Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"Profiles in Probation Revocation: Examining the Legal Framework in 21 States"

ProfilesProbationCover1The title of this post is the title of this notable new research report just released by the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. Via the Robina Institute at this webpage, here are the basics of the report's coverage and contents:

The Robina Institute is pleased to present the publication of Profiles in Probation Revocation: Examining the Legal Framework in 21 States, a close look at probation revocation practices in twenty-one states and the Model Penal Code.  The first publication of the Probation Revocation Project, Profiles on Probation Revocation, allows for a comparison across selected jurisdictions.  This report reveals a wide variation in probation practices in the United States and we hope it will further the dialogue on community supervision and probation practices.

This publication is the first in a series that will be produced by the Probation Revocation Project.  The focus of this publication is the legal framework of probation: that is, how have the legislature and courts defined the purpose and functions of probation in each state?  The focus of one or more subsequent publications will be how probation actually works within that legal framework.

In addition, I received from one of the authors of the report this more extended summary of its coverage:

The report compiles — in a convenient format — the results of a yearlong research project conducted by the Robina Institute on the laws relating to probation revocation in 21 American states.  By leafing through the volume’s four-page “legal profiles,” readers can easily see how much variation exists in statewide laws of probation and probation revocation, while zeroing in on issues of greatest interest.  Whether a reader’s jurisdiction is included in the report’s 21 states or not, the legal profiles contain a wealth of information that will allow for comparison with one’s own system.

The focus of the report is probation revocations and what leads up to them.  Each legal profile describes a particular state’s approach to issues collected under twelve headings concerning probation.  These are: Definition and Purpose, Forms of Probation, Length of Term, Early Termination, Supervision, Conditions, Modification of Conditions, Extension of Probation Term, Revocation Procedures, Legal Standard for Revocation, Revocation and Lesser Sanctions, and Appeal. The selected topics embrace aspects of the use of probation that may contribute to (or, conversely, reduce) revocation rates or the numbers of probationers who enter revocation proceedings.

Each profile begins with the nature of the probation sanction itself, including lengths of term and the burdens placed on probationers through sentence conditions. These are the early precursors of revocation rates.  The profiles also focus on what happens during the probation term, and how the law allows the terms of conditions of probation to lighten or grow more restrictive in individual cases. For example, legal arrangements during the probation period that encourage probationers to succeed — or at least do not impede their success — will have an impact on revocation numbers. Finally, the profiles give close attention to each state’s probation revocation process itself, including the legal grounds for revocation, the identity of the ultimate decisionmaker (judicial versus administrative), rules for hearings, procedural rights that accrue to the probationer, and the range of sanctions that may be imposed after a sentence violation is proven or admitted.

The report relies on official legal source materials such as statutes, court rules, caselaw, administrative rules and policies, and publicly-available documents. The report seeks to describe, more or less, the “law-on-the-books,” while realizing that the official sources do not necessarily reflect actual practices of probation supervision and revocation on the ground. Even so, the report provides new and valuable comparative information about statewide legal superstructures for probationary sentences. While not a full portrait of what happens in individual states, the report illuminates crucial legal boundaries within which local and case-specific discretion must be exercised.

November 4, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 30, 2014

New York Times editorial makes the case for California's Prop 47

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "California Leads on Justice Reform: Prop 47 Could Take the State a Step Further in Reducing Overcrowding." Here are excerpts:

For a long time, the conventional political wisdom was that no one ever lost an election for being too tough on crime.  That wisdom has been turned on its head in recent years, as both politicians and the public are realizing how much damage the lock-’em-up mind-set has caused....

A familiar retort is that crime is down precisely because the prisons are full, but that’s simply not true.  Multiple studies show that crime has gone down faster in states that have reduced their prison populations.

An encouraging example comes from California, the site of some the worst excesses of the mass incarceration era, but also some of the more innovative responses to it.  For five years, the state has been under federal court order to reduce extreme overcrowding in its prisons.  In response, voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to scale back the state’s notorious “three-strikes” law, leading to the release, so far, of more than 1,900 prisoners who had been serving life in prison — in some cases, for petty theft.

Dire warnings that crime would go up as a result were unfounded.  Over two years, the recidivism rate of former three-strikes inmates is 3.4 percent, or less than one-tenth of the state’s average.  That’s, in large part, because of a strong network of re-entry services.

The 2012 measure has provided the model for an even bigger proposed release of prisoners that California voters will consider on the ballot next week.  Under Proposition 47, many low-level drug and property offenses — like shoplifting, writing bad checks or simple drug possession — would be converted from felonies to misdemeanors.

That would cut an average of about a year off the sentences of up to 10,000 inmates, potentially saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  To keep people from returning to prison, or from going in the first place, the savings would be invested in anti-truancy efforts and other programs like mental health and drug-abuse treatment. Some would go to victims’ services, a perennially underfinanced part of the justice system.

Law-enforcement officials, not surprisingly, oppose the measure, warning that crime will go up.  But they’ve already been proved wrong on three-strikes reform.  Californians — who support the proposition by a healthy margin, according to polls — have now seen for themselves that they don’t have to choose between reducing prison populations and protecting public safety.

It is very rare for lawmakers anywhere to approve legislation to shorten sentences for people already in prison; it is virtually unheard-of to do it by ballot measure. California’s continuing experiment on sentencing can be a valuable lesson to states around the country looking for smart and safe ways to unravel America’s four-decade incarceration binge.

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

October 30, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

BJS releases latest official data on adult offenders on probation or parole

Today the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released its latest data on adult offenders under community supervision via the publication excitingly titled "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2013."  This BJS webpage provides this summary of this BJS publication:

Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole in 2013.  The report presents trends over time for the overall community supervision population and describes changes in the probation and parole populations.  It provides statistics on the entries and exits from probation and parole and the mean time served. It also presents outcomes of supervision, including the rate at which offenders completed their term of supervision or were returned to incarceration....
  • At yearend 2013, an estimated 4,751,400 adults were under community supervision — down about 29,900 offenders from yearend 2012.

  • Approximately 1 in 51 adults in the United States was under community supervision at yearend 2013.

  • Between yearend 2012 and 2013, the adult probation population declined by about 32,200 offenders, falling to an estimated 3,910,600 offenders at yearend 2013.

  • The adult parole population increased by about 2,100 offenders between yearend 2012 and 2013, to about 853,200 offenders at yearend 2013.

  • Both parole entries (down 6.2%) and exits (down 7.8%) declined between 2012 and 2013, with approximately 922,900 movements onto and off parole during 2013.

October 28, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Risk and Needs Assessment: Constitutional and Ethical Challenges"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and notable new paper by Melissa Hamilton recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Across jurisdictions, the criminal justice system is enamored with the evidence-based practices movement.  The idea is to utilize the best scientific data to identify and classify individuals based on their potential future risk of reoffending, and then to manage offender populations according to risk and criminogenic needs.  Risk-needs tools now inform a variety of criminal justice decisions, ranging from pre-trial outcomes, to sentencing, to post-conviction supervision. While evidence-based methodologies are widely exalted as representing best practices, constitutional and moral objections have been raised.

Risk-needs tools incorporate a host of constitutionally and morally sensitive factors, such as demographic and other immutable characteristics.  The constitutional analysis herein engages equal protection, prisoners’ rights, due process, and sentencing law.  In addition, the text examines the philosophical polemic aimed uniquely at sentencing as to whether risk should play any role at all in determining punishment.

The Article then appraises potential alternatives for risk-needs methodologies if the concerns so raised by critics prove legitimate.  Any option comes with significant consequences.  Retaining offensive variables incites political and ethical reproaches, while simply excising them weakens statistical validity of the underlying models and diminishes the promise of evidence-based practices.  Promoting an emphasis on risk at sentencing dilutes the focus of punishment on blameworthiness, while neglecting risk and needs sabotages a core objective of the new penological model of harnessing the ability to identify and divert low risk offenders to appropriate community-based alternatives.

October 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, October 10, 2014

Oklahoma has impressive early success with revised earned credit program

This local article, headlined "Most Oklahoma inmates granted early release since March have stayed out of trouble," reports on another positive state criminal justice reform effort. Here are the details:

Santajuan M. Stepney was released from prison in March after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for possession of marijuana.  By mid-July, he was back in prison, this time sentenced to two years for beating his wife in Canadian County.

Stepney, 31, was among about 1,500 inmates granted an early release by the Corrections Department after they had good-behavior credits restored through the once-obscure Earned Credits program.  The releases in question began in March, according to the agency.

A state lawmaker recently questioned the program, saying restoration of good-behavior credits and early release is in the name of saving money, while Corrections Department officials have defended its expanded use....

Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said Stepney and inmate Brian Harvey, who was granted early release in March, are the only members of the group who’ve returned to prison since being set free under the Earned Credits program....

Last week, Rep. Aaron Stiles told The Oklahoman he believes Robert Patton, who was hired as the Corrections Department’s executive director earlier this year, is directing staff to release inmates by restoring the good behavior credits that had been lost due to infractions while behind bars.  Stiles said Patton is doing so to save money as the cash-strapped prison system continues to struggle with tight budgets and overcrowded prisons.

The lawmaker said “several” Corrections Department employees have contacted him about the mass release of inmates with good behavior credits restored.  He said some of the employees, who feared speaking openly, “made recommendations that certain people not be released, but they get overruled by upper level DOC administration.”

“It is all about saving money,” Stiles said last week. “They had 1,800 inmates in county backup. So how do you make room for 1,800 prisoners? Release 1,800 convicts early.”

The Earned Credits program has been around about 20 years, officials say, but it’s never been as widely used as it is now.  Essentially, the program allows inmates to have good-behavior credits restored if they’ve been lost as a result of misconduct. The program does not apply to inmates who are required to serve a minimum amount of their sentence, such as 85 percent crimes like rape, murder, and many sex crimes.

Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said increased use of the program isn’t all about saving money. She said it’s part of a series of changes made by Patton, and that those changes will continue in the future.

This partial report about early success with a revised corrections program in one state does not, obviously, prove conclusively that significant early releases can be achieved without a huge public safety impact. Nevertheless, given the ugly reality that recidivism rates for released prisoners can often exceed 40%, the folks in Oklahoma must be doing something right if only less than 0.15% of prisoners released early this year have committed a crime requiring requiring being sent back to prison so far.

October 10, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Could we reduce recidivism with tattoo removal prison programming?

TattooThe (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new research paper available on SSRN authored by Kaitlyn Harger.  The piece is titled "Bad Ink: Visible Tattoos and Recidivism," and here is the abstract:

This study examines whether tattoo visibility affects recidivism length of ex-offenders. Conventional wisdom suggests that visible tattoos may negatively influence employment outcomes. Additionally, research on recidivism argues that employment post-release is a main determinant of reductions in recidivism. Taken together, these two bodies of literature suggest there may be a relationship between tattoos visible in the workplace and recidivism of released inmates.

Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections, I estimate a log-logistic survival model and compare estimated survival length for inmates with and without visible tattoos. The findings suggest that inmates with visible tattoos return to incarceration faster than those without tattoos or with tattoos easily hidden by clothing. 

Though I cannot fully parse the data reported in this paper, among the seemingly significant findings is that " inmates with tattoos located on their face, head, neck, or hands, return to incarceration faster than inmates with tattoos in other visible locations. In general, ex-offenders with tattoos located on their face, head, neck, or hands fail 674 days earlier than ex-offenders with visible tattoos in other locations."  Though this relationship between tattoo and criminal offending may well be a story more about correlation than causation, it certainly suggest to me that we might well start paying a more attention to "bad ink" as we focus efforts on efforts to reduce recidivism.

October 5, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"The Curious Disappearance of Sociological Research on Probation Supervision"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN. The piece strikes me as timely, intriguing and important. It is authored by sociologist Michelle Phelps, and here is the abstract:

At the start of the prison boom, scholars in the U.S. vigorously debated the future of “alternative” sanctions, particularly community supervision, and whether they represented a true avenue for potential decarceration or a widening of the net of social control.  Community supervision, particularly probation, was central to these debates and the empirical literature.  Yet as the carceral state ballooned, sociological scholarship on punishment shifted almost entirely to imprisonment (and, to a lesser extent, parole supervision), despite the fact that probationers comprise nearly 60 percent of the correctional population.

This article invites criminologists to turn their attention to sociological or macro-level questions around mass probation.  To help start this new wave of research, I provide an intellectual history of sociological research on probation and parole, review the national-level data available on probationers and probationer supervision today, and outline an agenda for future research.

October 1, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Split NJ Supreme Court holds that state's sex offender GPS tracking is punishment subject to ex post facto limits

As reported in this local article, headlined "Some sex offenders can't be forced to wear GPS monitors, N.J. Supreme Court rules," the top state court in the Garden State issued a significant constitutional ruling concerning GPS tracking of sex offenders.  Here are the basics:

New Jersey cannot force sex offenders to wear GPS tracking devises if they were convicted before the monitoring program was signed into law seven years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled in a split decision today.

The court voted 4-3 to uphold an appellate panel's decision that said it was unconstitutional for the state Parole Board to require George C. Riley to wear the ankle monitor when he was released from prison in 2009 after serving 23 years for attempted sexual assault of a minor.

Justice Barry Albin wrote today that the Riley, 81 of Eatontown, should not be subject to the 2007 law because it constitutes an additional punishment that was not included in the sentence he already served.... A spokesman for the Parole Board did not respond when asked how many released sex offenders could be affected by the ruling.

Riley was convicted of trying to have sex with an 11-year-old girl in 1986. At the time, New Jersey law did not allow a sentence that included parole for life. But while Riley was in prison, the state enacted Megan's Law in 1994, requiring sex offenders to not only register with local authorities upon release but be placed under parole supervision for life. Then, in 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine signed the Sex Offender Monitoring Act, requiring the state's most dangerous sex offenders to wear GPS devises.

When Riley was released two years later, court papers say, he was not subject to any parole supervision. But he was designated a Tier III offender under Megan's Law — which applies to those who are considered a high risk for committing another offense. Under that tier, Riley was subject to "Internet registration and the most comprehensive degree of community notification," court papers say.

Six months later, though, Riley was told he would need to wear the pager-sized monitor on his ankle 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and carry a cell phone-sized tracking unit when he left his home, the papers say The devise must also be plugged into an electrical outlet to be charged one to two hours each day, the papers say. During that time, Riley could not move further than the length of the cord. And he was assigned a parole officer with access to his home. Riley would be subject to prosecution for a third-degree crime if he didn't comply....

The Supreme Court ... agreed with the lower court that the "retroactive application" of Riley to the GPS program violates the ex post facto clauses in the U.S. and state Constitutions, which safeguard against imposing "additional punishment to an already completed crime." The court also rejected the state's argument that the GPS monitor is not punitive but "only civil and regulatory."

"Parole is a form of punishment under the Constitution," Albin wrote for the high court. "SOMA is essentially parole supervision for life by another name." Albin added that "the disabilities and restraints placed on Riley through twenty -four-hour GPS monitoring enabled by a tracking device fastened to his ankle could hardly be called 'minor and indirect.'" The court also rejected the state's assertion that the Parole Board made its decision as a result of the Megan's Law designation, saying that designation "was based primarily on Riley’s previous sexual-offense convictions."

The full ruling in Riley v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. A-94-11 (NJ Sept. 22, 2014) is available at this link.

September 23, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, September 15, 2014

Encouragingly, private prison company CCA turning focus to reducing recidivism

NA-CC714_PRISON_D_20140912165107This recent Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Prison Firm CCA Seeks to Reduce Number of Repeat Offenders: Company Pushes to Reduce Costs Associated with Recidivism," reports on a private industry's latest encouraging response to the latest market realities in corrections. Here are the details:

The nation's largest private prison company is shifting its focus toward helping release more inmates and keep them out — a reaction, company officials say, to changing policies around the country on the severity of criminal punishment.

After three decades of surging prison populations, the number of people behind bars is starting to decline, albeit slowly. There were more than 2 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and jails in 2012, the last year for which the Justice Department has published data. That year saw prisons and jails release 27,500 more inmates than they took in, marking the fourth year of a declining prisoner population.

Yet repeat offenders remain a costly headwind. A Justice Department study of data from 2005 to 2010 in 30 states found that three out of four released prisoners will be rearrested within five years of their release. Getting a high-school equivalency degree while in prison, however, can greatly reduce the chances of being rearrested, studies show. A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. think tank concluded that spending $140,000 to $174,000 on education programs for a hypothetical group of 100 inmates would save as much as $1 million in re-incarceration costs over a three-year period.

Damon Hininger, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America, said in an interview that government clients are increasingly concerned about the long-term costs of housing inmates and are pushing CCA and other private operators to save them money by reducing recidivism, the number of inmates who are released only to do a repeat turn in prison.

He plans to expand the company's prison rehabilitation programs, drug counseling and its prisoner re-entry work in cities around the country. It's a significant shift for CCA, which has built a profitable business from incarcerating people—nearly 70,000 inmates are currently housed in more than 60 facilities. The company is the fifth-largest correction system in the country, after only the federal government and the states of California, Florida and Texas.

"This is a watershed moment for our company and we hope it will be for our entire industry," Mr. Hininger said. "We are determined to prove that we can play a leadership role in reducing recidivism and that we have every incentive to do so. The interests of government, taxpayers, shareholders, and communities are aligned. We all just need to recognize that and commit to that."...

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, has doubts about the company's new initiative. "It must be a challenge for CCA to implement programs that could reduce recidivism when that runs counter to the private prison model itself," she said. "We can only hope that CCA's interest in such programs indicate a shift away from its previous stance that 'reductions in crime rates' are a 'risk factor' for business and toward a completely new business model that does not rely on ever-growing mass incarceration."

Over the past two decades, government agencies have gravitated toward contracting with CCA or other private prison firms, often with a goal of saving money on the daily cost of housing inmates. In recent years, however, company officials are increasingly being asked by governments to cut down the cost of repeat offenders, Mr. Hininger said. Mr. Hininger compared the cost of recidivism on government budgets to the cost of long-term pension obligations and health-care coverage — issues that elected officials hadn't often thought of when drafting year-to-year budgets in the past but are now of increasing concern in more state capitals....

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which contracts with CCA at some facilities, said the state began a push to expand rehabilitation and re-entry programs, which led to a drop in its recidivism rate from 25.3% to 22.6% over a three-year period. "Those are real numbers and real savings because less people are coming back into the prison system," Mr. Clark said. "We believe that continuing to invest in diversion and treatment initiatives is the best strategy to maintain a stable and successful criminal-justice system."

In a speech broadcast to CCA's roughly 15,000 employees, Mr. Hininger said the company plans to expand its postprison work around the country, noting that currently much re-entry work is done by small businesses and nonprofit groups that lack CCA's ability to scale up such work in larger facilities in many cities. He declined to say which cities. "What we've seen as we've looked around the U.S., it is a little fragmented, as smaller operators providing these solutions," Mr. Hininger said in the interview. "We see an opportunity to provide some consistency and expertise."

Mr. Hininger emphasized rehabilitation has always been part of CCA's work, but said that going forward it would be part of each employee's job description. He said that from the first day a prisoner arrives, that prisoner should be evaluated and steered toward effective rehabilitation programs.

Stories like this partially account for why I tend to be more hopeful than most other reform advocates concerning the role that private industry might play in improving the state of incarceration nation. Though I worry about how a profit motive can and will skew priorities and incentives in corrections, modern mass incarceration is the product of government agents playing politics much more so that the product of private actors pursuing profits. Consequently, I am eager to be open-minded about the potential for private players to improve the status quo, even while so many others claim that private prisons are sure to make bad matters worse.

September 15, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Editorial laments how some part of Ohio are "addicted to prisons"

The Toledo Blade has this lengthy new editorial headlined "Addicted to Prisons" that discusses lots of interesting facets of Ohio's criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

Stark differences in judges, as well as access to local treatment programs, have created appalling disparities in how justice is handed out to addicts and nonviolent drug offenders in Ohio.  Two cases involving heroin addicts, portrayed today in a front-page column by The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor, Jeff Gerritt, show what Ohio is doing right and what it continues to do wrong.

In Hardin County, Kaylee Morrison, 28, was just sentenced to four years in prison, where she will cost taxpayers $100,000 while failing to get the help she needs to manage her addiction.  In neighboring Marion County, Clayton Wood, 29, was sentenced to drug court, where he gets treated in his community while working full time and paying taxes.

Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic has rocked the state’s criminal justice system, flooding its crowded prisons and burdened courts with addicts and minor drug offenders who would be more effectively — and inexpensively — treated in their communities. Of the more than 20,000 people entering Ohio’s prisons each year, the share of inmates admitted for opioid- and heroin-related crimes has increased more than 400 percent in the past 13 years.

Moving Ohio to a more cost-effective, rational, and humane criminal justice system will take, among other things, more drug courts, sentencing and code reforms, and a significant shift of resources from state prisons to community-based treatment programs....

Statistical profiles of the state’s incoming inmates underscore the need for change. They show many low-level offenders with short sentences that community-based sanctions could handle more effectively at a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to imprison them.

More than 5,000 people a year go to prison in Ohio for drug crimes, mostly low-level offenses. Almost the same number of incoming prisoners — most of them addicts — have never been arrested for, or convicted of, a violent offense. Moreover, nearly 45 percent of those who go to prison each year in Ohio — almost 9,000 people — serve less than a year. That’s not enough time for them to get involved in meaningful programs that would reduce their chances of returning to prison.

Incarcerating minor drug offenders is costing Ohio tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Ohio taxpayers get little return on that investment, as untreated addicts return to their communities unequipped to cope with their disease.

Adult felony drug courts, which combine treatment with more-frequent but shorter sanctions, offer an excellent alternative. Residents of every Ohio county should have access to one. Still, such specialized dockets, with assigned probation officers, exist in fewer than a third of Ohio’s 88 counties....

With or without drug courts, judges need sufficient resources in their communities to treat drug addiction and serve as cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Such programs give judges more sentencing options.

Nearly 10,000 offenders leave Ohio’s prisons each year with an intense history of addiction. As part of its re-entry efforts, DRC must ensure they are linked to treatment programs immediately after they’re released, including support groups and medication-assisted treatment.

Finally, the administration of Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Supreme Court, through symposiums and other outreach effects, should educate all Ohio judges on how addiction works. Likewise, the General Assembly must make sure that Ohio’s legal code doesn’t mandate inappropriate or ineffective penalties and sanctions for offenses that are rooted in addiction.

The growing number of addicts and low-level drug offenders in Ohio’s costly and crowded prisons is a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its opioid and heroin epidemic. Changing course will require a far greater understanding of addiction among those who make and execute Ohio’s laws and criminal code, and a seismic shift in resources and investments from the state’s prisons to its struggling communities.

The article referenced in the first paragraph of this editorial is headlined "Criminalizing addiction: Whether drug users go to prison depends on where they live," and it is available at this link.

September 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, August 29, 2014

"Mass Probation: Toward a More Robust Theory of State Variation in Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Michelle Phelps available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Scholarship on the expansion of the criminal justice system in the U.S. has almost exclusively focused on imprisonment, investigating why some states lead the world in incarceration rates while others have restrained growth.  Yet for most states, the predominant form of punishment is probation, and many seemingly progressive states supervise massive numbers of adults on community supervision.  Drawing on Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 1980 and 2010, I analyze this expansion of mass probation and develop a typology of control regimes that theorizes both the scale and type of formal punishment states employ.  The results demonstrate that mass probation rearranges scholars’ conclusions about the causes and consequences of the penal state.

August 29, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Drug addiction specialist laments that "our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts"

I just saw this notable recent Washington Post commentary by David Sack, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, headlined "We can’t afford to ignore drug addiction in prison." The piece merits a full read and here are excerpts:

As the addiction epidemic rages and prisons overflow, our nation seems to be backing away at last from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mindset that has characterized the failed war on drugs.... Sure, this is inspired largely by the need to relieve the pressure on our prison system, which is straining to cope with a population that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But it’s also recognition that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of our drug problems.

As someone who helps people with addictions, I consider this good news.  But I'd be more encouraged if we also focused on improving conditions in prison.  In the long run, this will have more power to reduce our inmate population.  As it is, our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.

Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls.... Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction.  When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent.  In other words, if an inmate is looking for encouragement to “Just say no,” odds are he won't find it from his bunkmates.

But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need.  The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use disorders received treatment at federal and state prisons or local jails.  The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings.  No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.

So what is needed?  Inmate evaluations to spot addictions and underlying issues that may be fueling them....  Consistent treatment by a trained staff that includes addiction medicine specialists who understand how to use evidence-based treatments, including medication-assisted therapy.  Long-term treatment programs that follow the inmate into his community and continue to support him after his release.

It’s a substantial investment, and your first thought may be, “We can't afford to do that.” But the reality is we can’t afford not to do it.  As it stands now, only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences. That means we are shelling out billions of dollars to clean up the mess of addiction rather than doing what we know pays off -- helping people overcome it.

A 2010 CASA study, for example, determined that if we gave quality addiction treatment and aftercare to every inmate who needed it, we'd break even on the investment in only a year if just more than 10 percent were successful in staying employed, out of trouble and drug free.  In dollar terms, that translates to an economic benefit for the nation of more than $90,000 annually per former inmate.  Studies confirm that addicts pressured to undergo treatment by the legal system fare as well or better than those who seek treatment voluntarily....

While it’s tempting to think punishment is the answer [to drug crimes and addiction], prison alone doesn’t teach addicts how to change their thinking and behavior, doesn’t help repair damaged neural pathways and doesn't take away drug cravings or offer strategies to prevent relapse.  In most cases, prison just buys a little time before the addict relapses and re-offends, perpetuating the cycle and hurting himself along with the rest of us.

August 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, August 22, 2014

"The Debt Penalty: Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Douglas Evans with the Center for Research and Evaluation at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Here is the paper's summary:

Financial debt associated with legal system involvement is a pressing issue that affects the criminal justice system, offenders, and taxpayers.  Mere contact with the criminal justice system often results in fees and fines that increase with progression through the system.  Criminal justice fines and fees punish offenders and are designed to generate revenue for legal systems that are operating on limited budgets.  However, fines and fees often fail to accomplish this second goal because many offenders are too poor to pay them.

To compound their financial struggles, offenders may be subject to other financial obligations, such as child support payments and restitution requirements.  If they do not pay their financial obligations, they may be subject to late fees and interest requirements, all of which accumulate into massive debt over time.  Even if they want to pay, offenders have limited prospects for meaningful employment and face wage disparities resulting from their criminal history, which makes it even more difficult to pay off their debt.

An inability to pay off financial debt increases the possibility that offenders will commit new offenses and return to the criminal justice system.  Some courts re-incarcerate offenders simply because they are unable to settle their financial obligations.  Imposing financial obligations and monetary penalties on offenders — a group that is overwhelmingly indigent — is not tenable.  States often expend more resources attempting to recoup outstanding debt from offenders than they are able to collect from those who pay.  This report explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment.

August 22, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Adverse childhood events: Incarceration of household members and health-related quality of life in adulthood"

HpucoversmallVia The Crime Report, I came across this new report in the August 2014 issue of the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved.  The piece has the title that is the title of this post, and here is the abstract:

Background. Incarceration of a household member has been associated with adverse outcomes for child well-being.

Methods. We assessed the association between childhood exposure to the incarceration of a household member and adult health-related quality of life (HRQOL) in the 2009/2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System controlling for age, race/ethnicity, education, and additional adverse childhood experiences.

Results.  Adults who lived in childhood with an incarcerated household member had higher risk of poor HRQOL compared with adults who had not (adjusted relative risk [ARR] 1.18; 95% CI 1.07, 1.31).  Among Black adults the association was strongest with the physical health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.58 [95% CI 1.18, 2.12]); among White adults, the association was strongest with the mental health component of HRQOL (ARR 1.29, [95% CI 1.07–1.54]).

Conclusions.  Living with an incarcerated household member during childhood is associated with higher risk of poor HRQOL during adulthood, suggesting that the collateral damages of incarceration for children are long-term.

Also appearing in the same journal issue are these two additional studies exploring the impact of prisoner release and health-care:

August 17, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is preventing ex-prisoners from being homeless the key to preventing recidivism?

The question in the title of this post comes from my take-away from this notable article discussing a recent reentry initiative in Washington state.  The article is headlined "Housing First” Helps Keep Ex-Inmates Off the Streets (and Out of Prison)," and here are excerpts:

Many of the roughly 10,000 inmates who exit U.S. prisons each week following incarceration face an immediate critical question: Where will I live? While precise numbers are hard to come by, research suggests that, on average, about 10 percent of parolees are homeless immediately following their release. In large urban areas, and among those addicted to drugs, the number is even higher — exceeding 30 percent.

“Without a safe and stable place to live where they can focus on improving themselves and securing their future, all of their energy is focused on the immediate need to survive the streets,” says Faith Lutze, criminal justice professor at Washington State University. “Being homeless makes it hard to move forward or to find the social support from others necessary to be successful.”

Although education, employment, and treatment for drug and mental health issues all play a role in successful reintegration, these factors have little hope in the absence of stable housing. Yet, few leaving prison have the three months’ rent typically required to get an apartment. Even if they did, landlords are given wide latitude in denying leases to people with a criminal record in many states.  Further, policies enacted under the Clinton administration continue to deny public housing benefits to thousands of convicted felons — the majority of whom were rounded up for non-violent offenses during the decades-long War on Drugs. Some are barred for life from ever receiving federal housing support.

As a result, tens of thousands of inmates a year trade life in a cell for life on the street. According to Lutze, with each passing day, the likelihood that these people will reoffend or abscond on their parole increases considerably.

Lutze and a team of researchers recently completed a comprehensive assessment of a Washington State program that aims to reduce recidivism by providing high-risk offenders with 12 months of housing support when they are released from prison. The study tracked 208 participants in three counties and found statistically significant reductions in new offenses and readmission to prison. It also found lower levels of parole revocations among participants....

Lutze says stable housing not only reduces violations of public order laws related to living and working on the street, but it increases exposure to pro-social networks and provides a sense of safety and well-being conducive to participating in treatment and other services.

That not only improves community safety, she says, but it “reduces the economic and human costs of ex-offenders cycling through our jails and prisons just because they do not have a safe place to live.”

While this seems like a common sense strategy, programs that place housing at the forefront of prisoner reentry are actually relatively scarce in the U.S., and have historically been driven by a handful of pioneering non-profits.

August 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Another effective review of how Obamacare could be "an antidote to crime"

Regular readers likely recall a number of posts in which I highlighted ways in which the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) could have a significant impact on a number of criminal justice realities in the years to come.  A helpful readers alerted me to this notable new Christian Science Monitor article on this topic headlined "Obamacare for ex-inmates: Is health insurance an antidote to crime?".  Here are excerpts: 

In the enduring quest to discover what can prevent criminals from reoffending, a new holy grail is emerging: health-care services.

Excitement is stirring inside the justice system, as corrections officials work to link inmates who are leaving custody with health services in their communities, courtesy of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). The idea is to enroll thousands of ex-offenders in Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, thus making them eligible for treatment for mental health issues, substance abuse, and chronic medical problems that most have never before consistently received on the outside.

The hoped-for result: a reduction in the share of those who reoffend, and a drop in incarceration costs related to securing public safety. “This is a huge opportunity,” says Kamala Mallik-Kane, who studies correctional systems, inmates, and health policy at the nonprofit Urban Institute. “The unprecedented step of connecting these newly eligible people to health insurance has incredible potential to change the trajectory of inmates to reintegrate back into society and not back into the justice system.”...

[But] it is much too soon to know if the excitement among justice experts is justified. No state or county expects to see, this early, a sea change in its correctional systems, recidivism rates, or health-care costs. And it’s not known, for instance, at what rate ex-offenders who enroll in Medicaid actually use health services in their communities.

Many experts, moreover, are wary of the notion that health reform and access to Medicaid for formerly imprisoned men can truly transform America’s criminal-justice system. “Medicaid enrollment for inmates is not the silver bullet,” says Paul Howard, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank and director of its Center for Medical Progress.

He suggests that Medicaid, a $265 billion federal expenditure in 2013, is not yielding adequate results for the cost – and that it’s time to take “a long and hard look” before expanding it to serve even more people. “Extending those benefits to a historically transient and difficult population with a whole host of social-issues challenges will not change their approach to health care or [their] behaviors,” warns Mr. Howard.

Enthusiasts for Medicaid sign-ups for ex-inmates build their hopes on research indicating that recidivism rates fall when prisoners and ex-prisoners receive mental health treatment. A 2010 study by David Mancuso of the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, a state-based policy think tank, found that for state residents enrolled in Medicaid and receiving substance abuse treatment, arrest rates dropped by as much as 33 percent compared with rates for those who didn’t receive treatment, leading to lower correctional costs and better public safety.

In any case, about 8 million prisoners leave America’s prisons and jails every year. Since the rollout of Obamacare last October, ex-offenders account for about 1 million of the 6 million new Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled in expansion states.

While incarcerated, prisoners have a constitutionally protected right to health care, with costs usually covered by the state (even if they have their own health insurance). Typically, privately contracted health companies or public hospital systems provide such care. Most jails and prisons have on-site clinics – in some cases, even full-service hospitals.

While some say the quality of prisoner care could be better, it’s more robust than what usually greets indigent ex-inmates on the outside. In many states, inmates who’ve been diagnosed with chronic conditions receive a small supply of medication upon release, but often no medical provider or insurance for refills – creating a gap in their health care. Correctional health professionals across the United States share stories of inmates who get rearrested so they can get medication....

Substance abuse or mental health issues afflict the vast majority of prison inmates in the US. More than 1 million incarcerated people suffer from mental illness, the Department of Justice estimated in 2006 – almost half the total in custody. As for substance abuse, the picture is even bleaker, affecting between 60 and 80 percent of all inmates, found a 2013 report of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The strongest case study might be Connecticut, which has one of the most comprehensive approaches to Medicaid enrollment in the nation. The state runs all its jails and prisons, making change easier to administer uniformly. It has four jails and 11 prisons, holding almost 17,000 inmates. Here, a person making less than about $15,800 a year qualifies for Medicaid.

The link is obvious between greater access to health care and lower recidivism rates, say state officials. “If you don’t feel well, you don’t act well,” says James Dzurenda, state correction commissioner. “The Affordable Care Act gives our released offenders access to health care, which is critical to release offenders back into the community safely, increase public safety, and ultimately reduce victimization.”...

Last year, Connecticut processed 7,794 Medicaid applications from state criminal-justice agencies. In the same period, state prison population and arrest rates dropped by about 3.4 percent, according to reports from the state Office of Policy and Management....

Enrolling in Medicaid does not guarantee an ex-inmate will instantly turn over a new leaf, of course. Moreover, the cumulative effect promises to be difficult to tease out: None of the programs now in place track inmates after they reenter the community, so there is no way to tell if ex-offenders are actually using the health insurance. Often, ex-inmates stick with their former habits of heading directly to emergency rooms for care, driving up public health costs, according to a recent study of former prisoners in Rhode Island.

Some related prior posts:

July 27, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 19, 2014

US Attorney for NJ: "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity"

Especially in the wake of this US Sentencing Commission's big decision yesterday to vote for retroactive application of its new reduced drug guidelines (basics here and here), a recent opinion piece by the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, struck me as especially timely. This piece is headlined "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity," and here are excerpts: 

Every year, my office prosecutes several hundred defendants who have violated criminal laws passed by Congress. For most of those defendants, a term in federal prison is warranted. Whether they are public officials who betray their oaths, predators who threaten the safety of our neighborhoods and our children, or thieves who cheat the health care system, investors or the government — incarceration is the appropriate punishment.

But prison is usually not meant to last forever. More than 95 percent of federal prisoners will be released after serving their sentences. Altogether, 700,000 federal and state prisoners are released every year, along with millions more who stream through local jails.

Most return to their communities, trying to put their lives back together and avoid the pitfalls that got them in trouble. Bearing the stain of their convictions, they compete for jobs, look for housing and seek educational opportunities.

A staggering number don't succeed. Nationally, two-thirds of people released from state prisons are arrested again; half of those will end up back inside. Forty percent of federal prisoners return to jail in the first three years.

This level of recidivism is unacceptable. Offenders, their families and their communities are devastated by it. Public safety suffers for it. And with more than $74 billion spent annually on federal, state and local corrections, we can’t afford it.

Prison alone isn't enough. Any smart law enforcement model prevents crime by supporting ex-offenders. That is why my U.S. Attorney's Office — along with federal judges, the federal public defender, and the U.S. Probation Office — began the "ReNew" program, a federal re-entry court in Newark. Those leaving federal prison at serious risk of reoffending are invited to participate.

They are closely supervised, meeting biweekly with federal Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, our office, and the federal defenders, and more regularly with probation officers. And they are supported in obtaining housing, jobs, education, counseling and legal assistance. My office provides services to the team and participants and supervises research into the program's efficacy.

This week, the judge will preside over the first graduation ceremony for those who have successfully completed 52 weeks in the program. It is a hugely inspiring milestone for everyone involved, but especially for the graduates reimagining their lives despite great adversity....

Recently, my office launched the New Jersey Re-entry Council, a partnership with acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman, other federal and state agencies, and NGO community members to share resources and ideas.

But there is one more partner we need: you. Finding a job after release is the most important key to success. In a recovering economy, securing a job after prison can be especially difficult. If you have a company that can train or hire our participants, or if you have access to housing, we need to hear from you....

One of every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars. Most will come home. They will have paid their debt and need a chance to support themselves, their families and their communities. We can look at ex-offenders returning to our communities as a risk, or we can help give them that chance. The potential rewards for their lives, for the economy and for our safety are incalculable.

July 19, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct.  Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education).  The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.

Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis.  This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile.  It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Senators Paul and Booker introducing another important bipartisan CJ reform bill

140707_rand_paul_cory_booker_gty_605As reported in this new Washington Post column, a pair of "freshmen senators eager to expand their national profiles are teaming up to introduce a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's criminal justice system that they say will cut government spending and help make it easier for nonviolent criminals to eventually secure a job." Here are the exciting details:

The proposals set to be unveiled Tuesday by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are unlikely to advance this year, but address a series of policy and political priorities for both senators. Booker previously served as mayor of Newark and has made the fate of inner city youth a key part of his public service. Partnering with Paul continues Booker's pattern of seeking out Republicans to work with as he casts himself as a bipartisan broker ahead of his election campaign in November for a full term.

Paul has openly discussed running for president in 2016 and has talked regularly about his concern that the nation's prisons are overcrowded with people serving excessive sentences for minor crimes. Such concerns are a key element of his libertarian-leaning philosophy and further cast him as a Republican eager and willing to cross the aisle -- and visit the nation's urban centers -- to seek out policy solutions and gain supporters in areas of the country often ignored by Republicans.

Most of all, aides say the legislation addresses a common concern for Booker and Paul: That the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, but a quarter of the world's prison population.

The REDEEM Act proposal would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibly to 18 years of age; expunge or seal the records of juveniles who commit non-violent crimes before they turn 15; place limits on the solitary confinement of most juveniles; and establish a system to allow eligible nonviolent criminals to petition a court to ask that their criminal records be sealed. Sealing the records would keep them out of FBI background checks requested by employers and likely make it easier for those former offenders to secure a job.

Currently 10 states set the age at which someone can be tried in adult criminal court below 18, a move that the senators said in their statement "sends countless kids into the unforgiving adult criminal system." In hopes of reversing the trend, Booker and Paul propose giving states that change the minimum age preference when applying for federal community police grants. The same preference would be given to states that allow nonviolent offenders to petition to have their criminal records sealed. Once the records are sealed, an offender could lawfully claim that their records don't exist.

Booker said in a statement that the legislation "will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."

Paul said, "The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration."...

The fate of the REDEEM Act is unclear since most legislation introduced this year has failed to advance beyond the committee level, especially in the Senate, where years-long personality-driven disputes over procedure and fiscal policy have essentially driven the chamber to a halt.

But the new proposals help build out the policy portfolios for both senators. Paul unveiled a plan last month that would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in federal elections. Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced a proposal in April that would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs for younger Americans, especially minorities struggling to find work.

Senator Rand Paul's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link; Senator Cory Booker's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link.

Some recent and older related posts:

July 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Notable Third Circuit discussion of revocation of supervised release standards

Hard-core federal sentencing fans eager for some extended summer beach reading should check out today's Third Circuit panel decision in US v. Thornhill, No. 13-2876 (3d Cir. July 8, 2014) (available here). The key facts of the case alone take the Third Circuit more than 15 pages to recite, but the start of the majority opinion efficiently spotlights the legal issue that thereafter gets resolved:

In 1984, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, a measure which profoundly “revise[d] the old sentencing process.” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 367 (1989).  One of the reforms effected by the Act was the elimination of special parole and the establishment of a “new system of supervised release.”  Gozlon-Peretz v. United States, 498 U.S. 395, 397 (1991).  The “new system” was codified in 18 U.S.C. § 3583, and included a provision at subsection (g) which mandates the revocation of supervised release and the imposition of a term of imprisonment under certain enumerated circumstances. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(g).

The question we consider is: once § 3583(g)’s mandatory revocation provision is triggered, what guides a district court’s exercise of discretion in determining the length of the defendant’s term of imprisonment?   We conclude that this exercise of discretion is guided by the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

I do not think there is much groundbreaking in the legal analysis in Thornhill, though a partial dissent by Judge Rendell adds intrigue to the ruling. Here are key paragraphs from the start and ends of the six-page dissent:

I part ways with the majority’s disposition, however, because I would remand so that the District Court can meaningfully consider those sentencing factors in connection with the mandatory imprisonment of Ms. Thornhill upon revocation of her supervised release. The length of her term of imprisonment is squarely at issue, and the § 3553(a) factors should be weighed. This is especially true because the District Court varied upward in giving Ms. Thornhill a sentence of three years....

We simply cannot know how meaningful consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, which we now require, would have affected Ms. Thornhill’s sentence. Speculation on our part as to what the Court might have been considering, and whether those reasons coincide with § 3553(a), cannot be enough to uphold Ms. Thornhill’s above-guidelines sentence. In short, Ms. Thornhill deserves to have the rule announced today applied to her case. I respectfully dissent from the majority’s disposition.

July 8, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Managing Prisons by the Numbers: Using the Good-Time Laws and Risk-Needs Assessments to Manage the Federal Prison Population"

The title of this post is the title of this timely and valuable new article available via SSRN authored by Paul J. Larkin Jr. of The Heritage Foundation. Here is the abstract:

The criminal justice system directs actors to make predictions about an offender’s likely recidivism. Today, many criminal justice systems use some form of a risk-needs assessment as a classification tool at various stages of the criminal process, especially when deciding where a particular offender will be housed or whether he should be granted credit toward an early release.

Research has shown that risk-needs assessments have valuable predictive power and therefore can be worthwhile tools for making the myriad predictions needed in the federal criminal justice system. Yet, risk-needs assessments also are controversial. Some commentators have criticized them on the ground that they offend equal protection principles.

The Public Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (RRPSA) attempt to navigate the path toward criminal justice reform by directing the Attorney General to study the value and legality of risk-needs assessments. Legislators who choose to pursue correctional reform by revising the back end of the process would find that the PSEA and the RRPSA are valuable efforts to improve the system.

I have been hopeful (but not confident) that the distinct efforts at federal sentencing and corrections reform found in the PSEA and the RRPSA would not get lost in the discussion and debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act. But I keep fearing that controversy over the type of front-end reform involved in the SSA has tended to eclipse the (arguably more pressing and consequential) back-end reforms developed in the PSEA and the RRPSA. I hope this piece help folks continue to appreciate the need and value of both types of reform in the federal system.

June 27, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision"

PewThe title of this post is the title of a notable new report Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. This press release about the report provides a helpful summary of its main findings, and here are excerpts from the release:

More than 1 in 5 state inmates maxed out their prison terms and were released to their communities without any supervision in 2012, undermining efforts to reduce reoffending rates and improve public safety, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A wide range of laws and policies adopted in the 1980s and ’90s has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate at which inmates serve their full sentences behind bars, leaving no time at the end for parole or probation agencies to monitor their whereabouts and activities or help them transition back into society by providing substance abuse, mental health, or other intervention programs....

Key findings of the report, Max Out: The Rise in Prison Inmates Released Without Supervision, include:

  • Between 1990 and 2012, the number of inmates who maxed out their sentences in prison grew 119 percent, from fewer than 50,000 to more than 100,000.

  • The max-out rate, the proportion of prisoners released without receiving supervision, was more than 1 in 5, or 22 percent of all releases, in 2012.

  • Max-out rates vary widely by state: In Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, fewer than 10 percent of inmates were released without supervision in 2012. More than 40 percent of inmates maxed out their prison terms and left without supervision in Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.

  • Nonviolent offenders are driving the increase. In a subset of states with data available by offense type, 20 and 25 percent of drug and property offenders, respectively, were released without supervision in 2000, but those figures grew to 31 and 32 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, in 2011.

In the past few years, at least eight states—Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia—adopted reforms to ensure that authorities can supervise all or most offenders after release from prison. These policies, most of which are too new to evaluate, typically carve out the supervision period from the prison sentence rather than add time for it after release. This allows states to reduce prison spending and reinvest some of the savings in stronger recidivism-reduction programs....

These new policies are backed by data that indicate inmates released to supervision are less likely to commit new crimes than those who max out and return home without oversight....

The report outlines a policy framework to guide state leaders in reducing max-outs and recidivism. It recommends that policies require post-prison supervision, carve out the community supervision period from prison terms, strengthen parole decision-making, tailor conditions to offenders’ risks and needs, adopt evidence-based practices, and reinvest savings in community corrections.

June 4, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Report on how Chicago makes it nearly impossible for some sex offenders to register

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable local report from Chicago headlined "Chicago police fail to register sex offenders 601 times in just three months." Here is how the story starts:

On February 13 of this year, Bruce Harley went to the Chicago Police Department Headquarters to register as a sex offender. He was one of 22 people who were turned away that day because the office was simply too busy. That’s according to police records. A month later, on March 21, Bruce Harley was approached by Chicago police officers on the West Side of Chicago.

According to an arrest report, Harley wasn’t doing anything illegal but was “loitering in an area known for narcotic activity.”   Officers ran Harley’s name and found he had failed to register.  Harley told the officers he had tried to register on February 13 but had been turned away.  He was arrested anyway and is now in the Cook County Jail, where it costs taxpayers $52,000 a year to house him.

I first heard about sex offenders being prevented from registering a few months ago.  I spent several days waiting in line with offenders outside the criminal registration office at Chicago police headquarters.  I couldn’t believe it when officers came out of the office and told dozens of men who had been waiting for hours that they might as well go home because the office was too busy to register them all.  Then the officers warned the men that they could be arrested for failing to register even though they’d just waited for hours in line to do just that.

I went back several times and saw the same scenario play out.

May 29, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Terrific Posnerian disquisition on supervised release challenges and "best practices"

The always-interesting Judge Richard Posner has another one of his always-interesting discussions of federal sentencing policies and practices today on the Seventh Circuit's opinion in US v. Siegel, No. 13-1633 (7th Cir. May 29, 2014) (available here). The topic du jour is federal supervised release, and the full Siegel opinion is a must-read for all who work within the federal criminal justice system. And this paragraph from the start of the opinion and then a later passage highlight why:

We have consolidated these two criminal appeals because (with an exception discussed at the end of the opinion) both challenge only conditions of supervised release, imposed by the district court, and because the challenges raise closely related issues concerning such conditions. The issues ramify far beyond these two cases, however, which exemplify common but largely unresolved problems in the imposition of such conditions as a part of federal criminal sentencing....

In summary, these cases must be remanded for reconsideration of the conditions of supervised release imposed on these defendants that we have raised questions about. And for the future we recommend the following “best practices” to sentencing judges asked to impose (or minded on their own to impose) conditions of supervised release:

1. Require the probation service to communicate its recommendations for conditions of supervised release to defense counsel at least two weeks before the sentencing hearing.

2. Make an independent judgment (as required in fact by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)) of the appropriateness of the recommended conditions—independent, that is, of agreement between prosecutor and defense counsel (and defendant) on the conditions, or of the failure of defense counsel to object to the conditions recommended by the probation service.

3. Determine appropriateness with reference to the particular conduct, character, etc., of the defendant, rather than on the basis of loose generalizations about the defendant’s crime and criminal history, and where possible with reference also to the relevant criminological literature.

4. Make sure that each condition imposed is simply worded, bearing in mind that, with rare exceptions, neither the defendant nor the probation officer is a lawyer and that when released from prison the defendant will not have a lawyer to consult.

5. Require that on the eve of his release from prison, the defendant attend a brief hearing before the sentencing judge (or his successor) in order to be reminded of the conditions of supervised release. That would also be a proper occasion for the judge to consider whether to modify one or more of the conditions in light of any changed circumstances brought about by the defendant’s experiences in prison.

May 29, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime"

Web_collateral_damageThe title of this post is the title of this important new report released this morning by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The genesis of the report and its essential elements are well summarized via the text of an e-mail I received from NACDL about this report. Here is the start of this e-mail:

At an event this morning at the Open Society Foundations in Washington, DC, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) is releasing a major new report -- Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime – A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction.  With more than 65 million people in America having some form of a criminal record, the universality and import of the problem this nonpartisan report tackles is tremendous.  NACDL's Task Force on the Restoration of Rights and Status After Conviction held hearings all over the country, featuring testimony from more than 150 witnesses from every corner of the criminal justice system, as part of the research leading to this report.  Included among the witnesses were those who have faced unfair, irrational, and often life-altering barriers arising from a brush with the criminal law.  Many of their stories are captured in the report. And many more are available in the complete transcripts of the Task Force’s hearings.

With more than one in four adults in the United States having some form of a criminal record, and more than 2.2 million people currently behind bars in the United States, more than any other nation in the world, the vast impact of the problem of collateral consequences and legal barriers to reentry is undeniable.

  • More than 19 million people in America have a felony conviction on their record.
  • There are 14 million new arrests each year.
  • The burden of the collateral consequences of a conviction, just as arrests figures and so much else about America’s criminal justice system, is racially and ethnically disparate. For example, a criminal record hits black job seekers harder than white job seekers.
  • The U.S. lags behind other countries in the area of the restoration or rights and status.
  • Giving people the opportunity to move beyond a criminal record enhances public safety and saves money.
  • These secret collateral consequences are frequently the result of legislative bodies reflexively and irrationally creating laws as a response to the crime-du-jour, most often without seeking out the appropriate data to craft sound policy.
  • At last count, the American Bar Association’s National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (http://www.abacollateralconsequences.org/) has identified more than 45,000 separate collateral consequences in existence.

Often without any nexus whatsoever to the offense charged and/or for which an individual has been convicted, many people who have a brush with the law lose everything from their voting rights and their Second Amendment right to bear arms, to access to federal student loans. Some even lose their homes as a result of draconian laws designed to exclude entire families from public housing as a result of the alleged misdeeds of a single family member. 

May 29, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Candidates for Maryland governor seek votes by helping ex-convicts"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Baltimore Sun article which serves as more proof that the modern politics of crime and punishment have changed. Not long ago, candidates for governor would seek votes by talking up who could hurt lawbreakers more. Now the theme is helpping, and here is how this article starts:

When Democrat Douglas F. Gansler stopped by a Baltimore sports bar recently, the ex-convict behind the bar struck up a conversation. It's a tough road, the worker told Gansler, to get any job.

"I'm trying to turn my life around," he said. "I've got a newborn son." Gansler nodded emphatically, and dove into the wonky details of a seemingly unconventional plank in a former prosecutor's platform for governor. Gansler, like all the Democrats vying for the state's top political job, has a detailed plan to ensure ex-offenders do not go back to prison. The issue resonates in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

As public perception shifts about whether the "war on drugs" has succeeded, and as prison populations rise to unprecedented and costly levels, political experts say many candidates across the country have traded a tough-on-crime attitude for a more nurturing approach.

The three Democrats in Maryland's primary race for governor emphasize proposals for programs such as job training to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. At forums, in policy papers, to community groups and on the campaign trail, each is pushing ideas to reduce recidivism.

"Compared to the candidates four years ago, it's a very different tone," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director at Job Opportunities Task Force, which tries to help ex-offenders get work. "Candidates are sensing the mood has changed."

Nationwide, re-entry has become a bipartisan talking point, though Maryland's Republican candidates for governor have not made helping former inmates a top issue leading up to the June 24 primary.

May 28, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones say "Prison system is failing America"

Not only has CNN brought together a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former advisory to President Barack Obama as co-hosts of "Crossfire," but it now has published this interesting joint commentary under the headline "Prison system is failing America."  Here are excerpts from an interesting opinion piece that goes a bit beyond just the usual standard points about the various problems with modern mass incarceration:

Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country. There are about as many people behind bars as live in Chicago. That's one in every 108 Americans. One in 35 are under some form of correctional supervision.

Among African Americans, the numbers are even more horrifying. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That's compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in 25 white males.

It would be hard to overstate the scale of this tragedy. For a nation that loves freedom and cherishes our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the situation should be intolerable. It is destroying lives and communities.

Our corrections system is not correcting. Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime with one out of every four ending up back in prison.

When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.

The current system is broken beyond repair. It's a human, social and financial disaster. We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight.... We need to rethink prisons, parole and probation for the 21st century.

At a time when high-quality education is increasingly digital and in many cases free, shouldn't we provide opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that will enable them to support themselves as upstanding citizens when they are released?

We know that inmates who earn a GED while incarcerated are substantially less likely to return to prison. There are readily available online tools that our prisons could use extensively for a minimal cost to increase the number of inmates receiving valuable education and skills training.

Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum online for free. Udacity and other online education sites offer introductions to software programming for free. Our prisons should be using tools such as these extensively. They offer the opportunity to interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration....

Technology should revolutionize more than just the prisons' rehabilitation programs. It should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems.... [T]echnology should enable much more effective probation and community supervision, especially new options that could allow nonviolent offenders to remain with their families living productive lives under an appropriate level of restriction.

Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders --apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service -- would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals. Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation -- in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics....

Years ago, Van proposed that states give wardens a financial incentive to cut the rates of recidivism for inmates leaving their prisons. More than 65% of inmates in California return to prison within three years of their release, where they will again cost taxpayers an average of $47,000 each year.

Surely it is worth giving wardens a substantial portion of the savings for every inmate that leaves their prison and does not re-offend. Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners. That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible.

Finally, we need real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process -- in probation and parole offices as well as prisons. That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?...

We should start by opening our prisons and probation offices to innovation to save money, achieve better outcomes for individuals and ensure better safety for us all.

May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Save money, reduce crime: Alternative sentencing works, so Ohio needs to do more of it"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lead editorial appearing in today's Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch has a reputation as a pretty conservative paper (e.g., it has endorsed only GOP Prez candidates for nearly a century), so I see this editorial as further significant proof that more and more traditional conservative voices are seeing the value of (and now actively making the case for) sentencing and prison reforms.  Here are excerpts from this editorial:

Ohio has made progress in easing prison crowding by offering alternatives for nonviolent offenders. But a look at the numbers shows that more can be done. The good news is, Ohio already knows what works: putting nonviolent felons in programs that make them better prepared to lead crime-free lives rather than in expensive prisons with hardened criminals.  The challenge is to find the resources for the up-front investment.

Alternative-sentencing programs, such as the 18 community-based correction facilities and other programs based on drug-and-alcohol treatment and life-skills training, have a record of reducing recidivism.  But the state hasn’t invested in them equally across the state, according to Ohio Division of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary C. Mohr....

A proposal contained in one of the mid-biennium budget-review bills would provide about $13 million to add 400 to 500 community-facility beds across the state.  Because stays in such programs typically are three months, each of those beds could allow three people per year to get help and treatment rather than a prison stay.  That saves taxpayers money and increases the chance that the offender will go on to a productive life — a double win.

As Ohio’s prisons grow more crowded and potentially more dangerous, the need for more alternatives becomes clearer. One in every 175 Ohio adults is in a state prison, and with nearly 51,000 inmates, the system has 30 percent more than it was designed for. Considering that each of those inmates costs taxpayers nearly $23,000 a year and that a large number are low-level, nonviolent offenders, it’s an expensive way to deal with societal problems.

A change to state sentencing law in 2011 aimed to ease the burden by steering more nonviolent offenders to community-based correction programs. The largest counties responded, and two years ago the prison population seemed to be on the decline. But Ohio’s wave of heroin and other opiate addictions, combined with too few alternative-treatment options, have swelled the prison population again.... But Mohr now finds himself with a new peak population and no reduction in sight unless the state invests more in alternatives.

Legislators should take note of the successful track record of alternative correction and steer available funds in that direction. Ohio won’t benefit from more prisons; putting low-level criminals in prison is a lousy business model with a poor return on investment. Spending less to provide the type of supportive correction that can turn around lives is a much smarter proposition. And it saves prison beds for those who pose the greatest threat to society.

Recent related post:

May 20, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 03, 2014

"Harsh Sentencing, Overstuffed Prisons — It's Time for Reform"

The title of this post is the headline given to this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Mortimer Zuckerman.  Here are excerpts:

Too many people are in prison who should not be there.  How many?  Most of them!  It is not that they are innocent of the offenses that put them there.  It is that they are in prison mainly because we have criminalized vast areas for nonviolent offenders and compounded that with a distorted sentencing system.  Criminal justice cries out for reform.  Congress and the Justice Department have begun to listen.

Since 1980 the U.S. federal prison population has grown by about 800% (to 216,787 this week, according to the Bureau of Prisons), while the country's population has increased only a third.  By comparison, under President Reagan, the total correctional-control rate (that includes everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole) was less than half what it is today.  And here's another shocker: At the federal level, nonviolent offenders account for 90% of prisoners....

Federal prisons today house nearly 40% more inmates than they were designed for, many of them repeat offenders.  According to an April 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, more than 40% of state ex-convicts return to their cells within three years of release, and in some states the recidivism rate approaches 60%.  The inflexible mandatory-sentencing rules inflict punishments that in many cases no reasonable judge would impose — and then the system turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in.  For instance, a June 2013 paper by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of MIT found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13% and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23%.

There is now an awakening to the desperate situation we created (out of the best of motives).  It is manifest in Congress, which has a bipartisan bill before it to refocus federal resources on incarcerating violent offenders and move away from low-level ones. We also see the urge for reform in Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as in the states, which together have six times as many prisoners as the federal government....

The states are laboratories of reform led by vigorous governors—who realize that prisons cost the states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985.  Beginning in 2007, Texas, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, rejected a proposal to build eight more prisons (and has saved an estimated $2 billion overall in projected corrections spending).  Instead, Texas is shifting nonviolent offenders from state prisons into alternative treatment, and budgeting for rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally-ill prisoners.  A March 2013 Pew Charitable Trust report on state and consumer initiatives found that the rate of parole failure had dropped 39% since 2007 and Texas had its lowest crime rate since the 1960s.

More than a dozen other states — including Ohio, Georgia and South Carolina — are shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders. Instead of spending on more prisons, many states are increasing the number and compensation of parole caseworkers, who in the past have been almost perpetually overwhelmed.  Technology like ATM-style check-in stations and ankle bracelets with GPS helps.

But funding is required for the roughly 650,000 federal and state prisoners who are released every year into society.  You cannot drop them on the curb to fend for themselves, for two-thirds are rearrested within three years.  Enlisting family members to help once their relative leaves prison is one proven way to reduce recidivism.  Sentencing nonviolent offenders to a minimum-security prison or even to home confinement is not only cheaper but also eliminates the strain on separated families and reduces the contagion of crime.

We have to be smart and tough on criminal-justice spending, with the goal of getting the most public safety from the more-efficient expenditures of taxpayer dollars. The central idea must be to return significant criminal-justice discretionary dollars to local authorities. Reserve expensive prison beds for career criminals and violent felons, and give local jails the responsibility and funding to oversee low-level inmates involved with less-violent crimes.

The politics of all this are admittedly touchy. But we cannot remain in the mind-set created by the 1980s crime explosion that led to a narrowing of criminals rights and tougher penalties. Think of all the billions spent building prisons that could have been spent on roads, hospitals, schools and airports. If we do not support the initiatives of all three government branches to reform the system, the verdict could only be: Guilty of waste and injustice.

May 3, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

"Sex offender housing restrictions do more harm than good"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Concord Monitor editorial.  Here are excerpts:

Of all the constituents that politicians want to help out, sex offenders probably rank at the very bottom of the list.  But the New Hampshire Senate should summon the courage to do just that. By helping sex offenders, as strange as it sounds, the Senate will end up making life safer for everyone else.

At issue is legislation that would ban cities and towns from placing broad restrictions on where sex offenders may live.  Several communities have attempted such restrictions, and lower-court judges have already struck down two as unconstitutional: one in Franklin and one in Dover.  In both cities, local officials wanted to keep convicted sex offenders from living too close to places where children regularly gather: schools, day care centers and playgrounds.  Several other communities still have such ordinances on the books, among them Tilton, Sanbornton, Northfield and Boscawen.

The impulse to keep sex offenders away from kids via zoning is completely understandable.  But there is strong reason to resist. And there is strong reason to set such policy at the state level, rather than leaving it to individual communities.

A growing body of evidence — gathered not just by civil liberties lawyers, but from law enforcement officers, public officials and child advocacy groups — suggests that residency restrictions are placebo pills at best and counterproductive at worst.  Such ordinances give communities a false sense of security while driving sex offenders underground or into rural areas where they can’t access the services that give them the best chance at rehabilitation....

An Iowa study, for instance, showed that sexual-abuse convictions had remained steady since statewide residency restrictions went into effect five years earlier but that the number of sex offenders failing to register their addresses with local police departments, as the law required, had more than doubled.

When a sex offender has served his sentence, it is in everyone’s interest that he succeed on the outside. Passing this bill would help.

April 1, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack

Friday, March 28, 2014

"Adventures in Risk: Predicting Violent and Sexual Recidivism in Sentencing Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Risk has become a focal point of criminal justice policy.  Officials draw upon the sciences for the best evidence to differentiate between offenders at high risk of being a future threat to society, for whom preventive incapacitation may be justifiable, and those at low risk, for whom diversion might alleviate the overuse of imprisonment.  A recent turn in evidence-based practices is to borrow the newest technologies developed in the forensic mental health field to better classify offenders accordingly to their predicted likelihood of recidivism.

Actuarial risk assessment is considered the new frontier as a progressive sentencing reform, representing best practices in predicting recidivism risk.  The actuarial turn is adjudged to offer probabilistic estimates of risk that are objective, reliable, transparent, and logical.  Policy groups, state legislatures, judges, and probation offices actively promote the use of actuarial risk assessment, believing the empirically-derived tools effectively standardize sentencing practices, mitigate bias, and thereby increase the legal and moral standing of sentencing outcomes.

Actuarial prediction is promoted as founded upon scientific and empirical principals.  This Article critically analyzes the predictive abilities of actuarial risk prediction tools utilizing statistical, empirical, and legal methods.  A specific focus herein is the risk prediction of those criminals for whom fear is strongest: violent and sexual offenders.

Several questions are of interest: Is widespread reliance on actuarial sentencing justified? Are actuarial risk results sufficiently relevant, valid, and reliable for sentencing law?  Is actuarial evidence too prejudicial, confusing, and misleading to meet evidentiary standards in sentencing?  

The Article addresses proponents’ arguments that, regardless of any weaknesses, actuarial risk results should be admissible because they constitute merely one piece of evidence in a multi-faceted decision and that any flaws or errors in the evidence can be deduced through normal adversarial processes.

March 28, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Illinois commission advocates against putting all juve sex offenders on registry

As explained in this AP article, headlined "Commission: Remove Juveniles From Sex Offender Registries," a new public policy report urges Illinois officials to no longer require juvenile sex offenders to register. Here are the basics:

Requiring juveniles to register as sex offenders impairs rehabilitation efforts for a crime that very few of them ever commit again, according to a study released Tuesday.  The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission’s report recommends ending the practice of making offenders younger than 17 add their names to sex-offender registries, which can negatively affect an offender for years.  Every juvenile convicted of a sex crime must register, and 70 percent of the 2,553 currently registered must do so for life, the report said.

The 150-page review of laws and treatment practices regarding juvenile sex crimes calls for the state to abolish the categorical requirement for young offenders’ registration.  The report [available here], which the General Assembly requested in 2012, says sex crimes committed in youth are seldom repeated in adulthood and that individualized, community-based treatment plans are highly effective and more productive than incarceration.

“Automatic, categorical registries do not protect public safety,” commission chairman George Timberlake, a retired chief circuit judge from Mount Vernon, told The Associated Press.  “There’s no evidentiary basis that says they do and more importantly, they have very negative consequences in the effects they have on the offenders’ life, and perhaps the victim’s life.”

Timberlake said the victim, often a family member, loses confidentiality through offender registration and can also suffer from not being able to resume a familial relationship with an offender who is required to register.  He added that a registry might be appropriate based on risk.  Many states offer courts flexibility.

The report recommends developing statewide standards and training for courts and law enforcement professionals for intervening with young sex offenders and victims.  It also calls for a consistent assessment tool for evaluating risks an individual juvenile poses. Also, the report says, offenders whenever possible should be kept in treatment programs in their homes that involve parents as opposed to locking them up.

March 25, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, March 24, 2014

AG Eric Holder announces new rules for federal halfway houses

Via this official press release, I see that Attorney General Eric Holder is continuing his effort to reshape the policies and practices of the federal criminal justice system, this time through new policies and programming for federal halfway houses.  The title and subtitle of the press release itself provides a summary of this latest development: "In New Step to Fight Recidivism, Attorney General Holder Announces Justice Department to Require Federal Halfway Houses to Boost Treatment Services for Inmates Prior to Release; New Rules Also Instruct Federal Halfway Houses to Provide Transportation Assistance, Cell Phone Access in Order to Help Inmates Seek Employment Opportunities."

Here is more from the start of the press release:

In a new step to further the Justice Department’s efforts towards enhancing reentry among formerly incarcerated individuals, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will impose new requirements on federal halfway houses that help inmates transition back into society.  Under the proposed new requirements, these halfway houses will have to provide a specialized form of treatment to prisoners, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues.  For the first time, halfway houses will also have to provide greater assistance to inmates who are pursuing job opportunities, such as permitting cell phones to be used by inmates and providing funds for transportation.  The new requirements also expand access to electronic monitoring equipment, such as GPS-equipped ankle bracelets, to allow more inmates to utilize home confinement as a reentry method.

Holder announced the changes in a video message posted on the Department’s website. The BOP’s new policies have the potential to be far-reaching. To ease their transition, those exiting prison typically spend the last few months of their sentence in either a federal halfway house — known as a residential reentry center (RRC) — or under home confinement, or a combination of the two. These community-based programs provide much needed assistance to returning citizens in finding employment and housing, facilitating connections with service providers, reestablishing ties to family and friends, and more.

Last year alone, more than 30,000 federal inmates passed through a halfway house. Among the most significant changes Holder announced is the requirement for standardized Cognitive Behavioral Programming (CBP) to be offered at all federal halfway houses.  This treatment will address behavior that places formerly incarcerated individuals at higher risk of recidivism. As part of this treatment requirement, BOP is setting guidelines for instructor qualifications, class size and length, and training for all staff at the halfway houses.

Several other modifications are being made to the standard contracts that apply to federal halfway houses in order to provide greater support to returning citizens. Examples include requiring halfway houses to provide public transportation vouchers or transportation assistance to help residents secure employment, requiring all federal halfway houses to allow residents to have cell phones to facilitate communication with potential employers and family, and improving and expanding home confinement by increasing the use of GPS monitoring.

March 24, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Just what is Ohio doing so right with respect to reentry and recidivism? Can it be replicated nationwide?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this wonderful new AP news from my own state, which carries the headline "State reports record-low Ohio prisoner return rate."  Here are the details:

Fewer Ohio prisoners than ever are going back to prison after they’ve been released, the state announced Wednesday, attributing the drop to community programs that work with newly released prisoners, and new prison units that prepare people for life outside bars.  The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says the current inmate return rate of 27.1 percent, down from 28.7 percent a year ago, is far below the national rate of 40 to 44 percent.

The rate affects not just the prison system’s bottom line but the bigger goal of reducing crime in Ohio, prisons director Gary Mohr said.  “If our people being released from prison are committing less offenses, then we have less crime victims,” Mohr told The Associated Press. “I think that’s the most important piece.”  Saving money on prison operations also means more state dollars can be spent earlier in people’s lives on things like education, he added.

Going forward, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to help connect incarcerated people to needed resources as they come home.  The state projects that roughly 366,000 residents will be newly eligible for coverage by the end of June 2015 by increasing the state-federal health care program for poor children and families.  Mohr says a lower return rate will also help the state reduce its prisoner population, currently about 50,500.

A 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number hasn’t had the desired impact, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.  The current prison population hasn’t changed much since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.... Ohio’s prisoner population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Mohr warned last year....

It’s not that the 2011 law is failing.  Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower the prisoner population.  Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.

The rate announced Wednesday is based on a three-year study of inmates released in 2010.

The report/study on which this article is based is available at this link under the simple title "DRC Recidivism Rates."  I would be grateful for any and all help figuring out if there are other big important conclusions or lessons (good or bad) to be drawn from this report beyond the one discussed above.

March 5, 2014 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

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

"15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner"

OnionThe title of this post is the headline of this amusing new item in The Onion sent my way by one of my terrific students.  Here are highlights from this all-too-biting satire:

Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation.

“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999....

Gunderson [also] noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.

March 4, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 16, 2014

New York Gov makes serious push for serious educational programming behind bars

This new AP article, headlined "Gov. Cuomo wants state to fund college classes for NY prisoners," reports on a notable new prison proposal coming from a notable elected official. Here are the basics:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to fund college classes in New York prisons, saying a college degree will reduce the likelihood an inmate will return to crime when released. The program will offer associate and bachelor's degree education at 10 prisons, one in each region of the state.

According to Cuomo's office, New York currently spends $60,000 per year on each prisoner, and it will cost approximately $5,000 per year to educate an inmate. Cuomo didn't specify the cost of the overall program. The state will issue a Request for Proposal from qualified educational associations in March.

Since 2007, the state Department of Corrections has partnered with colleges, including Cornell University and Bard College, to offer privately funded degree programs at 22 prisons. The new program will expand on that.

February 16, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 10, 2014

Registered sex offender makes case against sex offender registry

Guy Hamilton-Smith, a registered sex offender and law school graduate who has so-far been denied the opportunity to become a member of the bar, has this new op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader under the headline "Sex-offender registry misguided thinking." Here are excerpts:

I am a sex offender. I know well the tremendous power of those words. In 2007, I pled guilty to possession of child pornography.

Nothing here is meant to defend what I did or to minimize the gravity of my actions. I had a major problem with pornography, and I was far too deep in denial and too scared to reach out to anyone.  Help eventually came when my girlfriend discovered child porn on my computer and went to the police.  I was then and remain grateful to her for taking that step.

As I went through the legal process after my arrest, I developed a keen interest in the law, and a sincere desire to advocate on the behalf of those who are hated, who are lost, and who are forgotten.  With luck, I managed to win acceptance to law school despite my conviction.  I worked harder than I'd ever worked in my life, because I knew I'd have a lot to do to overcome my past.  I did well in school, graduated, secured a job at a law firm after disclosing my past, and applied to take the bar exam.  Recently, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that I will not be allowed to take the bar exam until I am no longer on the sex-offender registry, which will be another 18 years from now.

But the point I want to make is not about me. It isn't about my case. I am not here to say whether the court's decision was right or wrong. The principles at play are much larger than me.  

Strange as it may sound coming from a felon and a sex offender, I believe in the necessity of punishment.  How else, after all, are people supposed to make amends for the harm that they cause? ... I believe in many ways that my life was saved by virtue of my arrest.  I am sensitive to the fact that my crime, and the crimes of others on the sex offender registry, are serious. I do not mean to denigrate the plight of victims, as I was also a victim at one point in my own childhood.

My point, rather, is simply this: punishment that becomes unmoored from considerations of proportionality, redemption and reintegration becomes poison, and we — society, victims and perpetrators — become diminished by it.

Nowhere is this more evident than the sex-offender registry.  Those who find themselves constituents of the registry are routinely and uniformly denied the same second chance afforded to so many other criminal defendants after they have served their sentences.  

The impetus behind the registry is the popular belief that sex offenders always commit new sex crimes.  That view, however, is at odds with data from the Department of Justice and others....

I know that I am not a sympathetic figure by virtue of my crime.  I know that I can never change the past or undo the things that I have done.  My hope here is that we can have a discussion in this country that is long overdue — namely, what it is that we hope to achieve from our system of criminal justice.

February 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent article from The Atlantic. The subheading highlights its themes: "An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 prisoners released each year have substance abuse or mental health problems. But no one has been willing to pay for their treatment — until now."  Here is an excerpt:

An astonishing two-thirds of the 730,000 men and women released from America’s lockups each year have either substance abuse problems, mental health problems, or both. Very often, those problems were largely responsible for getting them locked up in the first place. Most addicted and mentally ill prisoners receive little or no effective treatment while they’re incarcerated or after they’re turned loose, so it’s little surprise that ... they soon wind up back in jail. But for some, that revolving door may stop spinning this year, thanks to a little-noticed side-effect of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Obamacare, it turns out, might be a crime-fighting tool.

Numerous studies support the common-sense notion that treating offenders’ drug addictions and mental illnesses helps keep at least some of them from going back to jail. Get that junkie off heroin, and maybe he won’t steal your car stereo for fix money; get that mentally ill homeless person on proper medications, and maybe she can find a job instead of turning tricks in alleys. “It’s not the drug itself, it’s the stealing and robbing they do to get the drug,” says Abbie Zimmerman, a therapist at Transitions Clinic, a program based in San Francisco’s hard-bitten Hunter’s Point area that treats former prisoners (including Sanders, who is now an outreach worker there). “If I can keep them sober, I can keep them out of jail.”

But no one has been willing to pay for such treatment for hundreds of thousands of ex-cons. And they certainly can’t afford it themselves: According to a recent report by the Council of State Governments, the vast majority of released prisoners re-enter society with little money and no health insurance. But now many of those former prisoners are eligible for insurance, courtesy of the federal government.

Among many other reforms, the ACA is drastically expanding Medicaid, the federal insurance scheme for the poor. Previously, able-bodied childless adults were generally not covered by Medicaid, regardless of how impoverished they might have been. But starting this year, any American citizen under age 65 with a family income at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line — about $25,000 for a family of three — is eligible for Medicaid (at least in the two dozen states that have so far agreed to participate in this aspect of Obamacare). Meanwhile, citizens and legal immigrants earning between 138 percent and 400 percent of the poverty line are now entitled to subsidies to help pay for private insurance. Taken together, those two provisions mean that tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of the inmates released every year are now eligible for health insurance, including coverage for mental health and substance abuse services.

Providing treatment to those former prisoners could yield enormous benefits for all of us. The average cost to incarcerate someone for a year is roughly $25,000. That means if only one percent of each year’s released inmates stay out of trouble, taxpayers will save nearly $200 million annually — and the pool of troubled ex-cons looking to steal your car stereo will be that much smaller. “Success in implementing the Affordable Care Act has the potential to decrease crime, recidivism, and criminal justice costs, while simultaneously improving the health and safety of communities,” sums up a recent report by the federal Department of Justice.

It all looks great on paper. But there are significant obstacles to making this work in the real world. One is the simple fact that many former prisoners aren’t even aware of their new entitlements. “I don’t really know what Obamacare is,” says Ernest Kirkwood, a Transitions client who spent 29 years in prison, when I tell him I’d like to talk to him about the new health care regime. “I never read the newspaper.”

Making services available is one thing. Getting people whose judgment isn’t that great in the first place to actually use them is another. Plenty of drug users and mentally ill people don’t want to admit they have a problem. The stigma that persists around mental illness keeps some should-be patients away. Richard Rawson, a professor of psychiatry specializing in substance abuse at the University of California, Los Angeles, points out that an earlier experiment that provided residential treatment to just-released drug offenders didn’t work as well as hoped. “People said, ‘I just got out, I don’t want to be in rehab for another year,’” he says.

January 20, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Intermediate NJ appeals panel upholds broad restriction on released sex offender access to social media websites

As reported in this AP article, headlined "NJ panel: Sex offenders can be kept off Facebook," a New Jersey appeals panel handed down today a notable opinion upholding a notable restriction on computer use by released sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that paroled sex offenders can be barred from Facebook, LinkedIn and other online social networks.

Two offenders had gone to court to challenge that restriction, saying social networks are important ways to get news, information and find business opportunities.

However, a three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that the offenders can be kept off social network as a term of parole. The judges said they agree that the networks are an important facet of modern life, but said there is a good reason to keep convicted sex offenders off them. "The provisions are legitimately aimed at restricting such offenders from participating in unwholesome interactive discussions on the Internet with children or strangers who might fall prey to their potential recidivist behavior," Judge Jack Sabatino said in his opinion. He noted that the parolees can still get news and buy products online.

The ruling referenced in this article is partially available at this link, and here are excerpts from the start of the opinion:

Appellants J.B., L.A., B.M., and W.M. are individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses, have completed their respective prison terms, and are now being monitored by respondent New Jersey State Parole Board (the "Parole Board") as of fenders who are subject to either parole supervision for life ("PSL") or its statutory predecessor, community supervision for life ("CSL"). Represented by the same attorney, appellants challenge the constitutionality of certain terms of supervision the Parole Board has imposed upon them. Similar conditions have been imposed on other offenders subject to CSL or PSL, although appellants have not filed a class action.

The terms of supervision mainly being challenged in these related appeals are (1) the Parole Board's restrictions on appellants' access to social media or other comparable web sites on the Internet; and (2) the Parole Board's authority to compel them to submit to periodic polygraph examinations....

For the reasons that follow, we reject appellants' facial challenges to the Internet access restrictions, subject to their right to bring future "as-applied" challenges should they avail themselves of the Parole Board's procedures for requesting specific permission for more expanded Internet access and are then denied such permission.

I expect the defendants here may be eager to appeal this matter to the NJ Supreme Court and maybe even the US Supreme Court, especially since it appears that the internet use restrictions upheld here are set to last a lifetime.  And though this case might not be the best vehicle, I suspect that SCOTUS will eventually have to consider what restrictions can be poperly place on internet access for released offenders.

November 26, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Monday, November 18, 2013

Are special jail facilities for veterans (and other special populations) key to reducing recidivism?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable Los Angeles Times article headlined "Separate jail facilities seek to cut recidivism rates among veterans." Here are excerpts:

The N-Module-3 housing wing at the San Diego County Jail was recently repainted red, white and blue.  Brightly colored paintings now hang on the walls: one of the Statue of Liberty, another of the U.S. flag, and one of a screaming eagle landing with talons outstretched.  Hanging from the ceiling are the service flags of U.S. military branches and the POW/MIA flag.

The paintings and the flags are key to a program begun this month that aims to reduce recidivism among veterans who have slipped into the criminal justice system after leaving the structured world of military service.

Thirty-two veterans serving sentences or awaiting trial have volunteered to live in the module separate from the other prisoners and participate in classes meant to increase their chances of making a law-abiding return to civilian life.  "We're all dedicated to making this work, nobody wants to go back," said Jeremy Thomas, 22, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan and lost his left hand when a roadside bomb exploded.

Each of the veterans has agreed to take classes Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to assist with problems of post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, substance abuse, parenting and other issues.  "We hope that by putting them together we can rekindle that esprit de corps they had when they were serving their country," said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs the jails. "It's a great population to work with."

The program was spurred both by a sense of obligation toward the veterans and also an increased need to reduce recidivism to accommodate the state's prison realignment program that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of local jails.  "We've got to do things differently," Gore said....

Nationwide, a small but growing number of jails have housing and programs specifically targeting veterans, an effort that the VA encourages and supports by forming partnerships with local law enforcement.  "Being treated as a veteran reminds them of a time when their lives made sense and they deserved the respect of others," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, told a recent convention of the American Correctional Assn.

An estimated 1 in 9 prisoners in the U.S. is a military veteran, according to the Department of Justice.  But only 1 in 6 is being helped by the VA with the challenge of resuming life after incarceration, said Shinseki, who has vowed to get more help for those veterans.

The California prison system does not house veterans separately from other prisoners but does encourage formation of veterans-only discussion groups at its 34 institutions, a spokesman said.  VA "reentry specialists" regularly meet with prisoners on the verge of being released to tell them of benefits and therapy programs.

In Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff's Department runs the largest jail system in the country, 291 prisoners are housed in veteran-only dorms where they participate in programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and classes in art, computers and relationship counseling.

One of the oldest and most successful of the veterans-behind-bars programs is run by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department at its jail in San Bruno. Begun in 2010, the San Francisco program houses 48 veterans in a separate "pod" where they can receive help from specialists from the VA and the Bay Area nonprofit group Swords to Plowshares....

Most of the jail deputies are volunteers who preferred working with the veterans. "In here, the staff is totally different than out there," said inmate Kimbra Kelley, 49, a former Marine.

There are incentives for inmates to participate, seemingly small to outsiders but very large in the life of the incarcerated: pillows, more television time, more time in the exercise yard, extra mattresses, an extra visit each week from family members, access to a vending machine and, soon, a microwave oven. "This is the future, gentlemen: incentive housing," sheriff's Lt. Steven Wicklander told the inmates during a visit this month.

If any of the 32 veterans quits attending the classes and stays in his cell, he can be returned to general population. There's a waiting list among the 270 veterans in county custody to transfer to N-Module-3.  "We were given an opportunity, and we're going to hold on to it for dear life," said Dana Mulvany, 42, who served in the Navy.

November 18, 2013 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, November 15, 2013

Is AG Eric Holder going to stay on the job until he truly reforms American criminal justice?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this new Washington Post article headlined "Reforming justice system is personal goal for Eric Holder Jr."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

As the Justice Department seeks new ways to reduce the burgeoning U.S. prison population, its success is likely to depend on community programs such as the one in this small city in America’s heartland.

In the past 11 years, federal prosecutors here have authorized substance abuse treatment and other assistance for more than 100 low-level offenders as an alternative to prison sentences.  Eighty-seven have successfully completed the program and, in the process, saved the federal government more than $6 million by sparing it the cost of incarceration....

Justice officials see the program in Peoria as a model for other communities — and central to the criminal justice reforms that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to implement.  In August, at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.  He has also introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, and to improve reentry programs to curb repeat offenses.

The announcements have heralded some of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts from the department in years.  For Holder — who has said that as a U.S. attorney and judge he saw neighborhoods destroyed by both illegal drugs and the tough-on-crime legislation that has disproportionately affected black men — the issue has been personal.

“Day after day, I watched lines of young people, most often young men of color, stream through my courtroom,” Holder told ex-offenders Thursday during a visit to a St. Louis courthouse, one of a string of stops he is making to promote his reform agenda.  “I learned how drug abuse, crime and incarceration can trap people in a destructive cycle.  A cycle that weakens communities, tears families apart and destroys individual lives.”...

Many of the department’s criminal justice reforms have bipartisan support, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have led the way on prison reform.  Congress also has shown a renewed interest in reducing the nation’s prison population, including the introduction of a bill this week that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which funds grants for programs that support probation, parole and reentry programs across the country.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor and one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement.

Efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who are skeptical that new policies will reduce crime.  “I am skeptical,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said at a a hearing last week.  “Reducing prison sentences will bring prisoners out on the street sooner.  The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced.  Many so-called nonviolent drug offenders have violent records.  Some of these released offenders will commit additional crimes.”...

In a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this month, the attorney general watched more than a dozen drug offenders in a “reentry” program report to a judge to discuss their personal and work situations.  Officials there said the program, which provides parenting classes, vocational training and job opportunities, has saved $1.5 million in annual incarceration costs because fewer ex-offenders are being sent back to prison.  The national revocation rate for ex-offenders who are not in such programs is 47 percent; the rate among participants in the seven-year-old Philadelphia program is about 20 percent.

During his stops Thursday, Holder met with judges and pretrial service officers and watched as a district court judge encouraged ex-offenders to overcome their drug addictions and stay out of prison.  He spoke emotionally to a group about how his nephew struggled to overcome drug addiction.

Inside a federal courthouse in St. Louis, he watched a ceremony in which ex-offenders graduated from an intensive recovery program called EARN (Expanding Addicts’ Recovery Network). “I look at you all and I see myself,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in New York City where people like you would have been my friends. We would have gone to school together. We would have tried to learn about girls together. We would have played basketball together. So I can’t help but feel mindful of the fact that, although I’m here in my capacity as attorney general of the United States, a few of the people I grew up with, good people like you, ended up taking different paths.”

“Some of them didn’t catch the same breaks,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said. “Some had to deal with drug issues. . . . I know that everyone makes mistakes — everyone. Including me. And that’s why I wanted to be here today to tell you in person how proud I am that each of you has decided not to let your mistakes define you and not to make excuses, but to make the most of the opportunities that you’ve been given.”

Right after President Obama's re-election, as noted in this post from last November, AG Holder was talking about staying on as AG for only "about a year" into this second Presidential term. But that year has now passed, and I have heard very little new buzz about AG Holder moving on. And, if he is truly committed to engineering significant and lasting criminal justice reform, I think he may need (at least) the next three years to really have a chance to get this done.

November 15, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

State judge in Pennsylvania finds lifetime sex offender registration for juve offenders unconstitutional

As reported in this local article, "a York County judge has ruled unconstitutional a two-year-old Pennsylvania law that imposes lifetime registration requirements on juvenile sex offenders."  Here is more:

Senior Judge John C. Uhler issued his ruling against the juvenile registration provisions of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act while weighing the cases of seven county teens adjudicated as having committed serious sex crimes.

Uhler found that the registration mandate "unconstitutionally forecloses a court's considerations of the many unique attributes of youth and juvenile offenders" under age 18 and improperly treats them the same as adult sex offenders. SORNA, as the act is known, also doesn't take into account the greater capacity juvenile offenders have to reform, he noted.

The state law was passed by the Legislature in late 2011 to comply with a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act. The state faced a loss of federal funding if it didn't adopt a measure compatible with the Walsh Act.

Uhler's ruling is in reply to a challenge mounted on behalf of the seven York County youths by the county public defender's office, the Juvenile Law Center and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The children involved were subject to registration after being found to have committed crimes including rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. They were ages 14 to 17 when the offenses occurred.

In a statement issued Thursday, officials of the Juvenile Law Center and the defender association called Uhler's decision a "landmark ruling."

"It is our hope that this decision will result in similar findings across the commonwealth," said Riya Saha Shah, a staff attorney with the law center. "To impose this (registration) punishment on children is to set them up for failure."

County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker said his office is reviewing Uhler's decision for a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court. A decision is expected next week, he said. "We're thoroughly going through everything," Barker said.

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, predicted an appeal is likely. Prosecutors are well aware of arguments for and against the juvenile sex offender registration requirement, he said. "I'm not surprised that the judge would rule this way," Freed said. "We'll see what happens in the appeals courts."

The full 40+ page ruling reference here is available at this link, which I found via this helpful page from the helpful folks at the Juvenile Law Center.

November 7, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

New Michigan law adds to number of states requiring registered sex offenders to pay yearly fee

This local article report on yet another notable extra bit of punishment now for sex offenders in Michigan.  The piece is headlined "Sex Offenders Will Have To Pay To Live In Michigan Under Bill Signed By Gov. Snyder," and here are the details:

Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation requiring registered sex offenders living in Michigan to pay an annual $50 fee. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Rick Jones, replaces the system under which sex offenders paid a one-time $50 fee. Snyder signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The measure only applies to registered sex offenders who are out of prison. Officials say $20 of each fee would go to local law enforcement and $30 would go to the state. If offenders don’t pay the annual fee, they face misdemeanor charges.

Offenders who can’t afford the fee would have the chance to make their case and receive a 90-day waiver. To do that, offenders would either have to prove in court that they are indigent, are receiving food assistance from the state, or are living under the federal poverty level.

Snyder said the law brings Michigan in line with neighboring states that require sex offenders to pay for the operating cost of sex offender websites. He said Indiana charges $50 per year, while Illinois and Ohio charge offenders $100 per year. The state said the move could bring in about $540,000 more in revenue each year.

But not everybody is on board with the new law. Opponents, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s merely a feel-good measure that ignores experiences in other states where the promise of more revenue falls well short of expectations and is an overly burdensome cost for registered sex offenders who already struggle to find housing and jobs.

“They have paid their dues … this is a burden that we just keep piling on,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for ACLU of Michigan. She argues that the state is not asking offenders to pay for something that benefits them, but something that is intended to protect citizens. Therefore, the state should pay for it.

November 7, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (86) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Senate Judiciary hearing focused on federal prisons and "Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism"

This motning, Tuesday November 6, 2013 at 10am, as detailed at this official webpage, there will be Hearing before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary titled "Oversight of the Bureau of Prisons & Cost-Effective Strategies for Reducing Recidivism." Here is the official agenda/hearing list:

Panel I

Panel II

I am expecting and hoping that there will be written testimony from some or all of these witnesses posted via the Senate website within the few hours.

Here at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen sets out "5 Questions for Federal Prisons Chief When He Comes to Capitol Hill"

November 6, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

"Looking for Answers on Overcrowded Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article coming from Philadelphia.  The piece is primarily about federal corrections and re-entry issues, as well as on-going work of AG Eric Holder and the Department of Justice.  Here are excerpts:

Some ex-offenders here report to federal court twice a month so that judges can gauge their progress, from drug testing and parenting classes to education and job training. It's an attempt to address a stubborn problem: nearly 25 percent of offenders released into federal supervision were rearrested for a new offense within five years, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  Another 14 percent violate the conditions of their supervision.

Attorney General Eric Holder is taking a look at the Philadelphia program Tuesday to call attention to an overburdened prison system and the high incidence of repeat criminals, the first of three such visits to promote innovative crime prevention initiatives. Holder will visit St. Louis and Peoria, Ill., on Nov. 14.

"The common thread of these programs is that it is very difficult to get out of a cycle of crime without proper rehabilitation," Holder said in an interview.  "We should not be surprised" at high repeat offender rates "when we see people with education deficits, social deficits and we warehouse them and then just put them back into the same environment that they left."...

Seven years ago, federal judges in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania created a federal re-entry court that focuses on ex-criminal offenders with a significant risk of returning to a life of crime.  The goal of the program is to place participants on a path to employment rather than a cycle of crime.  Those who successfully complete the 52-week program can reduce their court-supervised release by a year. It aims to cut Philadelphia's high violent crime rate by addressing the social, family and logistical issues confronting ex-offenders when they return to society.

Of 186 participants in the Supervision to Aid Re-Entry, or STAR, initiative over the past seven years, 142 have successfully completed the program or remain in it. In a new change designed to keep ex-offenders on the right track, STAR will provide some participants with federal housing assistance under a federal voucher program.

"For every dollar we invest in programs like these we are going to save much more" in prison costs, an outcome that will enable spending limited law-enforcement resources on other priorities, Holder said.

While Philadelphia's program deals with high-risk offenders, the program in St. Louis is aimed at helping low-level drug offenders remain drug-free and the effort in Peoria, Ill., substitutes drug treatment for jail time for low-level drug offenders.

In all, 73 of 79 participants in the Peoria program have successfully completed it. The program operated by the U.S. Attorney's office, a federal court, the probation office and defense lawyers is designed for defendants whose criminal conduct was motivated by substance abuse. The Justice Department says over $6 million has been saved through the program — money that otherwise would have been spent on putting the defendants behind bars....

Federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity and almost half of the prisoners are serving time for drug-related crimes. Many of them have substance use disorders. In addition, some 9 million to 10 million prisoners go through local jails each year. "We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder told the American Bar Association in August. "To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and re-entry."

November 5, 2013 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Parole precogs: computerized risk assessments impacting state parole decision-making

PrecogsPredicting who is likely to commit a crime in the future is no easy task, as fans of "Minority Report" know well.   But states that retain discretionary parole release mechanisms to some extent require its officials to do just that.  And, as this lengthy Wall Street Journal article explains, state officials are (in my view, wisely) relying more and more on computerized risk assessment instruments when making parole decisions.  The WSJ piece is headlined "State Parole Boards Use Software to Decide Which Inmates to Release: Programs look at prisoners' biographies for patterns that predict future crime," and here are excerpts:

Driven to cut ballooning corrections costs, more states are requiring parole boards to make better decisions about which convicts to keep in prison and which to release. Increasingly, parole officials are adopting data- and evidence-based methods, many involving software programs, to calculate an inmate's odds of recidivism.

The policy changes are leading to a quiet and surprising shift across the U.S. in how parole decisions are made. Officials accustomed to relying heavily on experience and intuition when making parole rulings now find they also must take computerized inmate assessments and personality tests into account.

In the traditional system, factors like the severity of a crime or whether an offender shows remorse weigh heavily in parole rulings, criminologists say. By contrast, automated assessments based on inmate interviews and biographical data such as age at first arrest are designed to recognize patterns that may predict future crime and make release decisions more objective, advocates of the new tools say.

In the past several years, at least 15 states including Louisiana, Kentucky, Hawaii and Ohio have implemented policies requiring corrections systems to adopt modern risk-assessment methods, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project. California is using computerized inmate assessments to make decisions about levels of supervision for individual parolees. This year, West Virginia began requiring that all felons receive risk assessments; judges receive the reports before sentencing with the option to incorporate the scores into their decisions.

Such methods can contradict the instincts of corrections officials, by classifying violent offenders as a lower recidivism risk than someone convicted of a nonviolent robbery or drug offense. Criminologists say people convicted of crimes like murder often are older when considered for release, making them less likely to reoffend. Inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes like property theft, meanwhile, tend to be younger, more impulsive and adventurous—all predictors of repeat criminality....

Wider acceptance of computerized risk assessments, along with other measures to reduce state corrections budgets, has coincided with the first declines in the national incarceration rate in more than a decade.

The number of inmates in state and federal facilities fell nearly 1% in 2011 to 1.6 million, after edging down 0.1% in the prior year. The 2011 decline came entirely from state prisons, which shed 21,600 inmates, offsetting an increase of 6,600 federal prisoners. Preliminary 2012 data shows an even larger fall in state inmates of 29,000.

Experts say one reason for the decline is that fewer parolees are returning to prison. About 12% of parolees were re-incarcerated at some point in 2011 compared with 15% in 2006, representing the fifth straight year of decline, according to Justice Department data.

Texas, by reputation a tough-on-crime state, has been consistently using risk assessment longer than many states and is boosting the number of prisoners it paroles each year. With its current system, in use since 2001, it released 37% of parole applicants in 2012 versus 28% in 2005 — some 10,000 more prisoners released in 2012.

Officials in Michigan credit computerized assessments, introduced in 2006 and adopted statewide in 2008, with helping reduce the state's prison population by more than 15% from its peak in 2007 and with lowering the three-year recidivism rate by 10 percentage points since 2005.

Still, experts say it is difficult to measure the direct impact of risk prediction because states have also taken other steps to rein in corrections costs, such as reducing penalties for drug offenses and transferring inmates to local jails.

Michigan's assessments withstood a legal challenge in 2011, when prosecutors sought to reverse the parole of Michelle Elias, who had served 25 years for murdering her lover's husband. A lower court, siding with the prosecutor, ruled the parole board hadn't placed enough weight on the "egregious nature of the crime," court documents say. The Michigan Court of Appeals overturned the decision and upheld Ms. Elias's release.

Yet earlier this month, the same appeals court ruled the Michigan parole board had abused its discretion by releasing a man convicted of molesting his daughter. He hadn't received sex-offender therapy while in prison, but three assessments, including one using [the computer program] Compas, had deemed him a low risk of reoffending. The appeals court, in an unpublished decision that echoed a lower court, said that Compas could be manipulated if presented "with inadequate data or individuals who lie."

The Compas software designer, Northpointe Inc., says the assessments are meant to improve, not replace, human intelligence. Tim Brennan, chief scientist at Northpointe, a unit of Volaris Group, said the Compas system has features that help detect lying, but data-entry mistakes or inmate deceptiveness can affect accuracy, he said. The company says that officials should override the system's decisions at rates of 8% to 15%.

P1-BN518_PAROLE_G_20131011180304Many assessment systems lean heavily on research by criminologists including Edward Latessa, professor at the Center for Criminal Justice Research at the University of Cincinnati. Parole boards, typically staffed with political appointees, have lacked the information, training and time to make sound decisions about who should be released, Dr. Latessa said. The process, he said, is one factor contributing to the population surge in the nation's prisons, including a fivefold increase in the number of prisoners nationwide from 1978 to 2009, according to the Department of Justice.

"The problem with a judge or a parole board is they can't pull together all the information they need to make good decisions," said Dr. Latessa, who developed an open-source software assessment system called ORAS used in Ohio and other states. Ohio adopted ORAS last year as the result of legislation aimed at addressing overcrowded prisons and containing corrections spending. Dr. Latessa does paid consulting work with state corrections agencies but isn't paid for use of the system. "They look at one or two things," he said. "Good assessment tools look at 50 things."

Some assessments analyze as many as 100 factors, including whether the offender is married, the age of first arrest and whether he believes his conviction is unfair. In Texas, a rudimentary risk-assessment measures just 10 factors. Data gathered in interviews with inmates is transmitted to the offices of Texas parole board members, who vote remotely, often by computer.

Parole officials say assessment scores are just one factor they consider. Some experts say relying on statistics can result in racial bias, even though questionnaires don't explicitly ask about race. Data such as how many times a person has been incarcerated can act as an unfair proxy for race, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science. "There's a real connection between race and prior criminal history, and a real link between prior criminal history and prediction," Mr. Harcourt said. "The two combine in a toxic and combustive way."

Christopher Baird, former head of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said statistical tools are best used to help set supervision guidelines for parolees rather than determine prison sentences or decide who should be released. "It's very important to realize what their limitations are," said Mr. Baird, who developed one of the earliest risk-assessment tools, for the state of Wisconsin in the late 1970s. "That's lost when you start introducing the word 'prediction' and start applying that to individual cases."

October 13, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, October 07, 2013

"Evidence, Ideology, and Politics in the Making of American Criminal Justice Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by the prolific and profound Michael Tonry. Here is the abstract:

The development of a large and productive community of criminal justice programs, scholars, and researchers in the United States since the 1970s has not led to the emergence of a general norm of evidence-based policy making. Nor on many subjects have accumulations of improved knowledge had much influence. On a few they have.

The two best examples of influence are policing and early childhood prevention programs. Concerning policing, a plausible story can be told of an iterative process of research showing that police practices and methods do and do not achieve sought-after results, followed by successive changes in how policing is done. Concerning early childhood programs, a conventional scientific process of hypothesis testing and repeated pilot projects with strong evaluations led to widespread adoption of improved programs and techniques.

Concerning sentencing, sanctioning policies, firearms and violence, and drug policy, by contrast, strong bodies of accumulating evidence have consistently been ignored. Correctional rehabilitation research is a hybrid. Eclipsed in the 1970s by a gloomy view that “nothing works,” research on correctional treatment in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that a wide variety of programs can improve offenders’ lives and reduce reoffending. The findings have influenced the development of reentry and other programs that focus primarily on risk classification and reduction of recidivism rates, but only incidentally on addressing offenders’ social welfare needs.

October 7, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack