Wednesday, February 25, 2015
"Rape in the American Prison"
The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Atlantic article about a part of the subjective experience of imprisonment for all too many prisoners despite notable efforts by Congress to address the problem of prison rape. Here are excerpts:
In 2003, ... Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, now usually known as PREA. It was intended to make experiences [of rape in prison] far less likely. But like many ambitious pieces of legislation, its promise has proved difficult to realize. The law required studies of the problem that took far longer than initially intended, and adoption of the guidelines they produced has been painfully slow, resting on the competence and dedication of particular employees. PREA has not been a complete failure, but it is also far from delivering on its promise....
Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape. The report included harrowing first-person accounts. “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously....
After PREA passed in 2003, the bipartisan commission announced it would obtain data on prison rape, write a report, and recommend a set of policy proposals “after two years.” The complexity and scope of the problem proved daunting, and it took nearly six; the report was released in 2009.
The next stop was Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, which spent three years (two more than they had initially planned) deliberating over the law and translating its recommendations into final standards....
PREA specifically barred the commission from recommending standards “that would impose substantial additional costs” for prison administrators, and many told the commission that placing youth who were convicted as adults in their own facilities would be impossibly expensive. “We must house adolescents and adults separately,” Martin Horn, head of the New York City Department of Correction, said at a 2006 hearing in Miami. “This takes time, this takes staff, and this takes money. And you must ask Congress to provide it.”
Today, states only have to promise that they’re working to comply with PREA’s many requirements, including the separation of youth under 18 from older prisoners. If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk.
Monday, February 23, 2015
"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"
The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog. Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:
Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?
The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.
The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)
To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....
Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.
Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.
Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....
While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.
February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Urging more media coverage of the "truly guilty and violent"
The mainstream media and “social justice” journalists treat criminal justice subjects compassionately at times, but the beneficiaries of their compassion diverge. The mainstream media focus on the victims of crime, while social justice journalists focus on victims of the criminal justice system.
The former task is easier, because readers are quick to sympathize with crime victims. The latter task is commendable, because it involves telling the stories of outcasts. Yet, even those of us who take on the latter task still tend to stick to the easier parts of the topic. Our favorite subjects are innocent people who are wrongly convicted.
When we do write about the guilty, we prefer they be nonviolent offenders. We’re particularly partial to petty drug offenders. Among violent offenders, we prefer juveniles.
We fear our readers can’t possibly develop compassion for anyone who robs, beats, rapes, or kills. We ourselves have trouble feeling compassion for such offenders; to do so violates a taboo. Only if the violent offender has the mitigating factor of youth, or sometimes mental illness, are we likely to take on his or her story.
But this means we neglect much that is immensely significant. There are too many drug offenders in prison, but prisons are not mainly holding drug offenders or the nonviolent. Seventeen percent of the 49,000 inmates in Illinois prisons were serving terms for controlled substance crimes, and another 1.6 percent had violated the cannabis control act, as of June 2013 (the most recent figures), according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. That’s less than 19 percent in all who were doing time for drug offenses–compared with 54 percent who’d been convicted of violent offenses. Nationally, the proportion of prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes in 2012 was also 54 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Stories about the wrongly convicted, and about the drug war, and about juvenile and mentally ill offenders, can lead to much-needed reforms of the criminal justice system. But stories about the truly guilty and violent can have a larger target: our nation’s structural inequality, and the wounds it inflicts every hour, every day, on African-Americans more than any other group, in segregated cities throughout the nation.
Concentrated poverty – resulting from the virulent mix of poverty and racial segregation – yields many poisoned fruits, not the least of which is violence. Children growing up amid concentrated poverty are more likely to witness violence in their neighborhoods, and to experience it in their homes, than children in more advantaged areas. And children growing up amid violence are far more likely to become violent themselves.
There’s a crying need for stories that make the crucial connections between concentrated poverty and violence, and that shift the focus from individual responsibility to our collective culpability. In the context of criminal justice stories, it’s not a connection journalists can make when their subjects are innocent or nonviolent.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
"PTSD in the Prison System"
The title of this post is the title of this paper by Julie Ann Davis now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The treatment of Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in the federal prison system has fallen in quality, if it can ever be said to have been sufficient. This work presents an analysis of PTSD in Veterans, identifies the deficiencies in prison systems to address the mental health aspects of PTSD, and presents solutions to address the needs of our soldiers.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
"Who Watches the Watchmen? Accountability in Federal Corporate Criminal Prosecutions"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Michael Patrick Wilt now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The Department of Justice entered into hundreds of deferred and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs and NPAs) with corporations over the last twenty years, and continues to increase the use of these agreements every year. However, there is no academic scholarship that explores whether the DOJ has grounded these criminal settlements in traditional criminal sentencing procedures. Specifically, do these agreements — which can often include hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties — follow the carefully considered principles of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations?
This article considers this question in light of the public choice theory of criminal procedure and concludes that the DOJ is not utilizing the Sentencing Guidelines in a manner consistent with basic notions of government accountability in the criminal justice system. The article uses data collected from over three hundred deferred and non-prosecution agreements and finds that only a small percentage include an analysis of a monetary penalty based on the Sentencing Guidelines. The government’s use of a non-traditional process to resolve corporate criminal cases should be concerning in the absence of an institutional check such as the Sentencing Guidelines. The article urges the DOJ to adopt standardized procedures for future criminal settlements, including a demonstration of the Sentencing Guidelines analysis typically found in plea agreements.
Friday, February 20, 2015
Virginia's former first lady facing sentencing after hubby got only two years
Today brings another high-profile white-collar sentencing in the federal court in Virginia as Maureen McDonnell, former first lady, is to come before the same judge who sentenced former Virginia Gov Robert McDonnell to two years' imprisonment last month. Helpfully, Randall Eliason at the Sidebars Legal Blog provides this preview, titled "What to Expect at Maureen McDonnell’s Sentencing." Randall provides this refined summary of the guideline basics and the parties' recommendations:
The Presentence Report prepared by the U.S. Probation Department concludes that the Sentencing Guidelines call for a sentence of 63-78 months in prison. The prosecution agrees with those calculations but recommends the judge sentence her to only 18 months in prison to avoid an unwarranted disparity between her sentence and that of her husband. Mrs. McDonnell’s attorneys argue that, properly calculated, the Sentencing Guidelines call for only 33-41 months, but urge the judge to depart even further from the Guidelines and sentence her to probation along with 4000 hours of community service.
In addition, the Washington Post has this article headlined "Everything you need to know about Maureen McDonnell’s sentencing." But that piece does not set out these guideline basics, so the headline is not accurate for hard-core federal sentencing geeks like me.
UPDATE: As this Washington Post piece reports, "Maureen McDonnell was sentenced Friday to a year and a day in federal prison after an emotional, hours-long hearing in which the former first lady of Virginia apologized publicly for the first time since she and her husband were accused of public corruption."
As all competent federal sentencing lawyers know, a sentence of a year and a day for the former first lady is actually better than a sentence of one year. That extra day makes her formally eligible to earn good-time credit, which nearly all non-violent offenders earn. So, practically, Ms. McDonnell is now likely to be released from federal custody after only 10.5 months in the federal graybar hotel.
February 20, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 19, 2015
The back-story of George Toca's case (and its impact on other juve LWOPers)
This new Bloomberg article authored by by Matt Stroud provides an interesting account of the stories behind what was, until it was settled a few weeks ago, the case the Supreme Court had planned to use to resolve the retroactive application of its Miller Eighth Amendment ruling. The piece is headlined "Prisoners Sentenced to Life as Kids Just Lost Their Best Chance for Freedom: How the criminal justice system failed George Toca — and 1,500 others like him," and it is a must-read and a must-watch based on the video linked to the story. Here are excerpts:
In 1984, when Toca was 17, he was charged with accidentally shooting and killing his best friend, Eric Batiste, during a failed carjacking. Victims picked him out of lineups, despite initial statements to police describing an older, heavier shooter who was at least five inches taller than Toca and who did not have four gleaming gold caps on his top front teeth.
Largely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, Toca was convicted of second-degree murder in 1985 and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has spent most of the last 31 years in Louisiana’s notorious Angola state penitentiary....
Toca has had an interesting winter. In addition to denying responsibility for his friend’s killing — and working with lawyers at the Innocence Project New Orleans since 2003 to prove his case — Toca appealed to be resentenced based on his age at the time of the alleged crime. The U.S. Supreme Court selects less than 2 percent of the cases presented to it. In December, it agreed to hear Toca’s appeal....
[I]n 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole, handed down in 29 states’ murder cases as well as those in federal court, is unconstitutional for offenders younger than 18. The decision left a question on the table: What about those who had already been convicted? Should they be resentenced?
Some states have said that all juveniles sentenced to mandatory life without parole should have a new sentencing hearing. Others — Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota — have decided against retroactivity. The exact numbers are in dispute, but according to figures from Human Rights Watch and estimates from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, that means about 1,500 sentences nationwide hang in the balance. By agreeing to hear and decide Toca’s appeal, the Supreme Court planned to end the uncertainty of those cases.
But in the weeks after the court agreed to hear the case, Toca was approached by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro with a tempting offer. Toca had long maintained his innocence in the shooting, but now the D.A. had a deal for him. If he signed a plea agreement admitting to armed robbery, Cannizzaro would drop the original conviction and Toca would be paroled immediately....
Since he agreed to a plea deal, though, the Supreme Court dismissed his case and he is no longer standing in for 1,500 juvenile lifers like him in front of the nation’s highest court.
For those who believe juveniles sentenced to life behind bars should be forced to spend their lives there, Toca’s release is actually good news. “This shows me that the system works,” said Bobbi Jamriska, whose pregnant sister was brutally beaten and stabbed to death in 1993 by a 16-year-old in suburban Pittsburgh. “They went back and they questioned his case and raised their concerns, and [Toca] ended up being let out of jail.”
Jamriska has fought hard to keep both the death penalty and life without parole on the table for juvenile offenders. As Pennsylvania director of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, she said her organization didn’t want Toca’s case in front of the Supreme Court anyway. His case is “an extreme,” she said. “Even the victim’s family is saying, ‘Get him out of jail,’ ” Jamriska said. “We’d prefer to have a case that’s more representative of some of the horrific crimes juveniles commit.”...
Will the Supreme Court [take up] another [case]? Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, believes it will. At least five cases —three in Louisiana, two in Michigan — have been sent for Supreme Court review and could replace Toca’s, but not until the next term at the earliest. That's in October.
Levick doesn’t blame Toca for his decision. “First and foremost, good for him,” she said. “I don’t think anybody who has been waiting for the retroactivity issue to be ruled upon would in any way question the decision that George Toca made. How could he not walk out of prison after 30 years?” For the other juvenile lifers nationwide, “obviously it was disappointing,” she said. “They’re still waiting, just as they have been for 30, 40, 50 years. And they think it’s time for them to get out as well.”
Toca hopes they do, too. Sitting outside with the sun shining above him, he looked down and offered an apology. “I know they was really relying on my case to get the retroactivity of the Miller case resolved,” he said. “All I can say is, I’m sorry that I let ’em down. This was all I could do.”
Monday, February 16, 2015
Feds assert, despite reversal of hate crime convictions, Amish beard-cutters should get same sentences
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Federal prosecutors want same sentences in Amish beard-cutting case when they are resentenced," the feds are claiming that the reversal on appeal of the most-serious charges against a group of Amish defendants (details here) should not impact their sentence one whit. Here are the details:
Sixteen Amish men and women whose hate crime convictions in beard- and hair-cutting attacks were overturned still should receive the same sentences, federal prosecutors told a judge who will resentence the group.
The members of the eastern Ohio Amish group are scheduled to be resentenced March 2 after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned only their hate crimes convictions. New sentences are required because the original sentences were based both on hate crimes convictions and convictions on other charges but did not differentiate between them.
The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio. The U.S. Attorney's Office, in a court filing on Friday, said Mullet should be resentenced to 15 years for concealing evidence and making false statements to the FBI. Both of those charges were not overturned.
The other defendants should also be given the same lesser sentences. Those defendants who have already been released should be sentenced to time served, the prosecutors said.
Prosecutors argued that the conduct that led to the hate crime charges, which included kidnapping, should still be considered even if the defendants are no longer convicted of a hate crime.
Defense attorneys are expected to file their response next week.
I am neither surprised or troubled that the feds want the same sentences imposed on the less culpable defendants who have already finished serving their prison time. But I struggle to see how urging the same exact sentence for Sam Mullet Sr. despite reversal of the most serious convictions against him serves to "promote respect for the law" as 18 USC 3553(a)(2)(A) requires.
Related prior posts:
- Ohio Amish hair-cutting incidents now a federal hate crimes sentencing matter
- Stark extremes for forthcoming debate over federal sentencing of Amish beard-cutters
- Interesting defense arguments for sentencing leniency in Amish beard-cutting case
- Feds request LWOP for Samuel Mullet Sr., leader of Amish beard-cutting gang
- Are tough sentences sought in Amish beard-cutting case part of a DOJ "war on religion"?
- "Amish beard-cutting ringleader gets 15 years"
- Guest post on Amish sentencing: "A Travesty in Cleveland"
- Based on Burrage, split Sixth Circuit panel reverses federal hate crime convictions for Amish beard-cutters
February 16, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Friday, February 13, 2015
Texas sentencing jury finally brings needed sanction to recidivist drunk driver
A helpful reader, knowing I have long expressed concern about under leniency often shown to dangerous repeat drunk drivers at sentencing, altered me to this notable state sentencing story out of Texas. The story, headlined "Texas man sentenced to two life terms after 10th DWI," reinforces my view that juries can sometimes be wiser than judges at sentencing:
Bobby Gene Martin’s brushes with law reinforcement for driving drunk date to 1981. But this week, his 30-year streak of DWI arrests came to an abrupt end.
A Texas jury convicted the 64-year-old of his 10th drunk driving offense along with a retaliation charge for threatening to harm the arresting officer and his family. They gave him two life sentences.
The jury came back with its guilty verdict after three hours of deliberation. And throughout the proceedings, the jury had no idea that Martin had already been arrested nine other times for drunk driving. They only knew that this was at least his third. “You could see they were actually shocked that he’d had 10 DWIs and was still out and about driving around,” Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kyle Crowl said.
Martin was also convicted of threatening to kill the arresting deputy, his wife, his children and his mother, according to the prosecutor. It also wasn’t the first time he had made such threats, Crowl noted. During a 1999 incident, Martin was accused of threatening to kill the officer who arrested him and “everything he ever loved.”...
Martin will be 80 before he is eligible for parole, according to Crowl.
UPDATE: I just noticed this Houston Chronicle article which asserts that Bobby Gene Martin is the "33rd [Texas] inmate serving life in state prison for drunk driving" as a result of multiple drunk driving convictions. Though I do not know Texas law well, I presume that most (if not all) of these recidivist drunk drivers were given these life sentences by juries and that they are eligible for parole at some point like Bobby Gene Martin. I make this point because it highlights some contrast between these recidivist alcohol offenders and the hundreds of recidivist drug offenders serving life without parole in federal prison due to a mandatory LWOP statutory minimum sentencing term.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
"Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the Vera Institute of Justice. This New York Times article, headlined "Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says," provides a helpful summary of and context for this report:
Jails across the country have become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves, according to a report issued Wednesday.
The study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” found that the majority of those incarcerated in local and county jails are there for minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares, and have been jailed for longer periods of time over the past 30 years because they are unable to pay courtimposed costs.
The report, by the Vera Institute of Justice, comes at a time of increased attention to mass incarceration policies that have swelled prison and jail populations around the country. This week in Missouri, where the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer stirred months of racial tension last year in the town of Ferguson, 15 people sued that city and another suburb, Jennings, alleging that the cities created an unconstitutional modernday debtors’ prison, putting impoverished people behind bars in overcrowded, unlawful and unsanitary conditions.
While most reform efforts, including early releases and the elimination of some minimum mandatory sentences, have been focused on state and federal prisons, the report found that the disparate rules that apply to jails is also in need of reform.
“It’s an important moment to take a look at our use of jails,” said Nancy Fishman, the project director of the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and an author of the report. “It’s a huge burden on taxpayers, on our communities, and we need to decide if this is how we want to spend our resources.”
The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 — nearly equal to the population of Charlotte, N.C. — even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak.
Inmates have subsequently been spending more time in jail awaiting trial, in part because of the growing reluctance of judges to free suspects on their own recognizance pending trial dates, which had once been common for minor offenses. As a result, many of those accused of misdemeanors — who are often poor — are unable to pay bail as low as $500.
Timed with the release of the Vera Institute report, the MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday that it would invest $75 million over five years in 20 jurisdictions that are seeking alternatives to sending large numbers of people to jail. The jurisdictions, which could be cities, counties or other entities that run local jails, will be announced this spring. Nationwide, the annual number of jail admissions is 19 times higher than the number of those sent to prison, and has nearly doubled since 1983, from about 6 million to 11.7 million. A significant number are repeat offenders, the report said.
Via this link, the Vera Institute has available the full Incarceration’s Front Door report, a helpful summary and the infographic I have tried to reproduce here.
New bipartisan federal prison reform bill introduced (with good chance of passage?)
This article from The Hill, headlined "Senators unveil prison reform bill," reports on the latest iteration of a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform proposal. Here are the details:
Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.
The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons. The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences. It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.
Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense. Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.
In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law. The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law. "We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners....
Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice. “This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill. “There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”
"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.
Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system. "I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said....
Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.
As the title of this post highlights, I have little idea if this CORRECTIONS Act has a real chance at passage. But I am keeping my fingers crossed.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
ABA resolution calls for elimination of juve LWOP in the United States
As reported in this Robina Institute press release, yesterday "the American Bar Association (ABA) approved a resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life-in-prison-without-parole and urging meaningful periodic opportunities for release.” Here is more from the press release:
The United States stands alone in permitting sentences of life without parole for juveniles. It is the only country other than Somalia that has not yet ratified the Convention on Rights of the Child, which prohibits life without parole sentences for children. Passage of this resolution signals the ABA’s commitment to reforming U.S. juvenile sentencing laws and aligns with recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that children are “constitutionally different” from adults, and that because children have diminished culpability and greater prospects of reform, they should not be routinely subject to our nation’s harshest penalties.
“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard. “As the world’s foremost leader and defender of human rights, the United States should ban life without parole sentences for children — a severe violation of human rights. The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”
“For any one individual, if over time that person continues to pose a significant risk to public safety, a life sentence may be appropriate,” said Robina Institute Executive Director Kelly Mitchell. “What this resolution is saying is that the moment of sentencing is not the time to make the judgment that a person is forever irredeemable.”
The control and administration of the ABA is vested in the House of Delegates, which is the 560-member policy-making body of the association. The House of Delegates meets twice each year, at ABA Annual and Midyear Meetings. Action taken by the House of Delegates on specific issues becomes official ABA policy.
The full text of ABA Resolution 107C and its assoiated report is available at this link.
Saturday, February 07, 2015
Ohio Gov John Kasich advocating significant resources devoted to addiction services for prisoners
As reported in this local article, headlined "Addiction programs for incarcerated included state budget," Ohio's GOP Governor John Kasich is now showing through his latest budget proposal that he remains deeply committed to "smart on crime" sentencing and prison reforms. Here are the details:
Eight of 10 people come to Ohio prisons with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol. Most leave without treatment or a recovery plan, with predictable results. On the outside, they return to old addictive habits that often trigger criminal behavior.
Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget calls for a $61.7 million collaboration by two agencies to treat offenders both behind bars and once they are released. “This is not tinkering with recovery programs. This is going to be a remarkable leap forward, addressing a large group of people coming to our prisons who in many cases aren’t being served at all,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
The big-picture goal is to help ex-offenders succeed outside prison and, in the long run, to cut prison costs charged to taxpayers. Statistics show that about 10 percent of inmates who get alcohol and drug treatment later return to prison, compared with about 27 percent of those who don’t get treatment.
The change pushed by Kasich would shift responsibility for inmate-recovery services from Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It involves moving 120 people who work for prisons to the mental-health agency budget at a cost of $12.5 million annually. They will, however, continue working in the same jobs.
Prison officials estimate that about 4,500 of the roughly 30,000 inmates with moderate to severe addiction problems are getting recovery services. Officials from the two agencies won’t predict how many more inmates will be treated until the program is in place, but Stuart Hudson, prison chief of medical services, said it will be a “substantial increase.”...
Mental-health director Tracy Plouck said much of the $61.7 million, beyond the $25 million to absorb the DRC staff, will go for community recovery services once inmates return home.
Prison officials have struggled for years with an influx of inmates who commit nonviolent crimes, many of them related to their addictions. For about 20 percent of new prisoners, a drug charge is their most serious offense. Many are in and out of prison so quickly there isn’t time or resources to get them involved in recovery programs, Mohr said.
“We’re not reaching enough people and we’re not reaching them early enough,” Mohr said. “Ohioans are paying $22,500 a year for each prisoner, and we should be doing more than warehousing them. We are committed to helping people improve their lives.” Ohio’s recidivism rate of 27.1 percent is far better than the national average of over 40 percent.
Split Washington Supreme Court decides accomplices must receive distinct sentencing treatment
As reported in this local article, headlined "Washington Supreme Court alters sentencing structure for accomplices," the top court in the Evergreen State earlier this week issued an interest opinion concerning how the state's sentencing structure should be applied to those found guilty as accomplices. Here is a summary from the press report:
In a 5-4 opinion released Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that convicted identity thief Larry Hayes should have received a standard-range sentence after being convicted of a host of felonies in 2009. Instead, he got a 15-year term under a provision that allows prosecutors to seek extra punishment for egregious offenders. The majority ordered the case back to Pierce County for re-sentencing.
At issue is how people charged as accomplices should be treated under the law at sentencing. For years, Washington law has prescribed that accomplices and principle actors in a crime be exposed to the same culpability, a concept Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday called “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson and signed by Justices Charles Wiggins, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the majority ruled that should not always be the case, especially where sentencing is concerned.
Until Thursday, when a prosecutor sought an exceptional sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she had to prove to a jury that certain aggravating factors made the crime worse than usual. The requirement applied to principle actors and accomplices alike. Thursday’s majority opinion said the blanket application to accomplices is improper.
Accomplices should be judged for their specific role in the crime and not just on the crime itself, the majority ruled. An accomplice, to qualify for an exceptional sentence, must have knowledge that the crime he or she is involved in is worse than usual, Johnson wrote, and prosecutors now must prove that knowledge to a jury. “...this finding of knowledge ensures that the defendant’s own conduct formed the basis of the sentence,” Johnson wrote....
Justice Debra Stephens authored the dissent, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez. Stephens argued that the majority was turning decades of case law on its head for no good reason. “It makes no sense that a principal should be punished regardless of whether he or she knew the crime was a major economic offense but an accomplice, who committed the same crime, should not be,” she wrote.
She went on to say the ruling would have far-reaching impacts. “It is no exaggeration to say that the way co-participants have long been tried in this state will need to change in order to accommodate the knowledge finding the majority superimposes on the enhancement statute,” Stephens wrote.
Lindquist agreed with Stephens’ assessment and said he would consider asking state lawmakers to pass legislation clarifying what they want to happen to accomplices. “They could say, ‘We meant what we wrote: Principals and accomplices are equally culpable,’” Lindquist said.
Appellate attorney Nancy Collins, who worked on Hayes’ appeal, said she thinks the majority got it right and that the application of the ruling would not be onerous. “I don’t see it as a change in the law at all,” Collins said. “The majority said the jury needs to consider the defendant’s individual conduct.”
The full opinion in Washington v. Hayes, No. 89742-5 (Wash. Feb. 5, 2015), is available at this link.
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress
This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:
The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.
Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles. The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums. Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.
But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies. And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.
Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley. "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."
In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums. A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate. But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.
And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president. That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress. That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2. Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.
The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism. Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling. Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.
Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee. There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform. But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said. "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement." And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.
February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
"How to Stop Revolving Prison Doors With Books"
The title of this post is the title of this extended piece in the Harvard Political Review authored by Alice Hu. Here is how it starts and ends:
Education reduces crime. This connection seems like common sense, and indeed it has been researched, analyzed, and affirmed countless times. According to a 2007 collaborative study by Columbia University, Princeton University, and City University of New York, higher education reduces the crime rates of both juveniles and adults by impacting social behavior and economic stability.
The effect of education on crime-reduction is even more dramatic for a certain group within the population: the incarcerated. To many, the idea of convicts receiving a free college education behind bars is confounding and, more often, infuriating. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly finance basic college education programs in state prisons, legislators in Albany called it “a slap in the face” for law-abiding citizens.
While this response is understandable, the arguments themselves neglect the actual effects of college-in-prison programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prisons than those who did not. By drastically reducing the recidivism rate of former inmates, education in prisons returns a tremendous social benefit for all members of society. Prison education programs not only save an enormous sum of tax dollars spent on prisons annually, but they also have a profound effect on thousands of families and communities. The current resistance to college-in-prison is founded upon political rhetoric rather than any factual evidence. Indeed, this type of rhetoric by politicians is perhaps indicative of a large, troubling trend in education and incarceration....
College stops the revolving prison doors. It allows inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, to work, pay taxes, and contribute to society. It saves the public billions of tax dollars, money that can go toward higher education aid for students rather than prison expansion. The “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped past politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — to win elections, but it has done little to help the people inside or outside the prisons. Indeed, the adverse effect of forgoing college programs for inmates cuts across partisan lines and prison bars. Perhaps this is why President Clinton, who was once adamant about being “on the side of those who abide by the law,” has since commended Bard Prison Initiative as a “good investment in a safer, more productive society.” Politicians can choose to neglect the evidence and paint college-in-prison programs as unfair to law-abiding citizens, but the true injustice lies in the continuation of ineffective and costly practices when a solution is readily available — education. It is common sense, after all.
Sunday, February 01, 2015
"Should Veterans With PTSD Be Exempt From the Death Penalty?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece from The Atlantic. Here are excerpts:
PTSD is a severe mental disorder that can affect intellectual and adaptive functioning, trigger flashbacks to traumatic events, and impair one's judgment. As its name implies, it can develop after exposure to a life-threatening event.... About 20 percent of military personnel who served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and up to 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans have experienced it in their lifetimes, according to National Center for PTSD statistics....
Despite the stigma attached to PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs emphasizes that most veterans suffering from the condition are not violent.... “Rambo is not the face of PTSD,” Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA's National Center for PTSD, said in an interview with The Desert Sun. “It's extremely important that we recognize that the majority of people with PTSD don't engage in criminal and violent actions.”
The risk of criminal behavior isn’t necessarily higher among combat veterans than with civilians, according to mental health experts. "I am unaware of data showing that people with PTSD are more violent than other people," Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard University's psychology department, told Reuters.
But some legal scholars and mental health experts suggest the criminal justice system should treat convicted veterans suffering from war trauma differently than other criminals. In a 2009 Fordham Law Review article, Anthony Giardino, an attorney and former Marine, argued that veterans suffering from service-related PTSD and traumatic brain injuries should receive a categorical exemption from the death penalty. "If the death penalty is truly only for the worst offenders, justice requires that combat veterans suffering at the time of their offenses from service-related PTSD or TBI [traumatic brain injuries] not be executed or sentenced to death," he wrote....
Giardino isn’t alone in making this argument. Mental-health experts Hal S. Wortzel and David B. Arciniegas made a similar case for exempting veterans affected by war trauma from the death penalty. Military training and combat, combined with traumatic experiences, may have an impact on aggression and behavioral control, the authors said in a 2010 article....
It's difficult for the legal system to truly grasp what veterans with PTSD have experienced. This lack of empathy is a key obstacle to change.... Until society realizes how combat can change service members, the fate of capital defendants with combat PTSD will remain an open question.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
George Toca now a free man ... and SCOTUS now lacks a live Miller retroactivity case
This local article from Louisiana, headlined "George Toca, La. inmate at center of debate on juvenile life sentences, to go free," reports on a remarkable turn of events in a case that was supposed to serve as the means for the Supreme Court to address the retroactivity of its Eighth Amendment Miller ruling. Here are the details:
A state prisoner from New Orleans who recently landed at the center of national legal debate about mandatory life sentences for youthful offenders won his freedom Thursday after 31 years in prison. Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office agreed to vacate his murder conviction.
George Toca, 47, is set to go free after pleading guilty instead to two counts of attempted armed robbery and one count of manslaughter from a 1984 stickup that ended with his best friend, Eric Batiste, fatally shot outside a convenience store on South Broad Street in Broadmoor.
Toca’s release almost certainly means the U.S. Supreme Court will scrap a scheduled hearing this spring on whether its 2012 decision in a case known as Miller v. Alabama, barring mandatory life sentences for juvenile convicts, is retroactive. The high court in November took up Toca’s case, above others, to settle an issue that affects about 1,000 convicts in Louisiana and three other states that have refused to apply the court’s ruling to older juvenile lifers.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the DA will join in a motion with Toca’s attorneys to withdraw the Supreme Court case.
Toca, appearing briefly in court Thursday morning, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter count under an “Alford” plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded that strong evidence could have led to his conviction. He returned to Angola State Penitentiary for processing, with his release expected late Thursday or Friday.
Newly elected Criminal District Court Judge Byron Williams granted the joint motion in a case that the Innocence Project New Orleans had pursued on Toca’s behalf for more than a decade. DA’s Office spokesman Christopher Bowman credited a warming relationship with Innocence Project attorneys, along with Toca’s productive years behind bars, for the decision to let him go free on the reduced charges.
Bowman called it “a just outcome,” also citing the vehemence of Batiste’s family in urging Toca’s release and the fact he will remain on parole for another 30 years under the deal. “In light of all those facts, the district attorney believed he was no longer a public safety risk,” Bowman said. “The District Attorney’s Office ... is not afraid to take a look at older cases.”...
Bowman insisted that the DA’s decision to come to a deal on Toca’s release was unrelated to the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, in which Cannizzaro’s office had been gearing up to argue against the retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama.
The high court didn’t ban states from sentencing some young killers to life without parole. But the 5-4 majority opinion insisted that courts must first weigh a defendant’s youth, adding that “we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” The court said “youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments,” citing “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change” when compared with adults.
In legal filings, Cannizzaro’s office argued that it would be a fool’s errand to force local judges, years or decades later, to discern a long-ago juvenile’s capacity for change. Advocates for juvenile lifers argued that the task would be made easier because judges can review an inmate’s record while behind bars. And they saw Toca’s case as a promising bellwether for what the high court justices might do....
According to the state, 272 Louisiana inmates had been sentenced as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as of April 2013 — the bulk of them, like Toca, having been sentenced before the U.S. Supreme Court decision. State Supreme Courts in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota also have found that Miller v. Alabama does not apply retroactively, setting up the fight at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Toca’s vacated conviction and release will leave the issue unresolved for now, said Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at Catholic University of America. Still, she expects the Supreme Court to take up the retroactivity question relatively soon in some other case, now that it has signaled its interest in settling the issue. “For George Toca, this is a victory and a great thing,” Drinan said. “For those of us looking at the bigger issue, and for the hundreds of people waiting for a resolution, we’ll have to wait.”
Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population
This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "U.S. Prisons Grapple With Aging Population: More Middle-Age Offenders Are Entering or Re-entering Facilities, Research Shows," explores why and how the population of incarceration nation is aging. Here are excerpts:
Criminal-justice experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws adopted in the 1980s. The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which, in turn, is rapidly driving up the average age of inmates.
New research, however, offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded in recent years largely because more offenders ... are entering or re-entering prison in middle age. It is a finding that could force states to rethink their efforts to tamp down on the escalating costs of caring for older inmates.
“People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to,” said Shawn Bushway, a public policy professor at the University at Albany who co-wrote a coming study on the aging of those incarcerated.
The average inmate generally costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate. Elderly prisoners, often defined as those older than 50, cost as much as three times more, researchers estimate, because they are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require expensive treatments.
The population of U.S. prisoners over the age of 44 grew more than 8% annually from 1991 to 2011 — four times the rate of prisoners under the age of 35, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the research arm of the Justice Department. The proportion of inmates 54 years or older nearly tripled in that time, from 3% to more than 8%. At the end of 2013, about 270,000 U.S. inmates were 50 years or older, out of a total prisoner population of more than 1.5 million, according to BJS.
Mr. Bushway’s research, based on U.S. Census surveys of state prisoners spanning from 1974 to 2004, suggests the trend is linked to high rates of reported drug use among older inmates — particularly those who came of age in the 1980s ... and have cycled in and out of prison for much of their adult lives....
A separate study on aging prisoners, funded by the Bureau, analyzed data from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and California, where the proportion of prisoners 50 years or older more than doubled since 2000. The researchers, economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of consulting group Abt Associates, concluded that “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”
The changing nature of offenses over time doesn’t explain the trend, nor do changes in sentencing severity, which had “virtually no impact” on the size of the group, they wrote. “Policy makers are missing an important part of the problem,” Mr. Luallen said in an interview. As states try to rein in costs of mass incarceration, Mr. Luallen said, they would do well to focus more on the flow of older people into the prison system than on reducing their sentences.
“Changing sentencing laws won’t affect” the increasing number of older prisoners, said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, who studies mass incarceration. “You need to change the behavior of the district attorneys.”
The issue of recidivism continues to pose problems for state governments struggling to contain the costs of mass incarceration. A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study that examined state prisoners released in 2005 found that about two-thirds were arrested for a new crime within three years.
Harsher laws, such as those that mandate a life sentence after a person is convicted of three felonies, indisputably have led to more time behind bars for some. Bryce Peterson, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said longer sentences have “some effect” on the aging prison population. “It would be misleading to downplay that too much.” Mr. Peterson said he believed that Messrs. Luallen and Kling would have found that the length of time served in prison played a larger role in the graying of the inmate population had their study looked back further than 2000.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
"Back to the Future: The Influence of Criminal History on Risk Assessment"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Evidence-based practices providing an empirical basis for predicting recidivism risk have become a primary focus across criminal justice decision points. Criminal history measures are the most common and heavily weighted factors in risk assessment tools, yet is such substantial reliance fully justified? The empirical and normative values placed on criminal history enjoy such commendation by criminal justice officials, practitioners, and the public that these practices are rarely questioned. This paper fills the gap by introducing and exploring various issues from legal, scientific, and pragmatic perspectives.
As a general rule, a common assumption is that past behavior dictates an individual’s likely future conduct. This axiom is often applied to criminal behavior, more specifically, in that prior offending is considered a primary driver to predict future recidivism. Criminal justice officials have a long history of formally and informally incorporating risk judgments into a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from bail, sentencing, parole, supervisory conditions, and programming. A more contemporary addendum represents empirically informed risk assessment practices that integrate actuarial tools and/or structured professional judgments. Various criminal history measures pervade these newer evidence-based practices as well.
Instead of presuming the value and significance of prior crimes in judging future recidivism risk, this Article raises and critically analyzes certain unexpected consequences resulting from the significant reliance upon criminal history in risk assessment judgments. Among the more novel issues addressed include: (1) creating a ratchet effect whereby the same criminal history event can be counted numerous times; (2) resulting in informal, three-strikes types of penalties; (3) counting nonadjudicated criminal behaviors and acquitted conduct; (4) proportionality of punishment; (5) disciplining hypothetical future crime; (6) punishing status; and (7) inadequately accounting for the age-crime curve. In the end, criminal history has a role to play in future risk judgments, but these issues represent unanticipated outcomes that deserve attention.