Sunday, December 21, 2014

"U.S. Incarceration: Still Mass; The shrink-the-prisons movement hasn’t moved the numbers."

The title of this post is the headline of this basic analysis at The Marshall Report on the latest official BJS incarceration data (noted previously here).  Here are excerpts:

New Bureau of Justice Statistics figures out this morning measured a slight decrease — about half of a percent — in the number of adults incarcerated in the United States last year.  The decline comes from a drop in inmates of local jails. The number of people in local jails last year fell by almost 2 percent — to 731,200.  At the same time, despite a growing national concern with the costs and consequences of mass incarceration, the number in prisons grew a tiny bit, one-third of a percent from the previous year, to 1,574,700.

The increase in the prison population comes entirely from state facilities — reversing a three-year downward trend.  The number of inmates in federal prisons actually declined for the first time since 1980.

There are real lives behind these numbers: every percentage point accounts for approximately 22,200 people.  But the rate of change is almost negligible. If the nation’s incarcerated adult population continued to decrease at this pace, it would take 215 years — until 2228 — to drop below the number of adults incarcerated in 1985.

Looking at changes over the long term, the number of inmates in jails and prisons is down from 2010, but remains up more than 14 percent from what it was at the turn of the century.

Recent related post:

December 21, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, December 19, 2014

New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US

This official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Correctional Population Declined By Less Than 1 Percent For The Second Consecutive Year," provides highlights from the latest official accounting of who is subject to criminal justice control in the United States. Here are some of the details:

The number of persons under adult correctional supervision fell by 41,500 persons during 2013, dropping to 6.89 million by yearend, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The decline in the correctional population (down 0.6 percent) was less than 1 percent for the second consecutive year.

By yearend 2013, the number of persons under adult correctional supervision was the smallest number observed since 2003. About 7 in 10 offenders under adult correctional supervision were supervised in the community on probation (3.91 million) or parole (853,200) at yearend 2013, compared to about 3 in 10 incarcerated in state and federal prisons (1.57 million) or local jails (731,200).

The entire drop in the correctional population during 2013 was due to a decline in the number of probationers (down 32,100) and persons held in local jails (down 13,300). The parole population (up 2,100) and prison population (up 4,300) increased, partially offsetting the overall decline in the total correctional population.

While the U.S prison population increased during 2013, the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons decreased (down 0.9 percent or 1,900) for the first time since 1980. The growth in the U.S. prison population was attributed to the increase in the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of state prisons (up 0.5 percent or 6,300).

About 1 in 35 adults in the United States (or 2.8 percent of the adult resident population) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2013. This rate was unchanged from 2012, when it dropped to the lowest rate observed since 1997. About 1 in 51 adults was on probation or parole at yearend 2013, compared to 1 in 110 incarcerated in prisons or local jails....

In 2013, females accounted for almost 25 percent of the probation population, up from about 22 percent in 2000. They made up 14 percent of the jail population in 2013, up from about 11 percent in 2000. The percentage of females on parole or incarcerated in state or federal prisons remained unchanged between 2000 and 2013. Since 2010, the female jail population has been the fastest growing correctional population, increasing by an average annual rate of 3.4 percent.

The full report with all these data and a whole lot more it titled simply "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013," is available at this link.

December 19, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, December 15, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation

This recent article from the Washington Post, headlined "Early federal sentencing recommendation for McDonnell: At least 10 years in prison," spotlights the seemingly severe sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines for a former Governor's corruption.  Among other notbale aspects of this high-profile sentencing story is the fact that former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell is now facing a guideline sentencing range that is more than three to four times longer than the longest possible sentence he would have faced had he been willing to plead guilty on terms urged by federal prosecutors.  Here are the notable details at this stage of a developing high-profile sentencing story:

The guidelines recommended by the U.S. probation office are preliminary, and even if finalized, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is not required to follow them. But experts said that Spencer typically heeds the probation office’s advice, and judges in his district have imposed sentences within the recommendations more than 70 percent of the time in recent years. “It’s of critical importance,” said Scott Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “The fact is, the vast majority of times, courts follow those recommendations closely.”

The matter is far from settled. The probation office recommended a punishment from 10 years and a month to 12 years and 7 months. Calculating an appropriate range of sentences in the federal system is a complicated, mathematical process that takes into account a variety of factors, including the type of crime, the defendant’s role and the amount of loss. The judge has yet to see the arguments from each side.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of lending the prestige of his office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6. His wife’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, and her guideline range is expected to be lower than her husband’s. The probation office has not yet filed a report concerning her.

It is unclear how the probation office determined that the former governor’s crimes necessitate a minimum decade-long sentence. The initial report on the matter is sealed, and people familiar with its contents revealed only the recommended range to The Washington Post.

The range is particularly notable because last December, prosecutors offered to let McDonnell plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank as part of an agreement that would have meant he could be sentenced to three years in prison at the most and probation at the least. Importantly, though, McDonnell would have been required to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Star Scientific, Williams’s dietary-supplement company, at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship he has insisted was not criminal and was driven largely by his wife....

White-collar criminal defense lawyer Matthew Kaiser said McDonnell’s range probably was increased because he was a high-ranking public official, because he took more than one payment from Williams and because the total value of the gifts he received was so high. Kaiser said the probation officer also probably faulted McDonnell because his testimony was contrary to the jury’s verdict.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will still have an opportunity to argue to the probation officer about whether the range was correctly calculated — although Kaiser said the probation office often “sticks to its guns.” After that, both sides can try to persuade Spencer to modify the recommended range.

Even then, Spencer is not bound by the guideline. Defense attorneys have already begun working vigorously in their bid to sway him toward leniency. This week, they won a legal skirmish with prosecutors so they can file additional pages in their sentencing memorandum — a key document outlining the sentence they believe McDonnell should receive and why. It is unclear whether their efforts to move Spencer away from the probation office’s recommended range will be fruitful.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, where McDonnell is being sentenced, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range more than 70 percent of the time last fiscal year, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In about 21 percent of cases, they imposed sentences below the guideline range without a request from prosecutors to do so. Nationally, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range about 51 percent of the time last fiscal year and deviated downward without a request from prosecutors to do so in about 19 percent of cases.

In the McDonnell case, prosecutors are not expected to ask for a sentence below the guideline range.... Brian Whisler, a defense lawyer who used to work as a federal prosecutor in

Richmond, said that Spencer is known to be “largely deferential to the probation office and its sentencing calculations.” Whisler — whose firm, Baker & McKenzie, represented state employees in the McDonnell case — said the judge will likely draw on other cases in the district to inform his conclusion.

The outcome of those might not be to McDonnell’s liking. In 2011, another federal judge in Richmond sentenced former Virginia delegate Phillip A. Hamilton to 9.5 years in prison in a bribery and extortion case. In 2009, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced former congressman William J. Jefferson to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — though, notably, that fell well short of the recommended range of 27 to 33 years.

December 15, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, December 12, 2014

Federal task force on corrections getting geared up for (big?) work in 2015

Logo5As effectively reported in this Crime Report piece, earlier this week the members of a "congressionally mandated task force on the federal prison system" were announced.  Here is the context for this notable development:

[The task force is now] headed by a bipartisan duo of former House members, Republican J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.  They are being be joined by seven other experts in a yearlong study that many analysts hope will result in agreement on ways to cut the prison population.

There were 212,438 federal inmates last week, a total that has jumped from about 136,000 since the turn of the century -- even though crime rates have steadily fallen. (The federal inmate total exceeded 218,000 two years ago; it has shrunk as the Obama administration has reduced the terms of some prisoners serving time for low-level drug offenses.)...

Last month, Justice's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said that the Bureau of Prisons budget totals $6.9 billion and accounts for about 25 percent of the department’s "discretionary" budget, which means that prison spending hampers the DOJ's "ability to make other public safety investments."

The new task force is named for the late Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a 7-month prison term in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and then became a corrections reformer, founding the Prison Fellowship. Colson died in 2012.  Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the committee that reviews Justice Department appropriations, successfully pushed for the task force in recent years while Congress was unable to agree on any major legal changes that would affect the federal inmate total.

Watts, who will chair the panel, served in the House from 1995 to 2003. When he was elected, he was one of only two African-American Republicans in the House.  He is a member of the conservative justice-reform group Right on Crime.  Last summer, in an article in the Tulsa World on prison reform in Oklahoma, Watts wrote that, "for nonviolent offenders, watching television and receiving 'three hots and a cot' in prison does far less to advance personal responsibility than paying restitution to the victim, performing community service, holding a job and paying child support."

Mollohan, who serve as vice chair, was Wolf's predecessor as the House's chief Justice Department appropriator when the Democrats controlled the House.  Mollohan has presided over many hearings on corrections issues.  In 2012, he co-authored an op-ed article with David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, declaring that, "Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of ... states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth."...

The task force will hold the first of five meetings on January 27 in Washington, D.C. Its official mandate is to "identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President."

The Urban Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy will provide "research, analysis, strategic guidance and logistical support" for the task force under an agreement with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance.   A year ago, the Urban Institute published a study titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System," that might be something of a blueprint for the Colson group....

Several members of Congress, notably Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have introduced proposals that could lead to reductions in the federal prison population, but it is not clear that any will be enacted while the Colson task force is conducting its study.

In any case, the task force's final report is likely to include recommendations that will go beyond any bills that might be approved in the next year.  The group's eventual proposals may include some that require Congressional approval and others that the Obama administration could put into effect by executive order.

This new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections rolled out this website, which I am hopeful over time might become a source of new research and data about the federal criminal justice system.  And though I tend to be somewhat cynical and pessimistic about what task forces can really achieve, I am hopeful and optimistic that this group will be an effective and important contributor to on-going federal sentencing reform efforts.

December 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley introduces juvenile justice bill showing eagerness to do bipartisan reforms

This article from The Hill, headlined "Next Judiciary chairman eyes treatment of minors," provides an encouraging sign that the incoming new leadership in the Senate may be eager to work on at least some bipartisan federal criminal justice reforms. Here are the details:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a bill Thursday that would update national standards covering how the justice system treats minors.

With Grassley preparing to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, the move is an early signal of the committee’s potential criminal justice agenda. Grassley has been particularly supportive of new accountability measures that will be included in the bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

“The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program helps in preventing at-risk youth from entering the system and helps those in the system become valuable members of communities across the country,” Grassley said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill will be a good starting point for reauthorizing this important program as we begin a new Congress.”

One advocate said Thursday that Grassley’s sponsorship will be a boon for the bill, but that the measure still has a long journey to becoming law. “I think as head of Judiciary, with his name on it, that is going to be a huge help,” said Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

The bill, which will not see any movement before the end of the current Congress, aims to beef up juvenile justice standards that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. The juvenile system is estimated to detain 60,000 minors on any given night.

“This legislation will strengthen the main protections of the JJDPA, and improve the conditions and practices that can determine whether offenders leave our justice system as productive members of society,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

One update would make it harder for states to lock up children who have committed “status offenses” that would not be an offense if they were an adult, like running away from home or skipping school. Another update would require that states do more to make sure they are not confining minors near adults. It would also give states new direction on how to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system....

The bill comes at a moment when there is bipartisan support for certain reforms to the criminal justice system. Grassley has had a historical interest in juvenile justice. But it is not known if he will have the committee tackle some of the thorny problems in the adult criminal justice system, which encompasses everything from policing to prison conditions.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, something a smattering of lawmakers have been moving to change. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Il.) have introduced a bill that would make small changes to the federal mandatory minimum sentences that have led to black Americans being imprisoned at disproportionate rates. It’s received support from big names both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But Grassley opposes the measure and will decide whether it comes up for a vote on the Judiciary Committee, where it would likely pass.

December 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 08, 2014

Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform

Today's must-read for all sentencing fans is this lengthy new post by Bill Otis, amusingly titled "Should I Feel Lonely?".  The piece is a fun read in part because Bill is an effective writer and advocate, but it is a must read because it highlights that (1) while many in the media now struggle to find pundits other than Bill to speak actively and vocally in support of severe sentencing laws and mass incarceration, (2) efforts in Congress to significantly reform federal sentencing laws and "on the ground" developments to reduce incarceration levels are still failing to gain much traction.

I cannot do the Bill's full post justice in a brief excerpt, but here is a taste of what one can find by clicking through here:

Not to worry -- this post is not psychobabble about my feelings.  It's about a question I was asked by two journalists with whom I spoke recently.

The two were Ms. Carrie Johnson of NPR and Mr. Mark Obbie, a writer for Slate. The subject of their interviews was sentencing reform.  Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Obbie were cordial, well-informed, thoroughly pleasant, and -- most important for journalists -- curious.

Each asked me the same question: Whether, as an opponent of sentencing reform, I feel lonely? I told them I don't.

Their question was perfectly natural. Almost everything one sees nowadays about the subject of sentencing sings the same tune -- tough sentencing might have been needed at one point, but we've gone too far; momentum has swung toward "smart sentencing;" reducing the prison population (to cut back on costs if for no other reason) is the wave of both the present and the future; and that the newly-ascendant Republican Party will lead the way through such figures as Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

But the mantra leaves something out. That would be the part of the country outside the Beltway (and outside Boston, Berkeley, New York, Seattle and a few other cities). In other words, what it leaves out is the United States.

The omission of Main Street America from the assessment about where the country is going would seem odd to most people, but for those of us, like me, who live inside the Beltway and work in academia, it's no surprise.  The liberal bubble is big. It's also, for the most part, impenetrable.

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

If one wants to know the state of play with "smart sentencing," and the Smarter Sentencing Act in particular, there might be a couple of places to look outside the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones.  One might look, for example, to what actually happened in the last Congress, what's likely to happen in the next one, and what imprisonment trends have been over the last several years....

[T]there are some prominent people in the Republican Party on board with "sentencing reform."  But the great majority of Republicans, and the center of the Party, are not being fooled.  The much lower crime that increased incarceration helped produce are both wise policy for the country and good politics for Republicans....

So to return to my first question: Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don't feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as "sentencing reform."  Both the most recent statistics, and the most recent election, show that the American people know better than to cash in a system we know works for one we know fails.

There is much to discuss in Bill's important assessment of the current state of sentencing reform. But I have emphasized the very last phrase because I think it lacks demographic nuance based on the mostly older (and not-too-diverse) "bubble" that I suspect Bill mostly travels in.

Bill surely seems correct that an older (and mostly white) population of voters and political leaders are reasonably content with the sentencing/incarceration status quo, and that these voters and leaders still have considerable control over the policies and practices of the Republican party (as well as, for that matter, the Democratic party).  Bill stresses in his post, for example, that we do not hear much talk of sentencing reform coming from "Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley (the incoming Chairman of SJC), or Bob Goodlatte (the once-and-future Chairman of HJC) [or] Michael Mukasey."  Notably, everyone on that list is well over 60 years old, and they have all succeeded politically with "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies.

But as a new generation of GOP leaders emerge who are much younger (even though they are still mostly white), we are seeing growing concern for and focus on sentencing reform.  Leading GOP Governors from Chris Christie to Rick Perry, and leading GOP Senators from Rand Paul to Mike Lee, and leading GOP Reps from Paul Ryan to Jason Chaffetz, all have talked up sentencing reform in recent years.  And while Bill's list of older GOP leaders will control GOP policies and politics for the next few years, the younger leaders already on record supporting sentencing reform are likely to control GOP policies and politics for the subsequent few decades.

Turning from political leaders to voters, we see the same basic dynamics in play in recent election seasons.  According to polls and other sources, older and whiter voters seem much more wary about any significant changes to sentencing laws or drug laws.  But younger voters and people of color are much more open and eager to support significant sentencing and drug law reform as represented by the passage of Prop 47 and prior three-strikes reform in California and by initiatives for marijuana legalization in an array of states.

(Notably, these generational and demographic realities concerning sentencing reform are not only a  GOP story.  Older and whiter Democrats — from the Clintons to Joe Biden to Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi to even Jerry Brown — have largely been stuck in political thinking of the 1990s and slow to warm to advocating for significant sentencing reform.  But if and when younger and more diverse voices continue to emerge on the Democratic side of the aisle, we should expect even more liberal advocacy for the kinds of criminal justice reforms championed by the Obama Administration rather than a return to the toughness championed throughout the Clinton Administration.)

Finally, and to give Bill still more credit for his analysis, despite generational and demographic shifts and divides on these matters, I agree that the future of significant sentencing reform is quite uncertain and will turn greatly on short-term and long-term assessments of "what really works."   Americans are a pragmatic people who will always move away from criminial justice policies shown or felt not to be really working.  That is why, I believe, alcohol Prohibition failed even though it had constitutional gravitas and also why we moved away from a purely rehabilitation model of sentencing and corrections through the 1970s and 1980s.  

Now we are seeing a push back on the modern drug war and mass incarceration mostly from younger folks and people of color have come to conclude that these policies are not working for their interests abd communties.  But there are still a whole lot of folks in power (particularly those who are older and whiter like Bill) who still see more a lot more good than bad from the sentencing and mass incarceration status quo.  Whether and how these competing groups views as to  "what really works" unfold and compete in the coming years will determine whether sentencing and incarceration policies in the US circa 2050 look more like they did in 2000 or in 1950. 

December 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, December 05, 2014

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Praise for Texas justice embracing "Right on Crime" from across the pond

This new BBC article, headlined "Why Texas is closing prisons in favour of rehab," provides a notable example of the rest of the world taking note (and praising) the "right on crime" movement. The piece is authored by a Danny Kruger, a former speechwriter for UK's prime minister David Cameron, and here are excerpts:

Coming from London to spend a couple of days in Texas last month, I was struck most of all by how generous and straightforward everyone was.  Talking to all sorts of different people about crime and punishment, the same impression came across: We expect people to do the right thing and support them when they do.  When they don't we punish them, but then we welcome them back and expect good behaviour again.  It's not naive, it's just clear.

For years that straightforward moral outlook translated into a tough criminal justice system.  As in the rest of the US, the economic dislocations of the 1970s, compounded by the crack epidemic in the 1980s, led to a series of laws and penal policies which saw the prison population skyrocket.  Texas, for instance, has half the population of the UK but twice its number of prisoners.

Then something happened in 2007, when Texas Republican Congressman Jerry Madden was appointed chairman of the House Corrections Committee with the now famous words by his party leader: "Don't build new prisons. They cost too much." The impulse to what has become the Right on Crime initiative was fiscal conservatism — the strong sense that the taxpayer was paying way too much money to fight a losing war against drugs, mental ill-health and petty criminality.

What Madden found was that too many low-level offenders were spending too long in prison, and not reforming.  On the contrary, they were getting worse inside and not getting the help they needed on release.  The only response until then, from Democrat as well as Republican legislators, was to build more prisons. Indeed, Mr Madden's analysis suggested that a further 17,000 prisoners were coming down the pipe towards them, requiring an extra $500m (£320m) for new prisons.  

But he and his party didn't want to spend more money building new prisons. So they thought of something else — rehab.   Consistent with the straightforward Texan manner, the Congressional Republicans did not attempt to tackle what in Britain are known as "the causes of crime" — the socio-economic factors that make people more disposed to offend. Instead, they focused on the individual criminal, and his or her personal choices.  Here, they believe, moral clarity and generosity are what's needed.

Though fiscal conservatism may have got the ball rolling, what I saw in Texas — spending time in court and speaking to offenders, prison guards, non-profit staff and volunteers — goes way beyond the desire to save money. The Prison Entrepreneurship Programme, for instance, matches prisoners with businesspeople and settles them in a residential community on release.  Its guiding values are Christian and its staff's motives seem to be love and hope for their "brothers", who in turn support the next batch of prisoners leaving jail.

The statutory system is not unloving either. Judge Robert Francis's drugs court in Dallas is a well-funded welfare programme all of its own — though it is unlike any welfare programme most of the 250 ex-offenders who attend it have ever seen.  Clean and tidy, it is staffed by around 30 professionals who are intensely committed to seeing their clients stay clean and out of jail, even if that means sending them back to prison for short periods, as Judge Francis regularly does when required....

Immediate, comprehensible and proportionate sanctions are given for bad behaviour, plus accountability to a kind leader and supportive community.  This is the magic sauce of Right on Crime.

Far from having to build new jails for the 17,000 expected new inmates, Jerry Madden and his colleagues have succeeded in closing three prisons.  I visited one by the Trinity River in Dallas, now ready for sale and redevelopment.  They spent less than half the $500 million earmarked for prison building on rehab initiatives and crime is falling faster than elsewhere.

This, then, ticks all the boxes - it cuts crime, saves money and demonstrates love and compassion towards some of the most excluded members of society. It is, in a sense, what conservatives in America and Britain dream of — a realistic vision of a smaller state, where individuals are accountable for their actions and communities take responsibility for themselves and their neighbours.  It is a more positive version of the anti-politics — anti-Washington, anti-Westminster — tide that seems to be sweeping the West.

December 3, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2014

"What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella now appearing at both The Marshall Project and The Huffington Post. Here are excerpts:

Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium.  Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions.  Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.

But at what cost have these concessions been won?  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States.  According to the Sentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole — a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s.  Over 159,000 were serving life sentences — many of them ... with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.

In many states, the expansion — and the very existence — of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment.  Death penalty opponents often accept — and even zealously promote — life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world...

Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty.  In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004.  During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place.  Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishment even more harsh than simple life without parole.  Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.

Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like [New York lifer] William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process.  So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.

Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation....

William Blake has said that while he cannot bring himself to take his own life, he would have welcomed the death penalty 27 years ago had he known what a lifetime in solitary confinement would be like. Perhaps the time will come when people like Blake — and the American public — are not forced to choose among such monstrous alternatives.  In the meantime, it will be a shame if people who oppose state-sponsored death continue to advocate for state-sanctioned torture.

Long-time readers know that I largely share the perspective of these commentators. I find compelling the assertion that some (many?) LWOP sentences can often involve a fate worse than death, and I find moving the concern that too much of modern opposition to "state-sponsored death" in the United States tends to advocate, both formally and functionally, for a kind of "state-sanctioned torture."

December 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration"

Download (3)The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice as part of a new initiative called Justice Reform for Healthy Communities. A helpful report overview starts this way:

Each year, millions of incarcerated people — who experience chronic health conditions, infectious diseases, substance use, and mental illness at much higher rates than the general population — return home from correctional institutions to communities that are already rife with health disparities, violence, and poverty, among other structural inequities.

For several generations, high rates of incarceration among residents in these communities has further contributed to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, and restricted access to essential social entitlements.

Several factors in today’s policy climate indicate that the political discourse on crime and punishment is swinging away from the punitive, tough-on-crime values that dominated for decades, and that the time is ripe to fundamentally rethink the function of the criminal justice system in ways that can start to address the human toll that mass incarceration has had on communities.

At the same time, the nation’s healthcare system is undergoing a historic overhaul due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Many provisions of the ACA provide tools needed to address long-standing health disparities. Among these are:

> Bolstering community capacity by expanding Medicaid eligiblity, expanding coverage and parity for behavioral health treatment, and reducing health disparities.

> Strengthening front-end alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

> Bridging health and justice systems by coordinating outreach and care, enrolling people in Medicaid and subsidized health plans across the criminal justice continuum, using Medicaid waivers and innovation funding to extend coverage to new groups, and advancing health information technology.

November 23, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 21, 2014

Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs

As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:

The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....

Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...

If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”

To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.

November 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Significant sentencing reform afoot in Michigan

As reported in this Detroit News article, headlined "Michigan prison sentence reforms gain momentum," the Great Lakes state is moving toward some significant sentencing changes. Here is how the article starts:

State lawmakers are poised to act on a legislative package that would reduce some prison sentences, making it potentially the biggest issue — besides a road tax increase — they may consider when they return from a two-week recess.

The package of bills calls for a state commission to adjust tough sentencing policies adopted in 1998 that crowded prisons and sharply increased corrections spending. The legislation is aimed at reducing crime while reining in the state's $2 billion prison budget through sentencing, parole and probation reforms. It has moved quickly toward a House vote in the lame-duck session.

The vision is for the number of prisoners to decline over time, and for all released prisoners to receive supervision. The number of inmates incarcerated by the state has dropped below 44,000 from a high of 51,554 in March 2007, and cost increases have moderated because of policy changes and the contracting out of some prison services to private companies.

But Republican Rep. Joe Haveman of Holland, point man for the proposed reforms, said he sees potential for even more downsizing of the sprawling prison system. Corrections Department Director Dan Heyns "has done a fantastic job of getting at the low-hanging fruit through policies and cost savings ... but you can't save your way to a low-cost prison system," Haveman. "The only way you can get more long-term savings is to close a prison."

Attorney General Bill Schuette said he has "grave concerns" with some key proposals in the bills that he feels could "open the door to parole for some violent offenders at the earliest possible date."

The legislation is getting a boost from House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Marshall Republican who over the weekend shared on his Facebook page a column by GOP former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich that lauded Michigan's sentencing reform package and suggested it was "getting it right on crime."

November 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Massachusetts special commission urges repeal of all drug mandatory minimums

DownloadAs reported in this local article, "a special commission studying the state's criminal justice system recommended eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses in Massachusetts."  Here is more about the commission's work and recommendations to date:

The commission also voted to recommend parole eligibility for all state prison sentences after an inmate has served at least two-thirds of the lower end of their sentence, except in cases of murder or manslaughter, and to maintain the current parole eligibility standards in houses of correction of half-time served on sentences of 60 days or more.

The commission, formed over two years ago, is trying to produce an in-progress report before the end of the year to inform Governor-elect Charlie Baker's administration. Baker, during his campaign for governor, voiced support for striking mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses as part of a broader approach to combat substance abuse.

The Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth's Criminal Justice System on Tuesday began debating legislative recommendations members plan to make to strengthen post-release supervision, improve prisoner reentry outcomes and reduce recidivism, and address overcrowding in the state's jails and prisons.

"Drug offenses are a huge reason we have so much overcrowding in the prison system," said Patty Garin, a criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Northeastern University Law School Prisoners Assistance Program. Garin and other commission members argued judges should be able to practice evidence-based sentencing, and suggested mandatory minimums disproportionately impact poorer communities and communities of color.

The 9-2 vote, with Attorney General Martha Coakley's representative abstaining, came over the objections of Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who sits on the commission. O'Keefe did not attend Tuesday's meeting, but submitted a letter expressing his opposition and later told the News Service that mandatory minimums are a tool prosecutors "use and use very effectively to stem the flow of drugs into communities."

"We utterly reject this notion that the criminal justice system is warehousing these non-violent drug offenders. That simply is not the case. People have to work extremely hard to get themselves into jail here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," O'Keefe said.

The commission was formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature in 2012, and Undersecretary of Criminal Justice Sandra McCroom said she hopes to publish a report by the end of the year, though she acknowledged that all of the commission's work likely won't be completed by then. Patrick has also reconstituted the Sentencing Commission, which has met twice over the past two months and whose work could coincide with the criminal justice commission's recommendations....

Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, who does not have a vote on the commission, said she would have carved out an exception from the mandatory minimum recommendation for trafficking crimes. While supporting enhanced drug treatment options, she said not all people convicted of drug offenses are struggling with addiction, and some are driven by money. "I think there should be a line drawn on trafficking," Cabral said.

Others on the commission, including Garin and Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, argued that judges should be given discretion even in trafficking cases, expressing confidence that harsh sentences will be issues for those who deserve them. Worcester County Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis, a Republican, and a staff member representing Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Chris Markey (D-Dartmouth) voted against the recommendation to do away with mandatory minimum sentences. "To me it's overreaching and too broad," said Evangelidis, a former state representative....

O'Keefe, the recent past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, expressed concern that if the Legislature were to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences, the courts would see defendants shopping for more lenient judges to avoid prison time. "Mandatory minimum sentences came into being in the first place to ensure relative uniformity in the sentencing of individuals distributing drugs," O'Keefe said....

Attorney General-elect Maura Healey has also backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and during her campaign called for expanding the use of drug courts.

November 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this very interesting article with empirical research on private prisons and time served. The piece, authored by Anita Mukherjee and now available via SSRN, has this abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many. My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk.

These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Does latest FBI report of crime's decline provide still more support for lead-exposure-crime link?

Regular readers know I am always drawn to the (often overlooked) social science research suggesting lead exposure levels better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I am happy and eager to note this new data analysis sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin who has been talking up the lead-exposure-violent-crime link for many years.

This short new piece by Nevin, titled "FBI 2013 Crime Statistics: Record Low USA Murder Rate; More Record Low Juvenile Arrest Rates," discusses the recent FBI report (noted here) that crime continued to decline significantly in 2013. Here are parts of Nevin's interesting and encouraging data discussion (with a recommendation readers click through here to see charts and all the links):

The 2013 USA murder rate was the lowest in the history of FBI reports dating back to 1960. The 2013 property crime rate (burglary and theft) was the lowest since 1966, and the 2013 violent crime rate (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) was the lowest since 1970. The record low 2013 murder rate indicates that the 2013 vital statistics homicide rate (including justifiable homicides) was close to the lowest levels recorded since 1909.

Nevin (2000) found that trends in preschool lead exposure from 1941-1975 explained over 90% of the substantial year-to-year variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998. That relationship has continued for another 15 years, with a 35% decline in the violent crime rate from 1998-2013. No other criminology theory has a comparable record of accurately predicting ongoing crime trends....

From 1991 (when the overall USA violent crime rate peaked) through 2012, the violent crime arrest rate has fallen by about 60% for ages 10-17, 50% for ages 20-29, 40% for ages 30-39, and 5% for ages 40-44, but increased by 14% for ages 45-49 and 17% for ages 50-54. The violent crime arrest rate is still increasing for age groups born before the early-1970s peak in USA preschool lead exposure.

The 2013 FBI report also shows another large decline in juvenile offending, due to ongoing declines in preschool lead exposure. Following record lows in juvenile arrest rates in 2012, the number of juveniles arrested for property crimes fell by another 15% from 2012 to 2013, and the number arrested for violent crimes fell another 8.6%. The property crime arrest rate for ages 10-17 is now about half of what it was in 1960, and the property crime arrest rate for ages 10-14 is just one third of what it was in 1960.

Some recent related posts:

November 16, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Does Prison Privatization Distort Justice? Evidence on Time Served and Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by Anita Mukherjee now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

I contribute new evidence on the impact of private prisons on prisoner time served and recidivism by exploiting the staggered entry and exit of private prisons in Mississippi between 1996 and 2004. Little is known about this topic, even though burgeoning prison populations and an effort to cut costs have caused a substantial level of private contracting since the 1980s. The empirical challenge is that prison assignment may be based on traits unobservable to the researcher, such as body tattoos indicating a proclivity for violent behavior.

My first result is that private prisons increase a prisoner's fraction of sentence served by an average of 4 to 7 percent, which equals 60 to 90 days; this distortion directly erodes the cost savings offered by privatization. My second result is that prisoners in private facilities are 15 percent more likely to receive an infraction (conduct violation) over the course of their sentences, revealing a key mechanism by which private prisons delay release. Conditional on receiving an infraction, prisoners in private prison receive twice as many.

My final result is that there is no reduction in recidivism for prisoners in private prison despite the additional time they serve, suggesting that either the marginal returns to incarceration are low, or private prisons increase recidivism risk. These results are consistent with a model in which the private prison operator chooses whether to distort release policies, i.e., extend prisoner time served beyond the public norm, based on the typical government contract that pays a diem for each occupied bed and is imperfectly enforced.

November 15, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2014

Notable new AG Holder comments on reducing crime rates and incarceration levels

Last night Attorney General Eric Holder gave this speech at the Southern Center for Human Rights and had a lot to say about crime and punishment.  Here are some passages that caught my eye (with one particular phrase emphasized):

Over the years, we’ve seen that over-incarceration doesn’t just crush individual opportunity.  At a more fundamental level, it challenges our nation’s commitment to our highest ideals.  And it threatens to undermine our pursuit of equal justice for all.

Fortunately, we come together this evening at a pivotal moment — when sweeping criminal justice reforms, and an emerging national consensus, are bringing about nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way our country addresses issues of crime and incarceration, particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.

For the first time in many decades, it’s clear that we’re on the right track, and poised to realize dramatic reductions in criminal activity and incarceration.  In fact, the rate of violent crime that was reported to the FBI in 2012 was about half the rate reported in 1993.  This rate has declined by more than 11 percent just since President Obama took office.  And the overall incarceration rate has gone down by more than 8 percent over the same brief period.

This marks the very first time that these two critical markers have declined together in more than 40 years. And the Justice Department’s current projections suggest that the federal prison population will continue to go down in the years ahead.  As a result of the commonsense, evidence-based changes that my colleagues and I have implemented – under the landmark “Smart on Crime” initiative I launched last year — I’m hopeful that we’re witnessing the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate as new policies and initiatives fully take hold.

Our Smart on Crime approach is predicated on the notion that the criminal justice system must be continually improved — and strengthened — by the most effective and efficient strategies available. That’s why we’re increasing our focus on proven diversion and reentry programs – like drug courts, veterans’ courts, and job training initiatives – that can help keep people out of prison in appropriate cases, and enable those who have served their time to rejoin their communities as productive citizens. It’s why we are closely examining the shameful racial and ethnic disparities that too often plague the criminal justice process  — and working to mitigate any unwarranted inequities.  And it’s why I have mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies — so that sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case and not on a one size fits all mandate from Washington....

Equal justice is not a Democratic value or a Republican value.  It’s an American value — and a solemn pursuit – that speaks to the ideals that have always defined this great country.  It goes to the very heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, as a people. And it will always drive leaders of principle from across the political spectrum — including those in this room and others throughout the nation — to keep moving us forward along the path to transformative justice.

The phrases I highlighted should be of interest to all SCOTUS followers because the term "emerging national consensus" has great meaning and significance in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. I think it is quite right to say that there is now a constitutionally significant "emerging national consensus" concerning the use of mandatory long terms of imprisonment "particularly with respect to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses." And it is quite exciting to hear this legally-important phrase coming from the US Attorney General, especially because I think statements like this might lay the foundation for overturning, sooner rather than later, troublesome Eighth Amendment precedents like Harmelin v. Michigan (and maybe even also Ewing v. California).

November 14, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, November 10, 2014

Highlighting that George Soros and the Koch Brothers agree on the need for criminal justice reform

Tina Brown has this notable new commentary at The Daily Beast headlined "Here’s a Reform Even the Koch Brothers and George Soros Can Agree On." Here is how it gets started:

Do you like lists? Of course you do! It’s the Internet! So try this one:

1. Koch Brothers

2. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

3. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

4. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

5. George Soros

6. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

7. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

8. Newt Gingrich

9. American Civil Liberties Union

10. Grover Norquist

Apart from a passionate certainty that either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans (pick one) are a danger to the republic, what does this motley crew have in common?

Here’s what: They all agree that America’s practice of mass incarceration—unique in the world—is at worst a moral and practical failure or at best an outdated policy badly in need of adjustment.

That’s why they have busted out of their party and ideological boxes to try to do something about a dilemma that has become the ugliest face of America’s social, economic, and racial divisions. That’s why, for example, Gingrich and some prominent Christian conservatives joined hands this fall with the Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation and the ACLU to back Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that redefines many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors. (Prop 47 passed comfortably last Tuesday.) It’s why the Kochs and the defense lawyers’ group just teamed up to train public defenders and help indigent defendants get counsel. It’s why Democratic and Republican senators are daring to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation like the Redeem Act—which, among other changes, would curb solitary confinement for youths and make it easier for nonviolent ex-offenders to survive without returning to crime.

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison right now. And the support of prisons and prisoners is costing taxpayers as much as $74 billion a year. No wonder criminal-justice reform is no longer the sole concern of balladeers and bleeding hearts. The United States of America locks up more of its population than any nation in human history.

Between mandatory sentencing, the war on drugs, the profiteering of private prisons, and the political glee of being “tough on crime,” the land of opportunity has become a vast empire of imprisonment. And the insane cost of keeping so many nonviolent people locked up is an investment in failure. It breaks up families, burns hope, and perpetuates cycles of misery. If you are poor and black and can’t afford the right lawyer, you’re likely to vanish into the system and enter a forever world of forgotten pain.

Our criminal justice system isn’t simply bloated and cruel. It’s also, on the face of it, unjust.

November 10, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 08, 2014

"We should stop putting women in jail. For anything."

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative commentary by Patricia O'Brien available via the Washington Post.  Here are excerpts:

It sounds like a radical idea: Stop incarcerating women, and close down women’s prisons. But in Britain, there is a growing movement, sponsored by a peer in the House of Lords, to do just that.

The argument is actually quite straightforward:  There are far fewer women in prison than men to start with — women make up just 7 percent of the prison population. This means that these women are disproportionately affected by a system designed for men.

But could women’s prisons actually be eliminated in the United States, where the rate of women’s incarceration has risen by 646 percent in the past 30 years? ...  Essentially, the case for closing women’s prisons is the same as the case for imprisoning fewer men. It is the case against the prison industrial complex and for community-based treatment where it works better than incarceration.  But there is evidence that prison harms women more than men, so why not start there?

Any examination of the women who are in U.S. prisons reveals that the majority are nonviolent offenders with poor education, little employment experience and multiple histories of abuse from childhood through adulthood.  Women are also more likely than men to have children who rely on them for support — 147,000 American children have mothers in prison....

What purpose is served by subjecting the most disempowered, abused and nonviolent women to the perpetually negative environment of prisons?  Efforts to make prison “work” for women have only perpetuated the growth of the prison industrial complex. These putative reforms have helped some individuals, and possibly brought the nature of mass warehousing of poor, black and brown bodies more into focus, but the number of incarcerated people still continues to rise.

So what is the alternative to jailing women at the rate we do?  In Britain, advocates propose community sentences for nonviolent offenders and housing violent offenders in small custodial centers near their families.  There is evidence that these approaches can work in the United States.  Opportunities to test alternatives to prison are increasing across the states, and some have demonstrated beneficial results for the women who participated....

Oklahoma is currently ranked No. 1 for female incarceration per capita in the country. Nearly 80 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated women are nonviolent offenders, their presence in prison largely attributed to drug abuse, distribution of controlled substances, prostitution and property crimes.

A program that began five years ago, Women in Recovery, provides an alternative to prison for women who are sentenced for felony crimes linked to alcohol or drug addiction.  The program includes comprehensive treatment and services such as employment services, housing assistance and family reunification.  Women with small children are given the highest priority for admission to the program.  Women who complete the program, averaging about 18 months, have a high degree of success after release.  The program coordinator has told me that 68 percent of the women who completed the program had no further involvement with the criminal justice system....

The systemic production of mass incarceration cannot be solved simply by assisting troubled and troubling individual women.  Another step to abolition requires taking the discussion beyond the individuals and communities most directly harmed, controlled and erased by the prison industrial complex to the public sphere that has passively accepted it.  Put simply, we need to stop seeing prisons as an inevitable part of life....

The case for closing women’s prisons is built on the experiences of formerly incarcerated women and activists who recognize that women who are mothers and community builders can find their way forward when they respected and supported.  It is possible to imagine a future without women’s prisons; whether it’s achievable will require a bigger shift in thinking.

November 8, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, November 07, 2014

ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration

Images (6)As reported in this New York Times article, headlined "A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences," a leading advocacy group big new pot of money to be spent on attacking the problem of mass incarceration. Here are the details:

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections. The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive. In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment.

The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from some law enforcement officials, prosecutor groups and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. The Republican electoral victories this week could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change.

The grant is going to the political arm of the A.C.L.U., which has far more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group’s larger, traditional branch, which relies more on litigation. As a result, the money is not tax-deductible.

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps. “I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. “Whether the human cost or the societal cost, what we’re doing in the criminal justice system isn’t working,” Mr. Holden said. “We’re finding common ground with people with different political affiliations,” he said, praising the advocacy work of the A.C.L.U. in this field.

The A.C.L.U. campaign will be directed by Alison Holcomb, who led the effort in Washington State to legalize marijuana. The group plans to use ads to insert issues like drug policy, mandatory sentences and prison re-entry into early primary states in the presidential elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and then in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Romero said.

It will also develop a state-by-state database describing who is in prison for what crimes and then target local politicians and prosecutors who promote what Mr. Romero called “overincarceration.” Mr. Romero said the goal of the campaign was to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in eight years.... Todd R. Clear, a criminologist and the provost of Rutgers University-Newark, said he agreed that the time was right for a major shift in justice policies.... But he cautioned that to achieve a decline anywhere near as steep as that proposed by the A.C.L.U., far more politically contentious changes would be necessary. “We’ll have to make sentencing reforms for violent crime, too,” he said, including major changes in drug laws and the multidecade sentences often imposed on violent or repeat offenders.

November 7, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack