prosecutor,” Marquis told The Daily Signal...

Soros so far has backed only Democrats in district attorney races, but his advisers insist his support for candidates isn’t based on political party and say Soros would consider making a large contribution to a “reform-minded” Republican prosecutor....

Prosecutors drive critical decisions in the criminal justice system, choosing when, whether, and against whom to bring criminal charges, as well as making recommendations for sentencing and setting the terms of plea negotiations. These decisions are receiving more scrutiny at a time where there is a growing bipartisan consensus around the need to reduce incarceration, provide more alternative punishments, and expand rehabilitation opportunities for low-level drug offenders.

As part of this effort, Soros, along with progressive groups advocating racial justice and gender equality, is trying to elect more minority prosecutors in response to what he sees as an insufficient response by incumbent district attorneys to the fatal shootings of black men by police officers. Several candidates who Soros backed are members of minority groups.

The Reflective Democracy Campaign, an arm of the progressive Women Donors Network, found in a 2015 study that 95 percent of elected local prosecutors were white. “Of course, what was happening with Black Lives Matter and police shootings was a huge wake-up call [for progressives, who began] realizing how much power these offices have and the need for us to be focused on getting great people elected,” Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, a candidate-training organization for Democratic women, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “District attorney races have historically just been completely ignored, like most down-ballot races, in the progressive and Democratic community,” Steele said. “I am just thrilled to see that if you give a little bit of love to these races, a small investment yields a huge outcome.”

In Chicago’s Cook County, Soros funded one of several groups that helped Kim Foxx, who is black, defeat the incumbent state’s attorney, Anita Alvarez, in the Democratic primary. Foxx then easily beat her Republican general election opponent. Alvarez drew widespread criticism for her handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old. She took 13 months before charging the Chicago police officer who shot and killed McDonald, a delay that sparked protests.

“Soros’ funding was a big factor in my loss, obviously,” Alvarez, the first female and first Hispanic candidate to be elected as Cook County’s top prosecutor, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “Some people want to say I lost my election simply because of the McDonald video, but I felt this movement prior to my charging that officer. When you have these outside influences, it’s scary because they don’t know the climate—that Chicago has a serious violent crime problem, a serious gun problem.”...

Soros and allied progressive groups say they will continue grooming and supporting prosecutor candidates who share their goals. Steele, of Emerge America, says she already is looking ahead to the 2018 elections, with plans to recruit and train at least 25 Democratic women to run in district attorney races.

Women, she says, are uniquely sensitive to the consequences of incarceration and, as prosecutors, are likely to use their powers more carefully. “I am hopeful that Emerge will have women running for district attorney in 2018 and make it onto Soros’ radar screen,” Steele said. “The George Soroses of the world can’t get the outcomes they desire unless you have great candidates. So what we are doing is a critical piece.”

She does not apologize for the aggressive outreach, arguing that because a state’s top prosecutors are elected, the process to become one is inherently political. “All of these races are political,” Steele said

Marquis, of the National District Attorneys Association, says he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of Soros and of progressive groups. He emphasizes that many members of the association, which represents state-level district attorneys across the U.S., support reform. Indeed, the National District Attorneys Association made headlines earlier this year when it endorsed compromise legislation in Congress meant to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders in the federal prison system.

Yet Marquis said he worries that despite these efforts, some incumbent members of the association could lose their jobs to better-funded challengers. “This is the source of great conversation among district attorneys,” Marquis said. “A lot of us are sitting around saying, ‘What if it’s me next? What if I am targeted?’”

December 21, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets"

The title of this post is the title of this new short publication from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project.  This webpage review the publication's contents and mission:

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project have issued Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets, reporting on the racially discriminatory and ever-growing problem of felony disenfranchisement. The denial or abridgement of the right to vote for 6.1 million people with felony criminal convictions is a stain on our democracy.

The millions of Americans who are currently prevented from voting due to felony convictions are more than twice the difference of the popular vote in the contentious 2016 presidential election. Particularly striking is that one in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction—a rate four times greater than non-Black Americans.

The issue is compounded by the fact that often, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people are counted as residents of largely white rural areas where prisons are predominately located (i.e., prison-based gerrymandering). Thus, Black urban communities, from which the incarcerated population disproportionately comes, lose the critical voices of persons with felony convictions, who not only are denied a fundamental stake in the democratic process, but also who could provide insight into issues of criminal justice reform, employment, and educational opportunities.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws are shamefully nothing new,” said Leah Aden, Senior Counsel at LDF. “In the era following slavery disenfranchisement laws were tailored to limit the political power of newly-freed Black people. These racially discriminatory laws gained steam in recent decades as the failed ‘war on drugs’ and “tough on crime” policies incarcerated millions of Black and Latino Americans, continuing to weaken the voting power of communities of color.”

“Disenfranchisement policies are fundamentally at odds both with democracy and with the need to support individuals in their reentry from prison,” says Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “By extending the right to vote to people in prison and with criminal records, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer.”

Among its findings, Free the Vote highlights:

◾ The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on Black voting strength at the state level. In Florida, for example, more people with felony convictions are disenfranchised than in any other state, with Black disenfranchisement rates exceeding a fifth (21%) of the adult Black voting age population. Similar data comes out of other states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

◾ Prison-based gerrymandering exacerbates the negative effects of felony disenfranchisement. In the city of Anamosa, Iowa, a councilman from a prison community was elected to office from a ward which, per the Census, had almost 1,400 residents—about the same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of these “residents” were prisoners in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once those prisoners were subtracted, the ward had fewer than 60 actual residents.

◾ Only Maine and Vermont do not restrict voting based on a felony conviction. Both states allow individuals to vote from prison via absentee ballot. Recently, there have been successful efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement policies in Maryland, Virginia, and California.

◾ Following the historic and substantial participation of people of color in the 2008 and 2012 elections, felony disenfranchisement laws that curb voting power remain a barrier to expanding America’s voting population. These laws discourage future generations from exercising the learned behavior of voting and receiving the benefits of having their voices reflected in the political process.

LDF and The Sentencing Project aim to not only ameliorate felony disfranchisement laws, but also to eradicate them. Together, we can free the vote for people who have been made vulnerable by harmful and discriminatory laws and in turn, strengthen our collective democracy.

December 20, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Marshall Project analysis by Bill Keller, which carries the subheadline " Four reasons a bipartisan bill has a better chance than you think." Here are excerpts:

It’s no wonder criminal-justice reformers woke up from Election Day 2016 with a sense of existential gloom. Given candidate Donald J. Trump’s law-and-order bluster, his dystopian portrayal of rising crime and an ostensible war on the police, and a posse of advisers who think the main problem with incarceration is that we don’t do enough of it, the idea that justice reformers have anything to look forward to is at best counterintuitive.

It is reasonable to expect that President Trump and his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, will dismantle at least some of what their predecessors leave behind. Based on what they have said, the Trump-Sessions Justice Department may well roll back federal oversight of troubled police forces, escalate the war on drugs, enlarge the share of the corrections business that goes to private companies, accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants and use the threat of financial sanctions to challenge so-called sanctuary cities....

But those inclined to look for silver linings may find one on Capitol Hill.... I can think of four reasons the prospects of federal reform are actually better in 2017.

First, it is not an election year. Nothing makes members of Congress squirm like the specter of attack ads portraying them as coddlers of criminals. There is reason to think those Willie Horton-style gotchas have lost some of their potency, but the prospect tends to make members of Congress more risk-averse in even-numbered years. And the lobbying alliance in favor of reform has grown and diversified and offers supportive candidates some political cover. It now includes significant numbers of police executives and prosecutors, who say our tendency to over-criminalize and over-punish wastes money and human potential without making us safer.

Second, President Obama will be gone. Some of the resistance to this year’s sentencing bill was a reluctance to give the president a parting victory. His heartfelt embrace of criminal-justice reform in the final years of his presidency was — through no fault of his own — the kiss of death in a hostile Congress.

Third, at least one of the hard-core Senate opponents of sentencing reform will no longer be there. That would be Jeff Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama. True, as attorney general he will be in a position to encourage a presidential veto. But he will not be joining the obstructionists who this year never let a bill come to a vote at all. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, said in October that if his party leadership had brought the bill to the floor, it would have garnered 65 to 70 votes — enough to override a veto.

And fourth, the Republican leadership will be looking very hard for bipartisan successes to demonstrate that Washington is no longer in a state of ideological paralysis. On the short list of things Congress could do to reassure voters that government is back in business, criminal justice ranks near the top. The subject attracts libertarians who have come to see the machinery of criminal justice as another example of overbearing government, conservative Christians who see the criminal justice morass as dehumanizing, fiscal conservatives who have noticed that incarceration is expensive, and policy wonks who see a “corrections” system that largely fails to correct.

December 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

NC Republican Senator reiterates his commitment to federal statutory sentencing reform

This notable new local story from North Carolina, headlined "Tillis says he may not return if bills like sentencing changes aren’t passed," provides further reinforcement for my generally positive perspective on the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform in 2017. Here are excerpts:

Sen. Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he may not seek re-election in 2020 unless a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s prison sentencing system is passed. Tillis, R-N.C., has sought to make revamping the nation’s criminal justice system one of his signature issues since arriving in Washington in 2015, leaning on his experience in pushing through North Carolina’s Justice Reinvestment Act when he was state House speaker in 2011.

Tillis said North Carolina showed that such measures could get done, even over doubts that anything less than a tough-on-crime stance would be politically damaging. He told a forum on juvenile justice in Washington that “I don’t run again until 2020, and if we’re not able to get things like this done, I don’t have any intention of coming back.”...

He expressed frustration that the Senate hasn’t been able to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan measure that would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, give judges more discretion with lower-level drug crimes and provide inmates early release opportunities by participating in rehabilitation programs....

Republicans and conservatives – from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the Koch brothers – found themselves largely in agreement with Obama, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union on the need for sweeping changes to reduce prison sentences.

But the Senate bill has been in legislative limbo. Some conservative lawmakers, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested that reducing sentences would lead to dangerous criminals being released. Even a much-heralded compromise in April to ease critics’ concerns failed to get the bill to the Senate floor.

Tillis, who appeared at Wednesday’s forum hosted by The Washington Post with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he had a solution for breaking the deadlock. “We need to tell the far-right and the far-left to go away and have people in the center solve the problem,” Tillis told the audience. “It is time to tell the far-left and the far-right to get productive or get out of the way because we need to solve this problem.”

December 1, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Why Donald Trump’s election won’t doom the criminal justice reform movement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Fusion commentary authored by Casey Tolan. The piece covers a lot of ground effectively in the wake of yesterday's election results and I recommend the piece in full.  Here are some extended excerpts:

In many ways, Donald Trump as president is a nightmare for criminal justice reformers. He has declared himself “the law and order” candidate and falsely painted American cities as hellholes with skyrocketing crime rates. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had pledged to “reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end.”

But Trump’s stunning victory — while scary for many other reasons — isn’t a death blow to the reform movement. While Trump can undo changes President Obama made and prevent serious criminal justice reforms at the federal level for the next four years, the policies that are arguably more important to fighting mass incarceration are happening at the state and local levels.

Overall, it was a mixed-bag election night for criminal justice.  Even while Trump clinched the White House, reformers won important victories in state and local races that could lead to real declines in incarceration. And yet: the death penalty won in all three states where it was on the ballot.

The tension between Trump’s law and order rhetoric and the reform victories down the ballot points to a sometimes overlooked truth: The president does not actually have that much power over the policies that lead to mass incarceration. Only about 12% of prisoners in America are in federal prisons run by the executive branch, while the vast majority are in local jails and state prisons. In many ways, local district attorneys have a bigger impact on criminal justice and incarceration in their districts than the president does.

And reformers had a very good night in DA races. Challengers pledging reform defeated tough-on-crime prosecutors in Houston, Tampa, and Birmingham, and won an open district attorney election in Denver. This is especially good news for Houston, whose incumbent DA Devon Anderson has increased arrests for low-level drug possession, defended seriously flawed death sentences, and once jailed a rape victim during the trial of her rapist. Those results continued a trend from earlier this year of more reform-minded local prosecutor candidates prevailing in primaries.

The president does not actually have that much power over the policies that lead to mass incarceration. Elsewhere on the ballot were other bright spots. In California, voters passed a measure that would make nonviolent offenders eligible for parole and lead to fewer juveniles being tried in adult courts. In Oklahoma, they approved an item reclassifying drug possession and small property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and earmarked cost savings from those changes for mental health and rehabilitation programs. Both measures are expected to lead to substantial reductions in incarceration in their states. New Mexico approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits defendants from being jailed just because they can’t pay bail....

Of course, Trump will probably have a drastic effect on prospects for federal criminal justice reform. Last year, bipartisan senators introduced to great fanfare a bill that would reshape federal sentencing laws and let nonviolent inmates get out of prison sooner. Even with the wholehearted support of President Obama and substantial compromises that watered down the bill, efforts to pass the measure have failed thanks to a group of conservative senators like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s chief ally in the body. While Trump doesn’t seem to have directly addressed the bill, his past statements don’t make him seem amenable to the idea.

Moreover, Trump could easily undo many of the smaller-scale reforms put into place by the Obama administration. On day one, Attorney General Rudy Giuliani — or whoever Trump picks — could rip up the Obama directive telling federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious drug cases and ask for less mandatory minimum sentences. He could end Obama’s policy to “ban the box” in federal government hiring, which helps formerly incarcerated people get jobs by not making them check a box saying they have a criminal record at the first stage of applications. He could reverse the Justice Department’s plan to phase out federal private prisons (a prospect that has sent private prison company stocks soaring the morning after the election). And most importantly, Trump will almost surely be able to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice, who could help pivot criminal justice law away from defendants’ rights for a generation.

Trump’s election is a shock for justice reform groups working at the federal level, some of which had already started preparing white papers on reducing mass incarceration for the Clinton administration. Nkechi Taifa, an activist at the Open Society Foundations who helped fight for drug policy reforms, told me she couldn’t believe what had happened. “We’ve always had an uphill battle on criminal justice,” Taifa said. “I just think we need to redouble our efforts. I don’t think we should retreat.”

With 71 days still in office, Obama could lock in some reforms with a broader use of his clemency power. He has already set records by commuting the sentences of more than 900 inmates serving time for drug crimes. But Taifa said he should go further, reducing the sentences of as many inmates as possible before Trump takes the keys to the White House. Clemencies cannot be undone by future presidents. “I’m saying to Obama, ‘What have you got to lose?'” Taifa said. “If he’s going to drop the mic, drop it that way.”

For families waiting to hear back about clemency decisions, Trump’s win was a sucker-punch. Obama “is my only hope,” Miquelle West, whose mother has applied for clemency from Obama, told me in a text message this morning. West said she doubted that her mother, who is serving a life sentence, would have a chance to be released after inauguration day. “I don’t see Trump being compassionate,” she said.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNBC article, which includes these excerpts:

Private prison stocks soared Wednesday after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House.

Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group had suffered some of their biggest declines over the last several months. But on Wednesday, both stocks recouped some of those losses.  Corrections Corporation gained 43 percent, while GEO climbed more than 21 percent.

In August, the Department of Justice instructed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private contractors for federal corrections facilities.  Both stocks tanked on the news, but analysts called the market reaction overblown, and questioned how feasible it would actually be for the federal government to build new housing for displaced prisoners....

The stocks fell particularly far after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the moves and her intention to build on them. "I'm glad that we're ending private prisons in the federal system," Clinton had said in her first presidential debate with Donald Trump. "I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans."

Days after Clinton made her remarks, both stocks posted their worst quarters in more than 15 years. Now that Clinton has lost, and Democrats failed to gain control of Congress, it appears investors are more sanguine about the future of the businesses.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Effective Marshall Project takes on Election 2016 and criminal justice now and in the future ... UPDATE: and another set of views via Crime & Consequences

The folks at The Marshall Project have four new articles that review and assess what this Election cycle says and suggests about the state and fate of criminal justice issues throughout the United States.  Here are links to these pieces:

UPDATE: For another informed and diverse perspective on criminal justice reform stories, I always check daily Crime & Consequences in addition to The Marshall Project.  Here are some of the early Election 2016 reaction posts from various folks at C&C: 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Marijuana, Merrick and millenials: why cautious insider Dems lost another outsider/change election

In my effort to make sense of the various Election 2016 realities, these early stories and data points caught my attention:

1. Popular vote realities in 2012 and 2016

Popular vote totals in 2012: Obama 65,915,795; Romeny 60,933,504; Johnson + Green 1,745,579  (total vote = 128.6 million)

Popular vote in 2016 (as of now): Trump 59,007,205; Clinton 59,132,664; Johnson + Green 5,195,998 (total vote = 123.3 million)

In other words, as of this writing, there were roughly 5 million fewer voters total in 2016 compared to 2012 and also roughly 3.5 million more of those who did vote in 2016 voted for one of the third party candidates.  

2.  Younger voters in 2016

As Nate Silver flagged here: "While the third-party vote wasn’t all that high tonight overall, an exception came among younger voters. According to the national exit poll, 9 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 went for third parties, as did 8 percent of voters ages 30 to 44." And until I see data to the contrary, I would guess that younger voters (especially younger minority voters) comprise a large portion of the roughly 5 million "missing" voters in 2016.

As the title of this post is meant to reveal, I already have my own (self-serving?) theories for why so many fewer folks showed up to vote in 2016 and for why so many younger progressive voters were much more eager to vote for third-party candidates.  Put simply, the tendency this cycle for Democrats (a) to nominate cautious insiders — like HRC for Prez and Ted Strickland for Senate in Ohio — and (b) to make cautious insider moves on a number of major high-salience law and policy issues — like Prez Obama nominating Merrick Garland for SCOTUS and HRC not taking up the populist cause of marijuana reform — led to a whole lot of folks not being excited enough to show up to vote and led to a whole lot of those folks showing up not being excited enough by Democrats to vote for their candidates.

In some prior posts in this space, I have highlighted some reasons why I considered the Merrick Garland nomination to be a big political mistake for Democrats:

And over at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here were my posts from last night detailing the remarkably large number of folks in a large number of states who rejected suggestions by all sorts of cautious insiders (of both parties) to slow down the rapidly-moving marijuana reform movement:

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"How Do You Vote in Prison and Jail? For the most part, you don’t."

The title of this post is the headline of this new Slate article which serves as a fitting final Election Day post before I gear up to post about Election Day results.  Here are excerpts:

People who are incarcerated find creative ways to do things the rest of us don’t have to think much about.... But how do they vote in elections?

Well, they mostly don’t. In almost every state, the law states that incarcerated people are not allowed to cast ballots. In fact, most states even impose voting restrictions on former prisoners who are out on parole, and a few states — Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia — have lifetime disenfranchisement laws for anyone who has ever been to prison. These laws combine to prohibit an estimated 6.1 million Americans from voting, per one October 2016 estimation.  There is a movement among criminal justice advocates to restore voting rights for felons, but the politics of reform on this issue are notoriously complicated and again, vary state by state.

There are two states that currently afford prison inmates the right to vote while in confinement: Maine and Vermont.  Inmates in both states vote through absentee ballots rather than on-site polling places. Utah, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts also used to allow prisoners to vote, but they don’t anymore. In Massachusetts the change came after a group of inmates tried to form a political action committee in 1997 pressing for better health care and less expensive phone calls, leading then-Gov. Paul Cellucci to propose a constitutional amendment to prohibit inmate voting that passed in 2000.

So that’s prisons.  Local jails are a different story, because most of the people confined in them on any given day are in pretrial detention — meaning they haven’t yet been convicted of whatever crime they’ve been arrested for — or they’ve been convicted of misdemeanors. While there are a handful of states that ban people serving time for misdemeanors from voting, it’s fair to say that most jail inmates and detainees — roughly 750,000 Americans at any given time — are legally allowed to cast ballots as long as they are otherwise eligible. (They will also most likely do so via absentee ballots, though it’s technically possible for jails to have polling places on-site.)

That doesn’t mean a lot of them end up actually doing it, though there are jails around the country that make a special effort to encourage inmates to exercise their right. In the Cook County facility in Chicago, the largest jail in America, a voter drive effort organized this year by lawyer Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley has resulted in about 1,000 new registered voters and 1,600 absentee ballots cast....

Other jails that are known for helping inmates exercise their right to vote include those in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, volunteers from the League of Women Voters this year helped register about 300 inmates (out of a total jail population of about 1,600); in New York, jail officials distributed voter registration forms and informational fliers in the facilities’ public areas, including law libraries and barber shops. Such efforts are outliers, however, and typically depend on the initiative of outside advocacy groups.

November 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some Election Day headlines for sentencing fans ... (to read while waiting in line to vote?)

18702169.548e53c77fc3cI am about to head out to vote, and I have the great fortune (and white privilege?) of a local polling place where there is almost never a line to impede or slow down my voting efforts.  (And this year I have the extra excitement of getting to see one of my teenagers serving as a poll worker.  I am so very proud of her willingness to go through the local training and get up at 5am this morning in order to help everyone have an easy and smooth experience exercising the franchise.)

I am certain that starting this evening I will be blogging about results of key elections for those interested in sentencing reform (as partially previewed here), though I fear it will not be until Wednesday until we know about all the big initiative votes in California because polls there do not close until 11pm EST.  Before that time, though, I am hopeful we might have a sense of the outcomes of the big marijuana reform votes on the East Coast (especially in Florida, Maine and Massachusetts) and also of the death penalty votes in the Heartland (Oklahoma and Nebraska).

In the meantime, I have collected here some headlines and links to stories that provide a kind of Election Day starter.  Though I sincerely hope readers do not experience long lines or waits to vote, perhaps these stories can help some pass the time:

November 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 07, 2016

What are the elections that followers of sentencing reform are (or should be) watching especially closely?

On this Election Day eve, I am debating whether I should be putting together some kind of "Sentencing Reformers' 2016 Election Guide."  There are some obvious elections that everyone will obviously be watching which obviously will impact the fate of major sentencing reform efforts.  Who becomes Prez elect and which party controls the US Senate will, of course, be a focal point for all Election Night coverage, and these representative democracy outcomes will directly influence the direction and shape of future federal statutory sentencing reform developments.

In addition, those who care a lot about the state and fate of capital punishment will be following closely the big repeal/retain votes in California and Nebraska (and perhaps a lower-consequence vote in Oklahoma).  And those who care a lot about about the state and fate of marijuana reform will be following closely the big full legalization votes in five states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada) and the medical marijuana votes in four other states (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota).

Not to be overlooked among the higher-profile ballot initiatives are (arguably more consequential) state sentencing reform initiatives in California (Prop 57) and Oklahoma (State Questions 780 and 781).  And, as detailed via this Governing round-up, there are various other "criminal justice" ballot initiatives in various states dealing with victim rights and gun control and a few other issues that surely can echo through sentencing systems.

In addition to all this action, I suspect there may some (lower-profile?) "sleeper" federal, state or local races in which candidates or issues could have a pretty big impact on sentencing reform.  I would be grateful to hear from readers in the comments about any particular races/issues they are following particularly closely with an eye on current and future sentencing realities.  

Are there any of the elections mentioned above that readers think are especially important for sentencing reform?  

Are there elections I have not flagged that ought to be on the radar screens of sentencing reformers?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, I was alerted to this new article from The Nation which spotlights local Arizona DA up for re-election whose race might be of interest to readers of this blog.  The full headline of the article provides a taste of its contents: "This Arizona Prosecutor Is Waging a Strange War on Weed — and That’s Just the Beginning: Bill Montgomery is up for election tomorrow."

November 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Do we need to worry seriously about voter confusion in the states in which the future of the death penalty is on ballot?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent article from Governing headlined "As Voters Decide Death Penalty's Fate, Ballots Confuse Some: This year's proposals aren't as simple as marking whether you're for or against capital punishment."  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade.  Depending on the election, California and Nebraska could be next.  While voters in those two states decide whether to do away with capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — could strengthen their state's ability to carry it out....

[But] like the issue of capital punishment, this year's ballot measures on the topic are complicated.

In Nebraska, the state legislature overrode their governor to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the law never went into effect because opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.  If voters ultimately uphold the law, it would be the first state under GOP control to ban capital punishment since 1973.

But first, voters will have to figure out which side they stand on — something that could be difficult for many.  The ballot measure gives voters two options: "repeal" or "retain." People who choose "repeal," as confusing as it may be, won't be voting to repeal the death penalty — they'll be voting to repeal the legislature's repeal of the death penalty and thus keep the option of executions available.

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts is campaigning in favor of capital punishment and has contributed about $400,000 to the effort.  In his veto letter to state lawmakers last year, he said their vote on a death penalty ban “tests the true meaning of representative government.”  Though a bipartisan majority of legislators overrode his veto, Ricketts may be correct that the public is with him: An August poll found that about 58 percent of likely voters in Nebraska are in favor of the death penalty.

In California, the ballot features two conflicting propositions — one that would repeal the death penalty and another that would keep it.  If both measures earn a majority of votes, whichever gets more will go into effect.  Most polls suggest the pro-death penalty measure will pass.

And in Oklahoma, the legality of capital punishment isn't up for a vote. Instead, voters will decide whether to add a section to the constitution that affirms the state’s authority to carry out executions, regardless of which method is used.  After several botched executions, the state halted any future ones until further notice. Oklahoma's ballot measure would also exempt the death penalty — but not specific methods of execution — from being invalidated by courts as cruel and unusual punishment.  "It takes away the debate on whether or not we should have capital punishment," said state Rep. John Paul Jordan in an interview with The Oklahoman.  "It allows us to direct our attention as a Legislature towards how we implement it and how we do it in the most humane way possible.”

Critics of the Oklahoma ballot question say the constitutional amendment is unnecessary, undermines the authority of the courts and could invite expensive lawsuits.  Several civil rights experts have raised concerns that the measure would strip citizens of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  Nevertheless, a July poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters supported the constitutional amendment.

Although polling in all three states suggest that a majority of voters support the death penalty, there's evidence that the framing of the question makes a major difference in how people respond. I n Oklahoma, when likely voters were asked if they supported the death penalty, three-quarters said yes.  But when given the option of eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with a life sentence without parole, along with other financial penalties, a slight majority favored a ban on the death penalty.

November 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 05, 2016

"Disenfranchisement and Over-Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new short article authored by Murat Mungan and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Disenfranchisement laws in many states prohibit convicted felons from voting. The removal of ex-convicts from the pool of eligible voters reduces the pressure politicians may otherwise face to protect the interests of this group. In particular, disenfranchisement laws may cause the political process to push the sentences for criminal offenses upwards.

In this article, I construct a simple model with elected law enforcers who propose sentences to maximize their likelihood of election. I show, with the help of the median voter theorem, that even without disenfranchisement, elections typically generate over-incarceration, i.e. longer than optimal sentences.

Disenfranchisement further widens the gap between the optimal sentence and the equilibrium sentence, and thereby exacerbates the problem of over-incarceration. Moreover, this result is valid even when voter turnout is negatively correlated with people's criminal tendencies, i.e. when criminals vote less frequently than non-criminals.

November 5, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Election 2016: astute views "this Year’s Soft-on-Crime Attack Ads"

Maurice Chammah has this effective new article at The Marshall Project taking a look at "Campaign ads in the age of criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts from how it starts and ends:

It’s campaign season, which means the long shadow of Willie Horton is with us yet again. George H.W. Bush’s 1988 attack ad, which blamed his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for releasing a man who went on to commit more violent crimes, has become shorthand for a style of political advertising that continues to reappear every cycle. This year is no different.

But there are a few new approaches to these ads that may reflect larger trends in the politics of criminal justice....

“Most of these spots flinch when it comes to going for a pure fear appeal, à la Willie Horton,” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a book on the 1964 “Daisy” ad. Mann noted that an attack ad about Democratic Connecticut state Sen. Mae Flexer — which criticizes her vote to repeal the state’s death penalty and support an early release program — “was careful to show several non-minority faces.” The attack on Kaine also features primarily white criminals.

This year, many ads in the Horton tradition focus on the subject of rape, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to women voters. In Houston, Texas, an ad accuses the incumbent district attorney, Republican Devon Anderson, of jailing a rape victim to ensure she would testify. Republican ads against North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for a Senate seat from Nevada, accuse each of them of putting a low priority on testing rape kits and solving rape crimes in general.

Ads in North Carolina are targeting Deborah Ross, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Richard Burr, for her efforts on behalf of a 13-year-old named Andre Green, who was charged with sexually assaulting his 23-year-old neighbor while the victim’s toddler was in the room. In 1994, as an ACLU lobbyist, Ross advocated against placing Green in an adult court. “If Deborah Ross had her way, Green would be on our streets,” the ad says. In response, Ross released her own ad attacking Burr for being soft on sex criminals. The ad points out that Burr voted against the Violence Against Women Act, which includes funding for rape crisis centers, and voted against funding the federal sex offender registry (in truth, his vote was against a much broader budget bill).

Jonathan Davis, a partner at Northside Research + Consulting, an opposition research firm in New York, sees the trend as a tactical appeal to women in an election where their votes are not as predictable. Hillary Clinton “is poised to win a historic percentage of Republican women,” he says. “There is a large block of female voters in key states who know they're backing Clinton for president, but are still open to persuasion in down-ballot races.”

Some of those down-ballot candidates, including district attorney hopefuls in Florida and Colorado, are also trying different strategies with their advertising: they are using the language of criminal justice reform, calling for rehabilitation rather than prison for minor crimes. Colorado Democrat Beth McCann is running an ad featuring Francisco Gallardo, a former gang-member who now works with at-risk youth. In the ad, Gallardo says, "We need something that's more comprehensive, that's not just about building jails, but promoting the front end, building more empathy, more education, more opportunities...the reason Beth [McCann] can make those hard choices is she’s connected in the community."

But at the end of the day, despite these newer trends, the soft-on-crime attack endures. The best proof of its power is that even critics of mass incarceration are willing to use it. The most surprising Horton-esque attack this season comes from the suburbs of Denver, where a radio ad is targeting incumbent district attorney Peter Weir. The ad accuses Weir, a Republican, of signing off on a plea deal granting probation for Michael David Miller, a rapist with numerous alleged victims. (Weir told The Marshall Project that Miller’s crime would have been difficult to prove before a jury, and his office pursued Miller more aggressively than other jurisdictions where accusations were made.)

The ads were paid for by a political action committee linked to billionaire George Soros, who is actually trying to bolster the campaigns of reformers (Soros, through a spokesman, declined to comment). Soros’s chosen candidate, Jake Lilly, is running his own, separate ads promoting reform; he calls for treatment for people with addiction and mental health issues. Weir, the incumbent being attacked, is broadly in agreement; he has promoted the use of specialty courts to divert drug offenders from jail time. Lilly spoke out against the Soros-funded ads that were designed to help him. “I don’t approve of the tone,” he told a local reporter. “I don’t approve of the negativity.”

November 2, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A timely (and heartwarming?) story of felon enfranshisement

Particularly during an election season that seems almost intentionally designed to make everyone too depressed to want to vote, this local story from Tennessee is about as close to a "feel-good" election season sentencing story as we are likely to find.  The story is headlined "Facing felony, he asked to vote first," and here are the highlights:

A young man went to federal court last week to plead guilty to a felony. He knew he was facing up to 20 years in prison.  He knew he was about to lose his freedom.  He didn't realize he was about to lose his right to vote.  "I've been wanting to vote all my life," said Reginald Albright, who turned 20 this year.

When he was a kid, Albright would go with his grandfather to a polling place and wait in the car. "You're too young to vote now," his grandfather would tell him. That only made Albright more eager to vote.

Four years ago, he wished he could have gone with his mother to Mt. Zion Baptist Church to vote for President Barack Obama.  He was 16, still too young to vote. His mother, Gloria Hill, was an election poll worker for the 2012 presidential election....  Albright said he has always felt an obligation to vote. "I know my history," he said. He knows his Mississippi ancestors were spat on, slapped, threatened or worse for merely trying to register to vote.

He knows they faced laws designed to inhibit or prevent them from voting -- taxes they couldn't possibly pay, tests they couldn't possibly pass, whites-only primaries.  He knows how hard and long they struggled to gain the right to vote, and how long and hard they struggled to be allowed the privilege of voting. "My family takes voting seriously and so do I," he said.  Albright could have voted in last year's city elections, but he wanted to cast his first vote for president. So he waited.

Meanwhile, he was trying to figure out how he could afford to go back to school.  Albright graduated from Carver High School in 2014. His mother still has his football and weightlifting trophies on top of the TV. "He's never given me any trouble," she said. "In fact, he wanted to become a police officer." Albright started taking classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College, then dropped out when his money ran out. When he turned 18, he lost his share of his disabled mother's Social Security benefits.

Albright admits that he conspired with two others to rob a CVS drugstore in Memphis last December. The attempted robbery was botched, but one of the other robbers had a gun.  Albright was just sitting outside in a car when it all happened, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself.  "I made a stupid decision and hurt a lot of people who care about me," said Albright, who had no previous criminal record. "I learned a lot of lessons."

Before he went into the courtroom to face the judge last week, Albright sat down with his attorney. By pleading guilty, the attorney explained, Albright would be rendered infamous. That meant he would be deprived of some of his rights as a citizen – his rights to have a gun, to sit on a jury, to hold public office.

"What about my right to vote?" Albright asked.

"You'd lose that, too," attorney Alex Wharton replied.

"Can I vote before I plead guilty?" Albright asked.

Wharton, son of former Mayor A C Wharton, couldn't believe what he was hearing. "People will spend $20 to go to a movie, but they won't take 20 minutes to go vote," Wharton said. "And the cost has already been paid . People fought and shed blood and died for the simple right and privilege just to cast a vote."

Wharton decided to ask the judge for a brief continuance so Albright could go vote. The U.S. attorney did not object. “The government had no objection in this case to the court allowing the defendant the opportunity to exercise his constitutional right to vote before pleading guilty," said U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III.

U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. said yes. "I've been in criminal law in some form or fashion as a lawyer or judge for 30 years, and I've never heard anyone ask that," Fowlkes said afterward. "It's an important right and I was glad to give that young man a chance to exercise it."

Albright left the courtroom with his mother. He pushed her wheelchair out of the federal building half a block up Front Street, then two blocks down Poplar to the Shelby County Election Commission.  They waited in line about half an hour. She pushed him to vote first. "I knew he'd been waiting a long time," she said.

After they both voted, Albright pushed his mother's wheelchair back to the federal building and into the courtroom.

"Did you vote?" the judge asked.

"Yes, sir," Albright said, pointing to his Tennessee-shaped "I Voted" sticker.

He thanked the judge for allowing him to vote for the first time in his life.  Then he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony and forfeited his right to vote.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in January. He faces up to 20 years in prison, but probation is an option. "It made me feel good to vote, to do this one time before it was taken away from me," he said. "Maybe I'll get another chance."

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Two new Washington Post commentaries making federal sentencin reform sound (way too) easy

The "In Theory" section of the Washington Post now has posted two notable new commentaries about prison reform.  Here are the authors, full titles and links:

Here is how the second of these two commentaries gets started:

When our next president enters the Oval Office, she or he will be faced with two questions: First, how to make a mark as president ? Second, how to break through gridlock in Congress?

Prioritizing reducing our prison population is one way to achieve both goals. Most Republicans and Democrats agree: Mass incarceration devastates communities of color and wastes money.  Even Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan see eye-to-eye. Committing to such reform in the first 100 days would make a lasting and imperative change.

Regular readers will not be surprised to know I support the spirit and much of the substance of these two commentaries.  But the "can-do" talk and the direct or indirect suggestion that this kind of reform should be "easy for the next president" really seem to me to miss the mark.  After all, Prez Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan and current Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley all right now largely "see eye-to-eye" on the importance of "reducing our prison population."  And yet, despite diligent work by lots and lots of folks on the federal reform front for more than two years now, Congress has so far been unable to get any kind of significant criminal justice reform bill to the desk of Prez Obama. 

Though I know the 2016 election is certain to disrupt the existing political status quo, I do not know if anything that happens at the voting booth next week can make it that much easier for the folks inside the Beltway to find their way to turn all sorts of talk into actual statutory reforms.  I sure hope advocates like those who authored these commentaries keep talking up the importance of making criminal justice reform a priority in 2017.  But, as I have been saying for too many years already, I am not counting any federal sentencing reform chickens until they are fully hatched.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Famous "war on drugs" voice now voicing support for marijuana reform: any questions?

This new MarketWatch article, headlined "War on drugs spokesman now supports marijuana legalization," gives me an excuse to flag an iconic 1980s public service announcement while reporting on its new symbolic significance:

The voice behind one of the war on drugs’ most iconic ads has cast a vote to legalize marijuana. During the height of the ’80s war on drugs that gave rise to the “Just Say No” campaign, actor John Roselius stared in an antidrug TV ad for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The ad featured Roselius frying an egg in a skillet to portray what happens to the brain while using drugs.

Roselius, who is now 72, recently told Colorado-based Rooster Magazine he voted “yes” on California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Prop 64, which would legalize and regulate the use and sale of the plant to adults. “I’m 100% behind legalizing it, are you kidding? It’s healthier than alcohol,” Roselius told the publication.

And he’s not alone. Just ahead of the Nov. 8 election — in which five states will vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and four will vote on legalizing medical marijuana—a Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans support legal marijuana use. That’s the highest percentage of support recorded in the 47-year trend, with support rising among all age groups in the past decade.

That follows a separate poll by Pew Research earlier in the month which found 57% of Americans support legalization. “The topline number obviously bodes well for the marijuana measures on state ballots next month,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, an organization tasked with educating people and fighting for marijuana legalization. “More politicians — presidential candidates included — would do themselves a big favor to take note of the clear trend and then vocally support legislation catering to the growing majority of Americans who support modernizing failed marijuana policies.”

Roselius told Rooster Magazine he’d smoked marijuana in the ’60s, and that when he made the ad, he knew it didn’t fry the brain like an egg.

The war on drugs has been one of the most scrutinized and debated policies to come out of the Reagan era. Drug dealers were cast as violent villains and were blamed for devastating some of America’s cities. Incarceration rates shot higher and disproportionately affected men of color.

The cannabis industry has since fought back against that portrayal, calling for an end to arrests for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. Roselius’ vote to legalize marijuana in California could help push one of the most important states in the movement to the forefront.

Of course, if you do have question about these matter, my blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform has a lot more coverage.  And, with that intro and a good excuse now, here is a review of some recent posts there (many of which are the fine work of my relatively new co-blogger):

October 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this notable report authored by Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang which I learned about via an email from The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Here is the text of that email, which provides a summary of the report's contents:

The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. That’s according to independent research sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS).  State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013.  Researchers found that the more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to rule in favor of criminal defendants; and justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the Citizens United decision.

“The amount of money spent in state judicial elections has skyrocketed and the results of that spending are clear.  The flood of interest group money set free by Citizens United are endangering what should be impartial judicial decision-making and putting the fundamental constitutional rights of every American at risk,” said ACS President Caroline Fredrickson. “The data show that the television campaign ads this money buys put a thumb on the scale in criminal cases, and undermine the promise of equal justice that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Skewed Justice, by Dr. Joanna Shepherd and Dr. Michael S. Kang, both law professors at Emory University, follows the report Justice at Risk: An Empirical Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Judicial Decisions, published by ACS in 2013.  That report, authored by Professor Shepherd, revealed the growing influence of contributions on state supreme court judges. While the majority of media attention is focused on the United States Supreme Court, elected judges at the state level handle more than 90 percent of the United States’ judicial business.  This gives money and advertising huge influence in American democracy.  Beginning in the 1990s, and accelerating in almost every election cycle since, judicial elections have become more competitive and contentious, and campaign spending on these elections has skyrocketed, the research finds. Incumbent judges almost never lost their reelection bids during the 1980s, but by 2000 their loss rates had risen higher than those of congressional and state legislative incumbents. 

UPDATE: A helpful reader realized that this ACS-sponsored study is actually not so new, as it was first released a couple tears ago. I now assume ACS was promoting it anew (and led me to think it was new) because the report is extra-timely during a big elections season.

October 25, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Terrific Marshall Project review of notable (but lower-profile) criminal justice initiatives going to voters in various states

18702169.548e53c77fc3cThe always great work done by the folks at The Marshall Project continues be especially helpful for election-season coverage through its "Crime On The Ballot" series which keeps tabs on the "ballot measures and races — beyond Washington — that could shape criminal justice."   And this week brought this new piece on state ballot initiatives headlined "It’s Not Just Pot and the Death Penalty: Four important ballot measures you probably haven’t heard of."  I recommend the extended piece in full, and here are excerpts:

High-profile state ballot measures on contentious issues like the death penalty, guns and pot are closely watched as indicators of the national mood.  But this election season also brings less-noticed proposals that may have more far-reaching effects.  Here are four ballot measures in six states that could serve as laboratories for other states.

Shortening Time Served for Nonviolent Felonies: California

California has a long history of putting criminal justice policy on the ballot: the state’s infamous “Three Strikes” law was strengthened by a ballot initiative in 1994; then, with voters’ appetite for mass incarceration on the wane, the law was partially repealed by another initiative in 2012.  In 2014, voters downgraded several major felonies to misdemeanors — most notably, possession of heroin and other illegal drugs. Now, with the state under a federal mandate to reduce its prison population, Californians will consider a constitutional amendment to make certain prisoners eligible for earlier release.

Under the current law, sentences for many felonies can be “enhanced” with additional prison time if the person committing the crime is classified as a gang member, for example, or has other felony convictions on his record. Under the state’s “determinate sentencing” provision, prisoners must serve their entire term, enhancements and all. Proposition 57 would undo that requirement for those whose crimes are classified as “nonviolent,” making prisoners eligible for parole after they’ve served the full term for their primary crime.  The proposition also creates a system of early-release credits that inmates can earn by participating in education and rehabilitation programs....

Bail Reform: New Mexico

When someone is accused of a crime in New Mexico, the law requires he or she be sent home under “the least restrictive conditions necessary to reasonably assure both the defendant’s appearance in court and the safety of the community.”  In other words, jail should be a last resort, reserved for the most dangerous defendants or those most likely to flee.  But that’s rarely what happens, says Charles Daniels, Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. “Everybody has just grown so used to this notion that if you are accused of a crime, you have to pay somebody some money to get out of jail.  Our judges have just gotten so used to putting a price tag on your presumption of innocence,” he says.

Research from around the country shows that tens of thousands of people are routinely held in jail for low-level offenses because they don’t have small sums of money to make bail.  Daniels has spearheaded an effort to overhaul the state’s bail system; a ballot measure this November would amend the state constitution to include a rule that no one should be held in jail solely because they can’t afford bail — and would make it harder for defendants to get out if they are dangerous.  In almost every state, people accused of crimes have a “right to bail”: Regardless of how dangerous the defendant, or how serious a flight risk, a judge can’t hold anyone outright.  Instead, judges who want a defendant held set a too-high bail amount that they hope the defendant can’t afford. “It’s a shell game,” says Daniels.  The ballot measure would remove “right to bail”, and the constitution would be amended to say judges can deny bail if, after a hearing, they feel someone is too dangerous to be released....

Writing Victims' Rights Into the Constitution: North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana

Three states this November will vote on an almost identical ballot measure that would create sweeping new protections for crime victims.  Called “Marsy’s Law,” “this is an equal rights campaign to strengthen victims’ rights so they’re equal to rights that criminal offenders have,” according to Jason Glodt, a former prosecutor managing the campaign in South Dakota.  Marsy’s Law is named for Marsalee Nicholas, who was killed by her boyfriend in 1983.  A week after her murder, her mother “walked into a grocery store after visiting her daughter’s grave and was confronted by the accused murderer.  She had no idea that he had been released on bail,” according to the Marsy’s Law website.

The amendments would require that victims be notified at every major step of the criminal justice process, one of more than a dozen new rights, including the right to withhold records, the right to refuse to be deposed or interviewed, and the right to speak at hearings.  The amendments would also broaden the definition of “victim”; in some states, like North Dakota, current victim protection laws are only triggered in the case of a serious crime like assault or murder.  Under Marsy’s Law, “victim” would include those who had their purses snatched — and their “spouse, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, grandchild, or guardian, and any person with a relationship to the victim that is substantially similar to a listed relationship."...

De-Felonizing Drug Possession: Oklahoma

By its own count, Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country (after Louisiana), and the highest rate of incarcerated women.  Seventy-five percent of those behind bars are there for nonviolent offenses — most commonly, drug offenses.  Two ballot measures poised to pass this November aim to change that.  The first, SQ 780, would downgrade simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and raise the “felony theft threshold” —the dollar value of a stolen item that triggers felony rather than misdemeanor charges — from $500 to $1000.  A corresponding measure, SQ 781, directs cost savings generated by SQ 780 into a special fund that would pay for mental health and substance abuse services.  The measures are backed by a coalition of both right- and left-leaning organizations, including the ACLU and the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma.Local sheriffs and prosecutors warn that without the threat of felony charges, prosecutors lose the leverage they need to compel people to participate in drug court, accept plea deals, or to testify in other cases.  Sheriffs fear that all these new misdemeanor arrests will simply shift overcrowding in prisons to the jails.

The measures come at a time when Oklahoma has been contemplating criminal justice reform (spurred, in part, by a budget crunch caused by falling oil prices). In April, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a package of bills aimed at shrinking the prison population, including one that reduces mandatory minimums for drug possession and one that broadens the use of drug courts and community sentencing.  The state is also undergoing a Justice Reinvestment process; a task force researching the drivers of the state’s incarceration rate will submit an additional series of recommended bills next year.  The success of those bills is staked, to a certain extent, on these ballot initiatives.

October 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Could Atticus Finch get elected?"

ToKillMockngbrd_150PyxurzThe question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Kevin Burke, who is a state trial judge in Minnesota and past president of the American Judges Association. Here are excerpts:

Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” passionately believed in justice. He didn't like criminal law, yet he accepted the appointment to represent Tom Robinson, an African-American man charged with raping a young white girl. The story, set in Maycomb County, Alabama, in the early 1930s, portrays a lawyer who felt that the justice system should be colorblind. Had Atticus Finch run for office after the trial, could he have been elected?

A web video from the Republican National Committee darkly portrays Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine as having “protected the worst kinds of people” on death row as a defense attorney.  The video features Lem Tuggle, whom Kaine defended on rape and murder charges. Tuggle was eventually executed. The video also focuses on Richard Lee Whitley, who was executed despite what the Richmond Times-Dispatch described as “about 1,000 hours of largely free legal work” on Kaine's part.  We admire Atticus Finch, so why is it that Kaine’s defense of death penalty defendants is treated differently?

Representing unpopular clients has a long tradition in the American legal system.  John Adams represented British soldiers accused of murder in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Before agreeing to represent the British soldiers (who were that era’s terrorists), Adams worried about his reputation.  Yet, he said of his experience, “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”  John Adams was elected president of the United States.  In an age of 24-hour cable, Willie Horton ads, and internet-driven misinformation, could Adams be elected president today?

Paul Clement was a superstar appellate lawyer in the Bush administration.  After resigning as solicitor general of the United States, he joined King & Spalding as a partner. Clement agreed to represent the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that federally defined marriage as between one man and one woman.  Shortly thereafter, King & Spalding withdrew from the case, and Clement promptly resigned from the firm to continue his representation. He said, "Representation should not be abandoned because the client's legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters." Clement’s decision to leave his firm had a notable defender: Attorney General Eric Holder.  Holder said, “In ... representing Congress in connection with DOMA, I think he is doing that which lawyers do when we’re at our best ... [the] criticism, I think, was very misplaced.”

“Mr. Clement’s statement misses the point entirely,” Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, wrote in The New York Times. “While it is sometimes appropriate for lawyers to represent unpopular clients when an important principle is at issue, here the only principle he wishes to defend is discrimination and second-class citizenship for gay Americans.”

Paul Clement will likely never run for public office, but there are those who speculate Clement may someday be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.  The confirmation process has become quite partisan.  Would it be fair to deny him confirmation because of his representation of a client and defense of a ban on gay marriage?

In 2014, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Adegbile's nomination was rejected because as an executive of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he worked on a series of briefs made on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1991. Every Republican senator voted against Adegbile and several Democrats joined them.  “I made a conscientious decision [to vote against Adegbile] after talking to the wife of the victim,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters.  After talking with gay victims of discrimination would it be appropriate for a senator to vote against Paul Clement?...

Edward Bennett Williams was among the greatest trial lawyers of the last century. He represented a slew of unpopular clients, including Jimmy Hoffa, organized crime figures Sam Giancana and Frank Costello, as well as Sen. Joe McCarthy. In a speech given to the New York State Bar Association, Williams argued there was an epidemic of “guilt by client,” and warned of the “insidious identification” that would scare off lawyers from standing by the unpopular and degraded. Williams said, “When a doctor takes out Earl Browden's appendix, nobody suggests that the doctor is a Communist [Browden was the head of the American Communist Party]. When a lawyer represents Browden, everybody decides that lawyer must be a Communist, too.”...

Not every lawyer has the skill to represent a person facing the death penalty, nor the skill to argue before the Supreme Court. The video suggests you should not vote for Kaine because he had that skill, but should we embrace the demagoguery of the video used against him? This is not an issue about lawyers’ ethics; it is about what each of us wants from the American system of justice.

John Ferguson was executed after he tricked his way into a woman’s home and bound, blindfolded, and then shot eight people. Six of them died. While under indictment for those crimes, Ferguson murdered two teenagers on their way to church. What kind of lawyer would defend John Ferguson? The lawyer was Chief Justice John Roberts.

October 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Is supposedly "tough-on-crime" GOP Senator (and former federal prosecutor) Jeff Sessions actually not-so-tough on sexual assault?

The provocative question in the title of this post is my reaction to seeing these two new (right-leaning-source) stories about comments made last night by Alabama GOP Senator (and former US Attorney) Jeff Sessions:

From RedState here, "Senator Jeff Sessions Unsure Whether Grabbing Women by Their Genitals is Sexual Assault"

From the Weekly Standard here, "Jeff Sessions: Behavior Described by Trump in 'Grab Them by the P---y' Tape Isn't Sexual Assault"

One of many notable aspects of GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump's campaign has been the fact that his three most-prominent political surrogates are all former US Attorneys: Chris Christie was US Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Rudy Giuliani was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1983 to 1989, and Jeff Sessions was US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1981 to 1993.  I have long assumed that this notable troika of US Attorneys advising Trump has played a significant role in Trump's effort to brand himself as the "law-and-order" candidate.

As regular readers surely know, I often have a number of different perspectives on a number of crime and punishment issues than do many current and former US Attorneys.  As I also hope readers also realize, I always have had a significant amount of respect for the professional honesty and personal integrity of current and former US Attorneys.  But Senator Sessions' statements reported above (as well as some other actions by Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani in recent weeks and months) has really dealt a significant blow to my continued ability to have continued respect for the professional honesty and personal integrity of at least some former US Attorneys.

UPDATE: This local article reports on Senator Sessions' effort to clarify his remarks under the headline, "Sen. Jeff Sessions denies dismissing Trump's lewd video comments: 'Crystal clear' sexual assault unacceptable."

October 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (94)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

"6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016"

E6092bbb47a17ed3d778bf40f917-convicted-felons-votingThe title of this post is the title of this timely new study on felony disenfranchisement released today by The Sentencing Project and authored by researchers Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon. Here is the start of the report's "Overview" section:  

The United States remains one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crimes. An estimated 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement,” or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes.

In this election year, the question of voting restrictions is once again receiving great public attention.  This report is intended to update and expand our previous work on the scope and distribution of felony disenfranchisement in the United States (see Uggen, Shannon, and Manza 2012; Uggen and Manza 2002; Manza and Uggen 2006). The numbers presented here represent our best assessment of the state of felony disenfranchisement as of the November 2016 election.

Our key findings include the following:

• As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.  There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and 5.85 million in 2010.

• Approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population — 1 of every 40 adults — is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

• Individuals who have completed their sentences in the twelve states that disenfranchise people post-sentence make up over 50 percent of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling almost 3.1 million people.

• Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions. In six states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia — more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.

• The state of Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the disenfranchised population nationally, and its nearly 1.5 million individuals disenfranchised post-sentence account for nearly half (48 percent) of the national total.

• One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans.  Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.

• African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In four states — Florida (21 percent), Kentucky (26 percent), Tennessee (21 percent), and Virginia (22 percent) — more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

This report reinforces my view that Prez candidate Donald Trump is right about one thing: our election system is "rigged." But when he makes that claim, I am pretty sure he is not complaining about the facts detailed in this study documenting why and where about "2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population — 1 of every 40 adults — is disenfranchised."

October 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Leading VP candidates talk a bit (encouragingly?) about criminal justice reform their only debate

There was a little discussion of policing, sentencing and criminal justice reform at last night's vice presidential debate, and I found most notable the fact that the GOP's VP candidate Mike Pence at one point said plainly and without reservation "We need criminal justice reform."  (The Democrats' GOP VP candidate Tim Kaine also talked, somewhat unsurprisingly, about the death penalty when asked how his personal faith created challenges for him in make political decisions.)  Perhaps even more important than the Gov Pence's simple statement that we "need" criminal justice reform was this further explanation of what he meant in this Q&A with the debate moderator (with my emphasis added):

QUIJANO: Your fellow Republican, Governor Pence, Senator Tim Scott, who is African-American, recently spoke on the Senate floor. He said he was stopped seven times by law enforcement in one year.... He said, "I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you're being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself." What would you say to Senator Scott about his experiences?

PENCE: Well, I have the deepest respect for Senator Scott, and he's a close friend. And what I would say is that we -- we need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally. I -- I signed criminal justice reform in the state of Indiana, Senator, and we're very proud of it.

I worked when I was Congress on a second chance act. We have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect on institutional bias in criminal justice.

These statements reinforces my belief that, once we get fully through this election cycle, there is a really good chance that the still-growing bipartisan consensus supporting some form of federal statutory sentencing reform will finally be able to get some form of some bill through both houses of Congress and to the desk of the new President.  Of course, who wins seats in Congress and who is the new Prez and VP will certainly significantly impact what ends up in a federal statutory sentencing reform bill that gets to the desk of the new Prez.  But now hearing GOP's VP candidate Pence talking up the "need" to adopt criminal justice reform "nationally" has me now distinctly (and foolishly?) optimistic that some kind of statutory reforms will be signed into law sometime during the next Congress.

For more background on what both leading VP candidates have said and done on the criminal justice reform front, I recommend this new Huffington Post article headlined "Here’s How Tim Kaine And Mike Pence Measure Up On Criminal Justice: The two vice presidential candidates have pushed for similar criminal justice policies at times." 

October 5, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 22, 2016

"Race, Privilege, and Recall: Why the misleading campaign against the judge who sentenced Brock Turner will only make our system less fair"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Medium commentary authored by Akiva Freidlin and Emi Young.  Here are excerpts:

As recent graduates of Stanford Law School who work on behalf of low-income people affected by our criminal justice system, we have been closely attuned to the Brock Turner sexual assault case. We recognize the urgency of feminist-led reforms to rape law, and of efforts to address and prevent sexual violence, but the misguided campaign to recall Judge Aaron Persky advances neither goal. Instead, the recall proponents have used misleading arguments to inflame the perception that Judge Persky imposes unfair sentences depending on a defendant’s race and class. These distortions misdirect long-overdue public outrage over the state of America’s criminal justice system to support Persky’s recall, while threatening to make the system less fair for indigent defendants and people of color.... In July, the recall campaign began drawing misleading comparisons between Turner and a Latino man named Raul Ramirez, whose case was overseen by Judge Persky. The campaign claims that Ramirez, a low-income person of color, received a three-year sentence for “very similar crimes,” proving that Judge Persky has “shown bias.”  But there are two crucial legal differences between the cases, which render the comparison meaningless....

Ramirez received a three-year sentence as part of a negotiated plea deal between his attorney and the prosecutor, so Judge Persky had no discretion to give him a lesser sentence.... [And] Ramirez and Turner were charged with crimes that are treated differently under the law. Ramirez received a prison sentence because the District Attorney charged him under a statute that absolutely requires it.... These realities explain the differences between Brock Turner’s sentence of probation and Raul Ramirez’s three-year prison term  —  not the recall campaign’s unsupported claims of judicial bias....

Now the campaign has begun to publicize a misleading barrage of claims about another plea bargain, using rhetoric that undermines hard-won reforms to immigration policy. In this case, a defendant named Ming Hsuan Chiang pleaded guilty to a domestic violence charge in exchange for a sentence that critics deride as being too lenient.  The facts in this case, and the injuries to the victim, are upsetting  —  but once again, as in the Ramirez case, Judge Persky approved a sentence recommended by the District Attorney’s office, in fulfillment of the prosecution’s agreement with Chiang’s attorney.  Nevertheless, the campaign claims that the sentence somehow provides evidence that Persky has “shown bias.” 

One of the recall campaign’s main proponents  —  Professor Michelle Dauber, who teaches at our law school   — has also pointed to the plea bargain’s consideration of Chiang’s immigration status as a sign that Judge Persky is somehow unacceptable as a judge....  This insinuation turns law and policy on its head.  For non-citizens, being convicted of even a relatively minor crime may trigger federal immigration penalties such as mandatory detention, deportation, and permanent separation from close family . Addressing harmful and unjust “crimmigration” penalties has been a top priority of immigrants rights advocates, especially here in California, where one out of four residents is foreign-born....

Our criminal system is deeply unjust, but attributing these problems to Judge Persky is a mistake — and the effort to recall him only harms less privileged defendants.  The false personal accusations against Judge Persky distract from real understanding of structural inequalities.  In Brock Turner’s case, the probation department’s recommendation against prison weighed specific legal factors that, while putatively neutral, often correspond to race and class.  For instance, consideration of a defendant’s past criminal record tends to benefit middle-class whites like Turner, who have never been subjected to the dragnet policing and “assembly-line justice” that leave young men of color with sentence-aggravating prior convictions.  Similarly, for Turner, the loss of valuable educational opportunities was seen as mitigating the need for greater punishment, whereas for less privileged defendants, institutional barriers  —  like disciplinary policies that have created a “school-to-prison pipeline”  —  impede access to those opportunities in the first place. The time and money being spent to remove Persky from the bench will not address these dynamics or help untangle the web of policies that perpetuate inequality along racial and class lines.

Here in California, voters have finally begun to remedy the unintended and disparate effects of the 1993 “Three Strikes” ballot initiative and other mandatory sentencing laws, by permitting the discretionary re-sentencing of people convicted under these schemes.  By sending the message that unpopular but lawful decisions may lead to a recall, the campaign threatens the sole mechanism for individualized consideration of mitigating circumstances.

This will only make it harder for low-income defendants and those who advocate for them.... Those effects are not merely speculative.  As shown in ten empirical studies analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice, judges impose harsher sentences when pressured by elections, and some studies find that these effects are concentrated on defendants of color.  Holding a recall election out of frustration with Turner’s lawful sentence will only exacerbate these problems.  As a prominent Santa Clara County judge has explained, a recall will “have trial judges looking over their shoulders, testing the winds before rendering their decisions.”...

Even in anger, the public must take a hard look at the rationale and likely effect of recalling Judge Persky.  By stoking public anger with misleading claims, the recall campaign encourages a short-sighted response without accounting for the actual sources of structural injustice, or the consequences to those already burdened by inequality.

Some prior related posts:

August 22, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Is "tough-on-crime" talk really now a losing political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris and Andrew Howard. Here are excerpts:

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, frequently attacked Ryan’s support for criminal justice reform. Nehlen accused Ryan of pushing Obama’s agenda on jailbreak criminal justice reform policies.  Not only was Nehlen’s narrative wrong, his political calculus was flawed.  Ryan clobbered him on Election Day, winning the primary with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This isn’t the first time justice reform opponents, clinging to the old school thought that “tough on crime” rhetoric still sells with voters, have attempted to use their opposition to these reforms for political benefit.  What they got was the opposite, and here’s why.

First and foremost, it is conservatives in big red states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina who have led the way on justice reform issues for a decade.  These efforts yielded great success in safely reducing the prison population, saving significant taxpayer resources, and most importantly lowering crime and recidivism rates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are just a few of the conservative leaders who are the most ardent champions of, and effective spokespersons for, criminal justice reform.  Given all the state successes, President Obama’s support is actually a bit late to the party.

Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, vying for conservative Louisiana gubernatorial seat, learned the hard way that attempting to tie his opponent to Obama’s criminal justice reforms was unproductive.  With support from law enforcement, John Bel Edwards doubled down on his push for “bipartisan” criminal justice reforms.  Edwards is now the Governor of Louisiana.

Additionally, polling data from dozens of states across the country shows overwhelming support across the political and ideological spectrum for criminal justice reform.  Replacing one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences with penalties that reflect individual cases polls out the roof in battleground states like Michigan (91%) and Ohio (87%).

Surveys in states that will have hotly-contested Senate races such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nevada, and Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin show support for reform issues ranging from the 60s to high 80s. The smart political play is to embrace these reforms.

Doing otherwise could backfire. Just ask Alaska’s then-incumbent Senator Mark Begich.  In the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, Begich attacked his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, alleging he was soft on crime.  Sullivan emerged victorious over Begich and is currently serving as the junior senator from Alaska.

In a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record and every single American family is impacted by our broken justice system, supporting reform not only makes for sound policy but also smart politics.  Which is why this irrational fear of supporting federal legislation similar to the aforementioned state reforms is all the more baffling....

Paul Ryan’s trouncing of his ill-advised primary opponent could be a game changer.  After all, in the new era of smart on crime policy, reform opponents are 0-3.

August 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Does Hillary Clinton really have a "bold vision" for criminal justice reform, as claimed by former AG Holder?

I predicted in this prior post that we all would likely hear at least a bit more about criminal justice reform at the DNC this week than we heard at the RNC last week.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, former AG Eric Holder devoted his DNC speech to asserting Prez candidate Hillary Clinton would be committed to criminal justice reform, and these passages addressed some sentencing/prison issue (with my emphasis added):

At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration.  As Attorney General, I launched sweeping reforms of our federal criminal justice system and reduced its reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, we cut the federal prison population and the crime rate — together — for the first time in more than 40 years.

That's right: despite the fiction and fearmongering you've heard from the other party's nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.

As President, Hillary will go even further.  She fought, as a Senator, against sentencing disparities and racial profiling. She used her first major speech, as a candidate, to lay out a bold vision for criminal justice reform. As a presidential candidate she has talked about systemic racism in a way that no one else has. And she will help our nation summon the courage to confront racial injustice — and face down the legacies of our darkest past.

I recall blogging about Clinton's big criminal justice speech back in April 2015, and I do not remember that it included any dramatic statements about criminal justice reform, let alone a "bold vision." Then again, I suppose it is in some sense "bold" for a Clinton to talk about criminal justice reform at all, so maybe I am being too tough on Holder for his account of what Clinton has said about reform.

Prior related posts:

July 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, July 25, 2016

How much (and what kind of) criminal justice reform talk can we expect to hear at the DNC?

I am going to be off-line much of today, and thus I am genuinely interested in having folks spend the day discussion what I see as the most interesting criminal justice reform question for this work-week.  I was not too surprised that we heard relatively little criminal justice reform discussion at the RNC last week, although arguably the emphasis by GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump on being the "law and order" candidate was an indication that the new GOP leader is inclined to get Republicans back to "tough-and-tougher" rhetoric and realities.

Meanwhile, Democratic Prez nominee Hillary Clinton seems likely to be eager to reach out (and motivate) voters interesting in significant sentencing (and police and marijuana) reforms, and these topics even were addressed this past weekend when she officially announced her VP pick Tim Kaine.  Consequently, I am expecting to hear a lot more express and significant reform talk at the DNC than at the RNC.  But how much, and what will be the main focus and more-frequent "talking points"?

In addition to hoping many folks will respond to this post with predictions about what we will hear at the DNC, I would also love to see folks explain just what they are hoping to hear.  So if you could, for example, script two of three sentences that would be in the speech to be given by Clinton or Kaine or others, what would they be?

A few recent related posts:

July 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Covering VP candidate Tim Kaine's history on crime and punishment issues (especially the death penalty)

Kaine_official_high_res_photoThe folks at FAMM now have this very helpful and timely webpage reviewing some recent and prior statements by Tim Kaine, the former Viginia Gov and current US Senator whom Hillary Clinton has now picked as her running mate.  That page also provides this interesting accounting of "Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues"

In addition, a number of mainstream and new media sources have now run a number of articles about Kaine's criminal justice history (most of which, notably, are focused on the death penalty). Here are headlines and links:

July 24, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)

Two new commentaries about current politics together help explain why I continue to view GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump as the most important (and also most opaque) national figure with respect to the future direction of a lot of on-going criminal justice reform movements.  The full headlines of the commentaries provides a window into my thinking:

Here are a few passages from these pieces, respectively:

From Jeet Heer:  "With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party.  The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon.  It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse.  Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party — or at least become inactive — while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on.  That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism.  Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come."

From Steve Teles:  Trump [i]s like a throwback to New York in the 1980s.... The Right on Crime movement depends upon, in some important ways, the transformation of the Republican Party into a more consistently anti-statist party in the wake of the Tea Party, combined with the role that evangelical leaders have played in encouraging an emphasis on second chances and forgiveness.  Neither of those changes in conservatism is characteristic of the conservatism of Trump.  I could imagine him going all-in on a back-to-the-80s, Charles Bronson-ish approach to crime, and if he’s able to rebrand the Republican Party in that way, that would be very troublesome [for those supportive of criminal-justice reform].

July 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Maurice Chammah, which includes a blow-by-blow accounting of how the party platforms have changed on criminal justice issues since 2012. Here is how the piece sets up the comparative look at how time changes platforms:

The 2016 Republican and Democratic party platforms — the GOP’s approved Monday night, the Democrats’ still in draft form — swing hard to the right and left, with Republicans amplifying their traditional positions against gay marriage, abortion, transgender rights, and immigration, and Democrats calling for expanded public healthcare and higher education, and a $15 minimum wage.  Platforms are not binding on candidates, but they distill a consensus of the forces within the party at this point in history.  That’s particularly clear this year on the subjects of crime and punishment.

In the new Democratic party platform, the fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders are apparent, in calls for independent investigations of police-involved shootings, more body cameras, and training in de-escalation.  There is a declaration that “states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.”  There is also a call for the end of the death penalty, something President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not endorsed.  Parts of the Democratic draft platform clearly repudiate the tough language their party embraced a generation ago, when their current candidate’s husband was president. The mother of Sandra Bland, who died at a Texas jail last year and became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is scheduled to speak at their convention next week in Philadelphia.

The Republican document reflects recent tensions in conservative circles.  It includes the language of conservatives who call for reducing incarceration — influential Republican patrons like the Koch brothers, politicians like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich — but it also includes plenty of traditional invocations of law and order.  An ambitious bipartisan sentencing reform effort in Congress, which Sen. Ted Cruz supported and then abandoned, has been whittled down and allowed to languish.  And it was opponents of that bill including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke (who regularly attacks the "myths" of justice reform) who were in the lineup Monday night in Cleveland, where the evening’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.”  It was those figures who dominated the party’s televised presentation.

To feel the tension, consider the 2016 passage on mandatory minimum sentences, which says such sentences served a good purpose and should only be rolled back sparingly: "In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals.  Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets.  Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the State’s sentencing requirements."

Conservative criminal justice reformers, who have gathered under the banner of “Right on Crime,” had gotten brief nods to rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes into their 2008 and 2012 platforms.  An April 2016 resolution they promoted, which was adopted by the Republican National Committee, points out that despite a massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, meaning prisons might not be the best investment in public safety.  They added language acknowledging the success of conservative lawmakers in traditionally red states to reduce incarceration and save money. “90% of the prisoners in this country are not federal,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “so it’s meaningful to talk about the experimentation and successes in the states.”

The rift in conservative circles was apparent when the 112 members of the full platform committee edited the document last week in Cleveland.  At one point, April Newland, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, proposed adding a line supporting a national registry of child murderers, which had been in the 2012 platform. She described how her brother’s three and five year-old children were murdered by a man who went on to be released from prison, moved near a school, and molested more victims. Other delegates pushed back.  “A federal mandate doesn’t work,” Maryland delegate JoeyLynn Hough said.  “So, I’m sorry about your family, but I don’t think this is the answer.”

The committee also added support for “mens rea” reform, an effort to force prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime, as well as strong language supporting drug treatment programs, particularly for first-time offenders.  In other areas, the new platform’s language took a different tack, condemning the Supreme Court for limiting use of the death penalty, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”

At one of the hearings, delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island, proposed language encouraging lawmakers to “fairly assess the social and economic costs of the failure of drug prohibition, and recognize that our states are sending a clear signal that a new approach is long overdue.”

“We have created with drug prohibition a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Cicione told the other delegates.  “And if you want to respond to the Black Lives Matter protesters, if you want to respond to the families of those police officers who died in Dallas, if you want to respond to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile... we can’t answer these questions without explaining how we demean and weaken law enforcement by forcing them to enforce unworkable laws.”

He admits he may have gone overboard in bringing up Black Lives Matter, and his suggestion failed. North Carolina delegate Ron Rabin worried his state “could be regionally surrounded by states where the use of drugs is legal and they come into our state to harass.” Cicione didn’t expect to win, but he did notice that the the average ages of the yes and no votes were “separated by 40 years,” which to him signalled that reformers will eventually get their way. “Those of us who grew up in a more tolerant environment about drugs are less afraid of them,” he said.

July 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Will party platforms include commitment to reduce mass incarceration (and does it really matter)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article , headlined "Civil rights groups push Dems, GOP to include sentencing reform in their platforms."  Here are excerpts:

An influential coalition of civil rights groups pushing for criminal justice reform is pressuring both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee to include the issue in their respective party platforms this summer.

In a new letter, the organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Urban League and the Brennan Center for Justice — argue that after decades of pushing tougher crime laws, both Democrats and the GOP need a “bold break” toward policies aiming at easing incarceration rates.

“As you convene to set your respective policy agenda, we urge you to include reducing mass incarceration, while increasing public safety, as part of your party platforms,” the groups wrote in the letter, addressed to the respective party chairs and platform committee leaders and provided to POLITICO in advance of its release.

Among the policies called for by the pro-criminal justice reform groups: Revising sentencing laws so the “punishment is proportional to the crime and no longer than necessary to achieve rehabilitation and deterrence,” helping to reduce recidivism rates by promoting job training and educational programs for former inmates, and using federal funds to reward states for policies that reduce both the prison population and crime rates.  “While more is needed to fully achieve reform, including these measures in the platforms will signal a significant shift in national policy,” the organizations wrote.

Criminal justice reform has been a lingering issue in Washington, with both President Barack Obama and key Republican leaders in Congress saying they want to pass legislation overhauling sentencing laws and other prison reforms this year.  But the issue has also been a divisive one, particularly within the Senate Republican Conference, and its prospects are growing dimmer -- particularly in a contentious election year.

June 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Making the case for enfranchisement to create a "prison constituency"

Corey Brettschneider has this lengthy new commentary at Politico with this lengthy full headline: "Why Prisoners Deserve the Right to Vote: Giving inmates the vote isn’t just constitutionally the right thing to do, it could also help the country solve one of its most intractable problems." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts from its closing sentiments:

Perhaps the most important reason to allow prisoner voting is that prisons, not just prisoners, would benefit. Prisoners need the vote to serve as the “natural defenders” of their own interests. But in defending their own interests, prisoners could substantially improve the prison system itself.

We can start with the issue of prisoner abuse. We already know that prisoners are subject to abusive and inhumane conditions. In a 2011 ruling that held overcrowded California prisons in violation of the Eighth Amendment, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that in California alone, an inmate “needlessly dies every six or seven days.” Plenty of other prison practices, such as solitary confinement, are just now receiving public scrutiny, and there are likely more troubling conditions we don’t know about. Under the current system, ending abusive practices requires years of expensive litigation as prisoners sue over maltreatment and prisons adjust to the rulings. We could improve prisons much more quickly and cheaply by creating a political constituency of prison voters.

How would that work? Obama’s historical 2015 visit to a federal prison was noteworthy because politicians rarely listen to those incarcerated. A prison and jail constituency, numbering roughly 2 million across 50 states, would make it routine for politicians to hold town halls and seek ways to improve prison and jail conditions from those who are subjected to them. This is not coddling prisoners. More and more politicians are looking to reform our criminal justice system, and this would be a common sense way to help them identify needed changes.

Of course, granting the right to vote is not enough to create a robust prison constituency. Prisoners will also need to be granted the right to speak freely and receive information, both of which are rights that are often limited for prisoners currently. Superstar litigator and former Solicitor General Paul Clement has already filed a lawsuit defending the right of prisoners to gain access to news about public life. Indeed, government can be held accountable only when citizens have information about the actions of their representatives.

Many will resist the idea of a prison constituency. The point of prisons, they say, is to inflict punishment, not to allow organizing. But this is shortsighted. Prison is itself already severe punishment. The deprivation of liberty and the loss of control over everyday interaction, including the ability to see one’s loved ones on a daily basis, are all severe constraints imposed by incarceration. One can be punished without being subjected to civic exile.

Some will argue that it is enough to allow prisoners to regain their right to vote after release. But we cannot expect prisoners to be deprived of all rights and then emerge from prison ready to use them well. The new consensus around post-release enfranchisement demands a smarter way to think about prisoners’ political rights behind bars. A prison constituency with rights to vote and related rights of free speech can engage in civic activism that will continue after release. Although voters in Massachusetts saw prisoner political participation as a kind of insurrection, it is nothing like the violent insurrections that marked prisons of the 1970s. As Joe Labriola, chairman of a Massachusetts civic prison organization called the Norfolk Lifers Group, put it, “In the ’70s, we thought we could make change with violence. Our whole point now is to make prisoners understand that we can make changes by using the vote. We have the ability to move prisons in a new direction.”

Research by Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen suggests another reason to care about voting in prison: They show that even temporary gaps in voting will have a long-term impact on participation. If we really care about felons’ post-release political participation, it is important that they be able to participate while they are in prison....

The creation of a prison constituency is not yet on the national agenda. But the increasing end to post-felony disenfranchisement makes this a good time to think about deeper changes to the way we treat the incarcerated. In the meantime, alternative measures could move things in the right direction: We should affirm nationally and, if need be, litigate for the right of prisoners to form PACs on the model of the Massachusetts group. Although legitimate concerns exist about the impact of PAC money on politics, these committees do provide a way to further a group’s policy interests. We can no longer grant that right to non-incarcerated citizens as a matter of free speech and deny it to prisoners, who are, according to the Supreme Court, citizens no less. The backlash from Massachusetts’ citizens was from an era in which mass incarceration was lauded and prison organizing was anathema in national politics. But today, citizens from both political parties are mobilizing against the harsh prison policies of the 1990s. Giving prisoners the right to free political speech is a sensible corrective to our misguided practice of mass incarceration.

In the end, restoring these basic rights is not only the right thing to do constitutionally; it could also present positive solutions to a major national political problem. The prison system would be more effective if it were accountable to its constituents. Prisoners have often committed heinous crimes. But they remain a part of our democratic polity, and we can learn from what they have to say.

June 22, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Notable new commentary at The Federalist talks through conservative support and opposition to federl statutory sentencing reform

Rachel Lu, a senior contributor at The Federalist, has this interesting new commentary under this lengthy headline: "We Need Sentencing Reform And This Bill Is A Good Start: The past two decades have seen ramped-up sentences for drug criminals, which have cost us billions in taxpayer money, while yielding few benefits. Let’s take this opportunity to do better." The piece usefully goes beyond the usual superficial advocacy for federal sentencing reform and digs into the debate within conservative circles about whether to support or oppose the SRCA. I recommend the piece in full, and here excerpts (with links from the original):

What’s really going on with the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act? This bipartisan legislation has been in the news lately, prompting a strange and confusing exchange between conservatives who support justice reform (notably Vikrant Reddy and myself) and critics of the movement (Sean Kennedy and Jeffrey Anderson)....

Donald Trump has been comparatively quiet thus far on the crime issue. That may reflect the fact that some of his likely vice presidential candidates (most notably Newt Gingrich and Nathan Deal) have already established themselves in the pro-reform camp. Nevertheless, this initiative could still fall prey to the dreary realities of partisan base-beating. That would be sad to see, especially since justice reform is almost the only bipartisan issue we’ve got left in these bitter times.

Of course, for some that is itself a strong motive to kill the bill. They hardly even pretend to know or care about the content of the legislation itself.  Consider Jeffrey H. Anderson’s “What, are we the sort of people who work with Democrats?” rebuttal to my last essay for an example of this thinking....

[P]risons are beneficial primarily insofar as they keep dangerous people off the streets. That’s a huge benefit with respect to murderous psychopaths. Yet if we’re talking about minor, subsidiary figures in the drug trade, we should recognize they are easily replaced. Hitting small-time distributors or smugglers with decades-long sentences will not solve our drug problem.

Even recognizing those principles, it’s always best to be cautious about public safety. The Sentencing and Corrections Act is cautious. We certainly won’t be seeing the immediate release of thousands of drug criminals. Rather, the bill takes modest steps to soften some of the more drastic measures in federal drug laws.  Sean Kennedy’s recent missive cautioned against “rushing” conservative justice reform, but looking at the bill currently in front of us, I’m truly at a loss to imagine what might satisfy him if this does not....

If you’re unsure whom to trust in the justice-reform debate, consider this. Reform-minded conservatives have ideas, an agenda, and recent legislative accomplishments to their names. They’ve been elbow-deep in the relevant policy issues for many years now. By contrast, their critics can’t even seem to agree on the most fundamental point: is over-incarceration is actually a problem in America?

In many ways it’s unsurprising that this would be a fuzzy point for critics. Mass incarceration was the rock against which tough-on-crime finally foundered. For decades, conservatives called for tough, consistent sanctions as a response to rising crime and disorder. This approach did yield some benefits: crime fell through the ’80s and ’90s.

As prison populations exploded, however, the price tag likewise grew steeper, and the social effects of imprisoning about 1 percent of our population became ever harder to ignore. Crowded prisons are bad for any number of reasons. They’re miserable and unsafe (for guards as well as inmates), and they do a poor job of rehabilitating offenders.

Eventually, it became clear to policy-savvy conservatives that they needed a more multifaceted approach to crime control. Red states have been leading the way for years now in using data-driven methods to reduce incarceration without sacrificing public safety. Many of the same people and organizations have helped to craft and promote federal sentencing reform, eventually giving rise to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

As policy, it’s been an impressive effort. Politically, it requires a paradigm shift that some haven’t yet made. As the data pile up indicating that prudent reform is possible, William Otis has gone on defending large-scale incarceration, regularly repeating his maxim that a nation is judged not by its incarceration rate, but by its crime rate. That no-limit position is too drastic for most, so we see figures like Kennedy and Anderson taking softer but more confusing stances, vacillating between tough-on-crime rhetoric and vague complaints that the legislation in front of us is too quick, too drastic or too bipartisan.

Kennedy warns us, in the spirit of Otis’ critique, that the real problem with our society is the number of criminals, not the number of inmates. Then he goes on to imply that state-level justice reform has been healthy but that the federal bill somehow goes too far. (How? Why? What provisions would he change?)

Anderson implies that federal sentencing reform represents an irresponsible lapse of conservative principles, but then later concedes that some reform may be good, on the condition that we scrap the present bill and replace it with exclusively Republican-authored legislation. (Why would we do that when reform-interested conservatives have been involved in writing and promoting this bill?)

It’s hard to have a serious debate when critics are bringing so little to the table.  Through promoting successful state-level reforms, conservative justice reformers have demonstrated that they are prudent, cautious, and highly attentive to data.  Unless critics can offer something more substantive than dated political platitudes, we should trust that this statute is moving us a step in the right direction.

June 13, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 03, 2016

"Conservatives should celebrate Obama’s commutations"

Institute_for_Policy_Innovation_1313374The title of this post is the headline of this new Dallas Morning News commatary.  The piece is authored by Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group that explains its focus to be "on approaches to governing that harness the strengths of individual liberty, limited government, and free markets." Here are excerpts:

The White House recently announced that 58 federal inmates, mostly non-violent drug offenders, would have their sentences shortened through commutation.  This brings the total number of commutations during the Barack Obama years to 306, more than any recent administration.  And word out of the White House is that there will be more to come during President Obama’s final months in office.

Many conservatives will be initially inclined to see Obama’s commutations as the act of a liberal who is soft on crime.  But conservatives should celebrate President Obama’s commutations. In fact, as people who prize liberty and individual rights, and who are skeptical about government power, conservatives need to do a rethink on criminal justice.

It’s becoming clear that something has gone very wrong with the justice system in the United States.  Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Too many crimes have been federalized, as opposed to being handled more locally by state and local courts.  Excessive punishments are being meted out for non-violent crimes because of mandatory sentencing requirements.  And it’s dawning on people that the justice system is plagued by the same careerism and corruption that characterize other branches of government....

Taking reasonable discretion away from judges was a mistake, and it caused a shift in power from judges to prosecutors, who can select and “stack” charges involving mandatory minimums.  While judges are appointed or elected to consider both sides of a case, prosecutors are hired to convict.  It should trouble conservatives that the government side of the equation has been awarded such disproportionate power, which has clearly led to abuses.

Consider the case of Weldon Angelos, who at age 24 was arrested in Utah for selling marijuana and possessing a firearm.  Because of stacked charges with mandatory minimums, Federal Judge Paul Cassell had no choice but to sentence him to 55 years in prison.  Judge Cassell has ever since been pleading for a commutation to Angelos’ sentence, pointing out that far worse crimes, such as hijacking, rape, and second-degree murder, have lighter sentences.  But the judge, who clerked for Antonin Scalia, was appointed by President George W. Bush, and who favors the death penalty, was powerless in the face of a prosecutor armed with federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Yes, our justice system should be about public safety first. But all too often it is about careerism, government revenue and corruption.  Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that “the criminal justice system and prisons are big-government institutions.  They are often manipulated by special interests such as prison guard’s unions, and they consume huge shares of most states’ budgets.”

Social conservatives should understand the need for criminal justice reform, since we believe that every human life has inherent dignity and value, and we believe in the possibility of redemption.  Non-violent offenders can be punished and make restitution while keeping families intact and offenders productive.  Economic conservatives should recognize that non-violent offenders are better deployed working in the private sector than incarcerated in expensive government facilities.  And libertarians — well, libertarians already get it.

There are many pieces to the justice reform movement, including giving judges more sentencing leeway, eliminating civil asset forfeiture, and prioritizing drug treatment and in-home monitoring of incarceration.  But commuting sentences for non-violent offenders that are far in excess of the crime is a great place to start.

June 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Former House Speaker (and future Trump running-mate?) Newt Gingrich helps make the case for "raising the age" for adult prosecutions

Regular readers know that Newt Gingrich has become a notable and frequent "right on crime" commentator calling for all sorts of criminal justice reforms in all sorts of settings.  And here we have another example:  this new commentary authored by Gingrich and Pat Nolan, headlined "Don’t train kids to be felons in adult jails," makes the case for limiting the prosecution of teenagers as adults in Louisiana.  Here are excerpts: 

The noted “tough on crime” criminologist John Dilulio once commented that “jailing youth with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators.” Louisiana should heed Dilulio’s caution against locking up young petty criminals alongside violent adult criminals. The Bayou State is one of only nine states that prosecutes 17-year-olds as adults, often for the most minor of crimes (stealing a bag of potato chips, for instance).

We all can agree that breaking the law is wrong and that these teens deserve to face consequences for their actions. But tossing them into adult jails with hardened criminals just makes those bad situations worse. The research and data are clear: Adult jails are no place for teenagers, who with the help and guidance of parents are likely able to turn their lives around.

Placing youngsters in adult jails makes them more likely to be victims of rape and assault, and more likely to commit suicide. They also are likely to learn a lot more about leading a life of crime from the hardened criminals. There is a lot of truth in the notion that jails and prisons are graduate schools of crime.

In addition, the damage of this policy continues long after they are released. By treating teens differently from the majority of the country, Louisiana makes it harder for them to grow into successful adults....

Fortunately, the Legislature is working on a bill to “Raise the Age” of juvenile jurisdiction. It would assign most 17-year-olds who commit offenses to the juvenile justice system, where they would be held accountable, continue their schooling, learn critical skills and be prepared to live productive and healthy lives as law-abiding members of society. Prosecutors still would be free to choose to prosecute youth accused of more serious offenses as adults....

Raising the age would make society safer and stronger by doing away with the destructive “one-size-fits-all punishment” system we have now. Adult jails and prisons can turn teens into career criminals, and taxpayers are stuck with the bill. By raising the age of how we punish and reform young people who make minor mistakes, Louisiana will help these kids turn their lives around, will make neighborhoods safer and in the process will save taxpayers money. This is being smart on crime.

As the headline of this post highlights, I think Gingrich's continued advocacy for all sort of criminal justice reform is especially notable and important in light of the fact that he name is being brought up repeatedly as a possible running mate for GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump.  As detailed in a number of posts linked below, Gingrich has had his name on many commentaries in the last few years vocally supporting a wide array of modern state and federal sentencing reform efforts.  If Trump were in fact to select Gingrich as his running mate, I would have to rethink my belief (and fear) that the Trump campaign will be actively opposing most criminal justice reform efforts.

Prior related posts about Gingrich's criminal justice reform advocacy:

June 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, June 02, 2016

FreedomWorks explains why GOP opposition to federal sentencing reform is "unreasonable"

Writing at FreedomWorks, Jason Pye has this lengthy posting headlined "The Unreasonable Opposition to Justice Reform in the Senate," which gets started this way (with links in the original):

Recently, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington, in which he offered his case against the justice reform effort in Congress led by conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).  Apparently unaware of the efforts of more than 30 states, including several traditionally Republican states, Cotton ridiculously labeled the federal push as "criminal leniency."

FreedomWorks has already responded to some of Cotton's hyperbolic statements on justice reform. Unfortunately, even after proposed legislation was improved to address the concerns of a handful of senators, Cotton doubled down on his opposition in his speech. Some of the more egregious comments from his speech are in italics below, immediately followed by a response to set the record straight.

"These policies are not merely wrong. They are dangerous. They threaten a return to the worst days of the 1990s, when law-abiding citizens lived in fear of their lives. Indeed, we may be living through the leading edge of a new crime wave. Over the last two years, murders across 56 of our largest cities are up 17 percent. The numbers are even more shocking in some cities. In Chicago, murders jumped 70 percent in the first quarter of this year alone. In Las Vegas, 81 percent. In Long Beach, 125 percent."

These are deceptive words, to say the least. As Cotton mentioned, crime rates have declined significantly since the early 1990s. Pew Research found that gun-related homicides, including suicides, declined by 31 percent between 1993 and 2014. Excluding suicides, the figure is closer to 49 percent. Over the same period, the nonfatal firearm crime victimization rate declined by nearly 75 percent. A separate report released in 2013 noted that the public was largely unaware that violent crime was on the decline.

There has been much made of a "new crime wave," but it is difficult for anyone to make such a statement based on a short-term look at the data. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publishes annual reports on crime data that offers more context and insight, rather than anecdote. Even in the midst of the decline in crime rates, the United States experienced two consecutive years in which homicide rates increased, 2005 and 2006. In 2007, the homicide rate began to decline again.

According to the last two full-year reports, crime continued to decline, almost across the board. In 2013, crime, including homicides and other violent crime, was down. The downward trend continued in 2014. The FBI hasn't released data for all of 2015; the report is not due for a few more months. The Brennan Center released a preliminary analysis of crime rates in 2015 and found that the "new crime wave," as Cotton puts it, does not exist. But even if the overall crime rate increased, it does not mean that there is some new crime wave. Again, 2005 and 2006 proved to be outliers, and 2015, if the crime rate does rise, may be just that.

June 2, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Are there really now lots more conservatives in lots of states "starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new short Governing article with this full headline: "The Death Penalty’s New Skeptics: In states across the country, conservatives are starting to question the cost and legality of capital punishment."  Here are excerpts from the article:

It’s a government program that is prone to error, marred by long delays and far more expensive than alternative policies.  So it may be little wonder that the death penalty keeps attracting new opposition. But it’s surprising where some of that opposition is coming from. 

Over the past decade, the death penalty has been abolished in seven states. Most of those are dominated by Democrats. But the most recent is deeply conservative Nebraska, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of an abolition bill last year.  Other red states are revisiting the issue as well.   A bill to abolish the death penalty fell short by a single vote in a Kentucky House committee this year, while similar legislation actually passed the Utah Senate before failing in the House.  Last year, the Montana House killed an abolition bill on a tie vote.  A few months later, a judge there imposed a moratorium on executions, citing the difficulty of obtaining appropriate drugs for lethal injection -- an issue that has put capital punishment on hold in several states.  Litigation over delayed or botched executions compounds problems with meting out the penalty.  “Our death penalty is a joke,” Republican state Rep. Clayton Fiscus said during the debate.

The average death row inmate can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year more to house than run-of-the-mill criminals.  Prisoners who are executed can cost upward of $1 million more than those sentenced to life without possibility of parole.  “This is a program that’s so bad, the left and right can actually agree on it,” says Marc Hyden, a former field representative with the National Rifle Association who now works for an advocacy group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty....

[I]t’s indisputable that the growing corps of death penalty skeptics now includes many conservatives.  There are enough Republican legislators in Washington state ready to join with Democrats that a repeal measure there could pass, if a key committee chair would allow it to come to a vote.  “Many of us conservatives don’t trust government to launch a health-care program or fill potholes, let alone carry out life and death,” Hyden says.  “It’s the quintessential broken big-government program.”

I would not dispute that a few prominent GOP elected officials in a few states that have never had a long history of active and effective use of the death penalty may ultimately conclude (as did some in the Nebraska legislature) that it makes more sense to end rather than try to mend a rarely-applied punishment. But I do not believe any of the 17 persons who sought the GOP nomination for Prez this year had ever expressed any reservation about the death penalty either in theory or in practice.

June 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Highlighting just some of the ways that "Democratic Leadership Is Missing In Action on Mass Incarceration"

Election_donkey3The quoted portion of this post's title comes from this new commentary at The Nation authored by Inimai Chettiar and Ames Grawert. The piece carries the subheading "Sentencing reform will be a compromise between moderate and conservative Republicans, unless Democrats finally come to the table," and here are extended excerpts:

Even though it now looks like Americans will be deprived the drama of a contested Republican convention, the gathering in Cleveland could hold at least one surprise.  The Republicans are set to vote on an RNC resolution to reduce mass incarceration.  The measure asks for “reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level” and urges “state legislators and Congress to…provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, emphasize work and education, and implement policies that cut costs while obtaining better outcomes.”

Finally, Democrats may say, Republicans have woken up to mass incarceration as a 21st-century civil-rights struggle, joining what has for years been a progressive fight.  Not so fast. If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever.  Democrats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incarceration to their own platform would mark a significant step, boldly breaking with their past politics.

So what have the Democrats said about criminal justice?  Recent Democratic platforms haven’t merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment, and then applauded the result.  Mentions of progressive alternatives are hard to find.

In 1992, Democrats supported alternatives to incarceration, such as “community service and boot camps for first-time offenders.” But four years later the platform went in the opposite direction. It praised mandatory “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws, truth-in-sentencing provisions that limited earned early release, and “$8 billion in new funding to help states build new prison cells.”  At the turn of the century, the party still championed “tougher punishments” as a way to fix “an overburdened justice system that lets thugs off easy,” and applauded federal funding for “new prison cells” as a major success story (a clear nod to the 1994 Crime Bill, which paid states to increase imprisonment).

More recently, in 2008 and 2012, the DNC approved language supporting “local prison-to-work programs” aimed at “making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money,” and noting the importance of “fight[ing] inequalities in our criminal justice system.” But neither platform made any mention of sentencing reform, or reducing the number of criminal laws, even as the US incarceration rate topped the world and some states reversed course on their “tough-on-crime” policies.

This year’s Democratic presidential candidates have broken with this legacy. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have prominently featured prison reform in their campaigns and vocally noted that the 1994 Crime Bill, which they both supported, went too far.

Yet Democrats still lag behind. Today’s movement to end mass incarceration has largely been led by Republicans. If the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act passes Congress, advocates will have Republican Senators Mike Lee (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) to thank for courting support for the bill and hammering out compromises with the party’s most conservative members. At the state level, Republican Governors Rick Perry in Texas and Nathan Deal in Georgia fought for and signed laws that led to sharp reductions in the prison population. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich championed and signed legislation in 2011 to expand the use of treatment in lieu of prison.

In announcing the Republican National Committee resolution to end mass incarceration, RNC member Tom Mechler claimed that “Republicans are the ones that have taken the lead on this.” That’s no idle boast — he’s right. So where are the Democrats?

A few Democrats have stepped up to champion the cause, such as Senators Dick Durbin, Corey Booker, and Patrick Leahy. But the senior party leadership — Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz — have largely been mum. Other influential party voices, including Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer, have done the same. To be sure, Democrats may still be haunted by the ghost of Willie Horton and the fear of being branded as “soft on crime.” And some may believe that stoutly maintaining a belief in “law and order” will secure votes.

But times have changed. Now Democrats can point to Republicans such as Lee, Cornyn, Perry, and Kasich. Even law enforcement supports reform. These conservative voices now give Democrats cover to come out strongly on the issue. And, in the wake of a national protests to reform policing, Clinton and Sanders have energized parts of Democratic electorate — African-American communities and white liberals alike — on the issue. The consensus to reduce unnecessary imprisonment has arrived. But we will never see true reform until Democrats provide a solid left flank, so that compromise lands at the center, instead of to the right.....

Criminal justice reform should be a simple step for a party that believes in progress, equality, and inclusion. It was the Democrats who fought for civil rights in the last century. If the Democrats do not raise their voice, history will record that it was the Republicans who led the civil-rights struggle in this one.

Though I am pleased to see this piece calling out failings of Democratic Party leaders like Senator Harry Reid, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, this commentary still strikes me as many days too late and many dollars short. First and foremost, where is the needed criticisms of the Clintons and the Obamas, who are and seem likely to remain for some time the four most important Democratic leaders? Regular readers know I lay particular blame on the Clintons not only for consistently moving to the right on criminal justice issues for crass (and racialized) political benefits in the 1990s, but particularly for not being involved in helping to swinging the pendulum back when mass incarceration became an obvious problem in the following decade and Justice Reinvestment movements could have used an extra boost from the mainstream left. But I also blame the Obamas: the Prez (and lawyer and constitutiuonal scholar) certaintly could have and should have invested more time, energy and political capital on an array of "low-hanging" federal sentencing reform opportunities during his first Term; the First Lady (also a lawyer) perhaps could have and should have incorporated discussion of criminal justice reform into her advocacy for healthy families, service members and their families and higher education.

Second, as especially critical right now, this piece (and many others) ought to be aggressively attacking Prez Obama and other Democrats for being resistent to the federal mens rea reform that Republicans want to see included in sentencing reform efforts. I continue to be both annoyed and deeply disappointed that an issue like mens rea reform, which should be a cause championed by true liberals, has become a critical impediment to getting a sound and needed federal sentencing reform bill through Congress. I have long suspected and feared that sentencing reform would not get done this year absent Prez Obama and other Democrats being willing to work toward sound and needed mens rea reform, and yet it does not appear any real efforts are being made by anyone on the D side of the aisle.

And do not get me started on the failure of federal Democratic Leadership to see the extraordinary opportunities that state-level marijuana reforms has created in recent years for remaking the modern federal war-on-drugs narrative.  As long time readers may know, I consider effective federal and state marijuana reforms to be a critically important front in the battle against mass incarceration, and one that should have even more long-term potential and impact than modest federal sentencing reforms discussed in Congress.  But, short-sighted and fixed in their own dated views of political realities, establishment Democrats have now an impressively long record of mistakes and missed opportunities in this arena.  Sigh.

May 31, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Despite a quarter-century being "tough," Hillary Clinton still attacked by Donald Trump as soft-on-violent-crime

As regular readers surely know, the "Clinton record" on crime and punishment issues has many elements and nuances.  See, e.g., this post from last month titled "The many challenges of a fully nuanced understanding of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill."  That said, one can still generally summarize the Clintons in general, and Hillary Clinton in particular, as having been significantly "tougher" than nearly all other Democrats and even tougher than a great many GOP elected officials over the last quarter century on a long list of sentencing issues ranging from the death penalty to mass incarceration to juvenile punishments to federal crack sentencing.

But Donald Trump has used the 2016 election season to demostrate time and time again that a lengthy past record can matter a heck of a lot less than a catchphrase and fiery rhetoric, and thus I was not surprised to see this New York Times headline emerge after Trump's speech yesterday to the NRA: "Donald Trump Tells N.R.A. Hillary Clinton Wants to Let Violent Criminals Go Free." Here is the context and basis for this headline:

“Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment candidate ever to run for office,” he said. Mrs. Clinton has called for tightened restrictions on guns, but not for abolishing the right to own them.

Mr. Trump, whose record of sexist remarks, among other things, has left him at a potentially crippling disadvantage among female voters, polls show, appealed directly to women in his speech, imbuing his defense of gun rights with an undercurrent of fear.

“In trying to overturn the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton is telling everyone — and every woman living in a dangerous community — that she doesn’t have the right to defend herself,” Mr. Trump said. “So you have a woman living in a community, a rough community, a bad community — sorry, you can’t defend yourself.”

If Mr. Trump’s comments seemed reminiscent of an era when crime rates were far higher — the Willie Horton ads attacking Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, in the 1988 presidential race came to mind — they also appeared somewhat at odds with the broad bipartisan consensus on the need to reduce incarceration rates and prison populations: Mr. Trump sought to frighten voters about the idea of criminals being released from prison.

He said Mrs. Clinton’s agenda was “to release the violent criminals from jail,” freeing them to roam the streets and put “innocent Americans at risk.” He even tried out a new epithet for Mrs. Clinton: “heartless Hillary.”

I consider to be Donald Trump to be an especially shrewd political figure because he seems to have stronger instincts than a number of other GOP figures as to how best to refine the rhetorical packaging of social issues in ways that can energize the GOP base without unduly locking himself into positions from which he can effectively pivot when seeking to appeal to more moderate and independent voters. Talking about women needing the Second Amendment as a means to have access to guns for self-defense in urban areas shows off his political deftness, as does his eagerness to assert (without any firm basis) that Hillary Clinton wants to release "violent criminals."  By including the term "violent" here, Trump will still be able to eventually express support for some "non-violent" sentencing reforms.

(For the record, I expect that in an effort to make nice with various members of the GOP estabishment in Congress, Trump will at some point in the next few months express some support for some modest federal drug sentencing, civil forfeiture, and mens rea reforms.  In the wake of this NRA speech, I would expect Trump, aided by crime-and-punishment-focused folks on his team like Senator Jeff Session and Chris Christie, to eventually say the federal government can and should follow the lead of reform-oriented southern states like Texas and Georgia, but do so only after we take steps to address illegal immigration and eliminate federal gun restrictions (and perhaps ramp up the federal death penalty).  In this context, I find notable this recent Washington Examiner commentary authored by Grover Norquist and Adam Brandon which carries the headline "Congress' new bills show how conservatives are still tough on crime."  This headline suggests that conservatives are coming to see that they can and likely need to preserve their "tough-on-crime" brand as part of efforts to promote sentencing reforms.)

A few prior related posts:

May 21, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Making the case that "criminal justice reform is a conservative effort" and a "moral imperative"

The debate over modern criminal justice reform efforts creates an interesting divide among folks on the right: some like Bill Otis make the claim that the push for reform is an "ominous ... part of our country's recent pattern of decline and retreat," while others involved with the Right on Crime movement assert conservatives should be leading the charge for robust criminal justice reform.  Regular readers will not be surprised to hear I tend to be moved more by the Right on Crime voices, and the RoC website recently highlighted this notable column at Ricochet by Nathanael Ferguson making the claim that criminal justice reform is a conservative cause.  Here is how this piece starts and ends (with links in the original):

My friend Sean Kennedy asserts in a column at Real Clear Policy that the “Bipartisan Push for Criminal Justice Reform Is Misguided.” I respectfully disagree. On the contrary, criminal justice reform is a conservative effort that is necessary to restrain government that has grown too large, powerful, and costly.

Criminal justice reform, or CJR for short, is a broad-based movement made up of numerous policy reforms taking place mostly at the state level. Texas has pioneered many of the reforms and has inspired a growing number of states to follow suit which has led to, among other beneficial results, reduced recidivism rates and lower prison costs.

CJR is a policy response to the problem of overcriminalization which can be defined as the criminalization of routine behavior that has no business being criminalized and the overly burdensome punishments that are handed down for minor infractions. Or to put it another way, we have too many statutory and administrative laws that are too vague and carry overly disproportionate penalties in contravention to the old saying that “the punishment must fit the crime.”...

Conservatives are generally suspicious of government that is too big, too costly, and too powerful.  That is, until it comes to the justice system where we seem to think it’s okay for the government to be big and powerful and spend our tax dollars like a drunken sailor.  But why should we view the justice system any differently than the rest of the government? Why should we not demand transparency and accountability?  Why should we not demand that crime and punishment be proportional?  Why should we not demand that justice-related spending be efficient and cost-effective?

The answer is that we should demand these things.  And to a growing extent we are, which is why it is mostly conservative states with Republican governors leading the way on criminal justice reform and in so doing making the system more just and less costly to taxpayers.  To be sure, some liberal lawmakers who support the movement may tend to overreach and make the leap from being right on crime to being soft on crime.  But that’s no reason to condemn the entire movement.

Criminal justice reform is not some misguided liberal effort to open the prison doors and set free everyone convicted of drug-related crimes as some opponents charge; rather it is a moral imperative for a society that values limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and a justice system that is fair to victims, violators, and the taxpayers who fund it.

May 15, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 13, 2016

"Was 1960'S Liberalism the Cause of Today's Overincarceration Crisis?"

9780674737235The title of this post is the headline of this notable book review by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice of this notable new book by Elizabeth Hinton "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America." Here is how the review starts and concludes:

The statistics are stunning.  This very second, more than 2.2 million people sit behind bars in America.  To put this into perspective, the United States is home to the largest prison system on the planet. But corrections today encompasses more than just metal bars.  An estimated 6,851,000 people are under some sort of correctional supervision, such as probation or electronic monitoring. If you do the math, it’s about one in 36 adults.  The racial disparities are striking: according to the Sentencing Project, one in every 10 African-American men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day.

Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, examines how mass incarceration happened in America in her new book, appropriately titled From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Hinton’s approach is novel.  Most criminal justice experts cite President Ronald Reagan’s War on Crime as the driver for today’s current levels of incarceration.  Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies — which aimed at improving conditions for the most impoverished Americans — laid the foundation for mass incarceration and its attendant racial injustices. Reagan’s policies, she says, were merely “the fulfillment of federal crime control priorities that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history during the era of civil rights.”

This may be a surprising claim, but it is not a unique one: there are a growing number of academics today who are blaming liberals for creating mass incarceration and for the sizable racial disparities that exist in the justice system. Naomi Murakawa, political scientist and associate professor of African American studies at Princeton, made this argument in her recent book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  Murakawa points to federal legislation written by liberals to reduce discretion in sentencing and parole.  The liberals’ goal was to avoid racially disparate punishment — judges, they argued, generally used their discretion in ways that hurt racial minorities.  Time has shown, however, that reducing judicial discretion only resulted in more racial disparities, as African-Americans ended up spending more time in prison as a result.

University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Marie Gottschalk, made a similar case in her 2015 book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.  Gottshalk contends that African-American advocacy groups have not always led the way in criminal justice reform and have in fact, at various points in history, supported measures that created more punitive criminal justice policies that have harmed African-Americans.  She notes that the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law that notoriously, and controversially, punished crack cocaine use (a crime African-Americans are more likely to be convicted of) 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine use (which skews more white).

Building on this theme, Hinton’s well-researched book is filled with historical anecdotes painting a colorful picture of the nation’s persistent struggle with crime since President Johnson coined the phrase “War on Crime” more than fifty years ago.  A year before President Johnson declared this war, Congress passed his Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which Hinton calls “the most ambitious social welfare program in the history of the United States."  The Economic Opportunity Act, which invested almost $1 billion in fighting poverty, would prove to be one of the most important parts of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and his larger Great Society initiative, in which billions of dollars were spent on dozens of antipoverty programs. Hinton, however, criticizes President Johnson for not spending more money on job creation measures and revamping public schools in poor, urban areas.  What came next, in her opinion, set the stage for decades of punitive measures that ultimately resulted in today’s phenomenon of mass incarceration....

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is smart, engaging, and well-argued.  Its one flaw, however, is that it does not adequately recognize that many of the policies it criticizes, with 50 years of hindsight, were well-intentioned at the time – and, their implications for criminal justice aside, did a great deal of good.  It is not until the very end of the book — pages 335 and 340 to be exact — that Hinton throws some morsels of recognition their way, conceding that these policies may have been “a product of their time” and that there are “questions of intent”.  But the concession is a grudging one — Hinton writes that these questions of intent “are only relevant to a certain extent” as the real issue is to “uncover the series of decisions that made contemporary mass incarceration possible.”

The last 50 years have brought valuable research about crime, evidence-based programs, and how to improve the lives many Americans through education, community support, and mental health and drug treatment services.  To give short shrift to the well-meaning efforts of so many of the nation’s academics, researchers, and policymakers is an unfortunate blind spot in an otherwise well-researched and provocative analysis of the causes of our mass incarceration crisis.

May 13, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)