Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018"

Pie2018The Prison Policy Initiative has an updated version of its terrific incarceration "pie" graphic and report now at this link. Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. Meaningful criminal justice reform that reduces the massive scale of incarceration, however, requires that we start with the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people are locked up in all of those different types of facilities.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement. The detailed views bring these overlooked parts of the “pie” to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement. In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily number suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

With a sense of the big picture, a common follow-up question might be: how many people are locked up for a drug offense? We know that almost half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense. The data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system, but play only a supporting role at the state and local levels. While most people in state and local facilities are not locked up for drug offenses, most states’ continued practice of arresting people for drug possession destabilizes individual lives and communities. Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses....

While this “whole pie” provides the most inclusive view of the various systems of confinement in the U.S. justice system available, these snapshots can’t capture all of the important systemic issues. Once we have wrapped our minds around the “whole pie” of mass incarceration, for example, we should zoom out and note that being locked up is just one piece of the larger pie of correctional control. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.7 million people on probation. Particularly given the often onerous conditions of probation, policymakers should be cautious of “alternatives to incarceration” that can easily widen the net of criminalization to people who are not a threat to public safety.

Beyond identifying the parts of the criminal justice system that impact the most people, we should also focus on who is most impacted and who is left behind by policy change. For example, people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Blacks, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. Gender disparities matter too: rates of incarceration have grown even faster for women than for men. As policymakers continue to push for reforms that reduce incarceration, they should avoid changes that will widen disparities, as has happened with juvenile confinement and with women in state prisons....

[A]rmed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States, where, and why, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform. For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, but that the federal government and some states have effectively reduced their incarcerated populations by turning to drug policy reform. Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward. At the same time, how can elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges slow the flow of people into the criminal justice system?
  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?
  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to confront the second largest slice of the pie: the thousands of locally administered jails? And does it even make sense to arrest millions of poor people each year for minor offenses, make them post money bail, and then lock them up when they can’t afford to pay it? Will our leaders be brave enough to redirect corrections spending to smarter investments like community-based drug treatment and job training?
  • Can we implement reforms that both reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the well-known racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system?

March 17, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 12, 2018

"A Touchy Subject: The Eleventh Circuit's Tug-of-War Over What Constitutes Violent 'Physical Force'"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Conrad Kahn and Danli Song now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In a prosecution for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a pivotal question is whether an individual is subject to a sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  If an individual has three or more prior convictions that qualify as “violent felonies” or “serious drug offenses,” the ACCA increases his statutory range of imprisonment from zero-to-ten years to fifteen years to life.

Historically, a prior conviction could qualify as a “violent felony” if it satisfied at least one of the three “violent felony” clauses—the elements clause, the enumerated-offenses clause, or the catch-all residual clause.  But on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court invalidated the residual clause in Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (Johnson II).

Since Johnson II, substantial disagreements have emerged both within the Eleventh Circuit and among the other circuits regarding Johnson II’s reach and the proper application of the ACCA's elements clause.  This Article examines those disagreements, including three ways the Eleventh Circuit got it wrong — specifically, the court’s unusual conduct in ruling on requests to file second or successive post-conviction motions based on Johnson II and recent rulings on whether the Florida offenses of robbery and felony battery qualify as “violent felonies” under the elements clause.  This Article argues the ACCA’s elements-clause analysis should focus on the degree of force used in an act, and the Supreme Court should resolve these disagreements and provide guidance to the lower courts by reviewing whether one of these offenses satisfies the elements clause.

March 12, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, March 09, 2018

"Can We Wait 75 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half?"

The title of this post is the title of this short "Policy Brief" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it starts and concludes:

The U.S. prison population grew by more than 600% between 1973 and 2009 — from 200,000 people to 1.6 million.  Tough-on-crime policies expanded the number of imprisoned people even while crime rates plunged to 40% below their levels in the 1990s.  In recent years, policymakers and criminal justice professionals have implemented reforms to correct the punitive excesses of the past.  By yearend 2016 the number of people held in U.S. prisons had declined by 6% since a 2009 peak, and crime rates have continued to decline.

But the overall impact of reforms has been quite modest. With 1.5 million people in prison in 2016, the prison population remains larger than the total population of 11 states.3 If states and the federal government maintain their recent pace of decarceration, it will take 75 years — until 2093 — to cut the U.S. prison population by 50%.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for serious crimes....

Just as mass incarceration was developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, so too has decarceration reflected changes in both policy and practice.  These have included such measures as drug policy sentencing reforms, reduced admissions to prison for technical parole violations, and diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level property and drug crimes.

The movement to end mass incarceration not only faces political reluctance to meaningfully reduce the U.S. prison population, it has also had to address renewed calls to further expand the prison population, including: increasing prison terms for immigration law violations, reversals of Obama-era reforms in federal sentencing, and punitive responses to the opioid crisis.  While defending the progress made in recent years, we must also strive for criminal justice reforms bold enough to tackle mass incarceration.

March 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 08, 2018

"Turn Prisons Into Colleges" ... and urging colleges to invest in prisoner education

The quoted portion title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary authored by Elizabeth Hinton.  Here are excerpts (with a little commentary at the end from me):

Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students.  Or even with them.

This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.

The idea is rooted in history. In the 1920s, Howard Belding Gill, a criminologist and a Harvard alumnus, developed a college-like community at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where he was the superintendent. Prisoners wore normal clothing, participated in cooperative self-government with staff, and took academic courses with instructors from Emerson, Boston University and Harvard. They ran a newspaper, radio show and jazz orchestra, and they had access to an extensive library....

Researchers from the Bureau of Prisons emulated this model when they created a prison college project in the 1960s. It allowed incarcerated people throughout the country to serve their sentences at a single site, designed like a college campus, and take classes full-time. Although the project was never completed, San Quentin State Prison in California created a scaled-down version with support from the Ford Foundation, and it was one of the few prisons then that offered higher education classes.

Today, only a third of all prisons provide ways for incarcerated people to continue their educations beyond high school. But the San Quentin Prison University Project remains one of the country’s most vibrant educational programs for inmates, so much so President Barack Obama awarded it a National Humanities Medal in 2015 for the quality of its courses.

The idea of expanding educational opportunities to prisoners as a way to reduce recidivism and government spending has again gained momentum. That’s partly because of a study published in 2013 by the right-leaning RAND Corporation showing that inmates who took classes had a 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13 percent higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.

Lawmakers have rightly recognized the wisdom in turning prisons into colleges. In 2015, Mr. Obama created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which has enrolled more than 12,000 incarcerated students in higher education programs at 67 different schools. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is considering permanently reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students, who lost access to federal scholarships under the 1994 crime bill. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls providing prisoners with the chance to earn a degree “a very good and interesting possibility.”...

Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America. Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Wesleyan and New York University are among a handful of institutions that realize this and have begun to create ways for incarcerated people to take college classes.  These universities recognize that they have a moral responsibility to pursue educational justice for prisoners, a group that has disproportionately attended under-resourced public schools.

College presidents across the country emphasize the importance of “diversity, inclusion and belonging,” and they are reckoning with their institutions’ ties to slavery.  Expanding prison education programs would link those two ventures in a forward-thinking way.  It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform.  The question we should ask ourselves is not “Will incarcerated students transform the university?” The better question is, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?”

I very much like that this commentary is not merely suggesting prisons ought to foster educational opportunities, but also that it calls upon "college presidents across the country" to commit to "expanding prison education programs."  I blogged here last month about the new program in New York through which the company JPay will provide all New York state prison inmates with a electronic tablet, through which prisoners can purchase programming. I know many colleges and universities have a range of on-line degree programs and ample on-line education content.  I would love to see some higher education institutions partnering with JPay or other like companies to provide education content to prisons for free or at the lowest possible cost. 

As I see it, lots of the needed infrastructure and substantive content already exists to make college-level educational opportunities available to more prisons, if university administrators and prison official are truly committed to making a difference in this way.  In other words, I think there already is a way, the only question is whether there is the will.

March 8, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Another sad account of how US Bureau of Prisons administers compassionate release program

The Marshall Project and the New York Times have this lengthy new piece about the ugly administration of the federal compassionate release program by the US Bureau of Prisons. At the Marshall Project, the piece has this full headline summarizing its content: "Old, Sick and Dying in Shackles: 'Compassionate release' has bipartisan support as a way to reduce the federal prison population and save taxpayer money. New data shows that it’s rarely used." Here are excerpts:

Congress created compassionate release as a way to free certain inmates, such as the terminally ill, when it becomes “inequitable” to keep them in prison any longer.  Supporters view the program as a humanitarian measure and a sensible way to reduce health care costs for ailing, elderly inmates who pose little risk to public safety.  But despite urging from lawmakers of both parties, numerous advocacy groups and even the Bureau of Prisons’ own watchdog, prison officials use it only sparingly.

Officials deny or delay the vast majority of requests, including that of one of the oldest federal prisoners, who was 94, according to new federal data analyzed by The Marshall Project and The New York Times.  From 2013 to 2017, the Bureau of Prisons approved 6 percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody. The bureau’s denials, a review of dozens of cases shows, often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens.

Advocates for the program say the bureau, which oversees roughly 183,000 inmates, denies thousands of deserving applicants. About half of those who died after applying were convicted of nonviolent fraud or drug crimes. “It makes sense to release prisoners who present very little danger to society. It’s the humane thing to do, and it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do,” said Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat. “The Bureau of Prisons has the theoretical authority to do this, but they basically do none of it.”

Case files show that prison officials reject many prisoners’ applications on the grounds that they pose a risk to public safety or that their crime was too serious to justify early release. In 2013, an inspector general reported that nearly 60 percent of inmates were denied based on the severity of their offense or criminal history. The United States Sentencing Commission has said that such considerations are better left to judges — but judges can rule on compassionate release requests only if the Bureau of Prisons approves them first.

Late last month, Schatz introduced legislation — co-sponsored with Senators Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat — that would let prisoners petition the courts directly if the bureau denies or delays their requests.

Many are turned down for not meeting medical requirements. [Kevin] Zeich, who was serving 27 years for dealing methamphetamine, requested compassionate release three times, but was repeatedly told he was not sick enough. On his fourth try, his daughter, Kimberly Heraldez, finally received a phone call in March 2016 saying her father would soon be on a plane, headed to her home in California. Early the next morning, she was awakened by another call. Her father had died....

Compassionate release dates back to an overhaul of federal sentencing laws in the 1980s. While abolishing federal parole, Congress supplied a safety valve, giving judges the power to retroactively cut sentences short in “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. But a court could do so only if the Bureau of Prisons filed a motion on an inmate’s behalf. For years, the agency approved only prisoners who were near death or completely debilitated. While nonmedical releases were permitted, an inspector general report found in 2013, not a single one was approved over a six-year period.

The report said the program should be expanded beyond terminal illness cases and used more frequently as a low-risk way to reduce overcrowding and health care spending. The Bureau of Prisons widened the criteria to explicitly include inmates over 65 and those who are the sole possible caregiver for a family member.  Then Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., promoted the changes as part of his “Smart on Crime” initiative to “use our limited resources to house those who pose the greatest threat.

”But the bureau, which is part of the Justice Department, has yet to fully embrace those changes. Of those inmates who have applied for nonmedical reasons, 2 percent (50 cases) have been approved since 2013, according to an analysis of federal prison data.  And although overall approval numbers increased slightly between 2013 and 2015, they have since fallen.

At a 2016 sentencing commission hearing, Bureau of Prisons officials said they believed the program should not be used to reduce overcrowding.  And even the principal deputy assistant to Holder, Jonathan Wroblewski, said the program was not an “appropriate vehicle for a broad reduction” in the prison population.  “Every administration has taken the position that part of our responsibility is to ensure that public safety is not undermined,” he said.

After the hearing, the commission released new guidelines encouraging prison officials to determine only whether inmates fit the criteria for release — that is, if they are old enough, sick or disabled enough, or if they are the sole possible caregiver for someone on the outside. Whether the prisoner poses a risk to the public should be left to a judge to decide, the commission said.

Mark Inch, who was appointed director of the Bureau of Prisons by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last August, has made no public statements about the program. The bureau declined to make Inch available for an interview and did not respond to emailed questions.

As this article indicates, there are bills now pending in Congress that would in various ways address deficiencies in the current compassionate release mechanisms. This is on of many reasons I am hopeful (but not optimistic) that folks on both sides of the aisle in Congress will try hard in the coming weeks to get at least some form of prison reform legislation to Prez Trump's desk. A revised and expanded compassionate release mechanism could and should help hundreds, perhaps thousands, of federal prisoners, particularly those who have likely already served a very long time in federal prison and who pose little or no risk to public safety.

A few recent of many prior related posts:

March 7, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 02, 2018

"The State of Justice Reform 2017"

Download (11)The title of this post is the name of this terrific new resource created by the Vera Institute of Justice. The resource is packed with lots and lots of notable content and links, and here is how it is explained on its "About" page: 

Like many justice reform organizations, Vera is often asked, “What are the latest and most interesting developments in the field?” This question has grown more common as more and more people confront the need to improve the nation’s broken justice system and want to help.

We endeavor in this report to provide the beginning of an answer, limiting our scope (mostly) to 2017, the first year of a new administration — one pushing a “law and order” platform — and covering most, but not all, areas of justice reform.

Vera’s task was to determine which of the thousands of changes to policy, practice, and legislation should be covered in this annual recap.  To discern what should be included, we first asked Vera’s own internal experts to weigh in and identify what they felt was most important to cover in their subject areas. “Importance” was defined by the following criteria:

  • the potential impact of a reform;
  • the degree of change from past practice or norms; and/or
  • the degree to which the field or the media is looking to a reform as a promising or leading practice to improve systems.

Using this definition, “importance” can be positive or negative, supportive or hostile to reform. The report thus focuses on both the best and the worst of 2017.

After hearing from Vera’s own experts, we reached outward, crowdsourcing suggestions from Vera’s Facebook and Twitter followings.  Vera also invited 30 external experts to review drafts of specific sections, who are gratefully acknowledged under “Contributors.”  Finally, Vera is issuing this as a digital report to allow for ongoing feedback and contributions, with the hope that this dialogue will add even more to the collective knowledge base about the year that was.

All parts of this terrific resource are worth checking out, and these parts should be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

The State of Jails: Reformers Look to Jails as a Key to Ending Mass Incarceration

The State of Youth Justice: As Youth Incarceration Drops, Racial Disparities Persist

The State of Sentencing & Decriminalization: While Federal Sentencing Reform Efforts Look Bleak, States Push Ahead

The State of Prisons: States Take on Prison Reform

The State of Reentry: For Those Rejoining Society, a Multitude of Obstacles Persist

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

New Buried Alive Project taking on LWOP sentences for federal drug offenses

An important new effort to take a hard look and extreme federal sentences recent launched under a (great) fitting name: The Buried Alive Project.  Here is how the project's website explains its basic mission:

The Buried Alive Project works to raise awareness and help eliminate life without parole sentences for federal drug offenses through transformative legislation and litigation.  We use statistics and stories to educate the public and amplify the voices of those directly impacted.  The human element is rarely addressed but necessary to drive change needed to reform the criminal justice system.  By engaging people across the country, this project will harness America’s collective interest, passion, and direct experience of this issue into concrete change.

The Dallas Morning News has this Q&A with Brittany Barnett, a lawyer who help found the Buried Alive Project.  Here is an excerpt:

Who are some of the individuals who remain buried alive by this sentencing?

Alice Johnson, a 62-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother from Memphis, is serving her 21st year of a life without parole sentence for her role in a non-violent drug conspiracy.  Like Sharanda [Jones], this is Ms. Alice's first ever conviction — felony or otherwise. Absolutely no aspect of her offense was violent.

Ms. Alice, who has served one-third of her life in prison, has an outstanding record of achievement in prison and works diligently to prove she is deserving of a second chance at life. A life without parole sentence demands a special kind of courage — the ability to act with grace and dignity in a totally degrading situation. Ms. Alice epitomizes this special kind of courage.

Keeping Alice in prison for the rest of her life serves no useful purpose to her or society. We cannot barter human lives for sake of appearing tough on crime. It is an utter waste of human life and taxpayer dollars.

February 28, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

SCOTUS finally resolves Jennings v. Rodriguez, ruling Ninth Circuit erred when deciding detained aliens have a statutory right to periodic bond hearings

The Supreme Court granted cert in Jennings v. Rodriguez nearly two years ago, but the case got set for re-argument this Term and now has finally resulted in an opinion concerning certain procedural rights for detailed aliens.  The full Jennings opinion is lengthy and intricate, and the opinion for the Court authored by Justice Alito sets up the discussion this way:

In this case we are asked to interpret three provisions of U.S. immigration law that authorize the Government to detain aliens in the course of immigration proceedings.  All parties appear to agree that the text of these provisions, when read most naturally, does not give detained aliens the right to periodic bond hearings during the course of their detention.  But by relying on the constitutional-avoidance canon of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that detained aliens have a statutory right to periodic bond hearings under the provisions at issue.

Under the constitutional-avoidance canon, when statutory language is susceptible of multiple interpretations, a court may shun an interpretation that raises serious constitutional doubts and instead may adopt an alternative that avoids those problems.  But a court relying on that canon still must interpret the statute, not rewrite it.  Because the Court of Appeals in this case adopted implausible constructions of the three immigration provisions at issue, we reverse its judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I believe the context and content of the majority's ruling likely mean the Jennings decision will not have many big implications outside the immigration detention setting. But Justice Breyer's lengthy dissenting opinion discusses bail and due process more broadly, and his closing sentiments highlights why a ruling the other way in Jennings might have been significant for a broad array of criminal defendants:

The relevant constitutional language, purposes, history, traditions, context, and case law, taken together, make it likely that, where confinement of the noncitizens before us is prolonged (presumptively longer than six months), bail proceedings are constitutionally required.  Given this serious constitutional problem, I would interpret the statutory provisions before us as authorizing bail.  Their language permits that reading, it furthers their basic purposes, and it is consistent with the history, tradition, and constitutional values associated with bail proceedings.  I believe that those bail proceedings should take place in accordance with customary rules of procedure and burdens of proof rather than the special rules that the Ninth Circuit imposed.

The bail questions before us are technical but at heart they are simple.  We need only recall the words of the Declaration of Independence, in particular its insistence that all men and women have “certain unalienable Rights,” and that among them is the right to “Liberty.”  We need merely remember that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause protects each person’s liberty from arbitrary deprivation.  And we need just keep in mind the fact that, since Blackstone’s time and long before, liberty has included the right of a confined person to seek release on bail.  It is neither technical nor unusually difficult to read the words of these statutes as consistent with this basic right.  I would find it far more difficult, indeed, I would find it alarming, to believe that Congress wrote these statutory words in order to put thousands of individuals at risk of lengthy confinement all within the United States but all without hope of bail.  I would read the statutory words as consistent with, indeed as requiring protection of, the basic right to seek bail.

February 27, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration 1990-2013"

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


Recent data analyses on jail incarceration — taken from Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool — reveal that although significant racial disparities still exist between black and white jail incarceration rates, incarceration rates for black people are declining, while rates for white people are rising.  This report dives into the data on black and white incarceration trends from 1990 to 2013, and poses several questions for further exploration that might explain why these rates are shifting.  However, the report also argues that we need more data to fully understand the causes and consequences of racial disparities in incarceration — and to begin enacting more race-conscious jail reduction efforts.

Key Takeaway

While black incarceration rates have declined — and white incarceration rates have risen — over the past several decades, the lack of complete and accurate data prevents effective analyses of the causes and drivers of these trends and on racial disparities more broadly in the justice system.

February 26, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"Solitary Troubles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Alex Reinert available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Solitary confinement is one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings. In recent years, the use of extreme isolation in our prisons and jails has been questioned by correctional officials, medical experts, and reform advocates alike.  Yet for nearly the entirety of American history, judicial regulation of the practice has been extremely limited.  This Article explains why judges hesitate to question the use of solitary confinement, while also providing a path forward for greater scrutiny of the practice.

February 25, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

SCOTUS issues opinions on fees for prisoner suits and the impact of guilty pleas

The Supreme Court this morning handed down four new opinions in argued cases, and these two should be of interest to criminal justice fans:

Murphy v. Smith: "GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined." From the start and end of the opinion for the Court:

This is a case about how much prevailing prisoners must pay their lawyers. When a prisoner wins a civil rights suit and the district court awards fees to the prisoner’s attorney, a federal statute says that “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2). Whatever else you might make of this, the first sentence pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney’s fee award before financial responsibility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff ’s judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the plaintiff ’s judgment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant? ....

At the end of the day, what may have begun as a close race turns out to have a clear winner. Now with a view of the full field of textual, contextual, and precedential evidence, we think the interpretation the court of appeals adopted prevails. In cases governed by §1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees.

Class v. United States: "BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY and THOMAS, JJ., joined."  From the start of the opinion for the Court:

Does a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution?  In our view, a guilty plea by itself does not bar that appeal.

For a host of reasons, Class is much more consequential, and I hope to find some time to blog more about the opinion in the days ahead. In the meantime, I welcome comments on both the substance and division of the Justices in this latest SCOTUS activity.

February 21, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spotlighting disparities in jail stays over unpaid court fines in Pennsylvania

A helpful reader made sure I saw this impressive piece of reporting from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the headline "Modern-day debtors’ prisons? The system that sends Pennsylvanians to jail over unpaid court costs and fines."  I have probably not given as much attention here as I should to reporting and complaints about persons being incarcerated for failure to pay certain fines and fees, and this story caught my attention in its discussion of disparities in how judges justify sending folks to jail for failures to pay.  Here is an excerpt for that discussion:

U.S. Supreme Court and state court precedents forbid the government from locking up defendants too poor to pay.  District judges are supposed to jail only defendants who can afford to pay but “willfully” do not.  “The Constitution is very clear, the law is very clear, you cannot be jailed for failing to pay when you can’t pay,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

But data show that is not always what happens.

People picked up on warrants for not paying court fees are brought before a district judge, who can hold an immediate payment determination hearing or postpone the proceeding. If the hearing is delayed, the district judge can set an amount that must be paid as collateral in order to allow the defendant to go free; that is supposed to ensure that the defendant will return for the hearing.  In many cases, that collateral equals the total payments owed.  Defendants who do not pay can be jailed until the first business day after 72 hours have passed.

District judges must fill out a Determination of Collateral form indicating why collateral is necessary and why the defendant can afford to pay it.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review of more than 4,500 cases covering everyone jailed in 2016 in Pennsylvania for failure to post collateral (about 2,500 individuals) shows that in fewer than one in five cases, district judges appear to meet the standard in explaining why payment can be made.  They use statements such as “defendant has bank account” or “defendant has been working” or “gainfully employed.”

But in over 10 percent of cases involving more than 200 people, the district judges’ explanations for why a defendant can pay collateral seem to indicate just the opposite — that they don’t have the wherewithal.  Among the rationales: “defendant has no income; “defendant is homeless unable to pay; and “defendant has been evicted.”

The data show the system for meting out jail stays over unpaid court fines is wildly inconsistent among the state’s 67 counties and varies from one district judge to another....

The ACLU has been taking up cases around the state where it believes the law is not being followed in regard to payment determination hearings. It also has reached out to judges and district judges in an effort to make systemic changes.  “[M]any judges on both the courts of Common Pleas and magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay,” Andrew Christy, an ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney wrote regarding payment determination hearings last year for a legal publication.  A “lack of clear and uniform standards on what constitutes ability to pay” has been problematic and has driven the system to be unconstitutional, he wrote.

In many cases, the district judge offers rationales that the ACLU claims do not pass legal muster as to why a defendant should be able to post collateral.  The explanations include that the defendant’s family can pay; that the defendant receives public benefits; or that they have spent money on other expenses, such as tattoos.  “Has money for cigarettes, cell phone and to drink in bars,” read one form.  “Has cell phone, smokes cigarettes and has an I pad [sic],” read another.

February 19, 2018 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Should jail inmates face tougher sentencing for applauding charged cop killer as he was brought into jail?

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting AP story, headlined "Jail inmates applaud career criminal accused of killing Chicago police commander, may face reprisals," that provides the basis for the question that is the title of this post.  Here are the particulars:

Five Cook County Jail inmates who applauded as the man charged with the fatal shooting of a Chicago police commander was led by their cell could face reprisals for their actions, a jail official said Friday.

Cara Smith, the chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart, said a security video shows them clapping as suspect Shomari Legghette was being led past a crowded holding cell on Thursday after his first court appearance.  The inmates were in the holding cell awaiting action on their cases.  Legghette is charged with first-degree murder in Tuesday's shooting death of Commander Paul Bauer.

She said the five inmates were transferred overnight from Chicago to a jail in southern Illinois, where it will be more difficult for family and friends to visit them while they are in custody.

The jail also is forwarding to prosecutors the video and reports of the incident Thursday afternoon so they can use the information if the inmates are convicted, she said. "The conduct that those detainees engaged in was disgraceful... and speaks to their character," Smith said.  "We feel it should be considered by prosecutors in connection with their sentencing."  The video could be a "factor of aggravation" considered by a judge in sentencing.

But Steve Greenberg, a prominent Chicago defense attorney, said there is no way the inmates should be penalized for what he said is a clear exercise of their right to free speech.  "These inmates ... no matter how vile or disgusting you may think their expression is, they have an absolute right under the First Amendment to express those feelings and it is a violation of their rights as citizens to penalize them or consider that as aggravation," said Greenberg, who is not representing any of the men.

The video was taken moments after the 44-year-old Legghette appeared in court on charges of first-degree murder of a peace officer, armed violence, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and possession of a controlled substance.

Police say they wanted to question Legghette Tuesday when he took off running and Bauer pursued him on foot. He caught Legghette near the James R. Thompson Center, a government building, where the two struggled and Legghette fell down the stairs.  Bauer either fell or ran after him to a landing where, Legghette, wearing a bullet proof vest and armed with a semi-automatic handgun, allegedly shot the 53-year-old Bauer six times.

February 17, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"Reentry Court Research: An Overview of Findings from the National Institute of Justice’s Evaluation of Second Chance Act Adult Reentry Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this new report on findings about eight programs that received funding and technical assistance from the Bureau of Justice Assistance under the Second Chance Act of 2007.  Here is part of the report's abstract:

Background: There are myriad challenges associated with the reentry of formerly incarcerated individuals, coupled with a dearth of rigorous research examining reentry courts. It is well known that formerly incarcerated individuals face overwhelming obstacles, such as limited occupational or educational experiences to prepare them for employment, drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical health challenges, strained family relations, and limited opportunities due to the stigma of a criminal record.  Reentry courts seek to address these challenges by assessing the individuals for risks and needs; linking them to appropriate community-based services; and overseeing the treatment process through ongoing court oversight, probation or parole supervision, and case management.  Under the Second Chance Act (SCA) of 2007 (Pub. L. 110-199), the Bureau of Justice Assistance funded reentry programs including the eight sites participating in this National Institute of Justice Evaluation of SCA Adult Reentry Courts.  This document provides a summary overview of the evaluation and complements three annual reports that provide more detailed information on the program processes and populations, research methods, and findings....

Results: Results were mixed across sites.  One site consistently demonstrated positive outcomes across the interview, recidivism, and cost analyses with the reentry court successfully delivering more substance abuse treatment and other services than what was received by the comparison group.  In addition, reentry court participants out-performed the comparison group in reduced recidivism (re-arrests and re-conviction) and reincarceration (revocation and time in jail or prison).  Two sites had neutral, trending toward positive, results with reduced participant re-arrests but with other outcomes (such as convictions and re-incarceration) not significantly different between the participants and the comparison group.  Two other sites had mixed results (e.g., participants had significantly fewer re-arrests but significantly increased re-incarceration) and two had negative results (e.g., participants had significantly more re-arrests and incarceration while other outcomes were no different between groups).  Cost findings were similarly mixed with two sites experiencing cost savings due mainly to lower recidivism costs and fewer victimization costs for reentry court participants ($2,512 and $6,710 saved per participant) and the remainder experiencing loss (ranging from just over -$1,000 to almost -$17,000 loss per participant). The research protocol and process evaluation findings are documented in three annual project reports; research caveats include a lack of detailed treatment service data. Also, reentry court program investment costs are described, but the comparison of cost estimates is limited to outcomes and does not include net benefits based on investment in non-reentry court case processing in the comparison group.

Conclusions: Key processes that set the one site with positive outcomes apart from the other sites was the high level of consistency and intensity of substance abuse treatment, wraparound services for multiple criminogenic needs, high intensity supervision, as well as an increased use of praise from the judge along with other incentives and sanctions.  In addition, the eligibility criteria for this site required that participants have a substance use disorder with risk levels ranging from moderate to high (based on their local risk assessment with a three point scale that ranged from low to high).  In contrast, other site eligibility criteria did not require a substance use disorder and participant risk levels were mostly high to very high (depending on the assessment tool used and their specific scoring and risk category criteria).  It is possible that the sites with less positive results did not have the appropriate level and type of services consistently available to best serve the varying risk levels of their participants.

This detailed report reinforces yet again the conclusion I often, somewhat depressingly, reach when looking at careful research on an important topic: many of our most pressing criminal justice problems are really complicated and lack simple solutions.

February 14, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 12, 2018

"Yes, Trump is embracing criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece that struck me as notable for any number of reasons: the piece appears in the right-leaning Washington Examiner and is authored by well-known conservatives Ken Blackwell and Ken Cuccinelli.  The piece also ends with a call for Congress to catch up to states in the criminal justice reform arena.  Here are excerpts:

Throughout the last election cycle, there came fevered predictions from many commentators on the Left that, given candidate Donald Trump’s frank messaging about returning to "law and order" and confronting violent crime in American cities, criminal justice reform efforts were officially dead in the water.  Criminal justice reform appears “bleak in the age of Trump,” stated one article. “How Criminal Justice Reform Died,” intoned another.

Such fatalism was both misplaced and inaccurate. Misplaced, because the lion’s share of successful criminal justice reforms over the last ten years have advanced at the state and local levels, not in D.C.— mainly by southern red states. With oversight over roughly 90 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, the states will always be the primary mover of criminal justice policies, not the federal government.

But such predictions have now been proven inaccurate as well, given recent remarks made by now-President Trump about the need for federal prison reform....

Society is justified in expecting individuals to take ownership not just for their actions, but also for their reformation. This is hampered, however, when the weight of accumulated barriers to re-entry becomes a millstone. Research has been clear that getting a job upon release is among the most critical steps to reducing a person’s likelihood for recidivism. When President Trump and others say society has a “great interest” in helping ex-offenders get on the path of self-sufficiency, he’s speaking a well-established truism.

Fortunately, conservative states have long since begun helping ex-offenders land on their feet upon release. Chief among them: Texas, long known as a “tough on crime” stalwart. In 2007, state lawmakers passed a $241 million “justice reinvestment” package to increase capacity for substance abuse and mental health treatment and expand probation and parole services, as well as community-based diversion programs. This avoided the immediate need for $2.1 billion in spending just to meet their expected needs for new prison capacity.

More recently, Texas has passed indemnity laws to insulate employers and landlords from liability when they extend a job or lease to ex-offenders.  This makes it less likely that a criminal record will be an insuperable barrier to work or finding a place to live. Communities in Texas have been getting safer at the same time.  Crime rates have fallen by 31 percent, while incarceration rates have fallen by more than 20 percent. Eight prisons have been shuttered even as Texas’ population has soared, saving millions in annual operating costs.

In 2012, Georgia began investing in efforts aimed at reducing recidivism, including an expansion of in-prison educational resources.  They’ve since reduced their prison population and nearly eliminated its backlog of inmates awaiting transfer, all the while reducing crime by 8 percent and saving $25 million.  A large reform package passed in Louisiana last year has similar aims of steering less serious offenders away from incarceration and into more effective community-based programs. South Carolina, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, and others have passed comprehensive reforms, as well.

As we mentioned above, the states are the natural gatekeepers for criminal justice reform.  But Congress has shortcomings within its own prison system to address, and is quickly running out of excuses for doing so.  President Trump, whom so many on the Left falsely assumed would spell the end of reform, has instead sounded a clarion call to advance it. He was right for doing so, as many conservative states have proved, and it's time Congress took up that challenge as well.

February 12, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Lamenting latest data on how federal Bureau of Prisons administers its compassionate release program

This new press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "New Data Reveals BOP Still Neglecting Compassionate Release," reports on the release of new data about a notable piece of federal prison law and administration. Here is much of the full release (with links from the original):

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) President Kevin Ring today commented on the release of new data related to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) compassionate release program. Last August, 12 U.S. senators wrote to the BOP seeking information on the number of individuals who were granted early release pursuant to the program. In its response dated January 16, the BOP revealed that the agency has granted a mere 306 petitions while denying more than 2,400 over the past four years.  Prisoners facing unimaginable circumstances wait an average of 4.7 to 6.5 months for a response, and 81 prisoners died while waiting for an answer.

“We are disappointed but not surprised,” Ring said. “Even as interest in prison reform grows, we find that the BOP is not using its authority to reduce the number of low-risk, high-cost individuals in federal prisons. This failure hurts families and taxpayers without improving public safety.

“The fact that 81 individuals died waiting for a response to their petitions for compassionate release is a moral outrage. We as a country can do better than this. Congress should act now to streamline the process and inject some common sense and dignity to this program,” Ring said.

FAMM has been a longtime advocate for expanding federal and state compassionate release programs, which authorize early release for prisoners facing extreme circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness. Last year, FAMM helped to establish the Campaign for Compassionate Release, a coalition of diverse organizations who support the creation, expansion, and robust use of compassionate release.

February 9, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 on the agenda for the Senate Judiciary Committee coming meeting

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the exciting news appearing at the very bottom of this agenda for an Executive Business Meeting of the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  After a long list on nominees, we see on that agenda this item:

II. Bills
S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (Grassley, Durbin, Graham, Feinstein, Lee, Leahy, Flake, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Booker)   

I think this notice means that there is now some tangible movement (dare I say momentum) on one very significant federal criminal justice proposal.  Clicking though to the text of S.1917 Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, one discovers that this bill has a whole lot of stuff stuffed into its three big sections. For example, "TITLE I — SENTENCING REFORM" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 101. Reduce and restrict enhanced sentencing for prior drug felonies."

Sec. 102. Broadening of existing safety valve....

Sec. 106. Mandatory minimum sentences for domestic violence offenses....

Sec. 108. Inventory of Federal criminal offenses.

Sec. 109. Fentanyl.

And "TITLE II — CORRECTIONS ACT" includes, inter alia:

Sec. 202. Recidivism reduction programming and productive activities.

Sec. 203. Post-sentencing risk and needs assessment system....

Sec. 207. Promoting successful reentry.

Sec. 208. Parole for juveniles.

Sec. 209. Compassionate release initiative.  

And "TITLE III — NATIONAL CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMISSION ACT" would create another notable federal criminal justice entity.

I can state with confidence that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is surely opposed to the provisions in Title I of this bill, but I he may be supportive of Title II and maybe even Title III. And, of course, since he is no longer in the Senate, Jeff Sessions does not get a vote on legislation, and it will be interesting to see (assuming there is a vote tomorrow of sometime soon) whether there are many (or any) strong opponents of this bill even in this huge form.

February 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two notable and timely commentaries on prison reform

A couple of columns about prison reform caught my attention today. Here are headlines, links and excerpts:

From The Advocate, authored by Mark Holden and Brooke Rollins, "Ways to help failing prison system":

We are proud to be part of a new initiative, Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will work to combine policy reforms and evidence-based re-entry programs that will measure success not by incarceration rates but by whether former inmates are rehabilitated and capable of redemption.  Researchers will initially examine four states — Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — and work to prepare people for re-entry beginning on day one of their prison sentence, and have an individualized plan in place within two months of incarceration.

The numbers indicate the scope of the challenge.  More than three out of four former inmates return to prison within five years of release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  That is a moral crime and a fiscal disaster.  And, worst of all, it is an unforgivable waste of human potential.  Nationally, more than 600,000 former inmates re-enter society every year. More than 100,000 of those are in our four targeted states.

Safe Streets and Second Chances will work with states to institute substance abuse and psychiatric counseling for individuals with mental illnesses or drug addictions; educational and literacy programs; vocational programs that teach usable job skills, and mentoring capabilities.  Such programs should involve faith leaders and public-private partnerships, so the comparative advantages of these sectors can be brought to bear on the rehabilitation and redemption of individuals.  Emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation is costly — $80 billion a year for incarceration at last count, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer.  Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism.  They are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience.  In 2007, Texas projected it would need 17,000 new prison beds over the next five years.  After implementing these and many other reforms, including expanded drug courts and mental health programs, crime dropped 31 percent — to levels not seen since the 1960s.  Texas closed four prisons with plans to close four more, and saved $3 billion in the process.

South Carolina enacted similar reforms and cut its prison population by 14 percent, closed six prisons and saved $491 million . Other states have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism.  If three out of four patients were dying in our hospitals, or three out of four combat soldiers were ill-prepared to face the enemy, we’d do something about it. I n a hurry.

Three out of four people in jail today will probably be back there if we don’t do something about it. In a hurry.

From USA Today, authored by Francis Cullen and Erik Luna, "Evaluate corrections officials not just on the state of prisons, but on rate of recidivism":

Nearly 9 in 10 Americans agree it is important to try to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes and are in the correctional system.  The public also demonstrates high support for formal “rehabilitation ceremonies” that would restore full citizenship to offenders who completed treatment programs, apologized and stayed crime-free for several years. A growing readiness exists to reinvent corrections.  Bold thinking and experimentation are needed. And that experimental approach could appeal to criminal justice reformers and hard-line supporters of harsher sentencing alike.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has touted a return to "law and order" crackdowns, is right to be concerned about "a vicious cycle of crime, poverty and more crime."  But activists who believe in rehabilitation also support "smarter policies based on sound research."

So, how can prisons be improved? Here are three general ideas:

► Corrections officials should be evaluated more diligently not just on their ability to manage institutions but also to reform the inmates who are in them, and that must include inmates who have re-entered society and recidivated.  There's an expectation that wardens will maintain peace within their prisons.  They are held responsible if, for example, a riot breaks out.  Some aspects of police reform occurred because, among other things, law enforcement leadership was made responsible not only for solving cases but also for reducing crime.  Officials must be held equally responsible for recidivism rates.

► Prisons must be regarded as behavioral-change institutions, not warehouses for wrongdoers.  Being nasty to offenders by, for instance, exposing them to harsh prison conditions risks making them more criminal.  Prisons must be therapeutic and focus on rehabilitation.  This does not mean going easy on offenders, but instead insisting that they learn pro-social values and how to act responsibly.  Rehabilitative interventions require inmates to engage in the difficult work of changing their thinking and behavior.

► Corrections must become a true science.  If medical standards were applied, many correctional practices and programs would be seen as quackery worthy of malpractice lawsuits.  Evidence suggests that a therapeutic or human-service approach to corrections is most likely to reduce recidivism by helping offenders acquire the cognitive abilities, problem-solving and coping skills, and human capital needed to overcome the deficits that place them at risk of criminal conduct in the first place.  Sustained research is required — as is done in medicine — to give correctional workers more and better tools for inmate rehabilitation.

February 7, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Reviewing the potential import and impact of Prez Trump's talk of prison reform

Matt Ford at The New Republic has this new piece with this full headline" "A Chance for Criminal Justice Reform Under Trump: Despite his fear-mongering over crime, the president recently promised to help ex-prisoners 'get a second chance at life'."  Can he deliver?"  Here are excerpts from the second half of the piece (with a particular paragraph stressed for additional comment):

Some Republican leaders in deep-red states have taken aggressive steps in recent years to reshape how their own states approach crime and punishment. Georgia has overhauled its criminal code and juvenile-justice system, leading to noticeable declines in its prison population. Texas rewrote its probation and parole guidelines and expanded treatment options for mental health and drug addiction. Kentucky expanded its pretrial services programs as part of a broader push towards bail reform.

At the same time, conservative policy organizations have taken up the cause. The Koch brothers and their network of nonprofit advocacy groups are reform’s most prominent backers on the right, drawing some skepticism from the left. The result is an unusually broad alliance in modern American politics that brings together the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union alongside the ACLU and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Credit for this trend’s arrival at the White House apparently goes to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and and a close adviser. In recent months, Kushner has met with key Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress, reform-oriented governors, and advocacy groups. The issue may also carry some personal resonance for Kushner: His father, Charles Kushner, received a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion and other crimes in 2005.

So far, the administration is keeping mum on its exact vision for reform. When asked for more details about the president’s plan, the White House provided a factsheet that described the depth of the problem as well as Trump’s meetings with Republican state officials who’ve tackled the issue in their own backyard. The document contained no specific policy proposals, but those meetings could still provide a window into what sort of policy proposals the Trump administration might favor from Congress. “Kansas improved its juvenile justice system to help make sure young offenders do not become repeat offenders,” Trump noted at a criminal justice summit he hosted at the White House in January. “Kentucky is providing job training to inmates and helping them to obtain professional licenses upon release, and it’s been very successful.”

Proposals like those overlap with policies favored by Democrats, to an extent.  Liberals typically focus on preventing or limiting how Americans enter prison in the first place, through sentencing reform, diversion programs, or decriminalization for nonviolent drug offenses.  Conservative policymakers, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward measures that help prisoners successfully reenter society like prison education and work-release programs.

But Trump’s rhetoric of late gives hope for bipartisan efforts in Congress to push through a criminal-justice reform bill this year.  While Trump prides himself as a master dealmaker, he’s been content to let Republican lawmakers and his top advisers sketch the details of major legislation on health care, tax reform, and immigration. As long as he’s not actively hostile to whatever lawmakers send him, reformers could find Trump more amenable to the final package if they can convince him it’s a win.

More important, Trump’s lip service to prison reform could be a political boost for reformers in deep-red states.  Any serious effort to reverse mass incarceration will take place in the state criminal-justice systems, where roughly 90 percent of American prisoners are housed.  By endorsing some type of reform, the president could bolster local efforts against challenges from the right.

Trump’s electoral victory, driven by his fear-mongering over crime, raised fears among many reformers that the moment for taking substantive, bipartisan steps against mass incarceration has passed.  Instead, he’s proving that the shift could be more durable than expected.

The paragraph that I have emphasized here strikes me as an especially important aspect of Prez Trump's recent reform talk even if major or significant federal statutory reform fails to emerge from Congress anytime soon.  Just as the "Right on Crime" movement has helped enable state-level politicians feel comfortable supporting criminal justice reform consistent with conservative principles, the avowed commitment by Prez Trump to prison reform allows state-level politicians to feel they can support prison reform consistent with supporting the President.  Indeed, effective criminal justice advocates in red states now may be able to call out any opponents of prison and reentry reform for seeking to undermine or resist what President Trump says is important for Making America Great Again.

February 5, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Yet another notable pitch for "why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform"

Long time readers know I have been talking a long time about a "new right" on a range of sentencing and corrections issues (though recalling this post on the topic back in January 2005 lead me to realize that the new right is not so new circa 2018). And lately it is hard now to pull up Fox News and not see some discussion of some criminal justice reform issue. Today's example is in this form of this new Fox News commentary authored by Texas Representative Jerry Madden titled "Here's why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform." U recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform may wind up being the most significant conservative policy change in Washington this year. That may sound surprising to some, but not to anyone who has been watching this movement in conservative states over the last decade.

Starting in Texas, conservatives of all stripes – fiscal, social, constitutional, or otherwise – have found favor with reforms to the criminal justice system that focus on increasing public safety and cutting costs to taxpayers. This is, seemingly, a very commonsense goal. But take a look at how most states and the federal government operate and you will find that well-functioning, well-focused systems are far from the norm.

The results are undeniable: Texas has lowered its overall crime rate 31 percent, putting it at levels that have not been seen since 1967. In that time, the Lone Star State has closed eight prisons and lowered the incarceration rate. This flies in the face of the old, mistaken ways of viewing criminal justice policy that considers incarceration the default rather than one tool of many to protect public safety.

At the heart of the Texas reforms is the idea that the nearly all of those incarcerated will eventually return to society after serving their sentence and therefore they must be rehabilitated to ensure that they do not return to a life of crime. Prisons cannot be mere people warehouses. For the offenders who commit to it, there is a real opportunity for redemption and second chances.

To no conservative’s surprise, the federal government lags behind in this area. The budget for the Bureau of Prisons is growing out-of-control. The BOP’s budget is now over 25 percent of the total budget for the Justice Department – a massive line item for an already over-indebted government. The outdated policies passed by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s are in desperate need of updating to match what states have shown to be successful.

There are two bills currently before Congress that will push for conservative changes. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, both Republicans, are the lead sponsors on two prison reform bills that focus on preparing prisoners for re-entry. These bills don’t reduce the sentences for crimes, but rather encourage inmates to participate in recidivism-reducing programming by offering incentives that include more phone calls and visits with family, and earned time to spend the end of their sentence in a halfway house, home confinement, or community supervision....

There is further encouragement coming from, of all places, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump has stated the case well: there is a path to remain “very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future.” In his listening session at the White House recently, the president further explained: “My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.” President Trump has made it clear that this is an issue that conservatives across the country can rally behind.

With the state examples as proof, and with a push from conservatives in the White House and Congress, criminal justice reform is a clear winner for the right. It is time for Congress to move on conservative reform as soon as possible.

February 4, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 03, 2018

New York makes deal to bring (sort-of) free electronic tablets to all state prisoners

150717153234-jp5mini-hr-780x439As reported in this CNN article, headlined "In New York, all 51,000 state prisoners will get their own tablet computers," a notable form of technology is now on its way to a notable New York population. Here are some of the details:

Inmates in New York state prisons will soon be able to read e-books, listen to music and email family members while in prison -- all from their own tablet computers.

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision entered into a deal with JPay that will provide all New York state prison inmates with a tablet.  JPay is a company that provides technology and services that help those who are incarcerated stay connected with people outside prison, according to the company's website.

There are approximately 51,000 inmates in New York state prisons, the corrections department said.  Anthony J. Annucci, the department's acting commissioner, called the development a "groundbreaking move."

"As we continue to use technology to make our prisons safer, we will also leverage it to improve operations and interactions with family and friends by expanding services to our population," Annucci said Tuesday during a state legislative budget hearing.

Annucci said the tablets would provide inmates with "the ability to access free educational material."  Prisoners will also able to file grievances with the prison directly from the tablets.

The New York state government said it won't pay anything for the inmates' tablets. They are free as part of a deal between the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and JPay to start a pilot electronic financial system designed to let family and friends send money to people in prison more easily, according to the department.

The department didn't say when the tablet program would go into effect. Other states have recently implemented similar programs. Both Georgia and Colorado have started programs that provide inmates with tablets. Georgia is also working with JPay.

In a statement announcing the "alternative learning tablets" in Georgia, officials said the tablets will allow inmates to "maintain and enhance family communications; and assist with their re-entry into society." Connecticut recently announced plans to implement a similar program in its prisons.

At a Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission meeting on January 25, Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple said that his agency plans to introduce tablets into the correctional system "sometime in the spring." "These tablets are an embedded network where there is no risk of victimization with the use of Wi-Fi, but it has a lot of capability to keep people connected with technology," Semple said.

The CNN report does not fuly explain what is fully going on here, especially with respect to the functioning economics. Helpfully, this local article provides these additional details:

JPay makes a tablet known as the JP5, which is specialized for prisons.  The tablets will be on a secured network with access only to pre-approved apps and features and not a typical Internet browser, according to the company.

The tablets will connect to the email program through kiosks with secured lines in the prisons.  The company pledged to install the needed infrastructure and perform maintenance on its own dime. The state is not set to make any money off the tablets, according to DOCCS.

The tablets will, however, provide a potential revenue stream to JPay. Each will come pre-loaded with certain pre-approved books and educational materials.

But inmates will be able to purchase certain add-ons, such as music, through JPay. The company didn't say Thursday how much those extras would cost.

Inmates will also have to pay to send emails on the tablets, according to JPay. The company will keep the money; the state won't be taking a commission.

"Similar to purchasing a song on iTunes or an online game, incarcerated individuals will have the same opportunity to purchase entertainment and media products and download them onto the JP5 device," JPay said in a statement. "There are fees associated with those purchases, as well as sending emails."

February 3, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Prez Trump speaks again about prison reform at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference  

As noted here a few days ago, President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.   Lest anyone think he was not serious about this issue, today in remarks at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference he spoke again about the topic.  From this official transcript, here is what Prez Trump had to say today:

We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life.  And I’ve watched this, and I’ve seen it, and I’ve studied it.  And people get out of prison, and they made a mistake.  And not all — some are very bad, but many are very good.  And they come home and they can’t get a job.  It’s sad.  They can’t — there’s — they can’t get a job.

Now, the best thing we’ve done to fix that, Paul, is the fact that the economy is just booming.  I mean, that fixes it better than any program we can do, anything we can do at all.  But the economy is so strong now and so good, and so many companies are moving in that I really believe that problem — it’s a big problem — is going to solve itself.  But we’re working on it.

I find notable (and a bit amusing) Prez Trump's assertion about prison reform that he has "studied it" (and I am not quite sure what "it" he is referencing).  Moreover, because I hope to see significant reforms coming out of Congress, I am bit concerned that Prez Trump is here also suggesting that the prisoner reentry problem "is going to solve itself."

Still, with Prez Trump's two statements this week about prison reform, following a White House meeting on this issue a few weeks ago, it now seems he is genuinely interested in this topic. That reality bodes well for the prospect of some measure of federal reform making it through Congress and to his desk.  But what developing reform might specifically look like, and just how it gets implemented, are the critical follow-up realities.  And, of course, nothing should be considered a done deal in DC until it is truly a done deal.

A few prior recent related posts:

February 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Spotlighting prisoners still stuck in federal prison because of absence of retroactive application of Fair Sentencing Act

Kara Gosch has this new Washington Post commentary headlined "Thousands are stuck in prison — just because of the date they were sentenced." Here are excerpts:

Eugene Downs sits in federal prison years longer than justice demands.  On Aug. 2, 2010, Downs was sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for conspiring to distribute at least 50 grams of crack cocaine.  The very next day, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, a law that limited mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and the number of cases subject to them.

If Downs had been sentenced one day later, he would now be free, because the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentence for distribution of 50 grams of crack cocaine to five years.  Incidentally, Downs’s co-defendants were all sentenced after Aug. 2 and benefited from the lowered penalties.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled there is nothing it can do to help Downs....

Thanks to efforts from civil rights and criminal-justice-reform organizations, the Obama administration signed onto the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the drug quantity ratio between powder and crack cocaine that triggers the mandatory minimums from 100-1 to 18-1.  The law’s disparity is still unjustified, but the 2010 reform was a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the law failed to account for people already in prison under the outdated penalties. According to a document generated by the Sentencing Commission for Congress, 3,147 people could benefit from retroactivity of the law. Eight-nine percent of these prisoners are black. Eugene Downs, who is African American, is just one of them.

Legislation to apply the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively has garnered bipartisan support in Congress. In 2015, the Judiciary committees in both the House and the Senate approved legislation that would have made Downs eligible for early release. Unfortunately, election-season politics and demagoguery from a handful of Republicans, including then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, doomed the bill.

There is some hope: Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) reintroduced the proposal last year with reforms that would reduce sentences for an even greater number of low-level drug offenses. Many of those provisions would be made retroactive. House Republicans have yet to reintroduce a similar bill in their chamber, but Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has put criminal-justice reform on his list of priorities for 2018.

Still, President Trump has not indicated that he shares in the bipartisan enthusiasm for sentencing reform. While he recently convened a White House meeting with governors and conservative allies to extol the virtues of second chances and rehabilitation, his decision to put Sessions in charge of the Justice Department is not promising.

In any case, the retroactive application of the reformed sentencing laws should be an exception for “tough on crime” crusaders. Sometimes unfair laws punish people who deserve a second chance. We cannot allow the random day on which people are sentenced to prison be their primary obstacle to justice.

Regular readers surely know I am deeply sympathetic to the concept of giving broad retroactive effect to ameliorative changes in sentencing laws.  But the story of Eugene Downs strike me a bit peculiar in this context because, as noted in 2010 posts here and here, the Fair Sentencing Act was approved by both houses of Congress on July 28, 2010 and received plenty of media attention on July 29, 2010.   Arguably, one could blame Prez Obama for Eugene Downs' fate because he waited a week to sign the FSA.  Perhaps more properly, one should probably blame an attorney for Eugene Downs' fate for failing to seek a sentencing continuance in light of a pending critical legal change.

January 31, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Prez Trump, in his first State of the Union address, mentions "reforming our prisons" and need to "get much tougher on drug dealers"

As had been predicted (see this prior post), President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.  But later in this speech, he suggested that he supported an even tougher criminal justice response to our nation's drug problem.  These were both very small parts of a very long speech, and here is the context with key sentences highlighted from this official text

As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens.  That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance....

In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour.  We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.  My Administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will prevail.

With these sentences and sentiments, I believe Prez Trump has defined the terms of what is truly possible on the federal criminal justice reform front in 2018. It would seem "back-end" prison reforms to facilitate earlier release from prison for all federal offenders and enhanced reentry efforts are quite possible and may truly be a priority for the Trump Administration; it would also seem that "front-end" sentencing reforms to reduce mandatory minimum terms for drug trafficking offenses many not be possible and may be actively opposed by the Trump Administration. Interesting times.

A few prior recent related posts:

January 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lots of interesting pieces in inaugural volume of Annual Review of Criminology

I just saw the first issue of the Annual Review of Criminology here, and so many of the impressive articles are now at the top of my ever-growing "to read" list.  These pieces (among many in the big issue) are likely to be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

January 28, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Montgomery Momentum: Two Years of Progress since Montgomery v. Louisiana"

Download (6)The title of this post is the title of this short interesting document produced by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. I recommend the whole document, and here are excerpts (with endnotes removed):

On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, giving hope and a chance for life outside of prison to individuals sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed as children.

When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, over 2,600 individuals in the U.S. were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), a sentence only imposed in the United States. In the two years since Montgomery was decided, seven states and the District of Columbia have banned JLWOP, and the number of individuals serving JLWOP has been cut in half, both through resentencing hearings and state legislative reform.

More than 250 individuals previously serving life without parole for crimes committed as children are now free.  Collectively, they have served thousands of years in prison. These former juvenile lifers now have the chance to contribute meaningfully to their communities....

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana, remains incarcerated.  The U.S. Supreme Court recognized Mr. Montgomery’s “evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” Montgomery was resentenced and is now eligible for parole, but because of delays at the parole board and prosecutor opposition, the 71-year-old remains in prison, where he has been since 1963.

Children of color are disproportionately sentenced to life without parole.  When Montgomery was decided, over 70 percent of all individuals serving JLWOP were people of color. These extreme disparities have persisted during the resentencing process following Montgomery, underscoring the racially disparate imposition of JLWOP....

For the approximately 1,300 individuals whose unconstitutional JLWOP sentences have been altered through legislative reform or judicial resentencing to date, the median sentence nationwide is 25 years before parole or release eligibility. This means that most individuals who were unconstitutionally sent to die in prison as children will not be eligible for review or release until at least their 40s. Although Montgomery suggested that providing review after 25 years is an avenue for minimal compliance with Miller, these lengthy sentences continue to violate international human rights standards and far outstrip terms of incarceration for youth in the rest of the developed world.

UPDATE: A helpful tweet led me to think this is a good place to note that the Juvenile Sentencing Project has lots of great juve LWOP/Graham and Miller resources detailing responsive legislation and significant state case law and leading reseach reports.  That Project also helps maintain this great national map that enables one to see how many juve LWOP prisoners were in each state at the time of Miller and now.

January 27, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 26, 2018

New poll suggests strong bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms

JAN_Web-LogoThis new article from The Hill, headlined "Poll: 3/4 of Americans support criminal justice reform," provides highlights from a notable new survey:

Three-quarters of Americans think the nation’s criminal justice system needs to be significantly improved, according to a new poll out Thursday....

A Justice Action Network poll conducted by Robert Blizzard, a partner at the Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies, found a majority of Americans surveyed, 76 percent, believe that the country’s criminal justice system needs significant improvements.

Of the 800 registered voters polled between Jan. 11 and 14, 87 percent of Americans agree that some of the money being spent on locking up nonviolent offenders should be shifted to alternatives like electronic monitoring, community service and probation.

Two-thirds of voters — 65 percent — support fair chance hiring, and 87 percent of voters strongly support replacing mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders with a system that allows judges more discretion.  Eighty-five percent of voters, meanwhile, agree that the main goal of the nation’s criminal justice system should be rehabilitating people to become productive law-abiding citizens.

Many more of the poll particulars are available via this Justice Action Network press release and through this PowerPoint.  The press release emphasizes reasons why politicians should be paying attention to these issues:

[V]oter support for bipartisan justice reforms is overwhelmingly high, especially among women, who remain a crucial voting bloc heading into the 2018 midterm elections, and may determine the makeup of the House in November....

“This is not a partisan issue–voters strongly believe that the country’s criminal justice system needs serious improvements,” said Robert Blizzard, Partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “Significant majorities of Republican and Democratic voters across the country favor these reforms, including key 2018 target constituencies like independent voters and women voters. I can’t emphasize enough how strongly voters support these reforms. As a political pollster looking towards 2018 I think all politicians should pay attention. Go back to 2006, women voted for the democratic candidate by double digits. In 2010, women favored the GOP candidate and helped deliver the house to Republicans. Key constituencies are strong on these reforms and they can help give a lift to candidates everywhere.”

January 26, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Encouraging new report on prospects for prison reform legislation emerging from Congress

This report from The Hill, headlined "Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump," suggests that recent talk from the White house about prison reform might soon become real action from Congress.  Here are the details of an encouraging story:

Momentum is building under the Trump administration for criminal justice reform. The path forward, however, is looking a little different than it has in the past.

Previous efforts to reform the justice system have focused on cutting prison time for convicted felons. But those taking part in the current discussions say the focus has shifted to preventing ex-convicts from returning to jail, suggesting this approach has the best chance of winning approval from both Congress and the White House.

A source familiar with the talks between the White House and GOP members of Congress said a bipartisan prison-reform bill offered by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. To do so, prisoners have to complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. The legislation directs the attorney general to identify the most effective programs, which could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment....

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Collins and Cornyn are working closely together to ensure any differences between their bills are reconciled, the source familiar with talks said.

President Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have met with lawmakers and advocates to talk about prison reform and the success states have had in the last few months, signaling there’s White House support for legislation. “The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support,” a White House source said.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts until now have largely focused on proposals to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders and armed career criminals.  While talks now appear focused on prison reform, advocates say sentencing reform isn’t off the table just yet.

Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which started the national Right on Crime campaign, said there’s more divisiveness around sentencing reform. “My best educated guess is that at some point that will become part of the discussion, but right now there is an encouraging [group] coalescing around prison reform.”

Rollins notes that criminal justice reform is a big issue and commended the administration for tackling it one piece at a time. “When trying to get it done all at once, you often end up with nothing,” she said. “I think this administration is smart to focus on prison reform for now.”

I share the view that an effort to get everything in one big reform bill can sometimes prevent getting any bill through the legislative process. And given that a good prison reform bill with lots of potential sentence-reduction credits could prove even more consequential for current and future federal prisoners than even broad mandatory minimum reforms, I am especially encouraged by the prospect of a prison reform bill being the first priority for Congress in the months ahead.  Of course, as with all parts of sentencing reform, the devil is in the details; I will not get to revved up about possible reform until the particulars are made public.  But this report heightens my hope that some significant federal reform may actually get done in the first part of 2018.

Recent related post:

January 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Spotlighting the impact and import of rural realities in modern mass incarceration

This recent USA Today commentary, headlined "Ignoring rural areas won't solve America's mass incarceration problem," provides a useful reminder that all parts of the United States are part of the story of modern mass incarceration.  The piece is authored by Christian Henrichson of the Vera institute of Justice, and here are excerpts:

A little known fact imperils our nation’s collective efforts to end mass incarceration: Major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are no longer bearing the heaviest burden.  Instead, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with the nation’s highest incarceration rates.

But the reform movement has not reacted to changing incarceration trends.  In most small cities and towns, public officials are not running on reform platforms, and investment by foundations and national advocates is thin or absent.  If attention and resources are not urgently shifted to overlooked places, progress to reduce unnecessary incarceration in big cities will be totally eroded by deepening problems in the rest of the country.  This means it will be mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration — and too many Americans will be left behind.

There is no better indicator of the geography of mass incarceration than America’s 3,283 local jails.  Unlike prisons, jails exist in nearly every county in America and are under local control.  Designed to only hold people for a short time and when absolutely necessary, jails have become massive warehouses — particularly for those too poor or sick to disentangle themselves from the justice system.

Historically, jail incarceration rates have comported with our understanding of mass incarceration as an urban challenge: They were once highest in the nation’s largest cities and the lowest in the country’s rural and suburban counties. But over the past two decades, the geography of jail incarceration quietly shifted....

Since 2008, large urban jail populations have shrunk dramatically.  But even as reformers celebrated progress, jail growth went into overdrive — particularly in smaller places with limited tax bases.  In small town America, many courts do not convene regularly, resources for public defenders are scarce, and diversion options and pretrial services that might otherwise keep people out of jail beds are few and far between....

It’s also important to note that the geographic shift wasn’t limited to jails.  Recent research indicates that small and rural counties now also funnel a disproportionate share of people into state prisons, a reality that should come as no surprise given that jails function as the “front door” of the criminal justice system.

Rural counties, in particular, have been out of sight and out of mind in much of America.  But the 2016 election refocused attention onto the particular challenges of voters whose voices are often missing from the national conversation. Their burgeoning jails are a window into the pain in smaller places: shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction....

Ending mass incarceration demands a shift in resources and attention.  We need to confront what is happening in all of our backyards and understanding each community’s local incarceration story.  Policymakers and the public have to take stock of how many of their neighbors are behind bars and why — and ask difficult questions about whether wasting so much human potential and taxpayer money makes us any safer.

January 22, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Lott available via SSRN that a helpful reader made sure I did not miss.  For a host of reasons, John Lott is a controversial empiricist, and this latest paper could surely stir up some new controversies.  Here is its abstract:

Using newly released detailed data on all prisoners who entered the Arizona state prison from January 1985 through June 2017, we are able to separate non-U.S. citizens by whether they are illegal or legal residents. Unlike other studies, these data do not rely on self-reporting of criminal backgrounds. Undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans. They also tend to commit more serious crimes and serve 10.5% longer sentences, more likely to be classified as dangerous, and 45% more likely to be gang members than U.S. citizens. Yet, there are several reasons that these numbers are likely to underestimate the share of crime committed by undocumented immigrants. There are dramatic differences between in the criminal histories of convicts who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Young convicts are especially likely to be undocumented immigrants. While undocumented immigrants from 15 to 35 years of age make up slightly over two percent of the Arizona population, they make up about eight percent of the prison population. Even after adjusting for the fact that young people commit crime at higher rates, young undocumented immigrants commit crime at twice the rate of young U.S. citizens. These undocumented immigrants also tend to commit more serious crimes.

If undocumented immigrants committed crime nationally as they do in Arizona, in 2016 they would have been responsible for over 1,000 more murders, 5,200 rapes, 8,900 robberies, 25,300 aggravated assaults, and 26,900 burglaries.

January 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"A Smarter Approach to Federal Assistance with State-Level Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Pfaff for the American Enterprise Institute. Here is its abstract:

This brief explains how Congress and the president can best help reduce our country’s outsized reliance on imprisonment, a goal with rare, widespread bipartisan support.  Successful interventions will need to target issues that previous efforts have overlooked or ignored, and they will need to take better account of the haphazard ways that costs, benefits, and responsibilities are fractured across city, county, state, and federal governments.  If designed properly, however, federal efforts could play an important role in pushing our criminal justice system to adopt more efficient, as well as more humane, approaches to managing and reducing crime.

January 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Notable comments by Prez Trump during meeting on prison review

I spent most of Thursday on the road, and various news stations were reporting on statements by Prez Trump others than those on the topic of prison reform. But, as this official White House page reveals, Prez Trump made some comments during a meeting that ought not be overlooked. Here are excerpts:

We’ll be discussing a number of opportunities to improve our prison system to better promote public safety and to help former prisoners reenter society as productive citizens. Very important. Very big topic. It’s become a very big topic, especially, I think, over the last 12 months or so. We’ve been focused on it very strongly.

We support our law enforcement partners, and we’re working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars. At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we’re discussing, having to do with our great country.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point, and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system. We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe. Many prisoners end up returning to crime, and they end up returning to prison. Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years.

We can help break this vicious cycle through job training — very important, job training — mentoring, and drug addiction treatment. And you know how we’re focused on drugs pouring into our country and drug addiction. It’s a big problem even as we speak of this subject. We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future....

My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.

This Hill article about the meeting, headlined "Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform," includes quotes from advocates and lawmakers suggesting reasons for optimism and pessimism concerning possible federal legislative reforms moving forward after this notable meeting.

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Press reports indicate White House listening session to be focused only on reentry issues, not sentencing reform

As noted here yesterday, there are plans for an afternoon meeting at the White House on criminal justice issues.  But, as this new Newsweek article details, it seems that sentencing reform is not going to be part of the discussion.  The article's headline provides the essentials, "Trump and Kushner's Prison Reform Plan Not Expected to Reduce Sentences or Fix Prison Conditions," and here are the details:

President Donald Trump will hold a listening session on prison reform Thursday that will focus on improving prisoner reentry – the process of preparing inmates for release–with a conservative approach, multiple people in talks with the administration told Newsweek.

The session is only expected to include politicians and religious and nonprofit leaders from the right. It is not expected to include discussion on topics like prison conditions or sentencing reform.

In attendance will be three Republican governors who instituted criminal justice reform in their states–Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas–along with televangelist Paula White, according to Derek Cohen, the director of Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been in discussions about conservative reentry reform methods with the Trump administration. “All the policy issues we’ve discussed with the administration have a conservative orientation,” said Cohen, who added that prison ministries are crucial to a successful release. “Faith is going to be an integral part of any reentry plan.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Trump administration have discussed cutting government regulation to make it easier for former prisoners to get jobs, Cohen said. Getting rid of restrictions that bar ex-cons from working as barbers, for example, allow inmates to more easily get a job upon release and reduce the likelihood of recidivism, he added.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden will also attend the meeting, which he said will be at 1:30 p.m. in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “Our point of view at Koch is prisoner reentry needs to begin at day one of the sentence” and not “60 or 90 days out” from release, said Holden, who had also been involved in the prison reform talks that Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner began last summer. Holden added that mental health and drug treatment, along with vocational training, need to happen inside prisons so inmates are prepared for life outside when they are released.

“I’m delighted that the president has made this a priority,” said Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, which has also been in prison reform talks with the Trump administration. “I’ve been working since 1996 to help build a conservative movement in criminal justice reform, and this is a very important turning point.” Cohen and Nolan will not be at the Thursday session, but others from their organizations are attending....

Kushner’s Office of American Innovation is also working on an apprenticeship plan for released prisoners that could match inmates with employers, according to a conservative leader who has been working with the White House on the reforms, but it’s unclear whether that initiative will be announced Thursday.

Excluding organizations that are seen as liberal, like the ACLU or the NAACP, and leaving out sentencing reform was necessary to gain the support of “old guard conservatives” like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who will also attend the meeting, the conservative leader said. “Reading the tea leaves, I think what they’ve done is sat down with Mr. Sessions and got him to agree to part of the reforms,” said the conservative leader, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss the issue. He added that he expects White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to attend and that Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta came to previous meetings on the issue.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday evening.

Recent related post:

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" reporting another drop in state and federal prison populations in 2016

As reported in this press release, the "number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined." here is more from the release:

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.

The full 36-page BJS report, excitingly titled Prisoners in 2016 and full of data of all sorts, is available at this link.

January 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Taking a close look at the state of women's incarceration in the states

Women_overtime_select_statesThe very fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative have a very fine new report on incarceration rates and populations for women in the United States.  The report is titled "The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth," and the full report is a must read for anyone interested in prison population data and/or the importance of analyzing modern criminal justice systems with gendered sophistication. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the report: 

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. This report sheds more light on women in the era of mass incarceration by tracking prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states. The analysis identifies places where recent reforms appear to have had a disparate effect on women, and offers states recommendations to reverse mass incarceration for women alongside men.

Across the country, we find a disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends. While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men. Looking deeper into the state-specific data, we can identify the states driving the disparity.

In 35 states, women’s population numbers have fared worse than men’s, and in a few extraordinary states, women’s prison populations have even grown enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population. Too often, states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states. Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.

Nationally, women’s incarceration trends have generally tracked with the overall growth of the incarcerated population. Just as we see in the total population, the number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that state and local policies have driven the mass incarceration of women.

There are a few important differences between men’s and women’s national incarceration patterns over time.  For example, jails play a particularly significant role in women’s incarceration (see sidebar, “The role of local jails”). And although women represent a small fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

While the national trend provides helpful context, it also obscures a tremendous amount of state-to-state variation.  The change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has actually been much smaller in some places, like Maine, and far more dramatic in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. A few states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, reversed course and began decarcerating state prisons years ago. The wide variation in state trends underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions....

The mass incarceration of women is harmful, wasteful, and counterproductive; that much is clear.  But the nation’s understanding of women’s incarceration suffers from the relative scarcity of gender-specific data, analysis, and discourse.  As the number of women in prisons and jails continues to rise in many states — even as the number of men falls — understanding this dramatic growth becomes more urgent.  What policies fuel continued growth today?  What part does jail growth play?  Where is change needed most now, and what kinds of changes will help? This report and the state data it provides lay the groundwork for states to engage these critical questions as they take deliberate and decisive action to reverse prison growth.

January 9, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 08, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Scott Cunningham and Sam Kang that a helpful colleague sent my way.  Here is its abstract:

US incarceration rates quintupled from the early 1970s to the present, leading to the US becoming the most incarcerated OECD country in the world.  A driving cause behind this growth was a nationwide shift to more punitive criminal justice policy, particularly with respect to drug related crimes.  This movement has since been characterized as the "war on drugs."  In this manuscript, we investigate the impact of rising incarceration rates on drug use and drug markets by exploiting a natural experiment in the Texas penitentiary system. In 1993, Texas made massive investments into its prison infrastructure which led to an over doubling of the state's prison capacity.  The effect was that Texas's incarceration rates more than doubled, due in large part to declining paroles. 

We use this event to study the effect that mass incarceration had on drug markets. We find no effect on drug arrests, drug prices or drug purity.  We also find no effect on self-referred cocaine or heroin treatment admissions.  However, we do find large negative effects on criminal justice referrals into treatment for cocaine and heroin, suggesting that mass incarceration reduces drug use in the population.  Furthermore, our results indicate that this decline is driven by incapacitation effects as opposed to deterrence effects.

January 8, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Interesting comments on reform and rehabilitation from Deputy AG Rosenstein

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today delivered these lengthy remarks at the American Correctional Association's Winter Conference.  Folks interested in prison policies and practices, as well as the messages being delivered by the US Justice Department these days, should make time to  read the entire speech.  And sentencing fans (including students in the Sentencing class I start teaching today) may be especially interested in these interesting comments about reform and rehabilitation from the early part of the speech:

The American Correctional Association has a proud history of supporting the work of prison and jail officials.  More than 147 years ago, in 1870, corrections officials from the United States and abroad met in Cincinnati, Ohio and adopted a “Declaration of Principles” they believed should guide the field of corrections.  One of your principles is that the purpose of incarcerating criminals is “the protection of society.”

One of the most important management principles is that it is essential to articulate the big-picture goal for an organization.  That vision filters down into how other managers understand their mission, and ultimately into everything that our employees do. In law enforcement, our goal is to reduce crime.

Correctional agencies play a critical role in achieving that goal.  By providing inmates with structure, and teaching them discipline and skills during their incarceration, you increase the probability that they will become productive members of society and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

When I read the original version of your principles, I noticed that the word “reform” appears 27 times.  The word “rehabilitate” does not appear at all.  Rehabilitation came into vogue as a sentencing goal in the 20th century.  Many people ultimately concluded that rehabilitation was not a realistic goal for prisons.

After spending almost three decades in law enforcement, I agree that we need to focus on reform of criminals, not rehabilitation.  The reason is that “re-habilitation,” by definition, is about restoring a person’s good reputation and ability to work.

There are some criminals for whom rehabilitation is a reasonable goal.  They are people who lived law-abiding lives and were productive members of society, before something went wrong and caused them to go astray.

But many of the career criminals housed in our prisons unfortunately were not properly habilitated before they offended.  The criminals who were not productive members of society need reform, not rehabilitation.

Admitting that most of our inmates need reform is not a way of disparaging the criminals.  It is instead a frank way to acknowledge that our task is more than just helping them overcome a few mistakes.  Many inmates do not just lack self-restraint.  They lack job skills.  They lack education.  They lack family structure.  They lack discipline.

While they are under governmental supervision, you have the chance to help them reform by imposing discipline and offering opportunities for improvement.  The most important thing for many inmates to learn is the discipline of following a schedule: wake up at a particular time, report to work when required, eat meals at the designated hours, and go to bed early enough to start fresh the next morning.

Some of the programs you offer also may be useful to reform inmates and set them on the right path. Programs such as institutional work assignments, prison industries, substance abuse treatment, and educational or vocational training.  Your work makes our communities safer.

The principles from 1870 also codify the professionalism that defines corrections officials.  They explain that “[s]pecial training, as well as high qualities of head and heart, [are] required to make a good prison or reformatory officer.”

January 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Noticing the continued decline of the federal prison population (for now) ... and a story embedded with intricacies

PrisonPopuGraphicOver at the Washington Post's WonkBlog, Keith Humphreys has this important little discussion of the federal prison population under the headlined "The number of people in federal prisons is falling, even under Trump."  Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for some follow-up commentary):

When states began shrinking their prison populations almost a decade ago, the federal prison system was still growing each year and thereby undermining progress in reducing mass incarceration. But in the past four years, the federal system has cut its inmate population by one-sixth, a decrease of over 35,000 prisoners.

Because criminal justice is mainly the province of the states, the federal prison system holds only about 13 percent of U.S. inmates. Yet that is still a significant number of people in absolute terms: The system held 219,300 inmates at its peak in 2013. Four subsequent years of significant contraction dropped the federal inmate population to 184,000 by the end of 2017.

Obama-era changes to drug crime prosecution and sentencing coupled with a historic level of clemency grants to federal inmates by President Barack Obama helped bring the federal prison system to its lowest population size since mid-2004 and its lowest incarceration rate (i.e., adjusted for population) since the end of 2002.

Given President Trump’s penchant for “tough on crime” rhetoric, some observers may find it surprising that the federal prison population kept dropping under the first year of the Trump administration. The most likely cause is also the most obvious. When a nation is blessed with two decades of falling crime rates, this eventually translates into lower incarceration rates because there just aren’t as many offenders to arrest, charge and imprison.

Whether the federal prison population continues to decline will depend in part on Trump administration policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed the Obama-era policy of avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases, which could result in some future growth in the federal inmate population even if crime continues to fall.

The other key determinant of the federal prison population’s future is whether Trump will make use of his powers to pardon or commute the sentences of federal inmates. He only did so for one inmate this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t grant more clemencies later.

Though it is important and useful to notice that the federal prison population continued its downward trend in the first year of the Trump Administration, it is not quite accurate to attribute this reality to either "two decades of falling crime rates" or to Presidential commutation practices.  For starters, we had falling crimes rates in the decade from 1992 through 2002, and yet the federal prison population more than doubled from less than 80,000 inmates in 1992 to more than 163,000 inmates in 2002.  And we had another decade of falling crimes rates from 2002 through 2012, and yet the federal prison population rose another 55,000 inmates in that period.  And, of course, crimes rates started ticking up significantly in 2015 and 2016.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, there is actually a very limited (and quite unclear) relationship between the FBI's reported reductions in violent and property crimes — which is the data base for "falling crime rates" — and the federal criminal caseload which is primarily made up of drug and immigration and firearm and fraud offenses.  Indeed, in light of the empirics of the opioid crisis — not to mention increased marijuana activity thanks to state legal reforms — there is reason to speculate that federal drug offenses have actually been rising (perhaps significantly) in recent years.  The dynamics surrounding recent crime rates for federal immigration and firearm and fraud offenses are hard to assess, but that very reality is part of the reason it is hard to link federal prison population changes to what we know (and do not know) about crime rates.  But, without any doubt, there are still plenty of "offenders to arrest, charge and imprison" engaged in the activities that serve as the modern bread-and-butter of federal prosecution.  Though there are a range of linkages between various crime rates and various federal prosecutorial policies and practices, it is very hard to see and measure and assess with any confidence how basic criminal offending (especially as to classic state crimes) may directly impact the size of federal prison populations.

What we can effectively see and measure are changes in federal sentencing laws and federal prosecutorial practices, and these changes suggest a set of intricate stories help account for recent federal prison population changes.  For starters, the US Sentencing Commission enacted a set of broad retroactive changes to the federal drug sentencing guidelines, with crack guideline reductions in 2007 and 2011 and the "Drugs -2" reductions in 2014.  These changes reduced the sentences of, and is continuing to lead to the early release of, many thousands of federal prisoners.  In addition, and perhaps even more statistically important for the very latest federal prison data, federal prosecutors after 2012 began decreasing dramatically the number of cases getting all the way to federal sentencing.  According to US Sentencing Commission data, in Fiscal Year 2012, federal prosecutors brought over 84,000 cases to sentencing, whereas by Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors brought fewer than 67,750 cases to sentencing.  And, especially with a slow transition to new US Attorney positions, it may take some time for the new Attorney General to ramp up yearly federal prosecutions (assuming he even wishes to do so).

In other words, the always dynamic stock and flow story of prison populations provides a somewhat more granular understanding of declines in the federal prison population.  Changes to federal sentencing laws made retroactive has had a significant impact on the "stock" of federal prisons.  (Prez Obama's commutations are a small part of this "stock" story, but not until they really got going in 2016, and in the end more than 25 federal prisoners got reduced sentences thanks to retroactive guideline changes for every prisoner who got a commutation from Prez Obama.)  And while guideline changes were reducing the federal prison "stock," it seems the prosecutorial policies announced by Attorney General Holder in 2013 — and perhaps other factors, including decreased national concerns about crime — finally began to reduce what had previously been, for two decades, an ever-increasing federal prison "flow."

I would predict that the May 2017 Sessions charging/sentencing memo could contribute, over time, to increasing both the stock and the flow of the federal prison population.  But other directions coming from Main Justice might complicate this story.  AG Sessions has urged US Attorneys to focus on violent crimes, and there may well be fewer of these cases to bring and they may take more time to prosecute than lower-level drug and gun and immigration cases.  But, of course, the AG has also expressed concerns about drug and gun and immigration cases, and he has been seeking to hire and empower more federal prosecutors in certain arenas.  I will be especially watching how all these developments ultimately impact the US Sentencing Commission's data on cases sentenced (and average sentence imposed) in order to try to predict where the federal prison population may be headed next.

January 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"No Trump windfall for private prisons yet, but some bet on gains"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Reuters piece, and here are excerpts:

Investors who bet on private prison operators as big winners from Donald Trump’s tough line on crime and illegal immigration are looking back at a bruising year of high hopes and disappointment. Some, however, say the stocks still offer good value even though an anticipated windfall under the Trump administration so far has failed to materialize.

They say the two listed operators - Geo Group Inc (GEO.N) and CoreCivic Inc (CXW.N) - stand to win contracts from states struggling with prison overcrowding, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, and have plenty of room to accommodate new demand....

The administration’s proposals to bolster the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency could help in the future though it is still unclear how much new money it will bring. “People are focusing on ICE and ignoring the state level opportunities,” said Jordan Hymowitz managing partner Philadelphia Financial Management in San Francisco.

Geo and CoreCivic shares soared after Trump won the White House, partly on expectations that detention centers they run for ICE would fill up thanks to an anticipated surge in arrests along the Mexican border. Yet the opposite happened - arrests declined for months after Trump's inauguration because fewer people attempted to cross the border and shares in CoreCivic and Geo reversed course after peaking in February and April respectively.

While detentions have been rising from month to month since hitting a year-low in May, the stocks have not yet recovered. CoreCivic now trades 37 percent below its post election high, while Geo is about 32 percent below its 2017 peak.

Investors say lack of clarity on how much business they will get from ICE, the companies’ biggest client, is holding the shares back.... The immigration enforcement agency, which cites its average cost per bed at $129 per day, accounted for about a quarter of CoreCivic’s and Geo’s revenue in the first nine months of 2017. Federal, state and local prisons make up most of the remaining revenue. ICE asked Congress for a $1.2 billion funding increase, but the latest budget proposal offered $700 million, according to Geo, and its 2018 funding remains unclear.

GEO and CoreCivic make up two-thirds of the roughly $5.3 billion per year U.S. private prison business, according to market research firm IBISWorld. However, potential state contracts promise to boost prison companies’ earnings and make them less controversial.... Investors said a pending Kansas Department of Corrections proposal for CoreCivic to build a new prison which the state would manage, would address some investor concerns by making the company a landlord rather than a prison operator. If copied by other states, such approach would open new opportunities for the companies, which mostly derive revenue from running their own prisons or government facilities....

Thousands of vacancies at CoreCivic and Geo facilities should also be viewed as a positive, because they could lift earnings with little extra investment, investors say. Hymowitz estimated that CoreCivic, which has around 15,000 empty beds, could boost by a fifth its funds from operations (FFO) per share if it could fill just a quarter of them. CoreCivic said in November it could add $1 to annual earnings per share (FFO) if it can open its eight idle prisons and boost inmate numbers in partially vacant facilities. Geo said in October that filling 7,000 empty beds could add $50-$60 million to its annual earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), a roughly 11-13 percent increase to 2018 analyst estimates.

December 27, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Looking at the changing demographics of modern mass incarceration

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "A Mass Incarceration Mystery: Why are black imprisonment rates going down? Four theories." Here is the start of the extended analysis along with the basics of the propounded "four theories":

One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.  The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that for the last 15 years, racial disparities in the American prison system have actually been on the decline, according to a Marshall Project analysis of yearly reports by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

Among women, the trend is even more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate shot upward by 53 percent. As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has pointed out, the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.

Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable given the “churn” of inmates into and out of those facilities. Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100. The charts below from the Vera Institute of Justicealso reveal significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.  (In both the prison and jail data, the total number of incarcerated Latinos has increased, but their actual incarceration rate has remained steady or also fallen, attributable to their increasing numbers in the U.S. population generally.)

Taken together, these statistics change the narrative of mass incarceration, and that may be one reason why the data has been widely overlooked in policy debates. The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news," said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on trends in prison statistics. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate.  How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?'”

According to Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”  In other words, how much of any shift in the imprisonment rate can be attributed to changes in demographics, crime rates, policing, prosecutors, sentencing laws and jail admissions versus lengths of stay? And is it even possible to know, empirically, whether specific reforms, such as implicit bias training, are having an effect on the trend line?....

[H]ere are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall....

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids....

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement....

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas....

Even with all of these factors at work, the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades.

I think a lot of other possible factors may be at least marginally contributing to the changing demographics of prison populations between 2000 and 2015, factors ranging from more diversity in the ranks of police, prosecutors and the judiciary to greater concerns with sentencing decision-making (and advocacy) by courts (and lawyers).  And perhaps readers have some additional (sensible?) theories on this front that could be shared in the comments.

December 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Notable new push to push for expanded use of compassionate release programs

As reported in this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "a coalition of criminal justice reform, health policy, human rights, and faith-based organizations launched a new public education and advocacy campaign to urge the creation, expansion, and robust use of federal and state programs that grant early release to prisoners with compelling circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness."  Here is more from the release (with links from the source):

The Campaign for Compassionate Release” comprises a diverse group of organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), American Conservative Union Foundation, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and National Disability Rights Network.  “It is cruel and senseless to prisoners and families alike to abandon an individual to suffer or die alone in prison, separated from loved ones. These prisoners are the least dangerous and most expensive to lock up, yet compassionate release often exists in name only. It often fails the people it is intended to help. And we’re fed up,” said Mary Price, general counsel of FAMM.

To kick off the Campaign, 36 organizations and individuals endorsed a statement of principles. The principles focus on the humanitarian, public safety, and economic benefits of granting early release to elderly prisoners, those with disabilities, or prisoners facing extreme family changes. While the Campaign will target both federal and state policies, the first stages of the launch focus on reforms to the federal compassionate release program.

The federal compassionate release program, created by Congress, has existed for decades but is rarely used.  The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must decide if prisoners meet program criteria and then seek their release in the courts, but in reality, the BOP only brings a trickle of release motions to the courts annually. Delays also plague the program; prisoners commonly die awaiting a decision.  Congressional appropriators, government watchdogs, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and outside advocates all have questioned the BOP’s failure to use the program as Congress intended, especially since sick, dying, and elderly prisoners are the least likely to re-offend and the most expensive to house.

Today, many Campaign members and others sent a letter to BOP Director Mark Inch, urging him to expand the program’s use. The letter echoes a similar letter signed by a bipartisan group of senators in August.

December 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

"Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector Within the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Rand research report that I just came across authored by Joe Russo, George Drake, John Shaffer and Brian Jackson. Here is a summary with some points from the report in via this Rand webpage:

Challenged by high costs and concerns that the U.S. corrections sector is not achieving its goals, there has been a growing focus on approaches to reform and improve the sector's performance.  Policies initiated during the tough-on-crime era led to aggressive prosecution, lengthier sentences, and an exploding correctional population.  In recent years, the corrections sector has been gradually shifting toward efforts to provide treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and enhanced programs to facilitate offender reentry.  Although judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform, the sector has a unique perspective and therefore can provide critical insight regarding what is working, what is not, and how things should be.

To contribute to the policy debate on the future of the corrections sector, researchers interviewed a group of prominent correctional practitioners, consultants, and academics. This report outlines their perspectives on the current state of corrections and their vision for the future.  These experts were specifically asked how they would redesign the corrections sector to better serve the country's needs.  The findings offer both an assessment of what is and is not working now and potential solutions to better achieve justice policy goals going forward.

Key Findings

The Corrections Sector Has Little Control Over the Many Factors That Affect Its Operations

  • Judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform.
  • The sector does have some control over how offenders are treated once they enter the system.

A Panel of Experts Agreed That the Sector's Primary Role Should Be to Facilitate Positive Offender Behavioral Change, but This Is a Complex Task

  • Three broad types of changes would be necessary for the sector to support this mission and help ensure offenders' successful reintegration into society: new programs and improved education and training for corrections staff, the elimination of revenue-generating correctional operations, and cultural change to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  • There are many opportunities for the sector to leverage the latest developments in science, technology, and evidence-based practices to create alternatives to incarceration, guide the investment of scarce resources, and engage communities in initiatives to reduce recidivism and support offender reentry.


  • Panelists put forward several solutions to support the corrections sector's mission of facilitating positive offender behavior change, including diverting low-risk offenders and those with mental health or substance use problems to specialty facilities while reserving prisons for violent and dangerous offenders; shortening sentences and ensuring that offenders have a clear, attainable path to release; and creating smaller and safer facilities that are closer to cities with programs to support reentry.
  • In the near term, panelists recommended expanding and adequately funding probation, parole, and community-based resources to support offenders' reentry into their communities.

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tennessee judge formally reprimanded for offering reduced jail time for defendants agreeing to vasectomy or birth control implant

I almost did not believe the story from earlier this year, blogged here, about a Tennessee judge giving 30 days credit off imposed jail time if an inmate were to voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant. But the tale was true, and this new Washington Post piece reports on the latest chapters of this remarkable local imprisonment tale:

When Judge Sam Benningfield of White County, Tenn., offered to shave off jail time for inmates who volunteered for sterilization, a chorus of attorneys, advocates and public officials reacted with horror.

Benningfield said his goal was to break a “vicious cycle” of repeat drug offenders with children. But many argued that the proposal, outlined in a May order, was nothing short of eugenics. Not to mention it seemed unconstitutional on its face. Civil rights lawyers brought legal actions and a local prosecutor told his staff to avoid the judge’s program at all costs.

Now, after the wave of backlash and amid multiple lawsuits, state judicial regulators have formally reprimanded Benningfield for promising 30-day sentence reductions to inmates who agreed to receive vasectomies or birth control implants.

In a letter filed Monday, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct found that Benningfield violated rules regarding judicial independence, integrity and propriety. “You have acknowledged that even though you were trying to accomplish a worthy goal in preventing the birth of substance addicted babies,” the board wrote, “you now realize that this order could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper.”...

The judicial board’s letter says the program is no longer available to any inmate and that Benningfield ran afoul of rules requiring judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence.” It noted that Benningfield didn’t object to the reprimand. The letter also reprimanded Benningfield for threatening to end an unrelated house arrest program if a defense attorney refused to withdraw a valid objection regarding a client’s probation....

Several inmates who were jailed when the orders were in effect sued the judge and White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, claiming their constitutional rights were violated. The judge and the sheriff have denied liability.

Daniel Horwitz, who represents a group of male inmates, said the judicial board should have gone further than reprimanding Benningfield and instead should have recommended he be removed from the bench. “A public reprimand is serious, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing short of removal is acceptable,” Horwitz told The Post....

Horwitz filed court papers in September on behalf of three male inmates, who called Benningfield’s program “both illegal and profoundly coercive.”  Two of the plaintiffs declined the offer for vasectomies in exchange for a sentence reduction. Another plaintiff agreed to the procedure in hopes of being released in time to watch the birth of his first grandchild. He enrolled in the judge’s early release program but didn’t receive the reduction.

Dozens of their fellow inmates, male and female, agreed to undergo birth control procedures, which can be irreversible in some cases.  Horwitz’s lawsuit describes one female White County inmate who received a hormonal birth control implant and later tried to cut it out of her arm with a razor blade.  She is not listed as a plaintiff....

District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, whose district includes White County and Benningfield’s court, was among those who criticized the sterilization program. Dunaway, who vowed during his election campaign to crack down on repeat offenders, told NewsChannel 5 in July that he had instructed his staff not to take part in Benningfield’s order “in any way.”

“Those decisions are personal in nature,” he said, “and I think that’s just something that the court system should not encourage nor mandate.”

Prior related post:

November 21, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill"

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

This month Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating his probation. #FreeMeek hashtags have sprung up, and hundreds of his fans rallied near City Hall in Philadelphia to protest the ruling.

On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started. But consider this: Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence.  Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.

What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.  I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a land mine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime. A person on probation can end up in jail over a technical violation like missing a curfew.

Taxpayers in Philadelphia, Meek Mill’s hometown, will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep him locked up, and I bet none of them would tell you his imprisonment is helping to keep them safer. He’s there because of arrests for a parole violation, and because a judge overruled recommendations by a prosecutor and his probation officer that he doesn’t deserve more jail time....

Look at what he’s being punished for now: In March, he was arrested after an altercation in a St. Louis airport. After video of what had actually happened was released, all charges were dropped against Meek. In August, he was arrested for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle on his video set in New York.  Those charges were dismissed after he agreed to attend traffic school. Think about that.  The charges were either dropped or dismissed, but the judge sent him to prison anyway....

[I]t’s time we highlight the random ways people trapped in the criminal justice system are punished every day. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.

As of 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans who were on some form of parole or probation were black. Black people are sent to prison for probation and parole violations at much higher rates than white people.  In Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people are on probation or parole.  About half of the people in city jails in Philadelphia are there for probation or parole violations.  We could literally shut down jails if we treated people on parole or probation more fairly....  Probation is a trap and we must fight for Meek and everyone else unjustly sent to prison.

Prior related post:

November 17, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"Justice reform is real and conservative governors are leading the way"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Fox News commentary authored by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.  Here are excerpts:

During the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I participated in a national panel on criminal justice reform with like-minded, conservative governors Nathan Deal of Georgia and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma.  It was an honor for me to discuss how best to create second chance opportunities with these two veterans of criminal justice reform.

When I was elected as governor in 2015, it was my intention that Kentucky would also be making significant changes to our criminal justice system. That is exactly what we have been doing.  With a rising prison population, severely depleted workforce participation rates, and the highest percentage in the nation of children with at least one incarcerated parent, we unfortunately had plenty of room for improvement. For years Kentucky had maintained an outdated, “lock-em-up and throw away the key” approach. That was unsustainable from both a societal and financial cost and we were determined to shake up the status quo.

Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities—doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement. We began by making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to get back to work, passing a comprehensive felony expungement bill that allows certain former offenders, who have been crime-free for five years, to wipe their slates clean.  We also passed a bold reentry initiative that provides for more job training and eliminates regulatory barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

Our administration implemented “ban the box” for state government agencies to give ex-offenders a fair shot at employment, and launched the “Justice to Journeyman” initiative, which paves a pathway for inmates and detained youth to earn nationally recognized credentials in a skilled trade.  Kentucky’s success as the center for engineering and manufacturing excellence in America is only being enhanced as we pioneer changes in criminal justice policy....

I ... encourage ... all governors to tackle criminal justice reform policy with a sense of urgency and purpose. Some political advisors still speak passionately about being “tough on crime”, and caution that supporting criminal justice reform policy could be politically dangerous at election time.

This is a ridiculous notion. After all, more than 90 percent of those now incarcerated will eventually re-enter society.  We either pave a path towards second opportunities or we settle for recidivism. Which is better for our communities?

If we want voters to continue electing conservatives, we must offer serious solutions. We can no longer afford to cling to the outdated idea that prison alone is the only way to hold people accountable for their crimes.  Instead, we need to take a smarter, more measured approach to criminal justice.  More than simply removing lawbreakers from society, we must also rehabilitate and re-assimilate them back into society.

In the midst of national division in many fronts, a community of conservative governors are uniting to build trust and offer real solutions to some of our country’s greatest problems.  Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities — doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement.

America has always been a land of opportunity and second chances.  When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits.

November 16, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

New report asserts California could and should cut its prison population by another 30,000

SquarelogoThis notable report by Californians for Safety and Justice, titled "Safe and Sound: Strategies to Save a Billion in Prison Costs and Build New Safety Solutions," makes the case that California could and should reduce its prison population by another 30,000 in order to close prisons and free up resources to spend on drug rehabilitation, mental health, job training and other programs. Here is an excerpt from the long report's executive summary:

Between 2006 and 2016, California has seen: A 25% drop in state prison incarceration.  A 10% statewide average drop in county jail populations.  A 64% drop in the number of people on state parole and a 22% drop in the number of felony filings in criminal courts annually.  Today more than 1.5 million Californians are eligible to remove nonviolent felony convictions from their old conviction records — opening the door to new opportunities for stability and empowerment. Rehabilitation programs are becoming more available to people in the justice system to help stop the cycle of crime. Trauma recovery centers are expanding across the state — from just one five years ago to eleven centers today—providing crisis care and help for underserved survivors of violent crime.  And, with the incarceration declines, hundreds of millions of dollars are finally being reallocated from bloated, costly prisons to community-based treatment and prevention....

Despite this progress, the Golden State’s incarceration rate is still so high that it remains a historic anomaly. California still spends more than $11 billion a year on state prisons.  That’s a 500% increase in prison spending since 1981.  In fact, California spends as much today on prisons as every state in the United States combined spent on prisons in 1981 and it has increased annual prison spending at a rate that has significantly outpaced other states.  When local crime response costs in California are factored in, such as the cost of county jails, that figure is nearly doubled from $11 billion to $20 billion annually....

In the next five years, California leaders must commit to further reducing state incarceration and prison spending to finally achieve a balanced approach to public safety.  If California leaders can continue to rightsize the state’s incarceration rate — and substantially reduce prison spending — the state would have increased capacity to invest in new safety solutions that more effectively support people vulnerable to crime, prevent crime from happening in the first place and stop the cycle from continuing.

This report outlines the strategies available to local jurisdictions to reduce the flow of people into the justice system and the burdens local criminal justice systems face. It also describes the sentencing and prison length of stay reforms that can continue to safely reduce the number of people in state prison, strategies that are supported by data on what works to reduce recidivism.

If state leaders implement the sentencing and prison length of stay reforms outlined in this report, the state could safely reduce the length of prison terms for the majority of people in prison by 20%, and reduce the number of people in state prison by about 30,000.

November 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

"Should life in jail be worse than life outside?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new commentary authored by Chris Barker in The Week. Here are excerpts:

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called "less eligibility." The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the "first and most essential of all conditions" in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent's "situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent laborer of the lowest class."  That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior's famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that "the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty."  As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham's Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not "less eligibility" but a more commonsense equality principle — offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. "Bentham," Semple wrote, "did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor."

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an "approximation" principle, wherein offenders' rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected.  Norwegian prisons use a similar "normality principle," which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life.  Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money.  Today, U.S. jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to "less eligibility," and not just for the poorest of the poor....

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility.  But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth....

Too often, the U.S. conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish.  Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn't prepare you to return to normal life.  As opinion in the U.S. starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system....

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment.  It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you.  The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside.  After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer "living in innocence and liberty" does not?  But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy, and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs.  Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.

November 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Notable protests and legal appeals as rapper Meek Mill's harsh sentence for probation violation shines light on back-end of justice system

ImagesKMOOADW6Because I do not know Pennsylvania's procedures, I have been a bit unsure how best to cover controversy over the 2-4 year prison sentence given to rapper Meek Mill for violating his probation from a 2008 gun and drug case.  This new CNN article, headlined "Outrage mounts over Meek Mill's prison sentence," provides some useful background on the case while reporting on the protest that took place at Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center on Monday and highlighting that the "case has sparked outrage not just from the hip-hop community but from activists for criminal justice reform around the nation." 

Now this lengthy new Philadelphia Inquirer article, headlined "Meek Mill appeals sentence, asks city judge Brinkley to step down," provides a useful accounting of legal issues and related stories swirling around this case. Here are excerpts:

Lawyers for imprisoned Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill have launched what one lawyer called a “flurry of legal filings” to try to get the 30-year-old hip-hop star released from his 2- to 4-year prison term for violating the terms of his 10-year-old probation.

The first filing Tuesday — a day after hundreds of supporters met outside the city Criminal Justice Center demanding Mill’s release — asked Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Genece E. Brinkley to disqualify herself from further involvement his case and allow a new judge to reconsider Mill’s prison sentence. The 14-page motion, buttressed by 143 pages of court transcripts, maintains that Brinkley, 61, a judge since 1993, had “assumed a non-judicial, essentially prosecutorial role in the revocation process,” and ignored the recommendations of the probation officer and prosecutor, neither of whom sought imprisonment.

The motion contends that Brinkley has gone beyond “the proper bounds of the judicial role, even as supervisor of a probationary sentence. Judge Brinkley has repeatedly offered inappropriate personal and professional advice to the defendant, who had become a successful professional entertainer during the pendency of this case. On some occasions, Judge Brinkley has done so off the record, or on the record while attempting inappropriately to keep that record secret from the defendant and his counsel.”

“Last week’s hearing was a farce,” said defense attorney Brian J. McMonagle. “It was a miscarriage of justice that lacked even the semblance of fairness. Today, we have asked this Judge to step aside so that a fair minded jurist can right this terrible wrong.”

McMonagle said he would file a motion seeking bail for Mill, who was taken into custody following the Nov. 6 hearing before Brinkley for violating his probation from a 2008 drug and gun case. McMonagle said Brinkley has 30 days to respond to the motions filed Tuesday. If she does not respond, Mill’s lawyers can take the case to Superior Court. For Mill, the problem with a Superior Court appeal is that, unless he is allowed bail pending appeal, he could serve his minimum sentence before a decision.

Nor does the Superior Court have a reputation for disturbing lower court sentences in such cases. An article in Sunday’s Inquirer reviewed seven Superior Court appeals of probation violation sentences imposed by Brinkley over the last four years. All were affirmed.

Mill, born Robert Williams, is now in the state prison at Camp Hill near Harrisburg undergoing evaluation before his permanent prison assignment. “He’s holding up OK,” said McMonagle, adding that Mill is in “protective custody” – in a single cell for 23 hours a day with one hour out for exercise.

A motion to reconsider the sentence is the first step in any criminal appeal to the state Superior Court, the intermediate appeals court between the trial courts and the state Supreme Court. Unless she modifies or vacates Mill’s sentence, Brinkley will be required to write an opinion for the appeals court explaining her reasons for sending him to prison.

At the Nov. 6 hearing during which Brinkley sentenced Mill, the veteran judge recounted almost 10 years of court proceedings in which he had violated his probation, and she had sentenced him to short periods in jail and then had extended his probation.

Mill’s most recent “technical violations” were testing positive for the prescription narcotic Percocet earlier this year and two misdemeanor arrests, for an altercation at the St. Louis airport and a traffic violation in Manhattan involving a motorbike.

Brinkley also reminded Mill of the night she actually tried to verify that he was feeding the homeless, part of the community service she ordered. She went to a Center City soup kitchen run by the Broad Street Ministry – and found him instead sorting clothes. “It was only when you realized that I came there to check on you that you decided to serve meals,” Brinkley told the rapper.

Mill’s lawyers contend the judge’s surreptitious visit was also questionable: “Judge Brinkley thereby made herself a fact witness on the question of whether Mr. Williams was in compliance on that occasion, as well as to any statements he may have made. Judge Brinkley then relied on her own version of this incident … among the reasons for imposing a state prison sentence.”

Mill’s lawyers contend that Brinkley also demonstrated a personal bias involving Mill in a private in-chambers meeting during a Feb. 5, 2016, probation-violation hearing. At that hearing, Mill’s then-attorney Frank DeSimone told Brinkley that Mill wanted to discuss his experiences performing community service but “would feel more comfortable relaying some of his thoughts and experiences” to the judge in private....

Joe Tacopina, a lawyer for Mill based in New York City – who was not in the private meeting – has said Brinkley asked Mill last year to record a version of a Boyz II Men ballad, “On Bended Knee,” and to mention the judge in it. Tacopina said Mill laughed off the request and told Brinkley: “I can’t do that. It’s not my music. I don’t sing that stuff. And I don’t do, like, you know, shout-outs to people in my songs.” Brinkley replied, “’OK, suit yourself,’” according to Tacopina.

Tacopina also alleged that Brinkley asked Mill to drop his current management, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, and to return to Philadelphia-based Charles “Charlie Mack” Alston, who worked with Mill early in his career....

In a related development Tuesday, authorities dismissed a New York Post internet report that the FBI was investigating Brinkley’s role in recommending Mill return to Mack’s management. An FBI spokeswoman in Philadelphia said that, per Justice Department policies, her office could not confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation. However, a federal law enforcement official in the city said that he was not aware of any active probe into the matter.

November 14, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

New report explores "Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities"

This press release provides highlights regarding this big new report from the Project on Accountable Justice examining Florida's criminal justice system and relatively high levels of incarceration. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) [has] released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system.  The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York.  In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system — who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long — the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies — like mandatory minimum sentences — keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable....

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased?  Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense?  As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.

  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations.  The vast majority — more than 70 percent — of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.

  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.

  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.

  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).

  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.

The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:

  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.

  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.

  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.

  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

November 14, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

"Roughly one in 12 people in America’s prisons and jails is a veteran"

Veterans-day-thank-you-quotesThe title of this post is one of a number of notable facts reviewed in this new webpage up at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The page carries the simple heading "Veterans Day," and here are excerpts:

Kenny. Ronald. Warren. Michael. All of these men served in our country’s Armed Forces.  Between them, their service extended to all branches of the military and earned them several Purple Hearts and other distinctions. They served bravely and with courage, and we honor them and all veterans today.

Ronald, Michael, Warren, and Kenny are also prisoners and former prisoners.  Roughly one in 12 people in America’s prisons and jails is a veteran.  Often, they’ve ended up in prison because of behavior resulting from injuries and trauma sustained during service.  Many are serving absurdly long sentences for low-level drug offenses, having turned to drugs as a way of coping with PTSD and adjusting to life after tours of duty.  And almost always, they are forgotten on this solemn day.

Our message today is simple:

  • Judges need discretion at sentencing to consider the reasons our country’s veterans ended up on the wrong side of the law.
  • The evidence of America’s failed war on drugs is in heartbreaking relief when you consider the lives of veterans— who put their lives on the line for our country — now serving inhumane mandatory minimum sentences.
  • The service to our country of incarcerated veterans is no less appreciated because of your incarceration. You are not forgotten. Thank you for your service.

Some sobering facts to think about today:

  • More than 75 percent of incarcerated veterans received honorable discharges from the military.
  • An estimated two thirds of those serving prison sentences discharged from service between 1974 and 2000, a period spanning several wars including Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
  • Of the total number of persons incarcerated, about half were diagnosed with a mental disorder, frequently Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Sixty-four percent of incarcerated veterans have been sentenced for violent offenses, as opposed to only 48 percent of other prisoners. (That single fact has resulted in both longer and harsher sentences for veterans.)

Some good news:

  • Overall, the veteran prison population has shrunk.
  • As both the Veterans Administration and the courts have begun to understand this particular issue, the situation for veterans has improved. The veteran prison population has dropped as the Veterans Administration works to provide outreach and support to returning vets, including the provision of Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist.
  • Probation officers and corrections staff are being trained to immediately identify veterans upon sentencing, and then to connect the veteran with a Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist who can advise and support the veteran.

November 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)