Friday, August 17, 2018

New research finds racial bias infects sex-offender classification system under SORNA

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this Crime Report piece headlined "Sex Offender Registration Influenced by Racial Bias, Ohio Study Claims." Here are excerpts:

The classification of sex offenders based on the risks they pose to the community following their release from prison is subject to racial bias, according to a study published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review.  African-American sex offenders were found to be two-and a half times likelier to be inaccurately designated as high-risk than their Caucasian counterparts by a state-sponsored risk-assessment instrument, said the study, which was based on a sample of 673 sex offenders in the state of Ohio who were convicted of a sex crime and released between 2009 and 2011.

Risk assessments that were overly weighted towards prior criminal records led to the skewed assessments, argued the authors, Bobbie Ticknor of Valdosta State University, and Jessica J. Warner of Miami University Regionals.  “Approximately 85 percent of the individuals classified in the highest tier, who theoretically posed the greatest danger, did not have a conviction for a new sex offense after the five-year follow up period,” the study found, adding that 15 percent of “Tier 1” offenders were under-classified, meaning their threat-level was underestimated.

The sample was limited to offenders who had received a classification under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) system established by the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act.  The law established guidelines aimed at protecing communities from convicted sex offenders who might pose continued threats to their community following release. SORNA is an offense-based classification system where offenders are assigned to one of three tiers according to “dangerousness.”  Tier designation is determined by prior offenses and the severity of the charge and conviction.... 

The reason why racial bias may influence the accuracy of SORNA designations lies in the fact that SORNA relies heavily on the criminal history of an individual, said the authors. The study cites prior research which produced evidence that “black defendants are less likely to accept a plea deal due to mistrust in the system…”  Going to trial increases the chances of being found guilty of more severe charges and receiving lengthier sentences, especially for minority defendants, according to the authors.

The study being discussed here is available at this link and is published under the title "Evaluating the Accuracy of SORNA: Testing for Classification Errors and Racial Bias." Here is its abstract:

Since its enactment in 2006, several researchers have explored whether the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) classification system under the Adam Walsh Act improves outcomes such as increasing public safety and lowering recidivism of sexual offenders.  This study adds to the growing body of literature by exploring how accurate this offense-based classification system is in terms of recidivism and if there is any racial bias in tier designation.

Specifically, results from contingency analyses suggest that several sex offenders are overclassified, meaning that they were given a classification status that included more supervision and oversight although they did not commit another offense. Furthermore, African Americans were two-and-a-half times more likely to be overclassified than Caucasians which suggests racial bias may exist in this government-sponsored classification system.  Implications for communities and the continued use of the SORNA are presented.

August 17, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

High-profile drug arrest of billionaire addict spotlights issues of what is "trafficking" and who is a "victim" and "recidivist"

A high-profile drug arrest in Las Vegas late last week presents a high-profile setting to explore all of the legal uncertainty that necessarily surrounds the modern drug war.  This CBS/AP story, headlined "Tech billionaire Henry Nicholas facing drug trafficking counts in Vegas," provides some of the basics:

Tech billionaire and advocate of crime victims Henry T. Nicholas III is facing drug counts after being arrested along with a woman Tuesday at a Las Vegas Strip casino-resort. Nicholas was arrested on suspicion of trafficking heroin, cocaine, meth and ecstasy, Las Vegas police officer Larry Hadfield said Thursday. He added police responded to the casino-resort following a report from security, which had found contraband in a room [this local piece provides more details of the search and seizures]....

The woman arrested with Nicholas was identified as Ashley Fargo, reportedly the ex-wife of an heir to the Wells Fargo fortune. Hadfield said she faces the same counts as Nicholas. Court records show she has also been released on her own recognizance. Records for the pair show a court hearing scheduled for September.

Attorney and legal analyst Alex Kazarian tells CBS Los Angeles it's likely Nicholas didn't intend to traffic drugs -- but his intent may not matter. "It sounds like his biggest crime is being an addict," Kazarian said. "He's a billionaire. He's not a person that's trying to make money off of drugs. He's a person that's trying to make friends off of drugs. Unfortunateley, the way the laws are written, if you're giving away drugs or if you're selling drugs, you're trafficking."

Nicholas co-founded high-tech chipmaker Broadcom Corp. in 1991 and resigned as president and CEO in 2003. In 2008, he was indicted on narcotics and securities fraud charges. The charges in the securities case were dismissed in 2009 and the narcotics case in 2010.

The billionaire is an advocate for crime victims and has bankrolled ballot measures in the U.S. to guarantee them and their family members some rights. The so-called "Marsy's Law" victims' bill of rights is named after Nicholas' sister, Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, a California college student who was stalked and killed in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend.

Five states - California, Ohio, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota - have a Marsy's Law on their books.... In Nevada, Marsy's Law will appear on the ballot in November as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, after the measure was approved during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions, as required by law. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson have previously endorsed the measure.

As people who work in the drug policy and reform space know well, the dividing line between being a "drug possessor" and a "drug trafficker" can often be a thin one and this story seems to effectively highlight this reality. Moreover, given the extraordinary work that Nicholas has done to promote victim involvement in the criminal justice system, this case provides an interesting setting to explore who can and should be able to claim to be a victim of a "drug trafficker."  In addition, here are some more details about Nicholas's prior involvement with drug charges from this local piece:

In a 2008 federal indictment, Nicholas was accused of possessing and conspiring to distribute drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine. According to federal court records, he was accused of distributing and using drugs on a private flight between Orange County and Las Vegas, “causing marijuana smoke and fumes to enter the cockpit and requiring the pilot flying the plane to put on an oxygen mask.”  The charges against him were dropped in 2010, court records show.

Because charges were drop in the prior case, Nicholas would not qualify as a repeat drug offender subject to recidivist sentencing enhancements. But I cannot help but wonder why and how prior federal drug distribution charges were dropped against him, while also thinking somebody else might get labelled a serious drug offender with this kind of history without Nicholas's legal good fortunes so far.

August 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Prison Nurseries?

I'll be back tomorrow blogging about the war on kids, but I wanted to share this NBC news story about prison nurseries.

According to the piece, there are eight prison nurseries in the United States, and as the number of women in prison has exploded in recent years, their existence raises several interesting questions. Is separation from one's infant a just part of a sentence? Does that sentence inflict more harm on the child than the mother? Is it safe/desirable/cost-effective to allow mothers and infants to remain in prison together? More here:

Bedford Hills has the nation’s longest-running prison nursery. Opened in 1901, it has allowed hundreds of women who have started their sentences pregnant to bond with their babies while behind bars — something advocates say is best for babies and lowers the mothers’ recidivism rate, but some critics argue violates the children’s constitutional rights using taxpayer money, while placing a burden on prison staff by requiring them to double as day care workers.

Bedford Hills is one of eight prison nurseries in the United States. The number of such programs has fluctuated as funding and sentiment toward them has risen and fallen, but now, more than ever, their effectiveness is under scrutiny as the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed.

There are nearly 214,000 women incarcerated in the U.S. — an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980, according to nonprofit The Sentencing Project. There is no official count of how many of these women give birth while imprisoned.

In most prisons, when a woman gives birth, her baby is taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care. Prison nursery supporters say that keeping newborns with their moms, even behind bars — while not a perfect solution — is better than any alternative.

 

August 5, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The War on Kids Post #2

In my last post, I addressed the irony of America inventing the juvenile court and then both exporting that concept to the world and abandoning it domestically. Today I want to unpack the realities of my claim that there has been a war on kids since the late 20th century. Let me acknowledge that, to some readers, the concept of a war on kids in America today may sound misguided or dramatic. After all, educators complain of helicopter parents and so-called free-range parents may face prosecution for granting their children liberties that were commonplace in my childhood. However, even as some children in America are more coddled and protected than ever before, I stand by my claim that the U.S. has waged a war on kids.

This is what the war on kids looks like. On any given day, there are approximately 50,000 juveniles being held in American correctional facilities, thousands of whom are in adult jails and prisons. While some hold themselves out as camps, academies or training facilities, these are correctional institutions; 89% of them are locked and many employ handcuffs, leg cuffs and restraining chairs, as well as solitary confinement. At the same time, we are not reserving detention for the most serious juvenile offenders. Nearly a quarter of youth in juvenile facilities have only been charged with a technical probation violation or a status offense. Schools, with police officers in the halls and zero-tolerance policies on the books, have become a gateway to the criminal justice system. In at least 22 states it’s a crime to disrupt school in ways that may have earned a student a trip to the principal’s office a few decades ago. Preschoolers, yes, preschoolers, can face suspension and expulsion for age-appropriate behaviors. This is deeply problematic, as suspensions, especially repeated ones, increase a student’s risk of dropping out of school and coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

Moreover, as I mentioned in my first post this week, our laws have cemented the notion that kids, once accused of a crime, may be treated as adults. Prosecutors routinely remove kids from juvenile court and charge them in adult court on the basis of the legal fiction of transfer laws. Youth in adult court are subject to mandatory sentences that today many of us would agree are too harsh even as applied to adults. Juveniles can be housed in adult correctional facilities, despite being the most vulnerable to physical and sexual assault in those locations. Until 2005 we were the only nation to execute people for juvenile offenses, and today we are the only developed nation in the world that still sentences children to die in prison.

Perhaps most discouraging, the war on kids has taken its greatest toll on the nation’s most vulnerable kids – those in poor, minority areas that are under-resourced and heavily policed. Black youth are more than twice as likely as white youth to be arrested, and, even as overall youth detention rates continue to decline, black youth are five times as likely as white youth to be detained. Similarly, poverty shunts children into the criminal justice system who would never be there if they had the financial resources to pay for private counsel, a diversion program, or even an ankle bracelet. Finally, when one looks at youth serving the most extreme sentence on the books, life without parole, approximately half were physically abused and nearly 80 percent witnessed violence in the home. Thus, like most wars, the war on kids has had its greatest impact on poor, minority and otherwise vulnerable communities.

In my next post, I’ll address recent Supreme Court decisions regarding juvenile sentencing and their implementation at the state level.

August 4, 2018 in Guest blogging by Professor Cara Drinan, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Procedural Justice and Risk-Assessment Algorithms"

The title of this post is the title of this article recently posted to SSRN and authored by A.J. Wang. Here is the abstract:

Statistical algorithms are increasingly used in the criminal justice system.  Much of the recent scholarship on the use of these algorithms have focused on their "fairness," typically defined as accuracy across groups like race or gender.  This project draws on the procedural justice literature to raise a separate concern: does the use of algorithms damage the perceived fairness and legitimacy of the criminal justice system?

Through three original survey experiments on a nationally-representative sample, it shows that the public strongly disfavors algorithms as a matter of fairness, policy, and legitimacy.  While respondents generally believe algorithms to be less accurate than either psychologists or statutory guidelines, accuracy alone does not explain their preferences. Creating "transparent" algorithms helps but is not enough to make algorithms desirable in their own right.  Both surprising and troubling, members of the public seem more willing to tolerate disparate outcomes when they stem from an algorithm than a psychologist.

July 25, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 23, 2018

A father's perspective on clemency and its potential (and limits)

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new commentary authored by John Owen, headlined "A father's plea for mercy for his imprisoned daughter."  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump’s recent pardons and commutations have spotlighted, once again, the importance of executive clemency to soften the harshness of our criminal justice system.  President Abraham Lincoln was famous for preferring mercy over “strict justice.”  In fact, he used his clemency power so liberally, his attorney general had to assign someone to shadow him to record the names of all those he pardoned or commuted, according to author Margaret Love....

That’s how executive clemency is supposed to work.  It operates outside our rule of law, but it also respects it. It is the personal prerogative of the leader and so, inevitably, can be arbitrary.  It is also a message to our branches of government and to our society to mitigate our desire for vengeance with compassion....

I have spent the past nine years grieving the almost 20-year sentence imposed on my daughter, Mary Anne Locke, for her low-level, non-violent role in a meth distribution conspiracy.  She was ordered to report to federal prison in 2009, six weeks after she had a Cesarean section.  Along with her baby, she left behind a loving husband and two other children.

Mary Anne did not have an easy life, and I accept the role I played in that.... In her early teens, Mary Anne found drugs and men who were themselves substance abusers and also physically violent....  She relapsed at age 28, triggered by personal tumult, as well as health problems for which she was prescribed amphetamines. It was around this time that she became involved with the head of the meth conspiracy charged in her federal case. He gave her an unlimited supply of meth and, in return, embroiled her in a supportive capacity in his drug distribution activities.

Pregnant with her second child in 2007, Mary Anne again disavowed the drug lifestyle.  The indictment in her federal case was handed down in 2008, when she was pregnant with her third child, after two years of sobriety and a wonderful marriage with her then husband, who had no connection with her drug activities. She cooperated fully upon arrest, at considerable risk to herself.

Imagine our family’s devastation when she was sentenced to 234 months, or 19.5 years.  Murderers get less time. Although nationally, statistics indicate that defendants with her characteristics would receive an almost 50 percent reduction of their applicable guideline, the judge gave her just a 20 percent reduction.  Mary Anne was not the kingpin or organizer. She never engaged in or threatened any violence.  She played a supportive role to fund her addiction.  She had never spent more than a night in custody.  She is precisely the kind of low-level player deserving of leniency.

Rather, her sentence was driven by the charging decisions of the prosecutors she faced and the particular sentencing philosophy of her judge.  This judge has been critiqued as one of the harshest in the country.  In fact, she is the only sitting judge to have been subject to a commutation by Trump (the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin).  Moreover, today, not only would another judge give Mary Anne an almost 50 percent reduction of her applicable guideline, Mary Anne’s sentencing guideline would be substantially lower....

Needless to say, Mary Anne has served the top end of that guideline.  And she has done so with distinction.  She has been an exemplary prisoner — discipline-free, who has worked and studied consistently throughout her sentence, completing her final year in a three-year college program in office administration.  Don’t get me wrong.  Mary Anne broke the law and deserved punishment.  But her lengthy sentence violates any basic notions of justice and proportionality.  She deserves mercy.

She applied for clemency before President Barack Obama, and has again applied before President Trump.  She was represented in both applications by the Clemency Project at the University of Minnesota Law School.  I am a lifelong Republican. I am, however, forever grateful to Obama for bringing executive clemency back to its roots — to address systemic unfairness, while also acknowledging the humanity of each person behind bars.  I am also buoyed by Trump’s recent clemency decisions, and his pronouncements that he plans to use it even more expansively.

But nothing beats a legislative solution that grants my daughter — and the thousands of prisoners like her — a “second look” at the severity and fairness of their sentence, in a public proceeding, with a judge and an advocate.

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"McCleskey V. Kemp: Field Notes from 1977-1991"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by John Charles Boger available now via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Essay is an expanded version of a keynote address to a Symposium hosted by the Northwestern University School of Law.  It examines the handiwork of the Supreme Court in the McCleskey v. Kemp (1987) case and the adverse impact of McCleskey on the subsequent judicial consideration of statistical evidence -- even of widespread racial discrimination -- in the capital and criminal justice systems. 

As one member of the legal team who brought the McCleskey case, my contribution was to speculate on how and why the Court might have disregarded such meticulously documented and unrebutted patterns of racial disparities in capital sentencing, despite the Justices’ formal condemnation of racial discrimination in principle and their occasional intervention to curb particularly egregious acts of racial injustice.  This Essay ends by encouraging social scientists and legal scholars to continue to uncover and oppose patterns of racial discrimination that remain widespread in the administration of criminal justice.

July 17, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Interesting new Quick Facts report from US Sentencing Commission on "Women in the Federal Offender Population"

I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  Regular readers may recall from this prior post, roughly five years ago, the USSC started putting out these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format."

This month brings this new Quick Facts on "Women in the Federal Offender Population," and here are just a few data tidbits from the document that caught my attention:

July 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Police, Race, and the Production of Capital Homicides"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Jeffrey Fagan and Amanda Geller. Here is the abstract:

Racial disparities in capital punishment have been well documented for decades.  Over 50 studies have shown that Black defendants more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with capital-eligible crimes, to be convicted and sentenced to death.  Racial disparities in charging and sentencing in capital-eligible homicides are the largest for the small number of cases where black defendants murder white victims compared to within-race killings, or where whites murder black or other ethnic minority victims.  These patterns are robust to rich controls for non-racial characteristics and state sentencing guidelines.

This article backs up the research on racial disparities to an earlier stage of capital case processing: the production of capital-eligible cases beginning with the identification of potential defendants by the police.  It seeks to trace these sentencing disparities to examining earlier stages in the processing of homicides. Using data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, we examine every homicide reported between 1976 and 2009, and find that homicides with white victims are significantly more likely to be “cleared” by the arrest of a suspect than are homicides with minority victims.  We estimate a series of hierarchical regressions to show that a substantial portion of this disparity is explained by social and demographic characteristics of the county in which homicides take place.  Most notably, counties with large concentrations of minority residents have lower clearance rates than do predominantly white counties; however, county characteristics do not fully explain the observed race-of-victim disparities.  Our findings raise equal protection concerns, paving the way for further research into the production of capital homicides and the administration of the death penalty.

July 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 30, 2018

"Supreme Irrelevance: The Court's Abdication in Criminal Procedure Jurisprudence"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Tonja Jacobi and Ross Berlin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminal procedure is one of the Supreme Court’s most active areas of jurisprudence, but the Court’s rulings are largely irrelevant to the actual workings of the criminal justice system.  The Court’s irrelevance takes two forms: objectively, on the numbers, its jurisprudence fails to protect the vast majority of people affected by the criminal justice system; and in terms of salience, the Court has sidestepped the major challenges in the United States today relating to the criminal justice system.  These challenges include discrimination in stops and frisks, fatal police shootings, unconscionable plea deals, mass incarceration, and disproportionate execution of racial minorities.

For each major stage of a person’s interactions with the criminal justice system — search and seizure, plea-bargaining, and sentencing — the Court develops doctrines that protect only a tiny percentage of people.  This is because the Court focuses nearly all of its attention on the small fraction of cases implicating the exclusionary rule, trial rights, and the death penalty, and it ignores the bulk of real-world criminal procedure — searches and seizures that turn up no evidence of crime, plea bargains that occur outside of the courtroom, and the sentencing of convicts for terms of years — leaving constitutional rights unrecognized and constitutional violations unremedied.  Consistently, each issue the Supreme Court neglects has a disparate impact on traditionally disadvantaged racial minorities.  Together, this constitutes an abdication of the Court’s responsibility.

June 30, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fascinating accounting of prosecutorial role in considerable racial disparity in Florida sentencing

Back in 2016, as highlighted in this post, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an extraordinary series of articles in examining disparities in Florida's sentencing system under the heading "Bias on the Bench."  The paper now, working with the Florida Times-Union, has this new remarkable series under the headline "Influence & Injustice: An Investigation Into The Power Of Prosecutors."  Here is part of the lead article:

Academics and judges argue that prosecutors are the most powerful players in the criminal justice system and most to blame for bias.  But at 34 and just three years out of law school in 2016, was Bustamante really responsible for locking up black defendants for nearly quadruple the time of whites?

The Herald-Tribune and Times-Union set out to answer this question by measuring the influence of other players in the criminal justice system on cases prosecuted by Bustamante.  Those players include two powerful judges she appeared before; her former boss, Angela Corey — regarded as one of the toughest state attorneys in the nation; the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which heavily polices minority communities; and residents of the city’s black neighborhoods, notorious for gun violence....

Reporters and editors spent at least 500 hours over three months opening more than 3,500 felony drug cases by hand.  The result is a first-of-its-kind spreadsheet tracking Bustamante and 22 other prosecutors based on the race of defendants, points scored under Florida’s sentencing guidelines, time spent behind bars and other factors such as possession of guns or resisting arrest.

From these records, the newspapers created two sentencing indexes: one that measures leniency and another that calculates harsh punishment.  Those indexes reveal that 43 percent of white drug defendants in Duval County were shown some sort of leniency in 2015 and 2016.  That rate falls to 27 percent for blacks.

When it comes to punitive sentences, the trend flips.  Fifteen percent of blacks received severe sentences, according to the index.  That compares to 10 percent of whites.

June 21, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Judge Aaron Persky recalled by voters in response to lenient sentencing of Brock Turner

As reported in this Fox News piece, "Northern California residents on Tuesday voted to recall the judge who sentenced a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexual assault to a short jail sentence instead of prison." Here is more:

Voters opted to oust Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky. He was targeted for recall in June 2016 shortly after he sentenced Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a young woman outside a fraternity house on campus. Prosecutors argued for a 7-year prison sentence. Turner was instead sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting a young woman outside a fraternity house on campus. Critics say Turner's sentece was too lenient.

Persky maintained that he had followed a recommendation from the county probation department. The California Commission on Judicial Performance ruled that the case was handled legally.

The case gained national prominence after the victim read a statement in court before Turner's sentence. The statement made the rounds online and was read on the floor of the U.S. Capitol during a congressional session.... Michele Dauber, a Stanford University professor who led the recall effort, said the election "expresses clearly that sexual assault, sexual violence is serious and it has to be taken seriously by elected officials.” She added: "It's a historical moment when women across all sectors of society are standing up saying enough is enough."

Persky's supporters said his removal set a dangerous precedent. LaDoris Cordell, a former Santa Clara County judge who led a counter campaign against the recall, called the decision "a sad day for the California judiciary." Cordell added, that the vote implies if judges don't concede to popular opinion, "they can lose their job."

Persky has served on the court since 2003. He declined The Associated Press' request for comment late Tuesday. Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson will serve the last four years of Persky's term, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

I suppose it is fitting that a local judge recalled for a sentence being too lenient gets replace by a local prosecutor.  Regular readers know there have been lots and lots of prior posts here about the Brock Turner case, including posts in which I expressed various concerns about both the lenient sentence Turner received and about the campaign to recall Persky.  Here is a sampling of the prior posts this case has generated:

June 6, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Lots worth reading on eve of historic recall vote of Califorinia Judge Aaron Persky after his lenient treatment of Brock Turner

Regular readers surely already know a lot of the story and backstory surrounding the controversial sentencing of Brock Turner and the controversial recall campaign against the judge who sentenced him.  That recall campaign culminates in a vote this coming Tuesday, and that has prompted another notable round of media coverage.  Here are some recent media pieces with varying degrees of depth:

From CNN here, "Will voters bench the judge who gave a 6-month sentence in the Stanford sexual assault case?"

From the Los Angeles Times here, "Vandalism, threats, broken friendships: The heated campaign to recall judge in Brock Turner case"

From Vox here, "Brock Turner was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. Now voters may recall the judge."

From HuffPost here, "When the Punishment Feels Like A Crime: Brock Turner's twisted legacy — and a Stanford professor's relentless pursuit of justice."

I would especially encourage readers to find the time to read the lengthy HuffPost piece, which is particularly focused around Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber's work on the recall campaign.  The reporting in the piece stuck me as particularly thoughtful and balanced, and I learned new things big and small about the campaign and her efforts and goals.

Despite all this new reporting, I must note my own sense that there are still lots of angles on this case that are still not getting fully explored.  In particular, these articles and others only give passing mention of the fact that Turner was sentenced to a lifetime on the sex offender registry.  I have long speculated that this reality — which I believe was mandatory for his convictions — not only may have largely accounted for Judge Persky's short jail sentence, but also may have been a main reason Turner was unwilling to plead guilty and accept responsibility in the way the victim wished.  Ever since BuzzFeed published the full courtroom statement of Turner's victim (available here and recommended reading), I have always been struck by this passage: "Had Brock admitted guilt and remorse and offered to settle early on, I would have considered a lighter sentence, respecting his honesty, grateful to be able to move our lives forward. Instead he took the risk of going to trial, added insult to injury and forced me to relive the hurt as details about my personal life and sexual assault were brutally dissected before the public."   This passage still has me wondering about what kind of plea had been offered to Turner and whether the prospect of a lifetime on the sex offender registry was central to his decision to go to trial.

The CNN article linked above does make one (possibly overstated) point about the sex offender registry part of his punishment: "That's a penalty so burdensome that if Turner were to have children someday, he wouldn't be able to get near their school."  Of course, being on the registry for life means a whole lot more, too.  I continue to wonder not only if that reality influenced Judge Persky, but if other judges in California or around the nation regularly adjust their prison terms knowing the severe impact of the collateral consequences of sex offender registration.  I hear stories all the time of prosecutors and defense attorneys looking to "charge or plea around" particular crimes that carry sex offender registration or other severe collateral consequences.  If these collateral sanctions influence attorneys, surely they influence sentencing judges in various settings in various ways.  I would love to see more reporting on this element of the Turner case and Judge Persky's decision-making (recalling that Persky himself has been a state sex crimes prosecuot).  But perhaps only a sentencing nerd like me really cares all that much about this part of the story. 

In any event, readers can gear up for the recall election also by reviewing a number of prior posts here about the Brock Turner case.  I think it is fair to say that in these posts I have expressed various concerns about both the lenient sentence Turner received and about the campaign to recall Judge Persky.  Here is just a sampling of the prior posts this case has generated:

June 3, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Equal Protection Under the Carceral State"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Aya Gruber now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

McCleskey v. Kemp, the case that upheld the death penalty despite undeniable evidence of its racially disparate impact, is indelibly marked by Justice William Brennan’s phrase, “a fear of too much justice.” The popular interpretation of this phrase is that the Supreme Court harbored what I call a “disparity-claim fear,” dreading a future docket of racial discrimination claims and erecting an impossibly high bar for proving an equal protection violation. A related interpretation is that the majority had a “color-consciousness fear” of remedying discrimination through race-remedial policies.  In contrast to these conventional views, I argue that the primary anxiety exhibited by the McCleskey majority was a “leniency fear” of death penalty abolition. Opinion author Justice Lewis Powell made clear his view that execution was the appropriate punishment for McCleskey’s crime and expressed worry that McCleskey’s victory would open the door to challenges of criminal sentences more generally. 

Understanding that the Court’s primary political sensitivity was to state penal authority, not racial hierarchy, complicates the progressive sentiment that McCleskey’s call-to-action is securing equality of punishment. Derrick Bell’s “interest convergence” theory predicts that even conservatives with an aversion to robust equal protection law will accept racial-disparity evidence when in the service of crime-control values.  Indeed, Justice Powell may have been more sanguine about McCleskey’s discrimination claim had mandatory capital punishment been an option.  Accordingly, I caution that, outside of the death penalty context, courts and lawmakers can address perceived punishment disparities through “level-up” remedies, such as mandatory minimum sentences or abolishing diversion (which is said to favor white defendants).  There are numerous examples of convergence between antidiscrimination and prosecutorial interests, including mandatory sentencing guidelines, aggressive domestic violence policing and prosecution, and the movement to abolish Stand-Your-Ground laws.

June 3, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"Blind Justice: Why the Court Refused to Accept Statistical Evidence of Discriminatory Purpose in McCleskey v. Kemp — And Some Pathways for Change"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Reva Siegel recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court refused to accept statistical evidence of race discrimination in an equal protection challenge to the death penalty.  This lecture, on the decision’s thirtieth anniversary, locates McCleskey in cases of the Burger and Rehnquist Courts that restrict proof of discriminatory purpose in terms that make it exceedingly difficult for minority plaintiffs successfully to assert equal protection claims.

The lecture’s aims are both critical and constructive.  The historical reading I offer shows that portions of the opinion justify restrictions on evidence to protect prosecutorial discretion, while others limit proof of discrimination in ways that seem responsive to conservative claims of the era about race, rights, and courts.  Scrutinizing the Court’s reasons for restricting inferences from statistical evidence opens conversations about the principles on which McCleskey rests and the decision’s prospective reach.

A close reading of the decision has led some courts to interpret McCleskey’s restrictions on statistical evidence as a response to particular concerns raised by the record in that case, opening the door to statistical evidence of bias in other equal protection challenges in criminal cases.  At the same time, revisiting McCleskey and its progeny raises questions about the capacity of courts to redress bias in the criminal justice system.  Three decades of living with McCleskey teaches that it is important to design remedies for bias in the criminal justice system that do not depend solely on judges for their implementation.

May 30, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 28, 2018

Another helpful review of analysis of huge set of federal sentencing outcomes

In this post last week I discussed this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions."  I am now pleased to giving attention to this research in the New York Times through this latest "Sidebar" column.  His piece is headlined "Black Defendants Get Longer Sentences From Republican-Appointed Judges, Study Finds," and here are excerpts: 

Judges appointed by Republican presidents gave longer sentences to black defendants and shorter ones to women than judges appointed by Democrats, according to a new study that analyzed data on more than half a million defendants.  “Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar nonblacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges,” the study found, adding, “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”...

It has long been known that there is an overall racial sentencing gap, with judges of all political affiliations meting out longer sentences to black offenders. The new study confirmed this, finding that black defendants are sentenced to 4.8 months more than similar offenders of other races. It was also well known, and perhaps not terribly surprising, that Republican appointees are tougher on crime over all, imposing sentences an average of 2.4 months longer than Democratic appointees.

But the study’s findings on how judges’ partisan affiliations affected the racial and gender gaps were new and startling.  “The racial gap by political affiliation is three months, approximately 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap,” the authors wrote.  “We also find that Republican-appointed judges give female defendants two months less in prison than similar male defendants compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap.”

The two kinds of gaps appear to have slightly different explanations.  “We find evidence that gender disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by violent offenses and drug offenses,” the study said.  “We also find that racial disparities by political affiliation are largely driven by drug offenses.” 

The authors of the study sounded a note of caution.  “The precise reasons why these disparities by political affiliation exist remain unknown and we caution that our results cannot speak to whether the sentences imposed by Republican- or Democratic-appointed judges are warranted or ‘right,’” the authors wrote.  “Our results, however, do suggest that Republican- and Democratic-appointed judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race and gender given that we observe robust disparities despite the random assignment of cases to judges within the same court.”

The study is studded with fascinating tidbits.  Black judges treat male and female offenders more equally than white judges do. Black judges appointed by Republicans treat black offenders more leniently than do other Republican appointees. More experienced judges are less apt to treat black and female defendants differently.  Judges in states with higher levels of racism, as measured by popular support for laws against interracial marriage, are more likely to treat black defendants more harshly than white ones.

Prior related post:

May 28, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Amazing new empirical research in federal sentencing outcomes detailing disparities based on political background

This week brought this amazing new working paper by Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang titled simply "Judicial Politics and Sentencing Decisions." I did not want to blog about the paper until I had a chance to read it, and doing so make me want to now do dozens of blog posts to capture all the issues the paper covers and raises. The paper's simple abstract provides a hint of why the paper is so interesting and provocative:

This paper investigates whether judge political affiliation contributes to racial and gender disparities in sentencing using data on over 500,000 federal defendants linked to sentencing judge.  Exploiting random case assignment, we find that Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to 3.0 more months than similar non-blacks and female defendants to 2.0 fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges, 65 percent of the baseline racial sentence gap and 17 percent of the baseline gender sentence gap, respectively.  These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.

Each of these three sentences could alone justify multiple postings on just research particulars: e.g., I believe a database with over 500,000 sentencings might be the largest ever assembled and analyzed; I wonder if the data looks different for Clinton and Obama judges among the Ds, for Nixon and Reagan and others judges among the Rs; I fear many judge characteristics like prior jobs and connections to certain communities are really hard to control for.  In other words, just the scope and methods of this research is fascinating.

Moreover and more importantly, there is great richness in the findings of the full paper.  For example, the authors find "statistically significant differences in racial gaps in base offense level and final offense level by judge political affiliation."  In other word, the authors have discovered worrisome disparities in how guideline ranges are set/calculated, not just in how judges sentence in reaction to a particular guideline range.   Some additional notable findings are summarized in this recent WonkBlog piece at the Washington Post headlined "Black defendants receive longer prison terms from Republican-appointed judges, study finds."  Here are excerpts:

Federal judges appointed by Republican presidents give black defendants sentences that are, on average, six to seven months longer than the sentences they give to similar white defendants, according to a new working paper from Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School.  That racial sentencing disparity is about twice as large as the one observed among judges appointed by Democrats, who give black defendants sentences that are three to four months longer than the sentences they give to white defendants with similar histories who commit similar crimes....

They did find, however, that the gap between sentences for black and white defendants was smaller for more-experienced judges than for less-experienced ones.  They also found that differences between how Republican and Democratic judges treat black and white defendants grew larger after the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, which gave federal judges much more leeway to depart from federal sentencing guidelines.

Importantly, however, they found that growing differences between Democratic and Republican judges in the post-Booker era are due to Democratic judges reducing disparities in how they sentence black and white defendants.  Given more discretion, in other words, Democratic judges treated defendants of different races more equally, while Republican judges continued to carry on as they had before.

Cohen and Yang also found one important geographical effect: Black defendants fared particularly poorly in states with high amounts of population-level racial bias, measured here by the percentage of white residents in a given state who believe there should be laws against interracial marriage.  These states tend to be clustered in the South, and previous research has shown a similar racial sentencing bias in these states when it comes to capital punishment.

Finally, they also observed an opposite effect in how Democratic and Republican judges treated female defendants: While all judges tended to hand down shorter sentences to women than to men charged with similar crimes, Republican judges were considerably more lenient to women.  “Overall, these results indicate that judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system,” Cohen and Yang conclude.

Anyone with any experience in the federal sentencing system knows full well how judicial ideology may be a source of the persistent and large disparities in the operation of the system. But reflecting on my own experiences as a defense attorney and expert in a number of federal sentencing settings, I am eager here to highlight how the impact of judicial ideology may be impacted by the work of other actors involved in the federal sentencing process. I often sense that those judges (perhaps disproportionately Republican Appointees) with an earned reputation as a "by the guideline" type may not consistently receive the same type of mitigating information from probation officers and defense attorneys as do those judges known often to depart or now vary.

If readers are as intrigued and engaged by this new paper as I am, please say so in the comments, and I may try to see if I can encourage some folks to write up some guest-postings about this research.

UPDATE: A helpful reader sent me this link to the full paper in case folks are not able to access it via the NEBR site.

May 24, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day review of moms in incarceration nation

Growing awareness and concern with incarceration levels in the US are reflected in the significant number of articles I have noticed this week discussing incarcerated mothers.  I figure Mother's Day is a fitting day to round-up some of these recent pieces:

From The Crime Report here, "Mother’s Day Behind Bars"

From Teen Vogue here, "Mother's Day Needs to Be Inclusive of Incarcerated Moms, and Here’s How You Can Help"

From USA Today here, "In remembering her own mother, activist and attorney makes Mother's Day plea for incarcerated women"

From Jezebel here, "Mothers Are Incarcerated at Record Rates, Yet Prison-Nursery Beds Go Empty"

From Leafy here, "9 Ways to Help Moms Jailed for Cannabis"

From Yahoo here, "Mom serving 16 years for marijuana pens Mother's Day letter to daughters: 'I'm dreaming of your sleepy faces'"

May 13, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sentencing Project reports on "Incarcerated Women and Girls, 1980-2016"

The Sentencing Project has this notable new fact sheet with details on modern trends in the incarceration of women and girls under the title ""Incarcerated Women and Girls, 1980-2016." Here is how it gets started:

Over the past quarter century, there has been a profound change in the involvement of women within the criminal justice system.  This is the result of more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws, and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women. The female prison population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980.  More than 60% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.  Between 1980 and 2016, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016.

May 10, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 23, 2018

A recent accounting of "Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System"

Download (12)I just came across this notable recent publication which describes itself as a "Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System."  The relatively short report's introduction provides a flavor for its coverage, and here are excerpts from the introduction:

African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.  African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as could one of every six Latinos — compared to one of every seventeen white boys.  Racial and ethnic disparities among women are less substantial than among men but remain prevalent.

The source of such disparities is deeper and more systemic than explicit racial discrimination.  The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color.  The wealthy can access a vigorous adversary system replete with constitutional protections for defendants.  Yet the experiences of poor and minority defendants within the criminal justice system often differ substantially from that model due to a number of factors, each of which contributes to the overrepresentation of such individuals in the system.....

By creating and perpetuating policies that allow such racial disparities to exist in its criminal justice system, the United States is in violation of its obligations under Article 2 and Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure that all its residents — regardless of race — are treated equally under the law.  The Sentencing Project notes that the United Nations Special Rapporteur is working to consult with U.S. civil society organizations on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, and related intolerance.  We welcome this opportunity to provide the UN Special Rapporteur with an accurate assessment of racial disparity in the U.S. criminal justice system....

This report chronicles the racial disparity that permeates every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing to post prison experiences.  In particular, the report highlights research findings that address rates of racial disparity and their underlying causes throughout the criminal justice system.  The report concludes by offering recommendations on ways that federal, state, and local officials in the United States can work to eliminate racial disparity in the criminal justice system and uphold its obligations under the Covenant.

April 23, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Interesting new survey on crime and punishments from Vera Institute with a focus on rural Americans

This new Vera Institute blog posting by Jasmine Heiss and Jack Norton reports on an interesting new poll. The posting it titled "United Toward Justice: Urban and Rural Communities Share Concerns about Incarceration, Fairness of the Justice System, and Public Spending Priorities," and here are excerpts (with links from the original):

New polling conducted for Vera by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) shows that a 67 percent majority overall agree that “building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime,” including 61 percent of rural Americans.  What’s more, neither people in rural nor urban areas across America consider crime a major problem: only 27 percent of people living in rural areas cite it as a major problem in their communities, as compared to 26 percent overall.  And people in communities of all sizes appear disinterested in spending limited taxpayer resources on prisons and jails.  Building prisons and jails ranks a distant last (35 percent) as a strategy to improve quality of life — trailing behind measures such as providing more jobs and job training (91 percent); investing more in schools and youth programs (88 percent); providing more community-based mental health treatment (86 percent) and drug and alcohol treatment (83 percent); and emphasizing community-based violence reduction programs (78 percent). (See GQR’s memo for complete details.)

Vera’s In Our Backyards research adds a human dimension to these results and anchors them in the lived experiences of communities.  In Pueblo County in Southern Colorado, for example, voters have twice rejected jail expansion.  There are competing narratives about the beliefs underlying the rejection of jail expansion.  The criminal justice stakeholders who were proponents of expansion saw the “no” vote as a reflection of most voters’ general apathy about conditions endured by the people incarcerated and working in the county jail.  But many citizens who voted against expansion saw their votes as a choice about the conditions of the community writ large. As one person who voted against expansion put it: “They need a new treatment center, not a jail. This is a poor place; there’s a drug problem like all these poor places across the country. We don’t need a new jail.”...

Residents not only disapprove of investing in newer or bigger jails and prisons — they’re also concerned about the rate at which their friends and neighbors are being locked up.  A 40 percent plurality believes that the level of incarceration in their communities is too high, as opposed to just nine percent of people who believe that it is too low.  Moreover, 66 percent of people confirmed that they would be concerned if they learned that their community had a higher rate of incarceration than similar communities in their state; 55 percent of whom would be very concerned.  In rural counties, those numbers dip only slightly to a 60 percent majority of residents who would be concerned about outsize rates of incarceration; 45 percent of whom would be very concerned.             

Misgivings about the justice system’s ability to deliver on the promise of equal justice also became clear: 55 percent of respondents agreed that the nation’s justice system discriminates against poor people.  This was affirmed by 76 percent of people who described themselves as “lower class,” and 84 percent of black Americans.

Furthermore, when asked specifically about their perceptions of judges — among the most visible actors in the local justice system — a 47 percent plurality disagreed with the statement “Local judges are fair to all people, regardless of background,” including 63 percent of black Americans.  These perceptions might be understood in tandem with the overrepresentation of black and poor Americans in the nation’s jails: despite a narrowing racial gap, black people are still 3.6 times more likely to be jailed than white people. What’s more, an estimated 80 percent of people in jail are indigent....

As the movement to reverse mass incarceration and elect reform-minded candidates continues to gain momentum, it’s clear that the same energy that has propelled America’s biggest cities toward reform is infusing small-town America.  And while the nation’s smallest communities are often overlooked, they are poised to be a force for change.

April 20, 2018 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 19, 2018

NY Gov Cuomo restores voting rights to parolees via executive order

Restoring_Voting_Rights_to_NYers_on_ParoleAs reported in this local article, New York's "Gov. Cuomo on Wednesday signed an executive order granting parolees the right to vote in New York." Here is more:

Cuomo announced the signing at the annual convention of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. He decried the state's current law blocking those who have been released from prison but are still on parole from voting, saying it didn't square with the goals of parole and re-entry.  "At the same time, we're saying we want you a part of society, we want you to get back into the community," he said.

Cuomo said he had proposed legislation to grant voting rights to parolees, but it was shot down by the State Senate — leading him to argue the state needs a new Legislature. But Cuomo said he wouldn't wait that long.  "I'm unwilling to take no for an answer," he said.  "I'm going to make it law by executive order and I announce that here today."

Cuomo signed the executive order later Wednesday afternoon.  There are about 35,000 New Yorkers on parole who could not vote, the governor’s office said.  The executive order will restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration, his office said, citing a disproportionate impact of disenfranchisement on communities of color and links between civic engagement and reduced recidivism.

Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights upon release....

Cuomo’s office pointed to other criminal justice reforms he’s enacted, including raising the age of criminal responsibility and naming the attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-related deaths, arguing he’s long cared about the issue.

Republicans, meanwhile, ripped the order. A "dumbfounded" Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk County) blasted it as “illegal and horrific public policy.”... Flanagan said that those on parole, including murderers and rapists, are still serving out their sentences and should not be entitled to their voting rights. He said he would not be surprised if a lawsuit is filed seeking to block the order and accused Cuomo of trying to "expand the universe of people who are eligible to vote."

Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, ... accused Cuomo of being a dictator. "Just months before an election, with the stroke of his pen, Andrew Cuomo, plans to restore the voting rights for cop killer Herman Bell and Palm Sunday killer Chris Thomas and calls it 'justice',” he said. “But if the dictator of a third world nation threw open it's prison doors and granted voting rights to the criminals right before a reelection, we all would be appalled.”...

The New York Civil Liberties Union praised the executive order, but also said Albany should push forward with legislation on same-day voter registration and early voting.

Gov. Cuomo's office issued this press release yesterday with this link to his executive order.  The press releases stressed additional points in support of Gov. Cuomo's decision:

Parole voting restrictions have a disproportionate impact on New Yorkers of color, with African Americans and Hispanic New Yorkers comprising 71 percent of the population so disenfranchised. Civic engagement is linked to reduced recidivism and this action will promote access to the democratic process and improve public safety for all New Yorkers. The executive order is available here. "I am issuing an executive order giving parolees the right to vote. It is unconscionable to deny voting rights to New Yorkers who have paid their debt and have re-entered society," Governor Cuomo said. "This reform will reduce disenfranchisement and will help restore justice and fairness to our democratic process. Withholding or delaying voting rights diminishes our democracy."

This executive action will reverse New York's current disenfranchisement of individuals released from prison who are under post-release community supervision. New York joins fourteen other states and the District of Columbia that restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration. There are roughly 35,000 individuals currently on parole in New York who cannot vote. These individuals are participants in society at large, despite the limitations placed on them by parole conditions. They work, pay taxes, and support their families, and they should be permitted to express their opinions about the choices facing their communities through their votes, just as all citizens do.

Additionally, the current law keeping people on parole supervision from voting is internally inconsistent with New York's approach to voting for people serving sentences of probation. People on probation never lose the right to vote, but many county election officials are unclear about the distinction between those on parole and those on probation, often resulting in illegal disenfranchisement. A 2006 Brennan Center study reported that one-third of all New York counties incorrectly barred people on probation from registering to vote, while another third of all counties illegally made individuals show proof of their voter eligibility status.

April 19, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, April 08, 2018

George Will commentary assails felon disenfranchisement in Florida

I am very pleased to see this effective commentary by George Will under the headline "There’s no good reason to stop felons from voting." I recommend the short piece in full, and here are parts that struck me as especially effective:

Intelligent and informed people of good will can strenuously disagree about the wisdom of policies that have produced mass incarceration. What is, however, indisputable is that this phenomenon creates an enormous problem of facilitating the reentry into society of released prisoners who were not improved by the experience of incarceration and who face discouraging impediments to employment and other facets of social normality.  In 14 states and the District , released felons automatically recover their civil rights.

Recidivism among Florida’s released felons has been approximately 30 percent for the five years 2011-2015.  Of the 1,952 people whose civil rights were restored, five committed new offenses, an average recidivism rate of 0.4 percent.  This sample is skewed by self-selection — overrepresentation of those who had the financial resources and tenacity to navigate the complex restoration process that each year serves a few hundred of the 1.6 million.  Still, the recidivism numbers are suggestive.

What compelling government interest is served by felon disenfranchisement? Enhanced public safety?  How?  Is it to fine-tune the quality of the electorate?  This is not a legitimate government objective for elected officials to pursue.  A felony conviction is an indelible stain: What intelligent purpose is served by reminding felons — who really do not require reminding — of their past, and by advertising it to their community?  The rule of law requires punishments, but it is not served by punishments that never end and that perpetuate a social stigma and a sense of never fully reentering the community.

April 8, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, April 07, 2018

"Capital Punishment Decisions in Pennsylvania: 2000-2010: Implications for Racial, Ethnic and Other Disparate Impacts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable empirical paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by John Kramer, Jeffery Todd Ulmer and Gary Zajac. Here is its abstract:

A study of disparity in the administration of the death penalty in Pennsylvania by Kramer, Ulmer, and Zajac (2017) was recently completed for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness.  This study collected basic statistical data on 4,274 cases charged with homicide in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2010, and then collected highly detailed data from courts and prosecutors’ offices on a subset of 880 first degree murder convictions in 18 counties accounting for more than 87% of all 2000-2010 first degree murder convictions.  Utilizing propensity score methods in analyses of these first degree murder convictions, the study examined whether defendants’ and victims’ race/ethnicity (separately and in combination), predicted: 1) prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty, 2) prosecutors’ decisions to retract a motion to seek the death penalty once it is filed, and 3) court decisions to sentence defendants to death or life without parole.

Key findings were: 1) No pattern of disparity was found to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants in prosecutors’ decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.  2) Black and Hispanic defendants were not disadvantaged in death penalty sentence decisions relative to White defendants. 3) Cases with White victims, regardless of race of defendant, were 8% more likely to receive the death penalty, while Black victim cases were 6% less likely to receive the death penalty. 4) Prosecutors filed to seek the death penalty in 36% of first degree convictions; but later retracted that filing in 46% of those cases.  Moreover, a predominant pattern emerged in which a death penalty filing strongly predicted a guilty plea in these murder cases, and pleading guilty strongly predicted the retraction of the death penalty filing. 5) There were very large differences between counties in the likelihood of prosecutors filing to seek the death penalty, the likelihood of their retracting that filing, and in courts imposing the death penalty.  In fact, the biggest extra-legal influence on whether defendants faced or received the death penalty was where their cases were handled.  6) Public defenders were less likely than private or court appointed attorneys to have the death penalty filed in cases they represented.  However, public defender cases were more likely to receive the death penalty, and defendants represented by private attorneys were especially unlikely to receive the death penalty.  These defense attorney differences also, in turn, varied greatly between counties.

April 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Reviewing some modern felony disenfranchisement realities

Stateline has this new piece providing a crisp accounting of modern felony disenfranchisement realities and concerns. I recommend the full piece, which is headlined "Felony Voting Laws Are Confusing; Activists Would Ditch Them Altogether." Here are excerpts:

Disenfranchised felons are about 2.5 percent of the general voting-age population, but that number triples among African-Americans, according to estimates from the Sentencing Project. The disparity is starkest in the Southeast, where more than 20 percent of black voters are disenfranchised in some states.

In Louisiana, where an estimated 108,000 people are disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions, people aren’t allowed to vote until they have finished their parole. For many, that means decades.

At 72, Checo Yancy has been out of prison for over 14 years.  But he’ll be on parole until 2056 and unlikely to cast a ballot before he dies. He is a plaintiff in a Louisiana case that seeks to restore voting rights to people as soon as they leave prison. The case may be decided as soon as this week....

Activists in Florida collected more than 840,000 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that would allow people with a felony conviction to vote once they complete probation or parole. The state has imposed a lifetime voting ban on 1.7 million Florida residents with felony convictions.  Only a pardon from the governor can restore their voting rights. And in a separate suit challenging the state’s system, a federal judge called it “crushingly restrictive” and later ordered the clemency board to adopt strict criteria and timelines for reviewing applications.

Many who seek to change the laws say the restrictions are rooted in racism, noting that many states enacted them shortly after blacks gained the right to vote. Robert McDuff, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice, is also challenging the list of crimes in the state constitution that disenfranchises an estimated 218,000 people, “chosen because of the framers’ belief that they were disproportionately committed by African-Americans, and it was part of the larger effort by the framers of the 1890 constitution to eliminate the African-American vote.”...

Those who want to ease the restrictions argue that voting helps former inmates feel included and engaged in the community, reducing the likelihood of recidivism. That’s not the way many governors see it. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed felons to vote once they left prison. “Requiring convicted felons to wait before allowing them to vote provides an incentive to maintain a clean record and avoid subsequent convictions,” Ricketts said in his veto letter. Although the bill was reintroduced this year, a spokesman for the governor said his position has not changed.

In recent years, some conservative states have lifted other restrictions on felons, like those that bar them from receiving professional licenses or food stamps, hoping to reduce recidivism and save money on criminal justice costs such as incarceration, probation and parole.

Louisiana state Rep. Walt Leger, a Democrat who has sponsored criminal justice legislation, said the prospect of saving money can get both parties on board. Restoring voting rights, though, is still seen as politically risky. “That financial conversation is not necessarily a part of the right to vote conversation,” he said. “So for some it continues to be a soft-on-crime versus tough-on-crime issue.”

April 5, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 02, 2018

"Racial Equity in Algorithmic Criminal Justice"

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

Algorithmic tools for predicting violence and criminality are increasingly used in policing, bail, and sentencing contexts.  Although some attention has been given to their procedural due process implications, how these instruments interact with the enduring and complex racial legacies of the criminal justice system is presently not well understood.

This Article analyzes the questions of racial equity raised by these new predictive instruments using two lenses: constitutional doctrine and emerging technical standards of “algorithmic fairness.”  I demonstrate that constitutional doctrine is poorly adapted to addressing the range of racial issues that potentially arise with algorithmic criminal justice.  Instead, I demonstrate that the difficult questions of racial equity in this domain are best framed and evaluated though certain, but not all, emerging technical standards of algorithmic fairness.

April 2, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Examining gender realities and disparities in modern federal sentencing

Dagan-women-prisoners-11David Dagan has this interesting new piece at FiveThirtyEight under the headline "Women Aren’t Always Sentenced By The Book. Maybe Men Shouldn’t Be, Either." As this title suggests, the piece is about gender disparities in sentencing, and here are excerpts:

Official federal sentencing guidelines don’t distinguish between female and male offenders.  They often downplay or outright disregard circumstances that are common among women, such as the role of an offender as the sole caretaker for children or an offender having been coerced into committing a crime.  But judges commonly compensate ad hoc, which has led to women on the whole receiving much shorter sentences than men when facing the same punishments.

Critics say the sentencing benchmarks should provide more flexibility from the start — a change that would benefit women ... but also men in similar circumstances, whose extenuating factors may be even more likely to be overlooked.  “The notion that you simply deal with a complicated situation by saying, ‘Let’s ignore the complexity,’ is idiotic,” said former federal judge Nancy Gertner, now a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984 with the Sentencing Reform Act, partly in response to concerns that sentencing was marred by racial and geographic disparities.  The commission was charged with writing the federal guidelines to remedy those problems, and it updates them occasionally.

But people of different races and genders still fare differently under the guidelines. Race looms large, according to a November 2017 report from the sentencing commission.  It found that black men in federal court are sentenced to 19.1 percent more time, on average, than white men who, at least on paper, committed the same crimes and have similar criminal histories.  Women receive much shorter sentences than even white men — though the difference also varies by race.

That disparity grows even larger when the full scope of discretionary decision-making is considered. Prosecutors exercise at least as much power as judges in sentencing because they decide what charges to bring after an arrest.  A 2015 study from the University of Michigan Law School found that when such decisions are taken into account, sentences for men are on average 63 percent longer than sentences for women.

But women’s criminal involvement often looks different than men’s: They may be minor players in drug rings, are sometimes pushed into crime by a violent partner and often carry trauma from physical and sexual abuse....  More than 56 percent of the women in federal prison are there for drug offenses, compared with about 47 percent of men.  In drug cases involving multiple people, each defendant can be held responsible for the full weight of the drugs involved, even if he or she were far down on the organizational chart.  That approach is hard on women, who are often low-level players in such operations, experts said.

The guidelines do compensate by offering “role adjustments” for people who were merely drug mules, for example. But for many women, Gertner said, “those adjustments don’t begin to capture their insubstantial role.”  So judges, who must consider the guidelines but since 2005 have not been compelled to follow them, may be responding with lower-than-recommended sentences.

Also largely excluded from the guidelines is any consideration of how a defendant got into crime in the first place.  Yet research on incarcerated women shows that abusive relationships can put them on the wrong side of the law. Most women who assault their intimate partners have also been victimized by those partners, and they often cite self-defense as a motive.  Researchers have also turned up many cases of incarcerated women who reported being forced into committing a crime by threats of violence.

A broader history of victimization is also common among female offenders. When researchers interviewed 125 women awaiting release from North Carolina prisons, they found that almost two-thirds had experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse and more than a quarter had been sexually victimized in the year before they went to prison.  (Most studies do not draw explicit comparisons with men, but a survey of about 7,500 state prisoners conducted in 2005 found that while men and women had similar rates of childhood physical abuse, women had far higher rates of childhood sexual abuse.)

The sentencing guidelines set a high bar for considering such life experiences, and then only in cases involving nonviolent crimes.  Judges are also discouraged from factoring in the role of drug addiction except in extraordinary circumstances.

The upshot is that the guidelines “disproportionately disadvantage anyone who has a significant trauma,” said Christine Freeman, who runs an Alabama organization that provides lawyers to poor clients charged with federal crimes. The exclusion of life experience may have been motivated by an effort to ensure that people of higher socioeconomic status could not work the system to their advantage, Freeman said.  “But what it did was tell the courts that it was OK to ignore all these factors that obviously have motivated this situation and led a person to this point.”...

And the federal guidelines specifically discourage taking family considerations into account, declaring them “not ordinarily relevant” to sentencing. But they are certainly relevant to defendants like James who face separation from their children — and women appear to be particularly affected. Among federal prisoners in 2004, a higher share of men than women reported being the parents of minor children, but almost 80 percent of the mothers reported that they lived with their children just before incarceration, compared with half of the fathers.  Gertner said that judges might be particularly sensitive to the consideration that sending parents away is bad for public safety: “We know as a public-safety measure that (in) families that have been fractured by imprisonment, there’s actually a risk to the next generation.”...

Whatever contributes to the sentencing difference, there are few voices arguing that the solution is longer sentences for women. Instead, as the University of Michigan study said, “Policymakers could equally sensibly ask: Why not treat men like women are treated?”

March 30, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, March 26, 2018

High-profile New Jersey case highlights many challenges of sentencing drunk drivers who kill (and appellate review of sentences)

1360879220_amy-locane-bovenizer-lgThis local article, headlined "Former 'Melrose Place' actress to be re-sentenced -- again -- in fatal drunken crash," reports on yet another notable sentencing opinion from a high-profile state sentencing case. Here are the basics from the article, with the full opinion and follow-up thereafter:

Former "Melrose Place" actress Amy Locane who was convicted of killing a 60-year-old woman in a drunken 2010 crash will be re-sentenced -- for the second time. An appellate court ruling issued Friday lambasts the judge's lenient three-year sentence for Locane, calling it "striking."

"We expect our colleagues will agree that the sentence in this case, a hair's breath away from illegal, shocks the conscience," the appellate ruling states.

In August 2016, the state's Appellate Division ruled that the leniency granted by state Superior Court Judge Robert B. Reed in sentencing Locane in the Montgomery Township crash that killed Helene Seeman lacked enough explanation. Locane returned to court for resentencing on Jan. 17, 2017. Reed did not give her any additional jail time, angering the victim's family and leaving prosecutors bewildered.

It appears a three-judge appellate court panel is just as confused. "(Locane) went unpunished for the injuries inflicted upon Seeman, despite the fact she could have easily made alternative arrangements the night of the accident and could have easily avoided driving, was extremely intoxicated, and was engaging in risky maneuvers before the crash," the appellate ruling states. "That is an error we cannot correct."

Locane, who was driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit during the June 27, 2010, crash, was cleared of the manslaughter charge but found guilty of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.

Locane faced up to 15 years in prison. Reed imposed a sentence that was about a fifth of what she faced under the maximum penalty. He cited the former actress' two small children, including one with Crohn's disease, as a reason for the lenient sentence. Locane was out of prison in two-and-a-half years.

In a sit-down interview with NJ Advance Media in November, Locane said she hadn't touched alcohol since the crash. "I know Judge Reed went out on the limb for me and I'm not going to let him down," she said. "When someone sees the good in you like that and gives you a second chance, you don't want to disappoint them."

But Locane's fate this time around won't be up to Reed. "We are thus compelled to remand this matter for re-sentencing before a different judge," the appellate ruling says.

Locane's attorney, James Wronko, said the comments made by the appellate division about Reed "were simply unwarranted."

"Judge Reed is an excellent judge," he said. "We intend to file with the New Jersey Supreme Court to have them review the matter and then we'll proceed from there." Ironically, Wronko said, Locane was in Steinert High School in Hamilton speaking to students about the dangers of drinking and driving as the appellate court issued its ruling Friday morning.

Hard-core sentencing fans should take some time to check out the full opinion of the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division in NJ v. Locane, which runs 43 pages and is available at this link. Though a bit dense with Jersey-specific cites, this Locane opinion remarkably covers in various ways so many intricate issues of modern sentencing policy and practice.

Most fundamentally, this case highlights the challenging balance between offense and offender factors in sentencing, as the appellate court is concluding the trial court wrongfully downgraded the severity of the offense by being unduly moved my the defendant's remorse and rehabilitation. But is also, obviously, raises issue about the discretion of sentencing courts and review of that discretion on appeal. In addition, Sixth Amendment and double jeopardy issues arise in the Locane opinion. So too does the role of concurrent and consecutive sentencing, as well as punishment theory as it relates to sentencing drunk drivers (with a little hint to concerns about race, gender and class).  And the opinion's final paragraph highlights still other matters the opinion engages:

In the beginning of this opinion, we referred to the statements made by the victims during the State's presentation, pursuant to the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, N.J.S.A. 52:4B36[n]. Their comments dovetailed the sentencing goals embodied in the Code, which in this case were not met. In Liepe, the defendant was sentenced to, in real time, life. In this case, defendant was sentenced to a NERA term of three years. The lack of uniformity is striking and in derogation of the Code.

Put slightly differently, anyone teaching a sentencing class might readily build a number of real interesting exam questions around this case and opinion.

March 26, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"Gender Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

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

Across wide-ranging contexts, academic literature and the popular press have identified pervasive gender disparities favoring men over women in society.  One area in which gender disparities have conversely favored women is the criminal justice system.  Most of the empirical research examining gender disparities in criminal case outcomes has focused on judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that constrain judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining gender disparities in the plea-bargaining process.  The results presented in this article reveal significant gender disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system.

Female defendants are about twenty percent more likely than male defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced.  These gender disparities are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving serious felonies, male and female defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating gender disparities.  While female defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than male defendants with no prior convictions, male and female defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment.  These patterns in gender disparities suggest that in these “low information” cases gender may be being used as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

Building upon these results and the existing literature documenting racial disparities in criminal case outcomes, the article explores the intersection of gender and race in determining disparities in the plea-bargaining process.  The results indicate that gender and racial disparities complement each other in a way that yields additive effects. The charge reduction rate for white female defendants is more than double that of black male defendants.  White male and black female defendants experience similar charge reduction rates, in-between those of white female and black male defendants.  Consistent with the pattern of gender disparities documented in the article, these inter-group disparities are greater in cases involving misdemeanor offenses and defendants with no prior convictions.

Prior related post:

March 20, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 09, 2018

"The Reintegrative State"

The title of this post is the title of this timely paper authored by Joy Radice that has just been posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract

Public concern has mounted about the essentially permanent stigma created by a criminal record. This is no small problem when the U.S. criminal history database currently stores seventy-seven million criminal records, and poor people and people of color constitute a severely disproportionate number of them.  A criminal record makes it harder for people to find housing, get hired, attend college, and reunite with their families.  Yet these very things have the greatest chance of helping people lead law-abiding lives and reducing recidivism.  Scholars, legislators, and advocates have confronted this problem by arguing for reforms that give people with a conviction a second chance.  States have responded.  By one count, from 1994 to 2014, over forty state legislatures passed 155 statutes to mitigate the civil collateral consequences of a criminal record.  Although states have recognized that they have an interest in reintegrating their citizens with convictions, most people with criminal records cannot return to full citizenship.  The stigma of a conviction follows them for a lifetime, even for the most minor crimes.

This Article takes a systematic look at state reforms and integrates them into a more workable and effective whole, which I call the Reintegrative State.  It makes four contributions to the growing literature on collateral consequences and criminal records.  First, it argues that there is a state interest, if not obligation, to create an intentional and sequenced process to remove civil legal disabilities triggered by a conviction and to mitigate the permanency of public criminal records.  Second, this Article argues that reintegrating people with convictions back into society is consistent with the state’s interest in punishment and public safety, especially in light of criminology research showing that a significant number of people stop committing crimes.  Third, it critiques current state experiments with reentry initiatives as piecemeal, discretionary, inadministrable, and limited to a narrow segment of people with criminal records.  Fourth and finally, this Article argues that the state can and should be the external force that destigmatizes a person with a conviction by reestablishing that person’s legal status.  To do so effectively, the state must incorporate reintegration approaches throughout the criminal justice system — not just after sentencing or after release.  The Reintegrative State envisions a holistic framework for helping those with criminal records re-assimilate into society.

March 9, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration 1990-2013"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.  This Vera webpage provides this overview and a key takeway:

Overview

Recent data analyses on jail incarceration — taken from Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool — reveal that although significant racial disparities still exist between black and white jail incarceration rates, incarceration rates for black people are declining, while rates for white people are rising.  This report dives into the data on black and white incarceration trends from 1990 to 2013, and poses several questions for further exploration that might explain why these rates are shifting.  However, the report also argues that we need more data to fully understand the causes and consequences of racial disparities in incarceration — and to begin enacting more race-conscious jail reduction efforts.

Key Takeaway

While black incarceration rates have declined — and white incarceration rates have risen — over the past several decades, the lack of complete and accurate data prevents effective analyses of the causes and drivers of these trends and on racial disparities more broadly in the justice system.

February 26, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

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)