Monday, April 25, 2016

"A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities"

The title of this post is the title of this recently-released policy report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Here is how the report's introduction get started:

The saying is all too familiar: Do the crime, do the time. But in America’s age of mass incarceration, millions of children are suffering the consequences of their parents’ sentences and our nation’s tough-on-crime practices.

These children feel the absence of that adult — whether it is several nights in jail or years in prison — in myriad ways, even if they weren’t sharing a home. They feel it when their refrigerator is bare because their family has lost a source of income or child support. They feel it when they have to move, sometimes repeatedly, because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. And they feel it when they hear the whispers in school, at church or in their neighborhood about where their mother or father has gone.

Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation. It creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being. These challenges can reverberate and multiply in their often low-income neighborhoods, especially if they live in a community where a significant number of residents, particularly men, are in or returning from jail or prison. And different obstacles emerge once parents are released and try to assume their roles as caregivers, employees and neighbors.

This report recommends policies and practices that put the needs of children of incarcerated parents first. We call on correctional systems, communities and state and local public agencies to help stabilize families and preserve their connections during incarceration — and successfully move forward once parents come home.

April 25, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

White House Counsel on Economic Advisors releases big report providing "Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System"

Download (2)As highlighted in this prior post, Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, co-authored a New York Times commentary this past week headlined "Why Mass Incarceration Doesn’t Pay." Today, the full Council of Economic Advisers released this big new report titled "Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System." Here is part of the lengthy report's lengthy executive summary:

Calls for criminal justice reform have been mounting in recent years, in large part due to the extraordinarily high levels of incarceration in the United States. Today, the incarcerated population is 4.5 times larger than in 1980, with approximately 2.2 million people in the United States behind bars, including individuals in Federal and State prisons as well as local jails. The push for reform comes from many angles, from the high financial cost of maintaining current levels of incarceration to the humanitarian consequences of detaining more individuals than any other country.

Economic analysis is a useful lens for understanding the costs, benefits, and consequences of incarceration and other criminal justice policies. In this report, we first examine historical growth in criminal justice enforcement and incarceration along with its causes. We then develop a general framework for evaluating criminal justice policy, weighing its crime-reducing benefits against its direct government costs and indirect costs for individuals, families, and communities. Finally, we describe the Administration’s holistic approach to criminal justice reform through policies that impact the community, the cell block, and the courtroom....

Criminal justice policies have the capacity to reduce crime, but the aggregate crime-reducing benefits of incarceration are small and decline as the incarcerated population grows.

  • Given that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, research shows that further increasing the incarcerated population is not likely to materially reduce crime.
  • Economic research suggests that longer sentence lengths have little deterrent impact on offenders. A recent paper estimates that a 10 percent increase in average sentence length corresponds to a zero to 0.5 percent decrease in arrest rates.
  • Emerging research finds that longer spells of incarceration increase recidivism. A recent study finds that each additional sanction year causes an average increase in future offending of 4 to 7 percentage points.

Investments in police and policies that improve labor market opportunity and educational attainment are likely to have greater crime-reducing benefits than additional incarceration.

  • Expanding resources for police has consistently been shown to reduce crime; estimates from economic research suggest that a 10 percent increase in police force size decreases crime by 3 to 10 percent. At the same time, more research is needed to identify and replicate model policing tactics that are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between law enforcement and community stakeholders.
  • Labor market conditions and increased educational attainment can have large impacts on crime reduction by providing meaningful alternatives to criminal activity. Estimates from research suggest that a 10 percent increase in the high school graduation rate leads to a 9 percent drop in arrest rates, and a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men leads to a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates....

Given the total costs, some criminal justice policies, including increased incarceration, fail a cost-benefit test.

  • Economic researchers have evaluated the costs and benefits of policies in different criminal justice areas and find that relative to investments in police and education, investments in incarceration are unlikely to be cost-effective.
  • Moreover, cost-benefit evaluations of incarceration and sentencing often fail to consider collateral consequences, which would render these policies even more costly.
  • CEA conducted “back-of-the-envelope” cost-benefit tests of three policies: increasing incarceration, investing in police, and raising the minimum wage.
    • We find that a $10 billion dollar increase in incarceration spending would reduce crime by 1 to 4 percent (or 55,000 to 340,000 crimes) and have a net societal benefit of -$8 billion to $1 billion dollars.
    • At the same time, a $10 billion dollar investment in police hiring would decrease crime by 5 to 16 percent (440,000 to 1.5 million crimes) have a net societal benefit of $4 to $38 billion dollars.
    • Drawing on literature that finds that higher wages for low-income individuals reduce crime by providing viable and sustainable employment, CEA finds that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease (250,000 to 510,000 crimes) and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars.

April 23, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Restoring Human Capabilities After Punishment: Our Political Responsibilities Toward Incarcerated Americans"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy paper by Kony Kim now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Why should non-incarcerated Americans invest in the wellbeing of incarcerated Americans?  To date, our public discourse about penal reform has avoided this question, focusing on pragmatic reasons for facilitating “prisoner reentry” and “reintegration” while shelving unresolved, and deeply contested, philosophical questions about criminal justice and punishment.  As a result, we as a society have engaged in much data-driven policy talk about the economic costs and benefits of reducing recidivism, but little normative reflection about the rights and responsibilities held by incarcerated adults who are at once human beings, members of society, persons convicted of crimes, victims of inhumane punishment — and, often, survivors of poverty.

Thus, my first task is to clarify the individual and collective obligations that apply within our context of mass incarceration: the moral responsibilities that are held by and toward incarcerated Americans, non-incarcerated Americans, and our shared public institutions.  My second task is to draw out implications for policy and discourse: to explain not only what reform measures we should prioritize, but how we should frame and assess them.  In particular, I call for systemic changes that would provide all incarcerated Americans with opportunities to pursue higher education and to develop redemptive self-narratives; and I argue that we should frame and assess such measures not primarily as cost-saving devices, but as ethically significant efforts to secure capabilities that are essential to human flourishing and required by justice.

In setting forth these arguments, my purpose is to spark deeper ethical reflection about correctional reform, and specifically to invite meaningful engagement with one key normative question: What do we, as a civilized society with a history of social and penal injustice, owe incarcerated Americans?  Ultimately, I wish to underscore that the people confined in our prisons have legitimate moral claims upon us – insofar as they remain human beings and members of society and, as such, bearers of rights as well as responsibilities.  Equally, I wish to establish that, in our collective efforts to repair the harms of mass incarceration, we can and should empower those Americans most directly harmed by our penal system to lead the way in transforming it.

April 21, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Eleventh Circuit concurrence lists 100+ cases now made viable now that Welch clarified Johnson's retroactivity

A helpful reader altered me to a remarkable concurrence authored by Eleventh Circuit Judge Beverly Martin in In re Robinson, No. 16-11304 (11th Cir. April 19, 2016) (available here). Here is the full text of the concurrence, which serves as an explanatory preamble to a list of 110 Welch impacted cases within the circuit:

I agree that Troy Robinson cannot benefit from Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), because his sentence is valid even without the residual clause.  I write separately to note that Mr. Robinson is one of dozens of prisoners who has tried to file similar applications based on Johnson.  Prior to yesterday’s decision in Welch v. United States, No. 15-6418, 2016 WL 1551144 (Apr. 18, 2016), all these applicants were turned away from our Court not because Johnson wouldn’t benefit them but because our Court held that Johnson could never apply in these cases. Some of those who filed applications in other courts have already been freed because they were serving an unconstitutional prison sentence.  As best I can tell, all the prisoners we turned away may only have until June 26, 2016, to refile applications based on Johnson.  See Dodd v. United States, 545 U.S. 353, 359, 125 S. Ct. 2478, 2482–83 (2005).

Although I have not taken the time to investigate the merits of these cases, below is a list of every case I know of in which this court denied an application from a prisoner seeking to file a second or successive 28 U.S.C. § 2255 petition based on Johnson.  I share this list in the hope that these prisoners, who filed their applications without a lawyer’s help, may now know to refile their applications.  I have separated out the cases that arise under the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and the cases that arise under the identical language in United States Sentencing Guidelines § 4B1.2 (which includes cases for which the guidelines were mandatory together with those for which the guidelines were advisory).  I have also listed the district court in which each sentence was imposed, to the extent Federal Public Defender offices are monitoring these cases.

Because these cases all involve prisoners seeking collateral review of their prison terms, the Sixth Amendment does not provide them with a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel. I believe district judges may have discretion to appoint lawyers for these prisoners under the Criminal Justice Act, and federal defenders and private lawyers can take up their cases upon their own initiative. I hope many will.  Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if some lawyers still working through thousands of federal clemency petitions (all of which wouls seem to have limited chance of success) might reallocate some of their energies to helping Johnson/Welch claimants on this list and elsewhere throughout the country.

April 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taking full stock of the Prez Clinton's punishment legacy by looking at PLRA (and AEDPA and ....)

Though I have enjoyed seeing the 1994 Clinton Crime bill getting lots and lots of attention recently (example here and here), there is so much more to legacy of the "Clinton years" to the full story of US punishment practices.  This new New Republic commentary, headlined "Another Clinton-Era Law that Needs to Be Repealed: The Prison Litigation Reform Act is still trampling on prisoners' legal rights," tells another piece of the story, and here are excerpts:

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a rider to the annual congressional appropriations bill, the PLRA laid waste to the ability of incarcerated people to bring prison officials to court for violations of their constitutional rights, whether it be racial discrimination, lack of medical care, or brutality by prison guards.  The act was championed as a solution to the thousands of supposed “frivolous lawsuits” by prisoners, with barely any discussion by Congress about its far-reaching effects.

Locked away, those in prison are easily demonized, unable to refute any exaggerations or myths created by those on the outside. One story publicly hyped by members of Congress leading up to the act’s passage had a prisoner filing suit after receiving crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy.  But when a federal judge researched the case later, he found that the issue wasn’t about that prisoner’s taste in condiments, but that the prisoner had never been reimbursed after returning the item.  The price of a jar of peanut butter might seem trivial to those of us on the outside, but most people in prison are poor and are often deeply in debt.  Plus, many prisons overcharge for simple items (the jar of peanut butter cost $2.50, significantly more than the average cost at the time).  Looking back, the PLRA did not solve a problem of “frivolous” litigation, rather it masked and discredited the legitimate claims of people with nowhere else to turn.

Since the PLRA became law, tremendous burdens have been placed on prisoners wishing to file suit for violations of their constitutional rights.  For example, one of the law’s provisions forces you to go through the prison’s administrative complaint procedures before bringing an actual lawsuit.  This can take months. Imagine a prisoner who is in pain and in need of medical treatment, but ignored by prison staff: She must not only file her complaint with the same staff that is denying her treatment, but wait for a refusal, appeal that decision, and only after a judgment on that appeal can she then file a legal case beyond prison walls.  By that time, it may be too late for a court to do anything.

As the title of this post is meant to suggestion, lots of other Clinton-era federal criminal laws and developments, particularly the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Prez Clinton's decision to sign-on to Congress's rejection of the US Sentencing Commission's crack/powder amendment to equalize the guidelines, ought to be a continuing topic of conversation as we consider putting another Clinton in the White House this year.

Prior related posts:

April 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Costs of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece authored by Shima Baradaran Baughman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Spending on U.S. incarceration has increased dramatically over the last several decades.  Much of this cost is on incarcerating pretrial detainees — inmates not convicted of a crime — which constitute the majority of individuals in our nation’s jails.  

Current statutory schemes give judges almost complete discretion to order pretrial detention based on unexplained or unidentified factors.  With this discretion, judges tend to make inconsistent decisions in every jurisdiction, some releasing almost all defendants — including the most dangerous — and others detaining most defendants — even those who are safe to release.  There are constitutional and moral reasons to evaluate our current detention scheme, but even the fiscal impact of pretrial detention alone calls for an empirical analysis.

Although legal scholarship has applied cost-benefit analysis to other areas of criminal law, this Article is the first attempt at conducting such analysis in the pretrial arena.  This Article compares the risk posed by each defendant and the cost of any crimes they may potentially commit while released with the costs incurred by detaining these defendants.  The results show that relying on the cost-benefit model provided here, judges could bring significant savings — approximately $78 Billion, increased safety, and potentially more equitable pretrial detention decisions.

April 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Important drug offender data begging hard normative policy question regarding noncitizen US prisoners

Attachment-1I just came across this interesting posting and data analysis via NumbersUSA, a group that describes itself as "moderates, conservatives & liberals working for immigration numbers that serve America's finest goals."  The posting is titled "Sentencing Reform Legislation Would Disproportionately Favor Non-Citizens," and here are some excerpts (with one very critical line emphasized by me toward the end of this excerpt):

U.S. prisoner data clearly shows two things. One, the majority of low-level drug offenders are serving their sentences in state, not federal prisons. Two, most of those incarcerated in federal prison for drug charges are non-citizens....

[Only] 3.6 percent of all prisoners, or 48,600, under state jurisdiction are serving time for drug possession. The remaining drug offenders were convicted for trafficking and other related offenses, such as facilitating the illicit drug trade. The distribution of drug prisoners in state prisons is fairly evenly divided among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. A higher proportion of females (24%) than males (15%) are incarcerated for drugs in state prisons.

As of April 7, 2016, there were 196,285 prisoners in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with 46.5 percent of these prisoners, (91,270) sentenced for drug offenses. The percentage of prisoners incarcerated for drugs is just over two and half times greater than the state prison population. However, overall, there are fewer prisoners serving time in federal prison for drug charges than in state prisons (212,000).

The Federal government collects data differently for state and federal prisoners. In order to get the breakdown of offenses for federal drug prisoners, data from the U.S Sentencing Commission is available. Looking at sentencing statistics from FY2007 to FY2015, a clear distinction between federal and state prison populations is that the proportion of federal prisoners serving time for drug possession is much higher than for state prisoners, and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among federal drug inmates.

There is a higher ratio of Hispanics serving drug sentences for both trafficking and possession convictions in federal prisons.  As Daniel Horowitz pointed out, this is because many of the drug offenders in federal prison are serving sentences for drug convictions related to the illicit drug trade on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In response to a congressional request regarding sentencing data for federal drug offenses, the U.S. Sentencing Commission sent data showing that 95% of the 305 individuals serving time in federal prison for simple drug offenses are non-citizens and 95.7 % were sentenced in southwest border districts — virtually all of them in Arizona. Furthermore, 95.7 % of the simple possession drug crimes for which offenders are incarcerated involved marijuana and the median weight of the drug involved in cases from border districts was 22,000 grams (approximately 48 pounds). Only 13 simple possession cases were tried in non-border districts in FY 2014.

In a letter sent to Sen. Jeff Sessions last fall, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that 77% of individuals convicted of federal drug possession charges and more than 25% of individuals convicted of federal drug trafficking charges in FY2015 were non-citizen.

The profile for federal drug prisoners is different than at the state level, and this is why Congress needs to recognize and address these differences when crafting legislation that will effect this population.  Federal drug and immigration enforcement are for now inextricably tied together....

Sentencing reform bills reducing penalties for some federal prisoners (S. 2123 and H.R. 3713) are being portrayed by their supporters as a long overdue corrective to harsh sentencing laws for individuals who violate federal drug laws, which they argue create racial disparities in the nation’s prison population.

Reforming drug sentencing laws is one thing.  Releasing criminal aliens back into U.S. interior, is quite another.  The Obama Administration has already shown its willingness to do the latter, including those who were deemed to be criminal threats to the public.  Without a bill with strong, clear language and, most importantly, a Congress willing to extend oversight over the executive branch, it is plain that the sentencing reform legislation likely to soon come before Congress will accomplish little more than to provide an early release for dangerous criminal aliens, while still failing to hold President Obama to account for his failure to enforce U.S. immigration law.

This data discussion is a bit confusing because of its many references to both federal and state prisoners and both trafficking and possession offense and both percentages and absolute numbers. But, data particulars and confusions aside, the piece rightly highlights a very important data reality integral to any sophisticated discussion of efforts to reduce the federal prison population, especially for drug offenses: a significant percentage (and thus a large total number) of imprisoned and future federal drug offenders who would benefit from federal sentencing reform (perhaps up to 35% or even higher) would be noncitizens.

It understandable that persons deeply concerned about illegal immigration, and likely eager for policy changes always to prioritize benefits to US citizens over noncitizens, would find troublesome the statistical reality that federal sentencing reforms would benefit noncitizens significantly. However, this perspective may change if one realizes that noncitizen serious federal drug offenders who would get reduced sentences under any proposed sentencing reform would not get released "back into the US interior." Rather, any and every noncitizen serious federal drug offender who gets a reduced sentence is always going to be subject to immediate deportation once release from prison.

The important reality the many imprisoned and future noncitizen federal drug offenders are all to be deported after serving their federal prison sentences raises the hard normative policy question that is begged in any discussion of this data. That question is: What normative policy goal are we really achieving — other than spending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to house, feed and provide medical care to criminal noncitizens — by having noncitizens serve extra long federal prison terms if they are all to be deported at the end of these their terms no matter what?

Bill Otis and many others opposing proposed federal reforms are quick to stress the risk of increased domestic crime if we reduce current and future federal sentences and thereby release former offenders back into US communities sooner.  But that argument really does not hold up when we are talking about noncitizen offenders who will be forcibly deported to another nation after finishing whatever length of sentence they serve at federal taxpayer expense. (Indeed, I suspect imprisoning noncitizens in the US for long terms actually leads criminal noncitizens to become ever-more connected to US citizens and makes them even more likely to seek illegal return to the US after they are deported).

April 13, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (33)

Monday, April 11, 2016

"The Battle Against Prison for Kids"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article from The Nation. The piece's subtitle is "We’re feeding children into a system that breaks them," and here is how it gets started:

For as long as youth prisons have existed in the United States, so too has the pretense that there are no youth prisons. Early 19th-century reformers who sought to remove children from the harsh adult penal system established new institutions specifically for the detention of youths.  They didn’t call them prisons, but Houses of Refuge, dedicated to the discipline and reform of newly coined group, “juvenile delinquents.”  Founded with ostensibly laudable intent, the institutions were overcrowded fortresses, riddled with abuse, serving to institutionalize strict social control over poor and immigrant communities.  That is, they were prisons.

And so began the unending march of euphemisms, in which children’s prisons have been known by any other name — residential treatment facilities, youth camps, youth-development centers, to name a few — exposing juveniles to many the same cruelties and racial discriminations of the adult prison system. In the two centuries since its formal birth, the juvenile-justice system has changed radically, while youth prisons have hardly changed at all. It’s as if the clock on reform stopped in the turn-of-the-century Progressive Era and has only recently started shakily ticking again.

Last year, before the election spectacle swallowed the news cycle whole, juvenile-justice reform made headlines as a keystone in President Obama’s legacy-construction efforts.  Overdue political action from state houses has gained serious ground in removing youths from adult prisons.  On any given day, 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult facilities, where they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than in juvenile institutions (a monstrous statistic, especially considering the prevalence of sexual abuse in youth facilities).  The necessity of getting kids out of our shameful adult system cannot be overstated.  It’s a limited achievement, though.  And even as more and more youth prisons close, we must be vigilant against “alternatives” that press the same oppressive, discriminatory stigmas of criminality and delinquency onto kids outside prison walls.

April 11, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Orleans judge threatening to turn public defender funding crisis into a public safety problem

32This local article from the Big Easy reports on notable efforts by a local judge to make sure it is no longer easy for public officials to ignore the problem of inadequate funding of public defenders to represent indigent criminal defendants.  The article is headlined "New Orleans judge orders release of seven inmates charged with serious felonies because of lack of money for defense, but men will remain jailed pending an appeal," and here are the basic details:

In a potentially blockbuster ruling, an Orleans Parish judge on Friday ordered seven indigent inmates released from jail because of a lack of state money for attorneys to represent them amid a squeeze on public defense funding in New Orleans and across Louisiana.

However, Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter stayed his order, which also included a suspension of the men’s prosecutions, pending an appeal from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. Assistant District Attorney David Pipes told Hunter an appeal is coming, and Hunter gave him 10 days. The seven men will remain behind bars pending the outcome of that appeal.

All of them face serious felony charges — including murder, armed robbery and aggravated rape — and all have been deemed indigent. Most have spent more than a year behind bars, going months without legal help on their cases, attorneys said.

Hunter ruled that the lack of state funding for the seven men’s defense violated their Sixth Amendment rights and that the resulting uncertainty on when their cases might move forward warrants their release. “The defendants’ constitutional rights are not contingent on budget demands, waiting lists and the failure of the Legislature to adequately fund indigent defense,” Hunter wrote in his 11-page ruling, portions of which he read from the bench.

“We are now faced with a fundamental question, not only in New Orleans but across Louisiana: What kind of criminal justice system do we want? One based on fairness or injustice, equality or prejudice, efficiency or chaos, right or wrong?”

A spokesman for Cannizzaro’s office said the district attorney “believes that releasing defendants charged with serious acts of violence poses a clear and present danger to public safety, and he intends to appeal the ruling.” Spokesman Christopher Bowman added, “It appears that the judge’s ruling declares that a legislative act — namely the most recent budget — violates the Louisiana Constitution.”

Tulane Law School professor Pam Metzger, who is representing all seven in their bid for release, said she was “thrilled that the judge appreciates the extraordinary constitutional obligations of providing poor people with counsel and due process of law.” She said she was disappointed that Hunter stayed his ruling but that attorneys would continue pressing to free the men.

In addition to Metzger, each of the men has an attorney appointed by Hunter. But in his ruling, Hunter said the appointment of private attorneys without any state money available for early witness and defendant interviews, filing motions and strategizing “makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel.”

Hunter was following directions laid out in a 2005 Louisiana Supreme Court decision on when judges can halt prosecutions because of a lack of adequate indigent defense funds. The court said a judge can stop a case “until he or she determines that appropriate funding is likely to be available.” The “absence of a date certain” when that money will come, Hunter found, also violates the right to due process guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Louisiana Constitution’s edict for the Legislature to “provide for a uniform system for securing and compensating qualified counsel for indigents.”...

Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton’s office had turned away the seven cases, citing a severe budget shortfall, bloated workloads and the loss of several experienced attorneys in his office.

Hunter, who has taken drastic measures during past funding shortfalls at the Public Defenders Office — he ordered the release of several inmates after Hurricane Katrina — doled out the seven men’s cases to private attorneys, who promptly sought a halt to the prosecutions and the men’s release. They said they can’t do any work on the cases unless they get money to pay for investigators and other expenses.

Hunter’s ruling came after a series of hearings in his courtroom that began in November with testimony from Bunton and Jay Dixon, who heads the Louisiana Public Defender Board, among others. They testified that indigent defense in Louisiana is facing a crisis because of a system in which local offices are funded largely through fines and fees leveled on criminal defendants, mostly for traffic violations. Those revenues have slid steadily over the past several years, in some parishes more than others. All told, almost a dozen district public defenders across the state have instituted austerity programs.

In New Orleans, that has meant a hiring freeze since last summer and, beginning in January, a refusal by Bunton’s office to accept appointments in serious felony cases — now at 110 and counting — because of a lack of experienced attorneys to handle them, according to Bunton. “Obviously, the charges involved in these cases are really serious, so I do think folks should be concerned about public safety,” Bunton said Friday. “We wouldn’t need to be in this position if (the state) provided the resources that are necessary under the constitution. You can only prosecute as fast as you can defend, and if you can’t defend, you can’t prosecute.”...

The defenders’ funding troubles may be getting even worse. In Baton Rouge, lawmakers grappling with the state’s deep budget morass have threatened deep cuts in the $33 million in annual state funding that has supplemented local revenue, making up about a third of the overall funding for indigent defense across the state. The Louisiana Supreme Court has in the past endorsed a halt to prosecutions until adequate funding becomes available. But it has stopped short of ordering action by the Legislature.

At a recent hearing, Metzger described an “abject state of financial crisis. There is no money to fund these defenses. ... The cause of the delay rests entirely with the state. The Legislature has been on notice not simply for weeks or months or years but for decades.”

In a legal filing last week, however, Cannizzaro’s office described the private attorneys seeking to be relieved from the cases as bent on “nothing less than anarchy” by pressing for the defendants’ release and a halt to their prosecutions, while “hoping for a paycheck” at the expense of justice. “They are seeking to bring down a system they disagree with rather than protecting the rights of those individuals this court has appointed them to represent,” Pipes wrote.

A statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu called Hunter’s ruling “a miscarriage of justice on all sides” and urged the judge “for the sake of the victims and their families” to “reconsider putting alleged murderers back on the streets, like Darrian Franklin.”

“The state needs to live up to its obligation by fully funding the public defender, and the judge should continue to work on getting the State to appropriately fund its responsibilities,” the statement read.

April 11, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Former Prez Clinton takes on protestors complaining about his tough-on-crime policies

This new Reuters article, headlined "Bill Clinton confronts protesters who say his crime reforms hurt blacks," reports on a notable exchange about crime and punishment involving former President Bill Clinton today. Here are the details:

Former President Bill Clinton faced down protesters angry at the impact his crime reforms of 20 years ago have had on black Americans and defended the record of Hillary Clinton, his wife, who is relying on the support of black voters in her quest for the presidency. The former president spent more than 10 minutes confronting the protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia for his wife on Thursday over criticisms that a 1994 crime bill he approved while president led to a surge in the imprisonment of black people....

In Philadelphia, several protesters heckled the former president mid-speech and held up signs, including one that read "CLINTON Crime Bill Destroyed Our Communities."

Video footage of Hillary Clinton defending the reforms in 1994 has been widely circulated during the campaign by activists in the Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the footage she calls young people in gangs "super-predators" who need to "be brought to heel." Hillary Clinton, 68, who also has faced protesters upset by her remarks, in February said she regretted her language.

Bill Clinton, 69, who was president from 1993-2001, on Thursday defended her 1994 remarks, which protesters say were racially insensitive, and suggested the protesters' anger was misplaced. "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children," he said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She (Hillary Clinton) didn't."

"You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter," he told a protester. "Tell the truth."

Hillary Clinton promised to end "mass incarceration" in her first major speech of her campaign last year. She has won the support of the majority of black voters in every state nominating contest so far, often by a landslide....

Bill Clinton said last year that he regrets signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act into law because it contributed to the country's high incarceration rate of black people for nonviolent crimes. On Thursday, he did not explicitly recant those regrets, but appeared to be angry at any suggestion the bill was wholly bad.

The legislation imposed tougher sentences, put thousands more police on the streets and helped fund the building of extra prisons. It was know for its federal "three strikes" provision that sent violent offenders to prison for life. The bill was backed by congressional Republicans and hailed at the time as a success for Clinton....

Bill Clinton's remarks on Thursday drew criticism online. Some saw him as dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement, a national outgrowth of anger over a string of encounters in which police officers killed unarmed black people.

April 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

"Normative Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by William Berry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When the Court interprets the Constitution to accord a new right to criminal offenders, the question quickly becomes which prisoners might benefit from the new rule.  The current retroactivity doctrine relies on a confusing substance-procedure dichotomy.  Drawn from Teague v. Lane, this test often results in lower court splits on the retroactivity question.  Just this term, the Supreme Court has already decided the question of retroactivity in one case — Montgomery v. Louisiana, and has granted certiorari in another — Welch v. United States.

This Article rejects the substance-procedure dichotomy and offers a competing theoretical frame for considering the question of retroactivity.  Specifically, the Article develops the concept of “normative retroactivity,” arguing that retroactivity should relate directly to the normative impact of the new rule on previous guilt and sentencing determinations.  Further, the article advances a doctrinal test for assessing normative retroactivity of new rules of criminal constitutional law that combines the normative impact of the rule with a balancing test that weighs the applicable values of fundamental fairness and equality under the law against the competing values of finality, comity, and government financial burden.

April 6, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Might the US be willing to learn from the German prison experience?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Huffington Post commentary by Vincent Schiraldi, headlined "What we can learn from German prisons."  The commentary provides a bit of a preview of this segment to air tonight on 60 Minutes under the title "This is prison? 60 Minutes goes to Germany: Germany's prison system keeps convicts comfortable, costs less and has lower recidivism rates, but would Americans ever accept it?".  Here is the start of the Huffington Post piece:

On Sunday, April 3, 60 Minutes will air a story on several U.S. delegations to German prisons by advocates, researchers and public officials that should be mandatory viewing for anyone who works in or cares about America’s massive prison problem. In a country that has only a fraction of our incarceration rate, even Germany’s deepest-end prisons are humane and decent in ways that, at least at present, are difficult to fathom in the U.S. context.

The groups who funded or organized the trips - the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Justice, and the Prison Law Office - hope to change that. Inspired by these delegations, when I was working for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, I organized a study tour to one of the prisons they had visited - the Neustrelitz Prison near Berlin, which houses adolescents and young adults.

The place couldn’t have been more different than a U.S. prison or juvenile facility. In fact, it was a bit of both, because young people are allowed to be tried in Germany’s juvenile courts up to age 21, unlike U.S. juvenile courts whose jurisdiction expires somewhere between ages 16 and 18, depending on the state.

The young people we met were all involved in programming from farming, to wood shop, to metal work, to in-depth therapy. The freedom of movement was extraordinary, with most youth sleeping in unlocked rooms at night and eventually going on home visits and transitioning out to daytime work, returning to the facility at night. Sentences were much shorter than those experienced by people locked up in the U.S., which partially explains why only 79 out of every 100,000 Germans are behind bars, compared to America’s world-leading incarceration rate of 700 per 100,000.

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

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new policy brief from The Sentencing Project with lots notable data, which gets started this way:

Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data available), the rate of youth committed to juvenile facilities after an adjudication of delinquency fell by 47 percent Every state witnessed a drop in its commitment rate, including 19 states where the commitment rates fell by more than half.  Despite this remarkable achievement, the racial disparities endemic to the juvenile justice system did not improve over these same 10 years.  Youth of color remain far more likely to be committed than white youth. Between 2003 and 2013, the racial gap between black and white youth in secure commitment increased by 15%.

Both white youth and youth of color attained substantially lower commitment rates over these 10 years.  For white juveniles, the rate fell by 51 percent (140 to 69 per 100,000); for black juveniles, it fell 43 percent (519 to 294 per 100,000).  The combined effect was to increase the commitment disparity over the decade.  The commitment rate for Hispanic juveniles fell by 52 percent (230 to 111), and the commitment rate for American Indian juveniles by 28 percent (354 to 254).

As of 2013, black juveniles were more than four times as likely to be committed as white juveniles, Americans Indian juveniles were more than three times as likely, and Hispanic juveniles were 61 percent more likely.  Another measurement of disproportionate minority confinement is to compare the committed population to the population of American youth.

Slightly more than 16 percent of American youth are African American. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of committed juveniles who were African American grew from 38 percent to 40 percent.  Roughly 56 percent of all American youth are white (non-Hispanic). Between 2003 and 2013, the percent of committed juveniles who were white fell from 39 percent to 32 percent.

April 2, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Extraordinany (and extraordinarily timely) issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

The March 2016 issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science has an extraordinary collections of essays by an extraordinary array of legal scholars and sociologists and criminologists under the issue title "The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond." Though many of the articles focus on California's unique and uniquely important recent criminal justice reforms experiences, all folks interested in and concerned about sentencing and corrections reform in the United States ought to find the time to read most or all of the articles in this collection.

The special editors of this issue, Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, authored this introduction to the collection under the title "The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States."  Here is an excerpt from that introduction:

This volume of The ANNALS represents the first effort by scholars to systematically and scientifically analyze what Joan Petersilia (2012) has described as “the biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America.”  She went on to note that “most people don’t even realize it’s happening,” a point underscored by Franklin Zimring in the volume’s concluding remarks.  At a historic moment in which imprisonment patterns across the U.S. are shifting for the first time in nearly 40 years, the California case is ripe for in-depth examination.  The political landscape around decarceration is also shifting in ways that do not fit the debate of the last 40 years.  The initiative behind the prison buildup was largely an offshoot of more conservative, law and order political agendas, but as the nation debates a move toward prison downsizing and decarceration, there is support from both the Left and the Right for this fundamental shift in policy (Aviram, this volume; Beckett et al., this volume) — unusual bedfellows at a time of political polarization.  While this political convergence will no doubt be contested, as Joan Petersilia emphasizes in the volume’s preface, it nonetheless represents an important moment to have a systematic, rigorous, and scientific evaluation of California’s experiment and its implications on hand for policy-makers.

March 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fair Punishment Project releases first major report: "Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?"

In this post yesterday I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  Today I received an email concerning the great new work of this great new initiative.  Here is part of this email reporting on this new report from FPP:

As Pennsylvania prepares for hundreds of resentencing hearings, a new report released today by the Fair Punishment Project and Phillips Black highlights Philadelphia’s frequent use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report urges District Attorney Seth Williams to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively.

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?, notes that Philadelphia County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country.  By way of comparison, Philadelphia County is home to just .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole — or nearly one in 10.

“The latest scientific research show us that juveniles have a tremendous capacity to change their behaviors as they age,” stated Johanna Wald, a spokesperson for the Fair Punishment Project. “It is an injustice, and waste of taxpayer resources, to keep individuals locked up until their death for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. They should have an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”

Wald notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. “The court has said that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved for exceptional cases that reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity children have to change, the court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet this standard.”...

“Philadelphia has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than anywhere else in the United States,” said John Mills of Phillips Black. “It is an outlier jurisdiction that, thanks to the court’s ruling, now has the opportunity to right the harsh punishments of the past by providing a thoughtful and measured approach to resentencing.”

March 31, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"

While I was on the road yesterday, I received an email with some exciting news from my law school alma mater.  Here is the text of the email announcement:

We'd like to introduce you to a brand new initiative brought to you by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  The Fair Punishment Project will use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.  The Project will work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion. We are dedicated to illuminating the laws that result in excessive punishment, especially the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

We'll be releasing our first report in the next day or two, so keep an eye out -- you don't want to miss it.  Future reports will highlight the troubling attributes that outlier death penalty counties have in common, examine America's top 10 deadliest prosecutors, and look deeply into counties that are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. 

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute was launched in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. The Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy, and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society.  The Criminal Justice Institute trains Harvard Law School students who will be the next generation of ethical, effective, and passionate defense lawyers.  Led by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Institute leads research of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.

The Fair Punishment Project will strive to be a valuable resource for anyone and everyone who is interested in bringing about a fair and equitable justice system.  We hope you will visit our website at www.fairpunishment.org to learn more about our work, and that you will join us as we address one of the most critical issues of our time.

And here are titles and links to some of the notable sentencing-related content already up at the FPP website:

March 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 28, 2016

Call for Papers for Symposium on "Private Prisons: The Corporatization of Criminal Justice and the New Marketplace for Crime"

I am very pleased to be able to post a timely call for papers sent my way by a former student who is now in law teaching and working hard in the arena of criminal justice reform and sentencing.  Here are the event/paper details sent my way:

Indiana Tech Law School will dedicate its 2016 Annual Symposium to the pressing issue of the prison industrial complex, and specifically the role of private prisons in mass incarceration. The symposium, titled Private Prisons: The Corporatization of Criminal Justice and the New Marketplace for Crime, will seek to contextualize the criminal justice system against the backdrop of the for-profit prison system, particularly the system’s reliance upon high rates of incarceration to sustain its business model.  The symposium seeks to address a broad range of questions, including how the profit-motive of private prisons influences the length and severity of sentences and availability of parole, how private prisons and mass incarceration disproportionately impact communities of color, and how private prisons contribute to social inequality and oppression.

The United States imprisons more people, both per capita and in absolute terms, than any other nation in the world.  Since the 1980’s, the government has increasingly turned to private corporations to build, maintain, and operate prisons to house the burgeoning prison population.  This unprecedented level of incarceration by for-profit corporations has important implications for law and policy, not only in the context of criminal justice but also in immigration detainment and deportation matters. Currently, forprofit prisons detain 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and nearly half of all immigrants detained for documentation status.

The private prison system raises issues that touch upon criminal sentencing, immigration policy, the legitimacy of delegating carceral policy to the private sector, and fundamental liberty guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendment.  We seek papers that will contribute to the important dialogue about the legal system’s responsibility for both producing and correcting these outcomes.  Papers accepted for the symposium will be published in a special symposium edition of the Indiana Tech Law Review.

Workshop Contacts: andré douglas pond cummings (ADCummings @ indianatech.edu), Adam Lamparello (AXLamparello @ indianatech.edu) and Yvonne Lindgren (YFLindgren @ indianatech.edu)

Submission procedure: Email a proposal of up to 500 words as a Word or PDF document by May 1, 2016. Please include your name, institution, and contact information in the proposal and submit it via email to Lydia LaMont (LGLaMont@indianatech.edu) with the subject line “Symposium Call for Papers.” Decisions will be made by June 1st and working paper drafts are due by October 15th.

Symposium Details: The Symposium will be held at Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne, Indiana on November 11th. The program will consist of panel discussions and a keynote address.

March 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Poor white kids are less likely to go to prison than rich black kids"

The title of this post is the headline of this Wonkblog posting via the Washington Post discussing some recent empirical research on sentencing outcomes appearing in the latest issue of the journal Race & Social Problems.  Here is the post's discussion of the research:

It's a fact that people of color are worse off than white Americans in all kinds of ways, but there is little agreement on why. Some see those disparities as a consequence of racial discrimination in schools, the courts and the workplace, both in the past and present. Others argue that economic inequalities are really the cause, and that public policy should help the poor no matter their race or ethnicity. When it comes to affirmative action in college admissions, for example, many say that children from poor, white families should receive preferential treatment, as well.

In some ways, though, discrimination against people of color is more complicated and fundamental than economic inequality. A stark new finding epitomizes that reality: In recent decades, rich black kids have been more likely to go to prison than poor white kids. "Race trumps class, at least when it comes to incarceration," said Darrick Hamilton of the New School, one of the researchers who produced the study.

He and his colleagues, Khaing Zaw and William Darity of Duke University, examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national study that began in 1979 and followed a group of young people into adulthood and middle age. The participants were asked about their assets and debts, and interviewers also noted their type of residence, including whether they were in a jail or prison.

The researchers grouped participants in the survey by their race and their household wealth as of 1985 and then looked back through the data to see how many people in each group ultimately went to prison. Participants who were briefly locked up between interviews might not be included in their calculations of the share who were eventually incarcerated.

About 2.7 percent of the poorest white young people — those whose household wealth was in the poorest 10th of the distribution in 1985, when they were between 20 and 28 years old — ultimately went to prison. In the next 10th, 3.1 percent ultimately went to prison.

The households of young people in both of these groups had more debts than assets. In other words, their wealth was negative. All the same, their chances of being imprisoned were far less than those of black youth from much more affluent circumstances. About 10 percent of affluent black youths in 1985 would eventually go to prison. Only the very wealthiest black youth — those whose household wealth in 1985 exceeded $69,000 in 2012 dollars — had a better chance of avoiding prison than the poorest white youth. Among black young people in this group, 2.4 percent were incarcerated.

Hispanic participants who were less affluent in 1985 were more likely to be eventually incarcerated than their white peers with similar wealth, but less likely than black participants....

It could be that the white participants in the study still had other advantages over their black peers, even if they had been incarcerated. Perhaps they went to better schools, or lived in areas where it was easier to find work. At the same time, another reason for the disparity between black and white wealth could be that employers make negative inferences about black workers' pasts, even those who have never been to prison....

In a way, untangling economic and racial inequalities is a chicken-and-egg problem. In criminal justice, though, you can't just explain away the disproportionate rates at which black and Hispanic youths end up in prison by pointing out that many people of color did not grow up with the same economic advantages as their white peers.

The full research article discussed here, which is titled "Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," can be accessed at this link.

March 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pew develops new "punishment rate" metric to provide more nuanced perspective on state incarceration levels

Via email today I learned of this intriguing new report from the folks at Pew Trusts titled "The Punishment Rate: New metric evaluates prison use relative to reported crime." Here is the short data-heavy report starts and ends:

Researchers, policymakers, and the public rely on a variety of statistics to measure how society punishes crime. Among the most common is the imprisonment rate — the number of people in prison per 100,000 residents. This metric allows for comparisons of prison use over time and across jurisdictions and is widely seen as a proxy for punishment. States with high imprisonment rates, for example, are considered more punitive than those with low rates.

A more nuanced assessment of punishment than the ratio of inmates to residents is that of inmates to crime— what The Pew Charitable Trusts calls the “punishment rate.” This new metric gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context.

Using the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system, Pew found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed. The analysis also shows that the nation as a whole has become more punitive than the imprisonment rate alone indicates....

The long-term rise in U.S. imprisonment is a familiar story. Although the imprisonment rate is an essential tool in understanding correctional trends, it paints an incomplete picture of the nation’s and individual states’ punitiveness because it does not take crime rates into account. The punishment rate provides a more nuanced assessment by placing each jurisdiction’s imprisonment rate in the context of the severity and frequency of its crime.

Analysis of punishment rates over time and across jurisdictions makes clear that the nation has become more punitive. What’s more, many states punish crime significantly more—or less—than their imprisonment rates alone indicate. States with particularly high or low punishment rates and those that experienced significant increases in their punishment rates over time may benefit from identifying and examining the policy choices responsible for their rankings and trends.

Helpfully, the folks at The Marshall Project have this interesting piece discussing what the new Pew metric does and does not tell us. That piece is headlined "The Tricky Business of Measuring Crime and Punishment: Pew researchers release a new prison scorecard, but it ain’t perfect," and here are excerpts:

We’ve grown accustomed to a quantified world of ever more complicated data available at our fingertips, on everything from how we sleep and eat to how often left-handed pinch hitters hit ground rule doubles on rainy days.  “The incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice.  It's kind of crazy,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, adding, “We can't answer some of the most basic questions about one of the most important functions of a society.”

Nearly five years ago, Gelb and Pew started by looking at recidivism — how often people released from prisons are arrested again for new offenses. But using recidivism alone to compare how states are doing at rehabilitating prisoners fell short.  One state could have a lower recidivism rate simply because it tended to have more low risk offenders in its prisons.  So then, Gelb said he began thinking about how to assess whether the “right” people are in prison, that is the serious, violent and repeat offenders most likely to commit new crimes.

Pew’s punishment rate focuses on the most serious felony offenses that lead to a year or more in state prison.  The calculation divides each state’s imprisonment rate in a given year by the rate of crimes reported there, using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  To account for some crimes being more serious and more likely to lead to longer prison sentences, Pew weights the annual crime rates by calculating the average time served for those crimes each year.  After all of these calculations, Pew found that as America's imprisonment rate has gone up in the past three decades and as crime has dropped, the “punishment rate” rose by 165 percent.

While the methodology makes sense and is probably the best available considering the shortcomings of federal crime data, the punishment rate is not yet the magic metric. Unpacking the components of Pew’s punishment rate illustrates how tricky measuring criminal justice progress can be.  The punishment rate depends on the number of crimes reported by the FBI.  But the Uniform Crime Report, created in the 1920s, tracks only seven key crimes: murder, assault, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft.  It excludes dozens of offenses — most notably drug crimes, which have been a major factor in the growth of prison populations.  Pew’s report readily acknowledges that the Uniform Crime Report omits crimes for which roughly one-fifth of state prisoners are serving time.

“What that means is not to say that drug trafficking is not a serious crime, just that it's not reported and tracked in a way that you can support adding it to this formula,” Gelb said.  “It does mean that — other things being equal — a state that has a lot of drug enforcement activity and stiff sentencing for drug offenses will have a higher punishment rate.”

The other trouble with the punishment rate is in the lag between crime and judgment.  Pew is comparing the crime rate each year to the current prison population at that moment. It doesn't account for the people being sentenced each year or the prison intakes.  It also doesn't look at what crimes those in prison were convicted of.  So there is an inherent lag between when crimes happen and when someone might go to prison for them. Despite plummeting crime since the 1990s, the growth in the punishment rate didn’t overtake the rise in imprisonment until 2011.  That may be partially explained by the gap in time between crime and incarceration, though Gelb contends that effect is ameliorated by calculating rolling averages for offense severity (but not the crimes themselves or the imprisonment rate). He said the adjustment is meant to be a barometer of the seriousness of crimes in a year rather than a “fine-tuned calculation.”  But that lack of precision could undercut Pew’s implicit argument that in some states we are “punishing for punishment’s sake.”

I find especially important and notable Gelb's astute comment that the "incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice." Especially as I am starting to prepare for my upcoming fantasy baseball draft, it is more than a bit disconcerting that I can easily find dozens of statistical projections for the Cleveland Indians' battery but no on-line sources to help predict how many batteries might be committed in Cleveland.

March 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Looking Forward: A Comprehensive Plan for Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. Here is the report's introduction:

Ohio has a mass incarceration crisis.  There are currently 50,600 Ohioans in prisons designed to hold 38,600; that’s at least 12,000 too many of our neighbors and fellow citizens in cages.  And beyond these inhumane numbers, there is a fundamental misuse of criminal-justice tools to attack social and health problems.  We have responded to poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, or an overall lack of opportunities with punishment.

Instead of treating people with mental illness, we criminalize them and block access to the care they so desperately need. We allow low-income people to be victimized by steep fines and costs, with many languishing in local jails because they cannot afford to pay a court fine or make bond.  People who have a small amount of drugs are not given treatment for their addiction, but instead offered prison sentences and a felony conviction.  Those who try to re-enter society have the door slammed shut by mounting collateral sanctions that prevent them from getting a job, housing, education, reliable transportation, and more.

The result is a system that is costing our state in every sense of the word.  Ohio has the sixth largest prison population in the nation. In the last decade, the prison population has increased 12 percent despite the fact that the violent crime rate has reached a 30-year low.  In 2014, taxpayers spent over $1.7 billion to operate the state prison system alone. Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on crime-survivor services, schools, addiction treatment, mental healthcare and other services that enrich our communities and that keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.  Nowhere are the negative effects of mass incarceration felt more than in communities of color. African Americans account for nearly half the state’s prison population but only a little more than a tenth of the total state population.  Mass incarceration has decimated neighborhoods, leaving many communities of color with countless people unable to find employment and cycling in and out of the justice system.  

State leaders have begun to recognize that mass incarceration is simply not working and must be dismantled.  In 2011, a bi-partisan group of legislators, along with advocates and activists, passed House Bill 86 (HB 86).  This legislation was part of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative that sought to reform state criminal justice systems and provide resources for strategies that depopulate prisons and jails.  While HB 86 promised modest reforms, it was never fully implemented or funded, and despite a short plateau, Ohio’s prison population is growing.

The time for modest, incremental steps is over.  We must challenge ourselves to imagine a fundamentally different justice system that is truly just, and not merely focused on punishment.  We must usher in an era of being smart on crime, not just tough on crime, where accountability does not mean punishment for punishment’s sake.  We can create forms of accountability that restore the law-breaker to being a productive member of society while also offering more robust healing and restoration to crime victims.

Currently, the Ohio General Assembly has created a Criminal Justice Recodification Committee that is tasked with rewriting our criminal laws.  Once again, state leaders have invited members of that committee to use this opportunity to change our justice system.  However, the problem does not begin or end simply with the contents of Ohio’s criminal code, nor does the solution reside solely with the Committee.  Their work represents a meaningful opportunity to bring about substantive reform — that opportunity must not be squandered on narrow, technical edits to statutory language.  Now is the chance for the legislature to precisely identify and fundamentally change the policies that drive excessive incarceration.  It is with this approach that we can perhaps finally begin looking forward to a new justice system that makes our communities stronger and lifts up the people of Ohio, rather than keeping them down.

March 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thoughtful nuanced comments from George Will on modern crime and punishment

The Washington Post has published this astute new commentary by Geoge Will under the headline "Sentencing reform alone won’t fix crime and punishment in America." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

Sen. John Cornyn recalls visiting a Texas prison where some inmates taking shop classes could not read tape measures. Cornyn, who was previously a district court judge and Texas Supreme Court justice, knows that prisons are trying to teach literacy and vocations, trying to cope with the mental illnesses of many inmates and trying to take prophylactic measures to prevent drug-related recidivism by people imprisoned for drug offenses.  “The criminal-justice system,” he says, “has become by default a social services provider.”

It is not, however, equipped to perform so many functions.  Cornyn, a Republican, is part of a bipartisan congressional group negotiating sentencing reform, one of many needed repairs of the criminal-justice system.  What justice requires, frugality encourages: Too many people are in prison for too long, and too often, at a financial cost disproportionate to the enhancement of public safety....

Old theories about the causes of crime need to be rethought.  During the Great Depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, yet in many cities crime fell.  Demographic factors?  Crime rates often vary with the size of society’s cohort of young males: Crime declined considerably during World War II not just, or even primarily, because unemployment was negligible but also because so many young males were in military discipline.

In 2010, one year after the Great Recession’s jobs destruction doubled the unemployment rate, the property crime rate fell and violent crime reached a 40-year low.  Current high incarceration rates had something to do with that.  But how much?  James Q. Wilson, the most accomplished social scientist since World War II, accepted the estimate that increased incarceration explains “one-quarter or more of the crime decline.”  Wilson also suggested an environmental factor: “For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent.”  Since the 1970s, lead has been removed from gasoline and paint for new homes, and “the amount of lead in Americans’ blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991.”  Wilson cited a study that ascribed more than half the 1990s’ decline in crime to the reduction of gasoline lead.  Clearly, sentencing reform is just one piece of a complex policy puzzle.

March 17, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Another disconcerting report about the failings of the Obama clemency initiative and Clemency Project 2014

USA-JUSTICE-CLEMENCYRegular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up efforts to get serious about using clemency powers, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored the new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been.  Here are just a few of my prior related posts on this front:

Still more reason for concern has now emerged via this new Reuters article headlined "Obama's prisoner clemency plan faltering as cases pile up." Here are excerpts:

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world's highest incarceration rate....

A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group -- Clemency Project 2014 -- to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough. So far, the group estimates it has handed over around 200 cases.

But criminal justice experts say the administration itself should bear much of the blame. The idea to tap pro-bono attorneys to help vet the cases originated with the DOJ, and critics say it should have prepared its own staff to handle the large volume of applications. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” said Rachel Barkow, a criminal law professor at New York University who has studied clemency in U.S. prisons. She estimates that about 1,500 prisoners should be eligible for commutation, saying the 187 granted so far does not "fulfill the promise of the program."...

The delays have left prisoners like Linda Byrnes, 69, in limbo. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” Byrnes told Reuters through an electronic messaging system from a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Byrnes, who has spent 20 years in prison for distributing marijuana and has two years left on her sentence, was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer and has yet to hear whether she has been assigned a lawyer after submitting her application to Clemency Project in August 2014....

Clemency Project 2014 said it does not comment publicly on the individuals it represents. The group vets the applications, writes the petitions and sends them to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which oversees all pardons and sentence commutations and makes recommendations for the president's approval.

So far, 25,000 of 34,000 applications received by Clemency Project have been rejected for failing to meet the basic criteria - no record of violence, no significant ties to a gang or drug cartel, good behavior in prison and completion of at least 10 years of sentence. About 10,000 inmates did not go through the Clemency Project and either applied directly to DOJ or through a paid attorney. "It really would be a sad state of affairs if individuals who had asked for a lawyer weren't considered in time because their petitions never reached the pardon attorney's office," a DOJ official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

A large number of mostly unqualified applications, a shortage of lawyers and the complexity of the cases have slowed progress, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "There are a lot of gray areas," said Roseberry, who estimates it takes 30 days for one lawyer to review one case on average. "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them... and so that takes a little more time."

This includes finding pre-sentencing reports for each case, determining if the person would have received a shorter sentence under current law and reviewing prison behavior records. Roseberry said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications. Roseberry said the group's initially slow pace has picked up in recent months....

Roseberry said about 3,000 applicants still need to be assigned to a lawyer, and that it was not certain whether the group will be able to submit all of the applications it has received before Obama leaves office. The group has more than 570 law firms and 30 law schools contributing to the effort.

Some rejected prisoners and those who have yet to hear a decision say they believe they would have had a better chance if they had sent their clemency petition directly to the government.

Josie Ledezma was sentenced to life for conspiracy to transport cocaine and applied for clemency through Clemency Project 2014. She said she did not hear from them for six months and later learned that her assigned lawyer had shut down her legal practice. In January, nearly one year after applying, she was told Clemency Project 2014 could not help her and encouraged her to apply directly. “I wrote back and asked what was it that made me not qualify, but never got a response,” Ledezma told Reuters through an electronic messaging service for federal prisoners.

March 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Notable example of "prison industrial complex" using "phony-baloney numbers” to grow or protect its budget

Prison-profitsBill Otis here at Crime & Consequences flagged this interesting local article from Indiana headlined "Prison officials say lighter sentences aren't saving money." The article discusses a report issued by the Indiana Department of Correction asserting that "costs have more than tripled since it began diverting low-level offenders out of state prisons and back into their communities" as a result of a sentencing reform law enacted in 2014. Bill seems to think this article reveals that sentencing reforms do not deliver on promised cost savings, but a read of the full article (and not just the parts highlighted by Bill) reveals that some funny math is behind the latest cost claims now coming from the Indiana DOC:

Senate Judiciary Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, calls it “ridiculous” and says the report contains “phony-baloney numbers.”

Lawmakers who pushed to lower penalties for drug-related crimes, such as drug possession and theft, vowed to return anticipated savings from prison costs to communities for treatment programs, community corrections and local lock-ups.  But, according to the department's report, there's no money to send. This despite a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates – a 17 percent drop - since the law went into effect in July 2014....

Corrections officials say the new law will cost an additional $400,000 in the first six months of this year - for jail costs alone. That expense is expected to climb before the year’s end. That’s because the state spends about $35 a day to house a convicted, low-level offender in a county jail, according to the Correction Department report. The department claims it can house the same inmate in a prison for just under $10 a day.

Steele and other lawmakers who were deeply involved in crafting the sentencing reform law are irked by those claims. Two years ago, when Correction Department officials asked lawmakers for money, they reported it cost about $60 a day to house a state prisoner.

A year ago, prison officials said they needed an additional $51 million to build a new state prison. Steele and others rejected the proposal, predicting that the state would be able to close a prison – and save millions – as sentencing reform took hold. Steele said the department now is refusing to cooperate with the intent of the sentencing reform law.

Corrections officials don’t see it that way. The department's legislative director, Jon Ferguson, said the $10-a-day rate used in the report is a “marginal per diem” that doesn’t include the fixed, operational costs associated with running big prisons. And the number of those prison facilities the state operates hasn’t gone down since the sentencing reform law was put into place.

Promised savings from sentencing reform was key to getting it passed and to winning support from sheriffs, judges and local officials who feared it presented another unfunded mandate by the state. The Legislature set aside an initial $60 million for communities to offset initial costs. But lawmakers assured critics that the sentencing reform would eventually pay for itself.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, who helped craft the sentencing reform law with Steele, also questioned the validity of the Corrections Department's report. But, he noted, “We’re in a transition year.” “I expect to see much different numbers by next year," he said.

March 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rep Lamar Smith makes case against federal sentencing reform by questioning success of Texas reforms

One recurring theme of many advocates for federal sentencing reform is that state-level reforms, lead notably by Texas, have been successful at reducing incarceration levels without seeing an increase in crime. But at the end of this new Washington Times commentary, headlined "How weak prison terms endanger the innocent: Mandatory minimums keep the guilty behind bars to pay their debt to society," US House Representative Lamar Smith from Texas questions whether Texas reforms have truly been effective. Here are some notable excerpts from the piece:

Congress should be wary of reducing federal prison sentences. Unfortunately, much of the discussion on sentencing laws has focused on the criminals. What about the victims of their crimes? What about the dangers of putting these offenders back out on the streets where many prey again on law-abiding citizens?

The lives and property of innocent Americans are at stake.  Past experience should persuade us not to weaken penalties, which could lead to thousands of dangerous criminals being released into our communities....

Supporters of lower prison sentences also argue that judges need more discretion.  They say that a one-size-fits-all penalty does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors, which might be necessary to determine a fair sentence.

But prior experience with judicial discretion in sentencing counters this claim.  It is exactly the problem of too much discretion in the hands of activist judges that fueled the decades-long crime wave that preceded mandatory minimum sentences.  Furthermore, judicial discretion led to widespread discrepancies in sentences, even when the circumstances were similar.

The minimum sentencing structure ensures that judges apply a uniform penalty based on the crime, not on the judge’s subjective opinion.  Criminals receive equal punishment for equal crimes.  And the removal of hardened criminals from our streets for longer periods of time helps make our neighborhoods safer....

In my home state of Texas, new policies sought to reduce incarceration time and focus resources on treatment and post-release supervision.  Yet almost one-quarter of inmates released have been rearrested and sent back to prison within three years.  Early release programs don’t appear to be working.

Mandatory minimums help keep these individuals behind bars where they belong.  That’s one explanation for why crime rates remain down.  The purpose of criminal law is to punish bad behavior, deter criminal acts and protect the American people.  Releasing prisoners too soon could condemn many Americans to becoming victims of violence.  This can be avoided if prisoners are not released before their sentences have been served.

March 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

"Incarcerated people voted in primaries in Vermont, Puerto Rico, and Maine. Why can’t they vote anywhere else?"

The question in the title of this post is the sub-headline of this notable new piece by Vann Newkirk at The Atlantic. The piece's main headline is just "Polls for Prisons," and here are excerpts:

Why can’t most people in prison vote?  Although states display considerable range of policies on the issue of how — if at all — people can vote after being released from institutions or onto parole or probation, the general idea is that the ballot box stops where the bars begin.  But on Tuesday, 6,195 inmates voted in Puerto Rico’s Republican primary — where they comprised one-sixth of the voters who cast their ballots. Their example challenges many of the premises of felon disenfranchisement, and suggests that fears of what would happen if it were repealed are overblown.

The logic behind felony disenfranchisement within prisons and without is so deeply rooted in American ideas of crime and punishment it can seem tautological: Of course prisoners can’t vote; they’re prisoners! However, recent primary elections in Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico challenge that common knowledge and provide a glimpse of what the country’s voting process might look like if the franchise was extended to those serving time.

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment — a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting — for example, fraud or bribery.  This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen’s Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy details how early incarceration’s link to indebtedness and poverty dovetailed with widespread property and tax suffrage requirements to create a de facto system of disenfranchisement.  Paupers or debtors were often denied the vote through their lack of property or their inability to pay poll taxes, and both were likely to face prison time for felonies, especially if they could not afford fines. Both incarceration and civil death were largely threats faced only by the lower classes, a correlation that turned causal as the prison system was codified and American mass incarceration was born....

A key legal factor in defense of civil death has been the idea that felons have broken the social contract and have forfeited their rights in participating in it. Thus, civil death is considered a reflexive defense of the social contract and a fitting punishment.  However, that reasoning falls doubly short.  Even death-row inmates retain a broad array of constitutional rights, including access to due process, the right to sue, and the right to appeal.  Why is the right to vote excluded?  Also, the social contract may not need civil death to defend it.  The social fabric of Vermont and Maine, where felons have and will vote in general elections, can hardly be considered to have been irreparably damaged by their participation.

Perhaps it’s not coincidence that Vermont and Maine are the two whitest states in the country.  They’re comparatively immune to the racialization of crime policy and rhetoric that dominates conversations elsewhere.  In states where the social contract has always been interpreted through a lens of racial tension and where criminalization and race have often been intertwined, it may be harder to challenge policies that have been accepted as deeply as self-evident truths.  Or, in plainer language, some people are less enthusiastic about the idea of minority inmates having meaningful participation in elections than they might be if most inmates were white.

International comparative analyses simply reinforce the lessons of Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico.  Prisoners in dozens of countries, including Canada, Germany, South Africa, and Israel, are allowed to vote in all elections — without significant problems.

The sky hasn’t fallen in Vermont or Maine either.  Inmates in Puerto Rico may be playing a serious role in advocating for national assistance for the island’s troubles, voting at a time when it has become more difficult for everyone else.  Perhaps the idea of prisoners as stable voting populations, or prisons as reliable polling centers, could provide an example for states on the mainland struggling with declining turnout.  At the very least, Vermont, Maine, and Puerto Rico should alleviate some fears about a possible post-disenfranchisement future in the United States.  The death of civil death doesn’t kill democracy.

As long time readers may know, I have long believed as many people as possible should be enfranchised in a democracy, and my basic thinking on this front was effectively explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote":

Though Berman agrees that disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect racial minorities, his argument is founded on a more fundamental belief.  "The right to participate in the political process flows from being subject to the laws, rules and regulations that political process sets forth," says Berman, "Prisoners are in some sense being subjected to those rules and regulations in a more severe way than those who vote — in some ways they're even more affected by our legal system — therefore they should have the right to fully partake in the political process."

Berman's advocacy of inmate enfranchisement is also driven by his instinct that historical expansions of the franchise — whether to African-American men in 1870 or to women in 1920 — have in hindsight never been perceived as a mistake. Generally, he feels that expanding the franchise is beneficial to democracy. If Berman had his way, voting rights would also be extended to children as young as 10 years old. "My nine-year-old strikes me as a lot more political knowledgeable than a lot of adults I deal with on a regular basis," he says.

March 9, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

US Sentencing Commission released big new and timely report on "Recidivism Among Federal Offenders"

I just received via e-mail an alert concerning an important new publication by the US Sentencing Commission, and here is the full text of the email with links from the original:

Today, the United States Sentencing Commission issued a report on the recidivism of federal offenders. The study is groundbreaking in both its breadth—studying all 25,431 U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005, and in its duration—following the releasees over an eight year period. News release.

The Commission found that nearly half (49.3%) of offenders released from prison or placed on a term of probation in 2005 were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or for some other violation of the technical conditions of their probation or release. Summary and key findings.  

The Commission also found that:

  • Most offenders who recidivated did so within the first two years of the follow up period;
  • Assault was the most common serious rearrest offense but most rearrest offenses were non-violent in nature;
  • An offender’s criminal history as calculated under the federal sentencing guidelines was closely correlated with recidivism rates (rearrest rates ranged from 34% for offenders in the lowest criminal history category to 80% for offenders in the highest criminal history category);
  • An offender’s age at the time of release was also closely correlated with recidivism (rearrest rates ranged from 67% for offenders younger than 21 to 16% for offenders older than 60).

Download the full report.

I am going to need some time to really dig into this document to assess what it could and should mean for on-going debates over federal sentencing reforms. But even before I do a deep dive, I am eager to robustly compliment the Commission for producing such a data-rich and timely report for the benefit of everyone thinking about the current state and future direction of the federal sentencing system.

March 9, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 04, 2016

"The Absence of Equality and Human Dignity Values Makes American Sentencing Systems Fundamentally Different from Those in Other Western Countries"

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

Concern for equality and human dignity is largely absent from American sentencing.  Prison sentences are imposed much more often than in any other Western country and prison terms are incomparably longer.  The greater frequency of imprisonment is a product of punitive attitudes and politicization of crime control policies.  The longer terms result partly from abolition of parole release in every jurisdiction for all or some inmates, but mostly from the proliferation since the mid-1980s of mandatory minimum, three-strikes, life without parole, and truth-in-sentencing laws.

The ideas that offenders should be treated as equals and with concern and respect for their interests largely disappeared, though they had been animating values of earlier indeterminate and determinate sentencing systems.  Their disregard is evident in the nature of contemporary laws but also in low-visibility policies and practices including the near absence of meaningful systems of appellate sentence review, low standards of proof — or none at all — at the sentencing stage, and the absence of policies that limit the weight given to past convictions in the sentencing of new offenses or set standards for sentencing of people convicted of multiple offenses.

March 4, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Indiana county prosecutor seeks re-election by bragging about "proudly over-crowding our prisons"

-radleybalkoflickrAs reported in this Reason blog posting, a local prosecutor in Indiana is pursuing reelection by bragging about being proud to overcrowd the state's prisons. The full headline of the posting, along with the picture, provides the essentials of this notable story: "Indiana Prosecutor Bradley Cooper Is 'Proudly Over-Crowding our Prisons': Cooper's new campaign flyer brags about the people he's put in prison for decades over drug sales and minor theft." Here is more from the blog post about this local prosecutor and his record:

As American conservatives and liberals alike embrace criminal justice reform, those opposed are blatantly bragging about their overcriminalization agendas. One particularly gross example: a new campaign mailer from Johnson County, Indiana, Prosecutor Bradley D. Cooper, which announces that he has been busy "proudly over-crowding our prisons."

The flyer also features mugshots from convicted criminals, along with what they were found guilty of and what prison sentence they were given. It includes a man who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for selling meth, a man convicted of manslaughter who died while in prison, and a man who received a 40-year sentence for burglary.

In the latter case, William A. Russell was arrested after breaking into someone's home and stealing $52. For that offense, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A trial court also determined that he was a "habitual offender," which qualified him for a sentencing enhancement of 20 years.

Another of the offenders featured is Amanda Smith, a schizophrenic woman who drowned her son in 2012 while he was on a court-ordered overnight visit from foster care; she claimed it was God's will and turned herself in immediately afterward. Smith's lawyers argued for her to be sent to a state mental hospital, but a judge sentenced her to 55 years in state prison instead.

Last year, Cooper made a fuss that a man accused of forcible rape was only eligible to receive 63 years behind bars, pursuant to a 2014 change to Indiana's criminal code. Previously, the man could have received a maximum sentence of 168 years in prison. Cooper called the sentencing-reform measure the "hug a thug" law and accused the state of coddling violent criminals.

For more about this local prosecutor professional history and accomplishments, his office's website includes this bio and this resume for Bradley D. Cooper. Interestingly, I believe that Prosecutor Bradley attended the same law school as frequent blog commentor federalist, and thus I would be especially eager to hear from federalist (or others) whether they think this kind of campaign slogan is unsavory or perhaps even unethical.

March 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Former AG Mukasey delivers "clear" message to GOP on SRCA: "Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill."

The Hill has now published this notable new op-ed authored by Michael Mukasey and Ronal Serpas under the headline "Federal sentencing reform will aid law enforcement." Here are excerpts:

The Senate is back in session amid recent warnings from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that federal sentencing reform would jeopardize public safety. They say the country cannot risk reform.

As a former attorney general under President George W. Bush who has overseen thousands of prosecutions, and a police chief with three decades of experience, we have dedicated our lives to the safety of this country.

We can firmly say that sentencing reform done right will not harm public safety. In fact, it will enhance it. We were some of the original supporters of the 1990s “tough on crime” laws. After decades of enforcing them, we and our colleagues — police chiefs and U.S. attorneys — now recognize many provisions, like overly harsh sentencing, went too far.

Much has been learned in the last 25 years about who should be locked up and for how long. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act recalibrates sentencing policy to meet the needs of the 21st century. Lowering mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crimes will reduce unnecessary incarceration. This will allow us to better direct law enforcement resources to arresting, prosecuting, and punishing the most serious and violent criminals.

That’s why we and 130 of our law enforcement colleagues wrote to congressional leadership urging them to pass the act. Those standing with us include two former U.S. attorneys general, two directors of the FBI, 21 sitting police chiefs and 68 former U.S. attorneys.

Our message to Republican leadership is clear: Law enforcement asks you to pass this bill. Targeted and appropriate sentencing is a superior approach to controlling crime....

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act offers a better path forward. It would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat nonviolent drug offenders. And it would allow judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimums for low-level offenders if — after hearing specific circumstances of the crime — they feel it is appropriate.

Contrary to what opponents have claimed, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act will not swing open the prison doors and release thousands of hardcore violent criminals onto the streets. Every single prisoner eligible for early release will be carefully scrutinized by judges. And only if the judges feel it’s appropriate will they release them. This judicial check ensures the worst criminals will remain where they belong — in prison — while those who pose little threat can get off the taxpayers’ tab and begin productively contributing to society.

The bill would also expand the use of mandatory minimums for offenders with previous convictions for violent crimes, and it creates new mandatory minimums for terrorism-related crimes, giving federal law enforcement additional mechanisms to keep those most dangerous behind bars.

Now is the time for Congress to act. Reducing the population of our overcrowded prisons is one of the few goals on which those on the left and right agree. We want to make it clear where law enforcement stands: Not only is passing federal legislation to reform mandatory minimum sentences necessary to reduce incarceration, it will also help us keep crime at its historic low.

Some recent prior related posts on SRCA:

March 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 29, 2016

No new cert grants from short-handed SCOTUS and a notable dissent in one prisoner case

The Supreme Court this morning issued its first big orders list since the passing of Justice Scalia, which is available at this link, and perhaps unsurprisingly the Justices decided not to grant review in any new cases.  For any number of reasons, I think it wise and shrewd for the Supreme Court to keep its docket relatively light while it is so divided and short-staffed, especially given that there would seem to be a real possibility that Senate hearings for a possible Justice Scalia replacement may not take place for another year.  Especially given the many high-profile cases already before a Court now perhaps facing a good number of 4-4 tie votes, I would be surprised to see more than a handful of new grants in major cases anytime soon.

On the subject of being surprised, I was taken aback a bit to see the order list included this lengthy dissent from the denial of certiorari authored by Justice Alito in the prisoner case of Ben-Levi v. Brown, No. 14-10186.   The surprise comes from the fact that Justice Alito, who is usually the most consistent vote against criminal defendants, in this dissent complains about the Supreme Court's failure to take up the case of a pro se prisoner.  But the very start and very end of the lengthy dissent highlights the unique issue that in this case engendered Justice Alito's concerns:

Petitioner Israel Ben-Levi, a North Carolina inmate, filed a pro se petition challenging a prison policy that prevented him and other Jewish inmates from praying and studying the Torah together.  The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) imposed stringent restrictions on Jewish group meetings that it did not apply to other religious groups.  Because Ben-Levi has provided ample evidence that these restrictions substantially burdened his religious exercise, and because respondent has not identified a legitimate penological interest in treating Jewish inmates more strictly than inmates of other religions, I would grant Ben-Levi’s petition for certiorari and summarily reverse the judgment below....

Needless to say, the Court’s refusal to grant review in this case does not signify approval of the decision below. But the Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.

February 29, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Profiling a federal district judge eager to make the case for federal sentencing discretion

The Atlantic has this lengthy new article profiling a notable federal district judge and his notable disaffinity for rigid sentencing rules. The piece's full title highlights is themes: "One Judge Makes the Case for Judgment: John Coughenour says federal sentencing guidelines are overly punitive, coldly algorithmic measures that strip the courtroom of nuance. Without discretion, what’s the judiciary for?". Here is part of the start and middle of a piece that merits a full Sunday read:

Judge John Coughenour is a rebel. It’s not because — or not only because — he rides a Harley or spends his free time in prisons. It’s that the Reagan-appointed U.S. District Court judge has rebelled against federal sentencing guidelines ever since they were established in the mid-1980s.

But Coughenour had never earned national attention for his nonconformist ideas about sentencing and punishment — until, that is, al-Qaeda trainee Ahmed Ressam appeared in his courtroom in the spring of 2001. Over the course of the next 11 years, Coughenour would sit down to sentence Ressam to prison on three separate occasions, all for the same crime — two times to huge uproar and one time to clarify the sentence once and for all....

Coughenour was appointed during President Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, a few years before the federal sentencing guidelines were created.  The new system was meant to counteract the wild inconsistencies in the sentences handed down in different courts.  Instead of going simply by intuition, federal judges would now refer to a handbook that established a sentencing range.  And any discretion on the part of judges was intended to be restricted to the limits of that range.  But what some saw as a reasonable step toward greater justice, Coughenour saw as inhumane and robotic.  What’s the point of a judge if he is discouraged from offering his judgment?

Once on the fringe, Coughenour’s argument against sentencing guidelines is now gaining traction.  At the heart of the debate is an undecided question: Which is scarier — a world where a person’s actions are treated as part of a mathematical equation blind to context, or a world where political appointees decide people’s fates based on gut feelings?

Coughenour’s position is clear.  He believes that the standardization of sentences has resulted in less justice, not more, and that the way the nation sentences criminals today has created greater inequality, not less....

[T]wice a year for almost 20 years, Coughenour rode his Harley from Seattle to Sheridan to meet one on one with each of the men he had sentenced.  And then, he started visiting prisons all over the country with the same purpose.  To ensure candor, he insisted that the prisoners be unshackled and that the meetings be private.  A corrections officer stood outside just in case, but in two decades, Coughenour only had to call the officer in once.

During these meetings, the judge always asked the same questions: “How much time do you have left?  What are you doing to prepare yourself for getting out?  Are you dealing with anything you can’t handle?  Do you feel safe?” Sometimes, he’d compare notes about motorcycles — word traveled fast that the judge rode a Harley — and sometimes he’d just commiserate about prison food.  The next prisoner would be escorted in 15 minutes later, and the judge would start over again. Coughenour resists the implication that his visits — and the hundreds of hours he has spent asking hundreds of prisoners about their lives — have influenced his judicial philosophy.  But at the same time, Coughenour insists that the prisoners’ stories all carry a clear moral lesson: Too many people are in prison for too long.

February 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, February 26, 2016

"Internalizing Private Prison Externalities: Let's Start with the GED"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new piece by David Siegel recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Prison education is a remarkably good investment for society, yet an increasing proportion of inmates have no access to it because the operators of the prisons in which they are held have a powerful incentive not to provide it: they make more money that way.  Critics and analysts of private prison operators have suggested various incentive structures to improve their performance, but most jurisdictions focus on the operator’s cost to the contracting entity. The social costs imposed by foregoing prison education are not part of the arrangement between a private prison operator and a jurisdiction with which it contracts.  Although these costs are real and substantial to the inmates who bear them, because the inmates are not parties to the contract, these costs are externalities.

Imposing these social costs on prison operators could improve the conditions for inmates in their custody and is very likely to improve these inmates’ success after release. Unlike more complex strategies for imposing incentives on correctional programs to reduce recidivism, prison education is a known, straightforward rehabilitative strategy whose provision can be measured quite easily at the point of release.  There is even a well-accepted metric for prison education administered by an independent third party: the General Educational Development Test (GED).  This article proposes using the GED to internalize the cost of reduced or poor inmate education by imposing financial penalties on private prison operators whose inmates do not obtain, or make progress toward, a GED during their incarceration. This would provide the social benefits of inmate education, alter private prison operators’ behavior at minimal administrative cost, and most importantly, benefit inmates being released.

February 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Vera Institute of Justice launches "The Human Toll of Jail"

6a00d83451574769e201bb08323a26970dI received an email this morning announcing the launch of a notable new project by The Vera Institute of Justice. Here is the heart of the email (with a few links) detailing what the project is all about:

The Human Toll of Jail [is] a national storytelling project about the uses and abuses of jails in the United States, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.

The Human Toll of Jail uses poignant essays, videos, comics, and photojournalism to tell the stories of Americans who have been caught up in local justice systems as well as highlight unexpected voices for reform from the frontlines — including judges, prosecutors, healthcare providers, and others.  Along with every story featured here, the project offers additional resources with research, policy analyses, and best practices that address the larger questions and issues around local jails.  Stories in the project include:

  • INSIDE THE MASSIVE JAIL THAT DOUBLES AS CHICAGO’S LARGEST MENTAL HEALTH FACILITY — Since drastic budget cuts left thousands of Chicagoans without access to reliable mental health care, all too many are getting their only real treatment when they land behind bars.

  • RETURN TO RIKERS — After two decades of incarceration, Patrick went back to Rikers Island for the first time in 20 years — to visit his son.  His story is told here as comics journalism.

  • THE JAIL WITHOUT BARS — At one Idaho correctional facility, an innovative approach is built on a commitment to the site’s workers and an investment in the inmates’ success.  The result is a jail that looks nothing like the ones you’ve seen on TV.

  • A NEW APPROACH TO PROSECUTION — Local prosecutors across the country wield enormous power to make decisions that affect the flow of people in and out of often-overcrowded jails. With that power in mind, the district attorney in one California county wants to upend the way we think about his job responsibilities.

  • JUDGING WITHOUT JAIL — Many states have made moves to end the fruitless cycle of arrest and incarceration by moving nonviolent defendants out of prosecution and into more productive intervention programs. One New Orleans judge has seen just how effective this approach can be.

February 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years"

The title of this post is the title of this notable short "fact sheet" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is the text that goes with the graphical state-by-state data in the document

The number of people in prison in the United States has stabilized in recent years, but incarceration trends among the states have varied significantly. While 39 states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years, in most states this reduction has been relatively modest.  In addition, 11 states have had continuing rises in imprisonment.

Twelve states have produced double-digit declines within this period.  Four states have reduced their prison populations by over 20%: New Jersey (31% since 1999), New York (28% since 1999), Rhode Island (25% since 2008), and California (22% since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use).  Southern states including Mississippi and South Carolina, which have historically had high rates of incarceration, have also significantly downsized their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial reductions have had no adverse effect on public safety.

The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration.  The total U.S. prison population declined by 2.9% since its peak in 2009.  Of those states with declining prison populations, 20 have had less than a 5% decline since their peak years.  The reduction in the federal prison population has been of this magnitude as well, 2.9% since 2011.  And of the states with rising prison populations, four have experienced double-digit increases in the last five years, led by Nebraska (22%) and Arkansas (18%). While sharing in the national crime drop, these states have resisted the trend toward decarceration.

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

February 18, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is federal bail reform key to making a serious dent in mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable This Week commentary by Ryan Cooper, headlined "President Bernie Sanders couldn't stop mass incarceration by himself. But this one reform would be a very good start."  Here are excerpts (with a few links from the original):

[Many have] badly understated the extent to which federal policy affects incarceration outside of federal prisons — particularly jails.  It's a great opportunity for Sanders to clarify his message [about reducing incarceration] and seize on bail reform — a vastly overlooked part of the mass incarceration problem.  While it probably wouldn't move the U.S. from the top spot by itself, bail reform could make an enormous difference....

First, federal crime policy exerts a strong gravitational pull on state behavior.  Federal sentencing guidelines heavily influenced the state versions; state-level lawyers, judges, and policymakers tend to look to the higher-status federal system for cues and ideas, and there is much back-and-forth staff movement.  Hence, if the federal criminal justice system were to make a sharp turn against harsh punishments, it's virtually certain that would percolate through some if not most of the state systems and thus reduce the prison population over time.  Federal leadership matters here.

This effect also holds for bail policy, which is the primary determinant of the size of the jail population. As I covered extensively last year, about 62 percent of the people in jail are legally innocent.  A major reason why is the Bail Reform Act of 1984, which made it dramatically easier to keep people locked up before federal trials; most of the states followed suit.  Today, roughly two-thirds of the people in jail are there either because they are too poor to make bail, or because they've just been arrested and will make bail in the next few days.  Over the last 15 years, fully 99 percent of the growth in the jail population is due to increased incarceration of the legally innocent.

This is a human rights atrocity for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is that the first 48 hours or so in jail is extremely traumatic for people with no experience in the prison system. It's why the suicide rate in jails is 2.5 times greater than in actual prisons — witness Sandra Bland, an ordinary middle-class person who apparently committed suicide very soon after being thrown in jail.

Now, it would be unconstitutional for Congress to simply force states to change the way they do bail.  But there are four less direct avenues to pursue: First, pursue reform for federal prisoners, to take advantage of the percolation effect mentioned above.  Second, put conditions on the many grants the feds dole out for the states' criminal justice systems, requiring bail reform as a condition of getting the money. Third, pass a law declaring current use of money bail a violation of the 14th Amendment's due process protection, which Congress has power to protect.  Fourth, there is a very strong case that current bail policy is a violation of the 8th Amendment, so the Department of Justice could pursue a lawsuit and attempt to get a Supreme Court ruling allowing the feds to step in.  The last two of these are a bit of a long shot, but taken together this would be a powerful package.

But what would bail reform look like? There are two basic principles: First, work to make sure arrestees are processed as fast as possible — ideally within 24 hours, as many jurisdictions are moving towards.  Second, very sharply reduce the use of money bail. If used, it should never be beyond a person's ability to pay.  No person should ever rot in jail waiting for a trial because he can't scrounge up the cash to make bail — poverty should not be a crime.  Besides, research from the Vera Institute of Justice shows that bail is largely worthless for making sure that accused criminals show up to trial.  In most cases, it simply isn't needed — basic pretrial supervision works much better.

There is tremendous churn in and out of the jail system — 11.4 million people were admitted in 2014.  Bail reform would thus be more about diverting the flow of prisoners rather than releasing lots of long-term ones. A new federal law mandating speedy processing of arrestees, and sharply restricting the use of money-bail, would erode the jail population from two directions at once.  It could be combined with incentives to use alternatives to arrest, like citation-and-release or pre-booking diversion, to further slow the rate of jail entry.  At a very rough guess, such a reform done well could knock about a third — perhaps 200,000 people — off the jail population.

At any rate, even very aggressive bail reform wouldn't get us to the Chinese figure of 1.66 million prisoners quoted above, and it would require congressional action.  But bail reform would be a gigantic step in the right direction. When it comes to fighting mass incarceration, it's the easiest and most obvious first step.

February 17, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"Texas prisons are filling up with the old and the ill — at enormous expense"

The title of this post is the sub-headline of this lengthy new Texas Observer article. Here are excerpts:

Benito Alonzo is a short, 140-pound 80-year-old. His quiet-spoken manner, drooping jowls and gray hair, trimmed in a buzz, give him the appearance of a benevolent grandfather, and indeed, he is a grandfather.  In thick-framed black eyeglasses, he bears a resemblance to the defanged and aging Henry Kissinger.  But Alonzo is neither a celebrity nor a statesman. He’s a convict who has lately grown infirm.  He says he’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he’s afflicted with Hepatitis C. For several years he’s been prescribed a drug called Lactulose, which Dr. Owen Murray, chief of medical affairs for the Texas penal system, says “we use for people whose livers are at the end of their lives.”...

Alonzo has been waiting since at least March for the start of a 12-week course of a new liver drug that might keep him alive for years to come. He’s been told that the treatment will cost $94,500.  Were he back on the streets, Medicare would pick up the tab.  But because federal courts have ruled that states must guarantee the safety and health of their inmates, Texas will have to pay.  Alonzo frets that because of the expense, prison bureaucrats will stall the treatment until it’s too late.

The state of Texas operates 109 prisons holding about 148,000 inmates.  Some 27,000 of them are, like Alonzo, over the age of 50.  They account for about 18 percent of the prison population, and are the fastest-growing demographic group among prisoners.  By most estimates, they are also the most expensive to keep under lock and key. According to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst, the average cost of housing Texas inmates is about $20,000 a year, but medical and end-of-life expenses hike that figure to some $30,000 for elderly inmates.  In other jurisdictions, the cost is even higher.  A 2012 report from the ACLU calculates the average national expense for keeping a prisoner at $34,000 per year — and twice that much, $68,000, for inmates older than 50.

Both demographic factors and get-tough sentencing have transformed what were once mere penal institutions into hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes, too.  The University of Texas Medical Branch operates a freestanding hospital in Galveston for TDCJ, which also contracts with UTMB and the Texas Tech medical school to send prisoners to 146 community hospitals.  Texas prisons now boast of “respiratory isolation rooms,” “brace and limb services” and hospice facilities in which 90 Texas inmates were eased into eternity last year.  More than 300 inmates in Texas prisons use wheelchairs, Dr. Murray says....

Alonzo’s life has been one of alternating spans of heroin addiction and confinement. He served three separate stints in prison — for theft, burglary and heroin possession — from 1958 to 1974. After his parole in 1974, allegedly under the influence of two of his brothers, Pedro and Adolfo, he delivered a pair of pistols to a warden’s trustee who then smuggled them into Huntsville’s Walls Unit. San Antonio gangster Fred Carrasco used those guns in an 11-day hostage-taking and stand-off that culminated in a shootout. Alonzo is serving a life sentence for his connection to the incident....

The state of Texas does have a process for releasing old and infirm prisoners on humanitarian parole, but the record is underwhelming.  A bureaucracy dating to 1987, the Texas Correctional office on offenders with Medical or Mental Impairments, usually named by the clunky acronym TCOOMMI, was assigned to process medically recommended intensive supervision, or MRIS, paroles.  MRIS is a way to move inmates rendered harmless by their frailty or age back into the civilian world.

TCOOMMI reports to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on an inmate’s health status, leaving the final parole decision to the board.  In a February 2015 biennial report, TCOOMMI reported that of the 1,133 MRIS applications that had been submitted in fiscal year 2014, 318 had been found sufficiently meritorious for presentation to the parole board. Of those, the board had granted 67 releases — a mere 6 percent approval rate.

In a 2012 statement, TDCJ admitted that “the Parole Board’s approval rates of MRIS cases remain low.” But the board’s performance hasn’t shown signs of improvement. In the 2015 fiscal year, 445 prisoners older than 60 filed for medical paroles — but only 24 paroles were granted, all of them on the basis of infirmity, none on the basis of age. The roadblock is a provision of the law allowing the parole board to conclude that a prisoner constitutes a threat despite what doctors say....

Benito Alonzo would today have a hard time exacting any revenge or harming anybody, and whether he lives or dies is of little concern except to a coterie of kin and perhaps in the circles of the Mexican Mafia. If he dies in prison, as we must currently expect, though he’d prefer to be interred in San Antonio, his corpse will be eligible for a casket and a grave at public expense, in the prison cemetery, of course.

February 16, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 15, 2016

US Sentencing Commission to conduct hearing on compassionate release and conditions of supervision

As reported in this official notice, the US Sentencing Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing the morning of Wednesday, February 17, 2016.  This hearing agenda suggests that the main focus of the hearing is so-called "Compassionate Release" and that all of the leading and most important voices in this space will be speaking to the USSC.  

Some prior related posts:

February 15, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Notable data on racial and gender dynamics of recent changes in incarceration rates

This new Wonkblog post via the Washington Post reports on provides an interesting analysis of modern incarceration data under the headline "There’s been a big decline in the black incarceration rate, and almost nobody’s paying attention." Here are the details:

After decades of growth, the U.S. imprisonment rate has been declining for the past six years.  Hidden within this welcome overall trend is a sizable and surprising racial disparity: African-Americans are benefitting from the national de-incarceration trend but whites are serving time at increasingly higher rates.

The pattern of results, evident in a series of reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is most stark among women. Since 2000, the imprisonment rate among African-American women has dropped 47 percent, while the rate among white women has risen by 56 percent.  These trends have combined to shrink the racial disparity in women’s imprisonment by two-thirds.

A similar pattern emerges for men, who compose a much larger share of the prison population.  The rate of imprisonment among African-American men remains very high, but nonetheless it has tumbled 22 percent since 2000. The rate for white men in contrast is 4 percent higher than it was in 2000.  As a result, the racial disparity has shrunk by nearly one quarter.

In responding to the data, Fordham University Professor John Pfaff echoed several criminologists when he said that“This is one of the most surprising pattern of results I have seen in corrections in a long time.”  Pfaff said that “law enforcement attitudes getting tougher in rural areas and softer in urban areas may be contributing to this change."

Adam Gelb, who directs the public safety performance project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested that “changes in drug use and enforcement over the past 15 years could be at play.”  Gelb said the methamphetamine, prescription opioid and heroin epidemics have affected whites more than did the crack cocaine epidemic, which increased incarceration among blacks in the 1980s and 1990s but has since waned.

Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia noted another possible cause: “sex offenders, who are disproportionately white and tend to receive long sentences, are a new target for the war on crime.”  Consistent with this explanation, a larger proportion of white inmates have been convicted of sex crimes (16.4 percent) than have black inmates (8 percent)....

Whatever cultural and macroeconomic forces are producing these changes could conceivably also be driving increased involvement in the criminal justice system by whites, including rising imprisonment in an era of de-incarceration.

February 11, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is California conducting an "unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this lengthy new Washington Post article, which suggests the Golden State has become a unique criminal justice laboratory.  Here are excerpts:

[Jose] Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history.  In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.

The most famous is a landmark ballot measure called Proposition 47, which in 2014 made California the first state in the nation to make possession of any drug — including cocaine and heroin — a misdemeanor.  More astonishing is the state’s decision to show leniency toward violent offenders, including murderers like Gonzalez.

For example, the state has ordered parole hearings for longtime inmates convicted of committing violent crimes before they turned 23, requiring authorities to consider anew whether immaturity at the time of the inmates’ offense argues for their release.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has approved parole for roughly 2,300 lifers convicted of murder and about 450 lifers sentenced for lesser offenses — a revolution in a state that released only two lifers during former governor Gray Davis’s entire four-year term.  And more reforms could be in store. Last month, Brown unveiled a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in November, would grant early release to nonviolent felons who complete rehab programs and demonstrate good behavior.

Progressives across the nation have applauded California’s U-turn. “There is a gathering sense that the public is considerably less punitive than people had thought,” said Joe Margulies, a professor of law and government at Cornell University.

But with crime in some of California’s largest cities ticking up after years of sustained decline, many law enforcement leaders and victims’ advocates say the state has gone too far. “Our hope was folks getting out of prisons are going to come out and be model citizens,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance. “Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that.”...

So far, 250 inmates have been released under the Youth Offender Parole law, most of them violent offenders.  As many as 16,000 more remain eligible.  Meanwhile, a study by Stanford Law School found that Proposition 47 had unlocked the cell doors of nearly 4,500 prisoners since taking effect in late 2014.

Sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors speculate that Prop 47 has contributed to a recent rise in crime and homelessness in major California cities, arguing that the law eliminated a useful billy club: the threat of a felony conviction to steer addicts into treatment.  “It’s a vicious cycle,” said Kirk Albanese, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.  “You’ve got an addiction, we are not holding you accountable, and you’re back into the cycle of using. How do you support that habit?  Stealing.  Our burglaries are up, car theft is up, break-ins are up — they are all up.”

Hilary Chittick, a veteran judge for the Superior Court of Fresno County, said Prop 47 has “decimated” her ability to force addicts into treatment. “The public had a house with a leaky roof and bad pipes,” she said. “So they blew up the house.”

Prop 47 supporters acknowledge the problem and say efforts are underway to address it.  More drug courts, for instance, are opening their doors to misdemeanants as well as felons, said Prop 47 co-author Lenore Anderson, executive director of the advocacy group Californians for Safety and Justice. “If you think that you need a stick in order to mandate treatment, that option is available with a misdemeanor,” Anderson said.  But Prop 47 supporters reject the notion that the ballot measure contributed to localized spikes in crime.  Early reports indicate that recidivism among inmates released under the full range of reforms has been low....

In general, more than half of inmates released from California prisons — 54 percent — return to prison within three years. Among lifers paroled under Brown, the Los Angeles Times found, fewer than 2 percent have committed new crimes.  Among the 2,100 inmates released after the softening of the state’s three-strikes law, only about 6 percent have returned to prison. Michael Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Law School Three Strikes Project, attributes the success of this cohort in part to extensive rehab, but also to a kind of forgiveness psychology.

Because I do not live in California, it is hard for me to judge whether the state is genuinely engaged in "mass forgiveness" when passing laws designed to reduce its prison population and the severity of its sentncing laws. But there is little doubt that all sorts of significant criminal justice reforms are now playing out in California, and it will be quite valuable and important for criminal justice advoates and researchers to watch and study crime and punishment developments in the state in the months and years to come.

February 9, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Mark you calendar for ASKS, a big alternative sentencing summit next month in DC

Logohome99I am pleased to be able to promote an exciting event taking place next month: the Alternative Sentencing Key-Stakeholder Summit (ASKS), at Georgetown University Law Center, DC on March 7-8, 2016. Here is a link for registration, and here is the ASKS gameplan and a Q&A via its website:

Summit Overview: Alternative sentencing has been at the heart of improving public safety and includes successful sentencing, reentry and other fiscally responsible criminal justice policies and programs both in the U.S. and around the globe. As the U.S. starts 2016 with commitments from the President and Congress to pass meaningful federal criminal justice reform legislation, the time is right to evaluate the role alternative sentencing can play in furthering the key objectives of public safety and fiscal responsibility.

More Info: Who will participate in the ASKS Summit? The summit will bring together an unprecedented number of current and former leaders and senior government officials who have served on the front lines of day-to-day operations in the criminal justice system, including law enforcement, government, judiciary, defense, forensic social workers and psychologists, and nonprofits, as well as formerly incarcerated people, victims and advocacy groups.

What are the ASKS Summit objectives? Beyond education, ASKS will use plenary, breakout and interactive sessions to generate substantive dialogue between all delegates and identify key priorities for:

  • Expanding the use of effective alternative sentencing programs while enhancing public safety, including the mechanisms of discretion (police, prosecutorial and judicial) and legislative reforms;
  • Addressing public safety concerns over its broadened use and practical barriers to expansion and launching effective new programs in new jurisdictions, including operational limitations, program evaluation and public education;
  • NGOs that can help to support broader application of effective alternative sentencing, eg. ubiquity of access and other measures and peripheral programs to help ensure successful reentry.

February 9, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

"Instead of building 'super prisons,' let's build super schools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary by an Alabama state rep in response to a recent proposal by the state's Governor.  Here is how the commentary begins:

During his State of the State Address Tuesday night, Gov. Bentley laid out his four-year plan, which included spending up to $800 million to build four new super prisons.  The next day, the governor announced that he wants to transfer $181 million out of the education budget and put it in the general fund budget, which also pays for prisons.

Don't get me wrong.  There are some very serious problems with our state prisons. What's happening at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is unacceptable!  Changes need to be made, and more prison reform is absolutely needed.

But how can the governor — or any legislators, for that matter — justify spending almost a billion dollars on new accommodations for prisoners while thousands of our children are going to school in run-down facilities that have broken windows and no air conditioning?

Instead of building "super prisons" like what the governor is talking about, how about we build "super schools" instead? Why is the governor willing to invest hundreds-of-millions of dollars in our prison population's future, but wants to cut hundreds-of-millions from our children's future?

Among other points, this commentary highlights the reality that, for states with fixed and limited budgets, any and all extra taxpayer investments in cells can often require a reduction in taxpayer investment in classrooms.

February 6, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

"American Exceptionalism in Probation Supervision"

American-Exceptionalism-in-Probation-Final-1024x663The title of this post is the title of this notable new data brief published by Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. The core product is this interesting graphic (which is really hard to see here, but is very worth checking out).  Here is some of the Robina Institute's text that explains some of the graphic's data details:

It is well known that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates. This Data Brief shows that, compared with Europe, America is similarly “exceptional” for its high rates of probation supervision.  The average probation supervision rate for all fifty states is more than five times the average rate for all European countries included in the most recent Council of Europe data.  Several U.S. States with the highest rates of probation supervision (e.g., Ohio, Rhode Island, Idaho, and Indiana) have rates that are eight-to-nine times the average European rate.  Such stark differences exist despite the fact that many countries in Europe have overall crime rates that are quite similar to the U.S.

This Data Brief demonstrates for the first time that America suffers from “mass probation” in addition to “mass incarceration.”  Although probation has often been thought of as an “alternative” to prison or jail sentences, the U.S. has achieved exceptional levels of punitiveness in both incarceration and community supervision.  Over the past several decades, the number of people under probation supervision in the U.S. has increased greatly.  Nearly 4 million adults were under probation supervision across America at year-end 2013.  In all reporting European countries, with roughly twice the population of the U.S., only 1.5 million adults were under probation supervision.

These findings lead to many important questions of law and policy.  Most states should closely reexamine the numbers of people who are placed on probation each year, and the lengths of terms they are required to serve.  Options for “early termination” of the lowest-risk and most successful probationers should be explored.  Some experts in the field allege that probationary sentences do little to control crime, and frequently do more harm than good.  Community supervision can make offenders’ “reentry” into the law-abiding community more difficult than it needs to be, such as when meetings with probation officers interfere with work responsibilities, or supervision and program fees block probationers’ ability to support themselves and their families.

Concerns of this kind should be carefully evaluated by lawmakers in every state.  If some uses of probation are counterproductive to the reentry process, or outright “criminogenic,” it should be a high priority everywhere to discontinue them.  The financial expense and opportunity costs of “mass probation” should also be assessed nationwide.  High probation supervision rates cost American taxpayers a great deal of money, and not just in the funding of probation agencies.  National data suggest that a large share of all prison admissions come from probation revocations — a substantial number of which are for “technical” violations of sentence conditions rather than new criminal conduct.  Far from being an “alternative” to incarceration, probation has been a “feeder” institution or a “conduit” to our prisons and jails.  In this respect, misguided probation policy has almost certainly been a major contributor to America’s excesses in prison policy.  The problems of mass incarceration and mass probation are intimately linked, and they must be tackled together.

February 3, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Highlighting the highlights of the Colson Task Force report on improving federal justce system

As reported in this recent post, last week the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections issued numerous recommendations to reform the federal criminal justice system in a big report titled Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives.  The helpful folks at Vice subsequently published this helpful overview of the report in an article headlined "A Bipartisan Congressional Panel Just Agreed on Ways to Send Fewer Americans to Prison."  Here are excerpts: 

Chief among the recommendations of the nine person, bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is sending fewer low-level drug offenders to federal prison, and sentencing offenders to far fewer years behind bars, which would reverse two of the changes that have driven the federal prison population to grow by 700 percent since 1980.

But the task force also dug into the minutiae of how the prison system is operated, including how it evaluates the success of its programs, the recidivism rate, and how it uses its resources.  In their final report, members suggest that the prisons should actually devote more resources to addiction treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, classes, and faith programs, and incentivize participation by offering offenders reducing time from their sentences and a "second look" at their cases by a federal judge after they've served certain number of years.

"If their behavior is good in the program, they've taken part in programs, they can have their sentence looked at again. It's an incentive to have people behave well and participate in programs that are evidence-based to improve behavior," said Laurie Robinson, a criminal justice professor and former Assistant Attorney General who served on the task force....

Robinson described her experience working with the task force as "terrific."  Despite 30 years working in the criminal justice system, she said she learned both from the diverse viewpoints of her colleagues and the federal prisoners she met on site visits.  "Some were in their late 60s or 70s, and at least one of those individuals was in very bad health and said he had applied several times for compassionate release," she said.  "And it just made you think: Why are we spending so much in the way of taxpayer dollars to keep people behind bars?"...

Robinson and her colleagues were meeting with senior staff at the White House ... to brief them on the report and point out which actions could be taken without a Congressional vote or legislation.  "There are things in there that the director of the BOP could do tomorrow, she said, noting that there are also steps the DOJ and president could take that focus on management, resource allocation, and best practices.  Others of them I think might not happen necessarily quickly but maybe are things that will get into the public conversation that will have to happen at a later time," she said....

Going forward, the report says, sentences should be individualized, policy should emphasize public safety, data should guide policies, and the costs should be more carefully considered.  Most importantly, the report says, the lawmakers who receive the recommendations "must capitalize on this rare moment in time" of political will and public awareness to make effective change.

Prior related post:

January 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Why we must rethink solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by the President of the United States Barack Obama.  Here are excerpts from the piece, which concludes with a pitch for broader sentencing reforms:

Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time.  Today, it’s increasingly overused ... with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.

There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses.  As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences.  It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.  Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.  Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.  Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society.  Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe.  And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent.  In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society.  How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer.  It’s an affront to our common humanity....

The Justice Department has completed its review [on the use of solitary], and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system.  These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.  These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.  And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

Reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.  Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated.  Many criminals belong behind bars.  But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences.  That’s why members of Congress in both parties are pushing for change, from reforming sentencing laws to expanding reentry programs to give those who have paid their debt to society the tools they need to become productive members of their communities.  And I hope they will send me legislation as soon as possible that makes our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective.

In America, we believe in redemption.  We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”  We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.  And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

January 26, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Making a pitch for judicial second looks while asking "Did I Sentence a Murderer or a Cooperative Witness?"

The question in the second half of the title of this post is the headline of this New York Times commentary authored by Stefan Underhill, a federal district judge in Connecticut.  But the headline does not reflect what thus commentary is really about: it makes a pitch for creating a significant new judicial second-look mechanism in federal sentencing.  I recommend this commentary in full, and here are excerpts:

In 2006, I sentenced a man to 18 years in prison. I have been wrestling with that decision ever since. As a federal district judge, I’ve sentenced hundreds of people, but I’ve rarely agonized as much as I did over this man’s fate.

He was the enforcer for a brutal gang of drug dealers in Bridgeport, Conn., known as the Terminators, and had sold heroin, assaulted rival dealers and murdered a potential witness.  But after a falling-­out with the head of the gang, he turned over a stash house to the police and fled the state.  When captured in 2001, he immediately confessed to the murder and later testified as a star witness for the prosecution.

Thus arose my problem: He had committed horrible crimes, but he also seemed to be making an unusually sincere effort to atone for them.  So which man was I sentencing?  The murderer or the remorseful cooperator?

The prosecutor rewarded his cooperation by filing a so­called 5K motion, which allowed me to ignore the mandatory life sentence he otherwise would have faced.  Still, after weighing the seriousness of his crimes, I sentenced him to 18 years, which was more time than even the prosecutor wanted....

In the years that followed, I often wondered whether his remorse was strong enough to overcome his past.  In 2012, I had the chance to find out.  While attending a conference on sentencing issues, I learned that he was serving time in a prison nearby.  I wanted to know whether he had become a better citizen or a better criminal.  So I asked a prison staffer if I could meet with him in private.

That the warden felt no need to post a guard was my first clue that he had changed for the better.  He was working in his first real job at the prison industries factory and had been promoted to supervisor.  He showed me recommendations from prison employees for good jobs on the outside.  He brought a folder full of certificates he had earned for attending classes.  He talked lovingly about his girlfriend and daughter, with whom he planned to live as a family after his release.

The meeting made me proud of his accomplishments, but sad that I had not been more confident in him.  He still had several years left on his sentence, but it was clear that he had served enough time.  After I returned to my office, I contacted the prosecutor and his lawyer and encouraged them to find a way to get him released early.  But they told me there was no straightforward way to shorten a federal inmate’s sentence, even if prison officials acknowledge that more jail time is a waste of time and money.  So he had to stay in prison, at an annual cost of $30,000 to taxpayers.

The tragedy of mass incarceration has recently focused much attention on the need to reform three-­strikes laws, mandatory minimums and the federal sentencing guidelines, which often direct judges to impose excessive sentences. We also need a mechanism for judges to re­evaluate the sentences they’ve imposed.  It’s true that federal prisoners can earn up to 15 percent off the length of their sentences if they stay out of trouble.  But this doesn’t incentivize prisoners to take advantage of work or study opportunities.

Instead, Congress should enact legislation that would allow every sentenced defendant one opportunity to petition his sentencing court for a reduction based on extraordinarily good conduct and rehabilitation in prison.

This “second-­look review” should be available only to prisoners who are supported by their wardens.  To minimize the increased workload on busy federal judges, each prisoner should be allowed only a single opportunity to seek early release and do so only after serving at least half of the sentence imposed (or two­-thirds of a mandatory minimum sentence).

Factors in support of an early release should include more than just clean disciplinary records in prison.  Job readiness, success with drug treatment, completion of vocational and educational training and extraordinary family or health circumstances should count as well....

I don’t advocate for a return to the flawed federal parole system that was essentially abolished in the 1980s.  In that system, a judge who believed that a defendant should spend three years locked up would impose a nine­year sentence because parole was likely to be granted after he served one­-third of it.  But if that defendant’s parole was delayed or denied, the judge’s original intent was impeded.  In contrast, my proposal would give the sentencing judge control. This makes sense because judges know whether a particular defendant got a break at sentencing or not and can best gauge the extent of positive change in a person....

A “second look” to adjust sentences would give inmates an incentive to prepare themselves for productive lives on the outside, and allow judges like me to correct sentences that turn out, in hindsight, to be unnecessarily long. This would improve the fairness of our criminal justice system and increase the public’s confidence in our courts.

UPDATE: Intriguingly, since I posted this piece, the New York Times changed its on-line headline to "Did the Man I Sentenced to 18 Years Deserve It?". And, echoing my own gut instincts, it seems that more than a few commentors think that someone who murdered a potential witness deserves at least 18 years in prison. In light of that view, I think the most notable aspect of this sentencing story is fact that the initial 18-year prison sentence "was more time than even the prosecutor wanted."

January 24, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, January 22, 2016

"Incarceration Incentives in the Decarceration Era"

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

After forty years of skyrocketing incarceration rates, there are signs that a new “decarceration era” may be dawning; the prison population has leveled off and even slightly declined.  Yet, while each branch of government has taken steps to reduce the prison population, the preceding decades of mass incarceration have empowered interest groups that contributed to the expansion of the prison industry and are now invested in its continued growth.  These groups, which include public correctional officers and private prison management, resist decarceration-era policies, and they remain a substantial obstacle to reform.

This Article scrutinizes the incentives of these industry stakeholders in the new decarceration era. Drawing on interviews with a wide range of industry actors, it develops a “taxonomy of resistance” to identify how and why these actors resist reform efforts and uncovers understudied parallels between private and public prison stakeholders.  This fine-grained analysis grounds the Article’s recommendations for changes to compensation and assessment structures to better align industry incentives with decarceration-era goals.  Ultimately, the future of the decarceration era is precarious but not doomed.  The detailed incentives unearthed by this study demonstrate the significant hurdles facing emerging decarceration policies and the urgent challenge of accounting for, overcoming, and co-opting entrenched prison industry stakeholders.

January 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

"Free computers for inmates? It’s latest deal at Sacramento County jail"

The title of this post is the headline of this encouraging Sacramento Bee article which reinforces my long-standing belief that lots of modern technology could and should be put to good use in our not-so-modern jails and prisons.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

On the surface, the notion seems preposterous: Hand out Samsung computer tablets to dozens of Sacramento County Main Jail inmates.  But 40 of the tablets have been in use at the Main Jail downtown for two months, and officials say they have had virtually no problems. Inmates have used them to take classes toward high school diplomas, for parenting and domestic violence courses and, once they have earned enough points from studying, to watch preapproved movies or listen to music.

The project, which officials hope soon will offer 500 tablets to inmates, is similar to others that have been launched in jails nationwide and is not costing taxpayers a dime, sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Amos said.  Instead, the tablets, which cost about $200 each, are paid for through an inmate fund that collects revenues from commissary and other purchases.  “An inmate can work on their GED, they can take anger management classes,” Amos said as he stood on the fifth floor of the jail Thursday as inmates drifted toward a table holding dozens of tablets and earphones. “There’s even parenting classes. We had an inmate here during this pilot who was learning how to fix carburetors on a car or fix brakes. There’s thousands of hours of content.”

The computers cannot be used for email or be hooked up to wireless Internet, Amos said.  Instead, they can only connect with a secure network operated by a Chicago-based company called Edovo that offers the service. If someone somehow managed to hack into the system, “they’d end up at Edovo,” Amos said.

Although Amos acknowledges the notion originally worried some deputies at the jail, which houses about 2,000 inmates, the pilot program has proved to have a calming effect on inmates who have been given access to the devices.  On two visits last week to the day room where the devices are being used, there was something present that is entirely out of the ordinary for the cacophonous jailhouse: silence.

Jason Rogers, 43, who has been in the jail for eight months on drug charges, sat with one of the tablets studying a chapter book and taking notes on a pad. “I think it’s great,” Rogers said, adding that he has used the device to study current events, such as the ongoing war in Syria, or to watch movies.  Without access to a tablet, Rogers said, he’d most likely be writing letters or watching television in the day room.

Steve Wilson, 52, who is awaiting the results of an appeal on a federal white-collar crime case, said he uses the devices to listen to TED talks and watch documentaries. In a previous stint at the jail while awaiting trial, Wilson said disputes among bored inmates were common. “At least twice a week, when those doors popped open, there was a fight,” Wilson said. “Now that I’m back I haven’t seen a fight yet. People are taking their issues and instead of taking it out on each other, they have a mechanism of escape where they can bury themselves into that. And there’s going to be more, there’s going to be games, there’s going to be magazines.”

The tablets, which officials say can also be used to eliminate paperwork by allowing inmates to request medical care or to read up on jail policies and procedures, are designed so they cannot be altered to allow communication with the outside.  “You’d have to be a genius to figure out how to do that,” Rogers said. The seven-inch tablets cannot be taken into cells, and must be locked in a charging cart at night.

Deputy Brent Snyder, who was watching over inmates on Wednesday, said he was skeptical when he heard inmates would be given access to the small computers, noting that he wanted assurances they could not access the Internet or communicate outside the jail.  Since then, Snyder said, he has been won over by the program and the effect it has had on inmates.  They are calmer, quieter and eager to use them to study and to listen to music ... and officials say they do not expect any serious violations because the inmates do not want to lose their access to the devices.

Edovo and its tablet programs are the brainchild of Sacramento native Brian Hill, a 2002 Del Campo High School graduate who says his company has about 1,000 tablets in fewer than 10 facilities nationwide, but expects to more than double that in the coming year.  As prisons and jails try to focus more on reform than simply punishment, the need for programs that can be made available to inmates is greater than ever, Hill said, and the use of tablets can help. “You’ve got 2 million people behind bars in the nation watching daytime television,” Hill said.  “That’s not a recipe for success.  With this, there’s a window, there’s a chance for success.”...

The tablets are encased in hard plastic that protects them and prevents them from being opened by inmates.  And, Hill said, if someone smuggled a cellphone or other device into the jail and hacked into the secure system, they would only gain access to the coursework Edovo offers. “It’d be the most depressing hack ever,” he said.  Hill acknowledged that there is hesitation from some — especially guards — when they first hear about the program.  “It generally takes about five minutes,” Hill said.  “The minute you see it live and 100 inmates put on headphones and they are quiet for six hours, it really changes people’s perspectives.”

Such programs have been put into use from San Francisco to Pennsylvania using iPads and other tablets and are generating a surprisingly positive response from some.  “It’s a good thing,” said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Assistance Network Foundation in Sacramento.  “I know you don’t often hear that from me.”  But, Ward said, as long as inmates are being held accountable for their crimes, it is important for institutions to offer prisoners the ability to improve and educate themselves.

January 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Notable Yale Law Journal Forum essays respond to big report on solitary confinement

YLJ-social-01As reported in this prior post from this past fall, the Association of State Correctional Administrators with researchers at Yale Law School together produced an important report about solitary confinement titled Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison.  This report provided updated information, as of the fall of 2014, on the numbers and the conditions of prisoners in restrictive housing nationwide.

Now the folks at the Yale Law Journal have put together through its on-line Forum this impressive collection of essays that respond to Time-In-Cell.  Here are the contents with links via the essay titles:

January 17, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (32)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In wake of Obergefell, Alaska legislator introduces bill to ban marriage between inmates

In this post right after the Supreme Court's landmark marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, I asked in my post title "Might prisons struggle with new SCOTUS jurisprudence on fundamental right to marry?".  To date, I have not yet seen many stories suggesting post-Obergefell prison problems.  But this local Alaska story, headlined "Bill would ban prison marriages, but not for the reason you think," suggests the Last Frontier could be one of the first states to change its prison marriage laws since the ruling. Here are the basics:

In his younger years, Anchorage Republican Rep. Bob Lynn served as a police officer in Tucson, Arizona. Last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, that decision and Lynn’s firsthand experience merged in his mind.

On Friday, Lynn introduced House Bill 218, which would prohibit marriages at the state’s prisons.  Lynn said the bill is a matter of fairness.  If a same-sex couple falls in love within a prison’s walls, he doesn’t want them to have the ability to get married and share a cell with their spouse.  “We’ve got a lot of prisoners who have a spouse outside the prison,” he said. “That’s not fair to them where somebody in the jail can have their spouse in there.”

Lynn said the bill would apply to same-sex and heterosexual couples alike; a person would not be able to get married to an inmate on prison grounds....

To accommodate a married same-sex couple who commit a crime together, Lynn’s bill includes a provision that would prohibit the Department of Corrections from putting the couple into the same facility.  It also toughens the ban on conjugal visits — currently a regulation of the department — by putting it into law.  That makes the ban tougher to overturn.

I suppose I can (sort of) see the logic of wanting to preclude two convicted spouses from being able to live together while serving their prison terms, but I have a hard time fully understanding why that concern would or should justify a blanket prohibition on allowing prisoners to marry the person of their choice if that other person also happens to be in custody. And because the Supreme Court has long suggested that only "legitimate security concerns" can justify "placing reasonable restrictions upon an inmate's right to marry," I could readily see a successful constitutional challenge to this blanket prisoner marriage ban if it were ever to become the law in Alaska.

January 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Lots of notable Atlantic reads on range of criminal justice topics

The folks over at The Atlantic always have a lot of worthy criminal justice (and other) reads, and these recent pieces struck me as especially blogworthy:

January 11, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)