Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Might Pope Francis shame Prez Obama into doing more about mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is a bit of a riff off of this notable new commentary from Philadelphia magazine, headlined "Will the Pope Shame City Hall Into Fixing Its Atrocious Prison Problem?".  Here are excerpts:

The Cool Pope is visiting Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his trip to the city this fall, the Vatican announced Tuesday.  

When Pope Francis tours the jail, he’ll find a prison system that has been sued over its crammed conditions almost non-stop for the past 45 years.  In fact, a judge ordered the city to build CFCF in the nineties in order to alleviate overcrowding.  Today, the city's prison system houses nearly 8,200 inmates — about 1,700 more than it was built to hold. At CFCF, 400 to 500 prisoners live in "triple cells," which are jam-packed, three-man cells that are intended to hold only one or two people.  

Will city officials allow the Pope to see the prison's lackluster conditions?  Will he pop into a triple cell?  Or will his impending visit pressure the city to finally get its stuffed jails under control?

We asked Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, if there are plans to change the setup of CFCF or move inmates to other jails in the city's system during the Pope's visit.  "There are no plans to change the 'setup' at the prison.  The Pope will see the facility as it is.  He will visit with a group of inmates and also speak to a group of staffers," he said, adding, "No, inmates will not be moved from CFCF."

There's a good chance that this might light a fire under the city to cut down on the prison population, though.  Throughout Nutter's tenure, the city has taken several steps to reduce the number of inmates in the city's jails — and, at times, has been very successful.  In early 2011, the prison system's population fell to 7,700, a recent low. Still, it has never reached that magic number — 6,500, which is the maximum number of inmates that the system was constructed to hold — under Nutter.

The prison population has often fallen under Nutter shortly after the city has been sued due to overcrowding.  Likewise, it has risen after such lawsuits were put on hold.... Won't the upcoming visit by Pope Francis — and all of the international media attention that will come with it — give the city an even bigger incentive to cut down on overcrowding?...

It's also noteworthy that Pope Francis is touring CFCF, which opened in 1995 and is one of the city's newest prison facilities, as opposed to, say, the House of Correction, which is nearly 150 years old and lacks air conditioning.

My post title and question is actually prompted by the fact that I could not remember the last time Prez Obama (or, for that matter, any sitting or former Prez) ever visited a US prison.  Notably, as this article reports, Prez Obama did visit in 2013 the South African prison cell which long housed Nelson Mandela. 

As a general matter, I wonder if any Presidential historians can help me figure out if or how many sitting or former Presidents have ever made an official visit to a US prison or jail facility.  In the meantime, I will here call it notable and telling, and ultimately shameful, that modern mass incarceration in the United States apparently is more of a Papal than a Presidential concern.

June 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Virginia Gov creates commission to study bringing back parole in state sentencing scheme

DownloadI have long thought and feared that the broad move in the 1980s and 1990s to abolish parole in the federal sentencing system and in many state systems was a significant (and rarely recognized) contributor to modern mass incarceration problems.  Consequently, I am intrigued and pleased to see this recent press report headlined "McAuliffe creates commission to study bringing parole back to Virginia." Here are the details of what is afoot in Virginia, as well as some highlights of the enduring political issues and debates that surround parole abolition and reforms:

Gov. Terry McAuliffe will create a commission to study reinstating parole in Virginia, two decades after it was abolished by then-Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.... McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations.

“It’s time to review whether that makes sense. Is it keeping our citizens safe? Is it a reasonable, good, cost-effective way? Are we rehabilitating folks?” he said. “Are sentences too long for nonviolent offenses? Are we keeping people in prison too long?”

The move is consistent with McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to thousands of former prisoners and remove from state job applications questions about criminal records, known as the ‘ban the box’ campaign. It also comes at a time when the country is redefining the way it enforces its laws, and sometimes questioning the strict policing and corrections strategies of the 1990s....

Carl Wicklund, the executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said research suggests that the laws of the 1990s were not necessarily effective, and politicians from both parties are embracing change. Parole gives inmates motivation to better themselves in hopes they could be let out early, he said. “People are starting to look at that, how do you incentivize people when they’re in prison to actually start to get their act together?” Wicklund said.

But others say that crime declined in Virginia in the two decades since parole was abolished and that the prisons are not overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders. “I want to ask them which murderer, rapist or armed robber they want to get out of jail,” said former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), a lawyer in private practice who was Allen’s secretary of public safety. “Under the old system, murderers were serving a fourth to a third of their time.”

C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a former prosecutor, said Virginia tends to lock up what he called “the right people”: violent offenders, repeat offenders, chronic probation violators and drug dealers. “Why the governor would want to tinker with undoing a good thing is beyond me,” he said. “It’s pure politics. I’m sure he’s getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the base of his party to tear down the criminal justice system. Criminal apologists would love nothing more than to have no one serve any time for practically anything.”

In the interview with WTOP (103.5 FM), McAuliffe said it is his job to protect citizens, but also safeguard taxpayer dollars. The state houses 30,369 inmates at a cost of $27,462 per year per inmate and a total of $833 million annually, he said. Inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released for good behavior. “The question now, 20 years later, is has it made us safer or have we spent a lot of money and we haven’t done what we need to do for rehabilitation?” he said.

Former Virginia attorney general Mark L. Earley Sr. — a Republican whom Allen once portrayed as an ally in abolishing parole — will chair the commission with McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, and his secretary of the commonwealth, Levar Stoney. The Commission on Parole Review must complete a final report by Dec. 4. “I want everybody just to relax here. We’re not saying let everybody out. We’re not doing that. We’re going to do a comprehensive study,” McAuliffe said.

The effects of parole abolition were also the subject of a study by the Senate Finance Committee released in November, which deemed the policy change a success. “Virginia has the third-lowest rate of violent crime and the second-lowest recidivism in the nation,” the 74-page report concluded. “Sentencing reform is working as intended.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is little evidence that parole abolition has made Virginians safer. In fact, the state’s incarceration rate has increased and crime rate has declined at a slower rate than states that have reduced their incarceration levels, the group said. “By removing the opportunity for parole, the commonwealth has also compounded the disproportionate impact that our criminal justice system has on people of color,” said ACLU executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

Democrats generally praised McAuliffe for revisiting the policy. “It’s an issue of public safety and our commitment to rehabilitation, are we actually doing that in Virginia?” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus. Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the commission could recommend relaxing parole for some offenders, but not others. “I don’t believe the governor has any interest in encouraging any policy that’s going to release hardened criminals in advance of their sentence being served,” he said.

But Republicans denounced any effort to roll back one of the landmark reforms of Allen’s governorship. Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor who is planning to run for attorney general in 2017, said changing the state’s policy “would be an enormous step back for public safety in Virginia” and would create a “backdoor out of prison” after jurors, detectives and victims have left the courtroom.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he agreed that the current system has served the commonwealth well and has become a national model. “While there are always improvements to be made, the notion that Virginia needs wholesale criminal justice reform seems to be more about politics than policy,” he said.

Parole abolition was popular in Virginia when Allen pushed for it, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who worked on Allen’s 1993 campaign. Allen won the governor’s office that year by an 18-point margin on the promise to abolish parole, and the General Assembly, then controlled by Democrats, passed it his first year in office, he said. “When Allen abolished parole in 1994, it was for violent offenders,” LaCivita said. “And the primary reason was because so many of those who were convicted of violent crimes were only serving a part of their sentence.”

As of 2000, 16 states had done away with discretionary release on parole, and four other states had gotten rid of the practice for certain crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts said few, if any, states seem to have reversed course. If Virginia were to do so completely, it might be the first, said Keith Hardison, the chief administrative officer of Association of Paroling Authorities International, which represents parole board staffers. “It’s not unexpected, because it seems like a logical extension of some of the changing, perhaps backing off somewhat of the ‘get tough’ era, and the ‘nothing works’ era,” he said.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) said it “makes abundant sense” to revisit the policy but noted that she did not feel abolishing parole was a mistake. Crime has dwindled in Virginia since parole was abolished, and while she said there might not be a causation, it was a factor to be considered. “It’s a function of a lot of things, but clearly, the bad folks who are in for a long time . . . for the time that they’re in for, they’re not committing crimes on the street,” she said. Stamos noted that no matter what the commission finds, it would be up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore parole — an unlikely outcome.

June 30, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Might prisons struggle with new SCOTUS jurisprudence on fundamental right to marry?

Gay Prison MarriageLots of folks a lot more invested in gay rights and broad constitutional jurisprudence likely have a lot more important things to say than I do about the Supreme Court's landmark marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.  But given that, as noted in this prior post, the Oklahoma Corrections Department halted all prison weddings while awating the Obergefell ruling, I could not resist here wondering aloud about whether prison officials will be long struggling with the reach of the ruling as the intersection of prisoner rights and the fundamental right to marry creates new and complicated administrative concerns. 

As the opinion for the Court in Obergefell mentioned, decades ago in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the Supreme Court "held the right to marry was abridged by regulations limiting the privilege of prison inmates to marry." The Obergefell ruling further mentions Turner in a notable passage that perhaps takes on extra meaning when one considers the loneliness and fear that surely accompany long-term incarceration for many prisoners:

And in Turner, the Court again acknowledged the intimate association protected by this right, holding prisoners could not be denied the right to marry because their committed relationships satisfied the basic reasons why marriage is a fundamental right. See 482 U.S., at 95–96. The right to marry thus dignifies couples who “wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other.” Windsor, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14).  Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.  It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

Of course, Supreme Court jurisprudence has long explained that prisoners have greatly diminished rights (e.g., they have no reasonable expectation of privacy and thus few if any traditional Fourth Amendment rights), and that the rights they retain behind prison walls must give way to reasonable prison regulations. More specifically, in Turner, the Court expressly stated that "legitimate security concerns may require placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry."

Nevertheless, in Turner the Court rigorously questioned claims by Missouri officials rationales for strict limits on prisoner marriages and concluded that an "almost complete ban on the decision to marry is not reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives." Consequently, in the wake of the the Obergefell ruling, I read Turner to preclude prison officials from simply asserting, without substantial evidence, that it will never allow prisoners to have a same-sex marriage. (Notably, only one current Justice was on the Court when Turner was decided, and Justice Scalia joined the opinion for the Court authored by Justice O'Connor striking down the Missouri prison's "almost complete ban on the decision to marry.")

June 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 26, 2015

How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?

After this post, I am going to take some time off-line in order to calmly and carefully read all the opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling today in Johnson v. US.  (Sadly, I think it is a bit too early to get some liquid assistance in calming down, but that will change in due time.) Helpfully, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Johnson is relatively short and thus it should not prove too difficult for everyone to figure out the import of the Johnson ruling for future applications of ACCA or even for future vagueness/due process Fifth Amendment constitutional jurisprudence.

But, as the title of this post is meant to highlights, I suspect it may prove quite difficult for everyone to figure out the impact of the Johnson ruling for past applications of ACCA and those currently serving long federal ACCA mandatory prison sentences.  I am pretty sure vagueness ruling are considered substantive for retroactivity purposes, so even long-ago sentenced federal prisoners should at least be able to get into federal court to now bring Johnson claims.  But not every federal prisoner serving an ACCA sentence has even a viable Johnson claim and I suspect most do not have what I would call a strong Johnson claim.  In my mind, to have a strong Johnson claim, a defendant would have to be able to show he clearly qualified for an ACCA sentence based on and only on a triggering prior conviction that hinged on the application of the (now unconstitutional) residual clause.

That said, I suspect that there are likely many hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of current federal prisoners who do have strong Johnson claim.  And the potential legal consequences of a strong Johnson claim claim could be profound because it may mean that a prisoner who previously had to be sentences to at least a mandatory 15 years in federal prison now may only legally be sentenced to at most 10 years in federl prison.

I have a feeling that this new Johnson ruling may ruin the weekend (and perhaps many weeks) for some federal prosecutors and officials at the Justice Department because they are perhaps duty bound to try to start figuring out how many federal prisoners may have strong (or even viable) Johnson claims and what to now do about these prisoners.  In addition, I am hopeful that some federal defenders and even private (pro bono Clemency project 2104) lawyers will also start working hard to identify and obtain relief for persons now in federal prison serving lengthy ACCA sentences that the Supreme Court today concluded were constitutionally invalid. 

Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact (last two from before the opinion)

June 26, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Highlighting the need for much better modern prison metrics

Adam Gelb and Craig Prins, who are directors of the Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, have this notable new Washington Times commentary about prisons and prison reform. The piece, headlined "Who’s behind bars?: A better prison composition index could gauge whether reforms are succeeding," effectively highlights that for more effective prison reform (and more effective assessment of these reforms) could benefit greatly from more effective prison metrics. Here are excerpts:

The verdict is in, and it’s close to unanimous: The United States has built too many prisons. After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prison growth that put one in 100 adults behind bars, a wave of state reforms over the past several years has reduced the incarceration rate while the crime rate has continued to fall. These tandem trends have convinced many Americans that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time is neither the best nor only way to protect public safety.

Governors and legislatures in red and blue states alike have enacted substantial policy shifts, often by wide bipartisan majorities. Voters, in opinion surveys and at the ballot box, appear to be solidly behind putting the brakes on prison construction and steering lower-level offenders to alternatives.

Shifting national attitudes about crime and punishment have led to calls for even more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties and deep reductions in the inmate population. Elected officials and opinion leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have begun a dialogue about what it would mean — and take — to cut the current prison population in half, a once far-fetched fantasy that several new advocacy groups have adopted as their outright objective.

Tracking the number of inmates is essential but not enough to know whether we are making progress toward a more effective criminal justice system. A fuller picture requires a new and more nuanced measure — one that goes beyond the tally and captures the type of inmates behind bars. Recent state reforms have sought to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs. To achieve these goals, many states are focusing their expensive prison beds on violent and career criminals with new policies that divert lower-level offenders into non-prison sanctions or reduce the time they spend locked up, restrict revocations of parole and probation for minor rules violations, and expand eligibility and funding for drug courts and other alternatives.

Yet most states cannot readily determine whether the new policies are working any better than those they replace. Beyond a simple count of prisoners, the typical state data report offers basic demographic information and breaks down how many inmates are serving time for violent, property, drug and other crimes. These numbers are helpful, but by themselves they reveal only fragments of the information necessary to paint a meaningful portrait of inmate populations. For instance, an offender currently serving time for a relatively minor crime may have a string of prior violent convictions that make him a higher risk to society than someone in prison for a more serious offense not likely to be repeated.

A more holistic look at prison use would blend current offense, prior record and risk of recidivism. By joining some combination of these elements into a single measure — a prison composition index — policymakers and the public could develop a better understanding of how their prison beds are being used and whether their reforms are succeeding....

The end goal is to come up with a single measure tracked over time that answers the question: What percentage of the prison population consists of violent and chronic offenders who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are offenders who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways?

Pennsylvania is probably the first state to attempt to use a sophisticated prison composition index. Under the direction of Secretary John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections uses an “Offender Violence Risk Typology” tool, which merges information about current offense, prior record and risk level to create three categories of inmates. According to the index, 69 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison admissions and 59 percent of the standing population in 2013 fell into the least serious of the three categories, figures that have changed little since 2010.

The raw number of prisoners is an important barometer of our criminal justice system. But we also need to know who the inmates are, why they’re there, and whether society will be better off if they are incarcerated or sentenced in other ways.

June 25, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Examining federal death row as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev becomes its newest (and youngest) member

The new NBC News piece, headlined "Tsarnaev Joins A Death Row With Many Members, And Few Executions," reviews some realities of federal death row in the wake of yesterday's formal capital sentencing of the Boston Marathon bomber. Here are excerpts:

Now that he's been formally sentenced to death, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will soon become a resident of federal death row, joining 61 other killers who've been condemned to die by lethal injection at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terra Haute, Indiana.

There he will wait — likely for a very long time. Just how long depends on a range of factors, mainly the strength of his legal appeals. But it's safe to assume that, provided the appeals fail, it will be several years before he is put to death.

Despite the name, there isn't much death on death row. Since the federal government reinstated the death penalty in 1988, 75 inmates have ended up on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Ten have been removed, and only three have been executed.

The last man to die there was Louis Jones Jr., in 2003, eight years after he was sentenced for murdering a U.S. soldier.  The other two, marijuana kingpin Juan Raul Garza and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, waited eight years and four years, respectively, for their executions.  

That leaves 61 men and 1 woman still on federal death row, including two people whose original conviction or sentence has been reversed but their legal fate has not yet been finalized. Tsarnaev, 21, is the youngest.

He'll join a cast of violent men at Terra Haute — the one woman on death row, Lisa Montgomery, who killed a pregnant woman and cut her unborn baby out of her womb, is serving her remaining days in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas....

The longest current residents of death row are Corey Johnson, James Roane Jr. and Richard Tipton, fellow gang members who were sentenced to execution in 1993 for nine murders committed to protect their crack dealing operation. The newest — before Tsarnaev — is Thomas Sanders, who was sentenced to death in September for kidnapping and killing a 12-year-old girl.

It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied.  As this article highlights, if you embrace that aphorism, federal death row is locale which has been experiencing a whole lot of justice denied in recent times.

June 25, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"A Shrinking Texas Death Row"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new item from the Texas Tribune.  The piece has a series of great interactive charts providing the details on this basic death-penalty data story:

The number of inmates on Texas’ death row is falling. At its peak in 1999, 460 men and women were living with a death sentence in Texas, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Today, there are 260.

The reason for the decline isn't a rise in executions. In 2000, an all-time high of 40 inmates were executed in Texas, compared with 10 last year.  So far this year, nine inmates have been executed.

The main reason is a drop in new death sentences.  In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to Texas death row, according to BJS data.  In 2008, that number was nine — and has stayed in that range ever since.  This year, there have been no new death sentences so far, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that zero is significant.  “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” Kase said. “Before this year, the longest that we’ve gone is through the first quarter."

Experts suggest several factors could be contributing to the falling number of death sentences, from a national decline in support for the death penalty to shortages of the lethal drugs used in executions.  In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not face execution, lessening future sentences as well as sparing 29 offenders who were already sitting on death row.

But consistently, they point to a 2005 law that offered Texas prosecutors the option to pursue life-without-parole sentences against capital murder defendants.  Previously, capital murder offenders who did not receive the death penalty were eligible for parole after 40 years....

Since that law was enacted, the number of life-without-parole sentences has increased nearly every year, according to TDCJ.  Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96.

Currently, 745 people are serving a life-without-parole sentence in Texas, nearly three times the number of death row inmates.  So far this year, Kase said three death penalty cases have gone to trial.  All have ended with life-without-parole sentences.

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Interesting statement from Justice Sotomayor on Fifth Circuit approach to plain-error sentencing review

As noted in this post today (and this prior post from last week) about recent SCOTUS activity, sentencing fans like me eagerly awaiting big Supreme Court rulings in the Johnson Armed Career Criminal Act case and the Glossip lethal execution drug case have to keep waiting at least a few more days for a decision.  But, truly hard-core sentencing fans got a smidgen of unexpected love from Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this brief statement in Carlton v. US concerning how the Fifth Circuit applies plain-error review.  Here are excerpts which provide the context:

The District Court enhanced petitioner Roy Carlton’s sentence based on a factual inaccuracy introduced into the sentencing record by the Government.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit refused to review Carlton’s appellate challenge to the enhancement, relying on Circuit precedent holding that factual errors are never cognizable on plain-error review.  For the reasons that follow, I believe the Fifth Circuit’s precedent is misguided....

The doctrine of plain error follows from the recognition that a “rigid and undeviating judicially declared practice under which courts of review would invariably and under all circumstances decline to consider all questions which had not previously been specifically urged would be out of harmony with . . . the rules of fundamental justice.” United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 732 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). And in all the years since the doctrine arose, we have never suggested that plain-error review should apply differently depending on whether a mistake is characterized as one of fact or one of law.  To the contrary, “[w]e have emphasized that a per se approach to plain-error review is flawed.”  Puckett v. United States, 556 U.S. 129, 142 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The Fifth Circuit’s wooden rule that factual mistakes cannot constitute plain error runs counter to these teachings....

Given its inconsistency with the governing text and longstanding precedent, it is little wonder that no other court of appeals has adopted the per se rule outlined by the Fifth Circuit in Lopez....  All agree the District Court improperly relied on testimony Anderson never gave.  But in the Fifth Circuit — and only the Fifth Circuit — that mistake cannot be reviewed and possibly corrected.  As a result, Carlton may spend several additional months in jail simply because he was sentenced in Alexandria, Louisiana, instead of Alexandria, Virginia.

For all these reasons, I conclude that Lopez’s categorical rule is unjustified. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari in this case.  The Solicitor General informs us that the Fifth Circuit is at times inconsistent in its adherence to Lopez.  When that sort of internal division exists, the ordinary course of action is to allow the court of appeals the first opportunity to resolve the disagreement. I hope the Fifth Circuit will use that opportunity to rethink its approach to plain-error review.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times article which effectively reviews the remarkable (off-point) concurrence penned by Justice Kennedy in last week's SCOTUS ruling in a Davis v. Ayala.  Here are excerpts:

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case, wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.  His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote.  He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.’”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.  “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy's comments came as a welcome surprise.  “It’s a remarkable statement.  The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said.  “They are automatically placed there.  It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.  This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. Four years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions....

Kennedy's comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas. “The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest.  And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

June 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Vermont's Prison Chief Says It's Time to Decriminalize Drug Possession"

BildeThe title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new article from an independent paper in Vermont.  Here is how the lengthy article gets started:

Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito recalled spotting a young woman on a prison tour; he knew she was addicted to heroin, but she wasn't getting treated for it. On another occasion, a former inmate who served five years on a marijuana conviction described his crime to Pallito as "possession of a vegetable."

Pallito has struggled over the years to rein in a DOC budget that has exploded along with the inmate population. All of that has led him to a conclusion shared by few in his field: Pallito believes that possession of all drugs should be decriminalized and that the War on Drugs should be declared a failure, he told Seven Days. The man who supervises Vermont's 1,900 prison inmates believes that many of them shouldn't be behind bars, and that incarceration sets them up for failure.

"Possession of drugs for personal utilization — if somebody is not hurting anyone [else], that should not be a criminal justice matter," Pallito, 49, said in an interview at his Williston office. "I don't think anybody can say that putting somebody with an addiction problem through the corrections system is a good idea."

The DOC commissioner has been following news reports from Portugal, which in 2000 decriminalized all drugs and has since recorded declines in drug abuse and overdose deaths. He's decided it's a brave example that Vermont should emulate. "We should go to the Portugal model, which is to deal with the addiction and not spend the money on the criminal justice system," Pallito said. "We spend so much money on corrections that could be done differently. The only way to do it is spend less on corrections and more on treatment."

Pallito may be the first head of a state prison system to publicly advocate against the prosecution of users of heroin, cocaine and other street drugs. He knows of no one among his peers who has stepped forward. Organizations that question the War on Drugs, such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — a group of former and current police officers — have not claimed any state corrections administrators as supporters. "When you're a corrections commissioner, most people think you're tough on crime, law and order, and I am — for certain crimes," Pallito said. He believes that possession of marijuana should be legal, in any quantity. Possession of all other drugs, provided they are in small quantities for personal use, should not result in a criminal charge but rather a small civil fine, along with a mandate to undergo treatment. In essence, he'd treat all drugs in a way that is consistent with Vermont's 2013 marijuana decriminalization law, which stipulates that people found with one ounce or less face a $200 fine but no criminal charge.

Pallito stressed two points: Drug dealers should still face criminal charges. And decriminalization should not happen overnight — there aren't enough drug-treatment providers to handle the effects of such a switch. He would go even further in decriminalizing drug-related activity. The many people who are charged with drug-addiction-related property crimes, such as theft, would not face prison time.

Currently, more than 500 of Vermont's 1,900 inmates are in custody for either property crimes or drug possession. Two of those are being incarcerated for marijuana possession. Freeing such inmates would dramatically reduce the prison population, saving the state several million dollars annually and enabling it to end the controversial program that ships 300 overflow inmates to privately run out-of-state prisons.

Further, Pallito said, decriminalization would allow people to take advantage of effective treatment programs and to avoid criminal convictions that prevent them from rebuilding their lives. "I think you will find a lot of people in the criminal justice system who have been there for a number of years understand its faults most acutely," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who seemed a little taken aback by news of Pallito's stand. "The best policy is front-end work, and Andy sees that, and it's consistent with his progressive ideology."

June 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In aftermath of prison escape, NY legislator suggests microchip tracking implants for violent offenders

As reported in this local piece, headlined "N.Y. State Senator Proposes Using GPS Implants To Track Violent Convicts," a high-profile prison escape has now prompted a high-tech proposed solution to prison escapes. Here are the details:

Bloodhounds and expensive manhunts are so yesterday when it comes to hunting escaped prisoners. That’s the opinion of one lawmaker, who says the state should explore implanting tiny GPS devices under convicts’ skin. Others say microchipping criminals could have multiple uses, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported Tuesday.

“If you’ve got convicted murderers, the type of people these two men are, that it would make some good sense at that level that we should have something that we could track them,” said State Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Saratoga.  With 800 law enforcement officials still unable to pick up the trail of escaped murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat, the suggestion from Marchione to implant microchips in people convicted of serious crimes is picking up steam.

“I’m in favor of it, but I do think there have to parameters with respect to the crime itself.  I wouldn’t do it for arson, which falls under the violent, but I would do it for aggravated rape and murder,” said Paul Viollis, a security expert and former investigator in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.  “I see the public safety value in it, not just from an escape standpoint but also from an inmate-control perspective within the institution,” said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College.

The New York Civil Liberties Union said microchipping inmates is unconstitutional. “It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction.  They should plug the security inside prisons,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.  “As a constitutional matter, it won’t survive a challenge because it’s an invasion of body autonomy.”

Shane, a former cop, said it might pass constitutional muster if the chip was removed if and when a prisoner is released.  “Removing it when they are paroled, those sorts of things, transitioning from a microchip to an ankle monitor, are all going to have to be explored,” Shane said.

There’s also the question of whether the microchip could be cut out the minute the inmate escaped.  Experts say the chips would be embedded in the neck, underneath six or seven layers of skin.  So simply cutting it out without medical assistance would pose a significant health risk, Kramer reported.

I tend to favor at least the considerationof new technologies and technocorrections, so I personally would endorse this kind of innovation. I would especially endorse this kind of technocorrections if it might provide a ready means to give better-behaving prisoners more freedom and liberty while they are imprisoned without crating any risks to general public safety.

June 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (9)

Terrific Marshall Project coverage of "How Germany Does Prison"

Germany-bug-200pxAmong the great stuff at The Marshall Project these days is a series of original pieces authored by Maurice Chammah as he and a delegation of American officials tour the German prison system. So far there have been three daily reports, and here are the full headlines and links:

Here is an excerpt from the second of these pieces, which highlights themes of the series:

[I]t was clear that this trip would be as much about the United States as about Europe. Germany’s system of sentencing (15 years is the longest most people go to prison here unless they are demonstrably dangerous) and incarceration (open, sunny prisons, full of fresh air, where prisoners wear their own clothes) serves as a reference point for reflecting on the punitive mentality that has come to define the U.S. justice system....

On Monday, as we visited Heidering Prison.... Bernie Warner, the corrections secretary of Washington, noticed the faint smell of smoke — all the prisoners can smoke here, unlike their counterparts in the U.S. Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. They have privacy—correctional officers knock before entering. Prisoners wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid more for their work, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. (Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.)

There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders — and they consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other potentially dangerous implements. And the maximum time inmates spend in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.

"Find a [security] camera,” Gregg Marcantel, the corrections secretary of New Mexico, said as he walked through the prison’s main corridor. “There aren’t any!” When he heard that prisons in Berlin have 33 physicians to care for 4,200 inmates, Marcantel’s response was a hearty, “Good God!” That’s a ratio of about 1 doctor for 127 prisoners. In Virginia's state system, according to a recent count, there was one doctor for every 750 inmates. We walked through pristine white cells that looked more like dorm rooms at a liberal arts college than the steel and concrete boxes most U.S. prisoners call home. The toilets and sinks were white and ceramic, nothing like the stainless steel bowls bolted to the wall in many U.S. prisons (Heidering Prison opened in 2013, but such toilets have been installed in older prisons as well). Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells. Though the prisoners cannot access the Internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone — even the media. “We have nothing to hide,” Detlef Wolf, vice governor for Heidering Prison, said with evident pride....

Administrators here freely work terms like “human rights” and “dignity” into speeches about their prison system, and Germans appear to view people who commit crimes as medical patients (the word “prognosis” came up a lot to describe the status of an inmate). There is little stigma after prisoners finish their sentences — employers in Germany generally do not ask job applicants if they have a criminal record, according to Michael Tonry, a University of Minnesota professor on the trip who’s studied corrections systems in the U.S. and Europe. In some cases, the cultural norms were so foreign that it was pretty much impossible to imagine them taking root in the U.S.

Once the shock wore off, the questions came, and they reflected the political and professional concerns of those doing the asking. Many of the leaders here who have been elected or appointed — including Marcantel of New Mexico and Jeff Rosen, the elected district attorney in Santa Clara, California — wanted to know about victims. Do their desires for retribution play any role in sentencing here? (In the U.S., they are often allowed to read “victim impact statements” before juries assess punishment, and prosecutors often consult with them). Do sensational murders lead to the passage of more punitive laws?

The Germans had trouble making sense of these questions. There were a lot of blank stares. In Germany, prosecutors and judges are not elected. As career civil servants, they are insulated from public opinion. Their work is more “technical,” said Gero Meinen, who directs the prison system in Berlin. The role is to protect the rational system of correction — which aims to restrict freedom the least amount necessary — from the retributive impulses that individual victims and society in general might feel. Now it was the Americans’ turn for blank stares.

Besides the surprise, other emotions lingered just below the surface. A few travelers were skeptical, and will be looking for ways in which things might be worse than they appear throughout the rest of the week.

June 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

"The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole."

Download (4)The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New Republic commentary by Stephen Lurie.  Here are excerpts of a piece that echoes my oft-stated and enduring concern that LWOP punishments should garner a lot more attention from the anti-death penalty crowd:

Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.

Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself....

For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings — whether in a religious or moral sense — the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table.

Executions of any kind are exceedingly rare, so much so that death row itself appears to be the real punishment for the vast majority of inmates. There are just over 3,000 people awaiting execution in United States prisons. In 2013, the latest year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has data, there were 39 executions. That is just more than the 31 inmates who died before their scheduled executions; it is just less than the 44 death row convictions or sentences overturned that year....

Because solitary confinement is the de facto housing for American death row convicts, and because excruciating delays are par for the course, international observers have considered U.S. capital punishment inhumane enough to delegitimize its practice entirely. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2012, Juan Méndez (the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment) suggested that the realities of imperfect executions and death row conditions almost unavoidably run afoul of the international prohibition against human mistreatment. “Solitary confinement, in combination with the foreknowledge of death and the uncertainty of whether or when an execution is to take place, contributes to the risk of serious and irreparable mental and physical harm and suffering to the inmate,” Méndez writes. “Solitary confinement used on death row is by definition prolonged and indefinite and thus constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.”...

Nearly every prisoner faces an abrogation of his or her 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment; only a small few face the added cruelty and indignity of a botched execution. What about the pain of a cramped concrete cell, of shackling and restraints, attempts at self-harm, inedible food, existential fear, depression, and deprivation of any human contact? If there is concern is over fair treatment of human beings sentenced to death, it’s unwise, from a strategic standpoint, to continue ignoring the majority of their lives. Campaigns based on claims of cruel and unusual treatment would not rely on staying the execution of a single individual, but rest on the indefinite torture of thousands. That would be powerful.

Moreover, the instances of death penalty abolition that do not consider the background conditions for capital punishment invariably leave immense cruelty in its place. Nebraska’s legislation is typical in this regard: All death sentences become sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The de facto alternative for states that abolish the death penalty, LWOP actually retains many of the worst conditions of confinement described above, as well as still effectively sentencing the prisoner to death. It is in almost every way a death row, and as such is also an internationally condemned practice.

It’s for this reason that some, like Andrew Dilts, an assistant professor of political theory at Loyola Marymount University, refer to current forms of death penalty abolition as “death penalty replacement,” the same result but with the added effect that prisoners lose even more legal protections. As Dilts writes in the new volume Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, these alternative sentences appease the “almost fetishistic levels” of concern over execution while it “effectively deflects attention away from the moment of death, even though death is necessarily a part of the sentence.” In addition, whereas “the Court requires strict review of offender qualifications, strict procedural guidelines, extended appeals processes, and additional standards of heightened scrutiny…the same procedural and substantive protections are simply not applied” to life sentences. The result, ultimately, is simply a “dramatic reduction of appellate rights” for inmates that are still condemned to die; it’s a slower death with even less of a chance for redemption. While the conversion of these sentences might lessen some of the specific psychological traumas related to the death row phenomenon, it does not address the expected use of solitary confinement or other inhumane treatment. There is nothing in an execution-focused narrative that would lead to the transformation of these conditions: It might, rather, cement them as appropriate penal policy.

June 16, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Perspectives on Clemency Project 2014 from federal prisoners and an advocate for them

Regular readers know I have given lots of space recently to coverage and criticism of federal clemency efforts.  I am pleased to continue now with a guest post via Beth Curtis, a prisoner advocate who runs the website Life for Pot.  Beth sent this extended commentary my way under the heading "Inspired by the Dialogue between Margaret Colgate Love here and Mark Osler here on Douglas Berman’s Blog Sentencing Law and Policy":

At the launch of Clemency Project 2014 [CP-14], Craig Cesal, a non-violent marijuana offender on the Life for Pot site and his cell mate Samuel Edmonson a non-violent cocaine offender were both talking about and working on petitions for commutation.  Both Craig and Samuel had sentences of life without parole and had nothing to lose.

The two cell mates had a discussion about whether or not they should file their own petitions just in case there were going to be commutations before attorneys from The Clemency Project 2014 could prepare one for them.  Craig argued that the project had said there was no reason for filing on your own, as the criteria was different and it would probably have to be done again.  Samuel on the other hand decided that he should be sure he had a petition in the Pardon Attorney’s office and in February of 2014, he filed a brief petition for commutation that he did himself.

Very early in the process both of these offenders were assigned pro bono attorneys from the same law firm.  Samuel and Craig had initial contacts with their pro bono attorneys, but after that contact they were not contacted again and did not know if any work was being done.  

In March of 2015 Samuel received a commutation for his life sentence from President Barack Obama based on the petition he filed himself.

We were interested in this because there were only three life for pot inmates that we knew of who had been assigned pro bono attorneys and they only had initial contacts.  We contacted inmates and suggested that they begin preparing their own Clemency Petitions and file them, we don’t know if CP-14 will be able to overcome the cumbersome procedure.

In March of 2015 Larry Duke, a 68 year old non-violent marijuana offender with a sentence of life without parole was released.  Larry’s immediate release was pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for the release was Larry’s status as an elderly inmate.  Although Larry is over 65 he is also the healthiest of those on the Life for Pot site.  Larry had a contact from a pro bono attorney through Clemency Project 2014.  We called his attorney who did not know he had been released.

We started getting questions about the process for Reduction in Sentence [RIS] from non-violent marijuana offenders.  They wanted to know if they should file for sentencing relief even though they had filled out a survey to request an attorney through Clemency Project 2014.

These are not legal questions, but questions about procedure and we sought answers from an attorney with CP–14.  It was their considered opinion that the elder inmates should not file for RIS until CP–14 had completed the process as clemency might be held up until the (CR/RIS) was resolved.

Inmates found that BOP facilities were not aware of the elderly, over the age of 65, criteria for applying for RIS.  This remedy has seldom been used and “extraordinary and compelling reasons” were interpreted by the BOP as being almost lifeless chained to a hospital bed.

How much hope should we have for this process?  Was Larry Duke’s release singular, or will this be the beginning of an accelerated process?  We would like to know.

The hope and promise of Clemency Project 2014 is like a breath of air for these nonviolent inmates who will be behind bars till they die if no one exercises compassion, mercy and justice.  We’re listening carefully to the dialogue between Mark Osler and Margaret Love about the hope and promise for relief.

We are in the 18th month since the launch of the project and yet only two inmates have been released through this apparently clogged tunnel to freedom.  Much has been written in support of clemency and its use to address serious facility overcrowding and sentencing disparity.  Information about progress is scant and prisoners, their families and advocates worry about the progress and the will of the Administration.

Lately these public discussions by well-known clemency advocates pondering the most effective way to deal with the over incarceration gives us hope.  Margaret Colgate Love and Mark Osler’s point counter point about it on the blog Sentencing Law and Policy by Douglas Berman gave us insight. I believe these discussions are helpful but not a substitute for more transparency and concrete information given to the inmates, their families and advocates about procedure and progress.  We need to respect these vulnerable non-violent citizens.

It would be an insensitive travesty if this program that was announced with such fanfare and gave such hope to thousands of inmates, their family and friends and advocacy groups did not fulfill the promise of compassion and mercy.  These non-violent incarcerated people are accustomed to broken promises, but this one can be easily fulfilled by a bold administration with the courage of their stated convictions.  For years, nonviolent inmate advocates have felt that bi-partisan support would be the key to this realignment of positions and lead to fiscal responsibility and compassion.  Bipartisan support has arrived and we have the promise, it just needs to be fulfilled.

Some prior related posts:

June 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

SCOTUS grants cert on a federal prisoner (re)litigation case

The Supreme Court started the week by granting review in two cases, one of which concerns prisoner rights and restrictions.  The case is Bruce v. Samuels, and this SCOTUSblog page provides this account of the question presented:

Whether, when a prisoner files more than one case or appeal in the federal courts in forma pauperis, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2), caps the monthly exaction of filing fees at 20% of the prisoner's monthly income regardless of the number of cases or appeals for which he owes filing fees.

June 15, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Citing much research and data, Judge Posner rails against "the problem of the elderly prisoner"

The Seventh Circuit this past week issued an otherwise routine affirmance of a drug conviction in US v. Presley, No. 14-2704 (7th Cir. June 11, 2015) (available here), the opinion end up not at all routine because of Judge Posner's lengthy concluding (dicta?) about problems with exceedingly long federal sentences and the elderly prisoners these sentences create.  I would urge all federal sentencing fans to read Judge Posner's work in Presley in full, and these passages help highlight why (even with lots of Judge Posner's great cites and data left out):

The only questionable feature of the judgment is the length of the sentence — almost 37 years, though it is within the applicable guidelines range because of Presley’s very lengthy criminal history. Presley was 34 years old when sentenced... [and if he] earns the maximum possible good-time credit he’ll be almost 64 years old when released. If he earns no good time he’ll be almost 69.  And after release he’ll undergo five years of supervised release, which like parole is a form of custody because it imposes significant restrictions on the supervisee....

The judge pointed out that Presley is a career offender, that he began his criminal career when he was 16, that he was a large-scale heroin dealer, and that he had committed disciplinary violations in previous incarcerations.  What the judge failed to consider was the appropriateness of incarcerating Presley for so long that he would be elderly when released.  Criminals, especially ones engaged in dangerous activities such as heroin dealing, tend to have what economists call a “high discount rate” — that is, they weight future consequences less heavily than a normal, sensible, law-abiding person would....

The sentencing judge in this case ... gave no reason to think that imposing a 37-year sentence on Presley would have a greater deterrent effect on current or prospective heroin dealers than a 20-year or perhaps even a 10-year sentence, or that incapacitating him into his sixties is necessary to prevent his resuming his criminal activities at that advanced age.  Sentencing judges need to consider the phenomenon of aging out of risky occupations.  Violent crime, which can include trafficking in heroin, is generally a young man’s game.  Elderly people tend to be cautious, often indeed timid, and averse to physical danger.  Violent crime is far less common among persons over 40, let alone over 60, than among younger persons....

There needs finally to be considered the cost of imprisonment to the government, which is not trivial.  The U.S. prison population is enormous by world standards — about 1 percent of the nation’s entire population — and prisons are costly to operate because of their building materials (steel especially is very expensive) and large staffs.  If the deterrent or incapacitative effect on criminal propensities fades sharply with time, the expenses incurred in the incarceration of elderly persons may be a social waste....

We are not suggesting that sentencing judges (or counsel, or the probation service) should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long a prison sentence to give. But the considerations that we’ve listed should be part of the knowledge base that judges, lawyers, and probation officers consult in deciding on the length of sentences to recommend or impose.  There is no indication that these considerations received any attention in this case.  We do not criticize the district judge and the lawyers and probation officers for the oversight; recognition of the downside of long sentences is recent and is just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers.  Neither the Justice Department nor the defendant’s lawyer (or the probation service) evinced awareness in this case of the problem of the elderly prison inmate....

There is much that federal sentencing judges are required to consider in deciding on a sentence to impose — maybe too much: the guidelines, the statutory sentencing factors, the statutory and regulatory provisions relating to conditions of supervised release, presentence reports, briefs and arguments of counsel, statements by defendants and others at sentencing hearings.  But in thinking about the optimal sentence in relation to the problem of the elderly prisoner, probably the judge’s primary focus should be on the traditional triad of sentencing considerations: incapacitation, which prevents the defendant from committing crimes (at least crimes against persons other than prison personnel and other prisoners) until he is released, general deterrence (the effect of the sentence in deterring other persons from committing crimes), and specific deterrence (its effect in deterring the defendant from committing crimes after he’s released).  A sentence long enough to keep the defendant in prison until he enters the age range at which the type of criminal activity in which he has engaged is rare should achieve the aims of incapacitation and specific deterrence, while lengthening the sentence is unlikely to increase general deterrence significantly if the persons engaged in the criminal activity for which the defendant is being sentenced have a high discount rate; for beyond a point reached by a not very long sentence, such persons tend not to react to increases in sentence length by abandoning their criminal careers.

June 13, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Charles Samuels, head of Federal Bureau of Prisons, announces plans to retire

As reported on this webpage for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, late last week "Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. announced his plans to retire before the end of the year."  Here is an excerpts from the letter he sent to communicate his plans to staff:

I am incredibly proud of the things we have accomplished working together during my tenure to continue the tradition of meeting our mission and maintaining correctional excellence to protect the American public. I offer many thanks and appreciation to all staff.

During the past 3-1/2 years we emphasized and enhanced staff safety, promoted partnership between labor and management throughout the entire agency, signed a Collective Bargaining Agreement, established an annual Diversity and Inclusion day to recognize the importance of all staff, established the Inmate Model Programs Catalog and increased evidenced-based reentry programs, including specialized programs for female offenders. We also modified the Residential Release Center Statement of Work to ensure the delivery of Bureau approved evidenced-based cognitive behavioral therapy programs, successfully implemented Prison Rape Elimination Act standards, expanded the Reduction in Sentence (compassionate release) criteria, requested an independent assessment and review of the Bureau's restrictive housing policies and procedures, established reintegration and mental health units, increased our repatriation efforts to support Federal Prison Industries, and ensured transparency with our stakeholders and the media, managed our institutions at near record levels of crowding and contributed to record declines in our population for the first time in 34 years. As a result of our combined efforts, rates of assaults dropped as low as they have been in decades. In addition, we extended our work beyond the prison walls to collaborate with representatives in the communities to which inmates are returning and to strengthen families through meaningful inmate visitation with children.

I joined this agency as a correctional officer, determined to make a positive difference; I leave knowing that there are thousands of dedicated and hardworking staff who are equally committed to the same goal. As I have repeated time and again, staff are the Bureau of Prisons, and there are no better staff, anywhere. I cannot adequately express my thanks to all of you for the incredible work you do every second, minute, and hour each and every day to protect and support one another, the inmates in our custody, and the American people. Your jobs are not easy, and you rarely get the recognition you greatly deserve. You carry out our mission with integrity and professionalism, while risking your lives every time you walk through the Sallyports of our 121 prisons around the country.

June 11, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Should bail reform be a key component of sentencing reform efforts?

Ever the sentencing obsessive, I tend to not focus too much attention on various aspects of criminal procedure that impact case processing before a defendant is formally convicted.  But this new New York Times article, headlined "When Bail Is Out of Defendant’s Reach, Other Costs Mount," provides a useful reminder of the significant role that bail prolicies and procedures have on all other aspects of criminal case processing.  Here is the start of the lengthy piece, with one particularly important line highlighted:

Dominick Torrence, who has lived in this city all his life, has a long rap sheet for dealing drugs but no history of violence.  So when he was charged with disorderly conduct and rioting on April 28, a night of unrest after Freddie Gray was fatally injured in police custody, he was shocked to learn the amount he would need to make bail: $250,000, the same amount as two of the officers facing charges over Mr. Gray’s death.

Although a bail bondsman would charge only a fraction of that, normally 10 percent, for many defendants $25,000 is as impossible a sum as $250,000.  “That’s something you get for murder or attempted murder,” Mr. Torrence, 29, said from Baltimore Central Booking. “You’re telling me I have to take food out of my kid’s mouth so I can get out of jail.”

He spent a month in jail on charges that would later be dropped.  Defense lawyers, scholars and even some judges say the high bail amounts set for some Baltimore protesters highlight a much broader problem with the nation’s money­based bail system.  They say that system routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away.  “It sets up a system where first there’s the punishment, and then there’s the opportunity to go to court for trial,” said Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland state public defender.

Though money bail is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of jurisdictions, the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the face of recent research that questions its effectiveness, rising concerns about racial and income disparities in local courts, and a bipartisan effort to reduce the reliance on incarceration nationwide.

Colorado and New Jersey recently voted to revamp their bail systems, while in New Mexico last November, the State Supreme Court struck down a high bail it said had been set for the sole purpose of detaining the defendant. This year, the Department of Justice weighed in on a civil rights lawsuit challenging bail amounts based on solely on the charge, calling them unconstitutional. In several states, including Connecticut, New York and Arizona, chief justices or politicians are calling for overhauls of the bail system.

The money bail system is supposed to curb the risk of flight by requiring defendants to post bond in exchange for freedom before trial. But critics say the system allows defendants with money to go free even if they are dangerous, while keeping low-­risk poor people in jail unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.

For those who cannot afford to post bail, even a short stay in jail can quickly unravel lives and families.  Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly poor, many living paycheck to paycheck, and detention can cause job losses and evictions.  Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when cases are ultimately dropped.  And people in jail who are not guilty routinely accept plea deals simply to gain their freedom, leaving them with permanent criminal records.

The United States leads the world in the number of pretrial detainees, according to a report by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the Department of Justice.  An estimated half a million people are in the country’s jails on any given day because they cannot make bail.  And even bail amounts much lower than those routinely seen in Baltimore can be prohibitive.

The sentence I have emphasized above surely correct based on anecdotal accounts from defendants and defense attorneys, but I would be especially interested to know if any serious and rigorous empirical work has been done to assess just how many non-guilty defendants (and/or defendants who could raise reasonable defenses at a trial) may take plea deals because they could not make bail and because a public defender tells the defendant they would necessarily serve a lot longer while awaiting trial AND face an even more sentence if they end up convicted after a trial. In turn, especially because even low-level criminal history can lead to significant sentencing enhancements in any future case, these bail issues and consequences may ripple through modern sentencing systems in a number of ways.

June 10, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

"From power tools to helicopters: Amazing prison escapes"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN piece which provides a little history and perspective in the wake of the remarkable New York prison escape this week by two convicted murderers.  Here is how the piece sets up a discussion of other notable prison breaks, as well as my "favorite" from the CNN list: 

Most recently, two convicted killers used power tools to break out of a prison in New York state. The inmates cut open a steel wall and worked their way through a labyrinth of pipes and shafts before escaping through a manhole. But theirs isn't the only astonishing escape. Here are four other bizarre prison breaks:...

Choi Gab-bok had a lot of time to kill during his 23 years behind bars. So the convicted robber got really good at yoga -- a skill that helped him slip away from a police station jail in Daegu, South Korea.

One night in 2012, Choi waited for officers to fall asleep before squeezing out of his cell door's rectangular food slot, the Korean Yonhap News Agency said. To put things in perspective, Choi was about 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds. The food tray slot was about 18 inches wide and 6 inches tall.

Choi rubbed a skin ointment on himself to help glide between the bars more easily. It worked, and he wiggled his way to freedom. But six days later, Choi was caught -- and put in a cell with a much smaller food slot.

June 9, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 08, 2015

"America's Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Atlantic article which carries this subheadline: "At Cook County, where a third of those incarcerated suffer from psychological disorders, officials are looking for ways to treat inmates less like prisoners and more like patients." Here is an excerpt from the piece: 

At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. At least 400,000 inmates currently behind bars in the United States suffer from some type of mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, or St. Louis—according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives.

“This is typically what I see everyday,” said Elli Petacque-Montgomery, a psychologist and the deputy director of mental health policy for the sheriff’s department. She showed me a medical intake form filled with blue pen scribbles. Small boxes listed possible illnesses: manic depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and so on. The forms are designed to help jail officials identify which inmates have mental illnesses as early as possible. Details from four new inmates could fit on a single sheet. She showed me a completed one. “Of those four,” she said, pointing to the descriptors, “I have three mentally ill people.”...

What sort of crimes had these people been arrested for? One kid on the list had a tendency toward aggression, but officials emphasized that the overwhelming majority were “crimes of survival” such as retail theft (to find food or supplies) or breaking and entering (to find a place to sleep). For those with mental illness, charges of drug possession can often indicate attempts at self-medication. “Even the drugs of choice will connect to what the mental illness is,” Petacque-Montgomery told me. People with severe depression might use cocaine “to lift their mood.” Those who hear voices and have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often turn to heroin to regulate their sleep. Marijuana use “is just constant for kids with ADD and depression,” she notes. “I’ll ask, ‘Can you eat or sleep without this?’ and they’ll say no.’”

Chicagoans with mental illness end up in jail through a chain of small decisions by different local officials. Police officers can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, to a shelter—or to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to not bring charges. Judges can choose to set higher or lower bail amounts, thereby determining whether poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing. But once a person reaches the jail, the local sheriff can’t simply decline to take them into custody.

June 8, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Should a MasterChef episode include a nutraloaf/prison cooking challenge?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article headlined "The best prison food you've ever/never tasted."   Because I aspire to be a foodie and love watching MasterChef, and especially because I am study prison history and the subjective experiences of incarceration, I wish I could experience the notable event reported the piece.  Here is what I am missing:

The old movies refer to unruly inmates' being fed a diet of bread and water as punishment.  Nowadays, they're served something called nutraloaf.  Nutraloaf recipes vary among the states.  Usually having the consistency of a dry muffin, the dish contains elements of the basic food groups — most notably grains and beans. Consumed with water, it will keep a person alive.

Maybe so, but "it's absolutely horrible," said Chris, a worker at Eastern State Penitentiary, the historical attraction in Fairmount.  "But then again, state [prison] food is absolutely horrible."  Chris speaks from experience.  He spent 2½ years at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford after what he described as a conviction for a nonviolent drug-related offense.  He was released last year.  Chris — who asked that his last name not be used — now works at the prison.

This weekend (June 6 and 7) for Eastern State's annual Prison Food Weekend, a caterer will make the nutraloafs served in state prisons in Idaho (the breakfast version), California, Illinois (the vegan option), Vermont, and Pennsylvania.  Visitors will get a review card, and organizers will encourage them to rank and describe the look, smell, and taste of each.

Pennsylvania's has cooked rice, dry oatmeal and mashed garbanzo beans. It's simply bland.  The Illinois version contains applesauce, tomato paste, and garlic powder. So nasty, inmates at one prison sued (unsuccessfully) to get it off the menu. 

The Eastern State visitors can counter the sampling with Chris' chi chi.  Chi chi is a casserole-like dish made on the sly entirely of ingredients bought from the prison commissary or vending machines. Ingredients are blended in a plastic bag, which is cooked in boiling water.  Boiling water in a prison cell?  "You make a stinger," Chris said, describing a crude immersion heater made from the end of an extension cord wrapped around nail clippers.

When you're locked up, food is even more comforting, Chris said. "I'm Italian," he said. "Sunday night is home cooking."  Chris said new inmates can expect the older guys to treat them to a home-cooked meal.  "Your first two weeks, you won't be eating much" from the cafeteria, Chris said. "You have to be starving to want to eat that."

Chi chi is as unique as the individual making it.  Some are as simple as cold tuna and mayo.  Others, such as one that Chris made earlier this week at the prison for a demo, contain packaged ramen noodles, cheese curls, summer sausage, pepperoni, barbecue sauce, honey, pickles, chili powder, and meatless chili.  The result — utter deliciousness the ramen was softened by the chili, barbecue sauce and honey.  The cheese curls provided a hint of crunch.  The pepperoni and sausage gave it texture.

And if there was enough sodium in a few bites to choke a mule?  "Sodium is the least of your concerns," said Chris, with a small smile.

June 7, 2015 in Food and Drink, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Has the approach and administration of Clemency Project 2014 actually made the federal clemency process worse?

Download (10)The depressing question in the title of this post is prompted by this depressing new USA Today article headlined "Obama administration clemency push gets slow start."  I have long tried to avoid being too pessimistic about what has been unfolding on the federal clemency front over the last 18 months, in part because I sincerely believed it would be nearly impossible to make the modern federal clemency process and products even worse. But this USA Today piece has me fearing that my own pessimistic instincts perhaps should now turn even darker (based on the statements and data points I have highlighted below):

A Justice Department push to shorten long drug sentences through President Obama's clemency powers has gotten off to a slow start: Obama has commuted the sentences of just two of the tens of thousands of federal inmates who have applied through the program.  Lawyers involved in the effort say the year-old clemency initiative has been hampered by the complexity of the cases and questions about the eligibility criteria, which may still be too strict to help most of the prison population.

The result is a system that appears even more backlogged than it was before the initiative began.  "The criteria basically suggest that a whole bunch of good citizens who committed one little mistake got significantly more than 10 years in prison, and fortunately that's pretty rare," said Johanna Markind, a former attorney-adviser in the Office of Pardon Attorney who left in March.  "I think they've kind of belatedly realized that people are doing their jobs, and those perfect cases they think are there don't really exist," she said.  "For all the sound and fury about the commutations, the clemency initiative has only come up with a handful of cases that fit" the criteria.

The clemency initiative was intended to help federal inmates who would have received shorter prison terms had they been sentenced today.  That applies mostly to drug offenders after Congress shortened sentences for crack cocaine in 2010.  To be eligible, inmates must have already served 10 years of their sentence.

Last year, a record 6,561 federal prisoners — three times the usual number — filed petitions with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney, which advises the president on all requests for clemency.  Under the constitution, the president has the absolute power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

More than 30,000 federal inmates applied for representation through the Clemency Project 2014, a consortium of lawyers who have volunteered to help eligible inmates through the often complicated and time-consuming process of seeking a commutation. But 13 months later, those lawyers have submitted just 31 petitions. And while Obama has used his pardon power to shorten the sentences of 43, most of those cases predate the clemency initiative.  Over six years, Obama has granted just 0.2% of the commutation petitions submitted.

The Justice Department says it expects to recommend more commutations to Obama as it reviews the petitions.  But that could take a while: In its 2016 budget request to Congress, the department said the deluge of clemency applications is too much for the current staff to manage.  "As OPA's existing staff has discovered, expending the substantial resources required simply to manage such a volume of clemency requests significantly decreases those available for analyzing and evaluating the merits of individual applications and preparing the appropriate letters of advice to inform the president," the Justice Department said in its congressional budget justification.

Obama has proposed a 66% budget increase for the Office of Pardon Attorney in 2016, and is seeking twice as many lawyers to process all the paperwork.  And that paperwork can be daunting, requiring an examination of trial transcripts, the pre-sentence report (which is often sealed) and Bureau of Prisons files.

To be eligible under the program, inmates must be low-level offenders with no ties to gangs or cartels.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison, have no significant criminal history and no history of violence.  "There are gray areas, What is 'demonstrated good conduct in prison,' for example? Is that a pristine record?" said Cynthia Roseberry, a career public defender who now manages the Clemency Project 2014.

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Without knowing how the Obama administration will apply those vague criteria, it's impossible to know how many could be eligible.  "My hope is that thousands of those will meet the criteria, but I just can't speculate." Roseberry said.  She said she expects the numbers to increase as the Clemency Project continues to screen for likely candidates for commutation.  A Clemency Project screening committee has already notified more than 3,000 inmates it won't be accepting their cases.  Once a case is accepted, it's parceled out to a volunteer attorney such as Mary Davis.

Davis represents Byron McDade, a Washington man sentenced to 27 years for cocaine trafficking even as his co-conspirators — who testified against him — got no more than seven. In 2009, after McDade had served his first seven years, the judge who sentenced him urged Obama to commute his sentence.  "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the president is not," U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman wrote in another opinion last year,

So Davis assembled a 168-page petition with the help of two West Virginia University law students — Laura Hoffman and Amanda Camplesi — who spent a combined 122 hours on the case, collecting paperwork and visiting McDade at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Davis said the work was complicated, even as a veteran federal defense attorney specializing in sentencing appeals.  "I know there were attorneys signing up for this who don't do criminal defense work, and I would think it would be extremely difficult," she said.

McDade is an unusual case: Before being convicted in 2002, his only offense was a minor misdemeanor with a $10 fine.  Markind, who worked on commutation cases as a Justice Department lawyer, said the clemency initiative did not relax Obama's "three strikes" policy making anyone with three or more criminal convictions ineligible for clemency. "Criminals with a record do not make the most appealing poster children," she said....

Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and a former prosecutor ... said the clemency process is already too bureaucratic and too distant from the ultimate decision-maker: the president.  The Clemency Project hopes to cut through the process by helping to provide the Justice Department with better, more complete case files to review.  But that solution has also led to criticism from Capitol Hill, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says that the administration is outsourcing a government responsibility.

"We've failed the same way through different kinds of administrations, and the problem isn't the administration, it's the process," Osler said. "The sad thing is, every president recently has gotten to the end of their term and said, 'Hey, where are all the good clemency cases?' I sure hope that will change, but it's going to be a furious last year as these things start to come in even greater numbers."

It is hard to fault, and I am very disinclined to criticize excessively, all of the well-meaning and dedicated lawyers and administrators operating now in a system taking on Rube-Goldberg-quality with seemingly too many elements, criteria and moving parts.  Still, by now having so many more people applying for clemency, along with so many more lawyers trying to figure out the meaning and importance of so many vague criteria, it is not surprising that the clemency push/project has been most successful in producing a lot more paperwork and so many more questions about what this system is seeking to achieve.

I have long believed that President Obama could and should create an independent commission or task force or working group that would be tasked with making federal clemency reform a priority in a very short period of time.  Notably, as highlighted here, such a proactive approach to policing reform achieved a whole lot in just a matter of months:

On December 18, 2014, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  The Task Force Members sought expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best practices and make recommendations to the President.  The Task Force submitted an initial report to the President on March 2, 2015 and released the final report on May 18, 2015.

Especially in light of all the new troubles and costs that the current approach is generating, I would urge the President to sign an Executive Order ASAP establishing the President's Task Force on 21st Century Clemency.  The Task Force Members could seek expertise from stakeholders and input from the public as they worked to identify best clemency practices and make recommendations to the President no later than December 1, 2015. That would still give Prez Obama a full year to implement an improved clemency process and would leave truly helpful legacy and structure in place from whomever becomes his successor.

Some prior related posts:

June 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

How even same-sex marriage becomes a prison story in incarceration nation

My students never — or perhaps always — get tired of hearing me say that every notable legal or social issue in the United States is always, in some way, a significant sentencing or corrections issue.  The latest example proving my point comes from this local article headlined "Prison weddings in Oklahoma on hold until U.S. Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage." Here is how it gets started:

The state Corrections Department has halted all weddings within prison walls until after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on whether same-sex couples are guaranteed the right to marry, The Oklahoman has learned.

If the high court rules in favor of gay marriage, corrections officials will alter department policy to allow an offender to marry someone of the same sex, spokeswoman Terri Watkins said. “If same-sex marriages are ruled legal, then the policy will need to be changed. We will follow the law,” she said.

Prison facilities in Oklahoma designate up to two days a year on which inmates are allowed to marry. But the department stopped permitting such ceremonies earlier this year and doesn’t expect to resume until the fall, Watkins said.

The temporary halt drew criticism from Ryan Kiesel, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, who said a state agency should be following the law as it stands now, not waiting to see if the law changes. “To hit the pause button on marriages performed in prison is completely at odds with what the state of Oklahoma is obligated to do,” he said. “There is simply no justification for what DOC is doing.” Even a temporary delay is an unnecessary restriction and a burden to the engaged couples, he added.

Prisoners have a constitutionally guaranteed right to marry, though states can impose restrictions. In Oklahoma, the prisoner and fiance or fiancee must have the mental capacity to enter into marriage, be at least 18 years old and, if previously married, provide proof of divorce.

Twenty prisoners were married in Oklahoma in 2014 and two have married so far in 2015, Watkins said.

Of the offenders’ pending requests for marriage, none are same-sex couples, Watkins said. The department’s current policy doesn’t address same-sex marriages behind bars, but does prohibit two currently incarcerated offenders from marrying.

June 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones lament treatment of mentally ill in US criminal justice system

CNN has this notable new commentary authored by the notable twosome of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones headlined "Mental illness is no crime." Here are excerpts:

Today, mentally ill Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, suffer solitary confinement or rape in prison and commit another crime once released.

Quick: Name the largest provider of mental health care in America. If you guessed "our prisons and jails," you would be right. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that three out of four female inmates in state prisons, 64% of all people in jail, 56% of all state prison inmates and 45% of people in federal prison have symptoms or a history of mental disorder.

America's approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes -- locking them up without addressing the problem -- is a solution straight out of the 1800s.

When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn't replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. There are roughly as many people in Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey, as there are inmates with severe mental illness in American prisons and jails, according to one 2012 estimate. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.

Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.  Cycling them through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety.  These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who've committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment....

A new initiative, "Stepping Up," unites state and local governments and the American Psychiatric Foundation to promote research-based practices to tackle our overreliance on jail as mental health treatment, such as in-jail counseling programs that reduce the chances of repeat offenders.

State and local officials have shown us the way.  We've seen large communities such as Miami-Dade County, Florida, completely redesign their systems at every level, training police officers in crisis intervention, instituting careful assessments of new jail admissions and redirecting their mentally ill populations into treatment, effectively reducing the rates of re-arrest....

Perhaps most surprisingly in these partisan times, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are standing shoulder-to-shoulder to support mental health reform.  The bipartisan Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The legislation includes simple measures that would fund alternatives to jail and prison admissions for those in need of treatment and expand training programs for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The notion of bipartisan, comprehensive criminal justice reform is not just idle talk.  It is happening.  Both sides see practical alternatives to incarceration that can reduce prison populations, improve public safety, save lives and save money.  If Congress moves swiftly to pass the great ideas now percolating in the House and Senate, it will become a reality. Take it from a conservative and a liberal: A good place to start is by addressing the needs of our mentally ill citizens in jails and prisons.

May 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, May 25, 2015

Providing a script for "How To Lock Up Fewer People" in the United States

Given that there has been plenty of talk, but still relatively little action. on proposals for significant federal sentencing reform, perhaps it is especially timely for Marc Mauer and David Cole to have this New York Times commentary providing someting of a how-to guide for dealing with modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "How To Lock Up Fewer People," and here are excerpts:

Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-­level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.  But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration.  Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations.  Mass incarceration can be ended.  But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.

A hard­nosed skeptic would tell you that fully half the people in state prisons are serving time for violent offenses.  And most drug offenders behind bars are not kids caught smoking a joint, but dealers, many with multiple prior convictions.  We already have about 3,000 drug courts diverting those who need it to treatment rather than prison.  Recidivism remains astonishingly high for those we release from prison, so releasing more poses real risks....

It’s true that half the people in state prisons are there for a violent crime, but not all individuals convicted of violent crimes are alike. They range from serial killers to minor players in a robbery and battered spouses who struck back at their abusers. If we are going to end mass incarceration, we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost­-effective or just.

We could cut sentences for violent crimes by half in most instances without significantly undermining deterrence or increasing the threat of repeat offending.  Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-­year and a 30­-year sentence....

Offenders “age out” of crime — so the 25-­year-­old who commits an armed robbery generally poses much less risk to public safety by the age of 35 or 40.  Yet nearly 250,000 inmates today are over 50.  Every year we keep older offenders in prison produces diminishing returns for public safety.  For years, states have been radically restricting parole; we need to make it more readily available.  And by eliminating unnecessary parole conditions for low­-risk offenders, we can conserve resources to provide appropriate community­based programming and supervision to higher-­risk parolees.

It’s true that most individuals incarcerated for a drug offense were sellers, not just users. But as a result of mandatory sentencing laws, judges often cannot make reasonable distinctions between drug kingpins and street­corner pawns.  We ought to empower judges to recognize the difference, and to reduce punishment for run­-of­-the-­mill offenders, who are often pursuing one of the few economic opportunities available to them in destitute communities....

Recidivism is also a serious obstacle to reform.  Two­-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and half are reincarcerated.  But many of the returns to prison are for conduct that violates technical parole requirements, but does not harm others.  And much of the problem is that the scale and cost of prison construction have left limited resources for rehabilitation, making it difficult for offenders to find the employment that is necessary to staying straight. So we need to lock up fewer people on the front end as well as enhance reintegration and reduce collateral consequences that impede rehabilitation on the back end.

Criminal justice is administered largely at the state level; 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state and local facilities.  This means mass incarceration needs to be dismantled one state at a time.  Some states are already making substantial progress. New Jersey, California and New York have all reduced their prison populations by about 25 percent in recent years, with no increase in crime.  That should be good news for other states, which would reap substantial savings — in budgetary and human terms — if they followed suit. While the federal government cannot solve this problem alone, it can lead both by example and by providing financial incentives that encourage reform....

Today, at long last, a consensus for reform is emerging. The facts that no other Western European nation even comes close to our incarceration rates, and that all have lower homicide rates, show that there are better ways to address crime. The marked disparities in whom we choose to lock up pose one of the nation’s most urgent civil rights challenges. But we will not begin to make real progress until we face up to the full dimensions of the task.

May 25, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller

This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.  Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):

James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house.  Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.

Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...

But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.

With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....

Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.

“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children.  The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth.  Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.

Courts have handed down similar rulings in Wyoming, Florida, California, Iowa, and Colorado.  Another case is pending in Ohio.

In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’”  Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”

May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

New Vera Institute of Justice report highlights the true, high "Price of Jails"

Vera-300x188The Vera Institute of Justice has just published this important new report titled, "The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration." I received a press release about the report which provides this summary of its coverage and findings:

Hidden costs make jails far more expensive than previously understood, according to a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration. Because other government agencies, whose expenditures are not reflected in jail budgets, bear a large share of costs, the report finds that Americans significantly underestimate how much of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration.

While the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, that figure fails to take into account significant costs such as employee benefits and inmate medical care that may not be included in jail budgets. For example, in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Corrections in 2014, other agencies spent $1.3 billion on jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion—more than double the official jail budget....

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local criminal justice systems, where over-incarceration begins. There are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year — almost 20 times the number of prison admissions, and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The report found that the high cost of jails is most directly tied to inmate population and associated personnel costs, rather than to misspent funds in any one particular budget area.

The report’s findings are based on surveys of 35 jail systems, representing small, medium, and large jails in 18 states from every region of the country, and representing 9% of the total jail population. The survey results confirm that determining the total cost of a jail is not a simple task, even for the agency that runs it. In documenting jail expenses—which in every case surveyed extended beyond the reported corrections budget—and who pays for them, the report finds that, by and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for jails, and the costs are much higher than most people realize.

“Jails are a tremendous public cost,” said Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported the report. “This new report proves those costs are even higher than previously thought, adding urgency to the need for reform that addresses their overuse and misuse in fiscally strapped jurisdictions nationwide.”

In addition to developing a first-of-its-kind survey for jurisdictions to use that accurately measures all of the costs of running a jail, the report reveals:

May 21, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Is a former lobbyist and former federal prisoner likely to be a uniquely good sentencing reform advocate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CQ Roll Call article headlined "Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul." Here are excerpts:

Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.

His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502, HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.

Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”

Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work. He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.

“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.” FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.

Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background. It's not likely to be an easy sell.

Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price....

Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.

His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”

FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes. “It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”

He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences. In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.

It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented. “My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”

And Ring will be right in the middle of it. “I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”

May 19, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 18, 2015

NY Times editorial astutely praises "Justice Reform in the Deep South"

Throughout too much of America's history, the term "Southern Justice" would invoke shudders and fear. (Indeed, as discussed here, Norman Rockwell used this term as the title for his historic painting depicting the deaths of three civil rights workers killed for seeking to register African American voters.) But, as effectively highlighted by this new New York Times editorial, lawmakers in the deep south are lately doing a lot to remake the image of southern justice:

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.

Almost all of these deep-­red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform.  Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill.  Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.

The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.

Before Alabama, South Carolina passed its own package of reforms in 2010.  In February, it closed its second minimum-­security prison in a year.  Georgia got on board with significant reforms to its adult and juvenile prison systems in 2012 and 2013, including giving judges more leeway to sentence below mandatory minimums and increasing oversight of prisons.  In 2014, Mississippi passed its own systemic fixes, like providing more alternatives to prison for low­level drug offenders.

Of course, all these states had abysmal conditions to start with. Mississippi imprisons more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined. That’s worse than any state except Louisiana, which has not yet managed reforms as broad as its neighbors. Alabama was facing the threat of federal intervention to alleviate its crushingly overcrowded prisons if it didn’t act.  And many of these state reforms are far more modest than they should be....

Nonetheless, these initiatives show important progress. Less than a decade ago, it was difficult to find any governor anywhere, of either party, who would go near this issue. Now, a Republican governor like Nathan Deal of Georgia is pointing with pride to two major reform packages, as well as the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits the state from asking potential employees about their criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Still, justice reform is a fragile proposition, and can be easily thwarted by more powerful political forces.  As the 2016 presidential election approaches, most of the major candidates agree that criminal­justice reform is a priority, but there remains a good deal of ambivalence on how to move forward.  There needn’t be.  The reforms in the southern states, though limited, are already paying off.  The presidential candidates — not to mention Congress — should be paying close attention.

May 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 17, 2015

After reversal of most serious charges, elderly nun and fellow peace activists released from federal prison

As reported in this AP article, headlined "3 anti-nuclear activists released from federal prison," a notable federal civil disobedience case has taken some notable new turns this month. Here are the details:

An 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who vandalized a uranium storage bunker were released from prison on Saturday, their lawyer said.  Attorney Marc Shapiro says Sister Megan Rice was released just hours after 66-year-old Michael Walli and 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed also were let out of prison.

The trio was ordered released by a federal appeals court on Friday.  The order came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last week overturned their 2013 sabotage convictions and ordered resentencing on their remaining conviction for injuring government property at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

The activists have spent two years in prison.  The court said they likely already have served more time than they will receive for the lesser charge.

On Thursday, their attorneys petitioned the court for an emergency release, saying that resentencing would take weeks if normal court procedures were followed.  Prosecutors responded that they would not oppose the release, if certain conditions were met. "They are undoubtedly relieved to be returning to family and friends," said Shapiro, who represented the activists in their appeal.

Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are part of a loose network of activists opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons.  To further their cause, in July 2012, they cut through several fences to reach the most secure area of the Y-12 complex.  Before they were arrested, they spent two hours outside a bunker that stores much of the nation's bomb-grade uranium, hanging banners, praying and spray-painting slogans....

Rice was originally sentenced to nearly three years and Walli and Boertje-Obed were each sentenced to just over five years.  In overturning the sabotage conviction, the Appeals Court ruled that their actions did not injure national security.

Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said in a phone interview from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, she hoped her husband would be released from prison by Monday, which will be his 60th birthday.  Naar-Obed previously served three years in prison herself for anti-nuclear protests.  She said that if their protests open people's minds to the possibility of life without nuclear weapons, then "yeah, it was worth it."

Prior related posts:

May 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"What Private Prisons Companies Have Done to Diversify in the Face of Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is this interesting Bloomberg Business article, and here are excerpts:

America’s overall prison population has increased by 500 percent over the last 40 years, and the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, by far.  State and federal authorities began turning to private prison companies in the 1980s to handle overflowing facilities, and today about 8 percent of prisoners in the U.S. are housed in privately run prisons. Almost all are run by the two largest providers: Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.

In September 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal prison population had declined for the first time since 1980.  There were nearly 5,000 fewer prisoners in federal prisons in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to the year before, he said. The latest figures for state prisons are only from 2013, which showed an increase of 6,300 prisoners from the previous year.

Both GEO Group and CCA — which last year pulled in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue — have taken moves in recent years to diversify into services that don't involve keeping people behind bars.  GEO Group in 2011 acquired Behavioral Interventions, the world’s largest producer of monitoring equipment for people awaiting trial or serving out probation or parole sentences.  It followed GEO’s purchase in 2009 of Just Care, a medical and mental health service provider which bolstered its GEO Care business that provides services to government agencies.

“Our commitment is to be the world’s leader in the delivery of offender rehabilitation and community reentry programs, which is in line with the increased emphasis on rehabilitation around the world,” said GEO chairman and founder George Zoley during a recent earnings call.  

For $36 million in 2013, CCA acquired Correctional Alternatives, a company that provides housing and rehabilitation services that include work furloughs, residential reentry programs, and home confinement.  “We believe we’re going to continue to see governments seeking these types of services, and we’re well positioned to offer them,” says Steve Owen, CCA’s ‎senior director of public affairs.

Brian W. Ruttenbur, a managing director at CRT Capital Group’s research division, says that neither GEO or CCA will be significantly hurt by sentencing reform in the near future. “The big growth in recent years has been with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] and both of these companies have historically made heavy investments there,” Ruttenbur says.  Immigration detainees are commonly held in the same private facilities that contain state and federal prisoners, and a Government

Accountability Office analysis of ICE data showed that immigration detentions more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, says sentencing reform will probably not affect immigration detainees. “Immigration reform might, but even under proposed reform legislation, detention will likely increase,” he says. In 2015, more than $2 billion in federal contracts are up for bid to run five or more prisons that meet the “Criminal Alien Requirements” and house non-U.S. citizens.

May 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Senator Cornyn highlights his plan to "ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars"

This recent post spotlighted the Washington Post's extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations.  Notably, Senator John Cornyn has now penned this letter to the editor to explain what he is trying to do to deal with this issue:

A bipartisan proposal working its way through Congress would offer a path home for some nonviolent, elderly prisoners.

The Corrections Act, which I have introduced with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), includes a provision that would make prisoners age 60 and older eligible for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentences.  This reform builds on an expired pilot program from a bipartisan prison reform law known as the Second Chance Act of 2007.  That program showed good results before it was canceled last year, and our proposal would save taxpayer money by treating seriously ill and dying individuals with compassion.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we must make bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system.  Many of the issues involved are complex, but reforming the system to ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars doesn’t need to be one of them.

May 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today from the Vera Institute of Justice. Here is how the report is described on this Vera webpage:

Segregated housing, commonly known as solitary confinement, is increasingly being recognized in the United States as a human rights issue.  While the precise number of people held in segregated housing on any given day is not known with any certainty, estimates run to more than 80,000 in state and federal prisons — which is surely an undercount as these do not include people held in solitary confinement in jails, military facilities, immigration detention centers, or juvenile justice facilities.  Evidence mounts that the practice produces many unwanted and harmful outcomes — for the mental and physical health of those placed in isolation, for the public safety of the communities to which most will return, and for the corrections budgets of jurisdictions that rely on it for facility safety.

Yet solitary confinement remains a mainstay of prison management and control in the U.S. largely because many policymakers, corrections officials, and members of the general public still subscribe to some or all of the common misconceptions and misguided justifications addressed in this report.  This publication is the first in a series on solitary confinement, its use and misuse, and ways to safely reduce it in our nation’s correctional facilities made possible in part by the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust.

May 12, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

“Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons”

The title of this post is the title of this big new Human Rights Watch Report which documents worrisome use of force against prisoners with mental health problems in the United States.  Here is an excerpt from the report's introduction:

Across the United States, staff working in jails and prisons have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force on prisoners with mental disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Corrections officials at times needlessly and punitively deluge them with chemical sprays; shock them with electric stun devices; strap them to chairs and beds for days on end; break their jaws, noses, ribs; or leave them with lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs.  The violence can traumatize already vulnerable men and women, aggravating their symptoms and making future mental health treatment more difficult.  In some cases, including several documented in this report, the use of force has caused or contributed to prisoners’ deaths.

Prisons can be dangerous places, and staff are authorized to use force to protect safety and security. But under the US constitution and international human rights law, force against any prisoner (with mental disabilities or not) may be used only when — and to the extent — necessary as a last resort, and never as punishment.

As detailed in this report, staff at times have responded with violence when prisoners engage in behavior that is symptomatic of their mental health problems, even if it is minor and non-threatening misconduct such as urinating on the floor, using profane language, or banging on a cell door.  They have used such force in the absence of any emergency, and without first making serious attempts to secure the inmate’s compliance through other means.  Force is also used when there is an immediate security need to control the inmate, but the amount of force used is excessive to the need, or continues after the inmate has been brought under control.  When used in these ways, force constitutes abuse that cannot be squared with the fundamental human rights prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.  Unwarranted force also reflects the failure of correctional authorities to accommodate the needs of persons with mental disabilities.

There is no national data on the prevalence of staff use of force in the more than 5,000 jails and prisons in the United States.  Experts consulted for this report say that the misuse of force against prisoners with mental health problems is widespread and may be increasing.  Among the reasons they cite are deficient mental health treatment in corrections facilities, inadequate policies to protect prisoners from unnecessary force, insufficient staff training and supervision, a lack of accountability for the misuse of force, and poor leadership.

It is well known that US prisons and jails have taken on the role of mental health facilities. This new role for them reflects, to a great extent, the limited availability of community-based outpatient and residential mental health programs and resources, and the lack of alternatives to incarceration for men and women with mental disabilities who have engaged in minor offenses.

According to one recent estimate, correctional facilities confine at least 360,000 men and women with serious conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.  In a federal survey, 15 percent of state prisoners and 24 percent of jail inmates acknowledged symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations or delusions.

What is less well known is that persons with mental disabilities who are behind bars are at heightened risk of physical mistreatment by staff.  This report is the first examination of the use of force against inmates with mental disabilities in jails and prisons across the United States.  It identifies policies and practices that lead to unwarranted force and includes recommendations for changes to end it.

May 12, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Too Many People in Jail? Abolish Bail"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Maya Schenwar. Here are excerpts:

How can we reduce the enormous populations of our country’s local jails?

Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York unveiled a plan to decrease the population of the Rikers Island jail complex by reducing the backlog of cases in state courts.  About 85 percent of those at Rikers haven’t been convicted of any offense; they’re just awaiting trial, sometimes for as long as hundreds of days.

Mayor de Blasio’s plan is a positive step.  Yet it ignores a deeper question: Why are so many people — particularly poor people of color — in jail awaiting trial in the first place? Usually, it is because they cannot afford bail....

This is a national problem.  Across the United States, most of the people incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial.  And most of those are waiting in jail not because of any specific risk they have been deemed to pose, but because they can’t pay their bail.

In other words, we are locking people up for being poor.  This is unjust.  We should abolish monetary bail outright.

Some will argue that bail is necessary to prevent flight before trial, but there is no good basis for that assumption.  For one thing, people considered to pose an unacceptable risk of flight (or violence) are not granted bail in the first place.  (Though the procedures for determining who poses a risk themselves ought to be viewed with skepticism, especially since conceptions of risk are often shaped, tacitly or otherwise, by racist assumptions.)

There is also evidence that bail is not necessary to ensure that people show up for trial.  In Washington, D.C., a city that makes virtually no use of monetary bail, the vast majority of arrestees who are released pretrial do return to court, and rates of additional crime before trial are low.

In addition to being unjust and unnecessary, pretrial incarceration can have harmful consequences.  Not only do those who are in jail before trial suffer the trauma of confinement, but in comparison with their bailed-­out counterparts, they are also more likely to be convicted at trial.  As documented in a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, the legal system is substantially tougher to navigate from behind bars.  People in jail face more pressure to accept plea bargains — often, ones that aren’t to their advantage — than do those confronting their charges from home.

Those who spend even a few days in jail can lose their jobs or housing during that time. Single parents can lose custody of their children.  By exacerbating the effects of poverty, and by placing people in often traumatizing circumstances, pretrial incarceration may actually lead to more crime.

Bail also raises issues of racial injustice.  A number of studies have shown that black defendants are assigned higher bail amounts than their white counterparts.  This discrepancy is compounded by the fact that black people disproportionately live in poverty and thus unduly face challenges in paying bail.

May 10, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 08, 2015

Alabama rolls to join tide of red states enacting significant prison and sentencing reform

Images (1)As reported in this local article, the "Alabama Legislature Thursday gave final approval to a sweeping prison reform bill aimed at addressing the state's prison overcrowding crisis." Here are the basic details and the back-story:

The bill passed the House on a 100 to 5 vote Thursday evening.  The Senate, which approved the bill in March, concurred in the changes just a few minutes later on a 27 to 0 vote.  The legislation now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who said in a statement Thursday evening he planned to sign the bill, pending a legal review.

Bentley said in a statement the passage of the bill signaled "a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama's criminal justice system."...

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Thursday evening the passage of the bill was a first step, not a final solution to the crisis. "No one should think we pass this bill tonight and prisons are solved, because they're not," Ward said.

Prison overcrowding, an issue in Alabama for decades, stood at 186 percent in January, and the crisis has contributed to mounting violence in the state's correctional facilities. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women over accounts of sexual violence and harassment.  Six inmates have been killed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility since 2011, and allegations of physical or sexual violence have been leveled at three other prisons, including Elmore County Correctional Facility.

The reform bill aims to address the prison overcrowding crisis with new investments in parole, probation and supervision; the creation of a Class D felony for relatively minor crimes; limits on prison time and mandatory supervision for those convicted of Class C felonies, and changes to punishments for technical violations of parole.  The changes are expected to cost between $23 and $26 million a year, roughly 6.5 percent of the Department of Corrections' current $394.1 million allocation from the General Fund.

On its own, the bill will not resolve the crisis.  However, with additional building funded under a separate piece of legislation, capacity could fall to 138 percent over the next five years, with the overall population falling by about 4,500 inmates.  "That would be the largest reduction of any state in the country to this date," Ward said.

Ward said that may prevent the system from falling into federal receivership, which could lead to significant increases in prison spending; mass release of prisoners, or both. The bill before the House, Ward said, was a targeted way to address the population.  "No one's being released early," he said. "That's what we're trying to avoid, a bunch of violent offenders being released early."

The bill reflects recommendations made by the Council of State Governments and approved by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, which Ward chairs.  House Judiciary Committee chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said at the start of the House debate that the bill was not a matter of ideology.  "This is not about being Democrats, this is not about being Republicans, this is about being responsible for a problem our state faces," he said....

Some members of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force had pushed for a more sweeping bill that would have made many of the provisions retroactive.  However, Ward and other sponsors of the legislation said the coalition behind the reforms was not likely to have gone that far.

The passage of the legislation received praise from both sides of the ideological divide. Susan Watson, the executive director of ACLU Alabama, applauded the passage of the bill in a statement Thursday evening.  "The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious over-incarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it," the statement said.

Katherine Robinson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, called the move a "significant step" toward addressing the problem.  "This collaborative effort has provided the necessary catalyst of meaningful reform to Alabama's prison system," Robinson said in a statement.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the accusations at Tutwiler, St. Clair and other facilities served as a "wake-up call" to legislators who may have otherwise been reluctant to address a politically difficult issue.  "Clearly the best course of action for us as a state was to take control of this and fix it ourselves," he said.  "I'm proud of the fact we have taken a leadership role.  It was clear we were running out of time."

May 8, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 07, 2015

"Unequal Justice: Mobilizing the Private Bar to Fight Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new report recently published by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  This new Crime Report piece, headlined "Acknowledging Bias in the Criminal Justice System," provides a helpful summary of the report's key themes:

Mass incarceration reform efforts rarely formally address racial disparities within the criminal justice system, according to a new report from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group.  The report outlines systematic racial disparities in the criminal justice system and proposes strategies to address them.  It was created as a result of a series of “listening sessions” on race and imprisonment.

The sessions included dozens of practitioners, experts, academics, national law firm representatives, and formerly incarcerated individuals, who gathered “to discuss the state of mass incarceration, reform efforts, and the role of national law firms in this movement.”  The discussions near unanimous agreement that there is bias against black and Hispanic defendants in the criminal justice system.

“However, this fact is often absent in public discourse and almost never formally addressed in reform efforts.  This is particularly troubling since racial disparities in incarceration are often the result of implicit racial bias and structural or institutionalized racial discrimination, deep-rooted species of dysfunction which can only begin to be addressed by the acknowledgement and recognition that it exists,” the report’s authors wrote.

The report also noted that there is a “huge gap” in the legal effort to change mass incarceration. “Simply put, very few organizations in the nation have the resources, expertise, and will to fight mass incarceration in the courts,” the authors wrote.

May 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Inspector General report highlights problems posed by aging federal prison population

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Feds struggle to manage growing number of elderly inmates," a new report highlights an "old problem" in federal prisons.  Here are the basics:

Aging inmates remain the fastest-growing segment of the federal prison population and authorities are struggling to manage their increasing medical care and assistance with daily living, an internal Justice Department's review found. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of inmates 50 and older grew by 25% to 30,962, while the portion of younger prisoners declined by 1%, the Justice Department's inspector general reported.

The review is part of a continuing series of examinations of the federal government's costly prison system. And while the federal Bureau of Prisons last year relaxed its policy on the release of elderly or medically compromised inmates who are 65 and older, the review found that only two inmates without medical conditions had been freed during the first year of the revised policy (August 2013 to September 2014) aimed at trimming an overall prison population of more than 200,000.

In a written response, the Justice Department said that 18 prisoners had been freed under the new compassionate release policy from August 2013 to the present. "The department is committed to continued implementation of its compassionate release program ... and it will carefully consider the inspector general's recommendation to further expand the program,'' the Justice statement read.

Largely due to increasing health care needs, the average annual cost to house older inmates (defined as 50 and over) is $24,538 or 8% more than younger prisoners. "BOP institutions do not have appropriate staffing levels to address the needs of aging inmates, and they provide limited training for this purpose,'' the inspector general's report concluded, adding that the prison facilities are "inadequate'' for those inmates with compromised mobility or other physical limitations.

The full 70+ page report, titled "The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons," is available at this link.

May 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Now what for Frank Freshwaters, captured 56 years after walking away from Ohio honor camp in 1959?

This lengthy Washington Post article provide these amazing details of the real-life (and ready-for-TV) tale of a recently-captured fugitive who was been on the lam since the Eisenhower administration:

For a week, U.S. marshals staked out the trailer park at the swampy edge of the world. They watched as an old man with a white ponytail, glasses and beard slowly shuffled around his Melbourne, Fla., mobile home. The name on the mailbox said William Harold Cox, but the marshals knew better. After seven days of surveillance, they confronted Cox with a mug shot of a much younger man, dated Feb. 26, 1959.

“He said he hadn’t seen that guy in a long time,” said Maj. Tod Goodyear of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, which assisted in the stakeout. “Then he admitted it and basically said, ‘You got me.'”

As the marshals suspected, the old man was actually Frank Freshwaters, a felon on the lam for 56 years. His arrest on Monday brings to an end a half-century saga that reads like a Hollywood script, complete with a deadly crime, dramatic prison escape and a cunning trap to catch a wanted fugitive. The tale even includes a tie-in to the movie it already resembles: “The Shawshank Redemption.”

Freshwaters’s story is one of spurned second chances. Back in the summer of 1957, he was a 20-year-old kid with a full head of dark hair and a lead foot. One night in July, he was speeding through Ohio when he hit and killed a pedestrian. Freshwaters was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison only to have the sentence suspended, according to the Associated Press.

But Freshwaters squandered his good fortune. He violated probation by climbing back into the driver’s seat and was locked up in February 1959 in the Ohio State Reformatory. It would prove to be a fitting setting for Freshwaters. After its closing in 1990, the reformatory would be used as a set for “The Shawshank Redemption,” a 1994 movie about a wrongfully convicted man who escapes from prison.

Freshwaters never escaped from the reformatory, however. Instead, he secured a transfer to a nearby “honor camp,” according to the AP. It was from there that Freshwaters disappeared on Sept. 30, 1959.

The 22-year-old didn’t disappear without a trace, however. In 1975, he was arrested in Charleston, W.Va., after allegedly threatening his ex-wife. He was found hiding under a sink in his house, the AP reported. At the time, investigators said Freshwaters had fled to Florida and obtained identification and a Social Security number under the alias William Harold Cox. Then he moved to West Virginia, where he drove a mobile library for the state government and worked as a trucker.

But Freshwaters caught a second break. The governor of West Virginia refused to extradite him to Ohio. Freshwaters was freed from jail and disappeared once again.

It now appears as if he made his way down to Florida, where he continued to live under his alias, even receiving Social Security checks. Back in Ohio, meanwhile, his file gathered dust until earlier this year, when a deputy marshal reopened the 56-year-old case....

Authorities took the senior citizen into custody. During a court appearance on Tuesday, a wheelchair-bound Freshwaters waived extradition, freeing the way for him to return to Ohio and finish the up-to-18 years remaining on his manslaughter sentence. Barring another escape, he could be as old as 97 upon his release.

As far as second lives go, Freshwaters’s Florida hideout was no beachfront home in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, the location where the wrongfully convicted character Andy Dufresne settles down after escaping from Shawshank. But it was far better than an Ohio prison.

The kind reader who sent me the link to this account of the Freshwaters' story added this query: "So is it really worth it for the the state of Ohio to incarcerate an ill 79 year old rehabilitated felon for the rest of his life?"  

May 6, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

How many federal prison years are being served by defendants who (plausibly?) claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from Michigan headlined "West Michigan man sent to prison for purported medical marijuana grow operation."  Here are the basics of this story with some follow-up data/questions:

One of the two leaders of a medical marijuana grow operation has been sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.  Phillip Joseph Walsh, 54, was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo.  Betty Jenkins, described as his "life partner" in court records, will be sentenced June 29.

The Kent County residents were convicted at trial of running a marijuana grow operation that prosecutors say brought in $1.3 million.  The two, along with eight others, including a doctor who authorized patients for use of medical marijuana, were arrested last year for growing marijuana in multiple places in West Michigan.

The government contended that much of the marijuana grown was sold outside of Michigan. Jenkins was considered the leader of the organization.  The defendants argued they acted within the guidelines of Michigan's medical marijuana law but were not allowed to use the law as a defense to the federal charges.

Kent County Area Narcotics Team and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used multiple search warrants to raid numerous properties, including apartment buildings in Gaines Township. Police seized 467 marijuana plants and 18 pounds of processed marijuana.

Defense attorney Joshua Covert said his client, a father of four daughters, was "very nervous" after reviewing advisory sentencing guidelines that called for 151 to 188 months in prison.  He said that Walsh has been a good, caring father and a hard worker and has led a productive life.  "Mr. Walsh and his life partner, Ms. Jenkins, lived a comfortable but certainly not lavish or extravagant life that was financed by rental income from property Ms. Jenkins obtained through her divorce," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

"The endeavor of manufacturing marijuana was not particularly successful for Mr. Walsh from a financial standpoint because it proved to be difficult and expensive to manufacture marijuana," he wrote....  He said his client "is not seeking sympathy or pity" but asked for leniency "given the relaxed attitude toward marijuana nationwide and specifically Michigan in regards to marijuana."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Courtade said Walsh and Jenkins began manufacturing marijuana on Forest Hill Avenue SE in 2010.  Walsh hired a man to help with the grow operation before both were convicted for their roles.  The other man quit, "but Walsh and Jenkins carried on, unfazed," Courtade said.

"Defendant Walsh developed the 'marketing scheme' that ensnared many of the codefendants in this case," the prosecutor wrote....  He said that Walsh tried to insulate himself by staying he was only "'building grow rooms' ... his real motivation was far more nefarious."

He said Walsh grew marijuana for profit, with some sold in Ohio, some in Rhode Island. Courtade also said that Walsh could not document wages he earned — he reported remodeling and roofing homes — but he managed to hired his own attorneys, pay for a co-defendant's expert witnesses and build numerous manufacturing operations. He recommended a sentence within guidelines.

This story of a lengthy federal prison sentence for major marijuana dealing in a medical marijuana state itself highlights the challenges of coming up with a satisfactory answer to the question in the title of this post.  The defendants here were apparently quick to claim that they were acting in accord with Michigan state medical marijuana laws, but the facts reported suggest little basis for this defense claim of state-law compliance.

That said, I know there are at least a handful (and perhaps more than a handful) of the roughly 5000 federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking sentenced in federal courts each year involving defendants who truly have a plausible claim to being in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  A low "guestimate" that an average of 10 federal marijuana defendants in each of the last 10 years have been been sentenced to an average of 10 years in federal prison for medical marijuana activities would, in turn, suggest that 1000 years in federal prison are being served by defendants who plausibly claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes.  

That is a lot of federal prison time (which would be costing federal taxpayers roughly $30 million because each prison year costs roughly $30,000).  And I have an inkling the number could be higher.

May 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 04, 2015

"Are video visits a smart innovation for jails — or yet another way to exploit families?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable lengthy new Quartz piece. Here are excerpts:

To visit her son in jail in the suburbs of Austin, Texas, Barbara Brutschy would get on a plane and fly 1,700 miles from her home in Oregon.  She would arrive at the jail, go through security checks, including metal detectors, all airport-style.  An hour later, she would sit down in a booth, wait, and after a couple of minutes her son, Richard Fisk, would appear — on a video screen.

Video visitation, as it’s called, is the latest innovation in America’s jails.  Hundreds of jails have introduced on- and off-site video visitation since it became widely available two-to-three years ago.  (In 95 known cases, jails are using it to replace in-person visits altogether.)  Jail authorities say it’s more secure, less costly to supervise, and better for inmates too, as it allows jails to extend visiting hours.  Prisoner advocates, once optimistic about its potential, now see something more sinister: A financially-squeezed jail system and a handful of private communications companies creating an environment where inmates are exploited, often at considerable financial and emotional cost....

Twelve million people pass through the US jail system each year, most of them in pre-trial detention or serving short terms.  Jails are run by counties, while prisons, where inmates serve longer sentences, are managed by state and federal authorities.  Video visitation is much more commonly used in jails reported advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative.

“The whole purpose of video visitation was to cut down on man hours and the movement inside the jail of our inmates,” said Charlie Littleton, chief deputy sheriff at Bastrop County, Texas, which introduced video visitation and banned face-to-face in November 2014.

Jail authorities commonly say they cut labor costs when guards do not have to escort prisoners from their cells to the visiting room.  It’s unclear exactly how much the jails are saving.  When asked about whether they had calculated their savings over the course of the ban, Littleton said they hadn’t “run the figures”.

Another benefit that’s touted is increased safety through a reduction of contraband and violent incidents.  But because visits in county jails often occur through glass — the kind you see in movies, where the inmate sits on one side of the partition and the visitor on the other, with phone receivers on both ends — how video visits promote safety is not apparent.  In fact, records from Travis County showed an overall increase in infractions and contraband after banning face-to-face visitation.

Authorities say that installing video systems makes it easier for families to visit.  That’s how the systems are marketed as well.  “By leveraging the technology, facilities are able to provide far more hours of operation for visits for friends and family,” Tim Eickhoff, a vice president at GTL told Quartz.

But those extended hours can come with a catch, prisoners and their families have found. In some cases, the frequency of free on-site visits has been curtailed, forcing families to use paid off-site services to communicate....

The financial cost to prisoners and their families of video calls can be considerable. A Securus video call can cost as much as $1.50 per minute–all of which falls on the outside caller.  That means a 20-minute video call can cost as much as $30 — for a service not very different from Skype or Google Hangouts, that most of us in the outside world use for free. Some companies also add a flat service charge, further hiking up the fees.  In Buchanan County, Missouri, the fee to simply deposit money into your TurnKey Corrections phone account is $8.95....

Starting in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission initiated efforts to limit how much prisons could charge inmates for phone calls, amid public outrage at reports of exorbitant costs. One 15-minute phone call, operated by a private communications company, can cost as much as $12.95 (paywall).  But while the commission is beginning to impose caps on costs of phone calls, it did not extend the limits to video visits. (It has “sought comment on the matter” a spokesperson for the FCC tells Quartz.)

“Video visitation is absolutely unregulated. Phones are beginning to be regulated, and I think that most people in the field see video visitation as a way to skirt around that regulation,” says Josh Gravens of advocacy group Texas CURE. The cost is too much, he says, for the quality of the call. “In this day and time, we have such a technological advantage. It’s not even justifiable.”

Private communications companies typically add sweeteners to encourage jails to sign up for their services. These can include the free installation of the systems, as well as significant commissions to the jails for each video call ranging from less than 1% to half of what an inmate is charged, and even 63% in one case, found the PPI report. For jails, the sweeteners, along with the savings they anticipate, can offer a way to bolster their cash-strapped budgets. As Ann Jacobs, director of the Prison Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York noted, although jail budgets have grown along with the prison population, that growth has only been enough to accommodate basic needs of the facilities. “Correctional authorities are encouraged to get creative where to find profit.”...

Video visits exact an emotional as well as financial toll on inmates and their families. Jail sentences are relatively short, but some inmates linger in pre-trial detention for as long as six years. Research maintains that the best kind of meeting for inmates is a contact visit, the kind that is offered in state prisons. Studies have repeatedly proven that touch helps with creating social bonds, reducing stress, and increasing trust.

Placing a camera and screens between inmate and visitor eliminates some of the advantages of a visit. “They’re probably less than 500 feet away from you and you feel like they’re still in another state,” said Fisk. Just like with a Skype or FaceTime connection, you can’t maintain eye contact on a video call, because you spend most of your time looking at the screen, not at the camera. “You can never look someone in the eye. It’s impossible.”

Some prior related posts:

May 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The never-aging (and ever-costly) story of ever-aging US prison populations

14972752EToday's Washington Post has this extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations. This will feel like an old story to regular readers of this blog, but these prison realities will remain timely as more and more offenders "age into" the decades-long sentences that became far more common even for lesser offenses over the last quarter-century. The piece is headlined "The painful price of aging in prison: Even as harsh sentences are reconsidered, the financial — and human — tolls mount," and here are a few excerpts:

Twenty-one years into his nearly 50-year sentence, the graying man steps inside his stark cell in the largest federal prison complex in America. He wears special medical boots because of a foot condition that makes walking feel as if he’s “stepping on a needle.” He has undergone tests for a suspected heart condition and sometimes experiences vertigo. “I get dizzy sometimes when I’m walking,” says the 63-year-old inmate, Bruce Harrison. “One time, I just couldn’t get up.”...

In recent years, federal sentencing guidelines have been revised, resulting in less severe prison terms for low-level drug offenders. But Harrison, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, remains one of tens of thousands of inmates who were convicted in the “war on drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s and who are still behind bars. Harsh sentencing policies, including mandatory minimums, continue to have lasting consequences for inmates and the nation’s prison system. Today, prisoners 50 and older represent the fastest-growing population in crowded federal correctional facilities, their ranks having swelled by 25 percent to nearly 31,000 from 2009 to 2013.

Some prisons have needed to set up geriatric wards, while others have effectively been turned into convalescent homes. The aging of the prison population is driving health-care costs being borne by American taxpayers. The Bureau of Prisons saw health-care expenses for inmates increase 55 percent from 2006 to 2013, when it spent more than $1 billion. That figure is nearly equal to the entire budget of the U.S. Marshals Service or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general, who is conducting a review of the impact of the aging inmate population on prison activities, housing and costs....

“Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the infirmities that come with age,” said Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch and an author of a report titled “Old Behind Bars.”

“There are countless ways that the aging inmates, some with dementia, bump up against the prison culture,” she said. “It is difficult to climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to stand up for count or sit down when you’re told.”

For years, state prisons followed the federal government’s lead in enacting harsh sentencing laws. In 2010, there were some 246,000 prisoners age 50 and older in state and federal prisons combined, with nearly 90 percent of them held in state custody, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report titled “At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly.”

On both the state and federal level, the spiraling costs are eating into funds that could be used to curtail violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption, financial fraud and human trafficking. The costs — as well as officials’ concerns about racial disparities in sentencing — are also driving efforts to reduce the federal prison population.

For now, however, prison officials say there is little they can do about the costs. Edmond Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said: “We have to provide a certain level of medical care for whoever comes to us.”

A few (of many) recent and older related posts:

May 3, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 02, 2015

"Re-Examining Juvenile Incarceration: High cost, poor outcomes spark shift to alternatives"

The title of this post is the title of this notable issue brief released this past week by Pew's Public Safety Performance Project. Here is how the document starts and concludes:

A growing body of research demonstrates that for many juvenile offenders, lengthy out-of-home placements in secure corrections or other residential facilities fail to produce better outcomes than alternative sanctions.  In certain instances, they can be counterproductive. Seeking to reduce recidivism and achieve better returns on their juvenile justice spending, several states have recently enacted laws that limit which youth can be committed to these facilities and moderates the length of time they can spend there.  These changes prioritize the use of costly facilities and intensive programming for serious offenders who present a higher risk of reoffending, while supporting effective community-based programs for others....

In recent years, a number of states have passed laws excluding certain juveniles from being placed in state custody, reflecting a growing recognition of the steep cost and low public safety return of confining juveniles who commit lower-level offenses in residential facilities.  Some states also have modified the length of time juveniles spend in custody. Because research shows little to no recidivism reduction from extended stays for many offenders, a handful of states have adopted mechanisms to evaluate youth placements and shorten them when appropriate.

May 2, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice" (with some notable omissions)

The first part of the title of this post is the title of this fascinating new publication released today by the Brennan Center for Justice.  Here is how the 164-page text is described in an e-mail I received this morning:

In a remarkable cross-ideological effort, this book includes essays by public figures and experts who will play a leading role in the nation’s debate over the coming year.  The book contains original essays by Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Cory Booker, Chris Christie, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Cathy L. Lanier, Martin O’Malley, Janet Napolitano, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Bryan Stevenson, Scott Walker, and Jim Webb, among others.

In his foreword, former President William J. Clinton writes, “There is one area where we have a genuine chance at bipartisan cooperation: the over-imprisonment of people who did not commit serious crimes.  The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement.  But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark.”

This book offers a first-of-its-kind preview of the solutions likely to be debated in the lead up to 2016. There is striking consensus around one idea: the need to reduce mass incarceration.  Solutions range from releasing low-level offenders waiting for trial to using federal grants to change police practices … from eliminating prison for low-level drug crimes to increasing mental health treatment.

This effort, spearheaded by our Justice Program director Inimai Chettiar, aims to elevate ending mass incarceration as a vital national issue in need of urgent attention. We look forward to your partnership in the months ahead — as these reforms are debated before the nation.

I am very interested in seeing what everyone in this new publication has to say, and I suspect the words of the presidential candidates in this collection will prove especially important in the months ahead. In short, this is must-read, perhaps especially as sad, harmful and disturbing events continue to unfold in Baltimore this week.

That all said, I must state that I am a bit put off by the fact that Bill Clinton authors the foreword without noting his own significant role in helping to encourage the adoption and preservation of, in his words, the "too many laws [that were] overly broad instead of appropriately tailored [which has resulted in] some [who] are in prison who shouldn’t be, others [who] are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities." Relatedly, I am deeply disappointed that none of the other three living Presidents, all of whom have long and notable criminal justice track records (especially both President Bushes) are included in this important collection of "American Leaders" speaking out.

Particularly notable and disconcerting is the absence of anything in this collection by our most recent in former President, George W. Bush, especially in light of Bill Clinton's justifiable concerns about the importance of efforts to "educate, train, and reintegrate [former offenders] into our communities." As often highlighted on this blog (and in too few other places), President George W. called America "the land of second chance" in his 2004 State of the Union address while spotlighting prisoner re-entry issues and proposing "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."

In his important 2004 SotU speech, President Bush compelling advocated that "when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."  But now, more than a decade later, and thanks largely to the failings of both Congress and President Bush's successor in the Oval Office, there is still far too little attention given to the needs and challenges of former offenders.  President Bush highlighted 11 years ago that persons released from prison each year represented  "another group of Americans in need of help," but it seems only now have a number of other "American Leaders" gotten the message. 

April 28, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

New problems with drones smuggling contraband in to prisons

Drone-drops-mobile-phones-over-prison-walls_2.w_lThis New York Times article would perhaps be amusing if it were not so disconcerting.  The headline is is "Illegal Air Mail for Prisoners, via Drones," and here are excerpts:

During the graveyard shift at 1:44 a.m., security cameras at the prison here picked up the blinking lights of an unidentified flying object approaching the facility’s fence. A corrections officer was dispatched to investigate, but by the time she got there, all she could see was a man running away into the dense forest that surrounds the prison.

It was not until dawn that officers found a package that included a cellphone, tobacco and marijuana tangled in the power lines outside the prison and a small drone that had crashed in the bushes nearby. In the woods, investigators located a makeshift campground, the remote control device used to fly the drone, a bottle of grape­flavored Gatorade and drugs.

“It was a delivery system,” said Bryan P. Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, explaining how the drone’s operators had planned to send the contraband into the prison, the Lee Correctional Institution. “They were sending in smaller amounts in repeated trips. They would put it on there, they would deliver it, someone inside would get it somehow, and they would send it back out and send more in.”

It is the high­-tech version of smuggling a file into a prison in a birthday cake, and it underscores the headache that drones are now creating for law enforcement and national security officials, who acknowledge that they have few, if any, ways of stopping them.

Drones flying over prison walls may not be the chief concern of corrections officials. But they say that some would­be smugglers are experimenting with the technique as an alternative to established methods like paying off officers, hiding contraband in incoming laundry and throwing packages disguised as rocks over fences into recreational yards.

The authorities have detected at least three similar attempts at corrections facilities in the United States in the past two years. In the same period, there were also at least four reported attempts abroad, in Ireland, Britain, Australia and Canada.

April 22, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper concerning the potential impact of the Supreme Court case re-argued yesterday.  The piece is authored by Leah Litman, and here is the abstract:

This Essay examines the impact a favorable decision in Johnson v. United States could have at the various stages of post-conviction relief for three categories of prisoners -- prisoners whose convictions have not yet become final; prisoners whose convictions have become final but who have not yet filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief; and prisoners whose convictions have become final and who have already filed at least one petition seeking post-conviction relief.  In doing so, it offers a reading of the relevant cases and statutes that permits any defendant sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act to obtain relief based on a decision invalidating the residual clause.  It also highlights some under-explored statutes and doctrinal questions that courts will confront as they determine which prisoners should be resentenced in light of Johnson.

April 21, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"What's the Matter with Cumulative Error?: Killing a Federal Claim in Order to Save It"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper concerning federal habeas review authored by Ryan Semerad now available via SSRN. (For the record, Ryan happens to be one of (many) wonderful students in my sentencing class this spring, but I am pretty sure he hd finished most of this article before I started polluting his mind.). Here is the abstract:

This Note investigates the inefficacy of cumulative error claims raised by state death row inmates in their federal habeas corpus petitions. It surveys modern federal habeas precedents giving rise to cumulative error claims, investigates the various circuit standards used in evaluating these claims, and concludes that these claims fail due to the confluence of vague historical precedent and increasingly restrictive federal habeas law. It recommends constructing a mandatory pre-federal habeas review procedure wherein claims of cumulative error are evaluated on the merits by all the stakeholders in the state criminal justice systems in order to ensure the integrity of that system and the reliability of criminal convictions and sentences. 

April 21, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Highlighting the mental illness underbelly of modern incarceration

The front-page of my own Columbus Dispatch today has this effective article about my state's prison population headlined "Ohio’s prisons hold 10 times as many mentally ill as its psychiatric hospitals do." Here are excerpts:

The largest provider of mental-health services in Ohio is easy to find: Look no farther than the nearest state prison. More than 10,500 people in Ohio prisons, more than 1 in 5, have a diagnosed mental illness. And 1 in 12 has a serious and persistent condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There are 10 times as many mentally ill inmates as there are patients in Ohio’s six psychiatric hospitals.

The numbers are higher for females: 41 percent of 2,510 inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville are on the mental-health caseload.

Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio, said these alarming figures are no accident. “These people are generally not in prison because they are criminals,” he said. “Most people that end up there are the most severely mentally disabled who get into trouble because they are untreated or resistant to treatment. Families many times desert them or don’t know how to help. They end up in the street, which puts them in harm’s way. In most cases, law enforcement gets involved.”...

Taxpayers pay the hefty tab for the 10,596 mentally ill inmates. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction spent $41.7 million on mental-health care and medications in fiscal year 2014 and is projected to spend $49 million this year. That is on top of the $22,836 annual overall cost per inmate.

Gary Mohr signed up to run state prisons, not mental-health facilities, but he’s doing both. Cognizant of the issues, and the costs related to mentally ill inmates, Mohr opened residential treatment units at four prisons, including the Marysville facility. He is opening a fifth at the Grafton Correctional Institution. And he is hiring 27 more mental-health staffers and adding beds at the Allen Oakwood Correctional Facility in Lima, where seriously mentally inmates are housed.

Mohr said he is relaxing the long-standing policy of segregating mentally ill inmates with behavioral problems. “We are coming up with a policy where we do not keep inmates who are mentally ill in long-term isolation. Segregation is our default sanction, but our goal is to ensure that the behavior that got them there doesn’t happen again. This is going to be a major reform in Ohio and across the U.S."

Mohr also is pushing for greater support and more funding for mental-health courts, currently in just eight of 88 counties, to divert mentally ill people to less-costly, more-effective programs. “If these courts become familiar with the issues and can find suitable placements, particularly with Medicaid, we ought to be doing that instead of just launching them into prison.”

Dr. Kathryn Burns, chief psychiatrist in the prison system, said people with mental illnesses typically get arrested more often because their untreated behavior brings them into conflict with law enforcement. In the legal system, they have fewer chances of getting community treatment or probation because judges have limited options. The offenders have burned bridges with family members and in the community. Prison is often the last resort....

The expansion of the federal Medicaid program by Gov. John Kasich’s administration is making a big difference.... While Medicaid can’t be used to treat inmates in prison, it applies once they are discharged. The state has signed up all female prisoners for Medicaid and is working to enroll the men.

While there are encouraging developments, NAMI Director Russell remains troubled that prisons have become asylums for the mentally ill. The organization’s statewide conference on Friday and Saturday at the Hyatt Regency will focus on “criminalization” of the mentally ill. “We just have no place for those individuals who are ill enough to be in harm’s way but are not ill enough to end up in a hospital,” he said. “Criminalizing the mentally ill just makes no sense from a treatment and economic standpoint.”

April 19, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Why We Let Prison Rape Go On"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary in today's New York Times authored by Chandra Bozelko. Here are excerpts:

It’s been called “America’s most ‘open’ secret”: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 80,000 women and men a year are sexually abused in American correctional facilities. That number is almost certainly subject to underreporting, through shame or a victim’s fear of retaliation. Overall, only 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to the police in 2010, and the rate of reporting in prisons is undoubtedly lower still.

To tackle the problem, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003. The way to eliminate sexual assault, lawmakers determined, was to make Department of Justice funding for correctional facilities conditional on states’ adoption of zero-tolerance policies toward sexual abuse of inmates....

But only two states — New Hampshire and New Jersey — have fully complied with the act. Forty-seven states and territories have promised that they will do so. Using Justice Department data, the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that from 2003 to 2012, when the law’s standards were finalized, nearly two million inmates were sexually assaulted.

Six Republican governors have neglected or refused to comply, complaining of cost and other factors. Rick Perry, then the governor of Texas, wrote to the Justice Department last year stating that 40 percent of the correctional officers in male facilities in Texas were women, so that “cross-gender viewing” (like witnessing inmates in the shower, which contravenes the legal guidelines) could not be avoided. The mandated measures, he said, would levy “an unacceptable cost” on Texas, which has one of the highest rates of prison sexual assault....

Ultimately, prisons protect rape culture to protect themselves. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about half of prison sexual assault complaints in 2011 were filed against staff. (These reports weren’t all claims of forcible rape; it is considered statutory sexual assault for a guard to have sexual contact with an inmate.)

I was an inmate for six years in Connecticut after being convicted of identity fraud, among other charges. From what I saw, the same small group of guards preyed on inmates again and again, yet never faced discipline. They were protected by prison guard unions, one of the strongest forces in American labor....

The Justice Department estimates that the total bill to society for prison rape and sexual abuse is as high as $51.9 billion per year, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. If states refuse to implement the law when the fiscal benefit is so obvious, something larger is at stake.

According to Allen Beck, senior statistical adviser at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “institutional culture and facility leadership may be key factors in determining the level of victimization.” Rape persists, in other words, because it’s the cultural wallpaper of American correctional facilities. We preserve the abuse because we’re down with perps getting punished in the worst ways.

Compliance does not even cost that much. The Justice Department estimates that full nationwide compliance would cost $468.5 million per year, through 2026. Even that much is less than 1 percent of states’ spending on corrections. Putting aside the cruelty and pain inflicted, prison rape costs far more than the implementation of the law designed to stop it.

April 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

'Cause all of me, loves all of you ... who are harmed by mass incarceration's imperfections

Images (1)The title of this post is my weak effort to merge John Legend's most popular song lyrics with his notable new campaign.  This AP story provides the details:

John Legend has launched a campaign to end mass incarceration. The Grammy-winning singer announced the multiyear initiative, FREE AMERICA, on Monday.  He will visit and perform at a correctional facility on Thursday in Austin, Texas, where he also will be part of a press conference with state legislators to discuss Texas' criminal justice system.

"We have a serious problem with incarceration in this country," Legend said in an interview.  "It's destroying families, it's destroying communities and we're the most incarcerated country in the world, and when you look deeper and look at the reasons we got to this place, we as a society made some choices politically and legislatively, culturally to deal with poverty, deal with mental illness in a certain way and that way usually involves using incarceration."

Legend, 36, will also visit a California state prison and co-host a criminal justice event with Politico in Washington, D.C., later this month.  The campaign will include help from other artists — to be announced — and organizations committed to ending mass incarceration.

"I'm just trying to create some more awareness to this issue and trying to make some real change legislatively," he said.  "And we're not the only ones. There are senators that are looking at this, like Rand Paul and Cory Booker, there are other nonprofits that are looking at this, and I just wanted to add my voice to that."

Legend's speech at the Academy Awards this year struck a chord when he spoke about mass incarceration.  He won the Oscar for best original song with rapper Common for "Glory" from the film "Selma."

The singer said an early victory for his campaign was the approval of Proposition 47 in California in November, which calls for treating shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs — including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines — as misdemeanors instead of felonies.  "Once you have that tag of a felony on your name, it's hard for you to do anything," Legend said. "Getting those reduced to misdemeanors really impacted a lot of lives and we hope to launch more initiatives like that around the country."

Perhaps "Weird Al" Yankovic or John Legend himself can pen a version of "All of Me" that could become the movement's theme song.

April 14, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack