Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Some notable recent NPR coverage of modern incarceration realities

I was pleased to hear on my local NPR station this afternoon, while I was driving around in my Prius looking for a good place to get a latte, this lengthy feature story concerning US incarceration levels on the On Point program.  Here is how the program is described via its website:

The Cost Of Prison: States fed up with high prison costs and mandatory sentencing move to change. Must the U.S. be number one in prisoners?

The USA is number one in the world when it comes to the number of people in prison. Bigger than China. Bigger than Russia. America’s prison population is tops. 2.2 million. Bigger than fifteen American states.  And its incarceration rate is number one.....  All that American imprisonment is very expensive. And very debatable when it comes to effectiveness, fairness -- to justice itself.  Now states across the country are reconsidering the mandatory sentencing policies and more that filled those cells. This hour, On Point: slimming down American prisons.

In addition, last week NPR had two new pieces as part of this special series titled "The Legacy And Future Of Mass Incarceration." Here are links and brief descriptions:

Decades On, Stiff Drug Sentence Leaves A Life 'Dismantled':  George Prendes was 23 when he was sentenced under New York's Rockefeller drug laws — tough mandatory sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug crimes. The 15 years Prendes served for a drug transaction still reverberate for him and his family.

The Drug Laws That Changed How We Punish:  Forty years ago, New York enacted tough laws in response to a wave of drug-related crime. They became known as the Rockefeller drug laws, and they set the standard for states looking to get tough on crime.  But a new debate is under way over the effectiveness of such strict sentencing laws.

February 20, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"A Company That Runs Prisons Will Have Its Name on a Stadium"

STADIUM-articleLargeThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and fascinating article from the sports section of today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

In recent years, where stadium naming rights could be sold, universities and professional sports teams have sold them — to airlines and banks and companies that sell beer, soda, doughnuts, cars, telecommunications, razors and baseball bats....

On Tuesday, that trend took another strange turn when Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, firmed a deal to rename its football building GEO Group Stadium. Perhaps that pushed stadium naming to its zenith, if only because the GEO Group is a private prison corporation.

For this partnership, there is no obvious precedent.  The university’s president described the deal as “wonderful” and the company as “well run” and by a notable alumnus.  But it also left some unsettled, including those who study the business of sports and track the privatization of the prison industry.  To those critics, this was a jarring case of the lengths colleges and teams will go to produce revenue, of the way that everything seems to be for sale now in sports — and to anyone with enough cash.

“This is an example of great donor intent, terrible execution,” said Paul Swangard, the managing director at the University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.  “Here’s a guy with strong ties to the university, who wants to make a difference, and is mixing his philanthropic interest with a marketing strategy that doesn’t make any sense.”

The GEO Group, which is based in Boca Raton, secured the naming rights with a $6 million gift, paid out over 12 years through its charitable arm, the largest such donation in Florida Atlantic’s athletic history.  In a news release, the university said the money would finance athletic operations, the stadium, scholarships and “academic priorities.”

The stadium, which opened in the fall of 2011, cost $70 million and seats more than 29,000. It offers 6,000 premium seats, 24 suites and 26 loge boxes. In a telephone interview, the university’s president, Mary Jane Saunders, noted that GEO’s chairman, George Zoley, had two degrees from Florida Atlantic and once served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. Four members of the board, Saunders added, have also worked for the GEO Group, including two past student government presidents. The company’s corporate headquarters overlook the stadium....

Critics say the cost may be too high.  One is Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a social justice group that opposes private prison systems.  Libal said the GEO Group “poured enormous resources” in recent years into “attempting to take over a large portion of the Florida prison system.” He said the company’s usual practices included lobbying and charitable donations, often in areas where it operated facilities or planned to. To that end, this move could represent a way for the company to rebrand itself in Florida, he added....

GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.  The company owns or runs more than 100 properties that operate more than 73,000 beds in sites across the world.  It holds nearly $3 billion in assets.  The company has been opposed by civil liberty and human rights groups and immigrant rights organizations.  It has been cited by state and federal regulators and lost a series of high-profile lawsuits....

Asked if Florida Atlantic had looked into the allegations against the GEO Group, Saunders said, “We think it’s a wonderful company, and we’re very proud to partner with them.”  An N.C.A.A. spokeswoman said individual universities made decisions regarding naming rights, with no N.C.A.A. involvement.

Swangard, at the University of Oregon, said he told his students that “sponsorship begins and ends with objectives” and “sponsorship is not philanthropy.”  He said universities should draw the line where they can defend the natural association that comes with the company they do business with.  “It can’t just be about the money,” he said.  “That’s great, but at what cost?  Now, across the country, they’re going to say that Florida Atlantic can change its uniforms to stripes.  That’s not fair.  But that’s reality.”

As are the financial requirements of big-time college sports.  To that end, said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, a network of professors who lobby for academic integrity in college sports, those constraints must also be considered.  In an e-mail, he described his response to the naming rights deal as “ambivalent,” adding: “The short answer is, I understand to an extent.  But it does appear we’re prostituting ourselves to the highest bidder regardless of what they represent.  Again — the sanctity of higher education matters little when the dollars are needed.”

I tend not to be convinced in the big-money world of college sports by a claim that the "sanctity of higher education" is central to any decisions that get made concerning a university's sports program. Nevertheless, because of the unique products and brand that GEO Group represents, this is an amazing story whether or not one is a rabid college sports fan or a rabid sentencing fan (or both, as in my case).

Among other notable parts of this story is the new opportunity for new kinds of jokes about a lot more than the future uniforms of Florida Atlantic players. Is it wrong to start joking about Jerry Sandusky now having a new shot at coaching again or about the recruits being told that Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress are now kind of like alums?  Should we say that this deal brings new meaning to concerns about the so-called "school-to-prison" pipeline?  And might Florida Atlantic or the GEO Group bring some kind of court action to prevent anyone from now referring to Michigan's stadium as "The Big House"?

February 20, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Just Prisons: What Would Jesus Do?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy commentary at The Huffington Post authored by Ron Nikkel, who is the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International. The piece provides a critical religious and international perspective on incarceration and here is an excerpt:

Many people simply take prisons for granted, accepting them as a fact of life for a safe society or at worst being somewhat of a necessary "evil" for justice to be served.  The history of prisons is checkered with jails and prisons being used both as unjust instruments of political, social, economic, and ironically religious coercion and control; and in other times and places being used as a rather blunt instrument deemed to serve the course of justice.  However, the more I have studied the impact of prisons on the lives of people, the more I see prisons as one of the most confusing, irrational and socially destructive institutions ever devised by humankind. Prisons cannot ever be equated with justice being done.  Prisons by themselves do not equate to justice.  While prisons may be useful for restraining some offenders and preventing others from committing further crimes whilst they are locked up, most offenders, their families and communities do not benefit from imprisonment. The overall ecology of imprisonment is as counterproductive as dousing a fire with fuel.

February 12, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, February 11, 2013

"America's prison boom is starting to fizzle"

The title of this post is the first sentence of this new Wall Street Journal article, which carries this headline and subheading: "With Fewer to Lock Up, Prisons Shut Doors: Declining Inmate Population, Partly Thanks to Softer Sentences, Spurs Some Cash-Strapped States to Close Facilities." Here are highlights:

For decades, the country had little trouble filling its ever-growing number of prisons, thanks in large part to tough-on-crime policies and harsh drug laws. But a combination of falling crime rates, softer sentences for low-level and nonviolent offenders and a dwindling appetite for hefty prison budgets has begun to whittle away at the number of people behind bars. That is allowing many states to do what a few years ago seemed unthinkable: close prisons.

Comprehensive numbers on prison closures are hard to come by. But the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 35 adult correctional facilities in 15 states have closed in the past two years, and governors in states including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are pushing for more closures this year....

The closures haven't been without opposition. Corrections unions and community leaders worry about job losses and say a result could be overcrowding in the prisons that remain.

Cash-strapped states are increasingly turning to corrections budgets in search of cuts. From 1982 through 2001, state corrections budgets more than tripled to a peak of $53.5 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, spending is 9% below that level. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is aiming to close four adult and three youth corrections facilities in a bid to save the state $70 million.

It isn't clear whether the nation's total prison count is shrinking. Some states, including Pennsylvania, are consolidating old facilities into new ones rather than eliminating capacity. In recent years, private-prison operators built new facilities, though analysts say the pace of construction has slowed.

Still, there does appear to be a broader shift in the corrections system. From 1990 through 2009, the number of people in state and federal prisons more than doubled to 1.6 million, while the number of prisons rose 41% to 1,821 from 1990 through 2005, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Then, in 2010, the inmate population fell for the first time in nearly four decades. It fell again in 2011, the bureau said.

The declines have been uneven. Roughly 70% of the 2011 decline in state prison rolls was due to a massive drop in California's inmate population owing to a Supreme Court order that the state reduce overcrowding. Many of those inmates are now in county jails or other facilities. Some states, including Tennessee and Kentucky, saw their prison populations rise in 2011.

Still, several states are experiencing a meaningful drop. Florida, Texas, New York and Michigan each shed more than 1,000 prisoners in 2011. Each of those states closed prisons in the past two years....

Policy experts attribute the declines partly to measures aimed at reducing the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. In New York, they cite the 2009 relaxation of the state's tough Rockefeller-era drug laws. Prison rolls in New York fell by nearly a quarter from a peak of 72,600 in 1999 to about 55,000 in 2011, the latest data available.

Texas closed a state prison for the first time everin August 2011. Until the closure, the state had built an average of more than three prisons a year since 1990, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "You've got to distinguish who you're afraid of and who you're mad at. You're afraid of child molesters, murderers and rapists," said State Sen. John Whitmire, who has helped lead an overhaul of the Texas prison system. "People like low-level offenders, you're not afraid of them."...

In rural areas, which often depend on prisons for jobs, a closure can be particularly difficult. In early January, Pennsylvania officials said they planned to shut prisons in Cresson and Greensburg and replace them with a single facility near State College. "It's going to hurt the restaurants, the hardware store, every business place here is going to be affected," said Patrick Mulhern, the longtime mayor of Cresson, east of Pittsburgh. "Five hundred employees in one fell swoop — that's an awful lot."

February 11, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 01, 2013

"When Crime Pays: Prison Can Teach Some To Be Better Criminals"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable NPR story, which reports on some interesting research that reaffirms my gut feeling that, at least for certain types of offenders, sending some people to prison may ultimately increase, rather than decrease, future criminal activity.  Here is an excerpt:

In popular lore — movies, books and blogs — criminals who go to prison don't come out reformed. They come out worse. Scientists who have attempted to empirically analyze this theory have reached mixed conclusions, with analyses suggesting that activities like drug addiction or gangs are what determines whether the correctional system actually gets criminals to correct their ways.

What else could be at work?

Donald T. Hutcherson II, a sociology professor at Ohio University in Lancaster, recently decided to tackle the question by mining the vast data in the U.S. government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The survey conducts incredibly detailed and confidential interviews, and then repeats those interviews with the same people year after year — often going to extraordinary lengths to track down those who may have moved overseas or ended up in prison.

Included in the survey are questions about how much money individuals make legally and illegally. Because the survey also ascertains whether people have spent time in prison, Hutcherson pored through data from tens of thousands of queries to a large number of young people to establish whether illegal earnings went up or down after individuals served time.

If prison reformed criminals, illegal earnings once people were released ought to have gone down. But if prison was a "finishing school" for criminals, illegal earnings after serving time should have increased. "Spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings," Hutcherson says. "On average, a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison."...

Because the study looks at averages, it's important to note that Hutcherson isn't saying that all criminals come out of prison primed to become bigger criminals. Lots of people, obviously, come out determined to lead law-abiding lives.

Hutcherson pointed to the role of social networks in all of our lives. In the legal economy, being connected to influential people — via networking — is widely seen as a way to get ahead on the ladder. The same phenomenon appeared to be at work in the illegal economy as well.

February 1, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Federal judges give Gov. Brown a six-month reprieve on California prison population deadline

As reported in this Sacramento Bee article, headlined "U.S. judges give California six more months to cut inmate population," the federal judges administering the Plata prison overcrowding litigation in California have modified their orders in the case.  Here are the details:

Three weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown declared the state's prison overcrowding crisis over, a court of three federal judges said Tuesday that state officials can have six more months to reduce the inmate population to the previously ordered level.

The judges noted that California officials have said they cannot meet the court's June 30 deadline for reducing its population to 137.5 percent of design capacity, but the officials believe they can hit that mark by Dec. 31.  "Accordingly, this court modifies the June 30, 2011, order by granting defendants a six-month extension in which to comply with its terms and provisions," said the order from 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of Sacramento and U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco.

Karlton and Henderson have overseen years of litigation aimed at bringing the level of mental and medical health care for inmates up to constitutional standards.  Following a trial, the three-judge court appointed by the 9th Circuit's chief judge ruled that the crowded conditions of the state's 33 adult prisons were the primary reason for the unconstitutional care.  Prisoners were jammed into areas of the prisons not designed for housing.  At some points, the number of inmates ballooned to double the designed capacity, and the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the three-judge court's order.

Since the governor instituted his so-called realignment program a year ago to divert nonviolent, nonserious offenders to county jurisdictions, the state has made progress cutting the prison population, but Brown said he cannot release additional inmates without putting the public at risk.  Corrections officials indicated they are pleased with Tuesday's order but are still not satisfied.

"We are pleased the court recognized that releasing thousands of inmates to reach the arbitrary population cap by June would have jeopardized public safety," the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.  "However, we believe the court should go further and terminate the population cap entirely, as CDCR is providing a constitutional level of health care at current population levels."...

The federal court wants the prison population cut by the end of the year to about 110,000 inmates, down from about 119,000 currently.  The design capacity of the state's 33 adult prisons is about 80,000....

Michael Bien, lead attorney for the inmates, said Tuesday that "the order's message is the judges are going to hold the state to the numbers. Corrections got an extension, but it didn't get anything else. The question is still 'Are they going to comply?'" Brown and his prison officials "are still saying everything is just fine and the courts should go away and leave us alone," Bien said. "They claim the courts have no more jurisdiction since the constitutional standard has been met.  It's one thing to say that, it's another to prove it," he declared.  "They have a long way to go to do that.  They've made these claims before, but they've never been able to back them up."

January 30, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Sentencing Project report on 2012 state statutory sentencing developments

I just received an e-mail promoting a notable new report just released by The Sentencing Project.  Here is the full text of the e-mail, signed by Marc Mauer, which includes a link to the report:

I am pleased to share with you a new report from The Sentencing Project, The State of Sentencing 2012: Developments in Policy and Practice, by Nicole D. Porter.  The report highlights reforms in 24 states that demonstrate a continued trend to reform sentencing policies and scale back the use of imprisonment without compromising public safety.  The report provides an overview of recent policy reforms in the areas of sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences, and juvenile justice.  Highlights include:

  • Mandatory minimums:  Seven states — Alabama, California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Kanas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — revised mandatory penalties for certain offenses,  including crack cocaine offenses and drug offense enhancements.
  • Death penalty: Connecticut abolished the death penalty, becoming the 17th state to do so.
  • Parole and probation reforms:  Seven states — Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania — expanded the use of earned time for eligible prisoners and limited the use of incarceration for probation and parole violations.
  • Juvenile life without parole:  Three states — California, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania — authorized sentencing relief for certain individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole.
I hope you find this publication useful in your work.  The full report, which includes a comprehensive chart on criminal justice reform legislation, details on sentencing, probation and parole, collateral consequences of conviction, juvenile justice and policy recommendations, can be found online here.  I’d encourage you to be in touch with Nicole D. Porter, Director of Advocacy, at nporter@sentencingproject.org to discuss how we can support your efforts in the area of state policy reform.

January 29, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, January 25, 2013

Important reminder that sentencing reform does not always complete offenders' need for help

This notable new local article, headlined "Newly released California 'three-strikers' face new challenges," provides an intriguing report on the new problems facing certain offenders even after they receive the benefits of sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

In an unforeseen consequence of easing the state's tough Three Strikes Law, many inmates who have won early release are hitting the streets with up to only $200 in prison "gate money" and the clothes on their backs.

These former lifers are not eligible for parole and thus will not get the guidance and services they need to help them succeed on the outside, such as access to employment opportunities, vocational training and drug rehabilitation.  The lack of oversight and assistance for this first wave of "strikers" alarms both proponents and opponents of the revised Three Strikes Law -- as well as the inmates themselves.

"I feel like the Terminator, showing up in a different time zone completely naked, with nothing," said Greg Wilks, 48, a San Jose man who is poised to be released after serving more than 13 years of a 27-years-to-life sentence for stealing laptops from Cisco, where he secretly lived in a vacant office while working as a temp in shipping and receiving.

Experts say California voters didn't have this situation in mind when they approved Proposition 36 in November by an overwhelming margin.  Under the new law, judges cannot impose a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But the law also allows about 3,000 inmates whose last strike was a minor crime to petition for early release or shorter sentences -- as long as a judge finds they don't pose a serious risk to public safety.

Because of the way the state's complex sentencing laws work, many of those strikers have already been locked up longer than their newly calculated terms and usual period of parole, leaving many to fend for themselves without supervision or assistance once they are released.

So far, none of three dozen or so strikers who have been resentenced since November or with the help of the Three Strikes Project before the election has been rearrested.   But some say it's only a matter of time.   "It's pretty clear if you release people early without any supervision, there's an increased ability of them to re-offend," said Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders. "It's a very, very dangerous policy."

Supporters of the revised three strikes policy are concerned that a notable uptick in crime -- even minor crimes by strikers -- will make the new law look like an ill-advised failure.

To reduce the risk, the same Stanford University Law School instructors who co-wrote Proposition 36 are now organizing a statewide effort to create re-entry plans for strikers using a combination of public and private services.  They're planning to meet with operators of homeless shelters and innovative transitional programs from around the state, like San Francisco's Delancey Street Foundation, one of the country's leading residential self-help organizations for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless people and others who have hit bottom.

"We want these people to succeed," said Michael Romano, director of Stanford's Three Strikes Project. "We don't want them committing crimes and creating more victims." Proponents say the main reason they didn't foresee the situation is that the rules regarding parole changed significantly -- after officials had already approved the ballot language for Proposition 36....

Three-strikers face greater re-entry challenges than normal inmates, said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor.  About 38 percent receive some level of mental health treatment in prison, compared with 22 percent of the general population.

Romano and his group are hoping to turn to the same donors who funded Proposition 36 for help in creating a statewide re-entry program.  A lot rides on the strikers' success. If they do well -- with the help of people like liberal billionaire George Soros, who donated heavily to Proposition 36 -- advocates could use their success to advance the cause of prison reform. If they fail, it could weaken the national effort to reduce mass incarceration.

January 25, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 20, 2013

An execution repreive, with a trip to prison, for pups in Texas

Here is a heartwarming story from a local paper in Texas running under the headline "Prison pups: Bully breeds given second chance at life."   Here is how the lengthy story gets started:

“All dogs go to heaven,” as the saying goes.  But in Venus, lucky pups go to prison.   The fortunate few are sprung from kill shelters by Hewitt-based Happy Endings Dog Rescue. The Sanders Estes Unit in Venus is home to 1,040 prisoners of varying degrees of lawlessness, and at times, as many as 20 dogs, including the unit’s mascot, a three-legged mutt named King Tut.

And like prisoners — many of whom say they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — the dogs deserve a second chance, said Lt. Christine Chaplin who oversees the Paws of Hope dog training program at Sanders Estes.

Started in 2009 as a way to rehabilitate prisoners and make “unwanted” dogs — such as pit bulls, pit bull-mixes and Rottweilers — more adoptable, the program has helped save more than 120 dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized in kill shelters.

“Pit bulls and Rottweilers are two dogs that have a horrible name,” Chaplin said.  “They are over-bred and tossed aside ... I like the fact that they bring those because you can show people that they are great family dogs, that it’s not the dogs [that are bad] It’s the people.”

By the time they arrive at Sanders Estes, the dogs have already been through a “doggy boot camp” at Camp Diggy Bones, a boarding facility and shelter in Lavon, which works in conjunction with Happy Endings to ensure the pups are ready for adoption.  The adoption fee for any dog is $100.  Each is trained with basic commands, spayed or neutered and up to date on vaccinations.  “Between training and all that stuff, they’re a several thousand dollar dog by the time they leave here,” Chaplin said.

Management and Training Corporation contracts the Sanders Estes facility through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Chaplin said the goal of MTC is to help offenders get back into society.  Privilege programs like Paws of Hope benefit those serious about rehabilitation.

The dogs live prison cells with select trainers for 12 weeks and are around people 24 hours a day while they learn tricks, basic obedience and socialization.  At the end of three months, the dogs and their trainers attend a graduation ceremony, after which, if not immediately adopted, the dogs return to a rescue facility to wait for their forever home.

For reasons that will be obvious to regular readers, I hope that a particular new resident of the New York prison system (discussed in this recent post) does not have a chance to participate in this kind of puppy prison programming.

January 20, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, January 18, 2013

"African Americans suffer from high rates of incarceration and crime. Here’s how to drastically reduce both."

1301-coverThe title of this post is the provocative subheading of this lengthy new feature article in the latest issue of Washington Monthy. Authored by Professor Mark Kleiman, the article's main headline is "A New Role for Parole," and here is how the must-read piece starts and ends:

American crime rates, especially violent crime rates, and American incarceration rates are twin national disgraces.  We have five times the homicide rate and five times the incarceration rate of other economically advanced countries.  Both crime and incarceration are appallingly concentrated among poor African Americans; in the same neighborhoods where homicide is the leading cause of death for young men, more than half of those men will do prison time before they turn thirty.

The concentration of incarceration by race is by now a well-worn topic.  Some activists and scholars allege a concerted effort to replace older forms of racial oppression with the penitentiary.  The concentration of incarceration by social class is less well known, but no less worrisome.

What that critique leaves out is the concentration of crime.  Violent crime has fallen 67 percent from its peak in the early 1980s and early ’90s, but remains more than twice as common as it was before the great crime wave of the ’60s.  And crime is just as concentrated as incarceration: blacks are about six times as likely as whites to be imprisoned, and also about six times as likely to be murdered.  Almost all of those homicides are intraracial.  The Crips and the Bloods killed more African Americans in the last quarter of the twentieth century than the Ku Klux Klan killed in its entire history. Homicide rates have fallen sharply over the past two decades, but that may have more to do with improved shock-trauma medicine than with reduced criminality; the rate of gunshot wounds has not fallen.

The actual bloodshed may not be the worst of it.  The costs of crime are both enormous and underappreciated, because they consist primarily not of the direct losses to victims of crimes but of the costs people and businesses incur, and inflict on one another, in attempting to avoid victimization.  Every store that moves away from a poor neighborhood for fear of robbery takes with it both services and jobs, leaving the neighborhood that much poorer and more socially isolated....

A sensible crime-control agenda would satisfy neither the conservative impulse to punish as many people as possible as severely as possible nor the liberal impulse to substitute services for coercion and social reform for law enforcement.  Liberals will have to swallow the idea that improved coercion is as necessary as improved conditions. Conservatives will have to swallow the ideas that punishment is a cost and not a benefit and that the measure of the efficacy of a threat is how often it does not need to be carried out....

Criminal justice institutions need to give crime control priority over institutional comfort and habit. Public and nonprofit agencies that do not have crime control in their mission statements need to acknowledge that they are nonetheless in the crime-control business, whenever their actions and omissions can make the crime problem better or worse.

The bad news is that current policies leave us with unnecessarily and unforgivably high levels of both crime and incarceration. The good news is that we now know how to do better.

This same issue also has this lengthy piece by Professor Glenn Loury with this headline and subheading: "Prison’s Dilemma: Even if every convict were rightly sentenced, America’s vast, racially skewed incarceration system would still be morally indefensible."

January 18, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Notable new research exploring connections between incarceration and mental health

4.coverVia The Crime Report, I just learned that the December 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior has two notable new research articles concerning links between incarceration and psychiatric disorders. (Having just recently seen Silver Linings Playbook, which I recommend, I am tempted to call these articles companion pieces to that intriguing movie in which criminal justice realities play a more important role than football.)  Here are links to the articles, along with their abstracts:

Jason Schnittker, Michael Massoglia, & Christopher Uggen, "Out and Down: Incarceration and Psychiatric Disorders":

Psychiatric disorders are unusually prevalent among current and former inmates, but it is not known what this relationship reflects.  A putative causal relationship is contaminated by assorted influences, including childhood disadvantage, the early onset of most disorders, and the criminalization of substance use. Using the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (N = 5692), we examine the relationship between incarceration and psychiatric disorders after statistically adjusting for multidimensional influences.

The results indicate that (1) some of the most common disorders found among former inmates emerge in childhood and adolescence and therefore predate incarceration; (2) the relationships between incarceration and disorders are smaller for current disorders than lifetime disorders, suggesting that the relationship between incarceration and disorders dissipates over time; and (3) early substance disorders anticipate later incarceration and other psychiatric disorders simultaneously, indicating selection. Yet the results also reveal robust and long-lasting relationships between incarceration and certain disorders, which are not inconsequential for being particular.  Specifically, incarceration is related to subsequent mood disorders, related to feeling “down,” including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and dysthymia.  These disorders, in turn, are strongly related to disability, more strongly than substance abuse disorders and impulse control disorders. Although often neglected as a health consequence of incarceration, mood disorders might explain some of the additional disability former inmates experience following release, elevating their relevance for those interested in prisoner reintegration.

Kristin Turney, Christopher Wildeman, & Jason Schnittker "As Fathers and Felons: Explaining the Effects of Current and Recent Incarceration on Major Depression":

Dramatic increases in the American imprisonment rate since the mid-1970s have important implications for the life chances of minority men with low educational attainment, including for their health.  Although a large literature has considered the collateral consequences of incarceration for a variety of outcomes, studies concerned with health have several limitations: Most focus exclusively on physical health; those concerned with mental health only consider current incarceration or previous incarceration, but never both; some are cross-sectional; many fail to consider mechanisms; and virtually all neglect the role of family processes, thereby overlooking the social roles current and former prisoners inhabit.

In this article, we use stress process theory to extend this research by first considering the association between incarceration and major depression and then considering potential mechanisms that explain this association. Results from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 3,107) show current and recent incarceration are substantially associated with the risk of major depression, suggesting both immediate and short-term implications.  In addition, consistent with stress proliferation theory, the results show the well-known consequences of incarceration for socioeconomic status and family functioning partly explain these associations, suggesting the link between incarceration and depression depends heavily on the consequences of incarceration for economic and social reintegration, not only the direct psychological consequences of confinement.

January 17, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by the ever-prolific Professor Michael O'Hear. Here is the abstract:

This Article considers how the mass incarceration story has played out over the past forty years in three medium-sized, Midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  The three stories are similar in many respects, but notable differences are also apparent.  For instance, Minnesota’s imprisonment rate is less than half that of the other two states, while Indiana imprisons more than twice as many drug offenders as either of its peers.

The Article seeks to unpack these and other imprisonment trends and to relate them to crime and arrest data over time, focusing particularly on the relative importance of violent crime and drug enforcement as drivers of imprisonment growth.

January 15, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

As Plata ruling welcomed, California seeks modification of prison population reduction order

This front-page article in today's Sacramento Bee, headlined "Halt in inmate releases sought," reports on a significant development in the multi-year -- is it now multi-decade? -- litigation over prison population in California. Here are the details:

Claiming that the state has made substantial progress in solving its prison overcrowding problem, California officials asked a federal court late Monday to dismiss its requirements for huge reductions in inmate populations.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, filing court documents just two hours before the court-ordered deadline to explain how the state will reduce inmate populations, said progress made so far is sufficient to warrant the federal court withdrawing its order.   It also said the court-ordered reductions could needlessly force the state to release dangerous or violent inmates.

"The overcrowding and health care conditions cited by this Court to support its population reduction order are now a distant memory," the court papers state.  "California's vastly improved prison health care system now provides inmates with superior care that far exceeds the minimum requirements of the Constitution.

"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction, and implemented a myriad of improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems."

A three-judge federal panel had ordered the state to cut population to 137.5 percent of capacity, down from nearly double the prison capacity, and said such reductions were necessary to maintain proper physical and mental health care in the 33 adult prisons.

But Brown's administration said in papers filed late Monday that it has achieved sufficient reductions already through a series of efforts.   "Therefore, this Court must vacate the 137.5 percent population cap order issued when it was believed that quality health care could not be provided at a higher population density," the state contended.

"The population in the state's 33 prisons has been reduced by over 24,000 inmates since October 2011 when public safety realignment went into effect, by more than 36,000 inmates compared to the 2008 population in the record at the evidentiary hearing, and by nearly 42,000 inmates since 2006 when plaintiffs moved to convene the three-judge court....

The court filing was strategically timed.  Facing a Monday deadline at midnight, corrections officials originally scheduled a telephone conference call for this morning to discuss the issue.  But late Monday they scrapped that and announced the governor would hold a press conference this morning to trumpet the effort.   Brown has been at the forefront of inmate reduction efforts since taking office.  The state prison system has been under siege for decades from prisoner lawsuits and federal court orders that have found the state was holding inmates in unsafe conditions.

A year ago, facing unprecedented orders from the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court to take action, the Brown administration pushed through its "realignment" plan to shift low-level, nonviolent offenders to the counties. Since then, prison populations have fallen to about 150 percent of capacity, a level still above the court-ordered mandate but one that officials have said they could manage to further reduce.

Monday night, state officials claimed the 137.5 percent limit "cannot be achieved without the early release of inmates serving time for serious or violent felonies."

As stressed in the title of this post, all the rulings with orders for reductions in the California prison population coming from lower courts and upheld by the Supreme Court indicated that California could seek future modifications of the order if and when it took significant steps to remedy the extreme overcrowding problems resulting in unconstitutional prison conditions.  Even without reading the new court papers filed by California, I can say without reservation that the state has taken significant steps in response to the federal courts orders; in turn, this request for a modification in the order seems fully justifiable.

Of course, whether federal courts will embrace or resist this new state to modify existing prison population reduction orders is a distinct question from whether the state's modification request is justifiable.  And it is hard to make a prediction on this front without reading all the papers filed already and sure to be filed later in this litigation.  (That said, I have an inkling some folks may be eager to comment on what has transpired since the SCOTUS Plata ruling without waiting for a chance to read all the latest and future filings.)

January 8, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Incarceration's Incapacitative Shortcomings"

The title of this post is the title of this thoughtful essay by Kevin Bennardo, which is available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Incapacitation is the removal of an offender’s ability to commit further crime. This essay identifies two distinct types of incapacitative effects: offense-specific incapacitation and victim-specific incapacitation.  The former focuses on limitations on the offender’s range of conduct.  The latter focuses on limitations on the offender’s access to particular populations.

As a punishment, incarceration incapacitates quite incompletely.  Because imprisonment does not render inmates totally unable to commit crime, it fails to achieve complete offense-specific incapacitation.  And, because it merely substitutes one set of potential victims for another, imprisonment fails on the total victim-specific incapacitation front as well.  Instead, imprisonment achieves partial offense-specific and partial victim-specific incapacitation by inhibiting prisoners from committing certain offenses and separating inmates from certain populations.  When the incapacitative benefit of incarceration is discussed, however, it is not usually described in such a circumscribed way.  Rather, commentators often state that imprisonment fully incapacitates by removing offenders from “society.”  Such statements, which implicitly discount prison crime and its victims to zero, are factually inaccurate and dehumanizing.  To avoid such inaccuracy and inadvertent discounting, this essay endeavors to accurately describe the offense-specific and victim-specific incapacitative benefits and limitations of incarceration.

December 29, 2012 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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