Friday, October 26, 2012

Latest California polling data suggests hard-core sentencing will be up real late on election night

La-me-death-penaltya1-20121025-gI have an inkling (and certainly a hope) that we will know the outcome of the 2012 presidential election not all that long after 9pm EST on November 6th: the polls will by then be closed in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia.  But this big Los Angeles Times article, which provides the latest poll numbers on the two big sentencing reform ballot initiatives in California, suggests that hard-core sentencing fans should plan for very late night watching election returns from the Golden State. the article is headlined "Support for end to California death penalty surges; Nearly half of registered voters still back capital punishment, but the margin has shrunk to 3 percentage points; Voters also favor easing the three-strikes law." Here are excerpts:

Voter support for a ballot measure to repeal California's death penalty has jumped dramatically, though not enough to ensure its passage, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found. Support for a separate measure that would ease the state's three-strikes sentencing law remained high, with more than 60% in favor of amending it.

The survey, conducted last week, showed that the gap between supporters and opponents of Proposition 34, the capital punishment measure, is now very small — only 3 percentage points — compared with last month.  Still, less than half of respondents said they would vote for the measure, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Forty-two percent said they would vote for Proposition 34, with 45% saying no. In September, the gap was 38% to 51%, a 13-point difference.  A significant 12% of respondents said they did not know how they would vote, nearly identical to the 11% who had not decided last month.  "There is no question there has been a sharp shift," said Dan Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.  The results suggest that passage is "not impossible" but still "very difficult," Schnur said.

When voters heard more information about Proposition 34, such as its financial ramifications and details of the effect on prisoners, responses flipped: 45% were in favor and 42% against — still very close to the survey's margin of error, which is 2.9 percentage points.

The latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll [with crosstabs available here] questioned 1,504 registered voters by telephone from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21, before the Proposition 34 campaign launched radio and television ads. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, did the survey with American Viewpoint, a Republican company. 

Proposition 34 would apply retroactively to condemned inmates, require convicted murderers to work in prison and contribute to victim restitution funds, and direct $100 million to law enforcement over four years.  It could save the state as much as $130 million a year, according to California's nonpartisan legislative analyst.  California has more than 727 inmates on death row, the most in the nation....

Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for Proposition 34, said the poll's findings prove that "this election is absolutely moving in our direction."  But Peter DeMarco, a strategist for the opposition, expressed confidence that the shift was too small to make a difference....

La-me-death-penalty-inside-20121025-g

Meanwhile, support for the three-strikes measure, Proposition 36, has held relatively steady in recent weeks, with 63% of voters in favor, 22% opposed and 15% undecided or not answering.  Last month, the initiative was leading by 66% to 20%.  "Unless the opponents can convince voters that the criminals being impacted by this measure are still dangerous, the initiative looks pretty safe at this point," Schnur said. 

The three-strikes law allows prosecutors to seek sentences of 25 years to life for any felony if offenders were previously convicted of at least two violent or serious crimes, such as rape or residential burglary. Proposition 36 would amend the law so offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor felonies, such as shoplifting or drug possession, would no longer be eligible for life terms.  Of the state's nearly 8,900 third-strikers, about a third were convicted of drug or minor property crimes.

This week, the proposition's campaign unveiled a television ad in which the district attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties tell voters that the amendment would ease prison overcrowding, save the state millions of dollars and "make the punishment fit the crime."  Opponents point out that the current law already allows prosecutors and judges to spare a third-striker the maximum sentence and argue that flexibility is needed to protect the public.

I suspect that the polling on these sorts of initiatives can be subject to lots of statistical noise, so I am quite chary about making book on these latest poll numbers.  That all said, it will be big news if either of these sentencing reform initiatives pass, and huge news if they both do.  Thus, I now have yet another reason to wish Election Day 2012 was here already.

October 26, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, October 22, 2012

"Effects of change in California criminal justice system difficult to discern"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article appearing in the Sacremento Bee.  Here are excerpts:

Critics of a year-old law shifting responsibility for thousands of convicted felons to the counties have seized on the brutal beating of a San Joaquin County woman -- allegedly by a man released from jail just days before the attack -- as evidence that the law is eroding public safety.   But criminal justice experts say that understanding the law's effects will take more time and more information than a few headline-grabbing cases can provide.

Parolee Raoul Leyva allegedly beat Brandy Marie Arreola, then 20, into a coma in April. Shortly before the attack, Leyva had been sentenced to jail for 100 days for violating the conditions of his parole. 

He was released after two days because of overcrowding in the jail.  Before the passage last year of the criminal justice reform law -- AB109 -- he would have been subject to prison time, rather than jail, for the parole violation.  Critics of prison realignment, as AB109 is commonly known, say crime rates are surging because fewer people such as Leyva are going to prison, and some may be getting out of jail early because of overcrowding.

Leyva's last prison term was for motor vehicle theft, a nonviolent offense.  Crimes classified as nonviolent are now met with jail or community supervision instead of prison. Violations of parole by nonviolent offenders also mean jail time rather than prison for the offender.

The law's enactment followed a court order to reduce the state's prison population.  The prisons were at double their capacity at the time of the order.  Since then, the prison population has dropped by more than 26,000 inmates.

"It's diminishing public safety," said Lynne Brown, director of Advocates for Public Safety, a group that represents law enforcement officers who want to repeal AB109.   Republican legislators agree, and they have called for a special session of the Legislature to change or kill the law.  They say that crime has increased in Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland and Los Angeles, according to preliminary numbers from police departments.

But police data actually show a mixed picture.  In Sacramento, Part I crimes, those that are reported to the FBI and eventually become the uniform crime rate for a city, are up by 8.1 percent this year compared with the same period in 2011. Homicides, however, decreased by 18.5 percent, according to Sacramento Police Department crime data.

Violent crime is currently down in Los Angeles by 7 percent and property crime is the same year-to-date.  In Oakland, Part I crimes have increased by 20 percent, according to the Oakland Police Department.  Some increases -- like those for rape (up 21 percent) and robbery (up 20 percent) -- are striking.  Part II crimes -- including minor assault, drug possession, vandalism and fraud – have decreased by 10 percent....

But determining the effect of a single policy on crime rates is difficult, said Joan Petersilia, professor of law at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. "That is one of the hardest questions to answer in crime," Petersilia said. Factors that influence crime rates range from the economy and the unemployment rate to family life, Petersilia said.

Shrinking police forces in cities struggling with tight budgets might also have an effect, noted Barry Krisberg, director of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley....

Counties have responded to the law in different ways, from sending people back into the community with ankle bracelets to putting people who once would have gone to prison in jail.  Realignment in Los Angeles, which is increasing its jail population, is different from realignment in San Francisco, where the focus is on rehabilitation and reducing the jail population.  "Realignment isn't one thing," Krisberg said.  "It's 58 things."

The law did not include any method for assessing the impact of the policy change. Counties that have accepted technical assistance from the state are required to report on their realigned population, but there are no set standards for what specific data counties must report.

Researchers, including Petersilia, are working on studies funded by foundations. "The state is not collecting data on this," Krisberg said.  "I think it is scandalous."  Nuanced analysis is essential to understanding the effects of realignment, Petersilia said.  "We do a great disservice when we ask if it is working and only look at one measure."

October 22, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, October 19, 2012

For free health care from well-paid medical personnel, commit a serious crime in California

The snarky title of this post is prompted by this new AP story, which is headlined "High pay a costly legacy of Calif. prison receiver."  Here is how it starts:

A doctor at California Medical Facility was paid more than $410,000 last year, while a registered nurse at High Desert State Prison made nearly $236,000 -- more than twice the statewide average in both cases.  A pharmacist at Corcoran State Prison was paid more than $196,000, nearly double what is typical across the state. 

Compensation for medical providers has soared in the prison system since a federal judge seized control of inmate health care in 2006 and appointed an overseer with the power to hire and set pay levels.  As the official begins to wind down his oversight, the medical hiring and salary increases have helped lead to an improvement in inmate care, but it has increased the bill for taxpayers too. 

It has also led to criticism that the official -- called a receiver -- provided a "Cadillac" level of care for convicted felons.  A state review found that only Texas pays its state prison doctors more that California.

"The problem that we had is that the receiver was not accountable to anybody," said former state Sen. George Runner, a Republican who has frequently criticized the program. "So the receiver could just do or choose to spend whatever amount of money he thought was necessary to solve his problem, and unfortunately now the state is stuck with that," he said.

The receiver for medical care, J. Clark Kelso, said the state has been free to collectively bargain health care providers' salaries since a court order increasing their wages expired three years ago.

The receiver's goal was to correct a prison medical system that was ruled unconstitutional for its substandard care and, at one point, contributed to an inmate death each week through negligence or malfeasance.  To do that, the receivership increased salaries, created new positions at high pay and hired hundreds of employees to fill longtime vacancies.

Total spending on medical, dental and mental health care for inmates, numbering 124,700, has more than doubled over the last decade, from $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2003-04 to a projected $2.3 billion this year.  The number of medical, mental health and dental workers in the prisons more than doubled over six years, from 5,100 in 2005, the year before the receivership was created, to 12,200 last year.  More than 1,400 were administrators who don't directly treat inmates, according to a state Assembly oversight committee.

October 19, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

New report examines value of video visitation for kids of incarcerated

I received news via my electronic in-box of an intriguing new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the e-mail describes the report (with a link within):

On any given day, approximately 2.6 million children have a parent in jail or prison because of the harsh criminal justice policies that have made the United States the world's leading jailer.  A growing number of correctional facilities are moving to video visitation because it can be managed by fewer staff than traditional visitation, reduces the chances of contraband being introduced into facilities, and can potentially generate revenue.

In our new report, Video Visits for Children Whose Parents are Incarcerated: In Whose Best Interest?, Dr. Susan D. Phillips addresses the question of whether video visitation may also provide benefits for children who are separated from their parents by incarceration.  Our conclusion is that it depends on the particular policies and practices of a given institution.

Video visitation holds the most potential for benefiting children if: 

  • It is used as an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, other modes of communication, particularly contact visits; 
  • Children can visit from their homes or nearby sites; 
  • Facility policies allow for frequent visits; and 
  • Fees are not cost prohibitive.

October 16, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, October 12, 2012

NPR piece spotlights Ohio success with sentencing reforms and reducing recidivism

I am very pleased to see that my state is getting well-deserved national attention for its recent success with sentencing and corrections reforms.  Specifically, NPR's Talk of the Nation had this lengthy segment earlier this week on Ohio's reforms under the heading "Programs Keep Inmates From Returning To Prison." Here is how the NPR site sets up the discussion:

States pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to house each inmate. Some states are rethinking the way they spend that money. In Ohio, sentencing reform, increased support for former inmates, and rehabilitation and education programs for current prisoners have helped keep prisoners from returning.

October 12, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New report assails subjecting youthful offenders to solitary confinement

Us1012_reportcoverAs detailed in this press release, two prominent rights groups have a big new report on the use of solitary confinement for young offenders.  Here are details via the press release:

Young people are held in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the United States, often for weeks or months at a time, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report released today.

The 141-page report, “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” is based on research in both US jails and prisons in five states ­– Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania – and correspondence with young people in 14 others. The isolation of solitary confinement causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found.

“Locking kids in solitary confinement with little or no contact with other people is cruel, harmful, and unnecessary,” said Ian Kysel, Aryeh Neier Fellow with Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and author of the report. “Normal human interaction is essential to the healthy development and rehabilitation of young people; to cut that off helps nobody.”

The report is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 young people in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18, as well as with jail and/or prison officials in 10 states.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimate that in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people held there....

The New York City Department of Corrections, for example, reported that in fiscal year 2012, which ended in June, more than 14 percent of all adolescents were held in at least one period of solitary confinement while detained. The average length of time young people spent in solitary confinement at Rikers Island was 43 days. More than 48 percent of adolescents at Rikers have diagnosed mental health problems....

The solitary confinement of young people under age 18 is itself a serious human rights violation and can constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. Conditions that compound the harm of solitary confinement, such as denial of educational programming, exercise, or family visits, often constitute independent, serious human rights violations.

A number of corrections officials have begun to recognize and speak against the use of solitary confinement, saying that it is costly, ineffective, and harmful.

There are alternative ways to address the problems – whether disciplinary, administrative, protective, or medical – that officials typically cite to justify using solitary confinement, while taking into account the rights and special needs of adolescents, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. Youth could be housed in specialized facilities organized to encourage positive behavior. And punishment should be proportional to the infraction, using any short-term isolation as a rare exception.

The federal and state governments should ban placing youth in solitary confinement, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. They should also prohibit housing adolescents with adults or in jails and prisons designed to house adults, and strictly regulate and monitor all forms of isolation of young people.

October 10, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 07, 2012

"Immigrant Criminals in Overcrowded Prisons: Rethinking an Anachronistic Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy paper by Professor Peter Schuck, which is available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Under an Immigration and Nationality Act provision dating to 1917, deportable immigrant criminals must serve their entire sentences in the U.S. before being removed from the country. (Exceptions, enacted in 1996, are seldom used).  At the same time, federal and state prisons are dangerously overcrowded, with the Supreme Court soon to rule on the constitutionality of overcrowded conditions in the California system.  The paper shows that the most common proposals for reducing overcrowding are either politically difficult (e.g., shorter sentences) or numerically insignificant (e.g., decriminalizing drug possession for use).  The paper proposes instead, or in addition, to facilitate the earlier removal of deportable criminals and analyzes the legal, policy, and diplomatic changes that would be necessary to implement this approach.

October 7, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Private prison fares poorly in audit by Ohio officials

As reported in this local article, headlined "State audit rips private prison on health, security," Ohio officials were not too happy about what they found during an audit of private prison facilities. Here are the details:

Conditions at the privately owned and operated Lake Erie Correctional Institution are “ unacceptable” and “won’t be allowed to continue,” a state prison official said yesterday after the release of a critical audit.

An internal audit by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction found that the prison in Conneaut, Ohio, in Ashtabula County, met only two-thirds of state operating standards for prisons. It houses about 1,500 inmates. In addition to numerous health, sanitation and security problems, staff members and inmates at the private prison told auditors they had “safety concerns” and do not feel secure.

The state sold the Conneaut prison last year to Corrections Corp. of America of Nashville, Tenn., for $72.7 million. The state pays CCA $44.25 per inmate per day to house, feed and clothe them and provide programs, plus a $3.8 million annual fee for maintenance. The company is obligated to run the prison at a savings of $3 million per year compared with state operation....

State prisons spokeswoman JoEllen Smith said the audit findings are “unacceptable, and CCA knows how strongly Ohio thinks that. It’s not unusual for management change to create issues that need refinement, but these results go beyond that and won’t be allowed to continue.” She said the state has put in place an improvement plan and expects to see results.

Steve Owen, spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, said in a statement: “We have built our 30-year reputation on not just meeting but exceeding the expectations of our government partners, and we take it very seriously when we do not meet those expectations. ... CCA is taking concrete corrective steps to ensure that this facility meets not only the ODRC’s goals but our own high expectations for our facilities.”

Chris Mabe, head of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said the audit confirms the union’s concerns about private-prison operations. The prison is not unionized. “There’s things they can’t do cost-effectively and they can’t do safely,” Mabe said. “When you incarcerate people to make money, it’s no-win at the end of the day.”

Some related posts: 

October 7, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Upcoming Sandusky sentencing generates little suspense, but lots of stories

Jerry Sandusky is scheduled to face sentencing this Tuesday.  At this stage, the case holds has seemingly limited suspense; I cannot imagine this serial child molester now could or would get anything less than a functional (if not an actual) life sentence. Still, the high-profile nature of the defendant and his crimes ensures that there will be plenty of press stories about the sentencing.  For example, here are some stories from the AP and UPI appearing in many papers today:

I doubt I will be eager to blog much about this high-profile state sentencing, in part because we can count on the mainstream press to give it plenty (too much?) attention. But perhaps readers can convince me via comments that there is something especially worthy of special blog attention as the Sandusky sentencing day approaches.

October 7, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Updated edition of a terrific federal sentencing and prison resource

FpgWhenever I am asked questions about federal prison realities, I always urge folks to seek more information from Alan Ellis, who has literally written the book (actually, a number of books) on these matters.  My faith in Alan Ellis as the go-to resource was confirmed this past week when I received in the mail the latest, greatest, updated edition of the Federal Prison Guidebook authored by him (now along with J. Michael Henderson and Todd Bussert, who also has this blog covering these matters).

This webpage not only provides information about the book and ordering, but also reprints a selection of a few of the innumerable practice pointers in this terrific federal sentencing and corrections resource. And here is how the page explains the book's scope and contents:

Federal prison placement, profiles, and tips. How to ensure that your client gets into the best possible prison and is released at the earliest opportunity.

Although it is Bureau of Prisons policy to place an individual in the least restrictive facility within 500 miles of the inmate's release residence, many inmates end up far from their families in harsher conditions than necessary. It doesn't have to be that way.

You can take three steps to ensure that your clients do their time in the best possible facilities. First, learn how the BOP classifies its facilities, and the characteristics of each type of facility. Second, understand how the BOP decides what type of prison is appropriate. Finally, learn how to increase the odds of a favorable placement.

For assistance with all three steps, turn to Alan Ellis and Michael Henderson’s Federal Prison Guidebook.

In addition, this detailed brochure concerning the book from the publisher provides even more information about this valuable resource.

October 4, 2012 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Intriguing political spat over federal plans to purchase of Illinois prison

As reported in this new ABC News report, headlined "GOP Chafes at Justice Dept. Move to Buy Illinois Prison," an interesting political fight is breaking out over federal prison spending plans. Here are the basics:

Top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are lashing out at the Obama administration after Attorney General Eric Holder informed congressional appropriations leaders Tuesday that despite congressional objections, the Justice Department is moving forward with a plan to purchase the maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill.

“Americans would rather their tax dollars be spent preventing attacks from terrorists, than spent bringing them into their cities and towns as the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to achieve,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement Tuesday, calling it an “election-eve purchase.”

The Obama administration had viewed the facility as a potential location to hold high-security terrorism suspects before the administration’s efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba failed.

Citing 38 percent overcrowding rates in federal prisons, Holder says in the letter to Chairman Frank Wolf, R-Va., of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science that no Guantanamo Bay suspects would reside at the desperately needed Thomson facility.

Still, Republicans cast the decision as a unilateral move by the administration, one that Congress has opposed.  “The unilateral decision to purchase the Thomson Prison – even though Congress has repeatedly opposed the Obama administration’s effort to use taxpayer funds to do so -- underscores the administration’s desire to move forward and bring these detainees to U.S. soil,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday.

The Justice Department will buy the prison from the state of Illinois for $165 million. Holder noted that building a new facility could cost as much as $400 million. The funds for the purchase will be obtained from DOJ seizures in asset-forfeiture cases.  The Thomson prison could hold up to 2,800 inmates, according to Justice Department officials. “The administration is acutely aware of BOP’s need for the facility and the department’s inability to reach a resolution of the matter with you. Under these circumstances, the administration has decided to proceed with the purchase,” AG Holder wrote Tuesday to Rep. Wolf.

“Thomson is still desperately needed to reduce our current high level of overcrowding.  And Thomson is specifically needed to house inmates particularly those appropriate for “administrative maximum,” Holder wrote in his letter, making reference to the highest security level in the Bureau of Prisons, “administrative maximum.”

A Government Accountability Office report released in September noted that Bureau of Prisons facilities are severely overcrowded with double- and triple-stacked bunk beds. “According to BOP and our observations, the growth of the federal inmate population and related crowding have negatively affected inmates housed in BOP institutions, institutional staff, and the infrastructure of BOP facilities, and have contributed to inmate misconduct, which affects staff and inmate security and safety,” the GAO report noted.

The lengthy GAO report about federal prison overcrowding referenced here, which I keep meaning to blog about, is titled "Growing Inmate Crowding Negatively Affects Inmates, Staff, and Infrastructure" and is available at this link.

Recent related posts on federal prison overcrowding:

October 3, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Big new report examines New York's use of solitary confinement

Nyclu_boxedin_cover_0A helpful reader alerted me to this new report coming from the New York Civil Liberties Union titled "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons." This NYCLU webpage, from which the report can be downloaded, provide a summary of its scope and contents. Here is how that summary starts:

This report, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, is the product of an intensive, year-long investigation that involved communication with more than 100 people who have spent significant amounts of time — in one case, more than 20 years — in extreme isolation. The authors interviewed prisoners’ family members and corrections staff, and analyzed thousands of pages of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) records obtained through the state’s open records laws.

The report is accompanied by a website — www.nyclu.org/boxedin — featuring excerpts of prisoners’ letters about life in extreme isolation, a library of DOCCS data and records, statistical analyses and a video featuring the voices of family members whose loved ones have been held in extreme isolation.

Over the past 20 years, New York has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate an extensive network of extreme isolation cells, which DOCCS calls “Special Housing Units” or “SHUs” —and prisoners call “the Box.”  New York has nearly 5,000 SHU beds located in 39 prisons across the state, including two dedicated extreme isolation prisons — Upstate and Southport Correctional Facilities — that combined cost about $76 million a year to operate.

New York practices a unique brand of “solitary confinement.”  About half of the 4,500 prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in an isolation cell completely alone.  The other half are confined in an isolation cell the size of a parking spot with another prisoner, a practice that forces two strangers into intimate, constant proximity for weeks, months and even years on end.  The NYCLU uses the term “extreme isolation” to capture the practice of subjecting one or two people in a cell to the conditions most commonly understood as solitary confinement.

Based on a year of study and analysis, the NYCLU found that:

  • New York’s use of extreme isolation is arbitrary and unjustified. Extreme isolation is too frequently used as a disciplinary tool of first resort. Corrections officials have enormous discretion to impose extreme isolation. Prisoners can be sent to the SHU for prolonged periods of time for violating a broad range of prison rules, including for minor, non-violent misbehavior.
  • Extreme isolation harms prisoners and corrections staff. It causes grave emotional and psychological harm even to healthy and mentally stable inmates. For the vulnerable, particularly those suffering from mental illness, extreme isolation can be life-threatening. The formal and informal deprivation of human necessities, including food, exercise and basic hygiene, compounds the emotional and psychological harm. Prisoners in extreme isolation often lack access to adequate medical and mental health care. For corrections staff, working in extreme isolation has lasting negative consequences that affect their lives at work and home.
  • Extreme isolation negatively impacts prison and community safety. The psychological effects of extreme isolation can fuel unpredictable and sometimes violent outbursts that endanger prisoners and corrections staff. Prisoners carry the effects of extreme isolation into the general prison population. They also carry them home. Nearly 2,000 people in New York are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets each year. While in the SHU, prisoners receive no educational, vocational, rehabilitative or transitional programming, leaving them less prepared to successfully rejoin society.

October 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ohio reducing prison population, but judges still unhappy with sentencing reforms

This new AP article, headlined "Fewer Ohio inmates, but judges want law fixed," highlights that sentencing judges dislike limits on their discretion even when these limits require lower sentences. Here are excerpts:

A law that has helped Ohio reduce its inmate population is being criticized as too restrictive by judges seeking more leeway in sentencing.

Enacted a year ago this Sunday, the law aims to save the state millions of dollars by shrinking the number of inmates and also by reducing the number of offenders who might to return to prison as repeat offenders. One result of the change is that Ohio’s inmate population has remained under 50,000 since January, levels not seen since 2007.

Ohio is also one of several states making significant progress reducing the number of repeat offenders, according to a national report released last week. Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Vermont all saw the number of repeat offenders drop between 2005 and 2007, according to the study by Washington-based Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.

One way Ohio has lowered its inmate population over the past year is by prohibiting judges from sentencing first-time offenders to prison if the cases fall into a series of categories, such as convictions involving low-level felonies or if the crime was not a violent offense.

But judges aren’t always happy about that. In some cases, they can’t find local treatment facilities or aren’t aware of them, or they say the offender has a history of skipping out of halfway houses or similar settings. In other cases, judges make it clear they think prison is warranted, despite the law....

Thanks to the law, the number of offenders convicted of property, drug possession and drug trafficking crimes decreased from 37 percent of total admissions to 29 percent of admissions, according to prison records. In addition, the number of offenders admitted each month for failing to pay child support has dropped from 39 per month in 2011 to 31 per month from January through August, records show.

Prisons director Gary Mohr called the first-year results promising but said much remains to be done. “If I believed that we were going to stop at these numbers, I’d be pretty darn disappointed,” Mohr said in an interview last week. “This gives us a sense of hope that we can continue to get a whole lot better.”

Ohio has about 49,500 inmates in 28 prisons built to hold about 39,000 prisoners. A year ago, the state estimated the inmate population would rise to 54,000 in four years without action. The goal is to shrink Ohio’s prison population to about 47,000 inmates by 2015.

This similar local article, headlined "Sentencing reform: Fewer convicts going to prison," provides this additional evidence that folks have varied perspectives on Ohio's recent sentencing reform efforts:

With promises of big taxpayer savings and fears of more strain on local governments, state lawmakers and the governor overhauled Ohio’s sentencing laws last year. The goal was to send fewer nonviolent, low-level felons to prison, and shorten the length of time other prisoners would spend behind bars, and save tens of millions of dollars in the process.

The law took effect a year ago today. As predicted, fewer felons are going to prison and more are being put on probation, both around the state and in Stark County. What those changes mean depends on who you ask:

— “We’re pleased with the results of House Bill 86 thus far and we see those results even increasing as we move forward the next couple of fiscal years,” said Linda Janes, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction chief of staff.

— “We have not seen what I would call earth-shattering changes,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Lee Sinclair.

— “I think it’s awful,” said Stark County Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione, repeating an opinion he has voiced from the bench.

September 30, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New Amnesty International report assails California's use of solitary confinement

As reported in this Los Angeles Times piece, which is headlined "Report decries suicides, isolation cells in California prisons," a new report released today by Amnesty International details problems with California's use of segregated isolation. Here is part of the story behind the report:

California has more inmate suicides than any other state, a total that is rising even as its prison population falls. Almost half those deaths occurred in the system's segregation cells.

According to an Amnesty International report to be released Thursday, conditions within the state's security housing "breach international standards on humane treatment."

"It would crush you," said Tessa Murphy, an Amnesty International observer who was given unusual access to the isolation units at Pelican Bay and two other California prisons last November.

But California officials rebutted Amnesty's findings, insisting the state's security units "follow the national standard. They are clean. They are secure," said Terri McDonald, who is in charge of prison operations for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She cited the constant monitoring of those units — the result of federal lawsuits over poor medical and mental healthcare in the state system. "We have not been inhumane," McDonald said.

There currently are more than 3,100 inmates living in California's maximum security segregation units, and thousands more in similar administrative segregation units. The windowless, 7- by 12-foot cells at Pelican Bay exceed international space standards for a single inmate. The only way in or out is through a perforated steel door that looks out onto a concrete wall.

Except for an unknown number of prisoners who have cellmates, Amnesty International reported that there was no contact with other inmates and little interaction with the guards — who monitor them via closed circuit cameras, open doors with remote switches and push food through slots.

Segregated prisoners do not have access to rehabilitation programs, the report said. They are permitted to exercise 90 minutes a day, inside a concrete enclosure through which a slice of sky is visible 20 feet overhead.  Group therapy consists of inmates in individual holding cages lined up before a therapist; physicians examine ill inmates through the closed cell door.

According to state officials, the average stay in solitary confinement is 6.8 years — although California is set to begin a trial program next month that would allow compliant inmates out of isolation after four years. But Amnesty International reported that at least 500 prisoners have spent more than 10 years in isolation. Seventy-eight inmates have been segregated for more than 20 years. "There is no question … the conditions are among the worst in the nation," Murphy said.

The full AI report is titled "USA: The edge of endurance: Prison conditions in California's security housing units," and it is available via this link.

September 27, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"What Happens When the Amish Go to Prison?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Slate piece, which is especially timely in the wake of last week's high-profile convictions of a large group of Amish beard-cutters on federal hate-crime charges.  Here is how the piece starts:

Sixteen members of a breakaway Amish sect were convicted of hate crimes in Ohio on Thursday.  The jury found them guilty of violently shaving the hair and beards of disfavored members of the community, and they now face up to 20 years in prison.  How do American prisons accommodate the old-fashioned religious practices of Amish people?

They don’t, for the most part.  State and federal prison systems don’t have special regulations for the tiny number of Amish serving extended sentences, many of them for sex offenses.  The Amish reject most modern technology and dress.  In prison, however, their cells have electric lighting and climate control, they wear orange jumpsuits, and they are transported between the prison and the courthouse in vans, just like other inmates. Prison administrators generally require prisoners to keep their beards trimmed, but wardens sometimes allow exceptions for religious reasons.

U.S. prisons are required to accommodate religious beliefs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, but inmates’ religious freedoms are tempered by security and cost concerns.  Striking this balance has proven challenging for judges.  In the case of facial hair, for example, courts have struck down outright beard bans, but agreed with wardens that excessively long or unkempt facial hair prevents guards from quickly identifying inmates.  Prisoners who require special meals have also met with mixed responses.  An inmate can demand a halal meal, but it is often just the prison’s vegetarian meal, because the facility refuses to pay the added expense of halal butchering.

Amish inmates who are forced by the state to use electricity or wear brightly colored clothing aren’t violating their religious beliefs in quite the same way as, for example, an Orthodox Jew who is fed non-kosher food.  Amish are allowed to use modern technology under certain circumstances: Amish farmers often rent lighted stalls at farmers’ markets, and members of liberal communities hire drivers to transport them to supermarkets for weekly shopping.  The prohibition has more to do with excessive engagement with modern technology.  Amish people are not supposed to wire their homes or own automobiles, because those behaviors might distract them from the values of community, humility, and simplicity, and violate what they view as one of the Bible’s most central commandments: “Be not conformed to this world.”

Recent related posts:

September 25, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 24, 2012

New report from Vera Institute reviews recent changes to prison populations and expenses

Late last week I received this e-mail informing me of a notable new publication that should interest all sentencing fans:

The fiscal crisis of the past several years has put the nation’s reliance on prisons under intense scrutiny. To reduce costs and improve public safety, states have begun to enact policies based on the large body of research showing that many offenders can be effectively handled within the community using evidence-based practices.

A new report from Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, in partnership with the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, examines whether, in light of recent state-level policy changes and ongoing budget deficits, the expected shifts in population and spending from prisons to community corrections between 2006 and 2010 have been realized. The findings of Realigning Justice Resources: A Review of Population and Spending Shifts in Prison and Community Corrections are based on survey responses from 36 state prison agencies and 35 community corrections agencies; follow-up interviews with 24 states; a review of recent sentencing and corrections legislation; and an analysis of population counts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Although Vera’s study demonstrates that there is not always a discernible relationship between population and spending shifts from one part of the system to another, several states — such as, Michigan, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Virginia — have successfully implemented policies that curb both prison populations and spending.  The authors suggest that economic, political, and structural factors both within and outside the control of policymakers may have stymied many states’ ambitions.  More time and research may be needed to observe the true impact of policy changes on correctional populations and spending.

The full 36-page report is available for download here, and a summary fact sheet can be foud here.

September 24, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Newt Gingrich urging Gov Jerry Brown to sign law to allow resentencings for juve LWOP in California

I am pleased and intrigued to see that Newt Gingrich, now that he is off the Presidential campaign trail, is back to his "Right on Crime" advocacy for a more sensible and softer sentencing system.  In this op-ed written with Pat Nolan, he urges Governor Jerry Brown to sign California's Senate Bill 9 ("The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act"), which authorizes resentencing opportunities for juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.  Here are excerpts from the potent op-ed:

We did some dumb things as teenagers that might have caused a lot of harm.  You probably did, too.  Fortunately, we didn’t hurt anyone too badly, but we cringe now at how clueless we were about the possible consequences of what we did.

Teenagers often don’t make very good decisions.  Our laws take this into account in many ways: We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they can’t sign contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18.

But there is one area in which we ignore teens’ youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws. Our laws often ignore the difference between adults and teens, and some youngsters are sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP).  Despite urban legends to the contrary, this law has no exceptions: A teen sentenced to LWOP will die in prison as an old man or woman. No exceptions for good behavior, no exceptions period.  No hope.

You might expect that these LWOP sentences are limited to the “worst of the worst,” but that is not the case. A young teen can be a bit player in a crime, e.g., act as a lookout while his buddies go in to steal beer from a convenience store....  About 45 percent of the inmates serving LWOP for a teenage crime were not the person who caused the death.  Yet they will die in prison of old age, with no chance for release.

But should these youngsters die in prison for something they did when they were so young? Wouldn’t it be better to re-evaluate them after serving a long stretch in prison and consider whether they have matured and improved themselves?

We are conservative Republicans, and we believe that some people are so dangerous that we must separate them from our communities.  That is what prisons are for.  But sometimes we overuse our institutions.  California’s teen LWOP is an overuse of incarceration.  It denies the reality that young people often change for the better.  And it denies hope to those sentenced under it.

Of course, not every young person going through the system turns his or her life around. But wouldn’t it be better to at least consider whether these inmates have matured and improved themselves after a long stretch in prison?  SB 9, which is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would allow the court to give this narrow group of inmates convicted of a crime while a teen a chance to apply for parole -- after serving 25 years in prison. That is no “easy stretch.”

And even then, they will not be automatically released.  They must show the parole board that they have participated in programs that prepare them to support themselves and stay on the straight and narrow when they are released.  They must convince the parole board that they are remorseful and have changed so they no longer pose a threat to the community.  Only then might they be given a parole date.

Jesus told us to “Do unto others” as we would have them do unto us.  Shouldn’t we give the kids and grandkids of others the same second chances that we would want for our own families?

An inherent principle of justice is that the punishment should never exceed the harm done by the crime. It is wrong to condemn these inmates to die in prison for being the teenage accomplice to the terrible acts of another.  We urge Gov. Brown to sign SB 9, and thereby restore the chance for these inmates to transform their lives and become good citizens.

This new article from the Los Angeles Times, headlined "Political lines drawn on life sentences for teen killers," reports on some of the others coming out for and against this intriguing legislation:

In a letter to the governor, [Nancy] Pelosi contended that "civilized societies are increasingly prohibiting life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, recognizing that juveniles do not possess the same mental development as adults.”

Brown is hearing plenty from the other side as well. California Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway earlier this month sent the governor a letter seeking veto of the "unnecessary" bill. "California already has a carefully balanced statutory scheme that appropriately balances the need to hold the most serious juvenile murderers accountable for their crimes, while recognizing different levels of maturity and culpability based on the age of the offender, and retains judicial discretion," she wrote.

Indeed, some victim advocates contend that because judges already rejected the possibility of allowing eventual parole for the state's 309 inmates sentenced as minors, there is no reason to revisit the issue. They have political support from lobbyists for prison guards and prosecutors.

The battle lines are not universally inclusive. Mothers Against Murder, for instance, has refused to take an official stance on the bill even though its membership includes families of those killed by juveniles. "We tend not to take a stand due to our respect for different families' wishes," said Executive Director Margaret Petros.

Related recent posts:

September 23, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Another day of prison (over)populations headlines

Just about any morning I could fill this blog with stories about overcrowded prisons, but this morning these three headlines from three major news sources really caught my eye:

September 18, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, September 10, 2012

New report examines what ACA can mean for corrections and public safety

I often tell my students that all legal and public policy issues always somehow are really sentencing and corrections issues in some way.  (The 2000 election and the fights in Bush v. Gore are my favorite example: if not for broad felon disenfrachisement laws in Florida, it seems unlikely the popular vote in that state would have been so close.)  For that reason (and others), I was pleased today to get this notice from The Sentencing Project about a new publication examining the impact and import of the Affordable Care Act for certain criminal justice matters:

Many people in correctional institutions have faced barriers obtaining needed physical and behavioral health care services.  This is largely due to high rates of unemployment and narrow Medicaid eligibility criteria.  As documented in our new report, The Affordable Care Act: Implications for Public Safety and Corrections Populations, federal heath care reform legislation could change this in three key ways:

Expanded Health Care Coverage — The Affordable Care Act gives states the option of expanding Medicaid eligibility and makes prevention, early intervention, and treatment of mental health problems and substance use essential health benefits. In states that opt to expand Medicaid coverage, the Federal government will cover 100% of expenditures for the newly eligible population from 2014 to 2016, with the amount of federal funds decreasing yearly to 90% by 2020 and thereafter.

Reducing Recidivism — Because of the role mental health and substance abuse problems play in behaviors that lead to incarceration and recidivism, the Affordable Care Act could help states reduce the number of people cycling through the criminal justice system.

Addressing Racial Disparities — The new legislation may contribute to reducing racial disparities in incarceration that arise from disparate access to treatment.

The Affordable Care Act: Implications for Public Safety and Corrections Populations, by Dr. Susan Phillips, introduces key provisions of the Affordable Care Act as they relate to correctional populations, and includes links to organizations that are closely following the implementation of the act.

September 10, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Federal district court concludes sex-change operation medically necessary for transgender prisoner

42911660-robert-kosilekAs effectively reported in this new post at the WSJ Law Blog, "a federal judge in Boston has ordered Massachusetts authorities to provide a taxpayer-funded sex-change operation for a transgender prisoner."  Here is more about the ruling from the WSJ Law Blog (which also provides this link to the opinion):

Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf said he based his ruling on the recommendations of doctors at the commonwealth’s Department of Correction who prescribed sex-reassignment surgery as “the only form of adequate medical care” for Michelle Kosilek, who used to go by “Robert.”

Kosilek is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 1990 murder of his wife.

Judge Wolf, describing his 126-page order as “unprecedented,” said that denying Kosilek the surgery was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Prison officials opposed the operation, saying they couldn’t provide security for Kosilek were he to receive a sex change — an argument Judge Wolf described as “pretextual.”...

Specialists have diagnosed Kosilek with severe gender identity disorder, and since 2003 he has been receiving female hormones. Kosilek lives in the general population of an all-male prison in Norfolk, Mass. Despite the hormone treatment and psychotherapy, Kosilek has attempted to castrate himself and twice tried to commit suicide, according to court documents....

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Diane Wiffin, said, ”We are reviewing the decision and exploring our appellate options.” A lawyer for Kosilek, Frances Cohen of Bingham McCutchen LLP, said she was “pleased and gratified that we got such a thoughtful and full decision from the chief judge.”

The ruling in this case is sure to engender lots of talk-show discussion, but I encourage readers of this blog to take the time to at least read the introduction to the opinion (which itself runs 23 pages) before expressing any views on the merits of the decision.  Everyone should, of course, read all 126 pages of the full opinion before reaching any firm conclusion about the ruling and whether and how an appeal to the First Circuit might proceed.  But I will be content to hear comments after a review of the introduction, which should be sufficient to allow at least informed initial judgments about whether this is just another example of Reagan-appointed federal judges going all crazy activist in a high-profile health care case.

September 4, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack