Thursday, May 28, 2015

Newt Gingrich and Van Jones lament treatment of mentally ill in US criminal justice system

CNN has this notable new commentary authored by the notable twosome of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones headlined "Mental illness is no crime." Here are excerpts:

Today, mentally ill Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, suffer solitary confinement or rape in prison and commit another crime once released.

Quick: Name the largest provider of mental health care in America. If you guessed "our prisons and jails," you would be right. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that three out of four female inmates in state prisons, 64% of all people in jail, 56% of all state prison inmates and 45% of people in federal prison have symptoms or a history of mental disorder.

America's approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes -- locking them up without addressing the problem -- is a solution straight out of the 1800s.

When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn't replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. There are roughly as many people in Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey, as there are inmates with severe mental illness in American prisons and jails, according to one 2012 estimate. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.

Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.  Cycling them through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety.  These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who've committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment....

A new initiative, "Stepping Up," unites state and local governments and the American Psychiatric Foundation to promote research-based practices to tackle our overreliance on jail as mental health treatment, such as in-jail counseling programs that reduce the chances of repeat offenders.

State and local officials have shown us the way.  We've seen large communities such as Miami-Dade County, Florida, completely redesign their systems at every level, training police officers in crisis intervention, instituting careful assessments of new jail admissions and redirecting their mentally ill populations into treatment, effectively reducing the rates of re-arrest....

Perhaps most surprisingly in these partisan times, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are standing shoulder-to-shoulder to support mental health reform.  The bipartisan Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Senate, passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The legislation includes simple measures that would fund alternatives to jail and prison admissions for those in need of treatment and expand training programs for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The notion of bipartisan, comprehensive criminal justice reform is not just idle talk.  It is happening.  Both sides see practical alternatives to incarceration that can reduce prison populations, improve public safety, save lives and save money.  If Congress moves swiftly to pass the great ideas now percolating in the House and Senate, it will become a reality. Take it from a conservative and a liberal: A good place to start is by addressing the needs of our mentally ill citizens in jails and prisons.

May 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

"A new report could have a big impact on New York’s prison population — if anyone pays attention"

The title of this post is the astute subheadline of this effective Marshall Project piece by Beth Schwartzapfel talking about a sentencing reform report finally released in New York. Here are excerpts:

A new report by some of New York’s key criminal justice players recommends major changes to the state’s sentencing system.  The report, which [is available here], would reduce the length of prison sentences and broaden eligibility for probation and other alternatives to incarceration for about one-third of the felony convictions New York hands down each year.  The report would also end the state parole board’s traditional role as the arbiter of when, exactly, prisoners go home.

With more than 50,000 people imprisoned in New York State, even small sentencing changes can make a big difference. “If you increase the time served even by three months across 10,000 people, you’re going to generate a whole lot more imprisonment,” says Martin Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, which produced the report.

Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the state’s highest court, established the commission in 2010 to craft a simpler, more transparent sentencing scheme. “He did not specifically charge us to reduce the prison population,” Horn says. “If that turns out to be a side benefit, that’s terrific.”

At this point, the commission’s recommendations are just that — recommendations. The suggested changes were compiled into a piece of draft legislation that the committee has submitted to the state legislature.  But the bill so far has no sponsor, and the prospect of fewer prison beds — and, by extension, fewer prisons — has traditionally faced fierce opposition by the New York state correctional officers union and by legislators representing the upstate communities where most of the state’s prisons are located.  As it is, upstate District Attorney Kathleen Hogan, who served on the Commission, says she would not support the legislation. “I would support the idea of migrating to determinate sentences, but I think that the numbers are too low,” she told The Marshall Project. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not said whether he will support the proposals.

New York’s body of sentencing laws is a patchwork, with the history of the state’s changing politics woven into it and over it.  As a result, the new report says, sentencing is “confusing and misleading” for prisoners and victims alike.

Historically, New York State’s sentences were all indeterminate: a judge could hand down a range of years that a prisoner might serve (such as 1-to-3 or 5-to-15).  When during that window the person would actually go home was unpredictable: it was up to a parole board.

The changes began in 1995 under Gov. George Pataki. The nation had just kicked off a federally-funded prison-building boom, and a get-tough attitude prevailed. Pataki proposed eliminating parole for those convicted of violent felonies.  Under the resulting law, judges handed down determinate sentences — a specific number of years, with very little wiggle room — and they were long.

In the 2000s, the public began calling for a change to the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated draconian sentences like 15 years to life for even low-level drug crimes. The resulting reforms in 2004 and 2009 eliminated indeterminate sentences for most drug crimes, too.

So now, sentences for violent felonies and drug crimes are fixed, and sentences for everything else depend on the parole board. The crimes still subject to the parole board’s discretion are a hodgepodge, from filing a false tax return to second-degree stalking. The commission’s report is aimed at these crimes — class C, D, and E felonies — considered “non-violent” under the law but not always so in reality.  About 5,500 out of the 14,000 people who enter the New York State prison system each year are convicted of these crimes.

The commission, composed of judges, victims’ representatives, professors, and attorneys, recommended bringing these sentences into line with those for other crimes by eliminating the parole board’s discretion. They suggested a new matrix of sentence lengths that judges can hand down, eliminating mandatory minimums for a wide range of crimes and expanding the number of crimes eligible for alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment and community service. They also recommended much shorter terms of supervision once people are out of prison; for most offenders, researchshows that longer periods on parole do not improve public safety but do increase the odds that someone will go back to prison for a technical violation....

Similar recommendations by the 2007 O’Donnell Commission, established by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, never gained any legislative traction, in part because the recommended sentence ranges in that report were too harsh, Horn says: “The Assembly rejected that. They felt those maximums were too high, were too broad.”

This time around the opposite might be true; with these recommendations shaving months off of thousands of sentences, district attorneys and other tough-on-crime advocates might push back. Lake George District Attorney Kate Hogan submitted a letter — included as an addendum to the report — expressing “grave concerns” about the shortened sentence ranges.  She told the Marshall Project that reducing the maximum penalty available for certain crimes “discounts plea bargaining in its entirety. No one pleads the maximum. That’s how you incentivize someone to resolve a case by plea.”

May 27, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Brennan Center white paper authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen.  Here is its introduction (with endnotes omitted):

The American criminal justice system is replete with fees that attempt to shift costs from the government to those accused and convicted of breaking the law.  Courts impose monetary sanctions on a “substantial majority of the millions of U.S. residents convicted of felony and misdemeanor crimes each year.”  Every aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee.  In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the last few decades, additional fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration.  Unlike fines, whose purpose is to punish, and restitution, which is intended to compensate victims of crimes for their loss, user fees are intended to raise revenue.  The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. highlights the overreliance on court fines as a primary source of revenue for the jurisdiction.  The New York Times noted that the report found that “internal emails show city officials pushing for more tickets and fines.”

Fees and debts are increasing partially because the criminal justice system has grown bigger.  With 2.2 million people behind bars, courts — and all the relevant agencies — have expanded as well.  Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has risen steeply, dwarfing the incarceration rate of any other nation on Earth.  The U.S. added about 1.1 million incarcerated people, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population, in the past 20 years.  The fiscal costs of corrections are high — more than $80 billion annually — about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education.6 A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that corrections is currently the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care.  In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, 11 states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.

Fees already on the books have increased.  And, these fees are extending into state and local corrections.

As a result of these runaway costs, counties and states continue to struggle with ways to increase revenue to pay for exorbitant incarceration bills.  In 2010, the mean annual state corrections expenditure per inmate was $28,323, although a quarter of states spent $40,175 or more.  Not surprisingly, departments of corrections and jails are increasingly authorized to charge inmates for the cost of their imprisonment.  Although this policy is alarming, less widely understood but equally troubling is the reality that these incarceration fees perpetuate our nation’s addiction to incarceration.  This policy brief exposes how the widespread nature of charging fees to those who are incarcerated connects to the larger problem of mass incarceration in this country.

May 26, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 25, 2015

Providing a script for "How To Lock Up Fewer People" in the United States

Given that there has been plenty of talk, but still relatively little action. on proposals for significant federal sentencing reform, perhaps it is especially timely for Marc Mauer and David Cole to have this New York Times commentary providing someting of a how-to guide for dealing with modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "How To Lock Up Fewer People," and here are excerpts:

Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-­level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.  But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration.  Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations.  Mass incarceration can be ended.  But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.

A hard­nosed skeptic would tell you that fully half the people in state prisons are serving time for violent offenses.  And most drug offenders behind bars are not kids caught smoking a joint, but dealers, many with multiple prior convictions.  We already have about 3,000 drug courts diverting those who need it to treatment rather than prison.  Recidivism remains astonishingly high for those we release from prison, so releasing more poses real risks....

It’s true that half the people in state prisons are there for a violent crime, but not all individuals convicted of violent crimes are alike. They range from serial killers to minor players in a robbery and battered spouses who struck back at their abusers. If we are going to end mass incarceration, we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost­-effective or just.

We could cut sentences for violent crimes by half in most instances without significantly undermining deterrence or increasing the threat of repeat offending.  Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-­year and a 30­-year sentence....

Offenders “age out” of crime — so the 25-­year-­old who commits an armed robbery generally poses much less risk to public safety by the age of 35 or 40.  Yet nearly 250,000 inmates today are over 50.  Every year we keep older offenders in prison produces diminishing returns for public safety.  For years, states have been radically restricting parole; we need to make it more readily available.  And by eliminating unnecessary parole conditions for low­-risk offenders, we can conserve resources to provide appropriate community­based programming and supervision to higher-­risk parolees.

It’s true that most individuals incarcerated for a drug offense were sellers, not just users. But as a result of mandatory sentencing laws, judges often cannot make reasonable distinctions between drug kingpins and street­corner pawns.  We ought to empower judges to recognize the difference, and to reduce punishment for run­-of­-the-­mill offenders, who are often pursuing one of the few economic opportunities available to them in destitute communities....

Recidivism is also a serious obstacle to reform.  Two­-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years, and half are reincarcerated.  But many of the returns to prison are for conduct that violates technical parole requirements, but does not harm others.  And much of the problem is that the scale and cost of prison construction have left limited resources for rehabilitation, making it difficult for offenders to find the employment that is necessary to staying straight. So we need to lock up fewer people on the front end as well as enhance reintegration and reduce collateral consequences that impede rehabilitation on the back end.

Criminal justice is administered largely at the state level; 90 percent of those incarcerated are in state and local facilities.  This means mass incarceration needs to be dismantled one state at a time.  Some states are already making substantial progress. New Jersey, California and New York have all reduced their prison populations by about 25 percent in recent years, with no increase in crime.  That should be good news for other states, which would reap substantial savings — in budgetary and human terms — if they followed suit. While the federal government cannot solve this problem alone, it can lead both by example and by providing financial incentives that encourage reform....

Today, at long last, a consensus for reform is emerging. The facts that no other Western European nation even comes close to our incarceration rates, and that all have lower homicide rates, show that there are better ways to address crime. The marked disparities in whom we choose to lock up pose one of the nation’s most urgent civil rights challenges. But we will not begin to make real progress until we face up to the full dimensions of the task.

May 25, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Examining what qualifies as an LWOP sentence for purposes of Graham and Miller

This new piece at The Marshall Project, headlined "Life Expectancy: How many years make a life sentence for a teenager?," spotlights an Eighth Amendment issue that has been engaging lower courts in the five years since SCOTUS in Graham began putting limits of LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.  Eventually the Supreme Court will have to resolve the issue of just what qualifies as an LWOP sentence, and here is an account of issue (with some links to notable rulings):

James Comer was 17 when he, an older cousin, and their friend made a series of violent and irreversible decisions: One night in April 2000, they robbed four people at gunpoint. They followed one of their victims for miles as she drove home from her night shift as a postal worker, then pointed a gun at her head outside her house.  Comer’s friend, 17-year-old Ibn Ali Adams, killed their second victim when he discovered the man had no money.

Comer’s youth, his lawyers argue, was at least partly responsible for his poor judgment and impulsive behavior. And it is his youth that may save him from dying in prison. Earlier this month, an Essex County, New Jersey, judge ordered a new sentencing hearing for Comer in light of Miller v. Alabama. ...

But Comer isn’t serving life without parole, at least not technically. For felony murder and multiple counts of armed robbery, he was sentenced to 75 years. He will be eligible for parole, but not until his 86th birthday — more than 20 years past his life expectancy, according to actuarial data his lawyers cited. This sentence “amounts to de facto life without parole and should be characterized as such,” the judge wrote.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in what’s come to be known as the “Roper/Graham/Miller trilogy” of cases in which the Supreme Court ruled, essentially, that kids are different. Teenagers’ still-developing brains make them more impulsive, more susceptible to peer pressure, and less able to understand the consequences of their actions. This makes them less culpable than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation as they mature, the court said.

With Roper, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. With Graham, it struck down life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes. With Miller, the justices forbid mandatory life-without-parole sentences, even for murder. Life sentences for juveniles are allowed only if the judge first has the chance to consider how youth and immaturity may have contributed to the crime....

Now a growing number of courts are interpreting the trilogy even more broadly, applying their principles to cases, like Comer’s, that aren’t explicitly covered by the court’s rulings.

“When read in light of Roper and Graham,” Miller v. Alabama “reaches beyond its core holding,” the Connecticut Supreme Court held last month in State v. Riley. In that case, 17-year-old Ackeem Riley was sentenced to 100 years in prison after he shot into a crowd in a gang-related incident, killing one teenager and wounding two children.  The court ordered a new sentencing hearing, finding that the sentencing judge had not adequately considered Riley’s youth.  Though Miller specifically targeted mandatory life without parole sentences — technically, Riley’s sentence was neither mandatory nor life without parole — the Supreme Court’s reasoning “counsels against viewing these cases through an unduly myopic lens,” the Connecticut court said.

Courts have handed down similar rulings in Wyoming, Florida, California, Iowa, and Colorado.  Another case is pending in Ohio.

In Brown v. Indiana, the state supreme court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Martez Brown, who was 16 when he and two friends killed a couple in a botched robbery. Quoting Miller, the court ruled that “similar to a life without parole sentence, Brown’s 150 year sentence ‘forswears altogether the rehabilitative ideal.’”  Although Brown’s sentence was not formally a life-without-parole sentence, they wrote, “we focus on the forest — the aggregate sentence — rather than the trees — consecutive or concurrent, number of counts, or length of the sentence on any individual count.”

May 21, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

New Vera Institute of Justice report highlights the true, high "Price of Jails"

Vera-300x188The Vera Institute of Justice has just published this important new report titled, "The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration." I received a press release about the report which provides this summary of its coverage and findings:

Hidden costs make jails far more expensive than previously understood, according to a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration. Because other government agencies, whose expenditures are not reflected in jail budgets, bear a large share of costs, the report finds that Americans significantly underestimate how much of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration.

While the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, that figure fails to take into account significant costs such as employee benefits and inmate medical care that may not be included in jail budgets. For example, in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Corrections in 2014, other agencies spent $1.3 billion on jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion—more than double the official jail budget....

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local criminal justice systems, where over-incarceration begins. There are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year — almost 20 times the number of prison admissions, and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The report found that the high cost of jails is most directly tied to inmate population and associated personnel costs, rather than to misspent funds in any one particular budget area.

The report’s findings are based on surveys of 35 jail systems, representing small, medium, and large jails in 18 states from every region of the country, and representing 9% of the total jail population. The survey results confirm that determining the total cost of a jail is not a simple task, even for the agency that runs it. In documenting jail expenses—which in every case surveyed extended beyond the reported corrections budget—and who pays for them, the report finds that, by and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for jails, and the costs are much higher than most people realize.

“Jails are a tremendous public cost,” said Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported the report. “This new report proves those costs are even higher than previously thought, adding urgency to the need for reform that addresses their overuse and misuse in fiscally strapped jurisdictions nationwide.”

In addition to developing a first-of-its-kind survey for jurisdictions to use that accurately measures all of the costs of running a jail, the report reveals:

May 21, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Is a former lobbyist and former federal prisoner likely to be a uniquely good sentencing reform advocate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CQ Roll Call article headlined "Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul." Here are excerpts:

Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.

His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502, HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.

Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”

Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work. He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.

“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.” FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.

Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background. It's not likely to be an easy sell.

Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price....

Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.

His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”

FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes. “It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”

He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences. In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.

It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented. “My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”

And Ring will be right in the middle of it. “I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”

May 19, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 18, 2015

NY Times editorial astutely praises "Justice Reform in the Deep South"

Throughout too much of America's history, the term "Southern Justice" would invoke shudders and fear. (Indeed, as discussed here, Norman Rockwell used this term as the title for his historic painting depicting the deaths of three civil rights workers killed for seeking to register African American voters.) But, as effectively highlighted by this new New York Times editorial, lawmakers in the deep south are lately doing a lot to remake the image of southern justice:

It has been getting easier by the day for politicians to talk about fixing the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But when states in the Deep South, which have long had some of the country’s harshest penal systems, make significant sentencing and prison reforms, you know something has changed.

Almost all of these deep-­red states have made changes to their justice systems in the last few years, and in doing so they have run laps around Congress, which continues to dither on the passage of any meaningful reform.  Lawmakers in Alabama, for example, voted nearly unanimously early this month to approve a criminal justice bill.  Alabama prisons are stuffed to nearly double capacity, endangering the health and lives of the inmates, and the cost of mass imprisonment is crippling the state budget at no discernible benefit to public safety.

The bill would cut the state’s prison population of nearly 25,000 by about 4,500 people over the next five years. Sentences for certain nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help ensure that people coming out of prison don’t return. Gov. Robert Bentley is expected to sign the measure as soon as Tuesday.

Before Alabama, South Carolina passed its own package of reforms in 2010.  In February, it closed its second minimum-­security prison in a year.  Georgia got on board with significant reforms to its adult and juvenile prison systems in 2012 and 2013, including giving judges more leeway to sentence below mandatory minimums and increasing oversight of prisons.  In 2014, Mississippi passed its own systemic fixes, like providing more alternatives to prison for low­level drug offenders.

Of course, all these states had abysmal conditions to start with. Mississippi imprisons more of its citizens per capita than China and Russia combined. That’s worse than any state except Louisiana, which has not yet managed reforms as broad as its neighbors. Alabama was facing the threat of federal intervention to alleviate its crushingly overcrowded prisons if it didn’t act.  And many of these state reforms are far more modest than they should be....

Nonetheless, these initiatives show important progress. Less than a decade ago, it was difficult to find any governor anywhere, of either party, who would go near this issue. Now, a Republican governor like Nathan Deal of Georgia is pointing with pride to two major reform packages, as well as the state’s “ban the box” law, which prohibits the state from asking potential employees about their criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Still, justice reform is a fragile proposition, and can be easily thwarted by more powerful political forces.  As the 2016 presidential election approaches, most of the major candidates agree that criminal­justice reform is a priority, but there remains a good deal of ambivalence on how to move forward.  There needn’t be.  The reforms in the southern states, though limited, are already paying off.  The presidential candidates — not to mention Congress — should be paying close attention.

May 18, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 17, 2015

After reversal of most serious charges, elderly nun and fellow peace activists released from federal prison

As reported in this AP article, headlined "3 anti-nuclear activists released from federal prison," a notable federal civil disobedience case has taken some notable new turns this month. Here are the details:

An 85-year-old nun and two fellow Catholic peace activists who vandalized a uranium storage bunker were released from prison on Saturday, their lawyer said.  Attorney Marc Shapiro says Sister Megan Rice was released just hours after 66-year-old Michael Walli and 59-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed also were let out of prison.

The trio was ordered released by a federal appeals court on Friday.  The order came after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last week overturned their 2013 sabotage convictions and ordered resentencing on their remaining conviction for injuring government property at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

The activists have spent two years in prison.  The court said they likely already have served more time than they will receive for the lesser charge.

On Thursday, their attorneys petitioned the court for an emergency release, saying that resentencing would take weeks if normal court procedures were followed.  Prosecutors responded that they would not oppose the release, if certain conditions were met. "They are undoubtedly relieved to be returning to family and friends," said Shapiro, who represented the activists in their appeal.

Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed are part of a loose network of activists opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons.  To further their cause, in July 2012, they cut through several fences to reach the most secure area of the Y-12 complex.  Before they were arrested, they spent two hours outside a bunker that stores much of the nation's bomb-grade uranium, hanging banners, praying and spray-painting slogans....

Rice was originally sentenced to nearly three years and Walli and Boertje-Obed were each sentenced to just over five years.  In overturning the sabotage conviction, the Appeals Court ruled that their actions did not injure national security.

Boertje-Obed's wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said in a phone interview from her home in Duluth, Minnesota, she hoped her husband would be released from prison by Monday, which will be his 60th birthday.  Naar-Obed previously served three years in prison herself for anti-nuclear protests.  She said that if their protests open people's minds to the possibility of life without nuclear weapons, then "yeah, it was worth it."

Prior related posts:

May 17, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"What Private Prisons Companies Have Done to Diversify in the Face of Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is this interesting Bloomberg Business article, and here are excerpts:

America’s overall prison population has increased by 500 percent over the last 40 years, and the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country, by far.  State and federal authorities began turning to private prison companies in the 1980s to handle overflowing facilities, and today about 8 percent of prisoners in the U.S. are housed in privately run prisons. Almost all are run by the two largest providers: Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.

In September 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal prison population had declined for the first time since 1980.  There were nearly 5,000 fewer prisoners in federal prisons in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to the year before, he said. The latest figures for state prisons are only from 2013, which showed an increase of 6,300 prisoners from the previous year.

Both GEO Group and CCA — which last year pulled in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue — have taken moves in recent years to diversify into services that don't involve keeping people behind bars.  GEO Group in 2011 acquired Behavioral Interventions, the world’s largest producer of monitoring equipment for people awaiting trial or serving out probation or parole sentences.  It followed GEO’s purchase in 2009 of Just Care, a medical and mental health service provider which bolstered its GEO Care business that provides services to government agencies.

“Our commitment is to be the world’s leader in the delivery of offender rehabilitation and community reentry programs, which is in line with the increased emphasis on rehabilitation around the world,” said GEO chairman and founder George Zoley during a recent earnings call.  

For $36 million in 2013, CCA acquired Correctional Alternatives, a company that provides housing and rehabilitation services that include work furloughs, residential reentry programs, and home confinement.  “We believe we’re going to continue to see governments seeking these types of services, and we’re well positioned to offer them,” says Steve Owen, CCA’s ‎senior director of public affairs.

Brian W. Ruttenbur, a managing director at CRT Capital Group’s research division, says that neither GEO or CCA will be significantly hurt by sentencing reform in the near future. “The big growth in recent years has been with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] and both of these companies have historically made heavy investments there,” Ruttenbur says.  Immigration detainees are commonly held in the same private facilities that contain state and federal prisoners, and a Government

Accountability Office analysis of ICE data showed that immigration detentions more than doubled between 2005 and 2012. Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, says sentencing reform will probably not affect immigration detainees. “Immigration reform might, but even under proposed reform legislation, detention will likely increase,” he says. In 2015, more than $2 billion in federal contracts are up for bid to run five or more prisons that meet the “Criminal Alien Requirements” and house non-U.S. citizens.

May 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Senator Cornyn highlights his plan to "ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars"

This recent post spotlighted the Washington Post's extended front-page story about the graying of America's prison populations.  Notably, Senator John Cornyn has now penned this letter to the editor to explain what he is trying to do to deal with this issue:

A bipartisan proposal working its way through Congress would offer a path home for some nonviolent, elderly prisoners.

The Corrections Act, which I have introduced with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), includes a provision that would make prisoners age 60 and older eligible for early release after serving two-thirds of their sentences.  This reform builds on an expired pilot program from a bipartisan prison reform law known as the Second Chance Act of 2007.  That program showed good results before it was canceled last year, and our proposal would save taxpayer money by treating seriously ill and dying individuals with compassion.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we must make bipartisan efforts to reform our criminal justice system.  Many of the issues involved are complex, but reforming the system to ensure that prisons don’t become nursing homes behind bars doesn’t need to be one of them.

May 13, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Solitary Confinement: Common Misconceptions and Emerging Safe Alternatives"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today from the Vera Institute of Justice. Here is how the report is described on this Vera webpage:

Segregated housing, commonly known as solitary confinement, is increasingly being recognized in the United States as a human rights issue.  While the precise number of people held in segregated housing on any given day is not known with any certainty, estimates run to more than 80,000 in state and federal prisons — which is surely an undercount as these do not include people held in solitary confinement in jails, military facilities, immigration detention centers, or juvenile justice facilities.  Evidence mounts that the practice produces many unwanted and harmful outcomes — for the mental and physical health of those placed in isolation, for the public safety of the communities to which most will return, and for the corrections budgets of jurisdictions that rely on it for facility safety.

Yet solitary confinement remains a mainstay of prison management and control in the U.S. largely because many policymakers, corrections officials, and members of the general public still subscribe to some or all of the common misconceptions and misguided justifications addressed in this report.  This publication is the first in a series on solitary confinement, its use and misuse, and ways to safely reduce it in our nation’s correctional facilities made possible in part by the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust.

May 12, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, May 08, 2015

Alabama rolls to join tide of red states enacting significant prison and sentencing reform

Images (1)As reported in this local article, the "Alabama Legislature Thursday gave final approval to a sweeping prison reform bill aimed at addressing the state's prison overcrowding crisis." Here are the basic details and the back-story:

The bill passed the House on a 100 to 5 vote Thursday evening.  The Senate, which approved the bill in March, concurred in the changes just a few minutes later on a 27 to 0 vote.  The legislation now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who said in a statement Thursday evening he planned to sign the bill, pending a legal review.

Bentley said in a statement the passage of the bill signaled "a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama's criminal justice system."...

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Thursday evening the passage of the bill was a first step, not a final solution to the crisis. "No one should think we pass this bill tonight and prisons are solved, because they're not," Ward said.

Prison overcrowding, an issue in Alabama for decades, stood at 186 percent in January, and the crisis has contributed to mounting violence in the state's correctional facilities. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women over accounts of sexual violence and harassment.  Six inmates have been killed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility since 2011, and allegations of physical or sexual violence have been leveled at three other prisons, including Elmore County Correctional Facility.

The reform bill aims to address the prison overcrowding crisis with new investments in parole, probation and supervision; the creation of a Class D felony for relatively minor crimes; limits on prison time and mandatory supervision for those convicted of Class C felonies, and changes to punishments for technical violations of parole.  The changes are expected to cost between $23 and $26 million a year, roughly 6.5 percent of the Department of Corrections' current $394.1 million allocation from the General Fund.

On its own, the bill will not resolve the crisis.  However, with additional building funded under a separate piece of legislation, capacity could fall to 138 percent over the next five years, with the overall population falling by about 4,500 inmates.  "That would be the largest reduction of any state in the country to this date," Ward said.

Ward said that may prevent the system from falling into federal receivership, which could lead to significant increases in prison spending; mass release of prisoners, or both. The bill before the House, Ward said, was a targeted way to address the population.  "No one's being released early," he said. "That's what we're trying to avoid, a bunch of violent offenders being released early."

The bill reflects recommendations made by the Council of State Governments and approved by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, which Ward chairs.  House Judiciary Committee chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said at the start of the House debate that the bill was not a matter of ideology.  "This is not about being Democrats, this is not about being Republicans, this is about being responsible for a problem our state faces," he said....

Some members of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force had pushed for a more sweeping bill that would have made many of the provisions retroactive.  However, Ward and other sponsors of the legislation said the coalition behind the reforms was not likely to have gone that far.

The passage of the legislation received praise from both sides of the ideological divide. Susan Watson, the executive director of ACLU Alabama, applauded the passage of the bill in a statement Thursday evening.  "The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious over-incarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it," the statement said.

Katherine Robinson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, called the move a "significant step" toward addressing the problem.  "This collaborative effort has provided the necessary catalyst of meaningful reform to Alabama's prison system," Robinson said in a statement.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the accusations at Tutwiler, St. Clair and other facilities served as a "wake-up call" to legislators who may have otherwise been reluctant to address a politically difficult issue.  "Clearly the best course of action for us as a state was to take control of this and fix it ourselves," he said.  "I'm proud of the fact we have taken a leadership role.  It was clear we were running out of time."

May 8, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 07, 2015

"Mass Incarceration: The Silence of the Judges"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece authored by Judge Jed Rakoff appearing in The New York Review of Books.  Here is how it starts and ends:

For too long, too many judges have been too quiet about an evil of which we are a part: the mass incarceration of people in the United States today.  It is time that more of us spoke out. 

The basic facts are not in dispute.  More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in US jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past forty years.  Although the United States accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.  The per capita incarceration rate in the US is about one and a half times that of second-place Rwanda and third-place Russia, and more than six times the rate of neighboring Canada.  Another 4.75 million Americans are subject to the state supervision imposed by probation or parole.

Most of the increase in imprisonment has been for nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession.  And even though crime rates in the United States have declined consistently for twenty-four years, the number of incarcerated persons has continued to rise over most of that period, both because more people are being sent to prison for offenses that once were punished with other measures and because the sentences are longer.  For example, even though the number of violent crimes has steadily decreased over the past two decades, the number of prisoners serving life sentences has steadily increased, so that one in nine persons in prison is now serving a life sentence.

And whom are we locking up? Mostly young men of color.  Over 840,000, or nearly 40 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are African-American males.  Put another way, about one in nine African-American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is now in prison, and if current rates hold, one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.  Approximately 440,000, or 20 percent, of the 2.2 million US prisoners are Hispanic males....

In many respects, the people of the United States can be proud of the progress we have made over the past half-century in promoting racial equality.  More haltingly, we have also made some progress in our treatment of the poor and disadvantaged.  But the big, glaring exception to both these improvements is how we treat those guilty of crimes.  Basically, we treat them like dirt.  And while this treatment is mandated by the legislature, it is we judges who mete it out.  Unless we judges make more effort to speak out against this inhumanity, how can we call ourselves instruments of justice?

May 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

"Unequal Justice: Mobilizing the Private Bar to Fight Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new report recently published by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  This new Crime Report piece, headlined "Acknowledging Bias in the Criminal Justice System," provides a helpful summary of the report's key themes:

Mass incarceration reform efforts rarely formally address racial disparities within the criminal justice system, according to a new report from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an advocacy group.  The report outlines systematic racial disparities in the criminal justice system and proposes strategies to address them.  It was created as a result of a series of “listening sessions” on race and imprisonment.

The sessions included dozens of practitioners, experts, academics, national law firm representatives, and formerly incarcerated individuals, who gathered “to discuss the state of mass incarceration, reform efforts, and the role of national law firms in this movement.”  The discussions near unanimous agreement that there is bias against black and Hispanic defendants in the criminal justice system.

“However, this fact is often absent in public discourse and almost never formally addressed in reform efforts.  This is particularly troubling since racial disparities in incarceration are often the result of implicit racial bias and structural or institutionalized racial discrimination, deep-rooted species of dysfunction which can only begin to be addressed by the acknowledgement and recognition that it exists,” the report’s authors wrote.

The report also noted that there is a “huge gap” in the legal effort to change mass incarceration. “Simply put, very few organizations in the nation have the resources, expertise, and will to fight mass incarceration in the courts,” the authors wrote.

May 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Inspector General report highlights problems posed by aging federal prison population

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Feds struggle to manage growing number of elderly inmates," a new report highlights an "old problem" in federal prisons.  Here are the basics:

Aging inmates remain the fastest-growing segment of the federal prison population and authorities are struggling to manage their increasing medical care and assistance with daily living, an internal Justice Department's review found. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of inmates 50 and older grew by 25% to 30,962, while the portion of younger prisoners declined by 1%, the Justice Department's inspector general reported.

The review is part of a continuing series of examinations of the federal government's costly prison system. And while the federal Bureau of Prisons last year relaxed its policy on the release of elderly or medically compromised inmates who are 65 and older, the review found that only two inmates without medical conditions had been freed during the first year of the revised policy (August 2013 to September 2014) aimed at trimming an overall prison population of more than 200,000.

In a written response, the Justice Department said that 18 prisoners had been freed under the new compassionate release policy from August 2013 to the present. "The department is committed to continued implementation of its compassionate release program ... and it will carefully consider the inspector general's recommendation to further expand the program,'' the Justice statement read.

Largely due to increasing health care needs, the average annual cost to house older inmates (defined as 50 and over) is $24,538 or 8% more than younger prisoners. "BOP institutions do not have appropriate staffing levels to address the needs of aging inmates, and they provide limited training for this purpose,'' the inspector general's report concluded, adding that the prison facilities are "inadequate'' for those inmates with compromised mobility or other physical limitations.

The full 70+ page report, titled "The Impact of an Aging Inmate Population on the Federal Bureau of Prisons," is available at this link.

May 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

How many federal prison years are being served by defendants who (plausibly?) claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from Michigan headlined "West Michigan man sent to prison for purported medical marijuana grow operation."  Here are the basics of this story with some follow-up data/questions:

One of the two leaders of a medical marijuana grow operation has been sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.  Phillip Joseph Walsh, 54, was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo.  Betty Jenkins, described as his "life partner" in court records, will be sentenced June 29.

The Kent County residents were convicted at trial of running a marijuana grow operation that prosecutors say brought in $1.3 million.  The two, along with eight others, including a doctor who authorized patients for use of medical marijuana, were arrested last year for growing marijuana in multiple places in West Michigan.

The government contended that much of the marijuana grown was sold outside of Michigan. Jenkins was considered the leader of the organization.  The defendants argued they acted within the guidelines of Michigan's medical marijuana law but were not allowed to use the law as a defense to the federal charges.

Kent County Area Narcotics Team and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used multiple search warrants to raid numerous properties, including apartment buildings in Gaines Township. Police seized 467 marijuana plants and 18 pounds of processed marijuana.

Defense attorney Joshua Covert said his client, a father of four daughters, was "very nervous" after reviewing advisory sentencing guidelines that called for 151 to 188 months in prison.  He said that Walsh has been a good, caring father and a hard worker and has led a productive life.  "Mr. Walsh and his life partner, Ms. Jenkins, lived a comfortable but certainly not lavish or extravagant life that was financed by rental income from property Ms. Jenkins obtained through her divorce," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

"The endeavor of manufacturing marijuana was not particularly successful for Mr. Walsh from a financial standpoint because it proved to be difficult and expensive to manufacture marijuana," he wrote....  He said his client "is not seeking sympathy or pity" but asked for leniency "given the relaxed attitude toward marijuana nationwide and specifically Michigan in regards to marijuana."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Courtade said Walsh and Jenkins began manufacturing marijuana on Forest Hill Avenue SE in 2010.  Walsh hired a man to help with the grow operation before both were convicted for their roles.  The other man quit, "but Walsh and Jenkins carried on, unfazed," Courtade said.

"Defendant Walsh developed the 'marketing scheme' that ensnared many of the codefendants in this case," the prosecutor wrote....  He said that Walsh tried to insulate himself by staying he was only "'building grow rooms' ... his real motivation was far more nefarious."

He said Walsh grew marijuana for profit, with some sold in Ohio, some in Rhode Island. Courtade also said that Walsh could not document wages he earned — he reported remodeling and roofing homes — but he managed to hired his own attorneys, pay for a co-defendant's expert witnesses and build numerous manufacturing operations. He recommended a sentence within guidelines.

This story of a lengthy federal prison sentence for major marijuana dealing in a medical marijuana state itself highlights the challenges of coming up with a satisfactory answer to the question in the title of this post.  The defendants here were apparently quick to claim that they were acting in accord with Michigan state medical marijuana laws, but the facts reported suggest little basis for this defense claim of state-law compliance.

That said, I know there are at least a handful (and perhaps more than a handful) of the roughly 5000 federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking sentenced in federal courts each year involving defendants who truly have a plausible claim to being in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  A low "guestimate" that an average of 10 federal marijuana defendants in each of the last 10 years have been been sentenced to an average of 10 years in federal prison for medical marijuana activities would, in turn, suggest that 1000 years in federal prison are being served by defendants who plausibly claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes.  

That is a lot of federal prison time (which would be costing federal taxpayers roughly $30 million because each prison year costs roughly $30,000).  And I have an inkling the number could be higher.

May 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!

ImagesI had heard earlier this week about the Florida couple getting into criminal trouble for having sex in public on a beach, but only this morning have I focused on the reality that, thanks to Florida's severe recidivist sentencing laws, it appears that one of the defendants may have to serve 15 years(!!) in state prison for this crime.  This local story, headlined "Couple found guilty of having sex on Florida beach," explains:

A jury Monday found a couple guilty of having sex on Bradenton Beach after only 15 minutes of deliberation. The convictions carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Jose Caballero, 40, and Elissa Alvarez, 20, were charged with two counts each of lewd and lascivious behavior for having sex on a public beach on July 20, 2014. Video played in the courtroom during the 1- 1/2-day-long trial showed Alvarez moving on top of Caballero in a sexual manner in broad daylight. Witnesses testified that a 3-year-old girl saw them.

Both Caballero and Alvarez will now have to register as sex offenders.

A sentencing date was not announced, but Assistant State Attorney Anthony Dafonseca said they will pursue a harsher sentence for Caballero than Alvarez, since Alvarez has no prior record and Caballero has been to prison for almost eight years for a cocaine trafficking conviction.

The state will ask for jail time for Alvarez and prison time for Caballero. Dafonseca said due to Caballero being out of prison less than three years before committing another felony, he's looking at serving the maximum time of 15 years. "We gave them a reasonable offer, what we felt was reasonable, and they decided it wasn't something they wanted to accept responsibility for," Dafonseca said. "Despite the video, despite all the witnesses."

Ronald Kurpiers, defense attorney for the couple, said his clients were "devastated," by the verdict. Though Dafonseca hinted that they'd be speaking with the judge about whether or not 15 years was appropriate for Caballero, Kurpiers said the judge would have no discretion. "That's what he'll get," Kurpiers said.

Ed Brodsky, elected state attorney for the 16th judicial district, joined Defonseca in prosecuting the case. When asked why the case was an important one to the state attorney, Dafonseca said it was important that the community knew what wouldn't be tolerated on public beaches. "We're dealing with basically tourists, that came from Brandon and Riverview and West Virginia, and they're here on the beaches of Manatee County, our public beaches," Dafonseca said, referring to the witnesses. "So you want to make sure that this isn't something that just goes by the wayside. And that it is well known to the community, what will be tolerated and what won't be."

Family members who witnessed the act and a Bradenton Beach police officer, as well as Caballero, testified in the case. The defense argued that the two weren't actually having sex, but that Alvarez had been dancing on Caballero or "nudging" him to wake him up. "She wasn't dancing," Dafonseca said during closing arguments. "It's insulting your intelligence to say that she was dancing."

Kurpiers said since the witnesses had not seen genitals or penetration, and neither was visible in the video, either, that saying the two had sex was speculation. "You folks cannot speculate," Kurpiers told the jury. "And in order to say they had intercourse, you would have to speculate."

Brodsky said they weren't calling it the crime of the century, but it was still a violation of Florida law. "Did they try to cuddle, or do it discreetly? Did they go in the water, where people couldn't see?" Brodsky asked the jury. "Did Ms. Alvarez try to drape a towel over herself, or anything? They didn't care."

I do not know Florida sentencing law well enough to know if defendant Caballero is in fact going to have to be sentenced and actually going to have to serve a decade or more in state prison for his misguided dirty dancing on a public beach. This press report makes it sound as though perhaps there may be some means for the sentencing judge to impose a lesser sentencing term, and I think a constitutional challenge based on the Eighth Amendment might also be viable here if state law really does mandate such a severe term in this case.

In addition to wondering whether and how Florida sentencing law may provide the judge with some sentencing discretion in this setting, I especially wonder about the terms of the "reasonable offer" that prosecutors offers to resolve this case via a plea deal. Specifically, I wonder if the offer required either or both defendants to serve significant time incarcerated and required sex offender registration. Especially given all the housing restrictions on registered sex offenders in Florida, that component of any conviction may have led to the defendants being especially eager to try to fight the charges.

May 6, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

"What can one prosecutor do about the mass incarceration of African-Americans?"

The question in the title of this post is the subheadline of this lengthy and timely New Yorker article authored by Jeffrey Toobin.  For many reasons (as perhaps the highlights below suggest), the full article is a must-read:

Like many people in the criminal-justice system, John Chisholm, the District Attorney in Milwaukee County, has been concerned for a long time about the racial imbalance in American prisons.  The issue is especially salient in Wisconsin, where African-Americans constitute only six per cent of the population but thirty-seven per cent of those in state prison. According to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as of 2010 thirteen per cent of the state’s African-American men of working age were behind bars — nearly double the national average, of 6.7 per cent.  The figures were especially stark for Milwaukee County, where more than half of African-American men in their thirties had served time in state prison.  How, Chisholm wondered, did the work of his own office contribute to these numbers?  Could a D.A. do anything to change them?

The recent spate of deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police officers has brought renewed attention to racial inequality in criminal justice, but in the U.S. legal system prosecutors may wield even more power than cops.  Prosecutors decide whether to bring a case or drop charges against a defendant; charge a misdemeanor or a felony; demand a prison sentence or accept probation.  Most cases are resolved through plea bargains, where prosecutors, not judges, negotiate whether and for how long a defendant goes to prison.  And prosecutors make these judgments almost entirely outside public scrutiny.

Chisholm decided to let independent researchers examine how he used his prosecutorial discretion.  In 2007, when he took office, the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy group based in New York City, had just begun studying the racial implications of the work of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.  Over several years, Chisholm allowed the researchers to question his staff members and look at their files. The conclusions were disturbing.  According to the Vera study, prosecutors in Milwaukee declined to prosecute forty-one per cent of whites arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, compared with twenty-seven per cent of blacks; in cases involving prostitution, black female defendants were likelier to be charged than white defendants; in cases that involved resisting or obstructing an officer, most of the defendants charged were black (seventy-seven per cent), male (seventy-nine per cent), and already in custody (eighty per cent of blacks versus sixty-six per cent of whites).

Chisholm decided that his office would undertake initiatives to try to send fewer people to prison while maintaining public safety.  “For a long time, prosecutors have defined themselves through conviction rates and winning the big cases with the big sentences,” Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute, told me.  “But the evidence is certainly tipping that the attainment of safety and justice requires more than just putting people in prison for a long time.  Prosecutors have to redefine their proper role in a new era.  Chisholm stuck his neck out there and started saying that prosecutors should also be judged by their success in reducing mass incarceration and achieving racial equality.” Chisholm’s efforts have drawn attention around the country....

Chisholm reflects a growing national sentiment that the criminal-justice system has failed African-Americans.  The events in Baltimore last week drew, at least in part, on a sense there that black people have paid an undue price for the crackdown on crime. Since 1980, Maryland’s prison population has tripled, to about twenty-one thousand, and, as in Wisconsin, there is a distressing racial disparity among inmates. The population of Maryland is about thirty per cent black; the prisons and local jails are more than seventy per cent black....

Chisholm decided to move to what he calls an evidence-driven public-health model. “What’s the most effective way to keep a community healthy?” he asked. “You protect people in the first place.  But then what do you do with the people who are arrested?” There are two basic models of prosecutorial philosophy.  “In one, you are a case processor,” he said.  “You take what is brought to you by law-enforcement agencies, and you move those cases fairly and efficiently through the system.  But if you want to make a difference you have to do more than process cases.”

So Chisholm began stationing prosecutors in neighborhoods around Milwaukee.  “If people view prosecutors as just the guys in the courthouse, who are concerned only with getting convictions, then you are creating a barrier,” he said.  He and his team started asking themselves in every instance why they were bringing that case.  “In those that were seen as minor, it was the least experienced people who were deciding whether to bring them.  And these people saw that we had generally brought those cases in the past, so they went ahead with them again. But we started to ask, ‘Why are we charging these people with crimes at all?’ ”

May 5, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Oklahoma Gov signs "safety valve" legislation giving judges more sentencing discretion

As noted in this prior post, a few month ago the Oklahoma House passed by a significant margin a state Justice Safety Valve Act authorizing state judges to give sentences below otherwise-applicable mandatory minimums.  Now, as effectively reported via this FreedomWorks posting, this notable sentencing reform has become law.  The piece is headlined "Oklahoma becomes the latest Republican state to enact meaningful justice reforms," and here are the details (with links from the original).

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a major bill into law allowing judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below mandatory minimum sentences, a big government, one-size-fits-all policy that costs taxpayers big bucks....

Introduced in February by state Rep. Pam Peterson (R-Tulsa), the Justice Safety Valve Act, HB 1518, is aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration in the Oklahoma, which is among the highest in the United States. The bill allows sentences below mandatory minimums if a judge determines, based on a risk assessment, that a nonviolent offender is not a public safety risk. The bill would allow the state to save much-needed bed space for dangerous criminals.

"Our prison bed space is being taken up with people who don’t need to be there," Peterson told NewsOK.com in February. "These people are breaking the law, but I think we’ve gone to the point now where we need that space for violent offenders and are filling it up with too many nonviolent offenders."

"The courts' hands are often tied because of these mandatory minimums," she said. “Longer sentences do not equate to public safety.”

HB 1518 passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Legislature with relative ease. The House approved the bill in March by a 76 to 16 vote. The Senate followed suit in late April, passing the bill in a 31 to 13 vote.  Fallin, a Republican, signed the bill on Monday.

In her State of the State address delivered in February, Fallin urged lawmakers to get "smart on crime," offering support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Incarceration, she explained, actually increases the likelihood that an offender will continue a cycle of crime.

"Personal and community safety remain top priorities, and violent criminals will continue to be incarcerated. But the fact is, one in eleven Oklahomans serve time in prison at some point in their lives. Many of our current inmates are first time, nonviolent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems. Many also have mental health issues they need treatment for," said Fallin. "For some of these offenders, long sentences in state penitentiaries increase their likelihood of escalated criminal behavior.

"Oklahoma must ramp up its 'smart on crime' policies, including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, designed to intervene for low-risk, nonviolent offenders and more readily offer alternatives such as drug-courts, veterans courts and mental health courts," she continued. "Implementation of coordinated 'smart on crime' efforts between state and local governments and tribal nations has demonstrated significant cost savings and improved outcomes for offenders and public safety."...

"It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment," Fallin explained. "In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison."

The Justice Safety Valve Act will take effect on November 1.

May 5, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack