Saturday, February 10, 2018

"Bail Reform and Risk Assessment: The Cautionary Tale of Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new Note appearing in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review.  Here is how it starts:

Across the country, from New Jersey to Texas to California, bail reform is being debated, implemented, and litigated at the state and local levels.  Lawmakers and the public are learning that cash bail is excessive, discriminatory, and costly for taxpayers and communities.  With promises to replace judicial instincts with validated algorithms and to reserve detention for high-risk defendants, risk assessment tools have become a hallmark of contemporary pretrial reform.  Risk assessment tools have proliferated despite substantial criticisms that the tools depend upon and reinforce racially biased data and that the tools’ accuracy is overblown or unknown.  Part I of this Note examines contemporary bail practices, recent reforms, and risk assessments’ promises and shortcomings. Part II discusses federal sentencing reform, which originally sought a more empirical approach to criminal justice but failed.  Part III applies the lesson of sentencing reform to bail reform today.  Despite endorsing empirical tools, legislatures are prone to interfering with the evidence that informs those tools or with the tools themselves.  Even after reforms, system actors retain misaligned incentives to incarcerate too many people.  Technocratic instruments like risk assessments may obscure but cannot answer tough, fundamental questions of system design. But recent pretrial reforms have shown early signs of progress. If risk assessments are paired with adequate safeguards, sustained reductions in incarceration and progress toward equal treatment may be possible.

February 10, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Should there be (and will there be) an appeal of federal judge's imposition of "shorter sentence because ... of [defendant's] decision to be sterilized"?

Mf-law-day-bbf-3-5-4-15-300x160In this post a couple of days ago, I noted the remarkable federal sentencing story out of Oklahoma in which a defendant was seemingly seeking a reduced sentence in a fraud case because she followed a judge's suggestion in this order that she consider taking steps to be "rendered incapable of procreation."  This follow up article, headlined "Oklahoma woman gets shorter prison sentence because she got sterilized," the defendant's decision to follow the judge's suggestion seemingly reduced her sentence a few months. Here are the details:

A judge Thursday showed leniency to a drug-using mother of seven because she had surgery to prevent further pregnancies.  Summer Thyme Creel, 34, was sentenced to a year in federal prison and three years on supervised release for passing counterfeit checks.  She was ordered to pay $15,246 in restitution.

Creel voluntarily underwent the medical procedure in November after the Oklahoma City federal judge suggested it in a scheduling order. "She will receive a shorter sentence because she made that decision," U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot said before announcing the punishment.  Friot on Thursday also defended his sterilization suggestion, saying the U.S. Supreme Court "has yet to recognize a constitutional right to bring crack- or methamphetamine-addicted babies into this world."

In his order last June, the judge called Creel a habitual user of crack cocaine and methamphetamine. He wrote in that order she had given up her parental rights to six of her seven children and likely had used illegal drugs while pregnant.  He then wrote he would consider at sentencing medical evidence Creel had undergone a sterilization procedure "if (and only if) she chooses to do so."

Creel had faced up to 16 months in federal prison under sentencing guidelines intended to keep punishments uniform across the country.  Judges do not have to follow the guidelines, though, and the maximum possible punishment for Creel's offense was 10 years in prison.  The unusual order — first reported by The Oklahoman — attracted national and international attention.  The judge has been both praised and condemned.

"When I read the order, I was horrified,” Lynn Paltrow, founder of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told The Washington Post. "We find it highly unlikely that this judge has asked any man how many children he fathered and used that in his sentencing determination."  The judge Thursday did not directly comment on the public criticism.

He did state his order last year had made clear that "the decision as to whether to be sterilized would be for Ms. Creel and Ms. Creel alone to make." He also explained he would not have counted it against Creel if she had decided against the procedure. "She would have come before the court in the same posture as any other habitual criminal," he said. "Her fertility would have been a non-issue."

The judge chided a prosecutor for telling him in a sentencing memorandum Creel has "a fundamental constitutional right to procreate." The prosecutor in the memo had cited a 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found unconstitutional Oklahoma's Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act. "This is rather curious," the judge said of the prosecutor's position on the issue. The judge then pointed out the 1942 decision had involved involuntary sterilization. He said the prosecutor apparently overlooked that fact.

Creel was punished Thursday for her involvement in a fraudulent check-cashing ring that used information from stolen mail to manufacture counterfeit checks. "Theirs was a systematic and successful identity theft scheme," the judge said.  She pleaded guilty last year to one federal counterfeiting offense.  She admitted she had passed a $202.22 counterfeit check in 2014 at a Walmart in Moore.

She has prior theft and counterfeit check convictions in county courts but always received probation.  She originally had sought probation in her federal case. That possibility ended when she was arrested for passing a $121.71 counterfeit check at a Hobby Lobby in Midwest City a month after pleading guilty.

She also has tested positive for methamphetamine use — twice — since her guilty plea. The second time, the judge had her jailed pending sentencing. Her defense attorney, Brett Behenna, told the judge Creel has had a tough life and became caught in a cycle of poverty. He said she turned to illegal drugs as an escape....

"I'm sorry for the mistakes that I made," Creel told the judge. Another participant in the scheme, Amber L. Perkins, 43, was sentenced last March to five years in prison and ordered to pay $159,753 in restitution.

This five-page order that the Judge Friot issued in conjunction with the sentencing leaves no doubt that the defendant's sterilization decision was a consequential factors in his sentencing decision. Here are the closing paragraphs of the order:

If anything was clear from the court’s June order, it was that the decision as to whether to be sterilized would be for Ms. Creel and Ms. Creel alone to make.  The short of the matter is that Ms. Creel will get the benefit of her decision to be sterilized.  She will receive a shorter sentence because she made that decision.  But a decision not to be sterilized would not have counted against Ms. Creel for sentencing purposes — she would have come before the court in the same posture as any other habitual criminal. Her fertility status would have been a nonissue.  Moreover, if we assume, as the government urges, that the court’s approach to sentencing in this case might raise a constitutional issue, the court will note that the Supreme Court has yet to recognize a constitutional right to bring crack or methamphetamine addicted babies into this world.

Accordingly, in determining the sentence to be imposed upon Ms. Creel, the court will take into account all of the factors spelled out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553, a determination which will give Ms. Creel the benefit of her decision to be sterilized.

As federal sentencing gurus know, any appeal of this sentencing proceeding would be generally subject to a reasonableness standard of review. Though I have not read the full record, I am still inclined to consider Judge Friot's work here unreasonable because he unduly suggested that sterilization was an essential (and perhaps exclusive) way for this defendant to "earn" a below-guideline sentence. 

I generally believe (and often have argued) that a wide range of considerations can and should be brought to bear as a federal sentencing judge considers, under 18 U.S.C § 3553(a), what sentence will be "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" by Congress.  But it strikes me as highly problematic for a judge, prior to sentencing, to tell a defendant that a reduced sentence will be possible if (and perhaps only if) the defendant engages in specific life-altering personal behavior.  The procreation dynamics here are particularly concerning in light of some ugly history on this front; but I would also be troubled if a judge said to a defendant, for example, I will likely cut you a sentencing break only if you divorce that spouse who pressured you into criminal activity or only if you contractually commit to giving 50% of all future salary to charity.

That all said, and as my post title suggests, I suspect that there will not be an appeal of this sentence by the federal government (or the defense) and so we will not likely see a higher court reviewing Judge Friot's work here.  But, of course, that should not prevent the court of public opinion from chiming in, perhaps using the comments here.

Prior related post:

February 10, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Advocating for postpartum mental illness to be an express mitigating sentencing factor

The Hill has this notable new sentencing commentary authored by doctors Katherine Wisner and Cara Angelotta headlined "Accounting for postpartum depression in criminal sentencing is the right move." Here are excerpts:

A new Illinois law is set to take effect this summer that will specifically address the legal culpability of women who commit criminal acts during episodes of severe postpartum mental illness.  This is the first law of its kind in the U.S., and as perinatal and forensic psychiatrists, we applaud this legislation and urge other states to follow.

This new law takes the unprecedented step of specifically highlighting postpartum mental illness as a potential mitigating factor for judges to consider in determining an appropriate punishment for a crime.

Once enacted, the state law will allow women who were convicted of a felony, but who did not have evidence of postpartum mental illness presented at their trial or sentencing, to apply for post-conviction sentence reduction.  Practically, this means that women in prison for crimes that were directly related to symptoms of undiagnosed or untreated postpartum mental illness now have a legal mechanism to apply to the courts for a lesser sentence.

The law provides hope for the possibility of treatment, rather than punishment, for women who were convicted without consideration of the devastating effects of postpartum mental illness on behavior.

This legislation is in line with the longstanding Infanticide Act of 1938 in the United Kingdom, which limits the charge for killing an infant to manslaughter, not murder, if the act occurred when the woman’s “balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child.”...

The Illinois legislation is unique because it creates a legal definition of postpartum mental illness. Postpartum depression was defined in the law’s text as "a mood disorder which strikes many women during and after pregnancy which usually occurs during pregnancy and up to 12 months after delivery. This depression can include anxiety disorders.”...

To be sure, we all have strong emotional reactions to the injury or killing of an infant by a mentally ill mother. The criminal acts in this law apply to forcible felonies, which involve violence or the threat of physical force or violence to any individual, not only the infant but other family members or strangers. But, coupled with the miracle of new life comes the risk for multiple maternal complications, including mental illness, anemia, nausea and vomiting, hypertension, gestational diabetes, excess weight gain, pregnancy loss, cesarean delivery and anesthesia complications.

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are associated with increased risks of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity and are recognized as a significant maternal safety issue. The pregnancy-related death rate in the United States has steadily increased across the past three decades — evidence of another risk pregnant women face....

This law specifically identified perinatal (occurring during pregnancy or postpartum) psychiatric disorders as mitigating factors.  We urge support for legislation that incorporates both pregnancy and childbirth and their complications as mitigating factors in crimes committed during postpartum mental disorders in all states.

February 6, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

"The Fatal Flaw in John R. Lott Jr.’s Study on Illegal Immigrant Crime in Arizona"

A few weeks ago, I posted here a link to an empirical study authored by John Lott titled "Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona."  Today I saw this posting at Cato responding to Lott's study authored by Alex Nowrasteh under the title that is the title of this post.  The response claims that Lott misinterpreted the most important variable in his study, and it starts and ends this way (with links from the original):

Economist John R. Lott Jr. of the Crime Prevention Research Center released a working paper in which he purports to find that illegal immigrants in Arizona from 1985 through 2017 have a far higher prison admissions rate than U.S. citizens.  Media from Fox News to the Washington Times and the Arizona Republic have reported on Lott’s claims while Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) have echoed them from their positions of authority.  However, Lott made a small but fatal error that undermines his finding. 

Lott wrote his paper based on a dataset he obtained from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) that lists all admitted prisoners in the state of Arizona from 1985 to 2017. According to Lott, the data allowed him to identify “whether they [the prisoners] are illegal or legal residents.”  This is where Lott made his small error: The dataset does not allow him or anybody else to identify illegal immigrants.

The variable that Lott focused on is “CITIZEN.”  That variable is broken down into seven categories. Lott erroneously assumed that the third category, called “non-US citizen and deportable,” only counted illegal immigrants.  That is not true, non-US citizen and deportable immigrants are not all illegal immigrants.  A significant proportion of non-U.S. citizens who are deported every year are legal immigrants who violate the terms of their visas in one way or the other, frequently by committing crimes.  According to the American Immigration Council, about 10 percent of people deported annually are Lawful Permanent Residents or green card holders — and that doesn’t include the non-immigrants on other visas who were lawfully present in the United States and then deported. I will write more about this below. 

Lott mistakenly chose a variable that combines an unknown number of legal immigrants with an unknown number of illegal immigrants.  Lott correctly observed that “[l]umping together documented and undocumented immigrants (and often naturalized citizens) may mean combining very different groups of people.”  Unfortunately, the variable he chose also lumped together legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.

The criminologist who sent me the ADC data also sent along a more detailed dataset for the stock of prisoners in Arizona for June 2017.  This newer dataset’s CITIZEN variable is just as unusable as the same variable in the 1985 to 2017 dataset but it has an additional variable that allowed us to somewhat better identify incarcerated illegal immigrants: whether the prisoner has an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer....

The equivalent of the “non-U.S. citizens and deportable” variable in the June 2017 ADC database is called “criminal aliens,” another category that is not synonymous with illegal immigrants.  In Arizona’s ADC regulations, the government first determines whether a prisoner is a criminal alien and then investigates whether he or she is an illegal immigrant. In June 2017, only 38.3 percent of criminal aliens had ICE detainers on them and, thus, were more likely to be illegal immigrants.  As a back-of-the-envelope estimation, I assumed that 38.3 percent of “non-U.S citizens and deportable” are actually illegal immigrants in the ADC’s larger 1985-2017 dataset.  This back-of-the-envelope calculation turns Lott’s finding on its head.  Whereas he found that 11.1 percent of the admissions to Arizona prisons in 2014 were illegal immigrants, the real percentage is a maximum of 4.3 percent, below the 4.9 percent estimated illegal immigrant share of the state’s population. 

Lott’s controversial empirical findings regarding the high admission rate of illegal immigrants to Arizona prisons, a finding that contradicts virtually the entire body of research on the topic, stems from his simple misreading of a variable in the 1985-2017 ADC dataset.  Lott thought that “non-U.S. citizens and deportable” describes only illegal immigrants but it does not.  There is no way to identify illegal immigrants with precision in the 1985-2017 ADC dataset and their population can only be estimated through the residual statistical methods that Lott derides as “primitive.”  Using another variable in the June 2017 ADC dataset that Lott did not analyze reveals that, at worst, illegal immigrants in Arizona likely have an incarceration rate lower than their percentage of that state’s population. 

Prior related post:

February 6, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: New Jim Crow, Class War, or Both?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new empirical paper authored by Nathaniel Lewis. Here is the interesting paper's abstract and conclusion:

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, I analyze racial and class disparities in incarceration.  My analysis shows that class status has a large and statistically significant effect on (1) whether or not men aged 24–32 years have ever been to jail or prison; (2) whether or not men are jailed after being arrested; (3) whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison; and (4) whether or not men have spent more than a year in jail or prison.  After controlling for class, I do not find race to be a statistically significant factor for the first three outcome categories, but I do find that race has a significant impact on whether or not a man has spent more than a year in prison or jail....

This study takes a careful account of class and how it relates to race and incarceration rates.  Previous studies interested in racial disparities across various outcomes all too often fail to control for class at all, or else pick a single variable as a proxy for class, which comes with a set of confounders.  The constructed class variables used here attempt to balance out the confounders lurking in any one proxy variable.  The result, robust across different methods of composite construction, is that class appears to be a larger factor than usually reported when studying racial disparities. It may indeed come as a surprise to many that race is not a statistically significant factor for many incarceration outcomes, once class is adequately controlled for.

To an extent, this study provides weight to the assertion that mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race.  It would be reasonable to conclude then that if policymakers wished to eliminate the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and the negative effects it has on black Americans, they should look to reducing class disparities in universal ways.  For example, single-payer health care, a federal job guarantee, a universal basic income, a livable minimum wage, universal childcare, universal education.  These are all policies that would likely reduce class disparities and provide the material means to lift a large swath of people out of the scope of the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, this study demonstrates a large racial gap, even controlling for class, when it comes to the most devastating outcome: long appearances in jail and prison. The current popular effort to draw attention to racial disparities as racial disparities certainly seems to still hold validity in light of this study. Nevertheless, while a focus on reducing class disparities in a material fashion clearly will not be enough to completely solve the problem of racial bias, it seems evident that this approach would do a lot of good for poor blacks and poor whites alike with respect to the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.

February 1, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"How IQ Tests Are Perverted to Justify the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary.  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court has slowly been carving out exemptions to the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities.  In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that people with intellectual disabilities could not be executed, but left it up to the states to determine who is or is not eligible for that protection.  In 2014, in Hall v. Florida, the court ruled that a state can't use a simple IQ cut-off.  Then, in last year's Moore v. Texas, the court ruled that states must consider the best psychiatric and medical information about disability when determining disabled status.  Still, IQ testing continues to play a major role, with a threshold of around 70 serving as the cutoff score, below which a person cannot legally be executed.

Here's where "ethnic adjustments" come in.  The practice, as documented by attorney Robert Sanger in a 2015 article in the American University Law Review [available here], adjusts IQ scores upward for people of color convicted of capital crimes.  According to Sanger, prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have all used ethnic adjustments to successfully impose the death penalty on people who otherwise might have been deemed exempt.  In his article, Sanger works methodically through case after case, noting in particular the role played by expert witnesses for the prosecution, who testify to the racial biases of IQ testing. In most cases, these experts have never met the person convicted of the capital crime or assessed that person for disability, even as their testimony clears the way for execution.

At the end of his article, Sanger writes, "The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound.  In fact, when looked at more closely, it is a wonder how the practice has gone largely unchallenged over the last few years."  When I spoke to him over the phone, Sanger confirmed to me that no clear constitutional challenge to the practice has emerged to his knowledge, and certainly not at the United States Supreme Court, or in California, where he practices law.

January 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by John Lott available via SSRN that a helpful reader made sure I did not miss.  For a host of reasons, John Lott is a controversial empiricist, and this latest paper could surely stir up some new controversies.  Here is its abstract:

Using newly released detailed data on all prisoners who entered the Arizona state prison from January 1985 through June 2017, we are able to separate non-U.S. citizens by whether they are illegal or legal residents. Unlike other studies, these data do not rely on self-reporting of criminal backgrounds. Undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans. They also tend to commit more serious crimes and serve 10.5% longer sentences, more likely to be classified as dangerous, and 45% more likely to be gang members than U.S. citizens. Yet, there are several reasons that these numbers are likely to underestimate the share of crime committed by undocumented immigrants. There are dramatic differences between in the criminal histories of convicts who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Young convicts are especially likely to be undocumented immigrants. While undocumented immigrants from 15 to 35 years of age make up slightly over two percent of the Arizona population, they make up about eight percent of the prison population. Even after adjusting for the fact that young people commit crime at higher rates, young undocumented immigrants commit crime at twice the rate of young U.S. citizens. These undocumented immigrants also tend to commit more serious crimes.

If undocumented immigrants committed crime nationally as they do in Arizona, in 2016 they would have been responsible for over 1,000 more murders, 5,200 rapes, 8,900 robberies, 25,300 aggravated assaults, and 26,900 burglaries.

January 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

New research findings by computer scientists "cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction"

F1.mediumThis notable new research article in the latest issue of Science Advances provides a notable new perspective on the debate over risk assessment instruments. The article is authored by computer scientists Julia Dressel and Hany Farid and is titled "The accuracy, fairness, and limits of predicting recidivism."  Here are parts of its introduction:

In the criminal justice system, predictive algorithms have been used to predict where crimes will most likely occur, who is most likely to commit a violent crime, who is likely to fail to appear at their court hearing, and who is likely to reoffend at some point in the future.

One widely used criminal risk assessment tool, Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions (COMPAS; Northpointe, which rebranded itself to “equivant” in January 2017), has been used to assess more than 1 million offenders since it was developed in 1998. The recidivism prediction component of COMPAS — the recidivism risk scale — has been in use since 2000.  This software predicts a defendant’s risk of committing a misdemeanor or felony within 2 years of assessment from 137 features about an individual and the individual’s past criminal record.

Although the data used by COMPAS do not include an individual’s race, other aspects of the data may be correlated to race that can lead to racial disparities in the predictions. In May 2016, writing for ProPublica, Angwin et al. analyzed the efficacy of COMPAS on more than 7000 individuals arrested in Broward County, Florida between 2013 and 2014.  This analysis indicated that the predictions were unreliable and racially biased.  COMPAS’s overall accuracy for white defendants is 67.0%, only slightly higher than its accuracy of 63.8% for black defendants.  The mistakes made by COMPAS, however, affected black and white defendants differently: Black defendants who did not recidivate were incorrectly predicted to reoffend at a rate of 44.9%, nearly twice as high as their white counterparts at 23.5%; and white defendants who did recidivate were incorrectly predicted to not reoffend at a rate of 47.7%, nearly twice as high as their black counterparts at 28.0%. In other words, COMPAS scores appeared to favor white defendants over black defendants by underpredicting recidivism for white and overpredicting recidivism for black defendants....

While the debate over algorithmic fairness continues, we consider the more fundamental question of whether these algorithms are any better than untrained humans at predicting recidivism in a fair and accurate way.  We describe the results of a study that shows that people from a popular online crowdsourcing marketplace — who, it can reasonably be assumed, have little to no expertise in criminal justice — are as accurate and fair as COMPAS at predicting recidivism. In addition, although Northpointe has not revealed the inner workings of their recidivism prediction algorithm, we show that the accuracy of COMPAS on one data set can be explained with a simple linear classifier.  We also show that although COMPAS uses 137 features to make a prediction, the same predictive accuracy can be achieved with only two features. We further show that more sophisticated classifiers do not improve prediction accuracy or fairness. Collectively, these results cast significant doubt on the entire effort of algorithmic recidivism prediction.

A few (of many) prior related posts on risk assessment tools:

January 18, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" reporting another drop in state and federal prison populations in 2016

As reported in this press release, the "number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined." here is more from the release:

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.

The full 36-page BJS report, excitingly titled Prisoners in 2016 and full of data of all sorts, is available at this link.

January 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Two notable new additions to the Senate Judiciary Committee that should generally hearten sentencing reform advocates

As reported here by the Washington Post, "The Senate Judiciary Committee will welcome its first African American members in this century after Democrats added Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to the panel that handles judicial nominations and appointments to the Justice Department." Here is more:

“The Congressional Black Caucus could not be more proud of both of our Senate members and know the experience and expertise they bring to the Committee will be beneficial for all Americans,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the CBC’s chairman, in a statement.

Harris, a former attorney general of California, was seen as a likely candidate to join the committee after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced his resignation late last year. The appointment of Booker was more of a surprise, coming one year after Booker testified against the appointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, a rare move for one senator to make against another. Sometime after that hearing, Booker learned that he and Harris were “second and third in line” if openings came up.

“The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to the ideals of civil rights and equal justice for all,” Booker said Tuesday in a statement announcing his appointment. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.”

No African American senator has sat on the Judiciary Committee since the 1990s, when Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, became the first black woman elected to the Senate. There had been pressure on Democrats to elevate Harris; in the end, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opted to elevate both of the Senate’s black Democrats.

Harris’s appointment was possible because Democrat Doug Jones’s victory last month in Alabama shrank the Republican advantage on two committees. (Republicans now have one-seat advantages on the Judiciary Committee (11 to 10) and Finance Committee (14 to 13); Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is in his second term, will join the latter committee.)

Senator Booker has been a fairly vocal advocate for sentencing reform since his election to the Senate back in 2013, and he has sponsored bills on a range of criminal justice issues. Senator Harris has worked as a state prosecutor and has expressed support for criminal justice reform in various ways since becoming a Senator just last year.  (Conveniently, Mother Jones has this interesting lengthy new profile of Senator Harris, headlined "The Secret to Understanding Kamala Harris: And why it’s making her a flash point in the Democratic Party," which highlights why some on the left do not see her as a true reform ally.)

Critically, in recent years it has been Senate leadership, not the Senate Judiciary Committee, that has been a roadblock to getting significant statutory sentencing reform enacted.  Thus, the addition of Senators Booker and Harris to the Judiciary Committee does not, in and of itself, directly impact in any dramatic way the likelihood of some form of sentencing reform getting passed in 2018.  But their knowledge and reform-minded vision could and should impact the Committee's work in various ways in the coming year that should be heartening to advocates of sentencing reform.  And their place on the Committee could become a very big deal if the Democrats were able to take back control of the Senate come November.

January 9, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Taking a close look at the state of women's incarceration in the states

Women_overtime_select_statesThe very fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative have a very fine new report on incarceration rates and populations for women in the United States.  The report is titled "The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth," and the full report is a must read for anyone interested in prison population data and/or the importance of analyzing modern criminal justice systems with gendered sophistication. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the report: 

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. This report sheds more light on women in the era of mass incarceration by tracking prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states. The analysis identifies places where recent reforms appear to have had a disparate effect on women, and offers states recommendations to reverse mass incarceration for women alongside men.

Across the country, we find a disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends. While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men. Looking deeper into the state-specific data, we can identify the states driving the disparity.

In 35 states, women’s population numbers have fared worse than men’s, and in a few extraordinary states, women’s prison populations have even grown enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population. Too often, states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states. Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.

Nationally, women’s incarceration trends have generally tracked with the overall growth of the incarcerated population. Just as we see in the total population, the number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that state and local policies have driven the mass incarceration of women.

There are a few important differences between men’s and women’s national incarceration patterns over time.  For example, jails play a particularly significant role in women’s incarceration (see sidebar, “The role of local jails”). And although women represent a small fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

While the national trend provides helpful context, it also obscures a tremendous amount of state-to-state variation.  The change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has actually been much smaller in some places, like Maine, and far more dramatic in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. A few states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, reversed course and began decarcerating state prisons years ago. The wide variation in state trends underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions....

The mass incarceration of women is harmful, wasteful, and counterproductive; that much is clear.  But the nation’s understanding of women’s incarceration suffers from the relative scarcity of gender-specific data, analysis, and discourse.  As the number of women in prisons and jails continues to rise in many states — even as the number of men falls — understanding this dramatic growth becomes more urgent.  What policies fuel continued growth today?  What part does jail growth play?  Where is change needed most now, and what kinds of changes will help? This report and the state data it provides lay the groundwork for states to engage these critical questions as they take deliberate and decisive action to reverse prison growth.

January 9, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 08, 2018

SCOTUS back to work with remarkable split habeas ruling giving capital defendant another (long-shot?) chance to obtain relief

At the end of this long Supreme Court order list, comprised primarily of a long list of cases in which certiorari has been denied, comes a fascinating little per curiam opinion in Tharpe v. Seller, No. 17–6075 (S. Ct. jan 8, 2018) (available here).  The ruling is a rare summary SCOTUS win for a capital habeas defendant, and the short majority opinion provides only a small glimpse into the case (though a clear view of what motivated a majority of Justices to want to intervene).  Here are excerpts from the opinion (with cites removed):

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 60(b)(6). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him....

Our review of the record compels a different conclusion.  The state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race.  And that factual determination is binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.  Here, however, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”  Gattie’s remarkable affidavit — which he never retracted — presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.  At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong.  The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, authored a lengthy dissent to the majority's short ruling. It starts and ends this way:

If bad facts make bad law, then “unusual facts” inspire unusual decisions.  Ante, at 3.  In its brief per curiam opinion, the Court misreads a lower court’s opinion to find an error that is not there, and then refuses to entertain alternative grounds for affirmance. The Court does this to accomplish little more than a do-over in the Court of Appeals: As it concedes, petitioner Keith Tharpe faces a “high bar” on remand to obtain even a certificate of appealability (COA).  Ante, at 2.

One might wonder why the Court engages in this pointless exercise.  The only possible explanation is its concern with the “unusual facts” of this case, specifically a juror affidavit that expresses racist opinions about blacks.  The opinions in the affidavit are certainly odious.  But their odiousness does not excuse us from doing our job correctly, or allow us to pretend that the lower courts have not done theirs.

The responsibility of courts is to decide cases, both usual and unusual, by neutrally applying the law.  The law reflects society’s considered judgments about the balance of competing interests, and we must respect those judgments.  In bending the rules here to show its concern for a black capital inmate, the Court must think it is showing its concern for racial justice.  It is not.  Its summary vacatur will not stop Tharpe’s execution or erase the “unusual fac[t]” of the affidavit.  It will only delay justice for Jaquelin Freeman, who was also black, who is ignored by the majority, and who was murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. I respectfully dissent....

Today’s decision can be explained only by the “unusual fac[t]” of Gattie’s first affidavit.  Ibid.  The Court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that affidavit, and must want to do something about it.  But the Court’s decision is no profile in moral courage.  By remanding this case to the Court of Appeals for a useless do-over, the Court is not doing Tharpe any favors.  And its unusual disposition of his case callously delays justice for Jaquelin Freeman, the black woman who was brutally murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. Because this Court should not be in the business of ceremonial handwringing, I respectfully dissent.

This is quite the way to start Supreme Court activity in 2018, a year that seems certain to have at least the usual share of SCOTUS fireworks. (I am also inspired by Justice Thomas's closing thought to imagine a new tagline for this blog: "Engaged in ceremonial handwringing since 2004.")

January 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"The New Reformer DAs"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new American Prospect article.  The piece's lengthy subheadline highlights its themes: "As cities grow more progressive, a new breed of prosecutors are winning office and upending the era of lock-’em-up justice. They may hold the key to resisting Trump’s mania for mass incarceration." And here is an excerpt:

District attorneys “are in many ways the most important figures in the system,” says David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford law professor who studies DAs. “They are crucial gatekeepers between the police and the courts. They get to decide who gets charged and what they get charged with. They are the ones who recommend sentencing and negotiate plea agreements.  And since the vast majority of criminal convictions in this country are the result of plea agreements, they are the ones who are negotiating sentences.”

While the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, and discriminatory policing practices have all earned a great deal of scrutiny for creating the levels of mass incarceration we see today, more and more reformers are recognizing the pernicious role that prosecutors — who have a tremendous amount of power and discretion within the system — have played.

John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor and author of the provocative book Locked In, argues that the role low-level drug charges have played in the rise in mass incarceration is overblown. The main drivers, he contends, are the prosecutors in the country’s DA offices. By examining state court data, Pfaff finds that almost all prison population growth since 1994 derives from overzealous prosecutors, who have doubled the rate of felony charges brought against arrestees.

For decades, district attorney politics (almost all counties elect their chief prosecutors) have been relatively conservative affairs, animated by white suburban voters who want assurances of law and order — not by the people of color living in the city and on the receiving end of tough-on-crime policies.  Of the more than 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States, 95 percent are white, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign.  In 14 states, all elected prosecutors are white.  Just 1 percent of prosecutors are women of color.

January 4, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Spotlighting felon disenfranchisement in Florida

I am always pleased to see the New York Times editorial board giving attention to criminal justice issues, and I am especially pleased to see this new editorial focused on felon disenfranchisement.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Florida’s 1.5 Million Missing Voters," and here are excerpts:

Everyone remembers that the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in Florida.  Far fewer remember another important number from the state that year — 620,000, the Floridians who were barred from voting because state records showed, correctly or not, they had been convicted of a felony.

It didn’t matter whether their crime was murder or driving with a suspended license, nor whether they had fully served their sentence. In Florida, the voting ban is entrenched in the Constitution, and it’s for life.  Today, Florida disenfranchises almost 1.5 million of its citizens, more than 11 states’ populations and roughly a quarter of the more than six million Americans who are unable to vote because of a criminal record.

Felon disenfranchisement is a destructive, pointless policy that hurts not only individuals barred from the ballot box, but American democracy at large.  Its post-Civil War versions are explicitly racist, and its modern-day rationales are thin to nonexistent. It can make all the difference in places like Florida, which didn’t stop being competitive in 2000; the state remains a major presidential battleground, and victories for both parties in state and local elections are often narrow.

That could all change if a proposed constitutional amendment gets enough signatures to be placed on the ballot in November and wins enough support.  The initiative would automatically restore voting rights to the vast majority of Floridians who have completed their sentence for a felony conviction, including any term of parole or probation.

This is a long overdue and urgently needed reform.  The only way around Florida’s lifetime ban — as in the other three states with such a ban, Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia — is a direct, personal appeal to the governor.  In the last few years, Terry McAuliffe, as Virginia’s governor, restored voting rights to more than 168,000 people, and the governors in Kentucky and Iowa granted roughly 9 in 10 of the restoration requests they received in the first half of the decade....

The right to vote is the most meaningful mark of citizenship in a democracy. It should be withheld only in extreme circumstances, and its restoration shouldn’t depend on the whims of a governor.  What’s worse, many of these laws, especially in the South, are inextricable from their racist origins. Florida’s was enacted in 1868 — two years after the state thumbed its nose at the 14th Amendment — with the intent to prevent newly freed black people from voting.  Those effects linger today, as one in five black adults in Florida remain disenfranchised because of a criminal record.

The new initiative, which excludes people convicted of murder or sexual offenses, will be placed on the ballot if it receives 766,200 signatures and will take effect if it earns at least 60 percent of the vote. Its advocates have submitted more than one million signatures to date, although many still need to be verified before the Feb. 1 deadline.

One hundred and fifty years after Florida enshrined this awful law, there’s only one clear way to get rid of it.  Legal challenges have fallen short, the governor is no friend to voting rights, and lawmakers have limited power when it comes to constitutional amendments.  It’s time for Florida’s voters to step up and restore the most fundamental constitutional right to more than a million of their neighbors.

I hope this proposed constitutional amendment can get to the ballot and can garner a super-majority of votes.   As long time readers may know, I have long believed as many people as possible should be enfranchised in a democracy, and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote."

Thinking beyond this ballot initiative, I suspect Congress could enact legislation that could restrict the reach of extreme state felon disenfranchisement laws.  I know Senator Rand Paul spoke about this issue some years back, and I would guess they might be some opportunity for some bipartisan legislation to try to limit how some states seek to limit the franchise.  (I recognize there could be some constitutional/federalism issues raised if Congress gets too involved in state voting laws, but often if there is a will to expand the franchise, there can be a way.) 

January 3, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Detailing increase in felony convictions nationwide in modern times

Stateline has this new piece, headlined "Felony Conviction Rates Have Risen Sharply, But Unevenly," with detailed data on how increases in the number of felony convictions has come to define the modern criminal justice era in the United States. Here are some details:

In recent decades, every state has seen a dramatic increase in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from around 4 percent in 1980. The rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas. Less than 5 percent of the population in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia were felons, but every state had a large increase between 1980 and 2010, when the felony population ranged from 1 to 5 percent, according to a University of Georgia study published in October....

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common. There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared to 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more nonviolent criminals into the stigma and harsh supervision of a felony conviction.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980. “Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation. “Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said....

The findings may help put probation reform on the front burner in some states. In Georgia, a February 2017 report by a state commission called for shorter probation sentences and lighter caseloads for probation officers. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline, assisted with the paper.) Almost 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests, Phelps said. In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

In left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon, one contributor to the growing share of the population with a felony conviction was an increased awareness of new crimes like domestic violence, sexual abuse and animal abuse, said Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon and a 20-year board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

When crime is a major concern in a community, elected district attorneys are especially sensitive to public pressure to file more felony charges, Marquis said. “We are not rewarded for the number of felonies filed,” Marquis said. “But we do face election and accountability to our neighbors who are also our bosses.”

January 3, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Even Imperfect Algorithms Can Improve the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary authored by Sam Corbett-Davies, Sharad Goel and Sandra González-Bailón. Here are excerpts:

In courtrooms across the country, judges turn to computer algorithms when deciding whether defendants awaiting trial must pay bail or can be released without payment. The increasing use of such algorithms has prompted warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence.  But research shows that algorithms are powerful tools for combating the capricious and biased nature of human decisions.

Bail decisions have traditionally been made by judges relying on intuition and personal preference, in a hasty process that often lasts just a few minutes.  In New York City, the strictest judges are more than twice as likely to demand bail as the most lenient ones.

To combat such arbitrariness, judges in some cities now receive algorithmically generated scores that rate a defendant’s risk of skipping trial or committing a violent crime if released.  Judges are free to exercise discretion, but algorithms bring a measure of consistency and evenhandedness to the process.

The use of these algorithms often yields immediate and tangible benefits: Jail populations, for example, can decline without adversely affecting public safety. In one recent experiment, agencies in Virginia were randomly selected to use an algorithm that rated both defendants’ likelihood of skipping trial and their likelihood of being arrested if released. Nearly twice as many defendants were released, and there was no increase in pretrial crime. New Jersey similarly reformed its bail system this year, adopting algorithmic tools that contributed to a 16 percent drop in its pretrial jail population, again with no increase in crime.

Algorithms have also proved useful in informing sentencing decisions. In an experiment in Philadelphia in 2008, an algorithm was used to identify probationers and parolees at low risk of future violence.  The study found that officers could decrease their supervision of these low-risk individuals — and reduce the burdens imposed on them — without increasing rates of re-offense.

Studies like these illustrate how data and statistics can help overcome the limits of intuitive human judgments, which can suffer from inconsistency, implicit bias and even outright prejudice.

Algorithms, of course, are designed by humans, and some people fear that algorithms simply amplify the biases of those who develop them and the biases buried deep in the data on which they are built.  The reality is more complicated.  Poorly designed algorithms can indeed exacerbate historical inequalities, but well-designed algorithms can mitigate pernicious problems with unaided human decisions.  Often the worries about algorithms are unfounded...

Still, like humans, algorithms can be imperfect arbiters of risk, and policymakers should be aware of two important ways in which biased data can corrupt statistical judgments. First, measurement matters. Being arrested for an offense is not the same as committing that offense.  Black Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges despite using the drug at similar rates. As a result, any algorithm designed to estimate risk of drug arrest (rather than drug use) would yield biased assessments.  Recognizing this problem, many jurisdictions — though not all — have decided to focus on a defendant’s likelihood of being arrested in connection with a violent crime, in part because arrests for violence appear less likely to suffer from racial bias....

The second way in which bias can enter the data is through risk factors that are not equally predictive across groups.  For example, relative to men with similar criminal histories, women are significantly less likely to commit future violent acts.  Consequently, algorithms that inappropriately combine data for all defendants overstate the recidivism risk for women, which can lead to unjustly harsh detention decisions.  Experts have developed gender-specific risk models in response, though not all jurisdictions use them. That choice to ignore best statistical practices creates a fairness problem, but one rooted in poor policy rather than the use of algorithms more generally.

Despite these challenges, research shows that algorithms are important tools for reforming our criminal justice system.  Yes, algorithms must be carefully applied and regularly tested to confirm that they perform as intended. Some popular algorithms are proprietary and opaque, stymieing independent evaluation and sowing mistrust. Likewise, not all algorithms are equally well constructed, leaving plenty of room for improvement.  Algorithms are not a panacea for past and present discrimination.  Nor are they a substitute for sound policy, which demands inherently human, not algorithmic, choices.  But well-designed algorithms can counter the biases and inconsistencies of unaided human judgments and help ensure equitable outcomes for all.

December 21, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Looking at the changing demographics of modern mass incarceration

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "A Mass Incarceration Mystery: Why are black imprisonment rates going down? Four theories." Here is the start of the extended analysis along with the basics of the propounded "four theories":

One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.  The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that for the last 15 years, racial disparities in the American prison system have actually been on the decline, according to a Marshall Project analysis of yearly reports by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

Among women, the trend is even more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate shot upward by 53 percent. As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has pointed out, the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.

Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable given the “churn” of inmates into and out of those facilities. Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100. The charts below from the Vera Institute of Justicealso reveal significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.  (In both the prison and jail data, the total number of incarcerated Latinos has increased, but their actual incarceration rate has remained steady or also fallen, attributable to their increasing numbers in the U.S. population generally.)

Taken together, these statistics change the narrative of mass incarceration, and that may be one reason why the data has been widely overlooked in policy debates. The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news," said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on trends in prison statistics. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate.  How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?'”

According to Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”  In other words, how much of any shift in the imprisonment rate can be attributed to changes in demographics, crime rates, policing, prosecutors, sentencing laws and jail admissions versus lengths of stay? And is it even possible to know, empirically, whether specific reforms, such as implicit bias training, are having an effect on the trend line?....

[H]ere are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall....

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids....

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement....

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas....

Even with all of these factors at work, the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades.

I think a lot of other possible factors may be at least marginally contributing to the changing demographics of prison populations between 2000 and 2015, factors ranging from more diversity in the ranks of police, prosecutors and the judiciary to greater concerns with sentencing decision-making (and advocacy) by courts (and lawyers).  And perhaps readers have some additional (sensible?) theories on this front that could be shared in the comments.

December 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Notable advocate makes notable pitch to abolish juve LWOP

Malcolm Jenkins, who I still remember as a great Buckeye ballplayer, is now an NFL star using his voice and platform to discuss criminal justice reform issues.  He has this notable new commentary about juve LWOP under this full headline "America is the only country in the world still sentencing our kids to die in prison:For too long we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as lost causes. But they can change."  Here are excerpts:

As a black man in America, I’m keenly aware that people who look a lot like me are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The way adults of color are treated in our justice system is already upsetting, but the way our justice system treats children, especially black children, is simply deplorable.

Nowhere is this more clearly evident than on the issue of juvenile sentencing. Black children are grossly over-represented when it comes to kids sentenced to life without parole. This disturbing reality is personal to me: In Pennsylvania, where I live and play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, nearly 80% of juvenile lifers are black.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole should only be given to juveniles in the rarest of circumstances.  Last year, it ruled that those individuals currently serving life sentences without parole should have their cases reviewed.  Currently, more than 2,100 people who were sentenced as children are eligible to have their sentences reviewed and earn a second chance.  Approximately 300 of these people are from the city of Philadelphia alone.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said that juvenile life without parole, where kids are sentenced to literally die in prison, should only be given to teens found to be “irreparably corrupt.”  But in reality, according to the Fair Punishment Project, the “irreparably corrupt” child is a myth.  We have to stop locking up kids and throwing away the key. According to human rights groups, America is the only country that sentences kids to life without parole....

The infuriating irony here is that the kids who have received life without parole sentences are, in many ways, the young people who needed our help the most.  According to study conducted by the Sentencing Project, 79% of this population witnessed violence in their homes growing up, 40% were enrolled in special education classes, nearly half experienced physical abuse, and three-quarters of the girls had experienced sexual abuse.

America failed them once.  Today, these kids deserve a second chance.  Contrary to the super-predator rhetoric utilized by politicians in the past to justify locking up kids for life, adolescents really are different from adults — in almost every way.  Their brains are underdeveloped, they struggle with judgment, they are susceptible to peer pressure.

For too long, we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as fully developed adults who are a lost cause.  But they can change.  These are not the soulless “super-predators” the media scared its readers with in the 70s and 80s.  These are children.  Studies show that even those accused of the most serious crimes age out of crime....

A lot of people might question why, as a professional athlete, I’m speaking out on criminal justice issues.  I believe that it is my duty to use my platform to raise awareness of the kinds of institutional injustices that so rarely make the news — and that we so rarely question.  And I want to elevate the work that so many amazing community grassroots organizations are doing to try and bring about this change.

Fortunately, there is some hope, finally, in my hometown.  Philadelphia’s newly elected District Attorney has stated he will not seek juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) for any kid, no matter the crime. He has also vowed to allow older cases to be considered for parole.  This is a great start.  Now, other prosecutors should follow suit.

No matter their race or hometown, rehabilitation is a beautiful thing. After all, there is nothing more American than giving someone who has worked hard a (second) chance to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

December 5, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Remorse Bias"

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

Whether a defendant expresses remorse at criminal sentencing often has a direct bearing on the severity of the sentence.  But how good are judges at accurately assessing genuine, meaningful remorse?  Research demonstrates that judges hold contradictory and unfounded views about how sincere remorse should be expressed and, as a result, are likely to misjudge remorse.  Legal and social science scholars have grappled with the challenge of accurately assessing remorse, but no one has analyzed whether implicit racial bias skews remorse assessments at criminal sentencing in predictable and systematically discriminatory ways.

In an effort to unmask this mode of discrimination, this Article synthesizes two areas of scholarship not previously compared — (1) scholarship on the role of remorse in criminal sentencing and (2) social science research on implicit racial bias — to argue that unconscious cognitive assumptions about race and criminality causes judges to discredit African American displays of remorse and, as a consequence, sentence them to harsher punishments.  At a time when racial disparity and implicit bias dominates national discussions of criminal sentencing reform, improving our understanding of where our criminal justice system is particularly susceptible to racial bias can help reformers mend these weaknesses in our system to ensure it works equally for everyone.

December 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Looking Criminal and the Presumption of Dangerousness: Afrocentric Facial Features, Skin Tone, And Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Mark Bennett and Victoria Plaut. Here is the abstract:

Social psychologists have established that faces of Black males trigger thoughts of violence, crime, and dangerousness and thoughts of crime trigger thoughts and images of Black males. This presumption of dangerousness increases with darker skin tones (colorism) and greater Afrocentric facial features and affects both men and women.

We examine the history of the stereotype of Blacks and crime, violence, and dangerousness arising in the United States from the time of slavery.  We focus on the historical development of this stereotype through a lens of history, literature, pseudo-science, emerging neuroscience, media distortion of crime reporting, and the development of the Negro-ape metaphor.  We then look beyond the Black-White race dichotomy to explore the evolving social science literature examining the influence of skin tone and Afrocentric facial features on the length of criminal sentences.  We further explore the social science supporting the presumption of dangerousness and conclude with recommendations to help ameliorate this problem that permeates the American criminal justice system.

November 28, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Criminal Justice System Stalks Black People Like Meek Mill"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times op-ed authored by Jay-Z. Here are excerpts:

This month Meek Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating his probation. #FreeMeek hashtags have sprung up, and hundreds of his fans rallied near City Hall in Philadelphia to protest the ruling.

On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started. But consider this: Meek was around 19 when he was convicted on charges relating to drug and gun possession, and he served an eight-month sentence.  Now he’s 30, so he has been on probation for basically his entire adult life. For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.

What’s happening to Meek Mill is just one example of how our criminal justice system entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.  I saw this up close when I was growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a land mine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime. A person on probation can end up in jail over a technical violation like missing a curfew.

Taxpayers in Philadelphia, Meek Mill’s hometown, will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep him locked up, and I bet none of them would tell you his imprisonment is helping to keep them safer. He’s there because of arrests for a parole violation, and because a judge overruled recommendations by a prosecutor and his probation officer that he doesn’t deserve more jail time....

Look at what he’s being punished for now: In March, he was arrested after an altercation in a St. Louis airport. After video of what had actually happened was released, all charges were dropped against Meek. In August, he was arrested for popping a wheelie on a motorcycle on his video set in New York.  Those charges were dismissed after he agreed to attend traffic school. Think about that.  The charges were either dropped or dismissed, but the judge sent him to prison anyway....

[I]t’s time we highlight the random ways people trapped in the criminal justice system are punished every day. The system treats them as a danger to society, consistently monitors and follows them for any minor infraction — with the goal of putting them back in prison.

As of 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans who were on some form of parole or probation were black. Black people are sent to prison for probation and parole violations at much higher rates than white people.  In Pennsylvania, hundreds of thousands of people are on probation or parole.  About half of the people in city jails in Philadelphia are there for probation or parole violations.  We could literally shut down jails if we treated people on parole or probation more fairly....  Probation is a trap and we must fight for Meek and everyone else unjustly sent to prison.

Prior related post:

November 17, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

"Violent Crime: A Conversation; Is it rising or declining? Does it matter?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project piece that captures highlights of a conversation last month that included a number of leading criminal justice researchers and advocates.  I recommend the full piece, and here is the  introduction and parts of the first few reprinted comments:

Over the last two years, there has been a great deal of arguing about the prevalence of violent crime in America and how the national crime rate is changing.  The president and attorney general say it’s soaring. Criminal justice reformers aren’t so certain.  A Who’s Who of crime researchers and experts gathered to tackle the question at the Smart on Crime Innovations conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City last month.... These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. You can watch the conversation in its entirety here.

Thomas Abt: Just to start us off, in 2016, the last year for which we have the official UCR [FBI Uniform Crime Reporting] data, there were 17,250 homicides. That's up 8.6 percent from 2015 and that comes on the heels of a 12.1 percent increase in 2014-2015. That adds up to about a 21 or 22 percent increase in homicide over two years, which is the largest two-year increase in 25 years. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the rates of violent crime here in the United States right now are about half of what they were at their peak in the early 90's....

In some ways this question of, “Is this a trend?” is somewhat besides the point because in some ways it doesn't matter. The rates were already far too high, much higher than in other developed nations and especially too high for poor communities of color. One thing I want to get across is that this issue of violent crime, of homicide, is an important issue, literally a matter of life or death, whether or not there is a trend going on. And too often this issue is considered a political football that's carried back and forth.

Criminal justice reformers sometimes want to downplay the issue because they worry that this is going to impact the momentum for other criminal justice reforms. Other people want to exaggerate the issue, and so fear and division link this to other issues like a broader cultural war, or tough on crime, or law and order agenda about crime and immigration.  It's very important that there is a progressive criminal justice response to the issue of violent crime. It disproportionately impacts the constituencies that we reformers claim we care about, which is poor communities of color. The violence in these communities causes intense suffering and if we fail to address that suffering, it's a real disservice to them.

Adam Gelb: Put yourself back 10, 12 years. 2005, 2006 we had two consecutive years of increase in violent crime. And at the time there were dire warnings that we were headed back to the peaks of the early '90s. That did not come to pass, which was terrific and I'm not going to try to prognosticate here. But there are a number of reasons to think that we might be seeing a leveling off, maybe even a decrease.

But in 2007, so exactly 10 years ago, after these two consecutive increases, the attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, issued a statement that I think captures pretty darn well exactly where we are today after two years of consecutive increases. I'm going to read it to you so I get it right. In a speech, he said, "In general it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends. Rather they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."...

Jim Parsons: Yes, there's been this average aggregate increase, but in 68 percent of places, either the crime rate stayed the same or it went down.  So if you're thinking about making national policy, about making national policy decisions based on these crime rates, and if you have the theory that being more punitive or reacting to increasing crime is going to improve the situation, then that would not apply in two-thirds of places.  You'll be making a decision and trying to fix something that was not broken — or at least the trend suggests that things are not getting more dangerous — in two-thirds of places....

David Kennedy: ...[I]n all big cities ... and in lots and lots and lots of other cities there are particular communities that have — while they've come down usually from the worst years of the 1990s — people who are living in unconscionable conditions of persistent violence, trauma, and fear.  We as a nation have taken that as normal and so when things change, we focus on the change.  The scandal is what's normal.  And in this moment where we're debating these small changes and the national homicide rate had come down to between four and five per 100,000 and is now edging back up toward five.  There are communities all over the country where especially young men of color are experiencing persistent homicide rates of over 500 per 100,000 year after year after year after year. That's the story, and everything we know about the increases are that they are in those same places, those same communities, those same people.  This is not reaching out into different demographics. It's not reaching out into different communities. It's not reaching out into places that have not experienced this problem. It’s worsening among the people and places that have been enduring this forever.

November 16, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues statement in support of sentencing provisions of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

As reported in this news release, yesterday "the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement in support of certain provisions in the Senate’s bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, which proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges in more cases." This three-page statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts (with footnotes omitted):

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by majority vote, supports certain sentencing reduction provisions in the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, recently introduced in the Senate.  The bill proposes to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for particular nonviolent offenses and to return discretion to judges on sentencing in more cases.  It moves sentencing levels down in many cases so that low-level crimes are adequately but not excessively punished.  It also makes retroactive sentencing reductions in crimes involving crack cocaine, which, prior to the enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, were punished with extreme sentences compared with crimes involving powder cocaine.  The fair administration of justice requires criminal penalties to be proportional to the offense committed and for similar crimes to be subject to similar punishments. In addition, fair administration depends on public faith in the American justice system; this bipartisan bill takes important steps to restore the basis for that faith by addressing longstanding inequity.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act contains necessary and important steps towards more equitable punishments in the federal system, advancing the fair administration of justice by better fitting punishment to crime.  If enacted, it would help reduce the outsize U.S. prison population without jeopardizing public safety.  It stands in contrast to the change in charging policy announced by the United States Department of Justice in May.  The Department of Justice’s policy regarding mandatory minimum sentences will result in lengthier, harsher prison sentences and additional taxpayer costs for both actual imprisonment and post-incarceration integration unless it is changed or checked by Congress through sentencing reform....

The application of harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentences historically falls hardest on communities of color.  Although facially race-neutral, these policies have been applied in a racially disparate manner, raising concerns regarding legitimacy and fairness of our nation’s criminal justice system.  Use of mandatory minimum sentencing contributed to high incarceration rates for African-American and Latino men, despite comparable rates of drug use across communities of all races.  Devastating, community-wide impacts of these policies include one in nine children of color having a parent in prison.

National and international bodies have noted racially disparate treatment throughout the American criminal justice system, including in the application of mandatory minimum sentences.  Perhaps the most notable and egregious example of the racial disparities can be found in the different mandatory minimum sentences provided for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine.  A bipartisan consensus in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, reducing disparities between mandatory minimum sentences for different drugs, in part “because the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences.” These changes should be made retroactive as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 proposes in order to reduce excessive punishments for those already sentenced.

November 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

New report explores "Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities"

This press release provides highlights regarding this big new report from the Project on Accountable Justice examining Florida's criminal justice system and relatively high levels of incarceration. Here are excerpts from the press release:

The Project on Accountable Justice (PAJ) [has] released an interactive, web-based research report focused on the Florida prison system.  The report, entitled “Florida Criminal Justice Reform: Understanding the Challenges and Opportunities,” is an effort to help citizens and policy makers understand some of the dynamics that make Florida’s prison system large, dangerous, and expensive.

The report shows how short-sighted policies and practices drove the state’s prison population to higher than one hundred thousand people, and how Florida’s experience differs from those of other states like New York.  In discussing the underlying dynamics of Florida’s prison system — who is going to prison and why, who is in prison and for how long — the report demonstrates a trifecta of ineffective and expensive strategies: 1) too many people are sent to prison for minor and nonviolent offenses; 2) overly punitive sentencing policies — like mandatory minimum sentences — keep people in prison for exceptionally long terms that are too often incongruous with the nature of their crime; and 3) the unavailability of prisoner review systems and incentive structures to reward prisoners for good behavior prevent state officials from introducing release strategies that could safely reduce the prison population while also making it more manageable....

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” argues that policy makers should know how the state’s criminal justice system measures up, and suggests some key metrics: Is the system fair and unbiased?  Are prison sentences reserved for dangerous people who pose a threat to public safety? What are the costs and benefits of the prison system, in terms of rehabilitation and public safety, or recidivism and expense?  As former Florida Attorney General and PAJ Chairman Richard Doran asks, “Do the current investments, practices, and policy strategies employed by our state’s criminal justice and correctional systems result in the returns Floridians expect and deserve?”

“Florida Criminal Justice Reform” is an accessible and interactive introduction to these questions. Among its findings are the following:

  • Nonviolent offenses drive prison admissions. Seventy-two percent of people admitted to prison in FY2015 were sentenced for a nonviolent offense.

  • In FY2015, the state spent $300 million to incarcerate people for drug offenses, and $107 million to incarcerate people for probation violations.  The vast majority — more than 70 percent — of people sentenced to prison for a violation of probation were on probation for a nonviolent offense.

  • Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws cost Florida taxpayers $106 million in FY2015.

  • Florida’s criminal justice system does not adhere to basic notions of fairness: your ZIP code and the color of your skin can sometimes matter more than your behavior.

  • Statewide, black Floridians are 5.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Floridians.

  • Residents of Panama City (14th Circuit) are 32 times more likely to be sent to prison for a VOP than people who live in Palm Beach (15th Circuit).

  • Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.

The report’s authors conclude with six recommendations, with guidance from previous research:

  • Enhance external oversight to improve transparency and effectiveness of Florida’s correctional facilities.

  • Build a risk-based system of pretrial practices to replace the current money-based bail system.

  • Keep youth out of confinement and the adult criminal justice system.

  • Review and modernize sentencing practices and policies.

  • Encourage local, community-driven solutions to crime through incentive funding.

  • Measure criminal justice success with better data collection and reporting.

“These reforms are possible and will make Florida a safer place to live and visit,” said the report’s lead author, Cyrus O’Brien. “A smaller system that judiciously reserved incarceration only for the purpose of incapacitating dangerous individuals would face fewer challenges and accomplish better results. Achieving a better system will require sustained, purposeful, and systemic reform.”

November 14, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Demographic Differences in Sentencing"

Via this webpage, the US Sentencing Commission provides a helpful summary and some key findings from its latest data publication titled ""Demographic Difference in Sentencing." The full 49-page report is available at this link, and here is the USSC's summary and accounting of key findings:

For this report [link in] prior two reports, The Commission used multivariate regression analyses to explore the relationships between demographic factors, such as race and gender, and sentencing outcomes.  These analyses were aimed at determining whether there were demographic differences in sentencing outcomes that were statistically significant, and whether those findings changed during the periods studied.

The Commission once again updated its analysis by examining cases in which the offender was sentenced during the period following the 2012 report.  This new time period, from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2016, is referred to as the “Post-Report period” in this publication.  Also, the Commission has collected data about an additional variable — violence in an offender’s criminal history — that the Commission had previously noted was missing from its analysis but that might help explain some of the differences in sentencing noted in its work. This report presents the results observed from adding that new data to the Commission’s analysis....

Key Findings

Consistent with its previous reports, the Commission found that sentence length continues to be associated with some demographic factors. In particular, after controlling for a wide variety of sentencing factors, the Commission found:

1. Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied. The differences in sentence length remained relatively unchanged compared to the Post-Gall period.

2. Non-government sponsored departures and variances appear to contribute significantly to the difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders. Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance during the Post-Report period. Furthermore, when Black male offenders did receive a non-government sponsored departure or variance, they received sentences 16.8 percent longer than White male offenders who received a non-government sponsored departure or variance. In contrast, there was a 7.9 percent difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received sentences within the applicable sentencing guidelines range, and there was no statistically significant difference in sentence length between Black male and White male offenders who received a substantial assistance departure.

3. Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing. Black male offenders received sentences on average 20.4 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders, accounting for violence in an offender’s past in fiscal year 2016, the only year for which such data is available. This figure is almost the same as the 20.7 percent difference without accounting for past violence. Thus, violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to contribute to the sentence imposed to any extent beyond its contribution to the offender’s criminal history score determined under the sentencing guidelines.

4. Female offenders of all races received shorter sentences than White male offenders during the Post-Report period, as they had for the prior four periods. The differences in sentence length decreased slightly during the five-year period after the 2012 Booker Report for most offenders. The differences in sentence length fluctuated across all time periods studied for White females, Black females, Hispanic females, and Other Race female offenders.

These are really interesting (though not especially surprising) findings, and it will be interesting to see how the US Department of Justice and members of Congress pushing for federal sentencing reform might respond. I will need to take a little time to dig into some of the particular because providing my own assessment and spin, but I have always feared (and wrote an article a long time ago) that differences in the resources and abilities of defense counsel may create or enhance disparities in federal sentencing outcomes in ways that can not be easily measured or remedied.

November 14, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

"Criminal Justice and the Mattering of Lives"

The title of this post is the title of this new article/book review authored by Deborah Tuerkheimer and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

James Forman's "Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America" is an extraordinary book, and it arrives at a pivotal juncture for criminal justice reform.  This Essay builds on Forman's rendition of "a central paradox of the African American experience: the simultaneous over- and under-policing of crime."  

It describes three areas in which legally marginalized groups currently struggle for state recognition of their injuries: gun violence, sexual violence, and hate crimes. It then offers a conceptual framework for future reform efforts that, by centering structural inequality, aspires to concurrently rectify the over- and under-enforcement of crime highlighted by Forman's careful work.

I refer to this inversion of the traditional criminal justice paradigm as an anti-subordination approach to criminal justice — one that makes salient the interplay between crime and entrenched social inequalities while pressing for a state response that alleviates, rather than exacerbates, the disempowerment of vulnerable populations.

November 7, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Lots more impressive work in Teen Vogue's "Kids Incarcerated" series

In this post a few weeks ago I noted that Teen Vogue has been giving sustained attention to the issues of juvenile incarceration in this "Kids Incarcerated" series of articles.  This series now has dozens of articles that are work checking out, and these recent articles especially caught my attention and seemed worthy of additional promotion (though every article in the series looks great):

November 2, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Expressing concerns about how risk assessment algorithms learn

This New York Times op-ed, headlined "When an Algorithm Helps Send You to Prison," is authored by Ellora Thadaney Israni, a law student and former software engineer at Facebook. In the course of covering now familiar ground in the debate over the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing, the piece adds some points about how these tools may evolve and soundly urges more transparency in their creation and development:

Machine learning algorithms often work on a feedback loop.  If they are not constantly retrained, they “lean in” to the assumed correctness of their initial determinations, drifting away from both reality and fairness.  As a former Silicon Valley software engineer, I saw this time and again: Google’s image classification algorithms mistakenly labeling black people as gorillas, or Microsoft’s Twitter bot immediately becoming a “racist jerk.”...

With transparency and accountability, algorithms in the criminal justice system do have potential for good.  For example, New Jersey used a risk assessment program known as the Public Safety Assessment to reform its bail system this year, leading to a 16 percent decrease in its pre-trial jail population.  The same algorithm helped Lucas County, Ohio double the number of pre-trial releases without bail, and cut pre-trial crime in half.  But that program’s functioning was detailed in a published report, allowing those with subject-matter expertise to confirm that morally troubling (and constitutionally impermissible) variables — such as race, gender and variables that could proxy the two (for example, ZIP code) — were not being considered.

For now, the only people with visibility into COMPAS’s functioning are its programmers, who are in many ways less equipped than judges to deliver justice.  Judges have legal training, are bound by ethical oaths, and must account for not only their decisions but also their reasoning in published opinions.  Programmers lack each of these safeguards. Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise.  Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases.  They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.

October 27, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment Across States and over Time"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical article now available via SSRN authored by Walter Enders, Paul Pecorino and Anne-Charlotte Souto.  Here is the abstract:

The overall incarceration rate in the United States is extremely high by international standards. Moreover, there are large racial disparities, with the black male rate of imprisonment being 5.5 times the white male rate in 2014.  This paper focus on how this black-white imprisonment ratio has behaved over time within and across states. We show that the large increase in black imprisonment between 1978 and 1999 was driven by increases in the overall rate of imprisonment, while the smaller decrease which occurred between 1999 and 2014 was driven by reductions in the black-white ratio.

For many states, the black-white ratio turned upward in the mid-1980s, where this upturn may have been linked to the crack epidemic.  Many states experienced a downturn in the black-white ratio starting in the 1990s.  Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment. California’s experience has been strongly counter to national trends with a large increase in the racial disparity beginning in the early 1990s and continuing until near the end of our sample.

October 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Financing the War on Drugs: The Impact of Law Enforcement Grants on Racial Disparities in Drug Arrests"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Robynn Cox and Jamein Cunningham that I just noticed on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

We estimate the effectiveness of the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program, a grant program authorized under the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act to combat illicit drug abuse and to improve the criminal justice system, on racial bias in policing. Funds for the Byrne Grant program could be used for a variety of purposes to combat drug crimes, as well as violent and other drug related crimes.

The event-study analysis suggests that implementation of this grant resulted in an increase in police hiring and an increase in arrests for drug trafficking. Post-treatment effect implies a 107 percent increase in white arrests for drug sales compared to a 44 percent increase for blacks 6 years after the first grant is received.  However, due to historical racial differences in drug arrests, the substantial increase in white drug arrest still results in large racial disparities in drug arrests.  This is supported by weighted least squares regression estimates that show, for every $100 increase in Byrne Grant funding, arrests for drug trafficking increased by roughly 22 per 100,000 white residents and by 101 arrests per 100,000 black residents.

The results provide strong evidence that federal involvement in narcotic control and trafficking lead to an increase in drug arrests; disproportionally affecting blacks.

October 13, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 12, 2017

New Sentencing Project fact sheets on disparities in youth incarceration and comments to USSC on incarceration alternatives

Via email I learned of these two new fact sheets from The Sentencing Project highlighting incarceration disparities among youth of color:

In addition, the folks at the Sentencing Project have recently posted here public comment submitted to the US Sentencing Commission on the USSC's "First Offenders/Alternatives to Incarceration" proposed amendment.  The comments to the USSC starts this way:

The undersigned applaud the Sentencing Commission’s consideration of an amendment to increase the availability of sentences of alternatives to incarceration within the federal sentencing guidelines.  The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 which created the guideline system wisely recognized the appropriateness of non-incarceration sentences in certain cases.  Since that time criminological research has underscored Congress’s assumptions, and evidence suggests that a broader cohort of people than at present could be sentenced within the federal system more efficiently without incarceration. Doing so would not compromise public safety, but would save tax dollars, preserve families and enhance rehabilitation.

October 12, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

After recent SCOTUS win, Duane Buck gets plea deal to avoid any possible return to death row

As reported in this local article, headlined "Condemned inmate Duane Buck escapes death penalty," a Texas murderer consolidated a recent Supreme Court victory assailing his death sentence with a plea deal that ensure he will not return to death row. Here are the details from the start of the article:

Duane Buck — wearing handcuffs, leg irons and the yellow jail uniform of a high-profile inmate — doubled over in his courtroom chair and sobbed. "I'm sorry," he said.

It was the last act of a decades-long battle to execute the 54-year-old convicted killer for a double murder, ending not with lethal injection but a plea deal in a Harris County court.

Buck's courthouse deal was the third Harris County death penalty case stemming from a successful appeal resolved with a plea bargain instead of a retrial under District Attorney Kim Ogg. Buck, whose case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was sent back to Houston for a retrial because of concerns about racist testimony in his 1997 trial, escaped death row by admitting guilt in the shooting rampage that killed two and injured two others.

The family of Buck's victims, however, were having none of his contrition. "The boy is a cold-blooded murderer," Accie Smith told reporters after the brief hearing. "He is not a victim of racism. He's a cold-blood, calculating murderer."

Smith is one of the older sisters of Debra Gardner, Buck's girlfriend, whom he killed along with her friend Kenneth Butler. After a night of drugs, alcohol and arguing with Gardner in July 1995, Buck broke into her home and shot four people. The victims included his sister, Phyliss Taylor, and his friend Harold Ebenezer, who both survived.

After Tuesday's plea, the slain woman's daughter recounted how she hung from Buck's back as a 13-year-old and tried to keep him from attacking her mother. "You took my mom," said Shenell Gardner. "We both get to live with this. I know what I feel; you feel as well."

The battle to execute Buck began when he was sentenced to die for the slaying of his girlfriend and Butler. After 20 years on death row and several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year granted Buck a new sentencing hearing because of testimony from an expert who told jurors that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black.

Gardner's family members, who are black, said they felt betrayed by the NAACP and black ministers who took up Buck's cause. "They threw us under the bus. What happened today is a travesty and it's a disgrace," Smith, the victim's sister, said. "I will never understand why his life is more important than her life."

On Tuesday, Ogg said she did not believe prosecutors could secure the death penalty again. The defense team would have shown that for 22 years, Buck has been a model prisoner, so he is unlikely to be a future danger. Also, his sister, whom he shot, has argued for leniency in his case.

Instead of going to trial, Ogg offered Buck the opportunity to admit guilt to two additional counts of attempted murder, hoping to stack the deck when the parole board reviews Buck's case in 2035. "A Harris County jury would likely not return a death penalty conviction today in a case that's forever been tainted by the specter of race," she said. The top prosecutor said she hopes the resolution of Buck's case will mark the end of race being used against defendants in capital cases. "Race is never evidence," Ogg said.

The dilemma with Buck getting a life sentence, by either a jury trial or a plea deal, is that he is sentenced according to the law at the time of the crime. Ogg said it was important to keep Buck behind bars for the rest of his life. A sentence of "life without parole" is not an option, even if both sides agreed to it, because that punishment did not exist in 1995.

Prior related posts on SCOTUS ruling:

October 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

"Most Women in Prison Are Victims of Domestic Violence. That's Nothing New."

The title of this post is the title of this new Time commentary authored by history Prof Karen Cox. Here are excerpts:

While the mass incarceration of men has dominated the discussion of policing and prisons over the past few years — and rightly so — there’s been a recent shift in thinking about incarcerated women, and not a moment too soon. According to a report by the Vera Institute, women’s incarceration has increased a startling 14-fold since 1970. Like their male counterparts, these women are also overwhelmingly women of color.

Despite the shocking increase in their numbers, however, the specific issues and needs of female prisoners have largely gone ignored. In particular, as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month begins in the U.S., it’s worth noting that the vast majority of women in prison are single mothers who have been victims of domestic and/or sexual violence.

These concerns have rarely been part of prison-reform discussions, and yet this fact is typical of the history of women’s incarceration in our country.... [T]hanks to a unique historical record created by women in a Mississippi prison in the 1930s, it’s possible to see that the similarities between women’s incarceration then and now is significant.  In both periods, women were more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes than for violent ones. Likewise, many of the incarcerated women in both cases were victims of domestic and sexual violence whose income was vital to their family household....

Nationally, as the Vera Institute Report shows, the overwhelming majority of female prisoners are held for nonviolent offenses and most are women of color. Among them, 86% are victims of sexual violence.

The difficulties faced by female prisoners are now attracting the attention of politicians.  On July 11 of this year, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, or the “Dignity Act,” on behalf of himself and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Durbin. The bill aims “To improve the treatment of Federal prisoners who are primary caretaker parents.” To that end, the Dignity Act calls for a more generous visitation policy for incarcerated mothers.  If passed, it would also prevent restraining pregnant women by shackling them or placing them in strait jackets, among other forms of restraint.  Prisons would provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care for those who need it, as well as make basic healthcare products like tampons available.  Gynecological care would also be mandatory.

Since July, the Dignity Act has only advanced as far as the Senate Judiciary Committee where no further action has been taken. Given the stark realities of life for incarcerated women, action cannot come soon enough. Our nation can and should do better than to allow Jim Crow-like prison policies to continue unchecked.

October 3, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

US Supreme Court, voting 6-3, issues last-minute stay of execution in Georgia

As revealed in this new order and explained in this local article, the "U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution tonight to condemned killer Keith Tharpe, three and a half hours after he was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection." Here are the basics:

In a 6-3 decision, the court’s justices were apparently concerned about claims that one of Tharpe’s jurors was racist and sentenced Tharpe to death because he was African-American. Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — dissented.

The high court will now decide whether to hear Tharpe’s appeal, and, if it doesn’t, the court said the stay of execution shall terminate automatically. But that will not happen tonight.

Tharpe’s lawyers were overjoyed with the decision. “We’re gratified the court understands this case merits thoughtful consideration outside the press of an execution warrant,” said Brian Kammer, one of Tharpe’s attorneys. “We are extremely thankful that the court has seen fit to consider Mr. Tharpe's claim of juror racial bias in regular order."

Prior related post:

September 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reviewing the racial bias and other concerns surrounding Georgia's planned execution of Keith Tharpe

CNN has this new article reviewing issues being raised in the run-up a scheduled execution in Georgia.  The article is headlined "Questions of racial bias surround black man's imminent execution," and here are excerpts:

The state of Georgia is set to carry out its second execution of the year on Tuesday, when it plans to put to death Keith Tharpe, who was sentenced in 1991 for murdering his sister-in-law.  But Tharpe, 59, and his attorneys are seeking a stay of execution, based in part on racist comments a juror made after the trial had ended.  Tharpe is black and the now-deceased juror who made the comments was white.

The attorneys are not claiming that Tharpe is innocent of the crimes for which he's been convicted. Rather, they are arguing that his death sentence should be overturned because of juror misconduct.  They say Tharpe's death sentence was the result of a racially biased juror who, in a post-trial interview seven years after Tharpe's conviction and sentencing, used the n-word and wondered "if black people even have souls."

A biased juror, they argue, violates Tharpe's constitutional rights to a fair trial, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.  They also argue that the juror lied during jury selection, concealing the fact that he knew the victim's family. Furthermore, the attorneys say Tharpe is intellectually disabled, which would make it illegal for him to be executed under federal law....

At the time of his crime, September 25, 1990, Tharpe and his wife were estranged. Prosecutors said Tharpe stopped his wife and sister-in-law in the road as they drove to work, according to court filings from the federal district court. The documents say he took his sister-in-law, Jacquelin Freeman, to the back of the vehicle and shot her with a shotgun before throwing her into a ditch and shooting her again, killing her. An autopsy showed Freeman had been shot three times.  Prosecutors alleged Tharpe then raped his wife and took her to withdraw money from a credit union, where she was able to call police for help, according to the documents. Three months later, convicted of malice murder and kidnapping, Tharpe was sentenced to death. 

Tharpe's current case centers on the post-conviction testimony of Barney Gattie, a white juror in Tharpe's trial....  Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney with the Georgia Resource Center, said Gattie showed in his interview that he "harbored very atrocious, racist views about black people."  Tharpe's lawyers claim Gattie, who is now deceased, used the n-word with the lawyers throughout the interview, in reference to Tharpe and other black people....

Georgia law states that juror testimony cannot be used to impeach the verdict, or render it invalid -- even if it involves racial bias, Kammer said.  At the time Gattie made the statements in question, this rule kept Tharpe's attorneys from being able to use them to prove his death sentence was the result of racial bias.  In Georgia, defendants can only receive a death sentence if the jury reaches the decision unanimously.

But Kammer and his team are relying on some recent United States Supreme Court decisions to back their motion for a stay of execution.  The central one, Kammer told CNN, is Pena-Rodriguez v Colorado.  In March, the US Supreme Court held in a 5-3 vote that laws like Georgia's are invalidated when a juror "makes a clear statement that indicates he or she relied on racial stereotypes or animus to convict a criminal defendant," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.

Essentially, a juror's racial bias constitutes a violation of a defendant's rights to an impartial jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, and prevents defendants from being able to prove a violation of their constitutional rights.  "A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed -- including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered -- is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right," Kennedy said.

Tharpe's request for a stay was denied by the 11th Circuit Court on September 21.  A federal district court denied Tharpe's motion seeking a reopening to federal habeas proceedings on September 5, the day before the state issued a warrant for his execution.

September 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Interesting account of gender discrimination in Wyoming alternative sentencing boot camp program

In part because women are a disproportionately small share of criminal offenders, they can experience a disproportionately large share of discriminatory treatment in the operation of criminal justice systems.  An interesting example of this reality comes from this new BuzzFeed News article headlined "Women Are Spending Years In Prison Because Wyoming Won’t Let Them Into Its All-Male Boot Camp."  The piece's subheadline provide a summary of the story: "Taylor Blanchard faced up to 10 years in prison for a crime that would’ve sent men to boot camp for six months to a year. Her fight could change the fate of countless women in Wyoming."  Here are excerpts:

For the past three months, 23-year-old Blanchard had been trying to get into [boot camp] programs.  The one in her home state, Wyoming, lasts six months to a year.  People who finish it successfully can then ask a judge to transfer them into probation, a halfway house, or placement with a family member, effectively shaving years of prison time off their sentences.

Blanchard ticked all the boxes for acceptance, except for one.  The Wyoming Department of Corrections has never housed a woman in boot camp, and it wasn’t going to start with her. Which is how Blanchard ended up in Florida, shipped out of state instead of accommodated in her own. And it’s how she became the central figure in a federal lawsuit accusing the WDOC of discriminating against female inmates.

Across the country, women in prisons and jails are often housed in different conditions than their male peers.  The criminal justice system was built for men, and prison activists say that little thought has been given to providing equal services — much less special considerations — for women, even as their population has ballooned in recent decades....

Wyoming’s boot camp, formally called the Youthful Offenders Program at the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp, is known widely among public defenders. Open to first-time offenders under 25, the program is made up of “physical training, drill and ceremony, and a paramilitary base program focusing on appearance, life skills, and behavior,” according to the state; about half of those who enter boot camp complete the program successfully.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, [Blanchard’s court-appointed attorney, John] LaBuda called it a “really good program,” one that teaches discipline but also allows inmates to get their GED or drug and alcohol counseling, or sometimes learn a trade. But when the state first offered the program in 1987, it only housed men; that has continued for 30 years. No attorney or judge, to the state or anyone else’s knowledge, has ever tried to place a female client into the boot camp....

In July, [Blanchard’s civil] lawyers filed suit in federal court, alleging the WDOC was violating her constitutional rights by denying her an opportunity offered to men. [John Robinson and Stephen] Pevar also had the idea to turn Blanchard’s case into a class-action lawsuit. As Pevar wrote in a July email to WDOC lawyers, “Wyoming was not only violating Ms Blanchard’s rights but has been violating the rights of women for many years now who are in her situation. We needed to do something about it.” (In 2013, the ACLU settled a similar lawsuit that opened up a Montana prison boot camp to women, though the program is now ending for both men and women.)

The lawsuit’s proposed class includes current inmates at Lusk’s women’s prison who were first-time offenders under 25 at the time of their sentencing — women who were eligible to be recommended to the Youthful Offenders Program but weren’t given the chance because of the boot camp’s men-only tradition. The proposed class also includes young Wyoming women who will face the same situation in the future. But Pevar doesn’t yet know how many women actually fall under this umbrella, if a judge does approve the lawsuit as a class action. He and Robinson have requested the WDOC reveal the names of eligible women currently at Lusk, a prison with a capacity of 293 women. WDOC has not yet provided these names. Blanchard’s attorneys are also trying to get referrals from public defenders like LaBuda currently representing eligible young women.

The class could end up being 20 people or it could be 200, Pevar said, but the goal is for each woman to get put into boot camp, either immediately or by going back in front of their sentencing judges. (The WDOC would provide each woman with an independent attorney for the latter proposed process.) “We feel that's the only fair way to vindicate the Constitutional rights of the women whose lawyers didn't ask for the recommendation,” Pevar said. No monetary award for the women is involved.

In late August, the WDOC filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that women have never been denied the opportunity to go to bootcamp. It’s just that they’ve never tried to go to bootcamp, it said, until Blanchard. The corrections department also argued Blanchard hadn’t exhausted all of remedies before filing suit, and that her complaint is moot because she’s already been placed in boot camp elsewhere.

September 21, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Carlos Berdejó available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints — the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.

The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime.  As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony.  Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.

Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities.  While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors.  These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

September 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration: African Americans 5X More Likely than Whites to be Held"

The title of this post is the title of this new fact sheet produced by The Sentencing Project. Here is some of the text to go along with its state-by-state charts:

Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015 and recently released.  Racial and ethnic disparities have long-plagued juvenile justice systems nationwide, and the new data show the problem is increasing.  In 2001, black youth were four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.

Juvenile facilities, including 1,800 residential treatment centers, detention centers, training schools, and juvenile jails and prisons held 48,043 youth as of October 2015.  Forty-four percent of these youth were African American, despite the fact that African Americans comprise only 16 percent of all youth in the United States.  African American youth are more likely to be in custody than white youth in every state but one, Hawaii.

Between 2001 and 2015, overall juvenile placements fell by 54 percent.  However, white youth placements have declined faster than black youth placements, resulting in a worsening of already significant racial disparity.

Nationally, the youth rate of incarceration was 152 per 100,000.  Black youth placement rate was 433 per 100,000, compared to a white youth placement rate of 86 per 100,000. Overall, the racial disparity between black and white youth in custody increased 22 percent since 2001.  Racial disparities grew in 37 states and decreased in 13.

In six states, African American youth are at least 10 times as likely to be held in placement as are white youth: New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

September 12, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Notable data on marijuana case processing after Brooklyn DA pledge to limit prosecutions

Marijuana-cases-chart-07This WNYC piece provides some interesting data about local marijuana prosecutions in a part of NYC.  The piece's headline provides the essential highlights: "Brooklyn DA's Pledge to Reduce Marijuana Prosecutions Makes Little Difference." And here are some of the details:

In 2014, Brooklyn’s new District Attorney Ken Thompson made national headlines when he said his office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, so long as the defendant had no serious criminal record and wasn’t selling the drug.

Noting that two-thirds of these misdemeanor cases wind up being dismissed, Thompson said they did nothing to promote safety and wound up hurting people of color, in particular. “In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” he said, during his inauguration. “Mostly young black men.”

Thompson died of cancer last autumn. He was replaced (at his own request) by his first deputy, Eric Gonzalez, who continued the marijuana policy. But according to WNYC’s analysis, this supposedly groundbreaking change had less impact than many expected.

Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, WNYC found the Brooklyn DA was only slightly less likely to prosecute people for marijuana possession after Thompson took office in 2014. In 2010, almost 90 percent of arrests were prosecuted. That figure fell to almost 78 percent in 2014, and in 2016 roughly 82 percent of arrests were prosecuted. In other words, most people are still going to court because the Brooklyn DA only throws out about one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests.

“I expected to see the number to be higher,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

WNYC also found racial disparities among those who benefited most from the DA’s policy. Last year, the Brooklyn DA declined to prosecute fewer than 20 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests involving blacks and Latinos. By contrast, that figure was more than 30 percent for whites and Asians.

Marijuana-cases-chart-08Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents low-income people, said he wasn’t surprised by any of this. “It still felt like the people who we were meeting were predominantly black and brown,” he said, when asked what changed after 2014. “And it still felt like an enormous waste of time, energy and money.”...

Gonzalez, the acting district attorney, has a theory for why most defendants are still prosecuted, like Iglesias. “One of the things about our marijuana policy was that it was limited to possession cases,” he explained in an interview with WNYC. “What we think may be happening is that a lot of these arrests is public smoking of marijuana.”

In other words, the district attorney's office still prosecutes those caught puffing a joint in a public place. That’s something many people didn’t fully grasp in 2014 when Thompson announced the policy change.

Both smoking and possession are classified by the state as the same misdemeanor (criminal possession in the fifth degree), the most common low-level charge. There was no way to separate smoking from mere possession from the data provided WNYC. (Several people WNYC interviewed at Brooklyn Criminal Court said they were arrested for smoking in public, including a 17-year-old boy who claimed the police nabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. All of the defendants we met were black or Latino and young.)

Gonzalez, who is running to hold onto his position this fall, said he was troubled by WNYC's finding that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be prosecuted. “I am committed to making sure my office does not contribute to racial disparities," he said. "If it takes me to be more aggressive in declining to prosecute more cases I’m willing to do that."...

Public defenders and legalization advocates now say there is only one way to correct the racial imbalance. They want the DA to stop prosecuting all marijuana cases. “This goes to a deeper need for us to talk institutionally about how the systems work for certain groups of people,” said Frederique.

But Gonzalez, the acting DA, argued that his policy is achieving positive results. Brooklyn declines to prosecute a greater share of cases than any other borough. He also said the DA’s policy put more pressure on the NYPD to make fewer arrests. Almost 17,000 people were arrested for low level marijuana possession in 2010. That number fell to 4,300 in 2016. “We’ve moved a long way,” he stated. “I’m committed to continuing to look at this issue and figuring out, can we have a system in which no one gets arrested for marijuana use where there’s no public safety value?”

Normally I would flag a story focused on marijuana over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, but the case-processing and prosecutorial discretion issues raised here are surely of interest to sentencing fans.  And this post also provides an excuse to review some recent posts of note from MLP&R:

September 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, September 04, 2017

"The Racial Politics of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Dominant accounts of America's punitive turn assume that black elected officials and their constituents resisted higher levels of imprisonment and policing.  We gather new data and find little support for this view.  Panel regressions and an analysis of federally-mandated redistricting suggest that black elected officials had a punitive impact on imprisonment and policing.  We corroborate this with public opinion and legislative data. Pooling 300,000 respondents to polls between 1955 and 2014, we find that blacks became substantially more punitive over this period, and were consistently more fearful of crime than whites.

The punitive impact of black elected officials at the state and federal level was concentrated at the height of public punitiveness.  In short, the racial politics of punishment are more complex than the conventional view allows.  We find evidence that black elected officials and the black public were more likely than whites to support non-punitive policies, but conclude that they were constrained by the context in which they sought remedies from crime.

September 4, 2017 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Florida completes (historic?) execution 30 years after double murder

As reported in this local article, headlined "In a first, Florida executes a white defendant for killing a black victim," a demographically notable execution was carried out late yesterday.  Here are the details:

For the first time in 18 months, Florida carried out a death sentence, killing Mark James Asay as final punishment for two 1987 murders in Jacksonville and making Asay the first white man ever executed in the state for killing a black victim. Asay was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. Thursday. He was 53.

The execution began at Florida State Prison after the U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied Asay’s final appeal. At 6:10 p.m., a curtain lifted between the death chamber and a room for witnesses. The lighting flickered, and the air-conditioning was turned off, making for an eerie quiet. “Mr. Asay, do you have a final statement?” a guard asked. “No, sir,” he replied. “I do not.”...

Asay’s chest moved up and down, and then it stopped. The guard shook Asay’s shoulders, then stood back. Eight minutes later, a doctor emerged.

The state executed Asay because a jury found him guilty of killing Robert Lee Booker and Robert McDowell minutes apart in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood. The jury recommended he be put to death by a vote of 9 to 3. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that death sentencing system unconstitutional, and though the Florida Supreme Court now requires unanimous jury decisions, the new standard applies only to cases going back to 2002.

Asay’s attorneys said the best argument for stopping the execution would have been to say that 2002 is an arbitrary date, and because the death sentence vote wasn’t unanimous, he should be resentenced. Asay refused to let them make that argument, attorney Marty McClain said, instead asking them to argue he wasn’t guilty of murdering Booker, the black man.

When Asay was arrested, his arms bore white supremacist tattoos, and witnesses said he referred to one of the victims by the N-word. Frank Booker, Robert Booker’s brother, said Thursday afternoon that “we’ve been waiting for this since 1987, and that’s a long time. I feel a lot of pressure and anxiety will be off me, and I’ll be able to continue in life, I think, a lot more peaceful because this was something that touched a lot of us really, really deep. I know he feels sorry now, but he should’ve thought about that in ’87 when he did what he did. He did it. All the evidence pointed that way.”

Asay’s brother and another friend who were with him the night of the killings testified that the three were drinking and looking for sex. While his brother was talking to Booker, Asay used racial slurs. He then shot Booker in the stomach and fled. The men then hired McDowell, who was dressed as a woman and using the name Renee Torres, to perform oral sex, according to their testimony. Asay then shot and killed McDowell. One of the witnesses said Asay killed McDowell because he felt ripped off. A jailhouse informant later said Asay referred to McDowell using a derogatory word for gay men.

Asay admitted this week to News4Jax that he killed McDowell, who was white. The race of Asay’s victims matters because a racist motive can help prove a murder is cruel, calculated and premeditated, and worthy of execution.

The execution of Asay included the use of two drugs never before used in Florida: potassium acetate, which was used by accident in an Oklahoma execution in 2015, and etomidate, which had never been used anywhere for an execution. States that still carry out the death penalty have struggled to acquire the necessary drugs for lethal injection and have started changing their cocktails. Asay’s lawyers argued that the new injection mixture would violate his constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. On Thursday afternoon, a corrections official handed out packets about how the new injection process would work, but she wouldn’t answer questions about how the state chose the drugs.

Since Asay’s trial in 1988, Duval County has led the state in handing down death sentences, with Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda getting more death sentences than almost any prosecutor in the country. Asay’s execution was the first of de la Rionda’s death sentences to be carried out.

As hinted in the title of this post, I am not sure I want to use the label "historic" to describe the fact that a southern state has carried out the execution of a white murderer who had a black victim. At the same time, I do think it worth noting that this murderer was actually sentenced to death for his crime way back in the 1980s, and thus this execution might be deemed historic simply because it took three decades for Florida to be able to carry out his sentence. Also historic, in some sense, is an execution based on a a non-unanimous jury death recommendation, which will not be possible any longer.

August 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

ABA delegates pass resolution against mandatory minimums and defer vote on resolution against new Sessions charging memo

Aba-logo-defending-liberty-pursuing-justiceAs reported in this ABA Journal report, the "ABA House of Delegates on Tuesday approved a late-offered resolution backing a ban on mandatory minimum sentences, while sponsors withdrew another late sentencing resolution after hearing from the U.S. Justice Department." Here are more details:

Delegates approved Resolution 10B, which opposes the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences in any criminal case.  The resolution calls on Congress and state legislatures to repeal laws requiring mandatory minimums and to refrain from adopting such laws in the future....

“Sentencing by mandatory minimums is the antithesis of rational sentencing policy,” the report says.  Basic fairness and due process require sentences to be the same among similarly situated offenders and proportional to the crime, the report says.

Though the ABA is on record for opposing mandatory minimums, the resolution “is timely and it is indeed urgent” because Congress is considering a number of bills that would impose new mandatory minimums, according to Kevin Curtin of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  Curtin told the House that mandatory minimums have produced troubling race-based inequities.  Blacks are more likely than whites to be charged with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences, and they are more likely to be sentenced to a mandatory minimum term, he said.

The withdrawn proposal, Resolution 10A, would have urged the Department of Justice to rescind a policy adopted in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  The Sessions policy directs federal prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense, unless they get approval of superiors to deviate from the policy.  The ABA resolution urges that the department reinstate policies permitting federal prosecutors to make individualized assessments in each case....

Neal Sonnett, representing the ABA Criminal Justice Section, explained why the proposal was withdrawn.  The Justice Department has a designated seat within the section, but it did not voice an objection until Monday afternoon, he said.  The department indicated it believed there were errors in the section report and it wanted to continue discussions, Sonnett said.  The section withdrew the resolution to allow for those discussions and intends to bring it back to the House at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February.

A report to the House of Delegates said Sessions’ decision will lead to increased use of mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders and a rise in incarceration.  “The draconian charging and sentencing policies urged by Sessions are a throwback to the policies of limited prosecutorial discretion and increased mandatory minimum sentences — policies that did not work — and are in stark contrast to the progressive trend in policies over the last 10 years,” the report says.

The ABA website provides information about the withdrawn Resolution 10A as well as the adopted Resolution 10B.

August 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lamenting the role of prosecutors in continued pursuit of juve LWOP sentences

This New York Times op-ed by Rashad Robinson zeroes in on the role of prosecutors in the continuance of juve LWOP sentences in the wake of Graham and Miller.  The piece is headlined "No Child Deserves a Life Sentence. But Try Telling Prosecutors That." Here are excerpts:

In 2012, the Supreme Court took a step toward righting a terrible wrong by banning mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children. Last year, the court said that ban should apply retroactively: It told prosecutors to conduct resentencing hearings for the approximately 2,500 people who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as adolescents. Many of them had been in prison for decades.

But if you walked into many courthouses today, you wouldn’t know that the Supreme Court had called for resentencing these juvenile offenders, the majority of them black. That’s because prosecutors are choosing to pursue life-without-parole sentences for these cases again.  Part of the problem is that the court kept the door open for overreach when it allowed prosecutors to impose a life sentence on the rare defendant who is “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible.”

Consider Michigan, where prosecutors are denying parole or shorter sentences for 60 percent of juvenile lifers, even in cases where parole boards have recommended them. In Oakland County, northwest of Detroit, the share is a whopping 90 percent. While nearly half of all juvenile lifers are concentrated in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, prosecutors elsewhere, like Scott Shellenberger in Baltimore County, Md., who has opposed ending such sentences for children, have also effectively thumbed their nose at the court’s ruling.

On top of this, many prosecutors are resentencing juvenile lifers to de facto life-without-parole sentences. The district attorney of Orleans Parish in Louisiana defended a “reduced” sentence for a juvenile lifer to a term that would have let him leave prison at age 101. (A Louisiana Supreme Court justice later reprimanded the district attorney for this “stunning” and “constitutionally untenable” position).

This is happening not because our prisons are full of unrepentant juvenile offenders who can never be rehabilitated, but because of a racist structure of perverse incentives that encourages prosecutors to pursue mass incarceration instead of justice.

For decades, prosecutors have sought high conviction rates and long sentences in the belief that appearing tough on crime would advance their careers. Indeed, prosecutors in any given local district or state attorney’s office, from the most junior rookie to the top elected official, tend to view their career prospects through the lens of average sentence length....

Black communities have borne the brunt of this overzealous approach, and racial disparities can be found anywhere prosecutors have control over sentences.  But in recent years, this racist incentive structure has begun to shift, as multiracial coalitions led by black Americans have elected prosecutors across the country who value safety and justice.  This is no liberal pipe dream, but it does require sustained activism and perseverance.  That’s what it took last November when voters in Chicago, Houston and other cities ousted prosecutors who were not serving their interests and elected reform-minded candidates. In those cities, community advocates and my organization, Color of Change, helped make criminal justice issues a key part of the debate.

But communities must work to hold all prosecutors accountable, even those who promise reforms.  Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system; they aren’t going to start caring about the Supreme Court’s rulings on juvenile sentences and other vital reforms until voters give them a reason to.

Though there are evident racial skews in who gets subject to the most severe sentences in the US, I struggle to understand just how the political pressure and benefits that prosecutors experience from appearing tough on crime amounts to a "racist incentive structure."  Having prosecutors regularly subject to voter concerns through local elections creates what might be called a "politicized" or "majoritarian incentive structure," but I am not sure I see how the label "racist" is a sensible or helpful way to describe the traditional election process facing many local prosecutors.  I wonder if this author would likewise assert that mayors or local representatives (or other elected local officials who also can in various ways impact the operation of criminal justice systems) are subject to a "racist incentive structure" that impacts their governmental decision-making.

Because this op-ed ai part of a wave of important recent advocacy and scholarship emphasizing the importance of prosecutorial decision-making, I do not wish to make too much of my puzzlement over the assertion that local prosecutors are subject to a "racist structure of perverse incentives."  But I do wish to hear from anyone who might help me better understand what the author has in mind when referencing the "racist incentive structure" facing prosecutors.

August 11, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Reduced jail time in Tennessee for inmates who ... agree to vasectomy or birth control implant!?!?!

This local story out of Tennessee is hard to believe, but it does not appear to be fake news.  The story is headlined "White County Inmates Given Reduced Jail Time If They Get Vasectomy," and here are excerpts:

Inmates in White County, Tennessee have been given credit for their jail time if they voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant, a popular new program that is being called “unconstitutional” by the ACLU.

On May 15, 2017 General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order that allows inmates to receive 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a birth control procedure. Women who volunteer to participate in the program are given a free Nexplanon implant in their arm, the implant helps prevent pregnancies for up to four years. Men who volunteer to participate are given a vasectomy, free of charge, by the Tennessee Department of Health.

County officials said that since the program began a few months ago 32 women have gotten the Nexplananon implant and 38 men were waiting to have the vasectomy procedure performed.

Judge Benningfield told NewsChannel 5 that he was trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who constantly come into his courtroom on drug related charges, subsequently can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs. “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves,” Judge Benningfield said in an interview.

First elected in 1998, Judge Benningfield decided to implement the program after speaking with officials at the Tennessee Department of Health. “I understand it won’t be entirely successful but if you reach two or three people, maybe that’s two or three kids not being born under the influence of drugs. I see it as a win, win,” he added.

Inmates in the White County jail were also given two days credit toward their jail sentence if they complete a State of Tennessee, Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program. The class aimed to educate those who are incarcerated about the dangers of having children while under the influence of drugs. “Hopefully while they’re staying here we rehabilitate them so they never come back,” the judge said.

District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, who oversees prosecution of cases in White County is worried the program may be unethical and possibly illegal. “It’s concerning to me, my office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said....

On Wednesday, the ACLU released this statement on the program: "Offering a so-called 'choice' between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role."

There are many thing so very remarkable about this story, but I am especially struck by how many jail inmates are willing to undergo a life-changing procedure simply to avoid 30 days in jail. Anyone who doubts the coercive pressures of even a short jail stay (say because of an inability to make bail) should be shown this story.

July 23, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bipartisan discussion of female incarceration issues at "Women Unshackled" event

My twitter feed was full of reports and links to a big criminal justice reform event yesterday which was given the title "Women Unshackled."  This Washington Post article, headlined "Officials from both parties say too many women are incarcerated for low-level crimes," reports on the event, and its coverage starts this way:

Democratic and Republic officials at a conference Tuesday said too many women are being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a troubling trend both groups said they were committed to tackling.

From Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) to Republican Rep. Mia Love (Utah) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there was bipartisan agreement that most of the women in jails and prison would be better served by drug rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than harsher sentences. They noted that most women in the criminal-justice system are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. And because most incarcerated women have small children, locking them away can destroy an already fragile family.

The discussion came during a day-long conference called “Women Unshackled,” presented by the Justice Action Network and sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Coalition for Public Safety and Google.

Some additional coverage of the issues and individuals involved in this event can be found in these recent press pieces:

July 19, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 30, 2017

"Examining Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes among Indigent Defendants in San Francisco"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting big new report published by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.  This Crime Report piece about the report provides this overview of its findings:

An individual’s race and ethnic background determine how he is treated at the “front end” of the criminal justice system, according to a study published this week.  The study, which, focused on poor African-American, Latino and white defendants (all male) in San Francisco, found what it called “systematic differences” in outcomes during the preliminary steps of an individual’s involvement in the justice system, from arrest and booking to the pretrial phase.

“Defendants of color are more likely to be held in custody during their cases, which tend to take longer than the cases of White defendants,” said the study, published by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice.  “Their felony charges are less likely to be reduced, and misdemeanor charges (are) more likely to be increased during the plea bargaining process, meaning that they are convicted of more serious crimes than similarly situated White defendants.”

The study’s conclusions added a troubling dimension to existing research on racial disparities in the U.S. justice system which has largely concentrated on “final case outcomes,” such as conviction, incarceration and sentence length.  In California, for example, African-American men are incarcerated at 10 times the incarceration rate of white men, five times the incarceration rate of Latino men, and 100 times the incarceration rate of Asian men, according to figures cited by the study.

But the study authors’ examination of more than 10,000 records of cases between 2011 and 2014 provided by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office challenged the notion that the difference is explained simply by the fact that African-Americans or Hispanics commit more crimes than other groups.  Their findings suggest that whites are in fact treated more leniently when they are apprehended during the early stages of their involvement in the justice system, thus making them less likely to end up with prison terms in the first place.

The full report linked above runs more than 100 pages, but the Quattrone Center webisite has this shorter summary version.

June 30, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Cashing in on Convicts: Privatization, Punishment, and the People"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Laura Appleman available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For-profit prisons, jails, and alternative corrections present a disturbing commodification of the criminal justice system. Though part of a modern trend, privatized corrections has well-established roots traceable to slavery, Jim Crow, and current racially-based inequities.  This monetizing of the physical incarceration and regulation of human bodies has had deleterious effects on offenders, communities, and the proper functioning of punishment in our society.  Criminal justice privatization severs an essential link between the people and criminal punishment.  When we remove the imposition of punishment from the people and delegate it to private actors, we sacrifice the core criminal justice values of expressive, restorative retribution, the voice and interests of the community, and systemic transparency and accountability.

This Article shows what we lose when we allow private, for-profit entities to take on the traditional community function of imposing and regulating punishment.  By banking on bondage, private prisons and jails remove the local community from criminal justice, and perpetuate the extreme inequities within the criminal system. 

June 28, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Close examination of some JLWOP girls who should benefit from Graham and Miller

The latest issue of The Nation has two lengthy articles examining the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern juvenile offender Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Both are good reads, but the second one listed below covers especially interesting ground I have not seen covered extensively before.  Here are their full headlines, with links, followed by an excerpt from the second of the pieces: 

"The Troubled Resentencing of America’s Juvenile Lifers: When SCOTUS outlawed mandatory juvenile life without parole, advocates celebrated — but the outcome has been anything but fair" by Jessica Pishko

"Lisa, Laquanda, Machelle, and Kenya Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison: Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom" by Danielle Wolffe

The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.

The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.

I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.

The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)