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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Impact of California's Prop 47 already being felt ... by defense attorneys and police

This local article from California, headlined "Scramble to implement Prop 47 begins," spotlight the impact already being felt by the passage of the biggest criminal justice reform initiative of Election 2014.  Here are the (already remarkable) basics:

Just hours after the last ballot returns were counted, the phone lines of defense attorneys across the state began to light up Wednesday morning with calls from inmates.

With the passage of Proposition 47, simple drug possession and property crimes valued under $950 are now misdemeanors, effective immediately. Punishment means, at the worst, up to a year in jail, no longer prison. It also means up to 10,000 inmates serving time for those crimes can begin to apply for shortened sentences, a process many were eager to get started.

“This morning at 8 a.m., we took 10 attorneys and put them on the phones,” said Randy Mize, a chief deputy at the Public Defender’s Office. “They were taking 200 calls an hour from inmates in county jail. These are people asking us to file petitions on their behalf.”

The scramble to put the new law into practice was starting to touch all corners of the criminal justice system Wednesday, from the City Attorney’s Office, which will have to handle 3,000 extra cases a year, to police officers who will have new protocols to follow for certain arrests.

At Juvenile Hall Wednesday morning, six kids were released because they had felony charges that are now classified as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, and legally minors can’t be detained longer than an adult would, authorities said. “I think the roll out today started fairly smoothly,” Mize said. He attributed much of that to the fact that criminal justice leaders from around the county — including prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff and probation officers — have been meeting for the past month to prepare for this day....

The law is intended to ease prison overcrowding, and put most of the estimated $200 million saved in prison costs annually into drug and mental health treatment programs to staunch recidivism. The majority of law enforcement officials around the state and the county are skeptical it will have the desired effect, and fear less time behind bars will only contribute to the revolving door of the criminal justice system. But, officials say, they will do their best to make it work. “It’s still a work in progress,” Sheriff Bill Gore said Wednesday. “Our primary concern is clearly the public’s safety.”...

Law enforcement officers were reminded of the new law in police lineups around the county. As of Wednesday, six crimes that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors: drug possession for personal use, as well as five property crimes valued below $950, theft, writing bad checks, forgery, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.

One of the biggest differences when arresting someone on a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, is that the crime must have occurred in the officer’s presence, or be witnessed by a citizen willing to sign an affidavit saying so. Several training memos have been distributed in the past few weeks to prepare deputies on such arrests, Gore said....

The Public Defender’s Office has already identified about 200 state prisoners and 1,800 other offenders either in jail or under the supervision of probation who might be eligible to be resentenced under Proposition 47. The first set of petitions are expected to be filed within the next day or so, with priority given to those in custody. Once the application is filed in court, the District Attorney’s Office will review it to make sure the person is eligible, then a judge will OK it and hand down a new, shorter sentence. The process could be as quick as a few weeks for the first group of offenders, said Mize, with public defender’s office.

“There will be a few cases that the DA thinks should be excluded, and we don’t, and those will be litigated,” Mize said. There may also be a few offenders that prosecutors think are too dangerous to be released, and those cases will be argued. Inmates who can’t be resentenced are those who have prior convictions such as murder, attempted murder and violent sex crimes.

The public defender’s office has also identified nearly 200,000 other people who have been convicted since 1990 — that’s as far back as its database goes — of the crimes reclassified under Proposition 47. They can now apply to have their records show misdemeanor rather than felony convictions. Statewide, that could apply to millions of people. Said Mize, “It will certainly take a lot more work in the short term.”


Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

November 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support

As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners."  Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":

Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47.  As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons.  That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.

This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.

November 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Documenting modern state investments in schools and prisons

OriginalAs reported in this Huffington Post piece, headlined "States Are Prioritizing Prisons Over Education, Budgets Show," a new analysis of state-level spending highlights that states have devoted taxpayer resources in recent years a lot more to prisons relative to schools. Here are the basics from a new report via the HuffPost's summary:

If state budget trends reflect the country's policy priorities, then the U.S. currently values prisoners over children, a new report suggests.

A report released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the growth of state spending on prisons in recent years has far outpaced the growth of spending on education. After adjusting for inflation, state general fund spending on prison-related expenses increased over 140 percent between 1986 and 2013. During the same period, state spending on K-12 education increased only 69 percent, while higher education saw an increase of less than six percent.

State spending on corrections has exploded in recent years, as incarceration rates have more than tripled in a majority of states in the past few decades. The report says that the likelihood that an offender will be incarcerated has gone up across the board for all major crimes. At the same time, increases in education spending have not kept pace. In fact, since 2008, spending on education has actually declined in a majority of states in the wake of the Great Recession....

Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, suggested that education spending could actually help lower incarceration rates. “When you look at prisoners, people who get sent to prison and their educational levels, [the levels are] typically much lower than individuals who are not sent to prison," he told The Huffington Post. “Being a high school dropout dramatically increases your likelihood of being sent to prison.”

“Spending so many dollars locking up so many people, those are dollars that inevitably cannot be used to provide pre-K slots … or financial aid for those who want to go to college,” Mitchell added.

The report suggests that states' spending practices are ultimately harming their economies, while not making the states especially safer. The authors ultimately conclude that if “states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

“The types of investments to help people out of poverty and break that school-to-prison pipeline are investments in early education, helping youth stay in school and getting them college campuses,” said Mitchell.

The full 21-page report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, titled "Changing Priorities: State Criminal Justice Reforms and Investments in Education," can be accessed at this link.

November 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Notable account of all the advocacy and interests surrounding California's Prop. 47

Today's Los Angeles Times has this lengthy discussion of the advocacy interests surrounding the big criminal justice initiative on the California ballot this election season. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 puts state at center of a national push for sentencing reform," and here are excerpts:

The statewide initiative on Tuesday's ballot to reduce penalties for illicit drug use and petty theft is part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to revise sentencing laws in California and across the nation.

Five major foundations, headlined by a philanthropic group run by New York billionaire George Soros, have poured millions of dollars to push for changes in California's policies on crime and imprisonment.  The campaign is aimed at shaping public opinion, media coverage, research and grass-roots activism on the issue.

Proposition 47 would reclassify possession of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, and theft of $950 or less, as misdemeanors in California. If the measure passes, California will become the first state to "de-felonize" all drug use, opening the door for similar efforts in other states.

"We hope we're setting a precedent for the nation," said Lynne Lyman, state director of the National Drug Policy Alliance, an active supporter of Proposition 47.  "We are hoping it will signal that we don't need to be so tough on crime all the time."  Proponents of the ballot measure have raised $9 million — at least $2 million of which came from two of the foundations — for their campaign thus far.  Opponents have raised just $526,000, state election records show....

Since 2011, the foundations have awarded at least $14 million in grants to almost three dozen California-based groups that are earmarked for "criminal justice reform" or to influence public opinion. Soros' Open Society Foundations in 2012 also gave a $50-million grant to the National Drug Policy Alliance to "advance drug policy reform" in states across the nation.

The coordination by a few wealthy foundations to change public policy represents a legitimate but worrying form of political influence, said Robert McGuire, who tracks such activity for the Center for Responsive Politics.  The foundation grants are not disclosed publicly in the same way campaign contributions are reported.  Foundation nonprofit tax filings often do not become public until two years after money is spent.  "Nonprofits are allowed to do this, but voters have a right to know what interest is trying to get them to vote a certain way," McGuire said.

The California effort was initiated by Tim Silard, who ran alternative sentencing programs for California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris when she was San Francisco district attorney, and Dan Zingale, who was chief of staff to then-first lady Maria Shriver....  Silard and Zingale said they sought a strategy that could break the grip of "tough on crime" politics in California....

Coalition members say they are driven by a belief that California — and the rest of the nation — locks up too many people for too long and that public safety would be better served by putting resources toward job training, mental health and drug addiction treatment.  An opening to change that trend surfaced in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that conditions in California's overcrowded prisons were unconstitutionally dangerous, upholding a lower-court order to reduce the prison population....

In 2013, Soros provided money to create a new organization called Vote Safe to launch Proposition 47.  Soros, a hedge fund manager widely known for bankrolling progressive campaigns and a decade-long battle against the war on drugs, has a representative on Vote Safe's three-member advisory board.  The campaign manager for both Citizens for Safety and Justice and Vote Safe is Lenore Anderson, another former aide to Kamala Harris who once ran the public safety offices in San Francisco and Oakland. Anderson said the ballot initiative was encouraged by polls that showed a softening in public attitudes toward criminal punishment.  "The whole country right now is going through transformation in attitudes on criminal justice," she said. "We felt it was a big moment."

Violent crime in California had dropped precipitously, hitting a 45-year low in 2011. In the fall of 2012, California voters passed another Soros-backed initiative to lift three-strikes penalties for nonviolent felons....

Supporters of Proposition 47 also emphasize that drug laws have a disparate impact on Latino and African American communities. Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance hammered on that point during a Proposition 47 rally at a Los Angeles church a week ago. "The war on drugs and mass incarceration is just an extension of slavery," she said.

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

November 1, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, October 31, 2014

New reduced federal drug sentencing guidelines about to become official

Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof.  Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history.  This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal: 

[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive.  Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow.  Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.

[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety.  Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution.  I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.

This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment.  Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties.  I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”

October 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Shrinking Prisons: Good Crime-Fighting and Good Government"

the title of this post is the headline of this thoughtful new piece from The Atlantic. Here are excerpts:

Liberals have long advocated prison reforms like reduced sentence lengths and alternatives to incarceration. Recently, however, conservatives have put these ideas on the congressional agenda — and their inspiration comes from that bastion of tough-on-crime conservatism, Texas.

Surprising? Perhaps. But seeing this coming didn’t require any sort of crystal ball. One had only to notice the forces driving every trend today: less money, higher expectations, and lower “weight.” Around the world and especially in the United States, both the public and private sectors have been under pressure since the Great Recession to cut costs and make the most of constrained resources. At the same time, consumers have become accustomed to expect better and better performance for their dollars. Many people have dismissed as “immature” or unrealistic the electorate’s expectation that governments provide both lower taxes and more services, but it’s not unreasonable given what the private sector has been able to deliver over the last generation.....

It’s overdue, then, for the public sector to revisit the costliest, least productive, and least “weightless” business lines in its portfolios—human services generally, and the corrections system in particular. What smacks more of outdated big government than large, costly, coercive institutions?

Incarceration as we know it today was originally a “progressive” idea. Compared to the days when every offense was punishable by execution — or at least corporal punishment — and prisons were simply a slow form of death, the modern penitentiary was conceived as a humane instrument of rehabilitation, not just punishment: The idea was that sitting alone in a cell and contemplating one’s transgressions — like a penitent — would lead to self-improvement. A close cousin, historically and conceptually, of the poorhouse and insane asylum, the penitentiary proved as much a misnomer, however, as today’s “corrections.” Nonetheless, along with the notion of redemption through hard work, the concept appealed to Jacksonian reformers and launched the first great era of prison construction in America. The second wave peaked, similarly, with the advent of the Progressive Era, which refined the concept with such additions as parole, probation, and indeterminate sentencing.

The third and latest wave of prison enthusiasm, however, was a reaction—against both liberal modifications to incarceration regimes and the social tumult of the ’60s. The War on Drugs increased the numbers of prisoners and lengthened the duration of sentences. The surge in incarceration also has been directly related to race: African-American males are jailed at about six times the rate of whites and three times the rate of Hispanics.

As a result, the United States today has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world: 743 adults per 100,000 population, or nearly 2.3 million adults, nearly one-quarter of the world’s total prison population. More than twice that number are on probation or parole, with more than 70,000 juveniles in detention, as well — roughly one in every 30 Americans is under supervision of some sort, a seven-fold increase since 1980....

Institutionalized correction, while more expensive, is less effective in reducing most crime than virtually any alternative. A 2001 report by New Jersey’s State Commission on Criminal Resentencing found that alternative sanctions and prisons have very similar effects on recidivism, while alternative sanctions free up prison bed space for more violent offenders. Similarly, a 2002 Justice Policy Institute report on Community Corrections programs in Ohio found shorter stays and lower recidivism or re-incarceration rates for clients from community-based correctional programs than for prison inmates.

As a result, many states — mostly Southern — are changing their approach, and saving money. Oklahoma, which was recently in the spotlight for its hard line on executions, has reduced its prison population by nearly 1,800 prisoners, projected to save the state approximately $120 million over the next 10 years. Georgia has become a leader in the use of “drug courts,” which divert offenders into alternatives to prison.

The Urban Institute reports that eight states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina — have reliable enough data to provide preliminary findings on the effects of system reforms. These show early successes in slowing and even reducing prison-population-growth rates.

But the poster child is Texas. In 2007, conservative legislators in Austin were staggered by projections for how much it would cost to run the Department of Criminal Justice if the system went unchanged. The state faced the prospect of building approximately 17,000 new prison beds within five years at a cost of nearly $1.15 billion.  Instead, the legislature budgeted approximately $250 million for community-treatment programs and increased the number of inmates served by in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs.  In 2009, the state added reentry-program coordinators to help reduce the number of released inmates who return to prison.  Texas’s effort now forms the basis for the bipartisan prison-reform legislation moving through Congress.

This has implications beyond prison reform. Governments today face increasing pressure to cut costs, but their citizens still want and need government services. Elected officials everywhere must figure out how to square this circle—to deliver better service at lower cost.  A major part of the answer will lie in moving from costly, outdated “solutions” based on large one-size-fits-all institutions to individualized, dispersed, home- and community-based solutions that use new technologies and evidence-based strategies....

The corrections field shows most starkly that the conservative critique of liberal programs — large, outdated, costly, and one-sized-fits-all — is valid, but also that the solutions liberals have been advocating for the past several decades, with the benefits of years of experimentation and evidence, provide a path forward.

October 31, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

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

Notable criticism of Pope's advocacy against LWOP and "nurturing mommy" approach to government

9780829441703_p0_v2_s260x420As noted in this post last week, Pope Francis spoke out last week against life imprisonment and harsh sentencing systems focused more on punishment than social justice.  This intriguing new American Spectator commentary by Mark Tooley takes issue with this papal advocacy, and concludes with complaints about governments failing to balance a "nurturing mommy" role with a "stern father role." Here are excerpts from an interestinf read:

Opposing life imprisonment raises questions. Should mass murderers be freed during their active lifetime? And what if they show no sign of remorse or rehabilitation? (My questions come respectfully from a Protestant who appreciates Catholic teaching.)

The Pope’s remarks acknowledged that official Catholic teaching still accepts the state’s rightful power to execute, quoting the Catechism that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” News reports say he quoted the Catechism that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” It is not clear but presumably he also included the Catechism phrase immediately before those words, which cites the “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.”

What power does the state have for “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” except for the option of life imprisonment for recalcitrant murderers? It seems unlikely that many Americans, Catholic or otherwise, will advocate abolishing life imprisonment for heinous crimes. But recently Colorado’s pro-death penalty Republican gubernatorial candidate, a Catholic, recalled that Denver’s former bishop, Charles Chaput, had assured him that church doctrine is not against the death penalty....

The subtleties of Catholic teaching on capital punishment are difficult to translate into media sound bites or political explanations. Pope Francis’s comments against life imprisonment seem to go beyond the letter of the Catechism. Some activist American religionists, Catholic or otherwise, may latch on to them for a new campaign. But such an effort potentially would provoke a backlash and embolden defense of the death penalty.

Much of the American religious political witness today is totally uncomfortable with the state’s divine vocation for punitive action, much less lethal force. The New Testament offers little direct counsel on civil government’s responsibilities except, in St. Paul’s Romans 13, which warns that that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers.” This language is pretty punitive.

But so much of modern American religious political witness prefers a highly non-punitive version of government. Their preferred vision likens the state to an indulgent, nurturing mommy, whose primary role is to feed, clothe, and ensure health care for all her children, while also welcoming all illegal immigrants, protecting the environment, lecturing against politically incorrect “hate speech,” and offering universal love, while simultaneously disarming in a way ironically that likely inhibits physical protection for her children.

Most of this mommy work the Scriptures and Christian tradition actually assign chiefly to the church, which is metaphorically a mother and the Bride of Christ. The Romans 13 focus for the state more resembles a stern father, who dispenses impartial but severe justice for the protection of his children. This sort of paternal state, unlike the sensitive mommy, reserves its interventions for dangerous misconduct. And it lets its charges pick themselves up from their stumbles, that they might grow strong, not remain immature through ceaseless coddling.

A true balance in society aligns nurturing mommy with stern father, both fulfilling their complementary roles in creation. The absence of one distorts human reality and creates corruption and tragedy. Pope Francis doubtless has earnest reasons for speaking against even life imprisonment. But his sentiments will likely only inspire the chronic mommy vision of the state already preferred by so many do-gooding religionists.

Religious leaders need to restore balance by citing Romans 13 and explaining the punitive, morally imperative stern father role of the state that is divinely ordained and essential for human justice.

Prior related post:

October 30, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Notable pitch for California Prop 47 based in mental health concerns

This new Sacramento Bee commentary, authored by Darrell Steinberg and Rusty Selix, makes an interesting pitch for Proposition 47 in California. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 can help fix prison mental health crisis," and here are excerpts:

Earlier this year, Stanford Law School reported that the number of mentally ill people in California prisons doubled from 2000 to 2014; currently 45 percent of prisoners have been treated for mental illness within the past year.

The study also echoed findings by the U.S. Justice Department that mentally ill inmates in state prisons serve 15 months longer than other inmates on average. Such inmates are also stuck, without treatment, in cycles of crime and incarceration.  A study in Los Angeles County found that 90 percent of jail inmates who had been incarcerated two or more times had serious mental health problems.

All this adds up to an incredibly expensive and ineffective approach to both public safety and public health.  So how did we arrive at this crisis?  From the 1950s through the 1970s, California passed laws to move responsibility for mental health care from large state institutions to a model of local, community-based care.  But there never was any follow-through to ensure that infrastructure was created and supported.

As local and state leaders battled over other budgets priorities, mental health beds vanished and nothing materialized at the local level.  As a recent example, California cut 21 percent ($586 million) from mental health programs from 2009 to 2012 -- the most in the nation -- according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. By failing to invest in local treatment and recovery options, it is, sadly, no surprise that people with mental health needs have ended up in our jails, courts and prisons.

And while there needs to be accountability for crimes, warehousing mentally ill people in our prisons -- forcing them to live in crowded, violent and solitary conditions -- does not address the underlying factors of their behavior.  In fact, California is currently under a federal mandate to reduce prison crowding partly because of a lawsuit about inadequate mental health care.

If our goal is to change behavior, then accountability must take into account how to prevent future harm.  In other words, treating mental illness is not simply a moral obligation but also a public safety strategy.  Growing consensus for such a strategy inspired us in 2004 to author the California Mental Health Services Act, a successful voter initiative that produced $7.4 billion for mental health needs and that served 400,000 Californians within its first five years.

We are awed by the impact, but 10 years later we still have far too many people with mental illness cycling in and out of our prisons and jails -- and far too much taxpayer money locked in that same system.  That’s why we support Proposition 47, along with the California Psychiatric Association, some law enforcement officials, crime victims, business leaders and many others.

The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would provide $50 million to $100 million each year for mental health and drug treatment.  It would do so through reduced prison costs, specifically by categorizing six nonviolent, low-level felonies as misdemeanors (e.g., drug possession, petty shoplifting and writing a bad check) that can be addressed with county jail terms, treatment requirements and other forms of accountability.

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

October 28, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack