Wednesday, August 28, 2013
California Gov Brown finding monies for prisons seeking to avoid court-ordered prisoner releaseAs reported in this new Los Angeles Times article, California Governor Jerry Brown is now finally taking major new steps to deal with enduring prison crowding issues in his state. The piece is headlined, "Jerry Brown has plan to ease prison crowding without early releases; To comply with judges' order, Jerry Brown proposes to spend from state's reserve to house excess prisoners in alternate facilities." Here are excerpts:
Gov. Jerry Brown and top lawmakers pledged Tuesday to ease prison crowding without releasing inmates early, laying out a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for alternate housing.
The proposal, which has divided Democratic leaders, would pay for enough beds in privately owned prisons and other facilities to shed more than 9,600 inmates from state lockups by the end of the year, as federal judges have ordered. "This is the sensible, prudent way to proceed," Brown said at a Capitol news conference. "The plan is to find as many cells as needed."
Paying for the extra housing would drain $315 million from the state's $1.1-billion reserve over the next year. The price tag is expected to increase to $415 million for each of the following two years.
The proposal would avoid inmate releases while Brown continues fighting the order to reduce the population in state prisons, which the judges say are unconstitutionally crowded. Plans his administration previously considered could have forced the state to free about 1,000 inmates before their sentences were finished....
Brown faces an array of political challenges in pushing his plan through the Legislature, notably opposition from Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Republican leaders in both houses flanked Brown for his announcement, but Steinberg was absent, saying later that he would issue his own prison plan Wednesday.
"The governor's proposal is a plan with no promise and no hope," Steinberg said in a statement. "As the population of California grows, it's only a short matter of time until new prison cells overflow." The Senate leader has called for more spending on mental health and drug treatment programs that can reduce the number of ex-offenders who return to prison, helping to lower the inmate population in the long run.
Brown and Pérez said they also would consider more long-term solutions to prison crowding, such as changes in sentencing laws. Meanwhile, the funding for alternative cells is needed, they said. "We are not going to release a single additional prisoner," Pérez said.
The proposal announced Tuesday would move thousands of offenders from state facilities to privately owned prisons in and outside of California and reopen city-owned detention facilities in Shafter and Taft, in the Central Valley. More inmates could be placed in county jails.
Law enforcement groups representing district attorneys, police chiefs, county sheriffs and others are backing the plan. "The efforts by the governor will help protect our communities," said Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal.
More key support comes from the politically powerful prison guard union, which has strongly opposed outsourcing of inmate housing. But Brown's plan would use state guards in a privately owned prison in Kern County....
[O]n Tuesday, top Republican lawmakers said the governor was taking the right steps. "Our No. 1 responsibility is public safety," said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar). "We can't allow dangerous inmates on our streets."
Lawmakers have less than three weeks to consider Brown's proposal before they adjourn. The Assembly budget committee is scheduled to convene Thursday to begin discussions. Brown's effort to comply with the court order has short-circuited some of his previous plans to lower prison spending and end contracts to house inmates out of state. If the Legislature approves his proposal, prison spending will outpace state funding for higher education in the current fiscal year.
Don Specter, a lawyer for inmates who have sued the state over prison conditions, said leasing more prison space would be "an incredible waste of hundreds of millions of dollars for no benefit to public safety." He said the state should consider some early releases, by expanding the credit prisoners can earn for good behavior or freeing inmates who are elderly and sick.
Monday, August 26, 2013
Might NYC save money sending folks to The Plaza instead of the pokey?The silly question in the title of this post was my first reaction to this recent piece in the New York Times headlined "City’s Annual Cost Per Inmate Is $168,000, Study Finds." Here are the pricey details:
New York City is an expensive place to live for just about everyone, including prisoners. The city paid $167,731 to feed, house and guard each inmate last year, according to a study the Independent Budget Office released [last] week.
“It is troubling in both human terms and financial terms,” Doug Turetsky, the chief of staff for the budget office, said on Friday. With 12,287 inmates shuffling through city jails last year, he said, “it is a significant cost to the city.”
Mr. Turetsky added that he was not aware of any previous studies that broke down the cost per inmate in the jails, but there have been national studies.
And by nearly any measure, New York City spends more than every other state or city. The Vera Institute of Justice released a study in 2012 that found the aggregate cost of prisons in 2010 in the 40 states that participated was $39 billion. The annual average taxpayer cost in these states was $31,286 per inmate.
New York State was the most expensive, with an average cost of $60,000 per prison inmate. The cost of incarcerating people in New York City’s jails is nearly three times as much.
Michael P. Jacobson, the director of the City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance and a former city correction and probation commissioner, said part of the reason the city’s cost was so high was because it had a richly staffed system. “The inmate-to-staff ratio probably hovers around two prisoners for every guard,” he said. The budget office said 83 percent of the expense per prisoner came from wages, benefits for staff and pension costs.
Mr. Jacobson noted the success in bringing down the city’s jail population — from a peak of about 23,000 in 1993 to about 12,000 people today — but said the fixed costs were not likely to go down soon. Still, he said, there were things that could be done to save money, like reducing the amount of time people sat in jail awaiting trial. Some 76 percent of the inmates in the city were waiting for their cases to be disposed, according to the budget office.
In other words, New York City is spending, on average, nearly $450 per jail inmate per day. I know it costs more that this to get a room at The Plaza most times (not to mention the cost of room service), but I have to think some kind of group discount rate might be arranged. Jokes aside, these are really eye-popping numbers and now I better understand why the toll roads and bridges in NYC seem to go up a few more dollars every time I visit.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
New York Times editorial board rightly highlights "Pardon Rates Remain Low"I was pleased to see this morning that the New York Times has this new editorial discussing clemency issues under the headline " "Pardon Rates Remain Low." Here are excerpts:
Attorney General Eric Holder said many encouraging things in his important speech on the future of sentencing reform, but the most striking thing may have been what he did not say. In all his 4,000 words on America’s “broken” legal system — and particularly on its outlandishly harsh and ineffective sentencing laws — there was not one mention of executive clemency.
That power, which the Constitution explicitly grants to the president, has always served as an indispensable check on the injustices of the legal system and as a means of demonstrating forgiveness where it is called for. It was once used freely; presidents issued more than 10,000 grants of clemency between 1885 and 1930 alone. But mercy is a four-letter word in an era when politicians have competed to see who can be toughest on crime....
As ProPublica has documented, the pardon process has devolved into a mockery of itself, riven by arbitrariness, racial disparity and charges of abuse. Pardons of powerful, well-connected individuals like Marc Rich, by Bill Clinton, and Lewis Libby, by George W. Bush, have only increased cynicism about the process.
Meanwhile, President Obama’s use of the pardon power remains historically low. In four and a half years, he has received almost 10,000 applications for clemency and has granted just 39 pardons and one sentence commutation. No one seems to know why some requests are granted and others denied. To call it a lottery is unfair to lotteries; at least if you pick the right numbers, you’re guaranteed to win....
As the experience of many states shows, a functional pardon system must also be accountable. This can mean requiring the executive to publish an annual report on pardon policy and practice. Currently the president has no obligation to explain his grants or denials, which undermines public trust in the system.
In this light it is disheartening that the Obama administration continues to resist calls to remove the current head of the pardon office, Ronald L. Rodgers, despite a finding by the Justice Department’s inspector general that in 2008, Mr. Rodgers misrepresented material information in recommending that the president deny a petition for clemency.
In a 2003 speech, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that “a people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy.” In the 10 years since that speech, requests for mercy have increased even as the prospects for reform have not. In the first 10 months of fiscal 2013, 2,000 inmates applied for commutations, more than in any single year in history.
Executive clemency may not be the ideal way to ameliorate the system’s excesses, but for many people stuck with an unjustly long sentence or a conviction that prevents them from getting jobs, business licenses or even public housing, it remains the only way....
Mr. Holder was right to call for a substantial overhaul of our criminal justice system. But any meaningful reform must include the clemency process, by which we temper our most punitive tendencies. It is long past time for the president to heed the words of Justice Kennedy and reinvigorate this fundamental executive prerogative.
Kudos to the New York Times editorial board for giving this issue significant attention in the wake of AG Holder's speech (and for the great line "[t]o call it a lottery is unfair to lotteries...."). The Obama Administration's record on this issue is truly abysmal, especially given that President Obama rode into the White House in 2008 by stressing the themes of hope and change into the White House.
Especially disconcerting is Obama's failure to date to use his clemency powers (or really to do anything of significance) to help the many thousands of low-level crack offenders still serving (now-repealed) severe mandatory minimum prison sentences based on the old 100-1 crack/powder sentencing ratio. Back in 2007 on the campaign trail in his speech to Howard Univesity (as I discussed in this 2010 law review article), then-candidate Barack Obama had this to say about those federal prisoners:
When I'm President, we will no longer accept the false choice between being tough on crime and vigilant in our pursuit of justice.... We can have a crime policy that's both tough and smart. If you're convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be punished. But let's not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using them. Judges think that's wrong. Republicans think that's wrong. Democrats think that's wrong, and yet it's been approved by Republican and Democratic Presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and make it right. That will end when I am President.
Though I suppose President Obama deserves some credit for the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, even the revised federal penalties under that law with its new 18-1 ratio still mean that "the punishment for crack cocaine [is] much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine." And, more to the point of this post, the only reason I can surmise to explain why President Obama has not been willing to grant commutations to some significant number of the thousands of prisonder serving sentences that judges and Republicans and Democrats all think are wrong is because President Obama even in his second term is still , in fact, NOT "willing to brave the politics and make it right."
I know that there are at least 2000 federal prisoners who applied for clemency just this last year who continue to reasonably hope that President Barack Obama remembers that his clemency powers provide one of the very best ways for him to be "vigilant in our pursuit of justice." But, as the NY Times highlights, in this arena many now have been hoping for nearly five years to see any real change.
Some recent and a few older posts concerning federal clemency practices:
- "How to Awaken the Pardon Power"
- New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparities
- "Clemency Reform: We're Still Waiting"
- "Clemency for the 21st Century: A Systemic Reform of the Federal Clemency Process"
- Will Prez Obama's clemency record ever match his inaugural rhetoric?
- "Why Has Obama Pardoned So Few Prisoners?"
- "Barack the Unmerciful: Obama's amazingly stingy clemency record"
- New York Times editorial assails Prez Obama's considerable clemency failings
- "Obama Has Granted Clemency More Rarely Than Any Modern President"
- Updated numbers on President Obama's disgraceful clemency record
- Noting President Obama's (still) stingy clemency record
- ProPublica reveals more ugliness in federal clemency process
- "A no-pardon Justice Department"
- Effective USA Today coverage of President Obama's clemency stinginess
- "Obama should exercise the pardon power"
- NYTimes op-ed assailing Obama's pathetic pardon practices
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
"It's Not Just Federal Prisons: State Prisons Are a Mess, Too"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal piece. Here are excerpts:
In Arkansas, there aren't enough prison beds for all the inmates. Tasked with housing 14,753 people, the state's prisons have fallen around 280 beds short, with 1,400 state inmates being held in county jails as of Monday. Arkansas's state prison director told the corrections board that there are 300 beds ready for use, but it would cost $8 million to hire new employees and run the new facilities.
Arkansas isn't the only state with a bed problem: Arizona has been relying on temporary beds to make up for only having 37,000 beds for 41,000 inmates.
When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the American Bar Association about the economic and moral costs of the U.S. criminal justice system last week, he was mainly talking about federal prisons. But prisons at the state and local level aren't in any better shape....
If you need more proof of how bleak things are, just look at some of what's happened in the last few weeks.
On July 8, a hunger strike broke out in California prisons over a policy that allowed inmates associated with gangs to live in isolation for long periods of time.... When the strike began, it included almost 30,000 of the state's 133,000 inmates. That number is down to around 130. On Monday, a federal judge ruled that California will be able to force-feed the remaining strikers.
California's prison problem is also fundamentally economic. In May, a judge ordered California to reduce its inmate population by 9,600 to prevent overcrowding. California unsuccessfully appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday said that California wouldn't "do a mass release" and a spokesman said the administration is "working with the Legislature to avoid the prospect of inmate releases." That could mean spending hundreds of millions of dollars to stem overcrowding. But even just releasing prisoners can come at a huge cost. According to the LAPD, it costs about $18 million to keep track of felons who are released from state prisons to the counties, and more than half of the thousands who are already released annually are eventually sent back to prison.
Then there's the violence. Five prisons have been placed on lockdown in Illinois in the last week for unrelated incidents after a wave of violence. That includes violence against prison guards. Then there's the rise in suicides. In Washington, D.C., there have been four suicides at the Central Detention Facility in less than a year. In the last decade, there have only been eight suicides total at that facility. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report released this month shows a recent uptick in suicides at local prisons.
Renewing focus on federal prisons is a start, but it doesn't totally address all of the problems in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
"International Trends in Prison Privatization"The title of this post is the title of this notable new research paper from The Sentencing Project. Here is how the report was summarized in an e-mail I received today:
[Just released is] a new report of The Sentencing Project that analyzes the growth of private prisons internationally. In International Growth Trends in Prison Privatization, by Cody Mason, we find that at least 11 nations on five continents have followed the lead of the United States in contracting with profit-making entities to operate prisons.
Key findings of the report include:
• International use of private prisons is predominantly found in English-speaking countries, including Australia, Scotland, England and Wales, New Zealand, and South Africa.
• While the United States maintains the highest number of individuals held in private prisons, other nations incarcerate a higher proportion of prisoners privately. Leading nations in this regard are Australia (19%), Scotland (17%), and England and Wales (14%).
• Reports from a number of countries indicate that private prisons have experienced problems relating to violence, drug use, and inefficiency in operations.
Monday, August 19, 2013
Making the case for releasing more of the tens of thousands of "Graying Prisoners"Jamie Fellner, who is a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and focuses on US criminal justice issues, has this notable new New York Times op-ed headlined "Graying Prisoners." Here are highlights:
More and more United States prisons resemble nursing homes with bars, where the elderly and infirm eke out shrunken lives. Prison isn’t easy for anyone, but it is especially punishing for those afflicted by the burdens of old age. Yet the old and the very old make up the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.... [A]t least 26,100 men and women 65 and older incarcerated in state and federal prisons, up 62 percent in just five years.
Owing largely to decades of tough-on-crime policies — mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and the elimination of federal parole — these numbers are likely to increase as more and more prisoners remain incarcerated into their 70s and 80s, many until they die....
[S]ome older inmates committed violent crimes, and there are people who think such prisoners should leave prison only “in a pine box.” Anger, grief and the desire for retribution are understandable, and we can all agree that people who commit serious crimes should be held accountable. But retribution can shade into vengeance. While being old should not be an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, infirmity and illness can change the calculus of what justice requires.
It is worth asking: What do we as a society get from keeping these people in prison? People like the 87-year-old I met who had an “L” painted on his left shoe and an “R” on his right so he would know which was which and who didn’t even seem to know he was in prison. Or the old men I watched play bingo in a prison day room who needed staff members to put the markers on the bingo cards for them.
Attorney General Eric Holder gave his answer to this question on Aug. 12 when he announced new compassionate release policies for the Bureau of Prisons. Elderly and infirm federal prisoners who have served a significant part of their sentence and pose no danger will now be eligible for early release.
Recidivism studies consistently show declining rates of crime with age. Those who are bedridden or in wheelchairs are not likely to go on crime sprees. The scores of older prisoners I have met want to spend their remaining time with their families; they are coming to terms with mortality, regret their past crimes and hope, if time permits, to make amends.
Keeping the elderly and infirm in prison is extraordinarily costly. Annual medical costs for older prisoners range from three to nine times higher than those for younger ones, because, as in the general population, older people behind bars have high rates of chronic disease and infirmities and require more hospitalizations and medical care.
I have talked with dozens of correctional staff members who acknowledge that officers are not trained to manage geriatric prisoners. Nor are there enough of them to give the extra attention such prisoners may need — to ensure they take their medications, find their way to their cell, are clean if they are incontinent.
So what can be done? Compassionate release and medical parole programs exist in many prison systems, but they are poorly used and often exclude people who committed violent crimes or sex offenses even if those people are no longer able to repeat such crimes.
If the programs were properly devised and used, some aging prisoners could go back to their families. Others could be released to nursing homes or assisted-living facilities — although it is increasingly difficult to find private facilities that will take former prisoners. States and the federal government should also jettison laws requiring mandatory sentences that condemn offenders to old age in prison, without regard to whether they pose a threat to the public or have the potential for rehabilitation.
If we aren’t willing to change sentencing laws or make more use of compassionate release, we’ll need to pour vast sums of money into prisons to provide adequate conditions of care for the soaring population of geriatric prisoners. That means investing in special training for correction officers; in round-the-clock medical care; in retrofitting buildings, wheelchair-accessible cells and bathrooms; in units with lower bunks and no stairs; and in increased hospice care for the terminally ill.
But do we really want to go that route? In the case of frail and incapacitated prisoners who can safely be released to spend what remains of their lives under supervised parole, release is a far more compassionate, sensible course.
Effective press review of some state responses to SCOTUS Miller rulingThe AP has this notable new article on the wire discussing at lengthy some of the response at the state level to the Supreme Court's Miller ruling last year prohibiting madatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers. Here is an excerpt:
[There are] an estimated 2,100 so-called juvenile lifers across the country — inmates sentenced to lengthy prison terms without parole — who hope for a reprieve in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama. The decision determined such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The court ruled, 5-4, that the proportionality of the sentence must take into account "the mitigating qualities of youth," such as immaturity and the failure of young people to understand the ramifications of their actions.
In part to head off an avalanche of expected appeals, at least 10 states have changed laws to comply with the ruling. In June, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill eliminating mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile killers, who are also ineligible for the death penalty. The new law requires juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to serve at least 25 years in prison while still allowing judges the discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole. Juvenile offenders convicted of first-degree murder are also allowed to petition for a sentence modification after serving 30 years.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill in February specifying that juveniles convicted of murder would be eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. Last fall, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation giving judges options other than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases. Other states with new juvenile sentencing laws include Arkansas, California, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Dakota and Utah, according to data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures this summer.
In Connecticut, [there are] about 200 inmates who could be affected by the high court's ruling, a proposal that would have allowed parole hearings for teen offenders who've served at least 12 years or 60 percent of their sentence died this year. There are plans to resurrect the bill next year.
But the prospect of possibly shortening sentences has been met with mixed reaction from relatives of crime victims. "If you can't believe a judge's final decision in a courtroom, who can you believe?" asked John Cluny, whose wife and teenage son were shot to death in 1993 by his son's 15-year-old friend, Michael Bernier. Bernier was sentenced to 60 years for the murders. Cluny calls him "a cold-blooded killer."
Despite good behavior in prison and years of reflection and maturity, Cluny questions giving such killers another chance at freedom. "You're in prison for what you did, not for what you've become," he said.
August 19, 2013 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Sunday, August 18, 2013
"Some prisons let inmates connect with tablets"The title of this post is the headline of this new USA Today article, which provides an effective overview of one interesting recent technocorrections development. The subheading of the piece is "Proponents say allowing inmates to use tablets will help reintegrate them into society and keep them from returning to jail." Here are excerpts:
Ohio became the latest state last month to allow inmates to purchase and use mini-tablet computers while incarcerated — a controversial move intended to better connect those in jail with their families and friends on the outside.
At least six other states, including North Dakota and Georgia, permit the practice, which proponents say will deepen prisoners' ties to their communities and keep them in sync with modern technology. "We have anticipation and hope to make it a good educational tool," said Ricky Seyfang, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Opponents are concerned the tablets will be used for illegal activities or brandished as weapons. "Our challenge is always how we give inmates the exposure to these tools while protecting public safety at the same time," said Douglas Smith III, chief information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida launched a pilot program last year to test Kindle devices for inmates.
Victims' rights groups say the devices make public safety increasingly difficult to achieve. Kristy Dyroff, director of communication at the National Organization for Victim Assistance, said there is the potential for "unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims."...
In the seven states that allow the tablets — Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan and Washington are the four others — inmates or their family members can purchase a $49.99 mini-tablet that allows them to send e-mails and listen to music, according to Tara Bertram, vice president of marketing at JPay, a mini-tablet vendor. The e-mails and any included attachments can be monitored by the state's department of corrections or the individual facility.
Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said expanded technology access in prisons could help inmates transition into their communities — and keep them there — if the devices are used to contact family and potential employers. "It can be hard to build connections to people or organizations they'll be interacting with," Jannetta said.
Jannetta and others caution that tablets, like cellphones, can also breed criminal activity.... "Prisons have trouble containing all sorts of things," said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the National Reentry Resource Center. "You're dealing with folks who probably want to break some rules."
JPay tries to minimize that risk by loading only limited functions, such as music and gaming, on to its tablets. The decision to allow the devices in prisons is made by state corrections departments, Bertram said.
Another vendor, Keefe Group, launched an MP3 player and music download service for prisoners in 2009. The service netted more than 1 million downloads a year after it was introduced, according to a news release on its website.
This month, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler advocated for giving Android tablets to prisoners as a solution to close the "revolving door" of ex-offenders returning to jail. The Democratic gubernatorial hopeful said inmates would be allowed access to e-books, the state's library system, law resources and educational applications. Limited e-mail capability would also be offered.
That proposal could draw concern from taxpayers skeptical of investing more resources in jails. The average per-inmate cost a year is $31,286, ranging from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York, according to the Vera Institute, a research group focusing on justice systems. "When you're talking about buying individual pieces of technology and distributing them, it can be very controversial," Jannetta said.
As technology becomes increasingly embedded within society, some experts say its placement in more prisons is inevitable. "For us to expect inmates will possess the skills necessary to survive in the free world, we'll have to come to the realization they'll have to use these things," Smith said.
Recent related posts:
Sunday, August 11, 2013
"California’s Continuing Prison Crisis"The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:
California has long been held up as the land of innovation and fresh starts, but on criminal justice and incarceration, the Golden State remains stubbornly behind the curve.
Over the past quarter-century, multiple lawsuits have challenged California’s state prisons as dangerously overcrowded. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court found that the overcrowding had gotten so bad — close to double the prisons’ designed capacity — that inmates’ health and safety were unconstitutionally compromised. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by tens of thousands of inmates, to 110,000, or to 137.5 percent of capacity.
In January, the number of inmates was down to about 120,000, and Gov. Jerry Brown declared that “the prison emergency is over in California.” He implored the Supreme Court to delay a federal court order to release nearly 10,000 more inmates. On Aug. 2, the court said no. Over the furious dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia, who reiterated his warning two years ago of “the terrible things sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order,” six members of the court stood by its earlier ruling. California has to meet its goal by the end of 2013.
The state claims that releasing any more inmates would be a threat to public safety, as if the problem were too little prison space. In fact, California’s problem is not excessive crime, but excessive punishment.
This was obvious years before the Supreme Court weighed in. Since the mid-1970s, California’s prison population has grown by 750 percent, driven by sentencing laws based largely on fear, ignorance and vengeance. The state’s notorious three-strikes law, passed in 1994, is only the most well-known example. Because of it, 9,000 offenders are serving life in prison, including many whose “third strike” was a nonserious, nonviolent offense — in one case, attempting to steal a pair of work gloves from a Home Depot.
Californians have made clear that they no longer accept traditional justifications for extreme sentencing. Last November, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36, which restricted the use of the three-strikes law for nonviolent offenses, even for current prisoners. It wasn’t just about saving money; exit polls showed that nearly three-quarters of those who supported the proposition said they felt the law was too harsh....
If California wants to avoid another legal battle over its overcrowded prisons, there are two things it can do right away.
First, it should establish a sentencing commission to bring consistency, proportionality and data-based assessments to its laws. Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia and the federal government already have such commissions, and they make a difference. In Virginia and North Carolina, both of which had prison overcrowding, sentencing commissions helped focus scarce resources on housing the most violent offenders, limiting prison growth without jeopardizing public safety. Criminal justice reform advocates have unsuccessfully pushed for such a commission in California. If the state is to get away from its irrational and complicated sentencing, it needs a commission, and it needs to insulate it as much as possible from the political actors who have contributed so much to the state’s current crisis.
Second, the state must do more to help released prisoners get the re-entry and rehabilitation services that already exist across California. Inmates are often released with no warning to friends or family, with no money, no means of transportation and no clothes other than the jumpsuits on their backs. It is no wonder a 2012 report showed that 47 percent of California prisoners returned to prison within a year of their release, a significantly higher rate than the national average....
California’s prison population is consistently among the largest in the country. While it presents an extreme case, its problems are representative of what is happening in prisons and jails in other states. If California would redirect its energy from battling the federal courts to making the needed long-term reforms, it could once again call itself a leader.
Friday, August 09, 2013
How would you advise California to deal with its lingering prison problems?The question in the title if this post is prompted by this new Los Angeles Times article headlined "California prisons could free 1,000 to ease crowding: The state scrambles to relocate thousands of inmates to comply with a court order." Here is the set-up:
So, dear readers, just how would you advise California's policy-makers and law-makers to make sure they finally fix this final prison problem right?
Under court orders to ease prison crowding by the end of the year, California officials are scrambling to relocate 9,600 inmates but may be forced to free roughly 1,000 of them before they have completed their sentences.
Officials say most offenders are likely to remain locked up, in privately owned prisons, county jails and other facilities. But some low-level criminals, as well as seriously ill and elderly inmates, could be released, state plans show.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a three-judge ruling that the prisons remain too crowded and inmate numbers must drop. Gov. Jerry Brown has appealed the judges' order, saying the results could harm public safety, but in the meantime his administration must comply.
Putting inmates on the street would present thorny political problems for Brown, who is widely expected to run for reelection next year and insists that California has done enough to relieve overcrowding. But "the closer we get to the end of the year, the more difficult it becomes" to avoid releases, Brown's corrections secretary, Jeffrey Beard, said in an interview.
The state is working on a deal to move hundreds of prisoners to Alameda County jails in coming weeks, and officials are in talks to rent space at a private prison in Kern County. They are considering reopening two low-security detention centers, also in Kern County. Thousands of other inmates would be in firefighting camps or would be confined in other states.
Many of those steps would be costly — and the state would still need to shed about 1,000 more prisoners. So corrections officials and prison medical personnel are reviewing discharge rules and evaluating inmate cases to determine who could be released. No releases have been scheduled. Officials have not yet detailed all of their plans with the court and are identifying more potential candidates than they may need.
They have already developed new criteria for allowing seriously ill prisoners to be let out. Previously, an inmate needed 24-hour care to qualify; now, officials say, prisoners would no longer have to be bedridden. They could qualify if they have a terminal illness or a severe disability such as Alzheimer's disease or paralysis. Those sentenced to death or life without parole would be ineligible, regardless of medical condition.
About 900 inmates meet the new standards for medical release, according to Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the court-appointed receiver who runs prison healthcare. But it is unclear how many of their cases could be vetted by the end of the year or how many would be approved by the state parole board....
New rules for paroling elderly inmates are also in the works, according to the state's court filings. Prisoners could qualify if they are at least 60, have served at least 25 years of their term and are not sentenced to death or life without parole. Others who could be considered for release are prisoners who committed low-level, nonviolent crimes and are not sex offenders required to register their whereabouts after discharge. The process for releasing them could involve expanding credit for good behavior.
Officials say they've identified about 1,200 low-level inmates who have less than a year left in their sentences and are considered less likely than others to commit new crimes. About 500 similar inmates with more than a year left to serve could also be considered for release. If necessary, other prisoners serving time for minor offenses but who are gang members or committed serious infractions behind bars could also be considered, court papers show.
James Austin, a prison consultant working with lawyers who have sued the state over crowding in its lockups, said that with fewer than five months left to meet the judges' order, authorities are unlikely to avoid early releases. "There's no escaping it now," he said.
But even high-risk inmates are routinely released when their sentences end, Austin noted. Letting prisoners go a few months ahead of time won't change their likelihood of reoffending, he said. Beard said he is still hoping to avoid releases altogether, but officials are unsure whether the state can spend money on alternative housing without legislative approval — even though the judges waived any local or state laws that could hamper compliance with their order....
Brown should be building or reopening prisons rather than sending any more inmates to counties, said Abel Maldonado, a Republican former lieutenant governor who may challenge Brown next year and is pushing for a ballot measure to undo some of the governor's prison policies....
The legal and political pressures have put a harsh spotlight on California prisons, long a magnet for controversy. "The nation is watching," said San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos, a critic of Brown's prison policies. "We better get it right."
August 9, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
Should prisoners all get iPads?The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing Baltimore Sun story, which is headlined "Gansler proposes tablet computers for inmates: Gubernatorial hopeful says idea would help keep offenders from returning to jail." Here are the details:
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler pushed a novel solution Monday for closing what he called the "revolving door" of ex-offenders returning to prisons.
Give inmates tablet computers.
As Gansler envisions it, the proposal would help offenders build both education credentials and social support before they leave prison. The gubernatorial hopeful says the wireless devices would replace brick-and-mortar libraries and classrooms in the state's prison system, providing each inmate with an Android tablet that could connect with e-books, the state's library system, law resources and online learning programs.
They would also allow limited — and monitored — email access, so inmates could connect with family members. "It has to work," Gansler said. "It's common sense that it will work."
The tablet idea is one element of Gansler's 10-part proposal for integrating former inmates into communities. Statistics show that roughly half of the offenders who are released will return to the state's prison system within three years. The most recent state data available puts the rate at 43 percent. Gansler, who presented his plan in Baltimore at the latest in a series of meetings outlining his platform for governor, called the state's approach to re-entry a "policy mess."
The Android proposal drew concern from some in the corrections world, particularly in light of the recent federal indictment of a dozen Baltimore City Detention Center guards, who are accused of smuggling in cell phones to help the Black Guerrilla Family gang run a drug ring.
"There's a lot of challenges with providing Internet access to inmates," said Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "There's a real concern — I think a valid one — that access to the outside can threaten both inmates and staff.
"While it's innovative to think about delivering education with new technology, a lot of things need to be sorted out."
In a presentation to the Corrections Technology Association in June entitled "iPads for Inmates", the Virginia firm HomeWAV LLC listed what it said were the positive benefits: social and job skills, mentoring and rehabilitation. The cons: "gangs," "nudity," "corruption."
"It's a fascinating concept," said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the National Reentry Resource Center, a policy group.
Only a few inmates in Maryland have Internet access, state corrections spokesman Rick Binetti said. All are low-security, pre-release inmates who are permitted to use the Internet only to look for jobs, and only under the direct supervision of correctional officers.
Several states have set up Web kiosks that give limited access to inmates. A company called JPay sells a $49.99 mini-tablet to inmates in prisons in Virginia and Louisiana. Access is limited to music, games and a few other applications.
A New York startup called American Prison Data Systems has been shopping the idea of an indestructible 7-inch Android tablet that states would purchase for inmates' personal use. CEO Christopher Grewe said he expects to finish negotiating pilot projects in three states by the end of 2013. He proposes giving one to each inmate in a low or medium-security prison to limit potential fights. He said they would be designed so that they couldn't be converted into weapons. Each device would come with free access to libraries and legal resources, and cost $500 per year per inmate.
Maryland spends an average of $38,383 per year per prisoner, the Vera Institute of Justice reported last year. Grewe has pitched his idea as a way for states to improve education opportunities for inmates and save money on maintaining expensive classrooms and libraries....
Grewe said that algorithms and a 24-hour center in Ohio would scan all outgoing and incoming email on a 12- to 24-hour delay, and that devices could be heavily restricted or shut off remotely. "We can filter it five ways to Sunday," he said. Prisons, he said, "can't postpone dealing with the digital revolution any longer."
Gansler, in pitching his idea to a room full of people who work with offenders, suggested anyone who has seen the Oscar-nominated film "The Shawshank Redemption" knows libraries can be used as a means of transporting contraband. Replacing them with more secure tablets, he said, would save money and make sense.
"We have the ability in the 21st century to educate children online," Gansler said. "You can learn a language online. … Why can't we educate our offenders?"
Monday, August 05, 2013
Dying in federal prison, Lynne Stewart now arguing for compassionate releaseAs reported in this notable new New York Times piece, headlined "Dying Lawyer Asks Judge to Free Her From Prison," the last case being argued by a famous defense lawyer appears to be her own effort to avoid dying in prison. Here are the details:
Lynne F. Stewart, the outspoken former defense lawyer and a polarizing figure in the criminal justice system, is fighting her final battle.
In her long career as a lawyer, she came to be known as a brash and tireless champion of unpopular clients, including Mafia hit men like Salvatore Gravano and terrorist defendants like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks.
It was that case that led to her own incarceration: she was convicted of smuggling messages from the imprisoned sheik to his violent followers in Egypt, and was sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison.
Now, 73 years old and dying from cancer in a prison hospital in Texas, Ms. Stewart has asked a judge to vacate her sentence after the Federal Bureau of Prisons rejected her request for a “compassionate release” under a program for terminally ill inmates.
“Isolated, in hospital, as I now am, I have time to contemplate life and death,” Ms. Stewart said recently in 12-page handwritten letter to the judge. “I do not intend to go ‘gently into that good night,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote. There is much to be done in this world.”
“I do know,” she added, “that I do not want to die here in prison — a strange and loveless place. I want to be where all is familiar — in a word, home.”
The release of a dying inmate must follow a request by the bureau that seeks a compassionate release from a judge. In weighing the issue, the bureau considers the inmate’s condition and whether the inmate could pose a threat outside prison, and also consults with prosecutors, said Ed Ross, a prisons spokesman.
But with the bureau’s rejection, Ms. Stewart’s lawyer, Jill R. Shellow, has gone directly to the judge who sentenced her client, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court, asking for his help. In court papers, Ms. Shellow says that the circumstances of her client’s imprisonment — having to use a walker to get around, and being placed in shackles, a belly chain and handcuffs when she is transported to an outside cancer center — are “cruel and unusual and excessive” punishment, one of the grounds for which she is seeking Ms. Stewart’s release.
“This is not about the underlying crime,” Ms. Shellow said in a phone interview. “It has nothing to do with Lynne’s conduct. This has to do with how we as a society treat human beings who are dying.”
A spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office declined to comment. In a brief proceeding last week, which was packed with Ms. Stewart’s supporters, a prosecutor, Andrew S. Dember, said a Bureau of Prisons decision about whether to ask a judge for a compassionate release “is totally their discretion, and is unreviewable by a court.” Judge Koeltl said he would hear arguments on the matter on Thursday....
Mr. Ross, the prisons spokesman, declined to comment on Ms. Stewart’s case, but he said that under new guidelines, prisons officials could now consider for compassionate release inmates with a “terminal, incurable disease whose life expectancy is 18 months or less.” The old policy was 12 months or less, he said.
Ms. Stewart was found to have breast cancer in November 2005; she underwent surgery and a course of radiation followed by hormone therapy that lasted for five years, her lawyer said in court papers. In July 2012, the medical staff at her prison, the Federal Medical Center Carswell, in Fort Worth, detected a mass in her left lung; doctors eventually determined that she had metastatic cancer that had spread to her lungs, lymph system and bones, the papers say.
In April of this year, she filed a formal request with Carswell’s warden for compassionate release, citing her illness and proposing that she be sent to Brooklyn to live with her son and his wife. Under the policy, the Bureau of Prisons must find “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to justify making such a request to a judge, who has the final say.
In May, the warden recommended that Ms. Stewart’s request be granted, but it was rejected by the bureau in June. It said she was responding well to treatment, was ambulatory and was not suffering from a condition that was terminal within 18 months, the papers say.
Ms. Stewart is asking the bureau to reconsider, Ms. Shellow said on Monday. In her papers, Ms. Shellow argued that the bureau should have given Judge Koeltl the opportunity to act on Ms. Stewart’s application. The papers also cite a recent report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which criticized the Bureau of Prisons for its management of the compassionate release program and said it lacked standards for how much time it took to review inmate requests.
Mr. Ross said the agency had taken steps to expedite the handling of cases. He said that in 2012, the bureau submitted about 40 requests for compassionate release to judges, and all were approved.
Two sharp crime and punishment commentaries from Andrew CohenAndrew Cohen always has sharp and important things to say on a variety of legal and criminal justice issues. But today he is in especially strong form in these two potent commentaries appearing today via The Atlantic:
The Irony of Justice Scalia's California Prison Rant; His dissenting opinion on Brown v. Plata has nothing to do with the subject at hand: prisoners and the Eighth Amendment.
On the Death of John Ferguson; When the sun rose this morning you had every reason to believe that the Eighth Amendment precludes the execution of the insane. When the sun sets tonight you have no such reason to so believe.
Though I am not sure I agree with everything that appears in both of these columns, I am sure that I appreciate the passion and forcefulness with which Andrew Cohen is writing on topics that call for considerably more attention than they are given by most of the media punditry.
Condemned Ohio inmate takes care of his own execution a few days earlyIt is likely unfair to criticize (or praise) Ohio corrections officials for the news reported in this local article, headlined "Inmate hangs self in his cell." Still, as the report highlights, the timing of this notable prison suicide is conspicuous:
Why convicted Cleveland killer Billy Slagle hanged himself early yesterday isn't known, but he apparently knew he had little time to act. Slagle, 44, was found in his Death Row cell at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution about 5 a.m., only hours before he was scheduled to go on a round-the-clock watch before his scheduled execution on Wednesday.
He was pronounced dead about an hour after he was found. No other details were released by state prison officials. “We will be conducting a complete investigation,” said JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Slagle was scheduled to die by lethal injection at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville for the 1987 murder of 40-year-old Mari Anne Pope. Slagle stabbed Pope, a neighbor, 17 times with scissors while she was baby-sitting two young children.
Under state prison protocol, inmates facing the death penalty are placed on around-the-clock watch 72 hours before their scheduled execution — 10 a.m. yesterday for Slagle. Before they are moved to Lucasville, Death Row inmates are required to be observed on regular rounds by corrections officers, with staggered visits not to exceed 30 minutes, Smith said....
Slagle’s defense team was shocked and had no clue he might commit suicide, said one of his attorneys, Vicki Werneke. “We were still litigating in court and had hoped that the execution would have been stopped. There was oral argument scheduled for Monday afternoon,” she told the Associated Press in an email.
Although Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty sought clemency for Slagle — arguing that, under current law, he would have been given life without parole and not the death penalty — the courts, Ohio Parole Board and Gov. John Kasich disagreed.
Kasich declined clemency, which was Slagle’s best hope to avoid execution. McGinty and Slagle’s attorneys had cited his age — at 18, he was barely old enough for execution in Ohio — and his history of alcohol and drug addiction.
It was the first time a killer about to be executed had killed himself since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Another inmate, Lawrence Reynolds Jr., 43, of Akron, hoarded and took an overdose of anti-depressant pills that delayed his execution in 2010. He survived and was executed nine days later.
As a fan of personal liberty and autonomy, I tend to favor permitting those prisoners condemned to be executed or to die in prison the opportunity, if clearly competent, the means to commit suicide. But I have no basis for concluding the prisoner here was making a truly informed and competent decision, nor do I fully understand how he had the ready means to hang himself just before going on a pre-execution suicide watch. That all said, and to be especially crass and consequentialist, I suppose as an Ohio taxpayer I ought to a bit be grateful for all the tax-funded time and energy of state employees now saved by there no longer being a contested scheduled Ohio execution this week.
Friday, August 02, 2013
To some Justices' chagrin, SCOTUS refuses to delay latest California prison release orderAs reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, the "Supreme Court, over three Justices’ dissents, on Friday afternoon refused to delay a lower court order requiring California state prisons to release nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of this year, to relieve overcrowding." Here is more:
In an order containing no explanation, the Court majority denied state officials’ plea to keep the release order on hold until it could be challenged on appeal. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not even mention state officials’ plea to grant full-scale review of the order.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a bitterly worded dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, called the three-judge District Court’s release mandate a “terrible injunction” that will have the grave consequence of releasing many dangerous prisoners. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., noted simply that he would grant a postponement.
The Scalia dissent condemned what he called “the Power of the Black Robe” in broadly expanding judicial power, and then hinting at limitations “that make it seem not so bad.” He was referring to the Court’s ruling in this same case, two years ago, suggesting that the state might seek and get some relief from an earlier release order. “Comes the moment of truth,” Scalia wrote, “the hinted-at limitation proves a sham.” The District Court judges, he suggested, have now called the Court’s earlier “bluff” and ordered further releases.
State officials, the dissenters argued, had come forward with evidence that they have “made meaningful progress” in relieving the serious overcrowding in the state’s 34 adult prisons, and thus it was unnecessary for additional releases to be made....
Before the latest release order, which is expected to require opening the prison gates to some 9,600 inmates, the state already had released about 37,000 inmates. Officials claimed, in their new challenge, that the only prisoners who could be released to comply to the new mandate are those convicted of very serious crimes.
The state’s challenge to the latest order was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area that includes California — the Ninth Circuit. Kennedy referred it to the full Court, resulting in the denial issued Friday.
Although the voting of the Justices was not spelled out in the order, it appeared that it had been joined by Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
The state’s challenge had been pending at the Court for more than three weeks; it was filed July 10. The delay in resolving it may have been due to the fact that members of the Court, now in their summer recess, have been traveling.
The brief order from the Court, along with Justice Scalia's three-page dissent, is available at this link.
Could prison perhaps be helping to cause serious recidivism in Delaware?The question in the title of this post is the first reaction I had upon seeing this lengthy local story, headlined "Study: 8 in 10 released inmates return to Del. prisons." Here are the details:
Nearly eight in 10 Delaware inmates sentenced to more than a year in prison are arrested again for a serious offense within three years of their release, according to a first-of-its-kind state study. The 27-page report, Recidivism in Delaware, also found that 71% of released prisoners are convicted of a serious crime within three years, and that 68% return to prison for at least one day....
Conducted by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, the report was a necessary initial step to evaluating the effectiveness of the state's justice system, including the programs available to prisoners while behind bars or after being freed. "These are people who have been sentenced to a year or more in prison, the more serious offenders, and we expected them to be the highest recidivists," said Drewry N. Fennell, the criminal justice council's executive director.
"It really gives us a baseline against which to measure our successes in the future. And our failures. And to know whether we are spending our time and money well in ways that really do enhance communities that people are going back to, as well as enhancing the lives of people who have been incarcerated. We don't want to invest in things that don't do that."
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said the information should be used to develop better strategies to prevent crime and reduce the number of criminals who re-offend. "Too many people released from our prisons go on to commit more crimes. We need to change that," he said in a statement.
Delaware officials haven't studied how effective the corrections system is in keeping offenders from returning to prison since 2000, and that study was limited to a one-time snapshot of prisoners returning after their release in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Delaware Public Defender Brendan O'Neill, whose taxpayer-funded agency represents about 85% of the state's defendants, said he was surprised the rates included in the new report are so high. "It raises more questions than it answers now," O'Neill said, while applauding officials for finally conducting the long-needed study....
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said in a written statement that the report "highlights an alarming rate of recidivism that needs to be addressed by the criminal justice system." Biden said its findings underscore problems his office has been trying to address, such as prison sentences that don't "adequately reflect the seriousness of the crime" or deter future crimes, and the failure of judges to order pre-sentence reports for most serious felony cases.
Delaware embarked on the study on the orders of the General Assembly, which passed a bill in 2012 that required an annual report from the Criminal Justice Council's Statistical Analysis Center. The law, part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that looks to spend corrections dollars more wisely, requires one-year, two-year and three-year rates of re-arrest, reconviction and recommitment of released offenders....
Researchers studied 1,167 prisoners released in 2008 and 1,091 freed in 2009. About 91% were men. Fifty-nine percent were black, and 41% white. Those released in 2008 had slightly higher rates of going back into the criminal justice system than those freed in 2009. Of the 2008 group, 56% got arrested for a "serious offense" within one year, compared to 53% in 2009. Fennell said serious crimes include all felonies and Class A and B misdemeanors. Class B misdemeanors include crimes such as marijuana possession, prostitution and criminal contempt....
Perry Phelps, head of the Bureau of Prisons, cautioned, however, that the deck is often stacked against former inmates because they have trouble getting public assistance, college financial aid or jobs. Lawmakers, educators and employers need to face that reality and remove some of the barriers for those who truly want to reform to help prevent them from returning to their criminal ways, he said.
"We tell people in this country we forgive and forget. You go to jail and do your time and you are set free. But that's not the reality of it," Phelps said. "Some people are ostracized as criminals for so long when they go back to society."
A press release concerning this recidivism report is available at this link, and the full report is available at this link. Among the notable findings from the detailed report is that property offenders serving significant prison terms the first time around still have the highest recidivism rate, which leads me to worry (as my post title suggests) that property offenders may be folks most likely to learn about new and improved ways to commit new offenses while inside prison.
"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:
As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”
This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.
Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.
But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.
August 2, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
"Prisons are shrinking. That won’t necessarily last."The title of this post is the headline of this recent notable essay by Mike Konczal posted on-line via the Washington Post. Here is how it starts:
The Bureau of Justice Statistics on Thursday released its count of the number of prisoners in the country. There are 1,571,013 individuals under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities. However, that number represents a decline, having fallen 1.7 percent since last year — the third consecutive annual drop and the largest of the three. This multi-year falling trend is also true if you consider everyone in the correctional system, or the nearly 7 million people you get when you include local jails, probation and parole. This is after decades of rapidly expanding prisoner populations in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s leading provider of private, for-profit prisons, had a happy announcement in a recent PowerPoint presentation: State budgets will soon be no longer in crisis. One must imagine that CCA shareholders who are U.S. residents were excited that school budgets would no longer be slashed, public services more broadly would no longer be cut, and the dangerous state-level austerity holding back the economy would no longer be an issue. But the real excitement was over the idea that states could finally start arresting people again, thus filling the depleted ranks of the incarcerated.
Liberals debate the longer-term consequences of the past five years all the time. Is the financial sector well-regulated again? Did we roll back the expansive executive authority of the War on Terror, or solidify it? Did we invest enough in infrastructure when interest rates were at all-time lows? But a major question is still open for debate: Did collapse of state budgets during the Great Recession put us on a permanent path to rolling back the United States’ high levels of incarceration?
Monday, July 29, 2013
New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparitiesThanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some ideas expressed in this recent post concerning the President Obama's words and (lack of) actions now find expression in this new Slate commentary. Here is how the piece, co-written by me and Harlan, starts and finishes:
President Barack Obama, commenting last week on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, remarked on “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” A few months earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder similarly lamented new government data suggesting that even today “black male offenders” are sentenced to federal prison terms “nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.” These statements reveal that our nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general are aware of serious racial discrimination in the administration of our nation’s criminal laws. The question is what they plan to do about it?
Neither the president, nor his attorney general, has followed-up or suggested a fix for the problem. Yet with one signature, Obama could make a remarkable difference: He could use his constitutional powers to commute the sentences of thousands of disproportionately black inmates serving excessive prison terms for crack cocaine offenses. Put bluntly, rather than dropping occasional comments about high-profile criminal-justice incidents with racial overtones, both the president and the attorney general should make a focused and sustained effort to redress longstanding criminal justice disparities....
Back in 2009, Holder famously described us as a “nation of cowards” in dealing with race issues. And while both Holder and the president seem to have the courage to speak about high-profile cases, they have yet to show the fortitude and focus needed to turn high-profile controversies into constructive opportunities. If President Obama is genuinely committed to addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of our criminal laws, he can grant clemency today, and then make a sustained commitment to addressing these issues throughout his second term. If he fails to do so, he can, justifiably, be called our nation’s “Coward-in-Chief” where race is concerned.
July 29, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack
Friday, July 26, 2013
New BJS data show continued 2012 decline in state prison populations (and continued federal increase)As detailed in this official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Prison Population Declined for Third Consecutive Year During 2012," the impact of tight budgets and state reforms continues to impact national prison populations in important and significant ways. Here are the basic details:
The U.S. prison population declined 1.7 percent (or by 27,770 inmates) from 2011 to 2012, falling to an estimated 1,571,013 prisoners.... Nine states had a decrease of over 1,000 prisoners in 2012: California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland.
This is the third consecutive year of a decline in the number of state prisoners, which represents a shift in the direction of incarceration practice in the states over the past 30 years. The prison population grew every year between 1978 and 2009, from 307,276 prisoners in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 prisoners in 2009....
California accounted for the majority (51 percent) of the decline in state prisoners with 15,035 fewer inmates in 2012 than 2011. The decline in California was due in part to its Public Safety Realignment policy, which was designed to reduce overcrowding in the state prisons by diverting new admissions of “nonserious, nonsex, nonviolent offenders” from state prisons to local jails.
The decline in the state prison population was offset by an increase in the number of federal inmates. The federal prison population grew by 0.7 percent (or 1,453 inmates) during 2012, a slower rate than the average annual increase of 3.2 percent each year over the past 10 years.
The U.S. imprisonment rate dropped to 480 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2012, continuing a decline since 2007. The national imprisonment rate for males (910 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 male U.S. residents) was over 14 times the imprisonment rate for females (63 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 female U.S. residents). The female imprisonment rate decreased 2.9 percent in 2012 from 65 per 100,000 female U.S. residents in 2011.
In 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 per 100,000 state residents).
Maine had the lowest imprisonment rate among states (145 per 100,000 state residents), followed by Minnesota (184 per 100,000 state residents), and Rhode Island (190 per 100,000 state residents).
In 2011 (the most recent data available), the majority (53 percent) of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a violent offense, including robbery (14 percent), murder or nonnegligent manslaughter (12 percent), rape or sexual assault (12 percent) and aggravated or simple assault (10 percent). About 18 percent were serving time for property offenses, 17 percent for drug crimes and 11 percent for public order offenses, such as weapon violations, drunk driving, commercialized vice and court offenses.
White prisoners comprised 35 percent of the 2011 state prison population, while black prisoners were 38 percent and Hispanics were 21 percent. The percentage of Hispanic inmates sentenced for violent offenses (58 percent) during 2011 exceeded that of non-Hispanic black (56 percent) and non-Hispanic white (49 percent) inmates, while the number of black inmates imprisoned for violent crimes (284,631) surpassed that of white (228,782) or Hispanic (162,489) inmates.
The number of white inmates sentenced for property crime (108,560) was larger than the number of black (78,197) and Hispanic (38,264) inmates sentenced for property crime, while more black inmates were sentenced for drug offenses than inmates of other races or Hispanic origin.
All of this data, and lots more of note, can be found via this 17-page BJS report, which carries the thrilling title "Prisoners in 2012 - Advance Counts." Effective media coverage of this notable new prisoner data can be found via this New York Times article headlined "U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime."