Friday, December 28, 2012

Noting one of many echo effects of California's new sentencing law

The Los Angeles Times has this notable new story headlined "Some county judges change sentencing patterns," which gets started this way:

California's new felon imprisonment law, which requires low-level offenders to serve their time in county jail rather than state prison, is beginning to reshape how some county judges hand down those sentences.

A study by the Chief Probation Officers of California finds an increasing number of judges using split sentences, requiring offenders to spend part of their time in jail and the other part in a community program or under probation.  Without a split sentence, the entire term is spent in jail and when offenders are released, there is no followup.

From the time the new prison law took effect in October 2011 to June 2012, the probation officers group reports, 23% of all local prison sentences were split.  That means an increase in the responsibilities of county probation offices, but a lighter load on jails.

However, the organization says there is an inconsistent use of the sentencing tool among the state's 58 counties.  Judges in 18 counties deliver split sentences to more than half their felons, including Contra Costa and San Joaquin.  On the other hand, only 5% of Los Angeles County felons, for example, are given split sentences.

December 28, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New wing in Virginia prison just for veterans

The intersection for veterans' issues and criminal justices systems is finally starting to get more of the attention it has long needed, and this local story concerning a Virginia prison reports on a recent innovation in this arena concerning corrections programming.  The piece is headlined "Chesapeake prison opens wing for military veterans, and here are excerpts:

The white tile floors, cinder-block walls and rows of steel bunks remind Raymond Riddick of the barracks he stayed in during boot camp in the mid-1980s. "Only, the beds weren't bolted to the floor," the former sailor said while giving a tour of his dormitory at Indian Creek Correctional Center in southern Chesapeake.

Riddick, who's locked up following a string of car thefts, is one of about 60 former service members serving out criminal sentences in a new veterans dorm at the medium-security prison. State corrections officials christened the wing during a ceremony last month, saying they hoped the program would change lives and prevent war vets from returning to prison.

Virginia is the latest in a series of states with large military populations, including Florida and Georgia, that have established veterans-only prison facilities to house and assist the growing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.

The Indian Creek dorm, open since spring, is one of two veterans wings started this year by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The other is in Haynesville. About 2,000 of the state's 30,000 inmates identify themselves as veterans, though officials suspect the true number is larger. Many of them struggle with drug addiction and mental disorders. "This dorm allows our veteran offenders a place where they can share ideas and have that camaraderie and that fellowship that comes with their shared experiences," said Jerry Mullen, a clinical supervisor who oversees the veterans program at Indian Creek. "We've developed a curriculum specifically to address post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other common issues faced by veterans."...

The voluntary program is open to veterans who have been honorably discharged, have shown good behavior and have fewer than two years left to serve.

Beyond the military-themed murals painted on the walls and the neatly made beds, signs that this isn't a typical prison facility can be heard in the nighttime screams of former soldiers struggling with PTSD, and seen in the bullet scars hidden underneath light-blue uniforms.

Counselors who are also former service members help the inmates work through mental health problems and encourage them to take responsibility for their crimes.

December 27, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 17, 2012

BJS releases official accounting of "Prisoners in 2011" in the United States

As reported in this official press release, the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics this morning released its official accounting of the total population of prisons as of the end of 2011.  Here are a few data highlights via the press release:

Twenty-six state departments of corrections reported decreases in their prison population during 2011, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported today. California reported the largest decline (down 15,493), while New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Florida, and Texas each had population decreases of more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011.

Among states that had increases in their prison populations, Tennessee and Kentucky both added more than 1,000 inmates in 2011. During 2011, the total U.S. prison population declined for the second consecutive year, to under 1.6 million inmates or 15,023 fewer inmates than in 2010.  This represents a 0.9 percent decrease in the total prison population.

The overall decline in 2011 was due to the decrease in state prisoners, down 21,614 prisoners or 1.5 percent from 2010.  The reduction in California’s prison population under the Public Safety Realignment policy accounted for 72 percent of the total decrease in state prisoners.  The federal prison population offset the decline in the states with an increase of 6,591 prisoners (up 3.1 percent) from 2010 to 2011.

As in 2010, prison releases in 2011 (688,384) exceeded prison admissions (668,800). Admissions to federal prisons increased 12 percent (up 6,513 inmates) in 2011 while state prison admissions decreased 6.4 percent (down 41,511 inmates) from 2010.  The number of admissions to state prisons (608,166) fell to its lowest level since 2001.  Sixty-three percent (26,340 admissions) of the decrease in state prison admissions between 2010 and 2011 was due to fewer parole violators being reincarcerated.

In 2011 the U.S. imprisonment rate dropped to 492 inmates per 100,000 residents, continuing a decline since 2007, when the imprisonment rates peaked at 506 inmates per 100,000 residents.  The national imprisonment rate for males (932 per 100,000 male U.S. residents) was over 14 times the imprisonment rate for females (65 per 100,000 female U.S. residents)....

In 2010 (the most recent data available) 53 percent of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a violent offense, 18 percent for property offenses, 17 percent for drug crimes and 10 percent for public order offenses, such as weapons, drunk driving, commercialized vice and court offenses.

An estimated 188,200 sentenced state prisoners (14 percent) were serving time for murder or manslaughter in 2010, while 160,800 offenders were incarcerated for rape and other sexual assaults.  Between 2000 and 2010, the estimated number of state prisoners sentenced for any violent offense increased by 99,400 inmates, or 16 percent (from 625,600 prisoners in 2000 to 725,000 in 2010).

Inmates sentenced for drug offenses comprised 48 percent (94,600 inmates) of the sentenced federal prison population in 2011, while 7.6 percent of federal prisoners were held for violent offenses.  An estimated 11 percent (22,100 inmates) were serving time in federal prison for immigration offenses.

Because imprisonment, especially at the margins, always seems to me to be a very expensive way to try to reduce crime, I am pleased to see that the prison population in the US went down a bit in 2011.  But, significantly, it seems most of the national prison population decrease can be attributed to the Plata litigation and subsequent realignment in California.  Absent significant prison population reductions in other states in 2012, it is possible that the national prison population in the land of the free could tick back up soon (thanks, in large part, to the seemingly ever-growing federal prison population).

The full 34-page BJS report "Prisoners in 2011," which has lots and lots of interesting data, is available at this link.  Among other interesting information, this new report reveals that, as of the end of 2011, the five largest prison systems in population terms are, in order, the feds, Texas, California, Florida and Georgia.

December 17, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, December 14, 2012

"Federal prisoners use snitching for personal gain"

Informants-chartThe title of this post is the headline of this big new article appearing in USA Today concerning the general operation of 5K substantial assistance sentencing departures in the federal courts.  The lengthy piece gets started with a notable tale of a "pay-to-snitch" scheme emerging from Atlanta's federal courts and local jails.  Here is how the article begins:

The prisoners in Atlanta's hulking downtown jail had a problem. They wanted to snitch for federal agents, but they didn't know anything worth telling.  Fellow prisoner Marcus Watkins, an armed robber, had the answer.

For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences.  They were paying for information, but what they were really trying to buy was freedom.  "I didn't feel as though any laws were being broken," Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors.  "I really thought I was helping out law enforcement."

That pay-to-snitch enterprise — documented in thousands of pages of court records, interviews and a stack of Watkins' own letters — remains almost entirely unknown outside Atlanta's towering federal courthouse, where investigators are still trying to determine whether any criminal cases were compromised.  It offers a rare glimpse inside a vast and almost always secret part of the federal criminal justice system in which prosecutors routinely use the promise of reduced prison time to reward prisoners who help federal agents build cases against other criminals.

Snitching has become so commonplace that in the past five years at least 48,895 federal convicts — one of every eight — had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators, a USA TODAY examination of hundreds of thousands of court cases found.  The deals can chop a decade or more off of their sentences.

How often informants pay to acquire information from brokers such as Watkins is impossible to know, in part because judges routinely seal court records that could identify them.  It almost certainly represents an extreme result of a system that puts strong pressure on defendants to cooperate.  Still, Watkins' case is at least the fourth such scheme to be uncovered in Atlanta alone over the past 20 years.

Those schemes are generally illegal because the people who buy information usually lie to federal agents about where they got it.  They also show how staggeringly valuable good information has become — prices ran into tens of thousands of dollars, or up to $250,000 in one case, court records show.

John Horn, the second in command of Atlanta's U.S. attorney's office, said the "investigation on some of these matters is continuing" but would not elaborate. Prosecutors have said they were troubled that informants were paying for some of the secrets they passed on to federal agents.  Judges are outraged.  But the inmates who operated the schemes have repeatedly alleged that agents knew all along what they were up to, and sometimes even gave them the information they sold.  Prosecutors told a judge in October that an investigation found those accusations were false.  Still, court records show, agents kept interviewing at least one of Watkins' customers even after the FBI learned of the scheme.

The risks are obvious.  If the government rewards paid-for information, wealthy defendants could potentially buy early freedom.  Because such a system further muddies the question of how informants — already widely viewed as untrustworthy — know what they claim to know, "individual cases can be undermined and the system itself is compromised," U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in a 2010 court filing.

In addition to additional cool graphics and charts and more information about how this "pay-to-snitch" schemes operated it Atlanta, USA Today also has produced this great dynamic interactive graphic, titled "Informants trade for shorter sentences."  The graphic (which I sure wish could be replicated by the US Sentencing Commission for all federal sentencing data) allows one to see basic cooperation statistics in each and every federal district just by moving around the map.

December 14, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New Urban Institute reports examine increases in federal prison population

I received via e-mail today news of a new report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center concerning increases in the size of the federal prison system.  Here is a snippet fromt the e-mail, which includes reactions from key federal legislators:

The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions states that federal prisons currently house 218,000 inmates, which is almost ten times the number incarcerated in 1980.  Drug offenders make up more than half of the prison population, and the length of drug offender sentences is a major driver of population growth and prison costs.

“Overcrowded prisons do more than just jeopardize the safety of prisoners and staff: they also restrict the ability to offer rehabilitative programs designed to reduce reoffending,” noted Nancy La Vigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center and a lead author of the paper....

In the report, the authors note that state justice systems demonstrate useful examples of how to trim spending without detracting from public safety. Adjusting sentencing practices and prison release policies for drug offenders, for example, could alleviate some stress on the federal prison system.

"This report demonstrates the need to address the safety and cost issues caused by the growth of the federal prison population. Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the administration need to come together to address this issue in a bipartisan effort," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

“The unsustainable growth in federal prison costs is crowding out other law enforcement priorities. I welcome this new, important report, which shows the need for common sense reforms that protect the public safety while minimizing corrections costs for taxpayers,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee.

The full report discussed in this e-mail is available at this link and runs only eight pages.  Some of its coverage appears to build off this related Urban Institute publication, which is titled "Examining Growth in the Federal Prison Population, 1998 to 2010," and is 34 pages long.

December 13, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Big new New York Times series on social science of incarceration

NYTI am very excited to see that the today's New York Times has a pair of big articles as part of a new series on incarceration policies and practices. The series appears to be called "Time and Punishment: Tossing the Key," and it is described this way: "John Tierney, the Findings columnist for Science Times, is exploring the social science of incarceration. Future articles in this series will look at the effects of current policies on families and communities, and new ideas for dealing with offenders." Kudos to the Times for giving these important legal and social issues the extended attention they merit.

Here are the headlines and links to today's two NY Times pieces that kick of this series: "For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars" and "Life Without Parole: Four Inmates’ Stories." Here is a key portion from the start of the first of these articles:

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.

But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.

The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states’ financial problems.

State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost except Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.

Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share of the budget rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner — nearly $50,000 per year — than on each student.

Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals like Ms. George.

Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.

Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.

Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”

These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.

Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.

“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison.

December 12, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 09, 2012

NY Times editorial laments lack of compassionate release

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "What Compassionate Release?". Here are excerpts:

Federal sentencing law has been indefensibly harsh for a generation, but in theory it has contained a safety valve called compassionate release.  The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act gives federal courts the power to reduce sentences of federal prisoners for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” like a terminal illness.

In practice, though, the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Department, which oversees the bureau, have not just failed to make use of this humane and practical program, but have crippled it.  That is the disturbing and well-substantiated conclusion of a new report by Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

From 1992 through this November, a period in which the population of federal prisons almost tripled from around 80,000 to close to 220,000 inmates, the bureau released 492 prisoners under this program.  This is a mere two dozen or so on average each year, and the number has so far not surpassed 37.  The percentage of prisoners released has shrunk from tiny to microscopic....

The United States Sentencing Commission has identified several extraordinary and compelling reasons that could justify compassionate release: terminal illness, a permanent physical or mental condition, impairment due to old age, the death or incapacitation of a family member who has been solely responsible for the care of the prisoner’s minor children.

But as things have turned out, the human rights report says, virtually the only ground the bureau accepts for compassionate release is a terminal illness with up to a year of life expectancy.  To make matters worse, even when the prisoner meets its excessively strict tests, the bureau itself decides whether the prisoner should be set free — in effect usurping discretionary powers that Congress awarded the courts.

The report offers some sound remedies. Congress should modify the law to give prisoners themselves the right to seek compassionate release from a court.  Congress should require the bureau to publish all program data, including the number of requests denied and why. And Congress should reaffirm the role of the courts as final arbiter.

Recent related post:

December 9, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, December 07, 2012

"On the Chopping Block 2012: State Prison Closings"

The title of this post is the title of this new research report from The Sentencing Project. Here is how it begins:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported that the overall state prison population declined for the third consecutive year in 2011. State sentencing reforms and changes in parole revocation policies have been contributing factors in these reductions. As a result, state officials are now beginning to close correctional facilities after several decades of record prison expansion. Continued declines in state prison populations advance the narrative that the nation’s reliance on incarceration is largely a function of policy choices.

In 2012, at least six states have closed 20 prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,100 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings. During 2012, Florida led the nation in prison closings with its closure of 10 correctional facilities; the state’s estimated cost savings for prison closings totals over $65 million. This year’s prison closures build on closures observed in 2011 when at least 13 states reported prison closures and reduced prison capacity by an estimated 15,500 beds.

December 7, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 06, 2012

NYCLU sues New York over solitary confinement practices

As reported in this Reuters piece, "New York's largest civil liberties group filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against state corrections officials on behalf of a convicted rapist who spent 26 months in solitary confinement after a non-violent offense in his cell."  Here is more:

The lawsuit is the latest challenge to standards by which some 80,000 inmates a day are confined up to 23 hours a day in isolation or with another inmate inside cells as small as a parking spot.

Critics claim solitary confinement is a form of torture that inflicts lasting psychological damage and is meted out in many states too arbitrarily and, increasingly, too often....

The lawsuit, filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union in federal court in Manhattan, asserts Leroy Peoples was placed in solitary confinement for nearly 26 months after jail guards discovered forged legal documents in his cell....

"New York's prison authorities permit the use extreme isolation ... as a disciplinary tool of first resort for violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

Between 2007 and 2011, New York State prison officials segregated inmates 302 times for "smoking in an undesignated area," 135 times for "wasting food," 114 times for "littering" and 234 times for "untidy cell or person," according to a recent NYCLU study of state prison segregation records....

In October, state corrections commissioner Brian Fischer responded to the NYCLU study. "As a society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we remove from general population inmates who violate the Department's code of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities," Fischer said in a statement, which did not address non-violent offenses. "The possession of drugs, cell phones and weapons pose a serious threat within this ... system."

There were 563 assaults on staff and 666 inmate assaults on other inmates last year, out of a population of about 56,000, state corrections records show.

The NYCLU has this press release about its lawsuit, and the full 29-page complaint can be accessed at this link. In addition, the NYCDL's October 2012 report on New York's use of solitary confinement is available via this link.

December 6, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Terrific symposium in latest issue of the Journal of Legal Education

Though I always enjoy reading the Journal of Legal Education, I was especially excited to see that JLE's November 2012 issue starts with a symposium titled "Teaching Mass Incarceration." Here is a summary from the JLE's introduction of the pieces in the symposium (with links inserted):

The issue begins with a Symposium on “Teaching Mass Incarceration,” a subject that has received considerable attention from activists and some from mainstream media but is remarkably absent from the law school curriculum.  Giovanna Shay opens with a case study of “Inside-Out as Law School Pedagogy,” a teaching vehicle for bringing prison inmates and law students into one course, building student engagement and inspiring open-minded discussion that forces students to move beyond knee-jerk politics and clichés [available here].  The second article in the Symposium, by Sharon Dolovich, makes a powerful case for teaching the “law governing prisons,” the “back-end” of the criminal justice system and the law applicable to 2.3 million Americans, of whom a huge disproportion are African-Americans — arguably a front line in civil rights advocacy today [available here]. The third article, by Teresa A. Miller, entitled “Encountering Attica,” explores documentary film-making to transform the dialogue of the “inside-out class” into a vehicle for reaching much larger audiences [available here].  Readers of these contributions will be hard-pressed to deny the case for more visibility and engagement with mass incarceration and the means to accomplish those goals.

I thoroughly enjoyed and learned much from all three of these articles, and I encourage even those not in the ivory tower to check them out.

December 4, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, December 03, 2012

Early parole after two years' imprisonment for Oklahoma woman initially give 12 years for small pot sales

Regular readers may recall the story of Patricia Spottedcrow, first discussed in this post, who was initially sentenced to a dozen years in Oklahoma state prison for selling $31 in marijuana to a police informant in December 2009 and January 2010.  This recent story from the Tusla World, headlined "Patricia Spottedcrow paroled early in 12-year sentence for $31 bag of marijuana," explains how she is now out of prison:

The four reasons Patricia Spottedcrow most wanted out of prison were back in her arms Thursday afternoon, after their mother was released on parole. Her children are 11, 6, 5 and 3 years old now. The youngest was just 1 when Spottedcrow began her prison sentence two years ago.

If Gov. Mary Fallin hadn't approved Spottedcrow's parole and if the Pardon and Parole Board hadn't agreed to early consideration for her case, her children might have all been teenagers by the time she got out.

Spottedcrow was released from Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City on Thursday morning after completing a community-level sentence required by the governor as a condition of her parole. Her 12-year prison sentence for selling $31 worth of marijuana garnered widespread national attention after her story was featured in a 2011 Tulsa World series on women in prison.

Spottedcrow originally faced a 12-year prison sentence out of Kingfisher County for selling a "dime bag" of marijuana to a police informant. She entered prison in December 2010 after spending a few months waiting in the county jail.

After her story was published in the World, grassroots supporters lobbied officials to reconsider Spottedcrow's punishment. Advocates expressed concern for possible racial bias, disparate sentences for drug crimes, Oklahoma's No. 1 female incarceration rate per capita and the effects on children growing up with incarcerated parents.

The specifics of this case are notable not only because of how extreme Spottedcrow's initial prison sentence appeared to be, but also because of how Oklahoma's preservation of parole in its sentencing system served as a kind of second-look safety valve so that this seemingly not-so-dangerous first-offender could be released without the state and others having to bear the considerable costs of an extreme extended term of imprisonment.

Prior posts on Spottedcrow's case:

December 3, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 01, 2012

"More Children Growing Up With Parents Behind Bars"

Prisongraph(1)The title of this post is the headline of this recent ABC News/Univision piece. Here are excerpts:

The number of children with parents behind bars in the United States is growing. And a Latino child is more than twice as likely to have an incarcerated parent as a white child.

An infographic created by sociologist Becky Pettit in her new book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress illustrates a five-fold increase in the number of children with parents behind bars from 1980 to 2005.

While interpreting the graph, it's important to keep in mind that the Hispanic population has grown much faster than the white and black populations since 1980, meaning there are simply more Latino children and parents in the U.S. However, taken as a percentage, Latino children are still more much more likely than white children to grow up with their parents behind bars. One in 42 Latino children has a parent in prison, compared to 1 in 111 white children, according to a 2009 report from The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, which used data from the U.S. Department of Justice. And, when it comes to black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison....

One in every one hundred adults in the U.S. is behind bars, and more than two-thirds are non-white, according to a 2008 Pew study. The Sentencing Project report found that children who grow up with parents in prison are more likely to "drop out of school, engage in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves."

December 1, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Friday, November 30, 2012

New report assails (lack of) compassionate release in federal system

Us1112_reportcover_0As highlighted via this NPR piece, headlined "Federal 'Compassionate' Prison Release Rarely Given," Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have today released a big new report criticizing the poor administration of the federal compassionate release program. Here are excerpts from the NPR piece:

Back in 1984, Congress gave authorities the power to let people out of federal prison early, in extraordinary circumstances, like if inmates were gravely ill or dying. But a new report says the Federal Bureau of Prisons blocks all but a few inmates from taking advantage of "compassionate release."

The federal prisons house more than 218,000 inmates but, on average, they release only about two dozen people a year under the program. By contrast, the state of Texas, no slouch when it comes to tough punishment, let out about 100 people on medical parole last year, researchers say.

"Why are so few people getting out?" asks Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch who helped write the new study. "You have a prison system that is grotesquely overcrowded, you have prisoners who pose no meaningful threat to public safety and yet they're being denied release?"

Fellner says she's convinced the culture of the federal prisons and the Justice Department acts as an iron curtain for all but the sickest inmates — people with less than a year to live, who can't even walk or use the bathroom on their own, let alone commit another crime....

Mary Price, general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, helped write the new report. She says she's tried to help Mahoney — and many other inmates — win compassionate release. "We don't sentence people to die alone in prison when we've given them a five-year sentence," she says.

Price says Congress gave judges the authority to make decisions about which prisoners could be released for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons. But under the rules, the Bureau of Prisons has to petition the court first. And the bureau usually says no — without ever involving the court.

For instance, Price and Fellner say they couldn't find a single case in the last 20 years where prison authorities had granted a compassionate release for an inmate to care for young children after a spouse or partner died, even though Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission expressly left open that option....

Advocates at Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums are calling on the Bureau of Prisons to open up its procedures. And they're asking Congress to pass a law that would allow prisoners to go directly to the courts if the bureau shuts them down.

The Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is reviewing the program, too. He says it could help save money and cut down on prison overcrowding.

The full report is available at this link, and here are two paragraphs from the lengthy report's summary:

Congress authorized what is commonly called “compassionate release” because it recognized the importance of ensuring that justice could be tempered by mercy.  A prison sentence that was just when imposed could — because of changed circumstances — become cruel as well as senseless if not altered.  The US criminal justice system, even though it prizes the consistency and finality of sentences, makes room for judges to take a second look to assess the ongoing justice of a sentence.

Prisoners cannot seek a sentence reduction f or extraordinary and compelling circumstances directly from the courts.  By law, only the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP, the Bureau ) has the authority to file a motion with a court that requests judicial consideration of early release. Although we do not know how many prisoners have asked the BOP to make motions on their behalf — because the BOP does not keep such records — we do know the BOP rarely does so.  The federal prison sys tem houses over 218,000 prisoners, yet in 2011, the BOP filed only 30 motions for early release, and between January 1 and November 15, 2012, it filed 37.  Since 1992, the annual average number of prisoners who received compassionate release has been less t han two dozen. Compassionate release is conspicuous for its absence.

November 30, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Latest BJS data report 2011 decline in US prison and overall correction populations

According the latest, greatest official numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total population subject to criminal justice control in the US declined (again) in 2011. This press release from BJS sets out the basics:

About 6.98 million people were under some form of adult correctional supervision in the U.S. at yearend 2011, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. This was the equivalent of about one in 34 U.S. adults (or about 2.9 percent of the adult population) in prison or jail or on probation or parole, the lowest rate of adults under correctional supervision observed since 2000.

The adult correctional population declined by 1.4 percent or 98,900 offenders during 2011. This was the third consecutive year of decline in the number of offenders under the supervision of adult correctional authorities....

At yearend 2011, about 4,814,200 offenders were supervised in the community on probation or parole, and 2,239,800 were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails. About one in 50 adults was under community supervision while about one in 107 adults was in prison or jail.

While both the community supervision population (down 1.5 percent) and the incarcerated population (down 1.3 percent) decreased during 2011, the majority of the decline (83 percent) in the total number of adults under correctional supervision during the year was due to a drop in the probation population. The probation population declined two percent or by 81,800 offenders during 2011, falling below four million for the first time since 2002.

For the third consecutive year, the number of offenders discharged from probation supervision (about 2.2 million offenders) exceeded the number who entered probation (about 2.1 million) during 2011, contributing to the decrease in the probation population....

An increase in the parole population partially offset declines in all other components of the adult correctional population. The parole population increased 1.6 percent or by 13,300 offenders during 2011. The state parole population increased 1.1 percent and the federal parole population grew 5.1 percent during the year....

The failure rate of parolees (defined as the percentage of parolees who were returned to jail or prison out of all parolees who could have been incarcerated at any point during the year) decreased for the fifth consecutive year. During 2011, about 12 percent of parolees at risk of reincarceration were incarcerated at some time during the year, down from about 15 percent during 2006.

All these data and so much more can be found in these two official new reports from BJS: Correctional Populations in the United States, 2011; and Probation and Parole in the United States, 2011

November 29, 2012 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"The Micro and Macro Causes of Prison Growth"

The title of this post is the title of this very interesting paper on prison growth now on SSRN and authored by the always astute John Pfaff.  Here is the abstract:

This paper explores both "who" has driven up US prison populations in recent years and "why" this growth has occurred.  At least since the early 1990s, the "who" appears to primarily be prosecutors.  Crime and arrests have fallen, and the percent of felony cases resulting in admissions and time served once admitted have been flat.  But the probability that an arrest results in a felony charge has gone up significantly.  (Limitations in data prevent us from examining the role of filing decisions before 1994.)

As for the "why," this paper provides some evidence that, at least since the crime drop began, increases in prison spending appear to track increases in state budgets fairly closely, suggesting that increased fiscal capacity is an important causal factor.  It also looks at the politics-of-crime theories and explains that all previous efforts are unsatisfactory because they have focused on state and federal actors.  Prosecutors, who are driving prison growth, are county officials, and it is unclear that state- and national-level political theories explain more-local outcomes.

November 28, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, November 26, 2012

Spotlighting connection between mental illness and extreme three-strike sentences

Yesterday's New York Times ran this interesting editorial by Brent Staples concerning the impact and import of the recent reform of California's three-strikes law.  The piece has a particular focus on the role mental illness may play in many of the most troubling sentencing outcomes resulting from extra tough recidivism sentencing enhancements.  The piece is headlined "California Horror Stories and the 3-Strikes Law," and here are excerpts:

Californians brought a close to a shameful period in the state’s history when they voted this month to soften the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law.  The original law was approved by ballot initiative in 1994, not long after a parolee kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  It was sold to voters as a way of getting killers, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good.

As it turned out, three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants.  Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check.  In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

The revised law preserves the three-strikes concept, but it imposes a life sentence only when the third felony offense is serious or violent, as defined in state law.  It also authorizes the courts to resentence thousands of people who were sent away for low-level third offenses and who present no danger to the public.

The resentencing process is shaping up as a kind of referendum on the state’s barbaric treatment of mentally ill defendants, who make up a substantial number of those with life sentences under the three-strikes rule.  It is likely that many were too mentally impaired to assist their lawyers at the time of trial.

Mentally ill inmates are nearly always jailed for behaviors related to their illness. Nationally, they account for about one-sixth of the prison population.  The ratio appears to be higher among three-strike lifers in California.  According to a 2011 analysis of state data by Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, nearly 40 percent of these inmates qualify as mentally ill and are receiving psychiatric services behind bars....

Asked about the relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions, Michael Romano, director of the Stanford project, responded, “In my experience, every person who has been sentenced to life in prison for a nonserious, nonviolent crime like petty theft suffers from some kind of mental illness or impairment — from organic brain disorders, to schizophrenia, to mental retardation, to severe P.T.S.D.,” or post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all had been abused as children, he pointed out.  All had been homeless for extended periods, and many were illiterate. None had graduated from high school.

In other words, these were discarded people who could be made to bear the brunt of this brutal law without risk of public backlash.... And as more cases unfold in court, judges, lawyers and Californians should look back with shame at the injustice the state inflicted on a vulnerable population that often presented little or no danger to the public.

Some recent related posts:

November 26, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Virginia prison groups veterans together for support"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP piece, which gets started this way:

A sergeant at arms, hazmat crew, and intelligence team working in uniform behind guarded gates and a barbed-wire fence isn't anything out of the ordinary in this region that's home to major military installations.  But the men chosen to perform those tasks a few miles from the North Carolina border are unusual.

Unlike their comrades who perform these duties on ships and bases, about 80 civilian prisoners are doing so as inmates at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center.  Each served in the military before landing in prison, and state officials hope grouping them together to create a military environment will help change their lives and keep them from returning to prison.  About 2,000 of 30,000 inmates in the state prison system say they are veterans, though officials say there may be more.

The Virginia Department of Corrections opened two dormitories this summer exclusively for veterans — one at Indian Creek and another in Haynesville — where inmates have served in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq.  Similar dorms have opened at several prisons in Florida, another state home to a large veteran population, as well as at a jail in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning.  The inmates receive therapy that addresses some problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues or substance abuse problems that may have led to them winding up in prison.

Prison officials say these treatments help reduce recidivism among all inmates, but that grouping veterans together may be particularly effective.  "These offenders have a particular bond because of the service they did for their country, and what they learned when they were in the service, all the good things they learned in the service, all the discipline and structure, is morphed into this program so that those things can now be channeled positively to help them," said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker.

November 25, 2012 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, November 23, 2012

First California prisoner released under reformed three-strikes has lots of voters to thank

It is poetic that the reform of California's three-strikes law approved overwhelmingly by state voters earlier this month produced the first resentencing and prisoner release just before the Thanksgiving long weekend.  Here are the details from this local report headlined "Revised California 3 Strikes law: Man becomes first to be re-sentenced under Prop. 36":

A man sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under California's "three strikes" law in 1996 was re-sentenced Wednesday to about 15 years, and released based on credit for time served.

Kenneth Glenn Corley, 62, became the first person to be re-sentenced under Proposition 36, passed earlier this month by California voters.  When Corley was convicted of drug possession for sale, he had two felony "strikes" for burglary and attempted burglary and was given the mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence on Oct. 8, 1996.

He was re-sentenced Wednesday by San Diego Superior Court Judge David Danielsen. "Many prosecutors in the state, including our office, were already working to address the unintended consequences of the 'three strikes' law,'" said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "Now that Prop. 36 has passed, the work we have already done to review these cases should make the process of assessing the petitions go more smoothly."

Justin Brooks, with the California Innocence Project, told 10News, "No violent offenses; it's basically a guy who had a drug addiction and committed a lot of property crimes and got sentenced to prison for the rest of his life."  Brooks has been working on Corley's case for nearly two years.  He has lined up a job for Corley and even arranged for him to live in a local halfway house....

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and San Diego Superior Court officials are preparing for 200 to 300 requests from state inmates seeking reductions in their prison sentences.  A judge will need to determine if the offender poses an unreasonable risk to public safety before permitting a re-sentencing....

Proposition 36 modified the law to require a sentence of 25 years to life only if the third strike was a serious or violent felony, or upon a conviction for another qualifying factor, such as use of a deadly weapon or intent to inflict injury. It is retroactive to the extent that it allows certain inmates whose third strikes were nonviolent, non-serious felonies and are serving life terms to seek a new sentencing hearing.... Under the three strikes law, 8,800 prisoners have been sentenced to life in prison, and 3,000 of them are eligible for release under Prop. 36.

I suppose the only disturbing part of this story is that shoppers in California now need to worry about one more shopper in line for the big Black Friday sales.

November 23, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Brewing "Miller fix" for juvenile murder sentencing in Michigan

As reported in this new local piece, headlined "Juvenile lifers: Michigan lawmakers quietly propose new sentencing hearings, possibility of parole," legislators in a state up north are getting to work on a response to the Supreme Court's Miller ruling making mandatory LWOP unconstitutional for juve murderers.  Here are the details:

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers has quietly introduced a series of bills that would redefine the way juvenile murder convicts are sentenced in Michigan and provide current inmates with a chance at parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June ruled that sentencing minors to life in prison without the possibility of parole is an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment, prompting calls for legislative action in Michigan and other states with mandatory sentencing guidelines that apply to juvenile offenders.

House Bills 6013-6019 were introduced last week during the opening days of the state Legislature's lame-duck session, which may be busy, and will need to be reintroduced if they are not passed by the end of the year.  "Similar packages of legislation have been introduced before but in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Miller v. Alabama in June, now is the time to address mandatory sentences here in Michigan," state Rep. Mark Meadows, D-Lansing, said in a statement Tuesday.

Michigan is home to more than 350 inmates serving mandatory life sentences without parole for serious crimes they committed as minors.

HB 6014, sponsored by Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland, would give the state parole board jurisdiction over juvenile lifers who already have served at least 15 years for crimes they committed before age 16 or at least 20 years for crimes they committed between ages 16 and 18.  The bill directs the parole board to consider mitigating circumstances -- including accomplices, emotional state, family life and prior criminal records -- in determining whether the offender should be granted release....

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a written opinion for the 5-4 majority, did not explicitly state whether the high court ruling applies to offenders already serving mandatory sentence.  Reformers believe it does and some states have accepted that position.  Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette argues it is not retroactive.

The Michigan Court of Appeals heard arguments for resentencing last month and may still decide the retroactivity issue.  But Appeals Court Judge Michael J. Talbot expressed a reluctance to legislate from the bench, urging lawmakers to rework state laws in anticipation of pending and future cases.

HB 6015, also sponsored by Haveman, allows prosecuting attorneys in future cases to request a post-trial hearing to determine whether juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes should be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or life with the possibility of parole.  The legislation also allows prosecuting attorneys or prisoners currently serving mandatory terms to request similar resentencing hearings, at which judges must consider mitigating factors.

November 14, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"The Conservative War on Prisons"

1211-dagan-teles_hiliteThe title of this post is the headline of this terrific feature article by David Dagan and Steven Teles appearing in the latest issue of Washington Monthly.  The sub-heading provides insights into the many themes of the important piece: "Right-wing operatives have decided that prisons are a lot like schools: hugely expensive, inefficient, and in need of root-and-branch reform. Is this how progress will happen in a hyper-polarized world?"  Here is how this new must-read article gets started:

American streets are much safer today than they were thirty years ago, and until recently most conservatives had a simple explanation: more prison beds equal less crime.  This argument was a fulcrum of Republican politics for decades, boosting candidates from Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush and scores more in the states.  Once elected, these Republicans (and their Democratic imitators) built prisons on a scale that now exceeds such formidable police states as Russia and Iran, with 3 percent of the American population behind bars or on parole and probation.

Now that crime and the fear of victimization are down, we might expect Republicans to take a victory lap, casting safer streets as a vindication of their hard line.  Instead, more and more conservatives are clambering down from the prison ramparts.  Take Newt Gingrich, who made a promise of more incarceration an item of his 1994 Contract with America.  Seventeen years later, he had changed his tune.  “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Gingrich wrote in 2011.  “The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

None of Gingrich’s rivals in the vicious Republican presidential primary exploited these statements.  If anything, his position is approaching party orthodoxy.  The 2012 Republican platform declares, “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”  What’s more, a rogue’s gallery of conservative crime warriors have joined Gingrich’s call for Americans to rethink their incarceration reflex.  They include Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, William Bennett — even the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council.  Most importantly, more than a dozen states have launched serious criminal justice reform efforts in recent years, with conservatives often in the lead.

Skeptics might conclude that conservatives are only rethinking criminal justice because lockups have become too expensive.  But whether prison costs too much depends on what you think of incarceration’s benefits.  Change is coming to criminal justice because an alliance of evangelicals and libertarians have put those benefits on trial.  Discovering that the nation’s prison growth is morally objectionable by their own, conservative standards, they are beginning to attack it — and may succeed where liberals, working the issue on their own, have, so far, failed.

This will do more than simply put the nation on a path to a more rational and humane correctional system.  It will also provide an example of how bipartisan policy breakthroughs are still possible in our polarized age.  The expert-driven, center-out model of policy change that think-tank moderates and foundation check-writers hold dear is on the brink of extinction.  If it is to be replaced by anything, it will be through efforts to persuade strong partisans to rethink the meaning of their ideological commitments, and thus to become open to information they would otherwise ignore.  Bipartisan agreement will result from the intersection of separate ideological tracks — not an appeal to cross them.  This approach will not work for all issues.  But in an environment in which the center has almost completely evaporated, and in which voters seem unwilling to grant either party a decisive political majority, it may be the only way in which our policy gridlock can be broken.

Long-time readers know I have been talking about the prospects of a "new right" on crime and punishment issues all the way back in January 2005 when I asked in this post, "Is there a 'new right' on criminal sentencing issues?".  As some may also recall, in this 2008 Harvard Law & Policy Review piece, I wrote that "progressives can and should be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration."  I am so very pleased to see that more and more folks are highlighting and stressing the broader political and social importance of these developments.

A few of my (too?) many recent and older related posts: 

November 13, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack