Monday, March 13, 2017

A notable pitch (from a notable author) to look at criminal justice reform as a "women's issue"

The Hill today published this notable new commentary authored by Mia Love and Holly Harris under the headline "Criminal justice reform: A women’s issue." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The media has devoted a lot of ink and airtime to the sky-high incarceration rates here in the U.S., but sadly, that coverage often ignores a key demographic: women.  The female prison population has spiked in recent years, and since Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, we thought this would be a good time to shed more light on this disturbing trend.

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in prison grew by an alarming 700 percent — increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men. Over the same period, the number of women in local jails has increased 14-fold. This impact falls disproportionately on African-American women, whose rate of imprisonment is double that of white women.

Those statistics are even more disheartening when you consider approximately 60 percent of women in prison are mothers. We need to take a serious look at what it means for those women — and the children they leave behind....

Women in the federal system are more likely to be incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.  Some 94 percent of women in federal prison are serving a sentence for nonviolent drug, property or public-order offenses, as well as 63 percent of women in state prisons.  Our system needs to do better addressing the root causes of these crimes and offering alternatives to incarceration for women who pose no grave threat to society.  We need to pursue policies that offer better access to community supervision programs and treatment instead of jail time for those with drug addictions....

While female incarceration declined 2 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, criminal-justice reform is still as critical as ever.  As the laboratories of democracy, red and blue states across our nation have enacted innovative reforms that have prioritized public safety while strengthening families, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.

We must pay more attention to the spike in female inmates and, more importantly, the emotional and financial costs of women in and out of prison.  As a society we are not only failing ourselves, we are failing our mothers, wives, and sisters.  For that reason — and so many others — we hope Congress moves comprehensive criminal-justice reform to the president’s desk in 2017.

Astute readers perhaps recall that Mia Love holds the notable distinction of being the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress. As this post from 2014 after her election reveals, I had an inkling that Mia Love might be inclined to become an important voice in support of criminal justice reform.  This latest commentary suggests that inkling is proving accurate.

March 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Reassessing Prosecutorial Power Through the Lens of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new and notable book review authored by Jeffrey Bellin. Here is the abstract:

Prosecutors have long been the Darth Vader of academic writing: mysterious, all-powerful and, for the most part, bad. This uber-prosecutor theme flows like the force through John Pfaff’s highly-anticipated new book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform."  The book concludes that police, legislators, and judges are not to blame for Mass Incarceration.  Instead, “the most powerful actors in the entire criminal justice system” (prosecutors) have used their “almost unfettered, unreviewable power to determine who gets sent to prison and for how long.”

Locked In’s data-driven thesis aligns neatly with the academic consensus.  If prosecutors are the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, they must be responsible for its most noteworthy product — Mass Incarceration.  The only problem is that it probably isn’t right.  While Pfaff’s empirical findings have been embraced by the media, the legal academy, and even former President Obama, they are grounded in questionable data.  With these flaws exposed, the familiar villains of the Mass Incarceration story reemerge: judges and, above all, legislators.  This reemergence provides a very different focus for reforms designed to unwind Mass Incarceration.  It also says something profound about prosecutorial power.

Prosecutors possess substantial power to let people escape from an increasingly inflexible system. But decades of academic claims suggesting that prosecutors are equally powerful when acting in the opposite direction — to dictate sanctions — fold under scrutiny.  When it comes to imposing incarceration, prosecutorial power is largely contingent on the actions of other, more powerful criminal justice actors.

March 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Why Prison?: An Economic Critique"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper authored by Peter Salib now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article argues that we should not imprison people who commit crimes.  This is true despite the fact that essentially all legal scholars, attorneys, judges, and laypeople see prison as the sine qua non of a criminal justice system.  Without prison, most would argue, we could not punish past crimes, deter future crimes, or keep dangerous criminals safely separate from the rest of society. Scholars of law and economics have generally held the same view, treating prison as an indispensable tool for minimizing social harm. But the prevailing view is wrong.

Employing the tools of economic analysis, this Article demonstrates that prison imposes enormous but well-hidden societal losses.  It is therefore a deeply inefficient device for serving the utilitarian aims of the criminal law system — namely, optimally deterring bad social actors while minimizing total social costs.  The Article goes on to engage in a thought experiment, asking whether an alternative system of criminal punishment could serve those goals more efficiently.  It concludes that there exist economically superior alternatives to prison available right now.  The alternatives are practicable.  They plausibly comport with our current legal rules and more general moral principles. They could theoretically be implemented tomorrow, and, if we wished, we could bid farewell forever to our sprawling, socially-suboptimal system of imprisonment.

This paragraph from the paper's conclusion partially summarizes the main prison alternative that the paper promotes:

Rather than being locked away to rot, bad actors could be employed productively in the workforce. The gains of that employment could be transferred to victims and governments, while simultaneously serving as a deterrent cost.  And to the extent that monetary transfers cannot achieve optimal deterrence, humankind is capable of inventing alternative nonmonetary sanctions to fill the gap.  Such alternative nonmonetary sanctions might rightly be criticized from a non-welfarist moral perspective.  But these criticisms often to apply with equal force to the current system. Where they do not, the question becomes when and whether efficiency should be sacrificed to other normative concerns.  That question is outside the ambit of this paper.  The alternative system can also be criticized on practicability grounds.  But upon close investigation, such criticisms lose much of their force.

March 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Texas executes paid hit-man ... after Justice Breyer dissents from SCOTUS refusing to consider extended solitary death row stay

As this AP article reports, a "paid hit man was executed Tuesday night in Texas for gunning down a San Antonio woman in a life insurance scheme nearly a quarter-century ago." Here are a few more details about this latest execution:

Rolando Ruiz was given a lethal injection for fatally shooting Theresa Rodriguez, 29, outside her home in 1992 as she was getting out of a car with her husband and brother-in-law, who both orchestrated her murder. Ruiz was paid $2,000 to carry out the killing. Ruiz, strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney, looked directly at two sisters of his victim and their husbands and apologized profusely....

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he took several deep breaths, then began snoring quietly. All movement stopped within about 30 seconds. Ruiz, 44, was pronounced dead 29 minutes later at 11:06 p.m. His execution was the third this year in Texas and the fifth nationally.

“It’s not going to bring her back, so it really doesn’t mean very much,” Susie Sanchez, whose daughter was killed in the contract murder, said Monday. Her daughters, who were among the witnesses Tuesday night, declined to comment afterward.

The execution was delayed for nearly five hours until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three appeals attorneys had filed for Ruiz to try to stop the punishment. His lawyers argued to the high court that lower courts improperly rejected an earlier appeal that focused on whether Ruiz earlier had deficient legal help. They also contended Ruiz’s execution would be unconstitutionally cruel because he’s been on death row since 1995, had multiple execution dates and two reprieves. Attorney Lee Kovarsky blamed the long time between a San Antonio jury’s verdict and the punishment on the state’s failure to provide Ruiz with competent lawyers earlier in his appeals.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have stopped the execution to further examine the question of prolonged death row confinement.

Notably, as revealed here, Justice Breyer's solo dissent from the denial of a stay by SCOTUS was fairly substantive. Here is how it starts and ends:

Petitioner Rolando Ruiz has been on death row for 22 years, most of which he has spent in permanent solitary confinement. Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution “violates the Eighth Amendment” because it “follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,” principally his “permanent solitary confinement.” Petition 25. I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it....

Here the “human toll" that accompanies extended solitary confinement is exacerbated by the fact that execution is in the offing.  Moreover, Mr. Ruiz has developed symptoms long associated with solitary confinement, namely severe anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, disorientation, memory loss, and sleep difficulty.  Further, the lower courts have recognized that Mr. Ruiz has been diligent in pursuing his claims, finding the 22-year delay attributable to the State or the lower courts.  Ruiz v. Quarterman, 504 F. 3d 523, 530 (CA5 2007) (quoting Ruiz v. Dretke, 2005 WL 2620193, *2 (WD Tex., Oct. 13, 2005)). Nor are Mr. Ruiz’s 20 years of solitary confinement attributable to any special penological problem or need. They arise simply from the fact that he is a prisoner awaiting execution. App. E to Petition 16.

If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity.  That is why I would grant a stay of execution, allowing the Court to examine the record more fully.

March 8, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

"Women in Prison: Should they be treated differently from men?"

The title of this post is the title of a lengthy new examination of the incarceration rates of women in recent years just published here by the CQ Researcher, which seeks to provide "in-depth reporting on issues in the news." The full report requires a subscription, but here is the preview via the CQ Researcher website:

The number of women in state and federal prisons has surged since 1978 by nearly 800 percent — twice the growth rate for men.  Mandatory sentences for drug offenses enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have hit women particularly hard, many experts say.  But some prosecutors and Republicans dispute the claim that the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately hurt women.  They say mandatory sentencing has reduced crime, helped break up drug rings and ended sentencing disparities.

Reformers hope states' recent efforts to reduce prison populations and spend more on drug treatment will help women. But they say women still remain an afterthought in the penal system.  For example, reformers say courts and prisons rarely recognize women's responsibility as mothers or the factors underlying their participation in crime, such as domestic abuse.  The justice system, women's advocates say, needs to think creatively about how to help female prisoners.  Meanwhile, in the juvenile system, girls often receive harsher punishments than boys who commit similar offenses.

March 5, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 03, 2017

Making the case for fixing private prisons in the Trump era

Lauren-Brooke Eisen has this notable new commentary in Fortune headlined "How President Trump and Jeff Sessions Can Fix America’s Private Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ... issued a memo reversing the Obama administration’s decision to phase out its use of private prisons at the federal level.  This memo followed the release of a U.S. Justice Department report in August concluding that privately-operated prisons experienced more safety and security incidents than facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons did.

Since Sessions appears determined to move forward regardless, now is the right time to evaluate how to improve upon how the Justice Department contracts with private corporations to run some of its prisons.  With a businessman in charge of the White House, this provides an opportunity to change private prisons for the better.  A good first step would be to restructure contracts to make private facilities more accountable, effective, and strategic in their use of resources....

Although the new attorney general’s shift in policy only affects a little more than 21,000 inmates out of 126,300 inmates housed in state and federally contracted private prison facilities across the country, it points to the Trump administration’s likely reliance on the private prison industry over the next few years.  Currently, the federal government primarily uses private prisons to house non-citizens convicted of crimes, and most face deportation upon release. The president’s recent executive actions cracking down on unauthorized immigration will likely swell the private prison rolls even more, further expanding the industry....

With an expansion of for-profit prisons on the horizon, it is more important than ever that the government restructure contracts with the private prison industry to boost performance and change incentives.  Conducting field research for my upcoming book, I found that it is rare for contracts with private prison companies to demand fresh thinking, recidivism reduction, and outcomes that outperform the public sector.  Most contracts require the private operator to simply replicate the government prison system’s procedures.

Rather than repeat this approach, both the federal government and state governments should write contracts to ensure that economic incentives focus on reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for the nation’s inmates, not just warehousing as many people as possible....

In 2013, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration announced it would cancel all the state’s Department of Corrections contracts with private community corrections companies and rebid them on a performance basis. Providers were then evaluated on and paid according to their success at reducing the recidivism levels of those who had just been released from prison.  The state could cancel a contract if the recidivism rate increased over two consecutive year-long periods.  After these contracts were implemented, the recidivism rate for private facilities fell 11.3 percent in just the first year.

Restructuring contracts around the nation’s public policy goals would ensure that private operators provide more educational programming, job training classes, and work with their inmates to ensure they are set up for optimal success once they are eventually released.  Providing incentives to private firms to exceed baselines — such as improved recidivism rates — is an effective carrot, versus creating penalties for basic contract breaches like failing to receive basic accreditation or meet minimum standards.

Reimagining how private prisons operate and are held accountable does not need to be an academic exercise.  Building the proper incentives into their contracts has the power to move the for-profit prison industry away from focusing on cost-cutting and filling its beds to make an extra dollar.  Imagine a world where private prison operators earned bonuses if their inmates received top-tier educational programming and vocational skills classes instead of guaranteed bed occupancies.  It’s possible that private prisons could begin marketing themselves to directors of corrections as leaders in recidivism reduction and reentry preparation.

Private prisons are here to stay under the new administration.  Let’s at least make them work better.

March 3, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

AG Sessions, reversing recent decision made during Obama Administration, signals DOJ return to reliance on private prisons

As reported in this Bloomberg News piece, "U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to continue using private prisons, rescinding an order by former President Barack Obama’s administration." Here is more context:

Sessions signed the order on Feb. 21, according to a Justice Department statement. The Justice Department last year halted a decade-long experiment of hiring private companies to help manage the soaring prison population.  "The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system," Sessions wrote in a new memo released Thursday but dated Feb. 21.  "I direct the Bureau to return to its previous approach."

The move comes as President Donald Trump’s administration has pledged to crack down on illegal immigration and crime.  The majority of inmates held at private facilities used by the Justice Department are sentenced “criminal aliens,” according to the Bureau of Prisons. That largely encompasses undocumented immigrants convicted of drug offenses or entering the U.S. without proper documentation.

For a variety of reasons, I do not find this development all that surprising or really all that big of a deal. But I know a lot of reform advocates on the left are especially troubled by the private prison industry, and thus I suspect this move will be another talking point for those concerned about the direction of the federal criminal justice system under the new Administration.

February 23, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Constitutional Law of Incarceration, Reconfigured"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Margo Schlanger now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

As American incarcerated populations grew starting in the 1970s, so too did court oversight of prisons. In the late 1980s, however, as incarceration continued to boom, federal court oversight shrank.  This Article addresses the most central doctrinal limit on oversight of jails and prisons, the Supreme Court’s restrictive reading of the constitutional provisions governing treatment of prisoners — the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause and the Due Process Clause, which regulate, respectively, post-conviction imprisonment and pretrial detention.  The Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban of cruel and unusual punishment, in particular, radically undermined prison officials’ accountability for tragedies behind bars — allowing, even encouraging, them to avoid constitutional accountability.  And lower courts compounded the error by importing that reading into Due Process doctrine as well.

In 2015, in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, a jail use of force case, the Court relied on 1970s precedent, not subsequent caselaw that had placed undue emphasis on the subjective culpability of prison and jail officials as the crucial source of constitutional concern.  The Kingsley Court returned to a more appropriate objective analysis. In finding for the plaintiff, the Supreme Court unsettled the law far past Kingsley’s direct factual setting of pretrial detention, expressly inviting post-conviction challenges to restrictive — and incoherent — Eighth Amendment caselaw.  The Court rejected not only the defendants’ position, but the logic that underlies 25 years of pro-government outcomes in prisoners’ rights cases.

But commentary and developing caselaw since Kingsley has not fully recognized its implications.  I argue that both doctrinal logic and justice dictate that constitutional litigation should center on the experience of incarcerated prisoners, rather than the culpability of their keepers.  The takeaway of my analysis is that the Constitution is best read to impose governmental liability for harm caused to prisoners — whether pretrial or post-conviction — by unreasonably dangerous conditions of confinement and unjustified uses of force.  In this era of mass incarceration, our jails and prisons should not be shielded from accountability by legal standards that lack both doctrinal and normative warrant.

February 22, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders"

The US Sentencing Commission today released the second major report emerging from a huge assessment of federal offenders released from prison in 2005.  This USSC webpage provides this background and highlights from this 149-page data-rich report:

This report, Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders examines a group of 10,888 federal drug trafficking offenders who were released in calendar year 2005. These 10,888 offenders, who were all U.S. citizens, represent 42.8 percent of the 25,431 federal offenders who were released in calendar year 2005 and analyzed in the Commission’s 2016 report, Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.

Chapter One summarizes the group studied in this report as well as its key findings. It also explains the methodology used in the report. Chapter Two provides an overview of the statutes and guidelines most often applicable to federal drug trafficking offenses, and reports the demographics and recidivist behavior of drug trafficking offenders as a whole. Chapters Three through Seven provide detailed information about offenders as classified by the drug types studied in this report: powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Chapter Eight concludes by reviewing the report’s findings.

Some highlights of the Commission’s study are that:

  • Over the eight-year follow-up period, one-half (50.0%) of federal drug trafficking offenders were rearrested (see bar chart). Of those drug trafficking offenders who recidivated, the median time to rearrest was 25 months.

  • In general, there were few clear distinctions among the five drug types studied. One exception is that crack cocaine offenders recidivated at the highest rate (60.8%) of any drug type. Recidivism rates for other drug types were between 43.8% and 50.0% (see table).

  • Nearly one-fourth (23.8%) of drug trafficking offenders who recidivated had assault as their most serious new charge followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses.

  • Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9% of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s Criminal History Category was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism. But note that career offenders and armed career criminals recidivated at a rate lower than drug trafficking offenders classified in Criminal History Categories IV, V, and VI. (Related data and policy recommendations are discussed in the Commission's 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.)

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with likelihood of recidivism.

February 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Noting central place of Texas in (incomplete) consensus disfavoring increased use of incarceration

Today's New York Times has this extended commentary about incarceration authored by Tina Rosenberg running under the headline "Even in Texas, Mass Imprisonment Is Going Out of Style."  Here are excerpts:

It promises to be a bleak four years for liberals, who will spend it trying — and, most likely, failing — to defend health care, women’s rights, climate change action and other good things.  But on one serious problem, continued progress is not only possible, it’s probable. That is reducing incarceration.  In an era of what seems like unprecedented polarization and rancor, this idea has bipartisan support. The Koch brothers and Black Lives Matter agree.  The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union Foundation agree.  Bernie Sanders and Newt Gingrich agree.

Here’s what they agree on:

• The United States went overboard on mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

• This has ruined a lot of lives — of those incarcerated, yes, but also others among their families and communities.

• The evidence says that harsher sentences don’t prevent crime and may even lead to more crime.

• Jailing people is really, really expensive.

• Prison brings no help and much harm to the 80 percent of prisoners who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill.

• There are alternatives to imprisonment that keep Americans safe.

(There are also crime and justice issues that these liberals and conservatives do not agree on, such as the death penalty, the merits of private prisons and, of course, guns.)

Even all this agreement is no guarantee of progress in Washington.  President Trump’s policies on crime are whatever slogans get the crowd roaring. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a D-plus record on this issue as a senator.  He supported reducing the disparity in sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. He did vote for the Prison Rape Elimination Act — kudos for that, I suppose.  But last year, Mr. Sessions, along with a few other Republican senators, blocked the major bill on this issue, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, from coming to a vote.  So the administration can be expected to be unhelpful, with Congress a question mark.

While Washington’s actions are important, however, federal prisons hold only one in eight imprisoned Americans.  So mass incarceration is really a state issue. And in the states, momentum is heartening. After quintupling between 1974 and 2007, the imprisonment rate is now dropping in a majority of states.  Overall, it fell by 8.4 percent from 2010 to 2015, while crime dropped by 14.6 percent, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

California slashed its incarceration rate by 27 percent between 2006 and 2014 after a court order. New York cut its rate by 18 percent, largely because of reform of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandated long sentences for possession. New Jersey’s rate dropped by 24 percent.

More remarkable — and probably more persuasive to other states and to Congress now — is the shift in red states, where incarceration rates have been the highest. In the last decade, they have dropped substantially in South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and, notably, in lock-’em-up Texas....

The cost of prisons was a huge issue.  In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board projected that the state would need more than 17,000 new prison beds over five years, a building project that would cost $530 million, never mind the operating costs. That pushed the ultraconservative House speaker, Tom Craddick, to a breaking point. Jerry Madden, the Republican chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in an interview that Craddick took him aside. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick told him. “They cost too much.”

Madden was an engineer and took that approach, asking: What is proven to work to keep people out of prison? How much of that do we need to buy in order to not build more of them? For ideas, he and his staff talked to research and advocacy groups, including the liberal coalition and the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, which gave birth to and houses Right on Crime.

That there was a conservative research group to consult was in itself remarkable. “No one in conservative think tanks worked on criminal justice, other than to advocate for more prisons and more incarceration,” said the foundation’s director, Brooke Rollins, who had been Gov. Rick Perry’s policy director. But in 2004, Rollins got a call from Tim Dunn, an oilman who helps fund the foundation and serves on its board. Dunn has put millions of his own money into pushing the Texas legislature further to the right. Texas Monthly called him “probably the most influential person many Texans have never heard of.”

“Conservatives are wrong on crime,” he told a startled Rollins. “Scripture would not call us to build prisons and forget people.” Dunn believes that crime victims want restitution and repentance, while the prison system merely incapacitates. On his personal website, he wrote that “nonviolent crimes should be recompensed in a way that gets people back into the work force and adding to communities as quickly as possible,” and that Texas should “focus on restoring victims and communities damaged by crime.”

At Dunn’s urging, Rollins hired Levin part time to work on a conservative approach to criminal justice reform. “We found the conservative and liberal think tanks agreed on 70, 80 percent of the stuff,” said Madden.  And it’s those areas of agreement that were put in the bill. The reforms passed nearly unanimously — and although Perry had previously vetoed narrower reforms, this time he signed them. (He now endorses the Right on Crime agenda.)  Reforms continue today: 16 bills passed in the last legislative session, including one allowing people to erase their criminal records in some circumstances....

The state now has drug courts, veterans’ courts and mental health courts. “They are there to provide help, but at the same time, structure,” said Madden, who is retired from the legislature.  “You have a problem and we’re going to help you with your problem.”  Many inmates were in prison for technical violations of their probation or parole. Now those violations often bring rapid sanctions and supervision instead of a return to prison.

The rate of incarceration in Texas state prisons fell by 17 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to the coalition, and the juvenile incarceration rate fell by nearly three-quarters. Recidivism is dropping steadily. At the same time, the crime rate has dropped by 27 percent.

Texas still has much to do. It ranks sixth or seventh in the nation in imprisonment rates. Some 8,900 people are in the state jail system for crimes that are neither violent nor sexual. Many are there for drug charges, but they often can’t get treatment in jail.  Thousands of people are sent back to prison each year for technical revocation of parole or probation.  As for juveniles, 22,000 are in the adult system, where they are at high risk of sexual assault and suicide....

The fall in crime rates — itself a reason incarceration has dropped — has made reform politically possible. Conservative leadership in states like Texas gives everybody cover. And Americans support criminal justice reform by large majorities.  One telling example: in his re-election campaign in 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, highlighted his reforms that lowered the rate of incarceration among African-Americans by 20 percent.  Twenty years ago, a Republican in Georgia would have boasted about the opposite.

If crime rates begin rising again, could hard-line thinking once more prevail? Yañez-Correa doesn’t think so. “Many legislators want to work on these issues jointly because other issues are so polarized,” she said. “People on both sides are genuinely interested and devoted.”

This story is important and encouraging, but it fails I think it connect fully with the import and impact of Prez Trump campaigning on a "law and order" platform and his eagerness to make much of the uptick in murder and other violent crimes in some big cities in recent years.  The folks over at Crime & Consequences and many others are quick and keen to link any and every increase in crime to recent decreased use of incarceration, and that perspective is certainly some element of how Prez Trump and AG Sessions think about crime and punishment issues.

I remain hopeful that, especially at the state level, there is continued interest in, and bipartisan support for, an array of "smart on crime" alternatives to incarceration for a range of less serious and less dangerous offenders.  But I do not think that Prez Trump and AG Sessions, arguably the two most important criminal justice policy-makers for the next few years, subscribe to all or even most of what is listed above in the commentary as points of agreement.  And that is a very big deal that must always be front and center as one considers the future of criminal justice reform at both the federal and state level.

February 14, 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, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Poll shows strong commitment to rehabilitation and prison alternatives for youth

A new poll sponsored by the Youth First Initiative reveals notable support for a rehabilitative approach to juvenile justice.  This webpage from Youth First reports on the essentials:

A new poll released today by Youth First shows that 78 percent of Americans favor keeping young people out of prisons and instead prefer community-based alternatives that are proven to lead to better outcomes.

At a time when partisan polarization is dominating the political landscape, the poll finds that Americans from a wide range of backgrounds and all political stripes support shifting the youth justice system’s focus from incarceration and punishment to prevention and rehabilitation.  Youth First, a national advocacy organization working to end the unconscionable practice of youth incarceration and reform the youth justice system, commissioned the poll which was conducted by GBA Strategies.

“Youth prisons are notoriously dangerous, ineffective, and outdated – and there is a clear consensus that it’s time to change the system,” said Liz Ryan, President of Youth First. “We know that kids can be rehabilitated without being locked up, if given the opportunity. States across the nation should unify behind this growing movement to close youth prison facilities and focus on solutions that actually work.”

The survey of over 1,000 adults found that:

· 89 percent support design treatment and rehabilitation plans that include a youth’s family in planning and services.

· 83 support providing financial incentives for states and municipalities to invest in alternatives to youth incarceration, such as intensive rehabilitation, education, job training, community services, and programs that provide youth the opportunity to repair harm to victims and communities.

· 69 percent support increasing funding to provide more public defenders to represent children in court.

· 70 percent support requiring states to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

Respondents cut across partisan affiliations, with 81% of Democrats, 83% of Independents, and 68% of Republicans supporting reform efforts.

February 14, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Third Circuit finds death row inmates granted resentencing stuck in solitary confinement have protected liberty interests

A unanimous panel ruling by the Third Circuit yesterday in Williams v. Secretary of PA Dep't of Corrections, No. 14-1469 (3d Cir. Feb. 9, 2017) (available here) spotlights an interesting connection between death row and solitary confinement.  Here is the start of the opinion and a key paragraph from its heart:

We are asked to decide whether there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the State from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement.  For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that there is and that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore limits the State’s ability to subject an inmate to the deprivations of death row once the death sentence initially relied upon to justify such extreme restrictions is no longer operative.  However, we also hold that, because this principle was not clearly established before today, the prison officials (“Defendants”) in this consolidated appeal are entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, we will affirm the district courts’ grants of summary judgment in favor of Defendants based on qualified immunity. In reaching this conclusion, we stress that this liberty interest, as explained more fully below, is now clearly established....

In our ruling today, we now explicitly add our jurisprudential voice to this growing chorus [of concerns about the use of solitary confinement]. In doing so, we rely, in part, upon the scientific consensus and the recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. Those decisions advance our inquiry into the unique, yet analogous, scenario presented here. Inmates in solitary confinement on death row without active death sentences face the perils of extreme isolation and are at risk of erroneous deprivation of their liberty.  Accordingly, they have a clearly established due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to avoid unnecessary and unexamined solitary confinement on death row.  The State must therefore afford these inmates procedural protections that ensure that continuing this level of deprivation is required for penological purposes, and is not reflexively imposed without individualized justification.

February 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

New report details stability of California crime rates during period of huge sentencing reform

UntitledThis new Fact Sheet produced by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice tells and interesting and important story about crime in California.  The main prose of the report provides the data highlights:

Newly released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics for the first six months of 2016 show California’s reported urban crime rate remained stable from 2010 through 2016, despite the implementation of large-scale criminal justice reforms during that period.

Total urban crime fell in the first half of 2016 compared to the first half of 2015.

The first six months of 2016 saw a decline in California’s urban crime rate compared to the first six months of 2015, though trends in specific crime categories were wide-ranging. During this period, reported crime declined 3 percent overall, driven by a 4 percent reduction in property offenses.  Burglary, arson, and theft decreased, while vehicle theft increased, resulting in approximately 7,400 fewer property offenses in early 2016.  At the same time, violent crime rose 4 percent, with total violent offenses increasing by approximately 2,800 from early 2015 to early 2016.1

The statewide urban crime rate stabilized from 2010 to 2016, after decades of decline.

Urban crime rates in California declined precipitously through the 1990s and 2000s (See Appendix A).  Since 2010, crime in California has stabilized, hovering near historically low levels. Comparing the first six months of 2016 to the first six months of 2010, total crime rates experienced no net change, while property crime declined by 1 percent and violent crime increased by 3 percent (see Table 1).

• Historically low urban crime rates have persisted through an era of justice reform.

Crime rates have remained low and stable through several major criminal justice reforms, particularly Public Safety Realignment and Proposition 47.  Realignment, which was enacted in 2011 through Assembly Bill 109, shifted responsibility for those with nonviolent, non-sexual, and non-serious convictions from the state to the county in an attempt to reduce prison populations.  In 2014, California voters passed Prop 47, which reduced six minor drug and property felonies to misdemeanors, prompting the resentencing and release of thousands from jails and prisons across the state. Though each policy was met with some initial concerns over public safety, a seven-year view of the data suggests that no visible change in crime resulted from Realignment (CJCJ, 2015). More data are needed before drawing conclusions about Prop 47’s effect on crime (CJCJ, 2016).

February 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

"How States Can Take a Stand Against Prison Profiteers"

The title of this post is the title of this paper newly posted to SSRN and authored by Catherine Elizabeth Akenhead. Here is the abstract:

In recent years, state corrections departments have faced pressure to provide better prison conditions, while simultaneously cutting costs.  Many critics have touted the emergence of privatized prison services as a cost-effective resolution.  However, those services shift the costs on to some of the poorest and most vulnerable consumers, prisoners and their families.  This Note explores how private companies providing prison banking services to state correctional facilities use unfair practices to increase profits.  The umbrella of prison banking services includes deposits into inmate trust accounts, which allow prisoners to purchase necessities, as well as prepaid debit release cards, which are used to return money to prisoners upon release.  This Note describes how certain private companies retain a monopoly on these services, and are awarded contracts based on the amount of commission paid to state correctional facilities.

As a result of paying those commissions and having no incentive to cut costs, private companies drive up their prices and charge consumers exorbitant rates to make deposits or to utilize prepaid cards.  These practices are disproportionately affecting prisoners’ families who provide their incarcerated loved ones with monetary support, as well as released inmates struggling to get back on their feet post-incarceration. Statistically speaking, both of these groups are more likely to be low-income and least able to manage additional financial strain.  This Note proposes state-level legislation to better protect consumers from these abuses and outlines five key provisions that, if adopted, will serve to prevent private companies from increasing their profit margins at the expense of vulnerable consumers.

February 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, February 06, 2017

The hardest of cases for death penalty abolitionists: convicted murderer who keeps murdering while in prison

This local news report of an apparent murder by an Ohio inmate already convicted in two other murders serves as a reminder that there are limits on how much you can incapacitate some persons who seem intent on being violent.  The article is headlined "Two-time murderer suspected of killing another inmate, " and here are the ugly details:

A two-time murderer is suspected of killing another inmate, a Franklin County man, aboard a prison transport bus while it traveled south on Rt. 23 from Columbus on Wednesday evening.  The body of David L. Johnson, 61, was found in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction bus on Thursday evening when it stopped to deliver him to the Ross Correctional Institution, said Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt.

Johnson, who was serving an eight-year sentence for sexual battery, apparently was strangled; Casey Pigge, 28, is "absolutely the suspect" in the death, Schmidt said. Other inmates also were locked into a caged section of the bus with Johnson and Pigge, but apparently did not alert the guards and driver at the front of the bus of the assault, Schmidt said. The guards apparently cannot see back into all sections of the bus, he said.  The inmates were wearing handcuffs, and perhaps belly chains, but could move around, the prosecutor said.

Inmates, including from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville and the Ross Correctional Institution near Chillicothe, were taken aboard the bus to Columbus for medical treatment on Thursday and were on the return leg of the trip south when the apparent slaying occurred.

Pigge is serving a 30-year to life sentence at the Lucasville prison for the 2008 murder of Rhonda Sommers, 52, the mother of his then-girlfriend. Pigge was convicted of stabbing the woman and then setting her apartment on fire.  Last week, Pigge pleaded guilty to using a cement block last year to repeatedly strike to kill his cellmate, Luther Wade, 26, of Springfield, at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County. Wade, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated burglary, was repeatedly struck in the head. Pigge faces another life sentence in the slaying.

Schmidt... questioned Pigge having access to other inmates aboard the bus given his history of violence. Investigators are working to determine if Johnson died in Franklin County, Pickaway County or Ross Country as the bus traveled south, Schmidt said. "He crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block. You would think the sensible thing to do would be to make sure he doesn't have free access to other inmates at any time.  Apparently that is not an issue for the folks at DRC," Schmidt said.

Given that Pigge is seemingly due to get an LWOP sentence for previously having "crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block," he would be essentially getting a "free" murder if he were not at least potentially subject to something worse than LWOP for his latest murder.  Moreover, given than Pigge has now slaughtered two fellow inmates during his first decade of incarceration, the only real public safety options for him would seem to be long-term solitary confinement or the death penalty. 

I am not asserting that folks like Pigge make the death penalty a must, but I am saying that it seems quite difficult to figure out what a just and effective punishment is for a murderer who seems keen and able to keep killing even while incarcerated.

February 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Setting my DVR for "Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison"

HBO is premiering a notable new documentary tonight, "Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison." Here is how HBO describes the movie:

Located on an Appalachian mountaintop in Wise County, Va., Red Onion State Prison is a “supermax” facility built to house individual inmates in 8’x10’ solitary-confinement cells, 23 hours a day, for months, years and sometimes decades.  Directed by Kristi Jacobson, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison explores life on both sides of the bars, raising provocative questions about punishment in America today.

Drawing on unprecedented, unrestricted access, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison was filmed over the course of one year, chronicling a new reform program intended to reduce the number of solitary-confinement inmates.  The recently initiated “Step-Down Program” has allowed more than 350 inmates a chance to return to the general population.  But all too often, after months of solitary isolation, prisoners are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of being a part of the regular prison population – let alone life on the outside.

This unflinching, immersive documentary features intimate interviews with several inmates who reflect on their violent childhoods, open up about the dangers of prison life and articulate their struggles to maintain sanity in the unrelenting monotony and isolation of confinement.  Interwoven with these stories are observations of corrections officers, who describe the toll their stressful jobs can take in a community with few employment opportunities.

Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison captures the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of daily life at Red Onion, focusing on the effect of loneliness and isolation on the prisoners’ mental health. 

The filmmaker website has this little blurb to describe the movie:

SOLITARY is a daring exploration of the lives of inmates and corrections officers in one of America's most notorious supermax prisons, built to hold inmates in 8x10 cells, 23-hours-a-day, for months, years and sometimes decades.  With unprecedented access, the film captures a complex, unexpected and deeply moving portrait of life inside.

February 6, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 03, 2017

Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population

As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:

Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.

Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.

In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.

Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.

Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.

Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.

Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....

If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."

Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.

That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said.  Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report.  “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement.  "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”

The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.

February 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 02, 2017

One corrections officer dead as Delaware prison riot comes to end

As reported here, the "day-long hostage standoff inside Delaware’s largest state prison for men ended early Thursday after state police stormed the building, finding one corrections official dead and rescuing another who was being held hostage." Here is more:

The standoff began Wednesday at around 10:30 a.m. when inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, about 40 miles south of Wilmington, took four corrections department workers — and possibly some fellow prisoners — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Prisons across the state were locked down due to the standoff there. Dozens of inmates were released in Smyrna as the situation progressed, along with two corrections officials who were being held, the Department of Correction said in a statement overnight. It was not immediately clear how many of the inmates held in the seized prison block were hostages as opposed to hostage-takers.

The Delaware State Police entered the building shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday, according to the corrections department. A Department of Correction employee who was being held was “safely rescued and is being examined at a local hospital,” where she is alert and talking, the agency said in a statement.

Police found the remaining hostage, a corrections officer who was not immediately identified, unresponsive when they entered, and he was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. Authorities said they would release more information later Thursday at a news conference.

Gov. John Carney (D), in a statement Thursday, said “I’m praying hard for the fallen officer’s family.”

“This serves as a tragic reminder that members of law enforcement risk their lives every day on behalf of the people of Delaware,” he said. “We will stand by the fallen officer’s family and fellow law enforcement officers during what is an extremely difficult time.” Carney said officials were now focusing on trying to learn “what happened and how this happened,” and vowed to “make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

The hostage-takers had said their rebellion was a direct response to President Trump’s policies. “Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now,” they said during the second of two manifesto-like phone calls to a local newspaper. “We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”

The inmates demanded education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending, according to audio of the calls posted online by the News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

The Vaughn prison is the largest adult male correctional facility in the state, housing about 2,500 minimum, medium and maximum security inmates, according to the Department of Correction website. It is the landing place for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime and those who have been sentenced to death. Executions are carried out there, according to the website, although the death penalty in Delaware has been struck down by the state’s Supreme Court.

Inmate complaints about treatment within the prison, substandard medical care and poor record-keeping have increased in the past year, Stephen Hampton, an attorney from Dover who has represented prisoners in civil rights cases, told the Associated Press.

February 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (12)

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by The Sentencing Project. Here is the first part of the report's Executive Summary:

Amid growing public support for criminal justice reform, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have begun to scale back prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Although the results have been modest — a 5% reduction in the overall U.S. prison population between 2009 and 2015 — this shift follows almost four decades of prison expansion. But so far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences.  This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.

Most people serving life sentences were convicted of serious crimes.  Their incarceration was intended to protect society and to provide appropriate punishment.  But many were sentenced at a time when “life with the possibility of parole” meant a significantly shorter sentence than it has become today. Many remain incarcerated even though they no longer pose a public safety risk.

Researchers have shown that continuing to incarcerate those who have “aged out” of their crime-prone years is ineffective in promoting public safety.  Long sentences are also limited in deterring future crimes given that most people do not expect to be apprehended for a crime, are not familiar with relevant legal penalties, or criminally offend with their judgment compromised by substance abuse or mental health problems.  Unnecessarily long prison terms are also costly and impede public investments in effective crime prevention, drug treatment, and other rehabilitative programs that produce healthier and safer communities.

Despite this body of criminological evidence, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984 — a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population.  Even between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12%.  By 2012, one in nine people in U.S. state and federal prisons — nearly 160,000 people — were there under life sentences.  Two factors have driven this growth: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are parole-ineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 lifers who are eligible. MO

January 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

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)