Saturday, January 11, 2014

A few notable headlines concerning notable state prison realities

My review of sentencing law and policy stories this morning revealed this array of noteworthy reports and commentary pieces concerning a number of state prison systems across the US.  I have reprinted the headlines and subheading, which serve as a kind of summary of the issues covered:

January 11, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

"Should We Let Prisoners Upgrade Their Prison Cells?"

9515_luxury_prison_by_iMoo_pupuDesign-1The title of this post is the headline of this interesting report from the OZY media resource. Here are excerpts:

Would prison be so bad if your cell was spacious and included a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV? These are the accommodations for some prisoners at San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. But luxury isn’t free: For about $1,000-1,500, an inmate can purchase a high-class cell for the duration of his or her sentence.

San Pedro is divided into eight sections ranging from shared small cells with risks of stabbings at night to the opulent cells that have access to billiard tables and fresh juice stands. Every person must buy or rent a cell, no matter the quality, and many inmates have jobs as hairdressers, laundry staff, food stall operators or TV repairmen.

Does the idea of paying for better prison accommodations sound ludicrous? Would you bet this could never happen in the U.S.? Think again.

In California there are multiple jails with “pay-to-stay” programs where inmates can pay from $75-155 a day for a private cell in quiet areas away from violent offenders, and they are occasionally allowed to bring in an iPod or computer for entertainment. They must be approved for the program and their crimes are usually minor offenses. The ACLU is not a fan, calling the program a “jail for the rich.”

Supporters of pay-to-stay say they benefit the cities where they are located by providing revenue. For example, if the Fremont jail — which spends $8.35 a day on each inmate — houses 16 inmates for two nights per week a year, the city would net a profit of about $244,000. One immediate question is whether cities should make a profit off of prisoners. Another question has to do with equality.

Two people who commit the same crime but end up in different facilities depending on their ability to pay isn’t exactly equitable, but the American incarceration system doesn’t have the best record when it comes to treating the poor and rich equally....

But what if you weren’t allowed to use Daddy’s dollars to secure better living conditions while serving time for a DUI? What if, instead, you started out the same as every other inmate, regardless of personal wealth or outside resources?

Could a fairer option be that you start your sentence with a financial blank slate, earn money by taking jobs inside the prison or jail and then apply your self-earned dollars to book a nicer and more comfortable living situation? Should prisoners be allowed to pay to upgrade the quality of their cells, or should the nature of their crime be the sole factor in how they live out their prison terms?

January 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 05, 2014

"The Punishment Imperative The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America"

9780814717196_FullThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book published by NYU Press authored by Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost.  Here is the book's description from the NYU Press site:

“Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation’s forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety. But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure. Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future — counsel that is wise and should be widely followed.” — Francis T. Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati

Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history — five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world.  This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to “get tough” on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties.  In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America’s move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment.  Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces — fiscal, political, and evidentiary — have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end.

Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment.  Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem — and thereby offered a political opportunity — that became the basis for the great rise in punishment.  The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished.  Clear and Frost argue that the public’s growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders.

The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape.  However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system’s approach to punishment.  Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America.

January 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, January 03, 2014

"Food As Punishment: Giving U.S. Inmates 'The Loaf' Persists"

NutraloafThe title of this post is the headline of this interesting new NPR segment. Here are excerpts:

In many prisons and jails across the U.S., punishment can come in the form of a bland, brownish lump. Known as nutraloaf, or simply "the loaf," it's fed day after day to inmates who throw food or, in some cases, get violent. Even though it meets nutritional guidelines, civil rights activists urge against the use of the brick-shaped meal.

Tasteless food as punishment is nothing new: Back in the 19th century, prisoners were given bread and water until they'd earned with good behavior the right to eat meat and cheese. But the loaf is something above and beyond. Prisons and jails are allowed to come up with their own version, so some resort to grinding up leftovers into a dense mass that's reheated. Other institutions make loaves from scratch out of shredded and mashed vegetables, beans and starches. They're rendered even more unappetizing by being served in a small paper sack, with no seasoning.

Prisoners who've had the loaf hate it. Johnnie Walton had to eat it in the Tamms Supermax in Chicago. He describes it as "bland, like cardboard." Aaron Fraser got the loaf while he was serving time from 2004 to 2007 in several different institutions for a counterfeit-check scheme. He loathed it. "They take a bunch of guck, like whatever they have available, and they put it in some machine," Fraser says. "I would have to be on the point of dizziness when I know I have no choice [to eat it]."

No one knows exactly how many institutions use it, but Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates, estimates that the number is over 100. At least 12 states — including California, Texas and New York — serve it in state-run institutions, as do dozens of municipal and county jails across the country.

In Pennsylvania state prisons, "food loaf" is made with milk, rice, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, beans and margarine. The Clark County Jail in Washington state serves a version with most of those ingredients, plus ground beef or chicken, apples and tomatoes.

Law enforcement says the loaf isn't so bad. "It's a food source; it contains all the vitamins and nutrients and minerals that a human being needs," says Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who has used the loaf in his jail for five years. "It's been approved by the courts. I've had it myself — it's like eating meatloaf. "

But prisoners who misbehave don't just get it once. They have to eat it at every meal, for days or weeks at a time. That's why it works as a deterrent, says Sheriff Clarke. "If you're up on a first-degree murder charge, or some serious sexual assault of a child, you don't have much to lose in jail," says Clarke.

"But when we started to use this in the disciplinary pods, all of a sudden the incidence of fights, disorder, of attacks against our staff started to drop tremendously. The word got around — we knew it would. And we'll often hear from inmates, 'Please, please, I won't do that anymore. Don't put me in the disciplinary pod. I don't want to eat nutraloaf.' "

Scientists say it's the monotony of eating the loaf that's the real punishment. Marcia Pelchat, a physiological psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says humans have evolved to crave a variety of food. "Having to eat the loaf over and over again probably makes people miserable. They might be a little nauseated by it, they're craving other foods," says Pelchat....

"Given that food is clearly recognized as a basic human need to which prisoners are constitutionally entitled, restrictions on food, taking away food has always been sort of legally right on the line," says David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

There's no guidance from the government on using the loaf, but the American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons and sets best practices for the industry, discourages using food as a disciplinary measure. The Federal Bureau of Prisons says it has never used the loaf in its facilities. Still, the loaf persists in other parts of the corrections system, and no agencies or organizations are keeping track of where and how often it's used.

So Benson Li, the former president of the Association of Correctional Food Service Affiliates and the food service director at the Los Angeles County Jail, offered to help us find that out. At a recent meeting of the association, Li conducted an informal survey at the request of NPR. About 40 percent of the prisons and jails that responded said their use of the loaf is diminishing, 30 percent said they do not use nutraloaf, and about 20 percent said their use was about the same or slightly growing.

Li says that, overall, the results suggest that the loaf is gradually being phased out. "[Prisons and jails] are using less or some of them are using sparingly — maybe just two to three times in the last year," he says.

Li says he thinks one of the reasons for this is that prisoners have been challenging the loaf in the courts. "You have seen a lot of different inmate claims and lawsuits against the Eighth Amendment in different states," he says.

One of the provisions of the Eighth Amendment is that "cruel and unusual punishment" not be inflicted on prisoners. So the prisoners who are filing these suits are hoping the courts will rule that chewing on loaf day after day is unconstitutional. And, believe it or not, there is precedent: In the 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled that a potatey prison paste called grue should be outlawed under the Eighth amendment.

The loaf has held up better than grue. Of the 22 cases brought since the beginning of 2012 alone, none have succeeded. But Li's informal survey suggests that the court cases are making the corrections industry increasingly squeamish about serving it.

And Fathi of the ACLU says this is part of a bigger transformation happening in the industry. "The fading of the use of nutraloaf is part of a larger long-term trend toward professionalization and, in most respects, more humane conditions of confinement," he says.

January 3, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Feds now saying Lynne Stewart should get compassionate release from prison term

This notable new AP story, headlined "Government asks NY judge to release ailing ex-terror trial lawyer from 10-year prison term," provides the grist for a useful final post for 2013. Here are the basics:

A dying former civil rights lawyer convicted in a terrorism case and sentenced to 10 years in prison is entitled to compassionate release because she has less than 18 months to live, prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Prisons told a judge on Tuesday.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl, the government said 74-year-old Lynne Stewart was suffering from breast cancer that has metastasized to the lungs and bones. "Despite aggressive treatment, doctors have advised that her prognosis is poor," the letter said, adding she also has been diagnosed with anemia, high blood pressure, asthma and Type 2 diabetes. Stewart has been undergoing treatment at the Federal Medical Center in Carswell, Texas, as supporters have rallied to get her released. Once released, the letter said, she will live with her adult son in Brooklyn.

Stewart was convicted of helping a blind Egyptian sheik communicate with followers while he was serving a life sentence in a plot to blow up five New York landmarks and assassinate then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. She has been imprisoned since 2009 and wasn't scheduled for release until August 2018.

She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2005. The cancer went into remission but was discovered to have recurred after she was imprisoned. Stewart has written to the judge, saying she doesn't want to die in "a strange and loveless place" and wants to go home.

A previous compassionate-release request was denied in part on the grounds that Stewart had more than 18 months to live, though the judge said he would act promptly if the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed she had less than 18 months to live and granted a compassionate-release application.

A federal appeals court in 2012 upheld Stewart's 10-year sentence, saying she earned it through serious crimes that she refused to acknowledge. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it was fair to boost Stewart's sentence from the two years and four months she was given in 2006. The three-judge panel that had ordered Stewart to be resentenced said it disagreed with her claim that her sentence was "shockingly high." It accused her of exhibiting a "stark inability to understand the seriousness of her crimes."

Arguably the biggest sentencing story of 2013 has been a (slight?) softening around the edges of a very harsh federal criminal justice system, largely as a product of the work of Attorney General Eric Holder. It is thus perhaps fitting that on the last day of 2013, federal officials are now supporting compassionate release for Stewart, only a few years after they succeeded in a multi-year, multi-court fight to seek to ensure she received a lengthy prison sentence that could have ensured she had to die in prison.

December 31, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Extending Graham and Miller, Massachusetts SJC bars LWOP for all juve offenders

Mass sjcThanks to this Christmas night post at How Appealing, I just discovered that on Christmas eve the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued two big related rulings (available here and here) which not only held that the Supreme Court's Miller ruling is to be applied retroactively but also that "all life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, whether mandatory or discretionary, violate art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights."  Because I am on the road today, I will not have the chance to consume this significant rulings fully, but I can here link to and quote from this lengthy report on the rulings from the Boston Globe:

The state’s highest court struck down life sentences without parole for juveniles on Tuesday, saying scientific research shows that lifelong imprisonment for youths is cruel and unusual because their brains are “not fully developed.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision is retroactive, meaning that, as one example, John Odgren, the suburban special needs student who stabbed 15-year-old James F. Alenson in the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007, and received a mandatory life sentence, now could have a chance of parole one day.

“We are very hopeful that the parole board is going to examine these kids’ lives carefully and will be giving them a real meaningful opportunity for release,” said Patty Garin, Odgren’s attorney. But some district attorneys said they were concerned about the ruling and would argue against parole in some cases.

The decision is a marked reversal for Massachusetts, where juveniles found guilty of murder have faced some of the harshest laws in the nation. The decision also is notable for its reliance on the growing field of research into the juvenile brain.

“Simply put, because the brain of a juvenile is not fully developed, either structurally or functionally, by the age of eighteen, a judge cannot find with confidence that a particular offender, at that point in time, is irretrievably depraved,” the court wrote. “Therefore, it follows that the judge cannot ascertain, with any reasonable degree of certainty, whether imposition of this most severe punishment is warranted.”...

The ruling goes farther than the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles.... Because the Massachusetts high court’s decision is retroactive, prisoners sentenced as juveniles will “at the appropriate time” be afforded a parole hearing.

Lawyers said such inmates will have to have served at least 15 years before being considered for parole. There are currently 63 inmates in Massachusetts who were sentenced when they were juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder....

The decision drew immediate praise from Governor Deval Patrick, who in September signed legislation that raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 and has pushed to reduce the number of teenagers sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. “I applaud today’s Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling,” the governor said in a statement. “Young people, even ones who commit terrible crimes, are developmentally and now constitutionally different from adults. Our SJC has wisely held that, while violent felons will be held accountable, youthful ones deserve every opportunity for rehabilitation.”

Some district attorneys questioned the decision. Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said the ruling will strip away the closure that victims’ families believed they had gained. “I am concerned for families who thought they had finality about their loved ones being murdered,” said Blodgett, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “Now they have to go through these parole hearings.”

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement, “We are mindful of the literature on young adults’ brain development, and we already exercise great discretion in charging juveniles with murder. But we’re also keenly aware of the cases at issue here. Some fact patterns demand life imprisonment. Some defendants do not deserve parole. We will argue — as often and as forcefully as necessary — against parole in those cases.”

For years, Massachusetts has had some of the most punitive penalties in the country for juvenile offenders convicted of murder. Two decades ago a series of brutal murders galvanized public demands for harsher penalties. In 1996, legislators responded with a law that mandated that juveniles 14 years and older charged with murder be tried as adults.

Because Massachusetts’ penalties for first-degree murder is mandatory life without parole juveniles found guilty of that crime faced a lifetime of incarceration. As a result, Massachusetts became a leader in the number of youths facing life sentences without parole.

As of last year, the majority of youth with such sentences were concentrated in Massachusetts and four other states: California, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “People thought if we have an extreme response, kids would stop doing bad things, and that has not turned out to be true,” said Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts.

Carey said the SJC ruling brings Massachusetts back to the middle — she noted that other states that have abolished life without parole for juveniles include Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. “We’re in some conservative company,” she said.

State legislative leaders said they plan to move quickly to overhaul juvenile sentencing laws that might conflict with Tuesday’s ruling. “The legislation currently pending that require the eradication of such sentences will be fast-tracked to ensure constitutional compliance with the ruling of the SJC,” said Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who is the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Carey said there are currently a number of legislative options, but that any law will have to give meaningful opportunity for parole.

The SJC’s ruling came in the case of Gregory Diatchenko, who was 17 in 1981 when he murdered a man in a car in Kenmore Square. He has been in prison for more than three decades. The court ruled that he was eligible to be considered for parole immediately....

“I’m happy that Gregory Diatchenko is going to have a meaningful opportunity for release, which he deserves. He’s a living embodiment of what the [Supreme Court] case was all about. He does not deserve to die in prison. He’s not who he was when he was 17,” said Benjamin Keehn, Diatchenko’s attorney. Keehn was on his way to see his client at MCI Norfolk on Tuesday to relay the news. He said his client is 49 years old, two credits shy of a bachelors degree, and has been a Buddhist for over 10 years.

The court also ruled in the separate case of Marquise Brown, who was convicted of first-degree murder in a 2009 slaying. He has not been sentenced. The court ruled that because Brown was 17 at the time of his crime, he cannot be sentenced to life without parole.

The Diatchenko ruling was unanimous. In a concurring opinion, Justices Ralph Gants, Barbara Lenk, and Fernande R.V. Duffly, emphasized that defendants need to have a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” They urged that decisions on parole be informed by an attention to the “distinctive attributes of youth.

December 26, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, December 23, 2013

"Can We Wait 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post commentary by Marc Mauer and Nazgol Ghandnoosh of The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it gets started:

By many measures, there is growing momentum for criminal justice reform.  Changes in federal drug-sentencing policy, passed by Congress in 2010, will help to reduce sentence lengths and racial disparity.  We hear less "tough on crime" rhetoric and budget-conscious conservatives are embracing sentencing reforms.  The Attorney General has criticized aspects of the criminal justice system and directed federal prosecutors to seek reduced sanctions against lower-level offenders.

In light of this, one would think we should celebrate the new figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showing a decline in the U.S. prison population for the third consecutive year.  This follows rising prisoner counts for every year between 1973 and 2010.  BJS reports that 28 states reduced their prison populations in 2012, contributing to a national reduction of 29,000.  Beset by budget constraints and a growing concern for effective approaches to public safety, state policymakers have begun downsizing unsustainable institutional populations.

The break in the prison population's unremitting growth offers an overdue reprieve and a cause for hope for sustained reversal of the nearly four-decade growth pattern.  But any optimism needs to be tempered by the very modest rate of decline, 1.8 percent in the past year.  At this rate, it will take until 2101 -- 88 years -- for the prison population to return to its 1980 level.

Other developments should also curb our enthusiasm.  The population in federal prisons has yet to decline.  And even among the states, the trend is not uniformly or unreservedly positive. Most states that trimmed their prison populations in 2012 did so by small amounts -- eight registered declines of less than 1 percent. Further, over half of the 2012 prison count reduction comes from the 10 percent decline in California's prison population, required by a Supreme Court mandate.  But even that state's achievement is partly illusory, as it has been accompanied by increasing county jail admissions.

Three states stand out for making significant cuts in their prison populations in the past decade: New York (19 percent), California (17 percent), and New Jersey (17 percent). The reductions in New York and New Jersey have been in part a function of reduced crime levels, but also changes in policy and practice designed to reduce the number of lower-level drug offenders and parole violators in prison.  But the pace of reductions in most other states has been quite modest.  Moreover, 22 states still subscribed to an outdated model of prisoner expansion in 2012.

December 23, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?"

The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating commentary by lawprof Rosa Brooks, which merits a read in full.  Here are just a few highlights from a very interesting piece:

You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world.  If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.

A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia.  This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?

Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:

Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain and Iceland....

Population Density:  No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India.  Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates....

Demographics:

A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."...

Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.

Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil.  Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed....

Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress."...

Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.

Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.

Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor.

December 21, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a whole slew of notable new corrections data

I just received an e-mail reporting on these new data publications released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are the bare basics (with analysis perhaps to follow if anything special jumps out from these materials):

Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012 is available at this link: Summarizes data from various correctional collections to provide statistics on the number of offenders supervised by the adult correctional systems in the United States.

Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 is available at this link: Presents final counts on prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2012, collected in the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program.

Probation and Parole in the United States, 2012 is available available at this link: Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole during 2012.

Data Analysis Tool Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners (Updated) is available at this link: This dynamic analysis tool allows you to examine National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) on inmates under the jurisdiction of both federal and state correctional authorities.

UPDATE: For focus especially interested in incarceration data, this lengthy Trends in Admissions and Releases document looks like the most notable and interesting of these reports.  Helpfully, this BJS press release provides a lot of the highlights from all these reports, and I found this accounting from the press release of prison developments especially interesting:

Prisoners

  • The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900) and New York (54,100).
  • California (down 10 percent) had the largest prison population decrease in 2012, followed by Arkansas (down 9 percent), Wisconsin and Colorado (down 7 percent each).
  • Overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
  • Black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. Among new court commitments to state prison, more than a third each of black and Hispanic offenders, and a quarter of white offenders were convicted of a violent offense.
  • Between 1991 and 2011, the number of females admitted to state prison for newly committed violent offenses increased 83 percent.

December 19, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"We wish you 70 years in prison, we wish you 70 years in prison, and an unhappy new life"

Grinch_mugshotThe title of this post is inspired by this local sentencing story and the song I could imagine in some Texas jurors' heads as they decided to "celebrate" the holiday season by sentencing a woman with a notably long and ugly criminal record to a notably long and harsh prison term.  The story is headlined "Parker County 'Grinch' Sentenced to 70 Years in Prison," and here are the details:

A woman known as the Christmas “Grinch” for stealing Christmas lights from a Parker County family’s home was sentenced to 70 years in prison on Friday after she was convicted of a separate burglary.

Dana Brock, 44, of Hurst, shook her head when the judge read the jury’s sentence. Prosecutors pushed for a long sentence because of her lengthy criminal record.

Brock gained notoriety in December 2012 when she was caught on surveillance video stealing Christmas lights from outside a family’s Aledo home while they were inside sleeping.  She was arrested again in May after she stole a weed wacker and a power washer from another homeowner’s garage.  She also was caught on video in that case.

"One of our deputies who responded out to this case and looked at the surveillance video at the homeowner's house saw her on the video and said, 'Hey, that's the Grinch,’” said assistant Parker County district attorney Jeff Swain.  “He knew right away who it was." A jury deliberated just five minutes before convicting her on Thursday.

In the sentencing phase of her trial, prosecutors pointed to her long criminal history. Brock’s record dates to when she was a 17-year-old and was convicted in Arizona of solicitation to commit murder.  Over the years she also was convicted of credit card abuse, injury to a child, theft, assault, and drug possession.  Instead of two to 20 years in prison for burglary of a habitation, she faced 25 years to life under the "three strikes and you're out" law.

She shook her head as the judge read her 70-year sentence. "A 70-year sentence will knock the air out of your stomach,” said her attorney Raul Navarez.  “She kept asking me, '70 years? Are you serious? 70 years?'  Because 70 years is a pretty harsh sentence for this kind of a deal. And quite frankly, that's what I argued to the jury.  But the jury decided and we have to respect that."

Navarez and prosecutors agree it didn't help her case when jurors saw the video of her stealing Christmas lights.  "When you're known as the Christmas Grinch, people do remember you,” Swain said.

I am unsure whether Texas law ensures that this version of the grinch will have to serve most or nearly all of these 70 years in prison, though this defendant's lengthy record of not-so-petty crimes leads me to be less than too-sympathetic concerning her fate.  That said, if she is really as smart as the "real" Grinch, she probably will be able to figure out some way to catch "affluenza" while serving her time in Texas prisons and thereafter convincingly claims at a parole hearing that her heart and her conscience managed to grow three sizes one day while she was incarcerated.

December 17, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, December 16, 2013

DOJ Inspector General stresses "growing crisis" from growth of federal prison population

Thanks to The Crime Report, I have just come across this recently released memorandum from the US Department of Justice's Inspector General detailing the IG's views on the "six challenges that ... represent the most pressing concerns for the Department." Notably, as the cover letter to the memorandum stresses, concerns about the growth of the prison population is at the very top of the IG's list:

Attached to this memorandum is the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) 2013 list of top management and performance challenges facing the Department of Justice (Department), which we have identified based on our oversight work, research, and judgment.  We have prepared similar lists since 1998.  By statute this list is required to be included in the Department's Agency Financial Report.

This year’s list identifies six challenges that we believe represent the most pressing concerns for the Department. They are Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System; Safeguarding National Security Consistent with Civil Rights and Liberties; Protecting Taxpayer Funds from Mismanagement and Misuse; Enhancing Cybersecurity; Ensuring Effective and Efficient Law Enforcement; and Restoring Confidence in the Integrity, Fairness, and Accountability of the Department.  While we do not prioritize the challenges we identify in our annual top management challenges report, we believe that one of the challenges highlighted this year, which we also identified in last year’s report, represents an increasingly critical threat to the Department’s ability to fulfill its mission. That challenge is Addressing the Growing Crisis in the Federal Prison System.

The crisis in the federal prison system is two-fold.  First, the costs of the federal prison system continue to escalate, consuming an ever-larger share of the Department’s budget with no relief in sight.  In the current era of flat or declining budgets, the continued growth of the prison system budget poses a threat to the Department’s other critical programs -- including those designed to protect national security, enforce criminal laws, and defend civil rights.  As I have stated in testimony to Congress during the past year, the path the Department is on is unsustainable in the current budget environment. Second, federal prisons are facing a number of important safety and security issues, including, most significantly, that they have been overcrowded for years and the problem is only getting worse.  Since 2006, Department officials have acknowledged the threat overcrowding poses to the safety and security of its prisons, yet the Department has not put in place a plan that can reasonably be expected to alleviate the problem.

Meeting this challenge will require a coordinated, Department-wide approach in which all relevant Department officials -- from agents, to prosecutors, to prison officials -- participate in reducing the costs and crowding in our prison system.  In that respect, the challenge posed by the federal prison system is reflective of all of the challenges on our list: each is truly a challenge to be addressed by the Department as a whole, not just by individual Department components.

As a policy matter, of course, it is not too difficult to devise a set of long-advocated reforms that would effectively help with this crisis: fewer federal drug prosecutions, more use of alternatives to incarceration for low-level federal offenders, greater judicial authority to reduce more unjust crack sentences based on FSA reforms, expanded good-time credits, new earned-time credits, greater use of compassionate release mechanisms, and greater use of executive commutations. The problems is, as a political matter, few in the current Obama Administration seem eager or willing to go beyond just talking the talk about these issues.

December 16, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 14, 2013

"Freeing Morgan Freeman: Expanding Back-End Release Authority in American Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and important new piece by Frank Bowman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article, written for a symposium hosted by the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy on “Finality in Sentencing,” makes four arguments, three general and one specific.

First, the United States incarcerates too many people for too long, and mechanisms for making prison sentences less “final” will allow the U.S. to make those sentences shorter, thus reducing the prison population surplus.

Second, even if one is agnostic about the overall size of the American prison population, it is difficult to deny that least some appreciable fraction of current inmates are serving more time than can reasonably be justified on either moral or utilitarian grounds, and therefore American criminal justice systems ought to adopt mechanisms for identifying both individuals and categories of prisoners whose terms should be shortened.

Third, it is impossible, or at least unwise, to try to make “final” decisions — at least good final decisions — about how long someone should spend in prison at the beginning of the prison term, at least if that term is supposed to be very long. Thus, in cases where a long sentence is imposed, one ought not make the initial, front-end, judicial sentencing decision “final,” but should instead create mechanisms for one or more later second looks.

After exploring these contentions, I conclude that discretionary early-release mechanisms should be restored where they have been abandoned, and reinvigorated where they have languished. In particular, I propose instituting a discretionary back-end release mechanism for some categories of both federal and state long-sentence prisoners and I explore the political and institutional difficulties of doing so.

December 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"How Bureaucrats Stand in the Way of Releasing Elderly and Ill Prisoners"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new ProPublica piece about (the paucity of) compassionate release in the federal criminal justice system.  Here are excerpts:

The government has long been criticized for rarely granting compassionate release. This August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would try to change that by expanding criteria for who can apply.

Under the new guidelines, compassionate release can be granted not just to prisoners who have terminal illnesses, but also to those with debilitating conditions.  Prisoners who need to serve as caregivers for family members may now also seek reductions in sentencing.  And for the first time, elderly federal inmates who aren’t necessarily dying or incapacitated can apply to be let out early.

Holder touted the compassionate release initiative as one way to cut down on the “astonishing” federal prison population, which has grown by nearly 800 percent since 1980.

But even if the changes enable more inmates to apply for compassionate release, prison officials still have almost total discretion over who is approved.  A federal prison’s warden, as well as the Bureau of Prisons’ regional director and central office must sign off on an inmate’s application before it is passed on to a judge.  Any of those officials can reject applications for a number of reasons, from a perceived risk of recidivism to concern for what’s best for a prisoner’s child....  There is no process for inmates to appeal those decisions in court.

Many advocates say they expect eligible inmates will remain behind bars despite the changes.  “I don’t believe it’s going to change at all,” said lawyer Marc Seitles, whose client was denied release despite terminal cancer.  “It’s still the same people making decisions.”

In September, Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels said he predicted expanding eligibility would result in the “release of some non-violent offenders, although we estimate the impact will be modest.”  (The agency declined to make Samuels available for comment to ProPublica.)

As of October 29, The Bureau of Prisons had approved and passed along 50 compassionate release requests to judges this year. That’s up from 39 in 2012 and 29 in 2011. It’s impossible to know if the overall rate of approval has increased, as the federal Bureau of Prisons hasn’t released the number of inmates who have applied.

The Bureau says it recently started to track inmate requests, after an Inspector General report earlier this year excoriated the department for failing to do so. The report also found most inmates didn't even know the program existed.

The expansion of compassionate release was motivated in part by the rising number of sick and elderly inmates incarcerated in the U.S. As of 2011, there were over 26,000 inmates over 65 in state and federal custody. And as the elderly population in prison grows, so do their medical bills. Housing an inmate in a prison medical center costs taxpayers nearly $60,000 a year — more than twice the cost of housing an inmate in general population.

Many lawyers and prisoner advocates have said the “jailers are acting as judges” by rejecting most compassionate release cases without ever passing them onto the courts for a final decision. “The Bureau of Prisons should be letting judges have the opportunity to decide every time extraordinary and compelling reasons come to their attention, and [they are] not doing that,” said federal public defender Steve Sady, who has written extensively on the issue and represented clients requesting early release. “We believe that, under the statute, the sentence is for the judge to decide.”

Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said in an emailed statement that “Congress gave the [Bureau of Prisons] authority” to decide which inmates should be granted release. “Review includes deliberation on the most important factor, ensuring that an inmate's release would not pose a danger to the safety of any other person or the community,” he said. “This must be considered before any request is submitted to a court.”

Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says prison officials are ill-equipped to make those kinds of decisions. Prison officials’ “job is to keep people locked up. Identifying people who should no longer be incarcerated is just not what they do,” she said....

Prisoner advocates at Human Rights Watch and other organizations have proposed allowing inmates to go before a judge to appeal rejections. “Unless there’s an institutional change or a criteria that they have to follow, this will never change,” Seitles said.

December 4, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, November 18, 2013

Are special jail facilities for veterans (and other special populations) key to reducing recidivism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable Los Angeles Times article headlined "Separate jail facilities seek to cut recidivism rates among veterans." Here are excerpts:

The N-Module-3 housing wing at the San Diego County Jail was recently repainted red, white and blue.  Brightly colored paintings now hang on the walls: one of the Statue of Liberty, another of the U.S. flag, and one of a screaming eagle landing with talons outstretched.  Hanging from the ceiling are the service flags of U.S. military branches and the POW/MIA flag.

The paintings and the flags are key to a program begun this month that aims to reduce recidivism among veterans who have slipped into the criminal justice system after leaving the structured world of military service.

Thirty-two veterans serving sentences or awaiting trial have volunteered to live in the module separate from the other prisoners and participate in classes meant to increase their chances of making a law-abiding return to civilian life.  "We're all dedicated to making this work, nobody wants to go back," said Jeremy Thomas, 22, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan and lost his left hand when a roadside bomb exploded.

Each of the veterans has agreed to take classes Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to assist with problems of post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, substance abuse, parenting and other issues.  "We hope that by putting them together we can rekindle that esprit de corps they had when they were serving their country," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs the jails. "It's a great population to work with."

The program was spurred both by a sense of obligation toward the veterans and also an increased need to reduce recidivism to accommodate the state's prison realignment program that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of local jails.  "We've got to do things differently," Gore said....

Nationwide, a small but growing number of jails have housing and programs specifically targeting veterans, an effort that the VA encourages and supports by forming partnerships with local law enforcement.  "Being treated as a veteran reminds them of a time when their lives made sense and they deserved the respect of others," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, told a recent convention of the American Correctional Assn.

An estimated 1 in 9 prisoners in the U.S. is a military veteran, according to the Department of Justice.  But only 1 in 6 is being helped by the VA with the challenge of resuming life after incarceration, said Shinseki, who has vowed to get more help for those veterans.

The California prison system does not house veterans separately from other prisoners but does encourage formation of veterans-only discussion groups at its 34 institutions, a spokesman said.  VA "reentry specialists" regularly meet with prisoners on the verge of being released to tell them of benefits and therapy programs.

In Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff's Department runs the largest jail system in the country, 291 prisoners are housed in veteran-only dorms where they participate in programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and classes in art, computers and relationship counseling.

One of the oldest and most successful of the veterans-behind-bars programs is run by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department at its jail in San Bruno. Begun in 2010, the San Francisco program houses 48 veterans in a separate "pod" where they can receive help from specialists from the VA and the Bay Area nonprofit group Swords to Plowshares....

Most of the jail deputies are volunteers who preferred working with the veterans. "In here, the staff is totally different than out there," said inmate Kimbra Kelley, 49, a former Marine.

There are incentives for inmates to participate, seemingly small to outsiders but very large in the life of the incarcerated: pillows, more television time, more time in the exercise yard, extra mattresses, an extra visit each week from family members, access to a vending machine and, soon, a microwave oven. "This is the future, gentlemen: incentive housing," sheriff's Lt. Steven Wicklander told the inmates during a visit this month.

If any of the 32 veterans quits attending the classes and stays in his cell, he can be returned to general population. There's a waiting list among the 270 veterans in county custody to transfer to N-Module-3.  "We were given an opportunity, and we're going to hold on to it for dear life," said Dana Mulvany, 42, who served in the Navy.

November 18, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Sentenced to a Slow Death"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial discussing this week's noteworthy new ACLU report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (first discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast. A sentence of life in prison, without the possibility of parole, for trying to sell $10 of marijuana to an undercover officer?  For sharing LSD at a Grateful Dead concert?  For siphoning gas from a truck?  The punishment is so extreme, so irrational, so wildly disproportionate to the crime that it defies explanation.

And yet this is happening every day in federal and state courts across the United States. Judges, bound by mandatory sentencing laws that they openly denounce, are sending people away for the rest of their lives for committing nonviolent drug and property crimes. In nearly 20 percent of cases, it was the person’s first offense.

As of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving sentences of life without parole for such crimes, according to an extensive and astonishing report issued Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union. And that number is conservative.  It doesn’t include inmates serving sentences of, say, 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales.  Nor does it include those in prison for crimes legally classified as “violent” even though they did not involve actual violence, like failing to report to a halfway house or trying to steal an unoccupied car....

As in the rest of the penal system, the racial disparity is vast: in the federal courts, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent crimes.  The report estimates that the cost of imprisoning just these 3,278 people for life instead of a more proportionate length of time is $1.78 billion....

Several states are reforming sentencing laws to curb the mass incarceration binge.  And Congress is considering at least two bipartisan bills that would partly restore to judges the power to issue appropriate sentences, unbound by mandatory minimums.  These are positive steps, but they do not go far enough.  As the report recommends, federal and state legislators should ban sentences of life without parole for nonviolent crimes, both for those already serving these sentences and in future cases.  President Obama and state governors should also use executive clemency to commute existing sentences.  Just one-fifth of all countries allow a sentence of life without parole, and most of those reserve it for murder or repeated violent crimes.  If the United States is to call itself a civilized nation, it must end this cruel and ineffective practice.

Recent related posts:

November 17, 2013 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 14, 2013

New York Times op-ed asks "Serving Life for This?"

I am pleased to see that columnist Nicholas Kristoff used his op-ed space today in the New York Times to promote the ACLU's new report on the thousands of persons serving LWOP sentences for non-violent offenses in the United States (discussed here).  This piece is headlined "Serving Life For This?," and here are excerpts:

At a time when America has been slashing preschool programs, we have also been spending vast sums to incarcerate thousands of nonviolent offenders in life sentences without any possibility of parole. These cases underscore that our mass incarceration experiment has resulted in monstrous injustice and waste — a waste of tax dollars and of human lives.

Judges and prison officials are rebelling at the injustice of our justice system. Here’s what Judge James R. Spencer, a federal district judge, said when sentencing a former F.B.I. informant to life without parole for selling crack cocaine to support his own addiction: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty.” But federal law on mandatory minimums left Judge Spencer no leeway. He added: “I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that. This is just silly.”

Here are some other nonviolent offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole:

• Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”

• Dicky Joe Jackson was a trucker whose 2-year-old son, Cole, needed a bone-marrow transplant to save his life. The family raised $50,000 through community fund-raisers, not nearly enough for the transplant, and Jackson tried to earn the difference by carrying meth in his truck. He has now been in prison for the last 17 years; when he lost his last appeal, he divorced his wife of 19 years so that she could start over in her life. The federal prosecutor in the case acknowledged: “I saw no indication that Mr. Jackson was violent, that he was any sort of large-scale narcotics trafficker, or that he committed his crimes for any reason other than to get money to care for his gravely ill child.”

• Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.

Those examples come from a devastating new report, “A Living Death,” by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults....

I write often about human rights abuses abroad. But when we take young, nonviolent offenders — some of them never arrested before — and sentence them to die in prison, it’s time for Americans who care about injustice to gaze in the mirror.

Recent related post:

November 14, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

New ACLU report spotlights thousands of nonviolent prisoners serving LWOP terms

Lwop-marquee-230x230-v01The ACLU has released a huge new report giving focused attention to the thousands of prisoners serving life without parole sentences in the United States for nonviolent drug and property crimes. This massive new report, which can be accessed at this link, is titled "A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." This related webpage highlights some specific defendants and cases with this introduction:

For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.

Here is an excerpt from the 200+ page report's executive summary:

Using data obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and state Departments of Corrections, the ACLU calculates that as of 2012, there were 3,278 prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent drug and property crimes in the federal system and in nine states that provided such statistics (there may well be more such prisoners in other states).  About 79 percent of these 3,278 prisoners are serving LWOP for nonviolent drug crimes.  Nearly two-thirds of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide are in the federal system; of these, 96 percent are serving LWOP for drug crimes.  More than 18 percent of federal prisoners surveyed by the ACLU are serving LWOP for their first offenses.  Of the states that sentence nonviolent offenders to LWOP, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have the highest numbers of prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent crimes, largely due to three-strikes and other kinds of habitual offender laws that mandate an LWOP sentence for the commission of a nonviolent crime. The overwhelming majority (83.4 percent) of the LWOP sentences for nonviolent crimes surveyed by the ACLU were mandatory.  In these cases, the sentencing judges had no choice in sentencing due to laws requiring mandatory minimum periods of imprisonment, habitual offender laws, statutory penalty enhancements, or other sentencing rules that mandated LWOP.  Prosecutors, on the other hand, have immense power over defendants’ fates: whether or not to charge a defendant with a sentencing enhancement triggering an LWOP sentence is within their discretion.  In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision.

As striking as they are, the numbers documented in this report underrepresent the true number of people who will die in prison after being convicted of a nonviolent crime in this country.  The thousands of people noted above do not include the substantial number of prisoners who will die behind bars after being convicted of a crime classified as “violent” (such as a conviction for assault after a bar fight), nor do the numbers include “de facto” LWOP sentences that exceed the convicted person’s natural lifespan, such as a sentence of 350 years for a series of nonviolent drug sales.  Although less-violent and de facto LWOP cases fall outside of the scope of this report, they remain a troubling manifestation of extreme sentencing policies in this country.

November 13, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Senate Judiciary hearing focused on federal prisons and "Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism"

This motning, Tuesday November 6, 2013 at 10am, as detailed at this official webpage, there will be Hearing before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary titled "Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons & Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism." Here is the official agenda/hearing list:

Panel I

Panel II

I am expecting and hoping that there will be written testimony from some or all of these witnesses posted via the Senate website within the few hours.

Here at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen sets out "5 Questions for Federal Prisons Chief When He Comes to Capitol Hill"

November 6, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

New Urban Institute report recommends policies to reduce federal prison growth

As detailed via this webpage, The Urban Institute has today released this notable new report titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System." Here is how the webpage summarizes the report's content and coverage:

The federal prison population has risen dramatically over the past few decades, as more people are sentenced to prison and for longer terms.  The result?  Dangerously overcrowded facilities and an increasing expense to taxpayers.  In a new Urban Institute report, the authors project the population and cost savings impact of a variety of strategies designed to reduce the inmate population without compromising public safety.  They find that the most effective approach is a combination of strategies, including early release for current prisoners and reducing the length of stay for future offenders, particularly those convicted of drug trafficking.

Here is the conclusion of this report's executive summary, which provides some details about its specific recommended reforms:

[T]o yield a meaningful impact on population and costs, a mix of reforms to sentencing, prosecution, and early release policies are required.  The most effective way to reduce overcrowding is to lower mandatory minimums for drugs, which, alone, would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades.  Add two more options — retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act to crack offenders already in BOP custody and providing a broader earned time credit for program participation — and the BOP could save $3 billion. Updating the formula for good time credits and providing early release for certain nonviolent older inmates would lead to an additional 5,000 immediate releases, while lowering the truth-in-sentencing requirement for new BOP admissions who exhibit exemplary behavior while in custody would further reduce the future prison population. Even with a mix of reforms, federal prisons may continue to be overcrowded.  But a smart combination of policies will save taxpayers billions, make prisons less dangerous, and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from offending again.

November 5, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 01, 2013

"Did a murderer and a sex offender just save Oklahoma $20 million?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post report, which struck my fancy on a Friday morning.  Here is the explanation:

Bobby Cleveland, an Oklahoma state representative, had some questions about the amount of money being spent at Joseph Harp Correctional Center.  As chairman of the state House’s Public Safety Committee, state prisons fall under his jurisdiction.  But on a tour of the prison facility, he and two fellow representatives found something they didn’t expect: a software program written by two inmates that could save the prison, and maybe the state, a lot of money.

The program tracks inmates as they proceed through food lines, to make sure they don’t go through the lines twice, Cleveland said in an interview.  It can help the prison track how popular a particular meal is, so purchasers know how much food to buy in the future. And it can track tools an inmate checks out to perform their jobs.  “It’s a pretty neat program. It’s all done by the direction of the supervisor, one of these guys who’s kind of, what do you call it, thinking outside the box,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland said the program, if implemented statewide, could save Oklahoma up to $20 million a year.  It can also track incoming shipments of food and supplies — and catch discrepancies, like the one that raised red flags with Cleveland and his colleagues, state Reps. Scott Martin (R) and Jason Murphey (R).  The software showed that Sysco, which supplies food to the state prison system, was charging the state different prices for the same food item sent to two different facilities....

The program came to lawmakers’ attention when Cleveland took a tour of the facility without the prison warden around.  He brought his colleagues to a subsequent visit to hear about the program. “It does kind of expose the waste at all the other facilities. It was just one of those genuine, lightning-strikes things,” Murphey said....

The supervisor, William Weldon, worked with two technologically-savvy inmates to develop the program.  Prisoners each have a bar code they can scan, which then shows prison officials who has eaten a meal, or checked out a spatula before a shift in the kitchen, or borrowed a pair of gloves to scrub dishes after a meal.  Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said prison officials at Joseph Harp have used the software for about two years.

The software could even help save the state from lawsuits. Cleveland said several prisoners have sued over being denied special meals, whether for medical or religious reasons.  When an inmate’s bar code is scanned, prison officials would be alerted that they should receive a diabetic meal, or a Halal or Kosher meal....

The Department of Corrections wouldn’t identify the inmates who created the program, beyond saying that one of them is a sex offender and one is serving a sentence for murder.  They may not be the most savory characters, but the program appears to be working. “They built a system that could save the state millions of dollars,” Cleveland said. “I want to get the state using this thing.”

November 1, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack