Monday, August 25, 2014

"Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America"

Mass_incarceration_finalThanks to this new posting at The Crime Report, I see the exciting news that Jonathan Simon's new book about mass incarceration and California's dysfunctional role therein has been released by The New Press.  The book's title makes up the title of this post, and here is how the publisher describes the book on its website:

For nearly forty years, the United States has been gripped by policies that have placed more than 2.5 million Americans in jails and prisons designed to hold a fraction of that number of inmates. Our prisons are not only vast and overcrowded, they are degrading — relying on racist gangs, lockdowns, and Supermax-style segregation units to maintain a tenuous order.  In short, mass incarceration has proven to be a fiscal and penological disaster.

A landmark 2011 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, has opened an unexpected escape route from this trap of “tough on crime” politics and points toward values that could restore legitimate order to American prisons and ultimately lead to the dismantling of “mass incarceration.”  Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon — an internationally renowned critic of mass incarceration and the war on crime — argues that, much like the epic school segregation cases of the last century, this new case represents a major breakthrough in jurisprudence.  Along with twenty years of litigation over medical and mental health care in California prisons, the 2011 Brown decision moves us from a hollowed-out vision of civil rights to the threshold of human rights.

Exposing the priority of politics over rational penal policy — and debunking the premise that these policies are necessary for public safety — this perceptive and groundbreaking book urges us to seize the opportunity to replace mass incarceration with a system anchored in the preservation of human dignity.

August 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Detailing the high cost of an aging prison population in the Palmetto State

1dNMJN.AuSt.74This lengthy local article, headlined "Graying of SC prisons will cost state’s taxpayers," reports in a South Carolina context an issue facing nearly every American jurisdiction as the costs of past tough-on-crime policies come due. Here are excerpts:

An inmate at Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution for women keeps a wheelchair tucked away in the corner of her small, cinder-block cell.  She has a walker, too.  The wheelchair and walker are just two of the signs of the exploding population of aging inmates in South Carolina’s prisons.

Another sign? The dollar sign, as in the increasing cost that S.C. taxpayers will have to pay to care for those aging inmates.  In the past decade, the number of S.C. inmates age 55 and older has more than doubled, according to the S.C. Corrections Department. At the end of June, one in every 11 inmates was 55 or older.  The graying of the state’s prison system will continue, experts warn. Barring changes in the state’s parole system, they add that the aging prison population stands to become even more expensive for taxpayers to support....

“We’ve passed policies and laws that have dictated we want our prisons to become nursing homes,” said Jon Ozmint, the Columbia lawyer who was head of the state’s prison system under former Gov. Mark Sanford.  Those policies and laws come with a cost to taxpayers. It costs about twice as much nationally to house a prisoner over 50 as it does the average prisoner, according to a 2012 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. “Do we really want to keep them (inmates) in prison until they die?” Ozmint asked rhetorically. “It feels good.  It makes a certain segment of society feel good.  But it’s a costly proposition.”...

Today, the oldest inmate at Camille Graham Correctional Institution is 70 years old. A few of the women at the prison, located off Broad River Road, have been locked up for more than 25 years.  One inmate has been incarcerated for almost 37 years.  But, in one key way, Graham Correctional is not representative of the state’s prison population: Its inmates are women. And as the state’s prison system grays, its senior-citizen inmates overwhelmingly stand to be men.

In 2013, 10 percent of the state’s prisoners — or 2,263 inmates — were serving sentences that called on them to live out their lives in prison or be executed.  Almost all of those 2,263 inmates were men.  Less than 90 were women....

The aging prison population has been driven by the war on drugs and tough-on-crime sentences, said Ozmint, who led S.C. prisons for eight years.  “Feel-good legislation” — including truth-in-sentencing — essentially did away with parole, keeping inmates in prison until they are old, he said.  As a result, many elderly and infirm inmates are not eligible for parole.

Medical parole is an option for elderly prisoners who were convicted of a parole-eligible offense, said Pete O’Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.  Since 2010, however, no requests for medical parole have been granted in South Carolina.  Of 13 requests, 10 were deemed eligible for a hearing, O’Boyle said.  Of those 10, seven inmates were turned down by the parole board.  Three inmates were granted conditional parole, but two completed their sentences before they were paroled. The third was sent back to prison for another offense.

Historically, winning parole has been difficult in South Carolina in any event, says Ozmint. That is because the state’s parole board has given great weight to the understandable anger of crime victims in deciding whether to grant parole, the former prisons chief says. However, the current parole board has come a long way toward making less emotional decisions, based on objective risk factors and public safety, he added....

Ozmint expects the prison system’s elderly population will continue to grow, creating the need for more geriatric facilities, which are more expensive to operate than regular prisons.  Those rising health-care costs directly will impact taxpayers, he adds.  A solution could be found in turning to the private sector to handle elderly prisoners, Ozmint said. But that assumes for-profit prisons can operate more cheaply the state’s notoriously skinflint prisons.

Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling, who took the post heading S.C. prisons in October, says telemedicine is a more cost-effective option to provide medical services. Now, inmates sometimes are taken off-site for doctor’s visits or other health-care needs. Multiple correctional officers must travel with them, which is expensive, Stirling said. If telemedicine is used, an off-site doctor could care for an inmate via a video conference. But, problematically, that would require transferring inmates’ medical records electronically, Stirling said....

For the moment, at least, a drop in the number of state prisoners has freed up resources that could be used to offset to increased health-care costs.  The number of inmates in S.C. prisons has been decreasing steadily since sentencing reform ... was passed in 2010. As of June 30, the state had 21,904 prisoners, down from 24,883 five years earlier, according to the Corrections Department.

That reform increased sentences for violent criminals but allowed some nonviolent offenders to avoid prison.  “Any time someone is not incarcerated, it’s a savings for the state,” Stirling said.  “It’s a tremendous savings for the state.”

August 24, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Let's reserve costly prison beds for dangerous offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary appearing in Utah's Deseret News and authored by Grover Norquist and Derek Monson. Here are excerpts:

As the economy continues to sputter, Utah should continue to heed the practical wisdom of the frugal family and tighten its belt. There can be no sacred cows in the budget.

One area of spending that has traditionally been “off limits” for cuts — the prison system — can no longer escape examination. Utah’s growing prison population, which currently costs state taxpayers more than $250 million annually, is projected to add an additional 2,700 prison beds in the next two decades. If that increase would make us safer, it would be worth it.

But many of these additional beds are not for dangerous and serious offenders. In fact, Utah is sending more nonviolent offenders to prison than it did a decade ago and keeping them behind bars for longer periods of time. This includes a steep increase in female offenders as well as probationers sent to prison for “technical violations” of the terms of their supervision rather than for committing a new crime. In other words, many of those we choose to send to prison (or back to prison) are low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

This is costly and counterproductive. Research shows that low-level offenders often leave prison more dangerous than when they entered. As conservatives, we pride ourselves on being tough on crime, but we also must be tough on criminal justice spending. The question underlying every tax dollar spent on corrections should be: Is this making the public safer?...

Across the nation, other states have faced the same dramatic increases in prison costs, which are now the second-fastest-growing item in state budgets behind only Medicaid. Several of these states have found innovative ways to cut corrections spending while maintaining public safety. Texas, for instance, scrapped plans to build more prisons and put much of the savings into drug courts and treatment, with impressive results: Crime rates are at their lowest since 1968, and the falling inmate population enabled Texas to close three prisons, avoiding $3 billion in prison costs.

States like Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Mississippi and South Dakota have adopted similar reforms that reduce prison populations and corrections costs while improving public safety, allowing them to reinvest some of the savings into programs proven to cut crime and reduce recidivism....

As signatories to the national Right on Crime movement, we are conservative leaders working to apply our conservative principles to the criminal justice system. As such, we are pleased that Utah is joining other states in demanding more cost-effective approaches to public safety, and we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Utah’s leadership to create a more effective criminal justice system.

August 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Detailing the significant increase in California lifers getting parole

This local article, headlined "Life with parole no longer means life term: Legal ruling causes steady rise in parole for California's lifers," highlights that parole has recently become a realistic possibility again for lifers in California. Here are the details:

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in legal circles was that any violent criminal sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in California wasn’t likely to ever walk out of prison. Whether that inmate had served the minimum on a term of 15 years to life or 25 years to life seemed inconsequential for many prisoners in the 1990s and early 2000s. In California, life meant life.

But that’s not the case anymore. In 2009, 221 lifer inmates were released from prison on parole, more than twice the number from the year before, according to the Governor’s Office. The numbers have steadily increased since then, reaching a high of 596 lifer inmates released on parole last year.

More than 2,200 inmates who had been serving life sentences in California have been paroled over the past five years, which is more than three times the number of lifers paroled in each of the previous 19 years combined.

Authorities say the higher numbers are primarily the result of a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 that set a new legal standard for the Board of Parole Hearings and the Governor’s Office to use when determining who is suitable for parole. That standard is focused not just on the circumstances of the inmate’s offense, but whether he or she poses a current threat to public safety. If not, the inmate may be released.

Despite speculation to the contrary, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has stressed that lifer parole grants during his current administration have had nothing to do with a federal court mandate to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons. “The prison population has no bearing on the governor’s decision to reverse or not act on a parole grant,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown....

The spike in paroles came during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as governor, when the state’s high court established the standard by which a prisoner could be determined suitable for parole. Schwarzenegger, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, reversed more than 1,100 lifer parole grants during his time in office. One of them involved Sandra Davis Lawrence, who killed her lover’s wife in 1971. Her case went to trial in 1983. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Board of Parole Hearings determined in 2005 that Lawrence was suitable for parole based on several factors, including her efforts to rehabilitate herself in prison, her acceptance of responsibility for her crime and her close ties to her family. But Schwarzenegger found that Lawrence was not a good candidate for release based on “the gravity of the commitment offense,” according to court documents.

A three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court said that’s not good enough, explaining that parole could not be denied simply because the inmate’s offense was “heinous” or “cruel.” The key factor is whether that person remains a danger at the time parole is considered. “There has to be something more than just your crime was particularly atrocious,” said Jennifer Shaffer, executive officer of the Board of Parole Hearings. Denial can’t be based on “something you can’t change,” she said.

When the board denies parole for an inmate, that decision can be appealed, which results in a court-ordered hearing. In 2009, the first full year after the ruling, there were 263 court-ordered hearings spurred by appeals. “That is basically the court saying, ‘You got it wrong,’” she said. Last year, there were only 13 court-ordered hearings, which Shaffer said indicated the board had learned over time how to do a better job of applying the new standard. “The board, as a whole, learned with a lot of guidance from the court,” she said.

The Board of Parole Hearings issued 670 parole grants in 2012, and 590 in 2013, but some of those offenders may still be behind bars. Depending on factors specific to each case, it could take five months to several years for each prisoner to actually be released. State law bars the board from taking prison overcrowding into account when making its decisions. However, Shaffer said, there may be a perception that the issues are related because of the state’s efforts to comply with the federal court order.

August 20, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, August 18, 2014

More evidence of the poor funtioning of California's crime-and-punishment policies and practices

La-me-ff-0817-early-release-pictures-012Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Times published this lengthy and disconcerting article spotlighting yet another aspect of the mess that is California's current sentencing and corrections system.  The piece is headlined "Early jail releases have surged since California's prison realignment," and here are some extended excerpts:

Jesus Ysasaga had been arrested multiple times and ordered by the court to keep away from his ex-girlfriend. Two parole boards sentenced him to nearly a year in jail for stalking, drunkenness and battery.

But the Fresno County jail would not keep him. Four times in the summer of 2012, authorities let Ysasaga go, refusing two times to even book him. The jail had no room. Ysasaga's attorney, Jerry Lowe, said the parade of convicted offenders being turned away from the jail was common. "It became quite a joke," he said.

Across California, more than 13,500 inmates are being released early each month to relieve crowding in local jails — a 34% increase over the last three years. A Times investigation shows a significant shift in who is being let out of jail, how early and where.

The releases spring from an effort begun in 2011 to divert low-level offenders from crowded state prisons to local jails. The move had a cascade effect, forcing local authorities to release their least dangerous inmates to make room for more serious offenders. "It changes criminal justice in California," said Monterey County Chief Deputy Edward Laverone, who oversees the jail. "The 'lock them up and throw away the key' is gone."

State and local officials say that they are making every effort to ensure the releases pose little danger to the public, freeing those believed to be the least risky convicts, usually parole violators and those convicted of misdemeanors. But an analysis of jail data has found that incarceration in some counties has been curtailed or virtually eliminated for a variety of misdemeanors, including parole violations, domestic violence, child abuse, drug use and driving under the influence.

In Los Angeles County, with a quarter of California's jail population, male inmates often are released after serving as little as 10% of their sentences and female prisoners after 5%. Fresno County logs show the jail is releasing criminals convicted of crimes that used to rate prison time: fraud, forgery and trafficking in stolen goods.

Law enforcement officials say that criminals have been emboldened by the erratic punishment. "Every day we get guys who show up in the lobby, stoned out of their minds," said one parole agent who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the issue. "I'll have 15 arrested, and 12 to 14 will be released immediately."...

For law enforcement agents, the jailhouse revolving door is frustrating.

Leopoldo Arellano, 39, was in and out of custody at least 18 times from 2012 to 2014 for violating parole, criminal threats and at least four incidents of domestic battery, according to Los Angeles County jail logs. San Diego County let parolee Demetrius Roberts go early 12 times; mostly for removing or tampering with his GPS tracker, which he was required to wear as a convicted sex offender.

In Stockton last year, a furor erupted over the repeated releases of Sidney DeAvila, another convicted sex offender. He had been brought to the San Joaquin County jail 11 times in 2012 and 2013 for disarming his GPS tracker, drug use and other parole violations.

He was freed nearly every time within 24 hours, even when he was brought to the jail by the state's Fugitive Apprehension Team. Days after being let out early in February 2013, DeAvila went to his grandmother's house, raped and killed the 76-year-old woman, then chopped her body into pieces. He was found later that day with the woman's jewelry around his neck....

The problem stems from the huge increase in the number of state prisoners over the last four decades, spurred by increasingly harsh sentencing laws passed during the war on drugs. Felons could serve decades behind bars for repeat convictions of drug use and other nonviolent crimes. From a relatively stable population of less than 25,000 in the 1970s, the number of state prisoners rose to a high of 174,000 in 2007.

Crowding reached dangerous levels, leading federal judges to rule in 2009 that the conditions were unconstitutional. When Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011, the state was under orders to cap prison counts at 110,000.

Brown's solution, called "realignment," shifted the responsibility for parole violators and lower-level felons to the counties, putting inmates closer to home and potentially improving their prospects for rehabilitation. Lawmakers tried to ease the load on counties by expanding credits for good behavior and jailhouse work, cutting most sentences in half. Even with that, state officials concede, they knew jails did not have enough room.

The shift flooded county jails, many of which already were freeing convicted offenders under a melange of local court rulings, federal orders and self-imposed caps. "If you've got a prison population and a jail population, if you're going to release anywhere, you might better release at the lower level," said Diane Cummins, Brown's special advisor on realignment and criminal justice policy.

The number of prisoners released from county jail because of crowding has grown from an average of 9,700 a month in 2011 to over 13,500 a month today, according to state jail commission figures. In October, those records show releases surged to over 17,400.

Jailers are struggling to decide whom to let go.... Kern County Sheriff's Lt. Greg Gonzales said the jail he manages hits its maximum capacity two or three times a week. When that happens, inmates must go, 20 to 30 at a time. Parolees and those who have served the most time on their sentences leave first. Those who have committed violent crimes or molested a child stay the full term. The county is experimenting with a risk-assessment system that tries to gauge the likelihood an offender will commit future crimes. Gonzales does not pretend the decisions are foolproof. "Every release is a bad release," he said. What happens after "is a crap shoot."...

Law enforcement authorities and other officials say that releasing prisoners has raised safety issues, although there have been no studies on the effect. At a shelter for battered women in Stanislaus County, where the jail releases more than 500 inmates early each month, caseworkers are convinced that decreasing sentences has emboldened abusers....

Time served varies considerably around the state — a situation that UC Berkeley law professor Barry Krisberg called "justice by geography." That is especially true for parole violators, who used to serve their time in state prison. Now they are locked up in jails and are frequently the first to be released, or not booked at all....

Krisberg said stopping the early releases would require a fundamental change in California's criminal justice system. Just "shifting the location of incarceration" from prisons to jails doesn't change much, he said.

The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state policy agency that released a report last year that was critical of early releases, has recommended that California reform its complex sentencing laws, which have overwhelmed prisons with long-term inmates.

The commission has also recommended reducing bail so more inmates can afford to leave. State records show nearly two-thirds of the space in county jails is occupied by suspects awaiting trial. But even political supporters of such reforms say the issue is an electoral land mine likely to stir campaign accusations of being soft on crime.

Sheriffs have launched their own silent reform by letting out prisoners when there is no room. "We actually have a de facto sentencing commission in our sheriffs," said Carole D'Elia, acting executive director of the Little Hoover Commission. "You have a crazy system of 'Is the jail full today?' "

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Vlavianos said that allowing jailers to override judges "does nothing but undercut integrity.… It loses public confidence. You lose integrity with the defendants. All the way around, it is a bad thing," he said.

As I have commented before and will say here again, this mess is the obvious by-product of California policy-makers failing to deal proactive with sentencing and corrections problems for decades. Nearly a decade ago, as noted in this long-ago post, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state of emergency because extreme prison overcrowding "created a health risk and 'extreme peril' for officers and inmates." He also called the the California legislature into special session in Summer 2006 to address critical prison crowding and recidivism issues. But, thanks to California's dysfunctional politics, nothing much got done. Similarly, smart folks have been urging California to create a sentencing commission to help deal with these issues, but California's dysfunctional politics again brought down a number of potentially sensible proactive reforms.

Now the price of all the avoidance is finally coming due, and the result seems pretty ugly on all fronts. But, sadly, I fear that precious few of the folks who should pay a political price for all this political dysfunction will in the end pay any real political price. Sigh.

August 18, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, August 08, 2014

"The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population"

LogoThe title of this post is the title of this notable white paper from The Osborne Association that I found via this post from The Crime Report.  Here is the report's executive summary

For the past four decades, we have witnessed the most sustained and widespread imprisonment binge known throughout recorded human history. The facts are all too familiar: the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, yet is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.  With an estimated 2.3 million adults in jail or prison and 1 out of every 32 adults under correctional or community supervision, the U.S. surpasses all other countries in sheer numbers and per capita incarceration rates.

The immense costs of incarceration have increasingly framed the conversation around reducing the prison population as a matter of fiscal responsibility and budgetary necessity. This discussion is often centered around reducing the arrest and prosecution of so-called “non-violent drug offenders.”  But these issues belie a much more pressing human and economic concern: the aging prison population, whose costs for incarceration and care will soon prove unsustainable if meaningful action is not taken. And though prison is expensive, cost is far from the only justification to move away from our reliance on incarceration, as the continued long-term incarceration of aging citizens has serious moral, ethical, public health, and public safety implications.

This paper aims to provide a brief contextual framework of the issues affecting elders in prison; to illuminate the ongoing efforts being undertaken to improve conditions within correctional facilities, increase mechanisms for release, and develop robust post-release services specifically targeting the unique needs of the aging population in reentry; and to sketch out preliminary recommendations to serve as a basis for further work to be done throughout several key sectors.

Despite their apparent interrelated interests in the aging prison population, the fields of gerontology, medical and mental health, philanthropy, and corrections have only sporadically interacted around this issue, and never as a unified voice.  Thus, a primary objective of this work is to encourage multi-sector dialogue, cross-pollination of ideas, and a shared foundational knowledge that will strengthen the connections among these fields and form a basis for unifying action.

We believe such a partnership will be well equipped to identify and engage in appropriate measures that will immediately impact the aging prison population, while also developing and implementing the necessary socio-structural architecture to effectively address long-term mechanisms of diversion, release, and reentry.

Austerity-driven approaches to shrinking budgets and increasing public discomfort with mass incarceration create an opportunity to seriously address the epidemic of America’s graying prison population and to imbue our criminal justice system with values and policies that are humane, cost-effective, and socially responsible.

August 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Greek priest helps poor inmates buy their way out of Greek prisons

This new AP article, headlined "In Greek crisis, priest roams prisons to buy inmates their freedom," reports on what might be viewed as a remarkable "alternative sentencing" program in Greece and the noble role played by a clergy to make the system a bit less economically unfair. Here are the details:

In Greek justice, money talks ...: Some inmates jailed for minor offences are allowed to buy their freedom — at an average rate of five euros per day.

With the rich at a clear advantage, Greek Orthodox priest Gervasios Raptopoulos has devoted his life to paying off the prison terms of penniless inmates.

The soft-spoken 83-year-old with a long white beard and black robes has helped more than 15,000 convicts secure their freedom over nearly four decades, according to records kept by his charity. The Greek rules apply only to people convicted of offences that carry a maximum five-year sentence, such as petty fraud, bodily harm, weapons possession, illegal logging, resisting arrest and minor drugs offences.

His work, however, is getting harder. Gervasios, 83, has seen his charity's funds, which all come from private donations, plummet in Greece's financial crisis. And there has been a sharp rise in inmates who can't afford to pay their way out of prison. "Where people would offer 100 euros ($135), they now give 50 ($67). But that doesn't stop us," he told The Associated Press in an interview.

The crisis, which has worsened already hellish prison conditions, makes his efforts even more pressing. "Our society rejects inmates and pushes them into the margins," he said. "People often say: 'It serves them right.'"

While behind bars, inmates also need money to buy necessities such as toilet paper and soap when the often meagre supplies provided by prison run out. Gervasios helps them, too, either with cash or handouts.

Greece has a prison population of about 13,000 — far above capacity — forcing authorities to cram inmates into police holding cells as they wait for a place in jail. Gervasios' charity allocates up to 500 euros ($675) for each prisoner they help, but the amount needed varies. Sometimes a small sum goes a long way. "Once, we gave a man 8.5 euros, which was what he lacked to gain his freedom," he said....

Many prisoners released by his efforts in Greece are foreigners. If they die in prison, the charity pays for their bodies to be taken home. Since launching the charity in 1978, Father Gervasios has received several state awards, including one of the highest civilian honors granted by the government. The Justice Ministry, responsible for Greece's prisons, is unstinting in its praise.

"For decades now, Father Gervasios Raptopoulos has carried out exceptional work, offering human warmth and solidarity to prisoners," said Marinos Skandamis, the ministry's secretary-general. It is inmates and prison staff who are the most grateful. "We would send him papers concerning prisoners who could be freed with a cash payment, and details on what they were in prison for," said Costas Kapandais, a former governor at Greece's Komotini and Diavata prisons. "He didn't turn down a single request."

August 7, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Sociology of Prison Life"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new little paper from across the pond authored by Deborah Drake, Sacha Darke and Rod Earle available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Prison life both fascinates and repels. As with many aspects of punishment it attracts the interest of both academics and the general public. In this short and accessible account the principal issues of prison life are presented in a historical context that traces the emergence of focussed academic study of the way people live, and die, in prison.

The most influential theoretical perspectives are clearly set out alongside a discussion of their influence on research and analysis in the UK and beyond. Questions of women’s experience and that of black and minority ethnic prisoners are explored before a consideration of post-colonial prison studies is introduced. These studies of prison life beyond the axis of Europe and north America challenge some of the accumulated academic wisdom of Anglo-phone and European studies of prison life, indicating the potential of novel developments to come in an era which, unfortunately, shows no signs of declining to produce more and more prisons.

August 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, August 04, 2014

Check your local PBS listings for "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story"

1234959_719906504692104_315759303_nPremiering this week on PBS stations is this new documentary titled "15 to Life: Kenneth's Story." The documentary discusses life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders with a focus on a Florida defendant, Kenneth Young, who at age 15 received four consecutive life sentences for a series of armed robberies. Here is part of the description of the film from this PBS website:

In June 2000, 14-year-old Kenneth Young was convinced by a 24-year-old neighborhood crack dealer — Kenneth's mother's supplier — to join him on a month-long spree of four armed robberies.  The older man planned the Tampa, Fla. heists and brandished the pistol— and, on one occasion, he was talked out of raping one of the victims by his young partner.  Fortunately, no one was physically injured during the crimes, although the trauma that resulted was immeasurable.

When they were caught, Kenneth didn't deny his part.  It was his first serious scrape with the law.  But at 15, he was tried under Florida law as an adult.  Astoundingly, he received four consecutive life sentences — guaranteeing that he would die in prison.  15 to Life: Kenneth's Story follows the young African-American man’s battle for release, after more than 10 years of incarceration, much of it spent in solitary confinement.  The film is also a disturbing portrait of an extraordinary fact: The United States is the only country in the world that condemns juveniles to life without parole.

Kenneth’s sentence was not a rarity.  As 15 to Life shows, there are more than 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States for non-lethal crimes, as well as for murder.  In the 1990s, many states reacted to a rise in violent youth crimes by amending their laws to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults.  Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional.  That made 77 Florida inmates, including Kenneth, eligible for early release.  But how would the Florida courts, historically in favor of juvenile life sentences, apply the Supreme Court decision to a decade-old case?...

At the core of the story, of course, stands Kenneth, now 26, who is candid about his crimes.  He says he has followed a path of self-improvement and is remorseful for what he did, even as he remains flabbergasted about his punishment.  (Oddly enough, in a separate trial, Jacques Bethea, the older man who organized the robberies and who carried the gun, received a single life sentence.)

At his hearing for a reduced sentence, Kenneth tells the court, "I have lived with regret every day ... I have been incarcerated for 11 years and I have taken advantage of every opportunity available for me in prison to better myself ... I am no longer the same person I used to be.  First Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 11 says: 'When I was a child I thought as a child.  When I became a man I put away all childish things.'  I want to turn around and apologize to my victim for what I did."

Kenneth's plight elicits mixed reactions.  While some of his victims are inclined to see him let go, others, along with the prosecutor, defend the original punishment.  Kenneth's contention that the older man coerced his cooperation by threatening his mother is dismissed, because he didn't speak up as a 15-year-old at his original trial.  And arguments that Kenneth's new sentence should take into account his rehabilitation may not convince this Florida court.

UPDATE A helpful reader noted that through September 3, folks can view the program online at the PBS website here.

August 4, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Film, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Documenting the high health-care costs of an aging prison population in Oklahoma

This notable article from Oklahoma, headlined "Inmate health costs rise, prisons scramble for solutions," highlights a modern corrections reality facing more and more jurisdictions as the economic costs of tough-on-crime policies come into focus. Here are excerpts:

Taxpayers forked over nearly $1 million last year to buy inhalers to treat asthma and emphysema among inmates in state prisons. The state also paid for 530,647 inmate prescriptions.

Those represent just a fraction of the health expenses for the state’s approximately 25,000 inmates, which cost $36.6 million last year, according to a review by the State Auditor and Inspector’s office.

That total amounts to an 11 percent increase from 2010 to 2013, and experts say the number likely is to keep swelling, especially as the inmate population ages. “That is something Oklahoma has in its future, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on,” said Maria Schiff, director of Pew Charitable Trust’s State Healthcare Project, which recently researched prison health care costs.

According to the Pew report, Oklahomans paid the least in the nation in prisoner medical expenses, at $2,558 per inmate, while Californians spend the most at $14,495. That was based on expenses in fiscal year 2011. But that number is growing. By fiscal 2013 — the most recent year for which data is available — Oklahomans spent an average of $7.58 per inmate per day in medical expenses, said Department of Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie.

A prison’s health care spending usually depends on the size of its prisoner population and its age, Schiff said. Oklahoma’s percentage of inmates 55 and older was near the top in the nation, the Pew researchers found. That trend also was detected by the state’s audit, which found that nearly 43 percent of the state’s inmates are older than 40. That percentage has been steadily growing.

That’s a key finding, the audit noted, because older inmates typically have more illnesses and infirmities, and they cost taxpayers at least double what’s spent on their younger counterparts. The number of older inmates sentenced for the first time has grown nationally, Schiff said. They join inmates sentenced in the 1980s who simply are aging in prison....

Finding a balance in funding can be complex, Gary Jones, state auditor and inspector, noted in the report. That’s because the Corrections Department has no control over criminal laws, who gets prosecuted, the length of sentences imposed or the number of people entering its system. “Proponents of ‘tough-on-crime’ and policymakers advocating rigorous sentencing laws must act responsibly and commit sufficient financial resources to fund the infrastructure, operations and specialized programs needed to accommodate the resultant expansion of a demographically demanding inmate population, or find ways in which to be smart on crime, keeping in mind the ever-increasing cost to Oklahoma taxpayers,” Jones wrote in his report.

There may be no easy solution, but Jones’ staff proposed one alternative in the audit — releasing older and terminally ill inmates. That’s not a popular choice, as legislator Jeannie McDaniel, D-Tulsa, discovered. She proposed a bill that could have led to the release about 600 or 700 inmates age 65 or older if they met certain conditions, including conviction for a non-violent crime. The Parole Board ultimately would have made the decision, she said.

McDaniel said she got the idea from Louisiana’s early release for an aging population at its Angola prison. “Their success was great, and they saved the money,” she said. “These were people that were not threats to society. Their costs were eating up the prison budget.”

But McDaniel said she met resistance from prosecutors who felt the Parole Board shouldn’t be able to overturn sentences handed down by a judge or jury. She hopes to introduce a similar bill during this coming session, she said.

Schiff said a number of states have passed guidelines for geriatric release. Among the advantages of those programs is expense: While freed inmates likely end up on Medicaid, the state shares those costs with the federal government. Also, the state doesn’t need to pay to drive freed inmates to appointments. But early release is controversial in many places where lawmakers struggle to decide which prisoners should qualify and under what circumstances, Schiff said.

August 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, August 01, 2014

Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform

I have previously questioned the assertion that significant federal sentencing reform is inevitable, and the failure of the current Congress to make serious progress on the Smarter Sentencing Act or other notable pending federal sentencing reform proposals has reinforced my generally pessimistic perspective.  But this effective new article from the Washington Examiner, headlined "2016 contenders are lining up behind sentencing reform --- except this one Tea Partier," provides further reason to be optimistic that federal sentencing reform momentum will continue to pick up steam in the months ahead.  Here are highlights:

Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t hammered out a firm position on mandatory minimum sentencing laws yet.  A year ago, that would have been perfectly normal for a Republican senator and rumored presidential contender.  But over the last months, most of the potential Republican nominees have voiced support for policy changes that historically might have gotten them the toxic “soft on crime” label.  These days, though, backing prison reform lets Republicans simultaneously resurrect compassionate conservatism and reach out to voters who wouldn’t typically find much to love from the GOP.

Rep. Paul Ryan is one of the latest potential presidential candidates to tout mandatory minimum sentencing reform as part of a conservative strategy to reduce poverty.... [H]e has debuted a new anti-poverty agenda that includes support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill with a Senate version co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tea Party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a House version from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.  That bill would shorten some of the mandatory minimum sentence lengths and also would expand the “safety valve” that keeps some non-violent drug offenders from facing mandatory sentences.

“It would give judges more discretion with low-risk, non-violent offenders,” Ryan said in a speech at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.  “All we’re saying is, they don’t have to give the maximum sentence every time.  There’s no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary.”

Ryan is the latest in a string of potential presidential contenders to get on board with prison reform.  But it’s likely the state of criminal justice reform would look different without Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In 2007, the Texas legislature adopted a budget designed to reduce the number of people incarcerated and spend more money on treatment. Since then, the state has closed three adult and six juvenile prisons, crime rates have reached levels as low as in the 1960s, and recidivism rates have dipped.

Perry has used his national platform to tout this reform — at a Conservative Political Action Conference (panel with Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, for instance, he said real conservatives should look to shut down prisons and save money — and other states have adopted reforms following the Lone Star State model.

Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 favorite, has been one of prison reform’s most vocal boosters.  In an April 2013 speech at Howard University — a speech that got mixed reviews — he drew plaudits for criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  “Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary,” he said, per CNS News. “They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough’s enough.”

That speech took prison reform one step closer to becoming a national conservative issue, rather than just the purview of state-level think tank wonks and back-room chats among social conservative leaders.

And, of course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed the issue in his second inaugural, connecting support for prison reform to his pro-life convictions.

None of this support means that legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act has good odds in this Congress.  Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said that since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astounding primary loss, House Republicans have become more gun-shy about any sort of politically complicated reform measures.  And GovTrack.us gives that bill a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

But that doesn’t mean conservative appetite for prison reform will abate.  Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said interest in the issue is growing. “ It can’t go away,” she said. “If Congress doesn’t fix it now, it’s still going to be a problem next year. It’s going to be a problem at the Department [of Justice], it’s going to be a problem in appropriations committees, it’s going to be a problem for the Commerce, Justice and Finance subcommittees when they’re doing appropriations bills — because there is no more money coming, and we’re just going to keep stuffing people into overcrowded prisons.”...

For now, most of the Senate Republicans publicly eyeing 2016 bids have co-sponsored Lee and Durbin’s Smarter Sentencing Act — except Rubio, who said his office is examining it. “I haven’t looked at the details of it yet and taken a formal position,” he said. “We study those things carefully.”

Some recent and older related posts:

August 1, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Right on Crime: A Return to First Principles for American Conservatives"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy which I recently discovered via the Right on Crime blog. Here is an excerpt from the tail-end of the article's introduction:

The idea that conservatives are ideologically committed to mass incarceration is — and always was — a caricature.  American incarceration rates increased significantly in recent decades, and many on the right supported this increase, but conservative support for increased incarceration was linked to unique historical circumstances, not to any philosophical commitment.  Moreover, while conservatives were correct in the early 1970s that some increase in incarceration was necessary to ensure that violent and dangerous offenders served significant prison terms, the sixfold increase in incarceration from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s reached many nonviolent, low-risk offenders.  Now, as crime rates are declining, conservatives are increasingly focused on developing policies that prioritize using limited prison space to house violent offenders while looking for alternative sanctions to hold nonviolent offenders accountable, restore victims, and protect public safety.  In generating and advocating these policies, conservatives are returning to first principles: skepticism of state power, insistence on government accountability, and concern for how public policy affects social norms.

In this article, we discuss the conservative return to first principles in criminal justice.  In Part II, we explain the modern problem of mass incarceration.  Then, in Part III, we note the historical reasons behind the push to increase incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.  In Part IV, we detail legislative reforms to remedy the incarceration problem that are consistent with conservative ideological principles.

July 29, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Alabama struggling (and facing lawsuits) as sentencing toughness produces overcrowded prisons

As reported in this new local article, headlined "Governor Bentley to feds, prison reform advocates: 'You all are crazy to sue us'," elected officials in Alabama are struggling to figure out how best to deal with too many prisoners and prison problems. Here are the details:

Gov. Robert Bentley acknowledged the immense problems facing the state's prison system but said Monday that his administration needs time to address them, not lawsuits. Speaking at the annual convention at the Alabama Sheriffs' Association, Bentley said his message is the same whether his audience is the U.S. Justice Department or advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"You all are crazy to sue us," he said. "What good does it do to sue us?"

Bentley said he is as interested as anyone in solving problems that include overcrowding and allegations of mistreatment of inmates. He said he wants to work with anyone who has ideas about how to improve the system but added that lawsuits only divert time and money away from those solutions.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has, in fact, sued the state over its prisons. The organization alleged last month that the state has failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate health care to prisoners. Maria Morris, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization had no choice but to sue to force improvement to years-old problems.

The Justice Department so far has not sued. But a scathing report in January detailing alleged abuses at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka has raised fears among the state's elected leaders that federal authorities are preparing to do so.

Bentley said the state cannot solve its prison problem without taking further steps to reduce long sentences, although he offered no specific proposals. "It is a real problem in this state. Not only is it a problem, but our sentencing of our prisoners is a real problem," he said.

The Legislature already has taken action in recent years on that front. Sentencing guidelines designed to reduce penalties for certain nonviolent and drug crimes have been "presumptive" since October, meaning that judges must cite specific reasons if they depart from the recommendations.

As far as addition action, Bentley said the state is waiting recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program coordinated by the National Council of State Governments Justice Center. He acknowledged the political difficulty of taking on the prison issue.

"I can't run for governor talking about prison reform. People say, 'I don't care about that,'" he said. "But they do care if you have to raise taxes to build more prisons. They do care if you let violent prisoners out."

Bentley suggested changes in the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which was designed to crack down on repeat criminals but has helped spark a massive increase in the state's prison population since its passage in 1977. "The habitual offender act probably has increased our prison population more than anything else," he said.

Bentley said he opposes leniency for violent criminals and sex offenders – "I don't think we ought to let them out" – but said some nonviolent offenders serving longer prison terms because of the law probably can be rehabilitated faster. "If we don't do that, we're going to have to find money to build more prisons," he said.

July 29, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fascinating Fourth Circuit split over how federal sentencing problems should inform guideline interpretation

I just noticed a notable ruling by a split Fourth Circuit panel from late last week in US v. Valdovinos, No. 13-4768 (4th Cir. July 25, 2014) (available here). The precise legal issue concerning guideline interpretation in Valdovinos is not all that compelling, but how the judges dispute the right way to resolve the issue surely is.  Here is how the panel majority opinion (running 18 pages) concludes:

For the foregoing reasons, we hold that North Carolina’s legislatively mandated sentencing scheme, not a recommended sentence hashed out in plea negotiations, determines whether an offender’s prior North Carolina conviction was punishable by more than a year in prison.  Because Valdovinos’s offense of conviction was indeed punishable by imprisonment exceeding one year, it qualifies as a predicate felony under Section 2L1.2(b)(1)(B) of the Guidelines [thereby enhancing his sentence].  We appreciate the fervor and policy arguments of our friend in dissent.  Indeed, we can agree with many of the latter.  What we cannot agree with is that “application of relevant precedent” does not require the result here.  Carachuri and Simmons do just that.  The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

Here is how Judge Davis's remarkable dissenting opinion (running 30 pages) gets revved up and concludes (emphasis in the original):

Our disagreement as to the outcome in this case stems, I think, less over the content and application of relevant precedent and more from a fundamental disagreement regarding our role as arbiters of a flailing federal sentencing regime.  Where, as here, we have been presented with a choice in how to interpret the interstices of federal sentencing law, and where one choice would exacerbate the harmful effects of over-20 incarceration that every cadre of social and political scientists (as well as an ever-growing cohort of elected and appointed officials, state and federal, as well as respected members of the federal judiciary) has recognized as unjust and inhumane, as well as expensive and ineffectual, this insight can and should inform our analysis.  I deeply regret the panel’s failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do so here....

Here, in a tiny corner of the chaotic morass that is federal sentencing law, Mr. Valdovinos has offered us a measured approach, to a novel issue of federal sentencing law, that adheres to Supreme Court and our relevant circuit precedents and is consistent with our values. If accepted by this panel, his argument, which is surely more than merely “clever”, see ante, at 8, would affect a tiny number of federal cases drawing legal relevance from North Carolina’s historical (and now superseded) sentencing regime. And Mr. Valdovinos’s sentence in this case likely would be reduced to a bottom guideline of 15 months, instead of the bottom guideline sentence he received, 27 months.  He’d soon be on his way home to Mexico, if not already arrived.

That the majority declines the opportunity to decide this case on the foundations discussed herein is regrettable, a choice that not only ignores the growing wisdom informed by widespread acknowledgement of our unjust federal sentencing jurisprudence, but actually hinders its progress.  Would that my friends could see that it’s a new century, complete with a host of profound and valuable insights at our avail.  I discern no compelling reason why, in the performance of our adjudicative responsibilities, which every member of the panel has unfailingly carried out to the best of our ability in this case and in full accordance with our solemn oath to “administer justice,” 28 U.S.C. § 453, we ought not to draw on these insights.

One of them is that sometimes, in our shared quest for justice under law, it requires so little of us to achieve so much.  Respectfully, I dissent.

July 28, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rep. Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal calls for federal sentencing and prison reforms

Paul-ryanAs reported in this official press release, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan today "released a new discussion draft, 'Expanding Opportunity in America,' [which] proposes a new pilot project to strengthen the safety net and discusses a number of reforms to the EITC, education, criminal justice, and regressive regulation."  Notably, an extended section of this impressive document (Chapter 4, which runs nearly 10 of the draft's 70+ pages) is focused on criminal justice reforms.  Here are segments from this portion of the draft:

About 2.2 million people are currently behind bars — a more than 340 percent increase since 1980.  As a result, we spend about $80 billion on corrections at all levels of government — an inflation-adjusted increase of over 350 percent in that same period.  This growing cost burden on society is a cause for concern.  But perhaps what’s most troubling is the effect on individuals and families....

[Federal sentencing reform] seeks to tap this overlooked potential and ameliorate the collateral impact on children and families.  Although most offenders are in state prisons or local jails, successful reforms at the federal level could encourage states and local governments to follow their example.  This discussion draft explores a number of reforms on multiple fronts — how we sentence individuals to prison, how offenders are treated inside prison, and how society helps them to reintegrate afterwards.

Public safety is priority No. 1, so these reforms would apply to only non-violent and low-risk offenders.  The punishment should fit the crime, but in many cases the punishment of incarceration extends beyond prison time.  Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to move on. In that spirit, this proposal suggests three possible reforms:

• Grant judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders.

• Implement a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Allow non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards prerelease custody.

• Partner with reforms at the state and local level....

Unlike state inmates, only 6 percent of federal inmates are violent offenders, while another 15 percent are guilty of weapons offenses.  In fact, most federal prisoners—nearly 51 percent — are serving time for a drug-related offense, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that most of these federal drug offenders are in the lowest criminal-history category.   But under current law, a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.

There are also economic and social consequences to unreasonably long sentences. Not only do they put undue burdens on families, but they may actually make people more likely to return to crime.  As Justice Fellowship notes, “Rather than encouraging criminals to become peaceful, productive citizens, prison culture often has the opposite effect, operating as a graduate school for crime.”  The federal government should follow the lead of several states and consider how sentencing guidelines, including alternative forms of detention, can both prevent crime and steer non-violent, low-risk drug offenders away from the addictions and networks that make them more likely to reoffend....

Although crime rates have fallen since the 1980s, the unintended consequence of these mandatory minimums is that some low-risk, non-violent offenders serve unreasonably long sentences....

A major challenge of criminal-justice reform is lowering the high rates of recidivism. High rates of recidivism are not only costly to the taxpayer and dangerous for society; they present a missed opportunity to bring more individuals into society as productive and contributing members....

[Proposed] reforms seek to put a greater focus upon rehabilitation and reintegration. Although the federal government’s reach is limited, these reforms would give judges the discretion they need to prevent nonviolent offenders from serving unreasonably long sentences; they would align inmates’ incentives to help reduce recidivism; and they would partner with states and community groups to expand their life-affirming work.

July 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new posting by Emily Badger now up at the Washington Post Wonkblog. Here are excerpts:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can't commit crime. The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will.

By this thinking, our streets are safer the more people we lock up and the longer we keep them there. This logic suggests that there would be serious public-safety costs to reducing prison populations, a policy in the news again after the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted last Friday to retroactively extend new, lighter drug sentencing guidelines to about 46,000 offenders currently serving for federal drug crimes. As the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys warned, opposing the move, "tough sentencing laws . . . led to safer communities, which are now threatened."

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. [A] recent decline in state prison populations in New York and New Jersey, [as noted by] a new report by the Sentencing Project, [has not resulted in a crime surge]....

It's important to note that crime has been falling all over the country over this same time, for reasons that are not entirely understood (and, no, not entirely explained by the rise of incarceration). But the Sentencing Project points out that declining violent crime rates in New York and New Jersey have actually outpaced the national trend, even as these states have reduced their prison populations through changing law enforcement and sentencing policies.

We certainly can't take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world.

I am not sure which of the many data-driven publications by The Sentencing Project served as the basis for this latest Workblog posting. But I am sure, as evidenced by these posts from the last few weeks, that sentencing fans ought to make a habit of checking out Wonkblog regularly:

UPDATE:  I now realize that the recent Sentencing Project publication reference in this post is the basis for the Wonkblog discussion.

July 24, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new 11-page report coming from the folks at The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the report begins and concludes:

Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population.  But over this period, three states — New York, New Jersey, and California — have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.

Key findings:

• New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.

• California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.

• During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%.  Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.

• Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.

These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations.  They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety....

At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety.  Individual circumstances vary by state, but policymakers should explore the reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California as a guide for other states.

There is also no reason why a reduction of 25% should be considered the maximum that might be achieved. Even if every state and the federal government were able to produce such reductions, that would still leave the United States with an incarceration rate of more than 500 per 100,000 population — a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.

In recent years a broader range of proposals has emerged for how to reduce the prison population and by various scales of decarceration.  In a recent right/ left commentary Newt Gingrich and Van Jones describe how they will “be working together to explore ways to reduce the prison population substantially in the next decade.”  The experiences of New York, New Jersey, and California demonstrate that it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in mass incarceration without compromising public safety.

July 23, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Strictly Taboo: Cultural Anthropology's Insights into Mass Incarceration and Victimless Crime"

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

I argue that cultural anthropology can explain two persistent riddles of American criminal justice: (1) Why do we have mass incarceration when mass incarceration is ineffective and socially destructive? (2) Why do we have victimless crimes when criminal law is ostensibly based on the utilitarian harm principle?

One answer is found in the anthropological “survivals” known as “uncleanness” and “taboos.” These visceral, often subconscious, feelings function to preserve order, the status quo, and class distinctions. Despite the gains made in civil rights, nonwhites and the underclass remain “the other,” and they threaten to “contaminate” the majority population. Crime itself, as a threat to social stability, has become charged with a powerful ability to attract and repel. Crime and criminals are described using terms for dirt and feces. The majority culture’s response to crime (which is linked with its unconscious response to the lower class and minorities) is to expel such pollution into sealed containers called prisons. The ritualism of civic religion completes the purification process.

Deeply felt taboos also persist concerning sex and drugs. While marijuana possession and use harms no one but the user, marijuana is historically taboo on account of its association with minorities and radicals. Incest is criminalized and sex with minors is hyper-punished because they violate deeply felt sexual taboos.

I argue that one promising solution is to help people develop a stronger taboo (through education) that can cancel out the dehumanizing taboos toward criminals (just as the taboo against homophobia has supplanted the taboo against homosexuality). We will continue to overpunish until hyper-punishment itself becomes repulsive.

July 22, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, July 21, 2014

John Oliver covers the realities of incarceration nation

A whole lots of folks have sent me notes to make sure I saw the remarkable 15+ minute piece on John Oliver's HBO show about modern prison realities in the United States.  To make sure everyone gets to see this effective (and humorous) piece of journalism, here is the video:

July 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

"Liberal but Not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsizing Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this important and timely new paper authored by two terrific criminologists, Professors Joan Petersilia and Francis T. Cullen, and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A confluence of factors — a perfect storm — interfered with the intractable rise of imprisonment and contributed to the emergence of a new sensibility defining continued mass imprisonment as non-sustainable. In this context, reducing America’s prisons has materialized as a viable possibility.  For progressives who have long called for restraint in the use of incarceration, the challenge is whether the promise of downsizing can be met.

The failure of past reforms aimed at decarceration stand as a sobering reminder that good intentions do not easily translate into good results.  Further, a number of other reasons exist for why meaningful downsizing might well fail (e.g., the enormous scale of imprisonment that must be confronted, limited mechanisms available to release inmates, lack of quality alternative programs).  Still, reasons also exist for optimism, the most important of which is the waning legitimacy of the paradigm of mass incarceration, which has produced efforts to lower inmate populations and close institutions in various states.

The issue of downsizing will also remain at the forefront of correctional discourse because of the court-ordered reduction in imprisonment in California. This experiment is ongoing, but is revealing the difficulty of downsizing; the initiative appears to be producing mixed results (e.g., reductions in the state’s prison population but increased in local jail populations). In the end, successful downsizing must be “liberal but not stupid.”  Thus, reform efforts must be guided not only by progressive values but also by a clear reliance on scientific knowledge about corrections and on a willingness to address the pragmatic issues that can thwart good intentions.  Ultimately, a “criminology of downsizing” must be developed to foster effective policy interventions.

July 21, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack