Monday, September 15, 2014

Effective commentary on Sixth Circuit panel upholding 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of shotgun shells

I am pleased to see that by LawProf Richard M. Re  now has posted on his (wonderfully titled) Re's Judicata blog some new critical thoughts about the Sixth Circuit panel ruling late last week in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here).  Young rejected an Eighth Amendment claim by the defendant by ruling that a mandatory 15-year federal imprisonment term was not grossly disproportionate for a felon's possession of shotgun shells.  I first blogged about the Young ruling here, and I have not (yet) commented further because I was involved in the briefing and argument to the Sixth Circuit as an amicus representing NACDL.

Helpfully, Prof Re's extended post on Young, which is titled "A 'Shell' Game in the Sixth Circuit?", highlights some of my own deep concerns about the ruling. I recommend everyone check out the full post, which gets started this way:

In US v. Young, the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed a startlingly severe sentence for what seems like innocuous conduct, and the blogosphere has taken note.  As Eugene Volokh put it in his post title, the case involved a “15-year mandatory minimum federal sentence for possessing shotgun shells (no shotgun) almost 20 years after past felonies.”  The case might go to the Supreme Court on the Eighth Amendment question it raises.

Viewed from another angle, Young illustrates two reasons to lament the rarity of executive clemency.  First, whether Young’s sentence is just seems to depend on factors that weren’t pressed in court but that executive officials likely know about.  A robust clemency tradition would bring those factors to light.  Second, in the absence of executive clemency, the Sixth Circuit seems to have reached outside the proven record to do the executive’s job for it — and, in doing so, the court relied on allegations and innuendo instead of judicial findings.

Prior related posts on Young case:

September 15, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Congressional Budget Office reports Smarter Sentencing Act would save federal taxpayers $4.36 billion

As reported in this new piece from The Hill, which is headlined "CBO: Drug sentencing reform saves $4B," this is now an official congressional estimate of just how much federal taxpayer monies would be saved if the Smarter Sentencing Act were to become law. Here are the basics:

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced that their bill to reform nonviolent drug sentencing would reduce prison costs by more than $4 billion. “Making smart reforms to our drug sentencing laws will save the taxpayers billions of dollars,” Lee said on Monday.

On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that Durbin and Lee’s bill would save the federal government $4.36 billion in prison costs by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

“Today’s CBO report proves that not only are mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses often unfair, they are also fiscally irresponsible,” Durbin said. “By making the incremental, targeted changes that Senator Lee and I have proposed in our Smarter Sentencing Act, we can save taxpayers billions without jeopardizing public safety.”

This press release from Senator Mike Lee's office provides more context and details about potential SSA savings and the broad support the bill has already garnered:

CBO is the second government agency to conclude that the Durbin-Lee bill would produce billions of dollars in savings. The Department of Justice, which administers our federal prison system, has estimated that the bill would avoid prison costs of nearly $7.4 billion in 10 years and $24 billion in 20 years.

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and approximately half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, the Smarter Sentencing Act would give federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses....

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Major Cities Chiefs Association, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, International Union of Police Associations, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 100 former prosecutors and judges, the NAACP, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Sentencing Project, American Conservative Union, Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Council of Prison Locals, Ralph Reed, Open Society Policy Center, American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, National Black Prosecutors Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the Constitution Project.

September 15, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Encouragingly, private prison company CCA turning focus to reducing recidivism

NA-CC714_PRISON_D_20140912165107This recent Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Prison Firm CCA Seeks to Reduce Number of Repeat Offenders: Company Pushes to Reduce Costs Associated with Recidivism," reports on a private industry's latest encouraging response to the latest market realities in corrections. Here are the details:

The nation's largest private prison company is shifting its focus toward helping release more inmates and keep them out — a reaction, company officials say, to changing policies around the country on the severity of criminal punishment.

After three decades of surging prison populations, the number of people behind bars is starting to decline, albeit slowly. There were more than 2 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and jails in 2012, the last year for which the Justice Department has published data. That year saw prisons and jails release 27,500 more inmates than they took in, marking the fourth year of a declining prisoner population.

Yet repeat offenders remain a costly headwind. A Justice Department study of data from 2005 to 2010 in 30 states found that three out of four released prisoners will be rearrested within five years of their release. Getting a high-school equivalency degree while in prison, however, can greatly reduce the chances of being rearrested, studies show. A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. think tank concluded that spending $140,000 to $174,000 on education programs for a hypothetical group of 100 inmates would save as much as $1 million in re-incarceration costs over a three-year period.

Damon Hininger, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America, said in an interview that government clients are increasingly concerned about the long-term costs of housing inmates and are pushing CCA and other private operators to save them money by reducing recidivism, the number of inmates who are released only to do a repeat turn in prison.

He plans to expand the company's prison rehabilitation programs, drug counseling and its prisoner re-entry work in cities around the country. It's a significant shift for CCA, which has built a profitable business from incarcerating people—nearly 70,000 inmates are currently housed in more than 60 facilities. The company is the fifth-largest correction system in the country, after only the federal government and the states of California, Florida and Texas.

"This is a watershed moment for our company and we hope it will be for our entire industry," Mr. Hininger said. "We are determined to prove that we can play a leadership role in reducing recidivism and that we have every incentive to do so. The interests of government, taxpayers, shareholders, and communities are aligned. We all just need to recognize that and commit to that."...

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, has doubts about the company's new initiative. "It must be a challenge for CCA to implement programs that could reduce recidivism when that runs counter to the private prison model itself," she said. "We can only hope that CCA's interest in such programs indicate a shift away from its previous stance that 'reductions in crime rates' are a 'risk factor' for business and toward a completely new business model that does not rely on ever-growing mass incarceration."

Over the past two decades, government agencies have gravitated toward contracting with CCA or other private prison firms, often with a goal of saving money on the daily cost of housing inmates. In recent years, however, company officials are increasingly being asked by governments to cut down the cost of repeat offenders, Mr. Hininger said. Mr. Hininger compared the cost of recidivism on government budgets to the cost of long-term pension obligations and health-care coverage — issues that elected officials hadn't often thought of when drafting year-to-year budgets in the past but are now of increasing concern in more state capitals....

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which contracts with CCA at some facilities, said the state began a push to expand rehabilitation and re-entry programs, which led to a drop in its recidivism rate from 25.3% to 22.6% over a three-year period. "Those are real numbers and real savings because less people are coming back into the prison system," Mr. Clark said. "We believe that continuing to invest in diversion and treatment initiatives is the best strategy to maintain a stable and successful criminal-justice system."

In a speech broadcast to CCA's roughly 15,000 employees, Mr. Hininger said the company plans to expand its postprison work around the country, noting that currently much re-entry work is done by small businesses and nonprofit groups that lack CCA's ability to scale up such work in larger facilities in many cities. He declined to say which cities. "What we've seen as we've looked around the U.S., it is a little fragmented, as smaller operators providing these solutions," Mr. Hininger said in the interview. "We see an opportunity to provide some consistency and expertise."

Mr. Hininger emphasized rehabilitation has always been part of CCA's work, but said that going forward it would be part of each employee's job description. He said that from the first day a prisoner arrives, that prisoner should be evaluated and steered toward effective rehabilitation programs.

Stories like this partially account for why I tend to be more hopeful than most other reform advocates concerning the role that private industry might play in improving the state of incarceration nation. Though I worry about how a profit motive can and will skew priorities and incentives in corrections, modern mass incarceration is the product of government agents playing politics much more so that the product of private actors pursuing profits. Consequently, I am eager to be open-minded about the potential for private players to improve the status quo, even while so many others claim that private prisons are sure to make bad matters worse.

September 15, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Urban Institute report spotlights "graying" of federal prisoners

Urbanheader09I just learned of this notable new report authored by KiDeuk Kim and Bryce Peterson at the Urban Institute titled "Aging Behind Bars: Trends and Implications of Graying Prisoners in the Federal Prison System." Here are excerpts from the the report's executive summary:

Over the past few decades, federal and state prison populations have increased dramatically.  Accompanying this growth is a demographic shift to older prison populations. Older prisoners require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age-related disabilities.  They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.  However, relatively little is known about the implications of aging prisoners. This report aims to address this knowledge gap by presenting an in-depth examination of the growth patterns in the largest correctional system in the United States — the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The highlights of this report include the following:

  • The aging of the BOP population has accelerated since the early 2000s.
  • The growth rate of older prisoners varies across offense type, gender, and race....
  • Over the next five years, the proportion of those age 50 and older, especially those  age 65 and older, is projected to increase at a considerably fast rate.
    • There were slightly over 5,000 prisoners age 65 and older in FY 2011 (approximately 3 percent of the BOP population), and the number of those prisoners is projected to triple by FY 2019.
    • By these projections, prisoners age 50 and older could make up nearly 28 percent of the BOP population by FY 2019 — approximately a 10 percentage point increase from FY 2011....

The aging of the BOP population has already begun, driven in part by punitive sentencing practices and in part by the aging of society in general. It is complicated by other individual factors of aging prisoners such as gender and race. However, it is unclear how these demographic shifts, which could have serious fiscal and health care implications for the BOP population, are reflected in BOP’s current practice and policy regarding the treatment and management of aging prisoners. There is little empirical knowledge to inform current practice or policy regarding the growing population of aging prisoners....

Raising awareness of the needs of aging prisoners and equipping BOP with policy options to address such needs may not closely conform to some of the fundamental principles of punishment, such as retribution. However, it is important to recognize that poor management of prison systems can affect the rest of the criminal justice system, responsible for ensuring public safety, and potentially lead to a violation of prisoners’ constitutional or statutory rights. These concerns are increasingly more relevant and should be balanced with the question of how well our prison system serves the principles of punishment.

The number of older prisoners is growing fast but is still relatively small, which may create the misconception that policy options for better managing older prisoners would not alleviate the current fiscal burden of the prison system to any substantial extent. However, as presented in this report, the population of older prisoners has grown markedly in recent years and is projected to have a steeper growth curve in the near future. The cost-effective management of this aging population will be of significant consequence to the BOP budget, and our recommendations for policy and research can be a starting point for addressing the costly demographic shift in the BOP population.

September 12, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"20 Years Later, Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake"

The titleof this post is the headline of this notable new NPR segment, and here are excerpts:

Twenty years ago this week, in 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed a crime bill. It was, in effect, a long-term experiment in various ways to fight crime.  The measure paid to put more cops on the beat, trained police and lawyers to investigate domestic violence, imposed tougher prison sentences, and provided money for extra prisons.

Clinton described his motivation to pass the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act in stark terms. "Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools," he said.  "Every day we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder."

And if Clinton and Congress reflected the punitive mindset of the American people, what they didn't know was that soaring murder rates and violent crime had already begun what would become a long downward turn, according to criminologists and policymakers....

These days, Jeremy Travis is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  But 20 years ago, he attended the signing ceremony for the crime bill — and joined the Clinton Justice Department.  "Here's the federal government coming in and saying we'll give you money if you punish people more severely, and 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses," Travis says.

But as Travis now knows all too well, there's a problem with that idea.  Researchers including a National Academy of Sciences panel he led have since found only a modest relationship between incarceration and lower crime rates.  "We now know with the fullness of time that we made some terrible mistakes," Travis said.  "And those mistakes were to ramp up the use of prison.  And that big mistake is the one that we now, 20 years later, come to grips with.  We have to look in the mirror and say, 'look what we have done.'"

September 12, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sixth Circuit panel finds mandatory 15-year imprisonment term not grossly disproportionate for possession of shotgun shells

Because I filled an amicus brief on behalf of defendant Edward Young and participated in oral argument as well, I am much too close to the Eighth Amendment issue resolved against the defendant today in US v. Young, No. 13-5714 (6th Cir. Sept. 11, 2014) (available here), to provide any objective analysis and perspective.  And rather than provide my biased analysis in this post, let me for now be content to reprint the start the Sixth Circuit panel's per curiam ruling: 

Edward Young received a mandatory fifteen-year prison sentence for the crime of possessing seven shotgun shells in a drawer.  He came into possession of the shells while helping a neighbor sell her late husband’s possessions. When he eventually discovered them, he did not realize that his legal disability against possessing firearms — resulting from felonies committed some twenty years earlier — extended to ammunition. See 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), Young received a mandatory fifteen-year sentence.

Young now asks this court to conclude that the ACCA, as applied to him, is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because the gravity of his offense is so low as compared to the harshness of his sentence, and unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment because he lacked notice.  Our precedent compels us to reject these claims and to affirm Young’s sentence.

To its credit, the per curiam decision in Young engages somewhat with some Eighth Amendment principles I sought to stress in my amicus efforts in this case, and Judge Stranch authored an extended concurrence discussing the policy arguments against mandatory minimums. But these aspects of the Young opinion do very little to salve my seething aggravation and frustration with this ruling.

A number of judges on the Sixth Circuit have a (somewhat justified) reputation for going to great lengths to bend and extend Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to block state efforts to execute brutal murderers after a state sentencing jury imposed the death penalty.  Consequently, I was hopeful (though not optimistic) that at least one member of a Sixth Circuit panel could and would conclude the modern Eighth Amendment places some substantive and judicially enforceable limits on extreme application of extreme federal mandatory minimum prison terms.  Apparently not.  Though surely not the intent of this ruling, I think the practical message is that one needs to murder someone with ammunition rather than just possess it illegally for the Sixth Circuit to be moved by an Eighth Amendment claim. (I was hoping to save a screed about this ruling for a future post, but obviously this is already a bit too raw for me to be able to hold my blog tongue.)

I am hopeful that the defendant will be interested in seeking en banc review and/or SCOTUS review, and thus I suspect the (obviously uphill) legal fight against this extreme sentence will continue. I plan to continue helping with that fight, and I would be eager to hear from others eager to help as well.

Prior related posts:

September 11, 2014 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Misdemeanor Decriminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and interesting new paper by Alexandra Natapoff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the U.S. rethinks its stance on mass incarceration, misdemeanor decriminalization is an increasingly popular reform. Seen as a potential cure for crowded jails and an overburdened defense bar, many states are eliminating jail time for minor offenses such as marijuana possession and driving violations, and replacing those crimes with so-called “nonjailable” or “fine-only” offenses. This form of reclassification is widely perceived as a way of saving millions of state dollars — nonjailable offenses do not trigger the right to counsel — while easing the punitive impact on defendants, and it has strong support from progressives and conservatives alike.

But decriminalization has a little-known dark side. Unlike full legalization, decriminalization preserves many of the punitive features and collateral consequences of the criminal misdemeanor experience, even as it strips defendants of counsel and other procedural protections. It actually expands the reach of the criminal apparatus by making it easier — both logistically and normatively — to impose fines and supervision on an ever-widening population, a population who ironically often ends up incarcerated anyway when they cannot afford the fines or comply with the supervisory conditions.

The turn to fine-only offenses and supervision, moreover, has distributive implications. It captures poor, underemployed, drug-dependent, and other disadvantaged defendants for whom fines and supervision are especially burdensome, while permitting well-resourced offenders to exit the process quickly and relatively unscathed. Finally, as courts turn increasingly to fines and fees to fund their own operations, decriminalization threatens to become a kind of regressive tax, turning the poorest populations into funding fodder for the judiciary and other government budgets. In sum, while decriminalization appears to offer relief from the punitive legacy of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a highly conflicted regulatory strategy that preserves and even strengthens some of the most problematic aspects of the massive U.S. penal system.

September 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Editorial laments how some part of Ohio are "addicted to prisons"

The Toledo Blade has this lengthy new editorial headlined "Addicted to Prisons" that discusses lots of interesting facets of Ohio's criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

Stark differences in judges, as well as access to local treatment programs, have created appalling disparities in how justice is handed out to addicts and nonviolent drug offenders in Ohio.  Two cases involving heroin addicts, portrayed today in a front-page column by The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor, Jeff Gerritt, show what Ohio is doing right and what it continues to do wrong.

In Hardin County, Kaylee Morrison, 28, was just sentenced to four years in prison, where she will cost taxpayers $100,000 while failing to get the help she needs to manage her addiction.  In neighboring Marion County, Clayton Wood, 29, was sentenced to drug court, where he gets treated in his community while working full time and paying taxes.

Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic has rocked the state’s criminal justice system, flooding its crowded prisons and burdened courts with addicts and minor drug offenders who would be more effectively — and inexpensively — treated in their communities. Of the more than 20,000 people entering Ohio’s prisons each year, the share of inmates admitted for opioid- and heroin-related crimes has increased more than 400 percent in the past 13 years.

Moving Ohio to a more cost-effective, rational, and humane criminal justice system will take, among other things, more drug courts, sentencing and code reforms, and a significant shift of resources from state prisons to community-based treatment programs....

Statistical profiles of the state’s incoming inmates underscore the need for change. They show many low-level offenders with short sentences that community-based sanctions could handle more effectively at a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to imprison them.

More than 5,000 people a year go to prison in Ohio for drug crimes, mostly low-level offenses. Almost the same number of incoming prisoners — most of them addicts — have never been arrested for, or convicted of, a violent offense. Moreover, nearly 45 percent of those who go to prison each year in Ohio — almost 9,000 people — serve less than a year. That’s not enough time for them to get involved in meaningful programs that would reduce their chances of returning to prison.

Incarcerating minor drug offenders is costing Ohio tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Ohio taxpayers get little return on that investment, as untreated addicts return to their communities unequipped to cope with their disease.

Adult felony drug courts, which combine treatment with more-frequent but shorter sanctions, offer an excellent alternative. Residents of every Ohio county should have access to one. Still, such specialized dockets, with assigned probation officers, exist in fewer than a third of Ohio’s 88 counties....

With or without drug courts, judges need sufficient resources in their communities to treat drug addiction and serve as cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Such programs give judges more sentencing options.

Nearly 10,000 offenders leave Ohio’s prisons each year with an intense history of addiction. As part of its re-entry efforts, DRC must ensure they are linked to treatment programs immediately after they’re released, including support groups and medication-assisted treatment.

Finally, the administration of Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Supreme Court, through symposiums and other outreach effects, should educate all Ohio judges on how addiction works. Likewise, the General Assembly must make sure that Ohio’s legal code doesn’t mandate inappropriate or ineffective penalties and sanctions for offenses that are rooted in addiction.

The growing number of addicts and low-level drug offenders in Ohio’s costly and crowded prisons is a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its opioid and heroin epidemic. Changing course will require a far greater understanding of addiction among those who make and execute Ohio’s laws and criminal code, and a seismic shift in resources and investments from the state’s prisons to its struggling communities.

The article referenced in the first paragraph of this editorial is headlined "Criminalizing addiction: Whether drug users go to prison depends on where they live," and it is available at this link.

September 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"

CA6K4VHLThe question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU.  An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront."  And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:

Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime?  Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.

  And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by  Vanita Gupta: 

Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.

The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....

While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.

We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.

Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.

The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.

But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.

According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.

The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.

As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.

September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

"A 'Holocaust in Slow Motion?' America's Mass Incarceration and the Role of Discretion"

The provocative title of this post is the title of this provocative new article available via SSRN and authored by (former federal prosecutor) Mark W. Osler and (current federal judge) Mark W. Bennett. Here is the abstract:

Numbers don’t lie: America has suffered an explosion in imprisonment that has been fundamentally unrelated to actual crime levels. In this article, a federal District Court Judge and a former federal prosecutor examine the roots of this explosion with a focus on the discretion of Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, federal prosecutors, and judges. This dark period may be in its twilight, though, and the authors conclude by describing specific actions each of these four groups could take to dismantle the cruel machinery of mass incarceration.

September 2, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

"Rethink sentencing and parole to solve aging, costly prison population"

The title of this post is the headline of this new editorial from a local South Carolina paper.  Yet, even though focused on some Palmetto State particulars, many of the points and themes in the editorial have broad applicability in many US jurisdictions.  Here are excerpts:

The term "life in prison" is easy enough to understand when it is handed down as a sentence in a courtroom.  But after the courtroom drama subsides, Corrections Department officials must face the realities of feeding, housing and caring for criminals who will spend decades in prison.

For many, the sentences are a just and fair punishment.  Often, they are also necessary to keep the public safe.  But some who will spend their lives behind bars must do so because of overly severe mandatory sentencing laws.

Regardless, any prisoner costs the state and its taxpayers a lot of money.  Prisons should serve to deter would-be criminals and separate society from its most dangerous members. Problems — and extra costs — arise when they must also serve as mental health facilities and nursing homes.

According to a recent report by The State newspaper, the number of South Carolina inmates over the age of 55 has more than doubled over the last 10 years. And that number is expected to increase without reforms to the way the state handles its sentencing and parole laws.

Many aging prisoners were sentenced long before a 2010 legislative reform reduced sentences for some non-violent crimes while strengthening punishments for violent offenders. That bill was so effective that it has reduced the prison population in the state by more than 10 percent overall and slashed the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders in the years since its passage.

South Carolina has also implemented programs, including a "smart probation" system, that have helped cut the rate of recidivism dramatically, as The Post and Courier reported on Sunday.   Even so, the state's cost per inmate continues to rise, and part of that increase is due to the expense of caring for aging prisoners with additional medical needs and accompanying logistical concerns....

The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission prepares an annual review of the state corrections system with a particular focus on the impact of the 2010 legislation.  That data show that sentencing reform has, by and large, been a success story. But more work remains.  South Carolina should continue its reform of sentencing laws while focusing on rehabilitation for offenders who pose a minimal threat if given probation rather than prison.

The Legislature should also consider expanding parole options for aging inmates who have served substantial portions of their sentences, have serious chronic medical conditions or are unlikely to pose a threat should they be released under supervision.  Every prisoner who can safely be released on parole represents thousands of dollars of savings for taxpayers....

Any decision must consider both what is cost effective and acceptable for public safety. If some older prisoners who have effectively paid their debt to society can be allowed to re-enter society safely and at a savings to taxpayers, then there is little reason to keep them locked away.

September 2, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 01, 2014

Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth

As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population.  And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:

A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.

Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....

Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”

Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.

September 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Shareholders of private prison corporations already profiting from border problems

Images (1)As this CNN Money article highlights, because of the "crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, ... Wall Street is betting that it will result in a boom for private prisons."  Here is more about who can profit from a need for prison beds:

Geo Group (GEO)and Corrections Corporation of America (CXW) are two of America's largest for-profit prison operators. They have thousands of open beds, and they have deep relationships with the federal agencies charged with doling out contracts to house undocumented immigrants, including children.

"It's highly likely that the federal government will have to turn to the private sector for help with this crisis. Both companies are extremely well positioned," said Brian Ruttenbur, an analyst at CRT Capital Group who covers the stocks of Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Investors are clearly seeing dollar signs. Shares of both CCA and Geo Group have spiked since the border crisis landed on front pages this summer. CCA has climbed 8.5% since July 30, and Geo Group is up over 7%. That's a lot better than the S&P 500's 1.5% advance over that time span.

The Obama administration has already shifted over $405 million in funds to address the crisis and is urging Congress to pass a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental bill. "Investors see this as an opportunity. This is a potentially untapped market that will have very strong demand," said Alex Friedmann, an activist investor who owns shares of both CCA and Geo Group....

Ruttenbur said CCA and Geo Group have both been talking to the federal government about how they can help. "We are always in conversations with our government partners including ICE, but we don't have anything new to report," a CCA spokesman told CNNMoney. Geo Group did not respond to a request for comment.

The best outcome for these companies would be landing a contract with the government to help house some of the undocumented immigrants at existing facilities that are currently idle. That's exactly what happened last month when the U.S. border control inked a contract with Geo Group to give its adult detention center in Karnes County, Texas a makeover. Now the facility is able to house hundreds of immigrant women and children....

Wall Street also applauded when CCA and Geo Group, which went public during the 1980s and 1990s, recently converted to real estate investment trusts, or REITs. That status, which is also used by hospitals and office building operators, gives them enormous tax advantages....

[I]nvestors are attracted to prison stocks because they give generate lots of cash flow, have strong dividend yields and high occupancy rates compared to other real estate options. "The long-term trends are very much in place right now because the federal, state and local governments aren't willing to put up the capital to build new facilities. The only group building new facilities is the private sector," said Ruttenbur.

August 31, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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 (2) | 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