Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fascinating video documenting challenges of securing compassionate release for dying federal prisoner

Federal public defender Steve Sady has an extraordinary record of litigating effectively (if not always successfully) a number of lower-profile, but highly-important, federal sentencing issues related to how the Bureau of Prisons runs federal prisons and applies various federal statutes.  And now, thanks to this post at the Ninth Circuit Blog, I see that Steve Sady has created an extraordinary video which documents his work on the issue of compassionate release on behalf of one terminally ill federal prisoner.  The blog post is titled "Second Look Resentencing: The Human Costs Of The BOP’s Restrictive Implementation Of Compassionate Release," and here is the introduction to the video which I have embedded below:

Phillip Smith contacted our office because, even though he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the Bureau of Prisons refused to allow his sentencing judge to decide whether to grant a motion to reduce his sentence and let him die at home.  After about two weeks of litigation, the BOP agreed to file the motion, which the judge immediately signed.  After release, Phillip sat down with us to describe his experience with a system that failed to even alert his judge to his terminal illness until he had almost no time left. The video with Phillip's story in his own words is available here.  Phillip died a week after the interview.

Legal arguments are one thing; the practical and human costs are another. Phillip hoped that by putting a human face on the problem, things would change for the hundreds of prisoners whose sentencing judges never even know of the extraordinary and compelling circumstances that warrant a second look resentencing.

July 11, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Distinct headlines with distinct stories on modern intersections between Bible and jail

BH03The picture reprinted here is an overhead view of the historic Eastern State Penitentiary, and here below are a few passages from a lengthy discussion of the famed prison's early history:

Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world.  The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change....

Eastern's seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States.  The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision.  Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda.  Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner in his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight.  Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall.  This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence.  In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior.  He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout.  He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform.

The historic and intricate links between incarceration, religious commitments and the Bible are on my mind today because of these two very different recent stories reporting on two very different modern intersections of Bible study and imprisonment:

July 10, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 05, 2012

NY Times editorial on Miller puts Gideon cart before the Teague horse

I continue to be intrigued that so many commentators seem so quick to assume that all the juvenile murderers sentenced to mandatory LWOP long ago will be sure to get resentenced as a result of the Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  A high-profile example of commentary that appears to make this (harmful?) assumption comes from this New York Times editorial, which is headlined "A Moral Right to Counsel."   Here is the editorial in full, with commentary to follow:

About 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole can now seek new sentencing hearings to challenge their punishment.  The Supreme Court ruled last week that it is unconstitutional to impose such a sentence on a juvenile convicted of murder without an individualized finding that considers the defendant’s characteristics and the details of the crime.

But without capable lawyers to handle the hearings, the court’s humane ruling is unlikely to matter for those serving a mandatory life sentence received as a juvenile.

The constitutional right to counsel in criminal trials does not apply to these sentencing reviews because the offenders have already been convicted.  But they can’t initiate a review if they cannot afford a lawyer.  That’s why the federal government and the 28 states affected need to provide them with lawyers as a moral right.

And not just any lawyer.  The court said juveniles have a less developed sense of responsibility and should not necessarily get the same punishment as adults.  The hearings will require lawyers with training in psychology and human development to argue convincingly that an offender’s record supports reducing a life sentence — including what Justice Elena Kagan, in her majority opinion, called a juvenile offender’s “immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity” at the time of the crime.

In addition, states must provide funds for expert witnesses to help the lawyers do their job, as is now required in the sentencing phase of death penalty cases, where mitigating factors are weighed.

Almost one-quarter of those serving mandatory life sentences have been in prison for 21 years or longer.  For them, Justice Kagan said, a state must provide “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

In many cases, the offender’s young age and a history of being abused, for example, were so striking that judges said during sentencing that they were imposing mandatory life without parole because they had no choice.  States should ensure that these offenders receive new hearings and the assistance of effective counsel.

There are so many assertions in this editorial that are flat-out wrong or deeply misguided, I am not sure where to start.  To begin, as my post headline and introduction highlights, this editorial seems to assume that all long-ago sentenced juve murderers will get the benefit of the new procedural rule of Miller.  But, as I stressed in my very first Miller aftermath post here, states can (and will?) argue that Miller is inapplicable to final juve LWOP sentences imposed long ago because it is a new rule of criminal procedure that should not apply retroactively under Teague.

This editorial also seems misguided when it asserts that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel "does not apply to these sentencing reviews because the offenders have already been convicted."  It is true that there is no constitutional right to counsel for a habeas petition, but if/when a defendant were to secure a true, full trial court "resentencing" after Miller through a successful habeas petition, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel arguably would apply just as it does at an initial sentencing.  (Indigent federal defendants often get their sentences reversed on direct appeal in the federal system and I have never seen a claim that they lack a right to counsel at a true, full trial court "resentencing".)

This editorial also seems misguided when it asserts that mandatory LWOP sentenced defendants "can’t initiate a review if they cannot afford a lawyer."  These defendant surely can (and should) initiate a habeas petition pro se; a lawyer is not absolutely necessary here (or ever) to bring a habeas petition.  Though it is surely true that a high-quality lawyer will likely be better able to develop a stronger habeas claim (and make stronger points at any full resentencing), it is certainly not true that review cannot be initiated without a lawyer.

This editorial also seems misguided when it suggests that the mandatory LWOP sentenced defendants who have already "been in prison 21 years" or longer now must be given "some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."  In fact, even if these long-serving LWOPers get the benefit of Miller's new rule, they still can be constitutionally resentenced to LWOP and thus can still be sentenced to die in prison as long as that decision is made individually by a judge or jury bases on the specific case facts.

Last but certainly not least, this editorial also seems misguided when it suggests governments have a "moral" obligation to providing enough funding so that these juve murderers now get the best lawyers to help them argue for a second bite at the sentencing apple.  I think it would be very appropriate and valuable if the NY Times had asserted that all the highly (over?)paid corporate lawyers in NYC have a moral obligation to provide pro bono assistance to the roughly 2000 juvenile defendants who might be able to benefit from Miller.  (I suspect there are well over 2000 lawyers in NYC alone making a seven-figure salary, so a real pro-bono commitment for major law firms should mean every one of the juve defendants potential impacted by Miller could have a million-dollar lawyer.)

But with states now strapped to find taxpayer resources to help hungry kids and sick old people and so many other innocent persons struggling in this down economy, I find disconcerting the notion that there is moral obligation on states to take money away from other urgent priorities in order to (excessively) fund lawyers to help get these juve murderers another bite at the sentencing apple.  (Of course, I would be happy to bill in full for all my lawyering time to help out these defendants if and when any state steps up to the plate with a big pile of funding for lawyers as the New York Times says they should.)

July 5, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Monday, July 02, 2012

Widows and orphans win over prisons in Illinois budget

A great example of how prison spending can become a low priority once its opportunity costs become clear in a tight budget comes today from this state budget story out of Illinois, headlined "Illinois governor signs budget, vetoes prison funds." Here are the basics:

llinois Governor Pat Quinn said on Saturday he signed a $33.7 billion budget for fiscal 2013 after vetoing spending for prisons that he plans to close.   Quinn said public pensions, which lawmakers have so far failed to reform, will eat up $5.2 billion of the fiscal 2013 budget, compared to $1.8 billion in fiscal 2008....

The Democratic governor said he also planned to work with lawmakers later this year to reallocate the vetoed prison funding to the Department of Children and Family Services, which lawmakers cut by $50 million.  He said he was choosing vulnerable children over "outdated, half-full facilities."

Quinn said the new spending plan, which aims to save $82 million through the closure and consolidation of 57 state facilities, makes progress on fixing Illinois' ailing finances by cutting spending, paying bills and reforming Medicaid, the state and federally funded healthcare program for the poor.

I am not sure if anyone has ever tracked whether pension and health care expenditures reduce crime, but I am sure that wise investments in children (through education and other services for at-risk youths) can have a significant long-term public safety benefit.  Thus, IF Illinois ends up spending the prison monies saved on effective programming for kids, Gov Quinn has made a "smart on crime" budget call here.  (I have placed the if in the prior sentence in all caps, of course, because this is always a big if.)

July 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Questioning forceful (but suspect) claims by the varied Miller dissents: the Thomas/originalism methods

As previously explained here, in a series of posts I am trying to explain briefly what I see as a suspect judgment or assertion or conclusion at the heart of each dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment SCOTUS Miller ruling (opinion here, basic questions here and here and here).  In the first post here, I questioned number-crunching in the Roberts/textualism dissent.  In this second post now, I question claims about LWOP as a method of punishment in what I am calling the Thomas/originalism dissent.

Justice Thomas' Miller dissent, which was joined only by Justice Scalia, rests on an originalism claim in this sentence:  "As I have previously explained, 'the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause was originally understood as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment — specifically methods akin to those that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted.'  Graham (dissenting opinion)[FN 2]." The associated footnote 2 then says (cites omitted): "Neither the Court nor petitioners argue that petitioners’ sentences would have been among the modes or acts of punishment that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time that the Bill of Rights was adopted.  Nor could they. Petitioners were 14 years old at the time they committed their crimes.  When the Bill of Rights was ratified, 14-year-oldswere subject to trial and punishment as adult offenders.  Further, mandatory death sentences were common at that time.  It is therefore implausible that a 14-year-old’s mandatory prison sentence — of any length, with or without parole — would have been viewed as cruel and unusual."

Though I am not deeply versed in Eighth Amendment originalism, I do know some reasonably contest that the Eighth Amendment was only "originally understood as prohibiting torturous methods of punishment."  But even if one fully accepts Justice Thomas' claim that the Eighth Amendment is only to be viewed as a restriction on punishment methods, I do not find it "implausible" to contend that those who enacted the Eighth Amendment in the late 18th century (and/or those who enacted the Fourteenth Amendment in the mid 19th Century) would view an LWOP prison term as "akin to those that had been considered cruel and unusual at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted."

A critical assumption built into the (suspect) logic of Justice Thomas' reasoning in footnote 2 is that, because the death penalty was not considered a cruel and unusual method of punishment for teens at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted, surely then must the seemingly lesser punishment method of prison not have been considered cruel and unusual.  But the Eighth Amendment surely was never meant or understood to support the claim that because death is a constitutional method of punishment everything short of death and/or leading up to death is also constitutional.  Many infamous forms of torture punishments around during the colonial period (such as thumbscrews, ducking stools, and the rack) were often not expected or intended to cause death, and yet all seem to agree that these methods of punishment would violated the Eighth Amendment even from an originalist perspective.  In addition, originalists seem also to agree that severe physical punishments designed to cause a painful "lingering death" in the process of completing an execution (such as the breaking wheel or drawing and quartering) were modes of punishment being barred by the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

Of course, being locked in a prison cage is surely not as physically painful a method as thumbscrews or the rack, especially over a short period of time.  But prison as the deprivation of liberty over time is surely a distinct method of punishment, and an LWOP prison term lasting many decades is surely much more physically and mentally taxing than, say, being subjected for a few days to thumbscrews or waterboarding.  (Indeed, I would wager many relatively young offender serving an LWOP would agree to enduring thumbscrews or waterboarding for a few days in order to get a real chance for an early release.)  In other words, though a day in prison is surely a less torturous method of punishment than a day on the rack, I am not sure that necessarily means that an LWOP prison term lasting many decades is a less torturous method of punishment than a day on the rack.

Moreover, bringing back in the Framers' mindset, in this context I often think of Patrick Henry's famed quote of "Give me liberty or give me death" and President Lincoln's famed description of America as a nation "conceived in liberty."  Against that backdrop, I think one might fairly conclude that many Framers would have viewed a LWOP prison term's permanent deprivation of human liberty to be a method of punishment (much?) worse than death.  Indeed, what truly makes an LWOP sentence so severe and extreme is that it is arguably just a form of "lingering death" because deprivation of any chance at parole ensures that an offender will forever linger in prison (sometimes with only slightly more liberty than someone left on a rack if always kept in solitary confinement) until he eventually dies.  (The fact that prison was concevied and designed to be soley a method of rehabilitative punishment around the time of enactment of the 14th Amendment add to my view that an LWOP prison term might very well have been viewed as both cruel and unusual to many Americans throughout much of American history.)

My point here is decidedly not that I think an originalist approach to the Eighth Amendment is ideal or provides a clear jurisprudence concerning when an LWOP sentence might and might not be constitutionally permissible.  Rather, as in all my posts in this series on the Miller dissents, I just want to flag the reality that the originalist claim that only some methods of punishment are unconstitutional does not necessarily and obviously, as Justice Thomas seeks to suggest, produce the conclusion that the LWOP sentences at issue in Miller were constitutional.  Indeed, because liberty-deprivation through confinement in prisons (and especially the LWOP sentence) are really a very modern mode/technology of punishment wholly unknown to the Framers, I think trying to figure out what the Framers would have thought about LWOP prison terms is a bit like trying to figure out what the Framers would have thought about the internet: one's personal views about the new technology will necessarily color one's judgment as to what the Framers' would have thought.

Related post in this series:

June 27, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Lots of new interesting and diverse prison headlines and stories

A quick Google news search on the term prison has brought up this morning a whole host of notable stories. In no special order, here are some of the headlines and links to stories that caught my eye:

June 27, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jerry Sandusky found guilty on 45 counts

and now seems all but certain to get a functional life sentence. My understanding is that he faces a 60-year minimum prison term based on certain counts of conviction, and he was taken immediately into custody following the reading of the verdict.

UPDATE: This AP article, headlined "What's next for Jerry Sandusky after the trial?," provides a road map concerning the legal process still to come. Here are how the piece begins:

The jury took less than two days to find Jerry Sandusky guilty of 45 of 48 counts of child sexual abuse, but the judge will need substantially more time to decide his punishment.

Judge John Cleland ordered a pre-sentencing report, which will take anywhere from one to two months to complete. During that time, Sandusky will be examined by the state Sexual Offenders Assessment Board to decide if he should be treated as a sexually violent predator, and prosecutors could ask the judge for a hearing.

The judge determines whether someone is a sexually violent predator — it carries stiffer reporting and treatment requirements once someone is out of prison — and can use information from the board's investigation in a sentencing decision.

If he's sentenced to state prison — which appears to be certain in this case — then Sandusky will be transferred to Camp Hill, in south-central Pennsylvania, which has 3,000 to 4,000 inmates, about 1,000 of whom are held temporarily for classification.

June 22, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Can America Reduce its Prison Population?"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new piece by Ted Gest at The Crime Report, which is itself a report on an effective new speech by Joan Petersilia.  Here are highlights:

The current trend of prison downsizing in the United States may not succeed unless experts can advise policy makers promptly about which non-prison programs for convicts change offender behavior, says criminologist Joan Petersilia of Stanford Law School.

In a keynote address to the National Institute of Justice's annual conference Tuesday in Arlington VA, Petersilia warned that it is not inevitable that the current movement among states to reduce prison populations and close penal institutions will continue. "We have been here before," Petersilia said.

She recalled that many states adopted intensive probation supervision in the 1980s and 1990s as an alternative to prison, but research results on its effectiveness were disappointing. "We've got to stop overselling community corrections -- and under-delivering," Petersilia said.

She worries that, as in previous decades, prison population totals will moderate or recede in the short run in large part as a way to save government money -- but when the economy improves, political leaders will start filling prisons again when they have no proof that non-prison programs worked.

The test case for prison reform is Petersilia's home state of California, where the evolving prisoner "realignment" plan is the "biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America," Petersilia says.

Even many Californians are not aware that in the last 18 months, the state's prison population has dropped from 172,000 to 135,000, and the number of parolees has plummeted even more sharply, from 132,000 to 60,000.

While this sounds promising to corrections reformers, Petersilia says it is happening so fast that officials and offenders alike are just beginning to understand the impact.  Many former inmates complain that they have been taken off the parole rolls so quickly that they are losing government benefits that are reserved for parolees.  Some are being asked to get back on parole as a result, she says.

In addition, many prosecutors and law enforcement officials oppose aspects of realignment, contending that it will lead to rising crime rates.  One big problem is that government agencies are not pouring sufficient funding into ex-inmate rehabilitation.

Petersilia's Stanford Criminal Justice Center, which is receiving a federal grant to evaluate the California prisoner realignment program of Gov. Jerry Brown, is building a database of how the state's 58 counties are spending the $2 billion they are getting from the state to perform corrections-sytem functions that the state formerly did.  So far, only 10 percent of that money is going to treatment programs, with the bulk going to sheriff's office, local jails, probations staff, and court services.  That bodes ill for keeping ex-inmates from returning to crime, Petersilia says....

Petersilia believes that the public will back expenditures of public funds on projects that truly help former prisoners get their lives back together.  She has some hope for "social impact bonds," also known as "pay for success," which are contracts with government agencies in which entrepreneurs invest in projects that produce improved social outcomes and save public money.  Initial interest in the concept has been seen in the juvenile justice area, Petersilia says.

If these and other non-prison alternatives can't be proved to work, she said, the "incredibly huge" constituencies for the status quo, including labor unions for prison employees and rural communities that depend on income from prisons, will prevail.

June 20, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lots of notable (and overdue) questioning of extreme solitary confinement

I am intrigued and pleased to see more attention now finally being given to the severe depravation and related horrors of extreme isolation in prisons.  Two big new developments here are:

Here are highlights of both developments via the NYT report:

The hearing, held before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, represents the first time lawmakers on Capitol Hill have taken up the issue of solitary confinement, a form of imprisonment that many human rights advocates believe violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” and that has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent months in the United States and internationally.

The practice, which is widespread in American prisons, has also been the target of a growing number of lawsuits, including a class-action suit filed on Monday on behalf of mentally ill inmates held in solitary at ADX, the federal super-maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo. Last month, civil rights lawyers representing prisoners held for more than 10 years in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison in California filed suit in federal court, arguing that solitary confinement is unconstitutional.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader, began the hearing — which he said had the support of both Democratic and Republican committee members — by noting that more prisoners are held in isolation in the United States than in any other democracy and that about half of all prison suicides occur among inmates in solitary confinement.

“We can have a just society, and we can be humane in the process,” Mr. Durbin said. “We can punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of justice, but we don’t have to cross that line.” He said he was working on legislation to encourage changes in the way solitary confinement is used.

With more than 250 people packed into two rooms, the hearing was “one of the best attended of the year,” Mr. Durbin said, an indication “of the fact that the time is due for us to have this conversation about where we’re going.” Over the course of two hours, the senators heard testimony about the effects of solitary confinement and the steps taken in Mississippi and several other states to reduce the number of prisoners kept in isolation.

But the hearing also included a testy exchange between Mr. Durbin and Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who defended the use of solitary confinement for inmates who pose a threat to the safety of staff members or other inmates.

“Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?” Mr. Durbin asked, pointing to a life-size replica of a solitary confinement cell that had been set up in the hearing room.

“Our objective is always to have the individual to freely be in the general population,” Mr. Samuels responded.

“I’m trying to zero in on a specific question,” Mr. Durbin said, adding, “Do you believe, based on your life experience in this business, that that is going to have a negative impact on an individual?”

“I would say I don’t believe it is the preferred option,” Mr. Samuels conceded, “and that there would be some concerns with prolonged confinement.”

Some recent and older related posts:

June 19, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"As Escapees Stream Out, a Penal Business Thrives"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable front-page New York Times article, which is the first of a three-part series of articles concerning New Jersey’s system of large halfway houses.  Here is how the very-lengthy first piece gets started:

After serving more than a year behind bars in New Jersey for assaulting a former girlfriend, David Goodell was transferred in 2010 to a sprawling halfway house in Newark. One night, Mr. Goodell escaped, but no one in authority paid much notice.  He headed straight for the suburbs, for another young woman who had spurned him, and he killed her, the police said.

The state sent Rafael Miranda, incarcerated on drug and weapons charges, to a similar halfway house, and he also escaped.  He was finally arrested in 2010 after four months at large, when, prosecutors said, he shot a man dead on a Newark sidewalk — just three miles from his halfway house.

Valeria Parziale had 15 aliases and a history of drugs and burglary.  Nine days after she slipped out of a halfway house in Trenton in 2009, Ms. Parziale, using a folding knife, nearly severed a man’s ear in a liquor store.  She was arrested and charged with assault but not escape.  Prosecutors say they had no idea she was a fugitive.

After decades of tough criminal justice policies, states have been grappling with crowded prisons that are straining budgets.  In response to those pressures, New Jersey has become a leader in a national movement to save money by diverting inmates to a new kind of privately run halfway house.

At the heart of the system is a company with deep connections to politicians of both parties, most notably Gov. Chris Christie.  Many of these halfway houses are as big as prisons, with several hundred beds, and bear little resemblance to the neighborhood halfway houses of the past, where small groups of low-level offenders were sent to straighten up.

New Jersey officials have called these large facilities an innovative example of privatization and have promoted the approach all the way to the Obama White House.  Yet with little oversight, the state’s halfway houses have mutated into a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked, according to a 10-month investigation by The New York Times.

Perhaps the most unsettling sign of the chaos within is inmates’ ease in getting out.  Since 2005, roughly 5,100 inmates have escaped from the state’s privately run halfway houses, including at least 1,300 in the 29 months since Governor Christie took office, according to an analysis by The Times.  Some inmates left through the back, side or emergency doors of halfway houses, or through smoking areas, state records show.  Others placed dummies in their beds as decoys, or fled while being returned to prison for violating halfway houses’ rules.  Many had permission to go on work-release programs but then did not return.

While these halfway houses often resemble traditional correctional institutions, they have much less security.  There are no correction officers, and workers are not allowed to restrain inmates who try to leave or to locate those who do not come back from work release, the most common form of escape.  The halfway houses’ only recourse is to alert the authorities. And so the inmates flee in a steady stream: 46 last September, 39 in October, 40 in November, 38 in December, state records show.

“The system is a mess,” said Thaddeus B. Caldwell, who spent four years tracking down halfway house escapees in New Jersey as a senior corrections investigator.  “No matter how many escaped, no matter how many were caught, no matter how many committed heinous acts while they were on the run, they still kept releasing more guys into the halfway houses, and it kept happening over and over again.”  By contrast, the state’s prisons had three escapes in 2010 and none in the first nine months of 2011, the last period for which the state gave figures.

UPDATE:  The second piece in this series is headlined "At a Halfway House, Bedlam Reigns," and is now available at this link.

June 17, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Scores in N.C. are legally 'innocent,' yet still imprisoned" due to federal gun laws

Med-topperThe folks at USA Today have this fascinating and fantastic front-page feature story concerning the many persons currently serving federal prison time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important recent Fourth Circuit ruling.  The headline of this post is drawn from the headline of the USA Today piece, which is today's must-read and includes these excerpts:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.  Many of them don't even know they're innocent.

The legal issues underlying their situation are complicated, and are unique to North Carolina. But the bottom line is that each of them went to prison for breaking a law that makes it a federal crime for convicted felons to possess a gun.  The problem is that none of them had criminal records serious enough to make them felons under federal law.

Still, the Justice Department has not attempted to identify the men, has made no effort to notify them, and, in a few cases in which the men have come forward on their own, has argued in court that they should not be released.

Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime.  And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.

"We can't be outcome driven," said Anne Tompkins, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte. "We've got to make sure we follow the law, and people should want us to do that." She said her office is "looking diligently for ways, within the confines of the law, to recommend relief for defendants who are legally innocent."

These cases are largely unknown outside the courthouses here, but they have raised difficult questions about what, if anything, the government owes to innocent people locked in prisons.   "It's been tough," said Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C. "We've spent a lot of time talking about issues of fundamental fairness, and what is justice."

It's also unusual.  Wrongful conviction cases are seldom open-and-shut — usually they depend on DNA or other new evidence that undermines the government's case, but does not always prove someone is innocent.  Yet in the North Carolina gun cases, it turns out, there simply were no federal crimes.

Using state and federal court records, USA TODAY identified 23 other men who had been sent to federal prison for having a firearm despite criminal records too minor to make that a federal crime.  Nine of them remain in prison, serving sentences of up to 10 years; others are still serving federal probation.  The newspaper's review was limited to only a small fraction of cases from one of the three federal court districts in North Carolina.

Federal public defenders have so far identified at least 39 others in additional court districts, and are certain to find more. And prosecutors have already agreed to drop dozens of cases in which prisoners' convictions were not yet final.

Some of the prisoners USA TODAY contacted — and their lawyers — were stunned to find out that they were imprisoned for something that turned out not to be a federal crime. And their lawyers said they were troubled by the idea that innocence alone might not get them out. "If someone is innocent, I would think that would change the government's reaction, and it's sad that it hasn't," said Debra Graves, an assistant federal public defender in Raleigh. "I have trouble figuring out how you rationalize this. These are innocent people. That has to matter at some point."...

Decades ago, Congress made it a federal crime for convicted felons to have a gun. The law proved to be a powerful tool for police and prosecutors to target repeat offenders who managed to escape stiff punishment in state courts. In some cases, federal courts can put people in prison for significantly longer for merely possessing a gun than state courts can for using the gun to shoot at someone.

To make that law work in every state, Congress wrote one national definition of who cannot own a gun: someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison.

Figuring out who fits that definition in North Carolina is not as simple as it sounds. In 1993, state lawmakers adopted a unique system called "structured sentencing" that changes the maximum prison term for a crime, based on the record of the person who committed it. People with relatively short criminal records who commit crimes such as distributing cocaine and writing bad checks face no more than a few months in jail; people with more extensive records face much longer sentences.

For years, federal courts in North Carolina said that did not matter. The courts said, in effect: If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year for the crime, then everyone who committed that crime is a felon, and all of them are legally barred from possessing a gun.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said federal courts (including itself) had been getting the law wrong. Only people who could have actually faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons under federal law.

The 4th Circuit's decision came in a little-noticed drug case, United States v. Simmons, but its implications could be dramatic. For one thing, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina have criminal records that no longer make having a gun a federal crime. About half of the felony convictions in North Carolina's state courts over the past decade were for offenses that no longer count as felonies under federal law.

No one yet knows precisely how many people were incorrectly convicted for having a gun, but the number could be significant. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, estimated that more than a third of the gun cases his office prosecuted might be in question, either because the defendants didn't commit a federal crime at all by possessing a gun or because their sentences were calculated incorrectly.  "We're going to be addressing this for a while," he said.

The Justice Department and federal courts moved quickly to clean up cases that were pending when the 4th Circuit announced its decision. Prosecutors dropped pending charges against people whose records no longer qualified them as felons; the 4th Circuit reversed convictions in more than 40 cases that were on appeal at the time. Some of the men were given shorter sentences; others were simply let go.

But the next question has proved far harder to answer: What should the government do with the prisoners whose legal cases were already over?

Whether [these legally innocent defendants] can go home depends on federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people who have already been convicted of a crime can come back to court to plead their innocence.

Those laws let prisoners challenge their convictions if they uncover new evidence, or if the U.S. Supreme Court limits the sweep of a criminal law.  But none of the exceptions is a clear fit, meaning that, innocent or not, they may not be able to get into court at all. Federal courts have so far split on whether they can even hear the prisoners' cases.

Habeas corpus — the main legal tool for challenging unlawful detention — is currently ill-suited to such cases, said Nancy King, a Vanderbilt Law School professor who has studied the issue.  Habeas mainly safeguards people's constitutional right to a fair process, she said, and the problem is that "saying, 'I'm innocent' isn't, on its face, that type of constitutional claim." Still, she said, "innocent people should be able to get out of prison."

Prosecutors don't disagree, though most said they are not convinced the law allows it. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, said he is "not aware of any procedural mechanism by which they can be afforded relief," though he said lawyers in his office "have not been pounding on the table" to keep the men in jail.

"No one wants anyone to spend time in jail who should not be there," said Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh.  That's why he said prosecutors were quick to dismiss charges that were pending when the 4th Circuit ruled.  But cases in which convictions are already final "are in a totally different posture and require us to follow the existing statutory habeas law," he said.

But there's also an even more basic question: How would the prisoners even know?... [C]ourts have asked public defenders to seek them out. Those lawyers said the Justice Department should do more to help, because it has better information and more resources, an assertion prosecutors dispute.

"We're doing it with our hands tied," said Eric Placke, a federal public defender in Greensboro.  "I appreciate the compelling considerations they have to deal with.  But I do think in cases of actual innocence that it would be nice, to say the least, if they would be a little more proactive."  Placke and other public defenders said the reviews have been difficult because they often have limited access to records from the men's prior convictions, which has left them to hunt through files in courthouses across the state.

This story is sad, telling and remarkable for so many reasons, and it also seems to present a situation in which I might argue that some kind of habeas relief (or even federal clemency) is constitutionally required under the Fifth and/or Eighth Amendment. 

As a matter of substantive due process and/or cruel and unusual punishment, I do not think the federal government should be constitutionally permitted to keep someone imprisoned for an act that all now seem to agree was not a federal crime.  Though the statutory habeas rules might preclude relief, I think the continuing constitutional violation of on-going imprisonment of an innocent person demands some kind of immediate remedy.  Clemency is often mentioned by the Supreme Court and commentators as the fail-safe in these kinds of cases, and I hope that this important USA Today piece will at the very least make the folks in the executive branch take this constitutional problem even more seriously.

June 14, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (52) | TrackBack

Judge unmoved by undefeated boxing champ's claim prison is defeating him

As reported in this AP article, "Floyd Mayweather's demands that he be released from jail because the poor quality of the food and water has threatened his health were denied by a Las Vegas judge who says he should eat and drink what is being given to him behind bars."  Here is more about the ruling which denied the boxing champ's request to get out of jail early:

Justice of the Peace Melissa Saragosa wrote in her late Wednesday decision that water has been made available to Mayweather around the clock and the only reason he isn't eating properly is because he refuses to eat the provided meals.  Saragosa said Mayweather's complaints that he is unable to exercise in jail also are invalid because he has been "provided sufficient space and time for physical activity if he so chooses."

"This court finds, and the defendant admits, there is nothing illegal about the defendant's sentence in this case," Saragosa wrote.

A mere 12 days after Mayweather turned himself in to begin his three-month sentence, his legal team filed an emergency motion Monday asking the court to put him under house arrest or move him into the general jail population -- something that jail officials had avoided to protect the celebrity fighter.  The motion claimed the undefeated champion might never fight again because he was getting out of shape in solitary confinement....

Mayweather pleaded guilty last year to reduced domestic battery charges stemming from an attack on his former girlfriend while two of their children watched.  The plea deal allowed him to avoid trial on felony charges that could have gotten Mayweather up to 34 years in prison if he was convicted.  Mayweather was sentenced Dec. 22, but was allowed to remain free long enough to make a Cinco de Mayo weekend fight.

Mayweather's legal team told the court this week that his personal physician, Dr. Robert Voy, visited the jail Friday and determined that the fighter appeared to have lost muscle tone.  Voy estimated Mayweather was consuming fewer than 800 calories a day instead of his usual 3,000 or 4,000 calories.  Mayweather also wasn't drinking enough because he wasn't allowed bottled water and doesn't enjoy tap water....

Prosecutor Lisa Luzaich scoffed at the complaints during a court hearing Tuesday. "It's jail," Luzaich told the court. "Where did he think he was going? The Four Seasons?"

Though perhaps not quite as catchy as "That's a clown question, bro," I sure like the idea of the sports world giving us the phrase "It's jail, not the Four Seasons."

June 14, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Big new ACLU report highlights the high cost of high numbers of elderly prisoners

Elderlyprisonreport_cover_0The ACLU has just released this important and timely new report, titled "At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly." The full report runs nearly 100 pages, but seems worth reading in full (especially after checking out thanks to the ACLU this slideshow and this video on the topic).  And the first seven paragraphs of the report's introduction highlights its basic findings and themes:

The United States is the largest incarcerator in the world, with 2.3 million people behind bars. Prisoners across the country are also getting older and experiencing all the same ailments that afflict those of the same age who are not behind bars. Our extreme sentencing policies and a growing number of life sentences have effectively turned many of our correctional facilities into veritable nursing homes — and taxpayers are paying for it.

From 1980 to 2010, the United States prison population grew over 11 times faster than the general population. During this time, the general population increased by 36%, while the state and federal prison population increased by over 400%. The number of elderly people in our prisons is growing even faster.

The graying prison population has become a national epidemic afflicting states around the country—from California to Missouri to Florida— further burdening already strained state budgets. According to the National Institute of Corrections, prisoners age 50 and older are considered “elderly” or “aging” due to unhealthy conditions prior to and during incarceration. This report uses that definition and finds that that there are 246,600 elderly prisoners behind bars across the country. To the extent possible, this report provides data for prisoners age 50 and older; in a few cases when data for this age group is not readily available, this report provides data on the next closest age range.

In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. Today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United States. In other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. This astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.

The United States keeps elderly men and women locked up despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that recidivism drops dramatically with age.  For example, in New York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years.  That number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older. In contrast, this number is 16% for prisoners released at age 49 and younger. Further, most aging prisoners are not incarcerated for murder, but are in prison for low-level crimes. For example, in Texas, 65% of prisoners age 50 and older are incarcerated for nonviolent drug, property, and other nonviolent crimes.  This increasing warehousing of aging prisoners for low-level crimes and longer sentences is a nefarious outgrowth of the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.  Given the nation’s current overincarceration epidemic and persistent economic crisis, lawmakers should consider implementing parole reforms to release those elderly prisoners who no longer pose sufficient safety threats to justify their continued incarceration.

State and federal governments spend approximately $77 billion annually to run our penal system. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending.  These corrections costs are mainly spent on incarceration, and incarcerating aging prisoners costs far more than younger ones.  Specifically, this report finds that it costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. To put that number into context, the average American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

States can implement mechanisms to determine which aging prisoners pose little safety risk and can be released.  Releasing many of these individuals will ease the burden on taxpayers and reunite prisoners with their families to care for them.  This report conducts a fiscal impact analysis detailing the cost savings to states in releasing the average aging prisoner.  While some of these prisoners may turn to the government for their healthcare or other needs, government expenditures on released aging prisoners will be far cheaper than the costs of incarcerating them.  Based on statistical analyses of available data, this report estimates that releasing an aging prisoner will save states, on average, $66,294 per year per prisoner, including healthcare, other public benefits, parole, and any housing costs or tax revenue.  Even on the low end, states will save at least $28,362 per year per released aging prisoner.

June 13, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Golden anniversary of the greatest escape from the greatest prison

AlcThis morning's New York Times has this new article discussing an old mystery still surrounding a long-closed (but still justifiably famous) federal prison.  The piece is headlined "Tale of 3 Inmates Who Vanished From Alcatraz Maintains Intrigue 50 Years Later," and here is how it begins:

Fifty years ago, on the night of June 11, 1962, the three convicts were locked down as usual.  Guards walking the tier outside their cells saw them at 9:30 and checked on them periodically all night, looking in at the sleeping faces, hearing nothing strange.  But by morning, the inmates had vanished, Houdini-like.

Guards found pillows under the bedclothes and lifelike papier-mâché heads with real hair and closed, painted eyes.  Federal agents, state and local police officers, Coast Guard boats and military helicopters joined the largest manhunt since the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, scouring the prison complex on Alcatraz Island, the expanse of San Francisco Bay and the surrounding landscape of Northern California.

A crude raft made of rubber raincoats was found on a nearby island.  But the fugitives were never seen again.  Federal officials said they almost certainly drowned in the maelstrom of riptides, undertows and turbulent, frigid waters of the 10-mile-wide bay, their bodies probably swept out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge.

But for aficionados of unsolved mysteries, the fantasy that Frank Lee Morris and the brothers Clarence and John Anglin had successfully escaped from the nation’s most forbidding maximum security prison and are still alive, hiding somewhere, has been a tantalizing if remote possibility for a half-century now.

It seemed wildly improbable.  “The Rock” where Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and other infamous criminals were held was thought to be escape-proof.  In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, no one is known to have made it out alive.  Forty-one inmates tried. Of those, 26 were recaptured, 7 were shot dead, 3 drowned and 2 besides Mr. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never found.

Had they survived, the three men — all bank robbers serving long terms — would be in their 80s now.  And while their names are all but forgotten, their breakout has been a subject of fascination to many Americans, analyzed in countless articles, four television documentaries, a 1963 book by J. Campbell Bruce, “Escape from Alcatraz,” and a 1979 movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood as Mr. Morris.

June 10, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

NY Times debates "When to Punish, and When to Rehabilitate" for juve offenders

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of pieces discussing punishments for juvenile offenders.  Here is the sections set up:

The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on when, if ever, it is appropriate to sentence juvenile offenders to life without parole.  The arguments this spring showed the complexity of drawing the lines between child and adult, and between justice and cruelty.

When minors commit violent crimes, should they be treated differently from adults?  Is prison effective as a punishment and deterrent for juveniles, or does it harden a young person who might otherwise recover?

Here are the contribututions, with links via the commentary titles:

June 6, 2012 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"A Proposed National Corrections College"

The title of this post is the title of this article available via SSRN authored by James Jacobs and Kerry Cooperman. Here is the abstract:

More than four decades ago, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger proposed the establishment of a National Corrections Academy.  He envisioned a training center for prison and jail personnel as prestigious, well-funded, and high-powered as the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.  Although the National Institute of Corrections established a National Corrections Academy in 1982, this academy has remained extremely small (ten full-time program specialists) and modestly funded ($2.5 annual budget) given the size of this nation’s correctional infrastructure.

Today, at a cost of approximately $70 billion per year, more than half a million correctional employees in more than 5,000 correctional facilities across the U.S. house, feed, clothe, supervise, recreate, educate, and provide medical care to nearly 2.3 million inmates, and probation and parole officers supervise an additional 5 million people. Despite the cost and complexity of administering this massive correctional complex, there is no national institution to identify and prioritize correctional-leadership-development needs, evaluate best training practices, develop and disseminate quality curricula, conduct cutting-edge research, and deliver training to a significant number of high-level corrections leaders.

This article reprises Chief Justice Burger’s proposal, calling for the establishment of a National Corrections College that would be the nation’s “brain center” for correctional research, curriculum development, and leadership training.  As Justice Burger observed three decades ago, an investment in a full-fledged national-level correctional training and research center would “cost less in the long run” than the failure to make such investment.

June 5, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 02, 2012

New civil rights suit goes after segregated isolation in California prisons

As reported in this recent Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Group sues California over isolation of some prison inmates," a new lawsuit is assailing California's use of solitary confinement in prison management. Here are the details:

California's practice of isolating prison inmates it suspects of gang affiliations and keeping them that way for years is being challenged in federal court by a national civil rights group. Inmate advocates say California is the only state that makes such extensive, harsh use of solitary confinement, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The inmates are segregated based on thin evidence and prevented from seeking parole, the advocates say, and their isolation leads to mental and medical problems. "It's beyond the pale for any civilized nation," said Jules Lobel, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit Thursday. "We as a society should not be sanctioning torture."

The lawsuit focuses on about 300 inmates who have been held in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit for more than a decade. Most are alone in their windowless cells, allowed out only to shower or exercise in a small concrete yard known as the "dog run." They're allowed one package a year and almost no phone calls, the lawsuit says, and the food is often rotten.

Prison officials said they were already examining their policies on how inmates are placed in the security unit, and a spokesman defended the practice as necessary to handle safety problems in a prison system rife with gangs.

"It's a place where people who pose a particular threat to staff and other inmates can be kept in the most secure way possible," said Jeffrey Callison at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The state's use of solitary confinement is one of the most controversial aspects of its troubled prison system. Thousands of inmates went on a hunger strike last year to protest conditions in solitary housing. Inmate advocates in March asked the United Nations to investigate whether such confinement constitutes torture.

Pelican Bay has 1,128 inmates in its Security Housing Unit. They are sent there through an administrative process that advocates described as severely flawed and lacking in due process. Only 66 are in the Security Housing Unit for behavioral problems; the rest have been confined because of gang affiliations, according to the state. One inmate is considered a member of the Mexican Mafia because he was caught with Aztec artwork, according to the lawsuit....

Ninety-one prisoners have been in the unit for more than two decades, according to the state. New rules under consideration would require assignment there to be based more on behavior in prison than on gang affiliation, Callison said.

June 2, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, June 01, 2012

Ohio sentencing reforms already driving down state prison population (and recidivism rate?)

The mantra from one of my all-time favorite movies is "If you build it, they will come."  Now, based on a new article from my own Columbus Disptach, I am thinking about talking up a sentencing/prison policy mantra of "If you reform it, they will leave."  This article is headlined "Ohio prison population dropping: Sentencing revision seen as successful," and here are excerpts:

Ohio’s revised criminal-sentencing laws are making a difference after six months, diverting hundreds of inmates away from state prisons to less-expensive community programs.

From Oct. 1, 2011, when the new laws took effect, through the end of March this year, 26  percent fewer inmates were imprisoned for child-support-only violations and 180 fewer inmates came to prison for nonviolent fourth- and fifth-degree felonies.  As a result, the prison population dropped to 49,846, the lowest since November 2008. The number of prisoners had peaked at 51,278.

The recidivism rate — the number of offenders who return to prison within three years after being released — is at an all-time low, 31.2 percent. That compares with a national average near 50 percent.

Still, Ohio prisons director Gary C. Mohr said yesterday that he isn’t satisfied with the numbers. He had hoped to hit 49,168 inmates by July 1, but that won’t happen. “The impact has been slower than we anticipated,” he said.  But Mohr predicts House Bill 86, the much-debated criminal-sentencing overhaul, will show greater results in the coming year.

The provision expected to make the deepest impact has been delayed because of legal complications.  It would allow the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to recommend in specific cases that inmates be released after serving 80 percent of their sentence.  The inmates must have a record of good behavior and be recommended by prison staff.   Cleanup language for the 80 percent provision is included in the omnibus budget review bill about to be signed by Gov. John Kasich.

Saving money is not the only reason the Kasich administration pushed for sentencing reform, but it’s an important one. It costs taxpayers $25,000 a year to house and feed each inmate in a state prison, compared with $5,000 a year for offenders in community corrections facilities.

Another change allows judges to issue what are called “risk-reduction” sentences. That means if inmates have a good record in prison and participate in programs, they qualify to get out early.  About 140 offenders have been sentenced under that provision since Oct. 1, Mohr said.

I am very pleased that, a mere six months after enactment, Ohio's sentencing reforms are already helping to ensure that my state taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on expensive prison space to warehouse non-violent offenders.  I am also intrigued to see that what strikes me as already a major state prison population reduction in only six months is still less than what Ohio's prison chief had expected by this point.

As the lats part of the title of this post reveals, I think it is a bit too early to assert that Ohio's sentencing reform from just last year itself fully accounts for the all-time low state recidivism rate.  Nevertheless, these numbers at the very least provide more encouraging evidence suggesting that we states can (and should be trying to) reduce the size of their prison populations without immediately producing a negative impact on public safety.

June 1, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Crime Report. The piece was authored by Jamie Fellner, who is the Senior Advisor to the US Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in the United States."  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up.  Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous?

According to prison statistics, hardly any.   In Ohio, 26.7 percent of former prisoners commit new crimes within three years of their release from prison.   But only 5.6 percent of those released between the ages of 65 and 69 — and 2.9 percent of those released between the ages of 70 and 74 — commit new crimes.  Of those released at age 75 or older, none revert to criminal behavior.

In New York, you can count on two hands the number of older prisoners who have gone on to commit violent crimes after release.  Of 1,511 prisoners aged 65 and older when released between 1995 and 2008, only 8 were returned to prison for committing a violent felony.  Among the released older prisoners were 469 who had originally been sent to prison because of a violent crime.  Only one has returned to prison because of a new crime of violence.

These statistics quantify what criminal justice professionals know from experience: as a group, released older prisoners are not likely to pose much of a risk to the public.  The risk is no doubt even less if the released prisoners are ill or infirm....

Wholly apart from the effects of age and infirmity, years in prison also leave older prisoners with little desire to pick up a gun or hit the streets looking for trouble even if they were physically able to do so.  They want to spend their remaining time on earth with family and friends.  They do not want to die behind bars.

Ensuring just deserts for those who harm others is a legitimate criminal justice goal.  But age and infirmity can change the calculus of when the time served is long enough.  At some point in a prisoner’s life, parole supervision and perhaps restrictions on movement (e.g. home confinement) may suffice as a cost-effective and sensible punishment.

May 29, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

A year after Plata ruling, a "picture of success" fixing California's overcrowded prisons

UTI1646197.jpg_t220Before the completion of the federal litigation that culminated in last year's Plata Supreme Court ruling, the iconic image of the California's persistently crowded prisons was a picture of hordes of men in orange prison garb atop triple-stacked bunk beds in a packed gymnasium that was never intended to house inmates.  Versions of this iconic image were even reprinted in the Supreme Court reporter as part of the majority opinion in Plata which affirmed the federal court order that California reduce its total prison population to prevent continuing constitutional violations of the inmates' Eighth Amendment rights.

Now, thanks to this new article from the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is headlined "Prison crowding eases as local jails house more inmates," we can see a new "picture" of what the Plata ruling has achieved through a photo showing all those bunk beds now empty. Here are excerpts from the article in which this new image of California's prison system appears:

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Just a few months ago, California’s inmates were packed into double- and triple-stacked bunk beds in prison gymnasiums, classrooms and other areas never meant for housing. Now those beds are empty.

The prison population is declining, but not because there are fewer criminals. Instead, a new state law shifted the responsibility for some lower-level offenders to the county jails, which are filling up.

State officials have “taken the monkey off their back and put it on ours,” said Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs seven county jails. In the nearly eight months since the law took effect, Gore has used a number of strategies to ward off jail crowding, including early releases, but he insists the county is handling the load. He and other county officials have said that with proper funding the local authorities can do better than the state at rehabilitating criminals so they’re less likely to end up back behind bars. “We can’t warehouse these inmates,” Gore said.

At Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa, rows of graffiti-scarred bunks sit empty in one of the prison gyms, where more than 150 men once slept in an area the size of a basketball court. A couple of inmates likened the experience to “living in the crazy house.”

“It’s horrible. It’s violent. It’s crowded,” said David Dewrance, 50, who spent almost two years in a gym trying to rest and study for his correspondence courses. When space became available earlier this year, Dewrance was moved to a two-man cell in one of the housing units, which allowed him access to one of the preferred vocational programs. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, imprisoned for second-degree murder, now works in the prison bakery.

Fellow inmate Jesus Yanez said he was housed in a gym at another prison before coming to Donovan five months ago to continue serving his sentence for assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury. In an interview this month at the prison, he recalled trying to sleep, shower and keep his bunk clean while keeping watchful eye dozens of fellow inmates.

“I wouldn’t wish that on the worst person,” said Yanez, 40, whose head and arms are inked with tattoos, many of them evidence of his former gang life in Los Angeles. The cells, he said, are “100 percent better.”

Shortly after the state’s prison population had reached an all-time high in the summer of 2007, more than 19,600 inmates were sleeping in so-called nontraditional beds. All inmates were cleared out of Donovan’s gyms and day rooms at the beginning of this year. And in March, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it had stopped bunking inmates in gyms and day rooms at all California prisons.

“It’s a lot safer,” said Daniel Paramo, a 20-year corrections department veteran who became Donovan’s warden in July. The extra bunks, he said, “made it very difficult to manage the institution.”

As of this month, 3,573 prisoners were being held at Donovan, about 1,000 fewer than the facility housed at the same time last year, but it remains overcrowded. The prison is designed to hold 2,200 inmates with one man to each cell....

In January, the corrections department announced that the population of inmates housed in its 33 institutions had dropped by more than 11,000 inmates over six months. This month, the population was pegged at 122,305 — 153.6 percent of capacity — according to the most recent figures available.

“The population is going down,” said Dana Simas, a department spokeswoman, who acknowledged county officials’ frustrations over rising jail populations. “We never purported that it would be without a few bumps in the road,” Simas said.

Even with the recent inmate reductions, some doubt the state will meet the Supreme Court’s deadline.   Prison officials want the court to allow them to hold the inmate population at 144 percent of capacity — rather than the 137.5 percent as originally ordered — while maintaining constitutional standards for medical and dental care, Simas said. “Our conditions have vastly improved,” she said.

Of course, simply managing to move bodies out of a crowded gym hardly proves that the Plata decision was a perfect ruling or that all is now better in California's often dysfunctional criminal justice system.  But, at the very least, these pictures document that a constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court combined with a serious state effort to respect that ruling can quickly engineer some needed changes to a prison system that had for many years been stalled in a political and practical quagmire concerning overcrowding.

I am hopeful that there will be a number of serious and systematic efforts to take stock of what has followed from the Plata ruling in California.  I have little doubt that the demands on local facilities as a result of the urgent need to move bodies out of state facilities has created various new problems.  Still, this story confirms my gut instinct that, a year after the controversial Plata ruling, the 5-4 decision has produced a net gain for not only the inmates who were suffering Eighth Amendment violations, but also for the entire state of California.  At the very least, there seems to be limited evidence (or at least limited reporting of evidence) that the dire predictions of doom and California crime waves right after the Plata ruling (which appeared in the Plata dissents and on this blog) were a bit overstated and hyperbolic.

UPDATE:  I am intrigued and a bit surprised that oft-vocal "tough on crime" commentors like Bill Otis and federalist, who were quick to condemn the Plata ruling last year, have not yet had anything to say here about the opinion a year later when now it seems the opinion's benefits have been greater than its harms.   In that vein, I found notable this new Sacramento Bee commentary from a former California Assembly member titled "Fear mongers were wrong about prison system's 'realignment'." Here are excerpts:

A year ago we heard fear-mongering voices warning of dangerous criminals being released and counties too broke to provide jail space, parole officers or programming for realigned prisoners.

One year in, how's realignment actually working out? The number of people held in state prison has dropped by more than 25,000 in 16 months since Brown has been in office. The count of people on parole is down almost 30,000, and the number of people held in private out-of-state prisons is down 10 percent; all that without a spike in crime.

The crime rate continues to fall and putting fewer people in state prisons means saving tax dollars, and given the $15.7 billion gap forecast in the May revise those savings have never been needed more than they are now. CDCR estimates that it is saving $1.5 billion a year through realignment and will save another $2.2 billion a year by canceling $4.1 billion in new construction projects....

Corrections built prisons, but it was the Legislature that filled them with hundreds of laws that created new crimes and lengthened sentences. Serious sentencing and parole reforms are long overdue and communities, advocates, and other experts throughout the state have been providing ideas of where to start for decades.

An easy step could be to address the rapidly aging population by implementing a geriatric parole process, and expanding medical parole and compassionate release. Other options include passing legislation to decriminalize drug possession, or supporting the initiative to reform the "three strikes" law on the November ballot. We need only the political will to move away from sentencing and parole policies that have done more to bankrupt our state treasury than to secure safety in our neighborhoods.

Do we return to the course of expanding prisons and jails and expanding the percentage of our resources that go to filling them? Or do we take realignment as only a first step toward further downsizing, offering us the opportunity to use tax funds to invest in the well being of our residents now and in the future? I advocate for the latter.

May 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack