Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Can a General Conquer the Federal Prison System?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new extended Marshall Project piece looking at the challenges facing the newly appointed head of the federal Bureau of Prisons. Here is how it gets started:

The federal Bureau of Prisons faces a sea of troubles: Escalating medical costs, a prison population with little access to job training programs or computers, an institutional culture averse to change. In steps Mark S. Inch, the retired two-star general selected by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month to run the Bureau of Prisons.

Inch retired from the Army in May after more than three decades in the military, mostly as a police officer. While some prison advocates are wary of a leader from an organization disgraced by the abuses at Abu Ghraib, others say a military man may have the courage and discipline to move a stodgy federal prison system toward reforms that have been stalled for years.

“He would provide strong leadership, demand accountability, transparency, and I believe he would be a general who has the ability to think outside the box,” said federal prison consultant Jack Donson, who does not know Inch but worked for the Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades.

In a statement after appointing Inch, Sessions called the retired general “uniquely qualified” because of his policing background and his time overseeing Army Corrections over the past two years.  He replaces Thomas Kane, a 40-year veteran of the federal prison system who had been acting director since early 2016.

The Bureau of Prisons houses more than 187,000 inmates and employs more than 39,000 workers spread out across 122 correctional facilities, six regional offices, a headquarters, two training centers, and 25 residential reentry management offices.  The BOP also has contracts with 11 private prisons.

Outside the military, not much is known about Inch, especially among those who have worked in the federal prison system, prisoner advocates and corrections officials.  Will Inch be an ally for better prisoner education? Will he limit the amount of time prisoners are held in isolation?  Will he rely on controversial for-profit prisons to house new inmates?Inch hasn’t said.

Prisoner advocacy groups have asked Justice officials if any hearings will be held to examine Inch’s background and priorities.  They were told no.

August 23, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Looking at US prison history while charting "How to End Mass Incarceration"

The quoted title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Jacobin commentary authored by Roger Lancaster, which starts with an extended review of prison history in the United States.  I recommend the full piece, and here is a how it gets started:

The United States has not always been the world’s leading jailer, the only affluent democracy to make “incapacitation” its criminal justice system’s goal.  Once upon a time, it fashioned itself as the very model of what Michel Foucault called “the disciplinary society.”  That is, it took an enlightened approach to punishment, progressively tethering it to rehabilitative ideals.  Today, it is a carceral state, plain and simple.  It posts the highest incarceration rate in the world — as well as the highest violent crime rate among high-income countries.

Politicians, reporters, and activists from across the political spectrum have analyzed the ongoing crisis of mass incarceration.  Their accounts sometimes depict our current plight as an expression of puritanism, as an extension of slavery or Jim Crow, or as an exigency of capitalism.  But these approaches fail to address the question that ought to be foremost in front of us: what was the nature of the punitive turn that pushed the US off the path of reform and turned its correctional system into a rogue institution?

While the state-sanctioned brutality that now marks the American criminal justice system has motivated many activists to call for the complete abolition of prisons, we must begin with a clearer understanding of the complex institutional shifts that created and reproduce the phenomenon of mass incarceration.  Only then will we be able to see a clear path out of the current impasse.

August 22, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eleventh Circuit upholds a 57-year sentence for federal juve offender for non-homicide crimes based in part of possibility of good-time credits

I just came across the interesting opinion handed down late last week by an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Mathurin, No. 14-12239 (11th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017) (available here), which rejects an Eighth Amendment challenge (and other challenges) to a 685-month sentence imposed for multiple armed robbery and carjacking crimes committed by the defendant just before he reached age 18.  The underlying facts and the sentencing dynamics in Mathurin are interesting, in part because an older defendant would have gotten a 300-year(!) prison sentence based on many applicable consecutive mandatory-minimum terms that went with the convictions in this case.  The defendant argued that his long prison term was still a functional LWOP term that violated the Supreme Court's Graham Eighth Amendment ruling, and the Eleventh Circuit had a lot of interesting things to say in response.  Here are snippets:

For purposes of this appeal, we will assume that Graham does apply to a non-parolable term-of-years sentence that extends beyond a defendant’s expected life span.  Applying Graham to a term-of-years sentence, however, then gives rise to another question: how does one measure the life expectancy of an individual....  [I]n resolving this case, we do not need to decide whether Defendant’s granular approach to calculating life expectancy should carry the day for purposes of a Graham analysis because even assuming the accuracy of his proffered lower life expectancy for black males in their mid-twenties, as opposed to the life expectancy of all males in their mid-twenties, we conclude that Defendant’s Graham challenge fails....

[A]lthough there is no parole for federal sentences, Defendant has it within his power to shorten his sentence by earning good-time credit. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3624, Defendant can earn up to 54 days of credit towards his sentence for each year he serves in prison, “subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, [he] has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.” 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1). The Government has calculated that if Defendant earns the maximum good-time credit available, Defendant can reduce his total sentence by over 7 years and be released when he is 67 years old.  Defendant has never disputed this calculation. Earning this credit means that Defendant would serve a remaining sentence of about 43.4 years, which is more than five years shorter than his own proffered life span for black males and almost ten years shorter than the projected life span for all males his age.  Thus, Defendant’s sentence provides him with a realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life, as required by Graham.

It is true that Defendant may not receive all of the above good-time credit if he misbehaves and thereby forfeits some of that credit.  But it is totally within Defendant’s own power to shorten the sentence imposed.  Graham does not require that a sentence “guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 75.  It just requires that the offender have a chance to show that he has earned the right to be given a second chance at liberty.

August 20, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (24)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Huge portion of Louisiana prison population could benefit from state's recent reform of nonviolent sentences

As reported in this local article, headlined "Louisiana to review 16,000 prison sentences as criminal justice reform takes effect," recent sentencing reform in the Pelican state could have a huge impact on current prisoners. Here are the details:

Louisiana's Public Safety and Corrections officials are reviewing the sentences of 16,000 inmates who could have their prison time shortened as criminal law changes take effect Nov. 1. That's around 45 percent of the 35,500 people the state has locked up now.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state Legislature overhauled the criminal justice system this past spring, aiming to reduce Louisiana's highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Some law changes have already taken place, but changes that mostly retroactively affect low-level offenders in prison go into place in November -- driving the review.

The 16,000 prison terms being reconsidered are for nonviolent offenses only and many will likely remain unchanged, said Jimmy LeBlanc, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. For example, some inmates who are serving sentences for multiple offenses won't be affected. Also, the majority of people whose sentences are affected won't necessarily be getting out anytime soon, LeBlanc said.

Still, there will be an initial surge in releases from prison right after Nov. 1. About 3,000 to 4,000 of the 16,000 sentences being reviewed could be changed to make inmates eligible for release before the end of the year. In the end, LeBlanc estimates about 1,500 to 2,000 of that cohort will actually get out in the weeks following Nov. 1. Others will probably have to wait. Some inmates may not have completed all the rehabilitation work required to get out at an earlier date.

Prior to the criminal justice changes passing, the number of inmates in the state's corrections system was expected to reach 36,300 by November, according to the prisons system's own projections. If 2,000 additional people were released in November, that would amount to a five percent decrease compared to those projections. In a normal month, the prison system releases about 1,500 people. The 1,500 to 2,000 people who get out shortly after Nov. 1 would be in addition to those normally discharged....

The bulk of Louisiana's states inmates are actually not housed in state prisons at all. About 55 percent of them -- 19,500 inmates -- are kept in local parish jails by sheriffs that get paid by the prison system to house them.

It's not clear how many inmates who will get earlier releases -- including those who will leave in November -- will come from local jails or state prisons at this point. However, local jails tend to house lower-level offenders that are less of a public safety risk. Those in state prisons are more likely to be serving longer prison sentences for violent offenses, most of which weren't changed recently.

August 18, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Let Prisoners Learn While They Serve"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice officials across the country are struggling to break the recidivism cycle in which prisoners are released only to land right back behind bars.  These prisoners are among the most poorly educated people in the country, and that fact holds the key to a solution.  Decades of research has shown that inmates who participate in prison education programs — even if they fail to earn degrees — are far more likely to stay out of prison once they are freed.

That prison education programs are highly cost effective is confirmed by a 2013 RAND Corporation study that covered 30 years of prison education research.  Among other things, the study found that every dollar spent on prison education translated into savings of $4 to $5 on imprisonment costs down the line.  Other studies suggest that prisons with education programs have fewer violent incidents, making it easier for officials to keep order, and that the children of people who complete college are more likely to do so themselves, disrupting the typical pattern of poverty and incarceration.

Findings like these have persuaded corrections officials in both Democratic and Republican states to embrace education as a cost-effective way of cutting recidivism. But Republican legislators in New York — which spends about $60,000 per inmate per year — remain mired in know-nothingism and argue that spending public money on inmates insults taxpayers.  They have steadfastly resisted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s common-sense proposal for making a modest investment in prison education programs that have already proved highly successful on a small scale in New York’s prisons....

Prison education programs were largely dismantled during the “tough on crime” 1990s, when Congress stripped inmates of the right to get the federal Pell grants that were used to pay tuition.  The decision bankrupted many prison education programs across the country and left private donors and foundations to foot the bill for those that survived.

Despite limited and unreliable funding, these programs have more than proved their value.  New York lawmakers who continue to block funding for them are putting ideology ahead of the public interest.

August 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Imaginging how the internet "could put an end to prisons as we know them"

Gosh knows the modern digital revolution and the internet has brought the demise of a number of brick-and-mortar institutions ranging from music stores to travel agencies.  But this new article from Australia makes the case that the internet could bring an end to brick-and-mortar prisons.  The intriguing piece is headlined "Internet of incarceration: How AI could put an end to prisons as we know them," and here is how it gets started:

Dan Hunter is a prison guard's worst nightmare. But he's not a hardened crim.  As dean of Swinburne University's Law School, he's working to have most wardens replaced by a system of advanced artificial intelligence connected to a network of high-tech sensors.

Called the Technological Incarceration Project, the idea is to make not so much an internet of things as an internet of incarceration. Professor Hunter's team is researching an advanced form of home detention, using artificial intelligence, machine-learning algorithms and lightweight electronic sensors to monitor convicted offenders on a 24-hour basis.

"If we had to use human beings, the cost of monitoring every single type of interaction would be prohibitively expensive," he says. But new technologies are now capable of providing automated surveillance at a fraction of that expense, he says, using equipment that's already in existence or under development.

Under his team's proposal, offenders would be fitted with an electronic bracelet or anklet capable of delivering an incapacitating shock if an algorithm detects that a new crime or violation is about to be committed. That assessment would be made by a combination of biometric factors, such as voice recognition and facial analysis.

His vision is futuristic, but it isn't simply technological fetishism. He's convinced such automation will make for a better society. Under his proposal, the main costs of incarceration are borne by the offender and his or her family, not by the state, while law-breakers are isolated from each other, decreasing the risk of offenders becoming hardened by the system.

While technology has transformed our society, the jails of the 21st century operate pretty much as they did 100 years ago. "We are at the point now where we can fundamentally rethink the way in which we incarcerate people," Professor Hunter says. "If what we want to do is we want to keep the community safe, if we want to have the greatest possibility of rehabilitation of the offender and if we want to save money, then there are alternatives to prison that actually make a lot of sense."

Readers may recall this prior post flagging this recent paper authored by Dean Hunter and colleagues titled "Technological Incarceration and the End of the Prison Crisis"

August 14, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

"Why are we sentencing children to life in prison without parole?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Newsweek commentary authored by Vincent Southerland and Jody Kent Lavy.  Here are excerpts from the start and end of the commentary:

The barbaric practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole remains one of the most radically inhumane aspects of our criminal justice system.

For those of us who work daily to abolish this practice, the good news is that there are several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that deem this brand of sentencing unconstitutional and attempt to limit its use.

The bad news is that despite these decisions and a national trend moving away from this practice, several outlier states and counties refuse to comply with the Supreme Court’s most recent mandate, which effectively banned life without parole for all children capable of rehabilitation.

The shameful news is that the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and that children of color -- African American children in particular -- and children who have been abused and traumatized are disproportionately handed these sentences.

Taken together, these facts lead to a simple conclusion: The time has come to put an end to life without parole sentencing for children....

By tackling our most extreme sentences for children, and acknowledging that this harshest of punishments is imposed disproportionately on children of color coming from some of our most vulnerable communities, we must come to terms with the fact that race and socioeconomic status play a huge role in determining how much compassion the justice system will show a young person.

This should not be the case -- all children are created equal, and there is no such thing as a throwaway child. Our sentencing policies should reflect those truths.

State lawmakers would be well served to join the national trend abandoning the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without a hope of release.  It is imperative that together we work toward a justice system that offers the mercy that all children deserve.

August 10, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Too bad AG Sessions is not trying to take prison populations back to the 1980s or even the 1950s

Fe26824f81_the-wayback-machineIt has become popular to lament the various actions of Attorney General Sessions by saying he is taking us back to the 1980s.  Here is a smattering of critical commentary in this vein, the latest of which was published a few days ago in Reason:

Today, though, this Crime Report piece details a claim that AG Sessions has his wayback machine set even longer ago.  The piece is headlined "Sessions Takes DOJ ‘Back to the Fifties,’ Says New John Jay President," and here is how it gets started:

Karol Mason, the new president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, envisions expanding the school’s role so that it leads the national conversation on innovations in the courts, corrections and policing now that, she says, the U.S. Department of Justice has essentially bowed out, reports The Chief Leader in New York City.

Charging that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is moving the clock back on justice issues by decades — “I’d say to the fifties” — John Jay is well-positioned to step up, said Mason, who served as an Assistant Attorney General under President Obama.

Without commenting on which decade AG Sessions wants us to be living in, I just thought all this critical discussion of earlier eras provided an appropriate moment to remind everyone how much less the US relied on imprisonment in the 1950s and even the 1980s.

As detailed in this BJS document, back in 1955 the national prison population was just over 185,000, with about 20,000 in federal prison and the other 165,000 in state prisons. In 1985, the national prison population was just over 465,000, with nearly 30,000 in federal prison and the other 435,000 in state prisons.  And as this BJS report detailed, at the end of 2015, the national prison population was just over 1,525,000, with nearly 200,000 in federal prison and the other 1,325,000 in state prisons.  (There has been significant growth in the US population over the last 60 years, so the US incarceration rate has not increased quite as much as total incarceration levels.)  Of course, the Justice Department policies and practices along with changes in state policies and practices in the 1980s played a significant role in the increase in prison populations, and that is the foundation for the considerable hand-wringing about a return to 1980s-era criminal justice thinking.  

August 8, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times op-ed authored by Marc Morjé Howard.  Here are excerpts:

The American criminal justice system is exceptional, in the worst way possible: It combines exceptionally coercive plea bargaining, exceptionally long sentences, exceptionally brutal prison conditions and exceptionally difficult obstacles to societal re-entry. This punitiveness makes us stand out as uniquely inhumane in comparison with other industrialized countries.
To remedy this, along with other changes, we must consider opening the exit doors — and not just for the “easy” cases of nonviolent drug offenders.  Yes, I’m suggesting that we release some of the people who once committed serious, violent crimes....
[S]entencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.
Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)
Rejection is usually based on the “nature of the crime,” rather than an evaluation of a person’s transformation and accomplishments since they committed it. The deeper reason for the rejection of discretionary parole requests is simple: fear. Politicians and parole board members are terrified that a parolee will commit a new crime that attracts negative media attention.
But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated.  It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner.  And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.
But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending?  The evidence says yes.  In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling.  In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released.  As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole....
Until recently the political situation was favorable to bipartisan criminal justice reform.  But the election of a self-described “law and order candidate,” the doubling of the stock prices of private-prison companies and the return of the discredited war on drugs gives an indication of the direction of the current administration.
But whenever a real discussion about reform does come, policy makers should look beyond the boundaries of the United States.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that all long-term prisoners should be released nor that the perspectives of crime victims should be ignored.  Serious crimes warrant long sentences.  But other democracies provide better models for running criminal justice and prison systems.  Perhaps we could learn from them and acquire a new mind-set — one that treats prisons as sites to temporarily separate people from society while creating opportunities for personal growth, renewal and eventual re-entry of those who are ready for it.

August 8, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Sizable set of Senators inquire about BOP's continued failure to use compassionate release

As reported in this article from The Hill, headlined "Senators push federal prisons to expand compassionate release," a notable group of legislators sent a notable letter yesterday concerning the work of the federal Bureau of Prisons. Here are the details:

A bipartisan group of senators are calling on federal prison officials to follow through on recommendations to expand the use of compassionate release.

In a letter Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and 11 other senators asked acting Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Thomas Kane and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take a serious look at a prison bureau program that allows federally incarcerated people to appeal for early release if they present certain “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.

The lawmakers, who include Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), pointed to a 2013 report in which the Department of Justice inspector general recommended expanding the compassionate release program to deal with the increasingly large number of aging inmates with serious medical conditions.

Though the senators said the BOP adopted new policies following that report to expand its criteria, none of the 203 elderly inmates who applied under medical reasons in the 13 months following the report were approved.  Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission expanded and clarified the criteria for age and family circumstances that make an inmate eligible for compassionate release and encouraged the BOP to file a motion for release if an inmate meets the new policy.

In light of these changes, the senators asked Kane and Rosenstein how many compassionate release requests received in the last three years have been granted and denied, how many petitioners have died waiting for a response, what steps the bureau has taken to follow the commission’s directives and what action the bureau can take to increase its use of compassionate release.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also signed the letter.

A few prior related posts:

August 4, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spotlighting BOP's continued curious failure to make serious use of "compassionate release"

Mike Riggs has this notable new piece at Reason headlined "Congress Wants to Know Why the BOP Won't Let Elderly Prisoners Go Home to Die: 'Compassionate release' is an excellent tool that the BOP refuses to use." Here are excerpts:

For years, federal prisoners and their advocates have begged the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to shorten the sentences of elderly and terminally ill offenders using a provision called "compassionate release."... In 2013, the BOP Office of Inspector General encouraged the BOP to send these kinds of prisoners home. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission went so far as to expand eligibility for the program in hopes the BOP would use it more.

But the BOP has largely ignored those recommendations [and now] Congress demanded that the BOP explain why it continues to incarcerate geriatric and terminally ill prisoners who pose no threat to public safety and are unlikely to commit new crimes upon their release.

In a report accompanying the 2018 appropriations bill, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ordered the BOP to turn over reams of data about the compassionate release program. Including:

  • the steps BOP has taken to implement the suggestions of the BOP Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Sentencing Commission

  • a detailed explanation as to which recommendations the BOP has not adopted, and why the number of prisoners who applied for compassionate release in the last five years, as well as how many requests were granted, how many were denied, and why

  • how much time elapsed between each request and a decision from the BOP

  • the number of prisoners who died while waiting for the BOP to rule on their application for compassionate release

Only 10 percent of America's prisoners are in federal prisons, but it is an increasingly old and sick population due to the disproportionately long sentences tied to federal drug offenses. As of June 2017, BOP facilities held 34,769 prisoners over the age of 51. More than 10,000 of those prisoners are over the age of 60.

Elderly prisoners pose financial and human rights problems. "In fiscal year 2014, the BOP spent $1.1 billion on inmate medical care, an increase of almost 30 percent in 5 years," BOP Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote in prepared testimony to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "One factor that has significantly contributed to the increase in medical costs is the sustained growth of an aging inmate population."...

Shelby's letter gives the BOP 60 days from the passage of the appropriations bill to submit its data to the committee. "Elderly and sick prisoners cost taxpayers the most and threaten us the least, and there's no good reason they should stay locked up or die behind bars because bureaucrats can't or won't let them go home to their families," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. "It's time for someone to get to the bottom of why the BOP's answer is always no on compassionate release."

July 30, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Nine Lessons About Criminal Justice Reform: What Washington can learn from the states"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended essay by Bill Keller published last week at The Marshall Project. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts focused on some of Bill's most sentencing-specific lessons:

“Reform” is one of those ambiguous words that mean different things to different people.  I think of reform as something that aims to reduce the numbers of Americans who are removed from society and deprived of their freedom, and to do it without making us less safe.  In 1972, when I was starting my newspaper life at The Oregonian, 93 out of 100,000 Americans were in state or federal prisons.  By 2008 the incarceration rate had grown nearly six-fold, to 536 per 100,000, and it has hovered in that vicinity ever since. That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands held in county jails on any given day or those confined in the juvenile justice system or immigrant detention.

Every year about 650,000 of those prisoners are released back into the world.  We know that most of them will be unemployed a year later, and that two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years.  We have a corrections system that fails to correct.

Here are a few lessons Washington can learn from the states.

Lesson 1: It is possible to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. ...

Lesson 3: Probably the most effective way to reduce incarceration is not to lock people up in the first place — at least not so many, and not for so long....

Lesson 4: While the front end is important, don’t neglect the back end....

Lesson 5: Be wary of reformers who suggest you can cut incarceration drastically by releasing low-level, nonviolent offenders. ...

Lesson 6: Prison reform doesn’t necessarily mean a huge windfall for taxpayers. ...

Lesson 8: Many states are finding that incentives work better than mandates.

July 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"North Dakota’s Norway Experiment: Can humane prisons work in America? A red state aims to find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Mother Jones piece.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that justifies a full read:

Scandinavian prisons tend to elicit eye rolls from law-and-order types weaned on the punitive American model.  Yet a growing number of state corrections officials are coming to the realization that our approach is ineffective, costly, and cruel.  Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, cites the nation’s staggering recidivism rate — 77 percent of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within five years.  “Once you realize that this system isn’t working well,” he says, “it’s fairly easy to pivot to: ‘How do we do something different?'”...

North Dakota has advantages as a laboratory for correctional reforms. Like Norway, it is sparsely populated and relatively homogeneous — race-based prison gangs hold little sway here.  Another advantage, Don Specter told me, is simply that the state government is sufficiently small that it can be responsive to the exertions of a visionary leader.  Yet [North Dakota prisons chief Leann] Bertsch and [deputy Karianne] Jackson have no illusions about transforming their system into a corrections utopia overnight.  “You have to pace yourself,” Bertsch says.

The Norwegian principle of “dynamic security” posits that warm relationships between inmates and staff reduce the potential for violence. American prisons typically try to create safe conditions by means of oppressive rules, random searches, and the threat of additional punishment. Transitioning from one approach to the other requires a profound paradigm shift and the ability to sell front-line prison workers on a brand new mindset.  “How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to figure out you need to be more of an empath, more of a social worker, a friend, and a mentor?” Jackson asks.

The correctional officers I met at the state penitentiary, ex-military all, weren’t outwardly hostile to the idea of cultivating relationships with prisoners, but it clearly didn’t come naturally to them.  For that reason, perhaps, the brass created a mandate: Guards in the segregation unit must have at least two conversations per shift with each of the inmates under their supervision.  “It’s worth a shot,” a corrections officer named Josh Hedstrom told me.  “Because what we were doing before wasn’t working.”

July 23, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reduced jail time in Tennessee for inmates who ... agree to vasectomy or birth control implant!?!?!

This local story out of Tennessee is hard to believe, but it does not appear to be fake news.  The story is headlined "White County Inmates Given Reduced Jail Time If They Get Vasectomy," and here are excerpts:

Inmates in White County, Tennessee have been given credit for their jail time if they voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant, a popular new program that is being called “unconstitutional” by the ACLU.

On May 15, 2017 General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order that allows inmates to receive 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a birth control procedure. Women who volunteer to participate in the program are given a free Nexplanon implant in their arm, the implant helps prevent pregnancies for up to four years. Men who volunteer to participate are given a vasectomy, free of charge, by the Tennessee Department of Health.

County officials said that since the program began a few months ago 32 women have gotten the Nexplananon implant and 38 men were waiting to have the vasectomy procedure performed.

Judge Benningfield told NewsChannel 5 that he was trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who constantly come into his courtroom on drug related charges, subsequently can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs. “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves,” Judge Benningfield said in an interview.

First elected in 1998, Judge Benningfield decided to implement the program after speaking with officials at the Tennessee Department of Health. “I understand it won’t be entirely successful but if you reach two or three people, maybe that’s two or three kids not being born under the influence of drugs. I see it as a win, win,” he added.

Inmates in the White County jail were also given two days credit toward their jail sentence if they complete a State of Tennessee, Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program. The class aimed to educate those who are incarcerated about the dangers of having children while under the influence of drugs. “Hopefully while they’re staying here we rehabilitate them so they never come back,” the judge said.

District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, who oversees prosecution of cases in White County is worried the program may be unethical and possibly illegal. “It’s concerning to me, my office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said....

On Wednesday, the ACLU released this statement on the program: "Offering a so-called 'choice' between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role."

There are many thing so very remarkable about this story, but I am especially struck by how many jail inmates are willing to undergo a life-changing procedure simply to avoid 30 days in jail. Anyone who doubts the coercive pressures of even a short jail stay (say because of an inability to make bail) should be shown this story.

July 23, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Senators Kamala Harris and Rand Paul make the case for bail reforms

In this New York Times op-ed, the notable pair of Kamala Harris and Rand Paul explain the reasoning behind their new bill to reform bail practices.  The piece is headlined "To Shrink Jails, Let’s Reform Bail," and here are excerpts:

Our justice system was designed with a promise: to treat all people equally.  Yet that doesn’t happen for many of the 450,000 Americans who sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Whether someone stays in jail or not is far too often determined by wealth or social connections, even though just a few days behind bars can cost people their job, home, custody of their children — or their life.  As criminal justice groups work to change sentencing and mandatory minimum laws, we must also reform a bail system that is discriminatory and wasteful.

Excessive bail disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color.  The Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia in 1983 that the Constitution prohibits “punishing a person for his poverty,” but that’s exactly what this system does. Nine out of 10 defendants who are detained cannot afford to post bail, which can exceed $20,000 even for minor crimes like stealing $105 in clothing.

Meanwhile, black and Latino defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with similarly situated white defendants.  In fact, black and Latino men respectively pay 35 percent and 19 percent higher bail than white men.

This isn’t just unjust. It also wastes taxpayer dollars.  People awaiting trial account for 95 percent of the growth in the jail population from 2000 to 2014, and it costs roughly $38 million every day to imprison these largely nonviolent defendants.  That adds up to $14 billion a year.

Bail is supposed to ensure that the accused appear at trial and don’t commit other offenses in the meantime.  But research has shown that low-risk defendants who are detained more than 24 hours and then released are actually less likely to show up in court than those who are detained less than a day....

Our bail system is broken. And it’s time to fix it.  That’s why we’re introducing the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act to encourage states to reform or replace the bail system.  This should not be a partisan issue.

First, our legislation empowers states to build on best practices.  Kentucky and New Jersey, for instance, have shifted from bail toward personalized risk assessments that analyze factors such as criminal history and substance abuse. These are better indicators of whether a defendant is a flight risk or a threat to the public and ought to be held without bail.

Colorado and West Virginia have improved pretrial services and supervision, such as using telephone reminders so fewer defendants miss court dates and end up detained.  These nudges work.  Over the second half of 2006, automated phone call reminders in Multnomah County in Oregon, resulted in 750 people showing up in court who otherwise may have forgotten their date.

Instead of the federal government mandating a one-size-fits-all approach, this bill provides Department of Justice grants directly to the states so each can devise and carry out the most effective policies, tailored for its unique needs.

Enabling states to better institute such reforms also honors one of our nation’s core documents, the Bill of Rights. In drafting the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive bail, the founders sought to protect people from unchecked government power in the criminal justice system.

Second, our bill holds states accountable. Any state receiving support must report on its progress and make sure that reforms like risk assessments are not discriminatory through analyses of trends and data.  This will show that it’s possible to demand transformation, transparency and fairness.

Finally, this bill encourages better data collection. Data on the pretrial process is notoriously sparse. By collecting information on how state and local courts handle defendants, we can help guarantee that reforms yield better outcomes.

July 22, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

OJ Simpson granted parole after serving nine years in prison for Nevada robbery convictions

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, "O.J. Simpson was granted parole Thursday for convictions connected to a robbery in a Las Vegas about a decade ago. He could be out of jail as early as October. Here is bit more about perhaps the highest profile justice-involved individual:

The ruling came after a hearing in which Simpson testified that he longed to be reunited with his family and children and that he has no interest in returning to the media spotlight.

During the hearing, Simpson was assured by one of his victims that the former football star and actor already has a ride waiting for him when he gets out. “I feel that it’s time to give him a second chance; it’s time for him to go home to his family, his friends,” Bruce Frumong, a sports memorabilia dealer and a friend of Simpson’s, told the Nevada Board of Parole.

Frumong was threatened and robbed by Simpson and some of his associates in a Las Vegas hotel in 2007, and his testimony in that case led to Simpson’s imprisonment. But, Frumong told the board, “if he called me tomorrow and said, ‘Bruce I’m getting out, would you pick me up?….’” At that point, Frumong paused, turned to Simpson and addressed the former USC gridiron star by his nickname: “Juice, I’d be here tomorrow. I mean that, buddy.”

The board went into recess late Thursday morning after hearing more than an hour of testimony from Simpson; his oldest daughter, Arnelle Simpson; and Frumong, who each asked for Simpson’s release. The panel returned about a half hour later and unanimously voted to grant parole....

The commissioners asked Simpson a series of questions about how he had conducted himself in prison, what he thought his life would be like outside of prison and whether he felt humbled by his convictions. Simpson said on several occasions he was “a good guy” and indicated that he mostly wanted to spend time with his family — bemoaning missed graduations and birthdays — and that the state of Nevada might be glad to be rid of him. “No comment,” one of the commissioners said to some laughter.

He expressed regret at being involved with the crime, but drew some pushback from commissioners who took issue with his version of events, in which he said he didn’t know a gun had been brandished in the hotel room during the robbery. But Simpson held to his version, repeatedly apologizing and expressing regret that he had left a wedding in Las Vegas to go recover memorabilia he said was his. “I am sorry things turned out the way they did,” Simpson said. “I had no intent to commit a crime.”

July 20, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

"The Immediate Consequences of Pretrial Detention: Evidence from Federal Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting empirical paper authored by Stephanie Holmes Didwania that was recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This paper presents evidence of the effects of pretrial detention status on criminal case outcomes in federal criminal cases. I find that criminal defendants who are released pending trial earn a roughly 72 percent decrease in sentence length and a 36 percentage-point increase in the probability of receiving a sentence below the recommended federal sentencing Guidelines range. Pretrial release also reduces the probability that a defendant will receive at least the mandatory minimum sentence — when one is charged — by 39 percentage points, but does not affect the probability that the defendant will face a mandatory minimum sentence.

To address the identification problem inherent in using pretrial detention status as an explanatory variable, I take advantage of the fact that pretrial release in federal courts is typically determined by magistrate judges who vary in their propensities to release defendants pending trial. This setting allows magistrate judge leniency to serve as an instrumental variable for pretrial release. I also present suggestive evidence of the mechanism at work. It appears that pretrial release affects case outcomes in two distinct ways: most importantly, by giving defendants the opportunity to present mitigating evidence at sentencing and, secondly, by making it easier for defendants to earn a sentencing reduction by providing substantial assistance to the government. In contrast, this paper does not find evidence that pretrial release improves defendants’ abilities to bargain with prosecutors. I also find that the effects of pretrial detention status on case outcomes are heterogeneous, and most pronounced for drug offenders.

July 20, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bipartisan discussion of female incarceration issues at "Women Unshackled" event

My twitter feed was full of reports and links to a big criminal justice reform event yesterday which was given the title "Women Unshackled."  This Washington Post article, headlined "Officials from both parties say too many women are incarcerated for low-level crimes," reports on the event, and its coverage starts this way:

Democratic and Republic officials at a conference Tuesday said too many women are being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a troubling trend both groups said they were committed to tackling.

From Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) to Republican Rep. Mia Love (Utah) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there was bipartisan agreement that most of the women in jails and prison would be better served by drug rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than harsher sentences. They noted that most women in the criminal-justice system are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. And because most incarcerated women have small children, locking them away can destroy an already fragile family.

The discussion came during a day-long conference called “Women Unshackled,” presented by the Justice Action Network and sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Coalition for Public Safety and Google.

Some additional coverage of the issues and individuals involved in this event can be found in these recent press pieces:

July 19, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"The Political Economy of Mass Incarceration: An Analytical Model"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Peter Temin. Here is the abstract:

This paper presents a model of mass incarceration in the United States, which has the largest proportion of its population imprisoned among advanced countries.  The United States began to differ from other countries in the 1970s in response to changes in judicial policies.  Although the Kerner Commission recommended integrating the black community into the larger American community, judicial policies went in the opposite direction.  The model draws from several accounts of these changes and demonstrates that the United States has moved from one equilibrium position to another.  It is driven by two equations, one for incarceration and one for crime. It explains why the growth of prisoners has ceased in the last decade and what would be needed to return to the original equilibrium.

July 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Urban Institute releases "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons"

Logo-simpleThis morning the Urban Institute released online here a big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." As explained in an email I received, this "online feature examines the causes and consequences of rising time served in America’s prisons [t]hrough visualizations, analysis of trends and demographics, and stories told by people who have served long prison terms." An executive summary can be found at this link, and here are excerpts from it:

People are spending more time in prison, and the longest prison terms are getting longer.  Since 2000, average time served has risen in all 44 states that reported complete data to the National Corrections Reporting Program.  In states with more extensive data, we can trace the rise back to the 1980s and 1990s. In nearly half the states we looked at, the average length of the top 10 percent of prison terms increased by more than five years between 2000 and 2014.

The increase in time served has been sharpest among people convicted of violent offenses.  These changes have an outsized effect on prison populations because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long terms.

Longer terms are growing in number and as a share of the prison population.  In 35 states, at least 1 in 10 people in prison have been there for a decade or more.  This is even higher — nearly 1 in 4 people — in states like California and Michigan.  In at least 11 states, the number of people who have served at least a decade has more than doubled since 2000.

These trends aren’t accidental, and that they vary so much across states suggests that the growth in time served is driven by state-level decisionmaking.  States grappling with expanding prison populations must include those serving the longest prison terms in their efforts to curb mass incarceration.

Incarceration affects some people and communities more than others, and these patterns are often more pronounced among those who spend the most time in prison.  In 35 of the 44 states we looked at, racial disparities in prisons were starkest among people serving the longest 10 percent of terms.  In recent years, racial disparities have decreased among people serving less than 10 years, but 18 states actually saw an increase in disparities among people serving longer terms.

Nearly two in five people serving the longest prison terms were incarcerated before age 25, despite research that shows the brain is still developing through age 24 and that people tend to age out of criminal behavior.  Thousands have been in prison for more than half their lives.  One in five people in prison for at least 10 years is a black man incarcerated before age 25.

A growing share of women in prison have served more than 10 years.  In Michigan, for example, 8 percent of women in prison had served at least a decade as of 2000; by 2013, that number was 13 percent.  In Wisconsin, this figure rose from 1.8 to 6.5 percent over the same period.  In light of this trend, more research is needed to understand how women are uniquely affected by long-term incarceration.

More than one in three people serving the longest prison terms is at least 55 years old.  More people serving longer terms means that more people are growing old in prison, yet prisons are typically ill-equipped to address the needs of the elderly and disabled.

July 13, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

"Death Row Dogs, Hard Time Prisoners, and Creative Rehabilitation Strategies: Prisoner-Dog Training Programs"

The title of this post is the title of this recently published article authored by Paul Larkin. Here is the abstract:

More and more prisons have witnessed the success of Prisoner-Dog Training Programs (PDPs) in the last few years.  PDPs entail a prisoner training an animal (usually a dog) to be a service animal for the disabled or a well-behaved household pet.  PDPs at state and federal prisons have turned out to be a win-win-win.  The animals involved in the program are typically those at risk of being euthanized, giving those animals a second chance at life; the community benefits because people adopt well-behaved and trained animals; and the prisoner-trainers learn what it means to contribute to society in a material way, to develop emotional connections, and to care for others.  At first glance, these programs seem perfect—which begs the question: Why are they not in every prison?

This article examines PDPs and the success of those programs in the case studies that have been conducted.  The Article suggests that in order for more successful PDPs to be launched, more data needs to be collected.  In analyzing PDPs, this Article looks at the history of criminal punishment through the lens of rehabilitation versus retribution, then proceeds to an overview of PDPs and their promising initial data.  Finally, this Article discusses the need for further examination of PDPs and their effectiveness, as well as possible mechanisms that could be used to expand their uses. Ultimately, this Article encourages the Department of Justice and Congress to lend greater support to PDPs in federal and state prisons. 

July 9, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 08, 2017

"Criminal justice reform starts before the trial and sentence"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Marc Levin and Ed Chung. Here are excerpts (with links from the original): 

Recent media stories have speculated on the future of federal efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Much of the discussion surrounds the possibility of rekindling bipartisan sentencing and corrections reform legislation that was on the cusp of being enacted in the previous Congress.

While comprehensive reforms to lower federal mandatory minimum sentences remain aspirational, there are other policies on which the right and left agree that could have as much, if not more, impact in reducing the nation’s incarcerated population while maintaining public safety. 

Every day, approximately 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime are currently behind bars while they await adjudication of their case.  This is more than double the number of people in federal prison and two and half times the total jail population in 1980.  According to a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, “99 percent of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population.”  This increase was not due to a more criminalized or violent society but rather stemmed from discretionary criminal justice policies that increasingly conditioned release from jail on whether they could pay for bail. 

Money bail systems, however, are neither the most effective nor fairest way to achieve the goals of the justice system prior to trial.  For those whom a court determines to be a danger to society, allowing them to pay for their release seems like an illogical remedy where a rich dangerous person is freed but a poor dangerous person remains in jail. And, to ensure a person returns for court appearances, more effective methods have developed in recent years that combine an objective assessment of a person’s risks with appropriate human supervision and electronic monitoring.

The harms and inequities associated with money bail systems — especially when it comes to nonviolent, low-risk poor defendants — are well documented.  According to an analysis by the Arnold Foundation, keeping low-risk defendants in jail for even two or three days increases the likelihood that they will commit a new crime by 40 percent.  The impact also is felt disproportionately by those who cannot pay for even relatively modest bail and thus remain locked up.

The movement to reform bail systems has taken root in a small but growing number of both conservative and progressive states.  Connecticut last month enacted a statute that bars the imposition of financial conditions for pretrial release for most misdemeanors.  Earlier this year, New Jersey passed legislation that eliminated bail for minor crimes and instituted the use of a risk assessment tool to help courts determine pretrial supervision conditions.  Kentucky, which instituted the same risk assessment tool in 2013, will now automatically release people determined to be low-risk if they meet certain criteria.  And Washington, D.C., releases 90 percent of those arrested with conditions to report to a pretrial agency and comply with drug testing and other requirements. 

While state and local policy change is the primary means of achieving bail reform, given that pretrial detention implicates the guarantees of equal protection and due process found in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can play a collaborative role, even if most of the people in jail awaiting trial are in local facilities.  Through its technical assistance efforts, the Department of Justice (DOJ) shares advancements made in a small number of states with a national audience and provides valuable data that reveals the impact of pretrial practices across the nation. From issuing statements of interest on bail in pending federal litigation to providing guidance on the proper use of risk assessment instruments, the DOJ must remain committed to pretrial policies that prioritize public safety over a person’s ability to pay.

Congress also has an important voice that can exemplify the bipartisan support for bail reform across the country.  The legislative branch’s bully pulpit is especially effective when emphasizing points of agreement across the political spectrum....

There is still much work to be done to reform the criminal justice system.  Fortunately, this remains a priority that transcends partisanship, even in the current political climate. It is time for our national leaders to act on the consensus developed among states, local communities, advocates, and think tanks representing different ideological perspectives like ours. 

July 8, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

"The Wireless Prison: How Colorado’s tablet computer program misses opportunities and monetizes the poor"

Tablet_bannerThe title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Prison Policy Initiative posting about an important new part of the prison experience in a growing number of jurisdictions.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts from how it starts and concludes (with links from the original):

A recent Denver Post article reports that the Colorado state prison system has awarded a contract to prison communications giant GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) for a tablet program that will eventually be deployed in all the state’s prisons.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) is somewhat of an early adopter of emerging communications technology.  For several years it has offered electronic messaging, an email-like service that allows people in prison to send and receive messages using a proprietary, fee-based platform operated by a contractor.  Colorado DOC’s electronic messaging program isn’t perfect, but its rollout was notable for giving people a new communication option.  The tablet program, on the other hand, foreshadows a potential new paradigm in corrections, shifting numerous communications, educational, and recreational functions to a for-profit contractor; and, at the same time, making incarcerated people and their families pay for services, some of which are now commonly funded by the state.

What makes the Colorado/GTL contract especially frustrating is that it could have been an innovative step toward providing incarcerated people with useful technology. Experts who have studied government technology contracting warn that projects often fail because details are not sufficiently thought through.  The Colorado DOC seems to have walked down this familiar path by focusing largely on its own financial interest without giving much thought to the user experience or the financial impact on incarcerated people and their families....

Historically, people in prison have communicated with the outside world using tools that were simultaneously specialized and universal. Specialized in the sense that letters and phone calls were subject to restrictions and monitoring for security.  Universal in the sense that the actual communications networks were the same ones used by the population at large — namely the nation’s mail system and the network of Bell telephone companies.  These networks charged reasonable, regulated rates for universal service.   Emerging technologies for prison communication are taking a decidedly different approach: instead of applying security protocols to a general purpose network, prisons are relying on specialized providers that use proprietary systems and charge user fees far in excess of cost.  The profits of this model are then divided among the prison systems and the private equity firms that own the providers.

New technologies have the potential to help incarcerated people.  But the ways in which such systems are being implemented tend to focus on profits over people.  The Colorado/GTL contract provides other jurisdictions with a case study in how new technologies can be implemented in ways that financially exploit incarcerated people and their support networks.  Other jurisdictions should view the Colorado experience with caution, and strive to develop better, more humane models for bringing prison communications into the twenty-first century.

July 6, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

"Everyone should go to jail, say, once every ten years"

The title of this post is the (slightly off) headline of this recent Los Angeles Times op-ed authored by Jesse Ball. Here is the start of the provocative piece: 

To a nation of jailers:

A notable demand that is made upon the citizens of the United States of America is that of jury duty.  Although many despise, hate and avoid it, there is a general sense that the task is necessary. We believe a society is only just if everyone shares in the apportionment of guilt.

To this demand of jury duty, I would like to add another, and in the same spirit.  I propose that all citizens of the United States of America should serve a brief sentence of incarceration in our maximum-security penitentiaries.  This service, which would occur for each person once in a decade, would help ensure that the quality of life within our prisons is sufficient for the keeping of human beings.

The new population of inmates would not be separated from the general population. They would be like any others, and treated like any others. The length of incarceration would be randomly determined, anywhere from three to 90 days. Crucially, you would not be told in advance how long you would have to be there.

And of course, while you are in prison serving your incarceration duty, your behavior will have to be perfect. If you were to fight with another inmate or rebuke a guard, your time might be extended, and that would go for everyone: peons, aristocrats, elected officials. All elected and appointed officials, judges, federal, state servants, members of the military, would participate in incarceration duty. There would be no putting it off.

Just think, if everyone in the United States were to become, within a 10-year period, familiar with what it is like to be incarcerated, is there any question that the quality of our prisons would improve? It also follows that the skill and understanding of our juries might grow apace, as they would now know to what they were condemning those they condemn.

I describe the headline of this piece as "slightly off" because it seems the author is actually calling for national service duty at maximum-security penitentiaries, not just jails.  As one who has visited a few maximum-security penitentiaries and a few jails, I can say that one learns a lot just from a visit to any locus of incarceration.  But while I am not sure I would endorse a mandate of actual periods of incarceration as a civic duty, I still thought it worth spotlighting this notable commentary on a day we celebrate independence and freedom.

July 4, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Murderers admit they went on prison murder spree in order to get death sentences

Regular readers know that I think one of the hardest conceptual and practical issues for death penalty abolitionists is what to do about killers already serving life without parole sentences who go on to kill again while in prison. If the death penalty is completely eliminated, these offenders may conclude there is no real punishment if they kill again.  But this recent AP article, headlined "Inmate: I Strangled Prisoners to Try to Land on Death Row," reports on the awful reality that a pair of killers serving LWOP in a South Carolina prison apparently were inspired to go on a murder spree because of the presence of the death penalty. Here is the start of a horrible story:

One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.  Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons' hospitality.  None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Why did they do it? Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive.  Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public. The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn't allow in-person interviews with inmates.  So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip's attorney responded with an email: "Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him."

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate's time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had "a whole lot in common" from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

"I'd always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren't going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty," Simmons, told the AP. "The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it."

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder....  Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren't serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers. "It's just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out," Simmons said.

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (9)

Pair of Senators introduce the "Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017"

As reported in this article from The Hill, "Senate Democrats unveiled a proposal Wednesday to push back against Attorney General Jeff Sessions's 'tough on crime' policies." Here are the details:

Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 to incentivize states through grant funding to decrease their prison populations.

It's intended to counter the 1994 Crime Bill, otherwise known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That law authorized $12.5 billion in grants to fund or offset the costs of incarceration, nearly 50 percent of which was earmarked for states that adopted tough “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, according to the Brennan Center for Justice....

The Booker-Blumenthal bill provides $20 billion in grant funding to be divvied up every three years among eligible states. States would only be considered eligible to apply if the total number of people in correctional or detention facilities in the state decreased by 7 percent or more in that three-year period. States must also keep crime rates from increasing by more than 3 percent.

The proposal is estimated to reduce the national prison population by 20 percent over 10 years. “State sentencing policies are the major drivers of skyrocketing incarceration rates, which is why we’ve introduced legislation to encourage change at the state level,” Booker said in a statement. “We need to change federal incentives so that we reward states that are addressing this crisis and improving community safety, instead of funneling more federal dollars into a broken system.”

The idea is based on a 2015 proposal from the Brennan Center for Justice. “The federal government has a long history of dangling money in front of state and local leaders to spur policy changes,” program Director Inimai Chettiar said in a statement. “We saw it with the 1994 Crime Bill, which helped put more people behind bars. This bold bill shifts the current flow of funding in the opposite direction. It is one of the single biggest steps we can take to reduce imprisonment.”

The full text of the Reverse Incarceration Act runs only about two pages and is available at this link.  I would be very surprised if this bill gets any traction in Congress, but even its formal introduction seemed notable.

June 29, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Cashing in on Convicts: Privatization, Punishment, and the People"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Laura Appleman available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For-profit prisons, jails, and alternative corrections present a disturbing commodification of the criminal justice system. Though part of a modern trend, privatized corrections has well-established roots traceable to slavery, Jim Crow, and current racially-based inequities.  This monetizing of the physical incarceration and regulation of human bodies has had deleterious effects on offenders, communities, and the proper functioning of punishment in our society.  Criminal justice privatization severs an essential link between the people and criminal punishment.  When we remove the imposition of punishment from the people and delegate it to private actors, we sacrifice the core criminal justice values of expressive, restorative retribution, the voice and interests of the community, and systemic transparency and accountability.

This Article shows what we lose when we allow private, for-profit entities to take on the traditional community function of imposing and regulating punishment.  By banking on bondage, private prisons and jails remove the local community from criminal justice, and perpetuate the extreme inequities within the criminal system. 

June 28, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Should Ohio automatically release inmates if prisons too crowded?"

The question in title of this post is the headline of this Columbus Dispatch article which somewhat imperfectly describes one somewhat notable provision of a huge criminal justice revision proposal in the Buckeye State. Here is the context:

A proposed sweeping rewrite of Ohio’s criminal laws includes a provision that would allow the state to release hundreds of low-level, nonviolent inmates when the prison population hits 47,000. The state prison population last week stood at 50,093 — 3,093 above that threshold.

That change is among hundreds recommended by the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, which on June 15 completed a two-year task of rewriting the entire state criminal code. The result is a 4,017-page bill submitted to the General Assembly. The committee composed of judges, legislators, prosecutors, law-enforcement officials and others voted 18-2 to recommend the overhaul.

Other changes include the return of a version of “bad time” for inmates who misbehave in prison, reduced add-on sentences for crimes committed while in possession of a gun, expanded opportunities for offenders to obtain drug treatment in lieu of prison, and an increase in the theft amount that triggers a felony charge to $2,500.

Created by the legislature, the committee was charged with “enhancing public safety and the administration of criminal justice.” The last time criminal laws were overhauled was 1974, although some statutes date to 1953 and have been “effectively superseded or contradicted” by new layers of laws. The committee’s recommendations need the approval of the legislature.

Judge Frederick D. Pepple of Auglaize County Common Pleas Court, chairman of the committee, said he’s pleased with the overall report. “These improvements make the system better and could save hundreds of millions of dollars. When I stand back and look at it, without getting into every nitty-gritty detail, I’m satisfied.”

Pepple said the rewrite cut down the length of the code by nearly 25 percent, mostly by condensing language. More important, Pepple said the changes would “significantly improve the quality of justice and better protect the people of Ohio ... We tried to make it readable and understandable so people know what is against the law.”

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien was one of two committee members, along with Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson, to vote against the package. O’Brien said that while he agreed with most of the recommendations, several were deal breakers, including the prison-release provision, which he said would be like “Bastille Day every day.” O’Brien said he disagreed with granting “unilateral authority to reduce prison population.”

The provision would be triggered when the total prison population exceeds 43,500 men and 3,500 women for at least 30 days in a row. At that point, the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction would “direct the parole board to select from those who are eligible for overcrowding parole release a sufficient number of prisoners to be released within thirty days to maintain the inmate population at less than 43,500 for males and 3,500 for females. No more than five hundred male inmates and five hundred female inmates may be released per month pursuant to this section.” The board would select inmates for release “who present the least threat to the public, including the victims and their families,” and those who have committed nonviolent and non-sex-oriented crimes.

In a statement to The Dispatch, Gary Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said he voted for (but did not propose) the overcrowding release provision. However, he said he prefers a method built into the current state-budget proposal to divert nonviolent drug offenders to community treatment “to avoid the potentially lifelong collateral consequences of coming to prison.”...

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, praised the committee. “How this group of experts from varying political viewpoints worked together over the last two years speaks volumes about their commitment to pursuing reforms within Ohio’s criminal-justice system.” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said that if the rewrite of criminal laws is adopted, “Ohio is ready to take another leap forward on reforming their justice system.”

June 26, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Evangelical leaders push for criminal justice reform"

Images (1)The title of this post is the headline of this new article in the National Catholic Reporter.  Here are excerpts:

Evangelical Christian leaders are spearheading a campaign for criminal justice reform, calling for equitable punishment, alternatives to incarceration and a different take on the "tough on crime" language of the Trump administration.

"Our country's overreliance on incarceration fails to make us safer or to restore people and communities who have been harmed," said James Ackerman, CEO of Prison Fellowship Ministries, at a June 20 news conference at the National Press Club.

Joined by black, white and Hispanic officials of evangelical organizations, he introduced the "Justice Declaration" that has been signed by close to 100 religious leaders from a wide range of Christian denominations. "The Church has both the unique ability and unparalleled capacity to confront the staggering crisis of crime and incarceration in America," the declaration reads, "and to respond with restorative solutions for communities, victims, and individuals responsible for crime."

The leaders later presented their declaration to Republican leaders, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, in hopes of gaining bipartisan support for changes in federal law....

Ackerman said Prison Fellowship supports sentencing guidelines but thinks mandatory sentences are "a big mistake." He was joined at the news conference by leaders with testimonies of how churches helped formerly incarcerated people rehabilitate themselves and become productive citizens.

Dimas Salaberrios, president of the Concerts of Prayer Greater New York, told of how church members once vouched to a judge about his transformation after he escaped from authorities when he was a drug dealer. The judge pardoned him. "I'm living proof that when you grab somebody out of the pits of hell and you turn their life around that they can be great contributors to society," he said.

National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson challenged churches to do more than sign the declaration but also take action steps to address racial inequities and work for alternatives such as drug courts and mental health courts to keep people out of prison. Thirteen percent of Americans are African-American but close to 40 percent of U.S. prisoners are black. "What if all of our churches were to adopt one incarcerated person?" he asked. "What if all of our churches would service one family where a family member is incarcerated? What if all of our churches would care for one victim?"

The declaration, and a related 11-page paper on how the church can respond to crime and incarceration, were spearheaded by evangelical organizations: Prison Fellowship, the NAE, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

But signatories on the declaration include a wider range of Christian leaders, such as Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Bread for the World President David Beckmann and Bishop Frank Dewane, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

This Justice Declaration webpage hosted by Prison Fellowship provides more details on this latest notable advocacy effort, and that page also provides a link to this interesting 11-page white paper titled "Responding to Crime & Incarcertation: A Call to the Church."

June 21, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Pew analysis finds no relationship between drug imprisonment and drug problems

The Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts has this notable new posting concerning a notable new letter and analysis it completed. The posting is headlined "Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems: Letter provides new 50-state data to the federal opioid commission," and here is what it has to say:

On June 19, 2017, The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted a letter to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, outlining an analysis of whether state drug imprisonment rates are linked to the nature and extent of state drug problems—a key question as the nation faces an escalating opioid epidemic. Pew compared publicly available data from law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies from all 50 states.

Pew’s analysis found no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and three measures of drug problems: rates of illicit use, overdose deaths, and arrests. The findings reinforce previous research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug use and related crime.

Although the federal courts receive the lion’s share of public attention, most of the nation’s criminal justice system is administered by states. State laws determine criminal penalties for most drug offenses, and the states have made different policy choices regarding those punishments, resulting in widely varied imprisonment rates.

For example, Louisiana had the country’s highest drug-offender imprisonment rate in 2014, with 226.4 drug offenders in prison per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Massachusetts’s rate was the lowest, 30.2 per 100,000 residents, less than one-seventh Louisiana’s rate.

As Pew’s letter explained, higher rates of drug imprisonment do not translate into lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths. And the findings hold even when controlling for standard demographic variables, such as education level, employment, race, and median household income.

The full 13-page Pew letter is available at this link.

June 20, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Could jail be "the answer" for drug addicts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times opinion piece headlined "Addicts Need Help. Jails Could Have the Answer." This piece is authored by Sam Quinones, the journalist and author of the widely praised "Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic." Here is how the lengthy piece gets started and its final line:

Not long ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where men with tattoos and short-cropped hair sat in a circle and talked out their errors. One had lived under an overpass, pimping his girlfriend’s daughter for cash to buy heroin. As the thought brought him to tears, his neighbor patted his shoulder. Others owned to stealing from grandparents, to losing jobs and children. Soon, most in the room — men with years of street addiction behind them — were wiping their eyes.

What made the meeting remarkable, however, was not the stories, but where it was taking place. Unit 104 is a 70-man pod in Kenton County Detention Center in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The unit, and an equivalent one for women, is part of a new approach to jail made necessary by our nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.

As the country has awakened to that epidemic, a new mantra has emerged: “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” accompanied by calls for more drug-addiction treatment. Yet the opiate epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. Only one in 10 addicts get the treatment they need, according to a 2016 surgeon general’s report. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to find real estate for and beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.

So where can we quickly find cheap new capacity for drug treatment accessible to the street addict? Jail is one place few have thought to look.

Jails typically house inmates awaiting trial or serving up to a year for a misdemeanor crime. Many inmates are drug addicts. They vegetate for months, trading crime stories in an atmosphere of boredom and brutality. Any attempt at treatment is usually limited to a weekly visit by a pastor or an Alcoholics Anonymous volunteer. When inmates are released, they’re in the clothes they came in with, regardless of the weather, and have no assistance to re-enter the real world. This kind of jail has always been accepted as an unavoidable fixed cost of government.

But the sheer dimensions of the opiate-addiction epidemic are forcing new ideas. One of them, now being tried in Kentucky, is jail not as a cost but as an investment in recovery. Jails as full-time rehab centers — from lights on to lights out. Jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. However, as as any parent of an addict can tell you, opiates are mind-controlling beasts. A kid who complained about the least little household chore while sober will, as an addict, walk through five miles of snow, endure any hardship or humiliation, to get his dope.

Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the addict, who is usually without insurance, is willing and financially able to occupy it. The reality is that, unlike with other drugs, with opiates rock bottom is often death. (Drug overdose deaths last year most likely exceeded 59,000, the most ever in the United States, The Times found in an analysis of preliminary data this month, up about 19 percent over 2015.)

Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict who has been locked up to seek treatment before it’s too late. “People don’t go to treatment because they see the light,” said Kevin Pangburn, director of Substance Abuse Services for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “They go to treatment because they feel the heat.”

Jail may in fact be the best place to initiate addict recovery. It’s in jail where addicts first come face-to-face with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once in custody and detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, it’s in jail where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. And it is at that moment of clarity and contrition when they are typically plunged into a jailhouse of extortion, violence and tedium....

Amid this national epidemic of opiate addiction, rethinking jail, as Kentucky has, as a place of sanctuary and recovery for a population that has lost hope, might not just be advisable; it may be indispensable.

June 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DC Circuit strikes down FCC rules placing caps on payphone rates in prisons

Earlier this week, as reported in the AP article, a DC Circuit panel "struck down regulations intended to cap the price of some calls to prison inmates."  The full ruling in Global Tel*Link v. FCC, No. 15-1461 (DC Cir. June 13, 2017) (available here), has a lengthy introduction that includes these excerpts:

Due to a variety of market failures in the prison and jail payphone industry, ... inmates in correctional facilities, or those to whom they placed calls, incurred prohibitive per-minute charges and ancillary fees for payphone calls. In the face of this problem, the Commission decided to change its approach to the regulation of ICS providers. In 2015, in the Order under review, the Commission set permanent rate caps and ancillary fee caps for interstate ICS calls and, for the first time, imposed those caps on intrastate ICS calls. The Commission also proposed to expand the reach of its ICS regulations by banning or limiting fees for billing and collection services — so-called “ancillary fees” — and by regulating video services and other advanced services in addition to traditional calling services.

Five inmate payphone providers, joined by state and local authorities, now challenge the Order’s design to expand the FCC’s regulatory authority.  In particular, the Petitioners challenge the Order’s proposed caps on intrastate rates, the exclusion of “site commissions” as costs in the agency’s ratemaking methodology, the use of industry-averaged cost data in the FCC’s calculation of rate caps, the imposition of ancillary fee caps, and reporting requirements. And one ICS provider separately challenges the Commission’s failure to preempt inconsistent state rates and raises a due process challenge....

  • We hold that the Order’s proposed caps on intrastate rates exceed the FCC’s statutory authority under the 1996 Act. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We further hold that the use of industry-averaged cost data as proposed in the Order is arbitrary and capricious because it lacks justification in the record and is not supported by reasoned decisionmaking. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We additionally hold that the Order’s imposition of video visitation reporting requirements is beyond the statutory authority of the Commission. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We find that the Order’s proposed wholesale exclusion of site commission payments from the FCC’s cost calculus is devoid of reasoned decisionmaking and thus arbitrary and capricious.  This provision cannot stand as presently proposed in the Order under review; we therefore vacate this provision and remand for further proceedings on the matter.

  • We deny the petitions for review of the Order’s site commission reporting requirements.

  • We remand the challenge to the Order’s imposition of ancillary fee caps to allow the Commission to determine whether it can segregate proposed caps on interstate calls (which are permissible) and the proposed caps on intrastate calls (which are impermissible).

  • Finally, we dismiss the preemption and due process claims as moot.

June 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Here is part of its introduction:

As concern in the United States has grown over the number of people behind bars, policymakers and the public are turning their attention to addressing the decades-long growth in the number of people held in the country’s more than 3,000 locally run jails — county or municipal detention facilities that primarily house people who have been charged but not yet convicted of a crime (known as the “pretrial” population), and those sentenced to a short term of incarceration, usually under a year.  With local jail populations swelling from 157,000 on any given day in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015, there are now an astronomical number of jail admissions annually — nearly 11 million — prompting many to question whether local jails have grown too large, and at too high a cost for the communities they serve.  This has in turn focused efforts among policymakers and the public to better understand and reform the size, scope, and distribution of local incarceration.

In contribution to this effort, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed the Incarceration Trends data tool in 2015 to better understand how jails have grown in every U.S. county.  (See “The Incarceration Trends data tool sources and units of analysis” on page 8.)  In an initial analysis, Vera researchers found that small counties, defined as counties with fewer than 250,000 people, have driven overall jail growth since 1970, despite the conventional perception that this has been exclusively a phenomenon of large cities.  In fact, jails have actually grown the least in large counties (the approximately 40 counties with more than one million residents).  To further understand the contours of jail growth, Vera researchers turned once again to its data tool to study the newly released 2013 Census of Jails from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and conducted an updated historical analysis of jail population trends to examine two specific drivers of local incarceration: 1) changes in the number of people held in pretrial detention; and 2) changes in the number of people who are held for another authority. Vera researchers also looked at the degree to which these trends are different along the urban-rural axis, as well as between U.S. regions — the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.

As this report will enumerate, it is not simply small counties that have increasingly been the locus of rising local incarceration rates, but rural areas — nonmetropolitan areas defined by low population and distance from major population centers.  This is despite rural counties’ substantially lower crime rates in comparison to urban areas.  There appear to be two underlying trends.  First, as overall rates of pretrial detention have risen nationally, the highest rates now feature most prominently in rural counties across all regions of the country — increasing 436 percent between 1970 and 2013.  Second, an escalating number of rural jails — mainly in the South and West — are renting out jail beds to hold people for federal, state, and other local governments.  In some cases, jails are even building new capacity unrelated to crime levels in their own jurisdictions to meet jail-bed demands of other agencies.  Although the reasons for these two trends are likely numerous, this report explores one possible root: few resources in rural areas. Given that the distribution of scarce state and county resources is likely uneven — favoring those areas with more people — access to critical criminal justice and community services may be spread thin the further away a place is from the various population clusters in a state or county.  This means there may be fewer judges to quickly hear cases, less robust pretrial services, and fewer diversion programs available to decrease jail use.

June 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable prisoner makes notable case for prison education and programming ... only for some

I have been following the work an writings of Jeremiah Bourgeois, a juvenile offender sentenced to LWOP (but now eligible for parole) in Washington State, since he authored this thoughtful and personal essay for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law a few years ago. His latest column for The Crime Report, headlined "Educate a Prisoner, Save a Life," begins by stressing that the reason for [his personal] change is not hard to find: the higher education courses [he has] been taking during my incarceration." As he goes on to put it: "It is amazing what an education can do. It can transform the violent and ignorant into the peaceful and intelligent."

But, intriguingly, while using his own story to make the case for "making higher education available in correctional facilities," his column also suggests that reform advocates and public officials need to urge "correctional systems [to] finally abandon[] efforts to change those who — quite simply — are content to continue the behavior which led them to prison in the first place." Here is part of his explanation for what he suggests should be a kind of modern prison programming triage:

I have never been able to wrap my mind around why correctional officials believe they can force change on those who are committed to wrongdoing. Nevertheless, they keep trying. One of the purposes of punishment in Washington State is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.”  In practice, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has transformed this legislative decree into a Don Corleone-esque offer that prisoners cannot easily refuse.

DOC uses a carrot and stick approach. Prisoners can earn a small reduction in their sentence for every month that they follow the dictates of the Facility Risk Management Team (FRMT), which is a group comprised of the prisoner’s counselor and other unit staff, and outlines the programs the prisoner must complete in order to receive this “earned time.” This is the carrot.  The stick involves disciplinary sanctions for refusing to abide by the expectations established by the FRMT. Enough of these, and the prisoner will be transferred to ever more secure facilities until, in the end, he is confined in long-term administrative segregation.

All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed.  The belief is that requiring prisoners to work or go to school or undergo treatment interventions will reduce their likelihood of re-offending. On its face, such policies are rational.  Nobody wants prisoners to rejoin society in the same sorry state they were in when removed from it.

But the fact remains that resources are often devoted toward recalcitrant prisoners whose words and deeds manifest their commitment to the criminal subculture.  Having watched the same people cycle through prison over and over again, it’s clear to me that this subset of individuals are a bad investment — with diminishing returns.  Moreover, history has demonstrated that even the rack-and-screw is no match against the conviction of true believers, and many prisoners are just stubbornly unwilling to repent for a life of crime.

You can spot them throughout the penitentiary, begrudging the policies that compel them to work or go to school or to participate in treatment programs meant to change them. He is the slacker in the dish tank talking about how much “paper” he used to make on the streets.  He is the 20-something in the Adult Basic Education classroom spending the school-day freestyle rapping and sleeping.  He is the man in chemical dependency treatment tweaking on methamphetamines....

The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated.  Once upon a time, correctional systems had the luxury of trying to change such men. But those days are over. There is no money left to continue such social experiments.

Arrogance and paternalism is a combination that is antithetical to fiscal responsibility and sound correctional policies.  The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated, rather than those who are most likely to re-offend.  Moreover, such programs should be made available to those who seek it rather than mandating prisoners to participate in them.

Take the University Beyond Bars (UBB) for example.  Every participant in the UBB is there because they want to be, for this higher education program at MCC is entirely voluntary. Even when college credit cannot be offered due to lack of funding, prisoners readily sign up simply for self-enrichment.  As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the UBB, I saw such men come to recognize their capacity to complete college studies; and, more importantly, conceive of living lives removed from criminality.

These are the prisoners worth saving.  It may seem cruel, but in an emergency, triage is about not wasting one’s time and efforts on the hopeless.  Correctional systems should adopt the same sense of mission and purpose.

The uniquely informed perspective behind this commentary makes me eager to endorse its notable message, and yet I wonder and worry about the ability of correction officials and other to fairly and effectively figure out which prisoners are "worth saving" and which are "hopeless."  Like so many sound and sensible suggestions in the arena of sentencing and corrections, the devil would seem to be in the details here if and when corrections officials only made prison education and programming available to those who appeared worthy of these resources.

June 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Notable report of Missouri parole board playing a version of "turkey bingo" during hearings with inmates

I just noticed an interesting report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about an intriguing controversy swirling around Missouri's parole board.  Here are links to two lengthy stories about the controversies and their first few paragraphs:

"Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates"

The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole allegedly toyed with prisoners during hearings by trying to get them to say a chosen word or song title of the day, such as “platypus” and “Hound Dog.”

Don Ruzicka, a member of the seven-member board, along with an unnamed government employee were accused of keeping score during the hearings, according to a Department of Corrections inspector general report completed on Nov. 1, 2016. Each time one of them used a predetermined keyword while interviewing an offender they earned a point. Two points were granted if the offender repeated the word. Occasionally, the duo spiced the game up by wearing matching clothing, like the time they dressed in black shirts, ties, pants and shoes.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis recently obtained the state report and released it Thursday after a news conference, asserting that public servants “played games with people’s lives and liberty.”

"Officials insist Missouri parole board takes job seriously despite games played during hearings"

The day after a human rights law firm called on Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to remove former state Rep. Don Ruzicka from the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole for toying with inmates during hearings, two top prison officials stood by the panel on Friday.

A previously undisclosed state investigation found that Ruzicka and an unidentified Department of Corrections employee entertained themselves at some parole hearings by trying to get inmates to say words and song titles such as “platypus” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” They even kept score.

“We have very credible members who take their job seriously,” insisted Parole Board Chairman Kenneth C. Jones, who is also a former Republican state representative as well as a former sheriff. “There is no joking around. It’s a very serious job.”

June 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new book, authored by William Kelly, Robert Pitman and William Streusand, that a helpful reader made sure I noticed.  Here is description via the book's Amazon page:

Over the past fifty years, American criminal justice policy has had a nearly singular focus -- the relentless pursuit of punishment.  Punishment is intuitive, proactive, logical, and simple. But the problem is that despite all of the appeal, logic, and common sense, punishment doesn't work.  The majority of crimes committed in the United States are by people who have been through the criminal justice system before, many on multiple occasions.
There are two issues that are the primary focus of this book.  The first is developing a better approach than simple punishment to actually address crime-related circumstances, deficits and disorders, in order to change offender behavior, reduce recidivism, victimization and cost.  And the second issue is how do we do a better job of determining who should be diverted and who should be criminally prosecuted.
From Retribution to Public Safety develops a strategy for informed decision making regarding criminal prosecution and diversion.  The authors develop procedures for panels of clinical experts to provide prosecutors with recommendations about diversion and intervention.  This requires a substantial shift in criminal procedure as well as major reform to the public health system, both of which are discussed in detail.
Rather than ask how much punishment is necessary the authors look at how we can best reduce recidivism. In doing so they develop a roadmap to fix a fundamentally flawed system that is wasting massive amounts of public resources to not reducing crime or recidivism.

June 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

More interesting new "Quick Facts" publications from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released two notable new Quick Facts covering "Drug Trafficking Offenses" and "Federal Offenders in Prison" as of February 2017. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the many intriguing data details from these two small data-filled publications:

June 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 02, 2017

"From Grace to Grids: Rethinking Due Process Protection for Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Kimberly Thomas and Paul Reingold. Here is the abstract:

Current due process law gives little protection to prisoners at the point of parole, even though the parole decision, like sentencing, determines whether or not a person will serve more time or will go free.  The doctrine regarding parole, which developed mostly in the late 1970s, was based on a judicial understanding of parole as an experimental, subjective, and largely standardless art — rooted in assessing the individual “character” of the potential parolee.

In this Article we examine the foundations of the doctrine, and conclude that the due process inquiry at the point of parole should take into account the stark changes in sentencing and parole practice over the years.  Since the development of the parole due process doctrine in the 1970s, two seismic shifts have occurred.  First, the constitutional protections provided at the initial sentencing have vastly increased.  Second, the parole process itself has been transformed by the move to evidence-based parole guidelines and the use of actuarial risk-assessment instruments as the norm in parole decision-making.

In this Article we document the changes in this under-scrutinized area and assert that the liberty interest in parole should more closely match the present-day legal account of the liberty interest that courts afford defendants at sentencing. 

June 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tracking state work on criminal justice and drug policy through Stateline

The Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline site does a great job tracking state-level developments on an array of criminal justice and drug policy issues. Here are some examples from recent weeks that caught my eye:

 

June 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

“Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism”

Prison-Report_Website-BannerThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. This FAMM press release provides this overview of the report and its key findings:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) today released the findings of the first-ever independent survey of federal prisoners, which focused on the type and quality of educational and vocational training programs, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment, currently available in America’s federal prisons. “Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism” offers unique insights from inside federal prisons and includes 13 recommendations for reform.

“Roughly 94 percent of federal prisoners are going to go home one day.  If they leave smarter, sober, and job-ready, they will be much more likely to thrive — and our country will be safer and more prosperous,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  “Unfortunately, our survey found that the federal government is failing to make recidivism-reducing programming available to all prisoners who need it.  President Trump’s new budget proposal, which slashes the Bureau of Prisons’ staff and corrections officers, will only make the problem worse.”

FAMM regularly corresponds with more than 39,000 prisoners via email, and more than 2,000 inmates responded to the survey.  This report quantifies, analyzes, and confirms the numerous stories we have heard from prisoners over the years.  FAMM found that too many prisoners are not getting access to the programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism....

Key findings from the report include:

  • Access to quality education is scarce.  Most classes lack rigor and substance and are taught by other prisoners. Inmates reported taking classes such as crocheting and one based on the TV show Jeopardy.  Attaining a college degree is difficult, if not impossible, for most prisoners.

  • Most jobs afforded to inmates are “make work” jobs to service the prisons, such as cleaning bathrooms and living spaces or dining hall services.  Vocational training is popular and coveted, but is limited and only offered to prisoners who are close to their release dates.

  • Not all inmates who need substance abuse or mental health services are getting help.  Two-thirds of respondents said they entered prison with a drug or alcohol addiction.  In addition, more than two-thirds said they had not received mental or behavioral health treatment in prison.  These types of programs should be expanded to help all prisoners in need of treatment, no matter the length or duration of their sentence.

  • Most prisoners are housed too far away from their families to maintain connections.  Family connections have been proven to reduce recidivism, yet most prisoners are housed more than 500 air miles away from home.

June 1, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Diving into the Pfaffian perspective on modern mass incarceration

Regular readers have seen me regularly highlight in this space the work of Professor John Pfaff and his important accounting of what accounts for modern mass incarceration (e.g., in this post a few years ago, I flagged prior posts chronicling nearly a decade of Pfaff's empirical insights and analysis).  These days Pfaff's recently published book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform," is helping to give his perspectives a wider airing.  And just today I noticed that two notable media sources are talking up and talking with Pfaff about his work:

From The Crime Report, a two-part Q&A:

From Vox: "Why you can’t blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs: The standard liberal narrative about mass incarceration gets a lot wrong. A new book breaks through the myths."

May 31, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth"

Era_MassIncarceration_250The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. This PPI press release provide context and summary for the report's coverage:

State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.

The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.

The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:

  • An increasing number of people held pre-trial.

  • Growing demand from federal and state agencies to rent cell space from local jails.

Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:

  • In some states, state officials have not utilized their ability to regulate the commercial bail industry, which has profited from the increased reliance on money bail and increased bail amounts. These trends have expanded the pre-trial population dramatically over time.

  • In other states, state lawmakers have expanded criminal codes, enabled overzealous prosecutors, and allowed police practices to play a paramount role in driving up jail populations, while underfunding pre-trial programs and alternatives to incarceration.

  • In 25 states, 10% or more of the people confined in local jails are being held for state or federal agencies, with some counties even adding capacity to meet the demand. This report is the first to be able to address the local jail population separately from the troubling issue of renting jail space.

Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.

For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”

May 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Economist urges "Rethinking Prison"

20170527_cna400The current print edition of The Economist has a series of article on prison policies and practices. Here are links to the article in the series and their extended headlines:

"America’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work: A lot is known about how to reform prisoners. Far too little is done."

"More women are being put behind bars. Fewer should be: Female convicts are less violent and more likely to have stolen to support children

"Too many prisons make bad people worse. There is a better way: The world can learn from how Norway treats its offenders"

Here is an excerpt from the last of these articles:

Reserving prison for the worst offenders has hefty benefits.  First, it saves money.  In America, for example, incarcerating a federal convict costs eight times as much as putting the same convict on probation.  Second, it avoids mixing minor offenders with more hardened criminals, who will teach them bad habits.  “The low-level guys don’t tend to rub off on the higher-level prisoners. It goes the other way,” says Ron Gordon of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, a state body.

Modern electronic tags are cheap and effective. In a recent study Rafael Di Tella of Harvard University and Ernesto Schargrodsky of Torcuato Di Tella University compared the effects of electronic tagging versus prison for alleged offenders in Buenos Aires.  Earlier research had failed to deal with the fact that criminals who are tagged are less likely to reoffend than the more dangerous ones who are locked up.  The authors found a way round this.  Alleged criminals in Argentina are assigned randomly to judges for pre-trial hearings. Liberal judges are reluctant to hold them in the country’s awful jails, so they often order them to be tagged.  So-called mano dura (tough hand) judges prefer to lock them up.  The researchers observed what happened to similar offenders under different regimes.  Only 13% of those who were tagged were later rearrested; for those sent to prison the figure was 22%.

May 29, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, May 26, 2017

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2015: Modest Reductions with Significant Variation"

The title of this post is the title of this brief "Fact Sheet" from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

While states and the federal government have modestly reduced their prison populations in recent years, incarceration trends continue to vary significantly across jurisdictions. Overall, the number of people held in state and federal prisons has declined by 4.9% since reaching its peak in 2009.  Sixteen states have achieved double-digit rates of decline and the federal system has downsized at almost twice the national rate.  But while 38 states have reduced their prison populations, in most states this change has been relatively modest.  In addition, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations even though most have shared in the nationwide crime drop.

Six states have reduced their prison populations by over 20% since reaching their peak levels:

• New Jersey (35% decline since 1999)

• New York (29% decline since 1999)

• Alaska (27% decline since 2006)

• California (26% decline since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use)

• Vermont (25% decline since 2009)

• Connecticut (22% decline since 2007)

Southern states including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, have also begun to significantly downsize their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial prison population reductions have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.

The pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states, especially given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991.  Despite often sharing in these crime trends, 15 states had less than a 5% prison population decline since their peak year.  Moreover, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing doubledigit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010 - 2015"

Images (2)The title of this post is the title of this notable new Vera Institute of Justice report. Here is its introduction:

After decades of a stable rate of incarceration, the U.S. prison population experienced unprecedented growth from the early 1970s into the new millennium — with the number of people confined to state prisons increasing by more than 600 percent, reaching just over 1.4 million people by the end of 2009.The engine driving this growth was the enactment and implementation over time of a broad array of tough-on-crime policies, including the rapid and continuous expansion of the criminal code; the adoption of zero-tolerance policing tactics, particularly around minor street-level drug and quality-of-life offenses; and the proliferation of harsh sentencing and release policies aimed at keeping people in prison for longer periods of time (such as mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing statutes, and habitual offender laws).

Unsurprisingly, this explosion in the use of incarceration had a direct financial influence on state budgets.  Creating and sustaining such a sprawling penal system has been expensive.  With more people under their care, state prison systems were compelled to build new prison facilities and expand existing ones.  To staff these new and expanded facilities, they also had to hire, train, and retain ever more employees.  In addition to expanding the state-operated prison system, some states also began to board out increasing numbers of people to county jails, privately-run facilities, and other states’ prison systems.

After hitting a high of 1.4 million people in 2009, however, the overall state prison population has since declined by 5 percent, or 77,000 people.  Lawmakers in nearly every state and from across the political spectrum — some prompted by the 2008 recession — have enacted new laws to reduce prison populations and spending, often guided by a now-large body of research supporting alternative, more effective responses to crime.7 In addition to fiscal pressures, the push for reform has been further bolstered by other factors, including low crime rates; shifting public opinion that now favors less incarceration and more rehabilitation; and dissatisfaction with past punitive policies that have failed to moderate persistently high recidivism rates among those sent to prison.

With these various political, institutional, and economic forces at play, most states have adopted a variety of different policies, including those that increase opportunities to divert people away from the traditional criminal justice process; expand the use of community-based sanctions; reduce the length and severity of prison sentences for certain offenses, including the rollback of mandatory penalties; increase opportunities for people to gain early release; and better provide enhanced reentry support for those leaving prison or jail.

In light of nearly a decade of broad-based criminal justice reform, this report seeks to determine where state prison spending stands today and how it has changed in recent years.  In particular, if a goal of recent reforms has been to make deep and lasting cuts to prison spending by reducing the prison population, have states who have witnessed the desired downward shift in prison size also witnessed it in spending?  To answer this question, researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed a survey to measure changes in state prison population and expenditures between 2010 and 2015, and conducted follow-up interviews with state prison budget officials to better understand spending and population trends.

Vera’s study confirms that prisons remain an expensive enterprise, despite the success of many states — including Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina —in simultaneously reducing their prison populations while achieving budget savings.  The first part of this report describes 2015 prison expenditures, identifying the main driver of corrections spending across responding states.  The second half of the report then discusses how changes in prison populations during the study period, and other trends largely outside the control of departments of corrections have affected prison spending. What is clear is that increased spending is not inevitable, since nearly half of states have cut their spending on prisons between 2010 and 2015.  But while one might expect that states with shrinking prison populations are uniformly spending less on prisons, or conversely that states with growing populations are spending more, Vera’s findings paint a more complicated picture.  Indeed, often there is no single reason that explains a rise or fall in spending, but a multitude of factors that push and pull expenditures in different directions.

May 24, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"Deterrence and the Optimal Use of Prison, Parole, and Probation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by A. Mitchell Polinsky and Paul Riskind now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this article we derive the sentence — choosing among the sanctions of prison, parole, and probation — that achieves a target level of deterrence at least cost.  Potential offenders discount the future disutility of sanctions and the state discounts the future costs of sanctions.  Prison has higher disutility and higher cost per unit time than parole and probation, but the cost of prison per unit of disutility can be lower or higher than the cost of parole and probation per unit of disutility.  The optimal order of sanctions depends on the relative discount rates of potential offenders and the state, and the optimal duration of sanctions depends on the relative costs per unit of disutility among the sanctions and on the target level of deterrence.

We focus on the case in which potential offenders discount the disutility of sanctions at a higher rate than the state discounts the costs of sanctions.  In this case, if prison is more cost-effective than parole and probation — that is, has a lower cost per unit of disutility — prison should be used exclusively.  If prison is less cost-effective than parole and probation, probation should be used if the deterrence target is low enough, and prison followed by parole should be used if the deterrence target is relatively high.  Notably, it may be optimal to employ a prison term even if prison is less cost-effective than parole and probation and even if prison is not needed to achieve the target level of deterrence, because of what we refer to as the front-loading advantage of imprisonment.

May 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In the year 2000... inmates in western prisons will be getting computer tablets (and will be charged for the privilege)

For whatever strange reason, I just noticed two articles about prisoners in two states being given access to computer tablets and that led me to think of referencing in my post title an old-school Conan skit.  Silly pop-culture reference notwithstanding, here are links to the articles and a few details:

"Colorado prison inmates getting computer tablets"

Every inmate in a Colorado prison will have a computer tablet by the end of 2017. That's 18,000 tablets that inmates will be able to keep in their cell.... the tablets don't come with internet access, so no Netflix or Google.

But the tablets allow inmates to make phone calls, send emails, write grievances, communicate with jail staff, order hygiene products and view their prison bank accounts. Eventually, inmates will be able to download music and games.

Prisons also are being outfitted with monitors so inmates can have video visits with family members and friends....

Virginia-based vendor Global Tell Link is spending $800,000 to outfit Colorado prisons with video monitors and tablets. The company makes its money by charging inmates and their families for phone calls, emails, video chats, music and game downloads.

Phone calls are 12 cents per minute, emails are 25 cents each, 10-minute video calls are $4 and 25-minute video calls are $10.  All phone calls and emails are monitored by prison staff.

"Tablets coming for SD inmates"

They won’t have access to Facebook or Twitter, but every inmate in South Dakota’s prison system will soon have their own tablet computer. The touchscreen devices, connected to a closed network, will be offered for free to the Department of Corrections by telephone provider Global Tel Link.

The tablets mean longer phone calls with family and friends, and text messages – without photos or attachments – and will allow inmates to pay for access to games, music and e-books through monthly subscriptions. Phone calls and text messages will be charged per minute or per message....

South Dakota will join states like Colorado, Georgia and Indiana in its embrace of tablets for inmates, which are becoming more common through inmate telecom providers.

The Minnehaha County Jail recently added a limited number of tablets from CBM Managed Services of Sioux Falls, which inmates can check out at a $5 daily rate or borrow for 15 minutes every three hours. “This is the route a lot of these commissary vendors and video vendors are going,” said Minnehaha County Jail Warden Jeff Gromer....

The tablets offer distraction, communication and education for inmates, but they offer security benefits for staff, according to Warden Darin Young at the state penitentiary. Tablet phone calls and messages are recorded and stored for potential monitoring, and tablets can be shut off or confiscated for disciplinary reasons. Inmates who lose tablets would have to use public kiosks for calls.

The clear devices carry other security advantages, as well, Young said. Paper books can hide contraband passed from inmate to inmate, for example. "You can’t pass contraband through an e-book,” Young said.

May 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Life Without Redemption: When 1 in 7 U.S. inmates is serving a life term, it's time to rethink our failed crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Ashley Nellis and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project which serves as a kind of follow-up to its recent report on life sentencing (discussed here). Here are excerpts:

A new report from our organization, The Sentencing Project, finds that an astounding 206,000 people — 1 in 7 people in prison — is serving a life term, including with or without the possibility of parole, and so-called "virtual" life sentences, where the offender faces 50 years or more. Overall, the per capita rate at which the U.S. uses life imprisonment nearly equals the entire prison population of several industrialized nations.

The number of "lifers" in prison — nearly 5 times the figure in 1984 — is an outgrowth of the movement to "get tough" that characterized sentencing policies in the 1980s and 1990s.  Along with the spread of mandatory sentencing, "three strikes" and other harsh policies, states and the federal government have increasingly sentenced individuals to life in prison.

These figures come at a moment when calls to end mass incarceration abound throughout the nation.  Despite the new punitive policy shift at the federal level led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, many lawmakers, practitioners and civil rights organizations are advocating for a sizable reduction in what is now seen as a bloated and ineffective prison complex.  Yet the increasing use of life imprisonment suggests that substantial reductions in incarceration will be limited unless policymakers address the punishments at the deep end of the system for crimes that include violence, along with the more politically salable offenses involving drugs.

Most people serving life have been convicted of serious crimes, but among the population are over 17,000 persons convicted of nonviolent offenses and another 12,000 who were under 18 at the time of their crime. In three states, California, Utah and Louisiana, 1 in 3 prisoners is serving a life or virtual life sentence....

As is true of the justice system generally, racial and ethnic disparities are also profound among the lifer population. Today, two-thirds of those serving life are people of color.  While these individuals have generally been convicted of serious crimes, they are frequently sentenced to life imprisonment due to a prior criminal record through mechanisms such as habitual offender laws, more likely to be imposed on minorities.  Life in prison after a "third strike" might seem reasonable, but it fails to incorporate an understanding of the role of concentrated poverty, aggressive law enforcement and implicit bias that contribute to these criminal histories.

Prior recent related post:

May 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (35)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Reflecting on decreasing death sentences and increasing life sentences

The Washington Post has this "trendy" article headlined "The steady decline of America’s death rows," which reviews some of the latest notable numbers about death sentences and executions and also throws in a paragraph about life sentences based on this week's new Sentencing Project report on the topic (discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

Capital punishment in the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year.  In 1999, the country executed 98 inmates, a modern record for a single year.  In 2016, there were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.

Death sentences also sharply declined. Fewer states that have the death penalty as a sentencing option are carrying out executions, a trend that has continued despite two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past decade upholding lethal injection practices. States that would otherwise carry out executions have found themselves stymied by court orders, other legal uncertainty, logistical issues or an ongoing shortage of deadly drugs. Fewer states have it on the books than did a decade ago, and some that do retain the practice have declared moratoriums or otherwise stopped executions without formally declaring an outright ban....

Another way to see the changing nature of the American death penalty: The gradual decline of death row populations. At the death penalty’s modern peak around the turn of the century, death rows housed more than 3,500 inmates. That number is falling, and it has been falling for some time. New Justice Department data show that death-row populations shrank in 2015, marking the 15th consecutive year with a decline.

There were 2,881 inmates on state and federal death rows in 2015, the last year for which the Justice Department has nationwide data available. That was down 61 from the year before.  States carried out 28 death penalties in 2015, but nearly three times as many inmates — 82 — were removed from death rows “by means other than execution,” the Justice Department’s report states. (Another 49 inmates arrived on death row in 2015.)

In some cases, inmates left death row after being cleared of the crimes for which they were sentenced. Five people sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. Other inmates died of other causes before their executions could occur. In Alabama, three inmates died of natural causes in 2015 and a fourth hanged himself that year inside a prison infirmary, according to corrections officials and local media reports. North Carolina officials say one death-row inmate died of natural causes that year, another was resentenced to life without parole and a third had his death sentence vacated and a new trial ordered. Death sentences were thrown out in some cases. Four death-row inmates in Maryland had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole in 2015, a decision made by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley after that state formally abolished the death penalty....

Another shift also has occurred: The number of people sentenced to life in prison has ballooned, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report released this week from the Sentencing Project. The report states that more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences last year, with another 44,000 people serving what are called “virtual life sentences,” defined as long-term imprisonment effectively extending through the end of a person’s life. Similar to overall prison populations, people of color are disproportionately represented; black people account for nearly half of the life or virtual-life sentences tallied in the report.

Long-time readers likely know that these numbers provide one of the primary reasons why I have long worried that some criminal justice reforms advocates worry far too much about capital punishment and worry far too little about extreme prison sentences.  The fact that there are seven times as many persons serving life sentence as are on death row leads me to believe that nearly any and every concern raised about death sentencing may well be a problem of far greater magnitude with respect to lifers.

Most critically for those concerned about proportionate sentencing, every one of the almost 3000 persons on death row is an adult who was convicted of some form of aggravated murder and had a chance to argue to a jury for a lesser sentence.  But, according to the Sentencing Project data, nearly "12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles" and over "17,000 individuals with [some kind of life sentence] have been convicted of nonviolent crimes" and a significant percentage of lifers were subject to a mandatory sentencing scheme that required imposition of a severe prison sentence without any input by a jury or a judge.  

Though I fully understand why the death penalty has so much salience for both advocates and the general public, I still wish some portion of the extraordinary attention and energy always given to capital punishment might be redirected toward lifer laws, policies and practices.  

May 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Notable new Atlantic series "on efforts across the United States to move beyond the age of mass incarceration"

JusticeBUG_1As announced via this article a few day ago, headlined "Imagining the Presence of Justice," there is a notable new project from The Atlantic which aspires "to cover the evolution of criminal justice in America with a heightened focus on the different systems and approaches developing all over the nation." Here is more on how The Atlantic sets ups its plans followed by links to three early notable pieces in the series:

Over the past several decades, America has seen a startling divergence between crime and punishment.  While crime rates dropped steadily from the dramatic peaks of the 1990s, the nation’s incarceration rates continued just as steadily to grow.  And so, despite containing only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States came to hold a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

We’ve covered this divergence extensively in the print and digital pages of The Atlantic, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark story on the rise of the carceral state and the devastation it wreaked on black families to Inimai Chettiar’s exploration of the many causes of the decline in crime.  Among the findings that emerge most clearly from this robust, sad literature is that the factors driving both aspects of the divergence — the fall in crime, the increasing spread of punishment — are highly complex.  Despite dawning awareness of the deep social and economic costs of mass incarceration, no one-size-fits-all solution exists to change this picture.  Rolling back mass incarceration while protecting public safety will require a legion of efforts in thousands of prosecutors’ offices, police departments, parole boards, and legislative chambers.  "What we have is not a system at all,” as Fordham University’s John Pfaff told The Atlantic's Matt Ford, "but a patchwork of competing bureaucracies with different constituencies, different incentives, who oftentimes might have similar political ideologies, but very different goals and very different pressures on them.”...

In collaboration with reporters across the country, we’ll highlight local initiatives that merit national attention, and talk with experts about where and how lessons from states and municipalities can be applied more broadly.  We’ll look at where the carceral state has spread beyond merely responding to crime, examine the time people spend behind bars without having been convicted, and explore how cities can depend on police to collect fines and fees from their poorest residents to make up for too little tax revenue.

The title of the project comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who included the phrase in his famous letter from Birmingham jail.  That context is worth understanding for the challenge the letter poses to us today, as America struggles to reconcile the need for public safety with the moral imperative of justice....  From his cell, King wrote the famous letter that would cleave the nation’s understanding of “law and order” right in half, arguing that the observance of an unjust law violates the moral order.  "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” he wrote.  He castigated "the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice."

Three (somewhat sentencing-related) piece from the series:

May 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)