Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Graphic representation of female prisoners around the world

20140923_Female_Prisoners_Fo

I just tripped across this interesting piece and infographic published last month via Forbes.  The piece is headlined "Nearly A Third Of All Female Prisoners Worldwide Are Incarcerated In The United States," and here is the text that goes along with the infographic:

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, nearly a third of all female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States of America.  There are 201,200 women in US prisons, representing 8.8 percent of the total American prison population.

China comes a very distant second to the United States with 84,600 female prisoners in total or 5.1% of the overall Chinese prison population.  Russia is in third position -- 59,000 of its prisoners are women and this comes to 7.8 percent of the total.

Across the world, 625,000 women and children are being held in penal institutions with the female prison population growing on all five continents.

October 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Good Conduct Time for Prisoners: Why (and How) Wisconsin Should Provide Credits Toward Early Release"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Michael M. O'Hear.  Here is the abstract:

Wisconsin is one of about twenty states not offering good conduct time (GCT) to prisoners. In most states, prisoners are able to earn GCT credits toward accelerated release through good behavior.  Wisconsin itself had GCT for more than a century, but eliminated it as part of a set of reforms in the 1980s and 1990s that left the state with what may be the nation’s most inflexible system for the release of prisoners.  Although some of these reforms helpfully brought greater certainty to punishment, they went too far in eliminating nearly all meaningful recognition and encouragement of good behavior and rehabilitative progress.

This article explains why and how Wisconsin should reinstitute GCT, drawing on social scientific research on the effects of GCT, public opinion surveys in Wisconsin and across the United States regarding sentencing policy, and an analysis of the GCT laws in place in other jurisdictions.  Although the article focuses particularly on Wisconsin’s circumstances, the basic argument for GCT is more generally applicable, and much of the analysis should be of interest to policymakers in other states, too.

October 19, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, October 17, 2014

"Cities Look for Ways to Get Free of Empty Jails"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Wall Street Journal piece from earlier this week, which carried the subheading "Drop in Crime and Lighter Sentences Swell the Number of Jails for Sale."  Here are excerpts:

After rising rapidly for decades, the number of people behind bars peaked in 2009 and has been mostly falling ever since. Inmates at federal and state prisons stood at 1.57 million in 2013, down 2.7% from a peak of 1.62 million in 2009, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In some states, the decline has been more pronounced, including New York, which saw an 8.8% decline in federal and state inmates, and California, which saw a 20.6% drop. The inmate population in city and county jails has also fallen, even as some states have shifted prisoners to those facilities....

The incarceration rate is declining largely because crime has fallen significantly in the past generation. In addition, many states have relaxed harsh sentencing laws passed during the tough-on-crime 1980s and 1990s, and have backed rehabilitation programs, resulting in fewer low-level offenders being locked up. States from Michigan to New Jersey have changed parole processes, leading more prisoners to leave earlier. On a federal level, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has pushed to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

While the reduction in crime and incarceration has many social benefits, municipalities are having a tough time finding new uses for prisons. Old office buildings can be converted to apartment buildings or hotels. Outdated government buildings can be used for retail or as schools. Even some prisons, mainly those with historic architecture and located in city centers, have been converted in recent years to hotels, including Boston’s Charles Street Jail, which is now known as the Liberty Hotel.

But most prisons are drab structures located in rural areas, offering few opportunities for reuse. The result is that the number of prison properties on the market is rising. New York state has closed 17 prisons and juvenile-justice facilities since 2011, following the rollback of the 1970s-era Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated lengthy sentences for low-level offenders.

So far, the state has found buyers for 10 of them, at prices that range from less than $250,000 to about $8 million for a facility in Staten Island, often a fraction of what they cost to build. It hopes to sell most of the remainder.

In Texas, where more nonviolent offenders are being put in rehabilitation programs, the state has closed three prisons since 2011. Among them is a 1,060-bed facility called the Central Unit that the city of Sugar Land is seeking to buy from the state and convert to an aviation-focused business park, given its proximity to an airport.

October 17, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 10, 2014

Oklahoma has impressive early success with revised earned credit program

This local article, headlined "Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble," reports on another positive state criminal justice reform effort. Here are the details:

Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana.  By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.

Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program.  The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.

A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use....

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program....

Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars.  Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.

The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored.  He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”

“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”

The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now.  Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct. The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.

Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.

This partial report about early success with a revised corrections program in one state does not, obviously, prove conclusively that significant early releases can be achieved without a huge public safety impact. Nevertheless, given the ugly reality that recidivism rates for released prisoners can often exceed 40%, the folks in Oklahoma must be doing something right if only less than 0.15% of prisoners released early this year have committed a crime requiring requiring being sent back to prison so far.

October 10, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Arkansas deputy AG cut to pieces while trying to defend prison beard-cutting policies

This morning the Supreme Court head oral argument in a prisoner rights case, and this SCOTUSblog report on the argument from Lyle Denniston suggests it did not go well for one advocate.  Here is the start of Lyle's argument recap:

The Supreme Court on Tuesday sent a blunt message to prison officials planning a policy that limits the religious freedom of inmates: it would be important to have a good reason for the restriction before it gets into court.  Trying to bolster the rationale at the lectern is not a promising strategy.

A lawyer for Arkansas prison officials found that out in two quick exchanges with Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., that came close to collapsing his case.

David A. Curran, a deputy attorney general from Little Rock, arguing for the state in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, took his turn before the Justices after two lawyers on the other side had repeatedly complained that the state simply had no real justification for banning all beards on inmates, even for those who might want insist that they need one for religious reasons.

Curran tried to offer two rationales: the policy keeps prisoners from hiding anything dangerous or illegal in their chin hair, and it helps the guards identify the inmates as they move about in the prison yard or working in the farm fields.  (A third rationale, put forward only briefly, is that “prisoners are capable of a lot of mischief.”)  But the more he talked, the more the skepticism spread across the bench.

Clearly, though, his worst moments came when Justice Alito quietly probed both of the primary arguments.

As to the contraband-hiding problem, Alito suggested that the prison guards could just hand an inmate a comb and have him run it through the beard, “to see if a SIM card — or a revolver — falls out.”  It produced a broad wave of laughter in the courtroom, at the quite ridiculous image of a gun being stashed in a half-inch beard.  (There were enough modernists in the audience to know that a SIM card is a tiny electronic chip that identifies the assigned user of a cellphone; cellphones are not allowed in Arkansas prisons.)

As to the altered-identify problem, Alito tried verbally to imagine how an inmate wishing to enter the wrong barracks after a work period outside would — while out in the field — produce a razor, shave the beard, switch photo ID cards with an inmate who looked like him beardless, and go into a barracks different from the one specified on that ID card.  That, too, was such a stretch that it taxed credulity.

Other Justices had also given Curran little peace, although the Court’s members did at times make some determined — and mostly frustrated — attempts to define a standard as to when courts should defer to prison officials’ judgment about what is required for prison safety, and a standard to determine when a restriction on religious practice among inmates would go too far.

October 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, October 03, 2014

Should advocates of federal criminal justice reform be rooting for Republicans to take control of Senate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the closing paragraphs of this new National Journal article. The article is headlined "How Republicans Stopped Being 'Tough on Crime': GOP lawmakers in Congress are moving toward prison reform. Is this the final frontier for bipartisanship?". Here are some extended excerpts from an article that reinforcement my sense that reform advocate might be wise to root for Republicans to have lots of success on Election Day next month:

[M]any Republicans in Congress are moving away from the tough-on-crime philosophy that dominated the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. At a time when people complain about historic levels of gridlock, there is more bipartisan support for reforming the criminal-justice system than there has been in the past four decades.

This newfound Republican support isn't just the product of tokenism. Among the members of Congress who have cosponsored legislation on this issue are Sens. Rand Paul, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Rob Portman, and Orrin Hatch, along with Reps. Raul Labrador, Paul Ryan, and Jason Chaffetz.

"This certainly is something that has gained momentum among many Republicans — not all," Lee told National Journal. "There's still a number of Republicans who don't agree with me on this, that this ought to be a priority. But I've been pleased by the number of Republicans who have joined me in this effort."

Of course, that doesn't mean the Republican colleagues always agree with each other. Grassley recently blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Lee and Sen. Dick Durbin. The bill would allow federal judges to use their discretion when sentencing some nonviolent drug offenders, instead of having to obey mandatory minimums. Grassley said the bill would "put taxpayers on the hook for close to $1 billion in entitlement spending." What Grassley didn't mention was that the bill would also lead to $4 billion in budget savings over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Levin, the Right on Crime founder, says the financial burdens imposed by the justice system — which often disproportionately targets minorities and hamstrings those not wealthy enough to afford their own attorney — should especially outrage conservatives. "Look, I'm a free-market guy, so I say the fact that rich people can get a better car, nicer jewelry, that's all well and good. But here we're talking about justice," Levin said. "Conservatives ought to be particularly receptive to these things, and I think they are, because at some point it just becomes like a tax."

But Lee emphasized that sentencing reform isn't just a fiscal issue for Republicans. "There's no question that reforming our sentencing system could save us money. I want to point out, though, that that is not our primary objective in this," Lee told National Journal. "An even more important objective involves not the financial costs, but the human costs."

That human cost is very real. The violent-crime rate is the lowest it's been in 20 years, yet there hasn't been a corresponding decrease in incarceration. Nearly a third of the world's female prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a parent in prison increased by 80 percent—so widespread that Sesame Street recently aired a segment dealing with the issue.

The prison population is the oldest it's ever been. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the prison population is over the age of 50. This raises the question: What is the advantage of the U.S. spending billions of dollars to house prisoners who may not present any real public danger?...

Criminal-justice reform has united other odd couples like [Senators Rand] Paul and [Cory] Booker. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill put forward by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island that would try to triage the likelihood that a prisoner would commit another crime, if released. The law would also give time credits to "low-risk" offenders and allow some to complete their prison sentences under "community supervision."

Cornyn said it's time to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to treating American prisoners. "When I went to law school, we'd learn in criminal law class that rehabilitation was always one of the goals of our criminal justice system. But honestly, in my lifetime, we've done a lousy job at rehabilitating people," Cornyn told National Journal. "Instead, they have taken an approach that's more like warehousing people."

Cornyn said he's confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Even Whitehouse — Cornyn's Democratic counterpart on this legislation — sees this as an upside to a possible Republican-controlled Congress. "Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It's just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators," Whitehouse told National Journal. "The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they're in control."

There you have it — prison reform, the final frontier of bipartisan legislation. But as Levin points out, there's just one last thing for Republicans and Democrats working on the issue to sort out: "The only disagreement sometimes is who's gonna get the credit."

A few recent and older related prior posts:

October 3, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

More proof of ________?: violent crime hits historic lows in crazy California

I have long thought sentencing fans and criminal-justice reformers should always pay special attention to happenings in California because the state so often seems like a model of every ugly facet dysfunctional sentencing law and politics.  The state's death penalty system has been more fiction than reality for decades as condemned killers stack up (and expire) on death row while almost nobody ever gets executed.  The state's criminal laws and sentencing structures have been subject to very little well-planned policy-mkaing in part because of the passage of many competing voter initiatives and elected officials often unable to champion sound reforms because of various cross-cutting political concerns.  And the state's corrections system has been beset with more constitutional issues and practical problems than one can name.

And yet, California must be doing something right: as this local article reports in its headline, in 2013 "California murder, violent crime rates hit 50-year low."  Here are the details, which prompts the "fill-in-the-blank" game appearing in the title of this post:

Californians today are less likely to be murdered or fall victim to violent crime than during any other time since the 1960s, according to new figures from the California Department of Justice.

The murder rate last year was 4.6 killings per 100,000 California residents, an 8 percent decline from 2012 and a 64 percent decline from 1993, when cities throughout the state struggled to stop gang killings.  The violent crime rate last year was 397 per 100,000 Californians, down 7 percent from 2012 and a 64 percent decline from 1992.

Experts have a variety of explanations for the decline, which is a long-term, nationwide trend.  Top theories include better policing methods that utilize data to pinpoint crime hotspots, harsher criminal sentences for repeat crime offenders and a sharp drop in gang warfare.

But the trend has also confounded many predictions. Some anticipated that California prison realignment would increase violent crime.  It hasn't.  Others decried the rise of violent video games and music, but those forms of entertainment have been around for decades now and crime continues to fall.  Others believed desperation from the Great Recession would increase crime.  It didn't.

Because I struggle to find any other especially good explanation for modern crime trends, I keep returning to the lead poisoning data and claims. (Notably and disappointingly, the lead-exposure-crime connection fails to get mentioned in most modern discussions of crime rates and yet that connection continues to explain modern crime trends as well (if not much better) than any other theory put forth by criminologists these days.)

Some recent related posts:

October 1, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Prison bankers cash in on captive customers: Inmates' families gouged by fees"

The title of this post is the headline of this one part of some impressive reporting about the economic realities facing prisoners and their families being done by the Center for Public Integrity and CNBC.  Here is an excerpt from this piece that provides a basic summary:

JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.

Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.

By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.

JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.

Here are links to additional related reporting as part of this project:

October 1, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Peculiar (judicial?) screed against evidence-based sentencing "fad" based on the "need to be realistic"?!!?

GalI have long been intrigued and generally impressed by the writings and work of Colorado state judge Morris Hoffman.  However, this new USA Today commentary by Judge Hoffman, headlined "Emptying prisons is no panacea: Deterring others matters as much as rehabilitation," has me scratching my head about what prompted a thoughtful judge to produce a peculiar screed against evidence-based sentencing.  At the risk of making this post much too long, I will reprint the whole commentary before explaining why it made my head hurt this morning:

Just days before Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation, the Department of Justice announced one of his signature achievements. After growing for decades, the federal prison population has started to decline.  The new data were greeted with wide acclaim, but before we embrace the idea that fewer prisoners is always good, let's step back and consider whether at least one of the drivers of our declining prison population is a good idea.

Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads.  Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s.  Teen courts and drug courts followed.  The new fad is "evidence-based sentencing."  It is both a refreshing attempt at rationality and a dangerous rejection of human nature.

Evidence-based sentencing purports to redirect judges' attention from old-fashioned retribution to enlightened deterrence and rehabilitation.  Judges across the country are attending innumerable evidence-based sentencing conferences that focus on how incarceration affects recidivism rates.  The claim is that incarceration costs much more than its deterrent benefits.  Judges should think twice before throwing away the key.

We don't need conferences to make that point.  One of the hidden truths of criminal justice is that most judges, including me, give criminals chance after chance before we sentence them to prison.  There are exceptions, such as serious violent crimes and drug crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences.  But, for the most part, defendants have to really work hard to land in prison.

We should applaud efforts to put data over gut instinct when trying to predict the future behaviors of our defendants.  But we also need to be realistic.  There's a reason science stinks at predicting individual behavior.  An almost infinite number of bits of data contribute to human decision-making, including the billions of base pairs in our DNA and a lifetime of brain-changing individual experiences, among other things.  Not to mention that unscientific interloper: free will.

There is a much more serious problem with evidence-based sentencing.  It ignores the most important reason we punish wrongdoers.  When I sentence a bank robber to prison, the idea is not just to deter him from robbing again ("specific deterrence").  I also want to deter other people who might be considering robbing a bank ("general deterrence").

General deterrence is what makes us a civilized society.  It is the glue that holds us together under the rule of law.  It is so deeply engrained, every human society that has left a record shows evidence it punished its wrongdoers.  Indeed, our tendency to punish wrongdoers is most likely an evolved trait, which we needed in order to keep our intensely social small groups from unravelling in selfishness.  By focusing on specific deterrence, evidence-based sentencing mavens ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution.

They seem to recognize this failing, but only half-heartedly.  They tend to downplay crimes such as rape and murder to focus on low-harm crimes.  But burglary and theft tear the social fabric more broadly simply because they are more frequent.  Indeed, low-harm crimes are often crimes of cold economic predation rather than hot emotion.  For them, deterrence can be more effective.  Giving thieves and burglars a stern lecture and probation, just because some social scientists tell us prison doesn't rehabilitate them, is a surefire way to increase thefts and burglaries.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in civilized societies owe that civilization to the rule of law, which means nothing without the bite of punishment.  Punishment must be merciful, but it should not be abandoned to misguided claims that it does not deter.

Candidly, this commentary has so many disconnected and illogical assertions, I have too many criticisms to fit into this blog space. But I can start by highlighting how curious it is that the AG's discussion of the reduction in the federal prison population, brought about largely through changes in federal drug sentencing policies and practices, leads to a state judge worrying we risk not punishing "thieves and burglars" enough to achieve general deterrence.  Moreover, AG Holder was bragging last week that in recent years we have lowered prison populations AND lowered crime rates.  What evidence-based sentencing seeks to do is find ways to better achieve both specific and general deterrence without continue to rely so heavily on the very costly and too-often-ineffective punishment of imprisonment.

More fundamentally, what really troubled me about Judge Hoffman's analysis is his misguided and harmful perspectives (1) that focused attention to data and evidence about imprisonment's impact on crime is a "fad," and (2) that only lengthy terms of incarceration constitute "real" punishment that can deter.  On the first point, I wonder if Judge Hoffman urges his doctors not to be caught up in the "fad" of practicing "evidence-based" medicine.  After all, given that  "almost infinite number of bits of data contribute" to human health (not to mention that "unscientific interloper, free will"), perhaps Judge Hoffman encourages his doctors to be "realistic" that he is going to die eventually anyway.  Indeed, perhaps we ought to be suspect about all efforts to improve and extend human life by "evidence-based [medicine] mavens [who] ignore 5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" which shows we all end up dead anyway.

Truth be told, what is truly a "fad" in light of "5,000 years of civilized wisdom and 200,000 years of human evolution" is the extreme use of extreme terms of imprisonment that has come to define the modern American experience with punishment.  Brutal physical punishments and public shaming punishment have been the norm and the means use to deter crime in most other societies throughout human history (and in the US until fairly recently).  Moreover, all serious social and scientific research on human behavior has demonstrated that the swiftness and certainty of punishment, not its severity, is critical to achieving both specific and general deterrence.  That is one (of many) reasons evidence-based sentencing makes long-terms of imprisonment look a lot less effective, at least relative to its high costs, than various other possible punishments.

I could go on and on, but I will conclude by encouraging everyone to appreciate that evidence-based reforms in lots of settings often provoke these kinds of old-world reactions: typically, folks who benefit from or prefer an old-world "faithful" view about how they think the world works will be eager to question and seek to discredit reformers who suggest science and data provides a new perspective that requires significant reform and changes to the status quo.  And though I always hope to show respect for old-world "faithful" perspectives, I get worked up by attacks on evidence-based reforms because I am ultimately much more a creature of science than a creature of faith.

October 1, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Highlights from AG Holder's big speech today at the Brennan Center for Justice

As noted in this prior post and as detailed in this official Justice Department press release, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a big speech today in New York at the Brennan Center for Justice's conference on the topic of "Shifting Law Enforcement Goals to ​Reduce Mass Incarceration." Here are some highlights from a speech that all sentencing fans will want to read in full:

As you know, we gather this afternoon just over a year after the launch of the Justice Department’s Smart on Crime initiative — a series of important changes and commonsense reforms I set in motion last August.  Already, these changes are fundamentally shifting our response to certain crime challenges —particularly low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.  And this initiative is predicated on the notion that our work as prosecutors must be informed, and our criminal justice system continually improved, by the most effective and efficient strategies available.

After all — as I’ve often said — the United States will never be able to prosecute or incarcerate its way to becoming a safer nation.  We must never, and we will never, stop being vigilant against crime — and the conditions and choices that breed it.  But, for far too long — under well-intentioned policies designed to be “tough” on criminals — our system has perpetuated a destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped countless people and weakened entire communities — particularly communities of color....

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that this astonishing rise in incarceration — and the escalating costs it has imposed on our country, in terms both economic and human — have not measurably benefited our society.  We can all be proud of the progress that’s been made at reducing the crime rate over the past two decades — thanks to the tireless work of prosecutors and the bravery of law enforcement officials across America.  But statistics have shown — and all of us have seen — that high incarceration rates and longer-than-necessary prison terms have not played a significant role in materially improving public safety, reducing crime, or strengthening communities.

In fact, the opposite is often true.  Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that new analysis of crime data and incarceration rates — performed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and covering the period of 1994 to 2012 — shows that states with the most significant drops in crime also saw reductions in their prison populations.  States that took drastic steps to reduce their prison populations — in many cases by percentages well into the double digits — saw crime go down as well.  And the one state — West Virginia — with the greatest increase in its incarceration rate actually experienced an uptick in crime.

As the Post makes clear: “To the extent that there is any trend here, it’s actually that states incarcerating people have seen smaller decreases in crime.”  And this has been borne out at the national level, as well.  Since President Obama took office, both overall crime and overall incarceration have decreased by approximately 10 percent.  This is the first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And although we have a great deal of work to do — and although, last year, some states continued to record growth in their prison populations — this is a signal achievement....

Over the past year, the federal prison population declined by roughly 4,800 inmates — the first decrease we’ve seen in many ‎decades.  Even more promising are new internal projections from the Bureau of Prisons. In a dramatic reversal of prior reports — which showed that the prison population would continue to grow, becoming more and more costly, overcrowded, and unsafe — taking into account our new policies and trends, our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after.‎

This is nothing less than historic.  To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity.  Now, these projected decreases won’t result in any prison closures, because our system is operating at about 30 percent above capacity.  But my hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate as our Smart on Crime changes take full effect.

Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come.  And thanks to a robust and growing national consensus — a consensus driven not by political ideology, but by the promising work that’s underway, and the efforts of leaders like Senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul — we are bringing about a paradigm shift, and witnessing a historic sea change, in the way our nation approaches these issues. ...

The Smart on Crime initiative is in many ways the ultimate expression of my trust in the abilities — and the judgment — of our attorneys on the front lines.  And although some have suggested that recent changes in charging and sentencing policies might somehow undermine their ability to induce cooperation from defendants in certain cases, today, I want to make it abundantly clear that nothing could be further from the truth.

As I know from experience — and as all veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys surely recognize — defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the length of a mandatory minimum sentence.  Like anyone old enough to remember the era before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took full effect, I can testify to the fact that federal guidelines attempted to systematize the kinds of negotiations that were naturally taking place anyway.  As our U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John Vaudreuil, often reminds his colleagues, even without the threat of mandatory minimums, it remains in the interests of all attorneys to serve as sound advocates for their clients — and for defendants to cooperate with the government in exchange for reduced sentences.

Far from impeding the work of our prosecutors, the sentencing reforms I’ve mandated have strengthened their discretion.  The contention that cooperation is somehow dependent on mandatory minimums is tied to a past at tension with the empirical present, and is plainly inconsistent with history, and with now known facts.  After all, as the Heritage Foundation observed earlier this year: “[t]he rate of cooperation in cases involving mandatory minimums is comparable to the average rate in all federal cases.”

Of course, as we refine our approach and reject the ineffective practice of calling for stringent sentences against those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes, we also need to refine the metrics we use to measure success; to evaluate the steps we’re taking; and to assess the effectiveness of new criminal justice priorities.  In the Smart on Crime era, it’s no longer adequate — or appropriate — to rely on outdated models that prize only enforcement, as quantified by numbers of prosecutions, convictions, and lengthy sentences, rather than taking a holistic view.  As the Brennan Center and many others have recognized — and as your landmark report on Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century makes crystal clear — it’s time to shift away from old metrics and embrace a more contemporary, and more comprehensive, view of what constitutes success....

Your concrete recommendations — that federal prosecutors should prioritize reducing violence, incarceration, and recidivism — are consistent with the aims of the Smart on Crime initiative.  The new metrics you propose — such as evaluating progress by assessing changes in local violent crime rates, numbers of federal prisoners initially found in particular districts, and changes in the three-year recidivism rate — lay out a promising roadmap for us to consider.  And my pledge to you today is that my colleagues and I will not merely carefully study this critical report — we will use it as a basis for discussion, and a vital resource to draw upon, as we engage in a far-reaching process to develop and codify new success measures — with the aim of cementing recent shifts in law and policy.

One of the key points underscored by your report — and emphasized under the Smart on Crime approach — is the need for the Justice Department to direct funding to help move the criminal justice field toward a fuller embrace of science and data. This is something that we — and especially our Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Assistance  — have taken very seriously throughout the Obama Administration.  And nowhere are these ideals more fully embodied — or more promisingly realized — than in our Justice Reinvestment Act and Second Chance Act programs....

Thanks to bipartisan support from Congress, funding for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative has more than quadrupled this year.  That, on its own, is an extraordinary indication of the power and importance of this work.  And this additional funding is allowing us to launch a new challenge grant program — designed to incentivize states to take the next major step in their reform efforts.

Today, I am pleased to announce that five states — Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Oregon — will be receiving these grants, which can be used to expand pre-trial reforms, to scale up swift and certain sanctions, to institute evidence-based parole practices, or a number of other options.  I am also pleased to announce that five states have been selected to receive new funding under the Second Chance Act to help reduce recidivism. Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Vermont will each be awarded $1 million to meet their recidivism reduction goals.  And each will be eligible for an additional $2 million over the next two years if they do so.

September 23, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Under Pressure: The Hazards of Maintaining Innocence after Conviction"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new piece authored by Daniel Medwed and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Innocent people convicted of child abuse or sexual offenses face a classic “Catch-22” situation that has ramifications on their prospects for parole and for exoneration in court. If prisoners continue to maintain their innocence while imprisoned, then corrections officials may interpret this behaviour as demonstrating a key trait of sex offenders — “denial” — and make them ineligible for treatment programs that are a prerequisite for parole in many jurisdictions. Even if they are technically eligible to apply for parole, inmates who claim innocence before parole boards harm their chances for release based on the belief that those unable to admit guilt are likely to re-offend; they are perceived as lacking in remorse and failing to address their offending behaviour.

Prisoners who pursue their innocence through post-conviction litigation also face an uphill climb. This is attributable in part to cognitive biases that affect how prosecutors treat innocence claims in the aftermath of conviction and all too often lead them to discount their potential legitimacy. Considering the hazards that inmates encounter in maintaining their innocence in parole and post-conviction litigation settings, there is reason to think that many of them are not in denial, but rather the victims of profound miscarriages of justice. This Book Chapter will explore this conundrum in these two settings before concluding with some thoughts on reform.

September 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Despite the threat of another Plata, a number of states' prisons remain way over capacity

I expected that one consequence of the Supreme Court's affirmance of the prisoner release order for California in Plata would be that other states would work even harder than usual to keep their prison overcrowding in check so as not to risk Plata-like litigation in their states.  But, as this new Washington Post piece highlights, there are still a significant number of states that are still dealing with significant prison overcrowding problems (though Plata still seems on their minds).  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Prisons in these 17 states are over capacity":

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has exploded over the last three decades, to the point that nearly one in every 200 people is behind bars. And though the rate of growth has slowed, and even declined over the last five years, the tough-on-crime policies and longer sentences that have sent prison rates skyward present a huge problem for states: Where do they put all those people?

That problem is especially acute in 17 states where the prison population is now higher than the capacity of the facilities designed to hold them. Those states, still recovering from a recession that decimated budgets, have to decide whether to build facilities with more beds, turn to private contractors, relax release policies — or simply stuff more prisoners into smaller spaces.

At the end of 2013, Illinois was housing 48,653 prisoners, according to data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The state’s prison facilities are designed to hold just 32,075 prisoners, meaning the system is operating at 151 percent of capacity. North Dakota’s 1,571 prisoners live in space meant for 1,044 people, 150 percent of capacity. Nebraska, Ohio, Delaware, Colorado, Iowa and Hawaii are all holding a prison population equal to more than 110 percent of capacity.

What scares states the most is the prospect of federal courts intervening and ordering new action. California has been under court order since 2009 to reduce its prison population, which is far beyond capacity. The state has spent billions housing inmates in county jails or sending them to facilities run by private for-profit companies.

“No state actively wants the federal courts to come in and take over operation of their state government functions,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The possibility of federal court intervention has spurred Alabama to begin reviewing its corrections procedures. A Justice Department investigation released in January found conditions at the state’s women’s prison violate the Constitution, and DOJ said it would look into conditions at other state prison facilities.

In June, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) launched the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to study the state’s criminal justice system and make recommendations for easing overcrowding. The state’s prison facilities are designed to house 13,318 inmates, though operationally the facilities can hold 26,145 people. The current prisoner population, 26,271 inmates, is 197 percent of the lowest possible capacity and 100.5 percent of the highest number.

Court intervention “has been a powerful motivator over the last couple of years for Alabama to tackle its situation, independent of all the in-state concerns with overcrowding,” Gelb said.

September 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Many commentators argue that the War on Drugs has played a major role in the four-decade long explosion in US incarceration rates, but in this paper I demonstrate that these claims do not generally rest on sound empirical footing.  The direct incarceration of drug offenders explains only about 20% of prison growth (compared to over 50% for violent offenders), and drug convictions do not appear to drive parole revocations nor act as prior felonies that trigger harsh repeat offender laws for subsequent non-drug offending. Furthermore, drug offenders also appear to comprise only about 20% of those flowing through prison, which could be a more accurate measure of the War on Drugs' impact, since drug offenders generally serve disproportionately short sentences and thus may be under-represented in the one-day prison counts that are standard metric of prison's scope.

That said, the War on Drugs could still matter, but in more indirect -- and much harder to measure -- ways.  Drug enforcement could contribute to overall social instability in high-crime, high-enforcement communities, or at least to the perception of instability, in ways that may trigger more enforcement by police and prosecutors, even if crime rates are relatively low and falling.  Furthermore, while prior drug offenses do not appear to trigger formal recidivist statutes, they may alter prosecutorial charging decisions for later non-drug offenses, but prosecutorial charging behavior is currently impossible to measure with existing data.

Finally, even though the War on Drugs has played only a secondary role in prison growth, there are over 200,000 people in state prison every day on drug charges, and states appear eager to reduce the scope of drug-related incarcerations.  So I conclude by considering some of the options available to states.  I point out that the leading contenders -- decriminalization and sentence reduction -- will likely have little effect, since few offenders are in prison on marijuana charges (the only drug for which decriminalization is currently feasible), and all drug offenders serve relatively short sentences, well below the statutory maximums.  I then consider broader options, such as proposals that target the financial incentives prosecutors have to send offenders, including drug offenders, to prison.  I also touch on the implications of adopting broader definitions of "drug offenders," such as those who commit violent or property crimes either to support drug habits or in the course of selling drugs.

September 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Long-incarcerated mass murderer given right to end his life in Belgium

A helpful reader alerted me to this fascinating article from overseas headlined "Serial murderer and rapist, 50, given right to die under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws." Here are excerpts:

A serial murderer and rapist has been given the right to end his life under controversial Belgian euthanasia laws, it has emerged.  Frank Van Den Bleeken, 50, has been behind bars for 30 years and has no hope of release because of his intensely violent urges.  Now judges in Brussels have agreed that Van Den Bleeken can commit suicide with the help of medics.

Jos Vander Velpen, the prisoner’s lawyer, said: ‘Over recent years, he has been seen by several doctors and psychologists and their conclusion is that he is suffering, and suffering unbearably.’

It will be the first time that a Belgian legal ruling about euthanasia which specifically applies to a serving prisoner has been handed down.  It was rubber stamped by the country’s Justice Ministry, which is ultimately responsible for everyone serving time in jail.

In all cases, patients must be conscious and have presented a ‘voluntary, considered and repeated’ request to die.  Mr Vander Velpen said his client met all such conditions, and for the past four years had felt he ‘couldn’t stand to live like this any longer and could no longer accept the pain’.

Van Den Bleeken will be transferred from his prison in Bruges to a hospital, where he will be euthanised.  Like every other country in the Union, Belgium does not have a death penalty, and technically doctors will only be helping Van Den Bleeken die.

Van Den Bleeken himself said in recent TV documentary: ‘If people commit a sexual crime, help them to deal with it.  Just locking them up helps no one — neither the individual, society or the victims.  ‘I am a human being, and regardless of what I’ve done, I remain a human being.  So, yes, give me euthanasia.’

Despite being a mainly Roman Catholic country, Belgium has always been at the forefront of liberalising euthanasia laws.  It made euthanasia legal in 2002, making it only the second country in the world to do so after Holland.  Last year alone, Belgium euthanised a record 1,807 people.

Van Den Bleeken has only left prison once in the past three decades — to attend his mother’s funeral.  A Belgian justice ministry spokesman said Van Den Bleeken would be euthanised ‘shortly’ at this own request.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision to grant Van Den Bleeken a right to die, as evidenced by this companion commentary piece headlined "Why should our sister's killer be allowed to die with dignity when our suffering goes on?". Here is an excerpt of that piece providing some more context:

Van Den Bleeken is the first serving prisoner to be granted the right to die because of psychological torment. Another Belgian inmate was euthanised last year but he suffered from an incurable physical illness. But, as a direct result of the ruling, 15 other Belgian prisoners have already applied for euthanasia, even though the death penalty was abolished in 1996.

The case has renewed controversy about state-sanctioned suicide and raised serious ethical concerns. But it also calls into question the very nature of punishment and whether murderers and rapists should “suffer” for their heinous crimes or get treatment and rehabilitation.

Medics warn that euthanasia must not become an alternative to treatment while prison reformers insist it must not become a back-door return to the death penalty.

The country’s leading euthanasia advocate is also opposed to Van Den Bleeken’s death. Professor Wim Distelmans, chairman of the Belgian Board of Control for Euthanasia ... said: “It is wrong to allow him to end his life like this.” But Nikhil Roy, Director of Programmes at Penal Reform International, said: “While people are in prison it is the responsibility of the prison authorities to provide adequate care and opportunities for rehabilitation. This case highlights the lack of adequate therapy for prisoners and the fact that mental health issues are widespread in prisons around the world.”

September 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding an age-based silver lining — or lead lining — in latest BJS prison data

Regular readers know I am very intrigued by the (often overlooked) social science research that suggests lead exposure levels better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable.  Consequently, I am happy an eager to note this new data and analysis sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-violent-crime link for many years. 

This short new piece by Nevin, titled "Prisoners in 2013: The News Media Buries the Lead," responds to yesterday's report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that the US prison population increased in 2013 for first time since 2009. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's interesting and encouraging age-based data discussion (with bolding in original and a recommendation to click through here to see charts and all the links):

The news media is reporting on U.S. incarceration data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), but the media and BJS have ignored the important news: From 2012 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell 21% for men ages 18-19, 6% for ages 20-24, and 5% for ages 25-29, but increased by 5% for ages 50-54, 7% for ages 55–59, and 8% for ages 60–64.

BJS Prisoner Series data show an ongoing incarceration rate decline for younger males and an increase for older males that has been ignored by the media for more than a decade.  From 2002 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell by 61% for men ages 18-19, 34% for ages 20-24, and 25% for ages 25-29, but increased by 30% for ages 40-44.

BJS data for older age groups, reported since 2007, show the same trend through the age of 64. From 2007 to 2013, the male incarceration rate fell 37% for ages 18-19, 28% for ages 20-24, 14% for ages 25-29, and 7% for ages 30-44, as the male incarceration rate increased 22% for ages 45-49, 50% for ages 50–54, and 57% for ages 55–64.  In 2007, men ages 18-19 were twice as likely to be incarcerated as men ages 60-64.  In 2013, men ages 60-64 were almost 20% more likely to be incarcerated than men ages 18-19.

The BJS Prisoners in 2013 report ignores the detailed data on trends in male incarceration rates by age, and highlights an increase in the total prison population of about 4,300 from 2012 to 2013, but notes that the overall incarceration rate (per 100,000 U.S. residents) did fall from 480 in 2012 to 478 in 2013....

The actual BJS data show a long-term trend of falling incarceration rates for younger men that has continued from 2002 through 2013. That decline was the inevitable result of a shift in violent crime arrest rates by age since the 1990s. From 1994 through 2011, the violent crime arrest rate fell by 64% for ages 13-14, 61% t0 52% for ages 15-18, 44% to 39% for ages 19-21, 37% for ages 22-39, and 19% for ages 40-44, as the violent crime arrest rate increased by 6% for ages 45-49, and 13% for ages 50-54.

What is the causal force behind the shift in age-specific violent crime arrest rates and incarceration rates?  The Answer is Lead Poisoning.

Some recent related posts:

September 17, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

After a few modest yearly declines, state prison population ticks up in 2013 according to new BJS data

As reported in this New York Times piece, headlined "Number of Prisoners in U.S. Grew Slightly in 2013, Report Finds," a small streak of yearly declines in state prison populations came to a halt in 2013. Here are the details:

Breaking three consecutive years of decline, the number of people in state and federal prisons climbed slightly in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday, a sign that deeper changes in sentencing practices will be necessary if the country’s enormous prison population is to be significantly reduced.

The report by the Justice Department put the prison population last year at 1,574,700, an increase of 4,300 over the previous year, yet below its high of 1,615,487 in 2009. In what criminologists called an encouraging sign, the number of federal prisoners showed a modest drop for the first time in years.

But the federal decline was more than offset by a jump in the number of inmates at state prisons. The report, some experts said, suggested that policy changes adopted by many states, such as giving second chances to probationers and helping nonviolent drug offenders avoid prison, were limited in their reach....

Across the country, drug courts sending addicts to treatment programs rather than jail have proved valuable but are directed mainly at offenders who would not have served much prison time anyway, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group in Washington. At the same time, Mr. Mauer said, more life sentences and other multidecade terms have been imposed than ever, offsetting modest gains in the treatment of low-level offenders.

“Just to halt the year-after-year increase in prisoners since the 1970s was an achievement,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and that shift came about because of changes in state policies and a drop in crime.

But experts say it will take more far-reaching and politically contentious measures to markedly reduce the country’s rate of incarceration, which is far above that in European nations and has imposed especially great burdens on African-Americans. Mandatory sentences and so-called truth-in-sentencing laws that limit parole have not only put more convicts in costly prison cells for longer stretches but have also reduced the discretion of officials to release them on parole....

The size of the federal prison population is closely tied to federal drug laws and penalties. A majority of the 215,866 offenders in federal prisons in 2013 were there on drug charges, often serving lengthy sentences under get-tough policies that have increasingly come under question. Recent changes in federal drug enforcement — a 2010 law to reduce disparities in sentences for crimes involving crack as opposed to powdered cocaine, and a directive from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling for less stringent charges against nonviolent offenders — are too new to have had a large impact in 2013.

The full BJS report, titled excitingly "Prisoners in 2013," is available at this link. I need to grind over the data in the full report before commenting on what this notable new report tells us about the state and direction of modern mass incarceration.

September 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, September 15, 2014

Encouragingly, private prison company CCA turning focus to reducing recidivism

NA-CC714_PRISON_D_20140912165107This recent Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Prison Firm CCA Seeks to Reduce Number of Repeat Offenders: Company Pushes to Reduce Costs Associated with Recidivism," reports on a private industry's latest encouraging response to the latest market realities in corrections. Here are the details:

The nation's largest private prison company is shifting its focus toward helping release more inmates and keep them out — a reaction, company officials say, to changing policies around the country on the severity of criminal punishment.

After three decades of surging prison populations, the number of people behind bars is starting to decline, albeit slowly. There were more than 2 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and jails in 2012, the last year for which the Justice Department has published data. That year saw prisons and jails release 27,500 more inmates than they took in, marking the fourth year of a declining prisoner population.

Yet repeat offenders remain a costly headwind. A Justice Department study of data from 2005 to 2010 in 30 states found that three out of four released prisoners will be rearrested within five years of their release. Getting a high-school equivalency degree while in prison, however, can greatly reduce the chances of being rearrested, studies show. A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. think tank concluded that spending $140,000 to $174,000 on education programs for a hypothetical group of 100 inmates would save as much as $1 million in re-incarceration costs over a three-year period.

Damon Hininger, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America, said in an interview that government clients are increasingly concerned about the long-term costs of housing inmates and are pushing CCA and other private operators to save them money by reducing recidivism, the number of inmates who are released only to do a repeat turn in prison.

He plans to expand the company's prison rehabilitation programs, drug counseling and its prisoner re-entry work in cities around the country. It's a significant shift for CCA, which has built a profitable business from incarcerating people—nearly 70,000 inmates are currently housed in more than 60 facilities. The company is the fifth-largest correction system in the country, after only the federal government and the states of California, Florida and Texas.

"This is a watershed moment for our company and we hope it will be for our entire industry," Mr. Hininger said. "We are determined to prove that we can play a leadership role in reducing recidivism and that we have every incentive to do so. The interests of government, taxpayers, shareholders, and communities are aligned. We all just need to recognize that and commit to that."...

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, has doubts about the company's new initiative. "It must be a challenge for CCA to implement programs that could reduce recidivism when that runs counter to the private prison model itself," she said. "We can only hope that CCA's interest in such programs indicate a shift away from its previous stance that 'reductions in crime rates' are a 'risk factor' for business and toward a completely new business model that does not rely on ever-growing mass incarceration."

Over the past two decades, government agencies have gravitated toward contracting with CCA or other private prison firms, often with a goal of saving money on the daily cost of housing inmates. In recent years, however, company officials are increasingly being asked by governments to cut down the cost of repeat offenders, Mr. Hininger said. Mr. Hininger compared the cost of recidivism on government budgets to the cost of long-term pension obligations and health-care coverage — issues that elected officials hadn't often thought of when drafting year-to-year budgets in the past but are now of increasing concern in more state capitals....

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which contracts with CCA at some facilities, said the state began a push to expand rehabilitation and re-entry programs, which led to a drop in its recidivism rate from 25.3% to 22.6% over a three-year period. "Those are real numbers and real savings because less people are coming back into the prison system," Mr. Clark said. "We believe that continuing to invest in diversion and treatment initiatives is the best strategy to maintain a stable and successful criminal-justice system."

In a speech broadcast to CCA's roughly 15,000 employees, Mr. Hininger said the company plans to expand its postprison work around the country, noting that currently much re-entry work is done by small businesses and nonprofit groups that lack CCA's ability to scale up such work in larger facilities in many cities. He declined to say which cities. "What we've seen as we've looked around the U.S., it is a little fragmented, as smaller operators providing these solutions," Mr. Hininger said in the interview. "We see an opportunity to provide some consistency and expertise."

Mr. Hininger emphasized rehabilitation has always been part of CCA's work, but said that going forward it would be part of each employee's job description. He said that from the first day a prisoner arrives, that prisoner should be evaluated and steered toward effective rehabilitation programs.

Stories like this partially account for why I tend to be more hopeful than most other reform advocates concerning the role that private industry might play in improving the state of incarceration nation. Though I worry about how a profit motive can and will skew priorities and incentives in corrections, modern mass incarceration is the product of government agents playing politics much more so that the product of private actors pursuing profits. Consequently, I am eager to be open-minded about the potential for private players to improve the status quo, even while so many others claim that private prisons are sure to make bad matters worse.

September 15, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Urban Institute report spotlights "graying" of federal prisoners

Urbanheader09I just learned of this notable new report authored by KiDeuk Kim and Bryce Peterson at the Urban Institute titled "Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System." Here are excerpts from the the report's executive summary:

Over the past few decades, federal and state prison populations have increased dramatically.  Accompanying this growth is a demographic shift to older prison populations. Older prisoners require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age-related disabilities.  They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.  However, relatively little is known about the implications of aging prisoners. This report aims to address this knowledge gap by presenting an in-depth examination of the growth patterns in the largest correctional system in the United States — the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The highlights of this report include the following:

  • The aging of the BOP population has accelerated since the early 2000s.
  • The growth rate of older prisoners varies across offense type, gender, and race....
  • Over the next five years, the proportion of those age 50 and older, especially those  age 65 and older, is projected to increase at a considerably fast rate.
    • There were slightly over 5,000 prisoners age 65 and older in FY 2011 (approximately 3 percent of the BOP population), and the number of those prisoners is projected to triple by FY 2019.
    • By these projections, prisoners age 50 and older could make up nearly 28 percent of the BOP population by FY 2019 — approximately a 10 percentage point increase from FY 2011....

The aging of the BOP population has already begun, driven in part by punitive sentencing practices and in part by the aging of society in general. It is complicated by other individual factors of aging prisoners such as gender and race. However, it is unclear how these demographic shifts, which could have serious fiscal and health care implications for the BOP population, are reflected in BOP’s current practice and policy regarding the treatment and management of aging prisoners. There is little empirical knowledge to inform current practice or policy regarding the growing population of aging prisoners....

Raising awareness of the needs of aging prisoners and equipping BOP with policy options to address such needs may not closely conform to some of the fundamental principles of punishment, such as retribution. However, it is important to recognize that poor management of prison systems can affect the rest of the criminal justice system, responsible for ensuring public safety, and potentially lead to a violation of prisoners’ constitutional or statutory rights. These concerns are increasingly more relevant and should be balanced with the question of how well our prison system serves the principles of punishment.

The number of older prisoners is growing fast but is still relatively small, which may create the misconception that policy options for better managing older prisoners would not alleviate the current fiscal burden of the prison system to any substantial extent. However, as presented in this report, the population of older prisoners has grown markedly in recent years and is projected to have a steeper growth curve in the near future. The cost-effective management of this aging population will be of significant consequence to the BOP budget, and our recommendations for policy and research can be a starting point for addressing the costly demographic shift in the BOP population.

September 12, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Might all video visitation companies be eager to have prisons and jail prohibition in-person visitation?

Video_visits_drawingRegular readers know I believe modern technologies can and should be used as much as possible to improve the functioning and efficacy of modern crimnal justice systems.  Consequently, I tend to be a supporter of expanded use of video technologies in criminal corrections.  But this notable local story from Dallas, headlined "In-person jail visits to continue after Dallas County rejects videoconferencing idea," makes me more than a little uncomfortable about the economics behind some corrections technology and prompts the question in the title of this post.  Here are excerpts from this interesting local story:  

Face-to-face visits will continue at the Dallas County Jail after county commissioners threw out a proposed contract with a videoconferencing company that would have banned them.

The company, Securus Technologies, was seeking a contract to provide video visitations at the jail. Commissioners said they were still interested in the service, but not at the cost of stopping in-person visits.

The ban on face-to-face visits appeared to be a way for the company, which is based in North Texas, to recoup its expenses for installing the video-visitation system. The company was going to spend around $5 million to set up the technology. It would then charge $10 for each 20-minute video chat. Dallas County would have received up to a 25 percent commission on those calls.

Prohibiting in-person visits almost surely would have increased the number of video chats, which in turn would boost revenues for Securus — and for the county. But when details of the contract were made public last week, County Judge Clay Jenkins led a last-ditch effort to reject it. Backed by inmates’ rights advocates, Jenkins said the contract made video visits too costly.

“It is a way to make money … off the backs of families,” he said. He also said eliminating in-person visits would be inhumane.

Commissioners were flooded with emails opposing the contract. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Commissioners Court, 17 people showed up to speak out against the plan. They included a man convicted of a murder for which he was later exonerated and a former state legislator, Terri Hodge, who spent time in federal prison for tax evasion. After more than two hours of discussion, the court voted to pull the item from its agenda. The staff was instructed to seek a new contract under different terms. Those new terms are to include the continuation of in-person visits and elimination of the county’s commission on video visits....

Dallas County has been exploring video visitation for years. It’s been portrayed as an additional option for inmates’ friends and families who can’t or won’t trek downtown to the jail. But county staff acknowledged that the technology is also intended to save money. Managing visitors and moving inmates to visitation areas takes significant staff time, they said.

Commissioner Mike Cantrell said he thought the per-minute cost of the video chats was fair. He said the county spends about $107 million a year to run the jail and brings in about $10.8 million in bond forfeitures, fines and other assessments on inmates. But the commissioners were unanimous in not wanting to eliminate in-person visits. That was also the main concern of the plan’s opponents who spoke at the meeting, including several defense attorneys....

Richard Miles, who spent nearly 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, said visits from loved ones are vital to the well-being and rehabilitation of inmates. “My father died while I was in prison,” he said. “What did I hold on to? My visits.”

Some prior related posts:

September 10, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"

CA6K4VHLThe question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU.  An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront."  And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:

Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime?  Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.

  And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by  Vanita Gupta: 

Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.

The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....

While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.

We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.

Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.

The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.

But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.

According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.

The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.

As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.

September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack