Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"Are female sex offenders treated differently?"

The title of this post is the headline of of this new Salon article which carries this subheadline: "A light sentence for a teacher suggests courts still don't get it about women predators." Here is how the piece begins:

It’s an all too common story – a high school teacher facing sex abuse charges involving students admits to the wrongdoing and faces the criminal justice system. But was a sentence of just one month in custody at a Community Correction Center sufficient punishment for a 39-year-old educator who has sex abuse investigations dating back six years? And could the slap on the wrist sentence have anything to do with the fact that in this case, the teacher sentenced is a woman, and the victim is a boy?

In a case that involves charges of abuse from two male students, Oregon teacher Denise Keesee has acknowledged multiple sexual encounters in 2008 with a then 16-year-old student, and currently faces a $5.1 million lawsuit from another male student. According to Oregon Live, court documents show that “Keesee told detectives she kissed [the other student] several times in 2012 when they were alone in her classroom. She also reportedly admitted to sending him photos of herself, including one of her naked.” Because that student was 18, no criminal charges were filed.

The justice system doesn’t lack for stories of male abusers who get off with relatively light punishments. And it’s important to note that every story involving sex abuse is unique. But at the same time that Denise Keesee is facing just 30 days of confinement for what happened between her and a 16-year-old, a male teacher in her same state was last week sentenced to nearly three years in prison for “an inappropriate sexual relationship” with a 16-year-old female student. Last month in Idaho, a special education teacher was sentenced to five to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing two adolescent girls.

April 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

"Abandoned: Abolishing Female Prisons to Prevent Sexual Abuse and Herald an End to Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article by David Frank now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Because the U.S. is unable to prevent widespread sexual violations of incarcerated women, it should apply the prescriptions of a recent U.K. female prison abolitionist movement as the most effective and humane solution to the problem.

Part I of this article examines the mass incarceration, composition, and sexual victimization of U.S. female prisoners. Part II evaluates the most recent attempt to stop the sexual victimization of U.S. prisoners under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Part III presents the U.K. abolitionist solution and the small, though notable, consensus of support that developed around it. Part IV contends that, because neither the Prison Rape Elimination Act nor any previous law has adequately protected prisoners from sexual abuse, the incarceration of women is unconscionable when adequate prison alternatives of support programs and community care are available. This Part also argues against alternatives rooted in retaliation and violence. The article concludes with hope: it argues that the best response to chaotic brutality is not calculated brutality, but humanity.

April 11, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

NY Times debates "What It Means if the Death Penalty Is Dying"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the death penalty in the United States.  Here is the section's set up:

Last week, lawmakers in New Hampshire heard testimony on a bill outlawing the death penalty.  If passed, the law would make New Hampshire the 19th state to abolish capital punishment.  The United States, the only country in the Americas to practice the death penalty last year, executed 39 people, four fewer than the year before, and Texas accounted for 41 percent of them, according to Amnesty International.

As executions become concentrated in fewer and fewer states and racial disparities continue, does the application of capital punishment make it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

April 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, April 07, 2014

"Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia's Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge"

JPI reportThe title of this post is the title of a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, which was released last week, is available here, and is summarized via this press release.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

As Virginia lawmakers consider a budget that would see corrections spending surpass a billion dollars in general funds, a new report points to racial disparities, skewed fiscal priorities, and missed opportunities for improvements through proposed legislation, and calls for reforms to the commonwealth’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system.

According to Billion Dollar Divide Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, ... while other states are successfully reforming their sentencing laws, parole policies and drug laws, Virginia is lagging behind and spending significant funds that could be used more effectively to benefit public safety in the commonwealth....

According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the corrections budget is being spent on incarcerating people in secure facilities, while only about 10 percent of the budget is spent on supervising people in the community. Put another way, in 2010 for every dollar the Commonwealth of Virginia spent on community supervision, it spent approximately $13 on costs for those incarcerated. Other states have a better balance between prison spending, and supporting individuals in the community.

"Taxpayers' wallets – and more important, people's lives – are in jeopardy," said Marc Schindler, executive director of JPI. "Instead of planning to spend more than $1 billion on an ineffective corrections system, Virginia should be looking to policies that are being implemented successfully in other states to make wiser use of precious resources and get better public safety outcomes.”...

The report describes challenges facing Virginia’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system, including:

  • Worrisome racial and ethnic disparities in how the state deals with drugs and drug crimes: African Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the Virginia population, but comprise 60 percent of the prison population, and 72 percent of all people incarcerated for a drug arrest.  JPI has compiled information for the largest Virginia cities and counties that show the disparities in drug enforcement, and the latest data show Virginia’s drug arrest rates on the rise;
  • More people serving longer sentences and rising length-of-stay: The changes to Truth-in-Sentencing enacted in the 1990s eliminated parole, and reduced access to earned-time and good-time credits.  The commonwealth has added more mandatory minimums that have lengthened prison terms, and about one quarter of all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences involve drug offenses.  Between 1992 and 2007, there has been a 72 percent increase in individuals serving time for drug offenses.  There has also been a substantial and very expensive increase in the number of elderly individuals incarcerated in Virginia, despite strong evidence that these individuals pose little threat to public safety....

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Does an imprisoned white supremacist have a right to an anti-Kosher diet?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article from Illinois headlined "White Supremacist Hale Sues Bureau Of Prisons For Violating His Rights." Here are the basics:

It was nine years ago today that Matt Hale of East Peoria was sentenced to 40 years in prison – convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. Now, without a lawyer, Hale is suing the federal Bureau of Prisons because he says his rights are being denied.

Matt Hale, a minister in the religion of Creativity, is suing because he says the federal prison system has been taking away his mail privileges.

“They just come in and announce to him that his mail is being taken away from him,” said Evelyn Hutcheson, Hale’s 75-year-old mother. Hutcheson is his staunchest defenders. She says her son is moral, never plotted against a judge – and she says his trial was dirty and tainted. “I would like to see him freed before I die. I really would. But I just know how dirty it is. I’m sorry. I know how dirty it actually is. And who am I? I’m just a little peon. I’m nothing.”

Besides wanting to get his mail regularly, Hale is suing the prison system to be served the diet he says his anti-Jewish religion requires: uncooked food like raw fruits, vegetables and nuts.

April 7, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Victim Gender and the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by a whole bunch of folks at Cornell Law School and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Previous research suggests that cases involving female victims are more likely to result in death sentences.  The current study examines possible reasons for this relationship using capital punishment data from the state of Delaware.  Death was sought much more for murders of either male or female white victims compared to murders of black male victims.  Analyzing capital sentencing hearings in Delaware from 1977-2007 decided by judges or juries, we found that both characteristics of the victims and characteristics of the murders differentiated male and female victim cases.  The presence of sexual victimization, the method of killing, the relationship between the victim and the defendant, and whether or not the victim had family responsibilities all predicted the likelihood of a death sentence and help to explain why cases with female victims are more likely to be punished with a death sentence.

March 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Great coverage of crack crimes and punishments via Al Jazeera America

I am pleased (and a bit overwhelmed) by this huge new series of stories, infographics, pictures, personal stories concerning crack crimes and punishment put together by Al Jazeera America.  Here are links to just some parts of the series:

Waiting on a fix: Legal legacy of the crack epidemic: In the 1980s, the US went to war on crack. Thirty years on, judiciary is still hooked on unfair and unequal sentencing

Documenting the ravages of the 1980s crack epidemic: Renowned documentary photographer Eugene Richards recorded the brutal realities facing communities affected by crack

'Life without parole is a walking death': Andre Badley, imprisoned in 1997 for dealing crack, could spend his life behind bars while bigger dealers go free.

A rush to judgment: In 1986, lawmakers wrote new mandatory crack cocaine penalties in a few short days, using the advice of a perjurer.

March 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Noting disparities resulting from reservation sentencing being federal sentencing

Ndlr-cover-86-3This local article from North Dakota, which is headlined "Article scrutinizes disparities in sentencing on reservations: American Indians face harsher penalties when tried in fed court vs state courts, advocates say," highlights an often-overlooked pocket of the federal sentencing system. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

Dana Deegan is serving a 10-year sentence for placing her newborn son in a basket and abandoning him for two weeks, allowing him to die. Deegan, who was 25 years old when her son died in 1998 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, had three older children and suffered from depression and abuse. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to second-degree murder to avoid a possibly harsher sentence.

Advocates have said her sentence was much harsher than those given for similar cases prosecuted in state courts in North Dakota – a disparity that critics say applies generally because American Indians accused of major crimes on reservations are prosecuted in federal courts, which generally have stiffer penalties. The issue, which lawyers, judges and legal scholars have long discussed, will soon be the subject of a national study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Senior Judge Myron Bright of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who is based in Fargo, has for years been an outspoken critic of sentencing disparities involving prosecution of American Indians on reservations. The issue is also the focus of an article calling for changes to address the sentencing gaps in the current issue of the North Dakota Law Review [available at this link], and the study is backed by Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota. The law review authors, one of them a tribal judge in North Dakota, noted the Deegan case as a glaring example of the gap in sentences between the federal courts — whose defendants are overwhelmingly American Indians prosecuted on reservations — and comparable crimes tried in state courts.

Non-Indian women in two similar cases prosecuted in North Dakota state courts received much lighter sentences, authors BJ Jones and Christopher Ironroad noted [in this article, titled "Addressing Sentencing Disparities for Tribal Citizens in the Dakotas: A Tribal Sovereignty Approach"]. In 2000, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced in Cass County for negligent homicide to three years, with imposition suspended for three years of supervised probation, which was terminated less than two years later, according to court records.... In 2007, a 28-year-old woman was sentenced in Burleigh County to 10 years in prison, with eight years suspended, for causing the death of her newborn, which died after being left in a toilet....

Federal courts have jurisdiction on Indian reservations under the Major Crimes Act passed in 1885. Ordinarily, states prosecute “street crimes,” including assault, burglary, sexual assault, murder and vehicular manslaughter. Because of strict sentencing guidelines, with mandatory minimums and no probation or time off for good behavior, sentences in federal court generally are higher than those in state courts, at least in states including North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, lawyers and federal judges agree. “The law needs to be changed and Indians need to be treated on an equal basis, the same as their white neighbors,” Bright said.

But many agree that state penalties for certain crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter, are higher.  That, in fact, was a finding the last time the issue of sentencing disparities was studied in 2003 by an advisory group for the Sentencing Commission. But the group found the perception of an unfair disparity in sentences received by American Indians in federal court compared to state court was “well founded,” Purdon wrote the chairman of the Sentencing Commission earlier this month.

Purdon, who serves as chairman of the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said more study is needed into the widespread perception of unfair sentences. “If the court system is perceived as unfair it undermines my ability to make the reservations safer,” he said, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice supports further study of the issue.

Two federal trial judges in North Dakota agreed that, because of federal sentencing guidelines, criminal sentences sometimes are higher than state court sentences, but cautioned that the reverse also is true for certain crimes.  “I believe it works both ways,” said Chief Judge Ralph Erickson of U.S. District Court in Fargo.  “Some crimes are less than customarily handed down in state courts,” such as vehicular homicide.

Much of the disparity comes from the lack of parole in the federal court system, meaning a defendant serves the entire sentence, Erickson said. “That’s where the rub comes in,” he said. “We’re aware of that and it’s frustrating.”... A comprehensive study is needed to determine if there are, in fact, sentencing disparities, Erickson said. If so, then solutions can be identified.

“There’s an overall disparity in sentencing,” said Judge Daniel Hovland of U.S. District Court in Bismarck. “Generally, federal sentences tend to be more severe,” but he agreed with Erickson that there are exceptions, including manslaughter. “I think the sentencing commission is going to take a much closer look at that issue and it will certainly bode well for everyone in the judicial system,” Hovland said.  “I’m confident they’ll reach a fair assessment.”

March 23, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"The New Jim Crow? Recovering the Progressive Origins of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent article by Anders Walker and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article revisits the claim that mass incarceration constitutes a new form of racial segregation, or Jim Crow.  Drawing from historical sources, it demonstrates that proponents of the analogy miss an important commonality between the two phenomena, namely the debt that each owe to progressive and/or liberal politics.  Though generally associated with repression and discrimination, both Jim Crow and mass incarceration owe their existence in part to enlightened reforms aimed at promoting black interests; albeit with perverse results.  Recognizing the aspirational origins of systematic discrimination marks an important facet of comprehending the persistence of racial inequality in the United States.

March 13, 2014 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 09, 2014

LDF releases latest, greatest accounting of death row populations

As reported here by the Death Penalty Information Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has just released its latest version of its periodic accounting of capital punishment developments in the United States. This document, available here, is titled simply "Death Row, USA," and reports on data though July 1, 2013.  Here is how DPIC summarizes some of its key findings:

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013.  The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517.  The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197).  In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time.  

The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

March 9, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, March 07, 2014

"Criminal Records, Race and Redemption"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just noticed via SSRN authored by Michael Pinard. Here is the abstract:

Poor individuals of color disproportionately carry the weight of a criminal record. They confront an array of legal and non-legal barriers, the most prominent of which are housing and employment.  Federal, State and local governments are implementing measures aimed at easing the everlasting impact of a criminal record.  However, these measures, while laudable, fail to address the disconnection between individuals who believe they have moved past their interactions with the criminal justice system and the ways in which decision makers continue to judge them in the years and decades following those interactions.  These issues are particularly pronounced for poor individuals of color, who are uniquely stigmatized by their criminal records.

To address these issues, this article proposes a redemption-focused approach to criminal records.  This approach recognizes that individuals ultimately move past their interactions with the criminal justice system and, therefore, they should no longer be saddled by their criminal records.  Thus, the article calls for greatly expanding laws that allow individuals to remove their criminal records from public access and, in the end, allow them to reach redemption.

March 7, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 06, 2014

"How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America's Hidden Rape Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper on SSRN authored by Corey Rayburn Yung. Here is the abstract:

During the last two decades, many police departments substantially undercounted reported rapes creating "paper" reductions in crime.  Media investigations in Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis found that police eliminated rape complaints from official counts because of cultural hostility to rape complaints and to create the illusion of success in fighting violent crime.  The undercounting cities used three difficult-to-detect methods to remove rape complaints from official records: designating a complaint as "unfounded" with little or no investigation; classifying an incident as a lesser offense; and, failing to create a written report that a victim made a rape complaint.

This study addresses how widespread the practice of undercounting rape is in police departments across the country.  Because identifying fraudulent and incorrect data is essentially the task of distinguishing highly unusual data patterns, I apply a statistical outlier detection technique to determine which jurisdictions have substantial anomalies in their data.  Using this novel method to determine if other municipalities likely failed to report the true number of rape complaints made, I find significant undercounting of rape incidents by police departments across the country.  The results indicate that approximately 22% of the 210 studied police departments responsible for populations of at least 100,000 persons have substantial statistical irregularities in their rape data indicating considerable undercounting from 1995 to 2012.  Notably, the number of undercounting jurisdictions has increased by over 61% during the eighteen years studied.

Correcting the data to remove police undercounting by imputing data from highly correlated murder rates, the study conservatively estimates that 796,213 to 1,145,309 complaints of forcible vaginal rapes of female victims nationwide disappeared from the official records from 1995 to 2012.  Further, the corrected data reveal that the study period includes fifteen to eighteen of the highest rates of rape since tracking of the data began in 1930. Instead of experiencing the widely reported "great decline" in rape, America is in the midst of a hidden rape crisis.  Further, the techniques that conceal rape complaints deprioritize those cases so that police conduct little or no investigation. Consequently, police leave serial rapists, who constitute the overwhelming majority of rapists, free to attack more victims. Based upon the findings of this study, governments at all levels must revitalize efforts to combat the cloaked rise in sexual violence and the federal government must exercise greater oversight of the crime reporting process to ensure accuracy of the data provided.

March 6, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Alabama struggling with enduring challenges as tough-on-crime history creates "box of dynamite"

The New York Times today has this notable and lengthy article about the criminal justice reform challenges facing Alabama headlined "Troubles at Women’s Prison Test Alabama." Here are excerpts:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation.  More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.  Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.

“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”

The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity. Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation.  “No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.

Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal.  The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.

The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner.  He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers....

There is no ignoring the prison crisis.  Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform.  It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead....

“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners.  In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse....

“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services. “I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”

March 2, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Institutionalizing Bias: The Death Penalty, Federal Drug Prosecutions, and Mechanisms of Disparate Punishment

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Mona Lynch now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The empirical study of capital punishment in the “modern” era has been largely decoupled from scholarship addressing the corollary late-20th century noncapital punitive developments, such as the rise of mass incarceration. Consequently, research that has examined the problem of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty and research on the proportional growth of minorities in American correctional populations have advanced on parallel tracks, rarely intersecting.

In light of this symposium’s effort to strengthen the linkages between the death penalty and mass incarceration, this article examines two seemingly distinct cases of racially disparate criminal justice practices — the trial courts’ processing of contemporary capital cases and federal drug trafficking cases — to illustrate the institutionalized mechanisms that produce racial inequalities in both mass incarceration and capital punishment. I advance a meso-level, social-psychological theory on the production of institutional racism that also aims to integrate contested lines of thought about the mechanisms of bias and discrimination.

To accomplish these ends, I specifically focus on three problem areas in the structure and operation of contemporary American criminal justice: 1) the codification of inequality in how crimes and criminal culpability are defined and how sentencing rules are structured; 2) the distribution, by both stage and actor, of discretionary decision-making power; and 3) the mechanisms for relief from the harshest potential punishments.

February 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 17, 2014

Noticing racial disproportion in who ends up serving time in private prisons

People-of-color-private-prisonsThis new Mother Jones piece, headlined "Why There's an Even Larger Racial Disparity in Private Prisons Than in Public Ones," highlights a new study concerning the racial composition of private prison populations.  Here is how the piece begins, with all the notable links (including a link to the discussed study) included: 

It's well known that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons. African Americans and Latinos constitute 30 percent of the US population and 60 percent of its prisoners. But a new study by University of California-Berkeley researcher Christopher Petrella addresses a fact of equal concern. Once sentenced, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to serve time in private prisons, which have higher levels of violence and recidivism (PDF) and provide less sufficient health care and educational programming than equivalent public facilities.

The study compares the percentage of inmates identifying as black or Hispanic in public prisons and private prisons in nine states. It finds that there are higher rates of people of color in private facilities than public facilities in all nine states studied, ranging from 3 percent in Arizona and Georgia to 13 percent in California and Oklahoma.  According to Petrella, this disparity casts doubt on cost-efficiency claims made by the private prison industry and demonstrates how ostensibly "colorblind" policies can have a very real effect on people of color.

The study points out an important link between inmate age and race. Not only do private prisons house high rates of people of color, they also house low rates of individuals over the age of 50 — a subset that is more likely to be white than the general prison population.  According to the study, "the states in which the private versus public racial disparities are the most pronounced also happen to be the states in which the private versus public age disparities are most salient." (California, Mississippi, and Tennessee did not report data on inmate age.)

Private prisons have consistently lower rates of older inmates because they often contractually exempt themselves from housing medically expensive—which often means older—individuals (see excerpts from such exemptions in California, Oklahoma, and Vermont), which helps them keep costs low and profits high. This is just another example of the growing private prison industry's prioritization of profit over rehabilitation, which activists say leads to inferior prison conditions and quotas requiring high levels of incarceration even as crime levels drop. The number of state and federal prisoners housed in private prisons grew by 37 percent from 2002 to 2009, reaching 8 percent of all inmates in 2010.

The high rate of incarceration among young people of color is partly due to the war on drugs, which introduced strict sentencing policies and mandatory minimums that have disproportionately affected non-white communities for the past 40 years. As a result, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2009, only 33.2 percent of prisoners under 50 reported as white, as opposed to 44.2 percent of prisoners aged 50 and older.

So when private prisons avoid housing older inmates, they indirectly avoid housing white inmates as well. This may explain how private facilities end up with "a prisoner profile that is far younger and far 'darker'... than in select counterpart public facilities."

Private prisons claim to have more efficient practices, and thus lower operating costs, than public facilities. But the data suggest that private prisons don't save money through efficiency, but by cherry-picking healthy inmates.  According to a 2012 ACLU report, it costs $34,135 to house an "average" inmate and $68,270 to house an individual 50 or older. In Oklahoma, for example, the percentage of individuals over 50 in minimum and medium security public prisons is 3.3 times that of equivalent private facilities.

"Given the data, it's difficult for private prisons to make the claim that they can incarcerate individuals more efficiently than their public counterparts," Petrella tells Mother Jones.  "We need to be comparing apples to apples. If we're looking at different prisoner profiles, there is no basis to make the claim that private prisons are more efficient than publics."

February 17, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 06, 2014

"Profiting from Probation: America's 'Offender-Funded' Probation Industry"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from Human Rights Watch. Here is the start of the report's summary:

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a person sentenced to probation cannot then be incarcerated simply for failing to pay a fine that they genuinely cannot afford. Yet many misdemeanor courts routinely jail probationers who say they cannot afford to pay what they owe — and they do so in reliance on the assurances of for-profit companies with a financial stake in every single one of those cases.

Every year, US courts sentence several hundred thousand people to probation and place them under the supervision of for-profit companies for months or years at a time.  They then require probationers to pay these companies for their services.  Many of these offenders are only guilty of minor traffic violations like speeding or driving without proof of insurance.  Others have shoplifted, been cited for public drunkenness, or committed other misdemeanor crimes.  Many of these offenses carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, yet each month, courts issue thousands of arrest warrants for offenders who fail to make adequate payments towards fines and probation company fees.

This report, based largely on more than 75 interviews conducted with people in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi during the second half of 2013, describes patterns of abuse and financial hardship inflicted by the “offender-funded” model of privatized probation that prevails in well over 1,000 courts across the US.  It shows how some company probation officers behave like abusive debt collectors.  It explains how some courts and probation companies combine to jail offenders who fall behind on payments they cannot afford to make, in spite of clear legal protections meant to prohibit this.  It also argues that the fee structure of offender-funded probation is inherently discriminatory against poor offenders, and imposes the greatest financial burden on those who are least able to afford to pay.  In fact, the business of many private probation companies is built largely on the willingness of courts to discriminate against poor offenders who can only afford to pay their fines in installments over time.

The problems described in this report are not a consequence of probation privatization per se.  Rather, they arise because public officials allow probation companies to profit by extracting fees directly from probationers, and then fail to exercise the kind of oversight needed to protect probationers from abusive and extortionate practices.  All too often, offenders on private probation are threatened with jail for failing to pay probation fees they simply cannot afford, and some spend time behind bars.

February 6, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Distaff side death penalty developments in Texas and Arizona

Women-death-rowI always find gender differences and disparities quite interesting in the administration of the modern death penalty, and thus these two news stories from two states captured my attention this morning.

From Texas via the AP here, "Woman Set to Be Executed in Texas for 1998 Killing," gets started this way:

A woman convicted of torturing and killing a mentally impaired man she lured to Texas with the promise of marriage was scheduled to be executed Wednesday in a rare case of a female death-row inmate.

If 59-year-old Suzanne Basso is lethally injected as scheduled, the New York native would be only the 14th woman executed in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976.  By comparison, almost 1,400 men have been put to death. Texas, the nation's busiest death-penalty state, has executed four women and 505 men.

Basso was sentenced to death for the 1998 slaying of 59-year-old Louis "Buddy" Musso, whose battered and lacerated body, washed with bleach and scoured with a wire brush, was found in a ditch outside Houston.  Prosecutors said Basso had made herself the beneficiary of Musso's insurance policies and took over his Social Security benefits after luring him from New Jersey.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to halt the execution in a ruling Tuesday, meaning the U.S. Supreme Court is likely her last hope.  A state judge ruled last month that Basso had a history of fabricating stories about herself, seeking attention and manipulating psychological tests.

Leading up to her trial, Basso's court appearances were marked by claims of blindness and paralysis, and speech mimicking a little girl.  "It was challenging, but I saw her for who she was," said Colleen Barnett, the former Harris County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Basso.  "I was determined I was not going to let her get away with it."

Basso's attorney, Winston Cochran Jr., had asked the appeals court to overturn the lower court's finding that Basso was mentally competent to face execution.  He argued that Basso suffered from delusions and that the state law governing competency was unconstitutionally flawed.  Her lawyer said a degenerative disease left her paralyzed, but Basso, who uses a wheelchair, blamed her paralysis on a jail beating years ago.  At a competency hearing two months ago, she testified from a hospital bed wheeled into a Houston courtroom and talked about a snake smuggled into a prison hospital in an attempt to kill her. But she acknowledged lying about her background, including that she was a triplet, worked in the New York governor's office and had a relationship with Nelson Rockefeller.

From Arizona via The Republic here, "5 Arizona Women Face Rare Death Penalty" gets started this way:

Women make up less than 2 percent of death-row populations in the United States. There are two women on death row in Arizona, and no woman has been executed here since Eva Dugan was hanged in 1930. So, it’s a peculiar confluence of fate that five capital-murder cases against women are working through Arizona courts in these early months of 2014:

On Jan. 17, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Shawna Forde, a self-styled anti-immigration vigilante convicted of killing two people southwest of Tucson in 2009.

On Jan. 23, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge refused to reconsider her decision to allow a former Phoenix police detective to invoke the Fifth Amendment in the Debra Milke case, putting Milke’s potential retrial on hold until prosecutors can file a special action appeal. Milke was freed after 23 years on death row when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted her a new trial.

Wendi Andriano, who was sent to death row in 2004 for murdering her husband, is back in Maricopa County Superior Court for the next two weeks in a stage called post-conviction relief, arguing that she deserves a new trial because her defense attorneys did not represent her effectively.

Marissa DeVault’s trial starts Thursday on charges of killing her husband with a hammer in 2009. And Jodi Arias will go back to trial on March 17 to determine if she should be sentenced to death or to life in prison for the 2008 murder of her lover Travis Alexander.

Death-penalty cases are rarely clear-cut; less so when the defendants are women. Last spring, a first jury could not reach a decision as to whether to let Arias live or die.

In 2010, a Superior Court jury balked at sending Marjorie Orbin to death row, even though it found her guilty of killing her husband and cutting him in pieces. One chunk of his torso was found in a plastic tub in the desert in north Phoenix.

And in 2002, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out a death sentence for Doris Carlson, who paid two men to kill her mother-in-law in 1996, after determining that the murder was not committed in an especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner. That is one of the aggravating factors alleged in the DeVault case, and the Arias argument on the death penalty is based on the murder being considered especially cruel.

Capital cases against women also are often more complex because the crimes are often more passionate and more intimate.  “The death penalty is mostly about crimes against strangers. That really frightens people,” said Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at the University of New Mexico. Those crimes often include rapes and robberies, “and women just don’t do those kind of crimes,” Rapaport said.  Women who kill tend to kill spouses, lovers, children and family members. “Those cases are rarely capital cases,” she said.

February 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Is there a faith-based perspective on modern marijuana laws and reforms?

God potThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article from the Washington Post headlined "Faith leaders wrestle over growing support for marijuana." Here are excerpts:

Sunday’s Super Bowl was dubbed by some as the “pot bowl,” as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks hail from the two states where fans can soon get marijuana as easily as they can get pizza. As public opinion has shifted in support of legalized marijuana, religious leaders are wrestling over competing interests, including high prison rates and legislating morality.

According to a 2013 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 58 percent of white mainline Protestants and 54 percent of black Protestants favor legalizing the use of marijuana. On the other side, nearly seven-in-10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose it.

Catholics appear to be the most divided Christian group, with 48 percent favoring legalization and 50 percent opposing it. Opinions on how states should handle those who possess or sell marijuana varies among Christian leaders.

Caught in the middle of the debate are pastors, theologians and other religious leaders, torn over how to uphold traditional understandings of sin and morality amid a rapidly changing tide of public opinion.

Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for several prominent evangelicals including Franklin Graham and Hobby Lobby founder Steve Green, admits he takes a view that might not be held by most Christian leaders. “When 50 percent of our prison beds are occupied by nonviolent offenders, we have prison overcrowding problems and violent offenders serving shortened sentences, I have a problem with incarceration for possession of marijuana,” he said. “None of that’s to say I favor free and rampant marijuana use. I don’t think it’s the most serious blight on America.”

Alcohol abuse, he said, is a much more serious issue. President Obama suggested something similar to The New Yorker recently when he said that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol.

But don’t expect pastors to start preaching in line with DeMoss, who said he has not seen much comment from religious leaders on the issue. “If a pastor said some of what I said, there would be some who would feel the pastor was compromising on a moral issue,” he said. “No one wants to risk looking like they’re in favor of marijuana. I’m not in favor, but I think we should address how high of a priority it should be.”...

Laws on marijuana have disproportionately impacted minorities, said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “There are community programs that can better engage young people than incarceration,” he said. “Many black and brown lives are destroyed because of incarceration.”...

Most Christians are still reluctant to favor legalization, Rodriguez said, since the effects of marijuana aren’t much different from getting drunk, which is a biblical no-no. “It has the ability of diluting reason, behavior, putting your guard down,” he said. “We are temples of God’s Holy Spirit, and it has the ability of hindering a clear thought process.”

Some who favor legalized marijuana liken the Christians who oppose it to be like the early 20th-century evangelicals and fundamentalists who supported a federal prohibition on alcohol. Part of a move in the Republican Party toward a loosening on marijuana legislation could be coming from people who also would sympathize with the Tea Party, said Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“I definitely think there’s been a coalition of ‘leave us alone’ libertarians and Woodstock nation progressives on this issue of marijuana,” Moore said. “I do think there has been an effort to stigmatize those with concerns as Carrie Nations holding on to prohibition.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 4, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Bias in the Shadows of Criminal Law: The Problem of Implicit White Favoritism"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article recently posted on SSRN and authored by Robert Smith, Justin Levinson and Zoe Robinson. Here is the abstract:

Commentators idealize a racially fair criminal justice system as one without racial animus. But unjustified racial disparities would persist even if racial animus disappeared overnight. In this Article, we introduce the concept of implicit white favoritism into criminal law and procedure scholarship, and explain why preferential treatment of white Americans helps drive the stark disparities that define America’s criminal justice system.

Scholarly efforts thus far have shone considerable light on how unconscious negative stereotyping of black Americans as hostile, violent, and prone to criminality occurs at critical points in the criminal justice process. We rotate the flashlight to reveal implicit favoritism, a rich and diverse set of automatic associations of positive stereotypes and attitudes with white Americans. White favoritism can operate in a range of powerful ways that can be distinguished from traditional race-focused examples: in the way, for example, white drivers are pulled over less often than unseen drivers or crimes against white victims are seen as more aggravating. Our account of implicit white favoritism both enriches existing accounts of how implicit racial bias corrupts the criminal justice system and provides explanations for disparities that implicit negative stereotyping explanations miss altogether.

January 31, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack