Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Opportunities for law students and recent law grads interested in prisoners’ rights

Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director of the Prison Law & Policy Program at the UCLA School of Law asked me to post the following.  It is my pleasure to do so:

Below are two announcements for law students and recent law grads interested in prisoners’ rights:

  1. About 18 months ago, the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program launched Prison Law JD, a listserv for current law students and young lawyers interested in prisoners’ rights. The list is currently used to share job and fellowship announcements and other information of interest, and we are in the midst of creating mechanisms to allow members to connect to one another directly over issues of mutual interest.  The ultimate aim is to forge a community among the next generation of prisoners’ rights advocates. If you know any law students or young lawyers who might want to join Prison Law JD, please invite them to contact me at dolovich@law.ucla.edu

  2. The National Prisoners’ Advocates Conference will take place at University of Denver College of Law Oct 5-6, 2018.  The day before, Thursday Oct 4, Prison Law JD will be hosting a pre-conference program. If you know anyone you think might like to participate in either part of this program, whether in person or remotely, please share this information with them.

From 3:30-5:15pm, there will be a panel discussion geared toward law students and recently graduated lawyers interested in doing this work. The panel will feature Sarah Grady of Loevy and Loevy on the nuts and bolts of prisoner litigation, Deb Golden of the Human Rights Defense Center on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), and Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center on non-obvious routes to doing prisoners' rights work.

For those unable to attend in person, this panel will be broadcast at the link below:

Starting out as a Prisoners’ Rights Lawyer: What You Need to Know, 10/4/2018 (Thu)

https://du-denverlaw.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=4a5ba04a-1669-4c85-929b-a95f0112fd67

Live stream from classroom starts at 3:20pm and ends at 5:30pm.

At 5:45pm, there will be a working group strategy session to think about how to build out the Prison Law JD community and best support the next generation of prisoners’ rights lawyers. Those who can’t be there in person are welcome to participate remotely. Here’s the call-in info:

Zoom Conference Call in Number and Meeting ID Number (Meeting Starts at 5:45 pm and Ends at 8:00 pm MDT)

Telephone: Dial(for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):    US: +1 646 558 8656  or +1 669 900 6833

    Meeting ID: 568 249 890     International numbers available: https://zoom.us/u/aewKZAGStV

Any questions? Please contact Sharon Dolovich at dolovich@law.ucla.edu

September 19, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A Way Out: Abolishing Death By Incarceration in Pennsylvania"

AlcThe title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report released this week by the Abolitionist Law Center.  Here are excerpts from its executive summary:

Over the last 25 years, the number of people serving life-without-parole, or death-by-incarceration (DBI), sentences in the United States has exploded from 12,453 people in 1992 to over 53,000 people today — 10% of whom are incarcerated in Pennsylvania.

With over 5,300 people sentenced to DBI and one of the highest per capita DBI sentencing rates in the country, Pennsylvania stakes a strong claim as the U.S. and world leader in this distinctively harsh form of punishment and permanent exclusion of its citizens. Philadelphia, with nearly 2,700 people serving DBI sentences, is the world’s leading jurisdiction in sentencing people to die in prison —more than any county or parish in the United States and far more than any individual country in the world.

In 1974, fewer than 500 people were serving DBI sentences in Pennsylvania.  As of September 2017, 5,346 people are serving death-by-incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. Despite a 21% decline in violent crime between 2003 and 2015, Pennsylvania’s population of people sentenced to DBI has risen by 40% between 2003 and 2016.6 Pennsylvania ranks near the top of every measure of DBI sentences across the country....

Like most measures of the criminal legal system, death-by-incarceration sentences disproportionately impact communities of color.  Black Pennsylvanians are serving death-by-incarceration sentences at a rate more than 18-times higher than that of White Pennsylvanians.

Latinx Pennsylvanians are serving DBI sentences at a rate 5-times higher than White Pennsylvanians. Racial disparities in DBI sentences are even more pronounced than among the overall Pennsylvania prison population, in which 47% of those incarcerated are Black, compared to 11% of the state’s population. Of those serving DBI sentences, however, 65% are Black while 25% are White.

Among other interesting aspects of this big report is this introductory note about terminology:

Throughout this report we use the term Death By Incarceration (DBI) when referring to life-withoutparole (LWOP) sentences.  We do this for several reasons.  First, it is the preferential term selected by incarcerated people that we work with who are serving these sentences, and we are a movement-lawyering organization that is accountable to the movements we work with.  Second, it focuses on the ultimate fact of the sentence, which is that the only way it ends, barring extraordinary relief from a court or the Board of Pardons, is with death.  Third, DBI invokes the social death experienced by the incarcerated, as they are subject to degraded legal status, diminished rights, excluded from social and political life, tracked with an “inmate number” like a piece of inventory, and warehoused for decades in this subjugated status.  Finally, although DBI in this report is used to refer to LWOP sentences, the DBI label indicates that our concern is not merely with LWOP sentences, but inclusive of other term-of-years sentences that condemn a person to die in prison.

September 19, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Office of Inspector General assails how federal Bureau of Prisons manages female prisoners

As reported in this Washington Times piece, "A critical shortage of correctional officers plaguing the nation’s prison system is having a disparate effect on female inmates, a government watchdog said Tuesday." Here is more about the report and reactions to it:

The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, concluded the dearth of trained prison employees is restricting the access of female prisoners to necessary care and services. “The lack of sufficient staff is most noticeable at larger female institutions,” Mr. Horowitz wrote in a report....

The report also concluded that 90 percent of the female inmate population would benefit from trauma treatment, but staffing shortages make it nearly impossible to provide eligible inmates with the care they need, according to the report....

Kara Gotsch, director of Strategic Initiatives at the Sentencing Project, said she was “not shocked” by the inspector general’s findings. “There is a staffing shortage system-wide,” she said.  “But staff shortages are more complicated with women prisoners because it’s compounded when you have male correctional officers in positions where women are required to do the strip searches.”

The inspector general recommended the Bureau of Prisons improve the allocation of staff across the country’s correctional facilities and ensure that all staffers have received proper training.  In a response attached to the report, Hugh Hurwitz, acting director for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said he agrees with the inspector general’s recommendations and vowed to improve both staffing and training.  “The BOP will determine the appropriate level of staffing that should be allocated to the Women and Special Populations Branch, based on an analysis of its broad mission and responsibilities,” Mr. Hurwitz wrote.

Ms. Gotsch said the best solution to the issue is sentencing reform to reduce the number of women incarcerated for low-level offenses.  “We are putting too many women in prison for low-level offenses for too long,” she said.  “There is never enough money in the federal budget to adequately care for prisoners if we have significant overcrowding and maintain these high levels of incarceration.”

The full 60-page OIG report is titled "Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Management of Its Female Inmate Population," and it is available at this link.  Here is a paragraph from its introduction:

We concluded that BOP has not been strategic in its management of female inmates.  We determined that BOP needs to take additional steps at the Central Office level to ensure that female inmate needs are met at the institution level.  Our review identified instances in which BOP’s programming and policy has not fully considered the needs of female inmates, which has made it difficult for inmates to access certain key programs and supplies.  Further, while BOP is adhering to federal regulations and BOP policies requiring that only female Correctional Officers conduct strip searches of female inmates, BOP’s method for ensuring compliance with these requirements assigns staff inefficiently.  Finally, we found that BOP’s conversion of Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Danbury to house male inmates negatively affected certain female inmates who had been housed there.

September 19, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Events and resources covering Ohio sentencing and prison reform ballot initiative known now as Issue 1

Depc_testA few months ago, I flagged here the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.   With early voting in Ohio now just a month away and Election Day 2018 not much more than 50 days away, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of Issue 1 programming about to begin and has a lot of resources already assembled on its website.

This Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels under the title Ballot Insights.  Registration for these panels is available at this link, where you can also find more details on scheduled speakers and on which aspects of the Issue 1 will be the focus for particular panels (e.g., a first panel in October is focused on the Issue 1 provisions expanding "earned time credit" for Ohio prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitative programming; a second panel in October looks at how to ensure any increased funding for drug treatment is utilized effectively). 

I have the pleasure of moderating the first Issue 1 panel this coming Thursday, which is titled simply "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment: Step in the Right Direction."  This panel will include a leading proponent of Issue 1 (Steven JohnsonGrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center), a leading opponent of Issue 1 (Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association), and a leading Ohio criminal justice reform expert (Daniel Dew of The Buckeye Institute).  The bios of the presenters are detailed at this link.

In addition to all the panels, DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1, which includes links to the ballot language, position statements from various groups and select media coverage.  DEPC is also building out a Commentary Page on Issue 1 for publishing original commentary that the Center has solicited. (A pair of public health scholars submitted this first commentary for publication on the DEPC site.)

 Prior related posts:

September 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice launches "Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints"

As detailed in this ACLU press release, titled "Smart Justice Blueprints Launch With 24 State Reports And Interactive Web Tool, Remaining 27 To Be Rolled Out In Coming Months," the folks at the ACLU have an interesting new set of state-focused national resources advocating for criminal justice reform. Here are portions of the press release:

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice today unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half.

The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system.  They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices.

The 51 reports — covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia — will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports.  The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue.  The interactive feature is here.

Each blueprint includes an overview of the state’s incarcerated populations, including analysis on who is being sent to jail and prison and the racial disparities that are present, what drives people into the system, how long people spend behind bars, and why people are imprisoned for so long.  The blueprints offer a calculation on the impact of certain reforms by 2025 on racial disparities in the prison population, fiscal costs, and overall prison population.  They also show precisely how a 50 percent decarceration goal could be achieved.

While more than 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, only about 10 percent are in federal prisons. Approximately 90 percent of the people incarcerated in the United States are held in local jails and in state prisons.  “Mass incarceration is a nationwide problem, but one that is rooted in the states and must be fixed by the states,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.  “We hope that the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints provide necessary guideposts for activists and policymakers as they pursue local solutions that will address the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system and dramatically reduce their jail and prison populations.  Some of the reforms contained in the blueprints are readily achievable, while others are going to require audacious change. But all are needed to prioritize people over prisons.”

The state reports provide a snapshot of how reformers cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to ending mass incarceration.  For example, in Louisiana, because more than one in three people admitted to prison in 2016 were convicted of property offenses and 30 percent of all admissions were for drug offenses, one road that Louisianans could take for reducing their prison population would be reclassifying drug and many property offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

In Pennsylvania, the number of people entering prison for parole violations grew by 56 percent between 2006 and 2016, suggesting that the state’s decarceration strategy should include the improvement of parole and release policies and the implementation of reforms that would drive down the number of people sent to prison due to supervision violations.

Finally, in Michigan, 16 percent of prison admissions are for drug offenses, and a majority of the people (74 percent) imprisoned in Michigan are serving time for offenses involving violence. Thus, to reduce significantly the prison population in Michigan, policymakers must focus more heavily on transforming the way the criminal justice system responds to offenses like robbery and assault, which lead to sentences that have become harsher and longer over the past decade.

The website and the reports were created by utilizing a forecasting tool developed by the Urban Institute, which can be viewed here.

September 5, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Decarceration Strategies: How 5 States Achieved Substantial Prison Population Reductions"

The title of this post is the title of this new 50-page report by The Sentencing Project. Here is the start of its executive summary:

From 1980 until its peak in 2009, the total federal and state prison population of the United States climbed from about 330,000 to more than 1.6 million — a nearly 400% increase  — while the total general population of the country grew by only 36%, and the crime rate fell by 42%.  The catalyst of this prison expansion was policy changes that prioritized “getting tough” on crime. 

The national prison population began a gradual descent after 2009, lessening by nearly 113,000 (6%) from 2009 through 2016.  Several factors contributed to this decline: ongoing decreases in crime rates leading to fewer felony convictions; scaling back “war on drugs” policies; increased interest in evidence-based approaches to sentencing and reentry; and growing concerns about the fiscal cost of corrections and its impact on other state priorities.  The state of California alone was responsible for 36% of the overall population decline, a function of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring its overcrowded prison system to be unconstitutional and subsequent legislative responses to reduce the use of state incarceration.

Despite the decline, the overall pace of change is quite modest.  A recent analysis documents that at the rate of change from 2009 to 2016 it will take 75 years to reduce the prison population by half.  And while 42 states have experienced declines from their peak prison populations, 20 of these declines are less than 5%, while 8 states are still experiencing rising populations.

To aid policymakers and criminal justice officials in achieving substantial prison population reductions, this report examines the experience of five states – Connecticut, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and South Carolina — that have achieved prison population reductions of 14-25%.  This produced a cumulative total of 23,646 fewer people in prison with no adverse effects on public safety. (While a handful of other states have also experienced significant population reductions — including California, New York, and New Jersey —  these have been examined in other publications, and so are not addressed here.

The five states highlighted in this report are geographically and politically diverse and have all enacted a range of shifts in policy and practice to produce these outcomes.  All five were engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process, spearheaded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council on State Governments, which was designed to work with stakeholders to respond to the driving forces of prison expansion in each state and to develop strategies for change in policy and practice.

This report seeks to inform stakeholders in other states of the range of policy options available to them for significantly reducing their prison population.  While we provide some assessment of the political environment which contributed to these changes, we do not go into great detail in this area since stakeholders will need to make their own determinations of strategy based on the particularities of their state.  We note, though, that the leaders of reform varied among states, and emerged among governors, legislators, criminal justice officials, and advocacy organizations, often benefiting from media coverage and editorial support.

The prison population reductions in these five states were achieved through data-driven policy reforms that pursued bipartisan consensus.  Changes were advanced in the areas of risk and needs assessment, community supervision, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing and sanctions, prison release mechanisms, prisoner reentry and community reintegration.

Five key strategies and practices that were employed in these states are summarized below, followed by extensive reviews for each of the five states.

September 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling completes his time in federal prison

The name Jeff Skilling still stirs up a lot of sentencing thoughts for me because, 15 years ago, he was portrayed as one of the "worst-of-the-worst" white-collar offenders and he was one of the first very high-profile white-collar defendants to be sentenced after Booker made the guidelines advisory.  Consequently, this new article caught my eye under the headline "Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling released from prison and sent to a halfway house." Here are the particulars and context:

Jeffrey K. Skilling, the former Enron CEO sentenced to a long prison term for his role in one of most notorious corporate fraud cases in history, was recently released from a minimum security federal prison camp in Alabama to a halfway house at an undisclosed location.

Enron's spectacular collapse cost investors billions of dollars and wiped out the retirement savings — not to mention the jobs — of thousands of employees.  Skilling, 64, was convicted of 12 counts of securities fraud, five counts of making false statements to auditors, one count of insider trading and one count of conspiracy in 2006 for his role in hiding debt and orchestrating a web of financial fraud that ended in the Houston company's bankruptcy.

He was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $45 million, the harshest sentence of any former Enron executive.  Five years ago, Skilling's sentence was reduced to 14 years by U.S. District Judge Sim Lake.  He is scheduled to be released Feb. 21, 2019, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Federal prisoners are often released from prison several months early to a halfway house, a highly restricted dormitory-like setting that helps inmates ease back into society. They must maintain curfews, find work and stay out of trouble.  A. Kelley, assistant residential re-entry manager for the Bureau of Prisons in San Antonio, said the bureau would not say where Skilling is living.

The Bureau of Prisons typically sends inmates to a halfway house in their home city where they resided before incarceration.  It helps them re-acclimate to a more normal life and re-establish relationships with their families, said Philip Hilder, a white-collar defense lawyer who represented Sherron Watkins, a former vice president at Enron who went to then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay to warn him of accounting irregularities she discovered while reviewing Enron's assets.

Inmates are typically required to get a job while they're at a halfway house and to report regularly to the federal probation department for up to three years, Hilder said. Skilling's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

September 4, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Prison chief explains his "non-political approach" to sentencing and prison reforms

John Wetzel, who serves as chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, has this new Hill commentary under the headline "A non-political approach focused on what works is key to solving prison crisis."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

[W]hile criminal justice reform currently occupies the rarified airspace of being mutually appealing to both sides of the political spectrum at the macro level, there remains a split on whether sentencing reform — the front end of the criminal justice system — should be included as a component of the First Step Act.  As written, the legislation focuses solely on reforms to back end within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

With the caveat that any improvements to the federal corrections system – even incremental improvements — should be welcomed with open arms, the factual answer is that to realize actual, quantifiable improvement, sentencing reform is essential. It’s easy and common to embrace the notion that recidivism reduction is a back end issue and one owned solely by corrections professionals like me.  This notion is dead wrong.

As a Republican appointed as Secretary of Corrections by a Republican governor (Tom Corbett) and who was asked to continue in the role by a Democratic governor (Tom Wolf), I would argue that good sentencing, and by extension, prison policy, can rise above party politics.

I believe the formula for recidivism reduction is this: Incarcerate the right people for the right amount of time and provide them with the programming they need that specifically addresses the criminogenic factors that led to them committing a crime and, finally, provide the individualized reentry support to start them on a path to good citizenship....

Governor Tom Wolf, in kicking off Pennsylvania’s most recent criminal justice reform initiative, exemplifies the outcomes measure: less crime, fewer victims.  Achieving that goal requires our system to make good decisions every step of the way — from who we incarcerate to how long, including what conditions we incarcerate them in through what supports we offer to restore them to society.

August 30, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Incapacitating Motherhood"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Priscilla Ocen now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Incapacitation, the removal of dangerous people from society, is one of the most significant penal rationales in the United States.  Mass incarceration emerged as one of the most striking applications of this theory, as policymakers shifted from rehabilitative efforts toward incapacitation in jails and prisons across the country . Women have been uniquely devastated by this shift toward incapacitation.  Indeed, the United States is home to the largest and fastest growing women’s prison population in the world.

Of the women incarcerated in jails and prisons, nearly seventy percent were the primary caretakers of small children at the time of their arrest and approximately eighty percent are of reproductive age. Notwithstanding these alarming trends, the gendered dimensions of incapacitation have largely been underexplored in the scholarly literature. Rather, women’s incarceration has been theorized as an unintended consequence of the punitiveness directed toward Black men.

This Article aims to bridge this discursive gap by highlighting the specific ways in which incapacitation has been used as a means to regulate the bodies and reproductive capacities of marginalized women.  The Article advances this claim in three ways. First, by mapping the historical function of women’s prisons as a mechanism to restore and regulate “fallen women” who deviated from traditional norms associated with femininity and motherhood.  Second, by examining the ways in which contemporary women’s prisons similarly regulate women’s identities as mothers.  Instead of attempting to rehabilitate women, however, contemporary women’s prisons incapacitate women who engage in behavior or possess characteristics that diverge from traditional maternal norms.  Indeed, through what the Article terms the “incapacitation of motherhood,” women prisoners are alienated from their children, denied reproductive care, humiliated during pregnancy and postpartum recovery, and in some cases, sterilized. 

Lastly, contesting these practices and the incapacitation of motherhood, this Article calls for the use of a robust legal framework, informed by the principles of reproductive justice that are more protective of the reproductive capacities of incarcerated women.

August 28, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 27, 2018

Lots of notable pieces in August 2018 issue of Criminology & Public Policy

I just saw the contents of the August 2018 issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy, and now I have at least half-dozen new pieces to add to my reading list. The issue has collections of pieces on timely topics such as "Risk Assessment And Juvenile Justice" and "Victim Compensation And White -Collar Crime" and "Downsizing Our Prisons And Jails" and "Prison Length Of Stay And Recidivism." Here are just a few of the article on these topics that seem worth checking out:

August 27, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 24, 2018

A true insider's reaction to Senator Cotton's commentary about federal criminal justice reform efforts

In prior posts here and here and here, I noted the commentary from Senator Tom Cotton attacking the federal criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and some responses it has engendered.  Today I receive an email from the son of a federal prisoner who maintains this interesting blog with postings from his father.   The blog is worth checking out and it is titled "Blue Collar Criminal: 60-something small business owner.  Screwed by the DOJ.  Now I'm in prison.  These are my thoughts."

In addition to pointing me to this blog, the prisoner's son shared his father's response to the piece Senator Cotton wrote in the Wall Street Journal and gave me permission to reprint his father's writings here:

I write this response to Sen. Tom Cotton's editorial ("Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime") from within my 8 X 10' federal prison cell I share with another medicare-eligible inmate.  We agree that Cotton's essay should have been entitled - Reform the Prisons Without Doing a Damn Thing.

Cotton bases a lot of his assertions on statistics. In lieu of rebutting them, which would be a bit hard given my current lack of access to the internet, I have to settle on "inferior" data, which is the actual experience of actual prisoners whom I know, and find every bit as credible as anyone I knew on the "outside".  The specific ones I'm bouncing Cotton's preposterous claims off of, are guys with 10+ years of incarceration, and who have experienced a wide variety of federal prisons before working themselves down to the federal camp.  Though I've only been "down" one year, I find my bullsh*t detector is pretty reliable, and comes in handy when evaluating prison stories and reading editorials such as Cotton's.  Based on these findings, I not only doubt the factuality of the statistics he uses, I gravely mistrust the motives behind them.

I came here a big fan of Sen. Cotton's.  I first knew of him when he was a soldier, serving in Iraq, who was thought for awhile to be fictitious, due to the cognitive dissonance produced by the idea of a Harvard Univ./Harvard Law School grad being an infantry officer. I was very attuned to him, since my son was also in Iraq at the same time.  He also put his pen to good use in rebutting anti-war propaganda.  I was shocked, when my "adventure" with the DOJ brought me here, to find that Cotton, along with another of my conservative heroes - Sen. Jeff Sessions - were regarded as the mortal enemies of federal inmates, at least those who followed the progress of issues related to prison reform.  My move away from fanhood has been sealed by this editorial, which has impressed me that he's traded the tools of war for the tools of sophistry.

For starters, in Cotton's mind, we are all "criminals", a word he loves to repeat. One-size-fits-all.  Excuse my sensitivity, and I leave it to friends and family to defend my name, but many of these guys are as fine individuals as any I know, and were "productive, law-abiding citizens" until the feds came after them.  (If you find that hard to swallow, you might care to read Harvey Silverglate's 'Three Felonies A Day'.)

He calls the House bill "flawed", and to the extent that it tampers with mandatory minimum sentences, or gives judges more discretion, a prescription for a "jailbreak". Why is lengthening a sentence wise, but shortening some foolish?  Why is Cotton incapable of recognizing that prison populations are comprised of both truly dangerous, bad-guy criminals, and nonviolent, non-dangerous law-transgressors (including some who are truly and factually innocent)? Many of the guys I know in here would probably only "endanger communities" by cutting their neighbors lawn while they're on vacation.  (And I'm not here making a distinction between "white-collar" and "drug offenders".  I've learned that 'drug offender' is also not a one-size-fits-all category).

In his paragraph on the current "drug epidemic", he cites a number of statistics to justify mandatory minimum sentencing, but ends by essentially admitting those statistics might not be significant or prove his point.

His statements about how very little of recidivism is attributable to parole violation, does not purport with what I've seen nor the experience of my "experts".  Most of the guys in my unit who have prior convictions are here now because their parole officer caught them 'high'.  One guy here, a farm boy, had a prior drug felony, and "caught" an 8 year sentence for a felony firearms crime.  He was deer hunting in a tree stand, having lost his right to bear arms by virtue of being a drug felon. Cotton's statistic to prove that drug convictions lead to rearrests for murder and rape 77% of the time, strikes my fellow inmates as not only false, but weird, crazy scare tactics.

Cotton's cherry-picked example of a drug dealer, Wendell Callahan, who murdered his girlfriend and her daughters, is great for demagogic purposes, but irrelevant to the debate of shortening the eligible sentences of nonviolent felons.  This has to be weighed in a context that looks objectively at good outcomes as well as negative.  Keeping families apart, and depriving children of their fathers, when its not necessary for the public good, is a social evil; and this is what mandatory minimum sentences often do.  It leads to and insures that the next generation will likely repeat the mistakes of their parents.

Cotton attacks even the term "mass incarceration" on the strange basis that it couldn't possibly be big, since it could be bigger.  I would say simply, that whichever country incarcerates the highest percentage of it's citizenry deserves the title of "mass incarcerator".  This would be the United States.  One book I've read states that the U.S. incarcerates 6 to 12 times more than the following countries: Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Italy or Australia.  Yet Cotton thinks we don't lock up enough.

But it gets worse. Cotton writes that "virtually no one goes to federal prison for "low-level, nonviolent" drug offenses.  Even I, a relative newbie, know guys who are not only here for that, but have sentences exceeding 10 years.  He says those that are here for just that have only pleaded to that, though they actually committed more serious offenses. Baloney.  Here's how that goes - they commit a crime deserving 1 year (for example) and plead "down" to a 4 year sentence, because they're being threatened with a 12 year sentence.  My friends here can't believe that Cotton doesn't know this.

It's not unusual for the feds to concoct 20 charges, and settle for 2. It happens to everyone.  It happened to me.  They are extremely creative in their use of enhancements.  (If the real crime were so heinous, why would they settle for a much lighter sentence?)

And then this - "Presidential pardons are a much better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions." Puh-leeze! (I think this ridiculous statement was just a set-up for his snarky shot at Trump.)

Cotton dismisses fiscal conservatives who would hope to reduce the cost of the American prison system. "The costs," he says, "of crime ... far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars."  That all depends on what you consider to be "serious" criminals, and how you calculate the "downsides".  At my camp, the common consensus is that the average age here is 50+.  That includes quite a few in their 70s, and about 3 or 4 in their 80s. Maybe a dozen use canes.  The financial distress on families and the negative economic impact on communities would certainly be part of the calculation of the "downsides", as would unquantifiable costs such as the loss of adult children to care for aged and debilitated parents.  Certainly also there's a tremendous cost to communities who have lost key employees and employers, volunteers to non-profits, etc.  There's a 80 yr old oncologist/researcher who's here due to a financial transgression of a side company he was a partner to.

As to his closing assertion that "mandatory minimums .... work", there is a great body of research that would show otherwise.  I, for one, would love to see a poll taken of federal judges as to the truth of that statement.

Sen. Cotton ends his diatribe against prison reform, the kind that might actually reduce the prison population, with an affirmation of "faith-based and other antirecidivism programs".  I heartily concur, in fact, I wish everyone would embrace the teaching of the Bible. In it we read this great truth - "For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumph over judgment." (James 2.13)

If that is deemed as soft on crime, we need to deeply consider where we are heading.

August 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

What might and will nationwide prisoner strike achieve?

Npssticker02The question in the title of this post is prompted by this USA Today report on a notable movement by many prisoners nationwide under the headline "Prisoners nationwide go on strike to protest 'modern-day slavery'."  Here are the basics:

Prison inmates nationwide, seeking to put pressure on the country's penal system, began a two-week strike on Tuesday. The strike was timed to begin on the anniversary of the killing of jailed African American activist George Jackson. He was killed by a guard in 1971 after taking guards and two inmates hostage in a bid to escape from San Quentin State Prison in California.

The final day of the strike — Sept. 9 — also carries symbolism. That's the day in 1971 that the Attica Prison riots began in New York, eventually leaving more than 40 people dead when police stormed in to re-take the facility.

Prisoners leading the protests say the strike is aimed at ending what they call "modern-day slavery." Inmates complain they are paid pennies on the dollar per hour for labor. This is made legal by an exemption in the 13th Amendment which allows involuntary servitude for those who convicted of crimes in the United States.

The event is spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a network of imprisoned prisoner rights advocates based out of Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina and supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a prisoner-led trade group. Inmates plan to abstain from reporting to their assigned jobs, halt commissary spending, hold peaceful sit-in protests and refuse to eat during the strike.

“Prisoner participation depends on their location and privilege status,” said Amani Sawari, a prison reform activist and spokesperson for the strike. “If inmates are working they can suffocate the prison industrial complex by reducing their spending. In some detention facilities, prisoners may not be working so they might do a sit-in. It all depends.”

The call for action comes as a response to a prison riot that took place in Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina in April of this year, resulting in the death of seven inmates and injuring of over a dozen others. Inmates posted videos on social media showing the aftermath at the budget-strapped prison....

The prisoners released a list of 10 demands on the IWOC website that include, in part, the immediate improvement of prison policies, an increase in prisoner wages and rescinding laws that prevent imprisoned persons from having a chance at parole. The inmates also call for more rehabilitation services and voting rights.

Prisons in at least 17 states are expected to participate in the protests, according to Sawari, with a majority of them located in the South and West Coast. On Aug. 21, U.S. cities participating will include Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Sacramento, California; San Jose, California; Corona, California; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Omaha, Nebraska; San Antonio, Texas; Asheville, North Carolina; Black Mountain, North Carolina; Atlanta; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Boston; and Brooklyn, New York.

Experts say there is a chance the protest may drive change in some detention centers. "If the strike is widespread enough, it could be effective," said Lea Johnson, professor of law at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. "These circumstances like poor labor conditions, poor prison conditions, unpaid labor, and lack of access to mental health treatment exist seemingly behind closed doors. By going on a national strike, you pull back the curtain and it can force legislators to act."

August 22, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Still more on Senator Cotton's efforts to thwart significant federal criminal justice reforms and responses there to

In posts late last week here and here, I noted the commentary from Senator Tom Cotton attacking the federal criminal justice reform bills moving through Congress and some responses it has already engendered.  Now Politico has this new article on this beat headlined "Sentencing reform tests Cotton’s sway with Trump."  Here are a few highlights from a lengthy article:

Tom Cotton is going all out to defeat a last-ditch effort to pass sentencing reform before this year’s midterm elections, hoping to win a high-stakes influence campaign over President Donald Trump on the issue.

Cotton is lambasting the proposal as a “jailbreak” that would “let serious felons back on the streets,” taking on a daunting coalition fighting for the package that includes the Koch political operation, White House adviser Jared Kushner and a number of powerful GOP senators. But Cotton believes that, in the end, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will side with him.

“The president went to Singapore and agreed with the Singaporeans that we should give the death penalty to drug dealers. I can’t imagine the president wants to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers,” the Arkansas Republican said in an interview. “I believe Sen. McConnell shares my view that we should not let serious felons out of jail and we should not shorten the sentences for drug dealers.”

Even opponents of sentencing reform will privately admit it would likely pass if McConnell brings it up. But Cotton’s loud opposition may determine whether or not McConnell even allows a vote given his reluctance to summon up legislation that divides the conference — right before the election, no less....

The conflict is pitting some of Trump’s closest allies against each other. On one side are Cotton and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who calls the sentencing component “troubling” and wants to concentrate on prison reform. On the other are Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wants to go even further on criminal justice reform but would be willing to accept the slimmed-down proposal, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who supports it....

Though the president supports the standalone prison reform effort, no one is quite sure where exactly Trump is going to come down on the sentencing piece that’s being added by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Advocates for sentencing reform are hoping the president will offer a crucial endorsement to get the legislation across the finish line after commuting the sentence of Alice Johnson for drug offenses, while opponents say he’s unlikely to undercut his law-and-order persona....

“There is not a constituency, certainly among Republican voters, to let serious felons out of prison or slash their prison sentences,” Cotton said in the interview. “It’s ill-advised policy and even more ill-advised timing.” Countered Paul, another close Trump ally with opposing views: “We have a lot of non-violent criminals in our prison and they’re taking up space that could be better put to use for violent criminals."

Cotton also has strong allies, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long opposed sweeping sentencing reforms. The two have frustrated people working on the bill.

Yet many on the law enforcement side, a key Trump constituency, are working with Cotton. Jonathan Thompson, the National Sheriff Association's executive director, has spoken to the president twice about sentencing reform in the past year and half: “The president knows we’re concerned.” “We think what he’s doing is terrific. Sen. Cotton recognizes that it’s a very flawed bill,” said Larry Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “We’re hopeful the president won’t [endorse it].”

Unless Trump makes a major push for the legislation and takes on his critics like Cotton, there are many reasons for McConnell not to bring up the bill before the election. It would likely take at least a week for the Senate to process, time that McConnell might think is better spent processing lifetime judicial appointments ahead of an uncertain midterm outcome. Plus it would invoke an ugly intraparty foodfight, squaring Cotton off with proponents of sentencing reform like Grassley, who has been tweeting that the president “wants something done on prison/crim justice reform. So do I.”

“The consensus is the prison reform stuff,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There are people who want to do more, but it’s the usual issue: Do you want try and do more and fail, or do you want to do what’s possible?”

Despite the long odds, the battle is raging behind the scenes. Internal discussions of the subject at Senate lunches have been heated, according to Republican sources, a preview of what might happen on the Senate floor if the chamber takes it up. It’s the same dynamic that kept McConnell from bringing up a larger criminal justice reform package in 2016 as Cotton railed against it and declared the United States has an "under-incarceration problem.”

Trump’s “for prison reform, I’m for prison reform. What I don’t support is sentencing reductions under the guise of prison reforms, and that’s unfortunately what many senators are moving towards,” Cotton said in the interview. A number of conservative senators have quietly expressed their opposition to the sentencing reform component, according to groups working to defeat it. But Cotton's taken a bigger gamble by getting out front to stop a bill that hasn’t even produced yet.

Meanwhile, over here at the Daily Signal, John G. Malcolm and Brett Tolman have this lengthy new commentary under the headline "Why It’s Not ‘Soft On Crime’ to Support Criminal Justice Reform." Here is a snippet focused on mandatory minimums:

Cotton and others argue that mandatory minimum charges are reserved for kingpins and other major drug dealers, and low-level dealers are rarely subjected to mandatory minimum penalties. However, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan independent agency that collects and analyzes federal sentencing data, found that a surprisingly large number of low-level drug couriers are subjected to mandatory minimum penalties.

It is easy to see how that happens. Under federal law, a defendant charged as part of a drug conspiracy—even a low-level courier, who may be acting solely to support his own addiction—can be charged and sentenced based on the total amount of drugs sold by everyone who participated in that conspiracy. That’s true even if the courier never knew who these people were or what quantity of drugs they sold.

Of course, the courier should be punished. But how badly? Remember, we are talking about mandatory minimum penalties. A judge can always impose a higher sentence, up to the statutory maximum, for deserving drug traffickers and violent criminals. The proposed reductions are, in truth, quite modest.

Senators are currently debating the possibility of reducing the mandatory minimum penalties for second-time drug offenders from 20 years to 15 years, and for third-time drug offenders from life in prison without the possibility of parole to 25 years. Does anyone really think that minimum penalties of 15 and 25 years are not serious? 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

August 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Discussions of criminal justice supervision and collateral consequences that merit extended conversations

This past week I saw two notable commentaries over at The Conversation. Here are links and brief excerpts:

Vincent Schiraldi, "Parole and probation have grown far beyond resources allocated to support them"

Today, there are twice as many people supervised on parole or probation as are incarcerated in the U.S....

Thousands of probation and parole officers supervise nearly 5 million people across the U.S. However, as the number of people under community corrections has swelled, resources for officers have lagged. While twice as many people are supervised in the community as are incarcerated, 9 out of 10 correctional dollars is funneled to prisons according to a report from 2009, the most recent year with available data....

In 2017, every major community corrections association in the U.S., along with 45 elected or appointed prosecutors and 35 probation and parole officials as well as myself wrote in a statement: “Designed originally as an alternative to incarceration, community corrections has become a significant contributor to mass incarceration” that should be downsized while reinvesting the savings in “improving community based services and supports for people under supervision.”

Stanley Andrisse, "I went from prison to professor — here’s why criminal records should not be used to keep people out of college"

Beginning next year, the Common Application – an online form that enables students to apply to the 800 or so colleges that use it – will no longer ask students about their criminal pasts.

As a formerly incarcerated person who now is now an endocrinologist and professor at two world-renowned medical institutions — Johns Hopkins Medicine and Howard University College of Medicine — I believe this move is a positive one.  People’s prior convictions should not be held against them in their pursuit of higher learning.

While I am enthusiastic about the decision to remove the criminal history question from the Common Application, I also believe more must be done to remove the various barriers that exist between formerly incarcerated individuals such as myself and higher education.

August 18, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Will Trump White House soon "deploy its assets ... to stump" for federal criminal justice reform? It may be critical.

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris headlined "Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to excuses to pass over federal criminal justice reform, I have heard them all, from “it takes at least 10 years to pass legislation like this” to “there is no way move a criminal justice bill in an election year.” But the one that really burns me is “you cannot point to state success because the federal system is much more complicated.”

The arrogance of the Beltway is incredible.  Of the more than 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in this country, more than 1.3 million are housed in state prisons, and about 615,000 sit in local jails.  Only 225,000 are housed in a federal facility. The Texas prison system alone holds more inmates.  State prison systems deal with overcrowding, stifling budget cuts, and drug epidemics that show no signs of abating.  Because they can see and experience this crisis first hand, governors on the left and the right are passing strong criminal justice reforms that offer alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment programs, provide opportunities that put people back to work, and save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now these governors are invading the federal reform effort, seeking to finally connect Beltway leaders to what is happening in their own backyards.  President Trump, in a savvy move, convened a criminal justice roundtable at his resort in New Jersey and invited Republican and Democratic governors from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, all of which have passed strong criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support that decrease incarcerated populations, improve reentry programs, and ultimately lower crime and recidivism.  This is all part of a strategy to take the fight to pass a federal bill straight to the people and away from the status quo in Washington....

Keenly aware that red states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky have made aggressive changes to their justice systems, including sentencing reforms and felony expungement laws, [Jared] Kushner has showed the president these success stories.  In this latest roundtable, Trump included the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who shared that reforms implemented in his state led to a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, which frees up valuable resources to fight dangerous crimes and reduce recidivism.

While the public safety benefits of reform are undoubtedly impressive to a “tough on crime” president, the overwhelming public support for these issues must be equally attractive.  Voters across the country are looking to Congress to act. Polling from earlier this year shows that 75 percent of voters, a clear supermajority crossing all partisan, geographic, education, income, racial and ethnic boundaries, believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and support changes such as fixing our cash bail system and replacing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In the final stretch to a Senate vote, do not be surprised to see this White House deploy its assets to the states to stump for a bill they know the American people want.  There will be folks from every walk of life lining up behind them, from business leaders and military veterans to civil rights advocates and faith leaders.  Just this week, people from 50 organizations of all political stripes and bipartisan senior legislative staff met to talk details. When the phone lines light up in offices all over Capitol Hill demanding a vote, Washington may well be out of excuses.

Candidly, I will be quite surprised if this White House were to deploy its assets to stump for reform, but I certainly hope this will happen.  I am fairly confident that if Prez Trump were to do a series of tweets in support of a federal criminal justice reform bill, that bill would have a much greater chance of getting to his desk.  And Prez Trump does not have to change minds about pending reforms: there is already overwhelming bipartisan support for the basic substance of nearly every serious sentencing and prison reform bill. 

The current challenge is  getting congressional leadership to settle on which version of which bill will be brought up for a vote. Senate leadership has been the bottleneck lately, and the White House surely could and should focus, publicly and privately, on advocacy toward leadership to settle on a bill and finally allow a vote.  (Notably, the FIRST STEP Act got 86% approval when it got to a vote in the House of Representatives, so it seems informed legislators are even more supportive of federal reform than the poll numbers.) 

This piece by Holly Harris highlights just why passage of federal criminal justice reform could be a huge win for this Administration, and I hope Prez Trump sees the potential political value to pushing reform over the finish-line.  Presidents always have unique powers and unique opportunities to grease the legislative process, and a congressional reform discussion that has been going strong for now five years with no tangible results can certainly uses as much grease as it can get. 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I have just added to the title of this post after seeing this new Politico piece headlined "Criminal justice deal faces steep Senate hurdles despite Trump’s push."  Here is an excerpts that has me thinking reform does not get done unless and until the Trump White House puts all its might behind the effort:

Trump has stepped up his own calls for a deal on the prisons overhaul that the House passed earlier this year, holding two events so far this month.  And groups off the Hill say they're closing in on a path to pass the legislation through the Senate by adding some of the sentencing changes Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) spent years negotiating with Democrats.

But interviews with a dozen GOP senators show that those talks remain in a precarious state.  That’s because the handful of Republicans who have long protested reducing mandatory-minimum sentences leave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without any incentive to call up legislation that would split his conference.

One of those longtime critics of adding sentencing to the House-passed prisons bill bluntly predicted Thursday that McConnell would not “bring the bill to the floor any time soon.”

“I’m not sure that we can put together a deal,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in an interview. “I’m not sure we should.”...

Close involvement from Trump will likely be required for the GOP to get past its internal schism over reducing mandatory minimum sentences as part of a prisons package. Grassley's bipartisan package of sentencing and prison reforms boasts 15 Republican cosponsors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes even the narrower prisons-only approach the House has passed.

August 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Senator Cotton delivers faulty arguments to prop up faulty federal sentencing system

With Jeff Sessions now in the role of Attorney General, Senator Tom Cotton is one of the last members of Congress eager to push a tough-and-tougher agenda.  Despite the US position as world leader in incarceration, Senator Cotton asserted a few years ago, as noted here, that "we have an under-incarceration problem."  His thinking today finds expression in this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime: Proposals to give judges more discretion and cut mandatory minimums endanger public safety."  Regular readers will be familiar with many of the moves in this piece (even though we've not heard much from Bill Otis lately).  Here is a sample:

The U.S. faces a drug epidemic today, exactly the wrong time to go soft on crime.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a 37% increase from 2015 and a nearly 100% increase since 2008.  Violent crime has declined since the 1980s because mandatory minimums adopted then locked up violent criminals.  But in 2015-16, the most recent years for which full data are available, violent crime increased at its fastest rate in a quarter-century, though preliminary data suggest it might have leveled off in 2017....

This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism.  Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study. In fact, on average reoffenders are rearrested five times — and not for minor crimes.  Only a handful of ex-convicts return to prison exclusively for parole violations, whereas 77% of drug offenders are rearrested for serious nondrug crimes, such as murder and rape.  Most criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.  The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement....

What is the logic of such leniency?  Activists say they want to reverse “mass incarceration.”  That is a curious characterization when less than half of crimes are even reported to police and more than 80% of property crimes and 50% of violent crimes that are reported go unsolved, according to Pew Research Center.  Tell those victims denied justice that the U.S. locks up too many criminals.

Virtually no one goes to federal prison for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenses, especially mere drug use or possession. In 2015, there were 247 inmates in federal prison for drug possession. In these rare cases, the inmates usually pleaded down from a more serious offense.  In the extreme case of a manifestly unjust sentence, the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions. President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases.

Some fiscal conservatives believe that America spends too much on the prison system.  Yet the Bureau of Prisons costs taxpayers less than $8 billion a year, or about 0.2% of the entire federal budget.  After national security, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens from crime. The costs of crime and disorder — personal and economic — far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars.

Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws work. Rather than eliminate them, Congress should improve access to faith-based and other antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  American families deserve safe communities and protection from drugs and crime.  Criminals, especially first-time offenders who grew up in rough environments, deserve second chances — once they have done their time.

I suspect most readers can readily see logical flaws in Senator Cotton's advocacy here (e.g., how do poor clearance rates for violent crimes justify excessive drug sentences?).  Most fundamentally, the bills with a chance for passage in Congress do not get anywhere close to "eliminating"  mandatory minimums or truth-in-sentencing laws, and they in fact sadly do not really do all that much more than enhance antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  But even the modest bills with a shot at passage (which have the support of Prez Trump) are too much for Senator Cotton.

John Pfaff has this twitter thread in which he describes the effort as "horrifically dishonest." John attacks various numbers in the op-ed, and I will just stress a telling flip-flop on the clemency front. Senator Cotton says "the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions," but many folks on the right criticized Prez Obama's use of clemency at the end of the term by saying it should be Congress in charge of granting any serious sentencing relief.  Senator Cotton here also says here "President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases," but he has so far only commuted two extreme federal sentences (roughly .001% of the federal prison population).  Prez Trump has promised to do more, but he can not be expected to nor depended upon to do the kind of reform via clemency that Congress should be doing in the first instance.

UPDATE: Mark Holden has this new commentary, headlined "Correcting the Record About Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums," which goes point-by-point through key claims made by Senator Cotton and provides different perspective on his assertion.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Derek Cohen over at Right on Crime also has this notable response to Senator Cotton's piece under the headline "Setting the Record Straight"

August 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Prison Policy Initiative report which gets started this way:

It’s hard to imagine building a successful life without a place to call home, but this basic necessity is often out of reach for formerly incarcerated people.  Barriers to employment, combined with explicit discrimination, have created a little-discussed housing crisis.

In this report, we provide the first estimate of homelessness among the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States, finding that formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public.  We break down this data by race, gender, age and other demographics; we also show how many formerly incarcerated people are forced to live in places like hotels or motels, just one step from homelessness itself.

August 15, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Rounding up a few notable recent commentaries

Will I was on the road last week, I saw a lot of interesting commentaries that I might have blogged had I had regular internet access. Instead, now that I am back on-line, I will be content with this round-up of commentary headlines and links:

David Eads, "Too Many Politicians Misuse and Abuse Crime Data"

Craig DeRoche, "The Church Should Push Federal Criminal Justice Reform Bill to the Finish Line"

Tim Head, "FIRST STEP Act is smart legislation — perfect for prison reform"

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "The next step in criminal justice reform is fewer laws"

Bruce Western, "Violent offenders, often victims themselves, need more compassion and less punishment"

August 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Does Prez Trump have the courage to visit the largest maximum security prison in the country?

The question in the title of this post reflects my weak effort to try to goad Prez Donald Trump into accepting an invitation from Louisiana's governor as reported in this article:

Gov. John Bel Edwards has invited President Donald Trump to visit Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the country.

In a letter sent Thursday (Aug. 9) [available here], Edwards said Angola would be a good place for Trump to explore the benefits of Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul last year. Edwards touted the vocational, victim reconciliation and faith-based programs housed at the prison, where nearly 6,000 inmates live.

Specifically, Edwards said Trump should see the accredited Bible college located at Angola and the prison's hospice program, which has received national recognition. "It is not a secret that the implementation of these types of programs is what helped to transform LSP from one of the bloodiest prisons in America to a place of hope, transformation and reconciliation," Edwards wrote to Trump.

Both the Bible college and the hospice program at Angola predate by several years the criminal justice overhaul Edwards spearheaded. In fact, inmates at Angola were not as significantly affected by the criminal justice law changes in 2017 as people in other parts of the prison system.

Edwards' criminal justice overhaul dealt mostly with shortening sentences and expanding parole and probation opportunities for nonviolent offenders. It has resulted in Louisiana losing its title of incarceration capital of the country, but the drop in the prison population has occurred almost entirely among people serving time for lower-level offenses.

Angola is home predominantly to people serving life sentences for violent crimes who will never be released from prison. Those inmates mostly did not see substantial changes in their sentences as a result of the criminal justice overhaul.

The governor also attended a meeting in New Jersey with Trump and several other elected officials on criminal justice issues Thursday. Other governors attending included Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, Gov. Phil Bryant, R-Mississippi, and Gov. Nathan Deal, R-Georgia. Edwards was the only Democrat invited to the meeting.

Notably, a little more than three years ago as detailed in this post, Prez Obama got lots of good press for making history by being the first occupant of the White House to visit a federal correctional facility.  Back in 2015, I had this to say in the wake of this historic visit: "Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated."  It would be amazing for Prez Trump to be the one who turns visiting a prison into a tradition, and perhaps Prez Trump could even be goaded into trying to  Prez Obama's visitation record by visiting both a state and a federal prison as he advocates for Congress to pass criminal justice reform.

Interestingly, earlier today Prez Trump had this tweet which mention his advocacy for prison reform in this way: "I'm pushing for prison reform to give people who have paid their debt to society a second chance. I will never stop fighting for ALL Americans!"  I hope part of his push will include a visit to Angola and other prisons and jails, where millions of Americans reside.

A few older related posts:

August 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

White House emails "startling facts about America’s prison system"

Though I will not be back on-line regularly for a few more days, I  am finding ways to check my emails and felt inspired to report here on what appeared at the very top of the daily email blast from the White House today.  Specifically, this text and these links appeared under the heading "The startling facts about America’s prison system":

Following successful bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House of Representatives, President Trump is hosting a roundtable with a number of America’s governors today to discuss implementing prison reform in their states.

President Trump supports efforts to reduce recidivism — the return of former inmates to prison—as a way to make America’s streets safer. The Administration has worked closely with Congress to find a solution that reduces crime, enhances public safety, and increases opportunity for those who have earned a second chance.

“The facts about America’s prison system are startling,” Senior Advisor Jared Kushner wrote in The Wall Street Journal in April. “The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population, but roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. . . . Of the 650,000 people who leave prison every year, two-thirds will commit a new crime within three years.”

The bottom line, says Kushner: “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country—and that includes those in prison.”

The starting facts about America’s prison system.

Taking action: President Trump’s principles for reforming our prisons

No White House gets any credit or congratulations from me unless and until actual legislation gets enacted into law.  But this email, which also noted that today "President Donald J. Trump is hosting a roundtable discussion with governors on prison reform and the FIRST STEP Act before Congress," reinforces my sense that this White House is going to keep talking up at least some measure of criminal justice reform until at least something actually gets done. Or, at least, they are fooling me into believing this is a real priority for this Administration.

August 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Prison Nurseries?

I'll be back tomorrow blogging about the war on kids, but I wanted to share this NBC news story about prison nurseries.

According to the piece, there are eight prison nurseries in the United States, and as the number of women in prison has exploded in recent years, their existence raises several interesting questions. Is separation from one's infant a just part of a sentence? Does that sentence inflict more harm on the child than the mother? Is it safe/desirable/cost-effective to allow mothers and infants to remain in prison together? More here:

Bedford Hills has the nation’s longest-running prison nursery. Opened in 1901, it has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences pregnant to bond with their babies while behind bars — something advocates say is best for babies and lowers the mothers’ recidivism rate, but some critics argue violates the children’s constitutional rights using taxpayer money, while placing a burden on prison staff by requiring them to double as day care workers.

Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States. The number of such programs has fluctuated as funding and sentiment toward them has risen and fallen, but now, more than ever, their effectiveness is under scrutiny as the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed.

There are nearly 214,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. — an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project. There is no official count of how many of these women give birth while imprisoned.

In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.

 

August 5, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The War on Kids Post #2

In my last post, I addressed the irony of America inventing the juvenile court and then both exporting that concept to the world and abandoning it domestically. Today I want to unpack the realities of my claim that there has been a war on kids since the late 20th century. Let me acknowledge that, to some readers, the concept of a war on kids in America today may sound misguided or dramatic. After all, educators complain of helicopter parents and so-called free-range parents may face prosecution for granting their children liberties that were commonplace in my childhood. However, even as some children in America are more coddled and protected than ever before, I stand by my claim that the U.S. has waged a war on kids.

This is what the war on kids looks like. On any given day, there are approximately 50,000 juveniles being held in American correctional facilities, thousands of whom are in adult jails and prisons. While some hold themselves out as camps, academies or training facilities, these are correctional institutions; 89% of them are locked and many employ handcuffs, leg cuffs and restraining chairs, as well as solitary confinement. At the same time, we are not reserving detention for the most serious juvenile offenders. Nearly a quarter of youth in juvenile facilities have only been charged with a technical probation violation or a status offense. Schools, with police officers in the halls and zero-tolerance policies on the books, have become a gateway to the criminal justice system. In at least 22 states it’s a crime to disrupt school in ways that may have earned a student a trip to the principal’s office a few decades ago. Preschoolers, yes, preschoolers, can face suspension and expulsion for age-appropriate behaviors. This is deeply problematic, as suspensions, especially repeated ones, increase a student’s risk of dropping out of school and coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

Moreover, as I mentioned in my first post this week, our laws have cemented the notion that kids, once accused of a crime, may be treated as adults. Prosecutors routinely remove kids from juvenile court and charge them in adult court on the basis of the legal fiction of transfer laws. Youth in adult court are subject to mandatory sentences that today many of us would agree are too harsh even as applied to adults. Juveniles can be housed in adult correctional facilities, despite being the most vulnerable to physical and sexual assault in those locations. Until 2005 we were the only nation to execute people for juvenile offenses, and today we are the only developed nation in the world that still sentences children to die in prison.

Perhaps most discouraging, the war on kids has taken its greatest toll on the nation’s most vulnerable kids – those in poor, minority areas that are under-resourced and heavily policed. Black youth are more than twice as likely as white youth to be arrested, and, even as overall youth detention rates continue to decline, black youth are five times as likely as white youth to be detained. Similarly, poverty shunts children into the criminal justice system who would never be there if they had the financial resources to pay for private counsel, a diversion program, or even an ankle bracelet. Finally, when one looks at youth serving the most extreme sentence on the books, life without parole, approximately half were physically abused and nearly 80 percent witnessed violence in the home. Thus, like most wars, the war on kids has had its greatest impact on poor, minority and otherwise vulnerable communities.

In my next post, I’ll address recent Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile sentencing and their implementation at the state level.

August 4, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Friday, August 03, 2018

Interesting new data suggesting important recent recidivism reduction

Changing-State-of-Recideivism_chart_650px_v1The folks at Pew have this interesting and important new data analysis under the title "The Changing State of Recidivism: Fewer People Going Back to Prison: Data show the number returning 3 years later is down by nearly a quarter." Here is the heart of the data:

The share of people who return to state prison three years after being released — the most common measure of recidivism — dropped by nearly a quarter over a recent seven-year period, according to an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts of federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data on prisoners released in 2005 and 2012.

Pew analyzed publicly accessible data from the 23 states that reported reliable prison admissions and release data to BJS from 2005 through 2015.  Among prisoners released in 2005, 48 percent returned to prison by the end of 2008. By comparison, among those released in those states in 2012, 37 percent had at least one new prison admission by the end of 2015.  That translates into a drop of 23 percent. The states included in the analysis accounted for about two-thirds of those released from state prisons nationwide each year.

Longer-term recidivism also fell.  Prisoners released in these states in 2010 were 13 percent less likely than the 2005 cohort to return to prison at least once by the end of the fifth year after release.  Included in these numbers are people sent back to prison for a new crime or for violating the terms of their post-prison supervision....

Pew undertook this research to compile and make public the most current multistate data on recidivism trends. The BJS national report on state prison recidivism released in May 2018 presents nine years of data on people released from 30 states in 2005, but it includes no information on prisoners released since then.

To obtain more recent data, Pew researchers used publicly available administrative numbers that BJS collected from states for the National Corrections Reporting Program.  State prisoners are assigned unique identifiers, enabling researchers to track when they are released and whether they return to prison — except in cases in which a prisoner is released in one state and readmitted to prison in another.  Pew analyzed data from the 23 states that consistently reported prison admissions and releases every year from 2005 to 2015.  The cohorts ranged from 392,000 to 458,000 released prisoners....

Reducing recidivism improves public safety, reduces taxpayer spending on prisons, and helps formerly incarcerated people successfully resume family and community responsibilities.  But a lack of data has complicated efforts to understand the aggregate effects of myriad federal, state, and local efforts to reduce reoffending. This analysis shows that meaningful improvements in recidivism are occurring.

August 3, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 02, 2018

"Capitalizing on Mass Incarceration: U.S. Growth in Private Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is part of its "Overview" and "Key Findings":

From 2000 to 2016 the number of people housed in private prisons increased five times faster than the total prison population. Over a similar timeframe, the proportion of people detained in private immigration facilities increased by 442 percent.

The federal government and 27 states utilized private prisons operated by for-profit and non-profit entities during 2016. New Mexico and Montana led the nation in their reliance on private prisons with 43 percent and 39 percent of their prison populations, respectively, housed within them (See Table 2).  Between 2000 and 2016, eight states – Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah and Wisconsin -- eliminated their use of private prisons due to concerns about safety and cost cutting.  In 2016, Louisiana changed the classification of its contracted beds and reported its private prison population as zero for the first time during this period.  Alternatively, five states -- Alabama, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Vermont -- began contracting with private prisons between 2000 and 2016.

The federal government is the single largest user of private prisons in the United States but has reduced its population in private prisons in recent years.  However, in 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew an Obama-era directive to phase out private prison contracting because of concern for the federal correctional system’s ability “to meet future needs.”

This report provides a portrait of private prisons as a component of the American corrections landscape and assesses its impact on mass incarceration.  Among its most striking features is the broad variation found across jurisdictions in reliance on private prisons.  As outlined in the state case studies examining the history of prison privatization in Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Texas (available in the appendix), those corrections systems most committed to the industry have faced controversy, including riots, deaths, and allegations of improper financial influence from for-profit prison companies....

KEY FINDINGS:

• Of the total U.S. prison population, one in 12 people (128,063) was incarcerated in private prisons in 2016; an increase of 47 percent since 2000.

• 26,249 people were also confined in privately-run immigration detention facilities in fiscal year 2017; a 442 percent increase since 2002.

• Federal prisons incarcerated the largest number of people in private prisons, 34,159, marking a 120 percent increase since 2000.

• The largest private prison corporations, Core Civic and GEO Group, collectively manage over half of the private prison contracts in the United States with combined revenues of $3.5 billion as of 2015.

• Companies often trim prison budgets by employing mostly non-union and lowskilled workers at lower salaries and offer limited benefits compared to staff at publicly run institutions.

• Cost savings claims associated with prison privatization are unfounded according to decades of research.

August 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Prez Trump says he thinks "we’ll be able to" get the FIRST STEP Act passed into law

President Donald Trump had a White House meeting with inner-city pastors today, and the even made headlined because on pastor said, as reported here, that Prez Trump may go down as the "most pro-black president" in recent history. Rather than engage with that comment, I am eager to note some of Prez Trump's comments about prison reform at the event. This link provides a transcript, and here are statements by Prez Trump that caught my eye:

Our focus on opportunity for every citizen includes helping former prisoners.  These citizens reentering society have had a tough time.  We want them to get jobs so they don’t have to return to a life of crime and go back into the same prison where they just got out....

We passed the First Step Act through the House, and we’re working with the Senate to pass that into law.  And I think we’ll be able to do it. When we say “hire American,” we mean all Americans — every American, everybody.

And, you know, it’s something that should have been done a long time ago — prison reform....  But a lot of people are saying, “You mean it’s the Trump administration that’s doing this?”  You understand.  They don’t believe it.  But we’re really making a tremendous amount of progress, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

I am not prepared to praise the Trump Administration for "making a tremendous amount of progress" unless and until I see laws enacted and real reforms implemented. But as Prez Trump continues to talk the talk on prison reform, I want to remain hopeful that real action will follow.

August 1, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"What Is Prison Abolition?"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in The Nation, which carries the subtitle "The movement that is trying to think beyond prisons as a tool to solve society’s problems." Here is an excerpt:

The prison-abolition movement is a loose collection of people and groups who, in many different ways, are calling for deep, structural reforms to how we handle and even think about crime in our country.  There are de facto figureheads (such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the most famous contemporary abolitionists) and organizations (such as Critical Resistance, INCITE!, the Movement for Black Lives, the National Lawyers Guild, and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee — all of which, if not explicitly abolitionist, at least engage in abolitionist ethics), and there are converging or at least overlapping political ideologies (anarchist, socialist, libertarian), but there is no structured organizing group or coalition.  Masai Ehehosi, a co-founder of Critical Resistance and longtime member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, pointed me to the overlap between organizations promoting civil rights and abolitionists: “We want freedom” can just as easily be applied to ending Jim Crow or the New Jim Crow, to unlocking iron shackles or swinging open prison doors.

The “movement” thus operates with affinity groups, with various organizations working in prisoner support, prisoner advocacy, political advocacy, or community education. “And when something big happens,” as Azzurra Crispino, prison labor activist and philosopher, explained to me, “we all show up as a coalition, and we don’t interfere” with each other’s work.

Abolitionists believe that incarceration, in any form, harms society more than it helps.  As Angela Davis argues, prisons are an obsolete institution because they exacerbate societal harms instead of fixing them.  “Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?” Davis has written.  Even if we were to greatly diminish the current prison population, even if we were to cut it in half but keep the prison complex intact, we would still be consigning millions of people to isolation and violenc e— and that’s a form of inhumanity that abolitionists can’t abide.  Moreover, Davis contends, mass imprisonment “reproduce[s] the very conditions that lead people to prison.”

August 1, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, July 30, 2018

A deep dive into various big and little juvenile life without parole stories

The Dublin Review has published this very lengthy discussion of juvenile life without parole sentences under the simple headline "A different season." The lengthy piece is authored by Andrew Purcell, and it cannot be readily summarized. Here is one snippet:

Many of Pennsylvania’s district attorneys have responded to the Supreme Court’s Montgomery decision by striking plea deals with the longest-serving prisoners. Others, in conservative counties, have not. By late September 2017, 173 of the state’s 517 juvenile lifers had been re-sentenced, and 77 paroled for time served. Most of the released prisoners are from Philadelphia, creating a small community of men with the shared experience of being locked up their entire adult lives, adapting to a world that has moved on without them. Courtney ‘Juan’ Boyd, recently released after serving thirty-six years, was calling John to ask about a re-sentencing hearing the previous night for a prisoner called Andre Martin.  At fifteen, Martin shot a police officer in the head from a window at the Wilson Park projects.  He had forty-one years in already, and the prosecution was seeking sixty to life, supported at the hearing by the dead cop’s family and a roomful of police officers.  Judge Barbara McDermott gave him forty-four to life. In three years, the opposing sides will meet again at an equally charged parole hearing, to argue about whether or not Martin should be released.

Each of the fifty states has responded differently to the Montgomery v Louisiana ruling, and there are also variations within states, as district attorneys interpret the concept of ‘permanent incorrigibility’. In Michigan, for instance, prosecutors initially sought new life-without-parole sentences for 236 of the 363 men and women serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as minors, a clear deviation from the Supreme Court’s intent to reserve the punishment for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders’. The Oakland County DA has asked for life without parole in forty-four of forty-nine cases; ‘These are young Hannibal Lecters,’ county sheriff Michael Bouchard told the press. In Missouri, teenage lifers are now eligible for parole once they have spent twenty-five years in prison, but of twenty-three who have applied, twenty have been denied. In Maryland, all 271 juvenile lifers are parole-eligible, but no such prisoner has been released in two decades.

All over the country, lawsuits are establishing whether and how Montgomery should affect discretionary sentences. ‘We think the Montgomery standard is impossible [for prosecutors] to beat, in that everyone is capable of rehabilitation given the proper support,’ said Brooke McCarthy of the Juvenile Law Centre. ‘To say that you can never fix someone in the future, no matter what, is such an incredibly difficult standard to reach. Some district attorneys have gotten clever … so rather than asking for life without parole they’re asking for fifty-, sixty-, seventy-five-year minimums.’

July 30, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Poll suggests huge public support for FIRST STEP Act with lots of other interesting findings

Over the weekend I noticed this Hill piece reporting in its headline "Poll finds broad support for House-passed prison reform bill." Here are the details via :

The poll, conducted for Freedom Partners by the Charles Koch-backed group In Pursuit Of and provided exclusively to The Hill, found that 70 percent of likely voters approve of the First Step Act, which cleared the House by a 360-59 margin earlier this year. Only 14 percent said the Senate should not pass it, according to the poll that sampled Republicans, Democrats and voters who did not affiliate with either party.

Freedom Partners has put six-figures behind an ad campaign urging senators from both parties to support the legislation. They hope the poll results will prod Senate Republicans to take the bill up.

Passing prison reform is a top priority for the Kochs. There is frustration among the network of conservative donors and activists that the Senate has not moved to take up the bill, which aims to incentivize inmates to complete prison programs that might reduce their likelihood to commit crimes again when they are released.

“Voters broadly support the FIRST STEP Act and will hold senators accountable for failing to pass the bill,” said Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden. “It’s time for the Senate to do its job and send this bipartisan legislation to President Trump’s desk.”

The bill has 60 percent support among registered Republicans, according to the poll. Nearly half of likely voters – 47 percent – said they would have a more negative view of Senate Republicans if they don’t move to pass the bill....

The Freedom Partners survey of 1,759 likely voters was conducted online between July 18 and July 20 and has a 2.3 percent margin of error.

This press release provides a few more details about this poll as well as this link to a summary of key findings from the poll. These findings, in particular, should be encouraging to those hoping criminal justice reform will be a salient political issue this fall:

How important is it to reduce the number of people who are in prison in America today?

72% TOTAL IMPORTANT    28% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

28% Very important    44% Somewhat important

19% Not very important    9% Not at all important...

 

Thinking ahead to the midterm elections this November – how important to you is the issue of criminal justice reform as you decide who you’ll be voting for?

75% TOTAL IMPORTANT    25% TOTAL NOT IMPORTANT

25% Very important    50% Somewhat important

20% Not very important    5% Not at all important...

 

Would you be more or less likely to vote for a political candidate if you knew he or she supported criminal justice reform?

60% More likely to support candidate    32% No difference in support    8% Less likely to support candidate

July 30, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

How should advocates for reduced prison populations respond to deadly actions by released violent offenders?

In response to recent posts about clemency here and about reducing prison populations here, commentator federalist has flagged two local stories of violent offenders released after relatively short periods of incarceration gong on to commit murder.  One story, out of Atlanta, and is discussed in this newspaper piece under the headlined "‘Visionary’ didn’t keep promises to help violent teenager."  Here is a snippet:

One day last August, Gwendolyn Sands stood before a Fulton County judge and promised to rehabilitate a teenage boy already well on his way to a life of violence.... Her organization, Visions Unlimited, would pair the boy with a “life coach” for “24/7 supervision,” Sands told the judge. Her staff would instruct the boy in life skills, career readiness and the perils of street gangs. They would hold “family support” meetings every month  — “and more often,” Sands said, “as necessary.”

Later, she would even agree to take the boy into her own home.  It seemed the only way to shelter him from the streets where he had stuck a pistol in a woman’s face and robbed her.

But Sands kept almost none of her promises to transform Jayden Myrick.  Now Myrick is charged with murder, accused of shooting 34-year-old Christian Broder during a robbery on July 8 outside Atlanta’s Capital City Club.  Broder, an Atlanta native who lived in Washington, D.C., died July 20.  He left behind a wife and an infant daughter.  And, at 17, Myrick faces life in prison — the very outcome the judge had hoped Sands would help prevent....

Fulton Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, who twice released Myrick into Sands’ custody, declined to comment.  Other court officials would not answer questions about why Downs or other judges trusted Visions Unlimited or whether they vetted Sands’ credentials.  In a statement, Chief Judge Robert McBurney deflected responsibility for monitoring the performance of such organizations.

Another story, out of San Francisco, is discussed in this CNN piece headlined "Officials still don't know why a white man allegedly stabbed a black woman to death in a subway station." Here is an excerpt:

Nia Wilson was standing on a Bay Area Rapid Transit station platform in Oakland, California, Sunday night when she was stabbed to death in an apparently unprovoked attack.

By Monday night, John Cowell, 27, had been arrested in connection to the stabbing, but days later, officials still haven't said what prompted the attack, which a police chief compared to a "prison yard assault."...

Cowell was convicted of second-degree robbery and assault with a deadly weapon in 2016, according to the criminal complaint.  He was paroled in May after being sentenced to two years in prison for second-degree robbery, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation....

Cowell's family released a statement extending its sympathy to Wilson's, and said Cowell had long been suffering from mental illness.  "He has been in & out of jail & has not had the proper treatment," the statement said.  He's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the family said, and they had to get a restraining order at one point "for our own protection."  Cowell's been living on the streets since.

In one comment, federalist not unreasonably asks "How, Doug, do we prevent mistakes like Judge Downs'?".  I do not have a fully satisfying answer: judges are imperfect at gauging risk, and the only certain way to prevent any and all released offenders from ever committing any serious future crimes is to never release any of them in the first place.  I am drawn to using actuarial risk-assessments in our criminal justice system because such tools should help reduce mistakes in forecasts of future violent behavior, but there still will be mistakes (and violent consequences) even with the use of (inevitably imperfect) risk-assessment instruments. 

As an advocate of various modern criminal justice reforms, I am in this context eager to (a) lament that we do not have been juvenile and prison programming to better rehabilitate violent persons, and (b) note that modern mass incarceration is the result of many "mistakes" of over-incarceration.  But these statements provide cold comfort to anyone reasonably inclined to call the tragic deaths of Christian Broder and Nia Wilson entirely preventable if we had just "gotten tough" with Jayden Myrick and John Cowell.

Another move, of course, is to stress that modern sentencing reform efforts are or should be particularly focused on non-violent offenses and offenders.  But sensible folks arguing for dramatic reductions in our prison populations rightly say that violent offenders should not be excluded from efforts to reduce reliance on incarceration, and there is also recidivism data showing that some non-violent offenders will go on to commit subsequent violent offenses.

So, dear readers, is there a "good" answer to the question in the title of this post?

July 29, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (27)

"Reducing the prison population is a bipartisan goal"

The title of this post is the title of this recent Dallas Morning News commentary authored by Doug Deason, who is a co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University.  Here are excerpts:

About 1.5 million people are sitting in state and federal prisons across the U.S. today, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many for nonviolent crimes.  Prisoners all too often face inhumane conditions and are woefully unprepared to rejoin society as peaceful, productive and law-abiding citizens.

This weekend I will join Charles Koch and other business and philanthropic leaders for a retreat in Colorado Springs to discuss how we can work together to solve this and other challenges and create a freer and more open society.  We know challenges like these can't be solved alone.  We stand ready to, in the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."  And there are few issues in which "doing right" is more urgently needed than fixing our broken criminal justice system....

Many are rightfully alarmed at the inequities in the criminal justice system. African-Americans make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for one-third of inmates, according to the BJS, and compared to the general population, prisoners are far more likely to have a history of mental health problems and drug abuse.  A Brookings Institution study found that four out of every five prisoners had zero earnings when they entered prison.

Then there are the costs to taxpayers and innocent family members.  The annual cost of running the corrections systems at the national, federal, state and local levels exceeds $80 billion, according to a Washington University in St. Louis study.  It is a system that frequently turns folks who were once taxpayers into wards of the state. And it leaves many mothers and fathers to raise their children alone and without the aid of child support.

These mounting concerns have energized support for reform across the political spectrum. As a co-founder of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University, I have participated in panel discussions with CNN's Van Jones to highlight the need for cutting incarceration rates.  As a Republican businessman and a Democratic political commentator, we don't always see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics.  But like many Americans, we are willing to put our differences aside to address this critical problem.

As U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., recently said, according to Townhall.com, "overcriminalization is increasingly viewed as not a Republican or a Democrat problem but as an American problem." Jeffries and Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., are co-sponsors of the First Step Act, legislation that would help rehabilitate prisoners and save taxpayers billions of dollars in the process....

Reforming the criminal justice system won't be easy or quick. It will require a long-term commitment.  But if we want to break the barriers that keep too many Americans trapped in lives of crime and poverty, we will all need to work with unlikely partners.  The leaders gathering in Colorado Springs welcome any allies willing to unite to do right. Let's not let our differences stop us from working together on these critical issues.

July 29, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (17)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Interesting early information from the Safe Streets & Second Chances effort to take an evidence-driven approach to recidivism

Sssc_socialIn this post from January, I spotlighted the Safe Streets & Second Chances initiative which describes itself as an "an innovative program that takes an evidence-driven approach to the chronic issues of repeat offenders and recidivism, using academic research to craft individualized reentry plans that shift the ultimate measure of success from whether individuals are punished to whether these individuals are improved, rehabilitated, and capable of redemption."  This new Washington Post piece, headlined "Koch network project gears up to help inmates reenter society after prison," provides an interesting update on the project:

A new project funded by the network aligned with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch is tracking and monitoring 1,100 inmates in four states after they are released from prison starting Aug. 1 to help them successfully reintegrate into society.

Through the project, called Safe Streets and Second Chances, a team of researchers from Florida State University will evaluate former inmates for 15 months after their release — a volatile period that often leads to their rearrest. The project is in its $4 million pilot phase, as researchers prepare to test the effectiveness of a new reentry model that focuses on individualized plans to help inmates find healthy coping and thinking patterns, the right employment opportunities, and positive social engagement.

For the past six months, the researchers have been interviewing the men and women in the program, who are currently housed in 48 prisons in rural and urban areas in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. They will present the early findings today in Colorado, at the twice-annual meeting of the network’s largest donors....

The network is advocating a shift in the criminal justice system toward prioritizing rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, rather than focusing on punishment. For years, the network has pushed for bipartisan support for overhauling the criminal justice system, and has teamed up with Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and CNN political commentator, for the cause....

With the research conducted through Safe Streets and Second Chances, network officials say they want to transform the way reentry programs are run in communities across the country. “What we’re trying to do is to prepare prisoners to reenter society and become productive members and taxpaying citizens, hopefully living productive lives and taking care of their families,” said Doug Deason, a Dallas businessman and Koch network donor who is on the advisory council of Safe Streets and Second Chances.

After interviewing the inmates preparing for release, researchers found these prisoners overwhelmingly felt optimistic about their chances of rehabilitation in life outside prison but generally had high levels of trauma. Nearly 70 percent of people in the program reported seeing someone seriously injured or killed. Half the inmates had seen or handled dead bodies — more than a dozen times for some male prisoners. The majority of them reported having a close friend or family member who was murdered, and 58 percent reported having a drug use disorder.

People with untreated trauma symptoms are more likely to become impulsive and incorrectly perceive threats to themselves and others, which could lead to an act of crime and recidivism, according to Carrie Pettus-Davis, a Florida State University professor and the lead researcher. It also could affect their ability to navigate the laws restricting felons from employment, housing and education opportunities, she said.

“Despite all of the positive orientations and aspirations, this population also is really dealing with some very challenging circumstances,” Pettus-Davis said. “There’s an enormous amount of trauma represented for both men and women. ... Once people become incarcerated, we need to make sure we’re appropriately responding to experiences of psychological trauma.”

Lots of information and data about and from this project can be found in this new release from Safe Streets & Second Chances under the title "New Research Shows Incarcerated Individuals Want to Be Rehabilitated and Are Hungry for Second Chances as They Reenter Society." Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Incarcerated individuals want to be rehabilitated, are eager for a second chance, and are emotionally capable of successfully reentering society, new independent data shows.

According to statistics compiled by Florida State University (FSU) researchers, both male and female participants said they want to work more, learn more, and spend more time on personal relationships, improving their health, and practicing their faith than they currently do while incarcerated. They also reported fairly high levels of emotional well-being, suggesting that they are primed to successfully rejoin society upon their release....

According to the data, inmates want to rehabilitate themselves through work, education, and faith, and spend more time on personal relationships.

  • Respondents expressed a desire to work or improve their work situation.
    • Men reported working about two hours a day but said they would like to work almost four times that amount.
    • Women reported working almost 1.5 hours per day but said they’d like to work over three times that amount.
  • Overall, respondents said they’d like to spend twice the amount of time they currently spend on school activities.
  • Both men and women said they want to devote more time to community involvement and spend twice as much time working on personal relationships.
  • Both groups said they’d like to spend more time each week on spiritual or religious activities.

Next, while individuals said they had experienced a generally high level of trauma in life, they also reported a fairly high level of emotional well-being.

  • Nearly 70 percent of participants said they had seen someone seriously injured or killed.
  • 50 percent said they had seen dead bodies (other than at a funeral) or had to handle dead bodies. Male respondents reported experiencing this an average of over 17 times.
  • Over 40 percent said they had been attacked with a gun, knife, or some other weapon by someone, including a family member or friend.
  • About 57 percent said that a close friend or family member had been murdered.
  • Over 32 percent of female respondents said they had been forced to have intercourse or another form of sex against their will.
  • On average, females reported having experienced sexual abuse as a child 8.88 times.
  • 58 percent reported having a drug use disorder, while 35 percent reported having an alcohol use disorder.
  • While both men and women reported similar levels of childhood emotional abuse, they also reported fairly high levels of current emotional well-being, suggesting that they are emotionally resilient and fit to contribute to society in a positive way.

July 28, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 27, 2018

"Those in Federal Prison and Their Families Can’t Wait for the Ideal Reform Bill"

The title of this post is the title of Shon Hopwood's new entry over at Prison Professors.   This piece is styled as a response to the this lengthy Hill commentary by DeAnna Hoskins, the president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, which assailed the FIRST STEP Act as "a step backward [that] invites a scary future" (which I discussed critically here).  I recommend folks read everything in full, and I will here reprint how Shon's piece concludes:

I speak to and receive emails from thousands of families with someone in federal prison.  These families almost invariably support First Step.  At the Reform Now rally outside Capitol Hill in early July, many of these families explained how First Step will significantly improve their family’s lives — whether by forcing the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide meaningful rehabilitation programs or housing their loved one closer to home.  The reform groups who oppose First Step weren’t present for the rally.  I wish they were. They’d have a better understanding of what makes the federal prison system uniquely harmful to those who are inside it, and how First Step will alleviate some of those harms.

The families who aren’t supportive of First Step are mostly those with loved ones serving really long sentences or life in prison, and this won’t help them get out of prison — even as it is likely to improve the federal prison system overall.  I empathize with their pain and frustration.  But retroactively applicable sentencing provisions has no chance of passing this year.  Not even the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was made retroactive when Democrats had a supermajority in Congress and the Presidency.  It is hard to imagine the current Congress somehow doing better.

First Step along with some sentencing additions is the best bill we can get now in the current political climate.  If we don’t take First Step now, we will be waiting at least another two years for any possibility of federal prison reform.  If the past thirty years is a guide, we are probably waiting much, much longer.  Given the stakes, there should be an urgency on all sides to get this done.

I understand that many people have strong feelings against the current President, and that undoubtedly drives some of the angst against First Step.  Yet there can be fights about every other issue without simultaneously rejecting a federal prison reform bill that provides meaningful help to those currently in prison and their families.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ohio gubernatorial candidate talking up criminal justice reform while advocating for state constitutional drug sentencing initiative

A couple of week ago, I flagged here an interesting and intricate drug sentencing initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  As of earlier this week, the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation" amendment (in full at this link) officially qualified for the fall ballot as Issue 1.  And, as reported in this local article headlined "Cordray, Holder support diversion of drug offenders from prison," this proposal is already receiving high-profile support:

Ohio no longer can afford — both in terms of money and lives — to imprison low-level drug offenders who instead should be diverted to addiction treatment, says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray.  “We need to be tough on violent criminals, but mass incarceration of drug addicts who should be in treatment is unwise, it wastes too much money and it wastes a lot of lives in Ohio,” Cordray said.

The former Ohio attorney general was joined by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss criminal justice reform at a Thursday campaign event at the Downtown YWCA.  The Democrat who served under former President Barack Obama spoke out against “warehousing” minor criminal offenders, saying governors and state attorneys general must steer new policy courses.

Holder chided Republican President Donald Trump and his U.S. attorney, Jeff Sessions, for “going back to the bad, old days of unthinking (criminal) sentences” for non-violent offenders who deserve another chance.

Cordray underlined his strong support for state Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot that would reclassify low-level felony drug use and possession charges to first-degree misdemeanors punishable by only six months in jail, with the goal of diverting offenders to drug treatment.  It also would potentially allow the release of all current such offenders from state prisons.  “I believe It will set the way toward a policy of being smart on crime in the future, smart on how we use taxpayers’ dollars, smart on how we build people’s potential to be productive citizens in our society,” Cordray said.

Holder and Cordray agreed such a sentencing reform would be neither easier nor cheap in the short run, but provide savings and resuscitate more Ohioans from drugs and failed lives in the long run.

Comment is being sought from the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, whether he supports or opposes the statewide ballot issue.

The administration of Republican Gov. John Kasich is spending up to $58 million over two years to divert a flood of non-violent felony offenders, many convicted of drug possession amid the opioid crisis, from state prisons to local programs.  Many counties, however, are not accepting the money, saying it would not cover all local costs. More than a fourth of state inmates are non-violent drug offenders....

A Republican National Committee spokeswoman lambasted the pair.  “Richard Cordray’s decision to fund-raise with disgraced former Attorney General Eric Holder proves just how swampy and out-of-touch he is with Ohioans.  You can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep, and if Cordray chooses Eric Holder as an ally, then Ohioans ought to be wary and steer clear of Richard Cordray,” said Mandi Merritt.

Prior related post:

July 26, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

An interesting political pitch for the FIRST STEP Act

Star-parkerStar Parker, a conservative commentator who is founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), has this notable new Townhall commentary under the headline "Senate Should Pass the First Step Act." In addition to praising the substantive provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, the commentary makes some interesting political points in an effort to convince GOP leaders in the Senate to move forward with the bill. Here are excerpts:

You would think that Senate Republicans would be rolling out the red carpet for the First Step Act, particularly given that it's an initiative that started in the White House. Unfortunately, that's not happening. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is not moving to embrace this bill because it doesn't including sentencing reform.

With all due respect to Senator Grassley, he's making a mistake. And as a result he's hurting his party and his country.

In all my years working in public policy, one lesson I have learned is that it is an invitation for failure to try to deal with a complex issue, one having a number of separate components, in a single huge, complicated piece of legislation. The result is either no action or a sweeping -- and bad -- law....

Everyone agrees we have a criminal justice problem. But like so many other areas, there is a woeful lack of agreement about what is causing the problem and how to solve it. And this brings us back to the incredible bipartisan passage of the First Step Act.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Grassley should see this as an opportunity for the Republican-controlled Congress to show it can act decisively on a major national problem. Holding up prison reform to add on the complex issue of sentencing reform will result in what I said above: either nothing will happen or we'll get one big unworkable bill.

Furthermore, prison reform has major racial implications. Blacks, who constitute 12 percent of the population, make up 33 percent of the prison population. Hispanics, who constitute 16 percent of the general population, make up 23 percent of the prison population.

It's no accident that the NAACP opposes the bill. Or that Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in The Washington Post against it. Or that two very politically ambitious black Democratic Senators, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, oppose it.

Passage of the First Step Act would show that Republicans care and can help a large part of minority America in distress. Black Democrats don't want this to happen.

Senate Republicans must keep an eye on retaining control in November. They should get on the same page with the White House and the House and pass the First Step Act.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Another attack on the FIRST STEP Act failing to acknowledge modern political realities

DeAnna Hoskins, the president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, has this lengthy Hill commentary assailing the FIRST STEP Act as "a step backward [that] invites a scary future." I find the claims in this commentary a bit scary, and here are excerpts with a few comments to follow:

By limiting “prison reform” to a combination of half-hearted credit time — which would leave people on home confinement or in halfway houses, rather than shorten sentences — and a reliance on risk assessment instruments that are steeped in racial bias, the FIRST STEP Act could hit the brakes on a nationwide movement to reform and redefine the justice system.

One of the most deceptive parts of this bill is that it creates the impression that people can earn time off of their sentence via new “credit time.” This is simply not true. This bill will keep people who earn credit time under the Bureau of Prisons’ control by replacing one form of incarceration with another.  The FIRST STEP Act does not offer a real path toward release and redemption.  Instead, it has the potential to increase the reach of the federal prison system via electronic monitoring and expanded home confinement, which is consistent with this administration’s efforts to increase the size of the federal prison population.

For those released from prison on credit time, an electronic shackle awaits, branding people with a tool that tracks their every movement, expands the carceral state into our neighborhoods and significantly lowers the threshold for reincarceration.  As with any for-profit industry, once privatization enters the market an agreement is made for the company to be guaranteed a certain level of profit margin. In order to profit from the FIRST STEP Act, these companies will be guaranteed a certain number of individuals to remain on electronic monitoring or home confinement, creating a bodies-for-sale system.

What’s more, this bill ensures that many people are excluded from eligibility to earn credit time.  The FIRST STEP Act calls for the creation and implementation of a risk assessment instrument to determine who is worthy.  Such assessments have been shown to perpetuate or exacerbate racial biases and institutionalize structural racism by relying on data such as “zip code” and “age at first arrest” — both signal over-policing of black people and communities of color, rather than risk of actual behavior....

There are some good aspects of this bill, including the prohibition of the abhorrent practice of shackling pregnant women in prison and the retroactive application of an increase in good-time credit from 47 to 54 days per year.  Even with these positive provisions, the rest of this bill widens the net of systemic harm.  The fact that this bill could move us a few inches forward is not nearly enough to mitigate the reality that the FIRST STEP Act is only a first step toward a devastating future.

We do not have a binary choice between the status quo and the FIRST STEP Act.  To the contrary, the very real possibility of overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system exists, and needs to be pursued with unmitigated and tireless vigor of the movements we are seeing in cities, counties and states across the country.

The need and demand for reform are real.  The FIRST STEP Act is not only a step backward; it invites a scary future. We need good proposals that address the structural racism baked into our justice system.  We can pursue good proposals at all levels of government — proposals that are human-centered, values-driven, and that truly have an impact on decarcerating and decriminalizing communities across the country.

Though I think it reasonable to express concern about how elements of the FIRST STEP Act might be implemented, stating that this bill would bring a "devastating future" is disturbing hyperbole.  Moreover, as a number of former federal prisoners have stated, it is deeply misguided to suggest electronic monitoring and home confinement is functionally equivalent to continued confinement in federal prison.  Most fundamentally, the claim that there is "the very real possibility of overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system" seems entirely disconnected from the reality that there has been prominent advocacy for federal criminal justice reforms for the last half-decade without a single bit of legislation getting through Congress.

Like the author here, I would like to see reform that goes beyond the FIRST STEP Act.  But broader reforms have be stalled by leaders in DC who are likely to be in place at least until 2020 if not later.  Hoping and waiting for something better leaves current prisoners and their families waiting and waiting and waiting.  And if the politics are really behind "overhauling and wholly transforming our criminal justice system" now or later, passage of the FIRST STEP Act seems very unlikely to change those politics.  But rather than seeing a politic consensus for "transforming our criminal justice system," I just see a lot of political division among advocates for reform that seems to be making achieving any reform that much harder. 

Some of many prior related posts:

July 21, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Encouraging lawmakers to take a "face-to-face" approach to criminal justice reform

Connecticut Gov Daniel Malloy has this great commentary in The Hill under the headline "To reimagine the criminal justice system, start with a face-to-face connection." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Recently, the first lady and I convened a group of state officials, judges, prosecutors, victim advocates and other stakeholders to discuss Connecticut’s progress toward improving the state’s criminal justice system.  Sounds like a run-of-the-mill convening of policymakers and practitioners until you consider the venue: one of our state’s maximum-security prisons, the Cheshire Correctional Institution.

“Reimagining Justice 2018: Outside In” was the first-ever conference to be held inside such a prison, serving as a rare opportunity for those who shape and carry out Connecticut’s criminal justice policies to step into the confines of a prison and hear directly from those who are residents there.

During my time as governor, I’ve prioritized these types of meaningful interactions with people directly impacted by the correctional system, whether it’s been with people who are incarcerated, the corrections officers that supervise them or victims of crime.  Over the course of my 24 visits to date, interactions with victims, correctional officers and inmates have become a central part of my efforts to develop meaningful criminal justice policy changes.

These experiences have informed many policy discussions and have led to extraordinary progress in our state.  From 2008 to 2016, Connecticut has seen the complete closure of five prisons along with major portions of four other facilities.  More importantly our state has experienced the largest reduction in violent crime of any state in the nation over the past four years.  We’ve also seen our prison population reach its lowest level since 1994 due to fewer and fewer arrests and prison admissions and while continuing to see meaningful drops in recidivism rates....

Whether it be attending the reentry program graduation of someone preparing to return to the community after incarceration or meeting with corrections officers to discuss new ways to ensure a healthy working environment for them, these face-to-face engagements can help policymakers gain a deeper appreciation of the unique challenges people encounter when they are closely involved in the correctional system....

It’s critical for all elected leaders and policymakers at every level of government to understand the high value of these types of interactions.  That is why I, along with a group of 12 other Republican and Democratic governors across the country, have taken part in the Face to Face initiative, a call to action for all policymakers to personally connect with the people closest to the correctional system.

I urge all policymakers of all levels across the country to join these efforts and commit to following a thoughtful approach to policy that focuses not only on data, but the people behind those numbers.  Together, by considering the immeasurable human impact of our policy decisions, we can reimagine the way we approach criminal justice.

July 17, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Incarceration, Recidivism, and Employment"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by a group of economists. Here is its abstract:

Understanding whether, and in what situations, time spent in prison is criminogenic or preventive has proven challenging due to data availability and correlated unobservables. This paper overcomes these challenges in the context of Norway’s criminal justice system, offering new insights into how incarceration affects subsequent crime and employment. We construct a panel dataset containing the criminal behavior and labor market outcomes of the entire population, and exploit the random assignment of criminal cases to judges who differ ystematically in their stringency in sentencing defendants to prison. Using judge stringency as an instrumental variable, we find that imprisonment discourages further criminal behavior, and that the reduction extends beyond incapacitation.

Incarceration decreases the probability an individual will reoffend within 5 years by 29 percentage points, and reduces the number of offenses over this same period by 11 criminal charges. In comparison, OLS shows positive associations between incarceration and subsequent criminal behavior. This Sharp contrast suggests the high rates of recidivism among ex-convicts is due to selection, and not a consequence of the experience of being in prison. Exploring factors that may explain the preventive effect of incarceration, we find the decline in crime is driven by individuals who were not working prior to incarceration. Among these individuals, imprisonment increases participation in programs directed at improving employability and reducing recidivism, and ultimately, raises employment and earnings while discouraging further criminal behavior. For previously employed individuals, while there is no effect on recidivism, there is a lasting negative effect on employment. Contrary to the widely embraced ‘nothing works’ doctrine, these findings demonstrate that time spent in prison with a focus on rehabilitation can indeed be preventive for a large segment of the criminal population.

July 15, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, July 13, 2018

Detailing how recent reforms have helped Louisiana shrink its incarceration rate to no longer be nation's leader

Ranking have a way of capturing attention, and this new Pew article reporting on a notable change in state rankings caught my eye.  The piece is headlined "Louisiana No Longer Leads Nation in Imprisonment Rate: New data show impact of 2017 criminal justice reforms," and here are excerpts:

Louisiana no longer leads the nation in imprisonment, one year after enacting a landmark package of 10 criminal justice reform laws. In June 2018, Oklahoma became the U.S. state with the highest imprisonment rate, replacing Louisiana, which had been the nation’s prison capital for nearly 20 years.

The numbers are based on calculations by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which analyzed data from the state corrections departments and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. At the beginning of June, the imprisonment rate in Louisiana was 712 per 100,000 residents, compared with 719 per 100,000 residents in Oklahoma. Louisiana now ranks second in imprisonment. The numbers in both states far exceeded the national rate, including state and federal prisoners, which was 450 per 100,000 residents at the end of 2016.

The latest data reinforce a central lesson of criminal justice reform in the past decade: States’ policy choices can help control the size and cost of their prison systems and protect public safety. Although implementation of Louisiana’s reforms is still in the early stages, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Commission on Law Enforcement released a report in June with some initial results that show quick and solid progress since the first pieces of legislation went into effect in August 2017....

After a year’s worth of data analysis and study by the task force, the Legislature in 2017 passed and the governor signed the most significant overhaul of criminal justice laws in state history. The package of 10 bills — sponsored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent — steers people convicted of less serious crimes away from prison, strengthens incarceration alternatives, reduces prison terms for those who can be safely supervised in the community, removes barriers to re-entry into the community, and bolsters programs that support victims of crime.

Louisiana’s landmark reforms are perhaps the most dramatic example of a state taking greater control of its prison growth and spending, but many others have acted as well. More than 30 states have adopted reforms, spurring shifts in imprisonment rate rankings. In 2007, for example, Texas began investing hundreds of millions of dollars in various treatment and diversion programs.  The state dropped from third place in 2008 to seventh by the end of 2016, the most recent year for which complete national data are available. In South Carolina, comprehensive reforms enacted in 2010 helped move the state from ninth to 20th.

Pew also this week released this Fact Sheet on state reform efforts under the heading "35 States Reform Criminal Justice Policies Through Justice Reinvestment."

July 13, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"Out of Prison & Out of Work: Unemployment among formerly incarcerated people"

The title of this post is the title of the latest notable report by the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is how the report gets started:

Formerly incarcerated people need stable jobs for the same reasons as everyone else: to support themselves and their loved ones, pursue life goals, and strengthen their communities. But how many formerly incarcerated people are able to find work? Answering this fundamental question has historically been difficult, because the necessary national data weren’t available — that is, until now.

Using a nationally representative dataset, we provide the first ever estimate of unemployment among the 5 million formerly incarcerated people living in the United States.  Our analysis shows that formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.

Our estimate of the unemployment rate establishes that formerly incarcerated people want to work, but face structural barriers to securing employment, particularly within the period immediately following release. For those who are Black or Hispanic — especially women — status as “formerly incarcerated” reduces their employment chances even more. This perpetual labor market punishment creates a counterproductive system of release and poverty, hurting everyone involved: employers, the taxpayers, and certainly formerly incarcerated people looking to break the cycle.

Fortunately, as the recommendations presented in this report illustrate, there are policy solutions available that would create safer and more equitable communities by addressing unemployment among formerly incarcerated people.

July 10, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 08, 2018

"No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Washington Post commentary authored by Michael Gerson. I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

An administration not known for policy creativity is unlikely to have useful internal policy debates. But in the Trump administration, prison reform is a welcome exception.

This is largely because of the efforts of President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who, in common with millions of poor and minority children in America, has had the searing experience of visiting a father in prison. Kushner has displayed considerable passion in recruiting conservatives to the cause of prison reform. He has been opposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems stuck in a get-tough-on-crime time warp.

In the context of this disagreement — reflected in the broader conservative movement — the House has passed a worthwhile but watered-down bill called the First Step Act.  This legislation would make changes on the exit side of incarceration — increasing funding for education and job-training programs and allowing inmates to earn credits for early release.  As a result of opposition from Sessions and others, the bill does not focus on the entrance side of incarceration — sentencing reform that would encourage alternatives to imprisonment for less dangerous offenders....

Given that the main deterrent to crime is not the severity of punishment but its certainty, prison and sentencing reforms are designed to provide a broader range of penalties and treatment options to courts, along with greater discretion in employing them. This means that violent criminals get treated differently from nonviolent criminals, who get treated differently from addicts, who get treated differently from the mentally disabled, who get treated differently from parole violators — instead of sweeping them all into (expensive) prison beds.

States have done more than apply a theory. They have demonstrated something practical, hopeful and remarkable. “This renaissance has been led in large part by deep-red Texas,” Trautman and Rizer write, “which, by instituting a series of ‘smart-on-crime’ initiatives in the last decade, accomplished a feat previously believed to be impossible: the simultaneous reduction of its crime, recidivism and incarceration rates.” While the crime rate index fell by 20 percent nationally from 2007 to 2014, it fell by 26 percent in Texas. The state, meanwhile, closed eight prisons....

One of the reasons this good idea should succeed in Washington is to demonstrate that any good idea can succeed in Washington. Two other scholars, Steven Teles and David Dagan, have called prison and sentencing reform an example of “trans-partisanship,” which they define as “agreement on policy goals driven by divergent, deeply held ideological beliefs.” Liberals look at mass incarceration and see structural racism. Libertarians see the denial of civil liberties. Fiscal conservatives see wasted resources. Religious activists see inhumane conditions and damaged lives.

All these convictions converge at one point: We should treat offenders as humans, with different stories and different needs, instead of casting them all into the same pit of despair. 

July 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, June 30, 2018

CNN premiering new film "American Jail"

As detailed at this link, CNN Films will premiere on Sunday, July 1 at 8 pm on CNN a feature titled "American Jail." Here is the website's brief description of the film: "In this provocative and personal film, Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams explores the forces that fuel America's sprawling prison system." The film weblink has additional content assembled, including links to these short excerpts from the film:

CNN also has this new article headlined "5 facts behind America's high incarceration rate," and here are the "5 facts" this article reports:

June 30, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Recommending FAMM's great new report "Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States"

FammFamilies Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) now has at this link its big new report on compassionate release programs authored by Mary Price under the title "Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States."  Here is how the report and related resources are introduced:

“Everywhere and Nowhere: Compassionate Release in the States,” is a comprehensive, state-by-state report on the early-release programs available to prisoners struggling with certain extraordinary circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness.

The report takes a deep dive into the regulations and requirements of these programs in each state, including the varying categories of release, eligibility criteria, and reporting. The analysis also reveals a troubling number of barriers faced by prisoners and their families when applying for early release.

The report is accompanied by a comparison chart, 21 recommendations for policymakers, and 51 individual state memos.

Here are more links to the resources from this report:

And here is an excerpt from the Executive Summary:

We were gratified to learn that 49 states and the District of Columbia provide some means for prisoners to secure compassionate release.  But we were dismayed to discover that very few prisoners actually receive compassionate release.

This report summarizes our findings. It describes the barriers and the best practices we uncovered and illustrates them with selected examples drawn directly from our research on individual states. Above all, we found that every state could improve compassionate release. Accordingly, this report closes with a set of recommendations for policymakers interested in bringing their state programs in line with best practices.

June 27, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Sentencing Project effectively reviews "Trends in U.S. Corrections"

The folks at The Sentencing Project late last week published this document, titled "Trends in U.S. Corrections," which serves as an effective fact sheet compiling major developments regarding the scope of imprisonment in the US criminal justice system over the past several decades. The short document has lots of effective graphs reporting on lots of demographic realities of prison populations, and here is a bit of its prose on two particular issues:

Sentencing policies of the War on Drugs era resulted in dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses.  Since its official beginning in the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016.  Furthermore, harsh sentencing laws such as mandatory minimums keep many people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer periods of time: in 1986, people released after serving time for a federal drug offense had spent an average of 22 months in prison.  By 2004, people convicted on federal drug offenses were expected to serve almost three times that length: 62 months in prison.

At the federal level, people incarcerated on a drug conviction make up just under half the prison population.  At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased ninefold since 1980, although it has begun declining in recent years.  Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense....

The number of people serving life sentences continues to grow even while serious, violent crime has been declining for the past 20 years and little public safety benefit has been demonstrated to correlate with increasingly lengthy sentences.  The lifer population has nearly quintupled since 1984.  One in nine people in prison is now serving a life sentence and nearly a third of lifers have been sentenced to life without parole.

June 27, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 25, 2018

"Outraged By Kids In Cages? Look At Our Entire Juvenile Justice System."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new HuffPost commentary authored by lawprof Cara Drinan, who is the author of The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way (and who will be guest-blogging here come this August). Here are excerpts:

Last week, the nation witnessed an abrupt reversal from the White House. After claiming for days that he did not have the authority to address the family separation crisis at the border, President Donald Trump appeared to do just that with the stroke of a pen....

Trump’s reversal this week is progress; it’s a step in the right direction away from the inhumanity that the nation witnessed at the border. But let’s also be clear: There are vulnerable kids in cages in every state across America whose cases will not be affected by the president’s new order. In fact, on any given day there are approximately 50,000 juveniles being held in American correctional facilities, thousands of whom are in adult jails and prisons.

Despite inventing the juvenile court model in the late 19th century, the United States today is an international outlier in the severity of its juvenile justice practices. Today, every jurisdiction has some provision that permits a child to be charged as if they were an adult, and 23 states set no minimum age for employing this legal fiction.

Juveniles convicted in adult court are subject to lengthy mandatory minimums that were drafted with adults in mind. Juveniles can be housed in adult correctional facilities despite being extremely vulnerable to the risks of sexual and physical assault in those locations. Youth are subject to conditions of confinement that were designed for the most dangerous adult offenders, including mechanical restraints and even solitary confinement. Until 2005, we were the only developed nation to execute people for juvenile crimes, and today we are the only country that sentences children to die in prison.

Just like the migrant children crossing the border with their parents, American youth accused of a crime are typically traumatized and vulnerable. Our juvenile justice practices have hit poor, minority communities the hardest. Black youth are five times as likely as white youth to be detained, even as overall detention rates have fallen....

As we seek an end to family separation and the horrors of kids in cages at border facilities, we should also take a moment to reflect on our own domestic practice of keeping kids in cages. We should urge lawmakers to enact age-appropriate sentencing laws that reflect what brain science tells us: that juvenile brains really are different and that most kids simply outgrow delinquent tendencies. At the same time, we should offer education, substance-abuse treatment and therapy to those kids who enter the system rather than simply warehousing them and exacerbating their underlying trauma.

Just like the children of asylum-seekers crossing into America, juveniles accused of a crime are deserving of care and solicitude rather than condemnation and cruelty.

June 25, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, June 22, 2018

"Gideon Incarcerated: Access to Counsel in Pre-Trial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Johanna Kalb now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

As the population of incarcerated persons has swelled in local, state, and federal facilities around the country, the infrastructure supporting the attorney-client relationship is under increasing stress.  The result is an array of new cases about the difficulties of lawyering in jails and prisons.  These cases challenge the lack of private space for legal visits, reductions in visiting hours, remote carceral placements, interference with legal mail, and monitoring of legal phone calls and legal email.  Despite (or perhaps because of) these mounting challenges, many courts have become less receptive to Sixth Amendment claims from people behind bars, putting the right to counsel at risk.

This Article traces the hidden ways in which mass incarceration has worked to degrade the right to counsel, both in fact and in law, for incarcerated criminal defendants.  It then proposes possibilities for reinvigorating the Sixth Amendment’s protections for incarcerated defendants, through intersecting strategies for regulation and structural litigation, with the ultimate goal of breaking our national reliance on pretrial detention.  Building on a 50-state survey of the jail standards governing the attorney-client relationship, the Article illustrates how the Sixth Amendment’s protections are currently understood by those who must facilitate them, and then proposes a new litigation strategy to catalyze reform.

June 22, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Suggesting home confinement as an incarceration alternative to avoid family separation back home

Tyler Cowen has this notable new commentary bringing home a controversy over immigration policies.  The piece is headlined "American Families Shouldn't Be Separated, Either: What if more parents, when convicted of crimes, were sentenced to house arrest for the benefit of their children?".  Here is how it starts and ends:

One of the worst American policies today is the decision of President Donald Trump’s administration to separate many immigrant parents from their children after they illegally cross the U.S. border.  Obviously, a case can be made for enforcing the border, but deliberate cruelty is never a good idea.  Those children — innocent victims all of them — will likely be traumatized for life.  I am uncomfortably reminded of the U.S.’s long history of separating parents and children from the days of slavery and during Native American removal and extermination.

If you agree with me on this, I’d like to push you one step further.  It’s horrible to forcibly separate lawbreaking parents from their young children, but we do that to American citizens, too.  According to one 2010 study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17.  These separations can be traumatic, and they help perpetuate generational cycles of low achievement and criminal behavior.

These problems are especially pressing for female prisoners and their children.  From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses.  Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child.

I have a simple proposal: Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring.  That would allow for proximity to their children.  If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth.  Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working.  In some of these cases the court might rule that the mother — especially if she is prone to child abuse or substance abuse — will not have full custody rights to her children.  Many other children, though, will benefit, and even visitation rights can help a child....

One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care.  This is not an area of investigation where data collection has been thorough or systematic, another sign of our neglect of the issue.  Nonetheless it seems that after the arrest of a parent, treatment of the children by the police is irregular across the country and often poorly handled.

In citing this evidence, I don’t mean to normalize the current treatment of illegal immigrant families — I consider it a moral disgrace.  What I am saying is that our treatment of outsiders is rarely an accident, and it so often mirrors how we have been treating each other all along.  That is yet another reason to be nicer to those who are most vulnerable.

June 20, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Focus on fathers behind bars on Father's Day

Last month, to mark Mother's Day, I collected in this post a lot of commentary about mothers in prison.  I have noticed far less comparable commentary to mark  Father's Day (perhaps because everyone is busy debating what Phil Mickelson did yesterday).  But I have seen these two new pieces authored by Pat Nolan:

June 17, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

"What Tocqueville Would Think of Today’s Criminal Justice Reforms"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting commentary authored by Emily Ferkaluk which leans on a historic figure while advocating for the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who toured American penitentiaries at the height of the 19th-century penal debate in order to help guide French penal reform, would commend us for the reform measures contained in the First Step Act.

In his report, “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France,” Tocqueville stressed that any criminal justice reform must moderately balance two goals: preserving the rights of society, and preserving the rights of prisoners.  Society, he argued, has a right to promote and protect public safety and order by punishing those who break the law—and to regain at least some of the money it spends in doing so.  On the other hand, the prisoner has a right to an education that prepares him to re-enter society as a productive citizen.

Both rights are preserved through the right application of corrective justice — a balance of proportional retribution and rehabilitation.  The First Step Act protects both of these rights—the rights of society and of the prisoner — by proposing a recidivism program that conducts risk assessments of prisoners.  These assessments would weigh the likelihood of individual prisoners recommitting a crime....

Furthermore, time credit programs that are joined to a risk assessment system work because they let wardens and prison administrators determine whether a prisoner presents a low risk to the community.  Tocqueville would have approved of this kind of localized authority.  In fact, during his visit to America, he was pleasantly surprised at the amount of authority the superintendent of prisons wielded over prison discipline.  He believed superintendents were best suited to make those decisions, being the closest to prisoners and having observed their behavior and reformation.

Tocqueville also identified certain types of incentives that truly rehabilitate prisoners — particularly family-oriented incentives. His interviews with prisoners in solitary confinement in the Philadelphia Penitentiary led him to remark that “memories of their family have an extreme power over their souls,” thus disposing them to rehabilitation.

These very incentives are present in the First Step Act. One incentive is to be relocated to a facility closer to home. Another is to enroll prisoners in a program that gives them “family relationship building, structured parent-child interaction, and parenting skills.”  A third option is to allow certain prisoners to go home for pre-release custody.  All of these cohere with Tocqueville’s findings....

When Tocqueville was first inspecting American penitentiaries, only a handful of states (predominantly New York and Pennsylvania) had begun to implement new prison disciplines such as solitary confinement and prison labor.  These penal disciplines proved effective, and despite their relative newness, Tocqueville recommended the French adopt the same disciplines.

Tocqueville preferred democratic politics to theory, and action in one direction over endless debate.  Commenting on the penal reforms made by the people through their state legislatures, he said, “Perhaps this prudent and reserved reform, effected by an entire people, whose entire habits are practical, will be better than the hasty trials that would result from the enthusiasm of ardent minds and the seduction of theories.”

Tocqueville’s words of wisdom should encourage us to pass the proposed recidivism reform measures without fear of killing any future criminal justice reform.  This first step toward penal reform is not our last.

Some of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration"

Download (15)The title of this post is the title of this notable new publication from The Vera Institute of Justice.   Here is much of its introduction:

After decades of continuous growth, the United States’ prison population began to plateau in the new millennium as the nation entered an era of criminal justice reform aimed at lowering the footprint of incarceration.  This seemed to herald the beginning of the end for mass incarceration.  Since 2007, when the country hit a peak of nearly 800 people in prison per 100,000 working age adults — over 1.6 million people total — overall prison incarceration has declined by about 1 percent on average each year.  The new downward trajectory of incarceration in the United States has paralleled a reckoning with the mounting costs of confinement and a growing awareness that incarceration in America was — in the words of a 2014 National Research Council report — “historically unprecedented and internationally unique,” and did not have the promised impact on public safety. (See “A brief history of mass incarceration: From unified growth to an era of reform” at page 8.)

Legislative and policy reforms have not brought a swift reversal of mass incarceration, however.  Even prison population trends — long used as convenient barometer of criminal justice reform’s progress — show that unwinding the nation’s overreliance on incarceration will be a longterm endeavor.  At the current pace, it will be 149 years until U.S. prison incarceration rates are as low as they were in 1970. (See Figure 1 at page 6.)

At the same time, while aggregated national prison population data indicates slow decline, it cannot be the sole indicator used to measure the progress made in the nation’s recent efforts to reduce incarceration.  Prison populations are slow to change after the implementation of most policy or practice changes, and thus provide an inadequate metric by which to measure and adjust the immediate impact of reforms — or regressive legislation.  Furthermore, a reliance on aggregate prison data fails to acknowledge or measure the tremendous variation in incarceration trends from state to state and within states, and ignores a significant locus of incarceration: local jails — county- or municipally-run facilities that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.  For example, while much of the country is locking fewer people in jails and prisons, Kentucky is doing the opposite. If jails and prisons continue to grow in Kentucky as they have since 2000, everyone in the state will be incarcerated in 113 years. A comprehensive look at disparately reported metrics for the nation’s 50 state prison systems and 2,872 local jail jurisdictions is necessary to more accurately account for the headway made thus far in reversing mass incarceration.

To accomplish this goal, this report proposes a wider set of metrics by which to analyze incarceration trends to supplement the old standard of state prison population: 1) prison admissions; 2) jail admissions, 3) pretrial jail populations and 4) sentenced jail populations.  When considered together, this combination of metrics better captures the complexity of contemporary incarceration trends at the state and local level, makes the patterns that underlie national statistics discernable, and provides a starting point for deeper investigation into the particular context of individual counties’ justice systems....

As this report will discuss, studying all the moving parts of the incarceration system reveals a more messy truth: that there is no single way to characterize the current state of mass incarceration. A single trend of unified growth across states and counties, and in both prison and jail incarceration, characterized mass incarceration’s rise. But that has fragmented into four distinct incarceration trends, depending on how and where incarceration is measured:

  • some jurisdictions have seen meaningful overall declines in both prison and jail incarceration; 
  • others have seen stagnation at high incarceration rates; 
  • still others have seen shifts between prisons and jails in place of real reductions to the footprint of incarceration; and 
  • some have seen unchecked growth.
Ultimately, unwinding mass incarceration will require the particular alchemy of data-driven policy and political will, sustained by pressure from grassroots advocates and litigation. But only by acknowledging the realities in thousands of jurisdictions across the country can researchers, policymakers, and the public identify where reform is still only a promise and target attention and resources to drive change. Without understanding how local jail populations and county-level prison admissions have evolved over time, it will be difficult to have a real sense of how state and local systems are interacting, which problems to solve, or if progress is being made at all.

This new Mother Jones article about this new Vera report sums up its takeway via its extended headline: "The Era of Mass Incarceration Isn’t Over. This New Report Shows Why. 'Mass incarceration has a different face.'"

June 14, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)