Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Constitutional challenge to California's solitary confinement practices to proceed as class action

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Judge grants class action status to inmates' solitary confinement case," a notable procedural ruling in a notable prisoner suit was handed down earlier this week. here are the basics:

A federal judge in Oakland has granted inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison class action status in their claims of unconstitutional treatment. The inmates allege physical and psychological abuse when California puts inmates in Pelican Bay's windowless isolation cells. The prisoners are confined 22 hours a day and, in some cases, have been in solitary for years and decades at a time....

The Pelican Bay inmates, in their federal lawsuit, also challenged the administrative process California uses to determine who to send to the super-maximum security cells for an indefinite stay....

In courtroom proceedings, lawyers for the state have argued that isolation is necessary to keep the peace within prisons, and to hinder gang activity inside and outside prison walls. They said that by creating a so-called "step-down" program last year that allows some prisoners to eventually earn their way out of isolation, the state had made sufficient improvements.

In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken narrowed the class action case to just those Pelican Bay inmates who have not been accepted into the state's step-down program. Civil rights lawyers litigating the case say they hope a victory will set a national precedent on the use of extended isolation in prisons across the United States....

The class action motion was filed by 10 Pelican Bay inmates in solitary confinement, but California has since moved five of them to other quarters. Wilken's order allows the remaining five prisoners to represent the larger class of some 500 Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent more than a decade in isolation, and some 1,100 put into solitary because of alleged gang associations....

Wilken refused to allow the state prison guard union to intervene in the lawsuit. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. had argued that it had an interest in protecting the safety of its members by preventing prisoners from leaving solitary confinement.

June 4, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision"

PewThe title of this post is the title of a notable new report Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This press release about the report provides a helpful summary of its main findings, and here are excerpts from the release:

More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A wide range of laws and policies adopted in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate at which inmates serve their full sentences behind bars, leaving no time at the end for parole or probation agencies to monitor their whereabouts and activities or help them transition back into society by providing substance abuse, mental health, or other intervention programs....

Key findings of the report, Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision, include:

  • Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.

  • The max-out rate, the proportion of prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.

  • Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and left without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.

  • Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase. In a subset of states with data available by offense type, 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 31 and 32 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.

In the past few years, at least eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—adopted reforms to ensure that authorities can supervise all or most offenders after release from prison. These policies, most of which are too new to evaluate, typically carve out the supervision period from the prison sentence rather than add time for it after release. This allows states to reduce prison spending and reinvest some of the savings in stronger recidivism-reduction programs....

These new policies are backed by data that indicate inmates released to supervision are less likely to commit new crimes than those who max out and return home without oversight....

The report outlines a policy framework to guide state leaders in reducing max-outs and recidivism. It recommends that policies require post-prison supervision, carve out the community supervision period from prison terms, strengthen parole decision-making, tailor conditions to offenders’ risks and needs, adopt evidence-based practices, and reinvest savings in community corrections.

June 4, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"

This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:

In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent.  As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014.  But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.

Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences.  That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes.  But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels.  We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980.  By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000.  As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....

Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation.  Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....

Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years.  In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old.  Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..."  These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally.  And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.

Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas.  True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive.  The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent.  Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.

The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction.  But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.

I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.

That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.

My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors.  Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined.  These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war.  Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

June 3, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report

DownloadAstute readers who also follow closely a lot of broader media and political discussions of mass incarceration might have noticed that I have given relatively little attention on this blog to the massive report released late last month by the National Research Council (NRC) titled "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences."   To date, I only noted the report and some early reactions to it in this post.

One reason for my limited blog coverage is a result of the NRC report running more than 450 pages (accessible at this link); I am always disinclined to do in-depth analysis or commentary on a significant report unless and until I have had adequate time to read most of it.  But the primary reasons I have not blogged much about the NRC report is because, as I found time to start reading key parts of the NRC effort, I found myself underwhelmed by the originality and sophistication of the report.  I had hoped, for example, that the NRC report would take a close look at the relationship between lead exposure and crime rates and/or would systematically look at critical state and regional differences in US crime and imprisonment rates.  Instead, rather than break any new ground, much of the NRC report reads like an effective and lengthy summary of a lot of conventional wisdom. 

Fortunately, a leading legal academic and empiricist with a critical eye has started to bring a (very) critical perspective to the NRC report. Through a series of astute posts at PrawfBlawg (all so far linked below), Professor John Pfaff has started to pick apart a number of notable flaws and omissions in the NRC analysis.  John's first post, titled "The Problematic National Research Council's Report on Incarceration: Some Initial Thoughts," previews his series this way:

The National Research Council, the well-respected research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently released a putatively authoritative report on the causes and implications of US incarceration growth.  Sadly, it appears to be a deeply, profoundly flawed report.  It is, in short, a rehashing of the Standard Story that I have argued time and again lacks real empirical support.

Dangerously, this report gives the Standard Story the NRC’s seal of approval, which will only increase its hold on policy-makers’ perceptions.  The New York Times has already written an editorial pushing the NRC’s Standard-Story arguments, and no doubt it will be cited widely in the months to come.

So in the posts ahead, I want to dig into the report more deeply.  I will certainly acknowledge what it gets right, but my sense so far is that it is one rife with errors.

From the start, here are John's posts to date highlighting some of the NRC errors he sees:

May 30, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Detailing the high costs of an aging prison population

AgingThis lengthy story in the Omaha World-Herald, headlined "Prisons: pricey nursing homes for Nebraska's aging inmates," highlights the expensive realities of an aging prison population. Here are excerpts:

At age 84, Larry Ortiz is like many senior citizens, dealing with the aches and pains of old age. He uses a cane to steady his slow, shuffling gait. He battles arthritis in his bony fingers, bronchitis and dry eyes. He takes four medications and has trouble remembering names. He has had prostate surgery, been fitted for dentures and had cataracts removed. He has two artificial knees.

But Ortiz is different. He’s spending his twilight years behind bars, serving a life sentence for beating a 29-year-old woman to death in 1970, then cutting off her hands to mask her identity before dumping her body. And the cost of his old-age maladies is being picked up by taxpayers.

Ortiz is part of an ever-rising number of aging inmates who occupy prison cells in Nebraska and other states — nationwide, they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. In Nebraska, the graying of prisons has contributed to chronic overcrowding and has been a major factor in rapidly rising health-care costs.

Dealing with older inmates is not cheap. Nationally, they are twice as expensive to house on average as younger prisoners because of their increased medical needs — such as Ortiz’s titanium knees, which together cost upward of $90,000.

Prisons have become de facto nursing homes for more and more inmates. Unit 1 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where Ortiz lives, houses many senior citizen inmates. It’s designed to accommodate wheelchairs and has wider doors and handrails. The state corrections system also has 31 skilled nursing beds, like those found in a nursing home. The state is looking at building a 240-bed prison to consolidate housing for inmates who are older, as well as those with mental illnesses.

Prison administrators say that by law they must provide the “community standard of medical care” or risk federal intervention. In California, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court cited substandard medical care and overcrowding in ordering the release of thousands of inmates. “It may frustrate taxpayers,” Nebraska prison Director Mike Kenney said of the medical care, “but constitutionally, ethically and morally, we cannot cut corners with inmates.”

The ACLU and other groups recommend increased use of “medical” or “geriatric” parole for medically incapacitated inmates and “conditional releases” for inmates over age 50, if they have served a certain number of years and no longer are threats to society. “Geriatric” or “medical” parole can save states money, said Marc Levin, a corrections authority with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has studied Nebraska’s prison system. At least 36 states, including South Dakota, have such laws, Levin said. California granted medical parole to 47 inmates from 2010 to October 2012 and reduced its health care expenses more than $20 million.....

The increase in older inmates was a key driver in a request to the Nebraska Legislature

last fall for $9 million to cover additional medical expenses this year and next....Generally, criminal offenders show signs of aging earlier than the typical person, in part because of their riskier lifestyles, which can lead to higher rates of hypertension, arthritis, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and diabetes. About 1 in 3 inmates in Nebraska’s state prisons — about 1,600 — receives “chronic care,” which involves regular medication and follow-up checks for conditions such as hypertension and asthma.

A report by the ACLU projects that by 2030, 1 in 3 prisoners in the nation will be 55 or older. As of October of last year, nearly 18 percent of the inmates in Nebraska prisons were 50 or older. In Iowa, about 12 percent of the state’s 8,215 prison inmates are over 50. Nationally, get-tough-on-crime policies and the general aging of the U.S. population have been blamed for the explosion of silver hairs behind bars.

In Nebraska, there is an additional factor: Fewer inmates serving life sentences are being given a chance at release. Three decades ago the State Board of Pardons was more likely to commute a life sentence for murder to a specific number of years once an inmate had served 20 or 30 years. That provided a chance to gain a release on parole. But such commutations have occurred only four times in the past 23 years, so more lifers are spending the rest of their days in prison, racking up medical and prescription expenses.

The National Institute of Corrections estimates that it costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year to house an elderly inmate, compared with $27,000 to $34,000 for the average prisoner....

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, 16 inmates died in state prisons; 12 were over age 50. Releasing elderly, infirm inmates would present some problems. Win Barber, a penitentiary spokesman, said many would have to go to nursing homes — which may not want to house someone like a convicted murderer.

Gov. Dave Heineman, who sits on the State Pardons Board, said he would be cautious about releasing elderly inmates, though it’s probably something worth studying as part of the overall study of the state prison system’s spending and policies. “They’re in prison for a reason,” he said.

May 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, May 23, 2014

"Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal commentary authored by Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel. The piece's subheadline is "In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back." And here are excerpts:

It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."

But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications....

For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us.  Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.

In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible — with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.

Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish.  They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education.  Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.  There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay.  There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements.  And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.

Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home.  The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe — and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily.  With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities....

Are there challenges to wholesale reform?  Of course.  Money.  Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity.  And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S.  Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts.  It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison.  But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.

May 23, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones say "Prison system is failing America"

Not only has CNN brought together a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former advisory to President Barack Obama as co-hosts of "Crossfire," but it now has published this interesting joint commentary under the headline "Prison system is failing America."  Here are excerpts from an interesting opinion piece that goes a bit beyond just the usual standard points about the various problems with modern mass incarceration:

Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country. There are about as many people behind bars as live in Chicago. That's one in every 108 Americans. One in 35 are under some form of correctional supervision.

Among African Americans, the numbers are even more horrifying. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That's compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in 25 white males.

It would be hard to overstate the scale of this tragedy. For a nation that loves freedom and cherishes our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the situation should be intolerable. It is destroying lives and communities.

Our corrections system is not correcting. Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime with one out of every four ending up back in prison.

When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.

The current system is broken beyond repair. It's a human, social and financial disaster. We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight.... We need to rethink prisons, parole and probation for the 21st century.

At a time when high-quality education is increasingly digital and in many cases free, shouldn't we provide opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that will enable them to support themselves as upstanding citizens when they are released?

We know that inmates who earn a GED while incarcerated are substantially less likely to return to prison. There are readily available online tools that our prisons could use extensively for a minimal cost to increase the number of inmates receiving valuable education and skills training.

Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum online for free. Udacity and other online education sites offer introductions to software programming for free. Our prisons should be using tools such as these extensively. They offer the opportunity to interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration....

Technology should revolutionize more than just the prisons' rehabilitation programs. It should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems.... [T]echnology should enable much more effective probation and community supervision, especially new options that could allow nonviolent offenders to remain with their families living productive lives under an appropriate level of restriction.

Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders --apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service -- would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals. Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation -- in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics....

Years ago, Van proposed that states give wardens a financial incentive to cut the rates of recidivism for inmates leaving their prisons. More than 65% of inmates in California return to prison within three years of their release, where they will again cost taxpayers an average of $47,000 each year.

Surely it is worth giving wardens a substantial portion of the savings for every inmate that leaves their prison and does not re-offend. Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners. That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible.

Finally, we need real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process -- in probation and parole offices as well as prisons. That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?...

We should start by opening our prisons and probation offices to innovation to save money, achieve better outcomes for individuals and ensure better safety for us all.

May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Remodeling American Sentencing: A Blueprint for Moving Past Mass Incarceration"

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

When and if the will to roll back mass incarceration and create just, fair, and effective sentencing systems becomes manifest, the way forward is clear:

-First, three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and comparable laws should be repealed.

-Second, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, or similar laws that are not repealed should be radically narrowed in scope and severity.

-Third, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and similar laws that are not repealed should be changed to include provisions authorizing judges to impose some other sentence “in the interest of justice.”

-Fourth, LWOP laws should be repealed, or radically narrowed.

-Fifth, truth-in-sentencing laws should be repealed.

-Sixth, criminal codes should be amended to set substantially lower maximum sentences scaled to the seriousness of crimes.

-Seventh, every state should establish a sentencing commission and promulgate a presumptive sentencing guidelines system.

-Eighth, any state that does not establish an effective set of presumptive sentencing guidelines should establish a system of parole guidelines.

-Ninth, every state and the federal government should reduce its combined rate of jail and prison confinement to half its 2014 level by 2020.

-Tenth, every state should enact legislation making all prisoners serving fixed terms longer than five years, or indeterminate terms, eligible for consideration for release at the expiration of five years, and all prisoners aged 35 or over eligible for consideration for release after serving three years.

These proposals are evidence-based, and mostly technocratic.  Those calling for prison population targets and reducing the lengths of sentences being served may appear bold to some.  Relative to the problems they address they are modest and partial.  Reducing rates of imprisonment by half in the United States, a country with comparatively low crime rates, to a level that will remain 3 to 3.5 times those of other developed Western countries, can hardly be seen as overly ambitious.

May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration

7 Trends in State Incarceration RatesIf you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:  

At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.

Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies.  There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached.  So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....

[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”

As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.

Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....

So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.

May 21, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

Lots of intriguing "show me" litigation as Missouri prepares for next execution

As reported in this Kansas City Star article, a number of news organizations, "including The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press, filed suit Thursday against the Missouri Department of Corrections over its refusal to reveal the source of drugs used to carry out executions." Here is more about the suit:

The suit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City, alleges that the Corrections Department is violating the Missouri Sunshine Law by denying repeated requests for information about the “composition, concentration, source and quality of drugs used to execute inmates in Missouri.” By withholding access to information that historically has been publicly available, the department also is violating the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, according to the suit....

Thursday’s suit [claims] that public disclosure of the information “reduces the risk that improper, ineffective or defectively prepared drugs are used.”

“The constitution thus compels access to historically available information about the type and source of drugs used in lethal injection executions because disclosure promotes the functioning of the process itself and is essential for democracy to function,” according to the suit.

Joining The AP and The Star in the suit are Guardian US, the New York-based digital news service of England’s The Guardian; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; and the Springfield News-Leader.

Meanwhile, over in federal court has detailed in this new Reuters report, a "Missouri death row inmate is asking a federal court to allow videotaping his execution, scheduled for next week, to record any evidence of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution." Here is more on this other legal front:

A lawyer filed a motion on Friday in Kansas City on behalf of Russell Bucklew, 45, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on May 21 for the 1996 murder of Michael Sanders in southeast Missouri. Last week, Bucklew filed a motion in the same court to halt his execution because of a rare health condition that his lawyer, Cheryl Pilate, said would cause him extreme pain and possible suffocation.

A videotape would preserve evidence if he survives and wants to oppose another execution or is injured and wants to file a claim, the motion states. It further states that if the inmate dies but suffers "prolonged and excruciating execution or chokes and suffocates to death," the video would be evidence for a claim by his estate. "If Missouri officials are confident enough to execute Russell Bucklew, they should be confident enough to videotape it," Pilate said in a news release. "It is time to raise the curtain on lethal injections."

May 16, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 15, 2014

AG Holder assails solitary for juves with mental illness

As highlighted by this DOJ press release, "Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called for an end to the excessive use of solitary confinement for youth that suffer from mental illness." Here is more about AG Holder's latest use of his criminal justice bully pulpit:

“Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.

“In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time. We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all. In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive. And these episodes are all too common.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities – who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide. In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement....

“We must ensure in all circumstances – and particularly when it comes to our young people – that incarceration is used to rehabilitate, and not merely to warehouse and forget. Our nationwide effort to end the unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities will not be completed solely with one settlement or court filing. But as a department, we are dedicated – and as Attorney General, I am committed – to doing everything possible to ensure the effectiveness and integrity of our criminal and juvenile justice system. In the days ahead, we will continue to make good on our commitment to the best practices of law enforcement and the highest ideals of our nation.” 

May 15, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Modifying Unjust Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by E. Lea Johnston now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States is in the midst of an incarceration crisis. Over-incarceration is depleting state budgets and decimating communities. It has also led to the overfilling of prisons, which has degraded conditions of confinement, increased violence, and reduced access to needed medical and mental health care. Judicial sentence modification offers a means to address both the phenomenon of over-incarceration and harsh prison conditions that threaten unjust punishment. Indeed, some legislatures have framed states’ early release provisions as fulfilling goals of proportionality and just punishment. Proportionality is also an express purpose of the proposed Model Penal Code provisions on judicial sentence modification.

This paper explores whether the tools available to judges at sentence modification hearings are adequate to respond to the unjust punishment experienced by prisoners. In examining this question, the article focuses on one population particularly likely to experience disproportionate or inhumane punishment: inmates with serious mental disorders. A deep literature suggests that individuals with serious mental illnesses are especially likely to be victimized by staff and inmates, to be housed in isolation, and to experience an exacerbation of mental illness while incarcerated. This article’s analysis reveals a gap in remedial coverage for some members of this population. In particular, existing remedies are inadequate to respond to the plight of those prisoners who must remain incarcerated, but for whom incarceration in current conditions constitutes a disproportionate or inhumane punishment.

To remedy this shortcoming, the article proposes that states authorize judges, upon a finding of past and likely future unjust punishment, to modify a mentally disordered prisoner’s conditions of confinement. Only with such expanded authority will the process of sentence modification allow judges to reserve prison for those who deserve it and ensure that continued confinement will be a just and appropriate sanction.

May 13, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 12, 2014

Documenting the enduring challenge of reducing prison populations in Ohio

Prison-boom-art0-gfjsdd1f-10511gfx-prison-boom-population-epsOne of many challenges facing this nation as it works toward trying to ameliorate the worst excesses of mass incarceration is the modern and now-all-too-common social and cultural instinct that significant prison terms must be the "right" way to respond to any and all crimes of concern.  One expression and example of this perspective concerns this recent story of the feds appealing, and calling "substantively unreasonable," a probation sentence for a high-profile tax evader who has already paid in penalties more than 10 times the amount of taxes he tried to evade.  

Another expression of this reality is in this lengthy story from my own Columbus Dispatch headlined "Ohio struggles with rising prison population: One in 175 adults in the state is incarcerated, at taxpayer cost of $22,836 each annually." Here are excerpts:   

When Gary Mohr began his career at the Marion Correctional Institution in 1974, there were 8,516 inmates in state prisons. Forty years later, he manages a system nearly six times as large, packed with 50,639 offenders. One of every 175 adult Ohioans is housed, fed and receives medical care at taxpayer expense in a state prison. The latest two-year budget allocated $3.14 billion for the prison system.

Ohio officials have been unable to consistently tamp down the prison population despite attempts to do so. Major sentencing reforms were enacted, “good time” was reintroduced, community programs were enhanced, and early-release provisions were added.

And still the numbers go up. The latest projections suggest the inmate population in 27 prisons (including two private facilities) will hit 52,000 in two years, and 53,484 in five. Prisons already are bulging with 30 percent more prisoners than they were designed to hold.

“I’m getting a lot of people saying, ‘When are you going to build another prison?’  ” Mohr said in an interview. “I’m a believer in people instead of bricks and mortar. I’m not going to build another prison.” The major reason is the enormous cost, Mohr said. “That’s a commitment of $1 billion for two decades. It would cost $120 million to $150 million to build and $40 million annually to operate.”...

The series of reforms that began with House Bill 86 in 2011 got traction in Ohio’s six largest counties, including Franklin, which reduced the number of offenders being sent to state prisons in the past year. That helped reduce the prison population by about 675. However, the number of inmates being sent to prison from the remaining 82 counties increased, helping push up the population by 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2013. Here’s the math behind the numbers: Each prisoner costs Ohio taxpayers $22,836 per year, so adding 100 prisoners, for example, costs nearly $2.3 million.

A report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative corrections watchdog, last August listed five contributing reasons why the prison population has gone up: a very small increase in violent crime, longer sentences for higher-level felonies, dramatically fewer prison releases (a 24.3 percent drop in five years), legislation increasing penalties for specific crimes, and adverse court decisions. Another factor may trump all the others: a flood of heroin cases. Men coming into prison still outnumber women more than 4 to 1, but that gap is shrinking as more women are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who has been instrumental in recent prison-reform legislation, says the changes included in House Bill 86 are indeed working, “just not as fast as we had hoped. They’ve certainly ameliorated the situation as opposed to doing nothing. “We didn’t expect a dramatic overnight reduction,” Seitz said. “It takes awhile for the full import of these comprehensive reforms to float down the system.”

Seitz said many judges opposed the reforms because they limited judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, “some judges are finding creative ways of sidestepping the provision that requires them not to send to prison first-time Felony 4 and Felony 5 non-violent drug and property offenders.”...

The prison-crowding issue is an everyday dilemma for corrections officers represented by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “We were told sentencing reform would flatten out staffing levels, but we keep keeping more people (hired) on the administrative staff and those who work 9 to 5,” said the union’s president, Christopher Mabe. “We know there’s going to be more inmates coming into the system, and that means we need more staff.”

May 12, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations

I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link.  Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting  This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:

After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....

Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....

Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.

White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.

At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).

May 8, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"

HRWAs reported in this press release, Human Rights Watch has issued a new report highlighting the problems of mass incarceration in the united States. Here are the details (and a link) via the the start of the press release:

The 36-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system.

“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”....

Momentum to reduce mass incarceration is growing. Human Rights Watch is seeking to build on this momentum and offer a way forward. Federal and state legislators should ground their moves for reform in core principles of human rights, including prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.

To put those principles into practice, Human Rights Watch urges legislators at the very least to:

May 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

"The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of the massive report released last week by the National Research Council (which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering).  The report runs more than 450 pages and can be accessed at this link

I was hoping to get a chance to review much of the report before posting about it, but the crush of other activities has gotten in the way.  Fortunately, the always help folks at The Crime Report have these two great postings about the report:

I hope to be able to provide more detailed coverage of this important report in the weeks to come.

May 6, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

California Supreme Court decides Miller demands altering presumption for juve LWOP

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Ruling could reduce life-without-parole terms for juvenile offenders," the California Supreme Court issued a significant post-Miller ruling about juve murder sentencing in the state.  Here are the basics:

In a decision likely to reduce life-without-parole sentences for teenage offenders, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges are free to hand down 25-year-to-life terms for older juveniles convicted of serious crimes and must consider the defendants' youth before sentencing.

Before the unanimous ruling, California law had been interpreted as requiring judges to lean toward life without parole for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with special circumstances.  The decision overturned decades of lower-court rulings and gave two men who were 17 at the time they killed the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by trial judges.

The court said the sentences should be reviewed because they were handed down when state law was being misconstrued and before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that judges must consider a juvenile's immaturity and capacity for change. The ruling, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, stemmed from appeals in two cases.

In one, Andrew Lawrence Moffett robbed a store and his accomplice killed a police officer in Pittsburg, Calif. Moffett was convicted of murder, robbery and driving a stolen vehicle. Because the victim was a police officer and Moffett used a gun during the crime, he was subject to life without parole. In the other case, Luis Angel Gutierrez killed his uncle's wife while living with the family in Simi Valley. He received life without parole because the jury determined he had murdered Josefina Gutierrez while also raping or attempting to rape her.

"Because Moffett and Gutierrez have been convicted of special circumstance murder, each will receive a life sentence," wrote Justice Goodwin Liu for the court. "The question is whether each can be deemed, at the time of sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit ever to reenter society."

Certain juvenile offenders became subject to life without parole when voters passed Proposition 115, the 1990 "Crime Victims Justice Reform Act." State appeals' courts ruled that the law required judges to favor imposing life without parole over a sentence that allowed for release after 25 years. For two decades, those rulings stood.

But Monday's decision said the lower courts had erred in the interpretation of the law. "Proposition 115 was intended to toughen penalties for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder by making them eligible for life without parole upon a finding of one or more special circumstances," Liu wrote. But he said neither the wording of the ballot measure nor any of the official analyses resolved whether "the initiative was intended to make life without parole the presumptive sentence." The court concluded it was not.

Four justices joined a separate opinion to stress that California judges may still sentence older juveniles to life without parole, despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote the concurrence, said the high court's ruling came under a law that was different from California's and involved mandatory lifetime sentences for much younger children.

Attorneys in the case said it was uncertain whether Monday's decision would apply retroactively to cases in which appeals have already been completed. Courts across the country have been divided over whether the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencing applied retroactively, the lawyers said.

The full ruling in California v. Gutierrez, No. S206365 (Cal. May 5, 2014), is available at this link.

May 6, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Interesting articles about history and modern prison realities in United States

I just came across a set of interesting papers just made available on SSRN authored by criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross examining the history and some modern realities about prisons in the United States. Here are links to these pieces via their titles:

April 26, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, April 18, 2014

Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?

The questions in the title of this post are prompted by one of the executive actions suggested earlier this week the Brennan Center for Justice in this new report titled "15 Executive Actions to Overcome Government Dysfunction."  Notably, as listed here, at least three of the suggested actions are focused on criminal justice matters that should be of special interest to sentencing fans:

9. Create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration, modeled after the “Kerner Commission.”

10. Issue an executive order directing federal agencies to recast their criminal justice grants in a Success-Oriented Funding model.

11. Direct the Justice Department to identify federal prisoners to whom the Fair Sentencing Act would retroactively apply, and recommend commutations for all those eligible, barring exceptional circumstances.

The first proposal of these three struck me as especially novel and interesting, and here is part of the full report's discussion of the proposal:

With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of its prisoners.  More than 2 million Americans are behind bars.  A quarter of the nation’s adult population has a criminal record.  The prison population has increased sevenfold since 1970. The country spends a quarter of a trillion dollars a year on criminal justice, but true costs are wider: Economic and social impacts on families and children can continue for generations.  The explosion in our correctional population extends far beyond prison: pre-trial detention, parole and probation supervision, and those with arrest records.

Public safety does not compel incarceration of this scope.  More than half of prisoners are serving time for drug or nonviolent crimes.   One in four new prison admissions are for violations of parole. 106 One in five people behind bars are simply awaiting trial. 

Yet, the epidemic of mass incarceration hides in plain sight.  Most Americans are unaware of it.  Those who are aware are not mobilized to act.

Progressives and conservatives have begun to seek action. Several states have taken up reforms in recent years. Momentum is increasing in Washington.  Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative, calling for federal prosecutors to seek harsh sentences only for the most serious drug traffickers and other reforms. 

These federal and states fixes, however, have been piecemeal rather than systemic.  Full change is not possible without wide public support.  Mass incarceration must be identified as a national problem requiring national attention.  Though jurisdictions vary in the minutia of their justice systems, the overall drivers of the incarceration explosion are similar across the country.  

Federal legislation to create a national commission on criminal justice has failed to pass repeatedly.  This year, Congress created the Chuck Colson Task Force, named after the founder of Prison Fellowship.  It will aim to study the federal prison system to alleviate overcrowding.  A similar assessment should be made of the far broader problem.

The president can help make mass incarceration visible by creating a National Commission on Mass Incarceration of leading bipartisan policymakers and civic leaders.  He can do so through an executive order or a presidential memorandum.  And he can avail himself of a high profile venue, such as a commencement address, to announce the commission.  

Such a panel could be modeled after the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr.).  President Lyndon B. Johnson created the “Kerner Commission” to study the causes of urban riots.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should similarly study the current drivers of the growth in federal and state prison and jail populations.  It should examine the accompanying economic and societal toll. And, it should issue concrete policy recommendations to achieve a measureable goal — for example, cutting the nationwide incarcerated population by 25 percent by 2025.

Proposals should focus on “front-end” changes that help stem the influx of people into the pipeline to prison.

The Kerner Commission’s members included New York City Mayor John Lindsay, Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Litton Industry founder Charles Thornton, NAACP head Roy Wilkins, and Atlanta police chief Herbert Turner Jenkins.  These prominent public figures helped bring national attention to the issue of race.  The National Commission on Mass Incarceration should include similar public and civic leaders.  Such a commission would draw the nation’s attention to this overlooked issue and, most importantly, catalyze action.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear I like both the style and substance of this proposal. Thus, to answer my own post-title question, I do think Prez Obama should create a Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration. (And, of course, I think I should be on this Commission along with Bill Otis and perhaps many other (but not all other) frequent commenters on this blog.)

April 18, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Critical reflections on the Cantu commutation ... aka why some federal prosecutors perhaps deserve to be demonized

220px-TrialKafkaThe more I reflect on the typo-correction sentence commutation of federal prisoner Cesar Huerta Cantu (basics here), and especially after re-reading this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's own effort to have a court fix its own significant sentencing error, the more disgusted I feel about the modern federal sentencing system and especially about the U.S. Department of Justice and those federal prosecutors most responsible for Cesar Cantu's treatment by our Kafkaesque system.  In an effort to achieve some catharsis, let me try to briefly explain my feelings in three basic points:

1.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as guidelines numerology:  My disgust begins as I think about the basic reality that our federal sentencing system enables a small numerical typo — what should have been a 34 was a 36 in the presentence report guideline calculations — to result in 38-year-old defendant with no criminal history (who pleaded guilty and had considerable family support) to get sentenced to an extra 3.5 years in prison.  I continue to struggle to find much sense of justice or wisdom in a federal sentencing system in which quantitative numbers invented by a government agency, rather than qualitative factors and reasoned judgment, often still conclusively determine how many years or decades defendants are ordered to spend locked in a cage.

2.  Cantu's original federal sentencing as federal actors gone numb:  Arguably more depressing than a federal sentencing system in which numbers invented by a government agency determine how long a defendant gets locked up are sentencing actors whose concern for the human realities of incarceration have been numbed by all the numbers.  One would hope that, as part of a system in which years of human experience for federal defendants (and those who care about them) get determined by basic math, everyone involved would make extra sure the math is always done right.  But, numbed by so many humans being imprisoned for so many years based on so many numbers, the author of the PSR did not notice a typo that inflated Cantu's guideline-recommend prison sentence by many years, and neither did the defense attorney representing Cantu, and neither did the US Attorneys prosecuting Cantu, and neither did the federal judge sentencing Cantu.

3.  Cantu's dismissed 2255 motion as federal prosecutors possessed:  Bill Otis and others sometimes complain that I seem at times to suggest federal prosecutors are evil or satanic.  In fact, I have great respect for the hard work of federal prosecutors, and I am sure I would much rather have my daughters date 99% of federal prosecutors than 99% of federal defendants.  But I must wonder about what kind of evil or satanic forces may have possessed the federal prosecutors who responded to Cantu's pro se 2255 motion to correct his sentence with a motion to dismiss this matter as time-barred.  

Based on my reading of this 2255 dismissal order that followed Cantu's motion, federal prosecutors have never disputed that a  typo resulted in Cantu receiving a sentence 3.5 years longer than he should have, nor have they disputed that federal government officials are wholly responsible for this consequential error.  Still, the federal prosecutors who contributed to a mistake costing Cantu 3.5 years of his freedom responded to his 2255 motion by urging the sentencing judge also responsible for this mistake to refuse to correct Cantu's sentence because Cantu discovered their mistakes too late.  I am hard-pressed to come up with adjectives to describe this federal prosecutorial decision to seek dismissal of Cantu's 2255 motion other than inhumane.

I want to be able to imagine a positive motivation for why federal prosecutors sought a procedural dismissal of Cantu's motion to correct his indisputably erroneous sentence: perhaps, I was thinking, six years after prosecutors helped get an erroneously long sentence imposed on Cantu, these prosecutors came to believe Cantu was a criminal mastermind still involved in serious criminal wrongdoing from prison.  But, as this New York Times article reports, years after his initial erroneous sentencing, Cantu provided "law enforcement authorities with substantial assistance on an unrelated criminal matter" and "he has been a model prisoner, taking vocational and life skills courses and expressing remorse."  In addition, according to the Times reporting, Cantu is married and has 8-year old daughter.  Even if prosecutors were, for whatever reasons, disinclined to help Cantu get his erroneous sentence fixed after Cantu himself had helped the prosecutors, wouldn't they lose a little sleep over the notion that a typo could end up costing Cantu's wife the chance to have her husband's help to raise their daughter during her coming adolescence?

I am hoping Bill Otis or other current or former federal prosecutors will help me feel better about the work of our federal sentencing system and the Department of Justice in the wake of the Cantu commutation.  Especially because Prez Obama has been so stingy with his clemency power, I want this latest commutation to be a reason to celebrate rather than curse our justice system.  But unless and until someone can metamorphasize my understanding of the work of federal prosecutors in this case, I have a hard time not thinking that Josef K. and Cantu have far too much in common. 

April 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack