Thursday, December 01, 2016

Lame (duck) Obama Administration announces series of "sweeping" reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Download (5)I suppose the cliche phrase "better late than never" should keep me calm when I see notable news these days from the Obama Administration concerning criminal justice reform.  But this DOJ press release from yesterday, which carries the heading "Justice Department Announces Reforms at Bureau of Prisons to Reduce Recidivism and Promote Inmate Rehabilitation," prompts frustration rather than calm because it announces reforms that seem so sound and yet so late.  Here are the substantive highlights:

Today, the Department of Justice announced a series of reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) designed to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of inmates’ safe and successful return to the community. These efforts include building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system, reforming federal halfway houses, covering the cost of obtaining state-issued photo IDs for federal inmates prior to their release from custody and providing additional services for female inmates.

“Helping incarcerated individuals prepare for life after prison is not just sound public policy; it is a moral imperative,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “These critical reforms will help give federal inmates the tools and assistance they need to successfully return home as productive, law-abiding members of society. By putting returning citizens in a position to make the most of their second chance, we can create stronger communities, safer neighborhoods and brighter futures for all.”

“The sweeping changes that we are announcing today chart a new course for the Bureau of Prisons that will help make our prisons more effective, our communities safer and our families stronger," said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “One of the best ways to prevent crime is by reducing recidivism, and one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is by equipping inmates with the tools they need to successfully reenter society."

Last year, with the department’s support, BOP retained outside consultants to review the agency’s operations and recommend changes designed to reduce the likelihood of inmates re-offending after their release from prison. As part of today’s announcement, the department is launching a new website, www.justice.gov/prison-reform, that compiles current and ongoing reforms at BOP, and includes the final reports from the outside consultants.

The department announced additional details regarding these efforts:

Building a school district within the federal prison system....

Reforming federal halfway houses....

Covering the cost of state-issued IDs prior to inmates’ release....

Enhancing programs for female inmates....

These initiatives are part of the department’s deep commitment to a fair, effective criminal justice system that promotes public safety and prepare inmates for their return to the community, thereby reducing the likelihood that a cycle of crime will continue.  

I think it neither naive nor unfair to assert that seeking to reduce recidivism and promote inmate rehabilitation should be a very top criminal justice priority for any and every Administration as they take over the reins of the Department of Justice and its (very expensive) Federal Bureau of Prisons.  And I see nothing in these "sweeping" BOP reforms that could not have been effectively pioneered eight years ago in the first few months of the Obama Administration rather than only now in the last few (lame duck) months of the Obama Administration.  in other words, though I am pleased to see these late-in-the-day federal prison reform efforts, I cannot help but respond to these new developments with the frustrating feeling that DOJ and BOP during the most of the Obama years were mostly "asleep at the wheel" when it came to critical public safety prison reform priorities.  

Sigh and Grrr.

December 1, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

AP report provides confusing non-answer as to "What is the future of U.S. prisons under Trump administration?"

The quoted question in the title of this post comes from the headline of this AP article.  Because there are a number of strange and confusing elements to this AP piece, I am not sure it does even a reasonable job trying to answer the question it poses.  I will explain some of my concerns with this quirky piece after quoting it at length with some highlighting of key phrases and passages:

The population of American prisons is likely to rise for the first time in nearly a decade with President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to detain and deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally and his selection of tough-on-crime Sen. Jeff Sessions to the nation’s highest law enforcement post.

If so, one of the prime beneficiaries would be the private companies that operate many of the nation’s prisons. The stock market seems to agree.  A day after the election, CoreCivic Co., formerly Corrections Corporation of America, saw the biggest percentage gain on the New York Stock Exchange with shares climbing 43 percent.  Shares of Geo Group, another private prison company, also jumped 21 percent.

The federal prison population had been trending down for nearly a decade when the Obama administration announced in August that it would phase out its use of some private facilities.  The announcement followed a Justice Department audit saying private facilities have more safety and security problems than government-run lockups.  The policy change did not cover private prisons used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though federal officials have said they are considering phasing out private contractor immigration facilities.

Trump, however, said during his campaign that the nation’s prison system was a mess and voiced support for private prisons. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better,” Trump told MSNBC in March, though he didn’t offer any details on what that might mean for the federal prison system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds up to 34,000 immigrants awaiting deportation.  Forty-six of the roughly 180 facilities in which ICE holds those immigrants are privately run, with about 73 percent of detainees held in the private facilities, the agency says.

“Trump was saying during his 100-day plan that mandatory minimums for people re-entering the country would be set at two years -- that’s going to require a longer-term need for beds,” said Michael Kodesch, a senior associate with financial services firm Canaccord Genuity Inc. Immigration detention centers are particularly profitable for private prison companies because they command a higher rate for each inmate bed, he said....

Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, was among a handful of Republican senators blocking a bipartisan bill that would reduce lengthy sentences for low-level drug offenders.  McLaurine Klingler, a spokeswoman for Sessions, said no one on Sessions’ staff was immediately available to talk about his feelings on the DOJ’s use on private prisons.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company doesn’t take positions on proposals, legislation or policies that would determine the basis of an individual’s incarceration or detention.  He said the company instead works to “educate lawmakers on the benefits of public-private partnership generally and the solutions CoreCivic provides.”

I likely would need to write a few law review articles to unpack all the hash in this AP report, but the second highlighted passage above reveals a big part of the mess that this article reflects.  Specifically, the AP article suggests that "private companies ... operate many of the nation’s prisons";  But folks at ACLU note here that "for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners, and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states."  In other words, private companies actually operate a very small percentage of the nation's prisons.

As the AP article hints, Prez-Elect Trump and his administration might want to grow rather than shrink reliance on for-profit companies for incarceration.  (Even if true, it would matter a lot whether Trump would want just the federal system or also state systems to make greater use of private prisons.)  But Trump's comment praising privatization seems based on a (sound?) view that the very best private prisons might function more effectively and efficiently than the very worst public prisons responsible for our current mass incarceration "mess."   So, even if Prez-Elect Trump and his administration were to make a huge commitment to, say, doubling the use of private prisons nationwide, that commitment alone would not itself make it "likely" for the "population of American prisons ... to rise" in the coming years.  (Indeed, given the incarceration reform measures enacted in key states at the same time Trump was elected president, I am inclined to predict that it is more likely we will see some declines in the population of American prisons in the coming years.)

Finally, though it is true AG-designate Jeff Sessions was opposed to federal statutory sentencing reform throughout 2016 while serving as Senator Sessions from Alabama, his departure from the Senate might now make it more likely that some form of federal statutory sentencing reform gets passed by Congress in 2017 or 2018.   This is true not only because Sessions may get replaced in the Senate by someone at least slightly more likely to support federal statutory sentencing reform, but also because opposition to reform by a number of Senators in 2016 was based in part on a desire to preclude Prez Obama from having a legacy criminal justice reform achievement.  Once Prez Obama is out the door and the (toxic?) symbolism of his affinity for sentencing reform is just a recent memory, I think some (modest?) form of federal statutory sentencing reform is likely to make it through Congress before too long.

November 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did death penalty initiatives make it easier for significant prison reforms to pass in California and Oklahoma?

The sets of death penalty initiatives on state ballots this year received lots of attention, and the pro-death-penalty side received lots of voter support in both "red states" like Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as in the in "blue state" of California.  (And I am very excited, as previewed here, that tomorrow at Northwestern Law I be part of a symposium that will be seeking  to sort out what this means for the future of the death penalty in the US.) But, as Randy Balko notes in this Washington Post piece headlined "Believe it or not, it was a pretty good night for criminal-justice reform," the death penalty outcomes should be looked at in the context of other criminal justice reform measure that also got significant support from voters in both red and blue states. Here are excerpts from his piece with one word highlighted by me for commentary to follow:

The death penalty was on the ballot in three states last night, by way of four separate initiatives. In all of them, the death penalty won.... But it wasn’t just in red states. California voters weighed in on two death penalty initiatives — one to repeal it, and one to speed it up. The former failed, the latter passed.  This is a state that Hillary Clinton won by 28 points. Americans still revere the death penalty....

But there was also a lot of good news last night. Marijuana won in 8 of the 9 states in which it was on the ballot — including outright legalization in California, Massachusetts and Nevada. Those states all went blue in the presidential race, but red states Montana, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota all legalized medicinal marijuana. The lesson here appears to be that pot has finally transcended the culture wars, but the death penalty hasn’t.  [My other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is where I obsess on this reality.]

There are a couple of other important reform measures that passed.  Ironically, both were in states that strengthened the death penalty.  California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole (as opposed to prison) and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and lets judges (instead of prosecutors) determine whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts.  And in Oklahoma, voters approved of a measure to reclassify certain property and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  They also approved a measure that would use the money saved from reclassifying such crimes to fund rehabilitation, mental health treatment and vocational training for inmates. New Mexico voters passed a bail reform measure that, while poorly drafted, at least indicates that there’s an appetite in the electorate for such reforms.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think it "ironic"  that the very different states of California and Oklahoma with very different voters acted in the same way here.  Indeed, I think it quite sensible for voters to be eager to, at the same time while voting, express support for tougher sentencing for the very worst criminals (terrible murderers) and for smarter sentencing for the lesser criminals (nonviolent and drug offenders).  I make this point to stress not only that (1) these results make perfect sense to "average" voters at this moment in our national criminal justice discourse, but also that (2) it was practically shrewd for politicians in California and Oklahoma to put prison reforms in front of voters at the same time they were considering death penalty issues.

1. As a matter of political mood, I suspect the "average" voter now is not too troubled by historic problems with the administration of the death penalty, largely because some recent big capital cases involve mass murderer with no concerns about a possible wrongful conviction or terrible defense lawyering.  High-profile capital cases like James Holmes (the Aurora movie theater mass murderer), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Dylann Roof (the Charleston Church mass murderer) have all involved crimes in which guilt seems clear beyond any doubt and in which the defendants have had the benefit of spectacular defense lawyers.

At the same time, while the "average" voter is seemingly not keen on taking the death penalty completely off the table for mass murderers like Holmes, Tsarnaev and Roof, she seems to be growing much more keen on reducing reliance on incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenders.  National discussions of the expense and inefficacy of the drug war and other concerns about modern mass incarceration has, it seems, made prison reform for certain lower-level offenders politically popular even in a red state like Oklahoma.

2. As a matter of practical realities, especially in a state like California in which "tough on crime" prison initiatives have historically garnered vocal support from law enforcement groups and prosecutors and prison unions, I suspect having a death penalty initiative for the "tough-and-tougher" crowd to focus on created a window of opportunity for supporters of prison reforms to dominate the messaging for voters on "lower salience" issues like expanding parole eligibility or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors.  Though I was not in California or Oklahoma to experience their initiative campaigns directly, I know just from reading Crime & Consequences that Kent Schneidegger, a very effective tough-on-crime advocate, was much more focused on Prop 62 and 66 (the capital initiatives in California) than on Prop 57 (the parole initiative that he called "Gov. Brown's Jailbreak Initiative").

November 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 07, 2016

Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham

A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia.  Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.

Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham.  Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation.  In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id.  Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.

Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:

In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.  In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it.  The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).

Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.

November 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Could puppies be the "magical" elixer that can make modern correctional institutions actually correctional?

BonpFuOIUAEiRnkThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new local article from California headlined "California prisons struggle to get inmates to change. Are puppies the ‘magical’ answer?." The piece is about a lot more that has been going on in California prison policy and practice than just a shaggy-dog story. But the article's headline and "softer" contents gives me an excuse to post a puppy picture of the dog breed that I share my life with, and I like hearing about prisoners getting some dog-gone good puppy vibes as well. Here are excerpts:

When a pair of puppies stepped into a state prison’s highest security yard on a scorching summer day, dozens of felons fretted that the Labradors would singe their feet on hot pavement. “Pick them up! You’ve got to carry them. Watch out for their paws!” inmate Andre Ramnanan remembers his worried peers shouting at him.

Three months later, Ramnanan says the dogs still have a “magical” effect on the yard at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County. Sometimes, they even defuse fights.  “I’ve seen fights almost break out and then stop because someone says, ‘Wait, there’s a dog here,’ ” said Ramnanan, 43.

Ramnanan, serving life without parole for participating in a murder and kidnapping 24 years ago, is one of a handful of inmates enrolled in a program that gives prisoners a shot at redemption by asking them to nurture service dogs that one day will comfort wounded veterans or children with autism. 

The program, called Tender Loving Canines, is among the wealth of new and restored rehabilitation courses that are popping up in California state prisons since Gov. Jerry Brown began boosting programs that help inmates prepare to re-enter society. Today, those programs are giving inmates more opportunities to study, work or pursue therapy than they were offered a decade ago when the state’s prisons were severely overcrowded.

They also provide a template for the reforms Brown is advocating with Proposition 57, his initiative to slim the state’s prison population by empowering parole boards to grant early releases for nonviolent inmates who better themselves while in confinement.

Inmates and their loved ones are following the measure closely. On a recent visit to Mule Creek State Prison, some inmates said it may speed their release. “I wanted to join the program because it was helping the community, and I want to get back to the community,” said inmate Maurice Green, 37, who is participating in the service dog program. “Hopefully, if Prop. 57 passes, it’ll be next year.”...

Mule Creek State Prison contains about 3,500 inmates. It’s reserved for inmates who likely would be harmed by prisoners at other institutions, such as corrupt cops, felons who’ve separated themselves from gangs and sex offenders. It also houses inmates with special medical needs, such as prisoners who use wheelchairs. In May, it opened two new wings that will allow it to house about 1,500 more inmates. So far, the $344 million project is at half capacity while the prison hires more medical and mental health workers to staff the new wards.

Like other prisons, it was extremely overcrowded before a series of court rulings beginning in 2009 compelled the state to direct thousands of new inmates to county jails. Brown as attorney general and earlier in his term as governor unsuccessfully appealed those decisions. Since 2009, the state’s prison population has fallen from about 170,000 inmates to fewer than 129,000.

When Mule Creek was at its most-crowded, inmates slept in gymnasiums and in activity rooms, Lt. Angelo Gonzalez said. Back then, the prison didn’t have room for the rehabilitation programs that inmates are using now. “We had so many inmates that the focus was on providing the basic necessities,” said Mule Creek Warden Joe Lizarraga.

Lately, Mule Creek has seen more inmates joining anger management and conflict resolution programs that Lizarraga has been able to fund through grants that support prisons in rural communities. Statewide, Brown has escalated funding for inmate rehabilitation from $355.2 million in 2011 to $481.5 million this year.

Dogs are at the heart of two of Mule Creek’s most popular programs. In the high-security yard, five young dogs are attached to inmates around the clock in the program that trains them to become service animals. They’re stars of the yard, threading crowds of well-tattooed inmates as they follow their mindful trainers. In a lower-security wing, stray dogs from Amador County spend time with inmates until they become socialized and ready for adoption through local shelters.

Last week, inmate James Hardy had a breakthrough when a rambunctious pit bull he’s been minding suddenly started playing with a chihuahua. Until then, the two dogs had been enemies. He identifies with the strays, recognizing that he, too, could use some help figuring out how to live better outside prison.

“They came from a rescue center. They’re a lot like us. I see us like we’re rescues, too,” said Hardy, 40, of Sacramento, who has been in and out of prison for the last 20 years. He’s serving seven years for vehicle theft.

Cherie Flores, one of the service dog training instructors from Tender Loving Canines, said inmates and puppies are a good match. She visits twice a week, coaching the inmates on how to prepare the dogs for a lifetime of service. “This is amazing for them and for the dogs,” she said. “These guys have nothing but time and structure. Puppies need time and structure. This is everything for them.”

Lizarraga makes a point to spend time with the service dogs in Tender Loving Canines. Some members of his staff had reservations about putting the dogs in the prison’s highest security wing. He thought it was worth a chance, to see if the dogs would change the atmosphere. “It’s our most violent yard. What better place to put a program that had the potential to calm the yard down? It’s done a tremendous job,” he said.

Ramnanan said he joined the program in part because he wanted to “atone” for the 1992 murder that sent him to prison. In the past, he used to sit in his cell and “be angry at the world.” Lately, he pays close attention to a puppy named Amador, turning a fan on her when she pants at night. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he said. “You find an attachment and someone needs you. It’s a good feeling.”

November 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Black Studies and the Fight Against Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is title of this great public event talking placing in a few weeks on my own campus, which is to begins with a showing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th  (previously promoted here) and then includes a terrific-looking panel discussion.  Here is the official description: 

Join professor and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander for a screening of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which explores the historical foundations and present-day structures of mass incarceration in the United States. After the film, Alexander will lead a panel discussion addressing the importance of Black Studies both for understanding the origins of systems of racial oppression and acquiring the tools needed to effectively combat them. The panel will feature faculty from the Department of African American and African Studies and the Moritz College of Law as well as student activists and community organizers.

A reception with complimentary food and drink will start at 5 PM in Heirloom Café, and the screening will begin at 6 PM.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

November 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

"Reducing the Prison Population: Evidence from Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Lindsay Bostwick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Four decades of rapid growth in the US incarceration rate has met with bipartisan support for reforming sentencing policies and calls to reduce the prison population. However, there is little consensus on how to achieve the reductions suggested. In this paper we project how the Pennsylvania prison population and age demographics may change through 2054 as a result of alternative sentencing policies. One consequence of the prison population growth in recent years has been the aging of those incarcerated and these increasingly older populations strain correctional resources for healthcare and other needs.

Our study finds reducing the prison population requires significant changes to the number of people sentenced to prison along with reducing the sentence length of those incarcerated. In particular, to reduce the prison population by a meaningful amount, we will have to reduce admissions to prison to 1980 rates and the sentence lengths for violent offenders to those seen in 1990. A focus on drug and low-level offenses will do little to change the population in the long run.

November 1, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Florida’s prisons waste money and lives"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy new editorial by the Florida Times-Union, from which come these excerpts:

Wasting money, wasting lives — that’s the motto of Florida’s prison system. Oh, it’s not official, but it’s the reality. Florida’s refusal to attack its criminal justice problems has enshrined us in the backwater of prison reform despite numerous indications that Gov. Rick Scott would address these concerns.

Florida spends too much money, rehabilitates too few prisoners and leaves its citizens no safer than other states like Texas and Georgia that have instituted common-sense reforms. “There’s no state plan to do anything, and the status quo is leaving us even further behind,” says Deborrah Brodsky of the Project on Accountable Justice. “This state simply overrelies on things that don’t work.”

Although some changes have been made in the six years since Scott took office, there has been little comprehensive reform. That’s surprising to prison reform advocates who initially thought the new governor was a staunch advocate. Scott had commissioned a 263-page transition report from a team of hand-picked experts on the Department of Corrections before he took office in 2011.

When negotiating his first budget, the governor did make fiscal changes to make the Department of Corrections more efficient in his incoming budget. Advocates believed he would follow through by enacting the kinds of reforms that had reduced prison budgets in other states. Instead, the governor’s first budget showed not reforms but the elimination of 1,690 Department of Corrections jobs — including 619 corrections officers — the closure of two prisons and transferring 1,500 inmates to private facilities. Since then, he has since refused to embrace reform in the adult prisons, although he has made substantial positive changes within the juvenile system.

There are many proven changes Florida must make to reverse its course. These range from revisiting how the courts sentence people for drugs to how juveniles are treated in the system. Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice in Texas, told the Times-Union editorial board his state has already made strides in reforming the Lone Star state’s system. He suggested four areas deserving of immediate attention in Florida.

Alter the use of direct file of juveniles into the adult prison system....

Readjust mandatory minimum sentences....

Change pre-trial procedures....

Adjust state felony theft thresholds....

In 2010, Scott’s transition team noted that prison reform was needed. “Our team found that DOC is broken,” the report concluded, noting that the Legislature had ignored pleas for modernization and reform. The report listed multiple excellent ideas whose combined mission was to reform the prison system, reduce recidivism, decrease the number of repeat offenders, ease ex-offenders transition back to the community and save taxpayers money.

What’s happened since then? Very little. Scott seems to have forgotten his own transition team’s report on the need for prison reform, and the Legislature has failed to press for changes. It’s time Florida paddles itself out of the backwater of prison reform.

October 30, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Significant new report calls for closing all traditional youth prisons due to their inefficacy

This recent item from the Harvard Gazette, headlined "Youth justice study finds prison counterproductive: New report documents urgent need to replace youth prisons with rehabilitation-focused alternatives," spotlights a significant new report concerning the way juvenile offenders are punished. Here are excerpts:

A new report, published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), documents ineffectiveness, endemic abuses, and high costs in youth prisons throughout the country.  The report systematically reviews recent research in developmental psychology and widespread reports of abuse to conclude that the youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and, for the few youth who require secure confinement, smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation.

The authors, who are leading youth justice researchers and former youth correctional administrators, find that the current youth prison model, which emphasizes confinement and control, often exacerbates youth trauma and inhibits positive growth while failing to address public safety.  Rather, the paper argues, programs work best when youths are in their home communities with rehabilitative programs or in smaller, homelike facilities that promote opportunities for healthy decision-making and development. Corrections agencies should provide a range of options depending on the individual’s needs, from smaller secure facilities to noncustodial programs.

Annual youth imprisonment costs are approximately $150,000 per individual, yet recidivism rates remain close to 70 percent. The report examines the experiences of several states that have pursued alternative models and finds community-based approaches can reduce recidivism, control costs, and promote public safety.

“Youth in trouble need guidance, education, and support, not incarceration in harmful and ineffective youth prisons,” said PCJ Senior Fellow Vincent Schiraldi, a co-author of the report. Previously, Schiraldi directed juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C., and served as commissioner of probation in New York City.  “We now know from research and on-the-ground experience that youth prisons are not designed to best promote youth rehabilitation.  This report offers concrete alternatives for policymakers across the country to maintain public safety, hold young people accountable, and turn their lives around.”

“Juvenile-justice systems must have the clear purpose of giving each youth the tools he or she needs to get on the right path to a successful adulthood and to reintegrate into the community,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a co-author of the report.  Like Schiraldi, McCarthy is a former director of youth corrections — in his case, in Delaware.  “By closing traditional youth prisons and leveraging increased political will to reform our country’s dependence on incarceration, states can use the savings to begin implementing a new, more effective approach to serving young people.”

This report, titled “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” is available in full at this link.  And here is a key paragraph from its opening pages:

Whether the benefits and costs of youth prisons are weighed on a scale of public dollars, community safety, or young people’s futures, they are damaging the very people they are supposed to help and have been for generations. It is difficult to find an area of U.S. policy where the benefits and costs are more out of balance, where the evidence of failure is clearer, or where we know with more clarity what we should be doing differently.

October 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Consolidating Local Criminal Justice: Should Prosecutors Control the Jails?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new essay authored by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Most observers agree that prosecutors hold too much power in the American criminal justice system.  Expansive criminal codes offer prosecutors wide discretion to charge defendants with a huge number of offenses.  And stiff authorized punishments provide prosecutors with leverage to pressure defendants to plea guilty.  As a result, prosecutors hold most of the plea bargaining cards.  Massive prosecutorial power has resulted in mass incarceration.

I do not disagree with the conventional wisdom that prosecutors hold too much power. However, absent drastic legislative and judicial change, it will be nearly impossible to substantially reduce prosecutors’ power and discretion. As such, this essay offers the counter-intuitive proposal that we should give prosecutors more, not less, power and responsibility.

This essay argues that states should change their nearly uniform policy of having sheriffs run local jails. Instead, we should place local prosecutors in charge of their local jails.  While sheriffs would remain responsible for safety and discipline, prosecutors should be charged with all of the logistical responsibility for checking inmates in and out of the facilities and with handling the overall budgets.

Putting prosecutors in charge of the jails would take a bite out of the “correctional free lunch” in which prosecutors impose sentences but do not have to internalize the financial costs of their decisions.  Put simply, prosecutors would have to pay for and live with their misdemeanor charging and sentencing decisions.  Consolidating local criminal justice might also have spillover effects that encourage prosecutors to reduce the sentences they seek in felony cases.

October 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Opportunity Agenda produces huge report on "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions"

Full_pdf_cover_sideThe Opportunity Agenda, which is a project of Tides Center and calls itself a "social justice communication lab," has just released this huge new on-line report (which is also available as a pdf here) under the title "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions." Here is the main introduction and the headings for links to different sections of this report:

Our criminal justice system must keep all communities safe, foster prevention and rehabilitation, and ensure fair and equal justice. But in too many places, and in too many ways, our system is falling short of that mandate and with devastating consequences. The United States is saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

People of color, particularly Native American, black, and Latino people, have felt the impact of discrimination within the criminal justice system. Many immigrants experience mandatory detention, racial profiling, and due process violations because of laws and policies that violate their human rights—and the principles of equal justice, fair treatment, and proportionality under our criminal justice system. The good news is that we as a nation are at a unique moment in which there is strong public, bipartisan support for criminal justice reform; we see positive policy developments in many parts of the country; and mass action and social movements for change are growing, including the Movement for Black Lives. More is needed, however, to move from positive trends to transformative, lasting change.

Criminal Justice Policy Solutions
  • Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration: Our criminal justice system should ensure that all individuals feel safe and secure in their communities.
  • Create Fair and Effective Policing Practices: To work for all of us, policing practices should ensure equal justice and be supported by evidence.
  • Promote Justice in Pre-Trial Services & Practices: The right to due process is a cornerstone of our commitment to freedom and fairness.
  • Enhance Prosecutorial Integrity: Prosecutors represent the government, and therefore must reflect the highest levels of integrity and ethics in their work.
  • Ensure Fair Trials and Quality Indigent Defense: Every accused person is entitled to a fair trial. Indigent defendants have a constitutional right to competent representation at trial.
  • Encourage Equitable Sentencing: People convicted of crimes should receive fair sentences. These sentences should reflect the severity of the crime and be administered in a fair manner.
  • Ensure Decent Detention Conditions: Decent, rehabilitative prisons are a basic human right and crucial to the successful reintegration of formally incarcerated people.
  • Require Equitable Parole and Probation: Parole and probation practices should be fair and consistent. They should be used as a tool to allow accused persons to safely remain in their communities.
  • Foster Successful Reintegration: Most Americans agree that after completing a criminal sentence, released people should be given an opportunity to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
  • Foster an Environment for Respecting Children's Rights: We must adopt policies that ensure children reach their full potential and are not placed off track for childhood mistakes.
  • Eradicate the Criminalization of Sex, Gender, & Sexuality: We all should have freedom to live without fear of criminalization because of our expressed sex, gender or sexuality.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Poverty: Instead of increasing opportunities to succeed, our law too often funnels low-income people into the criminal justice system.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Public Health Issues: The criminal justice system is too often used as a cure-all for social problems that are better suited to social services and public health responses.
  • Promote Fairness at the Intersection of Immigration and Criminal Justice: Everyone is entitled to have their human rights respected regardless of immigration status.
  • Public Opinion Report: A New Sensibility: This report is based on a review of about fifty public opinion surveys and polls, most of them conducted between 2014 and June 2016.

I suspect most, if not all, of this report's various sections will be of interest to readers. And I hope it is useful for all to see what is listed as 10 action items under the "Encourage Equitable Sentencing" section. That section starts this way and they has these 10 "Solutions and Actions to Encourage Fair Sentences":

We all want a criminal justice system that treats people fairly, takes a pragmatic and responsible approach, and ultimately, keeps us safe. When we’ve reached the point of deciding to deprive someone of their liberty, we have to be particularly fair and responsible and consider all options. Sentences should consider a range of factors and reflect the severity of the crime. We owe it to ourselves, our justice system, and to those being imprisoned to ensure that our sentencing practices are thoughtful and fair. Nonetheless, the explosion of the American prison population is largely due to sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of crimes. Prisons and jails are filled by many people who pose no threat to their communities. Laws that impose mandatory minimums contribute to mass imprisonment. Sentencing laws should be reformed to require transparency and mandate equitable practices that ensure that sentences are appropriate to the particular circumstances of an offense.

1) Repeal “Truth-in-Sentencing” and “Three-Strikes” Law...

2) Repeal Mandatory Minimums...

3) Use Alternatives to Incarceration...

4) Prohibit Incarceration for Failure to Appear...

5) Revise Sentencing Guidelines...

6) Commit to Cutting Incarceration in Half...

7) Collect Data...

8) Train Judges on Implicit Bias...

9) Appoint Judges from Diverse Backgrounds...

10) Evaluate Ability to Pay

October 26, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Bars to Justice: The Impact of Rape Myths on Women in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this paper newly posted to SSRN and authored by Hannah Brenner, Kathleen Darcy, Gina Fedock and Sheryl Kubiak. Here is the abstract:

This article stems from a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary research project that addresses a major gap in understanding the reporting of sexual victimization in prison and the confluence of factors that contribute to the ineffectiveness of internal laws and policies.  As a basis of this work, our cohort of scholars in law, social work, and psychology utilized data and personal narratives from the groundbreaking class action lawsuit, Neal v. MDOC, brought on behalf of over 800 female inmates against the State of Michigan.

In this article, we identify the most prevalent rape myths we observed from women who were involved in the Neal lawsuit and other similarly situated female inmates across the country.  We focus on the impact of rape myths in contexts where prison staff perpetrate sexual violence against female inmates and in particular, how rape myths span the closed prison system-from reporting to grievance outcomes.  We explore how these myths shape notions of the "ideal victim," discuss their specific impact, and explain why they matter.

We consider how, by virtue of their incarcerated status, it is impossible for women victimized in prison to meet the "ideal victim" standards, ultimately rendering their attempts at seeking justice futile.  We hope that our analysis of rape myths in the prison context will inspire changes in prison law and policy by acknowledging and urging the dismantling of these often unforeseen, implicit, and informal barriers to justice.

October 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Old prison problems from new school smuggling

This new Washington Post piece discusses and old prison problem and its new dimensions.  The piece is headlined "Prisons try to stop drones from delivering drugs, porn and cellphones to inmates," and here are excerpts:

Prison inmates, a remarkably ingenious bunch, are disrupting long-standing methods of smuggling drugs, porn and cellphones the same way online retailers hope to one day deliver socks and underwear to American homes — through the air, with drones.

By coordinating with wingmen on the outside for shipments of contraband, inmates can bypass the need to bribe corrupt guards or persuade family members to hide forbidden items in body cavities.

Though nobody is precisely sure just how many drones are landing every day in prisons, the threat is global.  Last year, there was a melee at an Ohio prison after a drone dropped heroin into the exercise yard.  In April, security cameras at a London prison recorded a drone delivering drugs directly to an inmate’s window.

And in Western Maryland earlier this year, prosecutors convicted a recently released inmate and a prisoner serving a life sentence on charges of attempted drug distribution and delivery of contraband after they completed several nighttime missions netting them $6,000 per drop in product sales.  It was such a lucrative scheme that the former inmate had purchased a new truck for himself with the profits....

Prison officials are dealing with this new threat even as inmates continue using older, higher-risk methods.  Earlier this month, more than 50 correctional officers and inmates were charged in a smuggling scheme at Eastern Correctional Institution, Maryland’s largest prison.

Drone deliveries, while clever, aren’t all that surprising given how much time inmates spend watching television news, security officials say.  They’ve likely seen stories about retailers such as Amazon (founded by Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos) pushing the concept.  “We are trying to keep up with technology just like everyone else,” said Stephen T. Moyer, secretary of Public Safety & Correctional Services for Maryland. “So this is a huge challenge for all of us in corrections.”...

The threats to prisons and other facilities have given rise to start-ups selling anti-drone detection systems that use thermal imaging and other technology to spot airborne infiltrators. Some executives have jokingly compared the technology to “Star Wars” — not the movies, but the Reagan-era missile defense system.

October 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Slave Narratives and the Sentencing Court"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by Lindsey Webb available via SSRN (and which certainly serves as an interesting scholarly "chaser" after watching the new documentary 13th). Here is the abstract:

The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  Courts are substantially more likely to sentence African American and Latino people to prison than white people in similar circumstances, and African Americans in particular represent a grossly disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population. Violence and other ills endemic to jails and prisons are thus disproportionately experienced by people of color.

This Article argues that criminal defense lawyers should explicitly address conditions of confinement at sentencing.  In doing so, a criminal defense lawyer has the opportunity to serve as both advocate and abolitionist.  As advocates, defense lawyers can incorporate information about conditions of confinement into sentencing narratives to support arguments for shorter sentences or against imprisonment altogether.  As abolitionists, defense lawyers can juxtapose the humanity of their clients with the poor or even dire conditions of confinement in our jails and prisons — not only to influence the court’s decision about an individual client’s sentence, but to impact the court’s view of our systems of incarceration as a whole.  Defense lawyers acting as abolitionists thus seek to disrupt and dismantle a system of imprisonment that disproportionately affects African American and Latino people in significant and damaging ways.

In examining how invoking conditions of confinement at sentencing engages defense attorneys as advocates and abolitionists, this Article seeks insight from a tool of abolitionists and advocates from a different time: Civil War-era slave narratives.  Slave narratives exposed the hidden conditions of slavery while also seeking to humanize the enslaved people subjected to those conditions.  Using slave narratives as a touchstone in a conversation about sentencing advocacy provides a new perspective on the role of storytelling in litigation and social movements, including questions of who tells the story and which stories are told, in the context of systems of control with deep disparate impacts based on race.

October 11, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 07, 2016

This weekend's must-watch: 13th, Ava DuVernay's new documentary linking slavery and mass incarceration

As noted in this prior post, my screen time last weekend was devoted to my favorite bi-annual sporting event. And I suspect much of this weekend will be focused on one of my favorite annual playoffs. But the must-watch for this weekend is on a much more serious set of subjects, the US history of slavery and its echoes within mass incarceration. These are the topics covered in a new Netflix documentary, which YouTube describes in this way along providing this preview:

The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. On Netflix October 7.

I would be excited to watch this new documentary even if it did not receive strong reviews.  But, as these reviews/headlines highlight, I am not the only one thinking this new doc is a must-watch:

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable negative review makes me even more eager to watch and re-watch this new doc:

October 7, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Television | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Notable report on "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms"

The  Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank, has released this interesting new report titled simply "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms." This PPIC press release reviews the report's highlights: 

California has reduced the number of offenders incarcerated in the state without broadly increasing crime rates. But so far, the state’s historic reforms have not lowered California’s high recidivism rates or corrections spending. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

After a federal court ordered the state in 2009 to shrink the size of its prison population, California embarked on a path — unmatched by any other state — of reducing incarceration and reforming its corrections system.  October marks the five-year anniversary of public safety realignment, the major reform that shifted responsibility for lower-level felons from the state prison and parole systems to county jail and probation systems.  The passage of Proposition 47 in 2014 led to more changes.  The PPIC report, California’s Historic Corrections Reforms, assesses the impact of the reforms and their implications for the future in key areas:

  • Incarceration. After reaching a peak in 2006 of almost 256,000, the total number of inmates in state prisons and county jails declined by about 55,000. The incarceration rate fell from 702 to 515 per 100,000 residents — a level not seen since the early 1990s.  The prison population rapidly declined in the first year of realignment, when most lower-level felons with new convictions began serving their sentences in county jail or under probation supervision instead of in state prison. But the decline was about 10,000 inmates short of the court-mandated target of 137.5 percent of the prisons’ design capacity.

    Realignment also increased the statewide jail population by about 9,000 inmates in the first year, leading to early releases because of crowding.  It was not until voters passed Proposition 47 — which reduced penalties for some drug and property offenses — that the prison population fell below the court-ordered target and the jail population dropped to pre-realignment levels. Each of these reforms changed the composition of the jail population—and presented new challenges to the counties. A companion PPIC report, California’s County Jails in the Era of Reform, also released today, examines these changes.

  • Crime rates. Realignment resulted in an additional 18,000 offenders on the street, but through 2014 there is no evidence to suggest that it affected violent crime. Auto thefts did increase, by about 60 per 100,000 residents. In 2014, the most recent year with comprehensive data available, crime rates were at lows not seen since the 1960s. In 2015, violent crime rose by 8.4 percent and property crime by 6.6 percent, but data are not yet available to determine if these increases are part of a national trend or specific to California. The role of Proposition 47 on crime remains unknown, but compared to other states, California’s increase in property crime appears to stand out more than its increase in violent crime.

  • Recidivism.  Rearrest and reconviction rates for offenders released in the first year of realignment are similar to what they were before realignment: 69 percent of offenders released from state prison are rearrested within two years, and 42 percent are convicted again.  This reconviction rate — about 5 percentage points higher than before realignment — may simply reflect prosecution of offenses that in the past would have been processed administratively.  California did make one significant advance: realignment effectively reduced the costly practice of returning released offenders to prison for parole violations. As a result, two-year return-to-prison rates, which had been the highest in the nation, dropped from 55 percent to 16.5 percent.

  • Spending.  Despite a lower incarceration rate, the state’s General Fund spending on corrections in 2016–17 is $10.6 billion — 9 percent more than the $9.7 billion spent in 2010–11, the last year before realignment. The state also gives the counties $1.3 billion in realignment funds.  Since 2012, increases to the corrections budget have funded additional space to house prisoners, employee salaries and benefits, and bond repayment.  The state has also invested significantly to improve delivery of health care for inmates, though prisons continue to operate under a court-ordered medical receivership.  Regaining control of health care could help the state reduce costs. But to realize substantial savings, the state may need to reduce the prison population enough to close a state prison or reduce its use of private and out-of-state facilities to house prisoners.

Even with the significant decline in incarceration, California still houses about 200,000 inmates and spends at historically high levels on corrections, the report notes.

September 29, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Terrific NPR segment about prisoners on strike throughout the US

I was lucky enough to have my drive home tonight coincide with my local NPR station's broadcast of a lengthy segment concerning US prisons and on-going strikes in a number around the nation. Among the participants in the call-in show was Beth Schwartzapfel who has been following developments and writing about them here at The Marshall Project under the headline "A Primer on the Nationwide Prisoners’ Strike: Prisoners can be forced to work without pay — the Constitution says so."

The reason I consider the NPR piece a "must-listen" is in large part because of two current prisoners were somehow able to call into the show and talk about these issues from prison for an extended period. (The currently incarcerated begin speaking around the 14:25 mark until about the 39:40 mark.

Really worth taking the time to check out for those who care about prisons and prisoners in the United States.

September 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Florida paper devotes three-part editorial to assail state's sex offender residency restrictions

A helpful reader altered me to this remarkable three-part editorial from the Florida Times-Union that concluded over the weekend highlighting problems with residency restrictions for sex offenders:

Ever eager to focus on solutions even more than problems, I will highlight here the closing sections of the last of these editorials:

A year ago, California stopped requiring all sex offenders meet residency restrictions, instead enforcing these laws only against high-risk offenders. Available housing for low-risk offenders increased dramatically, and the number of homeless offenders decreased. Counties here, such as Duval and Nassau, should immediately create working groups to look at the effectiveness of strict county residency restrictions en route to making changes. We should also look at novel ways to create more housing for released sexual felons.

Communities in Florida have begun to experiment. Several hotels that meet residency restrictions have been transformed into facilities to house sex offenders. In other places in the state, mobile home parks have been converted to complexes that serve those coming out of prison.

One of the more comprehensive programs, however, has been launched by a nonprofit in Eugene, Ore.  An organization, Sponsors, provides both short-term and long-term housing for sexual offenders and predators upon their release. In addition, the organization is currently building an entire complex of apartments that will offer permanent housing for ex-felons, including those convicted of sexual offenses.

Other states such as Washington and Vermont have similarly enacted more humane and effective measures for housing sex offenders and predators that pair governmental agencies with nonprofits to locate housing.

It’s time we look at the possibility of creating such programs here.  Homelessness is not the answer.

September 26, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Astute recognition that crime victims have to be integral part of effort to address modern mass incarceration

Greg Berman and Julian Adler have this important new commentary at The Crime Report headlined "Finding Common Cause: Victims and the Movement to Reduce Incarceration." Here are excerpts:

After more than a generation of punitive, “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and policymaking, there is now a fairly broad political consensus in the United States that we have gone too far in our use of incarceration.  Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the White House unveiled the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, a partnership of 67 jurisdictions — big and small, conservative and liberal — committed to using data to reduce incarceration.

The efforts to roll back mass incarceration are laudable, but they will not achieve lasting change if they do not figure out how to incorporate the perspectives of the justice system’s most vulnerable constituents: Victims of crime.

Victims of intimate partner violence in particular often feel sidelined by a criminal justice system that focuses almost exclusively on defendants. And make no mistake: Domestic violence represents a significant percentage of the cases in our criminal courts.  Current estimates show that approximately 10 million people are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. each year — and this is almost certainly an undercount, given the hidden and unreported nature of a lot of abuse.

But it is not just the criminal justice system that pays short shrift to victims. Reformers do it, too. “Victims have been overlooked in this de-incarceration movement,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, in a recent interview with the Center for Court Innovation. Advocates concerned with reducing the use of incarceration typically argue that fewer defendants should be sent to jail or prison, and that there should be more community-based alternatives. Victim support organizations are, by definition, focused on crime victims’ safety. Historically, many have argued for increased accountability — including incarceration — for offenders, particularly in cases involving domestic violence.

Is it possible for victim advocates and jail reduction advocates to find common cause?  To begin to answer this question, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Court Innovation convened a roundtable with policymakers and practitioners from across the country, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim advocates, and police officials. The roundtable highlighted a number of tensions.

One obvious tension is the potential conflict between protecting the safety of victims and protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Many advocates believe that to better serve victims, courts should impose conditions of release—including stay-away orders, monitoring, and participation in specialized services — for domestic violence defendants who are out in the community pending trial. This idea runs up against the strong national push to reduce pretrial detention for those who have been accused—but not convicted — of criminal behavior.

As with much of American life, the challenge of racial, ethnic and gender disparity hangs over this conversation. Black and Latino communities have long histories of being over-policed and over-criminalized in the U.S. At the same time, these communities have been under-protected from the threat of victimization. History tells us that women of color are particularly vulnerable.

Many advocates of jail reduction place great faith in actuarial risk assessment instruments to determine who can be safely released while a case is pending.  But victim advocates are asking some hard questions about these tools: How accurate are they? What can a statistical analysis tell us about what any individual defendant might do?  And how well do risk tools take into account potential lethality?

“Domestic violence defendants are different,” argued Idaho judge James Cawthon in the roundtable. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the presence of a specifically targeted victim changes the equation when it comes to looking at the potential risk — and severity — of re-offending. While some jurisdictions have developed special risk assessment tools for domestic violence defendants, many have not.  In the days ahead, jail and prison reformers will have to wrestle with these and other challenges if they are to win the full-throated support of victim advocacy groups....

A strong body of opinion within the victims’ movement agrees the time has come to take a hard look at “right-sizing” incarceration, which involves figuring out who needs to be behind bars and who does not.  “It’s just simply not the case that all victims of violent crimes, and certainly not all victims of nonviolent crimes, seek a punitive punishment for the offender,” University of Miami law professor Donna Coker tells the Center for Court Innovation.  “What they frequently seek is some assurance that it won’t happen to them again and some assurance that it won’t happen to somebody else.”

Victim advocates and jail reduction proponents may not be able to agree on every issue. But in those areas where they have shared goals — improving the quality of risk assessment tools, reducing racial and gender disparities, and promoting trauma-informed care — they can serve as a powerful voice for change within our justice system.

September 21, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Interesting accounting of "The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S." as approaching 6% of GDP

Via the always helpful Marshall Project, I just came across this interesting study produced this summer by folks at Washington University in St. Louis.  The study is titled "The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S."  Here is the abstract:

This study estimates the annual economic burden of incarceration in the United States. While prior research has estimated the cost of crime, no study has calculated the cost of incarceration.  The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs.  These include costs to incarcerated persons, families, children, and communities.

This study draws on a burgeoning area of scholarship to assign monetary values to twenty-two different costs, which yield an aggregate burden of one trillion dollars.  This approaches 6% of gross domestic product and dwarfs the amount spent on corrections. For every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional ten dollars in social costs. More than half of the costs are borne by families, children, and community members who have committed no crime.  Even if one were to exclude the cost of jail, the aggregate burden of incarceration would still exceed $500 million annually [I think the authors mean $500 billion here based on the report that follows].

September 17, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"Righting Wrongs: The Five-Year Groundswell of State Bans on Life Without Parole for Children"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.  Here is its "Executive Summary":

In just five years — from 2011 to 2016 — the number of states that ban death-in-prison sentences for children has more than tripled. In 2011, only five states did not permit children to be sentenced to life without parole. Remarkably, between 2013 and 2016, three states per year have eliminated life-without- parole as a sentencing option for children. Seventeen states now ban the sentence.

This rapid rate of change, with twelve states prohibiting the penalty in the last four years alone, represents a dramatic policy shift, and has been propelled in part by a growing understanding of children’s unique capacity for positive change. Several decades of scientific research into the adolescent brain and behavioral development have explained what every parent and grandparent already know — that a child’s neurological and decision-making capacity is not the same as those of an adult.  Adolescents have a neurological proclivity for risk-taking, making them more susceptible to peer pressure and contributing to their failure to appreciate long-term consequences.  At the same time, these developmental deficiencies mean that children’s personalities are not as fixed as adults, making them predisposed to maturation and rehabilitation.  In other words, children can and do change. In fact, research has found that most children grow out of their criminal behaviors by the time they reach adulthood.

Drawing in part from the scientific research, as well as several recent U.S. Supreme Court cases ruling that life-without-parole sentences violate the U.S. Constitution for the overwhelming majority of children, there is growing momentum across state legislatures to reform criminal sentencing laws to prohibit children from being sentenced to life without parole and to ensure that children are given meaningful opportunities to be released based on demonstrated growth and positive change.  This momentum has also been fueled by the examples set by formerly incarcerated individuals who were once convicted of serious crimes as children, but who are now free, contribute positively to their communities, and do not pose a risk to public safety.

In addition to the rapid rate of change, legislation banning life without parole for children is notable for the geographic, political, and cultural diversity of states passing these reforms, as well as the bipartisan nature in which bills have passed, and the overwhelming support within state legislatures.

Currently, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, West Virginia, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all ban life without parole sentences for children. Additionally California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia ban life without parole for children in nearly all cases.

It is also important to note that three additional states — Maine, New Mexico, and Rhode Island — have never imposed a life-without-parole sentence on a child.  Several other states have not imposed the sentence on a child in the past five years, as states have moved away from this inappropriate sentence both in law and in practice.

September 14, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica ... lessons unlearned 45 years later

For film buffs, repeating the words Attica brings to mind a great scene in one of Al Pacino's greatest movies.  But, for lots and lots of reasons, Attica and the riots and attacks that took place at this famous New York Prison in September 45 years ago should be remembers for so much more.  But, as this new Daily Beast commentary highlights, it is not clear that we have really embraced enduring wisdom from that sad month in upstate New York.   The commentary is headlined "Attica’s Lessons Went Unlearned: Our Prisons Are Still a Disgrace," and here is how it gets started: 

Forty-five years ago today, on Sept. 13, 1971, nearly 1,300 men were waking up in the yard of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, eager to begin another long day of negotiations with state officials.  After first failing to get help by writing to their state senators and pleading with the commissioner of corrections, these men had begun a protest against inhumane treatment four days earlier. On this rainy, damp morning, they were now hoping that they could finalize the list of improvements to the prison they had been negotiating, as well as secure a promise of no retaliation, so that they could bring their protest to a peaceful end.

Suddenly, however, the men looked up in horror to see a helicopter rising over the walls of the prison.  Within minutes, it began blanketing the yard with a thick cloud of toxic tear gas. Then, as men began choking, gagging, and falling to the ground blinded by this noxious powder that now covered their skin and filled their lungs, a phalanx of nearly 600 heavily armed and gas-masked state police rushed into the prison and began shooting these men down.  Then, over the next weeks and months, behind the closed doors of Attica, these men were brutally tortured.

Today, Sept. 13, 2016, hundreds of people who live behind bars are once again in jeopardy because, on this 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, they too just launched a series of human-rights protests as well as work stoppages.  Like those prisoners in upstate New York more than four decades ago, prisoners from Florida to Michigan have erupted because they too endure terrible overcrowding, insufficient food, too much time locked in solitary confinement, terrible medical care, and even bruises, broken bones, and, yes, death at the hands of abusive guards.

Their mistreatment is well documented. White guards in one Florida prison, for example, recently forced a black prisoner into a chair, and while choking, kicking and punching him, they screamed “Let’s beat this n——- and teach him a lesson.”  What had he done? He had dropped a cookie on the floor.  In another Florida correctional facility just a few years earlier, prisoner Darren Rainey died after officers punished him by forcing him to stand in a scalding 180-degree shower for two hours.  In Michigan’s prisons, juveniles and women prisoners have been raped by correctional staff, suffered medical abuse and neglect, and have been forced to eat rotten and rat-ridden food.

And yet, just as it was overlooked in 1971, this inhumane treatment has been utterly ignored by prison authorities as well as by the politicians who have the power to do something to stop it.  And so prisoners are once again protesting.

For those not familiar with the events in Attica two score and five years ago, the Marshall Project has this very modern review of events there,

September 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fascinating pictures of "What It Looks Like to Be Behind Bars in Four Different Countries"

The quoted portion of this post title is drawn from the headline of this new Slate article providing something of a sneak-peak into what looks likely to be a very interesting book to look at.  Here is how the Slate article begins (though everyone should really click through to see some pictures that strike me as fascinating in so many ways):

After photographing civil servants in eight countries across five continents for his book, Bureaucratics, Jan Banning thought looking at criminal justice systems around the world seemed like a logical next step. In his new book, Law & Order: The World of Criminal Justice, which will be released in the United States this fall, the Dutch photographer brings readers up close to prisons, police, and courts in Colombia, France, Uganda, and the United States.

“I’m interested in these aspects of society that are vital but not necessarily considered to be picturesque,” he said. “Basically, it’s an attempt to visually cope with the question of how we handle crime. I think it always makes tremendous sense to compare different societies as I’ve done with Bureaucratics because, of course, in comparison, the character of a specific society comes out.”

After discussing which countries to focus on with the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, Banning started his investigation with a trip to Uganda in 2010. In about two weeks, he was given access to a handful of prisons, and on subsequent visits he was able to visit 10 prisons of various security levels. Even in maximum security establishments, his guide tended to be just a single unarmed warden or assistant, which was indicative of environments he found to be “rather friendly and rather humane.”

“In the beginning, I was a bit suspicious. I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is a PR exercise and they’re just doing this for me.’ But I noticed it in all 10 prisons I was in, and some were tiny local prisons where you wouldn’t expect the personnel to have any idea of PR. So I thought that was honest,” he said. “Of course, the prisons there are still not a place where you’d love to be. They’re overcrowded, half the prison population hasn’t been on trial, and some have been sitting there without charges for five or six years.”

Uganda’s open system allowed him to get some of the more colorful photographs in the book. In the United States, his visits were much more restricted. The prisons themselves, meanwhile, tended to be a lot less visually interesting than those in Uganda, but Banning said he embraced the sterility in his photographs and thought it was important to communicate it in “a fair and relevant way.”

September 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proving punitiveness does not go out of style, prison populations ticking up even in states with recent track record of declines

This astute new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Inmate Populations Rise Again in Some States: Opiate addiction and high-profile crimes spur legislators to toughen drug and parole policies," reinforces my sense that the era of mass incarceration is a very long way from being over. Here are snippet from the piece:

An epidemic of opiate addiction and a handful of high-profile crimes have set back efforts by some states to restrain their prison populations, revealing cracks in​a bipartisan movement to reduce reliance on incarceration.

In Arkansas, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 2011 passed a landmark law to reduce harsh drug sentences, as a way to curb costs from overcrowded prisons. The prison population dropped 10% in two years. Then, in 2013, a man who had been released from prison and arrested several times while on parole carjacked and fatally shot an 18-year-old man in Little Rock.

In response, state officials tightened parole policies, and authorities put parolees back behind bars for violating the terms of their release as fast as they could, said Dina Tyler, a state prison official at the time who is now a deputy director at the agency overseeing parole in Arkansas. “It was a natural reaction because something bad happened, and we don’t want it to happen again, so we’ll scoop them all up,” said Ms. Tyler.

The result: Arkansas’s prisons are more crowded than they were before the 2011 legislation. As of late August, the number of prisoners had risen to 18,243, a 25% increase from 2012. Similar reversals have occurred in a handful of other states in recent years, exposing the fragility of an effort to curb prison growth and focus resources on keeping offenders from returning to crime. “It just takes one incident to get things tracking in a different direction,” said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a criminal-justice research group that works for Arkansas and other states to forecast prison-population trends, referring to the 2013 Little Rock murder.

A review of prison data from 2007 to 2014, the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, shows that at least five states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Ohio — saw their incarcerated populations fall or stabilize after passing criminal-justice legislation only to see them rise again. Incarceration rates also rebounded in ​most of​ those states, and in others that passed laws targeting prison growth, including Arizona and Wisconsin, after dropping initially.

Overall, the percentage of American adults under correctional supervision declined 13% from 2007 to 2014, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of federal Bureau of Justice statistics. Prison rates dropped in most of the roughly 30 states that passed laws to curtail prison growth in that time, BJS data show. Even in states where rates increased, state officials and criminal-justice experts say such laws have helped slow prison growth, averting millions of dollars in prison costs.

Still, efforts to curtail prison growth have been hampered by uneven implementation of new laws, state officials say. Elected judges in Kentucky and Ohio, for instance, have shown a reluctance to cut sentences and divert offenders into treatment rather than sending them to prison, state officials said. Parole officials haven’t granted early release as often as lawmakers had hoped they would, they said.

The increase in opiate use also has played a role. In Kentucky, the number of jail and prison inmates climbed back to a near record this summer, the state corrections department said, after a drop following a 2011 law. That measure reduced prison time for drug possession, routing the savings into drug treatment, and linked recently released prisoners to community resources. John Tilley, Kentucky’s justice and public-safety secretary, who sponsored the overhaul as a state legislator, attributed the increase to offenders returning to prison in higher numbers and drug arrests fueled by the “heroin scourge.” Last year, Kentucky ratcheted up penalties for trafficking heroin and created a new offense for importing drugs across state lines....

The prison population in Ohio dipped after lawmakers overhauled state sentencing laws in 2011, but it has rebounded this year to nearly 51,000, just shy of the record, according to state figures. “We’ve done all these things, but because of the spike in heroin, we have this uptick,” said Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican who has led an effort to halt prison growth.

Civil-liberties advocates said scores of new penalties in Ohio have contributed to the rise in prison population. This year, the Legislature made it easier to prosecute people for heroin-trafficking, for example, reducing the threshold for the crime from 250 grams to 100 grams. In May, after staff at the Cincinnati Zoo shot a gorilla to save a boy who had fallen into the animal’s enclosure, legislators talked a colleague out of proposing a new crime for parents who let their child wander into a situation that requires the killing of an endangered animal, Sen. Seitz said. “We try to kindly tell our colleagues we cannot continue to make everything a crime or increase penalties on everything that already is a crime without further contributing to this overcrowding,” Mr. Seitz said.

September 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Top Texas criminal judges wonders about value of LWOP sentencing and its lesser process

This local article from Texas reports on interesting comments by a top state judge in the state about LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts from the article:

Judge Larry Meyers, the longest-serving member of the state’s highest criminal court, has grown uncomfortable with the way Texas allows for life in prison without parole, calling it a slow-motion death sentence without the same legal protections given to defendants who face the death penalty.  It can be argued, Meyers said, that the prospect of decades of prison — ended only by death from old age, medical problems or even violence — is as harsh or harsher than execution.

Even so, life without parole can be given in some capital murder cases without jurors answering two questions that must be considered before issuing a death sentence — is the defendant a future danger to society, and are there any mitigating factors such as mental disability or childhood abuse that weigh against capital punishment?

“I’m not saying the death penalty is unconstitutional.  I think right now it’s about as fair as it could be,” Meyers said. “But there are two variations of the death penalty; one is just longer than the other.  People are getting a (life without parole) death sentence without the same safeguards and procedures that you get when there is a death sentence.”

Larry Meyers has been a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1993.  Meyers, the only Democrat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, plans to make changing the life-without-parole system an issue of his re-election campaign, an admittedly uphill battle after he switched from the Republican Party in 2013 over disagreements in its direction under the surging tea party movement.

His Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, 22-year state District Judge Mary Lou Keel of Houston, believes Meyers has strayed from his principal task as a judge. “Policy issues like this are best left to the Legislature,” Keel said. “Doesn’t he have enough work to do as a judge?”...

Life without parole, an option for capital murder cases since 2005, has been credited with helping to sharply reduce the number of death row inmates by allowing prosecutors to reserve capital punishment for the worst cases, yet ensure that other convicted murderers are permanently removed from society.

Since life without parole became an option, the population of Texas’ death row has fallen to 244 inmates, down about 40 percent, as the pace of executions has outstripped the number of new death sentences. In contrast, 782 inmates were serving life without parole for capital murder as of July 31. An additional 54 inmates are serving life without parole after repeat convictions for sexually violent offenses, including crimes against children, since the Legislature allowed the punishment for the crime of continuous sexual abuse in 2007....

Seeking life without parole is by far the simpler option. Jurors are easier to seat — death penalty opponents aren’t allowed on juries if execution is an option — and there is no punishment phase trial. The appeals process also is less rigorous, with death row inmates granted two appeals before the state’s highest criminal court, while inmates serving life without parole go through the normal process. Meyers, a 23-year member of the Court of Criminal Appeals, believes life without parole has been made too simple, providing “an easy, inexpensive way of getting the death penalty.”

It would be fairer, he said, to let jurors consider some variation of the future danger question and to allow defense lawyers to present mitigating evidence. If jurors cannot agree that life without parole is appropriate, the defendant would get a life sentence and be eligible for parole after 40 years or some other suitable time, Meyers said.

The bigger reform — what Meyers called the “smarter fix” — would be for the Legislature to end capital punishment, making life without parole the ultimate punishment and including an option for parole. The political reality in Texas, by far the nation’s top death penalty state, makes that an extremely unlikely option for legislators, Meyers admits. “But right now, as I see it, there’s just two options — both for death,” he said....

Meyers said his change of heart on life without parole didn’t come about because of appeals. Nobody is going to tell his court that they improperly received a no-parole term when the alternative is a death sentence, he said. Instead, Meyers said, his qualms arose after coming to see the sentence as a delayed death penalty — one that is particularly harsh on young people — when a typical murder conviction is often enough to lock away killers until they are no longer a danger.

When the Legislature debated life without parole in the mid-2000s, prosecutors were divided on the best course to take, but many opposed adding a “long, drawn-out” sentencing hearing to determine the difference between a no-parole sentence and parole eligibility after 40 years, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “You could argue that it’s not much difference. It was a lot of squeeze without much juice,” Edmonds said.

In addition, many capital murder cases are decided by a plea bargain that allows defendants to choose perpetual prison time over execution. Some prosecutors feared losing bargaining leverage to a defense lawyer who threatened, for example, to drag out a sentencing hearing for three weeks unless offered a sentence with parole for a lesser crime like murder, Edmonds said.

Life without parole raises questions about whether Texas is imprisoning people long past the point that they “will ever be dangerous,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that provides capital murder legal representation at trial and on appeal. “We’ve got places in prisons that look like nursing homes. It makes me wonder, as a taxpayer, are these people dangerous? Why are we paying the extra cost of imprisoning them when they are geriatrics?” Kase said.

September 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, September 03, 2016

New York Times highlights modern rural incarceration realities

After various overseas internet struggles, I have been able to get on-line long enough to spotlight this great front-page article from Friday's New York Times about rural criminal justice headlined "This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why?". Here is the start of a lengthy article that merits a full read:

Donnie Gaddis picked the wrong county to sell 15 oxycodone pills to an undercover officer.  If Mr. Gaddis had been caught 20 miles to the east, in Cincinnati, he would have received a maximum of six months in prison, court records show.  In San Francisco or Brooklyn, he would probably have received drug treatment or probation, lawyers say.

But Mr. Gaddis lived in Dearborn County, Ind., which sends more people to prison per capita than nearly any other county in the United States.  After agreeing to a plea deal, he was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison. “Years? Holy Toledo — I’ve settled murders for a lot less than that,” said Philip Stephens, a public defender in Cincinnati.

Dearborn County represents the new boom in American prisons: mostly white, rural and politically conservative.  A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America’s prison population for the first time since the 1970s.  From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco.

But large parts of rural and suburban America — overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison — have gone the opposite direction.  Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.

Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties. The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population.

“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. “That’s how we keep it safe here.” He added in an interview: “My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me.”

But many criminal justice experts say that the size of the disparities undercuts the basic promise of equal protection under the law.

“Letting local prosecutors enforce state laws differently throws all notions of equality under the law out the window,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates reducing incarceration rates. “This data puts governors and legislative leaders on notice that if they want to put criminal justice reforms into effect, they need to look at how prosecutors use and abuse their discretion.”

September 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Clemency advocate explains her view on "How to inspire criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is drawn in part from the headline of this lengthy new CNN commentary authored by Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd, whom CNN describes as "an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate [who] has handled several successful clemency petitions, including the nationally reported cases of Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark."  Here are excerpts from her commentary:

As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother, I know that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison. Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities across America.  The United States makes up nearly 5% of the world's population and almost 25% of the world's prison population.  Today, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country.

The dramatic growth in incarceration as a result of the failed war on drugs cannot be ignored. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased tenfold since 1980. In addition, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drugs.

While the statistics are astonishing, to truly understand the issue, we must look beyond the numbers and see the human capital sacrificed in the name of misguided appeals for law and order.  The human element is rarely addressed but is necessary to inspire and drive the change needed to reform our criminal justice system.

#17061-112. This number was assigned to my client Corey Jacobs 17 years ago when he began serving a life sentence in federal prison for nonviolent drug convictions. Corey had no prior felony convictions.  But with no parole in the federal system, he has been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.

Over two decades ago, Corey, now 47, began dealing drugs with a small group of college friends in Virginia. Though Corey was not a kingpin, he received an essential death sentence largely because three of his co-conspirators testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.  Due to federal laws, Corey was held accountable for all "reasonably foreseeable" quantities of drugs attributed to the five other people involved in the conspiracy. Absolutely no dimension of his conduct was violent.

Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison, Corey has worked diligently to prove that he is deserving of a second chance. He has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming, completed three self-improvement residential programs and received over 100 learning certificates that have enhanced his education and personal development....

While there is little doubt that a prison sentence was warranted in Corey's case, he doesn't deserve to die in a cell because of it.  Life in prison without the possibility of parole is, short of execution, the harshest punishment available in America.  It screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption.  It suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. And, in Corey's case, it is a punishment that does not fit the crime.

Recently, I went to visit Corey in prison to discuss his pending clemency petition.  As I sat in the bleak, cold concrete interior of the attorney-client visiting room, I was struck by Corey's remorse, intelligence and dedication to bettering himself.   I learned Corey is an avid meditator. He mentioned how he once read nature could enhance the meditation experience, but he had not seen a tree in years. The prison yard is surrounded by daunting, gray brick buildings. The rest of our conversation was a blur because I could not move past the fact that he had not seen a tree. A tree.

Though I never imagined that visiting a United States Penitentiary would change the trajectory of my legal career, the state of consciousness I achieved after meeting Corey empowered me.  I no longer wanted to be just a lawyer.  I wanted to use this platform to promote the greater good.  Because of thousands of cases like Corey's, three months ago I resigned from my corporate law job to become a full-time advocate for criminal justice reform....

Last year the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) was introduced into Congress. This crucial bill would pull back mass incarceration and save taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing mandatory minimums and making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.  And yet despite unprecedented bipartisan support, it still has not come to the Senate floor for a vote.  We must urge Congress to pass this overdue, life-changing legislation.

But Congress is not the only branch of government beginning to address this injustice. Obama has shown he is committed to reinvigorating the clemency process through his administration's groundbreaking initiative to prioritize clemency applications for individuals like Corey....

Our criminal justice system is tangled in overcrowded prison cells, draconian sentences, shameful sentencing disparities, burdensome incarceration costs and heartbroken children and families.  Reform is desperately needed.  The time is now for the people who hold the levers of power to believe in humanity and to simply do the right thing.  After all, there is nothing more urgent than freedom.

August 31, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Does a weekend tweet from House Speaker Paul Ryan suggest that federal statutory sentencing reform still has a chance in the months ahead?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this weekend tweet from the account of House Speaker Paul Ryan, which includes a clip of a pro-sentencing reform speech that Speaker Ryan gave earlier this year and has this notable new sentence: "There are over 2 million people in our prisons, and a lot of them are just people who made a mistake."  Ever eager to hope that federal statutory sentencing reform is not completely dead for the current year, I want to consider this tweet a positive development to that end.

That said, I learned of this tweet from this Breitbart posting, and a good bit of the posting highlights why I probably should not really get too excited or hopeful in the wake of this tweet:

In July, Ryan said he believed that Congress “overcompensated” in the 1990s by imposing tough jail sentences to combating a decades-long crime wave and a drug epidemic that destroyed communities and lives across the country. He’s now backing legislation that would slash sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

“In the 1990s, to your first point, I think government, both Republicans and Democrats, overcompensated on our criminal code. And we went too far and there are disparities — crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine — there are clear disparities and more importantly, I think that we’ve learned there are better ways of dealing with some of these problems than locking up somebody for 20 or 30 years,” Ryan told NRP host Steve Inskeep. “You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities, and then when they try to re-enter into society, they’re destitute.”

“So I really think there are better methods of dealing with these problems and I think that is part of criminal justice reform. I think that’s something I put out in the poverty plan that I first authored three years ago. So we intend on bringing these bills up in September,” he added.

Conservative critics have labeled the so-called reform efforts as “jailbreak” bills. For example, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA) would reduce penalties for drug traffickers profiting from poisoning communities. Neither would these drug-related penalty reduction bills significantly reduce some racial disparities, law enforcement officials say. “Blacks make up 37.5 percent of the prison population at the state and federal levels. If we released those convicted on drug charges alone the percentage of Black males in prison would drop to 37 percent — a mere half of one percent,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke testified before the House Judiciary committee.

Furthermore, the rollbacks will harm the communities they’re allegedly intended to help, say critics. “People who are convicted of a crime and imprisoned are a very small minority of the U.S. population … they comprise approximately 6.6 percent of the population,” Peter Kirsanow and a member of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a letter to Grassley. “These people have managed to be less law-abiding than the remaining 93.4 percent of the U.S. population – quite a feat,” he wrote. “It is perhaps less of a feat when one considers that many offenders have serious additional problems that likely incline them toward criminality.”...

“This bill doesn’t touch simple possession, because there’s virtually no simple possession cases in federal court,” said prominent critic Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. “The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison.”

Meanwhile, drug overdoses, mostly heroin and other opioids, killed over 47,000 Americans in 2014 alone and nearly half a million in the past decade. Nearly all heroin sold in the U.S. is imported illegally from Mexico. “While Colombia has historically been the biggest source of heroin sold in the United States, Mexican output has since surpassed it, DEA officials say. Together, the two countries account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. heroin supply, and nearly all of it is smuggled into this country by Mexican traffickers,” the Washington Post reports.

Yet Ryan continues to push the bipartisan elites’ sentencing reduction agenda even as Obama continues his “stigmatize-and-federalize” campaign against local and state law enforcement — and as the Obama administration is set to free 70,000 federal prisoners.  But Republicans’ efforts to partner with Democrats on leniency for criminals has stalled amid public concern.  Fifty-three percent of Americans, and 68 percent of nonwhites, are “worried a great deal” about rising violent crime, according to an April Gallup poll.

The Senate sentencing-rollback bill has been stopped by opposition from multiple Senators, including Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton.  Also, President Barack Obama has rejected a proposed deal from Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans leaders who have offered to back the rollback bill if Democrats support a “mens rae” rollback of white-collar business prosecutions.

August 29, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Some hisorical perspective on today's debates over private prisons

Over at Bloomberg View, Stephen Mihm has this intriguing new commentary running under the headline "America's Rocky Relationship With For-Profit Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Shareholders of [private prison] corporations, along with advocates of privatization, shouldn’t shrug off the federal decision so hastily. They should remember what happened the last time that prison privatization became popular, and that proponents sought to turn incarceration into a business, claiming it was cheaper, more efficient, and could even achieve better results than public control.

This belief foundered on the reality that privately-run prisons often failed to turn a profit, and when they did, those profits often came at the expense of the inmates’ well-being.  These failures and abuses eventually led to a repudiation of private prisons, with the business of punishment and rehabilitation monopolized by the state. Another shift may now be at hand....

[I]n 1825, Kentucky surrendered the entire state-run prison to Joel Scott, a textile manufacturer.  Scott invested money in the prison but also managed to turn a significant profit. Emboldened by this success, other states quickly followed suit, particularly in the West and the South.  In some cases, the shift to private management yielded solid results; other times, though, it ended in disaster.  When California hired a crooked entrepreneur named James Estell to build and maintain its new San Quentin prison, the new penitentiary soon earned a reputation for corruption, lax management and cruelty toward prisoners.

Estell, who forced prisoners to make bricks, refused to invest in necessities -- such as a wall to keep the inmates within the prison.  Convicts routinely escaped, even after the state grudgingly built a wall, and while under private control, some 47 inmates escaped each year. When the state took over the prison in 1865, that number dropped to four.

Nonetheless, with rare exceptions, the contract system continued to flourish. This was particularly true in the South, which used the convict lease system to institute a de facto slavery for a prison population that was overwhelmingly black.  Throughout the region, state prisons turned over their inmates for work on railroads, turpentine plantations, roads and other projects.  The incompetence and brutality of these for-profit prisons was staggering. In Texas, for example, almost a fifth of the inmates escaped in 1876, and more than 6 percent died, and another 10 percent was listed as “missing,” but were not known to have escaped.  Similar scandals plagued other Southern for-profit ventures.

In the end, these abuses gave ammunition to a coalition of critics.  Humanitarian reformers argued that the for-profit prisons made a mockery of the idea or rehabilitation.  Federal officials who studied prison businesses discovered that prison contractors kept dying industries alive through subsidies of cheap labor.  Labor unions, which hated competition from prison labor, agreed.

The first major defeat for private prisons was in 1887, when Congress passed a law forbidding the contracting of any inmates in the federal prison system.  With private enterprise banned from the national penitentiaries, the battle shifted to the individual states.  After a pitched battle, New York curtailed then completely banned private contractors in the prison system by 1897. Massachusetts followed suit, as did Pennsylvania.

The pro-profit prison industry fought back, but eventually state after state banned for-profit arrangements with contractors, moving prisons on to the public accounts.  This shift was accompanied by the return of another, older idea: that prisons could help rehabilitate inmates, not merely punish them. If reform was the primary purpose of penitentiaries, profit necessarily became a secondary concern.  The decline of the private prison was gradual and halting, but it would eventually receive federal sanction with the passage of the Ashurst-Sumners Act, which made it illegal to transport prison-made goods across state lines.

Eventually, though, the tide would turn yet again.  In 1979, President Carter signed the Justice System Improvement Act, which laid the foundation for the Prison Industries Enhancement Program.  This lifted the ban on interstate commerce in goods made by prisoners, and helped usher a new age of prison privatization, spearheaded by corporations such as CCA.

These companies have thrived as the nation’s prison population skyrocketed, with many inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. As unease over this situation has grown, voices on both ides of the political spectrum have begun to agitate for prison reform. And that has gone hand-in-hand, much as it did over a century ago, with growing attacks on the marriage of punishment and profit. With the federal government taking the lead, much as it did back in 1887, the U.S. might be on the cusp of another revolution in thinking about the appropriate relationship between prisons and profit.

If history is any guide, it may well take decades for the states to follow, but eventually they will.

Just some (of many) recent and older posts about private prisons:

August 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Should I feel guilty finding delicious ironies in reports of condemned California murderers killing themselves with smuggled illegal drugs?

The question in the title of this post is my sincere uncertainty concerning my reaction to this new lengthy Los Angeles Times article headlined "Illegal drugs are flowing into California's most guarded prisons — and killing death row inmates."  Here is how the article starts and ends:

Condemned murderer Michael Jones was acting strangely and profusely sweating when guards escorted him in chains to the San Quentin medical unit that doubles as the psych ward on death row.

“Doggone, I don’t think you’re ever going to see me again,” he told a fellow inmate, Clifton Perry.  Hours later, Jones was dead.  Toxicology tests later found that he had toxic levels of methamphetamines in his blood.

The condemned inmates on California's death row are among the most closely monitored in the state.  Death row’s 747 inmates spend most of their time locked down, isolated from the rest of the prison system under heavy guard with regular strip searches and checks every half-hour for signs of life.  Still, six death row inmates died between 2010 and 2015 with detectable levels of methamphetamines, heroin metabolites or other drugs in their system, according to Marin County coroner records.

Three of them had toxic levels of drugs, including one in whose intestines were found five snipped fingers of a latex glove, each packed with methamphetamine or marijuana. He had overdosed when they burst.  A 70-year-old man among the three died of acute methamphetamine toxicity. He left a stash of marijuana in his cell. State psychological reports and court files document at least eight non-fatal drug overdoses that required death row inmates to be hospitalized during this period.

Jones' death was reported as a suicide. In the psych ward, he attempted to strangle himself with an electrical cord.  He was cut free by officers but died 10 minutes later. The coroner's report showed that Jones bore signs of chronic drug abuse. State corrections officials declined to discuss the case or provide data on drugs found on death row — at first citing that investigation and then citing a wrongful death claim filed by Jones’ family.  The department provided a statement saying the prison has thwarted past attempts by visitors to bring drugs into San Quentin.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office, the drug-related death rate in California prisons is seven times higher than that of prisons in the rest of the country. “Drugs have considerable value inside prison and so some inmates have a very strong incentive to procure them," the statement said. "Regardless of the security level of the inmate, the presence of any contraband items is concerning to us.”

The overdoses on death row mirror the larger problem with drugs in California’s prison system as a whole.  From 2010 to 2015, 109 inmates died of overdoses, according to state figures.  California's prison drug trade is notoriously robust.   The drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the state prison medical office.

Reports to the Legislature show that as many as 80% of inmates in some cell blocks tested positive for illegal substances in 2013. The same year, the state's prison watchdog, the independent Office of Inspector General, chastised corrections officials for making "very little or no effort" to trace the source of drugs when inmates overdose....

Because of the high security on death row, some who have worked at San Quentin suspect that the drug trade is abetted by prison staff. During his tenure as a death row psychologist, Patrick O’Reilly said in an interview that he discovered a psychiatric technician bartering alcohol and amphetamines for inmates’ prison-prescribed opiates. Similarly, the inspector general's office reported that a death row officer in 2011 was accused of buying morphine from condemned inmates. The report states she paid with ramen noodles and candy.

Outside of death row, the trade takes place on an enormous scale.  This spring, federal agents busted a Southern California prison narcotics ring in which a state drug counselor allegedly smuggled $1 million of meth and heroin sealed in potato chip bags to inmates in her treatment group.  The state prison guard union has long raised objections to vigorous screening of guards as they arrive and leave work, noting that the state would have to pay large amounts for the extra time that would add to each shift. The union "supports the department's efforts to keep drugs out of prison," said spokeswoman Nichol Gomez. "Anyone who brings contraband inside prisons should be held accountable. ... The majority of correctional officers take their oath seriously. "

All of the men on San Quentin’s death row are there for murder.  Many arrived on death row with long histories of drug addiction.  Most killed their victims during robberies or gang fights, but the population also includes psychopaths and serial killers.  Until a psychiatric unit for the condemned was opened in 2014, severely mentally ill and psychotic inmates were housed with the rest of the condemned.

Former San Quentin Warden Jeannie Woodford, state prison director under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said extreme idleness and the cramped, ill-suited confines of death row complicate drug abuse.  “Idleness is such a problem and it leads people to self-medicate,” Woodford said.

Although guards are supposed to randomly search cells each shift as a curb against drugs, weapons and other contraband, one former San Quentin corrections officer said staffing issues have made it impossible for guards to do all the required checks. Moreover, the amount of property that condemned inmates accumulate over decades of confinement clutters many cells. "What is said and what is done are two different things," said Tony Cuellar, a former San Quentin officer. In that environment, Cuellar said, officers "picked and chose" when to try to confront a condemned drug user.

There are soooooo many ironies in this report, I do not know where to start. In an effort to keep them straight (and to encourage comments about which irony is most remarkable), I will provide a numbered list of just some of the ironies that jump out at me:

  1. California has not conducted an execution of a condemned murderer in over a decade due in large part to the incompetence of prison officials and others in California in acquiring and handling drugs involved in its planned execution protocols ... and yet corrupt prison officials seem to be able to indirectly help condemned inmates access the drugs with which they are killing themselves.
  2. Many abolitionist have complained and litigated aggressively to try to prevent prison officials in many states nationwide from finding ways to "smuggle" into the state the drugs needed to conduct lawful (painless?) official executions ... and yet California prison officials are smuggling drugs directly to condemned inmates in ways that functionally facilitate what are essentially unlawful (painful) self-executions.
  3. This article suggests that we should be seriously concerned that the "drug-related death rate in California prisons — 18 deaths per 100,000 inmates in 2013 — is seven times higher than prisons in the rest of the country" ... and yet that (stunningly high) drug-related death rate in California prisons is still almost half of the drug-overdose death rate  — reported to be at over 32 deaths from drug overdose per 100,000 inhabitants — according to the latest figure in the state of West Virginia.
  4. With a death row population of less than 1000, just a single overdose per year on California's death row is a relatively high rate ... and yet the reality that so many arrived "on death row with long histories of drug addiction ...  [and murderered during] robberies or gang fights" surely suggests the real possibility that a many of those unfortunate souls now condemned to die in California have lived a lot longer on death row than they might have lived on the mean streets of California.

I could go on, but I already am starting to feel mean and crass about how I am responding to this new report from California's always notable death row.

August 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America's Approach to Violence"

Image-fullThe title of this post is the title of this important and timely new report by the Justice Policy Institute.  Here is an extended passage from this effective JPI report's effective introduction:

Statutes abstractly categorize behavior as violent or nonviolent. How might these categorizations, along with the workings of the justice system, combine to limit reform efforts designed to reduce our reliance on incarceration? Does statistical reporting obscure critical facts that change agents, policymakers, and the public need to consider when designing policies to significantly reduce the use of incarceration?

In Defining violence: reducing incarceration by rethinking America’s approach to violence, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) explores how something is defined as a violent or nonviolent crime, how that classification affects how the justice system treats a person, and how all that relates to the use of incarceration.  The report summarizes the relationship of offenses to the use of incarceration and how that varies by:

  • How violent offenses are categorized from place to place: An act may be defined as a violent crime in one place and as a nonviolent crime somewhere else.  The law in a particular jurisdiction may define something as a nonviolent crime, but a corrections department may define the same behavior differently.  For example, although burglary rarely involves person-to-person behavior, it is defined as a violent crime in some places and can lead to a long prison sentence;

  • How context matters in the way a violent or nonviolent offense is treated by the justice system: Sometimes a behavior that would not normally be a defined as a “crime of violence” or result in a long prison term can mean a much longer term of imprisonment when a gun is involved; and

  • The disconnection between the evidence of what works to make us safer and our current policies: People convicted of some of the most serious offenses —  such as homicide or sex offenses —  can have the lowest recidivism rates, but still end up serving long prison terms.

These three factors overlap with each other in a way that brings into sharp relief the fact that the nation will fail to make meaningful reductions in the use of incarceration unless we revamp our approach to violent crime and how the justice system treats people convicted of a violent crime.  How a behavior is treated by the courts can occur in isolation from the research that demonstrates someone’s ability to change, and brings competing values around what is proportionate and just response to behavior.

This is a complicated political and systems reform issue.  When politicians support bills that focus solely on nonviolent crimes, they can point to polling and voter-enacted ballot initiatives that show that the public supports their agenda. In some places, policymakers have vocally rejected justice reform bills and ballot initiatives if there was a hint that someone convicted of a violent crime might benefit from the change.

When someone has been the victim of a violent crime, they may want to see that person locked up. Scholars have noted that if the U.S. wants to treat the root causes of violence in the communities most affected by serious crime, it will require a significant investment of public resources —  more than what we could currently “reinvest” from downsizing and closing prisons and jail.

To help unpack some of the complicated issues at play, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) analyzes how behaviors are categorized under sometimes-arbitrary offense categories, explores the larger context that exists when something is classified as a violent or nonviolent offense, and shows the consequences for the justice system and the use of incarceration.  This report also looks at how the debate over justice approaches to violent crime, nonviolent crime, and incarceration is playing out in legislatures and how justice reform proposals are debated.

August 24, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Important "Real Clear" debate explores whether Texas "smart on crime" reforms have really been successful

A series of dueling posts over at the Real Clear Policy blog has been engaging with crime and punishment data from Texas to provide different views on whether so-called "smart on crime" reforms in the Lone Star State have proven truly effective at reducing both crime and imprisonment.  The discussion is too intricate to summarize here, so I encourage readers interested in this important debate to check out these post in order:

August 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Racial Origins of Doctrines Limiting Prisoner Protest Speech"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Andrea Armstrong and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article examines the racial origins of two foundational cases governing prisoner protest speech to better understand their impact in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Two Supreme Court cases provide the primary architecture for the regulation of prisoner or detainee speech . The first, Adderley v. Florida, is (mis)interpreted for the proposition that jails (and by analogy, prisons) are non-public spaces.  Under First Amendment doctrine, non-public spaces are subject to heightened regulation and suppression of speech is authorized.  The second, Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., amplifies the effect of Adderly and prohibits prisoner solicitation for union membership.  Together, these two cases effectively provide broad discretion to prison administrators to punish prisoners and detainees for their protest speech.

Neither Adderley nor Jones acknowledge the racial origins of the cases. Holdings in both cases relied on race-neutral rationales and analysis and yet, the underlying concerns in each case appear tied to racial concerns and fears.  Thus this Article is a continuation of a broader critical race praxis that reminds us that seemingly objective and neutral doctrines themselves may incorporate particular ideas and notions about race.  Today’s protesters face a demonstrably different doctrinal landscape, should they protest within the prison or jail walls.  While the content of speech by a “Black Lives Matter” activist may not change, the constitutional protection afforded to that speech will be radically different depending on where she speaks.

August 23, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some surprising racial realities to discover when taking a deep dive into modern mass incarceration data

U.S._incarceration_rates_1925_onwardsA couple of folks have pointed me to this recent interesting analysis at Wonkblog by Keith Humphreys under the headline "Black incarceration hasn’t been this low in a generation." Here are some of the data and discussion that explain the headline (with links from the original):

The African American imprisonment rate has been declining for many years. Indeed, the likelihood of African American men and women being in prison today is lower than it was a generation ago ... [because the] rate of black male incarceration in the U.S. has declined by 23 percent from a recent peak in 2001 [and the] rate of incarcerated black women has decreased 49 percent since the recent peak of 1999....

In the 1990s, the explosive growth in imprisonment that began in the mid-1970s was slowing but still underway, affecting people of all races but African Americans worst of all.  But around the turn of the millennium, the African American imprisonment rate began declining year after year....

At the end of 2014, the African American male imprisonment rate had dropped to a level not seen since early 1993. The change for African American women is even more marked, with the 2014 imprisonment rate being the lowest point in the quarter-century of data available. It can’t be overemphasized that these are trends unique to blacks rather than being part of a broader pattern of de-incarceration: The white imprisonment rate has been rising rather than falling.

A 23 percent decline in the black male imprisonment rate and a 49 percent decline in the black female imprisonment rate would seem to warrant some serious attention. But if you point out to the average person or even a seasoned criminologist that the United States is at a more than 20-year low in the black incarceration rate, you are likely to be met with stunned silence.

These data should not be all that surprising for those who realize that the years from 1970 to 2000 marked the modern period with the most significant increase in incarceration rates for all Americans and particularly for African Americans.  Since 2000, the overall US prison population has not grown much, and overall prison populations and the rate of incarceration has even turned downward in recent years.  I believe that, during this more recent period of flat or declining prison growth, the emphasis in long prison terms less for drug offenders than for violent/sexual offenders has contributing to altering the racial mix of prison populations (perhaps epsecially in big states like California and Texas that have made big cuts in their prison populations).

That all said, these data should not obscure the reality that incarceration rates for black males remain extraordinarily high both in absolute and in relative terms throughout the United States.  Moreover, digging into state-by-state incarceration data highlights that some perhaps unexpected states rise to the top of an accounting of the rate and relative levels of minority incarceration.  A few months ago (as noted here), The Sentencing Project released this interesting report providing state-by-state analyses of the racial data for state prison populations, and here were some of the report's "Key Findings":

August 21, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Notable academic pitch: "Don’t end federal private prisons"

Sasha Volokh has this interesting lengthy commentary explaining his negative response to the announcement this past week (discussed here) that the Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons. I recommend the full piece (with all its links) for anyone interested in a serious understanding of modern prison policies and practices. Here is how it gets started:

Yesterday, the DOJ announced that it would gradually end its use of private prisons.  You can read the memo by Deputy AG Sally Yates here.  She writes: “I am directing that, as each contract [with a private prison corporation] reaches the end of its term, the Bureau [of Prisons] should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with the law and the overall decline of the Bureau’s inmate population.”

Why?  The Yates memo says: “Private prisons . . . compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.  The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource — and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”

This is unfortunate, for two reasons.

First, Yates seems to be exaggerating what empirical studies tell us about private vs. public prison comparisons.  They do save money (though how much is a matter of dispute).  And they don’t clearly provide worse quality; in fact, the best empirical studies don’t give a strong edge to either sector.  The best we can say about public vs. private prison comparisons is a cautious “We don’t really know, but the quality differences are probably pretty minor and don’t strongly cut in either direction.”  The Inspector General’s report doesn’t give us strong reason to question that result.

Second, even if all the bad things people say about private prisons were true, why not pursue a “Mend it, don’t end it” strategy?  there’s a new trend in corrections to develop good performance measures and make payments contingent on those performance measures.  If the private sector hasn’t performed spectacularly on quality dimensions to date, it’s because good correctional quality hasn’t been strongly incentivized so far.  But the advent of performance-based contracting has the potential to open up new vistas of quality improvements — and the federal system, if it abandons contracting, may miss out on these quality improvements.

Just some (of many) prior posts about private prisons:

August 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Justice Department says it will end use of private prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post report on some big news emerging from the US Department of Justice this afternoon.  Here is how the report starts:

The Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons after officials concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope. The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote.

In an interview, Yates said there are 13 privately run privately run facilities in the Bureau of Prisons system, and they will not close overnight. Yates said the Justice Department would not terminate existing contracts but instead review those that come up for renewal. She said all the contracts would come up for renewal over the next five years.

The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The private facilities, for example, had higher rates of assaults — both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff — and had eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated each year on average, according to the report.

August 18, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.  This Vera webpage provides this overview of the report:

Since 1970, there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of people in U.S. jails — the approximately 3,000 county or municipality-run detention facilities that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. Despite recent scrutiny from policymakers and the public, one aspect of this growth has received little attention: the shocking rise in the number of women in jail.

Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country — increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. Yet there is surprisingly little research on why so many more women wind up in jail today. This report examines what research does exist on women in jail in order to begin to reframe the conversation to include them. It offers a portrait of women in jail, explores how jail can deepen the societal disadvantages they face, and provides insight into what drives women’s incarceration and ways to reverse the trend.

This Vera fact-sheet provides this additional information about some of the report's various findings and themes:

Available research to help explain why women are increasingly incarcerated in U.S. jails is scarce, dated, and limited in scope. Nevertheless, general data about women in the criminal justice system provides clues about who these women are, and why they end up in jail. Like men in jail, they are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use.

The majority are charged with lower-level offenses—mostly property and drug-related—and tend to have less extensive criminal histories than their male counterparts. Unlike incarcerated men, women in jails are often primary caregivers to their young children—nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most are single parents.

Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems, practices, and policies that are designed for the majority of the incarcerated population: men. With limited resources, jails are often ill-equipped to address the challenges women face when they enter the justice system. As a result, many women leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, with greater parental stress and strain, and in even more financially precarious circumstances than before becoming caught up in the justice system.

As interest in rolling back the misuse and overuse of jail increases, women frequently remain an afterthought in discussions about reform; yet the roots and trajectory of their increasing rate of jail incarceration demand further study. This report documents the existing foundation for reform that can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails.

August 17, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Realistic (though incomplete) discussion concerning how marijuana reform is not a panacea for mass incarceration

Marc Mauer has this timely and effective new commentary in The Hill headlined "Can Marijuana reform end mass incarceration?". Any regular reader of this blog knows that the only simple and accurate answer to this question is "no," but the commentary provides a fuller accounting of some reasons why I see many possible positive synergies between sentencing reform and marijuana reform movements. Here are excerpts:

This week’s DEA decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug (categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse) has disappointed advocates for drug policy reform. They contend that marijuana is less dangerous and addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even alcohol.  But many reformers also argue that marijuana reform is the first step in ending mass incarceration.  In many respects this appears to be wishful thinking.

There’s no question that the “war on marijuana” is overblown and unproductive. Since the early 1990s the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests.  By 2014 marijuana accounted for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationally. But while this elevated level of marijuana enforcement is counterproductive in many respects, there is little evidence to indicate that it has been a substantial contributor to mass incarceration.  Of the 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense.  The vast majority of this group is behind the walls for selling, not using, the drug, often in large quantities.  We could debate whether even high-level marijuana sellers should be subject to lengthy incarceration, but they constitute less than 3% of the prison population.

In other respects, though, marijuana law enforcement imposes substantial costs on the justice system.  Few marijuana arrests may result in a prison term, but they consume enormous resources through police time making arrests and court appearances, probation and parole revocations, and time spent in local jails following arrest or serving a short sentence. And all of this activity comes with public safety tradeoffs.  Time spent by police making marijuana arrests is time not spent responding to domestic violence disputes or guns on the streets.

While it may be misleading to portray the marijuana reform movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration, there are ways in which we could transform the national dialogue to make a more direct link.  For a start, we should call attention to the parallels between marijuana and the overall drug war.  In particular, the drug war has prioritized supply reduction through international interdiction campaigns and a heavy-handed law enforcement response.  This approach has had little impact on either drug availability or price, and has drained resources from more effective allocations to prevention and treatment programming.

The racial disparities of marijuana law enforcement are emblematic of the drug war as well, with African Americans more than three times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense as whites, despite similar rates of use. Such outcomes bring to mind the vast disparities in crack cocaine arrests, as well as the use of “stop and frisk” policing tactics often premised on drug law enforcement, and exacting a substantial toll in communities of color....

There is reason for hope that change may be at hand. National drug policy is shifting toward a greater emphasis on treatment approaches to substance abuse, and thoughtful leaders in law enforcement are serving as models for how to engage communities in collaborative efforts for promoting public safety.  The national debate on drug policy is worthwhile on its own, but we should also seek to extend that conversation into the realm of mass incarceration.

For reasons both practical and political, it is appropriate for Mauer and others to be quick to note that marijuana reform will not "end" mass incarceration. At the same time, given that a wealth of other reforms at the state and national level over the last decade has done no more than keep incarceration levels flat, a reduction of 40,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons would still mark a significant achievement in these modern times. Moreover, and as Mauer suggested, national marijuana reform not only could help demonstrate that public-health and regulatory approaches to drug issues are more cost-effective than criminal justice prohibitions, but also could provide a significant source of new public revenue for prevention and treatment programming.

One of many reasons I have become so interested in marijuana reform developments is because I have grown so frustrated in recent years at the seeming inability (or unwillingness) of elite policy-makers (especially in DC) to take bold action to deal with modern mass incarceration. Tellingly, modern marijuana reform in the United States is a ground-up movement that has been engineered at the local and state level despite disconcerting and persistent opposition by elite policy-makers (such as the Obama Administration at its DEA).  I continue to fear that elite policy-makers will continue to fail to see that the vast marijority of Americans are eager to move dramatically away from blanket federal marijuana prohibition, though I also expect a lot of significant developments in this space once we get through the 2016 election cycle.  With nearly 25% of the US population in numerous states that will be voting on marijuana reforms this November (most notably California and Florida), this election year will be the closest possible to a national referendum on marijuana prohibition.  If reform wins big with voters in most states this fall, I think elite policy-makers will finally fully appreciate which way these reform winds are now blowing.

In the meantime, here are some recent highlights on related front from my blogging efforts of late over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

August 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Highlighting the lowlights of the DOJ Inspector General report of federal private prisons

This Washington Post piece, headlined "Private federal prisons — less safe, less secure," provides a useful and effective summary of the findings of a significant recent Department of Justice report.  Here are the basics:

Private prisons — unsafe and insecure. That’s the picture emerging from a Justice Department Office of the Inspector General’s report that adds to a growing effort to take the profit out of penitentiaries.

The report’s central conclusion: “We found that, in most key areas, contract prisons incurred more safety and security incidents per capita than comparable BOP (Bureau of Prisons) institutions and that the BOP needs to improve how it monitors contract prisons in several areas.” Those key areas are contraband, incident reports, lockdowns, inmate discipline, telephone monitoring, grievances, drug testing and sexual misconduct.

“With the exception of fewer incidents of positive drug tests and sexual misconduct, the contract prisons had more incidents per capita than the BOP institutions in all of the other categories of data we examined,” the OIG said. “For example, the contract prisons confiscated eight times as many contraband cellphones annually on average as the BOP institutions. Contract prisons also had higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff.”

The private facilities held 12 percent of BOP’s prison population in December, almost 22,700 low-security immigrant adult males with 90 months or less on their sentences. Three companies have the contracts — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc. and Management and Training Corporation (MTC).

In their responses included in the report, each of the three cited their largely homogeneous inmates as a significant factor in prison misconduct. “Our experience has been that the criminal alien population housed in contract prisons has a higher rate” of inmates who pose a security threat, said CCA, the nation’s oldest and largest private prison company. GEO said the “criminal alien” population “responds as one to any issue, real or perceived.” MTC rejected the report’s findings: “Any casual reader would come to the conclusion that contract prisons are not as safe as BOP prisons. The conclusion is wrong and is not supported by the work done by the OIG.”

Like any business, private prison companies are in business to make money. That can lead to cost-cutting and under-staffing that promotes dangerous and unhealthy conditions. “In recent years, disturbances in several contract prisons resulted in extensive property damage, bodily injury, and even the death of a correctional officer,” said Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. “Last year, we audited one of these contract prisons and found that it was regularly understaffed in crucial areas, including correctional officers and health services workers.”

Many inmates, nearly half in some places and largely Mexican, are serving time for immigration offenses. “This is due to a new trend in the past decade of criminally prosecuting people for reentering the country rather than merely processing them through the civil deportation system,” said Carl Takei, an attorney with the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project. “The result is that people serve sometimes-lengthy prison sentences in BOP custody before … going through civil deportation proceedings.”...

Like the private companies, BOP’s response to the report cautioned against comparing the private prison populations with those in federal facilities. Nonetheless, the agency agreed to the report’s four recommendations, including increased verification “that inmates receive basic medical services such as initial medical exams and immunizations” and “periodic validation of actual Correctional Officer staffing levels.”

The full DOJ Inspector General report, which runs 86 pages and is exciting titled "Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons," is available at this link.

August 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 07, 2016

"Norway Proves That Treating Prison Inmates As Human Beings Actually Works"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent Huffington Post piece drawn from a book about prisons around the world authored by Baz Dreisinger. Here are excerpts: 

Bastoy is an open prison, a concept born in Finland during the 1930s and now part of the norm throughout Scandinavia, where prisoners can sometimes keep their jobs on the outside while serving time, commuting daily.  Thirty percent of Norway’s prisons are open, and Bastoy, a notorious reformatory for boys converted in 1982 to a prison, is considered the crown jewel of them all....

Nothing represents the Norwegian way like its prison system, which has adopted a “principle of normality,” according to which punishment is the restriction of liberty itself and which mandates that no one shall serve their sentence under stricter circumstances than is required by the security of the community.

Criminologist John Pratt summed up the Scandinavian approach using the term “penal exceptionalism,” referring to these countries’ low rates of imprisonment and humane prison conditions.  Prisons here are small, most housing fewer than 100 people and some just a handful.  They’re spread all over the country, which keeps prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible.

An incarcerated person’s community continues to handle his health care, education and other social services while he’s incarcerated.  The Norwegian import model, as it is known, thus connects people in prison to the same welfare organizations as other citizens and creates what’s called a seamless sentence ― a person belongs to the same municipality before and after prison.  Sentences here are short, averaging an estimated eight months, as compared to America, where the estimated average sentence was 4.5 years in 2012.  Almost no one serves all his time, and after one-third of it is complete, a person in prison can apply for home leave and spend up to half his sentence off the premises.

And the most highly touted aspect of the humane Norwegian prison system is the fact that it seems to work.  Crime rates are very low, and the recidivism rate is a mere 20 percent.

August 7, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

New research suggests nature videos can help reduce prison violence

This new science article reports on notable new research on prison violence under the headline "Nature Documentaries May Help Ease Aggression in Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Violent altercations in prisons can be dangerous for inmates and prison staff alike. Now, a new small study suggests that showing nature documentaries to inmates may help to ease aggression in prisons.

The study took place in the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, in a maximum-security unit housing 48 inmates. Over a year in which half of the inmates had an opportunity to watch nature videos projected in a recreation yard, those who saw the videos were involved in 26 percent fewer violent infractions than those who didn't.

"This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year," study researcher Patricia Hasbach, a clinical psychotherapist in a private practice, said ... at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The reduction is important, Hasbach said, as most violent altercations end in injury for either inmates or staff....

The videos showed everything from oceans to African savannas. Surveys revealed that 80 percent of the inmates who saw the videos said they felt calmer after viewing them, Hasbach reported. Seventy percent said they remembered the nature videos later, in times of stress, and were able to calm themselves down. The researchers could find no downsides of the videos — everyone surveyed disagreed, for example, that the videos made them more agitated. In in-depth interviews, inmates spoke of the benefits of the nature imagery....

The researchers didn't test whether other types of videos would have had similar effects, Hasbach said, but previous research in health care settings has found nature videos to be more mentally beneficial than other content, such as daytime television, urban scenes and abstract art. Other psychological research has found that nature-based activities improve function in kids with attention deficit disorder and that outdoor activities boost self-esteem. Just the color green may boost mood and motivation during exercise.

Prison officials are now transferring the nature videos to other parts of the facility, Hasbach said, and a lower-security women's prison in Oregon is also starting the same program. Prisons in six other states have contacted the researchers for information on how to institute similar video programs in their own correctional facilities, she said.

August 6, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 05, 2016

"Behind the Olympics: Brazil's Dirty Incarceration Secret"

I thought this Ozy article, which has the headline that I am using as a post title, woud make a fiting and timely posting in light of tonight's Opening Ceremonies.  Here are excerpts:

“Brazil’s prisons are illegal, and if I wanted to, I could set thousands of prisoners free,” Luis Carlos Valois declares. It is both a comment on the power of judges in Brazil to interpret the law at will, and an insight into Valois’ rebelliousness.  Seated behind his huge wooden desk, with an enormous flag of Brazil posted nearby, he cuts an imposing figure.  But his shaved head, muscles and tattoos make Valois resemble the Brazilian jujitsu champion he was in 1995 more than an establishment man.

OK, he concedes, he would end up behind bars himself if he really unleashed thousands of prisoners into the streets. But he’s serious about using the system to do just that.  His work agitating for better prison conditions and offering lenient sentences for petty drug offenses has earned him at least one death threat and a flurry of bad press.  Under Brazilian and international law, prisons in Brazil are supposed to provide inmates access to healthcare, individual cells and protection from death threats.  In reality, however, prisons in Manaus are two to three times more crowded than they should be, Valois says, with scores of inmates sharing the same cell.  Access to basic healthcare was described as “inadequate” in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.  Inmates sleep in hammocks or in corridors, with cockroaches and rats scuttling past.  A study in Rio de Janeiro last year found 54 percent of those in pretrial detention may be innocent.

The conditions recall America’s prison system, overcrowded and rife with drug offenders.  Brazil trails only the U.S., China and Russia in size of prison populations, according to Human Rights Watch.  The homicide rate among the prison population — totaling half a million — reaches 150 for every 100,000, says Ilona Szabó of think tank Igarapé Institute. Additional terrifying stats: More than half of prisoners are 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are incarcerated for carrying small amounts of drugs.  Those young men often remain in prison for five to 15 years. In rural locales, men and women sometimes share cells.  Oh, and race: “It seems like they lock up more poor and Black people every time,” Valois says with a sigh.  “Many are more afraid of someone who has stolen a cellphone than a politician who has stolen millions from the people.”  (This in a nation embroiled in its own debates over the 2,000-plus people, many of them Black, killed by police in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum.)...

Meanwhile, Brazil has increased its prison population by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the UNDP; the charitable explanation of the hard-on-crime stance is chalked up to a society fed up with violent crime and the increasing power and presence of drug gangs across Brazil.  A “bullet bench” of mainly ex-military or law enforcement officers is busy whipping up popular hard-line laws lowering the age of criminal responsibility.  Yet Valois drives a car that isn’t bulletproof, letting state-funded security men care for his two children instead.  He is best seen as local cartoonist Jack Cartoon depicted him: with a gavel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other — a pacifist at heart.

August 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Boot-Camp Prisons Find Their Time Running Out"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Wall Street Journal article. Here are is how it gets started:

At 5:30 on a misty morning in the Adirondacks, 180 prisoners leapt out of bed when a bugle call blasted over a loudspeaker.  Fifteen minutes later, they were performing synchronized exercises while a drill instructor barked orders. “Motivated! Motivated! Motivated, sir!” the men shouted in unison between calisthenics.

These inmates are serving six-month sentences at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, one of the last prisons in the U.S. that seek to “shock” inmates out of criminal behavior through a military-style boot camp.  Inmates at the facility typically trade multiyear sentences for six-month stints.

Such programs used to be widespread, but fell out of favor in much of the country amid debate about their effectiveness. Only a handful remain and two of them are in New York, where correction officials say their brand of military-style training reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money through shorter sentences.  “It instills self-discipline,” said Boyce Rawson, a captain at Moriah. “Inmates take personal pride in themselves as well as their platoon.”

As recently as 1995, according to federal research, there were 75 state-operated boot camps nationwide for adult offenders, 30 for juveniles and 18 in local jails, including at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex.  A 1994 federal crime bill allocated millions for such programs.

While the camps were popular with tough-on-crime politicians, reviews were mixed.  One Justice Department analysis found the camps had a positive effect on inmates’ attitudes, behavior and safety while in prison.  But that analysis and other studies found the programs had no notable impact on recidivism.

The programs gradually closed.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons ended its boot camps in 2005.  New York has closed two facilities in the past several years, leaving Moriah and Lakeview, in Chautauqua County, as the only ones left in the state. Other states have shifted their camps toward what they call more “evidence-based,” rehabilitative models.

July 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

"Rethinking 'Death Row': Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting report authored by a group at Yale Law School and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In 2015, individuals sentenced to death in the United States were housed in varying degrees of isolation.  Many people were kept apart from others in profoundly isolating conditions, while others were housed with each other or with the general prison population.  Given the growing awareness of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation, the placement of death-sentenced prisoners on what is colloquially known as “death row” has become the subject of discussion, controversy, and litigation.

This Report, written under the auspices of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, examines the legal parameters of death row housing to learn whether correctional administrators have discretion in deciding how to house death-sentenced individuals and to document the choices made in three jurisdictions where death-sentenced prisoners are not kept in isolation.  Part I details the statutes, regulations, and policies that govern the housing of those sentenced to death and reviews prior research on the housing conditions of death-sentenced prisoners.  Part II presents an overview of decisions in three states, North Carolina, Missouri, and Colorado, where correctional administrators enable death-sentenced prisoners to have meaningful opportunities to interact with others. Given the discretion that correctional officials have over housing arrangements, these states provide models to house capital-sentenced prisoners without placing them in solitary confinement.

July 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Judge Jack Weinstein authors mega-opinion threatening to find sentence unconstitutional if offender not placed in certain prison(!?!?)

A number of helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest remarkable (and legally suspect?) sentencing opinion by US District Judge Jack Weinstein.  The piece is (inaccurately) headlined "Brooklyn judge says no prison for convicted child molester," and here are the reported details:

A Brooklyn federal judge on Thursday urged the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to hold a convicted child molester in a medical facility and said he would find the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional if the bureau doesn’t comply.

The apparently unprecedented move by U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who said defendant “D.W.” — identified on the court docket as Darnell Washington — had mental problems and would be a suicide risk in the general prison population, reflected the judge’s long-standing criticism of mandatory minimums.

Weinstein said Washington, 27, of Brooklyn, a repeat offender convicted of both child pornography charges and sexual exploitation of a minor, had been abused as a child, raped during an earlier prison stint, identified as gay and was suicidal.

The judge said 15 years in a regular prison would make him “uniquely vulnerable” to abuse or solitary confinement, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment. He said the time should be served at the Federal Medical Center prison in Devens, Massachusetts, where sex-offender treatment is available, or another medical facility.

The Bureau of Prisons is not obligated to follow a judge’s preference, but Weinstein said if his recommendations were ignored and Washington was put in “general population of a medium or high security prison” he was “prepared” to find the sentence unconstitutional.

“The court is required . . . to impose a sentence of fifteen years in prison on this defendant,” Weinstein wrote in his 215-page ruling. “But, it has the responsibility and power to ensure that the sentence is carried out in a civilized way.”

Until I have an opportunity to review the 200+ page opinion in this case (which I cannot yet find on-line), I am not yet prepared to criticize Judge Weinstein's work here. Moreover, now that the judge has imposed the formal sentence, I am not sure he even has any proper jurisdictional basis to declare it unconstitutional if (and when?) prison official do not comply with his placement mandate.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of the full opinion in US v. DW for posting here:  Download US v DW

July 30, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

New Fair Punishment Project report laments frequent and persistent use of juve LWOP in one Michigan county

In this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).   And the first big project of the FPP was this interesting report highlighting the history of Philadelphia frequently using life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers.  Now, as reported via this blog posting, FPP has another notabe report on this topic focused on another region another northern state.  Here are the details (and links) via the start of the blog posting:

A new report [focused on Michigan juvenile sentencing realities] highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.

The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.

Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County.  While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan.  Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black.  D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.

July 28, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

John Hinkley now to be freed from a psychiatric hospital, now 35 years after his crime and verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity

As reported in this Reuters piece, "John Hinckley Jr., who wounded U.S. President Ronald Reagan and three other people in a 1981 assassination attempt prompted by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, can be freed from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mother, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday."  Here is more about this notable ruling in perhaps the highest-profile insanity case of all time:

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1982 trial, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. He said Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeth's, a government psychiatric hospital in Washington, as soon as Aug. 5, subject to nearly three dozen conditions. "Since 1983, when he last attempted suicide, he has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, exhibited no violent behavior, shown no interest in weapons, and demonstrated no suicidal ideation," Friedman said of Hinckley in a 103-page opinion.

In addition to Reagan, Hinckley's attack wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. It helped launch the modern gun control movement, as Brady and his wife, Sarah, founded what is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after he was left permanently disabled. The Bradys' support helped the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act become law in 1993, imposing federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period.

The Hinckley verdict also led several states to rewrite their laws making it more difficult to use the insanity defense while the U.S. Secret Service tightened its protocols for presidential security.

Upon his admission to St. Elizabeth's, doctors diagnosed Hinckley with depression and psychosis - two maladies they say have been in remission for years. Friedman said Hinckley will be required to spend at least a year living with his mother, Jo Ann, 90, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 130 miles (210 km) south of Washington, where he has been making increasingly long furlough visits for several years.

If Hinckley's treatment team approves, he may then move into his own residence by himself or with roommates, Friedman said. He also said if Hinckley's mother becomes unable to monitor him in her home, his brother or sister will be required to live there with him until the hospital determines an alternate plan. In a May story about Hinckley's life, Washingtonian magazine cited neighbors in her gated community who liked Mrs. Hinckley but did not want him living there.

Hinckley had unsuccessfully sought jobs in Williamsburg at places such as Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop and tried to become involved in volunteer programs in the town, Washingtonian said. He eventually took a volunteer job in the library of a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. Hinckley's behavior during his furlough visits has been unimpeachable aside from a few occasions, the judge wrote. Twice in 2011, Hinckley lied to hospital staff about where he had been.

Friedman's order imposes nearly three dozen conditions, including a requirement that Hinckley meet with his psychiatrist in Washington monthly and notify the Secret Service when he travels for the appointment. He is barred from making contact with Foster or her family, Reagan's family and relatives of the other victims, and he is required to either work or volunteer at least three days per week. He is restricted to a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and must make information about his mobile phone, vehicle and Internet browsing history available to his treatment team and law enforcement.

The petition for release from Hinckley was supported by his doctors but opposed by U.S. prosecutors. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine. Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout with vague aspirations of a musical career when he fired at Reagan. He had become obsessed with Foster and the Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver" in which she played a teenage prostitute. Hinckley began to identify with the film's main character, Travis Bickle, who planned to assassinate a presidential candidate, and spent several years trying to make contact with Foster, who was a student at Yale University in Connecticut.

On March 30, 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster a letter detailing his plans to kill Reagan in an effort to win her over. Later that day, Hinckley approached Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel and opened fire. Reagan suffered a punctured lung but recovered relatively quickly. Brady's death in 2014 was attributed to his wounds but federal prosecutors said the following year they would not charge Hinckley with his murder.

Foster has refused to comment publicly on Hinckley since addressing it in 1981, and a publicist for the Academy Award-winning actress did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

The full 103-page opinion in US v. Hinckley is available at this link.

Some prior related posts:

July 27, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)