Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Rape in the American Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Atlantic article about a part of the subjective experience of imprisonment for all too many prisoners despite notable efforts by Congress to address the problem of prison rape.  Here are excerpts:

In 2003, ... Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, now usually known as PREA. It was intended to make experiences [of rape in prison] far less likely.  But like many ambitious pieces of legislation, its promise has proved difficult to realize.  The law required studies of the problem that took far longer than initially intended, and adoption of the guidelines they produced has been painfully slow, resting on the competence and dedication of particular employees.  PREA has not been a complete failure, but it is also far from delivering on its promise....

Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape.  The report included harrowing first-person accounts.  “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously....

After PREA passed in 2003, the bipartisan commission announced it would obtain data on prison rape, write a report, and recommend a set of policy proposals “after two years.” The complexity and scope of the problem proved daunting, and it took nearly six; the report was released in 2009.

The next stop was Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, which spent three years (two more than they had initially planned) deliberating over the law and translating its recommendations into final standards....

PREA specifically barred the commission from recommending standards “that would impose substantial additional costs” for prison administrators, and many told the commission that placing youth who were convicted as adults in their own facilities would be impossibly expensive. “We must house adolescents and adults separately,” Martin Horn, head of the New York City Department of Correction, said at a 2006 hearing in Miami. “This takes time, this takes staff, and this takes money. And you must ask Congress to provide it.”

Today, states only have to promise that they’re working to comply with PREA’s many requirements, including the separation of youth under 18 from older prisoners.  If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk.

February 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar speech by John Legend spotlights the New Jim Crow stat about hyperincarceration of blacks in US

I watched most of last night's Oscar festivities while trying to get some work done and with most of it with a finger on the fast-forward button on the remote control.  I did so, in part, because we can always count on the media (both old and new) to give extra attention to anything especially interesting or noteworthy that happens during the telecast.  

I am now pleased to learn that one of the interesting and noteworthy Oscar moments getting attention today is a portion of John Legend's acceptance speech.  This Washington Post WonkBlog piece, headlined "There’s a disturbing truth to John Legend’s Oscar statement about prisons and slavery," provides the story and its context:

The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for "Glory," their song in the film "Selma."  In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. "There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850," he noted.

It's true.  There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census.

In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation's 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to the Pew Center on the States. And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today's systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).

In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks -- in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable.

February 23, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Urging more media coverage of the "truly guilty and violent"

Via consistently helpful Marshall Project, I came to see this interesting recent piece by Steve Bogira titled "Guilty As Charged" at the Social Justice News Nexus site. Here are extended excerpts:

The mainstream media and “social justice” journalists treat criminal justice subjects compassionately at times, but the beneficiaries of their compassion diverge. The mainstream media focus on the victims of crime, while social justice journalists focus on victims of the criminal justice system.

The former task is easier, because readers are quick to sympathize with crime victims. The latter task is commendable, because it involves telling the stories of outcasts.  Yet, even those of us who take on the latter task still tend to stick to the easier parts of the topic. Our favorite subjects are innocent people who are wrongly convicted.

When we do write about the guilty, we prefer they be nonviolent offenders.  We’re particularly partial to petty drug offenders. Among violent offenders, we prefer juveniles.

We fear our readers can’t possibly develop compassion for anyone who robs, beats, rapes, or kills.  We ourselves have trouble feeling compassion for such offenders; to do so violates a taboo.  Only if the violent offender has the mitigating factor of youth, or sometimes mental illness, are we likely to take on his or her story.

But this means we neglect much that is immensely significant.  There are too many drug offenders in prison, but prisons are not mainly holding drug offenders or the nonviolent. Seventeen percent of the 49,000 inmates in Illinois prisons were serving terms for controlled substance crimes, and another 1.6 percent had violated the cannabis control act, as of June 2013 (the most recent figures), according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.  That’s less than 19 percent in all who were doing time for drug offenses–compared with 54 percent who’d been convicted of violent offenses. Nationally, the proportion of prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes in 2012 was also 54 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Stories about the wrongly convicted, and about the drug war, and about juvenile and mentally ill offenders, can lead to much-needed reforms of the criminal justice system. But stories about the truly guilty and violent can have a larger target: our nation’s structural inequality, and the wounds it inflicts every hour, every day, on African-Americans more than any other group, in segregated cities throughout the nation.

Concentrated poverty – resulting from the virulent mix of poverty and racial segregation – yields many poisoned fruits, not the least of which is violence. Children growing up amid concentrated poverty are more likely to witness violence in their neighborhoods, and to experience it in their homes, than children in more advantaged areas. And children growing up amid violence are far more likely to become violent themselves.

There’s a crying need for stories that make the crucial connections between concentrated poverty and violence, and that shift the focus from individual responsibility to our collective culpability. In the context of criminal justice stories, it’s not a connection journalists can make when their subjects are innocent or nonviolent.

February 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Early report on the early impact of Proposition 47 in California

La-me-g-prop47-crimeThis new Los Angeles Times article provides an assessment of what we know and do not know so far about the impact of the big criminal justice reform passed by California voters back in November.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Prop. 47's effect on jail time, drug rehabilitation is mixed so far," and here are excerpts:

In the months since Proposition 47 became law on Nov. 5, California's criminal justice system is already undergoing dramatic changes — and not always in expected ways. The idea was to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and focus on rehabilitation while easing jail overcrowding.

On the streets, some people who are committing Proposition 47 crimes are not being arrested, avoiding jail but also the drug treatment that could turn their lives around. Narcotics arrests have dropped by 30% in the city of Los Angeles and 48% in areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, as busy police officers decide that the time needed to process a case is not worth it.

Even when arrested, drug offenders are often issued a citation to appear in court and face little to no jail time if convicted. Law enforcement officials say they have lost an important tool to deal with those offenders, who remain free to get high again or steal to support their habits. Some drug addicts and their relatives agree, saying the new law allows troubled individuals to hurt themselves and steal with little consequence.

Property crimes, which include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Times analysis of crime data. Through the end of January, property crimes were up 10% in sheriff's territory and up 7% in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions, warning that it is too soon to gauge the new law's effect and that other factors could be responsible for the increase. But to Asst. Sheriff Michael Rothans, who oversees patrol operations for the Sheriff's Department, the connection is obvious: More petty criminals on the streets mean more crimes.

"Why is property crime up? It's because of this," said Rothans, who has urged deputies to continue making drug arrests. "The same people are arrested for narcotics and property crimes. We know the cycle is continuing because we know they should have been in jail."

The new law specifies that the financial savings on the incarceration side be reinvested in truancy, drug treatment and mental health programs. But that provision does not take effect until mid-2016. Without the threat of jail time, fewer defendants are opting for the drug treatment programs that judges sometimes offer as an alternative.

Proposition 47 is at the forefront of a national trend to reduce harsh criminal penalties that led to an explosion in prison and jail populations beginning in the 1980s. It follows a revision to California's three strikes law that limits the maximum penalty to those whose last offense is serious or violent. Along with the shift of nonviolent inmates from state prison to county jails approved by the state Legislature in 2011, Proposition 47 is expected to further transform California's criminal justice landscape.

Already, the new law has had a profound effect on the Los Angeles County jails. With fewer people awaiting trial or serving time for offenses that had previously been felonies, overcrowding has subsided. As a result, jailers are keeping county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them early.

Thomas Hoffman, a former police official who was a senior advisor for the Proposition 47 campaign, said law enforcement tends to view locking up criminals as the answer, when many have reoffended after spending time in jail. Theorizing about crime increases and the proposition is premature, he said. "The arrest and rearrest of these minor offenses only postpones crime. It doesn't eliminate it. It's a momentary speed bump in these people's lives," said Hoffman, a former director of the state prison system's parole division as well as a former top official in the Inglewood and West Sacramento police departments.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which coordinated the Proposition 47 campaign, said it will take time for the state's criminal justice system to adjust to the changes and figure out "how to hold people accountable and stop crime."

The key to the new law's success will be whether the cost savings are indeed spent on drug treatment, said Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. "If it is not going to do that, then we are not going to see any change for the better, and we'll see people out there floundering more than they already are," Currie said.

February 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"PTSD in the Prison System"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by Julie Ann Davis now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The treatment of Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder in the federal prison system has fallen in quality, if it can ever be said to have been sufficient.  This work presents an analysis of PTSD in Veterans, identifies the deficiencies in prison systems to address the mental health aspects of PTSD, and presents solutions to address the needs of our soldiers.

February 22, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

AP report details that, functionally, California kills many more sex offenders than murderers

Formally, California sends many more murderers to its death row than any other state and it has more condemned capital prisoners than two dozen other US death penalty states combined.  But California has only managed to actually execute fourteen of those sentenced to die and nobody has been executed by the state in nearly a decade.  Meanwhile, as this new AP report details, over the last eight years, while California has not moved forward with an execution of a single condemned murderer, a total of 78 sex offenders have been slaughtered inside California's prisons.  Here are the basics:

California state prisoners are killed at a rate that is double the national average — and sex offenders ... account for a disproportionate number of victims, according to an Associated Press analysis of corrections records.

Male sex offenders made up about 15 percent of the prison population but accounted for nearly 30 percent of homicide victims, the AP found in cataloging all 78 killings that corrections officials reported since 2007, when they started releasing slain inmates' identities and crimes.

The deaths — 23 out of 78 — come despite the state's creation more than a decade ago of special housing units designed to protect the most vulnerable inmates, including sex offenders, often marked men behind bars because of the nature of their crimes.

In some cases, they have been killed among the general prison population and, in others, within the special units by violence-prone cellmates. Officials acknowledge that those units, which also house inmates trying to quit gangs, have spawned their own gangs.

Corrections officials blamed a rise in the prison homicide rate on an overhaul meant to reduce crowding. As part of the effort, the state in 2011 began keeping lower-level offenders in county lockups, leaving prisons with a higher percentage of sex offenders and violent gang members....

The problem is most acute with sex offenders. Last fall, the corrections department's inspector general reported that so many homicides occurred in the "increasingly violent" special housing units reserved for vulnerable inmates that the department could no longer assume that inmates there could peacefully co-exist. The report looked at 11 homicide cases that were closed in the first half of 2014 and found that 10 victims were sensitive-needs inmates. Using corrections records, the AP found that eight of them were sex offenders.

For a variety of reasons, most states have special facilities incorporated into their "death row," and condemned prisoners on death row are often eager to be well behaved in the hope of increasing their odds of getting out from under a death sentences eventually. Consequently, it can often be much safer for certain prisoners to be condemned and confined to death than to be in the general population. And this new AP report reinforces my sense that a serious California criminal likely would lead a more peaceful and safe life in prison if and when he murders and gets condemned to death than if he just commits a sex offense. (In addition to being a disturbing practical reality, these dynamics might perhaps prompt and incentivize a "rational rapist" in California to murder one or more his victims in order to ensure he can potentially avoid the dangers of the general prison population and live out his life peacefully pursuing appeal after appeal while safe and secure on death row.)

February 18, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

Notable new commentary on the notable work of the Colson Task Force

ImagesA helpful reader shared with me this notable commentary authored by Jim Liske, who is CEO of Prison Fellowship and is serving on the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force. The FoxNews piece is headlined "Colson Task Force offers chance for Restorative Justice," and here are excerpts:

I am honored to serve on the new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which met for the first time in late January. Named for my organization’s founder, the Task Force is a bipartisan, nine-member panel chaired by J.C. Watts, that will address long-existing challenges in federal corrections and make data-driven recommendations to make the system more effective and just—for the sake of prisoners and our communities alike....

In the last several years, individual states have already begun to pursue prison reform that hold offenders accountable and yet give them hope for restoring their lives once they’ve served their time. Hawaii has seen success through its HOPE program, which guarantees “swift and sure sanctions” for those who violate the terms of their probation. This accountability-intensive approach, which affirms offenders’ potential by expecting them to do better, has been so effective, it’s being copied in courtrooms nationwide. Some states are increasing their use of earned-time credits, which allow people to earn the right to rejoin the community earlier by using their time productively, and still others are reducing sentences for non-violent offenses.

Reforms like these offer hope for evidence-based, cost-effective changes the Task Force will examine. But we can go a step farther. The time is right for prison reforms that aren’t just evidence-based, but values-based, reflecting our beliefs in the God-given dignity, value, and potential of every human being. Justice can be restorative when we make sure that the opportunity for both accountability and redemption are balanced at the core of our criminal justice system.

Why should justice be restorative? At its heart, crime isn’t about law-breaking; it’s about violating the peace and wholeness of the entire community. Public safety may require that we lock someone up, but that alone will not heal victims or the community or change the conditions that help breed crime. When the responsible party has the opportunity for redemption and restoration — by making amends to his victims, changing his thinking, and earning back the public’s trust by living a law-abiding, constructive life upon release—the community can find healing and move beyond the vicious cycle of crime and incarceration....

The Charles Colson Task Force is an important first step that honors the legacy of a visionary leader, but the challenges facing our criminal justice system cannot be solved by this group alone. It’s time for everyone with a stake in criminal justice and public safety—which is all of us—to call for reforms that elevate and prioritize victims’ voices, provide genuine opportunities for prisoners’ moral rehabilitation, and engage the entire community in breaking the cycle of crime.

We all need to speak up to create the kind of restorative society, based on the dignity and value of every life, that each of us wants to call home.

Prior related post:

February 16, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Pick a stat, any stat. They all tell you the same thing: America is really good at putting people behind bars."

The title of this post is a line from the start of this detailed analysis of incarceration rates and crime by Oliver Roeder, a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece: 

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. One in three black men can expect to spend time in prison. There are 2.7 million minors with an incarcerated parent. The imprisonment rate has grown by more than 400 percent since 1970.

It’s supposed to help the country reduce crime in two ways: incapacitation — it’s hard to be a habitual offender while in prison — or deterrence — people scared of prison may do their best to not end up there. But recent research suggests that incarceration has lost its potency. A report released this week from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law finds that increased incarceration has had a very limited effect on crime over the past two and a half decades. At incarceration’s current elevated levels, the effect of more incarceration on crime is not statistically different than zero. It’s no longer working....

[C]rime trends are complicated. Surely no one is complaining about the recent decline, but no one fully understands it either. One thing is becoming clear: Increased incarceration’s role was minimal.

Recent related post:

February 13, 2015 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America"

Incarcerations-front-door-infographicThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the Vera Institute of Justice. This New York Times article, headlined "Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says," provides a helpful summary of and context for this report:

Jails across the country have become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” found that the majority of those incarcerated in local and county jails are there for minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares, and have been jailed for longer periods of time over the past 30 years because they are unable to pay court­imposed costs.

The report, by the Vera Institute of Justice, comes at a time of increased attention to mass incarceration policies that have swelled prison and jail populations around the country. This week in Missouri, where the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer stirred months of racial tension last year in the town of Ferguson, 15 people sued that city and another suburb, Jennings, alleging that the cities created an unconstitutional modern­day debtors’ prison, putting impoverished people behind bars in overcrowded, unlawful and unsanitary conditions.

While most reform efforts, including early releases and the elimination of some minimum mandatory sentences, have been focused on state and federal prisons, the report found that the disparate rules that apply to jails is also in need of reform.

“It’s an important moment to take a look at our use of jails,” said Nancy Fishman, the project director of the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and an author of the report. “It’s a huge burden on taxpayers, on our communities, and we need to decide if this is how we want to spend our resources.”

The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 — nearly equal to the population of Charlotte, N.C. — even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak.

Inmates have subsequently been spending more time in jail awaiting trial, in part because of the growing reluctance of judges to free suspects on their own recognizance pending trial dates, which had once been common for minor offenses.  As a result, many of those accused of misdemeanors — who are often poor — are unable to pay bail as low as $500.

Timed with the release of the Vera Institute report, the MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday that it would invest $75 million over five years in 20 jurisdictions that are seeking alternatives to sending large numbers of people to jail.  The jurisdictions, which could be cities, counties or other entities that run local jails, will be announced this spring.  Nationwide, the annual number of jail admissions is 19 times higher than the number of those sent to prison, and has nearly doubled since 1983, from about 6 million to 11.7 million. A significant number are repeat offenders, the report said.

Via this link, the Vera Institute has available the full Incarceration’s Front Door report, a helpful summary and the infographic I have tried to reproduce here.

February 11, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration

Images (3)I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:

Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high.  It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012.  But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.

What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.  Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be.  If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....

Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.

A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.

Q: Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.  So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.  I can’t tell you why they’re doing that.  No one’s really got an answer to that yet.  But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research.  Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities.  (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)

That said, in part because John's analysis  is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges."   In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year.  But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s.  These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."

In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system.  But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted.  (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)

My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way.  But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights.  And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.

Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:

February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House

This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:

Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....

H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.

Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.

The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.

The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.

Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.

Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.

If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.

This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.

This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress.  This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:

Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"How to Stop Revolving Prison Doors With Books"

The title of this post is the title of this extended piece in the Harvard Political Review authored by Alice Hu.  Here is how it starts and ends: 

Education reduces crime.  This connection seems like common sense, and indeed it has been researched, analyzed, and affirmed countless times.  According to a 2007 collaborative study by Columbia University, Princeton University, and City University of New York, higher education reduces the crime rates of both juveniles and adults by impacting social behavior and economic stability.

The effect of education on crime-reduction is even more dramatic for a certain group within the population: the incarcerated.  To many, the idea of convicts receiving a free college education behind bars is confounding and, more often, infuriating.  When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly finance basic college education programs in state prisons, legislators in Albany called it “a slap in the face” for law-abiding citizens.

While this response is understandable, the arguments themselves neglect the actual effects of college-in-prison programs.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prisons than those who did not.  By drastically reducing the recidivism rate of former inmates, education in prisons returns a tremendous social benefit for all members of society.  Prison education programs not only save an enormous sum of tax dollars spent on prisons annually, but they also have a profound effect on thousands of families and communities.  The current resistance to college-in-prison is founded upon political rhetoric rather than any factual evidence. Indeed, this type of rhetoric by politicians is perhaps indicative of a large, troubling trend in education and incarceration....

College stops the revolving prison doors. It allows inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, to work, pay taxes, and contribute to society.  It saves the public billions of tax dollars, money that can go toward higher education aid for students rather than prison expansion.  The “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped past politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — to win elections, but it has done little to help the people inside or outside the prisons.  Indeed, the adverse effect of forgoing college programs for inmates cuts across partisan lines and prison bars.  Perhaps this is why President Clinton, who was once adamant about being “on the side of those who abide by the law,” has since commended Bard Prison Initiative as a “good investment in a safer, more productive society.”  Politicians can choose to neglect the evidence and paint college-in-prison programs as unfair to law-abiding citizens, but the true injustice lies in the continuation of ineffective and costly practices when a solution is readily available — education.  It is common sense, after all.

February 3, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2015

Getting a European perspective on crowded prisons

WO-AV345_EUPRIS_9U_20150202185222This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Overcrowding Puts Strains on Europe’s Century-Old Prisons," highlights that the US does not have the most densely populated prisons in the world even though we have the largest total prison population. Here are some details from the article:

While cities and states across the U.S. are selling off prisons as the inmate population shrinks, Europe faces the opposite challenge: how to cope with chronic overcrowding in old, cramped jails.

The fortresslike structure of Forest prison is in the otherwise chic Saint-Gilles district of Brussels. Built in 1910 to house 380 inmates, it currently holds 600, most of whom are awaiting trial. In two of the four wings, three inmates are held in 90-square-foot cells designed for one. Two share bunk beds while the third has a mattress on the floor. They eat there and share a toilet. In the other half, prisoners have individual cells but no running water. They must relieve themselves in a bucket that can go unemptied for 48 hours....

“It is medieval,” said Vincent Spronck, who became warden four years ago after a decade working in other prisons. “I didn’t know these conditions still existed until I got here.” The problem isn’t limited to Forest or even Belgium.

In central London, the 170-year-old Pentonville Prison houses 1,303 men in a space designed for 913. An official report found “significant, easily visible vermin infestations,” dirty cells, and rampant drug abuse, and suggested shutting it down.

La Modelo in Barcelona, built in 1904, held 1,781 inmates in space designed for 1,100 when it was last inspected by a team from the intergovernmental Council of Europe, the continent’s human-rights watchdog. Lisbon Central Prison (built 1885) has an official capacity of 886, but was holding 1,310 prisoners in May 2013. Korydallos Prison, built in the 1960s in Athens, should hold 840 people, but held 2,300 in April 2013.

“The whole structure is in a state of crisis,” said Hugh Chetwynd, head of division for the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Overcrowding means “staff struggle to keep proper control, so they resort more to excessive force.” Prison populations per capita are growing in most European countries....

One solution is to send prisoners abroad. Belgium pays €43 million ($48 million) a year to the Netherlands to hold 600 prisoners over the border in a former military barracks in Tilburg. Belgium and Italy, which also has a long-term overcrowding problem, are building new prisons, but some experts argue this doesn’t resolve the problem. “You build big prisons…that leads to higher population rates,” said Peter Bennett, who was warden at four prisons before becoming director of the London-based ICPS. “All the research shows that sending people to prison doesn’t reduce the crime rate.”

Still, while there appears to be no strong relationship across countries between incarceration and crime rates, the crime rate in the U.K. has fallen as the prison population has risen. Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Center for Crime Prevention, said taking serial criminals off the streets cuts crime. “If you don’t do anything else,” he said, a criminal “can easily end up committing hundreds of crimes a year.” He said that longer sentences reduce recidivism rates and while overcrowding isn’t ideal, his solution is to build more prisons.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Indiana sentencing reforms highlight how low-level criminal justice is forced to fill public health gaps

This lengthy local article from Indiana, headlined "County jails fear onslaught of addicts, mentally ill from prisons," provides an effective showcase of the relationships between criminal-justice issues and public-health issues. Here is how:

With the passage of sentencing reforms last year, one study estimates that more than 14,000 low-level offenders, some with serious addictions and mental illnesses, will no longer be kept in prison.  They will be diverted to county jails and community corrections programs that [Franklin County Sheriff Ken] Murphy and others say are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught.

Many such offenders need expensive mental health care — some requiring hundreds of dollars a month in medication.  "These are people with real problems that need treatment," Murphy said. "We need a secure facility or work release or whatever where we can send these folks ... where they can receive treatment, and when they're released, somebody follows up with them."

Sheriffs across the state say jails are not designed for all that.  Jails are meant to hold people awaiting trial, not to house and rehabilitate those who have been convicted. Many do not have mental health services.  Some counties also lack money to expand treatment programs or to launch community corrections programs that provide alternatives to jail, such as housing and GPS monitoring.  That, Murphy said, makes this legislative session critical for public safety.

The success of the criminal code reform under House Enrolled Act 1006, which took effect in July, hinges largely on providing funds for county programs.  Without them, Murphy and others say, people with mental illness and substance abuse problems have a higher risk of failing and re-offending....

"County jails are totally based on the idea in our society that you are innocent until proven guilty," said Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers. "(HEA) 1006 wants us to hold folks after they've been convicted. Then they won't be pretrial detainees." Rogers said HEA 1006 will put a strain on his jail's mental health resources. "If we can reduce the amount of people that have these mental health issues in our jail," Rogers said, "I think we can handle what 1006 will bring us."

Jails also lack educational programs and vocational training offered in the DOC. "We're not here to rehabilitate," said Capt. Harold Vincent, commander at the Howard County Jail. "That doesn't happen in the jail setting."

Inmates with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems are expensive to incarcerate because of their medical and psychiatric needs. In Marion County, for instance, about 30 percent of inmates are mentally ill, and they take up roughly $7.7 million of the sheriff's budget every year, Layton said. Eighty-five percent have substance abuse problems.

Medication for the mentally ill costs about $800 to $1,500 per dose per person, said Dr. Erika Cornett, medical director for the behavioral health division of Community Howard Regional Health.  Some need an injection once a month, while others need two. That means one mentally ill inmate can cost a jail up to $3,000 a month in medication alone....

Will the political atmosphere be agreeable to spending more money on programs and services that help criminals?  Some hope so....   Some, however, think there will be political resistance.  Investing in other areas, such as education, is more popular.

This article is notable in part because it helps highlight that efforts to reduce prison populations and associated costs could be "penny wise, pound foolish" if there are not adequate resources devoted to services needed to aid localities with community supervision and reentry needs.  More broadly, by detailing various links between health-care needs and criminal justice institutions, this article suggests that effective health-care reform (especially for the poor) may be as critical to public safety and to the public fisc as is effective sentencing reform.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seemingly without a "grim roster of victims," California reduces extreme prison crowding as ordered in Plata

DownloadAs long-time readers will recall, the US Supreme Court in 2011 in Plata upheld, by a 5-4 vote, a lower-court order that imposed on California a requirement to have its prison population reduced below 137.5% of capacity to remedy extreme Eighth Amendment violations in prison conditions (basics here).  In their dissenting Plata opinions (as noted here and here), Justices Alito and Scalia predicted this ruling would likely produce "a grim roster of victims" and a massive number of "murders, robberies, and rapes" in California.  Similarly, as noted here, in response to Gov Jerry Brown's realignment plan to deal with the Plata problems, the Los Angeles DA predicted "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."

Fast forward a few years and this local story now reports that "California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule."  Here is more: 

California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804 -- larger than Elk Grove’s current estimated population -- or 200.2 percent of the design capacity at that time.

Lawyers for the inmates said overcrowding had reached the point that medical and mental health care services for prisoners were unconstitutional, and they renewed their legal challenge to a system in which inmates were being housed in triple-deck bunks in prison gyms and other open spaces.  The state disagreed and continued to fight, but in August 2009 a panel of three federal judges said the situation had “brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.”

The panel decreed that within two years the state would reduce inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision in 2011 that the prison population had to be reduced, prompting a series of efforts under Gov. Jerry Brown that led to Thursday’s levels.

Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark. The early success in getting to that point can be traced largely to the governor’s prison realignment plan, passed in 2011, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Before that plan, as many as 60,000 inmates annually were sent to prisons as parole violators and served an average of 90 days. The Department of Corrections says realignment has cut the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. Counties statewide have seen an increase in jail inmates during that time frame....

[In addition,] 2,035 inmates have been released since passage of Proposition 47 in November, which redesignated several felony-level crimes, including some drug possession and property offenses, as misdemeanors. [And] 1,975 inmates in prison after a “third strike” have been released since voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012.  The measure allows for inmates to seek resentencing if their third strike was not considered serious or violent.

So, one should ask, what has happened recently in California with respect to crime rates, especially violent crimes that produce the greatest harms to victims.  This Crime & Consequences post provides a quick summary of the latest official data: "California property crimes per 100k population totaled 2,665.5 in 2013, a 3% drop from the 2012 figure although still above the rate before the realignment law went into effect.  Even better, the rate of violent crimes, less affected by that law, is down to a level not seen since 1967."

Posts at C&C highlight data indicating an increase in car thefts and other property crimes in recent years in California.  But I do not think even the greatest critics of Plata and the state's responses can assert that, as was predicted by a prominent prosecutor, California has experienced "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."  In sharp contrast, violent crime has continued to drop in the state in the wake of Plata.  

Though I doubt we will be hearing any sort of mea culpa from those who predicted that the public safety sky was sure to fall after Plata, I hope the California story will help inform assessments of future Chicken-Little-type predictions.

February 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population

NA-CE465_AGING_9U_20150128190609This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "U.S. Prisons Grapple With Aging Population: More Middle-Age Offenders Are Entering or Re-entering Facilities, Research Shows," explores why and how the population of incarceration nation is aging.  Here are excerpts:

Criminal-justice experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws adopted in the 1980s.  The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which, in turn, is rapidly driving up the average age of inmates.

New research, however, offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded in recent years largely because more offenders ... are entering or re-entering prison in middle age.  It is a finding that could force states to rethink their efforts to tamp down on the escalating costs of caring for older inmates.

“People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to,” said Shawn Bushway, a public policy professor at the University at Albany who co-wrote a coming study on the aging of those incarcerated.

The average inmate generally costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate.  Elderly prisoners, often defined as those older than 50, cost as much as three times more, researchers estimate, because they are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require expensive treatments.

The population of U.S. prisoners over the age of 44 grew more than 8% annually from 1991 to 2011 — four times the rate of prisoners under the age of 35, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the research arm of the Justice Department.  The proportion of inmates 54 years or older nearly tripled in that time, from 3% to more than 8%.  At the end of 2013, about 270,000 U.S. inmates were 50 years or older, out of a total prisoner population of more than 1.5 million, according to BJS.

Mr. Bushway’s research, based on U.S. Census surveys of state prisoners spanning from 1974 to 2004, suggests the trend is linked to high rates of reported drug use among older inmates — particularly those who came of age in the 1980s ... and have cycled in and out of prison for much of their adult lives....

A separate study on aging prisoners, funded by the Bureau, analyzed data from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and California, where the proportion of prisoners 50 years or older more than doubled since 2000.  The researchers, economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of consulting group Abt Associates, concluded that “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”

The changing nature of offenses over time doesn’t explain the trend, nor do changes in sentencing severity, which had “virtually no impact” on the size of the group, they wrote. “Policy makers are missing an important part of the problem,” Mr. Luallen said in an interview. As states try to rein in costs of mass incarceration, Mr. Luallen said, they would do well to focus more on the flow of older people into the prison system than on reducing their sentences.

“Changing sentencing laws won’t affect” the increasing number of older prisoners, said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, who studies mass incarceration. “You need to change the behavior of the district attorneys.”

The issue of recidivism continues to pose problems for state governments struggling to contain the costs of mass incarceration. A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study that examined state prisoners released in 2005 found that about two-thirds were arrested for a new crime within three years.

Harsher laws, such as those that mandate a life sentence after a person is convicted of three felonies, indisputably have led to more time behind bars for some. Bryce Peterson, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said longer sentences have “some effect” on the aging prison population. “It would be misleading to downplay that too much.” Mr. Peterson said he believed that Messrs. Luallen and Kling would have found that the length of time served in prison played a larger role in the graying of the inmate population had their study looked back further than 2000.

January 29, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

Could charter schools within the prison system help reduce recidivism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article from Georgia headlined "Gov. Deal wants new charter high schools for prison system." Here are excerpts:

Gov. Nathan Deal in the both the amended 2015 and 2016 budgets is [recommending the legislature devote] money to help lower the recidivism rate in Georgia’s prisons.  He’s including over $15 million dollars for two new charter high schools in the prison system so inmates can actually earn a diploma as opposed to just a GED. He says seven out of ten Georgia inmates have neither.

“Education can open the door of opportunity while shutting the revolving door that has plagued our prison system for far too long,” says Deal.

The recommendation includes nearly 30 academic positions for the new schools which would begin with the 2015-2016 school year. Deal says the schools would partner with the newly renamed Georgia Career College System, formerly the state’s technical colleges, to teach vocational skills. He says private prisons would also be given incentives to do the same.

“With a high school diploma or a GED, these individuals will certainly be better equipped to get a job and hopefully able to assume a greater pursuit of a job opportunity in the future because they have this basic education behind them,” says Deal.

He’s also including money to help inmates better assimilate into society once released through a transitional housing program for those inmates considered at highest risk for reoffending. Another $5 million is being proposed to expand the state’s accountability courts to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

January 26, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack