Friday, April 20, 2018

Interesting new survey on crime and punishments from Vera Institute with a focus on rural Americans

This new Vera Institute blog posting by Jasmine Heiss and Jack Norton reports on an interesting new poll. The posting it titled "United Toward Justice: Urban and Rural Communities Share Concerns about Incarceration, Fairness of the Justice System, and Public Spending Priorities," and here are excerpts (with links from the original):

New polling conducted for Vera by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQR) shows that a 67 percent majority overall agree that “building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime,” including 61 percent of rural Americans.  What’s more, neither people in rural nor urban areas across America consider crime a major problem: only 27 percent of people living in rural areas cite it as a major problem in their communities, as compared to 26 percent overall.  And people in communities of all sizes appear disinterested in spending limited taxpayer resources on prisons and jails.  Building prisons and jails ranks a distant last (35 percent) as a strategy to improve quality of life — trailing behind measures such as providing more jobs and job training (91 percent); investing more in schools and youth programs (88 percent); providing more community-based mental health treatment (86 percent) and drug and alcohol treatment (83 percent); and emphasizing community-based violence reduction programs (78 percent). (See GQR’s memo for complete details.)

Vera’s In Our Backyards research adds a human dimension to these results and anchors them in the lived experiences of communities.  In Pueblo County in Southern Colorado, for example, voters have twice rejected jail expansion.  There are competing narratives about the beliefs underlying the rejection of jail expansion.  The criminal justice stakeholders who were proponents of expansion saw the “no” vote as a reflection of most voters’ general apathy about conditions endured by the people incarcerated and working in the county jail.  But many citizens who voted against expansion saw their votes as a choice about the conditions of the community writ large. As one person who voted against expansion put it: “They need a new treatment center, not a jail. This is a poor place; there’s a drug problem like all these poor places across the country. We don’t need a new jail.”...

Residents not only disapprove of investing in newer or bigger jails and prisons — they’re also concerned about the rate at which their friends and neighbors are being locked up.  A 40 percent plurality believes that the level of incarceration in their communities is too high, as opposed to just nine percent of people who believe that it is too low.  Moreover, 66 percent of people confirmed that they would be concerned if they learned that their community had a higher rate of incarceration than similar communities in their state; 55 percent of whom would be very concerned.  In rural counties, those numbers dip only slightly to a 60 percent majority of residents who would be concerned about outsize rates of incarceration; 45 percent of whom would be very concerned.             

Misgivings about the justice system’s ability to deliver on the promise of equal justice also became clear: 55 percent of respondents agreed that the nation’s justice system discriminates against poor people.  This was affirmed by 76 percent of people who described themselves as “lower class,” and 84 percent of black Americans.

Furthermore, when asked specifically about their perceptions of judges — among the most visible actors in the local justice system — a 47 percent plurality disagreed with the statement “Local judges are fair to all people, regardless of background,” including 63 percent of black Americans.  These perceptions might be understood in tandem with the overrepresentation of black and poor Americans in the nation’s jails: despite a narrowing racial gap, black people are still 3.6 times more likely to be jailed than white people. What’s more, an estimated 80 percent of people in jail are indigent....

As the movement to reverse mass incarceration and elect reform-minded candidates continues to gain momentum, it’s clear that the same energy that has propelled America’s biggest cities toward reform is infusing small-town America.  And while the nation’s smallest communities are often overlooked, they are poised to be a force for change.

April 20, 2018 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"The Consensus Myth in Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Benjamin Levin.  Here is its abstract:

It has become popular to identify a “bipartisan consensus” on criminal justice reform, but how deep is that consensus, actually?  This Article argues that the purported consensus is largely illusory. Despite shared reformist vocabulary, the consensus rests on distinct critiques that identify different flaws and justify distinct policy solutions.  The underlying disagreements transcend traditional left/right political divides and speak to deeper disputes about the state and the role of criminal law in society.

The Article offers a typology of the two prevailing, but fundamentally distinct, critiques of the system:

(1) the quantitative approach (what I call the “over” frame); and

(2) the qualitative approach (what I call the “mass” frame).

The “over” frame grows from a belief that criminal law has an important and legitimate function, but that the law’s operations have exceeded that function.  This critique assumes that there are optimal rates of incarceration and criminalization, but the current criminal system is sub-optimal in that it has criminalized too much and incarcerated too many. In contrast, the “mass” frame focuses on the criminal system as a socio-cultural phenomenon.  This reformist frame indicates that the issue is not a mere miscalculation; rather, reforms should address how the system marginalizes populations and exacerbates both power imbalances and distributional inequities.

To show how these frames differ, this Article applies the “over” and the “mass” critique, in turn, to the maligned phenomena of mass incarceration and overcriminalization.  The existing literature on mass incarceration and overcriminalization displays an elision between these two frames. Some scholars and reformers have adopted one frame exclusively, while others use the two interchangeably.  No matter how much scholars and critics bemoan the troubles of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, it is hard to believe that they can achieve meaningful reform if they are talking about fundamentally different problems.

While many reformers may adopt an “over” frame in an effort to attract a broader range of support or appeal to politicians, “over” policy proposals do not reach deeper “mass” concerns.  Ultimately, then, this Article argues that a pragmatic turn to the “over” frame may have significant costs in legitimating deeper structural flaws and failing to address distributional issues of race, class, and power at the heart of the “mass” critique.

April 17, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, April 16, 2018

"Marijuana legalization can’t fix mass incarceration" ... but it should help a bit

German Lopez has this short piece on Vox, which carries the headline appearing in quotes in this post title and this subtitle: "A Republican and Democrat pointed to marijuana prohibition to explain mass incarceration. They’re both wrong." Here are key excerpts:

Over the past week, prominent political figures from both sides of the aisle have suggested that the prohibition of marijuana is to blame for mass incarceration.

Former House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, claimed, “When you look at the number of people in our state and federal penitentiaries, who are there for possession of small amounts of cannabis, you begin to really scratch your head.  We have literally filled up our jails with people who are nonviolent and frankly do not belong there.”  Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, tweeted, “More than 2 million in jail, mostly black and brown, many for holding a small amount of marijuana.”

The suggestion, however, is wrong. It is true that a lot of people are arrested each year for marijuana. In 2016, nearly 600,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession. These arrests on their own can create huge problems — leading to criminal records that can make it harder to get a job, housing, or financial aid for college.

But these arrests are only a small part of America’s mass incarceration problem. First, most people in jail or prison are not in for drug charges at all. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 21 percent of people in jail or prison are in there for a drug crime, including marijuana possession....

How many of the 21 percent of drug offenders are in for marijuana possession? Unfortunately, we don’t have good data for jails, where people are held before they’re convicted of a crime and for shorter sentences. We also don’t have good data for state prisons, where more than 87 percent of US prison inmates are held, based on federal data. But we do know that a minority of state prisoners are in for drugs: In 2015, 3.4 percent of all state prisoners were in for drug possession and 11.7 percent were in for other drug-related crimes. So only a fraction of prisoners are locked up due to drug prohibition in general, much less marijuana prohibition in particular.

We do have some good data for the federal system. According to the US Sentencing Commission, 92 of nearly 20,000 people — fewer than half a percent — sentenced for drug offenses during fiscal year 2017 were locked up due to simple possession of marijuana.

I am glad to see efforts to correct (all-too-common) claims that much of mass incarceration can be attributed to marijuana prohibition, and it is especially galling to see Boehner and Schatz suggest that a significant portion of persons are imprisoned for mere possession of small quantities of marijuana. That is not the reality now, nor has it ever been.

That said, as the arrest data highlight, a whole lot of people get entangled with the criminal justice system because of marijuana prohibition. And trafficking in marijuana (which becomes legal with marijuana legalization) has landed tens of thousands of people in US prison in recent decades. The latest data from the US Sentencing Commission, interestingly, shows that the number of persons federally prosecuted for marijuana trafficking dropped from 6792 in Fiscal Year 2012 to only 3381 in Fiscal Year 2016.  These data suggest to me that the era of marijuana legalization in the states has had a real impact on marijuana prosecutions (and imprisonment) at the federal level.

So while marijuana legalization (nor any other single reform) will alone fix mass incarceration, there is a basis to believe it could help a bit.  (Also, I must add that if former House Speaker John Boehner was sincerely concerned about the number of people in our state and federal penitentiaries, there is a lot more he should be doing besides now advising a marijuana company.)

April 16, 2018 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Stoked for the OSU's Reckless-Dinitz Lecture featuring Professor John Pfaff

I have had the pleasure of spending a good part of today hanging out with Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff, who is on the Ohio State campus today to deliver the 29th Annual Walter C. Reckless - Simon Dinitz Memorial Lecture.  John's talk today is titled "Moving Past the Standard Story: Rethinking the Causes of Mass Incarceration," and here is the abstract for this lecture:

Reducing America's exceptional reliance on incarceration is one of the few issues of genuine bipartisan cooperation these days.  Yet despite years of work, change has been slow and halting.  One critical reason is that the story we tell about what has driven prison growth often emphasizes causes that matter less at the expense of those that matter more.
We talk about the impact of long sentences — which certainly matter — but end up overlooking the even more important role of prosecutorial charging behavior in the process.  We emphasize the need to stop sending people to prison for drugs, but as a result fail to talk about changing how we punish those convicted of violence — even though only 15% of the prison population is serving time for drugs, compared to over 50% for violence.  And reformers frequently direct their attention on private prisons, and thus don't focus on the fact that public institutions hold over 90% of all inmates, and that (public) correctional officer unions and legislators with public prisons in their districts play far bigger roles than the private prison firms in pushing back against reform efforts.  Even the modest reductions in prison populations since 2010 are something to celebrate, but more substantive cuts will require us to start asking tougher questions about the sorts of changes we need to demand.

April 12, 2018 in Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Looking into the modern state of the private prison industry in the states

The New York Times has this new extended article on the private prison industry as it operates in the states under the headline "Escapes, Riots and Beatings. But States Can’t Seem to Ditch Private Prisons." Here are excerpts:

In Arizona in 2015, a riot broke out in a private prison where previously three inmates had escaped and murdered a vacationing couple. After order was restored, the state revoked the contract of Management & Training Corporation and hired another private prison firm, the GEO Group.

Three years earlier, the GEO Group had surrendered its contract to run a Mississippi prison after a federal judge ruled that the inmates had not been protected from gang violence. The replacement: Management & Training Corporation.

The staying power of the two companies shows how private prisons maintain their hold on the nation’s criminal justice system despite large-scale failures.  The field is dominated by a handful of companies who have swallowed the competition and entrenched their positions through aggressive lawyering, intricate financial arrangements and in some cases, according to lawsuits by the Mississippi attorney general, bribery and kickbacks....

Private prison companies can be found at every level of government, housing 9 percent of the nation’s prisoners.  They emerged in the 1980s, when the number of inmates was quickly outstripping capacity, and they have an outsize influence in certain states, including Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Mississippi and New Mexico.

Despite hundreds of lawsuits, findings that private prisons save taxpayers little to no money, and evidence of repeated constitutional violations, the number of privately housed inmates has risen faster since 2000 than the overall number of prisoners.  In 2016, the number rose by about 1.5 percent, according to Justice Department figures....

Even states that have sworn off private prisons, or tried to cut back on their use, have found it difficult to extricate themselves.  After the prisoners escaped in Arizona, the state tried to reduce the number of inmates held in that prison. But MTC claimed the state was violating its contract, which guaranteed a certain number of beds would be filled. Arizona had to pay the company $3 million. MTC still operates a facility in the state.

States that use private prisons can find themselves limited to a few big players. The largest are GEO Group, based in Florida; CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), based in Tennessee; and MTC, based in Utah. Two of the past four directors of the Federal Bureau of Prisons were later hired by CoreCivic.... The companies employ a variety of strategies, including hiring former corrections officials in high-level positions and giving what are sometimes enormous campaign contributions. GEO Group and CoreCivic gave close to half a million dollars to support Mr. Trump’s candidacy and inauguration. After he was elected, their stock prices soared.

Industry officials say they provide cost-effective ways to house inmates, and that they continue to expand into rehabilitation programs as more states seek alternatives to prison. CoreCivic says about 10,000 people in its facilities have obtained high school equivalency diplomas in the past five years, reflecting the company’s efforts to improve the ability of inmates to re-enter society.  But some lawmakers say the claims of cost savings and other benefits do not check out. “There is no convincing argument of why we should have private prisons,” said Mike Fasano, a former Republican state senator from Pasco County, Fla., who voted against a 2012 measure to privatize much of Florida’s prison system....

Much of the industry’s power, critics say, is linked to campaign donations. GEO Group and CoreCivic have given nearly $9 million over the past fifteen years to state candidates and parties across the United States, with the overwhelming majority to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.  The two companies have also spent between $3 million and $4 million annually on lobbying, according to data from the institute and from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.  Steve Owen, a CoreCivic spokesman, said the magnitude of lobbying and campaign contributions was not unusual for an industry of its size.

The industry also promises savings.  But such claims have been disputed, partly because many contracts allow the private prisons to cherry-pick the healthiest inmates while leaving those who need more care to publicly run facilities, making private prisons appear to be cheaper to run, critics say.  The Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in 2016 that it could not accurately compare costs, partly because of “the different nature of the inmate populations and programs offered in those facilities.”

The department ordered a phasing-out of private facilities that year, saying they “compare poorly” with government prisons and citing a lack of substantial cost savings. One month after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the department rescinded the decision....

In some communities, private prisons have become such large taxpayers and employers that backers have forecast economic doom in arguing against their closing. Perhaps no town is now as dependent as Eloy, Ariz., where four private prisons pay $2 million of the town’s $12.5 million annual operating budget, according to the city manager, Harvey Krauss.

Last week the NY Times had this other article looking at private prison realities under the headline "Inside a Private Prison: Blood, Suicide and Poorly Paid Guards."

April 10, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 06, 2018

Making the case for making the best of federal sentencing changes in the form of prison reform

Lars Trautman has this notable new Hill commentary, headlined "Incentivized early release the right path to sentencing reform under Trump-Sessions," making the argument that advocates ought to pursue even limited prison reform if that is the only form of politically viable federal sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

The heated “tough-on-crime” rhetoric of the president and many in his administration has greatly complicated criminal justice reform efforts and left Congress scrambling to figure out how to make sentencing reform palatable to the White House.  The problem has become particularly acute after the attorney general summarily dismissed one of the Senate’s leading proposals and the White House sent Congress a set of criminal justice priorities that pointedly ignored front-end sentencing reforms.

So how can Congress possibly move the needle on something as controversial as federal sentencing reform under this administration?

By passing sentencing reform that doesn’t look like sentencing reform.  Plans that reduce the potential penalties for certain offenses or provide other sentencing safety valves have struggled because they focus on the crime committed, essentially forcing proponents to argue that an individual deserves less punishment for a given offense. This is a fundamentally moral issue that has no easy answer.  It’s particularly susceptible to emotional appeals that couple a shared sense of outrage at criminal behavior with a fear of emboldening criminals.

As long as the focus remains on the wrong perpetrated, opponents are able to falsely claim that it’s impossible to be in favor of both victims and criminals, and then portray themselves as defenders of the former....  As worthy and necessary as this kind of front-end reform may be, demanding its inclusion is much more likely to frustrate than achieve any criminal justice reform.

So, if traditional sentencing reform is dead in the water, what’s left?  Reentry programs that offer prisoners the opportunity to shorten their sentences on the back-end would be a good place to begin.  Rather than trimming sentences from the start, these programs allow prisoners to earn credits toward early release by participating in programs intended to help reintegrate them into society and reduce their propensity to reoffend.  Although they face some of the same political resistance as front-end sentencing reductions, it is significantly easier to overcome.

These programs avoid many of the usual pitfalls that sentencing reform legislation encounters because they shift the narrative from one of retribution to redemption, from past wrong to future promise.  Instead of getting bogged down on issues like whom to punish and for how long, politicians are able to talk about what comes next.  Leaving the nominal sentence unchanged insulates these reforms from charges that they don’t adequately reflect the egregiousness of a given crime or that they will negatively impact deterrence.  Public safety and prison budgets are both improved as prisoners are given the tools to leave prison and never return.

Reentry programs also represent a more targeted approach to early release that is eminently easier to defend. This further moves the debate to more favorable terrain by limiting discussion only to those prisoners who have taken the initiative and successfully completed programs to reduce their risk of reoffending. Instead of having to defend the early release of all offenders, including those who may be unrepentant or otherwise incorrigible, proponents need only support those who have actively taken steps to better reintegrate themselves into society....

With opportunities for movement on criminal justice reform likely few and far between under this administration, reformers need to pick their fights more wisely. Demanding upfront sentencing reductions may feel righteous, but in the face of our current political intransigence it will likely do little to help those serving unnecessarily long sentences. Such energies are better spent working to expand the use of incentivized early release and ensure that it actually results in the conclusion of a sentence in legislation such as Rep. Doug Collins' (R-Ga.) Prison Reform and Redemption Act.

While there is much more that can and should be done on sentencing reform, for now at least, Congress should focus on progress that might actually garner a presidential signature.

April 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

A window into carceral concerns in incarceration nation: "build another prison" to deal with "loss of coal work"

A helpful reader sent me this AP story headlined "Federal prison project in Kentucky wins final approval," which highlights how the building of cages gets celebrated as a form of economic development (using federal tax dollars).  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Federal officials have approved a long-discussed plan to build another prison in eastern Kentucky, sealing a deal to bring hundreds of jobs to an area hard hit by the loss of coal work.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said he was notified Friday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Letcher County project had cleared a final hurdle with federal prisons officials.  The Republican congressman said the project will be a "long-term economic shot in the arm" for the region.

"With funding in place and the completion of environmental studies, today's announcement is a tremendous milestone for Letcher County and the surrounding area," Rogers said Friday.... The prison is expected to have 300 to 400 employees, Rogers said. A 700-acre site on reclaimed mine land in Roxana was selected for the facility by federal officials....

The announcement comes as the area's economy has been reeling from a big downturn in the coal sector.  "We certainly need the job growth around here since the coal industry has dried up," Letcher County Jailer Don McCall said Saturday in praising the announcement.  "I think it's going to be a real economic boost for our little area."...

It could take four to five years to build the prison, but an estimated 1,000 or more construction jobs will provide a quick boost for the area's economy, Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward told the Lexington Herald-Leader.  The prison project had drawn resistance from some local residents uncomfortable about connecting the county's economy to a prison.

Rogers was the driving force behind landing federal money for the project.  He secured an initial $5 million in the federal budget in 2006 to search for potential sites.  The veteran congressman steered nearly $500 million needed to build the prison while he was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Letcher County project marks the fourth prison that Rogers had helped bring to his district during his time in Congress.  The others are in McCreary, Martin and Clay counties.

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I saw this terrific lengthy NBC News piece from last week covering this same story under the headline "DOES AMERICA NEED ANOTHER PRISON?"  Here is an excerpt from a piece that merits a full read:

Around the country, impoverished rural communities have pursued prisons in the hope that they will deliver them from economic hardship. This began three decades ago, when America’s rush to imprison coincided with the loss of farms, factories and other traditional sources of work that bolstered rural life. The need hasn’t diminished, as rural America still seeks a path out of the Great Recession. But the exchange of land is no longer as promising what it once was.

As incarceration rates have fallen, and the country re-evaluates whether locking people up is sound criminal justice policy, many states are closing prisons, forcing rural towns that invested their futures in bars and barbed wire to find new uses for the buildings, as well as new economic engines.

Letcher County, with 22,700 people in the southern Appalachian Mountains, appears stuck with no other solution.

“In much of rural America we get our identity from what we used to do: We used to be miners, farmers, loggers, we used to work at the plant. And as that work goes away, we want to feel like we’re part of the American story and we’re making a contribution,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg that advocates for rural communities. “Politicians have just a few arrows in their quiver, and one of them is prisons, which, whether they work or not, they seem like they’re a big deal. It’s the one thing they give to rural.”

April 3, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, March 30, 2018

US District Judge concludes Miller applies to 18-year-old murderer to find his mandatory LWOP sentence violates the Eighth Amendment

I just saw this fascinating federal ruling handed down yesterday by US District Judge Janet C. Hall, the Chief Judge of the US District Court for the District of Connecticut, in Cruz v. US, No. 11-CV-787 (D. Conn. March 29, 2018) (available here). The ruling runs 50+ pages, so I will need to read it carefully before opining about it at length. But these excerpts from the start art end of the opinion should reveal why it is worth attention:

Cruz turned 18 on December 25, 1993. On May 14, 1994, when Cruz was 18 years and 20 weeks old, Cruz and another member of the Latin Kings, Alexis Antuna, were given a mission by gang leader Richard Morales. See United States v. Diaz, 176 F.3d 52, 84 (2d Cir. 1999). The mission was to kill Arosmo “Rara” Diaz. See id. Carrying out that mission, Cruz and Antuna shot and killed Diaz and his friend, Tyler White, who happened to be with Diaz at the time. See id. Cruz testified at the hearing before this court that he now admits to committing both murders. See Cruz Tr. at 27. He further testified that Antuna informed him at the time that the leaders of the Latin Kings were debating what would happen to him as a result of his attempt to leave the gang. See id. at 19. According to his testimony, Cruz believed that, if he did not carry out the mission, he himself would be killed. See id....

[W]hen the Roper Court drew the line at age 18 in 2005, the Court did not have before it the record of scientific evidence about late adolescence that is now before this court.

Thus, relying on both the scientific evidence and the societal evidence of national consensus, the court concludes that the hallmark characteristics of juveniles that make them less culpable also apply to 18-year-olds.  As such, the penological rationales for imposing mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole cannot be used as justification when applied to an 18-year-old.

The court therefore holds that Miller applies to 18-year-olds and thus that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole” for offenders who were 18 years old at the time of their crimes.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at 479.  As applied to 18-year-olds as well as to juveniles, “[b]y making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” See id.  As with Miller, this Ruling does not foreclose a court’s ability to sentence an 18-year-old to life imprisonment without parole, but requires the sentencer to take into account how adolescents, including late adolescents, “are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” See id. at 480.

I think it a near certainty that the feds will appeal this consequential ruling to the Second Circuit and it will be interesting to watch how that court approaches this issue. And, in all likelihood, whatever the outcome in the Second Circuit, a cert petition would follow. So, stay tuned.

March 30, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Deviancy, Disability, and Dependency: The Forgotten History of Eugenics and Mass Incarceration"

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

Racism, harsh drug laws, and prosecutorial overreach have formed three widely-discussed explanations of the punitive carceral state.  These three narratives, however, only partially explain where we are.  Neglected in our discussion of mass incarceration is our largely-forgotten history of the long-term, wholesale institutionalization of the disabled.  This form of mass detention, motivated by a continuing application of eugenics and persistent class-based discrimination, provides an important part of our history of imprisonment, shaping key contours of our current supersized correctional system.  Only by fully exploring this forgotten narrative of long-term detention and isolation will policy makers be able to understand, diagnose, and solve the crisis of mass incarceration.

March 26, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"Prison Crime and the Economics of Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ben Gifford now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

As America’s prison and jail populations have skyrocketed, a wealth of empirical scholarship has emerged to measure the benefits and costs of incarceration.  The benefits, from an empirical perspective, consist of the amount of crime prevented by locking people up, as well as the value of that prevented crime to society.  The costs consist of direct state expenditures, lost inmate productivity, and a host of other collateral harms.  Once these benefits and costs are quantified, empirical scholars are able to assess whether it “pays,” from an economic perspective, to incarcerate more or fewer criminals than we currently do.

Drawing on this academic literature, policymakers at all levels of government have begun using cost-benefit analysis to address a wide range of criminal justice issues. In addition to evaluating broader proposals to increase or decrease incarceration rates, policymakers are assessing the costs and benefits of myriad narrower reforms that implicate the economics of incarceration.  In each of these areas, policymakers rely heavily on empirical scholars’ work, whether by adopting their general methods or incorporating their specific results.

While these economic analyses of incarceration offer important insights, they suffer from a near-universal flaw: they fail to account for crime that occurs within prisons and jails. Instead, when scholars and policymakers measure the benefits of incarceration, they look only to crime prevented “in society.”  Similarly, when they measure the costs, they ignore the pains of victimization suffered by inmates and prison staff.  This exclusion is significant, as prison crime is rampant, both in relative and absolute terms.

To address this oversight, this Article makes several contributions: First, it provides a comprehensive review of the literature on the benefits and costs of incarceration, and it explores a range of ways in which policymakers are applying this economic framework.  Second, it makes a sustained normative argument for the inclusion of prison crime in our economic calculus.  Third, it draws on the scarce available data to estimate the impact that the inclusion of prison crime has on our cost-benefit analyses.  As might be expected, once prison crime is accounted for, the economics of incarceration become significantly less favorable.

March 25, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Brennen Center releases new report: "Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators"

The Brennan Center today released this notable new report titled, "Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators." Here is its executive summary reprinted here:

This report sets forth an affirmative agenda to end mass incarceration in America.  The task requires efforts from both federal and state lawmakers.

Today, criminal justice reform stands on a knife’s edge.  After decades of rising incarceration and ever more obvious consequences, a powerful bipartisan movement has emerged. It recognizes that harsh prison policies are not needed to keep our country safe.

Now that extraordinary bipartisan consensus is challenged by the Trump administration, through inflammatory rhetoric and unwise action.  Only an affirmative move to continue reform can keep the progress going.

The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly one quarter of its prisoners. About 2.1 million people are incarcerated in this country, the vast majority in state and local facilities.  Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the poverty rate. It is inequitable, placing a disproportionate burden on communities of color. It is wildly expensive, in some cases costing more to keep an 18-year-old in prison than it would to send him to Harvard.  Our criminal justice system costs $270 billion annually, yet does not produce commensurate public safety benefits.

Research conclusively shows that high levels of imprisonment are simply not necessary to protect communities.  About four out of every ten prisoners are incarcerated with little public safety justification.  In fact, 27 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime in the last decade.  A group of over 200 police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs has formed, whose founding principles state: “We do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that are overly punitive without strong purpose . . . we cannot incarcerate our way to safety.”

In cities, states, and at the federal level, Republicans and Democrats have joined this effort.  They recognize that today’s public safety challenges demand new and innovative politics rooted in science and based on what works. The opioid epidemic, mass shootings, and cyber-crime all require modern responses that do not repeat mistakes of the past.

Crime is no longer a wedge issue, and voters desire reform.  A 2017 poll from the Charles Koch Institute reveals that 81 percent of Trump voters consider criminal justice reform important.  Another, from Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, finds that 87 percent of Americans agree that nonviolent offenders should be sanctioned with alternatives to incarceration.  And according to a 2017 ACLU poll, 71 percent of Americans support reducing the prison population — including 50 percent of Trump voters.

But the politician with the loudest megaphone has chosen a different, destructive approach.  Donald Trump, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, falsely insist there is a national crime wave, portraying a country besieged by crime, drugs, and terrorism — “American carnage,” as he called it in his inaugural address.

But, crime in the United States remains at historic lows.  While violent crime and murder did increase in 2015 and 2016, new data show crime and violence declining again in 2017. The national murder rate is approximately half of what it was at its 1991 peak.  Those who seek to use fear of crime for electoral gain are not just wrong on the statistics; they are also wrong on the politics.

Now, to continue the progress that has been made, it is up to candidates running for office to boldly advance policy solutions backed by facts, not fear.  This report offers reforms that would keep crime low, while significantly reducing incarceration.  Most solutions can be enacted through federal or state legislation.  While most of the prison population is under control of state officials, federal policy matters too.  The federal government’s prison population is larger than that of any state.  Further, Washington defines the national political conversation on criminal justice reform.  And although states vary somewhat in their approach to criminal justice, they struggle with similar challenges. The state solutions in this report are broadly written as “models” that can be adapted.

Steps to take include:

• Eliminating Financial Incentives for Incarceration

• Enacting Sentencing Reform

• Passing Sensible Marijuana Reform

• Improving Law Enforcement

• Responding to the Opioid Crisis

• Reducing Female Incarceration

March 23, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Justice Sotomayor suggests "reconsideration of other sentencing practices in the life-without-parole context"

I noted in this prior post denial of cert in the closely-watched capital case of Hidalgo v. Arizona, and Justice Breyer's statement respecting the denial of certiorari in Hidalgo was not even the most interesting such statement on this morning's SCOTUS order list.  That honor goes to Justice Sotomayor's statement respecting the denial of certiorari in Campbell v. Ohio, which suggests importing more of the Eighth Amendment's procedural protections for the death penalty to life without parole sentencing. I recommend this four-page statement in full, and here are snippets:

Because of the parallels between a sentence of death and a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the Court has drawn on certain Eighth Amendment requirements developed in the capital sentencing context to inform the life-without-parole sentencing context....

The “correspondence” between capital punishment andlife sentences, Miller, 567 U. S., at 475, might similarly require reconsideration of other sentencing practices in the life-without-parole context. As relevant here, the Eighth Amendment demands that capital sentencing schemes ensure “measured, consistent application and fairness to the accused,” Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 U. S. 104, 111 (1982), with the purpose of avoiding “the arbitrary or irrational imposition of the death penalty,” Parker v. Dugger, 498 U. S. 308, 321 (1991). To that aim, “this Court has repeatedly emphasized that meaningful appellate review of death sentences promotes reliability and consistency.” Clemons v. Mississippi, 494 U. S. 738, 749 (1990)...

Our Eighth Amendment jurisprudence developed in the capital context calls into question whether a defendant should be condemned to die in prison without an appellate court having passed on whether that determination properly took account of his circumstances, was imposed as a result of bias, or was otherwise imposed in a “freakish manner.”  And our jurisprudence questions whether it is permissible that Campbell must now spend the rest of his days in prison without ever having had the opportunity to challenge why his trial judge chose the irrevocability of life without parole overthe hope of freedom after 20, 25, or 30 years.

March 19, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018"

Pie2018The Prison Policy Initiative has an updated version of its terrific incarceration "pie" graphic and report now at this link. Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. Meaningful criminal justice reform that reduces the massive scale of incarceration, however, requires that we start with the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people are locked up in all of those different types of facilities.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement. The detailed views bring these overlooked parts of the “pie” to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement. In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily number suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

With a sense of the big picture, a common follow-up question might be: how many people are locked up for a drug offense? We know that almost half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense. The data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system, but play only a supporting role at the state and local levels. While most people in state and local facilities are not locked up for drug offenses, most states’ continued practice of arresting people for drug possession destabilizes individual lives and communities. Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses....

While this “whole pie” provides the most inclusive view of the various systems of confinement in the U.S. justice system available, these snapshots can’t capture all of the important systemic issues. Once we have wrapped our minds around the “whole pie” of mass incarceration, for example, we should zoom out and note that being locked up is just one piece of the larger pie of correctional control. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.7 million people on probation. Particularly given the often onerous conditions of probation, policymakers should be cautious of “alternatives to incarceration” that can easily widen the net of criminalization to people who are not a threat to public safety.

Beyond identifying the parts of the criminal justice system that impact the most people, we should also focus on who is most impacted and who is left behind by policy change. For example, people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Blacks, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. Gender disparities matter too: rates of incarceration have grown even faster for women than for men. As policymakers continue to push for reforms that reduce incarceration, they should avoid changes that will widen disparities, as has happened with juvenile confinement and with women in state prisons....

[A]rmed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States, where, and why, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform. For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, but that the federal government and some states have effectively reduced their incarcerated populations by turning to drug policy reform. Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:

  • What is the role of the federal government in ending mass incarceration? The federal prison system is just a small slice of the total pie, but the federal government can certainly use its financial and ideological power to incentivize and illuminate better paths forward. At the same time, how can elected sheriffs, district attorneys, and judges slow the flow of people into the criminal justice system?
  • Are state officials and prosecutors willing to rethink both the War on Drugs and the reflexive policies that have served to increase both the odds of incarceration and length of stay for “violent” offenses?
  • Do policymakers and the public have the focus to confront the second largest slice of the pie: the thousands of locally administered jails? And does it even make sense to arrest millions of poor people each year for minor offenses, make them post money bail, and then lock them up when they can’t afford to pay it? Will our leaders be brave enough to redirect corrections spending to smarter investments like community-based drug treatment and job training?
  • Can we implement reforms that both reduce the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. and the well-known racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system?

March 17, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Issue Brief from Pew with a message summarized by the document's subtitle: "Data show no relationship between prison terms and drug misuse." Here is the document's overview:

Nearly 300,000 people are held in state and federal prisons in the United States for drug-law violations, up from less than 25,000 in 1980.  These offenders served more time than in the past: Those who left state prisons in 2009 had been behind bars an average of 2.2 years, a 36 percent increase over 1990, while prison terms for federal drug offenders jumped 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from about two to roughly five years.

As the U.S. confronts a growing epidemic of opioid misuse, policymakers and public health officials need a clear understanding of whether, how, and to what degree imprisonment for drug offenses affects the nature and extent of the nation’s drug problems.  To explore this question, The Pew Charitable Trusts examined publicly available 2014 data from federal and state law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies.  The analysis found no statistically significant relationship between state drug imprisonment rates and three indicators of state drug problems: self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.

The findings — which Pew sent to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis in a letter dated June 19, 2017 — reinforce a large body of prior research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug misuse, distribution, and other drug-law violations.  The evidence strongly suggests that policymakers should pursue alternative strategies that research shows work better and cost less.

March 11, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 09, 2018

"Can We Wait 75 Years to Cut the Prison Population in Half?"

The title of this post is the title of this short "Policy Brief" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it starts and concludes:

The U.S. prison population grew by more than 600% between 1973 and 2009 — from 200,000 people to 1.6 million.  Tough-on-crime policies expanded the number of imprisoned people even while crime rates plunged to 40% below their levels in the 1990s.  In recent years, policymakers and criminal justice professionals have implemented reforms to correct the punitive excesses of the past.  By yearend 2016 the number of people held in U.S. prisons had declined by 6% since a 2009 peak, and crime rates have continued to decline.

But the overall impact of reforms has been quite modest. With 1.5 million people in prison in 2016, the prison population remains larger than the total population of 11 states.3 If states and the federal government maintain their recent pace of decarceration, it will take 75 years — until 2093 — to cut the U.S. prison population by 50%.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for serious crimes....

Just as mass incarceration was developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, so too has decarceration reflected changes in both policy and practice.  These have included such measures as drug policy sentencing reforms, reduced admissions to prison for technical parole violations, and diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level property and drug crimes.

The movement to end mass incarceration not only faces political reluctance to meaningfully reduce the U.S. prison population, it has also had to address renewed calls to further expand the prison population, including: increasing prison terms for immigration law violations, reversals of Obama-era reforms in federal sentencing, and punitive responses to the opioid crisis.  While defending the progress made in recent years, we must also strive for criminal justice reforms bold enough to tackle mass incarceration.

March 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

"Plea Bargaining: From Patent Unfairness to Transparent Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now appearing on SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric, Julie Clarke and William Rininger. Here is its abstract:

The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented mass incarceration crisis.  It imprisons more of its citizens than any other country — and by a considerable margin.  It is now widely acknowledged that there is no community dividend stemming from an overly punitive sentencing system.  Over-incarceration does not make the community safer and diverts billions of dollars annually from productive social services, such as health and education.  Lawmakers have failed to find overarching solutions to this crisis. This Article proposes to change that paradigm by offering concrete reforms to a key failing of the sentencing system.

Emerging evidence suggests that one of the main reasons for the mass incarceration crisis relates to the dysfunctional plea bargaining process, in which the prosecution has the stronger negotiating power and often uses it to press for harsh penalties.  The reality is that most defendants in the United States do not receive a trial, let alone a fair one.  Their fate is determined by a negotiation with a prosecutor. More than ninety percent of all criminal matters in the United States are finalized in this manner.   There is a wide-ranging consensus that this process is flawed. It results in a large portion of defendants receiving harsher penalties than is commensurate with the seriousness of their offense. Sometimes it also leads to defendants who are innocent pleading guilty, in order to avoid the uncertainty of a trial.  The process is especially unfair on minority groups, with evidence establishing that African Americans in particular, receive harsher penalties than similarly situated white defendants.

This Article proposes reforms to the plea bargaining process that will demonstrably and profoundly reshape the framework for plea negotiations.  The central plank of the proposed reform is to shift more discretion and power from prosecutors, who invariably agitate for tougher sentences, into the hands of (impartial) sentencing judges.  This can be achieved by conferring a discount to offenders who plead guilty.  The size of the discount should be up to thirty percent.  A similar system already operates effectively in Australia.  In addition to this, defendants who plead guilty in circumstances when there is a weak prosecution case (and who are tenably innocent) should receive a discount of up to seventy-five percent.  This proposal would considerably reduce incarceration numbers in a way that does not compromise community safety and preserves the cost-saving benefits of the current plea bargaining process.  The reform will also reduce the discriminatory operation of the sentencing system against offenders who come from socially and economically deprived backgrounds.

March 7, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 02, 2018

"The State of Justice Reform 2017"

Download (11)The title of this post is the name of this terrific new resource created by the Vera Institute of Justice. The resource is packed with lots and lots of notable content and links, and here is how it is explained on its "About" page: 

Like many justice reform organizations, Vera is often asked, “What are the latest and most interesting developments in the field?” This question has grown more common as more and more people confront the need to improve the nation’s broken justice system and want to help.

We endeavor in this report to provide the beginning of an answer, limiting our scope (mostly) to 2017, the first year of a new administration — one pushing a “law and order” platform — and covering most, but not all, areas of justice reform.

Vera’s task was to determine which of the thousands of changes to policy, practice, and legislation should be covered in this annual recap.  To discern what should be included, we first asked Vera’s own internal experts to weigh in and identify what they felt was most important to cover in their subject areas. “Importance” was defined by the following criteria:

  • the potential impact of a reform;
  • the degree of change from past practice or norms; and/or
  • the degree to which the field or the media is looking to a reform as a promising or leading practice to improve systems.

Using this definition, “importance” can be positive or negative, supportive or hostile to reform. The report thus focuses on both the best and the worst of 2017.

After hearing from Vera’s own experts, we reached outward, crowdsourcing suggestions from Vera’s Facebook and Twitter followings.  Vera also invited 30 external experts to review drafts of specific sections, who are gratefully acknowledged under “Contributors.”  Finally, Vera is issuing this as a digital report to allow for ongoing feedback and contributions, with the hope that this dialogue will add even more to the collective knowledge base about the year that was.

All parts of this terrific resource are worth checking out, and these parts should be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

The State of Jails: Reformers Look to Jails as a Key to Ending Mass Incarceration

The State of Youth Justice: As Youth Incarceration Drops, Racial Disparities Persist

The State of Sentencing & Decriminalization: While Federal Sentencing Reform Efforts Look Bleak, States Push Ahead

The State of Prisons: States Take on Prison Reform

The State of Reentry: For Those Rejoining Society, a Multitude of Obstacles Persist

March 2, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Entire First Circuit urges Supreme Court to revisit Harmelin's limits on Eighth Amendment challenges to extreme adult prison sentence

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the remarkable opinion emerging yesterday from the First Circuit in the form of a very lengthy concurrence in the denial of rehearing en banc in United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Feb 27, 2018) (available here). Last year I noted the panel opinion in this case in this post titled "Extended dissent laments First Circuit panel's rejection of Eighth Amendment attack on 160-year sentence for stash house participant."  Interestingly, this time around all the First Circuit judges seem to be on the same page, deciding they lack authority to find Wendell Rivera-Ruperto's extreme sentence unconstitutional, but urging the Supreme Court to revisit the precedent they see as standing improperly in their way.

Judge Barron's lengthy opinion is a must-read for Eighth Amendment fans, and it defies ready summary.  To begin, Judge Barron explains why the analytical framework set by Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983) would lead him to "find that Rivera's mandatory, more-than-century-long sentence was grossly disproportionate and thus in violation of the Eighth Amendment."  But, continues Judge Barron, judges must further consider Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), and "the Harmelin concurrence controls the outcome here, and ... does so by limiting our inquiry to a consideration of only Solem's first criterion."  And, according to Judge Barron, ultimately judges "have no choice but to approve mandatory 'forever' sentences under § 924(c) so long as they can hypothesize a rational reason for the legislature to have thought that the underlying criminal conduct was as serious as the large quantity drug possession at issue in Harmelin." 

After intricate analysis of these and other Eighth Amendment and related precedents, this remarkable opinion (which, again, was joined by all the First Circuit judges), concludes this way:

Rivera faces the longest and most unforgiving possible prison sentence for conduct that, though serious, is not of the most serious kind.  He does so not because the legislature had authorized its imposition and a judge had then considered all of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and determined that this sentence was appropriate.  He does so only because Congress has been deemed to have made a blanket judgment that even an offender like Rivera -- who has no prior criminal record and whose series of related crimes resulted in no harm to an identifiable victim -- should have no hope of ever living free.  And he does so even though virtually every comparable jurisdiction punishes comparable criminal conduct less harshly, and even though the federal government itself punishes nearly the same or seemingly worse conduct more leniently.

Almost three decades have now passed since the concurring Justices in Harmelin concluded, without reference to real-world comparative benchmarks, that the Eighth Amendment afforded the Michigan legislature the scope to try out what at the time was viewed as a permissible sentencing experiment to address a newly concerning crime problem.  In those intervening decades, virtually no jurisdiction has been willing to replicate that state's experiment.  In fact, even the state that the Harmelin concurrence permitted to try it has abandoned it.  And yet the Harmelin concurrence still controls.

In my view, a consequence as grave as the one that Harmelin requires in a case like this should have the imprimatur of more than only a nearly three-decade old, three-Justice concurrence. I thus urge the Supreme Court to consider whether the Eighth Amendment permits, at least in a case such as this, the mandatory stacking of sentences under § 924(c) that -- due to their cumulative length -- necessarily results in the imposition of a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

February 28, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

New Buried Alive Project taking on LWOP sentences for federal drug offenses

An important new effort to take a hard look and extreme federal sentences recent launched under a (great) fitting name: The Buried Alive Project.  Here is how the project's website explains its basic mission:

The Buried Alive Project works to raise awareness and help eliminate life without parole sentences for federal drug offenses through transformative legislation and litigation.  We use statistics and stories to educate the public and amplify the voices of those directly impacted.  The human element is rarely addressed but necessary to drive change needed to reform the criminal justice system.  By engaging people across the country, this project will harness America’s collective interest, passion, and direct experience of this issue into concrete change.

The Dallas Morning News has this Q&A with Brittany Barnett, a lawyer who help found the Buried Alive Project.  Here is an excerpt:

Who are some of the individuals who remain buried alive by this sentencing?

Alice Johnson, a 62-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother from Memphis, is serving her 21st year of a life without parole sentence for her role in a non-violent drug conspiracy.  Like Sharanda [Jones], this is Ms. Alice's first ever conviction — felony or otherwise. Absolutely no aspect of her offense was violent.

Ms. Alice, who has served one-third of her life in prison, has an outstanding record of achievement in prison and works diligently to prove she is deserving of a second chance at life. A life without parole sentence demands a special kind of courage — the ability to act with grace and dignity in a totally degrading situation. Ms. Alice epitomizes this special kind of courage.

Keeping Alice in prison for the rest of her life serves no useful purpose to her or society. We cannot barter human lives for sake of appearing tough on crime. It is an utter waste of human life and taxpayer dollars.

February 28, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Split California Supreme Court holds 50-year sentence for juve kidnapper violates the Eighth Amendment after Graham

This afternoon, the Supreme Court of California issued a 93-page opinion in California v. Contreras, No. S224564 (Cal. Feb. 26, 2018) (available here), which extends the limits that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Graham places on juvenile sentencing for non-homicide crimes. Here is how the majority opinion, authored by Justice Liu, gets started:

Defendants Leonel Contreras and William Rodriguez were convicted in a joint trial of kidnapping and sexual offenses they committed as 16 year olds. Rodriguez was sentenced to a term of 50 years to life, and Contreras was sentenced to a term of 58 years to life.  We granted review to determine whether the sentences imposed on these juvenile nonhomicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment as interpreted in People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262, 268 (Caballero) and Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 (Graham).  We hold that these sentences are unconstitutional under the reasoning of Graham.

The lead dissenting opinion, authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, gets started this way:

I respectfully dissent. The majority’s erroneous interpretation and extension of Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 (Graham) yield a result the Graham court did not intend — the categorical condemnation of all sentences in which juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide crimes will serve a term of 50 years or greater. At the same time, the majority fails to properly account for legislation and regulations that afford defendants William Rodriguez and Leonel Contreras an initial opportunity for parole no later than when they reach the age of 60.  These measures take defendants’ sentences outside of Graham’s purview even under the majority’s mistaken approach to that decision. Defendants’ sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and I would so hold.

Because this ruling appears to rest squarely on application of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution rather than on the parallel provision in article I, section 17 of the California Constitution, it would seem the state of California could seek to appeal this expansive application of the Graham ruling to the US Supreme Court. It will be interesting to see if California pursues an appeal and what might become of it were the state to do so.

February 26, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration 1990-2013"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.  This Vera webpage provides this overview and a key takeway:

Overview

Recent data analyses on jail incarceration — taken from Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool — reveal that although significant racial disparities still exist between black and white jail incarceration rates, incarceration rates for black people are declining, while rates for white people are rising.  This report dives into the data on black and white incarceration trends from 1990 to 2013, and poses several questions for further exploration that might explain why these rates are shifting.  However, the report also argues that we need more data to fully understand the causes and consequences of racial disparities in incarceration — and to begin enacting more race-conscious jail reduction efforts.

Key Takeaway

While black incarceration rates have declined — and white incarceration rates have risen — over the past several decades, the lack of complete and accurate data prevents effective analyses of the causes and drivers of these trends and on racial disparities more broadly in the justice system.

February 26, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Retired Missouri judge now expressing regret about giving 16-year-old offender 241 years in prison for role in two armed robberies

Evelyn Baker, a retired Missouri circuit court judge, has this notable new opinion piece in the Washington Post under the headline "I sentenced a teen to die in prison. I regret it." Here are excerpts:

“You will die in the Department of Corrections.” Those are the words I spoke as a trial judge in 1997 when I sentenced Bobby Bostic to a total of 241 years in prison for his role in two armed robberies he committed when he was just 16 years old.

Bostic and an 18-year-old friend robbed a group of six people who were delivering Christmas presents to a needy family in St. Louis.  Two shots were fired.  A bullet grazed one person, but no one was seriously injured.  The two then abducted and robbed another woman — who said she was groped by Bostic’s accomplice before the two released her. They used the money they stole from her to buy marijuana.  Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Bostic chose to go to trial.  He was found guilty.

Bostic had written me a letter trying to explain his actions, but despite this, he had not, in my view, demonstrated sufficient remorse.

I told him: “You are the biggest fool who has ever stood in front of this court. . . . You made your choice. You’re gonna have to live with your choice, and you’re gonna die with your choice. . . . Your mandatory date to go in front of the parole board will be the year 2201.  Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201.”

I thought I was faulting Bostic for his crimes.  Looking back, I see that I was punishing him both for what he did and for his immaturity.  I am now retired, and I deeply regret what I did.  Scientists have discovered so much about brain development in the more than 20 years since I sentenced Bostic.  What I learned too late is that young people’s brains are not static; they are in the process of maturing.  Kids his age are unable to assess risks and consequences like an adult would.  Overwhelming scientific research shows that children lack maturity and a sense of responsibility compared with adults because they are still growing.  But for the same reason, they also have greater capacity for reform.

That’s perhaps not surprising.  As a society, we recognize that children and teens cannot and do not function as adults.  That’s why below a certain age you cannot vote, join the military, serve on a jury or buy cigarettes or alcohol....

Most courts have understood the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to mean that the Constitution prohibits sentences like the one I gave to Bostic.  While I did not technically give him “life without parole,” I placed on his shoulders a prison term of so many years combined that there is no way he will ever be considered for release.  He won’t become eligible for parole until he is 112 years old — which means he will die in prison, regardless of whether he rehabilitates himself or changes as he grows older.

I see now that this kind of sentence is as benighted as it is unjust.  But Missouri and a handful of other states still allow such sentences, and the Missouri courts have affirmed the sentence I handed down.

This week, the Supreme Court will consider whether to take Bostic’s case and, if the justices do, they will decide whether his sentence is an outcome the Constitution can countenance.  The court should take the case and give Bostic the chance I did not: to show that he has changed and does not deserve to die in prison for something he did when he was just 16.

Imposing a life sentence without parole on a child who has not committed murder — whether imposed in a single sentence or multiple sentences, for one crime or many — is wrong.  Bostic was immature, and I punished him for that.  But to put him, and children like him, in prison for life without any chance of release, no matter how they develop over time, is unfair, unjust and, under the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, unconstitutional.

I am pleased to see a judge who imposed a functional LWOP sentence now recognizing and advocating that functional LWOP sentences create the same constitutional concerns as formal LWOP sentences that the Supreme Court found to violate the Eighth Amendment in Graham.  That said, I find it a little rich this judge now asserting that she "learned too late" that juvenile brains are different than adult brains.  Also, as the judge's commentary hints and as this local article from a few years ago about the case confirms, it seems Bostic's decision to go to trial rather than his crimes largely accounts for his need now to seek constitutional relief from the Supreme Court:

Bostic is serving a vastly greater sentence than Hutson, his accomplice, who received 30 years and will be eligible for parole six years from now.

Both men were accused of firing guns that night. The only difference: Bostic went to trial and Hutson pleaded guilty.

February 13, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

California judge rejects state efforts to limit reach of new parole eligibility rules approved by voters via Proposition 57

As reported in this AP piece, "California must consider earlier parole for potentially thousands of sex offenders, maybe even those convicted of pimping children, a state judge said Friday." Here is more about a notable ruling about a notable effort to limit the reach of a notable ballot initiative:

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Allen Sumner preliminarily ordered prison officials to rewrite part of the regulations for Proposition 57.  The 2016 ballot measure allows consideration of earlier parole for most state prison inmates, but Gov. Jerry Brown promised voters all sex offenders would be excluded.

That goes too far, Sumner said in rejecting Deputy Attorney General Maria Chan's argument that the ballot measure gave state officials broad discretion to exclude any class of offenders whose release might harm public safety. "If the voters had intended to exclude all registered sex offenders from early parole consideration under Proposition 57, they presumably would have said so," Sumner said.

He said the scope of exclusions should be narrowed to only those now serving time for a violent sex offense. And he said the Corrections Department must better define what falls into that category. The judge said those who already served their time for a sex crime, even a violent one, and now are imprisoned for a different crime should be eligible for early release.

The language in Prop. 57 "left way too much wiggle room," opening the door to Sumner's ruling, said Mark Zahner, chief executive of the California District Attorneys Association that opposed the initiative. "There's a great danger of truly violent people being released early and people who commit, in this case, sex offenses that involve violence being released early."

The Governor's Office declined comment. Corrections officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment or say whether they plan to appeal. They also did not provide an estimate of how many offenders might be affected.

The ruling Friday could allow earlier parole for more than half of the 20,000 sex offenders now serving time, said Janice Bellucci, a Sacramento attorney and president of California Reform Sex Offender Laws. Her lawsuit on behalf of sex offenders argued that the rules conflict with the ballot measure's language and voters' intent in approving Proposition 57. Bellucci argued the measure requires earlier parole consideration for any sex crime not on the state's narrow list of 23 violent felonies, which includes murder, kidnapping and forcible rape.

That could allow earlier parole for those convicted of raping a drugged or unconscious victim, intimately touching someone unlawfully restrained, incest, pimping a minor, indecent exposure and possessing child pornography. The judge said corrections officials can make the case for excluding those offenders as they rewrite the regulations, but Bellucci said she will sue again if officials go too far.

The full 18-page ruling discussed here is available at this link.  Here is a key paragraph from the opinion's conclusion: 

Under Proposition 57, “Any person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense . . . shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.”  CDCR adopted regulations defining the term “nonviolent offender” to exclude anyone required to register under section 290, regardless of their current commitment offense.  CDCR’s overbroad definition must thus be set aside.

February 11, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and Its Discontents"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new review essay authored by Katherine Beckett now appearing in Contemporary Sociology.  Here is how the essay gets started:

The contours of mass incarceration are, by now, broadly familiar.  The U.S. incarceration rate began an unprecedented ascent in the 1970s.  This trend continued through 2007, when 760 of every 100,000 U.S. residents — nearly 1 in 100 adults — lived behind bars, five million others were on probation or parole, more than ten million were booked into jail, and nearly one in three U.S. residents had a criminal record (Kaeble and Glaze 2016, Table 4; PEW Center on the States 2008; Sabol 2014; Subramanian et al. 2016).  The scale of confinement now sharply differentiates the United States from comparable countries, where incarceration rates range from a low of 45 per 100,000 residents in Japan to 145 in England and Wales (Walmsley 2015).  By 2015, the U.S. incarceration rate had fallen to 670 per 100,000 residents, a drop of nearly 12 percent (Kaeble and Glaze 2016). Still, the United States remains the world’s leading jailer (Wagner and Walsh 2016).

The emergence of mass incarceration in the United States has spawned a tremendous amount of social scientific research.  A number of studies analyze its proximate causes and show that shifts in policy and practice (rather than rising crime rates) were the primary driver of penal expansion.  Other studies analyze the consequences of mass incarceration, documenting, for example, its disparate and adverse impact on people, families, and communities of color.  Some assess how penal expansion affects not only the incarcerated, but also those who are stopped, frisked, arrested, fined, and surveilled — even in the absence of incarceration or conviction.  And a substantial body of research shows that penal expansion has had far-reaching sociological effects that tend to enhance — and mask — racial and socio-economic inequalities.

Although the decline in incarceration since 2007 has been modest, it has nonetheless triggered much discussion regarding the need for, and prospects of, reform.  Yet researchers are debating more than the likelihood that meaningful change will occur; they also offer competing understandings of the problems that require attention and the solutions that should be enacted.  The books reviewed here — Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court, by Mona Lynch; Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John F. Pfaff; and Sentencing Fragments: Penal Reform in America, 1975–2025, by Michael Tonry — speak to these pressing questions and offer surprisingly different ideas about what needs to be done to reverse mass incarceration and improve the quality of justice produced in American courts.  In particular, and in contrast to the arguments of Lynch and Tonry, Pfaff makes the case that time served has not increased and therefore that efforts to enact comprehensive sentencing reform are misguided and would have little impact.  In my view, this provocative claim is inconsistent with the best available evidence, much of which is brought to life in Mona Lynch’s Hard Bargains.

February 8, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Georgia Supreme Court refuses to extend Miller Eighth Amendment limits on juve sentencing to non-LWOP sentences

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the new short ruling on juvenile sentencing limits handed down by the Supreme Court of Georgia today in Veal v. Georgia, No. S17A1758 (Ga. Feb. 5, 2018) (available here). Here is the meat of the opinion in Veal:

Citing OCGA § 42-9-39(c), appellant notes that the aggregate sentence imposed on him mandates 60 years of prison service before the first opportunity for paroled release.  Given his life expectancy, appellant states that even this new sentence is unconstitutional because it amounts to a de facto LWOP sentence, again without any determination of the factors set forth in Veal I which a court is required to find before imposing an LWOP sentence on a convicted defendant who was younger than 18 at the time of the crime. Appellant asserts that reading the Miller and Montgomery Supreme Court opinions as applying only to actual LWOP sentences elevates form over substance and permits the label of the sentence to supersede the actual result of the imposed sentence.

Appellant acknowledges that he is asking this Court to expand the holdings of the Miller and Montgomery Supreme Court opinions.  As noted by this Court in Veal I, those cases read together create a substantive rule that before an LWOP sentence may be imposed on one who was a juvenile at the time the crime was committed, the sentencing court must conduct a hearing to determine if that person is one of the exceptionally rare juveniles for whom such a sentence is appropriate because of “a specific determination that he is irreparably corrupt.”  Veal I, supra, 298 Ga. at 702.  But neither Miller nor Montgomery addressed the imposition of aggregate life-with-parole sentences for multiple convictions or whether sentences other than LWOP require a specific determination that the sentence is appropriate given the offender’s youth and its attendant characteristics, and the nature of the crimes.  See Miller, supra, at 465.  Appellant points to courts in other jurisdictions that have found Miller-like protections are required for a prison sentence imposed upon a juvenile that exceeds the individual’s life expectancy.  See, e.g., State v. Zuber, 152 A3d 197 (N.J. 2017); State v. Null, 836 NW2d 41 (Iowa 2013) (holding under the Iowa constitution that “an offender sentenced to a lengthy term-ofyears sentence should not be worse off than an offender sentenced to life in prison without parole who has the benefit of an individualized hearing under Miller”).  On the other hand, other state and federal courts have determined that Miller and Montgomery do not apply to cases that do not involve LWOP sentences but nevertheless involve sentences that, according to the convicted juvenile, are the functional equivalent to a life sentence without the opportunity for parole.  See, e.g., Starks v. Easterling, 659 Fed. Appx. 277 (6th Cir. 2016); Bell v. Nogan, 2016 WL 4620369 (D.N.J. Sept. 6, 2016); People v. Sanchez, 2013 WL 3209690 (Cal. Ct. App. June 25, 2013).

Because the Supreme Court has not expanded its mandate that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment as it applies to juvenile offenders requires a sentencer to consider a juvenile’s youth and its attendant characteristics before imposing a sentence other than LWOP, this Court will not do so.  Although appellant mentions “the analogous provision of the Georgia Constitution” in his enumerations of error, he offers no argument or citation of authority whatsoever regarding the application of the Georgia Constitution to the case.  We therefore deem any state constitutional claim abandoned.

February 5, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

"Mass Incarceration: New Jim Crow, Class War, or Both?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new empirical paper authored by Nathaniel Lewis. Here is the interesting paper's abstract and conclusion:

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, I analyze racial and class disparities in incarceration.  My analysis shows that class status has a large and statistically significant effect on (1) whether or not men aged 24–32 years have ever been to jail or prison; (2) whether or not men are jailed after being arrested; (3) whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison; and (4) whether or not men have spent more than a year in jail or prison.  After controlling for class, I do not find race to be a statistically significant factor for the first three outcome categories, but I do find that race has a significant impact on whether or not a man has spent more than a year in prison or jail....

This study takes a careful account of class and how it relates to race and incarceration rates.  Previous studies interested in racial disparities across various outcomes all too often fail to control for class at all, or else pick a single variable as a proxy for class, which comes with a set of confounders.  The constructed class variables used here attempt to balance out the confounders lurking in any one proxy variable.  The result, robust across different methods of composite construction, is that class appears to be a larger factor than usually reported when studying racial disparities. It may indeed come as a surprise to many that race is not a statistically significant factor for many incarceration outcomes, once class is adequately controlled for.

To an extent, this study provides weight to the assertion that mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race.  It would be reasonable to conclude then that if policymakers wished to eliminate the phenomenon of mass incarceration, and the negative effects it has on black Americans, they should look to reducing class disparities in universal ways.  For example, single-payer health care, a federal job guarantee, a universal basic income, a livable minimum wage, universal childcare, universal education.  These are all policies that would likely reduce class disparities and provide the material means to lift a large swath of people out of the scope of the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, this study demonstrates a large racial gap, even controlling for class, when it comes to the most devastating outcome: long appearances in jail and prison. The current popular effort to draw attention to racial disparities as racial disparities certainly seems to still hold validity in light of this study. Nevertheless, while a focus on reducing class disparities in a material fashion clearly will not be enough to completely solve the problem of racial bias, it seems evident that this approach would do a lot of good for poor blacks and poor whites alike with respect to the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.

February 1, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

"Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2017"

The title of this post is the title of this short "Policy Brief" from The Sentencing Project.  Here is how it gets started:

The United States is a world leader in incarceration rates and keeps nearly 7 million persons under criminal justice supervision.  More than 2.2 million are in prison or jail, while 4.6 million are monitored in the community on probation or parole.  Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, have produced the nation’s high rate of incarceration.  Scaling back incarceration will require changing policy and practice to reduce prison populations, address racial disparity, and eliminate barriers to reentry. In recent years a number of states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction.  This briefing paper describes key reforms undertaken in 2017.

SENTENCING REFORMS

Lawmakers in several states enacted reforms to reduce the number of persons in prison and improve fairness in the criminal justice system.  Most notably, Louisiana authorized legislation, Senate Bill 139, which expanded probation eligibility to people convicted of third-time nonviolent offenses and first-time low-level violent offenses. The bill also expanded eligibility for treatment alternatives and drug courts.  The state amended parole practices, including lowering time served requirements before parole consideration, and authorized parole consideration for those sentenced to life at a time when their offense-type qualified for parole.  Other states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Michigan, and Montana — adopted a range of reforms, including expanding probation eligibility, reclassifying low-level felonies to misdemeanors, streamlining parole review mechanisms, and limiting prison admissions for technical violations.

January 31, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Two notable new reports urging big reductions in population on probation and parole

Capture jllAs detailed in this press release, "two new reports were released today – one national in scope and one focused on New York City and State — looking at probation and parole as key drivers of mass incarceration with minimal benefit to public safety or individual rehabilitation."  Here is more from the release:

The reports argue that the tremendous growth of people locked up for probation and parole violations — many of which are for minor, technical violations — is financially taxing on the corrections system and should be cut in half.

The national report, Too Big to Succeed was released by the Justice Lab at Columbia University and signed by 20 of the nation’s leading corrections administrators. According to the new report, there are nearly five million adults under community corrections supervision in America (more than double the number in prison and jail).  The almost four-fold expansion of community corrections since 1980 without a corresponding increase in resources has strained many of the nation’s thousands of community supervision departments, often unnecessarily depriving clients of their liberty without improving public safety.

Underfunded and with few alternatives, community corrections officers have learned to default to the most available option they have for those who violate the terms of their supervision — prison.  Many are reincarcerated for nothing more than a technical violation.  Regrettably, these punishments fall most heavily on young African American men....

The New York report, Less is More in New York, notes that while crime is declining in the City and jail populations have dipped below 9,000 for the first time in 35 years, only one population has increased — those in city jails for state parole violations (by 15%).  And 81% of those incarcerated in city jails for parole violations are either in for technical violations, misdemeanors, or non-violent felony arrests.

As state and city leaders agree that the jail complex on Rikers Island should be closed requiring a reduction in the NYC jail population, the report argues that the solution could be reducing unnecessary incarceration of persons on parole as well as to shrink the overall parole population and focus supervision and supports on those who need it the most.

Here are the full titles of these reports and links thereto:

January 29, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Lots of interesting pieces in inaugural volume of Annual Review of Criminology

I just saw the first issue of the Annual Review of Criminology here, and so many of the impressive articles are now at the top of my ever-growing "to read" list.  These pieces (among many in the big issue) are likely to be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

January 28, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"Montgomery Momentum: Two Years of Progress since Montgomery v. Louisiana"

Download (6)The title of this post is the title of this short interesting document produced by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. I recommend the whole document, and here are excerpts (with endnotes removed):

On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, giving hope and a chance for life outside of prison to individuals sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed as children.

When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, over 2,600 individuals in the U.S. were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), a sentence only imposed in the United States. In the two years since Montgomery was decided, seven states and the District of Columbia have banned JLWOP, and the number of individuals serving JLWOP has been cut in half, both through resentencing hearings and state legislative reform.

More than 250 individuals previously serving life without parole for crimes committed as children are now free.  Collectively, they have served thousands of years in prison. These former juvenile lifers now have the chance to contribute meaningfully to their communities....

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in Montgomery v. Louisiana, remains incarcerated.  The U.S. Supreme Court recognized Mr. Montgomery’s “evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” Montgomery was resentenced and is now eligible for parole, but because of delays at the parole board and prosecutor opposition, the 71-year-old remains in prison, where he has been since 1963.

Children of color are disproportionately sentenced to life without parole.  When Montgomery was decided, over 70 percent of all individuals serving JLWOP were people of color. These extreme disparities have persisted during the resentencing process following Montgomery, underscoring the racially disparate imposition of JLWOP....

For the approximately 1,300 individuals whose unconstitutional JLWOP sentences have been altered through legislative reform or judicial resentencing to date, the median sentence nationwide is 25 years before parole or release eligibility. This means that most individuals who were unconstitutionally sent to die in prison as children will not be eligible for review or release until at least their 40s. Although Montgomery suggested that providing review after 25 years is an avenue for minimal compliance with Miller, these lengthy sentences continue to violate international human rights standards and far outstrip terms of incarceration for youth in the rest of the developed world.

UPDATE: A helpful tweet led me to think this is a good place to note that the Juvenile Sentencing Project has lots of great juve LWOP/Graham and Miller resources detailing responsive legislation and significant state case law and leading reseach reports.  That Project also helps maintain this great national map that enables one to see how many juve LWOP prisoners were in each state at the time of Miller and now.

January 27, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, January 26, 2018

New poll suggests strong bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms

JAN_Web-LogoThis new article from The Hill, headlined "Poll: 3/4 of Americans support criminal justice reform," provides highlights from a notable new survey:

Three-quarters of Americans think the nation’s criminal justice system needs to be significantly improved, according to a new poll out Thursday....

A Justice Action Network poll conducted by Robert Blizzard, a partner at the Republican-leaning Public Opinion Strategies, found a majority of Americans surveyed, 76 percent, believe that the country’s criminal justice system needs significant improvements.

Of the 800 registered voters polled between Jan. 11 and 14, 87 percent of Americans agree that some of the money being spent on locking up nonviolent offenders should be shifted to alternatives like electronic monitoring, community service and probation.

Two-thirds of voters — 65 percent — support fair chance hiring, and 87 percent of voters strongly support replacing mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders with a system that allows judges more discretion.  Eighty-five percent of voters, meanwhile, agree that the main goal of the nation’s criminal justice system should be rehabilitating people to become productive law-abiding citizens.

Many more of the poll particulars are available via this Justice Action Network press release and through this PowerPoint.  The press release emphasizes reasons why politicians should be paying attention to these issues:

[V]oter support for bipartisan justice reforms is overwhelmingly high, especially among women, who remain a crucial voting bloc heading into the 2018 midterm elections, and may determine the makeup of the House in November....

“This is not a partisan issue–voters strongly believe that the country’s criminal justice system needs serious improvements,” said Robert Blizzard, Partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “Significant majorities of Republican and Democratic voters across the country favor these reforms, including key 2018 target constituencies like independent voters and women voters. I can’t emphasize enough how strongly voters support these reforms. As a political pollster looking towards 2018 I think all politicians should pay attention. Go back to 2006, women voted for the democratic candidate by double digits. In 2010, women favored the GOP candidate and helped deliver the house to Republicans. Key constituencies are strong on these reforms and they can help give a lift to candidates everywhere.”

January 26, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Might some members of SCOTUS want to take up juve sentencing case to limit reach of Graham and Miller?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this little news item from Wyoming headlined "Wyo asks US Supreme Court to review juvenile murder sentence." Here are the basics:

Wyoming is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a Wyoming Supreme Court decision to overturn a minimum 52-year prison sentence for a teen who, as a juvenile, shot and killed a man and injured several others in a Cheyenne park in 2014.

Last August, the Wyoming Supreme Court ordered Phillip Sam re-sentenced, saying his minimum 25-year sentence for first-degree murder followed by a 27-year sentence for aggravated assault effectively constituted a life sentence....

Attorney General Peter Michael argued in his Jan. 4 petition that the practical effect of the state Supreme Court order would be that juveniles could commit additional crimes without additional punishment.

I blogged here about the notable opinion handed down by the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Sam v. Wyoming, No. S-16-0168 (Wy. Aug. 24, 2017) (available here).  I know there have been a lot of opinions from juve offenders looking to extend the reach of Graham and Miller, none of which have yet been granted. I am not sure if there have been many state appeals on Graham and Miller, and I am also not sure if there might be some Justices eager to wade into this arena.

UPDATE:  Coincidentally, SCOTUSblog here has Wyoming v. Sam as its "Petition of the Day."  The full petition sets forth this sole Question Presented:

When a juvenile is sentenced for murder and other violent crimes, does the Eighth Amendment limit a judge to an aggregate term of years that allows a meaningful opportunity for release even though none of the separate sentences are cruel and unusual?

January 25, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Encouraging new report on prospects for prison reform legislation emerging from Congress

This report from The Hill, headlined "Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump," suggests that recent talk from the White house about prison reform might soon become real action from Congress.  Here are the details of an encouraging story:

Momentum is building under the Trump administration for criminal justice reform. The path forward, however, is looking a little different than it has in the past.

Previous efforts to reform the justice system have focused on cutting prison time for convicted felons. But those taking part in the current discussions say the focus has shifted to preventing ex-convicts from returning to jail, suggesting this approach has the best chance of winning approval from both Congress and the White House.

A source familiar with the talks between the White House and GOP members of Congress said a bipartisan prison-reform bill offered by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. To do so, prisoners have to complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. The legislation directs the attorney general to identify the most effective programs, which could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment....

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Collins and Cornyn are working closely together to ensure any differences between their bills are reconciled, the source familiar with talks said.

President Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have met with lawmakers and advocates to talk about prison reform and the success states have had in the last few months, signaling there’s White House support for legislation. “The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support,” a White House source said.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts until now have largely focused on proposals to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders and armed career criminals.  While talks now appear focused on prison reform, advocates say sentencing reform isn’t off the table just yet.

Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which started the national Right on Crime campaign, said there’s more divisiveness around sentencing reform. “My best educated guess is that at some point that will become part of the discussion, but right now there is an encouraging [group] coalescing around prison reform.”

Rollins notes that criminal justice reform is a big issue and commended the administration for tackling it one piece at a time. “When trying to get it done all at once, you often end up with nothing,” she said. “I think this administration is smart to focus on prison reform for now.”

I share the view that an effort to get everything in one big reform bill can sometimes prevent getting any bill through the legislative process. And given that a good prison reform bill with lots of potential sentence-reduction credits could prove even more consequential for current and future federal prisoners than even broad mandatory minimum reforms, I am especially encouraged by the prospect of a prison reform bill being the first priority for Congress in the months ahead.  Of course, as with all parts of sentencing reform, the devil is in the details; I will not get to revved up about possible reform until the particulars are made public.  But this report heightens my hope that some significant federal reform may actually get done in the first part of 2018.

Recent related post:

January 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Spotlighting the impact and import of rural realities in modern mass incarceration

This recent USA Today commentary, headlined "Ignoring rural areas won't solve America's mass incarceration problem," provides a useful reminder that all parts of the United States are part of the story of modern mass incarceration.  The piece is authored by Christian Henrichson of the Vera institute of Justice, and here are excerpts:

A little known fact imperils our nation’s collective efforts to end mass incarceration: Major cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are no longer bearing the heaviest burden.  Instead, thousands of smaller cities and towns are now grappling with the nation’s highest incarceration rates.

But the reform movement has not reacted to changing incarceration trends.  In most small cities and towns, public officials are not running on reform platforms, and investment by foundations and national advocates is thin or absent.  If attention and resources are not urgently shifted to overlooked places, progress to reduce unnecessary incarceration in big cities will be totally eroded by deepening problems in the rest of the country.  This means it will be mathematically impossible to end mass incarceration — and too many Americans will be left behind.

There is no better indicator of the geography of mass incarceration than America’s 3,283 local jails.  Unlike prisons, jails exist in nearly every county in America and are under local control.  Designed to only hold people for a short time and when absolutely necessary, jails have become massive warehouses — particularly for those too poor or sick to disentangle themselves from the justice system.

Historically, jail incarceration rates have comported with our understanding of mass incarceration as an urban challenge: They were once highest in the nation’s largest cities and the lowest in the country’s rural and suburban counties. But over the past two decades, the geography of jail incarceration quietly shifted....

Since 2008, large urban jail populations have shrunk dramatically.  But even as reformers celebrated progress, jail growth went into overdrive — particularly in smaller places with limited tax bases.  In small town America, many courts do not convene regularly, resources for public defenders are scarce, and diversion options and pretrial services that might otherwise keep people out of jail beds are few and far between....

It’s also important to note that the geographic shift wasn’t limited to jails.  Recent research indicates that small and rural counties now also funnel a disproportionate share of people into state prisons, a reality that should come as no surprise given that jails function as the “front door” of the criminal justice system.

Rural counties, in particular, have been out of sight and out of mind in much of America.  But the 2016 election refocused attention onto the particular challenges of voters whose voices are often missing from the national conversation. Their burgeoning jails are a window into the pain in smaller places: shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction....

Ending mass incarceration demands a shift in resources and attention.  We need to confront what is happening in all of our backyards and understanding each community’s local incarceration story.  Policymakers and the public have to take stock of how many of their neighbors are behind bars and why — and ask difficult questions about whether wasting so much human potential and taxpayer money makes us any safer.

January 22, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Taking a critical look at recent report on "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases"

Guy Hamilton-Smith has this notable new piece at In Justice Today discussing a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report. The BJS report, available here, is titled "Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004-2013." Guy Hamilton-Smith's critical assessment, available here, is titled "New DOJ Report Demonstrates Stunning Disingenuity on Cases Involving Sexual Exploitation of Children." Here is how the commentary starts and additional excerpts with a sentencing bite:

A recent bombshell report from the Department of Justice claims that the number of people prosecuted in federal court for commercial sexual exploitation of children roughly doubled between 2004 and 2013.

The title of the report from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases, 2004–2013, conjures the specter of children being forced into sexual slavery. The titling and framing of the report leaves a casual reader with the impression that more and more children are falling victim to commercial sex offenses  —  such as sex trafficking  —  and that DOJ has placed a high priority on prosecuting these offenses.

The actual data contained within the report itself, however, merits no such dramatic conclusion. The DOJ defines the phrase the “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC) as involving “crimes of a sexual nature committed against juvenile victims for financial or other economic reasons,” the obvious implication being that these “CSEC” defendants are directly involved in the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. However, according to the BJS’ own data, the vast majority of the defendants charged with CSEC offenses were accused, not of producing of child pornography or of child sex trafficking, but of consuming child pornography, including images of cartoon obscenity....

The growth in these types of child pornography prosecutions is not necessarily indicative of an increase in rates of offending.  Rather, it is more likely the result of law enforcement’s ability to secure confessions and convictions with relatively little effort. In the vast majority of these cases, investigators monitor peer-to-peer networks for hash values of images that are known to be child pornography, serve administrative subpoenas on service providers for records associated with those IP addresses, and knock on front doors with search warrants. Defenses are usually slim to none. Guilty pleas are exceedingly common: The BJS data reveals that 92.5% of defendants prosecuted in federal court for possession, receipt, or distribution of child pornography pled guilty.

Including such defendants under the banner of “CSEC” is sloppy at best and disingenuous at worst.  While the DOJ’s commitment to battling commercial sexual exploitation of children is admirable, their framing and presentation of the data as implication of an epidemic is at odds with the numbers themselves.

Underscoring the need for clarity and objectivity is the fact that defendants prosecuted for non-production child pornography offenses are amongst the most harshly punished defendants in all of the federal system. The report indicates that they are the least likely of all federal defendants to be given non-custodial sentences, even over and above violent and weapon offenses, and that "Prison sentences imposed on defendants convicted of CSEC offenses were among the longest in the federal justice system. The mean prison sentence imposed on convicted CSEC defendants increased by 99% from 2004 to 2013, from 70 to 139 months."

Sentences to the north of a decade are routine for CSEC defendants by virtue of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. These provide a recommended “range” in months of imprisonment based on both the severity of an offense and a person’s criminal history. Offenses, depending on specific characteristics of how they are committed, can receive enhancements that result in lengthier terms of imprisonment.

There are a number of significant sentencing enhancements for child pornography cases which are routinely applied. These may have held some rough logic in an era before Google, but they make little sense now. Use of a computer? Enhancement.  More than ten images?  Enhancement.  Distribution, even unintentional distribution, as discussed above?  Enhancement. More than 10 images (note that a video file, regardless of length, is counted as 75 images)? Enhancement.  Sentence enhancements are piled on such that, even for those individuals with no criminal record and no evidence they sexually assaulted a child, the recommended sentences can easily dwarf the statutory maximum sentences.

No other class of offense in the federal system (or, indeed, in many states) is characterized by such extreme sentences.  As courts have noted, there is virtually no empirical or reasoned bases for any of these enhancements beyond naked revulsion and desire for retribution. Some scholars have suggested that such severe punishments represent punishment by proxy. In other words, they are intended to obscure and compensate for the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute actual cases of child sexual trafficking and commercial exploitation. In seeking to justify such draconian punishments even for “end users,” prosecutors and others (including courts) have advanced a market theory  —  that even possession of such images drives a market for child pornography.  The United States Sentencing Commission, in a 2012 report to Congress, noted that such arguments are without empirical support. Notably, similar arguments were made in support of harsh treatment of drug addicts in the 1970’s and 80’s as a way of winning the war on drugs.

Whatever the underlying rationale, the draconian nature of these sentences has attracted attention and push back in recent years, including from an extremely unlikely group: federal judges, some of whom are recognizing the inherent unfairness of enhancements for these types of offenses, and beginning to impose sentences far more lenient than those recommended by the guidelines.

Equating garden variety child pornography defendants with child sex traffickers is an abdication of reason and rationality. Unfortunately, the DOJ has not signaled any intention of reversing course.  Rather, if the trends in the report are any indication, it appears to be accelerating the use of what might justifiably be described as a prosecutorial machine that crushes defendants in child pornography possession cases, while failing to even charge far more culpable defendants.

January 17, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"A Smarter Approach to Federal Assistance with State-Level Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Pfaff for the American Enterprise Institute. Here is its abstract:

This brief explains how Congress and the president can best help reduce our country’s outsized reliance on imprisonment, a goal with rare, widespread bipartisan support.  Successful interventions will need to target issues that previous efforts have overlooked or ignored, and they will need to take better account of the haphazard ways that costs, benefits, and responsibilities are fractured across city, county, state, and federal governments.  If designed properly, however, federal efforts could play an important role in pushing our criminal justice system to adopt more efficient, as well as more humane, approaches to managing and reducing crime.

January 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Effective state-by-state review of recent crime rate and imprisonment rate declines

PSPP_35_states_cut_crime_and_imprisonment_infographicThe folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project have this terrific new state-by-state accounting of recent crime and incarceration rates under the heading "National Prison Rate Continues to Decline Amid Sentencing, Re-Entry Reforms: More than two-thirds of states cut crime and imprisonment from 2008-16." The infographic alone merits a click-through, and her is the accompanying text:

After peaking in 2008, the nation’s imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, according to an analysis of new federal statistics by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The decline from 2015-16 was 2 percent, much of which was due to a drop in the number of federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned fell 4 percent from 2015-16 and has declined 29 percent over the past decade. The ongoing decrease in imprisonment has occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime. Since 2008, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent, Pew’s analysis shows.

Also since that 2008 peak, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions of the country, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. During the same period, almost every state recorded a decrease in crime with no apparent correlation to imprisonment (see Figure 1). The latest data, released Jan. 9 by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, show that trends in crime and imprisonment continue to be unrelated:

• Across the 45 states with crime declines from 2008-16, imprisonment rate changes ranged from a 35 percent decrease to a 14 percent increase.

• 35 states cut crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously.

• 21 states posted double-digit declines in both rates.

• The average crime decline across the 10 states with the greatest declines in imprisonment was 19 percent, and across the 10 states with the largest imprisonment growth it was 11 percent.

The annual national violent crime rate increased in 2015 and 2016, but many cities are reporting reductions for 2017, and both violent and total crime rates remain near record lows. National, state, and local crime rates shift for complex and poorly understood reasons, and experts offer a wide range of possible explanations; overall, however, the rates of reported violent and property crime have declined by more than half since their 1991 peaks, falling to levels not seen since the late 1960s.

Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have adopted sentencing and corrections reforms designed to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs. The reforms vary from state to state, but typically they prioritize prison space for people who have committed serious offenses and invest some of the savings in effective alternatives to incarceration. Research shows that investment in evidence-based re-entry programs reduces recidivism, contributing to declines in crime and imprisonment. Several states have cut return-to-prison rates significantly, including Georgia (35 percent) and Michigan (43 percent) over the past decade.

The lack of a consistent relationship between the crime and imprisonment trends reinforces a growing body of research and expert consensus that imprisonment in many states and the nation as a whole has long since passed the point of diminishing returns. This indicates that local, state, and federal policymakers can adopt additional reforms to reduce imprisonment without jeopardizing public safety.

January 16, 2018 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Noticing the rise in LWOP as death sentencing declines in Texas

This lengthy article from the Houston Chronicle, headlined "Harris County leads Texas in life without parole sentences as death penalty recedes," provides an astute review of the sentencing impact of a decline of death sentencing.  Here are excerpts (with the closing sentences prompting some commentary):

Once known as the "capital of capital punishment," Harris County is now doling out more life without parole sentences than any other county in the state.

In the 12 years since then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the life without parole or "LWOP" bill into law, Harris County has handed down 266 of those sentences — nearly 25 percent of the state's total, according to data through mid-December obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"It's concerning, but this is like economics or engine performance, there's no free lunch," said Houston defense attorney Patrick McCann. "We have far fewer death cases than we used to. That's a tremendous win. But now we have a lot of LWOP sentences."

The county's reliance on the lengthiest sentence available in capital murder cases comes as the Houston area — and Texas as a whole — has shifted away from capital punishment. For the first time in more than 30 years, 2017 saw no new death sentences and no executions of Harris County killers. And although part of that downturn stems from the possibility of life without parole, some experts see possible drawbacks....

Andy Kahan, the city of Houston's victim advocate, described life without parole as a "saving grace" for victims' families. "Like it or not, there's some really evil people out there that commit some horrible atrocities that deserve to be locked up for life," he said. "In a utopian world it'd be great if we didn't have to have it but that's not reality."

While Harris County grabs the lion's share of the state's life without parole sentences, Dallas County came in right behind with 120, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data through Dec. 18. Tarrant County had 69 of the state's 1,067 total such sentences, while Bexar County had 47 and Hidalgo had 26....

Just over 17 percent of the state's population lives in Harris County, according to Texas Department of State Health Services population projections for 2016. That makes for an LWOP rate of 6 sentences per 100,000 residents, which is higher than in all but two counties with populations over 100,000.

In comparison to murder figures, the relatively large number of life without parole sentences looks less surprising. According to an analysis of DPS data, in 2016 Harris County accounted for 27.7 percent of the state's murders and 22.7 percent of the murders cleared.

And while Harris County accounts for a disproportionate number of total executions nationwide — more than any other county or entire state, except the rest of Texas — it has generated only a small fraction of the total life without parole sentences across the country, based on TDCJ figures and a 2017 Sentencing Project report.

"Where the corporate culture has changed is the willingness to seek death," McCann said, referring to local prosecutors. "Cases that ten years ago would have been death even with LWOP are now charged as non-death," McCann said. "But that doesn't mean that they've stopped charging the LWOP cases."

To some extent, Texas' relatively low LWOP use compared to national numbers may stem from the fact that prosecutors have only had the option for life without parole since 2005. Before that, the harshest choices were death — or the possibility of release after 40 years....

Texas became the last death penalty state to adopt the option, after Harris County prosecutors dropped their opposition. Initially it only applied to capital murder, but later the law was expanded to include crimes like repeated sexual assault of a child.

From the statute's inception, Harris County was one of its biggest users. "It's not surprising because Harris County is also the driver of the death penalty numbers and most juvenile commitments as well," Henneke said. "Across the board Harris County is the incarceration county."...

Unlike with death-sentenced cases, there's no automatic appointment of post-conviction appellate counsel and no punishment phase of the trial, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper. "Life without parole was an unintentional gift to major urban prosecutors' offices," McCann said. "It makes it very easy to dispose of a large number of violent and often youthful offenders without any more thought than one would need to toss away a piece garbage."

The last few passages highlight what has long been my enduring concern as abolitionist have pushed for LWOP sentences as an alternative to the death penalty. Though the extreme LWOP sentence may at first be only available for the worst murders, once on the books it can and often does creep to be applicable to a range of other crimes. And capital cases come with super due-process, much of which is constitutionally requires; LWOP can be imposed, as this article puts it, "quicker and cheaper." While I understand why abolitionists celebrate the use of LWOP in order to engineer a decline in capital cases, I also lament the various ways abolitionist advocacy for LWOP alternatives have contributed to modern mass incarceration and further entrenched carceral commitments and contentments.

January 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" reporting another drop in state and federal prison populations in 2016

As reported in this press release, the "number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined." here is more from the release:

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.

The full 36-page BJS report, excitingly titled Prisoners in 2016 and full of data of all sorts, is available at this link.

January 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Taking a close look at the state of women's incarceration in the states

Women_overtime_select_statesThe very fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative have a very fine new report on incarceration rates and populations for women in the United States.  The report is titled "The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth," and the full report is a must read for anyone interested in prison population data and/or the importance of analyzing modern criminal justice systems with gendered sophistication. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the report: 

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. This report sheds more light on women in the era of mass incarceration by tracking prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states. The analysis identifies places where recent reforms appear to have had a disparate effect on women, and offers states recommendations to reverse mass incarceration for women alongside men.

Across the country, we find a disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends. While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men. Looking deeper into the state-specific data, we can identify the states driving the disparity.

In 35 states, women’s population numbers have fared worse than men’s, and in a few extraordinary states, women’s prison populations have even grown enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population. Too often, states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states. Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.

Nationally, women’s incarceration trends have generally tracked with the overall growth of the incarcerated population. Just as we see in the total population, the number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that state and local policies have driven the mass incarceration of women.

There are a few important differences between men’s and women’s national incarceration patterns over time.  For example, jails play a particularly significant role in women’s incarceration (see sidebar, “The role of local jails”). And although women represent a small fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

While the national trend provides helpful context, it also obscures a tremendous amount of state-to-state variation.  The change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has actually been much smaller in some places, like Maine, and far more dramatic in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. A few states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, reversed course and began decarcerating state prisons years ago. The wide variation in state trends underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions....

The mass incarceration of women is harmful, wasteful, and counterproductive; that much is clear.  But the nation’s understanding of women’s incarceration suffers from the relative scarcity of gender-specific data, analysis, and discourse.  As the number of women in prisons and jails continues to rise in many states — even as the number of men falls — understanding this dramatic growth becomes more urgent.  What policies fuel continued growth today?  What part does jail growth play?  Where is change needed most now, and what kinds of changes will help? This report and the state data it provides lay the groundwork for states to engage these critical questions as they take deliberate and decisive action to reverse prison growth.

January 9, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 08, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Scott Cunningham and Sam Kang that a helpful colleague sent my way.  Here is its abstract:

US incarceration rates quintupled from the early 1970s to the present, leading to the US becoming the most incarcerated OECD country in the world.  A driving cause behind this growth was a nationwide shift to more punitive criminal justice policy, particularly with respect to drug related crimes.  This movement has since been characterized as the "war on drugs."  In this manuscript, we investigate the impact of rising incarceration rates on drug use and drug markets by exploiting a natural experiment in the Texas penitentiary system. In 1993, Texas made massive investments into its prison infrastructure which led to an over doubling of the state's prison capacity.  The effect was that Texas's incarceration rates more than doubled, due in large part to declining paroles. 

We use this event to study the effect that mass incarceration had on drug markets. We find no effect on drug arrests, drug prices or drug purity.  We also find no effect on self-referred cocaine or heroin treatment admissions.  However, we do find large negative effects on criminal justice referrals into treatment for cocaine and heroin, suggesting that mass incarceration reduces drug use in the population.  Furthermore, our results indicate that this decline is driven by incapacitation effects as opposed to deterrence effects.

January 8, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Noticing the continued decline of the federal prison population (for now) ... and a story embedded with intricacies

PrisonPopuGraphicOver at the Washington Post's WonkBlog, Keith Humphreys has this important little discussion of the federal prison population under the headlined "The number of people in federal prisons is falling, even under Trump."  Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for some follow-up commentary):

When states began shrinking their prison populations almost a decade ago, the federal prison system was still growing each year and thereby undermining progress in reducing mass incarceration. But in the past four years, the federal system has cut its inmate population by one-sixth, a decrease of over 35,000 prisoners.

Because criminal justice is mainly the province of the states, the federal prison system holds only about 13 percent of U.S. inmates. Yet that is still a significant number of people in absolute terms: The system held 219,300 inmates at its peak in 2013. Four subsequent years of significant contraction dropped the federal inmate population to 184,000 by the end of 2017.

Obama-era changes to drug crime prosecution and sentencing coupled with a historic level of clemency grants to federal inmates by President Barack Obama helped bring the federal prison system to its lowest population size since mid-2004 and its lowest incarceration rate (i.e., adjusted for population) since the end of 2002.

Given President Trump’s penchant for “tough on crime” rhetoric, some observers may find it surprising that the federal prison population kept dropping under the first year of the Trump administration. The most likely cause is also the most obvious. When a nation is blessed with two decades of falling crime rates, this eventually translates into lower incarceration rates because there just aren’t as many offenders to arrest, charge and imprison.

Whether the federal prison population continues to decline will depend in part on Trump administration policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed the Obama-era policy of avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases, which could result in some future growth in the federal inmate population even if crime continues to fall.

The other key determinant of the federal prison population’s future is whether Trump will make use of his powers to pardon or commute the sentences of federal inmates. He only did so for one inmate this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t grant more clemencies later.

Though it is important and useful to notice that the federal prison population continued its downward trend in the first year of the Trump Administration, it is not quite accurate to attribute this reality to either "two decades of falling crime rates" or to Presidential commutation practices.  For starters, we had falling crimes rates in the decade from 1992 through 2002, and yet the federal prison population more than doubled from less than 80,000 inmates in 1992 to more than 163,000 inmates in 2002.  And we had another decade of falling crimes rates from 2002 through 2012, and yet the federal prison population rose another 55,000 inmates in that period.  And, of course, crimes rates started ticking up significantly in 2015 and 2016.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, there is actually a very limited (and quite unclear) relationship between the FBI's reported reductions in violent and property crimes — which is the data base for "falling crime rates" — and the federal criminal caseload which is primarily made up of drug and immigration and firearm and fraud offenses.  Indeed, in light of the empirics of the opioid crisis — not to mention increased marijuana activity thanks to state legal reforms — there is reason to speculate that federal drug offenses have actually been rising (perhaps significantly) in recent years.  The dynamics surrounding recent crime rates for federal immigration and firearm and fraud offenses are hard to assess, but that very reality is part of the reason it is hard to link federal prison population changes to what we know (and do not know) about crime rates.  But, without any doubt, there are still plenty of "offenders to arrest, charge and imprison" engaged in the activities that serve as the modern bread-and-butter of federal prosecution.  Though there are a range of linkages between various crime rates and various federal prosecutorial policies and practices, it is very hard to see and measure and assess with any confidence how basic criminal offending (especially as to classic state crimes) may directly impact the size of federal prison populations.

What we can effectively see and measure are changes in federal sentencing laws and federal prosecutorial practices, and these changes suggest a set of intricate stories help account for recent federal prison population changes.  For starters, the US Sentencing Commission enacted a set of broad retroactive changes to the federal drug sentencing guidelines, with crack guideline reductions in 2007 and 2011 and the "Drugs -2" reductions in 2014.  These changes reduced the sentences of, and is continuing to lead to the early release of, many thousands of federal prisoners.  In addition, and perhaps even more statistically important for the very latest federal prison data, federal prosecutors after 2012 began decreasing dramatically the number of cases getting all the way to federal sentencing.  According to US Sentencing Commission data, in Fiscal Year 2012, federal prosecutors brought over 84,000 cases to sentencing, whereas by Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors brought fewer than 67,750 cases to sentencing.  And, especially with a slow transition to new US Attorney positions, it may take some time for the new Attorney General to ramp up yearly federal prosecutions (assuming he even wishes to do so).

In other words, the always dynamic stock and flow story of prison populations provides a somewhat more granular understanding of declines in the federal prison population.  Changes to federal sentencing laws made retroactive has had a significant impact on the "stock" of federal prisons.  (Prez Obama's commutations are a small part of this "stock" story, but not until they really got going in 2016, and in the end more than 25 federal prisoners got reduced sentences thanks to retroactive guideline changes for every prisoner who got a commutation from Prez Obama.)  And while guideline changes were reducing the federal prison "stock," it seems the prosecutorial policies announced by Attorney General Holder in 2013 — and perhaps other factors, including decreased national concerns about crime — finally began to reduce what had previously been, for two decades, an ever-increasing federal prison "flow."

I would predict that the May 2017 Sessions charging/sentencing memo could contribute, over time, to increasing both the stock and the flow of the federal prison population.  But other directions coming from Main Justice might complicate this story.  AG Sessions has urged US Attorneys to focus on violent crimes, and there may well be fewer of these cases to bring and they may take more time to prosecute than lower-level drug and gun and immigration cases.  But, of course, the AG has also expressed concerns about drug and gun and immigration cases, and he has been seeking to hire and empower more federal prosecutors in certain arenas.  I will be especially watching how all these developments ultimately impact the US Sentencing Commission's data on cases sentenced (and average sentence imposed) in order to try to predict where the federal prison population may be headed next.

January 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Detailing increase in felony convictions nationwide in modern times

Stateline has this new piece, headlined "Felony Conviction Rates Have Risen Sharply, But Unevenly," with detailed data on how increases in the number of felony convictions has come to define the modern criminal justice era in the United States. Here are some details:

In recent decades, every state has seen a dramatic increase in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from around 4 percent in 1980. The rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas. Less than 5 percent of the population in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia were felons, but every state had a large increase between 1980 and 2010, when the felony population ranged from 1 to 5 percent, according to a University of Georgia study published in October....

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common. There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared to 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more nonviolent criminals into the stigma and harsh supervision of a felony conviction.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980. “Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation. “Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said....

The findings may help put probation reform on the front burner in some states. In Georgia, a February 2017 report by a state commission called for shorter probation sentences and lighter caseloads for probation officers. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline, assisted with the paper.) Almost 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests, Phelps said. In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

In left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon, one contributor to the growing share of the population with a felony conviction was an increased awareness of new crimes like domestic violence, sexual abuse and animal abuse, said Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon and a 20-year board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

When crime is a major concern in a community, elected district attorneys are especially sensitive to public pressure to file more felony charges, Marquis said. “We are not rewarded for the number of felonies filed,” Marquis said. “But we do face election and accountability to our neighbors who are also our bosses.”

January 3, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

"American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment"

9780190203542The title of this post is the title of this new book published by Oxford University Press. The book is an edited collection of essays curated by Kevin Reitz. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

Across the U.S., there was an explosion of severity in nearly every form of governmental response to crime from the 1970s through the 2000s.  This book examines the typically ignored forms punishment in America beyond incarceration and capital punishment to include probation and parole supervision rates-and revocation rates, an ever-growing list of economic penalties imposed on offenders, and a web of collateral consequences of conviction unimaginable just decades ago.  Across these domains, American punitiveness exceeds that in other developed democracies-where measurable, by factors of five-to-ten.  In some respects, such as rates of incarceration and (perhaps) correctional supervision, the U.S. is the world "leader."  Looking to Europe and other English-speaking countries, the book's contributors shed new light on America's outlier status, and examine its causes.  One causal theory examined in detail is that the U.S. has been exceptional not just in penal severity since the 1970s, but also in its high rates of high rates of homicide and other serious violent crimes.

With leading researchers from many fields and national perspectives, American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment shows that the largest problems of crime and justice cannot be brought into focus from the vantage point of any one jurisdiction.  Looking cross-nationally, the book addresses what it would take for America to rejoin the mainstream of the Western world in its uses of criminal penalties.

Kevin kindly sent me a copy of the book's Table of Contents and his introductory chapter for posting. That chapter can be downloaded below, following these passages from that chapter's introduction:

One goal of this book is to broaden the scope of American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment (AECP) inquiry to include sanctions beyond incarceration and the death penalty.  From what we know, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the United States imposes and administers probation, parole, economic sanctions, and collateral consequences of conviction with a heavier hand than other developed democracies.  Although the inquiries in this book are preliminary, they raise the possibility that AECP extends across many landscapes of criminal punishment — and beyond, to the widespread social exclusion and civil disabilities imposed on people with a conviction on their record.

In addition, the book insists that any discussion of AECP should focus on US crime rates along with US penal severity.  More often than not, American crime is discounted in the academic literature as having little or no causal influence on American criminal punishment.  This is a mistake for many reasons but is especially unfortunate because it truncates causation analyses that should reach back to gun ownership rates, income inequality, conditions in America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and possibilities of joint or reciprocal causation in the production of US crime rates and punitive severity.

This chapter is divided into three segments.  First, it includes a brief tour of the conventional AECP subject areas of incarceration and the death penalty.  Second, it will introduce claims that a wider menu of sanction types should be included in AECP analyses. Third, it will speak to the importance of late twentieth-century crime rates to US punitive expansionism.

Download AECP Reitz Introduction for SSRN

January 2, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Is criminal justice reform really "poised to take off in 2018"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Examiner article headlined "Criminal justice reform poised to take off in 2018."  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform came back with such renewed energy this year after sputtering out in Congress in 2016 that meaningful bipartisan legislation is poised for success in 2018.

In October, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced he and a bipartisan group of senators were reintroducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and allow for more judicial discretion during sentencing. The bill mirrors legislation introduced last Congress that failed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring it up.

Then days later, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, reintroduced the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers In Our National System Act, which builds off of successful criminal justice reforms in the senators' respective states.

The CORRECTIONS Act requires the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Prisons to find a way to reduce inmate recidivism rates. It also calls for lower-risk inmates to be put in less-restrictive conditions to reduce prison costs and allow for more resources to be shifted to law enforcement. The legislation also expands recidivism-reduction programs, and requires the federal probation office to plan for re-entry of prisoners ahead of time....

And finally, the Mens Rea Reform Act was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Perdue of Georgia and Rand Paul of Kentucky....

Kara Gotsch, who oversees the Sentencing Project's federal advocacy work, told the Washington Examiner, she sees the likelihood of legislation passing as "small" and cited changes being made at the federal level in the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a cause for concern. "Areas to watch are how Sessions' harsher charging and sentencing policies take effect now that more Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are being installed," Gotsch said, noting the Justice Department has predicted an increase in the prison population in 2018 after four years of decline under the Obama administration.

"Also, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is poised to issue new guideline amendments related to alternatives to incarceration which would expand eligibility for federal dependents to receive a non-incarceration sentence. I will be watching to see how far they extend it."

The Justice Department says it will "continue to enforce the law" as the nation faces an opioid epidemic and rising violent crime. “In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. For two straight years, violent crime has been on the rise. Americans voted for President Trump's brand of law and order and rejected the soft on crime policies that made it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and put dangerous criminals back on the street where our law enforcement officers face deadly risks every day," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said.

Where Congress could fail in 2018, states are there to pick up the slack....

For example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed an 18-bill criminal justice reform package in March, and state legislators in Florida ended the year championing various bills that they say would help reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population. A pair of measures are set to be taken up that would implement pre-arrest diversion programs statewide that Florida lawmakers say would reduce crime and incarceration rates, as well as a measure that would restore voting rights to some 1.6 million felons in the Sunshine State.

Other states such as New Jersey, Virginia, Alabama and New York elected candidates during the 2017 elections who openly support criminal justice reform, setting up the possibility for revamping at the state and local levels next year.

Phil Murphy, who was elected in a landslide to be the new governor of New Jersey, promised he would put the Garden State in a position to pass criminal justice reform. On his campaign website, he promises changes such as creating a commission to examine mandatory minimum laws, implementing bail reform to prevent someone from being stuck behind bars for being unable to pay a fine, and the legalization of marijuana “so police can focus resources on violent crime.”

"It's important to recognize that 2017 saw passage of criminal justice reform in red and blue states throughout the nation, in contrast to reforms stalling on the federal level," Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the America Civil Liberties Union said. The ACLU worked to help pass 57 pieces of criminal justice reform legislation in 19 states, he noted.

"From sentencing reform in Louisiana and bail reform in Connecticut, to drug reform in Oregon and probation reform in Georgia, this year proved that the movement for criminal justice reform continues to be strong in the states, even under a Trump-Sessions administration," Ofer said, adding that in 2018, the ACLU expects "these reforms to continue, and to grow, particularly around bail reform, prosecutorial reform and sentencing reform."

For 2018, he said the ACLU is working on bail reform in 33 states including California, Georgia, Ohio and New York. In July, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which would encourage states to change or replace the process they use for allowing people to pay money to avoid sitting in jail until their trial. Ofer also said he expected the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to "play a larger role in federal and state elections in 2018" following the wins of candidates supporting such reforms in 2017.

As is my general tendency, I am hopeful but not optimistic about the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform during a pivotal election year. If other possible "easier" legislative priorities get completed (or falter), I could see at least some modest reforms making it through the legislative process. But inertia can be a potent political and practical force in this setting, especially in an election year, so I am not holding my breath.

December 31, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"No Trump windfall for private prisons yet, but some bet on gains"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Reuters piece, and here are excerpts:

Investors who bet on private prison operators as big winners from Donald Trump’s tough line on crime and illegal immigration are looking back at a bruising year of high hopes and disappointment. Some, however, say the stocks still offer good value even though an anticipated windfall under the Trump administration so far has failed to materialize.

They say the two listed operators - Geo Group Inc (GEO.N) and CoreCivic Inc (CXW.N) - stand to win contracts from states struggling with prison overcrowding, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, and have plenty of room to accommodate new demand....

The administration’s proposals to bolster the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency could help in the future though it is still unclear how much new money it will bring. “People are focusing on ICE and ignoring the state level opportunities,” said Jordan Hymowitz managing partner Philadelphia Financial Management in San Francisco.

Geo and CoreCivic shares soared after Trump won the White House, partly on expectations that detention centers they run for ICE would fill up thanks to an anticipated surge in arrests along the Mexican border. Yet the opposite happened - arrests declined for months after Trump's inauguration because fewer people attempted to cross the border and shares in CoreCivic and Geo reversed course after peaking in February and April respectively.

While detentions have been rising from month to month since hitting a year-low in May, the stocks have not yet recovered. CoreCivic now trades 37 percent below its post election high, while Geo is about 32 percent below its 2017 peak.

Investors say lack of clarity on how much business they will get from ICE, the companies’ biggest client, is holding the shares back.... The immigration enforcement agency, which cites its average cost per bed at $129 per day, accounted for about a quarter of CoreCivic’s and Geo’s revenue in the first nine months of 2017. Federal, state and local prisons make up most of the remaining revenue. ICE asked Congress for a $1.2 billion funding increase, but the latest budget proposal offered $700 million, according to Geo, and its 2018 funding remains unclear.

GEO and CoreCivic make up two-thirds of the roughly $5.3 billion per year U.S. private prison business, according to market research firm IBISWorld. However, potential state contracts promise to boost prison companies’ earnings and make them less controversial.... Investors said a pending Kansas Department of Corrections proposal for CoreCivic to build a new prison which the state would manage, would address some investor concerns by making the company a landlord rather than a prison operator. If copied by other states, such approach would open new opportunities for the companies, which mostly derive revenue from running their own prisons or government facilities....

Thousands of vacancies at CoreCivic and Geo facilities should also be viewed as a positive, because they could lift earnings with little extra investment, investors say. Hymowitz estimated that CoreCivic, which has around 15,000 empty beds, could boost by a fifth its funds from operations (FFO) per share if it could fill just a quarter of them. CoreCivic said in November it could add $1 to annual earnings per share (FFO) if it can open its eight idle prisons and boost inmate numbers in partially vacant facilities. Geo said in October that filling 7,000 empty beds could add $50-$60 million to its annual earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), a roughly 11-13 percent increase to 2018 analyst estimates.

December 27, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Looking at the changing demographics of modern mass incarceration

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "A Mass Incarceration Mystery: Why are black imprisonment rates going down? Four theories." Here is the start of the extended analysis along with the basics of the propounded "four theories":

One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.  The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that for the last 15 years, racial disparities in the American prison system have actually been on the decline, according to a Marshall Project analysis of yearly reports by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  Between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

Among women, the trend is even more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate shot upward by 53 percent. As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has pointed out, the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.

Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable given the “churn” of inmates into and out of those facilities. Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100. The charts below from the Vera Institute of Justicealso reveal significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.  (In both the prison and jail data, the total number of incarcerated Latinos has increased, but their actual incarceration rate has remained steady or also fallen, attributable to their increasing numbers in the U.S. population generally.)

Taken together, these statistics change the narrative of mass incarceration, and that may be one reason why the data has been widely overlooked in policy debates. The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news," said John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on trends in prison statistics. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate.  How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?'”

According to Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”  In other words, how much of any shift in the imprisonment rate can be attributed to changes in demographics, crime rates, policing, prosecutors, sentencing laws and jail admissions versus lengths of stay? And is it even possible to know, empirically, whether specific reforms, such as implicit bias training, are having an effect on the trend line?....

[H]ere are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall....

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids....

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement....

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas....

Even with all of these factors at work, the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades.

I think a lot of other possible factors may be at least marginally contributing to the changing demographics of prison populations between 2000 and 2015, factors ranging from more diversity in the ranks of police, prosecutors and the judiciary to greater concerns with sentencing decision-making (and advocacy) by courts (and lawyers).  And perhaps readers have some additional (sensible?) theories on this front that could be shared in the comments.

December 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Notable new push to push for expanded use of compassionate release programs

As reported in this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "a coalition of criminal justice reform, health policy, human rights, and faith-based organizations launched a new public education and advocacy campaign to urge the creation, expansion, and robust use of federal and state programs that grant early release to prisoners with compelling circumstances, such as a terminal or age-related illness."  Here is more from the release (with links from the source):

The Campaign for Compassionate Release” comprises a diverse group of organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), American Conservative Union Foundation, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and National Disability Rights Network.  “It is cruel and senseless to prisoners and families alike to abandon an individual to suffer or die alone in prison, separated from loved ones. These prisoners are the least dangerous and most expensive to lock up, yet compassionate release often exists in name only. It often fails the people it is intended to help. And we’re fed up,” said Mary Price, general counsel of FAMM.

To kick off the Campaign, 36 organizations and individuals endorsed a statement of principles. The principles focus on the humanitarian, public safety, and economic benefits of granting early release to elderly prisoners, those with disabilities, or prisoners facing extreme family changes. While the Campaign will target both federal and state policies, the first stages of the launch focus on reforms to the federal compassionate release program.

The federal compassionate release program, created by Congress, has existed for decades but is rarely used.  The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must decide if prisoners meet program criteria and then seek their release in the courts, but in reality, the BOP only brings a trickle of release motions to the courts annually. Delays also plague the program; prisoners commonly die awaiting a decision.  Congressional appropriators, government watchdogs, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and outside advocates all have questioned the BOP’s failure to use the program as Congress intended, especially since sick, dying, and elderly prisoners are the least likely to re-offend and the most expensive to house.

Today, many Campaign members and others sent a letter to BOP Director Mark Inch, urging him to expand the program’s use. The letter echoes a similar letter signed by a bipartisan group of senators in August.

December 9, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

"Envisioning an Alternative Future for the Corrections Sector Within the U.S. Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable Rand research report that I just came across authored by Joe Russo, George Drake, John Shaffer and Brian Jackson. Here is a summary with some points from the report in via this Rand webpage:

Challenged by high costs and concerns that the U.S. corrections sector is not achieving its goals, there has been a growing focus on approaches to reform and improve the sector's performance.  Policies initiated during the tough-on-crime era led to aggressive prosecution, lengthier sentences, and an exploding correctional population.  In recent years, the corrections sector has been gradually shifting toward efforts to provide treatment, alternatives to incarceration, and enhanced programs to facilitate offender reentry.  Although judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform, the sector has a unique perspective and therefore can provide critical insight regarding what is working, what is not, and how things should be.

To contribute to the policy debate on the future of the corrections sector, researchers interviewed a group of prominent correctional practitioners, consultants, and academics. This report outlines their perspectives on the current state of corrections and their vision for the future.  These experts were specifically asked how they would redesign the corrections sector to better serve the country's needs.  The findings offer both an assessment of what is and is not working now and potential solutions to better achieve justice policy goals going forward.

Key Findings

The Corrections Sector Has Little Control Over the Many Factors That Affect Its Operations

  • Judicial and policy decisions and public attitudes toward crime and sentencing determine the corrections population and the resources available for staffing and reform.
  • The sector does have some control over how offenders are treated once they enter the system.

A Panel of Experts Agreed That the Sector's Primary Role Should Be to Facilitate Positive Offender Behavioral Change, but This Is a Complex Task

  • Three broad types of changes would be necessary for the sector to support this mission and help ensure offenders' successful reintegration into society: new programs and improved education and training for corrections staff, the elimination of revenue-generating correctional operations, and cultural change to prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
  • There are many opportunities for the sector to leverage the latest developments in science, technology, and evidence-based practices to create alternatives to incarceration, guide the investment of scarce resources, and engage communities in initiatives to reduce recidivism and support offender reentry.

Recommendations

  • Panelists put forward several solutions to support the corrections sector's mission of facilitating positive offender behavior change, including diverting low-risk offenders and those with mental health or substance use problems to specialty facilities while reserving prisons for violent and dangerous offenders; shortening sentences and ensuring that offenders have a clear, attainable path to release; and creating smaller and safer facilities that are closer to cities with programs to support reentry.
  • In the near term, panelists recommended expanding and adequately funding probation, parole, and community-based resources to support offenders' reentry into their communities.

December 6, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Notable advocate makes notable pitch to abolish juve LWOP

Malcolm Jenkins, who I still remember as a great Buckeye ballplayer, is now an NFL star using his voice and platform to discuss criminal justice reform issues.  He has this notable new commentary about juve LWOP under this full headline "America is the only country in the world still sentencing our kids to die in prison:For too long we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as lost causes. But they can change."  Here are excerpts:

As a black man in America, I’m keenly aware that people who look a lot like me are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The way adults of color are treated in our justice system is already upsetting, but the way our justice system treats children, especially black children, is simply deplorable.

Nowhere is this more clearly evident than on the issue of juvenile sentencing. Black children are grossly over-represented when it comes to kids sentenced to life without parole. This disturbing reality is personal to me: In Pennsylvania, where I live and play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, nearly 80% of juvenile lifers are black.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole should only be given to juveniles in the rarest of circumstances.  Last year, it ruled that those individuals currently serving life sentences without parole should have their cases reviewed.  Currently, more than 2,100 people who were sentenced as children are eligible to have their sentences reviewed and earn a second chance.  Approximately 300 of these people are from the city of Philadelphia alone.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said that juvenile life without parole, where kids are sentenced to literally die in prison, should only be given to teens found to be “irreparably corrupt.”  But in reality, according to the Fair Punishment Project, the “irreparably corrupt” child is a myth.  We have to stop locking up kids and throwing away the key. According to human rights groups, America is the only country that sentences kids to life without parole....

The infuriating irony here is that the kids who have received life without parole sentences are, in many ways, the young people who needed our help the most.  According to study conducted by the Sentencing Project, 79% of this population witnessed violence in their homes growing up, 40% were enrolled in special education classes, nearly half experienced physical abuse, and three-quarters of the girls had experienced sexual abuse.

America failed them once.  Today, these kids deserve a second chance.  Contrary to the super-predator rhetoric utilized by politicians in the past to justify locking up kids for life, adolescents really are different from adults — in almost every way.  Their brains are underdeveloped, they struggle with judgment, they are susceptible to peer pressure.

For too long, we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as fully developed adults who are a lost cause.  But they can change.  These are not the soulless “super-predators” the media scared its readers with in the 70s and 80s.  These are children.  Studies show that even those accused of the most serious crimes age out of crime....

A lot of people might question why, as a professional athlete, I’m speaking out on criminal justice issues.  I believe that it is my duty to use my platform to raise awareness of the kinds of institutional injustices that so rarely make the news — and that we so rarely question.  And I want to elevate the work that so many amazing community grassroots organizations are doing to try and bring about this change.

Fortunately, there is some hope, finally, in my hometown.  Philadelphia’s newly elected District Attorney has stated he will not seek juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) for any kid, no matter the crime. He has also vowed to allow older cases to be considered for parole.  This is a great start.  Now, other prosecutors should follow suit.

No matter their race or hometown, rehabilitation is a beautiful thing. After all, there is nothing more American than giving someone who has worked hard a (second) chance to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

December 5, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)