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.
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"
Via 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:
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.
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:
- "Can Obamacare Reduce the Cost of Corrections?"
- "Obamacare Is a Powerful New Crime-Fighting Tool"
- Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?
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.
Monday, July 14, 2014
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
As 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.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Federal sentencing reform: an unlikely Senatorial love story and a Booker double-dose?
- Is it too early want the new Senator from NJ to get going on sentencing reform?
- Senators Paul and Booker celebrate Festivus with sentencing and drug war reform tweeting
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?
- "The most interesting part of [Rand Paul's] speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform."
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
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.
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:
- Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity
- Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
- US Sentencing Commission suggests lowering drug guideline sentences across the board!
- Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission
- US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines
- US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity
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"
The 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.
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.
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.
"Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime"
The 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.
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.
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:
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.