Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Following the Money of Mass Incarceration"

Money2017

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report and infographic from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is part of the text of the report: 

The cost of imprisonment — including who benefits and who pays — is a major part of the national discussion around criminal justice policy. But prisons and jails are just one piece of the criminal justice system and the amount of media and policy attention that the various players get is not necessarily proportional to their influence.

In this first-of-its-kind report, we find that the system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. In this report:

• we provide the significant1 costs of our globally unprecedented system of mass incarceration and over-criminalization,

• we give the relative importance of the various parts,

• we highlight some of the under-discussed yet costly parts of the system, and then

• we share all of our sources so that journalists and advocates can build upon our work.

Our goal with this report is to give a hint as to how the criminal justice system works by identifying some of the key stakeholders and quantifying their “stake” in the status quo. Our visualization shows how wide and how deep mass incarceration and over-criminalization have spread into our economy. We find:

• Almost half of the money spent on running the correctional system goes to paying staff. This group is an influential lobby that sometimes prevents reform and whose influence is often protected even when prison populations drop.

• The criminal justice system is overwhelmingly a public system, with private prison companies acting only as extensions of the public system. The government payroll for corrections employees is over 100 times higher than the private prison industry’s profits.

• Despite the fact that the Constitution requires counsel to be appointed for defendants unable to afford legal representation, the system only spends $4.5 billion on this right. And over the last decade, states have been reducing this figure even as caseloads have grown.

• Private companies that supply goods to the prison commissary or provide telephone service for correctional facilities bring in almost as much money ($2.9 billion) as governments pay private companies ($3.9 billion) to operate private prisons.

• Feeding and providing health care for 2.3 million people — a population larger than that of 15 different states — is expensive.

This report and infographic are a first step toward better understanding who benefits from mass incarceration and who might be resistant to reform. We have no doubt that we missed some costs, and we did not include some costs because they are relatively small in the big picture or are currently unknowable. But, by following the money, one can see that private prison corporations aren’t the only ones who benefit from mass incarceration.

Some of the lesser-known major players in the system of mass incarceration and over-criminalization are:

• Bail bond companies that collect $1.4 billion in nonrefundable fees from defendants and their families. The industry also actively works to block reforms that threaten its profits, even if reforms could prevent people from being detained in jail because of their poverty.

• Specialized phone companies that win monopoly contracts and charge families up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.

• Commissary vendors that sell goods to incarcerated people — who rely largely on money sent by loved ones — is an even larger industry that brings in $1.6 billion a year.

A graphic like this shows the relative economic cost of different parts of mass incarceration, but it can also obscure the fact that we don’t have a single monolithic system. Instead, we have a federal system, 50 state systems, and thousands of local government systems. Sometimes these systems work together, although often they do not; and looking at just the national picture can obscure the importance of state and local policy decisions. For example, while state government spending makes up the majority (57%) of corrections costs, local governments make up almost a third (32%). Local governments are largely enforcing state law, and local discretionary arrest and bail policies can have tremendous influence on both the state budget and justice outcomes. For example, more than half ($13.6 billion) of the cost of running local jails is spent detaining people who have not been convicted.

To be sure, there are ideological as well as economic reasons for mass incarceration and over-criminalization.  But at this moment, when crime is near record lows and there is increasing attention to the role of privatization in the justice system, we need a far more expansive view of how our criminal justice system works, whom it hurts, and whom it really serves.  If we are to make our society safer and stronger, we’ll need to be making far smarter investments than we are today.

January 25, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Orange is the New Black: Inequality in America's Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this great event taking place on my own Ohio State University campus tomorrow afternoon. And that title should cue most everyone into the reality that the event is a speech to be delivered by Piper Kerman. Here is how the event is being described:

Bringing her message to Ohio State in this free talk and Q&A presented as part the university’s COMPAS program, Piper Kerman will speak about her own experiences in prison and shed light on the wide-ranging collateral damage of America’s criminal justice practices—particularly on family stability, women, children, and minorities.

Piper Kerman is the author of Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison (Spiegel & Grau), a bestselling book that has been adapted by Jenji Kohan into an Emmy and Peabody Award–winning original series for Netflix. A hit TV show wasn’t Piper Kerman’s goal when she wrote her memoir about her 13 months in the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, but its success has led to a life of advocacy for criminal justice reform.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years disproportionately affecting people of color. During this time the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 700%. Though many more men are imprisoned than women, the rate of growth for female imprisonment has outpaced men by more than 50% between 1980 and 2014.  According to sentencingproject.org, there are now 1.2 million women under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Kerman is the recipient of Harvard's Humanist Heroine Award (2015), as well as the Constitutional Commentary Award from The Constitution Project (2014) and John Jay College's Justice Trailblazer Award (2014). She has testified before Congressional Committees and been invited to present on reentry issues at The White House. She has lectured to hundreds of audiences across the US ranging from justice reform groups, corrections professionals, universities, policymakers, and business leadership events.

A series of year-long conversations on morality, politics, and society, Ohio State’s COMPAS program hopes to promote sustained reflection on the ethical challenges that unify various projects within the university’s Discovery Themes Initiative.

January 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two Governors dealing with prison overcrowding problems in distinct ways

I covered some midwest prison stories here yesterday, and today brings these interesting state prison reform stories from the south and west:

From Alabama here, "Gov. Robert Bentley says new prisons top priority this year"

As of September, Alabama had about 23,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 13,000, an occupancy rate of about 175 percent. Overcrowding is not a new problem but makes it harder to deal with other pressing concerns.

In October, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was investigating the state's prisons. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is conducting a trial on claims that mental health care for inmates fails to meet constitutional standards. A trial on similar claims about medical care is expected later this year.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told lawmakers in November that prison violence was rising and the number of corrections officers had dropped by 20 percent in five years. Bentley and Dunn say the plan to build four new prisons, called the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative, would be the most cost effective way to alleviate the overcrowding, under-staffing and other problems.

From Nevada here, "Sandoval wants to streamline parole process to fight prison overcrowding"

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval is pursuing creative solutions to a potential prison overcrowding challenge that could see capacity exceeded by 700 inmates by the end of the next budget without prompt action. “Our goal is to not construct a new prison,” Mike Willden, chief of staff to Sandoval, said in a budget briefing last week.

Prison construction is not cheap, and it has to be paid with state general funds. In 2007, the Legislature approved $300 million for prison construction projects. Sandoval’s solution rests primarily with the Division of Parole and Probation and the Parole Commission, which will be given new resources to speed up parole for as many as 300 to 400 eligible inmates....

At the Prison Board meeting, it was reported that one-third of paroled inmates being returned to prison were there for parole violations only. Crowding is a problem within the prison system.

Corrections Director James Dzurenda said at the meeting that 13,742 inmates were housed in the system — well over capacity if only regular housing beds were used. But the department has converted large areas of prisons, created for other purposes, into dormitory-style beds.

In addition to seeking to expedite paroles, the Department of Corrections has a capital construction project worth about $6 million to add 200 beds at the Southern Desert Correctional Center. A third element of the plan, if needed, sets aside about $12 million to temporarily house some Nevada inmates out-of-state while the parole efforts get up to speed, Willden said.

State lawmakers will get a first look at the corrections and parole budget proposals at a hearing Jan. 31, a week ahead of the start of the 2017 session on Feb. 6. Sandoval said in his budget that his goal is to reduce prison inmate recidivism by 10 percent through education programs and intervention services and resources, particularly in the areas of behavioral health, drug addiction and workforce training.

January 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Rounding up some diverse prison stories from the industrial midwest

A handful of new stories about prisons emerging from a handful of industrial midwest states recently caught my eye and prompts this round-up:

The last of these listed stories seems like the biggest news, especially for those hoping state will be able to lead the way on reducing modern mass incarceration.

January 23, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

"Mass Incarceration: Where Do We Go From Here?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the New York City Bar Association’s Task Force on Mass Incarceration. Here is how its introduction gets started:

The devastating consequences of mass incarceration have drawn unprecedented attention over the past few years. Journalists, academics and public interest groups have published extensive research, written compelling articles and lobbied politicians on both sides of the aisle to take concrete steps to reduce both our nation’s prison population and the terrible toll mass incarceration continues to inflict on vulnerable communities.  As we show in this Report, progress has been made in the year since our Task Force was established, but much remains to be done.  There also is considerable uncertainty about whether successful past initiatives will be carried forward by the Trump administration.

This Report therefore aims, in section II below, to chronicle past successes (as well as frustrations) at both the federal and state/local levels in reducing the country’s prison population and the harmful consequences and burdens of mass incarceration.  Then, in section III below, we look ahead to areas for potential further action, again at the federal and the state/local levels. We close with a plea to public officials to use the information and initiatives highlighted here to recognize the enormous economic and social costs of over-incarceration, to emulate the promising examples of progress and reform recounted here, and to be creative in seeking to reduce the public cost and burden of our overreliance upon incarceration while still maintaining public order and safety in all communities.

January 21, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Dear President Trump: Here’s How to get Right on Crime, Part 1"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that is the start of a timely three-part series.  Here is how the Marshall Project editors set up the series:

The election of Donald Trump, who ran a swaggering tough-on-crime campaign, disheartened many advocates of bipartisan criminal justice reform.  The Marshall Project invited conservatives active in that cause to make a case to the president-elect — a conservative case — for ways to make the system more fair, humane and effective.  This is the first of three commentaries.

The commentary to kick this off comes from Pat Nolan and carries the subheadline "Focus on intent, tailor the punishment to the crime, prepare prisoners for life after incarceration."  Here is how it gets started:

Conservatives believe that the core function of government is keeping the public safe from harm within the constraints of individual liberty and limited government. We know it is the nature of bureaucracy that government agencies grow in size and inefficiency. The justice system must be held accountable for wise use of tax dollars just as it holds offenders accountable for their actions.

Crime is more than lawbreaking — it is victim harming. Victims should be involved at all stages of the justice process, and the system should aim to repair the harm caused by the crime whenever possible. Offenders should be held accountable to make restitution to their victims.

Evil intent (mens rea) has long been an essential element of all crimes. In recent years, however, the mens rea requirement has been dropped in favor of finding criminality even if there is no intent to break the law. Thus, an act committed in good faith can become the basis for a criminal conviction and a prison sentence. This is wrong, and mens rea must be restored as a key element of every crime.

The greatest power we cede to government is the ability to put someone in prison. While prisons are necessary to isolate offenders who threaten the safety of the community, there is a growing tendency to overuse prisons even when the public is not endangered. There are proven ways to hold non-dangerous offenders accountable without sending them to prison. We should use costly prison beds for the truly dangerous. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but too often they are used for people we are merely mad at.

Cases should be decided individually, not as an assembly line of one-size-fits-all sentences. The harm done by a sentence should never be greater than the harm caused by the crime.

Crime that crosses state lines and national borders is the proper purview of federal laws. Other than those limited situations, crime is an inherently local problem and should be governed by local and state laws. However, in recent years Congress has federalized many crimes such as carjacking which have no national scope merely to strike a politically popular pose.  Only those crimes that have a national reach should be federalized. Other crimes should be left to local law enforcement that is more responsive to their residents.

We recommend greater use of problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts tailored to the special problems faced by these populations.

Prisons should do more than warehouse inmates. They should prepare offenders for their return to society by providing educational programs such as GED classes, drug treatment, anger management, and job skills. The cost of these programs is far exceeded by the savings from the resulting drop in crime rates.

January 18, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 16, 2017

After reviewing tens of thousands of requests, Obama Administration reportedly finds a few hundred more prisoners worthy of clemency

Anyone hoping Prez Obama would go out of office this week with a huge clemency bang will likely be disappointed to see this new Washington Post report headlined "Obama to commute hundreds of federal drug sentences in final grants of clemency."  I have been assuming Obama would make news with a few hundred more grants, but I know some advocates were hoping there would be perhaps thousands of commutations as Obama heads for the Oval Office exit.  Here instead is what we can expect after seemingly a whole lot of work by a whole lot of lawyers and DOJ officials:

Justice Department officials have completed their review of more than 16,000 clemency petitions filed by federal prisoners over the past two years and sent their last recommendations to President Obama, who is set to grant hundreds more commutations to nonviolent drug offenders during his final days in office.

“Everyone has killed themselves here to get the final recommendations to the president,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in an interview. “We were in overdrive. We were determined to live up to our commitment. It was 24-7 over the Christmas break.” U.S. Pardon Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer has not taken a day off since Yates brought him on in February 2016 to sift through the backlog of thousands of petitions. From her home in Atlanta, Yates said she reviewed hundreds of petitions during the holidays.

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, Justice officials worry that his administration will dismantle Obama’s clemency initiative, which has resulted in the early release of 1,176 drug offenders who were sentenced under the severe mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the nation’s “war on drugs.” More than 400 were serving life sentences. Yates said Obama will grant “a significant” number of commutations this week, but would not specify a number. Several people close to the process said it will be several hundred.

Those officials also fear that the next attorney general may undo new criminal justice policies. Then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. put in place a policy three years ago to reserve the most severe drug-offense penalties for high-level or violent drug traffickers — and no longer charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that impose severe mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Department data indicate that prosecutors are now focusing on more-serious drug cases, and there have been fewer charges that carry mandatory sentences.

Neither Trump nor his attorney general-nominee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), has said what actions might be taken on drug charging policy or clemency, but during his campaign, Trump criticized Obama’s initiative to grant commutations. “Some of these people are bad dudes,” he said. “And these are people who are out, they’re walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”...

At several points during the past two years, it appeared that Obama’s clemency initiative might have been derailed, partly by a lack of resources but also by a cumbersome review process. After Holder and then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole began the effort in the spring of 2014, thousands of inmates applied. To help them with their petitions, outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

About 4,000 volunteer lawyers signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the legal profession in the United States. Once the lawyers submitted the petitions, the U.S. pardon attorney made recommendations to the deputy attorney general, who reviewed the cases and sent them to the White House counsel, who also reviewed them before choosing which ones went to Obama.

When Yates arrived at Justice in the spring of 2015, the clemency program was overwhelmed and bogged down. Advocates criticized the inefficient process and urged the Obama administration to pick up the pace for the inmates waiting for relief from unfair sentences. “There wasn’t an apparatus set up,” Yates said. “When I arrived, they were doing the best they could . . . but we didn’t really have a playbook.”

Early last year, more than 9,000 clemency petitions were pending, and the pardon attorney at the time was so frustrated that she quit.  Yates brought on Zauzmer, a longtime federal prosecutor, who prioritized applications so that Justice lawyers could focus on inmates who met the criteria: Inmates had to have served at least 10 years; had no significant criminal history; no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime; and probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted today.

“These are big decisions that you’re making,” Yates said, alluding to the public-safety risks and the need to provide a “sophisticated analysis” to the president. “If it’s to let someone out of prison early, earlier than what their original sentence was, you’ve got to be careful about those decisions,” she said. “There’s lots of people whose current offense or conviction is a nonviolent drug offense . . . but you have to look at their past as well and at their criminal history.  You have to look at their conduct [in prison].”

Not all inmates who have been granted clemency will be released immediately or even in a number of months. Last summer, the Obama administration began granting clemency to some inmates by reducing their sentences; in some cases, they will remain in prison for years.  At the end of August, Yates announced that she would review and give Obama a recommendation on every petition from a drug offender that was still in the department’s possession at that time — about 6,195 petitions.  She did that, and included several hundred petitions received through Sept. 15, after her cutoff date.  She also reviewed petitions that came in as late as Nov. 30 from drug offenders serving life sentences. By last Friday, the final number of petitions reviewed was 16,776. “Sally deserves a lot of credit,” Holder said in an interview. “She set this goal of looking at every drug-clemency petition, and they accomplished that.”

I want to give DAG Yates and Pardon Attorney Zauzmer lots and lots of credit for all their efforts, and I will also give some credit to Prez Obama for ultimately making clemency an 11th hour priority.  But given that Prez Obama set of modern record for fewest clemencies during his first term in office, and especially because he leaves in place the same troublesome clemency process that has contributed to problems in the past, I will still look at Obama's tenure largely as an opportunity missed.  

January 16, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program launches Prison Law JD, a new listserv for connecting new folks to prisoners' rights lawyers.

I am pleased to be able to post this announcement I received via email from Professor Sharon Dolovich, who is the director of the UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program:

The UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program has just launched Prison Law JD, a new listserv designed for law students and young lawyers interested in prisoners’ rights.  It will be used to share job and fellowship announcements and other information of interest, and for discussion and mutual support.  There is already an active listserv connecting practicing prisoners’ rights lawyers around the country, which has enabled the building of a strong and supportive national community of people doing this work.  Prison Law JD aims to build out this community to include the next generation of prisoners’ rights advocates.

If you know any law students or young lawyers who might want to join, please invite them to contact Sharon Dolovich at dolovich @ law.ucla.edu.

January 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prison Work Programs in a Model of Deterrence"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by A. Mitchell Polinsky now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This article considers the social desirability of prison work programs in a model in which the function of imprisonment is to deter crime.  Two types of prison work programs are studied — voluntary ones and mandatory ones.  A voluntary work program is socially beneficial: if prisoners are paid a wage that just compensates them for their disutility from work, the deterrent effect of the prison sentence is unaffected, but society obtains the product of the work program.  But a mandatory work program is superior to a voluntary work program: if prisoners are forced to work without compensation, the deterrent effect of the prison sentence rises, allowing society to restore deterrence and save resources by reducing the probability of detection or the sentence length, and also to obtain greater output than under the optimal voluntary work program.  In an extension of the basic analysis, however, in which prisoners vary in their disutility from work, a voluntary work program may be superior to a mandatory work program because prisoners with relatively high disutility from work can elect not to work.

January 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 13, 2017

New ACLU report details unique harms of solitary confinement for prisoners with physical disabilities

The American Civil Liberties Union has released this big report to spotlight particular problems for a particular prison population subject to solitary confinement.  The ACLU report is titled "Caged In: Solitary Confinement's Devastating Harm on Prisoner's With Physical Disabilities," and here is how the report is summarized at this webpage:

This report provides a first-ever national ACLU account of the suffering prisoners with physical disabilities experience in solitary confinement.  It spotlights the dangers for blind people, Deaf people, people who are unable to walk without assistance, and people with other physical disabilities who are being held in small cells for 22 hours a day or longer, for days, months, and even years.  Solitary confinement is a punishing environment that endangers the well-being of people with physical disabilities and often violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The report’s revelations about the particular harms of solitary on people with physical disabilities shows the urgent need for far better accounting of the problems they face and the development of solutions to those problems.

January 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

New Jersey Supreme Court addresses Miller's application to all serious juve sentencings

As reported in this local article, the top court in the Garden State "ruled unanimously Wednesday to overhaul the way New Jersey judges sentence juveniles convicted in violent crimes that could keep them in prison until they are elderly or dead." Here is more from the press report on the opinion:

The state's highest court ruled 7-0 that judges must consider a number of factors -- including age, family environment, and peer pressure -- before issuing lengthy sentences to youths in serious cases. Peter Verniero, a former state Supreme Court justice and state attorney general, said this is "one of the most significant sentencing decisions" the court has made in "many years."

And in a rare move, the court also urged the New Jersey Legislature to revise the state's current law on juvenile sentencing to "avoid a potential constitutional challenge in the future," according to the decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The decision is the result of appeals filed by a pair of men who were convicted separately of violent crimes years ago in Essex County when they were 17 and were sentenced to decades in prison. Ricky Zuber was convicted for his role in two gang rapes in 1981 and was sentenced to 110 years in prison. He would not have been eligible for parole for 55 years -- a time when he would be 72. James Comer was convicted of four armed robberies in 2000, including one where an accomplice shot and killed a victim. He would have become eligible for parole when he was 85 -- after having served 68 years.

Rabner wrote that judges in both cases did not take "age or related circumstances" into account when issuing the sentences. But, Rabner said, the U.S. Supreme Court has since "sent a clear message" that "children are different" from adults and that "youth and its attendant characteristics" must be considered when sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole.

"Because of their young age at the time of their crimes, both defendants can expect to spend more than a half century in jail before they may be released -- longer than the time served by some adults convicted of first-degree murder," Rabner wrote.

Rabner cited how in a 2012 decision called Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges presiding over cases involving juveniles facing life sentences without parole must consider a number of factors before sentencing. Those include immaturity; family and home environment; family and peer pressures; an"inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors" or their own attorney; and "the possibility of rehabilitation."

But New Jersey's Supreme Court went further, saying those standards must be applied not only to sentences of life without parole but also to youths who face lengthy sentences. The court also cited a the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects defendants from "cruel and unusual punishment."

"Youth matters under the constitution," Rabner wrote.

The full opinion is available at this link, and it covers a lot of important post-Graham and post-Miller ground concerning juvenile sentencing.

January 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Great political and practical "state of reform" reviews via Jacobin

ImagesThe magazine Jacobin has recently run two effective pieces by two effective writers about the politics and practicalities of modern sentencing reform efforts. Here are links to the lengthy pieces, both of which I recommend in full, with their introductions:

"Conservatives Against Incarceration?: Fiscal conservatives were never going to bring down the carceral state. A broader fight against social inequality is needed." by Marie Gottschalk

Many are mourning the death of comprehensive criminal justice reform at the federal level in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, who unabashedly campaigned as the law-and-order candidate. They fear we may be at the beginning of the end of the “smart-on-crime” era, in which historic adversaries across the political spectrum joined forces to reverse the punitive policies and politics that have turned the United States into the world’s leading warden.

Some have sought solace in the belief that Trump’s victory will have a limited impact because most people are apprehended, tried, and sentenced subject to state and local statutes and authorities, not federal ones, and that 90 percent of the more than 2 million people incarcerated today in the United States are serving their time in state prisons and county jails, not federal penitentiaries. They view Trump as a political meteorite that may have blown up the elite bipartisan reform coalition in Washington as it blazed through an uncharted political universe but left promising reform coalitions at the state and local levels largely intact.

This conventional postmortem paradoxically overestimates Trump’s responsibility for imperiling criminal justice reform at the national level while underestimating his likely impact on state and local reform efforts.

Trump’s outsized personality and spectacular victory obscure the reality that the smart-on-crime approach had severe limitations and weaknesses that have been hiding in plain sight for years. The politics that gave birth to this strange bedfellows coalition engineered by Right on Crime — a group of brand-name conservatives and libertarians that included Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and Charles and David Koch — helps explain both its limited accomplishments and the triumph of Trumpism.

"America’s Durable Monstrosity: New figures show that the US prison population has dropped. But mass incarceration remains firmly intact." by Daniel Denvir

A ray of sunshine recently poked through the otherwise gloomy holiday headlines: “US prison population falling as crime rates stay low.”  The prison population has indeed fallen, and crime rates are still down.  But while the crime that politicians exploited to create mass incarceration has plummeted, the number of prisoners locked up in the name of public safety has only budged.

Mass incarceration, in short, remains a durable monstrosity.

As of 2015, an estimated 2,173,800 Americans were behind bars — 1,526,800 in prison and 728,200 in jails — according to recently released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  That’s 16,400 fewer people in jail and 35,500 fewer prisoners than in 2014 — a 2.3 percent decline and, for prisoners, the largest single-year drop since 1978. The 2015 figure also marks the lowest overall prison population since 2005. Crime rates have plunged, falling “to levels not seen since the late 1960s.”

But even as the US becomes a much safer country, it still incarcerates its citizens at much higher rates than most any other on earth.  To put things in perspective, our prison archipelago today confines a population similar in size to the city of Houston or the borough of Queens.

At the dawn of mass incarceration in 1980, the US’s already-quite-large prison population was estimated at 329,821. To return to that number, the governments would have to replicate the recent 35,500-prisoner reduction for roughly thirty-four years in a row.  That’s a very long time to wait for the poor communities — particularly but not exclusively brown and black ones — that mass incarceration devastates.

The criminal justice reform movement has stopped losing. But it hasn’t really started to win.

January 11, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Lamenting big criminal justice problems in the little state of Delaware

This new local commentary from Delaware authored by Jack Guerin, headlined "A perfect storm of failure in criminal justice," tell a pretty disconcerting story about the First State. Here is how the commentary gets started:

By every conceivable measure, Delaware’s criminal justice system is a failure. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Delaware has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.”  The article found that our state ranked third highest among all states in robberies, and that the rate of crime in Wilmington is “one of the highest of any large city in the country.”

In November, the Delaware Criminal Justice Council issued its annual report on recidivism in Delaware, finding that “by the end of three years, about 76 percent of offenders in each cohort had been rearrested for a serious offense.”  Most recidivism events occurred in the first two years after release.

In December, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a report ranking Delaware’s prison system fifth highest among states in overcrowding at 154.7 percent of design capacity.  A recent report by the Liman Program at the Yale Law School ranked Delaware (tied with Tennessee) as having the third highest percentage of prisoners in solitary confinement in the nation.

With high rates of crime, incarceration, recidivism, overcrowding and solitary confinement, Delaware represents the perfect storm of failure for the “tough on crime” policies initiated more than 40 years ago. Our enormous investment in punitive incarceration is not making us safer.

January 5, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (10)

Prez Obama produces lengthy Harvard Law Review article titled "The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform"

I am intrigued and surprised (and concerned that I will soon be very aggravated) by this lengthy new Harvard Law Review article authored by Barack Obama.  In style (because the article runs 50+ pages with 300+ footnotes), the article hints that Prez Obama is interested in going back to being a law professor after he finishes his current gig.  In substance, the article's introduction provides this overview: 

Part I details the current criminal justice landscape and emphasizes the urgent need for reform.  It would be a tragic mistake to treat criminal justice reform as an agenda limited to certain communities.  All Americans have an interest in living in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, in raising their children in a country of equal treatment and second chances, and in entrusting their liberty to a justice system that remains true to our highest ideals.  We simply cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration, to write off the seventy million Americans — that’s almost one in three adults — with some form of criminal record, to release 600,000 inmates each year without a better program to reintegrate them into society, or to ignore the humanity of 2.2 million men and women currently in U.S. jails and prisons and over 11 million men and women moving in and out of U.S. jails every year.  In addition, we cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans.

Part II shows how the President can drive significant reform at the federal level.  Working with Congress, my Administration helped secure bipartisan sentencing reform legislation reducing the crack-topowder-cocaine disparity.  As an executive branch, we’ve been able to make important changes to federal charging policies and practices, the administration of federal prisons, and federal policies relating to reentry.  And through the presidential pardon power, I have commuted the sentences of more than 1000 prisoners.  Even though there are important structural and prudential constraints on how the President can directly influence criminal enforcement, these changes illustrate that presidential administrations can and do shape the direction of the federal criminal justice system in lasting and profound ways.

Part III details the approaches that Presidents can take to promote change at the state and local level, recognizing that the state and local justice systems tend to have a far broader and more pervasive impact on the lives of most Americans than does the federal justice system.  While the President and the executive branch play a less direct role in these systems, there are still opportunities — as my Administration’s work demonstrates — to advance reform through a combination of federal-local partnerships, the promulgation of best practices, enforcement, federal grant programs, and assembling reform-minded jurisdictions struggling with similar challenges.

Part IV highlights some of the work that remains, focusing on reforms that are supported by broad consensus and could be completed in the near term.  These include passing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation in Congress, adopting commonsense measures to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a threat to others or themselves, finding better ways to address the tragic opioid epidemic in this country, implementing critical reforms to forensic science, improving criminal justice data, and using technology to enhance trust in and the effectiveness of law enforcement.

I fear I will be aggravated by this article because it will confirm that Prez Obama (or his staff who helped author this article) truly understands the need to major criminal justice reforms and yet so relatively little got achieved on this front during Prez Obama's eight yesr in office. Also, I know I am already going to be troubled by what is not said in this article because a quick word search reveals that the word "marijuana" is not mentioned once even though state-level marijuana reform is by far the biggest criminal justice reform story of the Obama era (which, to the Obama Administration's credit, was in part fueled by his Justice Department's express hands off policy).

January 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court findings of substantive due process problems with Minnesota's sex offender commitment program

As reported in this local article, a "federal appeals court in St. Louis has reversed a lower-court ruling that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program is unconstitutional — a major victory for the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a decision that could delay long-awaited reforms to the state's system of indefinite detention for sex offenders."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. "We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the court ruled.

In response, the lead attorney for a class of offenders who sued the state said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. "Justice was not done today," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "We're still considering what we are going to do but, as Governor Dayton said the other day, we are not going quietly into the night."

Minnesota confines more offenders per capita, and has the lowest release rate, among the 20 states that use civil commitment to confine sex offenders in treatment programs. Only 14 offenders have been conditionally discharged from the program in its more than 20-year history. Of those, seven are currently living in the community. Just one offender has been unconditionally discharged, and that did not occur until August.

In June 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of sex offenders, declared the program unconstitutional for confining offenders indefinitely, after they have already completed their prison terms, without a clear path toward release. The judge ordered state officials to conduct independent evaluations of the roughly 720 offenders confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter to determine if they still pose a public safety risk. He also ordered the state to develop less restrictive options for housing offenders in the community.

The unanimous Eighth Circuit panel ruling in this case is available at this link, and it gets started this way:

Class plaintiffs, civilly committed sex offenders, bring a facial and as applied challenge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their substantive due process rights have been violated by Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and by the actions and practices of the managers of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).  The Minnesota state defendants in this action are managers of MSOP — Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services; Kevin Moser, MSOP Facilities Director at Moose Lake; Peter Puffer, MSOP Clinical Director; Nancy Johnston, MSOP Executive Director; Jannine Herbert, MSOP Executive Clinical Director; and Ann Zimmerman, MSOP Security Director (collectively “state defendants”).  After several months of litigation, including a six-week bench trial, the district court found for plaintiffs and entered an expansive injunctive order.  The district court applied incorrect standards of scrutiny when considering plaintiffs’ claims, thus we reverse the finding of substantive due process violations and vacate the injunctive relief order.  We remand to the district court for further proceedings to address the remaining claims.

January 3, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

BJS releases three big reports on correctional populations throughout the United States

Via email today I received news of and links to a bunch of big data reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (which is part of the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice). Here are the titles, links and descriptions of these notable new publications:

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015

This report presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2015, including persons supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2015. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for selected years.

Prisoners in 2015

This report presents final counts of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities at yearend 2015, including admissions, releases, noncitizen inmates, and inmates age 17 or younger. The report describes prisoner populations by—

  • jurisdiction
  • most serious offense
  • demographic characteristics.

Selected findings on prison capacity and prisoners held in private prisons, local jails, and the U.S. military and territories are also included. Findings are based on data from BJS's National Prisoner Statistics program, which collects data from state departments of correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Jail Inmates in 2015

This report presents information on changes in the jail inmate population between 2000 and 2015 by—

  • demographic characteristics
  • conviction status
  • average daily population
  • rated capacity of local jails
  • percent of capacity occupied.

It also includes statistics, by jurisdiction size, on changes in the number of inmates, admissions, and weekly turnover rate from 2014 to 2015. Estimates and standard errors were based on BJS's Annual Survey of Jails.

December 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN commentary, authored by Alice Marie Johnson.  Here is how it gets started and concludes:

The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.  I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.

In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison.  Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed.  If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.

Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies.  My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?

For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long.  But my faith in God has carried me this far.  Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."...

I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.  This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down.  I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers.  I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.

My trial took a toll on my family.  At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial.  Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me.  Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.

But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday.  It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.  The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners.  I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.

During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison.  And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system.  My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it.  It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.

The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system.  I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes.  But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly.  I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.

No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars.  God has shown me my strength.

December 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Society must not forget those it incarcerates"

The title of this post is the headline given to this new commentary authored by my colleague Steven Chanenson (who is also co-managing editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter and a former chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing). Here are excerpts:

Prisons are usually hidden and often grim places. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.'s observation nearly 30 years ago still rings true today: "Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness." It should not and need not be that way.

Although there is a vigorous debate over when and to what extent they should be used, prisons are a key public safety tool. Whenever used, incarceration must be effective, safe, and humane. Prisoners are not popular, but how we treat our criminals is, in the words of Winston Churchill, "one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country."

Society has a right and an obligation to protect itself, but it needs to do so while considering both the short- and the long-term consequences for all involved. Most prisoners eventually return to our communities.  Last year, almost 20,000 people were released from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.  They are once again our neighbors across the commonwealth.

Thus, it is in everyone's interest for people who return from prison to come back better equipped to succeed than when they arrived there. If we want to slow the revolving door of incarceration and crime, we must provide meaningful access to treatment, training, and, yes, hope. We must hold the prisons accountable for meeting those goals, including through independent oversight. Both society and the inmates themselves deserve no less.

We must also celebrate the positive work done in prisons. One especially bright ray of hope was on display this month at the State Correctional Institution at Chester. The inmates and staff at the Chester prison partnered with other stakeholders to present a series of TEDx talks focused on the children of incarcerated parents....  Under the able leadership of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, this was the fourth set of TEDx talks from a Pennsylvania prison. Like the earlier sessions, the discussions in Chester highlighted challenges faced and progress made by the speakers. While talking about the more than 81,000 Pennsylvania children who have a parent in a Pennsylvania prison, they provided a glimpse of some constructive energy that may eventually benefit those of us outside the prison walls....

Particularly during the holiday season, many of us think about the humanity of our fellow men and women.  That is a sentiment we should nurture. We need to remember people in prison, how they are treated and what will happen to everyone when they return to our neighborhoods.  There was a clear demonstration of hope — for safer communities and our collective humanity — at the State Correctional Institution at Chester.  For that, we should all be thankful.

December 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holiday pitch from NY Times editorial board for "Cutting Prison Sentences, and Costs"

With Christmas on a Sunday this year, I will have to guess whether it was a holiday spirit or an end of year spirit that inspired this new New York Times editorial headlined "Cutting Prison Sentences, and Costs."  Here are excerpts, with a little commentary to follow:

States across the country have rushed to trim prison costs by backing away from the draconian sentencing policies that drove up the national prison population from 200,000 at the start of the 1970s to a peak of about 1.6 million in 2009.  While the total inmate population has declined by 2.9 percent since then, several states that approached reform more aggressively have already reduced their prison populations by far more. California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have done so by more than 20 percent.

These states have shown that it is possible to shorten sentences — or divert offenders to community supervision — without compromising public safety.  But even bolder reforms to the sentencing system will be necessary to bring the prison census down to where it should be and reverse the corrosive effects of mass incarceration....

A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law provides a blueprint for further reforms.  It calls on states to mandate alternative sentences like drug treatment, probation or community service for low-level crimes like drug possession, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud, forgery and theft, which account for 25 percent of the nation’s prison population.  Judges would have the flexibility to hand down prison sentences in exceptional circumstances, as in the case of serious, repeat offenders.

The report also recommends a reduction in sentences for major crimes that account for a majority of the prison population — aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offenses, robbery, serious burglary and serious drug trafficking. (Under such a system, the typical inmate convicted of, say, robbery would serve 3.1 years, as opposed to 4.2.)  If these reforms were retroactively applied, the authors estimate, more than 200,000 people serving time for these crimes would be eligible for release.

Under a saner system, the report says, nearly 40 percent of the country’s inmate population could be released from prison without jeopardizing public safety. This would save states $200 billion over the first 10 years — enough to hire 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers or 327,000 teachers.

The preliminary reforms that many states already have enacted reflect a growing realization that mass incarceration is economically unsustainable and socially disastrous. But to reverse four decades of bad policy, state lawmakers will have to adopt a more decisive and systematic approach to sentencing reform.

Though I am inclined to embrace the essential elements of this editorial, it strikes me as politically and practically tone-deaf in many respects. Politically, the editorial could and should have emphasized the significant number of "red states" that have reduced their prison populations, states like Texas and Georgia and South Carolina and Mississippi. Practically, the editorial could and should have acknowledged that some violent crime (especially murder) and heroin problems have been increasing in recent years, which in turn suggests and demands that states and the federal government focus on fighting crime smarter and not just tougher.

December 25, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets"

The title of this post is the title of this new short publication from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project.  This webpage review the publication's contents and mission:

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and The Sentencing Project have issued Free the Vote: Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets, reporting on the racially discriminatory and ever-growing problem of felony disenfranchisement. The denial or abridgement of the right to vote for 6.1 million people with felony criminal convictions is a stain on our democracy.

The millions of Americans who are currently prevented from voting due to felony convictions are more than twice the difference of the popular vote in the contentious 2016 presidential election. Particularly striking is that one in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction—a rate four times greater than non-Black Americans.

The issue is compounded by the fact that often, for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people are counted as residents of largely white rural areas where prisons are predominately located (i.e., prison-based gerrymandering). Thus, Black urban communities, from which the incarcerated population disproportionately comes, lose the critical voices of persons with felony convictions, who not only are denied a fundamental stake in the democratic process, but also who could provide insight into issues of criminal justice reform, employment, and educational opportunities.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws are shamefully nothing new,” said Leah Aden, Senior Counsel at LDF. “In the era following slavery disenfranchisement laws were tailored to limit the political power of newly-freed Black people. These racially discriminatory laws gained steam in recent decades as the failed ‘war on drugs’ and “tough on crime” policies incarcerated millions of Black and Latino Americans, continuing to weaken the voting power of communities of color.”

“Disenfranchisement policies are fundamentally at odds both with democracy and with the need to support individuals in their reentry from prison,” says Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “By extending the right to vote to people in prison and with criminal records, we can both build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer.”

Among its findings, Free the Vote highlights:

◾ The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on Black voting strength at the state level. In Florida, for example, more people with felony convictions are disenfranchised than in any other state, with Black disenfranchisement rates exceeding a fifth (21%) of the adult Black voting age population. Similar data comes out of other states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

◾ Prison-based gerrymandering exacerbates the negative effects of felony disenfranchisement. In the city of Anamosa, Iowa, a councilman from a prison community was elected to office from a ward which, per the Census, had almost 1,400 residents—about the same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of these “residents” were prisoners in the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once those prisoners were subtracted, the ward had fewer than 60 actual residents.

◾ Only Maine and Vermont do not restrict voting based on a felony conviction. Both states allow individuals to vote from prison via absentee ballot. Recently, there have been successful efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement policies in Maryland, Virginia, and California.

◾ Following the historic and substantial participation of people of color in the 2008 and 2012 elections, felony disenfranchisement laws that curb voting power remain a barrier to expanding America’s voting population. These laws discourage future generations from exercising the learned behavior of voting and receiving the benefits of having their voices reflected in the political process.

LDF and The Sentencing Project aim to not only ameliorate felony disfranchisement laws, but also to eradicate them. Together, we can free the vote for people who have been made vulnerable by harmful and discriminatory laws and in turn, strengthen our collective democracy.

December 20, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes: Criminal justice policy is education policy"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing report released late last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  This press release from EPI provide a kind of report summary under the heading "Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the racial achievement gap," and here is its text:

In Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes, EPI research associates Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein outline the connections between mass incarceration and racial achievement gaps. There is overwhelming evidence that having an incarcerated parent leads to an array of cognitive and noncognitive outcomes known to affect children’s performance in school. Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to misbehave in school, drop out of school, develop learning disabilities, experience homelessness, or suffer from conditions such as migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Simply put, criminal justice policy is education policy,” said Morsy. “It is impossible to disentangle the racial achievement gap from the extraordinary rise in incarceration in the United States. Education policymakers, educators, and advocates should pay greater attention to the mass incarceration of young African Americans.”

African American children are six times as likely as white children to have a parent who is or has been incarcerated. One-in-four African American students have a parent who is or has been incarcerated, and as many as one-in-ten have a parent who is currently incarcerated. Because African American children are disproportionately likely to have had an incarcerated parent, the authors argue, the United States’ history of mass incarceration has contributed significantly to gaps in achievement between African American and white students.

“Despite increased national interest in criminal justice reform, President-elect Trump has promised to move in the opposite direction by advocating for a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” program,” said Rothstein. “While the chance of reform on a federal level may have stalled, advocates should look for opportunities for reform at the state and local levels, because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons.”

The authors advocate for a number of policies to address this problem by reducing incarceration, including eliminating disparities between minimum sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine, repealing mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, and increasing funding for social, educational, and employment programs for released offenders.

December 19, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Interesting review of impact of Prop 47 on drug cases and offenders in California

Prop-47-jpgThis lengthy local article takes a remarkable and effective deep dive into the impact and import of California's Prop 47 two years after its passage. The piece carries a lengthy headline that serves as a kind of summary: "Two years after Prop 47, addicts walk free with nowhere to go: In 2014, California Voters Freed About 13,500 Low-Level Offenders From Crowded Prisons and Jails. But Many Ex-inmates Have Traded Incarceration for a Cycle of Homelessness, Drug Abuse and Petty Crime." Here are excerpts:

Two years after it was approved by California voters, Prop 47 has scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, but successful reform is woefully incomplete.  Proponents celebrate how the law freed at least 13,500 inmates like Lopez from harsh sentences in crowded prisons and jails, but Prop 47 has done little to help these people restart their lives. Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.

Prop 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent. Meanwhile, the state’s shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

"The problem is, if you don’t actually do anything to change conditions of their lives, they’re going to be back on the streets anyway," said Elliot Currie, a University of California, Irvine criminologist.  "What’s to prevent them from going back to the same old ways when they get out? The answer is nothing."

This alarming lack of support services is one key finding in a landmark investigation by USA TODAY Network-California journalists who spent seven months analyzing the impacts of Prop 47, a sweeping criminal justice reform law that has been debated and demonized but rarely understood. To uncover the ramifications of the law, reporters from four publications — The Desert Sun, The Ventura County Star, The Record Searchlight and The Salinas Californian — filed 65 records requests, scrutinized thousands of pages of public documents and performed over 50 interviews with policymakers, academics, police, district attorneys, public defenders, drug addicts and former felons. Among our findings:

  • California police have dramatically deprioritized drug busts in the wake of Prop 47, arresting and citing about 22,000 fewer people in 2015, a 9.5 percent decrease in the first year since the possession of meth, heroin and cocaine was downgraded to a misdemeanor.

  • Nearly 200,000 felony convictions have been retroactively erased by Prop 47 as of September, according to a first-ever analysis.  Government agencies were not required to track how many convictions were reduced, so journalists gathered public records from 21 counties to calculate a statewide estimate.  Many former felons will be slow to take advantage of their restored rights because they are unaware their convictions have been downgraded.

  • For those who are aware, however, Prop 47 offers an unparalleled chance for better jobs.  Tens of thousands of people no longer have to report felony convictions on job applications, making them drastically more employable than they’ve been in years or decades.

Michael Romano, a Stanford law expert who helped write Prop 47, stressed in a recent interview the law has been "amazingly successful" in its primary goal, which was always to get low-level drug offenders out of California’s crowded, damaging prison system.  But tackling drug addiction and mental illness, which plague so many who were released under the law, is a task that will require investing hundreds of millions of dollars in community treatment programs across the state.   "It is incumbent on local governments to engage this problem," Romano said. "Prop 47 was not a cure-all. It’s not a panacea.  It is one piece in an extraordinarily complicated puzzle — perhaps the most complicated puzzle in our communities."

December 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Repurposing: New Beginnings for Closed Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new Sentencing Project policy brief, which gets started this way:

Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 92 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $333 million.  The opportunity to downsize prison bed space has been brought about by declines in state prison populations as well as increasing challenges of managing older facilities.  Reduced capacity has created the opportunity to repurpose closed prisons for a range of uses outside of the correctional system, including a movie studio, a distillery, and urban redevelopment.

The U.S. prison population numbered 1,508,636 at year end 2014 — a reduction of approximately 1% since 2013.  Thirty-nine states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years; in most states this reduction has been relatively modest.  Four states — New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and California – have reduced their prison populations by over 20%.  Southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations by 18% and 11% respectively.  The political environment shaping criminal justice policy has been moving in a direction emphasizing evidence-based approaches to public safety for more than a decade. This has involved efforts to address the unprecedented growth and correctional costs resulting from several decades of policy initiatives.

In recent years, 29 states adopted reforms that scaled back the scope and severity of their mandatory sentencing policies. Voters in California approved ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2016; the former curbed the state’s notoriously broad “three strikes and you’re out” law and the latter expanded parole eligibility and limits the process governing juveniles tried as adults.  California and Oklahoma voters also authorized reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors. In other states, policymakers have become increasingly supportive of initiatives that reduce parole revocations, establish treatment courts, and divert prison bound defendants through alternatives to incarceration.

Declines in state prison populations and the shifting politics underlying incarceration have created an opportunity to downsize prison bed space for a range of reasons, including excess capacity and the challenge of managing older facilities.

December 15, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"Why All Americans Should Go To Prison: Out of sight, out of mind isn’t good enough."

The title of this post is the extended headline of this new Ozy commentary. Here are is how it starts and ends:

Americans love their prison entertainment.  How could they not lap up the best moments of Orange Is the New Black, what with the lesbianness and the realness … the prison wars, the guards’ criminality, the racial commentary and, um, the lesbianness.

Sure, it feels authentic, but how would the audience know?  Safe to say that few of OITNB’s millions of fans have spent even a moment in a lockup — although probably half are engaged in the illicit sharing of Netflix passwords. Remote and security-sensitive, prisons aren’t exactly accessible to the general public.  States consider visits a privilege, doled out for the incarcerateds’ good behavior.  To enter, one must be on the prisoners’ approved visitor list or in an organized volunteer program.  Even the Supreme Court has come down in favor of strict visitation policies.

This is wrongheaded.  We believe every American should be required to visit a prison.  After all, some two million of their fellow citizens are incarcerated — that’s almost 1 percent of the population.  For the most part, those on the outside ignore this significant minority: Inmates don’t much figure into discussions about policy, which is one reason it took decades for politicians to start dismantling mass-incarceration policies that had long ago been deemed expensive and ineffective.

Isn’t it weird that the first sitting president to visit a federal prison was … Barack Obama, in the last year of his second term?  While there, he was surprised to discover that three fully grown men were housed in a minuscule 9 x 12 cell.

The idea of mandatory prison visits isn’t ours; law professor Neal Katyal tweeted about it this fall.  “The bottom line is, until you experience it and understand the total disconnect between life inside and life outside, it’s really hard to understand who you want to punish and how,” Professor Katyal told us on the phone....

Katyal tells of one Iowa judge who visits every single prisoner he puts behind bars to see how they’re doing. Instead of mandatory minimums, how about mandatory visits from all?

I have been to a handful of prisons to visit clients over the last two decades (and I also got to tour a local jail as part of serving on a grand jury). But I often think I ought to make more of a habit of visiting active prisons and jails, especially because I often go out of my way to tour famous old prisons (e.g., Eastern State, Alcatraz, Moundsville) whenever my travels allow it.

Remarkably, and usefully for those unlikely to be able to head right now to any nearby graybar hotel, this lead piece this morning from The Marshall Project is headlined "Let’s Go to Prison!: A national field trip to Incarceration Nation, under the shadow of Donald Trump." The lengthy article does not substitute for a prison visit, but it highlights a project by the Vera Institute of Justice very much in the spirit of the Ozy commentary. Here is a passage providing the backstory:

[Last month brought] the Vera Institute of Justice's "National Prison Visiting Week." Through a series of field trips to 29 facilities in 17 states, Vera welcomed a diverse array of community members — from bankers to prosecutors to real estate agents to teachers, doctors, and clergy — into Incarceration Nation.  The goal was to promote the value of transparency: to demonstrate that if corrections officials allowed people in, the sky wouldn't fall.  In the process, the organizers hoped, both staff and visitors would engage in a "re-imagining" of the very purpose of a prison: Is it punishment? Incapacitation? Deterrence? Rehabilitation?

The event was conceived during the administration of the first president ever to visit a federal prison, and in anticipation of a next president who had vowed she would reform criminal justice “from end-to-end.”  So the election of Donald J. Trump, less than a week earlier, left many participants wondering whether this field trip would still be the new beginning that was intended, or rather a last gasp of idealism about reform.

December 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vice series takes close look from multiple perspectives at "The Future of Imprisonment"

The media outlet Vice has a big collection of article that should be of interest to sentencing fans assembled here under the heading "THE FUTURE OF INCARCERATION: Exploring what's next for criminal justice reform in America." Here are links and the full headlines for just some of the interesting-looking pieces that are part of the series:

December 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Trump should reform criminal justice system to foster economic growth"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill and authored by Eric Sterling, who is now the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and long ago was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Here are excerpts:

President-elect Trump has expressed a commitment to fostering economic growth and preserving American jobs. In that pursuit, he would be well advised to work towards reforming the criminal justice system. If he embraced a bankruptcy-like program to restore clean criminal records to the millions of Americans who have not been in trouble for many years, he could generate hundreds of thousands jobs – many more than were saved by his intervention and promises to Carrier and United Technologies.

One of the first measures of any economy is employment and job growth. Surprisingly (and unbeknownst to most politicians), our criminal justice system, and its focus on punishment instead of prevention, is one of the biggest drags on our economy because its long-term impact on employment. Once you have a criminal conviction, your ability to get a job is slashed for the rest of your life. If you can get a job, it is likely be “off-the-books.” One Department of Justice study estimated that the average wage loss is 50 percent.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decade ago that about 68 million Americans have a criminal record. Many of these records are not convictions, but some estimate that about one-third of American working age adults have a criminal conviction.

More than two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product is based on the activity of consumers. Cumulatively, the "under-earning" by perhaps one-third of American consumers means lost purchases of everything that every American company makes and sells. Imagine how many Americans could get a mortgage and buy a home if millions of Americans no longer had a criminal record (and imagine how many new Carrier furnaces and air conditioners would be sold and installed).

We have a prison population of 1.8 million (that excludes the jail and juvenile detention populations). In 1970, that number was about .25 million. We know that none of the men and women in prison bought a Ford or Chevrolet last year. We also know that most of those in prison are not there for violent offenses. If they were home – yes, with their liberty restricted, and under supervision – they could work, and many of them would need and could buy a car....

Imagine what the Social Security trust fund would like if millions more American men and women were working, instead of in prison or unemployed or underemployed. Trump should direct his economic team to fully calculate the large-scale economic benefits of smart on crime justice reform.

Trump is proud of his mastery of bankruptcy laws. A criminal record clean slate law is like a bankruptcy. Instead of wiping your financial debts away, such a law would wipe away your criminal record after five or seven years of verifiable good conduct. Bankruptcy, which is in the Constitution, is a useful model for rebuilding the records of formerly convicted persons to re-enter the economy by the millions and help build economic growth for all Americans.

December 12, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 09, 2016

"How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?"

Unnecessarily_IncarceratedThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Brennan Center.  The report's preface serves as a useful overview of its coverage and findings, and here are extended excerpts from the preface:

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions. How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades.

This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation’s leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes.

Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation. Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences. This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime.

Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.

This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant’s criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed....

Based on these findings, this report issues the following recommendations to safely reduce the prison population....

  • Eliminate Prison for Lower-Level Crimes Barring Exceptional Circumstances: State legislatures and Congress should change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead. Judges should have flexibility to depart and impose a prison sentence if certain enumerated factors are present — for example, repeat serious offenses or heinous circumstances of the crime.

  • Reduce Sentence Minimums and Maximums by Law: State and federal legislatures should reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate. We recommend that legislators consider a 25 percent cut as a starting point to determine how to reduce sentences for the six major crimes that make up the bulk of the current prison population: aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offense, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking. Sentences would be shorter, but still substantial. For example, the average inmate convicted of robbery now serves 4.2 years. A 25 percent cut would reduce the prison stay to 3.1 years. A similar analysis can be applied to other crimes for which prison may be warranted to determine whether sentences can be safely shortened.

  • Retroactively Apply Reforms: Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.

  • Complementary Recommendations: Prosecutors should use their discretion to seek alternatives to incarceration or shorter prison stays in line with the recommendations of this report. Further, the nearly $200 billion in savings from implementing this report’s recommendations can be reinvested in proven crime prevention tactics and in alternatives to incarceration proven to reduce recidivism. While the first steps many states have taken toward prison reform are welcome, they have not gone far enough. It took roughly four decades to build mass incarceration. Yet, at current rates of decline, it will take even longer to undo it.

December 9, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Thursday, December 08, 2016

"Death Row Dogs, Hard Time Prisoners, and Creative Rehabilitation Strategies: Prisoner-Dog Training Programs"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking new paper authored by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The use of Prisoner-Dog Programs (PDPs) is an innovative rehabilitative strategy that takes advantage of the bond that humans have had with dogs for thousands of years. Numerous state correctional facilities, along with the BOP, have adopted these programs to give prisoners, and sometimes dogs, a second chance.  The informal results witnessed to date appear positive for everyone concerned.

Inmates benefit because the animal-training instruction they receive, along with the experience they acquire training dogs in their care, provides them with a skill that they can use after their release.  More importantly, the relationship that a prisoner builds with his dog teaches him the need to achieve a goal; the importance of discipline and patience, along with disutility of violence, in being successful; the value and sense of self-worth in empathizing and caring for another creature; and, perhaps for the first time, the emotional bond with another living creature that allows him to feel and express love.  Dogs benefit because they escape their own death row and find their own “forever” homes.  Prisons benefit because the close interaction between prisoners and dogs leads to a reduction in the number of infractions and amount of violence. Members of the community benefit by receiving a dog that can become a service dog or a treasured family member. And society benefits from a reduction in the recidivism rate of participating inmates.  That is a “win-times-five.”

Prisoners, private parties, private organizations, correctional officials, and observers have all offered testimonials to the worthwhile effects of PDPs.  Dogs have done so too, in their own way.  To prove the utility of PDPs as a valuable rehabilitative strategy, Congress should instruct the GAO or the Justice Department to analyze existing PDPs to determine whether they are operating effectively and efficiently.

December 8, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement: Men of color are overrepresented in isolation, while whites are typically underrepresented."

The title of this post is the full headline of this new Atlantic piece.  Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):

Stark disparities in prisoners’ treatment are embedded into criminal-justice systems at the city, county, state, and federal levels, and have disproportionate, negative effects on men of color. A new analysis from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School provides a fresh trove of information with which to explore the racial dynamics in state and federal prisons — specifically through their findings on solitary confinement.

“People of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population,” said Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and one of the study’s authors. “In theory, if race wasn’t a variable, you wouldn’t see that kind of variation. You worry. It gives you a cause to worry.”

The study concluded that, overall, black male prisoners made up 40 percent of the total prison population in those 43 jurisdictions, but constituted 45 percent of the “restricted housing population,” another way to describe those in solitary confinement.  In 31 of the 43, the percentage of black men who spent time in solitary wasn’t proportional to their slice of the general population — it was greater.  Latinos were also disproportionately represented in solitary: On the whole, 21 percent of inmates in confinement were Latino, even though this group constituted only 20 percent of the total population.  Overall, in 22 of the 43 jurisdictions, Latinos were overrepresented in relation to their general-population numbers.

The numbers look slightly different at the state level. In some states, the racial makeup of prisons and their solitary-confinement populations appeared more balanced — like in Kentucky, where white prisoners made up 70 percent of both the general and restricted-housing populations. Black prisoners represented 28 percent of those imprisoned and 27 percent of those in solitary. The dynamic is similar in the District of Columbia, with whites representing 2 percent of both the general and solitary-confinement populations, and blacks representing 90 percent and 94 percent of those groups, respectively.

By and large, similarly aligned figures can be found throughout the country. But in some states, the racial disproportions are startling.  

For example, in a handful of states where Latinos represent a large swath of the overall population, the racial disparities are significant. In California, Latinos made up 42 percent of the general prison population, but 86 percent of those in solitary confinement. Whites, by contrast, were 22 percent of the general population, but only nine percent of those in solitary. And in Texas, Latinos made up 50 percent of those in solitary, but only 34 percent of the overall prison population. Yet again, whites’ figures were lower: They represented 32 percent of the general prison population, but 25 percent of the population in solitary confinement. Mississippi, too, had dissimilar numbers among the racial groups.

December 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 05, 2016

Shining spotlight on ugly dark racial realities of New York State's prison and parole systems

The New York Times has an important new series of articles examining biases in New York State's prison and parole systems. Here are links to and key passages from the first two articles:

"The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons"

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found.  They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations.  At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.

The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order.  In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence.  The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.

"For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System"

An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.

It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.

Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.

December 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Lame (duck) Obama Administration announces series of "sweeping" reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Download (5)I suppose the cliche phrase "better late than never" should keep me calm when I see notable news these days from the Obama Administration concerning criminal justice reform.  But this DOJ press release from yesterday, which carries the heading "Justice Department Announces Reforms at Bureau of Prisons to Reduce Recidivism and Promote Inmate Rehabilitation," prompts frustration rather than calm because it announces reforms that seem so sound and yet so late.  Here are the substantive highlights:

Today, the Department of Justice announced a series of reforms at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) designed to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of inmates’ safe and successful return to the community. These efforts include building a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system, reforming federal halfway houses, covering the cost of obtaining state-issued photo IDs for federal inmates prior to their release from custody and providing additional services for female inmates.

“Helping incarcerated individuals prepare for life after prison is not just sound public policy; it is a moral imperative,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. “These critical reforms will help give federal inmates the tools and assistance they need to successfully return home as productive, law-abiding members of society. By putting returning citizens in a position to make the most of their second chance, we can create stronger communities, safer neighborhoods and brighter futures for all.”

“The sweeping changes that we are announcing today chart a new course for the Bureau of Prisons that will help make our prisons more effective, our communities safer and our families stronger," said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “One of the best ways to prevent crime is by reducing recidivism, and one of the best ways to reduce recidivism is by equipping inmates with the tools they need to successfully reenter society."

Last year, with the department’s support, BOP retained outside consultants to review the agency’s operations and recommend changes designed to reduce the likelihood of inmates re-offending after their release from prison. As part of today’s announcement, the department is launching a new website, www.justice.gov/prison-reform, that compiles current and ongoing reforms at BOP, and includes the final reports from the outside consultants.

The department announced additional details regarding these efforts:

Building a school district within the federal prison system....

Reforming federal halfway houses....

Covering the cost of state-issued IDs prior to inmates’ release....

Enhancing programs for female inmates....

These initiatives are part of the department’s deep commitment to a fair, effective criminal justice system that promotes public safety and prepare inmates for their return to the community, thereby reducing the likelihood that a cycle of crime will continue.  

I think it neither naive nor unfair to assert that seeking to reduce recidivism and promote inmate rehabilitation should be a very top criminal justice priority for any and every Administration as they take over the reins of the Department of Justice and its (very expensive) Federal Bureau of Prisons.  And I see nothing in these "sweeping" BOP reforms that could not have been effectively pioneered eight years ago in the first few months of the Obama Administration rather than only now in the last few (lame duck) months of the Obama Administration.  in other words, though I am pleased to see these late-in-the-day federal prison reform efforts, I cannot help but respond to these new developments with the frustrating feeling that DOJ and BOP during the most of the Obama years were mostly "asleep at the wheel" when it came to critical public safety prison reform priorities.  

Sigh and Grrr.

December 1, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

AP report provides confusing non-answer as to "What is the future of U.S. prisons under Trump administration?"

The quoted question in the title of this post comes from the headline of this AP article.  Because there are a number of strange and confusing elements to this AP piece, I am not sure it does even a reasonable job trying to answer the question it poses.  I will explain some of my concerns with this quirky piece after quoting it at length with some highlighting of key phrases and passages:

The population of American prisons is likely to rise for the first time in nearly a decade with President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to detain and deport millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally and his selection of tough-on-crime Sen. Jeff Sessions to the nation’s highest law enforcement post.

If so, one of the prime beneficiaries would be the private companies that operate many of the nation’s prisons. The stock market seems to agree.  A day after the election, CoreCivic Co., formerly Corrections Corporation of America, saw the biggest percentage gain on the New York Stock Exchange with shares climbing 43 percent.  Shares of Geo Group, another private prison company, also jumped 21 percent.

The federal prison population had been trending down for nearly a decade when the Obama administration announced in August that it would phase out its use of some private facilities.  The announcement followed a Justice Department audit saying private facilities have more safety and security problems than government-run lockups.  The policy change did not cover private prisons used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though federal officials have said they are considering phasing out private contractor immigration facilities.

Trump, however, said during his campaign that the nation’s prison system was a mess and voiced support for private prisons. “I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better,” Trump told MSNBC in March, though he didn’t offer any details on what that might mean for the federal prison system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds up to 34,000 immigrants awaiting deportation.  Forty-six of the roughly 180 facilities in which ICE holds those immigrants are privately run, with about 73 percent of detainees held in the private facilities, the agency says.

“Trump was saying during his 100-day plan that mandatory minimums for people re-entering the country would be set at two years -- that’s going to require a longer-term need for beds,” said Michael Kodesch, a senior associate with financial services firm Canaccord Genuity Inc. Immigration detention centers are particularly profitable for private prison companies because they command a higher rate for each inmate bed, he said....

Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, was among a handful of Republican senators blocking a bipartisan bill that would reduce lengthy sentences for low-level drug offenders.  McLaurine Klingler, a spokeswoman for Sessions, said no one on Sessions’ staff was immediately available to talk about his feelings on the DOJ’s use on private prisons.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said the company doesn’t take positions on proposals, legislation or policies that would determine the basis of an individual’s incarceration or detention.  He said the company instead works to “educate lawmakers on the benefits of public-private partnership generally and the solutions CoreCivic provides.”

I likely would need to write a few law review articles to unpack all the hash in this AP report, but the second highlighted passage above reveals a big part of the mess that this article reflects.  Specifically, the AP article suggests that "private companies ... operate many of the nation’s prisons";  But folks at ACLU note here that "for-profit companies are responsible for approximately 6 percent of state prisoners, 16 percent of federal prisoners, and inmates in local jails in Texas, Louisiana, and a handful of other states."  In other words, private companies actually operate a very small percentage of the nation's prisons.

As the AP article hints, Prez-Elect Trump and his administration might want to grow rather than shrink reliance on for-profit companies for incarceration.  (Even if true, it would matter a lot whether Trump would want just the federal system or also state systems to make greater use of private prisons.)  But Trump's comment praising privatization seems based on a (sound?) view that the very best private prisons might function more effectively and efficiently than the very worst public prisons responsible for our current mass incarceration "mess."   So, even if Prez-Elect Trump and his administration were to make a huge commitment to, say, doubling the use of private prisons nationwide, that commitment alone would not itself make it "likely" for the "population of American prisons ... to rise" in the coming years.  (Indeed, given the incarceration reform measures enacted in key states at the same time Trump was elected president, I am inclined to predict that it is more likely we will see some declines in the population of American prisons in the coming years.)

Finally, though it is true AG-designate Jeff Sessions was opposed to federal statutory sentencing reform throughout 2016 while serving as Senator Sessions from Alabama, his departure from the Senate might now make it more likely that some form of federal statutory sentencing reform gets passed by Congress in 2017 or 2018.   This is true not only because Sessions may get replaced in the Senate by someone at least slightly more likely to support federal statutory sentencing reform, but also because opposition to reform by a number of Senators in 2016 was based in part on a desire to preclude Prez Obama from having a legacy criminal justice reform achievement.  Once Prez Obama is out the door and the (toxic?) symbolism of his affinity for sentencing reform is just a recent memory, I think some (modest?) form of federal statutory sentencing reform is likely to make it through Congress before too long.

November 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did death penalty initiatives make it easier for significant prison reforms to pass in California and Oklahoma?

The sets of death penalty initiatives on state ballots this year received lots of attention, and the pro-death-penalty side received lots of voter support in both "red states" like Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as in the in "blue state" of California.  (And I am very excited, as previewed here, that tomorrow at Northwestern Law I be part of a symposium that will be seeking  to sort out what this means for the future of the death penalty in the US.) But, as Randy Balko notes in this Washington Post piece headlined "Believe it or not, it was a pretty good night for criminal-justice reform," the death penalty outcomes should be looked at in the context of other criminal justice reform measure that also got significant support from voters in both red and blue states. Here are excerpts from his piece with one word highlighted by me for commentary to follow:

The death penalty was on the ballot in three states last night, by way of four separate initiatives. In all of them, the death penalty won.... But it wasn’t just in red states. California voters weighed in on two death penalty initiatives — one to repeal it, and one to speed it up. The former failed, the latter passed.  This is a state that Hillary Clinton won by 28 points. Americans still revere the death penalty....

But there was also a lot of good news last night. Marijuana won in 8 of the 9 states in which it was on the ballot — including outright legalization in California, Massachusetts and Nevada. Those states all went blue in the presidential race, but red states Montana, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota all legalized medicinal marijuana. The lesson here appears to be that pot has finally transcended the culture wars, but the death penalty hasn’t.  [My other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is where I obsess on this reality.]

There are a couple of other important reform measures that passed.  Ironically, both were in states that strengthened the death penalty.  California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole (as opposed to prison) and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and lets judges (instead of prosecutors) determine whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts.  And in Oklahoma, voters approved of a measure to reclassify certain property and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  They also approved a measure that would use the money saved from reclassifying such crimes to fund rehabilitation, mental health treatment and vocational training for inmates. New Mexico voters passed a bail reform measure that, while poorly drafted, at least indicates that there’s an appetite in the electorate for such reforms.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think it "ironic"  that the very different states of California and Oklahoma with very different voters acted in the same way here.  Indeed, I think it quite sensible for voters to be eager to, at the same time while voting, express support for tougher sentencing for the very worst criminals (terrible murderers) and for smarter sentencing for the lesser criminals (nonviolent and drug offenders).  I make this point to stress not only that (1) these results make perfect sense to "average" voters at this moment in our national criminal justice discourse, but also that (2) it was practically shrewd for politicians in California and Oklahoma to put prison reforms in front of voters at the same time they were considering death penalty issues.

1. As a matter of political mood, I suspect the "average" voter now is not too troubled by historic problems with the administration of the death penalty, largely because some recent big capital cases involve mass murderer with no concerns about a possible wrongful conviction or terrible defense lawyering.  High-profile capital cases like James Holmes (the Aurora movie theater mass murderer), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Dylann Roof (the Charleston Church mass murderer) have all involved crimes in which guilt seems clear beyond any doubt and in which the defendants have had the benefit of spectacular defense lawyers.

At the same time, while the "average" voter is seemingly not keen on taking the death penalty completely off the table for mass murderers like Holmes, Tsarnaev and Roof, she seems to be growing much more keen on reducing reliance on incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenders.  National discussions of the expense and inefficacy of the drug war and other concerns about modern mass incarceration has, it seems, made prison reform for certain lower-level offenders politically popular even in a red state like Oklahoma.

2. As a matter of practical realities, especially in a state like California in which "tough on crime" prison initiatives have historically garnered vocal support from law enforcement groups and prosecutors and prison unions, I suspect having a death penalty initiative for the "tough-and-tougher" crowd to focus on created a window of opportunity for supporters of prison reforms to dominate the messaging for voters on "lower salience" issues like expanding parole eligibility or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors.  Though I was not in California or Oklahoma to experience their initiative campaigns directly, I know just from reading Crime & Consequences that Kent Schneidegger, a very effective tough-on-crime advocate, was much more focused on Prop 62 and 66 (the capital initiatives in California) than on Prop 57 (the parole initiative that he called "Gov. Brown's Jailbreak Initiative").

November 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNBC article, which includes these excerpts:

Private prison stocks soared Wednesday after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House.

Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group had suffered some of their biggest declines over the last several months. But on Wednesday, both stocks recouped some of those losses.  Corrections Corporation gained 43 percent, while GEO climbed more than 21 percent.

In August, the Department of Justice instructed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private contractors for federal corrections facilities.  Both stocks tanked on the news, but analysts called the market reaction overblown, and questioned how feasible it would actually be for the federal government to build new housing for displaced prisoners....

The stocks fell particularly far after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the moves and her intention to build on them. "I'm glad that we're ending private prisons in the federal system," Clinton had said in her first presidential debate with Donald Trump. "I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans."

Days after Clinton made her remarks, both stocks posted their worst quarters in more than 15 years. Now that Clinton has lost, and Democrats failed to gain control of Congress, it appears investors are more sanguine about the future of the businesses.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 07, 2016

Split Fourth Circuit panel concludes Virginia’s geriatric release program insufficient to save juve LWOP sentences from violating Graham

A Fourth Circuit panel today handed down a lengthy split decision today in LeBlanc v. Mathena, No. 15-7151 (4th Cir. Nov. 7, 2016) (available here), concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment Graham ruling in Virginia.  Here is how the majority opinion by Judge Wynn gets started:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74 (2010), held that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the sentence of life without parole” for juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that States must provide juvenile nonhomicide offenders sentenced to life imprisonment with “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id. at 75.

Nearly a decade before the Supreme Court decided Graham, Respondent, the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced Petitioner Dennis LeBlanc to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide offense he committed at the age of sixteen. In light of Graham, Petitioner sought postconviction relief from his sentence in Virginia state courts. The state courts denied Petitioner relief, holding that Virginia’s geriatric release program — which was adopted more than fifteen years before the Supreme Court decided Graham and will allow Petitioner to seek release beginning at the age of sixty — provides the “meaningful opportunity” for release that Graham requires.

Mindful of the deference we must accord to state court decisions denying state prisoners postconviction relief, we nonetheless conclude that Petitioner’s state court adjudication constituted an unreasonable application of Graham.  Most significantly, Virginia courts unreasonably ignored the plain language of the procedures governing review of petitions for geriatric release, which authorize the State Parole Board to deny geriatric release for any reason, without considering a juvenile offender’s maturity and rehabilitation.  In light of the lack of governing standards, it was objectively unreasonable for the state courts to conclude that geriatric release affords Petitioner with the “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” Graham demands. Id.  Accordingly, Petitioner is entitled to relief from his unconstitutional sentence.

Judge Niemeyer issued a lengthy dissent that gets started this way:

In affirming the grant of Dennis LeBlanc’s habeas petition brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, the majority holds that the Virginia Supreme Court concluded unreasonably that Virginia’s geriatric release program provided a meaningful opportunity for release to juveniles and therefore satisfied the requirements of Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).  Graham forbids sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes.  In reaching its conclusion, the majority relies simply on its expressed disagreement with the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, 704 S.E.2d 386 (Va. 2011), and effectively overrules it.  The Virginia court’s opinion, however, is demonstrably every bit as reasonable as the majority’s opinion in this case and should be given deference under § 2254(d)(1).

Especially because the "swing" vote on this panel came from a district judge sitting by designation, I think there is a decent chance this case might get further consideration by the Fourth Circuit sitting en banc. I also would expect Virginia to seek Supreme Court review if it does not seek or secure en banc review.

November 7, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Could puppies be the "magical" elixer that can make modern correctional institutions actually correctional?

BonpFuOIUAEiRnkThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new local article from California headlined "California prisons struggle to get inmates to change. Are puppies the ‘magical’ answer?." The piece is about a lot more that has been going on in California prison policy and practice than just a shaggy-dog story. But the article's headline and "softer" contents gives me an excuse to post a puppy picture of the dog breed that I share my life with, and I like hearing about prisoners getting some dog-gone good puppy vibes as well. Here are excerpts:

When a pair of puppies stepped into a state prison’s highest security yard on a scorching summer day, dozens of felons fretted that the Labradors would singe their feet on hot pavement. “Pick them up! You’ve got to carry them. Watch out for their paws!” inmate Andre Ramnanan remembers his worried peers shouting at him.

Three months later, Ramnanan says the dogs still have a “magical” effect on the yard at Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County. Sometimes, they even defuse fights.  “I’ve seen fights almost break out and then stop because someone says, ‘Wait, there’s a dog here,’ ” said Ramnanan, 43.

Ramnanan, serving life without parole for participating in a murder and kidnapping 24 years ago, is one of a handful of inmates enrolled in a program that gives prisoners a shot at redemption by asking them to nurture service dogs that one day will comfort wounded veterans or children with autism. 

The program, called Tender Loving Canines, is among the wealth of new and restored rehabilitation courses that are popping up in California state prisons since Gov. Jerry Brown began boosting programs that help inmates prepare to re-enter society. Today, those programs are giving inmates more opportunities to study, work or pursue therapy than they were offered a decade ago when the state’s prisons were severely overcrowded.

They also provide a template for the reforms Brown is advocating with Proposition 57, his initiative to slim the state’s prison population by empowering parole boards to grant early releases for nonviolent inmates who better themselves while in confinement.

Inmates and their loved ones are following the measure closely. On a recent visit to Mule Creek State Prison, some inmates said it may speed their release. “I wanted to join the program because it was helping the community, and I want to get back to the community,” said inmate Maurice Green, 37, who is participating in the service dog program. “Hopefully, if Prop. 57 passes, it’ll be next year.”...

Mule Creek State Prison contains about 3,500 inmates. It’s reserved for inmates who likely would be harmed by prisoners at other institutions, such as corrupt cops, felons who’ve separated themselves from gangs and sex offenders. It also houses inmates with special medical needs, such as prisoners who use wheelchairs. In May, it opened two new wings that will allow it to house about 1,500 more inmates. So far, the $344 million project is at half capacity while the prison hires more medical and mental health workers to staff the new wards.

Like other prisons, it was extremely overcrowded before a series of court rulings beginning in 2009 compelled the state to direct thousands of new inmates to county jails. Brown as attorney general and earlier in his term as governor unsuccessfully appealed those decisions. Since 2009, the state’s prison population has fallen from about 170,000 inmates to fewer than 129,000.

When Mule Creek was at its most-crowded, inmates slept in gymnasiums and in activity rooms, Lt. Angelo Gonzalez said. Back then, the prison didn’t have room for the rehabilitation programs that inmates are using now. “We had so many inmates that the focus was on providing the basic necessities,” said Mule Creek Warden Joe Lizarraga.

Lately, Mule Creek has seen more inmates joining anger management and conflict resolution programs that Lizarraga has been able to fund through grants that support prisons in rural communities. Statewide, Brown has escalated funding for inmate rehabilitation from $355.2 million in 2011 to $481.5 million this year.

Dogs are at the heart of two of Mule Creek’s most popular programs. In the high-security yard, five young dogs are attached to inmates around the clock in the program that trains them to become service animals. They’re stars of the yard, threading crowds of well-tattooed inmates as they follow their mindful trainers. In a lower-security wing, stray dogs from Amador County spend time with inmates until they become socialized and ready for adoption through local shelters.

Last week, inmate James Hardy had a breakthrough when a rambunctious pit bull he’s been minding suddenly started playing with a chihuahua. Until then, the two dogs had been enemies. He identifies with the strays, recognizing that he, too, could use some help figuring out how to live better outside prison.

“They came from a rescue center. They’re a lot like us. I see us like we’re rescues, too,” said Hardy, 40, of Sacramento, who has been in and out of prison for the last 20 years. He’s serving seven years for vehicle theft.

Cherie Flores, one of the service dog training instructors from Tender Loving Canines, said inmates and puppies are a good match. She visits twice a week, coaching the inmates on how to prepare the dogs for a lifetime of service. “This is amazing for them and for the dogs,” she said. “These guys have nothing but time and structure. Puppies need time and structure. This is everything for them.”

Lizarraga makes a point to spend time with the service dogs in Tender Loving Canines. Some members of his staff had reservations about putting the dogs in the prison’s highest security wing. He thought it was worth a chance, to see if the dogs would change the atmosphere. “It’s our most violent yard. What better place to put a program that had the potential to calm the yard down? It’s done a tremendous job,” he said.

Ramnanan said he joined the program in part because he wanted to “atone” for the 1992 murder that sent him to prison. In the past, he used to sit in his cell and “be angry at the world.” Lately, he pays close attention to a puppy named Amador, turning a fan on her when she pants at night. “It’s a 24-hour-a-day job,” he said. “You find an attachment and someone needs you. It’s a good feeling.”

November 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Black Studies and the Fight Against Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is title of this great public event talking placing in a few weeks on my own campus, which is to begins with a showing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th  (previously promoted here) and then includes a terrific-looking panel discussion.  Here is the official description: 

Join professor and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander for a screening of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which explores the historical foundations and present-day structures of mass incarceration in the United States. After the film, Alexander will lead a panel discussion addressing the importance of Black Studies both for understanding the origins of systems of racial oppression and acquiring the tools needed to effectively combat them. The panel will feature faculty from the Department of African American and African Studies and the Moritz College of Law as well as student activists and community organizers.

A reception with complimentary food and drink will start at 5 PM in Heirloom Café, and the screening will begin at 6 PM.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

November 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

"Reducing the Prison Population: Evidence from Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Lindsay Bostwick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Four decades of rapid growth in the US incarceration rate has met with bipartisan support for reforming sentencing policies and calls to reduce the prison population. However, there is little consensus on how to achieve the reductions suggested. In this paper we project how the Pennsylvania prison population and age demographics may change through 2054 as a result of alternative sentencing policies. One consequence of the prison population growth in recent years has been the aging of those incarcerated and these increasingly older populations strain correctional resources for healthcare and other needs.

Our study finds reducing the prison population requires significant changes to the number of people sentenced to prison along with reducing the sentence length of those incarcerated. In particular, to reduce the prison population by a meaningful amount, we will have to reduce admissions to prison to 1980 rates and the sentence lengths for violent offenders to those seen in 1990. A focus on drug and low-level offenses will do little to change the population in the long run.

November 1, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Florida’s prisons waste money and lives"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy new editorial by the Florida Times-Union, from which come these excerpts:

Wasting money, wasting lives — that’s the motto of Florida’s prison system. Oh, it’s not official, but it’s the reality. Florida’s refusal to attack its criminal justice problems has enshrined us in the backwater of prison reform despite numerous indications that Gov. Rick Scott would address these concerns.

Florida spends too much money, rehabilitates too few prisoners and leaves its citizens no safer than other states like Texas and Georgia that have instituted common-sense reforms. “There’s no state plan to do anything, and the status quo is leaving us even further behind,” says Deborrah Brodsky of the Project on Accountable Justice. “This state simply overrelies on things that don’t work.”

Although some changes have been made in the six years since Scott took office, there has been little comprehensive reform. That’s surprising to prison reform advocates who initially thought the new governor was a staunch advocate. Scott had commissioned a 263-page transition report from a team of hand-picked experts on the Department of Corrections before he took office in 2011.

When negotiating his first budget, the governor did make fiscal changes to make the Department of Corrections more efficient in his incoming budget. Advocates believed he would follow through by enacting the kinds of reforms that had reduced prison budgets in other states. Instead, the governor’s first budget showed not reforms but the elimination of 1,690 Department of Corrections jobs — including 619 corrections officers — the closure of two prisons and transferring 1,500 inmates to private facilities. Since then, he has since refused to embrace reform in the adult prisons, although he has made substantial positive changes within the juvenile system.

There are many proven changes Florida must make to reverse its course. These range from revisiting how the courts sentence people for drugs to how juveniles are treated in the system. Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice in Texas, told the Times-Union editorial board his state has already made strides in reforming the Lone Star state’s system. He suggested four areas deserving of immediate attention in Florida.

Alter the use of direct file of juveniles into the adult prison system....

Readjust mandatory minimum sentences....

Change pre-trial procedures....

Adjust state felony theft thresholds....

In 2010, Scott’s transition team noted that prison reform was needed. “Our team found that DOC is broken,” the report concluded, noting that the Legislature had ignored pleas for modernization and reform. The report listed multiple excellent ideas whose combined mission was to reform the prison system, reduce recidivism, decrease the number of repeat offenders, ease ex-offenders transition back to the community and save taxpayers money.

What’s happened since then? Very little. Scott seems to have forgotten his own transition team’s report on the need for prison reform, and the Legislature has failed to press for changes. It’s time Florida paddles itself out of the backwater of prison reform.

October 30, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Significant new report calls for closing all traditional youth prisons due to their inefficacy

This recent item from the Harvard Gazette, headlined "Youth justice study finds prison counterproductive: New report documents urgent need to replace youth prisons with rehabilitation-focused alternatives," spotlights a significant new report concerning the way juvenile offenders are punished. Here are excerpts:

A new report, published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), documents ineffectiveness, endemic abuses, and high costs in youth prisons throughout the country.  The report systematically reviews recent research in developmental psychology and widespread reports of abuse to conclude that the youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and, for the few youth who require secure confinement, smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation.

The authors, who are leading youth justice researchers and former youth correctional administrators, find that the current youth prison model, which emphasizes confinement and control, often exacerbates youth trauma and inhibits positive growth while failing to address public safety.  Rather, the paper argues, programs work best when youths are in their home communities with rehabilitative programs or in smaller, homelike facilities that promote opportunities for healthy decision-making and development. Corrections agencies should provide a range of options depending on the individual’s needs, from smaller secure facilities to noncustodial programs.

Annual youth imprisonment costs are approximately $150,000 per individual, yet recidivism rates remain close to 70 percent. The report examines the experiences of several states that have pursued alternative models and finds community-based approaches can reduce recidivism, control costs, and promote public safety.

“Youth in trouble need guidance, education, and support, not incarceration in harmful and ineffective youth prisons,” said PCJ Senior Fellow Vincent Schiraldi, a co-author of the report. Previously, Schiraldi directed juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C., and served as commissioner of probation in New York City.  “We now know from research and on-the-ground experience that youth prisons are not designed to best promote youth rehabilitation.  This report offers concrete alternatives for policymakers across the country to maintain public safety, hold young people accountable, and turn their lives around.”

“Juvenile-justice systems must have the clear purpose of giving each youth the tools he or she needs to get on the right path to a successful adulthood and to reintegrate into the community,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a co-author of the report.  Like Schiraldi, McCarthy is a former director of youth corrections — in his case, in Delaware.  “By closing traditional youth prisons and leveraging increased political will to reform our country’s dependence on incarceration, states can use the savings to begin implementing a new, more effective approach to serving young people.”

This report, titled “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” is available in full at this link.  And here is a key paragraph from its opening pages:

Whether the benefits and costs of youth prisons are weighed on a scale of public dollars, community safety, or young people’s futures, they are damaging the very people they are supposed to help and have been for generations. It is difficult to find an area of U.S. policy where the benefits and costs are more out of balance, where the evidence of failure is clearer, or where we know with more clarity what we should be doing differently.

October 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Consolidating Local Criminal Justice: Should Prosecutors Control the Jails?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new essay authored by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Most observers agree that prosecutors hold too much power in the American criminal justice system.  Expansive criminal codes offer prosecutors wide discretion to charge defendants with a huge number of offenses.  And stiff authorized punishments provide prosecutors with leverage to pressure defendants to plea guilty.  As a result, prosecutors hold most of the plea bargaining cards.  Massive prosecutorial power has resulted in mass incarceration.

I do not disagree with the conventional wisdom that prosecutors hold too much power. However, absent drastic legislative and judicial change, it will be nearly impossible to substantially reduce prosecutors’ power and discretion. As such, this essay offers the counter-intuitive proposal that we should give prosecutors more, not less, power and responsibility.

This essay argues that states should change their nearly uniform policy of having sheriffs run local jails. Instead, we should place local prosecutors in charge of their local jails.  While sheriffs would remain responsible for safety and discipline, prosecutors should be charged with all of the logistical responsibility for checking inmates in and out of the facilities and with handling the overall budgets.

Putting prosecutors in charge of the jails would take a bite out of the “correctional free lunch” in which prosecutors impose sentences but do not have to internalize the financial costs of their decisions.  Put simply, prosecutors would have to pay for and live with their misdemeanor charging and sentencing decisions.  Consolidating local criminal justice might also have spillover effects that encourage prosecutors to reduce the sentences they seek in felony cases.

October 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Opportunity Agenda produces huge report on "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions"

Full_pdf_cover_sideThe Opportunity Agenda, which is a project of Tides Center and calls itself a "social justice communication lab," has just released this huge new on-line report (which is also available as a pdf here) under the title "Transforming the System: Criminal Justice Policy Solutions." Here is the main introduction and the headings for links to different sections of this report:

Our criminal justice system must keep all communities safe, foster prevention and rehabilitation, and ensure fair and equal justice. But in too many places, and in too many ways, our system is falling short of that mandate and with devastating consequences. The United States is saddled with an outdated, unfair, and bloated criminal justice system that drains resources and disrupts communities.

People of color, particularly Native American, black, and Latino people, have felt the impact of discrimination within the criminal justice system. Many immigrants experience mandatory detention, racial profiling, and due process violations because of laws and policies that violate their human rights—and the principles of equal justice, fair treatment, and proportionality under our criminal justice system. The good news is that we as a nation are at a unique moment in which there is strong public, bipartisan support for criminal justice reform; we see positive policy developments in many parts of the country; and mass action and social movements for change are growing, including the Movement for Black Lives. More is needed, however, to move from positive trends to transformative, lasting change.

Criminal Justice Policy Solutions
  • Promote Community Safety through Alternatives to Incarceration: Our criminal justice system should ensure that all individuals feel safe and secure in their communities.
  • Create Fair and Effective Policing Practices: To work for all of us, policing practices should ensure equal justice and be supported by evidence.
  • Promote Justice in Pre-Trial Services & Practices: The right to due process is a cornerstone of our commitment to freedom and fairness.
  • Enhance Prosecutorial Integrity: Prosecutors represent the government, and therefore must reflect the highest levels of integrity and ethics in their work.
  • Ensure Fair Trials and Quality Indigent Defense: Every accused person is entitled to a fair trial. Indigent defendants have a constitutional right to competent representation at trial.
  • Encourage Equitable Sentencing: People convicted of crimes should receive fair sentences. These sentences should reflect the severity of the crime and be administered in a fair manner.
  • Ensure Decent Detention Conditions: Decent, rehabilitative prisons are a basic human right and crucial to the successful reintegration of formally incarcerated people.
  • Require Equitable Parole and Probation: Parole and probation practices should be fair and consistent. They should be used as a tool to allow accused persons to safely remain in their communities.
  • Foster Successful Reintegration: Most Americans agree that after completing a criminal sentence, released people should be given an opportunity to successfully reintegrate into their communities.
  • Foster an Environment for Respecting Children's Rights: We must adopt policies that ensure children reach their full potential and are not placed off track for childhood mistakes.
  • Eradicate the Criminalization of Sex, Gender, & Sexuality: We all should have freedom to live without fear of criminalization because of our expressed sex, gender or sexuality.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Poverty: Instead of increasing opportunities to succeed, our law too often funnels low-income people into the criminal justice system.
  • Eliminate the Criminalization of Public Health Issues: The criminal justice system is too often used as a cure-all for social problems that are better suited to social services and public health responses.
  • Promote Fairness at the Intersection of Immigration and Criminal Justice: Everyone is entitled to have their human rights respected regardless of immigration status.
  • Public Opinion Report: A New Sensibility: This report is based on a review of about fifty public opinion surveys and polls, most of them conducted between 2014 and June 2016.

I suspect most, if not all, of this report's various sections will be of interest to readers. And I hope it is useful for all to see what is listed as 10 action items under the "Encourage Equitable Sentencing" section. That section starts this way and they has these 10 "Solutions and Actions to Encourage Fair Sentences":

We all want a criminal justice system that treats people fairly, takes a pragmatic and responsible approach, and ultimately, keeps us safe. When we’ve reached the point of deciding to deprive someone of their liberty, we have to be particularly fair and responsible and consider all options. Sentences should consider a range of factors and reflect the severity of the crime. We owe it to ourselves, our justice system, and to those being imprisoned to ensure that our sentencing practices are thoughtful and fair. Nonetheless, the explosion of the American prison population is largely due to sentences that are disproportionate to the severity of crimes. Prisons and jails are filled by many people who pose no threat to their communities. Laws that impose mandatory minimums contribute to mass imprisonment. Sentencing laws should be reformed to require transparency and mandate equitable practices that ensure that sentences are appropriate to the particular circumstances of an offense.

1) Repeal “Truth-in-Sentencing” and “Three-Strikes” Law...

2) Repeal Mandatory Minimums...

3) Use Alternatives to Incarceration...

4) Prohibit Incarceration for Failure to Appear...

5) Revise Sentencing Guidelines...

6) Commit to Cutting Incarceration in Half...

7) Collect Data...

8) Train Judges on Implicit Bias...

9) Appoint Judges from Diverse Backgrounds...

10) Evaluate Ability to Pay

October 26, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Bars to Justice: The Impact of Rape Myths on Women in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this paper newly posted to SSRN and authored by Hannah Brenner, Kathleen Darcy, Gina Fedock and Sheryl Kubiak. Here is the abstract:

This article stems from a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary research project that addresses a major gap in understanding the reporting of sexual victimization in prison and the confluence of factors that contribute to the ineffectiveness of internal laws and policies.  As a basis of this work, our cohort of scholars in law, social work, and psychology utilized data and personal narratives from the groundbreaking class action lawsuit, Neal v. MDOC, brought on behalf of over 800 female inmates against the State of Michigan.

In this article, we identify the most prevalent rape myths we observed from women who were involved in the Neal lawsuit and other similarly situated female inmates across the country.  We focus on the impact of rape myths in contexts where prison staff perpetrate sexual violence against female inmates and in particular, how rape myths span the closed prison system-from reporting to grievance outcomes.  We explore how these myths shape notions of the "ideal victim," discuss their specific impact, and explain why they matter.

We consider how, by virtue of their incarcerated status, it is impossible for women victimized in prison to meet the "ideal victim" standards, ultimately rendering their attempts at seeking justice futile.  We hope that our analysis of rape myths in the prison context will inspire changes in prison law and policy by acknowledging and urging the dismantling of these often unforeseen, implicit, and informal barriers to justice.

October 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Old prison problems from new school smuggling

This new Washington Post piece discusses and old prison problem and its new dimensions.  The piece is headlined "Prisons try to stop drones from delivering drugs, porn and cellphones to inmates," and here are excerpts:

Prison inmates, a remarkably ingenious bunch, are disrupting long-standing methods of smuggling drugs, porn and cellphones the same way online retailers hope to one day deliver socks and underwear to American homes — through the air, with drones.

By coordinating with wingmen on the outside for shipments of contraband, inmates can bypass the need to bribe corrupt guards or persuade family members to hide forbidden items in body cavities.

Though nobody is precisely sure just how many drones are landing every day in prisons, the threat is global.  Last year, there was a melee at an Ohio prison after a drone dropped heroin into the exercise yard.  In April, security cameras at a London prison recorded a drone delivering drugs directly to an inmate’s window.

And in Western Maryland earlier this year, prosecutors convicted a recently released inmate and a prisoner serving a life sentence on charges of attempted drug distribution and delivery of contraband after they completed several nighttime missions netting them $6,000 per drop in product sales.  It was such a lucrative scheme that the former inmate had purchased a new truck for himself with the profits....

Prison officials are dealing with this new threat even as inmates continue using older, higher-risk methods.  Earlier this month, more than 50 correctional officers and inmates were charged in a smuggling scheme at Eastern Correctional Institution, Maryland’s largest prison.

Drone deliveries, while clever, aren’t all that surprising given how much time inmates spend watching television news, security officials say.  They’ve likely seen stories about retailers such as Amazon (founded by Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos) pushing the concept.  “We are trying to keep up with technology just like everyone else,” said Stephen T. Moyer, secretary of Public Safety & Correctional Services for Maryland. “So this is a huge challenge for all of us in corrections.”...

The threats to prisons and other facilities have given rise to start-ups selling anti-drone detection systems that use thermal imaging and other technology to spot airborne infiltrators. Some executives have jokingly compared the technology to “Star Wars” — not the movies, but the Reagan-era missile defense system.

October 12, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Slave Narratives and the Sentencing Court"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by Lindsey Webb available via SSRN (and which certainly serves as an interesting scholarly "chaser" after watching the new documentary 13th). Here is the abstract:

The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  Courts are substantially more likely to sentence African American and Latino people to prison than white people in similar circumstances, and African Americans in particular represent a grossly disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated population. Violence and other ills endemic to jails and prisons are thus disproportionately experienced by people of color.

This Article argues that criminal defense lawyers should explicitly address conditions of confinement at sentencing.  In doing so, a criminal defense lawyer has the opportunity to serve as both advocate and abolitionist.  As advocates, defense lawyers can incorporate information about conditions of confinement into sentencing narratives to support arguments for shorter sentences or against imprisonment altogether.  As abolitionists, defense lawyers can juxtapose the humanity of their clients with the poor or even dire conditions of confinement in our jails and prisons — not only to influence the court’s decision about an individual client’s sentence, but to impact the court’s view of our systems of incarceration as a whole.  Defense lawyers acting as abolitionists thus seek to disrupt and dismantle a system of imprisonment that disproportionately affects African American and Latino people in significant and damaging ways.

In examining how invoking conditions of confinement at sentencing engages defense attorneys as advocates and abolitionists, this Article seeks insight from a tool of abolitionists and advocates from a different time: Civil War-era slave narratives.  Slave narratives exposed the hidden conditions of slavery while also seeking to humanize the enslaved people subjected to those conditions.  Using slave narratives as a touchstone in a conversation about sentencing advocacy provides a new perspective on the role of storytelling in litigation and social movements, including questions of who tells the story and which stories are told, in the context of systems of control with deep disparate impacts based on race.

October 11, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 07, 2016

This weekend's must-watch: 13th, Ava DuVernay's new documentary linking slavery and mass incarceration

As noted in this prior post, my screen time last weekend was devoted to my favorite bi-annual sporting event. And I suspect much of this weekend will be focused on one of my favorite annual playoffs. But the must-watch for this weekend is on a much more serious set of subjects, the US history of slavery and its echoes within mass incarceration. These are the topics covered in a new Netflix documentary, which YouTube describes in this way along providing this preview:

The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. On Netflix October 7.

I would be excited to watch this new documentary even if it did not receive strong reviews.  But, as these reviews/headlines highlight, I am not the only one thinking this new doc is a must-watch:

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable negative review makes me even more eager to watch and re-watch this new doc:

October 7, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Television | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Notable report on "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms"

The  Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank, has released this interesting new report titled simply "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms." This PPIC press release reviews the report's highlights: 

California has reduced the number of offenders incarcerated in the state without broadly increasing crime rates. But so far, the state’s historic reforms have not lowered California’s high recidivism rates or corrections spending. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

After a federal court ordered the state in 2009 to shrink the size of its prison population, California embarked on a path — unmatched by any other state — of reducing incarceration and reforming its corrections system.  October marks the five-year anniversary of public safety realignment, the major reform that shifted responsibility for lower-level felons from the state prison and parole systems to county jail and probation systems.  The passage of Proposition 47 in 2014 led to more changes.  The PPIC report, California’s Historic Corrections Reforms, assesses the impact of the reforms and their implications for the future in key areas:

  • Incarceration. After reaching a peak in 2006 of almost 256,000, the total number of inmates in state prisons and county jails declined by about 55,000. The incarceration rate fell from 702 to 515 per 100,000 residents — a level not seen since the early 1990s.  The prison population rapidly declined in the first year of realignment, when most lower-level felons with new convictions began serving their sentences in county jail or under probation supervision instead of in state prison. But the decline was about 10,000 inmates short of the court-mandated target of 137.5 percent of the prisons’ design capacity.

    Realignment also increased the statewide jail population by about 9,000 inmates in the first year, leading to early releases because of crowding.  It was not until voters passed Proposition 47 — which reduced penalties for some drug and property offenses — that the prison population fell below the court-ordered target and the jail population dropped to pre-realignment levels. Each of these reforms changed the composition of the jail population—and presented new challenges to the counties. A companion PPIC report, California’s County Jails in the Era of Reform, also released today, examines these changes.

  • Crime rates. Realignment resulted in an additional 18,000 offenders on the street, but through 2014 there is no evidence to suggest that it affected violent crime. Auto thefts did increase, by about 60 per 100,000 residents. In 2014, the most recent year with comprehensive data available, crime rates were at lows not seen since the 1960s. In 2015, violent crime rose by 8.4 percent and property crime by 6.6 percent, but data are not yet available to determine if these increases are part of a national trend or specific to California. The role of Proposition 47 on crime remains unknown, but compared to other states, California’s increase in property crime appears to stand out more than its increase in violent crime.

  • Recidivism.  Rearrest and reconviction rates for offenders released in the first year of realignment are similar to what they were before realignment: 69 percent of offenders released from state prison are rearrested within two years, and 42 percent are convicted again.  This reconviction rate — about 5 percentage points higher than before realignment — may simply reflect prosecution of offenses that in the past would have been processed administratively.  California did make one significant advance: realignment effectively reduced the costly practice of returning released offenders to prison for parole violations. As a result, two-year return-to-prison rates, which had been the highest in the nation, dropped from 55 percent to 16.5 percent.

  • Spending.  Despite a lower incarceration rate, the state’s General Fund spending on corrections in 2016–17 is $10.6 billion — 9 percent more than the $9.7 billion spent in 2010–11, the last year before realignment. The state also gives the counties $1.3 billion in realignment funds.  Since 2012, increases to the corrections budget have funded additional space to house prisoners, employee salaries and benefits, and bond repayment.  The state has also invested significantly to improve delivery of health care for inmates, though prisons continue to operate under a court-ordered medical receivership.  Regaining control of health care could help the state reduce costs. But to realize substantial savings, the state may need to reduce the prison population enough to close a state prison or reduce its use of private and out-of-state facilities to house prisoners.

Even with the significant decline in incarceration, California still houses about 200,000 inmates and spends at historically high levels on corrections, the report notes.

September 29, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Terrific NPR segment about prisoners on strike throughout the US

I was lucky enough to have my drive home tonight coincide with my local NPR station's broadcast of a lengthy segment concerning US prisons and on-going strikes in a number around the nation. Among the participants in the call-in show was Beth Schwartzapfel who has been following developments and writing about them here at The Marshall Project under the headline "A Primer on the Nationwide Prisoners’ Strike: Prisoners can be forced to work without pay — the Constitution says so."

The reason I consider the NPR piece a "must-listen" is in large part because of two current prisoners were somehow able to call into the show and talk about these issues from prison for an extended period. (The currently incarcerated begin speaking around the 14:25 mark until about the 39:40 mark.

Really worth taking the time to check out for those who care about prisons and prisoners in the United States.

September 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)