Monday, July 24, 2017

"Nine Lessons About Criminal Justice Reform: What Washington can learn from the states"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended essay by Bill Keller published last week at The Marshall Project. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts focused on some of Bill's most sentencing-specific lessons:

“Reform” is one of those ambiguous words that mean different things to different people.  I think of reform as something that aims to reduce the numbers of Americans who are removed from society and deprived of their freedom, and to do it without making us less safe.  In 1972, when I was starting my newspaper life at The Oregonian, 93 out of 100,000 Americans were in state or federal prisons.  By 2008 the incarceration rate had grown nearly six-fold, to 536 per 100,000, and it has hovered in that vicinity ever since. That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands held in county jails on any given day or those confined in the juvenile justice system or immigrant detention.

Every year about 650,000 of those prisoners are released back into the world.  We know that most of them will be unemployed a year later, and that two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years.  We have a corrections system that fails to correct.

Here are a few lessons Washington can learn from the states.

Lesson 1: It is possible to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. ...

Lesson 3: Probably the most effective way to reduce incarceration is not to lock people up in the first place — at least not so many, and not for so long....

Lesson 4: While the front end is important, don’t neglect the back end....

Lesson 5: Be wary of reformers who suggest you can cut incarceration drastically by releasing low-level, nonviolent offenders. ...

Lesson 6: Prison reform doesn’t necessarily mean a huge windfall for taxpayers. ...

Lesson 8: Many states are finding that incentives work better than mandates.

July 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bipartisan discussion of female incarceration issues at "Women Unshackled" event

My twitter feed was full of reports and links to a big criminal justice reform event yesterday which was given the title "Women Unshackled."  This Washington Post article, headlined "Officials from both parties say too many women are incarcerated for low-level crimes," reports on the event, and its coverage starts this way:

Democratic and Republic officials at a conference Tuesday said too many women are being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a troubling trend both groups said they were committed to tackling.

From Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) to Republican Rep. Mia Love (Utah) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there was bipartisan agreement that most of the women in jails and prison would be better served by drug rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than harsher sentences. They noted that most women in the criminal-justice system are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. And because most incarcerated women have small children, locking them away can destroy an already fragile family.

The discussion came during a day-long conference called “Women Unshackled,” presented by the Justice Action Network and sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Coalition for Public Safety and Google.

Some additional coverage of the issues and individuals involved in this event can be found in these recent press pieces:

July 19, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"How California Softened its 'Tough-on-Crime' Approach"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and effective little "policy study" produced by the R Street Institute and authored by Steven Greenhut. Here is its introduction:

California has a long history of pioneering criminal-justice reforms.  From the 1960s to the early 2000s, such reforms mostly toughened the state’s approach to handling criminals, with some of the most significant policy reforms implemented at the ballot box.  California’s past approaches — especially its “three-strikes” law — have become models for other states, although such policies have led to some troubling results.

More recently, as overall crime rates have fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s, the state has led the way both to soften those earlier approaches and to implement innovative policies that reduce sentences for some offenders. This shift has been driven in part by a prison-overcrowding crisis, but public sentiment has also changed over the years.

Given the high costs — both financially and in terms of civil liberties — the state’s incarceration-heavy approach imposed, these changing policies and attitudes are a welcome development.  Many of the tough-on-crime approaches of the past were driven by the state’s powerful law-enforcement lobby and “public safety” unions, who appeared at times more interested in protecting their budgets (and creating new “customers”) than promoting justice.

Not every new proposal is ideal, of course, and California has yet to embrace the kind of wide-ranging reforms in its corrections bureaucracy that have been implemented by Texas, for instance.  The state also has failed to implement significant reforms to its public-employee pension system and has moved away from outsourcing — measures that could help stretch California’s budget, which is burdened by the highest cost in the nation (total and per capita) for running its prison system.  Notwithstanding such costs, California still has an astoundingly high recidivism rate of approximately 65 percent.

This paper seeks to place these shifts in historical context. It examines a few of the most significant reform policies that have passed through the Legislature or been put to voters through the state’s robust initiative process.  As California goes, so goes the nation.  As such, it is worth seeing where the state is headed on this significant issue.

July 18, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"Ministers of Justice and Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Lissa Griffin and Ellen Yaroshefsky. Here is the abstract:

Over the past few years, scholars, legislators, and politicians have come to recognize that our current state of “mass incarceration” is the result of serious dysfunction in our criminal justice system.  As a consequence, there has been significant attention to the causes of mass incarceration.  These include the war on drugs and political decisions based on a “law and order” perspective.  Congressional and state legislative enactments increased the financing of the expansion of police powers and provided for severely punitive sentencing statutes, thereby giving prosecutors uniquely powerful weapons in securing guilty pleas.  All of this occurred as crime rates dropped.

Where were the lawyers when our criminal justice system was evolving into a system of mass incarceration? Surprisingly, in looking for the causes and cures for the mass incarceration state, very little, if any, attention has been paid to the role of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system: the prosecutor.  It is the prosecutor who exercises virtually unreviewable discretion in seeking charges, determining bail, negotiating a resolution, and fixing the sentence.  Now, however, there is data that identifies aggressive prosecutorial charging practices as the major cause of the explosion in our prison population.  That is, over the past twenty years prosecutors have brought felony charges in more cases than ever before, resulting in a dramatic increase in prison admissions.  If prosecutorial charging practices have been a major cause of the universally recognized mass incarceration problem, what should be done? How does the role of the prosecutor need to change to prevent a continuation, or a worsening, of our mass incarceration problem?

This Article examines the recognized role of the prosecutor as a “minister of justice,” and makes a range of suggested changes to the prosecution function.  These include re-calibrating the minister of justice and advocacy role balance in recognition of the current mass incarceration crisis; enacting measures to ensure independence from law enforcement in the charging function; collecting currently non-existent, objective data that breaks down and memorializes available information on each decision to charge as well as its consequences; and drafting written charging procedures and policies based on the collection of that data-driven information.

July 16, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"The Political Economy of Mass Incarceration: An Analytical Model"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Peter Temin. Here is the abstract:

This paper presents a model of mass incarceration in the United States, which has the largest proportion of its population imprisoned among advanced countries.  The United States began to differ from other countries in the 1970s in response to changes in judicial policies.  Although the Kerner Commission recommended integrating the black community into the larger American community, judicial policies went in the opposite direction.  The model draws from several accounts of these changes and demonstrates that the United States has moved from one equilibrium position to another.  It is driven by two equations, one for incarceration and one for crime. It explains why the growth of prisoners has ceased in the last decade and what would be needed to return to the original equilibrium.

July 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Urban Institute releases "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons"

Logo-simpleThis morning the Urban Institute released online here a big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." As explained in an email I received, this "online feature examines the causes and consequences of rising time served in America’s prisons [t]hrough visualizations, analysis of trends and demographics, and stories told by people who have served long prison terms." An executive summary can be found at this link, and here are excerpts from it:

People are spending more time in prison, and the longest prison terms are getting longer.  Since 2000, average time served has risen in all 44 states that reported complete data to the National Corrections Reporting Program.  In states with more extensive data, we can trace the rise back to the 1980s and 1990s. In nearly half the states we looked at, the average length of the top 10 percent of prison terms increased by more than five years between 2000 and 2014.

The increase in time served has been sharpest among people convicted of violent offenses.  These changes have an outsized effect on prison populations because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long terms.

Longer terms are growing in number and as a share of the prison population.  In 35 states, at least 1 in 10 people in prison have been there for a decade or more.  This is even higher — nearly 1 in 4 people — in states like California and Michigan.  In at least 11 states, the number of people who have served at least a decade has more than doubled since 2000.

These trends aren’t accidental, and that they vary so much across states suggests that the growth in time served is driven by state-level decisionmaking.  States grappling with expanding prison populations must include those serving the longest prison terms in their efforts to curb mass incarceration.

Incarceration affects some people and communities more than others, and these patterns are often more pronounced among those who spend the most time in prison.  In 35 of the 44 states we looked at, racial disparities in prisons were starkest among people serving the longest 10 percent of terms.  In recent years, racial disparities have decreased among people serving less than 10 years, but 18 states actually saw an increase in disparities among people serving longer terms.

Nearly two in five people serving the longest prison terms were incarcerated before age 25, despite research that shows the brain is still developing through age 24 and that people tend to age out of criminal behavior.  Thousands have been in prison for more than half their lives.  One in five people in prison for at least 10 years is a black man incarcerated before age 25.

A growing share of women in prison have served more than 10 years.  In Michigan, for example, 8 percent of women in prison had served at least a decade as of 2000; by 2013, that number was 13 percent.  In Wisconsin, this figure rose from 1.8 to 6.5 percent over the same period.  In light of this trend, more research is needed to understand how women are uniquely affected by long-term incarceration.

More than one in three people serving the longest prison terms is at least 55 years old.  More people serving longer terms means that more people are growing old in prison, yet prisons are typically ill-equipped to address the needs of the elderly and disabled.

July 13, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Texas continues to demonstrate how state "smart on crime" reforms can lead to less imprisonment and less crime

This Dallas Morning News article, headlined "With crime, incarceration rates falling, Texas closes record number of lock-ups," highlights why the Lone Star state should be viewed as a shining star for anyone eager to see states find paths to having less crime and less incarceration.  Here are excerpts:

Texas will shutter more prisons this year than it has in any single year in history, a response to the state's tight budget and shrinking inmate population.  In the state's two-year budget, which lawmakers approved in May, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was ordered to close four prison facilities by Sept. 1.  When all four are closed, tough-on-crime Texas will have shuttered eight prisons in just six years.

Criminal justice reform advocates, agency officials and lawmakers say the closings are possible because of a combination of factors, including falling crime rates and legislative efforts to reduce the number of people who spend time behind bars.  "This is something we have done incrementally over the last decade," said Derek Cohen, deputy director at the Center for Effective Justice at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation.  "We're not any less safe publicly for that."

The drop in Texas' prison population began around 2007, when lawmakers were faced with an expensive decision.  The state had spent decades and millions of dollars building hulking prison edifices across rural Texas.  Tens of thousands of cells were quickly filling, and without changing the way Texas operated its criminal justice system, the state would soon be forced to spend millions more to house a burgeoning inmate population.

A state known for its lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to crime began to shift its approach.  Instead of erecting more massive prisons, lawmakers invested in diversion programs to help troubled Texans get back on track and avoid incarceration.  They spent more on initiatives to provide services to people whose mental illnesses landed them crosswise with the law.  Lawmakers in 2015 updated a decades-old property crime punishment scheme that had resulted in felony punishments for thieves who had stolen penny-ante items.  "What we saw was almost within 18 months, just an immediate decrease in the number of people sent to state jail on property offenses," said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

At the same time, crime rates fell across the state.  Texas Department of Public Safety data shows that crime rates have fallen each year since at least 2012.  The overall crime rate in Texas fell nearly 6 percent from 2013 to 2014.  And it dropped another 4.7 percent the following year.

Texas closed its first prison in 2011 after much hand-wringing.  The Central Unit was a 79-year-old, sprawling behemoth on valuable land in the growing Houston suburb of Sugar Land. The prison population had begun to fall already, dropping 8 percent from 2004 to 2011. Legislators were facing a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion, and closing the Central Unit could save them about $50 million over two years.  For the first time in Texas history, it made political and fiscal sense to close a prison. It turned out, lawmakers were just getting started.

Two years later, they shuttered the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole unit in Mineral Wells.  Earlier this year, the criminal justice department closed a privately operated intermediate sanctions facility in Houston that was right next to Minute Maid Park.  As the closings continued, inmate population continued to drop, from 156,000 in 2011 to about 146,000 today, according to department spokesman Jason Clark....

It's unclear, though, whether the shuttering trend will continue in Texas.  Lawmakers this year did not approve any changes that criminal justice reform advocates said would keep the prison population on the decline.  Among the measures lawmakers rejected were proposals to reduce drug offense penalties and to keep 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, as most states do, instead of sending them to adult prisons.

July 7, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Pair of Senators introduce the "Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017"

As reported in this article from The Hill, "Senate Democrats unveiled a proposal Wednesday to push back against Attorney General Jeff Sessions's 'tough on crime' policies." Here are the details:

Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 to incentivize states through grant funding to decrease their prison populations.

It's intended to counter the 1994 Crime Bill, otherwise known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That law authorized $12.5 billion in grants to fund or offset the costs of incarceration, nearly 50 percent of which was earmarked for states that adopted tough “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, according to the Brennan Center for Justice....

The Booker-Blumenthal bill provides $20 billion in grant funding to be divvied up every three years among eligible states. States would only be considered eligible to apply if the total number of people in correctional or detention facilities in the state decreased by 7 percent or more in that three-year period. States must also keep crime rates from increasing by more than 3 percent.

The proposal is estimated to reduce the national prison population by 20 percent over 10 years. “State sentencing policies are the major drivers of skyrocketing incarceration rates, which is why we’ve introduced legislation to encourage change at the state level,” Booker said in a statement. “We need to change federal incentives so that we reward states that are addressing this crisis and improving community safety, instead of funneling more federal dollars into a broken system.”

The idea is based on a 2015 proposal from the Brennan Center for Justice. “The federal government has a long history of dangling money in front of state and local leaders to spur policy changes,” program Director Inimai Chettiar said in a statement. “We saw it with the 1994 Crime Bill, which helped put more people behind bars. This bold bill shifts the current flow of funding in the opposite direction. It is one of the single biggest steps we can take to reduce imprisonment.”

The full text of the Reverse Incarceration Act runs only about two pages and is available at this link.  I would be very surprised if this bill gets any traction in Congress, but even its formal introduction seemed notable.

June 29, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Two very different (but perhaps similar) tales of prison sentencing from outpost Virginia in incarceration nation

I generally do not blog all that often or that much about individual sentencing cases unless they involve high-profile defendants or high-profile issues or result in high-profile rulings.  But this afternoon I just happen to come across two notable local sentencing stories back-to-back from the same local Virginia paper that for me highlighted the enduring tendency in the United States to use imprisonment, and then more imprisonment, in response to any and every social and legal problem.  Here are the headlines and essentials that caught my eye:

"JMU student gets jail time for registering dead people"

A 21-year-old man who pleaded guilty last week to filing 18 phony voter registration applications in Harrisonburg will spend 100 to 120 days in prison, according to federal prosecutors in the Western District of Virginia.

Andrew J. Spieles of Harrisonburg admitted to filing the fraudulent registrations in August while working with Democratic-affiliated groups as a student at James Madison University ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The fraud was discovered after local election officials noticed that some applications had been filed in the names of dead people, including the father of a Rockingham County judge.

The offense was punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and up to a year in prison. Spieles told investigators that he fabricated the applications to help a co-worker hit a registration “quota,” according to court documents. There is no indication any fraudulent votes were cast in November’s election as a result of the improper registrations.

"Jury recommends 65-year sentence for Charlottesville heroin dealer"

A Henrico County jury has called for a 65-year sentence for a man convicted of purchasing heroin at Short Pump parking lots so the drugs could be resold in Charlottesville, where the defendant lived.  The jury recommended that decades-long sentence for Norell Sterling Ward, 46, last week after convicting him on a count of conspiracy to distribute heroin and on two counts of possessing heroin with the intent to distribute, said Matthew C. Ackley, a deputy Henrico commonwealth’s attorney.

Attorneys in the case could not say whether a 65-year term, if enacted, would set any type of record punishment for this type of crime, but all agreed it would represent a significant sentence. “I can tell you that this is a high sentence and likely reflective of the community awareness of the heroin problem in Henrico,” Ackley said.

Ward was identified as a midlevel heroin distributor who would travel from Charlottesville to Short Pump to buy heroin in parking lots so the drugs could be distributed back in Charlottesville, Ackley said. The prosecutor said it’s estimated Ward distributed 4 to 6 kilograms of heroin over a roughly 18-month period. The defendant would purchase the drugs from parking lots at Short Pump-area businesses including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, Target and 7-Eleven, Ackley said.

Henrico Circuit Judge Richard S. Wallerstein Jr. will now weigh whether to follow through on the jury’s recommendation and impose the full 65 years at a September sentencing....

Ackley said Ward bought his heroin from a drug organization run by Shawn Lamont Bailey, a 46-year-old Henrico man who pleaded guilty in January to two felony counts of distributing heroin near his West Broad Village home. Bailey is to be sentenced next month. Under a plea deal, Bailey agreed to plead guilty in return for spending between 8 to 10 years in prison.

Ward, who is going to be formally sentenced on Sept. 13, has a criminal history that includes convictions for two burglaries as well as a conviction for possessing heroin, Ackley said.

June 28, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Cashing in on Convicts: Privatization, Punishment, and the People"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Laura Appleman available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

For-profit prisons, jails, and alternative corrections present a disturbing commodification of the criminal justice system. Though part of a modern trend, privatized corrections has well-established roots traceable to slavery, Jim Crow, and current racially-based inequities.  This monetizing of the physical incarceration and regulation of human bodies has had deleterious effects on offenders, communities, and the proper functioning of punishment in our society.  Criminal justice privatization severs an essential link between the people and criminal punishment.  When we remove the imposition of punishment from the people and delegate it to private actors, we sacrifice the core criminal justice values of expressive, restorative retribution, the voice and interests of the community, and systemic transparency and accountability.

This Article shows what we lose when we allow private, for-profit entities to take on the traditional community function of imposing and regulating punishment.  By banking on bondage, private prisons and jails remove the local community from criminal justice, and perpetuate the extreme inequities within the criminal system. 

June 28, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Should Ohio automatically release inmates if prisons too crowded?"

The question in title of this post is the headline of this Columbus Dispatch article which somewhat imperfectly describes one somewhat notable provision of a huge criminal justice revision proposal in the Buckeye State. Here is the context:

A proposed sweeping rewrite of Ohio’s criminal laws includes a provision that would allow the state to release hundreds of low-level, nonviolent inmates when the prison population hits 47,000. The state prison population last week stood at 50,093 — 3,093 above that threshold.

That change is among hundreds recommended by the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee, which on June 15 completed a two-year task of rewriting the entire state criminal code. The result is a 4,017-page bill submitted to the General Assembly. The committee composed of judges, legislators, prosecutors, law-enforcement officials and others voted 18-2 to recommend the overhaul.

Other changes include the return of a version of “bad time” for inmates who misbehave in prison, reduced add-on sentences for crimes committed while in possession of a gun, expanded opportunities for offenders to obtain drug treatment in lieu of prison, and an increase in the theft amount that triggers a felony charge to $2,500.

Created by the legislature, the committee was charged with “enhancing public safety and the administration of criminal justice.” The last time criminal laws were overhauled was 1974, although some statutes date to 1953 and have been “effectively superseded or contradicted” by new layers of laws. The committee’s recommendations need the approval of the legislature.

Judge Frederick D. Pepple of Auglaize County Common Pleas Court, chairman of the committee, said he’s pleased with the overall report. “These improvements make the system better and could save hundreds of millions of dollars. When I stand back and look at it, without getting into every nitty-gritty detail, I’m satisfied.”

Pepple said the rewrite cut down the length of the code by nearly 25 percent, mostly by condensing language. More important, Pepple said the changes would “significantly improve the quality of justice and better protect the people of Ohio ... We tried to make it readable and understandable so people know what is against the law.”

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien was one of two committee members, along with Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson, to vote against the package. O’Brien said that while he agreed with most of the recommendations, several were deal breakers, including the prison-release provision, which he said would be like “Bastille Day every day.” O’Brien said he disagreed with granting “unilateral authority to reduce prison population.”

The provision would be triggered when the total prison population exceeds 43,500 men and 3,500 women for at least 30 days in a row. At that point, the director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction would “direct the parole board to select from those who are eligible for overcrowding parole release a sufficient number of prisoners to be released within thirty days to maintain the inmate population at less than 43,500 for males and 3,500 for females. No more than five hundred male inmates and five hundred female inmates may be released per month pursuant to this section.” The board would select inmates for release “who present the least threat to the public, including the victims and their families,” and those who have committed nonviolent and non-sex-oriented crimes.

In a statement to The Dispatch, Gary Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said he voted for (but did not propose) the overcrowding release provision. However, he said he prefers a method built into the current state-budget proposal to divert nonviolent drug offenders to community treatment “to avoid the potentially lifelong collateral consequences of coming to prison.”...

Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, praised the committee. “How this group of experts from varying political viewpoints worked together over the last two years speaks volumes about their commitment to pursuing reforms within Ohio’s criminal-justice system.” Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said that if the rewrite of criminal laws is adopted, “Ohio is ready to take another leap forward on reforming their justice system.”

June 26, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Historic criminal justice reform signed into law in Louisiana, which has historically been highest incarcerating state

As reported in this local article, "bills signed into law Thursday morning by Gov. John Bel Edwards aim to change Louisiana's reputation as the most imprisoned state in the country." Here are some the sentencing details from the press article (though the folks should be sure to check out this summary of the full package of bills which covers an array of other issues including victim services and reentry concerns):

"With this ambitious package, Louisiana is projected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over the next decade," according to the bills' package summary [available here]. "Seventy percent of these savings — an estimated $184 million — will be reinvested into programs and policies proven to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime."

The legislation signed into law includes:

Senate Bill 139 [which provides] alternatives to incarceration like drug rehabilitation. Expands probation eligibility to third-time nonviolent offenders, as well as first-time, lower-level violent offenders. It also gives opportunities for release. Consolidates eligibility for parole consideration for prisoners convicted of nonviolent, non-sex offenses at 25 percent of sentence served....

Senate Bill 220 [which alters sentencing rules to make sure law] focuses prison space on serious and violent offenders. It does this by removing less serious crimes to the violent crimes list and merging redundant theft and burglary offenses.

Senate Bill 221 [which addresses] repeat offenders by lowering the mandatory minimum sentence for second and third offenses.

Senate Bill 16 [which provides that] most people sentenced to life as juveniles receive an opportunity for parole consideration after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison.

June 16, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Support Grows for Civil Commitment of Opioid Users"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Stateline article.  Here is how it gets started:

Amid an opioid addiction epidemic that is killing more than 90 Americans every day, there is a growing movement to make it easier for relatives and health care providers to quickly secure court orders to forcibly confine and treat people who are addicted to drugs.  Most states have civil commitment laws primarily designed to protect people with mental illness from themselves and others.  Many of the laws include drug addiction and alcoholism as a justification for temporary confinement, or at least don’t preclude it.

But in practice, most commitment laws have been ineffective when it comes to people who use heroin and other opioids, in part because some judges have been leery of taking away a person’s civil liberties for what society has long perceived as a moral failing.  Unlike people with severe mental illness, people who are addicted to drugs typically retain the mental capacity to take care of their basic needs, even though the chronic disease alters the brain, making the person eventually value drug use above all else.

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington are considering new civil commitment laws specifically designed for opioid use.  Kentucky has gone back to the drawing board after failing to enact a commitment law for opioid addiction last year.

And in Massachusetts, the one state where civil commitment has been used extensively for opioid addiction, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker wants to make it even more common....

Historically, confining people against their will has been fraught with moral and legal ambiguities and haunted by reports of abuse.  But the parents of young adults who use opioids are pushing state lawmakers and governors to make intervention easier, even as physicians and state health officials search for ways to break the cycle of repeated overdoses.

Addiction professionals generally agree that civil commitment can save lives. But they argue that without effective treatment, confining people with an addiction may do more harm than good.  “People who use substances and have addictions still have civil rights,” said Dr. Alex Walley, director of an addiction medicine fellowship at Boston Medical Center.  “The real question is whether effective treatment is available, which in the case of opioids, is going to be medication. And it’s not OK to limit it to just one medicine,” Walley said.  Another concern is whether the state can ensure that continued treatment will be available once the person is released, he said.

June 15, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

New Sentencing Project policy brief on "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads"

The Sentencing Project has this notable new six-page policy brief titled "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads."  Here is how the data-rich little publication gets started:

The number of people incarcerated in federal prisons has declined substantially in recent years.  In fact, while most states enacted reforms to reduce their prison populations over the past decade, the federal prison system has downsized at twice the nationwide rate.  But recently enacted policy changes at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and certain Congressional proposals appear poised to reverse this progress.

Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the DOJ reduced the federal prison population by reforming sentencing laws, revising sentencing guidelines, and modifying charging directives, respectively.  But the DOJ’s budget proposal for 2018 forecasts a 2% increase in the federal prison population.

The policy changes contributing to this reversal include:

• Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive instructing federal prosecutors to increase their reliance on mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug convictions.

• The Attorney General’s instruction to federal prosecutors to increasingly pursue criminal convictions for immigration law violations and his memorandum paving the way for greater use of private prisons.

• Congressional proposals to create new mandatory minimum sentences or increase existing ones for a range of drug, immigration, and violent crimes.

These policy shifts run counter to research and practice on effective crime policy.  This brief explains why increasing the use and length of prison terms for people with drug convictions in particular — who account for half of the federal prison population — will produce little public safety benefit while carrying heavy fiscal, social, and human costs. Experience with criminal justice policy changes at the federal and state levels shows it is possible to substantially cut reliance on prisons without any adverse effects on public safety.

June 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Here is part of its introduction:

As concern in the United States has grown over the number of people behind bars, policymakers and the public are turning their attention to addressing the decades-long growth in the number of people held in the country’s more than 3,000 locally run jails — county or municipal detention facilities that primarily house people who have been charged but not yet convicted of a crime (known as the “pretrial” population), and those sentenced to a short term of incarceration, usually under a year.  With local jail populations swelling from 157,000 on any given day in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015, there are now an astronomical number of jail admissions annually — nearly 11 million — prompting many to question whether local jails have grown too large, and at too high a cost for the communities they serve.  This has in turn focused efforts among policymakers and the public to better understand and reform the size, scope, and distribution of local incarceration.

In contribution to this effort, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed the Incarceration Trends data tool in 2015 to better understand how jails have grown in every U.S. county.  (See “The Incarceration Trends data tool sources and units of analysis” on page 8.)  In an initial analysis, Vera researchers found that small counties, defined as counties with fewer than 250,000 people, have driven overall jail growth since 1970, despite the conventional perception that this has been exclusively a phenomenon of large cities.  In fact, jails have actually grown the least in large counties (the approximately 40 counties with more than one million residents).  To further understand the contours of jail growth, Vera researchers turned once again to its data tool to study the newly released 2013 Census of Jails from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and conducted an updated historical analysis of jail population trends to examine two specific drivers of local incarceration: 1) changes in the number of people held in pretrial detention; and 2) changes in the number of people who are held for another authority. Vera researchers also looked at the degree to which these trends are different along the urban-rural axis, as well as between U.S. regions — the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.

As this report will enumerate, it is not simply small counties that have increasingly been the locus of rising local incarceration rates, but rural areas — nonmetropolitan areas defined by low population and distance from major population centers.  This is despite rural counties’ substantially lower crime rates in comparison to urban areas.  There appear to be two underlying trends.  First, as overall rates of pretrial detention have risen nationally, the highest rates now feature most prominently in rural counties across all regions of the country — increasing 436 percent between 1970 and 2013.  Second, an escalating number of rural jails — mainly in the South and West — are renting out jail beds to hold people for federal, state, and other local governments.  In some cases, jails are even building new capacity unrelated to crime levels in their own jurisdictions to meet jail-bed demands of other agencies.  Although the reasons for these two trends are likely numerous, this report explores one possible root: few resources in rural areas. Given that the distribution of scarce state and county resources is likely uneven — favoring those areas with more people — access to critical criminal justice and community services may be spread thin the further away a place is from the various population clusters in a state or county.  This means there may be fewer judges to quickly hear cases, less robust pretrial services, and fewer diversion programs available to decrease jail use.

June 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Whom Should We Punish, and How? Rational Incentives and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Keith Hylton recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This essay sets out a comprehensive account of rational punishment theory and examines its implications for criminal law reform.  Specifically, what offenses should be subjected to criminal punishment, and how should we punish?  Should we use prison sentences or fines, and where should we use them?  Should some conduct be left to a form of market punishment through private lawsuits?  Should fines be used to fund the criminal justice system?

The answers I offer address some of the most important public policy issues of the moment, such as mass incarceration and the use of fines to finance law enforcement.  The framework of this paper is firmly grounded in rational deterrence policy, and yet points toward reforms that would soften or reduce the scope of criminal punishment. 

June 13, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, June 12, 2017

How will (and how should) new $100 million fund be used to advance criminal justice reform and "end mass incarceration"?

12FUND2-master675The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article headlined "Agnes Gund Sells a Lichtenstein to Start Criminal Justice Fund." Here is the interesting art-world backstory that now prompts the question:

In January, rumors swirled that the art collector and patron Agnes Gund had sold her prized 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” for a whopping $150 million, placing it among the 15 highest known prices ever paid for an artwork.  Ms. Gund is confirming that sale now, revealing that she parted with the painting (for what was actually $165 million, including fees) for a specific purpose: to create a fund that supports criminal justice reform and seeks to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.

This new Art for Justice Fund — to be announced Monday at the Museum of Modern Art, where Ms. Gund is president emerita — will start with $100 million of the proceeds from the Lichtenstein (which was sold to the collector Steven A. Cohen through Acquavella Gallery).  “This is one thing I can do before I die,” Ms. Gund, 78, said in an interview at her Upper East Side apartment, where the Lichtenstein used to hang over the mantel, along with works by Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko. “This is what I need to do.”

Ms. Gund, together with the Ford Foundation, which will administer the fund, has asked other collectors to do the same, in the hopes of raising an additional $100 million over the next five years.  The effort is noteworthy, not only for the amount of money involved — rarely do charitable undertakings start at $100 million — but because Ms. Gund is essentially challenging fellow collectors to use their artworks to champion social causes at a time when the market has made their holdings more valuable than ever.

“The larger idea is to raise awareness among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice,” said Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president. “Art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.”

Those who have already committed to the fund — and are being called founding donors — include Laurie M. Tisch, a chairwoman of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, and his wife, Kathryn; the philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder; the financier Daniel S. Loeb; and Brooke Neidich, a Whitney trustee. “I was moved by her passion,” Ms. Tisch said of Ms. Gund, adding that she would contribute $500,000 in proceeds from a Max Weber painting she recently sold. “It’s ambitious, but when Aggie puts in a $100 million, that’s a real signal that it’s important and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

The fund will make grants to organizations and leaders who already have a track record in criminal justice reform — like the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. — that seek to safely reduce jail and prison populations across the country and to strengthen education and employment opportunities for former inmates. The fund will also support art-related programs on mass incarceration.

“There’s long been this criticism that people who have the means to acquire fine art are allowed to surround themselves with beautiful things while they are unwilling to look at the ugly realities that sometimes shape a community or a culture or a country,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Using this art to actually respond to over-incarceration or racial inequality or social injustice is a powerful idea.”

The impetus for the fund was personal. Six of Ms. Gund’s 12 grandchildren are African-American, and she has worried about their future as they’ve matured, particularly in light of shootings of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin in Florida. “I have always had an extreme sensitivity to inequality,” Ms. Gund said.

She added that she was also deeply affected by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary, “13th,” about African-Americans in the prison system. After seeing the film, Ms. Gund called Mr. Walker, long a close friend. “She said, ‘I really want to do something to help here,’” Mr. Walker recalled. “‘What if I sold one of my jewels and we used the proceeds to make grants to organizations working on mass incarceration?’” ... Participation in the fund does not require the sale of artwork, Mr. Walker said; any type of support is welcome....

Mr. Stevenson will take part in an evening event at MoMA on Monday to announce the fund that will also feature Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” and Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to reduce the prison population, in conversation with The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles Blow.

The financier and collector Donald Marron, MoMA’s president emeritus, said he would support the fund — though probably not through the sale of his art — and commended Ms. Gund’s efforts. “Aggie has been so committed to art her whole life and now she’s using the art to jump-start her efforts in criminal justice,” he said. “That’s a model I hope other people will follow.”

There is not too much information at this website for the Art for Justice Fund, but the site does say the Fund is for a "movement to end mass incarceration." It also says that the "The Fund is a five-year initiative designed to make meaningful progress on key reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system" and that it "will support innovative advocacy and interventions aimed at safely cutting the prison population in states with the highest rates of incarceration, and strengthening the education and employment options for people leaving prison."

June 12, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new book, authored by William Kelly, Robert Pitman and William Streusand, that a helpful reader made sure I noticed.  Here is description via the book's Amazon page:

Over the past fifty years, American criminal justice policy has had a nearly singular focus -- the relentless pursuit of punishment.  Punishment is intuitive, proactive, logical, and simple. But the problem is that despite all of the appeal, logic, and common sense, punishment doesn't work.  The majority of crimes committed in the United States are by people who have been through the criminal justice system before, many on multiple occasions.
There are two issues that are the primary focus of this book.  The first is developing a better approach than simple punishment to actually address crime-related circumstances, deficits and disorders, in order to change offender behavior, reduce recidivism, victimization and cost.  And the second issue is how do we do a better job of determining who should be diverted and who should be criminally prosecuted.
From Retribution to Public Safety develops a strategy for informed decision making regarding criminal prosecution and diversion.  The authors develop procedures for panels of clinical experts to provide prosecutors with recommendations about diversion and intervention.  This requires a substantial shift in criminal procedure as well as major reform to the public health system, both of which are discussed in detail.
Rather than ask how much punishment is necessary the authors look at how we can best reduce recidivism. In doing so they develop a roadmap to fix a fundamentally flawed system that is wasting massive amounts of public resources to not reducing crime or recidivism.

June 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Noticing that the Trump DOJ budget predicts a 2% growth in the federal prison population in fiscal year 2018

The Wall Street Journal has this new article noting that the Trump Administration is already making plans for an increased federal prison population.  The article is headlined "Federal Prison Population Expected to Grow Under Trump: Increase is anticipated in prosecutions of illegal immigrants, drug offenders."  Here is how it gets started:

The federal prison population is expected to grow next year by 4,171 to a total of 191,493 as the Trump administration steps up prosecutions of illegal immigrants and drug offenders, reversing the trend toward a smaller prison population under former President Barack Obama.

That estimate of 2% growth in fiscal 2018 was tucked into in a Justice Department budget proposal posted online after the Trump administration's broader spending plan was released two weeks ago.  The proposed budget also calls for 300 new federal prosecutors and 75 new immigration judges.

June 8, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

More interesting new "Quick Facts" publications from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released two notable new Quick Facts covering "Drug Trafficking Offenses" and "Federal Offenders in Prison" as of February 2017. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the many intriguing data details from these two small data-filled publications:

June 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

"Kinds of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay by Douglas Husak now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Contemporary states execute, imprison, fine, place on probation, conditionally discharge, caution, and do a great deal more to the persons they convict.  What general principles govern how retributivists should choose between the foregoing responses to culpable wrongdoing — or select an altogether different type of sanction?  If my subsequent reasoning is sound, it is easy to understand why retributivists have tended to neglect this issue.  They have neglected it because they have little to contribute to its resolution.  In what follows, I will support this conclusion and discuss a few of the somewhat controversial positions on which it rests.  I hope to make some headway on this topic by defending what I call the deferential view about kinds of punishment (or deferential view for short).

June 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

“Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism”

Prison-Report_Website-BannerThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. This FAMM press release provides this overview of the report and its key findings:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) today released the findings of the first-ever independent survey of federal prisoners, which focused on the type and quality of educational and vocational training programs, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment, currently available in America’s federal prisons. “Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism” offers unique insights from inside federal prisons and includes 13 recommendations for reform.

“Roughly 94 percent of federal prisoners are going to go home one day.  If they leave smarter, sober, and job-ready, they will be much more likely to thrive — and our country will be safer and more prosperous,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  “Unfortunately, our survey found that the federal government is failing to make recidivism-reducing programming available to all prisoners who need it.  President Trump’s new budget proposal, which slashes the Bureau of Prisons’ staff and corrections officers, will only make the problem worse.”

FAMM regularly corresponds with more than 39,000 prisoners via email, and more than 2,000 inmates responded to the survey.  This report quantifies, analyzes, and confirms the numerous stories we have heard from prisoners over the years.  FAMM found that too many prisoners are not getting access to the programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism....

Key findings from the report include:

  • Access to quality education is scarce.  Most classes lack rigor and substance and are taught by other prisoners. Inmates reported taking classes such as crocheting and one based on the TV show Jeopardy.  Attaining a college degree is difficult, if not impossible, for most prisoners.

  • Most jobs afforded to inmates are “make work” jobs to service the prisons, such as cleaning bathrooms and living spaces or dining hall services.  Vocational training is popular and coveted, but is limited and only offered to prisoners who are close to their release dates.

  • Not all inmates who need substance abuse or mental health services are getting help.  Two-thirds of respondents said they entered prison with a drug or alcohol addiction.  In addition, more than two-thirds said they had not received mental or behavioral health treatment in prison.  These types of programs should be expanded to help all prisoners in need of treatment, no matter the length or duration of their sentence.

  • Most prisoners are housed too far away from their families to maintain connections.  Family connections have been proven to reduce recidivism, yet most prisoners are housed more than 500 air miles away from home.

June 1, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Diving into the Pfaffian perspective on modern mass incarceration

Regular readers have seen me regularly highlight in this space the work of Professor John Pfaff and his important accounting of what accounts for modern mass incarceration (e.g., in this post a few years ago, I flagged prior posts chronicling nearly a decade of Pfaff's empirical insights and analysis).  These days Pfaff's recently published book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform," is helping to give his perspectives a wider airing.  And just today I noticed that two notable media sources are talking up and talking with Pfaff about his work:

From The Crime Report, a two-part Q&A:

From Vox: "Why you can’t blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs: The standard liberal narrative about mass incarceration gets a lot wrong. A new book breaks through the myths."

May 31, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth"

Era_MassIncarceration_250The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. This PPI press release provide context and summary for the report's coverage:

State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.

The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.

The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:

  • An increasing number of people held pre-trial.

  • Growing demand from federal and state agencies to rent cell space from local jails.

Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:

  • In some states, state officials have not utilized their ability to regulate the commercial bail industry, which has profited from the increased reliance on money bail and increased bail amounts. These trends have expanded the pre-trial population dramatically over time.

  • In other states, state lawmakers have expanded criminal codes, enabled overzealous prosecutors, and allowed police practices to play a paramount role in driving up jail populations, while underfunding pre-trial programs and alternatives to incarceration.

  • In 25 states, 10% or more of the people confined in local jails are being held for state or federal agencies, with some counties even adding capacity to meet the demand. This report is the first to be able to address the local jail population separately from the troubling issue of renting jail space.

Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.

For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”

May 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Economist urges "Rethinking Prison"

20170527_cna400The current print edition of The Economist has a series of article on prison policies and practices. Here are links to the article in the series and their extended headlines:

"America’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work: A lot is known about how to reform prisoners. Far too little is done."

"More women are being put behind bars. Fewer should be: Female convicts are less violent and more likely to have stolen to support children

"Too many prisons make bad people worse. There is a better way: The world can learn from how Norway treats its offenders"

Here is an excerpt from the last of these articles:

Reserving prison for the worst offenders has hefty benefits.  First, it saves money.  In America, for example, incarcerating a federal convict costs eight times as much as putting the same convict on probation.  Second, it avoids mixing minor offenders with more hardened criminals, who will teach them bad habits.  “The low-level guys don’t tend to rub off on the higher-level prisoners. It goes the other way,” says Ron Gordon of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, a state body.

Modern electronic tags are cheap and effective. In a recent study Rafael Di Tella of Harvard University and Ernesto Schargrodsky of Torcuato Di Tella University compared the effects of electronic tagging versus prison for alleged offenders in Buenos Aires.  Earlier research had failed to deal with the fact that criminals who are tagged are less likely to reoffend than the more dangerous ones who are locked up.  The authors found a way round this.  Alleged criminals in Argentina are assigned randomly to judges for pre-trial hearings. Liberal judges are reluctant to hold them in the country’s awful jails, so they often order them to be tagged.  So-called mano dura (tough hand) judges prefer to lock them up.  The researchers observed what happened to similar offenders under different regimes.  Only 13% of those who were tagged were later rearrested; for those sent to prison the figure was 22%.

May 29, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, May 26, 2017

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2015: Modest Reductions with Significant Variation"

The title of this post is the title of this brief "Fact Sheet" from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

While states and the federal government have modestly reduced their prison populations in recent years, incarceration trends continue to vary significantly across jurisdictions. Overall, the number of people held in state and federal prisons has declined by 4.9% since reaching its peak in 2009.  Sixteen states have achieved double-digit rates of decline and the federal system has downsized at almost twice the national rate.  But while 38 states have reduced their prison populations, in most states this change has been relatively modest.  In addition, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations even though most have shared in the nationwide crime drop.

Six states have reduced their prison populations by over 20% since reaching their peak levels:

• New Jersey (35% decline since 1999)

• New York (29% decline since 1999)

• Alaska (27% decline since 2006)

• California (26% decline since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use)

• Vermont (25% decline since 2009)

• Connecticut (22% decline since 2007)

Southern states including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, have also begun to significantly downsize their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial prison population reductions have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.

The pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states, especially given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991.  Despite often sharing in these crime trends, 15 states had less than a 5% prison population decline since their peak year.  Moreover, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing doubledigit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010 - 2015"

Images (2)The title of this post is the title of this notable new Vera Institute of Justice report. Here is its introduction:

After decades of a stable rate of incarceration, the U.S. prison population experienced unprecedented growth from the early 1970s into the new millennium — with the number of people confined to state prisons increasing by more than 600 percent, reaching just over 1.4 million people by the end of 2009.The engine driving this growth was the enactment and implementation over time of a broad array of tough-on-crime policies, including the rapid and continuous expansion of the criminal code; the adoption of zero-tolerance policing tactics, particularly around minor street-level drug and quality-of-life offenses; and the proliferation of harsh sentencing and release policies aimed at keeping people in prison for longer periods of time (such as mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing statutes, and habitual offender laws).

Unsurprisingly, this explosion in the use of incarceration had a direct financial influence on state budgets.  Creating and sustaining such a sprawling penal system has been expensive.  With more people under their care, state prison systems were compelled to build new prison facilities and expand existing ones.  To staff these new and expanded facilities, they also had to hire, train, and retain ever more employees.  In addition to expanding the state-operated prison system, some states also began to board out increasing numbers of people to county jails, privately-run facilities, and other states’ prison systems.

After hitting a high of 1.4 million people in 2009, however, the overall state prison population has since declined by 5 percent, or 77,000 people.  Lawmakers in nearly every state and from across the political spectrum — some prompted by the 2008 recession — have enacted new laws to reduce prison populations and spending, often guided by a now-large body of research supporting alternative, more effective responses to crime.7 In addition to fiscal pressures, the push for reform has been further bolstered by other factors, including low crime rates; shifting public opinion that now favors less incarceration and more rehabilitation; and dissatisfaction with past punitive policies that have failed to moderate persistently high recidivism rates among those sent to prison.

With these various political, institutional, and economic forces at play, most states have adopted a variety of different policies, including those that increase opportunities to divert people away from the traditional criminal justice process; expand the use of community-based sanctions; reduce the length and severity of prison sentences for certain offenses, including the rollback of mandatory penalties; increase opportunities for people to gain early release; and better provide enhanced reentry support for those leaving prison or jail.

In light of nearly a decade of broad-based criminal justice reform, this report seeks to determine where state prison spending stands today and how it has changed in recent years.  In particular, if a goal of recent reforms has been to make deep and lasting cuts to prison spending by reducing the prison population, have states who have witnessed the desired downward shift in prison size also witnessed it in spending?  To answer this question, researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed a survey to measure changes in state prison population and expenditures between 2010 and 2015, and conducted follow-up interviews with state prison budget officials to better understand spending and population trends.

Vera’s study confirms that prisons remain an expensive enterprise, despite the success of many states — including Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina —in simultaneously reducing their prison populations while achieving budget savings.  The first part of this report describes 2015 prison expenditures, identifying the main driver of corrections spending across responding states.  The second half of the report then discusses how changes in prison populations during the study period, and other trends largely outside the control of departments of corrections have affected prison spending. What is clear is that increased spending is not inevitable, since nearly half of states have cut their spending on prisons between 2010 and 2015.  But while one might expect that states with shrinking prison populations are uniformly spending less on prisons, or conversely that states with growing populations are spending more, Vera’s findings paint a more complicated picture.  Indeed, often there is no single reason that explains a rise or fall in spending, but a multitude of factors that push and pull expenditures in different directions.

May 24, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Highlighting sentencing reform's momentum in the states despite prosecutorial change of course by US Attorney General

The New York Times has this extended new article detailing recent state sentencing reform realities that stand in contrast to the decision last week by Attorney General Sessions to promulgate tougher charging and sentencing guidelines.  The article is headlined "States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough," and here are excerpts:

Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate.  But this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually. If lawmakers approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences, expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system.  Many of those states say they have saved money while crime rates have stayed low.

In Washington, though, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has charted the opposite course.  He announced last week that federal prosecutors should aim to put more people in prison for longer periods, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.  His move — which he said would promote consistency and respect for the law — alarmed critics who feared that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.

Even more, Mr. Sessions’s approach conflicted with one of the few major points of bipartisan national agreement over the past decade, that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders, treating root causes of crime like drug addiction, and reserving more resources to go after serious, violent criminals.

But if Mr. Sessions’s appointment has dampened the hopes of those wishing for congressional action to reduce incarceration, advocates say it has had little effect on state efforts. “There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group at the fore of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration rates.  “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act,” Mr. Levin said.

The consensus began with a cold, objective judgment that taxpayers were not getting a good return on investment for money spent on prisons.  Bloated corrections budgets took money that could be spent on schools, roads or tax breaks, while many of those who went through the prison system went on to offend again.  Among Republicans and Democrats alike, concern also grew that too many nonviolent criminals who were no threat to society were being imprisoned and given little chance to reform and re-enter mainstream society....

It has not hurt that early adopters included tough-on-crime red states like Texas, which began passing major criminal justice revisions in 2003.  “It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing, and was really helpful in letting other states know, ‘The water is warm; you can do this,’” Mr. Ring said.  In contrast, he added, Mr. Sessions’s directive flies in the face of state-level successes. “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” is how Mr. Ring characterized it.

So far this year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote their criminal justice laws, have already approved a new round of changes.  In Oklahoma, where Mr. Trump handily carried every county in November, another vote was also popular: Residents approved by a 16 percentage point margin a ballot proposal calling on legislators to curb prison rolls and downgrade numerous drug and property crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.

“Basically, in Oklahoma we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” said Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 2 incarceration rate. The state is now considering how to heed the voters’ advice, including debating major criminal justice changes. The effort faces opposition from district attorneys who have slowed some pieces of legislation, but the proposals have the firm backing of Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. Supporters acknowledge that it may take a few tries to succeed. “Texas didn’t do it in one year, either,” Representative Cleveland said.

Louisiana is also moving toward change. On Tuesday, Governor Edwards, a Democrat who has made reducing the prison population a centerpiece of his administration, announced that he had reached an agreement with the state’s politically powerful district attorneys to revise criminal justice laws. The deal, which still faces a vote in the Legislature, would reduce penalties for minor drug possession, give judges more power to sentence people to probation instead of prison, limit how many theft crimes qualify as felonies, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of crimes.

Last year, it also seemed there was a fair chance that even Congress would get in on the action with a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The bill never got a vote on the floor, and some feared that the appointment of Mr. Sessions, who opposed the legislation as a senator, was a sign that President Trump would never support it. But in March, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with pro-reform senators, including Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, signaling he considered the issue a priority....

While Mr. Sessions has warned of what he says is a coming surge in crime, advocates for reducing incarceration say they are frustrated by how their goals are often cast as adverse to public safety. “The states that have most significantly reduced their prison population have also seen the biggest drops in their crime and recidivism rates,” said Holly Harris, a former general counsel of the Kentucky Republican Party who is now executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. “Reform makes us safer,” Ms. Harris said. “There’s a misperception with prosecutors that somehow reform is anti-law enforcement, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Deterrence and the Optimal Use of Prison, Parole, and Probation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by A. Mitchell Polinsky and Paul Riskind now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this article we derive the sentence — choosing among the sanctions of prison, parole, and probation — that achieves a target level of deterrence at least cost.  Potential offenders discount the future disutility of sanctions and the state discounts the future costs of sanctions.  Prison has higher disutility and higher cost per unit time than parole and probation, but the cost of prison per unit of disutility can be lower or higher than the cost of parole and probation per unit of disutility.  The optimal order of sanctions depends on the relative discount rates of potential offenders and the state, and the optimal duration of sanctions depends on the relative costs per unit of disutility among the sanctions and on the target level of deterrence.

We focus on the case in which potential offenders discount the disutility of sanctions at a higher rate than the state discounts the costs of sanctions.  In this case, if prison is more cost-effective than parole and probation — that is, has a lower cost per unit of disutility — prison should be used exclusively.  If prison is less cost-effective than parole and probation, probation should be used if the deterrence target is low enough, and prison followed by parole should be used if the deterrence target is relatively high.  Notably, it may be optimal to employ a prison term even if prison is less cost-effective than parole and probation and even if prison is not needed to achieve the target level of deterrence, because of what we refer to as the front-loading advantage of imprisonment.

May 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Brennan Center releases "A Federal Agenda to Reduce Mass Incarceration"

Justice agendaYesterday the Brennan Center released this notable new report which feels like it was first conceived back when everyone thought Hillary Clinton was poised to be President. Nevertheless, the report, headlined "A Federal Agenda to Reduce Mass Incarceration" speaks to current political realities in its executive summary with this paragraph:

Even with broad public support, addressing the problems in our criminal justice system will not be easy. For the last eight years, the White House and Justice Department supported this important work. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears opposed to efforts to reduce unnecessarily harsh charging and sentencing. While President Donald Trump’s own views remain unclear, key advisers such as Vice President Mike Pence, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Gov. Chris Christie all support efforts to reduce imprisonment.

Here are some other parts of the report's executive summary:

This report sets forth an affirmative agenda to end mass incarceration and reform our criminal justice system. Bipartisan momentum has been growing for years. We must keep it going. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly one quarter of its prisoners. Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the American poverty rate. Conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement leaders now agree that the country must reduce its prison population, and that it can do so without jeopardizing public safety. In the last decade, 27 states have led the way, cutting crime and imprisonment together.

Of course, because 87 percent of prisoners are housed in state facilities, changes to state and local law are necessary. But history proves that decisions made in Washington affect the whole criminal justice system, for better or worse. Federal funding drives state policy, and helped create our current crisis of mass incarceration. And the federal government sets the national tone, which is critical to increasing public support and national momentum for change. Without a strong national movement, the bold reforms needed at the state and local level cannot emerge.

In a divisive political environment, it is tempting to assume that progress toward federal reform is impossible. But even today, the need to confront problems in the way we arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate remains a rare point of trans-partisan agreement. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders alike acknowledge that unnecessarily long federal prison sentences continue to impede rehabilitation, driving recidivism and economic inequality. And according to a new poll from the Charles Koch Institute, 81 percent of Trump voters believe criminal justice reform is a “very important” or “somewhat important” issue. More than half know someone who is in or has been to prison....

To help bridge that divide, this report offers solutions that would keep crime rates low and show support for law enforcement, while reducing mass incarceration. The strongest of these policies require congressional action. Others could be implemented by a sympathetic administration. Taken together, these policies form the core of a national agenda for federal leaders to make our country safer and fairer. They also serve as models for state and local action.

Legislation

End the Federal Subsidization of Mass Incarceration: Federal grants help shape criminal justice policy at the state and local levels. For decades, these grants have subsidized the growth of incarceration. For example, the 1994 Crime Bill offered states $9 billion in funding to build more prisons. Today, $8.4 billion in federal criminal justice grants flow from Washington annually, largely on autopilot, encouraging more arrests, prosecution, and incarceration. To bring accountability to this flow, Congress can pass a “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act” that would dedicate $20 billion over 10 years to states that reduce both crime and incarceration. This would spur state and local action across the country.

End Federal Incarceration for Lower-Level Crimes: Our criminal justice system relies heavily on prison, using it as the default punishment for most crimes. But research has shown that unnecessary incarceration is costly and ineffective at preventing recidivism and promoting rehabilitation.  Early estimates show that approximately 49 percent of the federal prison population is likely incarcerated without an adequate public safety reason. Congress can pass legislation to eliminate prison terms for lower-level offenses and shorten prison terms for other crimes.  In doing so, it can safely, significantly cut the prison population, saving around $28 billion over 10 years, enough to fund a Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.

Institute a Police Corps Program to Modernize Law Enforcement: The country faces a national crisis in policing.  Some believe that overly-zealous enforcement has reached a breaking point.  Others believe police are not adequately funded or supported. All can agree that something needs to change.  To advance a twenty-first century police force, Congress can allocate $40 billion over five years to recruit new officers and train them in modern policing tactics focused on crime prevention, as well as techniques to reduce unnecessary arrests, uses of force, and incarceration.

Enact Sentencing Reform: While lawmakers should aspire to the bold changes to federal sentencing described above, Congress can start with a milder first step: reintroducing and passing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015.  This proposal would cautiously reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent crimes.  A bipartisan group of senators, led by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have already committed to reintroducing the bill this session. The White House has expressed cautious support.

Executive Action

Redirect Federal Grants Away from Mass Incarceration: Since many of the harmful incentives in federal criminal justice grants are written into law, truly ending the federal subsidization of mass incarceration will take congressional action, as laid out above. But the Justice Department can take the first step, by changing performance measures for grants to reward states that use federal funds to reduce both crime and incarceration. Institute New Goals for Federal Prosecutors: The Justice Department should ensure that scarce federal criminal justice resources are focused on the most serious crimes, and evaluate U.S. Attorneys nationally based on their ability to decrease both crime and incarceration.

Commute Sentences to Retroactively Apply the Fair Sentencing Act: In 2010, Republicans and Democrats joined together to pass legislation to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes as the drugs are scientifically equivalent. But more than 4,000 federal prisoners remain incarcerated under outdated drug laws. Future presidents can bring justice to these prisoners by identifying clemency petitions meeting certain criteria, fast-tracking them for review, and granting clemency.

May 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Life Without Redemption: When 1 in 7 U.S. inmates is serving a life term, it's time to rethink our failed crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Ashley Nellis and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project which serves as a kind of follow-up to its recent report on life sentencing (discussed here). Here are excerpts:

A new report from our organization, The Sentencing Project, finds that an astounding 206,000 people — 1 in 7 people in prison — is serving a life term, including with or without the possibility of parole, and so-called "virtual" life sentences, where the offender faces 50 years or more. Overall, the per capita rate at which the U.S. uses life imprisonment nearly equals the entire prison population of several industrialized nations.

The number of "lifers" in prison — nearly 5 times the figure in 1984 — is an outgrowth of the movement to "get tough" that characterized sentencing policies in the 1980s and 1990s.  Along with the spread of mandatory sentencing, "three strikes" and other harsh policies, states and the federal government have increasingly sentenced individuals to life in prison.

These figures come at a moment when calls to end mass incarceration abound throughout the nation.  Despite the new punitive policy shift at the federal level led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, many lawmakers, practitioners and civil rights organizations are advocating for a sizable reduction in what is now seen as a bloated and ineffective prison complex.  Yet the increasing use of life imprisonment suggests that substantial reductions in incarceration will be limited unless policymakers address the punishments at the deep end of the system for crimes that include violence, along with the more politically salable offenses involving drugs.

Most people serving life have been convicted of serious crimes, but among the population are over 17,000 persons convicted of nonviolent offenses and another 12,000 who were under 18 at the time of their crime. In three states, California, Utah and Louisiana, 1 in 3 prisoners is serving a life or virtual life sentence....

As is true of the justice system generally, racial and ethnic disparities are also profound among the lifer population. Today, two-thirds of those serving life are people of color.  While these individuals have generally been convicted of serious crimes, they are frequently sentenced to life imprisonment due to a prior criminal record through mechanisms such as habitual offender laws, more likely to be imposed on minorities.  Life in prison after a "third strike" might seem reasonable, but it fails to incorporate an understanding of the role of concentrated poverty, aggressive law enforcement and implicit bias that contribute to these criminal histories.

Prior recent related post:

May 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (35)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Reflecting on decreasing death sentences and increasing life sentences

The Washington Post has this "trendy" article headlined "The steady decline of America’s death rows," which reviews some of the latest notable numbers about death sentences and executions and also throws in a paragraph about life sentences based on this week's new Sentencing Project report on the topic (discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

Capital punishment in the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year.  In 1999, the country executed 98 inmates, a modern record for a single year.  In 2016, there were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.

Death sentences also sharply declined. Fewer states that have the death penalty as a sentencing option are carrying out executions, a trend that has continued despite two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past decade upholding lethal injection practices. States that would otherwise carry out executions have found themselves stymied by court orders, other legal uncertainty, logistical issues or an ongoing shortage of deadly drugs. Fewer states have it on the books than did a decade ago, and some that do retain the practice have declared moratoriums or otherwise stopped executions without formally declaring an outright ban....

Another way to see the changing nature of the American death penalty: The gradual decline of death row populations. At the death penalty’s modern peak around the turn of the century, death rows housed more than 3,500 inmates. That number is falling, and it has been falling for some time. New Justice Department data show that death-row populations shrank in 2015, marking the 15th consecutive year with a decline.

There were 2,881 inmates on state and federal death rows in 2015, the last year for which the Justice Department has nationwide data available. That was down 61 from the year before.  States carried out 28 death penalties in 2015, but nearly three times as many inmates — 82 — were removed from death rows “by means other than execution,” the Justice Department’s report states. (Another 49 inmates arrived on death row in 2015.)

In some cases, inmates left death row after being cleared of the crimes for which they were sentenced. Five people sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. Other inmates died of other causes before their executions could occur. In Alabama, three inmates died of natural causes in 2015 and a fourth hanged himself that year inside a prison infirmary, according to corrections officials and local media reports. North Carolina officials say one death-row inmate died of natural causes that year, another was resentenced to life without parole and a third had his death sentence vacated and a new trial ordered. Death sentences were thrown out in some cases. Four death-row inmates in Maryland had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole in 2015, a decision made by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley after that state formally abolished the death penalty....

Another shift also has occurred: The number of people sentenced to life in prison has ballooned, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report released this week from the Sentencing Project. The report states that more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences last year, with another 44,000 people serving what are called “virtual life sentences,” defined as long-term imprisonment effectively extending through the end of a person’s life. Similar to overall prison populations, people of color are disproportionately represented; black people account for nearly half of the life or virtual-life sentences tallied in the report.

Long-time readers likely know that these numbers provide one of the primary reasons why I have long worried that some criminal justice reforms advocates worry far too much about capital punishment and worry far too little about extreme prison sentences.  The fact that there are seven times as many persons serving life sentence as are on death row leads me to believe that nearly any and every concern raised about death sentencing may well be a problem of far greater magnitude with respect to lifers.

Most critically for those concerned about proportionate sentencing, every one of the almost 3000 persons on death row is an adult who was convicted of some form of aggravated murder and had a chance to argue to a jury for a lesser sentence.  But, according to the Sentencing Project data, nearly "12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles" and over "17,000 individuals with [some kind of life sentence] have been convicted of nonviolent crimes" and a significant percentage of lifers were subject to a mandatory sentencing scheme that required imposition of a severe prison sentence without any input by a jury or a judge.  

Though I fully understand why the death penalty has so much salience for both advocates and the general public, I still wish some portion of the extraordinary attention and energy always given to capital punishment might be redirected toward lifer laws, policies and practices.  

May 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Notable new Atlantic series "on efforts across the United States to move beyond the age of mass incarceration"

JusticeBUG_1As announced via this article a few day ago, headlined "Imagining the Presence of Justice," there is a notable new project from The Atlantic which aspires "to cover the evolution of criminal justice in America with a heightened focus on the different systems and approaches developing all over the nation." Here is more on how The Atlantic sets ups its plans followed by links to three early notable pieces in the series:

Over the past several decades, America has seen a startling divergence between crime and punishment.  While crime rates dropped steadily from the dramatic peaks of the 1990s, the nation’s incarceration rates continued just as steadily to grow.  And so, despite containing only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States came to hold a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

We’ve covered this divergence extensively in the print and digital pages of The Atlantic, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark story on the rise of the carceral state and the devastation it wreaked on black families to Inimai Chettiar’s exploration of the many causes of the decline in crime.  Among the findings that emerge most clearly from this robust, sad literature is that the factors driving both aspects of the divergence — the fall in crime, the increasing spread of punishment — are highly complex.  Despite dawning awareness of the deep social and economic costs of mass incarceration, no one-size-fits-all solution exists to change this picture.  Rolling back mass incarceration while protecting public safety will require a legion of efforts in thousands of prosecutors’ offices, police departments, parole boards, and legislative chambers.  "What we have is not a system at all,” as Fordham University’s John Pfaff told The Atlantic's Matt Ford, "but a patchwork of competing bureaucracies with different constituencies, different incentives, who oftentimes might have similar political ideologies, but very different goals and very different pressures on them.”...

In collaboration with reporters across the country, we’ll highlight local initiatives that merit national attention, and talk with experts about where and how lessons from states and municipalities can be applied more broadly.  We’ll look at where the carceral state has spread beyond merely responding to crime, examine the time people spend behind bars without having been convicted, and explore how cities can depend on police to collect fines and fees from their poorest residents to make up for too little tax revenue.

The title of the project comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who included the phrase in his famous letter from Birmingham jail.  That context is worth understanding for the challenge the letter poses to us today, as America struggles to reconcile the need for public safety with the moral imperative of justice....  From his cell, King wrote the famous letter that would cleave the nation’s understanding of “law and order” right in half, arguing that the observance of an unjust law violates the moral order.  "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” he wrote.  He castigated "the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice."

Three (somewhat sentencing-related) piece from the series:

May 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stories of severe federal sentences and the judges forced to impose them

Two different news sources this morning have these two equally interesting pieces about federal sentencing practices and federal judges struggling with their sentencing responsibilities:

May 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Sentencing Project reports on "America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences"

The Sentencing Project yesterday released this significant new report titled "Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences." Here is its introduction:

The number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons is at an all-time high. Nearly 162,000 people are serving a life sentence -- one of every nine people in prison.  An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Incorporating this category of life sentence, the total population serving a life or virtual life sentence reached 206,268 in 2016.  This represents 13.9 percent of the prison population, or one of every seven people behind bars. A mix of factors has led to the broad use of life sentences in the United States, placing it in stark contrast to practices in other nations.

Every state and the federal government allow prison sentences that are so long that death in prison is presumed.  This report provides a comprehensive profile of those living in this deep end of the justice system. Our analysis provides current figures on people serving life with parole (LWP) and life without parole (LWOP) as well as a category of long-term prisoner that has not previously been quantified: those serving “virtual” or de facto life sentences.  Even though virtual life sentences can extend beyond the typical lifespan, because the sentences are not legally considered life sentences, traditional counts of life-sentenced prisoners have excluded them until now.

KEY FINDINGS

• As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences, or one of every nine people in prison.

• An additional 44,311 individuals are serving “virtual life” sentences, yielding a total population of life and virtual life sentences at 206,268 – or one of every seven people in prison.

• The pool of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984.The increase in the LWOP population has far outpaced the changes in the LWP population.

• There are 44,311 people serving prison sentences that are 50 years or longer. In Indiana, Louisiana, and Montana, more than 11 percent of the prison population is serving a de facto life sentence.

• Nearly half (48.3%) of life and virtual life-sentenced individuals are African American, equal to one in five black prisoners overall.

• Nearly 12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles; of these over 2,300 were sentenced to life without parole.

• More than 17,000 individuals with an LWP, LWOP, or virtual life sentence have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

• The United States incarcerates people for life at a rate of 50 per 100,000, roughly equivalent to the entire incarceration rates of the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

May 4, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

"Leading with Conviction: The Transformative Role of Formerly Incarcerated Leaders in Reducing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Susan Sturm and Haran Tae now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This report documents the roles of formerly incarcerated leaders engaged in work related to reducing incarceration and rebuilding communities, drawing on in-depth interviews with 48 of these leaders conducted over a period of 14 months.  These “leaders with conviction” have developed a set of capabilities that enable them to advance transformative change, both in the lives of individuals affected by mass incarceration and in the criminal legal systems that have devastated so many lives and communities.  Their leadership assumes particular importance in the era of the Trump Presidency, when the durability of the ideological coalitions to undo the failed apparatus of mass incarceration will be tested.

Our analysis of these interviews indicates that a particular set of qualities equips this group of formerly incarcerated leaders to serve as organizational catalysts.  Organizational catalysts are individuals with knowledge, influence, and credibility who are in a position to mobilize change.  They operate at the intersection of communities and systems that do not usually interact, and bring a track record of commitment and an ability to communicate across different backgrounds and cultures.  They can transform organizations and networks by (1) mobilizing varied forms of knowledge to promote change, (2) developing collaborations in strategic locations, (3) cultivating new organizational catalysts, and (4) maintaining pressure and support for action.

The leaders share three important characteristics contributing to their evolution into organizational catalysts: (1) first-hand experience with the criminal legal system, (2) education that legitimizes and enhances their knowledge and leadership capacity, and (3) jobs and activist positions placing them at the intersection of different communities and systems.  This combination affords them multifaceted insight into the needs, barriers, and opportunities for transformation, as well as the legitimacy and influence needed to mobilize change based on that knowledge.

These leaders with conviction have developed the capacity to mobilize unusually diverse forms of social capital. As such, formerly incarcerated leaders are bonders (maintaining ties and sharing resources among those with a common identity linked to experiencing and seeking to transform the criminal justice system), bridgers (connecting individuals who would not ordinarily come in contact), and linkers (linking those with direct experience and knowledge of criminal justice to people in positions to influence public policy and change the public narrative).

The leaders use their social capital both as an engine of mobility for those affected by mass incarceration and as a vehicle for catalyzing change.  Their varied knowledge and experience equip them to speak the language of many different communities, and thus to communicate effectively with different audiences.  They build trust with people who have experienced consistent stigmatization and dispel myths among people who hold stereotypes that have prevented them from learning the realities of the criminal justice system.

Three structural supports emerged from this study as crucial building blocks of leaders with conviction: (1) relationships with people who believe in them and support their development, including when they struggle, (2) education and training that cultivates their identity and capacity as leaders, and (3) institutional and policy design that makes them full participants in the decision-making process.

May 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

"Purpose-Focused Sentencing: How Reforming Punishment Can Transform Policing"

The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Jelani Jefferson Exum recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Today’s discussions about police reform have focused on changing police training and procedures.  As accounts of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers have played out in the news and social media, demands for racial justice in policing have become more prevalent.  To end what I have coined as “the Death Penalty on the Street,” there have been calls for diversity training, training on non-lethal force, and, of course, community policing.  While it is perfectly rational for the response to excessive police force to be a focus on changing policing methods, such reforms will only have limited success as long as attitudes about black criminality remain the same.  Though we would like to hold them to a higher standard, police officers are merely human, so they carry with them the same biases and prejudices that any of us can hold.  Studies have shown that, in general, Americans are -- regardless of our race -- biased against blacks, especially young black men.  African Americans are more likely seen as criminals, and most of us overestimate the amount of crime attributable to the black population.  Therefore, in order to truly address the problem of racial injustice in policing, we must address the racial biases held by our society that play out in our criminal justice system.  Though perhaps not the obvious place for this revolution to start, sentencing reform has the potential to change the face of the punishment in our country, thus transforming the (usually black) face of whom we see as deserving of punishment by the police and the courts.

This Essay proposes “purpose-focused sentencing” as a means of remedying the over-incarceration of blacks, thereby combatting attitudes about crime and black criminality, and in turn, affecting how police see and treat blacks.  The goal is to reduce the racial disparity in incarceration, not solely through an overall lessened reliance on prisons and jails, but also by assessing and identifying appropriate sentences to fulfill criminal justice purposes.  Once those purposes -- deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution -- are identified and assessed, there will not be room to justify disparities in sentencing attributable only to the race of the defendant.  All sentences, regardless of the peculiarities of an individual defendant, must be tailored to a specific result, rather than imposed at the whim of a particular judge or in accordance with legislation that has no basis in an identified sentencing goal.  As a result, we will see prisons and jails being used much more exclusively (to the extent that incarceration is used at all) for violent, repeat felons, which statistics tell us are not where our racial disparities lie today.  When punishment is more closely aligned with what the offender has done, and what our goals of punishments are given that behavior, we can begin to combat the stereotype that the dangerous criminal is most likely black.

Once sentencing no longer feeds into the heightened public view of blacks as criminals, the spillover effect will be that the new wave of police officers will not see blacks this way either.  And if they do, society certainly will not view this biased police violence against blacks as reasonable.  This Essay offers a solution that will take years, if not generations, to implement; and it will perhaps take even longer for it to completely transform the face of policing.  However, the proposal is a long-term approach that will immediately begin to move criminal justice in the right direction and encourage honest conversations about what we are trying to do in our system and how our current methods of punishment are only perpetuating racial injustice.

April 30, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Noting reasons for the recent drop in the federal prison population mitigating overcrowding at BOP facilities

The US Courts yesterday posted this notable short piece under the heading "Policy Shifts Reduce Federal Prison Population." The piece details the significant decline in the federal prison population in the last few years and also highlights reasons for it:

A decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related crime in recent years has resulted in a significant drop in the federal prison population, according to statistics from the Judiciary, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The federal prison population fell from a peak of nearly 219,300 inmates in 2013 to 188,800 in April 2017, a nearly 14 percent reduction, according to BOP statistics.  The decrease reflects a dramatic shift in federal policies away from stiff penalties for drug trafficking and other drug-related offenses in recent years.  It also has mitigated overcrowding at BOP facilities -- the inmate population, once at 37 percent overcapacity, is now at 13 percent overcapacity.

Changes in sentencing guidelines are a major contributor to the inmate population decline.  In 2011, the USSC implemented lower crack cocaine penalties in line with the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress the year before.  The new guidelines were made retroactive, which resulted in the release of prisoners who had already served their time under the new guidelines.  Because drug crimes account for nearly a third of all criminal filings in federal courts, changes in drug sentences have a big impact on the federal prison population....  In 2014, the commission took the step of cutting the length of sentences for all drug trafficking offenses, not just crack cocaine.  Sentences were reduced by about 25 percent, and the changes were also made retroactive....

Other factors contributing to the decreasing prisoner population:

• Federal prosecutions for all crimes have declined over the past five years.  Criminal cases were brought against 77,357 defendants in fiscal year 2016, the lowest total since fiscal 1998, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  Last year, 67,742 defendants were convicted and sentenced, compared to 86,201 in 2011, the USSC reports.  However, the trend could slow or reverse in the coming months as new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration step up prosecutions of drug-related crime and immigration offenses.

• Two Supreme Court rulings since 2015 resulted in sentence reductions for about 1,200 inmates.  The court in Johnson v. United States found that one of the definitions of a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  A subsequent high court decision made the Johnson ruling retroactive, which prompted thousands of prisoners to petition for review of their cases.  Many of those cases are still under review by the lower courts.

April 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Penal Incapacitation: A Situationist Critique"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Guyora Binder. The piece appears to have come out on SSRN earlier this year, but I just now came across it. Here is its abstract:

Incapacitation of offenders has been an influential goal of criminal justice policy during the era of mass incarceration. The Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence has accepted incapacitation alone as a justifying purpose for recidivist sentencing enhancements. Yet recent Eighth Amendment decisions have required that severe sentences of incarceration be justified by reference to all purposes of punishment cumulatively, and have tested claims of incapacitative benefits against empirical evidence.

This Article critiques penal incapacitation as both theoretically and empirically flawed. Incapacitation theory underestimates situational factors contributing to crime, over-attributes dangerousness to individuals, and fails to account for crime committed in prison. These flaws preclude incapacitation from rationally justifying recidivist sentence enhancements as preventive. In addition, they support a critical interpretation of penal incapacitation as an expressive practice of segregating and stigmatizing offenders on the basis of status and disposition rather than conduct and desert. These weaknesses may prevent incapacitation from justifying lengthy recidivist sentences under the more demanding proportionality standard applied in recent Eighth Amendment cases.

April 26, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Marshall Project highlights tens of thousands imprisoned for minor parole violations

The Marshall Project has this interesting new report on technical parole violations and their consequences headlined "At Least 61,000 Nationwide Are in Prison for Minor Parole Violations." Here is how it starts:

Among the millions of people incarcerated in the United States, a significant portion have long been thought to be parole violators, those who were returned to prison not for committing a crime but for failing to follow rules: missing an appointment with a parole officer, failing a urine test, or staying out past curfew.

But their actual number has been elusive, in part because they are held for relatively short stints, from a few months to a year, not long enough for record keepers to get a good count.   To help fill the statistical gap, The Marshall Project conducted a three-month survey of state corrections departments, finding more than 61,250 technical parole violators in 42 state prison systems as of early 2017.

These are the inmates who are currently locked up for breaking a rule of parole, rather than parolees who have been convicted of a new crime; the number does not include those in county and local jails, where thousands more are likely held. (The eight remaining states — Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — said either they did not keep current state-level data or it would be too costly to generate.)

The total, 61,250, seems small, given the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. Imprisoning fewer technical violators would make only a dent in the effort to reduce mass incarceration. “But still,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, “the numbers aren’t trivial.”

To Mauer and other experts on what drives prison and jail populations, the fact that tens of thousands of people are incarcerated for infractions such as traveling without permission or frequenting a bar that serves alcohol is significant in itself.  That may be all the more true in seven states — Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania — which, according to the Marshall Project data, have more technical parole violators in their prisons than the other 35 states combined.

April 24, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Making the case that older punishments may not be so much crueler than current ones

Columnist Ross Douthat has this notable new New York Times commentary headlined "Crime and Different Punishments." Here are excerpts:

The tendency in modern criminal justice has been to remove two specific elements from the state’s justice: spectacle and pain.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, pillories and stocks and whipping posts became museum pieces, the hangman and the firing squad were supplanted by more technical methods, and punishment became something that happened elsewhere — in distant prisons and execution chambers, under professional supervision, far from the baying crowd.

All of this made a certain moral sense.  But the civilizing process did not do away with cruelty and in some ways it could exacerbate it.  With executions, the science was often inexact and the application difficult, and when it went wrong the electric chair or the gas chamber could easily become a distinctive kind of torture.  During the last century lethal injection, now the execution method of choice, had a higher “botch rate” by far than every other means of killing the condemned. Meanwhile, the lowest rate of failure (albeit out of a small sample size) belonged to that old standby: the firing squad.

Few prisoners face execution, and anti-death penalty activists may yet reduce that number to zero.  But botched injections are not the only ways in which we pile cruelties on the condemned.  Our prison system, which officially only punishes by restraint, actually subjects millions of Americans to waves of informal physical abuse — mistreatment by guards, violence from inmates, the tortures of solitary confinement, the trauma of rape — on top of their formal years-long sentences.

It is not clear that this method of dealing with crime succeeds at avoiding cruel and unusual punishment so much as it avoids making anyone outside the prison system see it.  Nor is it clear that a different system, with a sometimes more old-fashioned set of penalties, would necessarily be more inhumane....

I would rather face the firing squad than be strapped down and injected into eternity, and I would choose a strong dose of pain and shame over years under the thumb of guards and inmates and the state.

We tell ourselves that we have prisoners’ good in mind, and the higher standards of our civilization, because we do not offer them this choice.  But those standards may be less about preventing ourselves from becoming like our sinful ancestors, and more about maintaining the illusion of clean hands — while harsh punishment is still imposed, but out of sight, on souls and bodies not our own.

April 23, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Notable recent work from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons

LOGO_OnBlack_260s_400x400A helpful reader made sure I did not miss some recent pieces from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons that ought to be of interest to readers.

The piece on wages, "How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?," provides a 50-state survey of wages paid to incarcerated people. Here is a snippet:

One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001.  The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001.  The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today.  What changed?  At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs -- assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001.  With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

The piece on medical co-pays, "The steep cost of medical co-pays in prison puts health at risk," highlights the hours it would take a low-paid incarcerated worker to earn enough for one co-pay. Here is an excerpt:

The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.  Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200.  People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts -- typically from family -- to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.

Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.  Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners.  So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings?  Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care.  But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones.  Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.

April 23, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Highlighting books that suggest how the "age of mass incarceration may actually be abating"

The quoted portion of the title of this post from the headline of this new piece by Chuck Lane in the Washington Post.  The piece serves as a kind of mini-review of the two most important recent books on mass incarceration, John Pfaff's "Locked In" and James Forman's "Locking Up Our Own".  Here are excerpts: 

“Locking Up Our Own,” a remarkable new book by Yale Law School professor and former D.C. public defender James Forman Jr., tells the poignant but neglected story of how newly enfranchised black communities coped with this dilemma as a crime wave swept through urban America in the 1980s and 1990s, driving the murder victimization rate among blacks to an astonishing high of 39.4 per 100,000 population in 1991.

African American mayors, police and prosecutors responded to the pleas of beleaguered constituents with rhetoric, and policy, that were no less “tough on crime” than that of their white counterparts.  Black leaders often framed crime-fighting as an issue of salvaging the civil rights revolution.  “What would Dr. King say?” about the violence plaguing predominantly black cities, they would ask rhetorically — and then crack down on mostly youthful offenders, which inevitably involved “locking up our own.”...

This was an era, Forman reminds us, during which activist-attorney Johnnie Cochran regularly attended rallies against drug dealing in Los Angeles, calling for PCP dealers to be punished “harshly,” and Eric Holder, then the District’s top prosecutor, supported aggressive, often pretextual police stops and searches of cars in predominantly black sections of the city, in a desperate effort to get guns off the street....

He adds historical nuance to the story of “mass incarceration” told in Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander’s influential 2010 book “The New Jim Crow.”  This makes Forman’s book the second important corrective this year to Alexander’s.  The first, “Locked In” by Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, deployed statistical evidence to show that the United States’ highest-in-the-industrialized world incarceration rate did not result from the war on drugs, contrary to a theme of Alexander’s book that has been repeated so often Pfaff dubs it “the Standard Story.”

Even if everyone in state and federal prison on a drug conviction were released tomorrow, the U.S. incarceration rate would still be about quadruple what it was in 1970.  That is because, Pfaff demonstrates, most people in prison are there for violent crimes such as homicide or aggravated assault.

Punishment for these offenses drove incarceration rates higher, Pfaff shows, but not, as is often supposed, because of laws imposing harsh mandatory- minimum sentences.  The key factor was discretionary prosecutorial decisions; at least from the early 1990s on, prosecutors in the nation’s 3,000-plus counties charged arrestees with felonies at a higher rate even as the crime rate itself declined.  Ultimately, more punitive exercise of prosecutorial discretion fed a steady net influx of convicts to state prisons....

The most recent evidence indicates that the age of mass incarceration is abating; it has been, oddly enough, since just prior to the publication of “The New Jim Crow.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts has reported, based on Justice Department data, that the U.S. incarceration rate declined from a peak of 1 in 100 adults in 2007 to 1 in 115 in 2015. Keith Humphreys, of Stanford University, has shown that racial disparities, though still large, may be diminishing.  The incarceration rate for blacks fell steadily between 2000 and 2014, while that of whites rose slightly.

The challenge now is to accelerate the de-incarceration trend while sustaining low levels of crime.  A troubling uptick in urban homicide last year may have helped elect President Donald “American Carnage” Trump.  Certainly his harshest, most racially tinged anti-crime rhetoric both stimulated fear and exploited it. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has called emphasized punishing crime rather than consent decrees against allegedly abusive local police.

Under the circumstances, Forman and Pfaff’s emphasis on local politics, and county- and state-level prosecutorial discretion, is paradoxically hopeful.  Federal policy makes headlines, but in the vast majority of cases, criminal justice takes place at the grass roots.  And in recent years, that is the level at which the most promising reform efforts have occurred.  Those efforts can and should continue, whatever might happen next in Washington.

I really like this commentary's use of the term "abating" to describe what the current decade has wrought with respect to incarceration levels. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines abate as "to decrease in force or intensity," and that is what we are experiencing with incarceration in modern years in the United States. Incarceration continues on a mass scale in the US, but the force and intensity of our commitment to using ever more incarceration in response to social disorder has decreased.

April 19, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

A little video on prison population flow dynamics

A helpful reader alerted me to this newly-posted video produced by SPAC, the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.  This short animation is intended to help viewers understand how admissions and length of stay "interact and impact prison capacity flows."  As explained to me via email, the video covers a relatively simple point in a relatively simple way, but should still helps explain important prison population concepts that many people struggle to fully appreciate.

April 19, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

US Sentencing Commission conducting public hearing with testimony on alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs

As detailed on this USSC webpage, the United States Sentencing Commission in now conducting a public hearing through early this afternoon. As the page details, "the purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony on alternatives to incarceration programs in the federal court system. The Commission will also receive testimony from experts on synthetic drugs, including their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, trafficking patterns, and community impact."  The hearing is being streamed live here.

This webpage with the USSC hearing agenda has links to written testimony from all the scheduled witnesses, and this testimony provide a wealth of information and research about alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs.

April 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Florida judge imposes 100 years in prison for child porn possession for first offender claiming innocence

This local article about a state sentencing in Florida, headlined "Man, 37, sentenced to 100 years for child porn conviction," reports on a remarkably severe sentence handed down yesterday. Here are the details:

A 36-year-old St. Johns County man is looking at spending the rest of his life behind bars after Circuit Court Judge Howard Maltz sentenced him to 100 years in prison Wednesday morning. The sentencing came nearly two months after a jury found Jesse Graham Berben guilty on 20 counts of possession of child pornography at the end of a two-day February trial.

Berben, who maintained his innocence even through his sentencing hearing Wednesday, was arrested by St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office detectives in April 2015 after authorities obtained a search warrant for his Washington Street apartment — where he was living with his father at the time — and finding files containing the pornography on his computer.

His arrest report indicates that Berben denied knowing anything about the files or how they ended up on his computer. While he admitted to having a peer-to-peer file-sharing program that he used to download music, he denied using his computer to keep or download child pornography and said that if such files were found that it must have been compromised in some way.

Berben’s attorney, Tom Cushman, said after the sentencing that his client had maintained his innocence to him from the day that they first met, and that Berben had been offered a plea agreement from the state that would have netted him a prison sentence of about 5 years, “but he refused to plead because he said he was not guilty and he wasn’t going to plead guilty to something he didn’t do and become a registered sex offender with it.”

The sentence he ultimately received was more than four-times the “lowest permissible” sentence Maltz could have handed down based on sentencing guidelines submitted in court Wednesday (the maximum sentence was life in prison). It was also beyond even what Assistant State Attorney Mitch Bishop asked for while standing in for his colleague Chris Ferebee, who prosecuted the case.

Bishop, in his remarks before sentencing, said that the images — most of them movie files — found on Berben’s computer depicted children, some as young as 5-years-old, engaged in various sex acts. He pushed back on the notion, expressed by some, that merely possessing such images is not nearly as bad as carrying out the acts depicted.

“The problem with that is that viewing these images, possessing these images creates a market for someone else to produce them,” he said. “I don’t think that point should be overlooked.” Berben, he argued, not only downloaded the files but kept them in the file sharing program, making them available to others.

Bishop asked Maltz for a sentence that would include the rest of Berben’s “meaningful life,” arguing that someone who is “sexually gratified by” or even “sexually curious” by such images does not possess much “rehabilitative potential.”...

Cushman, citing his client’s 10 years of military service and lack of any criminal record, asked Maltz to consider something far less than Bishop asked for, and pointed out that the sentencing guidelines for the possession of child pornography made his client eligible for a punishment “possibly greater than if he’d actually committed the act.”...

Maltz, though, citing the images seen at the trial, called the case “quite troubling” and said he agreed with the state’s argument against any notion that possession of the images is a victimless crime. “I see little difference in culpability between those who actually sexually abuse and exploit children, and those who encourage and promote the conduct by downloading and sharing videos of such, which I think warrants a significant sentence,” he said.

Maltz sentenced Berben to five years in prison for each of the 20 counts, to be served consecutively. Cushman said Berben plans to appeal the sentence.

I am pretty sure that Florida lacks any general parole provisions, so the defendant in this case is certain to die in prison if his convictions or sentence is not modified on appeal.  Notably, a somewhat similar case from Florida a few years ago, the Vilca case discussed here where an LWOP sentence was imposed for child porn possession, had convictions reversed based on a discovery violation as noted here.  Also, in a similar case from South Dakota, the Bruce case discussed here, the South Dakota Supreme Court found a 100-year prison sentence for child porn possession constitutionally excessive.

It will be interesting to see if this case might get the level of attention that some others involving extreme prison terms sometimes do.  And it will be interesting to see how the Florida courts engage with these matters on appeal. 

April 13, 2017 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (22)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Effective coverage of the considerable challenges of sentencing reform in Louisiana

Over the last month, The Advocate has done a fine job covering debates over sentencing reforms in Louisiana, and the most recent of the article (listed last below) prompted me to collect come of this reporting in this space:

April 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Looking at the latest data on private prison populations in the US

FT_17.04.11_PrivatePrisons_1The Pew Research Center has this new "Fact Tank" post titled "U.S. private prison population has declined in recent years."  The piece effectively reviews a lot of private prison data, and here are excerpts:

After a period of steady growth, the number of inmates held in private prisons in the United States has declined modestly in recent years and continues to represent a small share of the nation’s total prison population.

In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, about 126,000 prisoners were held in privately operated facilities under the jurisdiction of 29 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.  That’s an 83% increase since 1999, the first year with comparable data, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  By comparison, the total U.S. prison population increased 12% during that span.

In more recent years, however, both the private and overall U.S. prison populations have declined at modest rates.  The private prison population has shrunk by 8% since its peak in 2012, while the overall prison population has fallen by 5% since its peak in 2009.  (The state private prison population peaked in 2012 with 96,774 prisoners, while the federal private prison population reached its peak a year later in 2013, with 41,159 prisoners.)...

Since 1999 — the first year BJS began collecting data on private prisons — inmates in privately run facilities have made up a small share of all U.S. prisoners. In 2015, just 8% of the nearly 1.53 million state and federal prisoners in the U.S. were in private facilities, up slightly from 5% in 1999.

State inmates make up the majority of the U.S. private prison population, as well as the overall U.S. prison population. In 2015, state prisoners made up 72% of the U.S. private prison population and 87% of the overall U.S. prison population.

In 2015, nearly three-quarters (73%) of all state prisoners in private facilities were held in the Sun Belt region of the U.S., including Texas, which has the largest private state prison population in the country. (Texas also has the second-largest state population overall.) The Lone Star State’s private prison population peaked at 20,041 in 2008, or 21% of all state inmates in privately run prisons at the time. By 2015, Texas’ private prison population had dropped to 14,293.

Florida had the second-largest private prison population (12,487) in 2015, while Georgia and Oklahoma had the third- and fourth-largest with 7,953 and 7,446, respectively. Arizona had the fifth-largest state private prison population (6,471) in 2015, a drop since the state’s peak of 8,971 in 2009.

The number and share of private prisoners under federal jurisdiction have grown since 1999. That year, 3,828 federal prisoners were being held in private prisons, comprising just 6% of the total private prison population. By 2015, the number of federal prisoners in private facilities had jumped to 34,934, accounting for 28% of the U.S. private prison population. At the same time, the share of prisoners in private facilities under state jurisdiction shrunk from 94% in 1999 to 72% in 2015.

In 2015, nearly 18% of all federal prisoners were being held in private prisons, a jump from 3% in 1999. By comparison, prisoners held in private prisons have made up less than 10% of the state prison population since 1999....

In February, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed a directive from the Obama administration to phase out work with private prisons at the federal level. The original Obama directive was motivated by a 2016 audit, which found that federal “contract” prisons had more safety and security incidents than comparable government-run prisons.

April 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 09, 2017

"Mass incarceration, public health, and widening inequality in the USA"

The title of this post is the title of this new Lancet article authored by Christopher Wildeman and Emily Wang.  Here is the summary:

In this Series paper, we examine how mass incarceration shapes inequality in health.  The USA is the world leader in incarceration, which disproportionately affects black populations.  Nearly one in three black men will ever be imprisoned, and nearly half of black women currently have a family member or extended family member who is in prison. However, until recently the public health implications of mass incarceration were unclear.  Most research in this area has focused on the health of current and former inmates, with findings suggesting that incarceration could produce some short-term improvements in physical health during imprisonment but has profoundly harmful effects on physical and mental health after release. The emerging literature on the family and community effects of mass incarceration points to negative health impacts on the female partners and children of incarcerated men, and raises concerns that excessive incarceration could harm entire communities and thus might partly underlie health disparities both in the USA and between the USA and other developed countries.  Research into interventions, policies, and practices that could mitigate the harms of incarceration and the post-incarceration period is urgently needed, particularly studies using rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental designs.

The Lancet piece is behind a pay-wall; this Atlantic article provides a helpful account of its themes. Here is an excerpt from the Atlantic coverage:

For children and communities, the impacts of a parent’s incarceration are unequivocally bad, write study authors Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University and Emily Wang of Yale. Kids whose fathers go to jail are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, and obesity, and they are more likely to do drugs later in life. Because criminal records dampen job opportunities, according to some studies people who live in neighborhoods with high levels of incarceration are more likely to experience asthma from dilapidated housing. These consequences are especially severe for children of color: Because black men are jailed disproportionately, a black child born in 1990 had a one-in-four chance of having their father imprisoned, Wildeman and Wong write.

When imprisoned fathers return home, “they have trouble finding employment,” says Kristin Turney, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied the health of inmates’ children but was not involved with the study.  Part of the explanation is reduced income, she said, and “part of it is the relationship between the parents. Maintaining romantic partnerships while incarcerated is tricky, so it can lead to more [familial] conflict.”

But, paradoxically, going to prison can actually improve health — at least temporarily — for some inmates. Black male inmates, the authors write, have a lower mortality rate than similarly aged black men who aren’t in jail.  The reason?  The risk of death from violent accidents, overdoses on drugs or alcohol, and homicides is much lower in prison than it is in the neighborhoods where these men would be living otherwise.  What’s more, before the Affordable Care Act was passed, many states made it all but impossible for low-income, childless men to obtain health care.  Under the ACA, 32 states expanded Medicaid to cover all poor adults, but 19 have not.  Because of that, Wildeman and Wang write, prison is the first time many incarcerated young men receive regular health care.

The drop in mortality “is just an indicator of how dangerous the environment for African-Americans is on the outside, rather than being a function of how good the medical care is that they’re receiving” in prison, Wildeman told me.  (This health boost excludes the effect of solitary confinement, which has well-known, horrific consequences for mental health.)

April 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Notable perspectives on state and direction of modern criminal justice reform efforts

James Forman has this lengthy new commentary in the New York Times under the headlined "Justice Springs Eternal." I recommend the full piece to anyone and everyone seeking to take stock and reflect upon the current moment in the modern criminal justice reform movement.  Here are some extended excerpts:

After almost 50 years of relentless prison-building in the United States, of aggressive policing and a war on drugs that goes after our most vulnerable citizens, the movement for a more merciful criminal justice system had begun to seem, if not unstoppable, at least plenty powerful.

In 2015, the number of American prisoners declined more than 2 percent, the largest decrease since 1978.  By 2014, the incarceration rate for black men, while still stratospheric, had declined 23 percent from its peak in 2001.  Even growing numbers of Republicans were acknowledging the moral and fiscal imperative of shrinking the prison state.

And then came President Trump, who caricatures black neighborhoods as killing fields in desperate need of more stop-and-frisk policing, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who shrugs off evidence of systemic police abuses in cities like Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., and says that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin. (In fact, nearly 13,000 Americans died from heroin overdoses in 2015, while zero died from marijuana overdoses.)

Such dangerous, ill-informed pronouncements naturally induce weariness and dread.  Yet despite this bleak news from Washington, the movement to reduce the prison population and make our criminal justice system more humane is not in retreat. In fact, it is stronger than ever....

The most unexpected victories came in local races for prosecutor.  For decades, district attorney candidates competed to prove they were tougher on crime than their opponents.  That makes what happened last November so extraordinary: Prosecutors around the country campaigned on promises to charge fewer juveniles as adults, stop prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and seek the death penalty less often. And they did so in places with well-deserved reputations for rough justice, including Chicago, Houston and Tampa, Fla....

These state and local election results get less attention than Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions, but they may have a bigger impact on incarceration rates.  While mass incarceration is a national crisis, it was built locally.  Ninety percent of American prisoners are in state, county and local jails, and around 85 percent of law enforcement officers are state and local, not federal.

Of course, the federal government exerts influence on law enforcement at all levels, both through rhetoric (the tone set in Washington filters down) and funding (Congress can encourage states to build more prisons by offering to foot part of the bill).  But most crime policy is set by state and local officials: police officers, pretrial services officers, local prosecutors, defense lawyers, juries (in the rare cases that don’t end in a plea agreement), judges, state legislatures, corrections departments and state parole boards.  During the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s, each of those entities became more punitive, and the cumulative impact of their policies and actions caused the number of people in prison or under criminal justice supervision to skyrocket.

Now, the reverse could also prove to be true.  If multiple individuals across multiple systems were to become less punitive, the prison population would fall.  This is why each state and local electoral victory — even those that don’t make news — is so significant. Mass incarceration will have to be dismantled the same way it was constructed: piecemeal, incrementally and, above all, locally.

The question is, what can be done to sustain such progress — especially at a time when crime is rising in some cities and the “law-and-order” mantra pioneered by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 1960s has regained currency at the federal level?  The answer lies with a new breed of activism that has emerged in response to mass incarceration.  Reform groups and nonprofits are tackling issues and adopting strategies that an earlier generation of reformers did not....

[N]o aspect of our criminal justice system is as overworked and underfunded as public defender services.  Of the more than $200 billion that states and local governments spend on criminal justice each year, less than 2 percent goes to public defense.  Yet improving indigent defense gets scant attention in the conversation about how to fix our criminal justice system.

President Barack Obama “wrote a 55-page article about criminal justice reform and didn’t mention public defenders,” said Jonathan Rapping, the founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based group that is building a movement of public defenders to drive justice reform. “Eighty percent of the people charged with crimes in this country can’t afford a defense attorney,” Mr. Rapping added. “That means that 80 percent of the people in court depend on their public defender to be their voice, to tell their stories and to assert their humanity in a system that routinely denies it. Until we invest in public defenders, our system cannot and will not change.”

But what about the prosecutors whom public defenders and their clients face in court? This question points to one more critical item on the criminal justice reform agenda.  We must continue to recruit progressive prosecutors to run in local elections, support those who do, and hold them accountable if they win.  And let me go one step further: Law students and midcareer lawyers committed to criminal justice reform should consider signing up as assistant district attorneys in offices run by the new crop of progressive prosecutors.

This last suggestion, I confess, doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve taught law school for almost 15 years, and during that time I’ve repeatedly counseled progressive students against working as prosecutors.  I had lots of reasons, but the main one was straightforward: You might go in as a reformer, but the office will change you, not the other way around.

I still believe this is true for most prosecutors’ offices.  But the recent election of prosecutors who criticize racial disparities and challenge wrongful convictions has caused me to change my mind.  Prosecutors committed to reform need talented staff members who share that commitment, and our best legal talent should flock to their offices.

Mr. Sessions and Mr. Trump have the largest microphones and will get the most attention.  But their agenda faces a rising countermovement across the country.  If we stay local and continue to learn from past defeats and recent victories, the movement for a fairer criminal justice system can outlast them and prevail.

March 26, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)