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.

The report referenced in this speech is available at this link and a summary is on this webpage.

March 26, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 23, 2015

"A Commentary on Statistical Assessment of Violence Recidivism Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this timely paper by Peter Imrey and A. Philip Dawid now available via SSRN. The piece, as evidenced simply by the abstract, seems quite technical. But it seems that the piece is making an especially important technical point. Here is the abstract:

Increasing integration and availability of data on large groups of persons has been accompanied by proliferation of statistical and other algorithmic prediction tools in banking, insurance, marketing, medicine, and other fields (see e.g., Steyerberg (2009a;b)).  Controversy may ensue when such tools are introduced to fields traditionally reliant on individual clinical evaluations.  Such controversy has arisen about "actuarial" assessments of violence recidivism risk, i.e., the probability that someone found to have committed a violent act will commit another during a specified period.

Recently Hart et al. (2007a) and subsequent papers from these authors in several reputable journals have claimed to demonstrate that statistical assessments of such risks are inherently too imprecise to be useful, using arguments that would seem to apply to statistical risk prediction quite broadly.  This commentary examines these arguments from a technical statistical perspective, and finds them seriously mistaken in many particulars. They should play no role in reasoned discussions of violence recidivism risk assessment.

March 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Making the effective case for graduated reentry to reduce incarceration and recidivism

This notable new commentary at Vox, headlined "We don’t need to keep criminals in prison to punish them" and authored by Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin, is a must-read for would-be criminal justice reformers. Th piece is lengthy (with lots of helpful links), and here are excerpts to whet the appetite:

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don't get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years.

The transition from prison to the "free world" can be very tough, both for the offender and for the neighborhood he returns to. In the month after getting out, a person released from prison has about a dozen times the mortality rate of people of the same age, race, and sex in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him (much more rarely "her") a prison cell. Typically, that person went into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to the legal labor market, few marketable skills, and subpar work habits. More often than not, he's returning to a high-crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are also criminally active. Maybe, if he's lucky and has been diligent, he's learned something useful in prison. Perhaps he's even picked up a GED. But he hasn't learned much about how to manage himself in freedom because he hasn't had any freedom in the recent past. And he hasn't learned to provide for himself because he's been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.

Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and no enrollment for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over during the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry aren't very good. If he's not working, he has lots of free time to get into trouble and no legal way of supporting himself....

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn't be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn't be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you're not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock....

There's no way to guess in advance how many prisoners would succeed in making the transition: for all the statistical work on risk assessment, looking into the soul remains hard, and looking into the future impossible. It's not even obvious whether the success rate would be higher with men or with women, with younger or older offenders, with those convicted of nonviolent crimes or of violent ones. But there's good reason to think the success rate would be higher for graduated release than for the current approach, and that the costs of the program could be more than recouped from the savings in reduced incarceration, now and in the future. But budget savings aren't the main goal: the greatest benefits would flow to the offenders, to their families, to their neighborhoods, and to those who otherwise would have been the victims of their future crimes.

Can we really get back to a civilized level of incarceration while continuing to push crime rates down? We can't know until we try. Graduated re-entry might work. That's more than can be said for any other proposal now on the table. If we find a version of it that works somewhere, expand it there and try it elsewhere. If not, go back to the drawing board. But sticking with the existing system, and accepting its disastrous results, is not a reasonable choice.

March 19, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Effective review of the import and impact of new reentry certificates for former offenders

The Marshall Project has this interesting new piece of original reporting on an important new component of reentry effort.  The piece is headlined "Forgiving vs. Forgetting: For offenders seeking a new life, a new redemption tool," and here is an excerpt:

[T]he granting of so-called Certificates of Rehabilitation has become an increasingly popular compromise version of full expungement in courts around the country. Between 2009 and 2014, nine states and Washington, D.C. began issuing the documents, also called certificates of relief, recovery, achievement, or employability.

“These certificates are a remarkably dynamic new option,” says Kari Hamel, a civil legal aid attorney in North Carolina who is working to make the certificates — available in that state since 2011 — more accessible to more people with criminal records. “It’s a way of showing employers that the crime someone committed probably wasn’t committed yesterday. It makes what has happened since the crime a fully official part of that person’s record, for all employers to see.”

“That’s the key,” she adds. “Rehabilitation is absolutely a part of a person’s history of trouble with the law, it’s just the second part, the positive part.”

Paul Biebel, the presiding judge for Chicago's criminal court, agrees that the certificates are a promising new option. "Only over the last few years have we seen more of these coming through the court," he says of the certificates, "but I feel very strongly that they are an additional tool in a judge's toolbox to evaluate people.  We judges are prepared to send people to prison.  But now, if the evidence proves rehabilitation, we also have a tool for redeeming people."

March 19, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Prisons Are Making America's Drug Problem Worse"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Politico piece.  Here are excerpts that reinforce my fear that one of the biggest problems with the modern drug war is that we are fighting it so very poorly:

After two decades of rapidly rising incarceration rates — rates that continued to rise even as crime sat at record historic lows — America today has nearly 2.2 million adult inmates in local, state and federal jails and prisons, including about 300,000 who have a history of heroin addiction.  The BOP spends $110 million annually on drug treatment programs for approximately 80,000 inmates identified as dependent on narcotics.  But for the 10,000 or so federal inmates dependent on heroin or other opioids, millions of those dollars are currently spent on outdated, ineffective approaches that wrongly prohibit medication-assisted therapies — approaches that, in other words, fail to help prisoners addicted to opioids during their sentence and ultimately return them afterwards to society as addicted as they were when they went into jail.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A recent study of opioid-dependent inmates leaving Rikers Island jail in New York City showed that nearly nine out of ten inmates who were not medicated relapsed within a month, as opposed to just 2 out of 5 inmates who were on medication-assisted treatment.  The difference to society between those two numbers — in terms of health outcomes, reduced crime, and improved employment stability — is huge.

Science notwithstanding, the U.S. criminal justice system has resisted medication-assisted therapy, with only a few large urban jails (e.g. New York City, San Francisco, Albuquerque) and a handful of state prisons such as those in Rhode Island and Vermont opting to use it.  Yet most major correctional experts, including the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Re-Entry Resource Center and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, all recommend increasing the availability of medication-assisted therapy for opioid dependence in the country’s jails and prisons.  The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) recently concluded that the effects of MAT are “many times greater” than behavioral therapies without medications.

Beyond the correctional world, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the United Nations Office on Drug Policy, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) all agree that people dependent on heroin and other opioids should have access to medication-assisted therapy.  In a recent publication, NIDA stated, “Taking these medications as prescribed allows patients to hold jobs, avoid street crime and violence, and reduce exposure to HIV.” The White House Office of Drug Control Policy calls MAT combined with behavioral therapy the “standard of care” for opioid dependence and recently announced that drug courts, which offer treatment as an alternative to prison for some criminal offenders, will be required to offer MAT in order to continue to receive federal dollars.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibits such treatments entirely for “routine” (non-detox) purposes.  Corrections officials frequently cite security concerns to justify denying buprenorphine and methadone therapy to inmates, fearing the medicine will be diverted to other prisoners — despite the fact that these issues can be resolved with tighter security measures and closer staff supervision (the prison systems of Western Europe, Scotland, Canada and even Iran can attest to that).

March 12, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

First Circuit creates hard and firm standards before allowing sex offender penile plethysmograph testing

Long-time readers likely can recall the occasional post throughout the years setting out some appellate jurisprudence as to when and how a court may rely upon or order sex offenders to be subject to penile plethysmograph testing.  The First Circuit has added to this jurisprudence today in via a lengthy panel ruling in US v. Medina, No. 13-1936 (1st Cir. March 4, 2015) (available here), which starts and ends this way:

Moisés Medina failed to register as a sex offender when he moved to Puerto Rico in May of 2012, even though he had been convicted of a state sex offense four years earlier. As a result, Medina was arrested for violating the Sex Offender Notification and Registration Act, also known as SORNA, 18 U.S.C. § 2250. He then pled guilty and was sentenced to a thirty-month prison term, to be followed by a twenty-year term of supervised release.

The supervised release portion of the sentence included various conditions that Medina must follow or face returning to prison. Medina now challenges two of those conditions as well the length of the supervised release term. One of the two conditions restricts Medina from accessing or possessing a wide range of sexually stimulating material. The other requires Medina to submit to penile plethysmograph testing -- a particularly intrusive procedure -- if the sex offender treatment program in which he must participate as a condition of his supervised release chooses to use such testing.

We hold that the District Court erred in setting the length of the supervised release term. We further hold that the District Court inadequately justified the imposition of the supervised release conditions that Medina challenges.  We therefore vacate Medina's supervised release sentence term and the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand for re-sentencing....

A district court has significant discretion in setting a term of supervised release. A district court also has significant discretion to craft special supervised release conditions. But a district court's exercise of its discretion must still accord with the statutory framework governing supervised release.

Here, we conclude that the District Court improperly determined the relevant guidelines range in setting the term of supervised release; imposed a blanket pornography ban without explanation and contrary to directly applicable precedent; and then imposed an extraordinarily invasive supervised release condition without considering the condition's efficacy in achieving the statutory purposes of such conditions, given both the particular defendant whose liberty was at stake and the evident concerns he directly raised about the appropriateness and reliability of the condition to which he was being required to submit. Although we have been deferential in reviewing district courts crafting of special conditions of supervised release, Congress and our precedent required more of the district court in this instance.  We thus vacate the supervised release sentence term, as well as the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand the case for resentencing.

Some related prior posts:

P.S.: I am truly sorry I could not resist using a juvenile and sophomoric double-entendre in the title of this post.  It has been a long day.

March 4, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

California Supreme Court rules blanket sex-offender residency restriction fails rational basis review

In recent years, a number of state courts have struck down local sex-offender residency restrictions on a number of different legal grounds.  As this AP article reports, another state Supreme Court is now part of this group: "California's Supreme Court ruled Monday the state cannot prohibit all registered sex offenders in San Diego County from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park."

As the title of this post hints, the unanimous ruling released today in In re Taylor, S206143 (Cal. March 2, 2015) (available here), strikes me as especially significant because of the legal rationale used to strike down a state-wide voter-initiative law as it was applied in one jurisdiction. These passages explaining the heart of the ruling highlight why Taylor will likely be cited in challenges to sex offender residency restrictions nationwide:

In this case, however, we need not decide whether rational basis or heightened strict scrutiny review should be invoked in scrutinizing petitioners' constitutional challenges to section 3003.5(b).  As we next explain, we are persuaded that blanket enforcement of the mandatory residency restrictions of Jessica's Law, as applied to registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County, cannot survive even the more deferential rational basis standard of constitutional review. Such enforcement has imposed harsh and severe restrictions and disabilities on the affected parolees‟ liberty and privacy rights, however limited, while producing conditions that hamper, rather than foster, efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate these persons.  Accordingly, it bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has infringed the affected parolees' basic constitutional right to be free of official action that is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive....

The authorities we have cited above explain that all parolees retain certain basic rights and liberty interests, and enjoy a measure of constitutional protection against the arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable curtailment of “the core values of unqualified liberty” (Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, 408 U.S. at p. 482), even while they remain in the constructive legal custody of state prison authorities until officially discharged from parole.  We conclude the evidentiary record below establishes that blanket enforcement of Jessica's Law's mandatory residency restrictions against registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County impedes those basic, albeit limited, constitutional rights. Furthermore, section 3003.5(b), as applied and enforced in that county, cannot survive rational basis scrutiny because it has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators.

March 2, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Encouraging recidivism realities after three-strikes reform in California

This new New York Times article, headlined "California Convicts Are Out of Prison After Third Strike, and Staying Out," reports on some good post-sentencing-reform news from the West Coast.  Here are excerpts:

Mr. Taylor, 58, is one of more than 2,000 former inmates who were serving life terms under California’s three-strikes law, but who were freed early after voters scaled it back in 2012. Under the original law, repeat offenders received life sentences, with no possibility of parole for at least 25 years, even if the third felony was as minor as shoplifting....

Formerly branded career criminals, those released over the last two years have returned to crime at a remarkably low rate — partly because they had aged in prison, experts say, and because participation in crime declines steadily after age 25, but also because of the intense practical aid and counseling many have received. And California’s experience with the release of these inmates provides one way forward as the country considers how to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.

“I hope the enduring lesson is that all of these people are not hopeless recidivists,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford Law School, which provides legal aid to prisoners and training to public defenders. “Those who remain dangerous should be kept behind bars,” added Mr. Romano, who was an author of the 2012 revisions. “But there are many people in prison who are no threat to public safety.”...

In 2012, with crime down and prisons overflowing, California voters had second thoughts. Proposition 36 held that many prisoners whose third offenses were not violent or serious would be eligible for resentencing, so long as a judge did not find an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.”

Of about 9,000 prisoners who had been sentenced under the three-strikes law, about 3,000 qualified for a rehearing; another 6,000, with more violent records, did not. As of late February, 2,008 inmates had been released for time served, and 92 were serving out reduced sentences. More than 700 cases remain to be adjudicated.Judges ruled against just 132 of the eligible inmates.

After being free for an average of more than 18 months, just 4.7 percent of the former life prisoners have returned to prison for new crimes, usually burglaries or drug crimes. By comparison, Mr. Romano calculates based on state data, of all inmates released from California prisons, about 45 percent return for new crimes over a similar period.

February 26, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Can prisons predict which inmates will commit more crimes?"

The question in the title of this post is part of the headline of this new lengthy AP article, which follows with the headline "States trying secretive, psychological assessments."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

States are trying to reduce prison populations with secretive, new psychological assessments to predict which inmates will commit future crimes and who might be safe to release, despite serious problems and high-profile failures, an Associated Press investigation found.

These programs are part of a national, data-driven movement to drive down prison populations, reduce recidivism and save billions. They include questionnaires often with more than 100 questions about an offender's education, family, income, job status, history of moving, parents' arrest history — or whether he or she has a phone.  A score is affixed to each answer and the result helps shape how the offender will be supervised in the system — or released from custody.

Used for crimes ranging from petty thievery to serial murders, these questionnaires come with their own set of risks, according to the AP's examination.  Many rely on criminals to tell the truth, and jurisdictions don't always check to make sure the answers are accurate. They are used inconsistently across the country, sometimes within the same jurisdiction. The same defendant might be scored differently in the same crime.

Supporters cite some research, such as a 1987 Rand Corp. study that said the surveys accurately can predict the likelihood of repeat offenses as much as 70 percent of the time if they are used correctly.  But even the Rand study, one of the seminal pieces of research on the subject, was skeptical of the surveys' overall effectiveness.  It's nearly impossible to measure the surveys' impact on recidivism because they are only part of broader efforts.

Some surveys have the potential to punish people for being poor or uneducated by attaching a lower risk to those who have steady work and high levels of education.  The surveys are clouded in secrecy.  Some states never release the evaluations, shielding government officials from being held accountable for decisions that affect public safety.

"It is a vast improvement over the decision-making process of 20, 30 years ago when parole boards and the courts didn't have any statistical information to base their decisions on," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is working with the Justice Department to shape reforms nationally....

The Justice Department's position on the surveys is inconsistent. On one hand, the department is helping bankroll this movement by providing millions of dollars to help states develop and roll out new policies.  Yet it's also putting on the brakes and is reluctant to use them for the federal prison population.

"Criminal sentences must be based on the facts, the law, the actual crimes committed, the circumstances surrounding each individual case, and the defendant's history of criminal conduct," Attorney General Eric Holder told the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in August.  "They should not be based on unchangeable factors that a person cannot control, or on the possibility of a future crime that has not taken place."

Cost savings, however, make these tools appealing to states. North Carolina, for instance, could save $560 million by 2017, a Justice Department report concluded.  Between 2011 and 2014, the North Carolina prison population decreased by more than 3,000 people, according to the state.  These reforms, including the use of risk assessments, has saved the state nearly $84 million, and it plans to route $32 million of those savings for community treatment programs.

February 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"Parole Release Hearings: The Fallacy of Discretion"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by R. Kyle Alagood now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Despite nearly every U.S. state having created a parole system, incarcerated offenders do not have a constitutional right to early release on parole, and parole hearings do not automatically invoke due process.  The resultant discretion afforded to parole decision-makers, coupled with the administrative regime’s relaxed evidentiary standards, risks erroneous, vindictive, or politically motivated information tainting release decisions. Louisiana, the world’s prison capital, has recently initiated parole reforms that may provide a model for reforms nationally.  This article details the evolution of Louisiana’s parole release structures, highlights problems with discretionary parole-release decision-making, and proposes Louisiana pilot reforms that may transfer to parole release systems in the United States. 

February 19, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, February 16, 2015

Notable new commentary on the notable work of the Colson Task Force

ImagesA helpful reader shared with me this notable commentary authored by Jim Liske, who is CEO of Prison Fellowship and is serving on the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force. The FoxNews piece is headlined "Colson Task Force offers chance for Restorative Justice," and here are excerpts:

I am honored to serve on the new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, which met for the first time in late January. Named for my organization’s founder, the Task Force is a bipartisan, nine-member panel chaired by J.C. Watts, that will address long-existing challenges in federal corrections and make data-driven recommendations to make the system more effective and just—for the sake of prisoners and our communities alike....

In the last several years, individual states have already begun to pursue prison reform that hold offenders accountable and yet give them hope for restoring their lives once they’ve served their time. Hawaii has seen success through its HOPE program, which guarantees “swift and sure sanctions” for those who violate the terms of their probation. This accountability-intensive approach, which affirms offenders’ potential by expecting them to do better, has been so effective, it’s being copied in courtrooms nationwide. Some states are increasing their use of earned-time credits, which allow people to earn the right to rejoin the community earlier by using their time productively, and still others are reducing sentences for non-violent offenses.

Reforms like these offer hope for evidence-based, cost-effective changes the Task Force will examine. But we can go a step farther. The time is right for prison reforms that aren’t just evidence-based, but values-based, reflecting our beliefs in the God-given dignity, value, and potential of every human being. Justice can be restorative when we make sure that the opportunity for both accountability and redemption are balanced at the core of our criminal justice system.

Why should justice be restorative? At its heart, crime isn’t about law-breaking; it’s about violating the peace and wholeness of the entire community. Public safety may require that we lock someone up, but that alone will not heal victims or the community or change the conditions that help breed crime. When the responsible party has the opportunity for redemption and restoration — by making amends to his victims, changing his thinking, and earning back the public’s trust by living a law-abiding, constructive life upon release—the community can find healing and move beyond the vicious cycle of crime and incarceration....

The Charles Colson Task Force is an important first step that honors the legacy of a visionary leader, but the challenges facing our criminal justice system cannot be solved by this group alone. It’s time for everyone with a stake in criminal justice and public safety—which is all of us—to call for reforms that elevate and prioritize victims’ voices, provide genuine opportunities for prisoners’ moral rehabilitation, and engage the entire community in breaking the cycle of crime.

We all need to speak up to create the kind of restorative society, based on the dignity and value of every life, that each of us wants to call home.

Prior related post:

February 16, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

New bipartisan federal prison reform bill introduced (with good chance of passage?)

This article from The Hill, headlined "Senators unveil prison reform bill," reports on the latest iteration of a bipartisan federal criminal justice reform proposal.  Here are the details: 

Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are reintroducing a prison reform bill they say will achieve a major goal of criminal justice reformers: reducing the size of the federal inmate population. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pushed the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System (CORRECTIONS) Act at a press conference Tuesday.

The law is meant to reduce the number of people — currently just over 210,000 — incarcerated in federal prisons.  The package proposed by the two senators takes a more moderate approach to reducing prison populations than other proposals that would implement reductions to mandatory sentences.  It also supports programs that help prisoners avoid returning to crime after being released.

Prisoners would undergo a risk assessment to determine whether they present a low, medium or high risk of committing another offense.  Prisoners determined to have a low or medium risk of offending again would be eligible to earn time off of their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs, including drug counseling or vocational training, a release from Whitehouse’s office said.

In total, prisoners can earn 25 percent of their sentence off through the law. The bill, though, prevents certain types of prisoners, like those serving time for sex offenses or terrorism, from benefiting from the law. "We want to go forward with what's passable without subjecting the bill to the kind of Willie Horton-type critique that it might receive,” Whitehouse said of the decision not to have the law cover some types of prisoners....

Cornyn and Whitehouse said they are open to debating additional measures, including changing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. But they touted their measure as a good starting point for a larger conversation about criminal justice. “This is a debate that we welcome,” Cornyn said when asked whether sentencing reform could conceivably be added to the bill. “There's a lot of things we can do to improve our criminal justice system, and there's a lot of it being discussed. Things like mandatory minimums, sentencing reform, over criminalization, particularly of the regulatory environment. There are a lot of things we can do better.”

"Given the new open amendment process in the United States Senate, anybody who's got a good idea and 60 votes — 59 plus theirs — can offer it by way of an amendment," he added.

Whitehouse said that having a criminal justice bill moving through the Senate could buoy other ideas for reforming the criminal justice system.  "I think if this bill proves to be a catalyst for further legislation in the area of sentencing reform and criminal justice reform, John and I would have no objection to that,” he said....

Some, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have been reluctant to support changes to the mandatory sentences. But Grassley recently expressed an openness to having his committee consider the idea in an interview at a conservative event last month.

As the title of this post highlights, I have little idea if this CORRECTIONS Act has a real chance at passage. But I am keeping my fingers crossed.

February 11, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Ohio Gov John Kasich advocating significant resources devoted to addiction services for prisoners

As reported in this local article, headlined "Addiction programs for incarcerated included state budget," Ohio's GOP Governor John Kasich is now showing through his latest budget proposal that he remains deeply committed to "smart on crime" sentencing and prison reforms. Here are the details:

Eight of 10 people come to Ohio prisons with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol.  Most leave without treatment or a recovery plan, with predictable results. On the outside, they return to old addictive habits that often trigger criminal behavior.

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget calls for a $61.7 million collaboration by two agencies to treat offenders both behind bars and once they are released. “This is not tinkering with recovery programs. This is going to be a remarkable leap forward, addressing a large group of people coming to our prisons who in many cases aren’t being served at all,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The big-picture goal is to help ex-offenders succeed outside prison and, in the long run, to cut prison costs charged to taxpayers. Statistics show that about 10 percent of inmates who get alcohol and drug treatment later return to prison, compared with about 27 percent of those who don’t get treatment.

The change pushed by Kasich would shift responsibility for inmate-recovery services from Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It involves moving 120 people who work for prisons to the mental-health agency budget at a cost of $12.5 million annually. They will, however, continue working in the same jobs.

Prison officials estimate that about 4,500 of the roughly 30,000 inmates with moderate to severe addiction problems are getting recovery services. Officials from the two agencies won’t predict how many more inmates will be treated until the program is in place, but Stuart Hudson, prison chief of medical services, said it will be a “substantial increase.”...

Mental-health director Tracy Plouck said much of the $61.7 million, beyond the $25 million to absorb the DRC staff, will go for community recovery services once inmates return home.

Prison officials have struggled for years with an influx of inmates who commit nonviolent crimes, many of them related to their addictions.  For about 20 percent of new prisoners, a drug charge is their most serious offense.  Many are in and out of prison so quickly there isn’t time or resources to get them involved in recovery programs, Mohr said.

“We’re not reaching enough people and we’re not reaching them early enough,” Mohr said. “Ohioans are paying $22,500 a year for each prisoner, and we should be doing more than warehousing them. We are committed to helping people improve their lives.” Ohio’s recidivism rate of 27.1 percent is far better than the national average of over 40 percent.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House

This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:

Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....

H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.

Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.

The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.

The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.

Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.

Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.

If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.

This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.

This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress.  This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:

Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"The Eternal Criminal Record"

9780674368262The title of this post is the title of this important new book by James B. Jacobs. Here is a description of the book via the publisher's website: 

For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity.  A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else.  The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.

The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers.  Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain.  While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.

In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat.  But convicted persons have rights, too.  Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.

January 29, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

Could charter schools within the prison system help reduce recidivism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article from Georgia headlined "Gov. Deal wants new charter high schools for prison system." Here are excerpts:

Gov. Nathan Deal in the both the amended 2015 and 2016 budgets is [recommending the legislature devote] money to help lower the recidivism rate in Georgia’s prisons.  He’s including over $15 million dollars for two new charter high schools in the prison system so inmates can actually earn a diploma as opposed to just a GED. He says seven out of ten Georgia inmates have neither.

“Education can open the door of opportunity while shutting the revolving door that has plagued our prison system for far too long,” says Deal.

The recommendation includes nearly 30 academic positions for the new schools which would begin with the 2015-2016 school year. Deal says the schools would partner with the newly renamed Georgia Career College System, formerly the state’s technical colleges, to teach vocational skills. He says private prisons would also be given incentives to do the same.

“With a high school diploma or a GED, these individuals will certainly be better equipped to get a job and hopefully able to assume a greater pursuit of a job opportunity in the future because they have this basic education behind them,” says Deal.

He’s also including money to help inmates better assimilate into society once released through a transitional housing program for those inmates considered at highest risk for reoffending. Another $5 million is being proposed to expand the state’s accountability courts to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.

January 26, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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.

January 22, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack