Thursday, July 02, 2015
Making the forceful (and effective) case that modern bail systems operate unconstitutionally
This recent Slate piece, headlined ""Is Bail Unconstitutional?: Our broken system keeps the poor in jail and lets the rich walk free," highlights some impressive efforts by impressive lawyers to litigate strategically modern problems in modern bail structures. Here are excerpts:
Anthony Cooper was going to jail because he couldn’t afford to buy his way out. After being picked up for public intoxication at a bus station in Dothan, Alabama, at about 1 a.m. on June 13, Cooper was told that unless he paid $300 in bail money, he would have to spend six days behind bars while awaiting a court hearing. If Cooper, who is illiterate and suffers from mental illness, had had the money on hand, he could have gone free on the spot. But the 56-year-old’s only source of income comes from his Social Security benefits, and he didn’t have $300. And so Cooper, like many down-on-their-luck Dothan residents before him, was locked up.
It was shortly thereafter that Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2008, entered the picture. Working with a like-minded Alabama attorney named Mitch McGuire, Karakatsanis filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Cooper and others in his position, contending that Dothan’s bail policy, which called on people arrested by local police for misdemeanors and traffic offenses to come up with fixed sums ranging from $300 to $500, was unconstitutional. Specifically, Karakatsanis and McGuire argued, by allowing some people to purchase their freedom while detaining the indigent just because they were too poor to make bail, the city was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Last week, in response to Cooper’s lawsuit, the city of Dothan announced that it had changed its bail policy: Going forward, people awaiting hearings in Dothan Municipal Court will no longer be required to pay bail upfront. The city will move to an “unsecured bond” system in which defendants only owe money if they don’t appear in court when they’re supposed to. While the lawsuit against Dothan has not been dropped — Karakatsanis intends to get a court-ordered settlement that will enshrine the new policy and make it semipermanent — it has already resulted in getting Cooper, along with an unknown number of other pre-trial detainees in Dothan, out of jail.
For Karakatsanis, co-founder of the nonprofit civil rights organization Equal Justice Under Law, Dothan is just one pot on a big stove: Since January, he has filed class-action lawsuits against four other small cities with bail schemes that don’t take into account people’s ability to pay, and he plans to file more. The suits are the opening moves of an ambitious campaign to abolish, on a national level, the practice of demanding secured money bail (i.e., cash) from pre-trial detainees as a condition of release. Taken together, they represent the first major effort since the dawn of the mass incarceration era in the 1980s to use the legal system to force reform in this area. “Nobody should be held in a cage because they’re poor,” Karakatsanis told me. “Detention should be based on objective evidentiary factors, like whether the person is a danger to the community or a flight risk — not how much money’s in their pocket.”...
Karakatsanis is playing a long game, picking off low-hanging fruit in the form of small municipalities that require cash bail for minor violations in an attempt to lay the groundwork for constitutional challenges he hopes to mount later, both in larger cities and at the state level. The reasons for this are strategic. For one thing, Karakatsanis’ small victories are useful to other reformers, like Nancy Fishman from the Vera Institute of Justice, who told me that in working with jurisdictions around the country on improving their incarceration policies, she and her colleagues at Vera can point to something like the Velda City settlement as evidence that cash bail regimes really do need to be overhauled. Secondly, bringing cases against cities that require cash bail for all misdemeanors, including very minor ones, highlights the unfairness of the practice....
That doesn’t mean Karakatsanis thinks people who have been charged with serious crimes like rape or murder should be able to walk free just because they haven’t been convicted yet — only that people’s fates should be determined as objectively as possible, based not on how rich or poor they are but on whether or not there’s evidence that says they ought to be detained. For now Karakatsanis is focused on taking incremental steps. “I’m looking to find other cities that want to work with us to change their practices without being sued,” he said. “But we’ll continue to bring lawsuits against cities and counties that insist on keeping these blatantly illegal practices alive.”
Sunday, June 28, 2015
"Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails: Recommendations for Local Practice"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Jessica Eaglin and Danyelle Solomon for the Brennan Center for Justice. Here is how the report is summarized:
People of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system. One in three African American men born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime. In some cities, African Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested when stopped by police. With the national debate national focused on race, crime, and punishment, criminal justice experts are examining how to reduce racial disparities in our prisons and jails, which often serve as initial entry points for those who become entangled in the criminal justice system.
This report, which relies on input from 25 criminal justice leaders, pinpoints the drivers of racial disparities in our jails lays out common sense reforms to reduce this disparity, including increasing public defense representation for misdemeanor offenses, encouraging prosecutors to prioritize serious and violent offenses, limiting the use of pretrial detention, and requiring training to reduce racial bias for all those involved in running our justice system.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Great new USSC report (with some not-so-great data) on "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System"
The US Sentencing Commission released last week this notable new report on titled "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System." (Notably, the report itself shows a cover date of May 2015, but I am pretty sure it was just posted last week on the USSC's website.) Here is how the USSC itself briefly describes its new (data-heavy) document:
As a supplement to the Commission's 2009 publication, this report examines more recent trends in the rates of alternative sentences and examines how sentencing courts use their discretion to impose alternative sentences.
This 30+ page report has lots of data about when and how federal judges impose alernative sentences in the post-Booker era. The data could (and perhaps should) be assessed in a variety of different ways, but I found at least some of these data realities somewhat discouraging. In particular, these passages from this USSC Alternative Sentencing report caught my eye, and they reflect data that I found at times a bit surprising and at times more than a bit depressing:
Although most federal offenders were not convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, alternative sentences are imposed for only small proportion of federal offenders not convicted of such an offense. ...
During the past ten years, the proportion of United States citizen federal offenders eligible for alternative sentences (i.e., those offenders with sentencing ranges in Zones A, B, or C and who were not statutorily ineligible) decreased slightly from 27.6 percent in 2005 to 24.6 percent in 2014....
In contrast to the moderate decrease in the proportion of offenders eligible for alternative sentences (with sentencing ranges in Zones A through C), there was a larger decrease in the proportion of those offenders actually sentenced to an alternative. The proportion of eligible offenders sentenced to an alternative decreased from 71.9 percent to 65.0 percent during that time period....
Though relatively modest, there has been a clear trend of a decreased rate of alternative sentences during the past ten years.... Rates of alternative sentences decreased regardless of whether offenders were sentenced within or below the guideline range.... Despite the increased discretion that courts have used to vary from the guidelines after Gall, the data seem to demonstrate that courts are not using that discretion to impose alternative sentences at a greater rate.
Black and Hispanic offenders consistently were sentenced to alternatives less often than White offenders. The data indicate some differences in criminal history and offense severity that provide some insight to this finding. Black offenders had more serious criminal history scores compared to the other groups....
[F]emale offenders were sentenced to alternatives at higher rates than male offenders. This difference is especially apparent for offenders with sentencing ranges in Zone B, in which 75.4 percent of female offenders were sentenced to alternatives compared to 55.9 percent of male offenders.
In general, alternative sentences were imposed for more than half of offenders in each age group. Excluding offenders under the age of 21, there was a clear trend of increasing rates of alternatives as the age of the offender increased, and this trend was consistent across the sentencing zones.
June 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 19, 2015
Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
The question in the title of this post is a question I have raised with some folks over at Crime and Consequences, and this new New York Times article reports that it is one that the Governor of South Carolina might now be thinking a lot about. The NYTimes article is headlined "Governor Calls for Charleston Shooting Suspect to Face Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:
South Carolina’s governor on Friday called for the 21 yearold man who is suspected of killing nine people in one of the South’s most historic black churches to face the death penalty.
“This is a state that is hurt by the fact that nine people innocently were killed,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley said, adding that the state “absolutely will want him to have the death penalty.” The governor, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show, described Wednesday’s shooting rampage as “an absolute hate crime.”
“This is the worst hate that I’ve seen — and that the country has seen — in a long time,” she said. “We will fight this, and we will fight this as hard as we can.”
Her comments came hours before the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, a white man who returned to Charleston under heavy guard on Thursday night after his arrest in North Carolina, was expected to go before a judge on Friday afternoon for a bond hearing, where he will hear the charges against him. Mr. Roof, who friends said had a recent history of expressing racist opinions, is widely expected to be prosecuted for murder, an offense that can carry the death penalty in this state. Greg Mullen, the chief of police in Charleston, has called the shooting a hate crime, and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility....
On Thursday, President Obama spoke of the shooting and lamented what he called the easy access to guns, an issue he has tried and failed to address with legislation. “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Mr. Obama said. He added: “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”
In the interview on Friday, Ms. Haley, a strong proponent of gun rights, deflected a question about whether the shooting would change her position on the issue. “Anytime there is traumatic situation, people want something to blame. They always want something to go after,” she said. “There is one person to blame here. We are going to focus on that one person,” she added, referring to Mr. Roof....
In downtown Charleston, there was already talk of the longterm anxiety the shooting might stir. “The question that I have is, is it going to happen again?” said Jeremy Dye, a 35-year-old taxi driver and security guard from North Charleston who said he knew three people who were killed. “It’s always going to be fear. People in Charleston are going to have that fear now forever. It’s not going to wash away. They’re going to be worried about, ‘O.K., when’s the next church going to get hit?’ ”
Because I share Gov Haley's view that this is the worst hate crime that the country has seen in a long time, and because I am especially eager to figure out how best to recognize and respect the real fear that this incident produces "forever" for so many folks, I think I would answer the question in the title of this post with the answer BOTH.
For many reasons, I think it would send an especially potent and powerful message of condemnation for both South Carolina and the Federal Government to bring capital charges against Dylann Storm Roof. Though I am not sure at this early stage of the investigation if I would want both SC and the feds moving forward with a capital prosecution all the way through a trial at the same time, I am sure that this is a kind of crime comparable in various ways to the Oklahoma bombing that prompted various dual state and federal prosecutions of the perpetrators. For me, the symbolic value and statement of having capital charges brought against Roof in both state and federal courts is worth seriously considering.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
New ACLU lawsuit assails public defender system in Idaho
This new AP piece, headlined "ACLU Sues Idaho in Push to Improve Public Defender System," reports on a notable new civil rights lawsuit in the Gem State. Here are the details:
A national civil liberties group has brought its fight to overhaul the criminal defense system for low-income defendants to Idaho with a lawsuit that says the state hasn't done enough to make sure poor people are being fairly represented.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends state officials have known for several years that overwhelming case loads, underfunded budgets and a patchwork system that varies county by county prevent defendants from receiving adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Idaho officials, including the governor and attorney general, declined to comment Wednesday on a case that continues a national push for the ACLU....
The organization has brought similar lawsuits in several states recently, reaching settlements in New York and Washington after the U.S. Justice Department intervened on the ACLU's behalf and state officials agreed to sweeping reforms.
The Idaho case names four plaintiffs who say they've spent months in jail without speaking to their court-appointed attorneys or that their cases weren't properly reviewed, and the organization is seeking class-action status so the case will apply to all low-income defendants in the state. The filing asks a state judge to order Idaho officials to implement a better system....
Lawmakers and a special Criminal Justice Commission have examined the issue, but the ACLU says meaningful changes haven't been made. For their part, legislators created the Idaho Public Defense Commission last year. Members have been asked to create standards, training programs and a data collection system and to keep lawmakers informed about any problems. The ACLU says that's not enough. "Astoundingly, the State failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system," ACLU-Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink wrote in the lawsuit.
Members of the Public Defense Commission were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the state. Ian Thompson, the commission's executive director, declined to comment on the case, though he said members will discuss it during a meeting Thursday.
A copy of the ACLU lawsuit can be accessed at this link via the ACLU website.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Fascinating account of how "how neoliberalism lies at the root of the carceral state"
The always interesting poly-sci prof Marie Gottschalk has this especially interesting new piece in the Boston Review headlined "The Folly of Neoliberal Prison Reform." The lengthy piece merits a full read; these excerpts from the start and end of the piece are intended to highlight the article's themes and strong flourishes:
Amid deficit-allergic neoliberal politics, everyone can agree on the appeal of budgetary savings. So now it is not just liberals going after mass incarceration. A group of brand-name conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and, most recently, former governor Rick Perry of Texas, has endorsed various budget-cutting initiatives that would reduce prison populations. Utah Senator Mike Lee, an influential Tea Party Republican, has delivered speeches on “the challenge of over-criminalization; of over-incarceration; and over-sentencing.”
This bipartisanship has fostered a wave of optimism; at last it seems the country is ready to enact major reforms to reduce the incarceration rate. But it is unlikely that elite-level alliances stitched together by mounting fiscal pressures will spur communities, states, and the federal government to make deep and lasting cuts in their prison and jail populations and to dismantle other pieces of the carceral state, such as felon disenfranchisement and the denial of civil liberties, employment, and public benefits to many people with criminal convictions.
For one thing, the carceral state has proved tenacious in the past.... If there is to be serious reform, we will have to look beyond the short-term economic needs of the federal and state governments. We can’t rely on cost-benefit analysis to accomplish what only a deep concern for justice and human rights can. Indeed, cost-benefit analysis is one of the principal tools of the neoliberal politics on which the carceral state is founded....
[T]he carceral state was not built by punitive laws alone, and it can be dismantled, at least in part, by a change in sensibilities. The carceral state was born when police officers, parole and probation agents, judges, corrections officials, attorneys general, local district attorneys, and federal prosecutors began to exercise their discretion in a more punitive direction as they read the new cues coming from law-and-order politicians.
That discretion could be turned toward lenience. President Obama and state governors have enormous, largely unexercised, freedom to grant executive clemency. Federal judges have considerable wiggle room to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines, as the Supreme Court confirmed in United States v. Booker (2005) and reconfirmed in Gall v. United States (2007). The Department of Justice could put an end to overcrowding in federal penitentiaries by calling a halt to the federal war on drugs. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could “eliminate thousands of years of unnecessary incarceration through full implementation of existing ameliorative statutes,” according to a report by the American Bar Association. For example, the BOP and many state departments of corrections could release more infirm and elderly inmates early via a process known as compassionate release.
Prosecutors may be the linchpins of penal reform. The late legal scholar William Stuntz described them as the “real lawmakers” of the criminal justice system because they enjoy vast leeway in charging and sentencing decisions. Attorneys general and district attorneys also set the tone and culture of their offices and determine how prosecutors working under them exercise their discretion....
Alleviating the root causes of poverty and inequality will take a long time. In the meantime, no compelling public safety concern justifies keeping so many people from poor communities locked up and so many others at the mercy of the prison beyond the prison. The demands of justice and human rights compel thoroughgoing change, whatever the cost-benefit analysis returns.
I am a bit less pessimistic than this piece about what "neoliberal" cost-benefit analysis might achieve in the context of modern sentencing and prison reform, in part because I think mass incarceration was fueled (and is sustained) more by "classical" notions of justice and victim-rights than this article acknowledges. I especially think that "neoliberal" cost-benefit analysis has an especially important role to play in ratcheting back the modern drug war. That all said, there is much I agree with in this article, and it should be read by everyone eager to think deeply about modern criminal justice reform goals and means.
June 14, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)
Saturday, June 13, 2015
"The Impact of Drug Policy on Women"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing recent report from the Open Society Institute. Here is its introduction:
In the public mind, the “war on drugs” probably conjures up a male image. In most countries, official statistics would show that men, indeed, are the majority of people who use drugs recreationally, who have problematic use, and who sell drugs. But punitive drug laws and policies pose a heavy burden on women and, in turn, on the children for whom women are often the principal caregivers.
Men and boys are put at risk of HIV and hepatitis C by prohibitionist policies that impede access to and use of prevention and care services, but women and girls virtually always face a higher risk of transmission of these infections. Men suffer from unjust incarceration for minor drug offenses, but in some places women are more likely than men to face harsh sentences for minor infractions. Treatment for drug dependence is of poor quality in many places, but women are at especially high risk of undergoing inappropriate treatment or not receiving any treatment at all. All people who use drugs face stigma and discrimination, but women are often more likely than men to be severely vilified as unfit parents and “fallen” members of society.
This paper elaborates on the gender dimension of drug policy and law with attention to the burdens that ill-conceived policies and inadequate services place on women and girls.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
"Invisible Women: Mass Incarceration's Forgotten Casualties"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Michele Goodwin now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Essay fills an important gap in social and legal policy literature, addressing the intersection of sex and mass incarceration as a serious blind spot in legal analysis. It considers two works, James B. Jacobs’ The Eternal Criminal Record, and Alice Goffman’s On The Run to make important contributions to the literature. Among its claims, it argues that Black lives should matter to human research.
In Part I, it critiques Goffman’s book as fitting within a paradigm that pays too little attention to ethical standards and moral considerations involving Black human research subjects. This is particularly relevant in light of Goffman’s hunger for one of her primary research subject’s “killer to die.” It argues that cognitive bias — perceiving poor, African American human subjects as already marginal, blinds researchers to appreciating the harms in which they may expose their subjects. Part II turns to the missing narrative of women and mass incarceration in the U.S. It sheds light on and analyzes the complex patterns that frame women’s subjugation to law enforcement — issues absent in On The Run. Part III analyzes the extra-legal and collateral consequences of policing women, including felony disenfranchisement, loss of housing, and the chilling impacts on their children. It unpacks, what Professor James Jacobs terms, the eternal criminal record, and teases out findings in his compelling new book of the same name.
Should bail reform be a key component of sentencing reform efforts?
Ever the sentencing obsessive, I tend to not focus too much attention on various aspects of criminal procedure that impact case processing before a defendant is formally convicted. But this new New York Times article, headlined "When Bail Is Out of Defendant’s Reach, Other Costs Mount," provides a useful reminder of the significant role that bail prolicies and procedures have on all other aspects of criminal case processing. Here is the start of the lengthy piece, with one particularly important line highlighted:
Dominick Torrence, who has lived in this city all his life, has a long rap sheet for dealing drugs but no history of violence. So when he was charged with disorderly conduct and rioting on April 28, a night of unrest after Freddie Gray was fatally injured in police custody, he was shocked to learn the amount he would need to make bail: $250,000, the same amount as two of the officers facing charges over Mr. Gray’s death.
Although a bail bondsman would charge only a fraction of that, normally 10 percent, for many defendants $25,000 is as impossible a sum as $250,000. “That’s something you get for murder or attempted murder,” Mr. Torrence, 29, said from Baltimore Central Booking. “You’re telling me I have to take food out of my kid’s mouth so I can get out of jail.”
He spent a month in jail on charges that would later be dropped. Defense lawyers, scholars and even some judges say the high bail amounts set for some Baltimore protesters highlight a much broader problem with the nation’s moneybased bail system. They say that system routinely punishes poor defendants before they get their day in court, often keeping them incarcerated for longer than if they had been convicted right away. “It sets up a system where first there’s the punishment, and then there’s the opportunity to go to court for trial,” said Paul DeWolfe, the Maryland state public defender.
Though money bail is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of jurisdictions, the practice is coming under new scrutiny in the face of recent research that questions its effectiveness, rising concerns about racial and income disparities in local courts, and a bipartisan effort to reduce the reliance on incarceration nationwide.
Colorado and New Jersey recently voted to revamp their bail systems, while in New Mexico last November, the State Supreme Court struck down a high bail it said had been set for the sole purpose of detaining the defendant. This year, the Department of Justice weighed in on a civil rights lawsuit challenging bail amounts based on solely on the charge, calling them unconstitutional. In several states, including Connecticut, New York and Arizona, chief justices or politicians are calling for overhauls of the bail system.
The money bail system is supposed to curb the risk of flight by requiring defendants to post bond in exchange for freedom before trial. But critics say the system allows defendants with money to go free even if they are dangerous, while keeping low-risk poor people in jail unnecessarily and at great cost to taxpayers.
For those who cannot afford to post bail, even a short stay in jail can quickly unravel lives and families. Criminal defendants are overwhelmingly poor, many living paycheck to paycheck, and detention can cause job losses and evictions. Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when cases are ultimately dropped. And people in jail who are not guilty routinely accept plea deals simply to gain their freedom, leaving them with permanent criminal records.
The United States leads the world in the number of pretrial detainees, according to a report by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the Department of Justice. An estimated half a million people are in the country’s jails on any given day because they cannot make bail. And even bail amounts much lower than those routinely seen in Baltimore can be prohibitive.
The sentence I have emphasized above surely correct based on anecdotal accounts from defendants and defense attorneys, but I would be especially interested to know if any serious and rigorous empirical work has been done to assess just how many non-guilty defendants (and/or defendants who could raise reasonable defenses at a trial) may take plea deals because they could not make bail and because a public defender tells the defendant they would necessarily serve a lot longer while awaiting trial AND face an even more sentence if they end up convicted after a trial. In turn, especially because even low-level criminal history can lead to significant sentencing enhancements in any future case, these bail issues and consequences may ripple through modern sentencing systems in a number of ways.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Effective review of effective(?) use of sentencing mitigation videos ... and concerns about equity
Today's New York Times has this lengthy discussion of a digital development in modern sentencing proceedings. The piece is headlined "Defendants Using Biographical Videos to Show Judges Another Side at Sentencing," and here are excerpts:
Lawyers are beginning to submit biographical videos at sentencings, and proponents say they could transform the process. Defendants and their lawyers already are able to address the court before a sentence is imposed, but the videos are adding a new dimension to the punishment phase of a prosecution. Judges “never knew the totality of the defendant” before seeing these videos, said Raj Jayadev, one of the people making the[se videos].... “All they knew was the case file.”
Yet as videos gain ground, there is concern that a divide between rich and poor defendants will widen — that camera crews and film editors will become part of the best defense money can buy, unavailable to most people facing charges. Videos, especially wellproduced ones, can be powerful. In December, lawyers for Sant Singh Chatwal, a millionaire hotelier who pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to illegal campaign donations, submitted a 14minute video as part of his sentencing. Elegantly produced, it showed workers, family members and beneficiaries of Mr. Chatwal describing his generosity.
As he prepared to sentence Mr. Chatwal, Judge I. Leo Glasser said he had watched the video twice, including once the night before. The judge, echoing some of the themes in the video, recounted Mr. Chatwal’s good works. Judge Glasser then sentenced Mr. Chatwal to probation, much less than the approximately four to five years in prison that prosecutors had requested.
Yet efforts like those on behalf of Mr. Chatwal are hardly standard. While every criminal defendant is entitled to a lawyer, a day in any court makes it clear that many poor people do not receive a rack-up-the-hours, fight-tooth-and-nail defense like Mr. Chatwal did.
Even in cities with robust public defense programs, like New York City, lawyers may be carrying as many as 100 cases at once, and they say there is little room to add shooting and editing videos to their schedules. “It’s hard for me to imagine that public defenders could possibly spare the time to do that,” said Josh Saunders, who until recently was a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, adding that lawyers there are often physically in court for the entire workday. He sees the humanizing potential of videos, he said, but “I would also be concerned that defendants with means would be able to put together a really nice package that my clients generally would not be able to.”
Mr. Jayadev’s nonprofit, Silicon Valley DeBug, a criminal justice group and community center in San Jose, Calif., believes that videos are a new frontier in helping poor defendants, and is not only making videos but encouraging defense attorneys nationwide to do the same. The group has made about 20 biographical videos for defendants, one featuring footage of the parking lot where a homeless teenage defendant grew up. With a $30,000 grant from the Open Society Foundation, DeBug is now training public defenders around the country....
LaDoris H. Cordell, a former state court judge in Santa Clara County who is now the independent police auditor in San Jose and who has seen some of Mr. Jayadev’s videos, said she would like them to be used more widely at sentencings.
“I’m very wary, and I was as a judge, of the double standard,” where wealthy defendants can afford resources that poorer defendants cannot, she said. “It is a problem, and what Raj is doing, these videos, is something that should be available to anyone who needs to have it done.” A prosecution, she said, is “usually is a onesided process, and now it’s like the scales are being balanced out.
Friday, May 22, 2015
"Who Are Woman Sex Offenders and Why Are They Treated Like Men?"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing piece posted at Dissident Voice written by Sonia Van den Broek, who admits at the start of the piece how she became a female charged with a sex offense:
For the first quarter of my life, I didn’t think much about sex offenders. Call it thoughtlessness or a naïve little bubble; it was probably both. This thoughtlessness might not be unique. But I began thinking about sex offenders when, at age 25, I was charged with a sex crime.
I had had sexual contact with my 17-year-old neighbor. I’m not proud of this and, if given the chance, would absolutely reverse that decision. But I slept with him once and joined the burgeoning ranks of women charged with sex offenses.
Here is some of what she goes on to say about this very interesting topic:
While women sex offenders are a low portion of the population, they do exist and in higher numbers than before 1994 (when the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act was established). There is a trend toward sexual contact with teenage males. Often, the women are motivated by a desire for companionship or have a sense that their current adult-age relationships are unfulfilling.
In other instances, the women are prison guards or case managers who have had sex with inmates. In the state of Colorado, any incarcerated person is legally incapable of consenting to sex, so that any sexual contact he or she does have is considered a crime. Once in a while, a woman will have sexual contact with an intellectually disabled person, sometimes without realizing that this person’s consent is not actually legal.
Women very rarely have sexual contact with children younger than 13. I’ve known only two women in this category and both were motivated by other factors: anger, a history of abuse in their own childhoods, resentment, and a feeling of being trapped. Most female sex offenders aren’t motivated by power and control, which, among male offenders, is the leading motivation for sexual contact with someone before the age of puberty. Actually, regardless of the victim’s age, power and control are a much more compelling motivator for men than for women.
Of course, I don’t condone this behavior in the least. I’m not saying that women who sleep with 17-year-olds should be given a free pass or skip blithely past the consequences. But I do believe we need to rethink the way that we treat and rehabilitate these women. We need to focus less on the scintillating sexual details and more on the emotions and needs that motivated them.
Here lies perhaps the greatest injustice: in the sex offender system, women are treated exactly like men. Treatment providers aren’t given special instruction in dealing with women. The treatment programs are written for men, using statistics about male offenders and past treatment models of men. Imagine! Although women’s motivations and victims are diabolically different, they receive the same treatment model as men who rape women, prey on young children, and commit serial crimes.
At the moment, the justice system hides behind the fact that there isn’t enough research into female offenders. This is partly true: women offend at a much lower rate than men, and so studying their motivations takes a little more work. But as the sex offender laws expand to include more and more actions, there are an increasing number of women caught in sex crimes.
A lack of evidence should never be the reason for poor rehabilitation. It should be the impetus, in fact, for working harder to understand why some women commit sex crimes and how to prevent it in the future. When I asked a treatment provider for data about the effects on teenage males of sex crimes committed by women, she had one study. It was a tiny example, too: 13 males from the Midwest. Only that. In a nation that routinely penalizes women for sexual contact with teenage males, only one study existed that documented this phenomenon. By contrast, decades of research and hundreds of studies have informed the treatment material and methods for men who commit sex crimes.
Research about recidivism rates is also based primarily on male populations and varies drastically. Estimates about recidivism rates for sex offenders range from 2.5% for another sex crime to to 43% for any crime at all. But since the law doesn’t differentiate among sex offenders, these studies are nearly useless. A woman who has sex with a teenager is in the same category with a developmentally disabled person who is an exhibitionist, and those two are in the same category with a man who raped and murdered a child. The lumping-together of sex offenses creates confusion even while it feeds public hysteria....
Treating sex offenders, especially women offenders, has become drastically un-therapeutic. “Treatment” revolves around complex rules, low self-esteem, and the constant fear of punishment. It does nothing to address the complex emotional choices that led people to their crimes. Rather, the justice system beats down already hurting women.
May 22, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Spotlighting who profits from "Piling on Criminal Fees"
Professors Ronald Wright and Wayne Logan have this important new Huffington Post article summarizing the important themes from their important article titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." Here are excerpts:
Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines.... The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice. That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.
In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis. We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice. As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines. This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do...
The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests. What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?
And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill. Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.
Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike. The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals. Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero. We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.
May 20, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, May 10, 2015
"Too Many People in Jail? Abolish Bail"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Maya Schenwar. Here are excerpts:
How can we reduce the enormous populations of our country’s local jails?
Last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York unveiled a plan to decrease the population of the Rikers Island jail complex by reducing the backlog of cases in state courts. About 85 percent of those at Rikers haven’t been convicted of any offense; they’re just awaiting trial, sometimes for as long as hundreds of days.
Mayor de Blasio’s plan is a positive step. Yet it ignores a deeper question: Why are so many people — particularly poor people of color — in jail awaiting trial in the first place? Usually, it is because they cannot afford bail....
This is a national problem. Across the United States, most of the people incarcerated in local jails have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial. And most of those are waiting in jail not because of any specific risk they have been deemed to pose, but because they can’t pay their bail.
In other words, we are locking people up for being poor. This is unjust. We should abolish monetary bail outright.
Some will argue that bail is necessary to prevent flight before trial, but there is no good basis for that assumption. For one thing, people considered to pose an unacceptable risk of flight (or violence) are not granted bail in the first place. (Though the procedures for determining who poses a risk themselves ought to be viewed with skepticism, especially since conceptions of risk are often shaped, tacitly or otherwise, by racist assumptions.)
There is also evidence that bail is not necessary to ensure that people show up for trial. In Washington, D.C., a city that makes virtually no use of monetary bail, the vast majority of arrestees who are released pretrial do return to court, and rates of additional crime before trial are low.
In addition to being unjust and unnecessary, pretrial incarceration can have harmful consequences. Not only do those who are in jail before trial suffer the trauma of confinement, but in comparison with their bailed-out counterparts, they are also more likely to be convicted at trial. As documented in a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, the legal system is substantially tougher to navigate from behind bars. People in jail face more pressure to accept plea bargains — often, ones that aren’t to their advantage — than do those confronting their charges from home.
Those who spend even a few days in jail can lose their jobs or housing during that time. Single parents can lose custody of their children. By exacerbating the effects of poverty, and by placing people in often traumatizing circumstances, pretrial incarceration may actually lead to more crime.
Bail also raises issues of racial injustice. A number of studies have shown that black defendants are assigned higher bail amounts than their white counterparts. This discrepancy is compounded by the fact that black people disproportionately live in poverty and thus unduly face challenges in paying bail.
Thursday, May 07, 2015
"Mass Incarceration: The Silence of the Judges"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece authored by Judge Jed Rakoff appearing in The New York Review of Books. Here is how it starts and ends:
For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today. It is time that more of us spoke out.
The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.
Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer. For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.
And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males. Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males....
In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality. More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt. And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out. Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice?
"Unequal Justice: Mobilizing the Private Bar to Fight Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new report recently published by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This new Crime Report piece, headlined "Acknowledging Bias in the Criminal Justice System," provides a helpful summary of the report's key themes:
Mass incarceration reform efforts rarely formally address racial disparities within the criminal justice system, according to a new report from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group. The report outlines systematic racial disparities in the criminal justice system and proposes strategies to address them. It was created as a result of a series of “listening sessions” on race and imprisonment.
The sessions included dozens of practitioners, experts, academics, national law firm representatives, and formerly incarcerated individuals, who gathered “to discuss the state of mass incarceration, reform efforts, and the role of national law firms in this movement.” The discussions near unanimous agreement that there is bias against black and Hispanic defendants in the criminal justice system.
“However, this fact is often absent in public discourse and almost never formally addressed in reform efforts. This is particularly troubling since racial disparities in incarceration are often the result of implicit racial bias and structural or institutionalized racial discrimination, deep-rooted species of dysfunction which can only begin to be addressed by the acknowledgement and recognition that it exists,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report also noted that there is a “huge gap” in the legal effort to change mass incarceration. “Simply put, very few organizations in the nation have the resources, expertise, and will to fight mass incarceration in the courts,” the authors wrote.
Tuesday, May 05, 2015
"What can one prosecutor do about the mass incarceration of African-Americans?"
The question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this lengthy and timely New Yorker article authored by Jeffrey Toobin. For many reasons (as perhaps the highlights below suggest), the full article is a must-read:
Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons. The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars — nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent. The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison. How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers? Could a D.A. do anything to change them?
The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops. Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation. Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison. And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.
Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion. In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing. According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).
Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety. “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me. “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time. Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era. Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.” Chisholm’s efforts have drawn attention around the country....
Chisholm reflects a growing national sentiment that the criminal-justice system has failed African-Americans. The events in Baltimore last week drew, at least in part, on a sense there that black people have paid an undue price for the crackdown on crime. Since 1980, Maryland’s prison population has tripled, to about twenty-one thousand, and, as in Wisconsin, there is a distressing racial disparity among inmates. The population of Maryland is about thirty per cent black; the prisons and local jails are more than seventy per cent black....
Chisholm decided to move to what he calls an evidence-driven public-health model. “What’s the most effective way to keep a community healthy?” he asked. “You protect people in the first place. But then what do you do with the people who are arrested?” There are two basic models of prosecutorial philosophy. “In one, you are a case processor,” he said. “You take what is brought to you by law-enforcement agencies, and you move those cases fairly and efficiently through the system. But if you want to make a difference you have to do more than process cases.”
So Chisholm began stationing prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee. “If people view prosecutors as just the guys in the courthouse, who are concerned only with getting convictions, then you are creating a barrier,” he said. He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case. “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them. And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”
May 5, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Monday, April 27, 2015
Is US push for sentencing reform progressive enough to embrace progressive "day fines"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article about fine punishment for speeding in Finland. The piece is headlined "Speeding in Finland Can Cost a Fortune, if You Already Have One," and here are excerpts:
Getting a speeding ticket is not a feelgood moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman. He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone. And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.
Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income. The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too. The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes. He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether....
The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending. Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines. A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?...
At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said that he could understand why Mr. Kuisla was upset, but that he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Mr. Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”
The size of Mr. Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines. Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation. But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question. “It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”
In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population. The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.
Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense. Mr. Kuisla, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport. Given the speed he was going, Mr. Kuisla was assessed eight days. His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, 6,559,742 euros, or more than $7 million at current exchange rates.
Someone committing a similar offense and earning about 50,000 euros a year, or $54,000, none of it capital gains, and with no young children, would get a fine of about 345 euros, or about $370. Someone earning 300,000 euros ($322,000), would have to pay about 1,480 euros ($1,590). When the “day fine system” was devised for petty crimes, Finland did not even have any speed limits on its roads. Those did not arrive until the 1970s....
Until he was issued the speeding ticket, Mr. Kuisla used his Facebook page largely to post pictures of his winning horses or the lobbies and bars of the hotels he owns. But the ticket seemed to focus his attention on Finnish policies that he said discouraged entrepreneurs, apparently a reference to the country’s progressive tax system and its high inheritance taxes. High earners can face an income tax rate of more than 50 percent. “Finland is now an impossible country to live in for people with a large income and wealth!” he posted on March 2.
But online comments in newspapers suggested a strong showing for the other side. “This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country. Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website....
Mr. Kuisla’s $58,000 ticket is not even the most severe speeding ticket issued in recent years. According to another daily newspaper, Ilkka, Mr. Kuisla himself got an even bigger fine in 2013 when he was going about 76 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone. That ticket was for 63,448 euros, about $83,769 at the time. Bigger yet was the ticket issued to a 44-year-old Nokia executive in 2002, when he was caught blowing through Helsinki on his Harley motorcycle and was hit with a $103,600 fine, based on a $12.5 million yearly income.
Both tickets were appealed and in the end reduced. Usually, appeals are based on financial issues, such as a one-time sale of stock that year. But judges have great leeway, experts said. Mr. Kuisla ended up paying 5,346 euros for the 2013 ticket.
Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of economic sanctions, and I have long thought that the Scandinavian "day fine" approach to punishment for lower-level crimes to be much more fair and effective than short terms of incarceration. I think it is fair to claim (and perhaps complain) that these kinds of day fine operate more like taxes than like traditional punishments; whatever label is attached, I suspect that defendants (especially rich ones) drive much more carefully in jurisdictions where an infraction is likely to have a real financial bite. Among other potential benefits, a "day fine" approach to certain lower-level "quality of life" offenses might prompt law enforcement to concentrate more of their policing resources in richer rather than poorer neighborhoods.
Perhaps needless to say, I doubt the billionaires who support sentencing reform in the US on both the left (George Soros) and the right (the Koch brothers) are likely to get behind a progressive "day fine" approach to devising effective alternatives to prison. But maybe all the folks now protesting police abuses in Baltimore and elsewhere might consider urging police department to adopt such an approach to police discipline (with the monies, I would urge, going to victim restitution funds).
April 27, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Senate finally votes on AG nominee and confirms Loretta Lynch by vote of 56 to 43
The GOP has finally succeeded in getting Attorney General Eric Holder out of his job by finally allowing the full Senate to vote on his nominated successor, Loretta Lynch. This New York Times article provides more of the details, and starts this way:
After one of the nation’s most protracted cabinet-level confirmation delays, the Senate Thursday approved Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. She is the first African-American woman to hold the position.
Ms. Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, was confirmed 56 to 43.
Her confirmation took longer than that for all but two other nominees for the office: Edward Meese III, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and A. Mitchell Palmer, who was picked by President Woodrow Wilson, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Republicans have found themselves in a quandary for months. They longed to replace Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and they agreed that Ms. Lynch was qualified for the job. But they opposed her because Ms. Lynch defended President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
What’s more, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and majority leader, had held up the nomination until the Senate voted on a human trafficking bill, a process that dragged on for weeks. The measure passed on Wednesday by a vote of 99 to 0. And some Republicans continued to strongly oppose Ms. Lynch. “We do not have to confirm someone to the highest law enforcement position in America if that someone has committed to denigrating Congress,” Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, said on the Senate floor Thursday. “We don’t need to be apologetic about it, colleagues.”
In the end several Republicans — to the surprise of many of their own colleagues — voted aye for Ms. Lynch, including Mr. McConnell.
Some conservative groups had called on Senate Republicans to block a vote on Ms. Lynch altogether because of her stance on the president’s immigration policies. Many Senate Republicans feared the party would face serious political repercussions if it blocked an African-American woman with strong credentials and enthusiastic support from many in law enforcement.
Opponents still forced a procedural vote before her final confirmation, an unusual requirement for such a high position. The nomination moved along easily, by a vote of 66 to 34.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Latest Pew survey data on death penalty opinions
This new Pew Research Center report carries the headline "Less Support for Death Penalty, Especially Among Democrats: Supporters, Opponents See Risk of Executing the Innocent." Here are some specifics from the report:
A majority of Americans favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder, but support for the death penalty is as low as it has been in the past 40 years. A new Pew Research Center survey finds 56% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 38% are opposed.
The share supporting the death penalty has declined six percentage points, from 62%, since 2011. Throughout much of the 1980s and 90s, support for the death penalty often surpassed 70%. In a 1996 survey, 78% favored the death penalty, while just 18% were opposed.
Much of the decline in support over the past two decades has come among Democrats. Currently, just 40% of Democrats favor the death penalty, while 56% are opposed. In 1996, Democrats favored capital punishment by a wide margin (71% to 25%). There has been much less change in opinions among Republicans: 77% favor the death penalty, down from 87% in 1996. The share of independents who favor the death penalty has fallen 22 points over this period, from 79% to 57%.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Mar. 25-29 among 1,500 adults, finds widespread doubts about how the death penalty is applied and whether it deters serious crime. Yet a majority (63%) says that when someone commits a crime like murder, the death penalty is morally justified; just 31% say it is morally wrong, even in cases of murder.
At the same time, 71% of Americans say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death. Only about a quarter (26%) say there are adequate safeguards in place to make sure that does not happen. About six-in-ten (61%) say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes; 35% say it does deter serious crime.
And about half (52%) say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes; fewer (41%) think that whites and minorities are equally likely to be sentenced for similar .
The survey also finds that Americans are relatively unaware about whether the number of death penalty executions taking place in the U.S. has changed in recent years....
The share of women who favor the death penalty has fallen 10 points since 2011, while men’s views have shown virtually no change. Men are now 15 points more likely than women to favor the death penalty (64% vs. 49%). Four years ago, the gender difference was much more modest (65% of men favored the death penalty, as did 59% of women)....
Support for the death penalty has edged down among whites, blacks and Hispanics since 2011, but wide racial differences persist. About six-in-ten whites (63%) favor the death penalty, compared with 34% of blacks and 45% of Hispanics.
Age differences in views of the death penalty continue to be modest. About half (51%) of those under 30 favor the death penalty, as do 57% of those 30 to 49, 61% of those 50 to 64 and 54% of those 65 and older.
Among religious groups, sizable majorities of white evangelical Protestants (71%), white mainline Protestants (66%) and white Catholics (63%) favor the death penalty. But those who are religiously unaffiliated are divided (48% favor, 45% oppose). In 2011, the religiously unaffiliated supported the death penalty by a wide margin (57% to 36%).
As with overall views of the death penalty, there are demographic and partisan differences in attitudes about capital punishment. The sharpest disagreements are in views of whether minorities are more likely than whites to face the death penalty.
Fully 77% of blacks say minorities are more likely than whites to receive the death penalty for similar crimes. Whites are evenly divided: 46% say minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, while an identical percentage sees no racial disparities. More than twice as many Democrats (70%) as Republicans (31%) say minorities are more likely than whites to receive the death penalty for similar crimes.
There also are educational differences in these opinions: 60% of college graduates say minorities are more apt to receive the death penalty than are whites, as do 55% of those with some college experience. But among those with no more than a high school education, 44% say minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death; 48% say whites and minorities are equally likely to receive the death penalty for similar crimes.
Monday, April 13, 2015
Judge Jed Rakoff gives provocative speech on mass incarceration and the responsibility of lawyers and judges
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable speech (made available in full here by Bloomberg BNA) delivered by US District Judge Jed Rakoff as part of a Harvard Law School conference about lawyers' roles and responsibilities. Titled "Mass Incarceration and the 'Fourth Principle'," the full speech is a must read in full for all sentencing fans. Here are excerpts providing a taste of why:
I want to build my little talk around ... the responsibility of lawyers to help create a safe, fair, and just society even when legal issues, in the narrow sense, are not directly at stake. I want to discuss that responsibility — which I will refer to here simply as the “Fourth Principle”— as it applies to lawyers and as it applies to judges...
Of course, even lawyers devoted to the Fourth Principle may have different views as to what societal issues are of such central concern that lawyers should feel a professional responsibility to speak out about them. Nevertheless, I want to suggest one such issue, and I submit that it is one that is so deeply connected to the administration of law that [lawyers] would have no difficulty seeing it as an appropriate subject for bar association resolutions and the like: and that is the issue of mass incarceration in our country today.
But I should mention at the outset that the relative failure of organized bar associations and lawyers in general to speak out on this issue pales in comparison to the silence of the judges, who, I submit, have a special duty to be heard on this issue. Indeed, the commentary to Canon Four of the Code of Conduct for United States judges expressly encourages federal judges to speak out on issues relating to the administration of justice in general and criminal justice in particular. Yet, for too long, too many judges (including me) have been too quiet about an evil of which we are ourselves a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today.
The basic facts are not in dispute. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The per capita incarceration rate in the U.S. is one-and-a-half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada. Another 4.8 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole....
And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color. Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are young African-American males. Put another way, one in nine African-American males between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently in prison, and, if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes. Another 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million U.S. prisoners are Hispanic males.
This mass incarceration — which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (the great majority of whom committed non-violent offenses) — is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular. These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders. They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders. And they required life-time imprisonment for many recidivists. These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison.
The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high rates of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to these laws. Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades. A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place.
But is this true? The honest answer is that we don’t know. And it is this uncertainty that makes changing the status quo so difficult: for, the argument goes, why tamper with what seems to be working unless we know that it isn’t working?
There are some who claim that they do know the answer to whether our increased incarceration is the primary cause of the our decline in crime. These are the sociologists, the economists, the statisticians, and others who assert that they have “scientifically” determined the answer. But their answers are all over the place....
Put another way, the supposition on which our mass incarceration is premised — namely, that it materially reduces crime — is, at best, a hunch. Yet the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous. This is true in the literal sense: it costs more than $80 billion a year to run our jails and prisons. It is also true in the social sense: by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons, many of who have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes. And it is even true in the symbolic sense: by locking up, sooner or later, one out of every three African-American males, we send a message that our society has no better cure for racial disparities than brute force....
But why, given the great decline in crime in the last quarter century, have most of the draconian laws that created these harsh norms not been repealed, or at least moderated? Some observers, like Michelle Alexander in her influential book The New Jim Crow, assert that it is a case of thinly-disguised racism. Others, mostly of an economic-determinist persuasion, claim that it is the result of the rise of a powerful private prison industry that has an economic stake in continuing mass incarceration. Still others blame everything from a continuing reaction to the “excesses” of the ‘60s to the never-ending nature of the “war on drugs.”
While there may be something to each of these theories, a simpler explanation is that most Americans, having noticed that the crime-ridden environment of the 1970s and 1980s was only replaced by the much safer environment of today after tough sentencing laws went into force, are reluctant to tamper with the laws they believe made them safer. They are not impressed with academic studies that question this belief, suspecting that the authors have their own axes to grind; and they are repelled by those who question their good faith, since they perceive nothing “racist” in wanting a crime-free environment. Ironically, the one thing that might convince them that mass incarceration is not the solution to their safety would be if crime rates continued to decrease when incarceration rates were reduced. But although this has in fact happened in a few places (most notably, New York City), in most communities people are not willing to take the chance of such an “experiment.”
This, then, is a classic case of members of the public relying on what they believe is “common sense” and being resentful of those who question their motives and dispute their intelligence. What is called for in such circumstances is leadership: the capacity of those whom the public does respect to point out why statutes prescribing mandatory minimums, draconian guidelines, and the like are not the key to controlling crime, and why, in any case, the long-term price of mass incarceration is too high to pay, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of societal values. Until quite recently, that leadership appeared to be missing in both the legislative and executive branches, since being labeled “soft on crime” was politically dangerous. Recently, however, there has been some small signs of progress. For example, in 2013, Attorney General Holder finally did away with the decades-old requirement that federal prosecutors must charge offenders with those offenses carrying the highest prison terms. And in the last Congress, a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders was endorsed not only by the Department of Justice, but also by such prominent right-wing Republican Senators as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. On the other hand, prosecutors still have discretion to charge offenders with the most serious offenses available, and they usually do. And the aforementioned bill to modify the applicability of mandatory minimum sentences never reached a vote.
As for the organized bar, the American Bar Association, to its great credit, has increasingly spoken out about the dangers of mass incarceration and, most recently, has created a Task Force on Overcriminalization to suggest alternatives . But no other bar association, so far as I am aware, has openly denounced mass incarceration, called for outright repeal of mandatory minimum laws, supported across-the-board reductions of statutory and guideline imprisonment levels, or otherwise taken the kind of forceful positions that would cause the public to sit up and notice.
And where in all this stands the judiciary? In some ways, this should be our issue, not just because sentencing has historically been the prerogative of judges, but also because it is we who are forced to impose these sentences that many of us feel are unjust and counter-productive. It is probably too much to ask state judges in the 37 states where judges are elected to adopt a stance that could be characterized as “soft on crime.” But what about the federal judiciary, protected by lifetime tenure from political retaliation and, according to most polls, generally well-regarded by the public as a whole?
On one issue — opposition to mandatory minimum laws — the federal judiciary has been consistent in its opposition and clear in its message. As stated in a September 2013 letter to Congress submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States (the governing board of federal judges), “For 60 years, the Judicial Conference has consistently and vigorously opposed mandatory minimums and has supported measures for their repeal or to ameliorate their effects.” But nowhere in the nine single-spaced pages that follow is any reference made to the evils of mass incarceration; and, indeed, most federal judges continue to be supportive of the federal sentencing guidelines....
Several brave federal district judges — such as Lynn Adelman of Wisconsin, Mark Bennett of Iowa, Paul Friedman of the District of Columbia, and Michael Ponsor of Massachusetts, as well as former federal judges Paul Cassell and Nancy Gertner — have for some time openly denounced the policy of mass incarceration. More recently, a federal appellate judge, Gerard Lynch of New York, expressed his agreement (albeit in an academic article) that “The United States has a vastly overinflated system of incarceration that is excessively punitive, disproportionate in its impact on the poor and minorities, exceedingly expensive, and largely irrelevant to reducing predatory crime.”
Perhaps the most encouraging judicial statement was made just a few weeks ago, on March 23, 2015, when Justice Anthony Kennedy — the acknowledged centrist of the Supreme Court — told a House subcommittee considering the Court’s annual budget that “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working,” adding that it many instances it would be wiser to assign offenders to probation or other supervised release programs. To be sure, Justice Kennedy was quick to tie these views to cost reductions, avoidance of prison overcrowding, and reduced recidivism rates — all, as he said, “without reference to the human factor.” Nor did he say one word about the racially disparate impact of mass incarceration. Yet still, his willingness to confront publicly even some of the evils of mass incarceration should be an inspiration to all other judges so inclined.
In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality. More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes. Basically, we treat them like dirt. And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out. Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice? We may be the Third Branch, but we have yet to learn the Fourth Principle.
Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Announcing his Prez campaign, Senator Rand Paul talks up liberty and (arguably) repeal of drug laws
Senator Rand Paul, the most vocal and consistent GOP voice pushing for federal criminal justice reforms, announced today that he is running from President. Here are a few excerpts from this transcript of his speech today that ought to interest sentencing fans:
This message of liberty is for all Americans, Americans from all walks of life. The message of liberty, opportunity and justice is for all Americans, whether you wear a suit, a uniform or overalls, whether you’re white or black, rich or poor....
We need to boldly proclaim our vision for America. We need to go boldly forth under the banner of liberty that clutches the Constitution in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other....
Love of liberty pulses in my veins not because we have beautiful mountains or white sand beaches, although we do, and not because of our abundance of resources. It’s more visceral than that. Our great nation was founded upon the extraordinary notion that government should be restrained and freedom should be maximized....
I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.
It is telling, and should be a bit disappointing to criminal-justice reformers, that Senator Paul did not make express mention in his launch speech of sentencing and criminal justice reform beyond the final sentence quoted above. Nevertheless, building off this line and also Senator Paul's past work on criminal justice reform, Vox has these two notable new pieces about what kind of reforms we might (and might not) hear about during the coming Paul campaign:
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Local Tennessee prosecutors pushed for female sterilization in plea discussions
A helpful reader alerted me to this stunning AP article about a stunning aspect of what some local prosecutors sometimes incorporated into plea discussion with female defendants in Tennessee. The piece is headlined "Attorneys: Sterilizations were part of plea deal talks," and here are some of the details:
Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.
In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn't go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.
Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .
Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or "deficient" were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.
"The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we're most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we've done in the past, and that's a good reason not to do it now," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn't heard of it happening before but didn't ask. Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn't have to resort to such invasive measures. "The bottom line is the government can't be ordering a forced sterilization," Funk said.
However, such deals do happen.
In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.
Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate's consent was lawfully obtained in every case ....
The assistant district attorney who worked the [most recent] case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.... Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.
Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization. "It's always been more of 'If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'" Lawson said.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Should states try harder to condemn and execute women to overcome death penalty's sexism?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary about the Jodi Arias case headlined "Why the death penalty in America is sexist." Here are excerpts:
It took only one juror to spare Jodi Arias the death penalty for the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008. Considering the United States has executed only 13 women in the last 40 years, a death sentence would have been highly unusual.
Women committed less than 10% of all murders in America between 2000 and 2010, a Wall Street Journal analysis of crime data found. Women defendants, however, only make up 2% of death row, according to a recent report by the NAACP.
Even fewer women actually get executed, Death Penalty Information Center executive director Richard Dieter told Business Insider. "There's just less enforcement of the death penalty at almost every stage for females," he said.
Two major factors contribute to the low number of women who get capital punishment: the nature of the crime and how juries view women in general. The death penalty is often used for killers who also commit other felonies like robbery or rape, law professor Victor Streib has previously told the LA Times. Many of the murders women commit, on the other hand, involve people they're related to.
While women commit about 10% of murders, they were responsible for 35% of murders of intimate partners between 1980 and 2008. Most juries consider these crimes of passion arising from disputes — one-time offenses, Dieter said. Because of the high rate of domestic violence against women, though, juries don't give men the same benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, most states consider killing a child an aggravating factor, or a reason for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Hiring someone to do the work could also land a woman on death row. "If a woman hires someone, there's a coldness, a calculation. It's different than something that arises out of an argument," Dieter said. Teresa Lewis, for example, plotted to kill her husband and stepson for the insurance money. "Instead of pulling a trigger on a gun, she pulled a couple of young men in to pull the trigger for her," prosecutor David Grimes told a judge at the time, The Washington Post reported. She was the first woman Virginia sentenced to die in more than 100 years.
But the second factor — the jury's perception of the "fragile" female psyche — can overpower aggravating factors. "It's just easier to convince a jury that women suffer emotional distress or other emotional problems more than men," Streib told the LA Times....
"These 12 people [the jury] are asked to see if this person has any redeeming qualities. And they often see their own mother or wife or grandmother, not someone who will continue to be a threat to society," Dieter said. "Jurors just see women differently than men."
Of course, most women aren't going to argue for gender parity in the death penalty, Dahlia Lithwick has written in Slate. Only 59% of women favor the death penalty compared to 67% of men, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. "For equality's sake, you think that women would want the death penalty pursued more often," Dieter said. "But of course, they don't."
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Highlights from AG Holder remarks at Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform
Thanks largely to the GOP Senators in charge of Senate procedure, we still do not yet know whether Loretta Lynch will be confirmed as the next Attorney General and thus we still have Eric Holder serving in this important role a full six months after he announced his resignation. Today, in that role, AG Holder gave this address to the "Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform." Here are excerpts:
[T]his country faces serious challenges—an excessive prison population that is draining our resources and devastating our communities; systemic institutional biases that disproportionately affect people of color; and an overreliance on incarceration at the expense of alternatives proven to prevent recidivism and strengthen our society. These are momentous and complex issues calling for urgent and concrete solutions and it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow the status quo to persist.
But it is equally evident that we have an unprecedented opportunity – even at this time of deep division and stubborn gridlock – to bring about a fundamental shift in our criminal justice system, and to act together to drive historic change. That opportunity is presented not only by the wide range of distinguished individuals who have come to this conference to speak out against injustice and speak up for progress, but also by the rare consensus emerging across the country. Recently, we have seen conservative stakeholders like Koch Industries and Americans for Tax Reform join with progressive voices like the Center for American Progress to form a new coalition dedicated to this cause....
In the last year, federal prosecutors have gone from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty in two out of every three drug trafficking cases, to doing so in one out of two, representing the lowest rate ever recorded by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Last year we also saw the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration while also cutting the overall crime rate, marking the first simultaneous national reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.
Of course, we also recognize that challenges to re-entry, and the likelihood of recidivism, can be exacerbated by an array of collateral consequences that make it more difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to get a job, to further their education, to find housing and to participate fully in this country’s democratic institutions. For example, across this country today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans – more than the individual populations of 31 U.S. states – are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions. Nearly 150 years after Reconstruction, when felony disenfranchisement laws were first widely implemented throughout the South to intentionally reduce the electoral strength of former slaves, 40 percent of these individuals are African-American – meaning that nearly one in 13 African-American adults is currently ineligible to cast a ballot. In three states – Florida, Kentucky and Virginia – that ratio is one in five.
These statistics describe a nation at odds with the promise of its founding, and in tension with its most vital ideals. They demand that we examine our institutions and reorient our practices to create the more perfect Union that our earliest citizens imagined and the more just society that all Americans deserve....
In 2011, while only 30 percent of Americans were black or Hispanic, the U.S. prison population was 60 percent black and Hispanic, a disparity that is simply too stark. But justice reinvestment policies can help. The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently examined data from three states – Georgia, Connecticut, and North Carolina – that have employed a Justice Reinvestment approach. And I am pleased to announce that today our Bureau of Justice Assistance is releasing a report showing that these common-sense reforms produced a marked reduction in incarceration rates – particularly among men and women of color.
In Georgia, since sweeping criminal justice reforms were enacted three years ago, prison admissions have fallen by 8 percent and admissions among African Americans have fallen by 11 percent. In Connecticut, the total number of people in state prisons has declined by 17 percent since 2008, while the number of incarcerated African Americans and Hispanics has dropped by 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively. In North Carolina, expanded access to substance abuse treatment and new supervision practices, among other crucial reforms, have led to a 21 percent drop in total prison admissions between 2011 and 2014, while African-American and Hispanic admissions dropped by 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. And in each of these cases, policies that reduced racial disparities had no adverse effect on public safety. In fact, all three states experienced a reduction in their overall crime rates....
We must reject the notion that old practices are unchangeable, that the policies that have governed our institutions for decades cannot be altered and that the way things have always been done is the way they must always be done. When the entire U.S. population has increased by a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent, it is time – long past time – to look critically at the way we employ incarceration. When the United States is home to just five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates almost a quarter of its prisoners, it is time – long past time – to reexamine our approach to criminal justice. And when estimates show that a staggering 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars and that the ratio for African-American children is 1 in 9, it is time – long past time – to take decisive action in order to end a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many individuals, degrades too many families and devastates too many communities.
That means more state legislatures must end felon disenfranchisement – and so many other barriers to reentry – for individuals who have served their sentences and rejoined their communities, and invest in alternatives to incarceration like drug courts – something I’d like to see in the next five years in every federal district in America. It means Congress must act to restrict and refine those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply and extend the Fair Sentencing Act so that no one is serving a sentence based on a disparity in punishment between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses that Congress, the President and the Attorney General have all declared unjust. And it means gatherings like this one must continue to bring together leaders and advocates, academics and public servants, from all backgrounds and circumstances, to renew our commitment to this vital cause.
New report documents huge drop in Colorado marijuana arrests since legalization
While the impact, both good or bad, of marijuana law reform is now widely discussed and debated, there is still relatively little hard reliable data about the public health and economic consequences of these reforms. But this new report from the Drug Policy Alliance, headlined "Marijuana Arrests in Colorado After the Passage of Amendment 64," highlights that legalization in one state has had a profound impact on arrest data. This DPA press release provides an overview and summary of the report, and here are excerpts:
The report compiles and analyzes data from the county judicial districts, as well as various law enforcement agencies via the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The report’s key findings include:
- Since 2010, marijuana possession charges are down by more than 90%, marijuana cultivation charges are down by 96%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 99%.
- The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased by more than 25,000 since 2010 – from 30,428 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014.
- According to raw data from the NIBRS, drug-related incidents are down 23% since 2010, based on a 53% drop in marijuana-related incidents....
- Marijuana distribution charges for young men of color did not increase, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a ‘net-widening’ effect following legalization. The black rate for distribution incidents dropped from 87 per 100,000 in 2012 to 25 per 100,000 in 2014.
- Racial disparities for still-illegal and mostly petty charges persist for black people when compared to white people, primarily due to the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010.
- The report also reveals a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests, presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when marijuana itself is no longer criminalized.
“It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana,” said Art Way, Colorado State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.”
“The overall decrease in arrests, charges and cases is enormously beneficial to communities of color who bore the brunt of marijuana prohibition prior to the passage of Amendment 64,” said Rosemary Harris Lytle, Regional Chair of the NAACP. “However, we are concerned with the rise in disparity for the charge of public consumption and challenge law enforcement to ensure this reality is not discriminatory in any manner.”
“What is often overlooked concerning marijuana legalization is that it is first and foremost a criminal justice reform,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado. “This report reminds us of how law enforcement and our judiciary are now able to better allocate time and energy for more pressing concerns.”
Some prior related posts:
- "The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
- New report details arrests and NYC police time spent on low-level marijuana offenses
- "Marijuana Possession Arrests Exceed Violent Crime Arrests"
- Would legalizing marijuana be a huge step toward a less racialized criminal justice system?
- "The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests" (huge ALCU report on racial disparities in marijuana arrests)
March 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, March 15, 2015
Senator Paul continues to emphasize criminal justice reform with minority audience
This new New York Times article, headlined "Rand Paul Focuses on Criminal Justice in Talk to Black Students," details the continued efforts by one prominent Senator to preach the need for criminal justice reform to groups historically distrustful of messages delivered by the GOP. Here are the details:
Senator Rand Paul laid out his vision on Friday for a legal system that makes it easier for people with criminal records to get jobs and to vote, telling students at a historically black college here that he believes there are still “two Americas” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said almost a half century ago.
Mindful of his audience and, no doubt, his appearance two years ago at Howard University when the mostly black audience was often skeptical of what he had to say, Mr. Paul, a Republican and a likely candidate for president, chose his words more carefully this time during his visit to Bowie State University....
Mr. Paul tried to avoid appearing presumptuous and at one point corrected himself when answering a question about the progress that black Americans have made. “I think sometimes we think we haven’t gone very far when I think we’ve come a long way,” he said, pausing to tweak his wording. “And I say ‘we’ collectively; obviously it’s not me.”...
There were a few awkward moments at the Howard event, like when he told the students that people had told him he was “either brave or crazy” to be there.
But on Friday he kept his remarks focused on correcting inequities in the criminal justice system and expanding economic opportunity. He repeatedly condemned the harsh drug sentencing laws that put so many minority defendants behind bars. “If you smoked some pot or grew some marijuana plants in college, you ought to get a chance,” he said.
Mr. Paul also made a case for expunging criminal records of people who have been convicted of nonviolent felonies so they can find employment more easily, a stance that puts him at odds with many in his party. “As Republicans we’re big on saying, ‘Well, we don’t want people permanently on welfare; we want them to transition from welfare to a job,’” he said. “People say, ‘Well, how am I supposed to get a job? I was a convicted felon.’”...
Mr. Paul, of Kentucky, has made an effort to reach out to AfricanAmerican constituencies in the past few years, drawing crowds that have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates but are curious about his libertarian brand of conservatism. He spoke at the Urban League’s summer conference in Cincinnati last summer and visited Ferguson, Mo., when protests broke out after a police officer shot an unarmed black man. He has also met with black pastors in Southern cities like Memphis and Louisville, Ky.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
- Others starting to appreciate "Rand Paul, Criminal Justice Hero"
- "4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"
- Senators Paul and Booker celebrate Festivus with sentencing and drug war reform tweeting
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- "The most interesting part of [Rand Paul's] speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform."
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
Sunday, March 08, 2015
Stirring (sentencing) civil rights sentiments in Selma speech
The events in Selma, Alabama a half century ago has led to a modern weekend of discussion and reflection on the achievements and work still to be done in the never-ending struggle for civil rights for all. President Obama, whom even his toughest critics will admit can give a good speech, spoke to these matters in a speech at an historic location in Selma. The full text of the speech is worth a read, and these sentiments from the text of President Obama's remarks which have obvious sentencing significance:
This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
With such effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some. Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on — the idea that police officers are members of the communities they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland just want the same thing young people here marched for — the protection of the law. Together, we can address unfair sentencing, and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and workers, and neighbors.
- Should criminal justice reform be the new civil rights movement?
- Reflecting on race and criminal justice realities to honor MLK's legacy
- NPR's Fresh Air celebrates MLK Day by discussing The New Jim Crow
- Fittingly for MLK day, Prez Obama laments class and race disparities from pot prohibition
- Do (and should) marijuana reform advocates consider themselves civil rights activists like MLK?
- MLK marijuana mash-up: "I Have A Dream..." we are free at last from pot prohibition
Thursday, March 05, 2015
Despite spending many millions, Arizona prosecutors again fail to convince a sentencing jury to send Jodi Arias to death row
I have been interested in the Jodi Arias case from Arizona since she was found guilty of murder two years ago, not principally because of all the media attention her case generated, but because of the extraordinary efforts Arizona prosecutors were prepared to make AT TAXPAYER EXPENSE to try to get Arias on to the state's death row. Last year in this post, I guessed that Arizona prosecutors were spending more than $5,000,000 in taxpayer funds in their effort to have Jodi Arias sent and kept on death row rather than in another part of Arizona's prison system.
As this new AP report from Arizona highlights, all those taxpayer costs created by the prosecutors in this one state capital case have now officially achieved nothing:
Convicted murderer Jodi Arias was spared the death penalty Thursday after jurors deadlocked on whether she should be executed or sent to prison for life for killing her lover in 2008.
It marked the second time a jury was unable to reach a decision on her punishment — a disappointment for prosecutors who argued for the death penalty during a nearly seven-year legal battle. It means the judge will sentence Arias on April 13 to either life in prison or a life term with the possibility of release after 25 years.
Family members of victim Travis Alexander wept when the judge announced that jurors couldn't reach a decision after deliberating for about 26 hours over five days. The family sobbed as they left the courtroom, with one covering her eyes as she walked out. Arias' mother, Sandra, received a hug from a friend moments after the verdict was read....
Arias' 2013 trial became a sensation with its tawdry revelations about her relationship with Alexander and that she shot him in the head and slit his throat so deeply that he was nearly decapitated. It was broadcast live and TV audiences heard how Arias had stabbed and slashed Alexander nearly 30 times then left his body in his shower at his suburban Phoenix home, where friends found him about five days later.
The jury convicted her of first-degree murder but deadlocked on punishment, prompting the sentencing retrial that began in October. Prosecutors say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who decided to seek the death penalty a second time, told reporters that "regret is a place in the past I can't afford to live in."
Arias initially courted the spotlight after her arrest, granting interviews to "48 Hours" and "Inside Edition." She testified for 18 days at her first trial, describing her abusive childhood, cheating boyfriends, relationship with Alexander and her contention that he was physically abusive. She did more media interviews after the jury convicted her of murder.
Spectators lined up in the middle of the night to get a coveted seat in the courtroom for the first trial. However, attention was dampened during the penalty retrial after the judge ruled cameras could record the proceedings but nothing could be broadcast until after the verdict.
The proceedings revealed few new details about the crime and dragged on months longer than expected amid a series of expert witnesses and a surprising late October decision by Judge Sherry Stephens to remove reporters and spectators from the courtroom so Arias could testify in private. A higher court halted the testimony on its second day after complaints from news organizations. At the end of the retrial, Arias passed up a chance to address the jury. She said she wanted to make such comments but refused to do so unless the courtroom was cleared. She cited potential personal safety threats in declining to speak in the open courtroom.
I am not at all surprised to hear the Arizona prosecutors now "say they don't regret trying again to send Arias to death row." After all, these prosecutors got the opportunity to work for two more years on a high-profile and exciting case and they likely will not suffer any professional consequences for wasting an extraordinary amount of taxpayer resources now twice failing to convince a jury that Jodi Arias ought to die for her crimes.
Especially because, as I said before in prior posts, it was extremely unlikely Arias would ever be executed even if she had been sentenced to death, this case is now for me exhibit #1 in the extraordinary misallocation of resources that the death penalty can often engender because prosecutors generally get all the political benefits and suffer none of the true economic costs of capital punishment systems. The folks who should really regret how this case has been handed are crime victims and others in need of social services and programming in Arizona. As I noted in a prior post, the Arizona Crime Victims Programs — which is under the authority of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission and "provides support to all agencies that assist and compensate the victims of crime" — has an annual budget of around $5,000,000. I feel pretty confident a lot more good throughout Arizona could have been done if state tax resources were allocated to doubling the funds for crime victim programming rather than enabling prosecutors to keep seeking a death verdict for Jodi Arias (which itself was never likely to get carried out).
Some prior posts on the Arias case:
- After high-profile state murder conviction, Jodi Arias claims she wants death penalty over LWOP
- Are there (and/or should there be) special death penalty rules for female murderers?
- Arizona jurors quickly make finding for Jodi Arias to be formally death eligible
- Jodi Arias now pleading for a life sentence before sentencing jury
- Arizona prosecutors say they are still planning to try again to get Jodi Arias sentenced to death
- Noting the high costs of seeking to give Jodi Arias death penalty fame rather than LWOP pain
- Arizona poised to take second (costly) run at death sentence for Jodi Arias
- Arizona prosecutors getting started at second (costly) run at death sentence for Jodi Arias
March 5, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack
Monday, March 02, 2015
"A Slow Motion Lynching? The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Doing Kimbrough Justice, and a Response to Two Third Circuit Judges"
The provocative title of this post is the provocative title of this new article authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A federal district court judge who has sentenced more than 4000 defendants reflects on federal sentencing and its role in mass incarceration. The focus of the article is on federal sentencing in crack cocaine cases and policy disagreements with the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in drug trafficking cases. The article explores the U.S. Supreme Court cases in Kimbrough v. United States, United States v. Spears, and Pepper v. United States, the only U.S. Supreme Court cases that address sentencing judges’ policy disagreements with the guidelines. Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, the author was the sentencing judge in both Spears and Pepper, where he was reversed a whopping 5 times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (twice by an en banc court) before both defendants’ sentencing positions were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The article takes exception to two Third Circuit judges who have argued in law review articles that federal sentencing judges should be concerned about "legislative backlash" if they sentence outside the now advisory guidelines. In the arc of the history of federal sentencing and its impact on mass incarceration, we are perched at a cresting point where the gravity of reason and our Nation’s experience with mass incarceration hopefully will pull towards greater justice in sentencing.
Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row
As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:
After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.
Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said
Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.
The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.
Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.
One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.
Sunday, March 01, 2015
Must one study lynchings past to understand US punishments present?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this article discussing a recent speech by a prominent civil rights activist. The piece is headlined "Angela Davis equates lynchings with prisons, death penalty," and here are excerpts:
Iconic civil rights leader Angela Davis opened her lecture Wednesday evening at Purdue University by evoking Black History Month — setting the stage for a moving presentation that connected past stories of oppression to today's movements for freedom....
During her talk at Purdue, Davis tied the historical tradition of the black struggle against oppression to multiple contemporary movements against racist violence, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and able-ism. "The black radical tradition can be claimed by anyone who believes that freedom is a worthy cause and that the struggle for freedom links our contemporary aspirations with many struggles of the past," she said.
She connected the history of black lynchings to today's issues of mass incarceration and capital punishment. "The death penalty's roots are sunk deep into the legacy of lynching," she said. "… If we fail to take into account the central role of lynching, then we will never truly understand the way racism worked its way into the criminal justice system."
Friday, February 27, 2015
"A Second Chance: Education's Role in Reversing Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic commentary by Irwin Weathersby. Here is how it starts:
The American Journal of Men’s Health published a study this month titled "I Want a Second Chance" that explores the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated men as they seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of their children and society. The research questions of the study sought to illustrate the unique circumstances of African American men: "What are the daily experiences of reentry for African American men? What identities are African American men in reentry negotiating? What are the experiences of fatherhood for African American men in reentry? What are the experiences of their participation in a reentry program? The findings of the focus group featured in the study reveal a collective desire to provide for themselves and to be looked upon with dignity so that their lives can regain value. At the core of what they want most is simply to be regarded differently. As an educator who has worked closely with this population, I am convinced that their desires can be achieved through education: Formerly incarcerated men must learn to embrace methods of self-improvement, and Americans must learn to empathize and restore their citizenship.
Imagine the impact of this not-so-radical idea — if our American gaze of formerly incarcerated black men was altered — at a time when this country is fractured among race and class lines that are as bright and conspicuous as new scars. Just this month another politician has become embroiled in controversy after an off-color portrait of the president; another unarmed black man was killed at the hands of a police officer; another wrongfully convicted black man was awarded millions of dollars in retribution after his sentence was vacated; another black man’s family was awarded millions of dollars in a settlement for his wrongful death while incarcerated; another formerly incarcerated black man was likely denied a job due to the 50-percent decrease in callback rate for applicants with criminal records. Another day of Black History month has borne witness to our persistent troubles.
According to an article written by Amy L. Solomon and published by the National Institute of Justice, an estimated 13 million people in the U.S. are admitted to and released from local jails. And more than 700,000 people are admitted to and released from state and local prisons each year, with men accounting for more than three-fourths of those arrested. The numbers are even more staggering for African Americans, who comprise almost 40 percent of the entire prison population. But even more troubling is the fact that, on any given day, one in 15 black men are in prison. And among young African American men — those ages 20 through 34 — the ratio lowers further to one in nine. "In fact, young, male African American high-school dropouts have higher odds of being in jail than being employed," Solomon reports. These shameful statistics suggest that creating channels of reentry are imperative.
February 27, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Monday, February 23, 2015
Oscar speech by John Legend spotlights the New Jim Crow stat about hyperincarceration of blacks in US
I watched most of last night's Oscar festivities while trying to get some work done and with most of it with a finger on the fast-forward button on the remote control. I did so, in part, because we can always count on the media (both old and new) to give extra attention to anything especially interesting or noteworthy that happens during the telecast.
I am now pleased to learn that one of the interesting and noteworthy Oscar moments getting attention today is a portion of John Legend's acceptance speech. This Washington Post WonkBlog piece, headlined "There’s a disturbing truth to John Legend’s Oscar statement about prisons and slavery," provides the story and its context:
The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for "Glory," their song in the film "Selma." In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. "There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850," he noted.
It's true. There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census.
In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation's 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to the Pew Center on the States. And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today's systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).
In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks -- in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable.
Urging more media coverage of the "truly guilty and violent"
The mainstream media and “social justice” journalists treat criminal justice subjects compassionately at times, but the beneficiaries of their compassion diverge. The mainstream media focus on the victims of crime, while social justice journalists focus on victims of the criminal justice system.
The former task is easier, because readers are quick to sympathize with crime victims. The latter task is commendable, because it involves telling the stories of outcasts. Yet, even those of us who take on the latter task still tend to stick to the easier parts of the topic. Our favorite subjects are innocent people who are wrongly convicted.
When we do write about the guilty, we prefer they be nonviolent offenders. We’re particularly partial to petty drug offenders. Among violent offenders, we prefer juveniles.
We fear our readers can’t possibly develop compassion for anyone who robs, beats, rapes, or kills. We ourselves have trouble feeling compassion for such offenders; to do so violates a taboo. Only if the violent offender has the mitigating factor of youth, or sometimes mental illness, are we likely to take on his or her story.
But this means we neglect much that is immensely significant. There are too many drug offenders in prison, but prisons are not mainly holding drug offenders or the nonviolent. Seventeen percent of the 49,000 inmates in Illinois prisons were serving terms for controlled substance crimes, and another 1.6 percent had violated the cannabis control act, as of June 2013 (the most recent figures), according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. That’s less than 19 percent in all who were doing time for drug offenses–compared with 54 percent who’d been convicted of violent offenses. Nationally, the proportion of prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes in 2012 was also 54 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Stories about the wrongly convicted, and about the drug war, and about juvenile and mentally ill offenders, can lead to much-needed reforms of the criminal justice system. But stories about the truly guilty and violent can have a larger target: our nation’s structural inequality, and the wounds it inflicts every hour, every day, on African-Americans more than any other group, in segregated cities throughout the nation.
Concentrated poverty – resulting from the virulent mix of poverty and racial segregation – yields many poisoned fruits, not the least of which is violence. Children growing up amid concentrated poverty are more likely to witness violence in their neighborhoods, and to experience it in their homes, than children in more advantaged areas. And children growing up amid violence are far more likely to become violent themselves.
There’s a crying need for stories that make the crucial connections between concentrated poverty and violence, and that shift the focus from individual responsibility to our collective culpability. In the context of criminal justice stories, it’s not a connection journalists can make when their subjects are innocent or nonviolent.
Senators respond to NY Times criticisms of their sentencing work
I noted and commented here last week on this New York Times editorial about on-going debates over proposed federal sentencing reforms. Today, the New York Times reprints two letters from the Senators whose work was subject to the Times' criticisms under the headline "Sentencing Reform: 3 Senators Speak Out." Here are excerpts:
JOHN CORNYN & SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: “The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform” (editorial, Feb. 17) expressed concerns about our legislation to enable federal inmates to earn earlier release from prison if they complete programs proved to reduce the risk that they’ll commit future crimes.
You worry that our “risk assessment” tools could disproportionately help white prisoners over minorities. But states across the country have found that risk assessments typically lead to results that are fairer for all groups, including minorities. You yourself wrote last year that data-based risk-assessment tools have been used in “at least 15 states ...with good results” (editorial, Feb. 17, 2014). And our bill would emphasize “dynamic” risk factors — things prisoners can change — so that all inmates can lower their risk of recidivism....
We agree that we should reform other aspects of our criminal justice system. But no one should minimize the importance of ending the cycle of recidivism, reducing prison costs and helping inmates succeed upon release.
CHUCK GRASSLEY: I disagree with your editorial. The reality is that reductions in federal mandatory minimum sentences are misguided. These sentences are vital in obtaining the cooperation necessary to prosecute leaders in the drug trade. The so-called Smarter Sentencing Act, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, and Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, would arbitrarily cut in half the mandatory minimum sentences for importing, manufacturing and distributing drugs like heroin, PCP, methamphetamine and cocaine. Enacting such a bill during a well-documented heroin epidemic would be irresponsible.
Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States attorney in Manhattan have warned that terrorist organizations are using the drug trade to fund their operations. Under Supreme Court rulings, mandatory minimum sentences are the only tool available to Congress to ensure that judges impose adequate and more uniform sentences.
According to the United States Sentencing Commission, unlike in the states, virtually no citizen is in federal prison for drug possession. Because a “safety valve” eliminates mandatory minimums and lowers sentences for first-time offenders, most federal drug inmates are repeat offenders who did not respond to shorter sentences, and many have extensive criminal histories, including violence.
A few recent related posts on federal sentencing reform:
- NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another
- Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?
- A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress
- Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?
- Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform
February 23, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Sentencing as racial education: federal judge schools killers when imposing punishment
A number of helpful readers have made sure I did not miss the remarkable story, highlighted in sources as diverse as NPR and The American Conservative, of the remarkable speech by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves read to three young white men before sentencing them earlier this month for killing a 48-year-old black man in a parking lot. The speech merits a read in full, and here are excerpts:
Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi's infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other states engaged in these atrocities, those in the Deep South took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.
Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg's 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read....
How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past, as well as these, have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great state.
Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife, Elmo Curl, Lloyd Clay, John Hartfield, Nelse Patton, Lamar Smith, Clinton Melton, Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi's soil.
The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate, senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.
Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi ... causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.
Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the city of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the nigger hunts....
What is so disturbing ... so shocking ... so numbing ... is that these nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children ... students who live among us ... educated in our public schools ... in our private academies ... students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates ... average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families....
The simple fact is that what turned these children into criminal defendants was their joint decision to act on racial hatred. In the eyes of these defendants (and their co-conspirators) the victims were doomed at birth. ... Their genetic makeup made them targets....
Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice. Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown ... they stand here publicly today. The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: Each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal, having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. attorney — all under the direction of an African-American attorney general, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American.
Today we take another step away from Mississippi's tortured past ... we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi's inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today....
These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson nor will they restore the lives they enjoyed prior to 2011. The court knows that James Anderson's mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.
Friday, February 20, 2015
More from ACSBlog's "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"
Last week in this post I noted that the ACSBlog kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System." This week brought these additional published posts in this series, al of which should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans:
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another
This lengthy new New York Times editorial spotlights and laments that one powerful Senator now appears to be the main impediment to federal sentencing reform moving forward in Congress. Here are excerpts:
For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talking about the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population. It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it.
In the last session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills. Two proposed “front end” reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The other focused on “back end” fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.
None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation....
Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences. In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.
Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful. Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked. States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.
The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing anytime soon is known as the Corrections Act — that’s actually a sprawling acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System. Cosponsored by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith-based groups.)
Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.
The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history. This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American, will be left out.
Finally, the bill pushes the use of data-based risk-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects....
Sentencing reform is a big and complicated issue, and may take some time to get right. It would be a mistake to pass an incomplete bill and pretend that the hard work of reform is done.
Though I obviously laud the New York Times editorial board for complaining about a "roadblock" to reform created by Senator Grassley, I am troubled that this editorial goes on to create some more hurdles of its own through its (somewhat chaotic) criticisms of the Corrections Act. Every possible sentencing reform bill is sure to be an "incomplete bill" from somebody's perspective, but that should never serve alone as a reason to stall any needed reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was incomplete for only partially reducing the crack/powder disparity and for failing to make its reforms retroactive. But that reform still achieved a lot even though it did not achieve enough. Same goes, in my opinion, for all the sentencing reform bills now making the rounds.
Moreover, as a matter of substance, this editorial hammers Senator Grassley for defiance of empirical data, but that assails the Corrections Act for incorporating "data-based risk-assessment tools" and criminal history in its structures for back-end reform. I fear the NYT editorial board wants policy-makers to be concerned only with the public safety data that it likes and to ignore the public-safety data that might undermine the Grey Lady's own mysterious sense of "fairness." In this way, this editorial provides still more support for roadblocks to reform because any and everyone concerned about any part of the reform bills are encouraged to let their vision of the best reforms serve as an enemy and hurdle for any and all good and needed reforms.
Friday, February 13, 2015
ACSBlog conducting "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"
I just noticed that the ACSBlog early this week kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System." Here are excerpts from this introductory post:
[R]acial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color. There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.
The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system. From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white....
Whether due to racial hatred, implicit bias or economic inequality, there is overwhelming evidence that criminal defendants of color are subjected to a different criminal justice system than white defendants. For the next two weeks, ACSblog and a succession of experts will examine flaws at each stage of the criminal justice system and propose solutions so that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law may be realized for every American.
Here are links to the posts in this series that have been published so far:
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"
The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:
The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
- Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
- Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
- Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
- The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting
As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated. The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:
Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.
The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.
In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.
The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.
The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.
In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.
Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.
The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said. "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."
I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.
Friday, January 23, 2015
"Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights"
On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters. After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans. The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States. Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men. But there are solutions to rectify this problem.
To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.
What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.
At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
"Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League."
The provocative title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post piece authored by Keri Blakinger. Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):
I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession. As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit. I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin. When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years. Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.
But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance. In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?
I am white.
Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States. But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life. When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.
It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works — as a white person, I could ignore it. But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation
I first spotlighted in this prior post the fascinating new book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. I now see that The Marshall Project has published this great piece by Dana Goldstein with a brief overview of the book and a potent Q&A with its author. Here is how the piece starts and some of my favorite excerpts:
Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?
That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum. Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment. She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone. Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP. These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias. But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.
Murakawa and I talked about her book and its implications for criminal justice reform today, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Obama administration’s policing reforms....
Q: Your book aims to expose the liberal roots of the prison boom. But Democrats did not create the Willie Horton ad. It was Richard Nixon who expanded the drug war by claiming that drug use was “the common denominator” that explained lawlessness among hippies, inner-city blacks, and antiwar protestors. Is it important to distinguish between the different motives of conservatives and liberals?
A: I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes in terms of how they affect people’s day-to-day lives. I do discount stated intentions quite a lot. I do this in part because I have a feeling that for those being sentenced under punitive sentencing guidelines it doesn’t make a difference to them that Sen. Ted Kennedy was liberal and overall had a good voting record. It doesn’t make the brutality of living in a cage any less violent.
Kennedy promulgated this idea of sentencing guidelines. It was his baby. He ushered it through the Senate at first as guidelines that were rigid but would have been somewhat anti-carceral. They became guidelines that were rigid and more carceral. And Reagan signed this legislation, in 1984. Kennedy had the rest of his life to say, “The sentencing guidelines have had a terrible impact. This is not what I meant.” Not once did he introduce legislation to reform the guidelines. Not once did he apologize or try to change it. When I look at that kind of history, that’s where I feel like it’s fair to hold liberals responsible.
Q: Joe Biden played an interesting role in what you call Democrats “upping the ante” to outbid conservatives on being tough on crime. Can you talk about Biden’s history?
A: He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences. Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up. There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly. But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.
That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive. One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone. It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it. There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act. The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.
Prior related post:
January 15, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
Friday, January 09, 2015
"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"
The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:
In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law. The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society. More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?
The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions. This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit. But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.
This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules. If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes. But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....
Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”
Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race. Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people. That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects. Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.
Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime. For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop. For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"
The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden. Here are excerpts:
As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned. But the reality is often different. It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws. This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.
Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement. As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.
How did we get in this situation? It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems. Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year. Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....
We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend. It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began. Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment. A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later. A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.
According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...
Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.
Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:
- Big talk from Charles Koch about big (money) criminal justice reform efforts
- Koch Industries give "major grant" to NACDL to help with indigent defense
- Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform
- Another sign of the modern sentencing times: notable sponsor for "How the Criminal Justice System Impacts Well-Being"
- ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration
Congressional Black Caucus saying it will focus on criminal justice reform
I expect the next few years to be dynamic with respect to federal criminal justice reform, and this inside-the-Beltway story provides another reason why:
The Congressional Black Caucus will focus on criminal justice reform, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said in a speech on Tuesday at a ceremony where he was sworn in as the group’s new chairman. “There is a well-founded mistrust between the African American community and law enforcement officers,” Butterfield said in a speech. “The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear.
“We recognize that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Unfortunately, there are some officers who abuse the sacred responsibility to protect and serve by using excessive, and sometimes deadly force when a less severe response is warranted,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “The CBC will seek legislative action to reverse this terrible trend.”
The Congressional Black Caucus also would work to try to change sentencing laws, hold prosecutors to ethical standards, and ensure that defendants have competent lawyers, Butterfield added....
The Congressional Black Caucus welcomed five new members at the ceremony where Butterfield spoke, including one Republican, conservative Mia Love of Utah, and Democratic Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As I noted in this prior post, Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, could be an especially important voice on these issues if she embraces the CBC's commitment to making these matters a priority for reforms.
A few prior related posts:
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)
- What does Rep-elect Mia Love, the new most-interesting person in Congress, think about sentencing reform and the federal drug war?
Tuesday, January 06, 2015
GOP apparently eager to have Eric Holder as AG for at least one more month
The (slightly) tongue-in-cheek title of this post is my reaction to the news reported in "this notable NPR report, titled "Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee." In the piece, Carrie Johnson reports that Democrats have been pushing for confirmation hearings ASAP for Attorney General nominee Lorreta Lynch, but new GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated that these hearings will not take place before the last week in January at the earliest.
I am very eager for the Lynch hearings because they should provide an important window into what both the GOP-controlled Congress and the Obama Administration are thinking about on federal criminal justice issues for the next two years. But I suspect the GOP is feeling a bit forced to take a go slow approach on how to best approach (and attack) nominee Lynch and Prez Obama on these fronts, in part because the GOP has real internal divisions on these issues and in part because racial issues and divides are especially salient in criminal justice reform discussions these days.
So, because AG Eric Holder remains in his position until his successor is confirmed, the GOP Senate is right now functionally extending his term as the nation's top prosecutor and lawyer.
Monday, January 05, 2015
"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:
Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term. Safely reelected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years. Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:
Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting statelicensed growers and retailers. Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...
Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.
Sentencing Reform. Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums. Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....
Clemency. After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions. Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations. Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....
A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration. The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.
If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence. He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress. And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....
If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.
This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.
On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.
On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.
January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
"Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article discussing notable new capital jury deliberation research authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This article explores the role of emotion in the capital penalty-phase jury deliberations process. It is based on the qualitative analysis of data from ninety video-recorded four to seven person simulated jury deliberations that examined the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes. The analysis explores when and how emotions are expressed, integrated into the jury’s sentencing process, and deployed in penalty-phase decision making.
The findings offer critical new insights into the role that emotion plays in influencing these legal judgments by revealing how jurors strategically and explicitly employ emotion in the course of deliberation, both to support their own positions and neutralize or rebut the opposing positions of others. The findings also shed light on the various ways that white male capital jurors utilize a panoply of powerful emotion-based tactics to sway others to their position in a manner that often contributes to racially biased outcomes.