Wednesday, October 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 1, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Encouragingly, private prison company CCA turning focus to reducing recidivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Urban Institute report spotlights "graying" of federal prisoners

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

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

The highlights of this report include the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper.  Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions.  Here are excerpts:

The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom.  But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment.  Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.  But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.  Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.   Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation.  That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.  South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.  Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.

September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Shareholders of private prison corporations already profiting from border problems

Images (1)As this CNN Money article highlights, because of the "crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, ... Wall Street is betting that it will result in a boom for private prisons."  Here is more about who can profit from a need for prison beds:

Geo Group (GEO)and Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) are two of America's largest for-profit prison operators. They have thousands of open beds, and they have deep relationships with the federal agencies charged with doling out contracts to house undocumented immigrants, including children.

"It's highly likely that the federal government will have to turn to the private sector for help with this crisis. Both companies are extremely well positioned," said Brian Ruttenbur, an analyst at CRT Capital Group who covers the stocks of Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Investors are clearly seeing dollar signs. Shares of both CCA and Geo Group have spiked since the border crisis landed on front pages this summer. CCA has climbed 8.5% since July 30, and Geo Group is up over 7%. That's a lot better than the S&P 500's 1.5% advance over that time span.

The Obama administration has already shifted over $405 million in funds to address the crisis and is urging Congress to pass a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental bill. "Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand," said Alex Friedmann, an activist investor who owns shares of both CCA and Geo Group....

Ruttenbur said CCA and Geo Group have both been talking to the federal government about how they can help. "We are always in conversations with our government partners including ICE, but we don't have anything new to report," a CCA spokesman told CNNMoney. Geo Group did not respond to a request for comment.

The best outcome for these companies would be landing a contract with the government to help house some of the undocumented immigrants at existing facilities that are currently idle. That's exactly what happened last month when the U.S. border control inked a contract with Geo Group to give its adult detention center in Karnes County, Texas a makeover. Now the facility is able to house hundreds of immigrant women and children....

Wall Street also applauded when CCA and Geo Group, which went public during the 1980s and 1990s, recently converted to real estate investment trusts, or REITs. That status, which is also used by hospitals and office building operators, gives them enormous tax advantages....

[I]nvestors are attracted to prison stocks because they give generate lots of cash flow, have strong dividend yields and high occupancy rates compared to other real estate options. "The long-term trends are very much in place right now because the federal, state and local governments aren't willing to put up the capital to build new facilities. The only group building new facilities is the private sector," said Ruttenbur.

August 31, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Drug addiction specialist laments that "our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts"

I just saw this notable recent Washington Post commentary by David Sack, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, headlined "We can’t afford to ignore drug addiction in prison." The piece merits a full read and here are excerpts:

As the addiction epidemic rages and prisons overflow, our nation seems to be backing away at last from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mindset that has characterized the failed war on drugs.... Sure, this is inspired largely by the need to relieve the pressure on our prison system, which is straining to cope with a population that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But it’s also recognition that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of our drug problems.

As someone who helps people with addictions, I consider this good news.  But I'd be more encouraged if we also focused on improving conditions in prison.  In the long run, this will have more power to reduce our inmate population.  As it is, our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.

Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls.... Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction.  When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent.  In other words, if an inmate is looking for encouragement to “Just say no,” odds are he won't find it from his bunkmates.

But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need.  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use disorders received treatment at federal and state prisons or local jails.  The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings.  No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.

So what is needed?  Inmate evaluations to spot addictions and underlying issues that may be fueling them....  Consistent treatment by a trained staff that includes addiction medicine specialists who understand how to use evidence-based treatments, including medication-assisted therapy.  Long-term treatment programs that follow the inmate into his community and continue to support him after his release.

It’s a substantial investment, and your first thought may be, “We can't afford to do that.” But the reality is we can’t afford not to do it.  As it stands now, only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences. That means we are shelling out billions of dollars to clean up the mess of addiction rather than doing what we know pays off -- helping people overcome it.

A 2010 CASA study, for example, determined that if we gave quality addiction treatment and aftercare to every inmate who needed it, we'd break even on the investment in only a year if just more than 10 percent were successful in staying employed, out of trouble and drug free.  In dollar terms, that translates to an economic benefit for the nation of more than $90,000 annually per former inmate.  Studies confirm that addicts pressured to undergo treatment by the legal system fare as well or better than those who seek treatment voluntarily....

While it’s tempting to think punishment is the answer [to drug crimes and addiction], prison alone doesn’t teach addicts how to change their thinking and behavior, doesn’t help repair damaged neural pathways and doesn't take away drug cravings or offer strategies to prevent relapse.  In most cases, prison just buys a little time before the addict relapses and re-offends, perpetuating the cycle and hurting himself along with the rest of us.

August 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America"

Mass_incarceration_finalThanks to this new posting at The Crime Report, I see the exciting news that Jonathan Simon's new book about mass incarceration and California's dysfunctional role therein has been released by The New Press.  The book's title makes up the title of this post, and here is how the publisher describes the book on its website:

For nearly forty years, the United States has been gripped by policies that have placed more than 2.5 million Americans in jails and prisons designed to hold a fraction of that number of inmates. Our prisons are not only vast and overcrowded, they are degrading — relying on racist gangs, lockdowns, and Supermax-style segregation units to maintain a tenuous order.  In short, mass incarceration has proven to be a fiscal and penological disaster.

A landmark 2011 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, has opened an unexpected escape route from this trap of “tough on crime” politics and points toward values that could restore legitimate order to American prisons and ultimately lead to the dismantling of “mass incarceration.”  Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon — an internationally renowned critic of mass incarceration and the war on crime — argues that, much like the epic school segregation cases of the last century, this new case represents a major breakthrough in jurisprudence.  Along with twenty years of litigation over medical and mental health care in California prisons, the 2011 Brown decision moves us from a hollowed-out vision of civil rights to the threshold of human rights.

Exposing the priority of politics over rational penal policy — and debunking the premise that these policies are necessary for public safety — this perceptive and groundbreaking book urges us to seize the opportunity to replace mass incarceration with a system anchored in the preservation of human dignity.

August 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State

1dNMJN.AuSt.74This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:

An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell.  She has a walker, too.  The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.

Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates.  In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older.  The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....

“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford.  Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good.  It makes a certain segment of society feel good.  But it’s a costly proposition.”...

Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years.  One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years.  But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.

In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed.  Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men.  Less than 90 were women....

The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years.  “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said.  As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.

Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.  Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina.  Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said.  Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board.  Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.

Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....

Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons.  Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds.  A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.

Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....

For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs.  The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.

That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison.  “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said.  “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”

August 24, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Let's reserve costly prison beds for dangerous offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary appearing in Utah's Deseret News and authored by Grover Norquist and Derek Monson. Here are excerpts:

As the economy continues to sputter, Utah should continue to heed the practical wisdom of the frugal family and tighten its belt. There can be no sacred cows in the budget.

One area of spending that has traditionally been “off limits” for cuts — the prison system — can no longer escape examination. Utah’s growing prison population, which currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually, is projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades. If that increase would make us safer, it would be worth it.

But many of these additional beds are not for dangerous and serious offenders. In fact, Utah is sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than it did a decade ago and keeping them behind bars for longer periods of time. This includes a steep increase in female offenders as well as probationers sent to prison for “technical violations” of the terms of their supervision rather than for committing a new crime. In other words, many of those we choose to send to prison (or back to prison) are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

This is costly and counterproductive. Research shows that low-level offenders often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered. As conservatives, we pride ourselves on being tough on crime, but we also must be tough on criminal justice spending. The question underlying every tax dollar spent on corrections should be: Is this making the public safer?...

Across the nation, other states have faced the same dramatic increases in prison costs, which are now the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets behind only Medicaid. Several of these states have found innovative ways to cut corrections spending while maintaining public safety. Texas, for instance, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment, with impressive results: Crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the falling inmate population enabled Texas to close three prisons, avoiding $3 billion in prison costs.

States like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota have adopted similar reforms that reduce prison populations and corrections costs while improving public safety, allowing them to reinvest some of the savings into programs proven to cut crime and reduce recidivism....

As signatories to the national Right on Crime movement, we are conservative leaders working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. As such, we are pleased that Utah is joining other states in demanding more cost-effective approaches to public safety, and we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Utah’s leadership to create a more effective criminal justice system.

August 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack