Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"How to Stop Revolving Prison Doors With Books"

The title of this post is the title of this extended piece in the Harvard Political Review authored by Alice Hu.  Here is how it starts and ends: 

Education reduces crime.  This connection seems like common sense, and indeed it has been researched, analyzed, and affirmed countless times.  According to a 2007 collaborative study by Columbia University, Princeton University, and City University of New York, higher education reduces the crime rates of both juveniles and adults by impacting social behavior and economic stability.

The effect of education on crime-reduction is even more dramatic for a certain group within the population: the incarcerated.  To many, the idea of convicts receiving a free college education behind bars is confounding and, more often, infuriating.  When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly finance basic college education programs in state prisons, legislators in Albany called it “a slap in the face” for law-abiding citizens.

While this response is understandable, the arguments themselves neglect the actual effects of college-in-prison programs.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prisons than those who did not.  By drastically reducing the recidivism rate of former inmates, education in prisons returns a tremendous social benefit for all members of society.  Prison education programs not only save an enormous sum of tax dollars spent on prisons annually, but they also have a profound effect on thousands of families and communities.  The current resistance to college-in-prison is founded upon political rhetoric rather than any factual evidence. Indeed, this type of rhetoric by politicians is perhaps indicative of a large, troubling trend in education and incarceration....

College stops the revolving prison doors. It allows inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, to work, pay taxes, and contribute to society.  It saves the public billions of tax dollars, money that can go toward higher education aid for students rather than prison expansion.  The “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped past politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — to win elections, but it has done little to help the people inside or outside the prisons.  Indeed, the adverse effect of forgoing college programs for inmates cuts across partisan lines and prison bars.  Perhaps this is why President Clinton, who was once adamant about being “on the side of those who abide by the law,” has since commended Bard Prison Initiative as a “good investment in a safer, more productive society.”  Politicians can choose to neglect the evidence and paint college-in-prison programs as unfair to law-abiding citizens, but the true injustice lies in the continuation of ineffective and costly practices when a solution is readily available — education.  It is common sense, after all.

February 3, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2015

Getting a European perspective on crowded prisons

WO-AV345_EUPRIS_9U_20150202185222This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Overcrowding Puts Strains on Europe’s Century-Old Prisons," highlights that the US does not have the most densely populated prisons in the world even though we have the largest total prison population. Here are some details from the article:

While cities and states across the U.S. are selling off prisons as the inmate population shrinks, Europe faces the opposite challenge: how to cope with chronic overcrowding in old, cramped jails.

The fortresslike structure of Forest prison is in the otherwise chic Saint-Gilles district of Brussels. Built in 1910 to house 380 inmates, it currently holds 600, most of whom are awaiting trial. In two of the four wings, three inmates are held in 90-square-foot cells designed for one. Two share bunk beds while the third has a mattress on the floor. They eat there and share a toilet. In the other half, prisoners have individual cells but no running water. They must relieve themselves in a bucket that can go unemptied for 48 hours....

“It is medieval,” said Vincent Spronck, who became warden four years ago after a decade working in other prisons. “I didn’t know these conditions still existed until I got here.” The problem isn’t limited to Forest or even Belgium.

In central London, the 170-year-old Pentonville Prison houses 1,303 men in a space designed for 913. An official report found “significant, easily visible vermin infestations,” dirty cells, and rampant drug abuse, and suggested shutting it down.

La Modelo in Barcelona, built in 1904, held 1,781 inmates in space designed for 1,100 when it was last inspected by a team from the intergovernmental Council of Europe, the continent’s human-rights watchdog. Lisbon Central Prison (built 1885) has an official capacity of 886, but was holding 1,310 prisoners in May 2013. Korydallos Prison, built in the 1960s in Athens, should hold 840 people, but held 2,300 in April 2013.

“The whole structure is in a state of crisis,” said Hugh Chetwynd, head of division for the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Overcrowding means “staff struggle to keep proper control, so they resort more to excessive force.” Prison populations per capita are growing in most European countries....

One solution is to send prisoners abroad. Belgium pays €43 million ($48 million) a year to the Netherlands to hold 600 prisoners over the border in a former military barracks in Tilburg. Belgium and Italy, which also has a long-term overcrowding problem, are building new prisons, but some experts argue this doesn’t resolve the problem. “You build big prisons…that leads to higher population rates,” said Peter Bennett, who was warden at four prisons before becoming director of the London-based ICPS. “All the research shows that sending people to prison doesn’t reduce the crime rate.”

Still, while there appears to be no strong relationship across countries between incarceration and crime rates, the crime rate in the U.K. has fallen as the prison population has risen. Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Center for Crime Prevention, said taking serial criminals off the streets cuts crime. “If you don’t do anything else,” he said, a criminal “can easily end up committing hundreds of crimes a year.” He said that longer sentences reduce recidivism rates and while overcrowding isn’t ideal, his solution is to build more prisons.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Indiana sentencing reforms highlight how low-level criminal justice is forced to fill public health gaps

This lengthy local article from Indiana, headlined "County jails fear onslaught of addicts, mentally ill from prisons," provides an effective showcase of the relationships between criminal-justice issues and public-health issues. Here is how:

With the passage of sentencing reforms last year, one study estimates that more than 14,000 low-level offenders, some with serious addictions and mental illnesses, will no longer be kept in prison.  They will be diverted to county jails and community corrections programs that [Franklin County Sheriff Ken] Murphy and others say are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught.

Many such offenders need expensive mental health care — some requiring hundreds of dollars a month in medication.  "These are people with real problems that need treatment," Murphy said. "We need a secure facility or work release or whatever where we can send these folks ... where they can receive treatment, and when they're released, somebody follows up with them."

Sheriffs across the state say jails are not designed for all that.  Jails are meant to hold people awaiting trial, not to house and rehabilitate those who have been convicted. Many do not have mental health services.  Some counties also lack money to expand treatment programs or to launch community corrections programs that provide alternatives to jail, such as housing and GPS monitoring.  That, Murphy said, makes this legislative session critical for public safety.

The success of the criminal code reform under House Enrolled Act 1006, which took effect in July, hinges largely on providing funds for county programs.  Without them, Murphy and others say, people with mental illness and substance abuse problems have a higher risk of failing and re-offending....

"County jails are totally based on the idea in our society that you are innocent until proven guilty," said Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers. "(HEA) 1006 wants us to hold folks after they've been convicted. Then they won't be pretrial detainees." Rogers said HEA 1006 will put a strain on his jail's mental health resources. "If we can reduce the amount of people that have these mental health issues in our jail," Rogers said, "I think we can handle what 1006 will bring us."

Jails also lack educational programs and vocational training offered in the DOC. "We're not here to rehabilitate," said Capt. Harold Vincent, commander at the Howard County Jail. "That doesn't happen in the jail setting."

Inmates with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems are expensive to incarcerate because of their medical and psychiatric needs. In Marion County, for instance, about 30 percent of inmates are mentally ill, and they take up roughly $7.7 million of the sheriff's budget every year, Layton said. Eighty-five percent have substance abuse problems.

Medication for the mentally ill costs about $800 to $1,500 per dose per person, said Dr. Erika Cornett, medical director for the behavioral health division of Community Howard Regional Health.  Some need an injection once a month, while others need two. That means one mentally ill inmate can cost a jail up to $3,000 a month in medication alone....

Will the political atmosphere be agreeable to spending more money on programs and services that help criminals?  Some hope so....   Some, however, think there will be political resistance.  Investing in other areas, such as education, is more popular.

This article is notable in part because it helps highlight that efforts to reduce prison populations and associated costs could be "penny wise, pound foolish" if there are not adequate resources devoted to services needed to aid localities with community supervision and reentry needs.  More broadly, by detailing various links between health-care needs and criminal justice institutions, this article suggests that effective health-care reform (especially for the poor) may be as critical to public safety and to the public fisc as is effective sentencing reform.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seemingly without a "grim roster of victims," California reduces extreme prison crowding as ordered in Plata

DownloadAs long-time readers will recall, the US Supreme Court in 2011 in Plata upheld, by a 5-4 vote, a lower-court order that imposed on California a requirement to have its prison population reduced below 137.5% of capacity to remedy extreme Eighth Amendment violations in prison conditions (basics here).  In their dissenting Plata opinions (as noted here and here), Justices Alito and Scalia predicted this ruling would likely produce "a grim roster of victims" and a massive number of "murders, robberies, and rapes" in California.  Similarly, as noted here, in response to Gov Jerry Brown's realignment plan to deal with the Plata problems, the Los Angeles DA predicted "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."

Fast forward a few years and this local story now reports that "California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule."  Here is more: 

California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804 -- larger than Elk Grove’s current estimated population -- or 200.2 percent of the design capacity at that time.

Lawyers for the inmates said overcrowding had reached the point that medical and mental health care services for prisoners were unconstitutional, and they renewed their legal challenge to a system in which inmates were being housed in triple-deck bunks in prison gyms and other open spaces.  The state disagreed and continued to fight, but in August 2009 a panel of three federal judges said the situation had “brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.”

The panel decreed that within two years the state would reduce inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision in 2011 that the prison population had to be reduced, prompting a series of efforts under Gov. Jerry Brown that led to Thursday’s levels.

Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark. The early success in getting to that point can be traced largely to the governor’s prison realignment plan, passed in 2011, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Before that plan, as many as 60,000 inmates annually were sent to prisons as parole violators and served an average of 90 days. The Department of Corrections says realignment has cut the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. Counties statewide have seen an increase in jail inmates during that time frame....

[In addition,] 2,035 inmates have been released since passage of Proposition 47 in November, which redesignated several felony-level crimes, including some drug possession and property offenses, as misdemeanors. [And] 1,975 inmates in prison after a “third strike” have been released since voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012.  The measure allows for inmates to seek resentencing if their third strike was not considered serious or violent.

So, one should ask, what has happened recently in California with respect to crime rates, especially violent crimes that produce the greatest harms to victims.  This Crime & Consequences post provides a quick summary of the latest official data: "California property crimes per 100k population totaled 2,665.5 in 2013, a 3% drop from the 2012 figure although still above the rate before the realignment law went into effect.  Even better, the rate of violent crimes, less affected by that law, is down to a level not seen since 1967."

Posts at C&C highlight data indicating an increase in car thefts and other property crimes in recent years in California.  But I do not think even the greatest critics of Plata and the state's responses can assert that, as was predicted by a prominent prosecutor, California has experienced "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."  In sharp contrast, violent crime has continued to drop in the state in the wake of Plata.  

Though I doubt we will be hearing any sort of mea culpa from those who predicted that the public safety sky was sure to fall after Plata, I hope the California story will help inform assessments of future Chicken-Little-type predictions.

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population

NA-CE465_AGING_9U_20150128190609This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "U.S. Prisons Grapple With Aging Population: More Middle-Age Offenders Are Entering or Re-entering Facilities, Research Shows," explores why and how the population of incarceration nation is aging.  Here are excerpts:

Criminal-justice experts often attribute the older prison population to harsher sentencing policies and antidrug laws adopted in the 1980s.  The conventional wisdom is that enforcement of these laws led to longer sentences and more time served, which, in turn, is rapidly driving up the average age of inmates.

New research, however, offers an alternative view: The population of graying prisoners has exploded in recent years largely because more offenders ... are entering or re-entering prison in middle age.  It is a finding that could force states to rethink their efforts to tamp down on the escalating costs of caring for older inmates.

“People are getting arrested and sentenced to prison at a higher rate in their 30s, 40s and 50s than they used to,” said Shawn Bushway, a public policy professor at the University at Albany who co-wrote a coming study on the aging of those incarcerated.

The average inmate generally costs $20,000 to $30,000 a year to incarcerate.  Elderly prisoners, often defined as those older than 50, cost as much as three times more, researchers estimate, because they are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that require expensive treatments.

The population of U.S. prisoners over the age of 44 grew more than 8% annually from 1991 to 2011 — four times the rate of prisoners under the age of 35, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the research arm of the Justice Department.  The proportion of inmates 54 years or older nearly tripled in that time, from 3% to more than 8%.  At the end of 2013, about 270,000 U.S. inmates were 50 years or older, out of a total prisoner population of more than 1.5 million, according to BJS.

Mr. Bushway’s research, based on U.S. Census surveys of state prisoners spanning from 1974 to 2004, suggests the trend is linked to high rates of reported drug use among older inmates — particularly those who came of age in the 1980s ... and have cycled in and out of prison for much of their adult lives....

A separate study on aging prisoners, funded by the Bureau, analyzed data from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and California, where the proportion of prisoners 50 years or older more than doubled since 2000.  The researchers, economist Jeremy Luallen and statistician Ryan Kling of consulting group Abt Associates, concluded that “rising admission age is the primary force driving the increase in the elderly group.”

The changing nature of offenses over time doesn’t explain the trend, nor do changes in sentencing severity, which had “virtually no impact” on the size of the group, they wrote. “Policy makers are missing an important part of the problem,” Mr. Luallen said in an interview. As states try to rein in costs of mass incarceration, Mr. Luallen said, they would do well to focus more on the flow of older people into the prison system than on reducing their sentences.

“Changing sentencing laws won’t affect” the increasing number of older prisoners, said John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, who studies mass incarceration. “You need to change the behavior of the district attorneys.”

The issue of recidivism continues to pose problems for state governments struggling to contain the costs of mass incarceration. A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study that examined state prisoners released in 2005 found that about two-thirds were arrested for a new crime within three years.

Harsher laws, such as those that mandate a life sentence after a person is convicted of three felonies, indisputably have led to more time behind bars for some. Bryce Peterson, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said longer sentences have “some effect” on the aging prison population. “It would be misleading to downplay that too much.” Mr. Peterson said he believed that Messrs. Luallen and Kling would have found that the length of time served in prison played a larger role in the graying of the inmate population had their study looked back further than 2000.

January 29, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Intriguing review of early impact of California's Prop 47 reducing offense seriousness

La-me-g-early-release-20150127Though marijuana reform is the national criminal justice reform story most significantly driven by voter initiatives, voters in California the last two major election cycles have been enacting significant sentencing reforms through the initiative process.  In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law; last year, voters passed Proposition 47 to reduced various crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. These developments provide yet another reason to view California as the most interesting and dynamic of all states in the history of modern sentencing reform.

The Los Angeles Times now has this lengthy new article detailing some early impacts of Prop 47. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 brings a shift to longer time spent behind bars," and here are excerpts:

For decades, Los Angeles County jail inmates divided their sentences by five, 10 or 20 to calculate the time they would actually spend behind bars. Because of overcrowding, they left after completing as little as 5% of their sentences.

Now, as Proposition 47 begins to reshape the California criminal justice system, they are serving much more of their time. The new law, passed by voters Nov. 4, reduced drug possession and other minor crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The county jail population plummeted and sheriff's officials began increasing the time served for the remaining inmates to 90% or more.

Most of the affected inmates will end up serving only half of that, due to automatic credits prescribed by state law, but the change is still profound. Because of Proposition 47, others who would have landed in jail are not being arrested as street cops take a pass because of the low stakes. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, bookings are down by 23% and narcotics-related arrests are down 30%.

Other California counties are also seeing significant decreases in their jail populations as a result of the new law. In Los Angeles County, the altered landscape has led to renewed questions about how big the new Men's Central Jail should be, as well as concerns about whether those now being issued misdemeanor citations are missing out on drug treatment that could turn their lives around.

Under the new law, the cost savings from smaller county jail populations, which the state legislative analyst estimated could be hundreds of millions of dollars, will be channeled into substance abuse and mental health programs, victim services and reducing school dropouts and truancy.

But some, including law enforcement officials, worry that people who need help will not enter the system. Already, fewer are opting for mandatory drug treatment programs because they face little to no jail time as an alternative. "What concerns me is that some of those offenders were getting treatment," said Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano, the Los Angeles County representative for the California Police Chiefs Assn., which lobbied against Proposition 47. "If they're getting arrested less, that doesn't mean their drug addiction problems have gone away."

Early release has been a near-constant feature in Los Angeles since 1988, when a federal judge allowed sentenced inmates to be let out early as a temporary solution to overcrowding. Many inmates were freed after serving only 10% of their time. A 2006 Times investigation found that nearly 16,000 were rearrested for new offenses while they could have been finishing out their sentences. Sixteen were charged with murder....

Over the years, the county has tried solutions including electronic monitoring, work programs and firefighting camps. But nothing had a dramatic impact until Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60% of the vote.

More than 400 county jail inmates have been released in the last three months because their crimes — which include theft and writing bad checks as well as drug possession — have been downgraded to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. That, combined with the reduced number of arrests, helped bring the jail population down to a low of about 15,000 from 18,600. Since early release has been scaled back, the inmate count has rebounded to about 17,400.

Inmates with county sentences for burglary, theft, DUI and the like are now serving 90% of their terms, whereas men had been serving 20% and women serving 10%. Those convicted of more serious offenses such as child molestation or assault with a deadly weapon are now serving 100% of their terms, compared with 40% previously. About 3,000 inmates are serving the longer county sentences; most of those serving state sentences are not affected.

The smaller jail population has allowed sheriff's officials to complete overdue repairs and has freed up more space for educational programs, Cmdr. Jody Sharp said. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey praised the news that serious offenders in Los Angeles County are now serving most of their terms, calling it "a positive and welcome effect" that could help her office strike better plea deals. "Every defendant asks the following question: 'When can I get out?' " Lacey said. "If the 'when can I get out' is far in the future, it could impact if they plead guilty early or if they demand a trial."

Lacey emphasized that keeping a close eye on crime and recidivism rates will be key to understanding the full impact of the new law.

In Orange County, the inmate count has dropped nearly 22% since Proposition 47 took effect after the election, allowing sheriff's officials to close a section of the James A. Musick jail. Previously, there were no extra beds for new arrivals on the long weekends when court was not in session. "Now, we've got the luxury of not waiting on pins and needles — now we have some space," said Lt. Jeff Hallock, a department spokesman.

This report provides early evidence that Prop 47 has succeeded in redirecting California's state law enforcement and correction resources principally to the most serious offenders presenting the greatest risk to public safety.  Of course, long-term developments and analyses will been needed to conclusively assess whether the Prop 47 reform is an unqualified success.  But this early report sure is encouraging (and perhaps explains why the folks at Crime & Consequences, who had substantive posts assailing Prop 47 before the November vote, have not substantively discussed the law since its passage).

Some prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

January 29, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Notable political debate over adding LWOP to punishments in Canada

The lengthy press article from Canada, headlined "Tories to table life in prison without parole, shifting legal landscape," spotlights an interesting debate over LWOP sentences up north. Here are excerpts:

The Conservative government is developing legislation that would mean some murderers will have no hope of release from prison. The new penalty would apply to several categories of those convicted of first-degree murder: killers of police and jail guards, anyone who kills during a sexual assault, kidnapping or act of terrorism and for especially brutal murders. The current penalty for first-degree murder is an automatic life sentence with the first chance for a parole review after 25 years, and the supervision of parole authorities for life.

The planned legislation has yet to be approved by cabinet, a source said. The departments of Public Safety and Justice, which are working together on the new bill, were told to speed up their work after a man shot two Mounties in St. Albert, Alta., on Jan. 17, killing one. The bill is expected to be introduced within a couple of weeks of a new terrorism bill coming on Friday, the source said....

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment directly on the categories outlined by The Globe, but quoted the Throne Speech of October, 2013, saying: “Canadians do not understand why the most dangerous criminals would ever be released from prison. We are currently reviewing options to ensure that a life sentence actually means life.”...

The United States is one of the last democracies with the death penalty, and all states but Alaska have the penalty of “life without parole.” The U.S. Supreme Court says life without parole shares some characteristics with the death penalty in that it alters an offender’s life by a “forfeiture that is irrevocable.” Prisoner advocates have dubbed it “the other death penalty,” and “death by incarceration.”

Since Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, the homicide rate has fallen from 3.08 victims for every 100,000 people to 1.44, its lowest rate since 1966. “It is so patently a sentence that reeks of vengeance that it’s hard to have a sensible political debate,” Archie Kaiser, a specialist in criminal law at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law in Halifax, said of life without parole. Vengeance is “really something we have cast aside in Canada, at least since we removed the death penalty.”

Gary Clewley, a defence lawyer in Toronto whose clients are mostly police officers, said the law professor “confuses vengeance with legitimate public indignation. You can’t compare a trial and appellate process at great public expense where people are guaranteed legal counsel and a trial of their peers to a lynch mob.”...

Until now, the Conservative government has taken an incremental approach to life penalties. In 2011, it removed the “faint-hope clause,” which allowed those convicted of murder to apply to a jury after 15 years for the right to an early parole hearing. Also in 2011, it allowed judges to add together the periods of parole eligibility for multiple murders. Two Canadians have been sentenced under the provision, including Justin Bourque, 24, sentenced to life with no eligibility for 75 years in the shooting deaths of three Mounties in New Brunswick last spring....

The cost could be enormous: Canada has 1,115 offenders who were sentenced to life for first-degree murder, of whom 203 have been released on parole; the average cost to keep a man in maximum security is $148,000, compared with $35,000 on parole, figures from Correctional Service Canada show. Forty years in jail would cost nearly $6-million for one person in maximum-security, and $6-billion for 1,000.

As of 2006, lifers on parole had killed 58 people. That category includes those such as Robert Bruce Moyes, sentenced to life as an armed bank robber, who, while on parole killed seven people in Abbotsford, B.C., in 1996. In recent years, the website of Correctional Service Canada has described those serving life sentences as “the most likely to succeed on parole.” A spokesperson said on Monday the agency could not identify, for privacy reasons, the last first-degree murderer released on parole who killed again, nor how many have done so since 1976.

January 28, 2015 in Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

Shouldn't true fiscal conservatives question a federal program with 600% recent spending growth?

PSPP_Fed_Growth_FS_fig1The question in the title of this post is part of my reaction to this new fact sheet released by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. The Pew document is titled "Growth in Federal Prison System Exceeds States': Federal imprisonment rate, taxpayer costs soar as states curtail expansion, protect public safety," and here is how it starts (footnoted omitted):

Between 1980 and 2013, the federal imprisonment rate increased 518 percent, from 11 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents to 68.  During the same period, annual spending on the federal prison system rose 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Prison expenditures grew from 14 percent of the Justice Department’s total outlays to 23 percent, increasingly competing for resources with law enforcement and national security programs.

States, like the federal government, recorded sharp increases in incarceration and corrections costs over the past three decades.  However, between 2007 and 2013, many states made research-driven policy changes to control prison growth, reduce recidivism, and contain costs. While the federal imprisonment rate continued to rise during that period, the state rate declined.

Folks like Bill Otis and some other defenders of the modern state of the modern federal criminal justice system are often suspect when I (and others like Senator Rand Paul and Grover Norquist) assert that a true commitment to conservative values should prompt serious questions about the size and operation of federal criminal justice system.  And I fully understand how folks committed to certain social conservative values, and who also believe the federal government should be actively promoting certain social values, can continue to support strongly the federal war on drugs and ever-increasing federal expenditures in service to promoting certain social values.

But, as the title of this post suggests, I do not understand how anyone who is truly committed to fiscal conservative values is not now compelled to examine whether it is wise to keep spending/borrowing more and more federal monies to keep growing the federal prison system.  As this Pew document and many others have highlighted, a significant number of states have been able to reduce its spending on incarceration over the last decade without any obvious harmful impact on public safety.  My advocacy for federal sentencing reform is based largely on the hope and belief that the feds can now do the same.

January 26, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this recent essay by Robynn J.A. Cox  from the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is the essay's executive summary:

On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters.  After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans.  The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States.  Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men.  But there are solutions to rectify this problem.

To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.

What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.

At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.

January 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Highlighting that most prisoners in Wisconsin now sent there for parole or probation violations

B99420782z.1_20150117211308_000_g199j1go.1-0This lengthy Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel article highlights the interesting reality of just who gets sent to prison in the Badger State and how. The piece carries this headline and subheading: "No new conviction, but sent back to prison; Re-incarceration for rule, parole violations costs taxpayers millions." Here is how the article starts:

More than half of the nearly 8,000 people sent to Wisconsin's prisons in 2013 were locked up without a trial — and they weren't found guilty of new crimes.  Some were punished for violating probation or parole by doing things such as accepting a job without permission, using a cellphone or computer without authorization, or leaving their home county. Some were suspected of criminal activity, but not charged.

Re-incarcerating people for breaking the rules costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $100 million every year. The process that forces violators back behind bars relies largely on the judgment of individual parole agents, which can vary widely. Once accused of violations, people on parole can be sent back to prison for years without proof beyond a reasonable doubt — and they are left with little chance of a successful appeal.

Hector Cubero's agent, for example, recommended he be returned to prison on his original sentence of life with the possibility of parole after he inked a tattoo on the shoulder of a 15-year-old boy. The tattoo featured a cross and a quote from peace activist Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."

Cubero maintains the teen lied about his age. Had Cubero been found guilty of tattooing a minor, a city ordinance violation, he would have been ticketed and fined $200. If he had been convicted of tattooing without a license, a misdemeanor, he could have been fined $500 and faced a maximum of 30 days in jail. But because he was on parole at the time, Cubero, 52, has served more than two years — with no guarantee he will ever go home.

Cubero already had spent more than 27 years behind bars for being a party to the crimes of first-degree murder and armed robbery. Court records show Cubero, 18 at the time of the offense, did not plan the robbery or fire the shots that killed the victim, a Milwaukee dentist.

Until the parents of the 15-year-old complained about the tattoo, Cubero had never violated parole, according to Corrections Department records. During the four years he'd been free, he passed all his drug tests, paid his restitution and court costs and worked fairly steadily. Nonetheless, Cubero's parole agent recommended he be sent back to prison. The agent, with cooperation from a prison social worker, also blocked his fiancée, Charlotte Mertins of Delafield, and her three children, all in their 20s, from visiting him.

January 18, 2015 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"If crime is falling, why aren’t prisons shrinking?"

Cbpp_statesThe title of this post is the headline of this notable Boston Globe commentary. Here are some excerpts:

The prison population in Massachusetts has tripled in size since 1980. That’s faster than the state economy has grown and even faster than the rise in obesity. Massachusetts is hardly alone in this. Prison populations have mushroomed all across the United States, occasionally reaching rates far higher than anything seen here.  But while many states are now experimenting with approaches that ease criminal penalties, Massachusetts has taken few steps in this direction.
How many people are in prison? About 165 of every 100,000 people in Massachusetts are currently serving prison sentences of a year or longer. That number used to be a lot lower. In the late 1970s, just 50 of every 100,000 people were in state prisons.  You can find this same upward trend most everywhere in the United States; across the country, roughly 430 of every 100,000 people are in state prisons.
 Why has the prison population grown so rapidly? Initially, the growth in prison populations was a response to the surge in crime that shook American cities in the ’60s and ’70s. Faced with eruptions of violence, states everywhere began to put more people in prison and to increase the length of prison sentences.
Despite the fact that crime rates have declined dramatically since the early 1990s, those policing techniques and sentencing laws stayed in place. As a result, the prison population remains elevated....
Liberal and conservative states alike have begun to reassess the efficacy of their incarceration policies.  Partly, that’s about the strain on state budgets — building and maintaining prisons has proved extremely costly. But it’s also because of new research showing that it’s possible to loosen criminal penalties and reduce crime at the same time.
Over the last few years, the states that made the biggest reductions to their prison populations, including New Jersey and Connecticut, have also seen some of the biggest drops in crime.
Since 2008, 29 states have seen both lower crime rates and smaller prison populations. “Justice reinvestment” is the term being used to describe this effort, and what it involves is a careful cost-benefit analysis to see how states can simultaneously keep people out of prison, reduce crime, and save money. Among other things, states are experimenting with:
Looser drug laws. Over a dozen states, from California to Maine, have stopped sending people to prison for possessing small amounts of marijuana. And even with more serious drugs, it can be more effective — and cheaper — to help people get treatment. Texas has invested millions of dollars in treatment programs for drug offenders.
Electronic monitoring. Only recently has it become possible to effectively monitor people without putting them in prison. For those awaiting trial or struggling to keep up with the conditions of their parole, an ankle monitor can be a relatively inexpensive alternative to confinement. New Jersey is one of the states making use of this technology.
Therapy. Some forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy have been shown to keep one-time criminals from becoming two-time criminals, which is good for the public and good for state budgets. Dozens of different states have experimented with these therapies.
What reforms are being tried in Massachusetts? Given that the prison population in Massachusetts is far smaller than elsewhere in the United States, there’s less urgency around issues of reform.  Still, Massachusetts devotes about 3 percent of its budget — over $1 billion each year — to corrections. That’s twice what we spend on early education and roughly the same amount that we devote to higher education....
During his time in office, Governor Patrick had said he hoped this new information would revitalize the state’s sentencing commission, but it’s a big step from data-gathering to policy-making.  For now, other states seem to be taking the lead in the effort to find targeted reforms that can safely reverse the decades-long increase in prison populations.

January 17, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation

Murakawa2014I first spotlighted in this prior post the fascinating new book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.  I now see that The Marshall Project has published this great piece by Dana Goldstein with a brief overview of the book and a potent Q&A with its author.  Here is how the piece starts and some of my favorite excerpts:

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum.  Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment.  She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone.  Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP.  These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias.  But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.

Murakawa and I talked about her book and its implications for criminal justice reform today, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Obama administration’s policing reforms....

Q: Your book aims to expose the liberal roots of the prison boom.  But Democrats did not create the Willie Horton ad.  It was Richard Nixon who expanded the drug war by claiming that drug use was “the common denominator” that explained lawlessness among hippies, inner-city blacks, and antiwar protestors.  Is it important to distinguish between the different motives of conservatives and liberals?

A: I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes in terms of how they affect people’s day-to-day lives. I do discount stated intentions quite a lot.  I do this in part because I have a feeling that for those being sentenced under punitive sentencing guidelines it doesn’t make a difference to them that Sen. Ted Kennedy was liberal and overall had a good voting record.  It doesn’t make the brutality of living in a cage any less violent.

Kennedy promulgated this idea of sentencing guidelines.  It was his baby.  He ushered it through the Senate at first as guidelines that were rigid but would have been somewhat anti-carceral.  They became guidelines that were rigid and more carceral.  And Reagan signed this legislation, in 1984. Kennedy had the rest of his life to say, “The sentencing guidelines have had a terrible impact. This is not what I meant.”  Not once did he introduce legislation to reform the guidelines.  Not once did he apologize or try to change it.  When I look at that kind of history, that’s where I feel like it’s fair to hold liberals responsible.

Q: Joe Biden played an interesting role in what you call Democrats “upping the ante” to outbid conservatives on being tough on crime.  Can you talk about Biden’s history?

A:  He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences.  Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up.  There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly.  But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.

That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.  One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone.  It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it.  There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act.  The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.

Prior related post:

January 15, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"In a Safer Age, U.S. Rethinks Its ‘Tough on Crime’ System"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy front-page New York Times article discussing modern criminal justice realities that should already be known by regular readers of this blog.  Here are a couple snippets from the effective piece:

Democrats and Republicans alike are rethinking the vast, costly infrastructure of crime control and incarceration that was born of the earlier crime wave. “The judicial system has been a critical element in keeping violent criminals off the street,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who is co­sponsor of a bill to reduce some federal drug sentences. “But now we’re stepping back, and I think it’s about time, to ask whether the dramatic increase in incarceration was warranted.”

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has opposed broad reductions in sentences. But he still agreed, in an interview, that “there are a lot of ideas — prison reform, policing, sentencing — being discussed now that wouldn’t be if we hadn’t had this drop in the crime statistics.”...

Along with uncertainty about the sources of lower crime are contentious debates about what should come next.  How far can incarceration be reduced without endangering safety? Where is the proper line between aggressive, preventive policing and intrusive measures that alienate the law­abiding?

The rise in incarceration has been even more striking than the decline in crime, leading to growing agreement on both the right and the left that it has gone too far.  From the early 1970s to 2009, mainly because of changes in sentencing, the share of American residents in state or federal prison multiplied fourfold, reaching 1.5 million on any given day, with hundreds of thousands more held in local jails, although the rate has tapered off somewhat since 2009.

The social and economic costs are now the subject of intense study.  Some conservatives such as William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, argue that while many factors account for falling crime, harsher justice surely played a significant role. “When people are incarcerated they are not out on the street to ransack your home or sell drugs to your high school kid,” he said.

But many criminologists say the impact has been limited.  “The policy decisions to make long sentences longer and to impose mandatory minimums have had minimal effect on crime,” said Mr. Travis, of John Jay College. “The research on this is quite clear.”

Higher imprisonment might explain from 10 percent to, at most, 25 percent of the crime drop since the early 1990s, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri ­St. Louis.  But it brought diminishing returns, he said, as those committing less severe crimes also received lengthy sentences.  

Many states, led by Republicans as well as by Democrats, have acted to reduce sentences for low­level and nonviolent crimes and to improve drug and other treatment services, while still bringing down crime rates.

January 14, 2015 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 12, 2015

County budget woes forces a official jail break in Ohio

Jail12-01A helpful reader altered me to this remarkable local story from Ohio, headlined "Summit County releases 72 inmates from jail," which highlights the extreme measures some officials feel they have to take when budget pressures and prisoner overcrowding reaches a breaking point.  Here are the details that explain this picture:

Summit County closed a wing of its jail Sunday for financial and safety reasons and began releasing inmates.  Seventy-two people — some with low-level felony charges and most nonviolent — filed out of the correctional facility shortly after noon.

They were greeted in the parking lot by family and social agencies, and then headed either to shelters, alternative sentencing programs or home.

“For the safety of everyone in this facility, not only the staff but the inmates as well, we’re doing what we have to do due to the financial situation of this county,” Sheriff Steve Barry said.  Barry, whose career began with the sheriff’s office in 1979, could not recall another time when the county released a large number of inmates for budgetary reasons.

The sheriff had announced the release plan last month, saying he doesn’t have enough deputies to safely oversee the jail.  The county already has cut recreation time and programming for inmates because of staffing.

In late 2013, a national jail expert recommended that the county hire at least 50 more workers or close a portion of the facility.  Then last fall, county voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have funneled most of the money to jail operations.  The facility, on East Crosier Street in Akron, can hold 671 inmates, but will be reduced to 522.  “I don’t want these people out,” Barry said. “I got no choice.”

Asked what the county would do in the future, the sheriff responded: “That’s a very good question” and acknowledged he doesn’t know what the solution is.  The release Sunday was complicated by the fact that the jail received about 50 new inmates over the last two days, Barry said.  That meant some people charged with assaults, domestic violence and other crimes not expected to be let go were set free.

No one charged with murder or rape was released, the sheriff said. It was unclear if any of the inmates were released early from a sentence or if they were all awaiting trial. Sheriff’s officials could not say Sunday.

Barry credited the jail staff for handling the background reviews of all inmates. “They have been working around the clock the last four to five days on who could go and who could not go,” Barry said. He added that authorities attempted to contact every victim of the inmates who were released.

Former inmate Antonio Spragling, 50, of Akron had been in the jail for 47 days. He was arrested last year on drug charges and violation of a protection order and is awaiting trial. “All I could do is thank God,” he said. “I’m spiritual. God is my savior. … Unfortunately I’ve been in situations like this before and there was talk of release and it never happened. I look at it as a second chance and I’m not going to let anyone down. No judge. The system. And more important, I’m not going to let myself down.”

David Kennedy of Barberton and Joseph Griffin Jr. of Akron came to the jail to pick up relatives. As they stood in the parking lot waiting, they said they wished there were more programs to help former inmates and more businesses willing to hire them. Without training and jobs, they’ll just end up back in jail, they said. “They’ve got some good people in there,” Kennedy said. “They just had a bad turn. Somebody didn’t help them out. Nobody gave them that momentum, encouraging them to do the right thing. Some of the people in there you can tell have a good heart.”

January 12, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Toledo Blade urges "No more prisons" for Ohio as it deals with overcrowding issues

This new editorial from The Toledo Blade makes the case for sentencing reform to deal with Ohio's prison overcrowding problems.  Here are excerpts:

Fueled largely by growing numbers of nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio’s crowded prison system is at a crossroads: The state must either increase capacity or take the far more sensible, humane, safe, and cost-effective route of finding community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Statistical profiles of the state’s incoming inmates underscore the need for change.  They show many low-level offenders with short sentences that community sanctions could handle more effectively, at a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to lock up each prisoner. Ohio’s prison system costs $1.5 billion a year.

Nearly 45 percent of inmates 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.  Expanding drug courts in Ohio would ensure that more offenders who struggle with addiction were sentenced to treatment instead of prison.

Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, prudently and courageously rules out building more prisons, though he said crowding statewide could force Ohio to reopen a prison camp.... “As a state, we’re going to have to make some policy decisions,” Mr. Mohr told The Blade’s editorial page. “Are we going to invest in brick and mortar, spending $1 billion over the next 20 years to build and run another prison, or are we going to invest in people? ... I’m not going to build another prison, not with so many nonviolent people coming into the system.”

The rest of the state should listen to its prison chief. Mr. Mohr recently convened a working group of judges and state politicians to find ways to divert more low-level offenders from prison.  He said he would expand halfway houses and other community alternatives to incarceration, and support sentencing reforms that could emerge from the General Assembly this year.

Roughly 30 percent over capacity, Ohio’s prison system holds 50,382 inmates, including 4,049 women.  That’s up about 2 percent from August, 2012.  The prison population would be far higher if the recidivism rate in Ohio were not at a record low 27.1 percent, compared to nearly 50 percent nationwide.  The state could lower that rate even further by starting drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment, before prisoners are released and continuing that treatment after they go home....

The number of offenders coming from Ohio’s six largest counties, including Lucas, is down, Mr. Mohr said. But a growing number of new prisoners from the rest of the state has more than offset decreases from major urban areas. Ohio’s goal should not be to manage its prison population. It should be to reduce that population significantly, by acting now to expand cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.

Some recent related posts:

January 11, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 10, 2015

SCOTUS orders new briefing and argument on ACCA's constitutionality in Johnson!?!?!

The US Supreme Court on Friday afternoon added a remarkable twist to what had been a small sentencing case, a case which had its (first) SCOTUS oral argument earlier this Term, via this new order:

13-7120 JOHNSON, SAMUEL V. UNITED STATES

This case is restored to the calendar for reargument. The parties are directed to file supplemental briefs addressing the following question: "Whether the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(ii), is unconstitutionally vague."  The supplemental brief of petitioner is due on or before Wednesday, February 18, 2015.  The supplemental brief of the United States is due on or before Friday, March 20, 2015.  The reply brief, if any, is due on or before Friday, April 10, 2015.  The time to file amicus curiae briefs is as provided for by Rule 37.3(a). The word limits and cover colors for the briefs should correspond to the provisions of Rule 33.1(g) pertaining to briefs on the merits rather than to the provision pertaining to supplemental briefs.  The case will be set for oral argument during the April 2015 argument session.

As some readers likely know, and as Will Baude effectively explains in this new post at The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Scalia has been arguing with increasing force that the Act is vague, and the reargument order suggests that there’s a good chance he may finally have convinced his colleagues that he’s right."

This strikes me as huge news, especially because I think any ruling that part of ACCA is unconstitutionally vague would be a substantive constitutional judgment that should get applied retroactively to hundreds (and potentially thousands) of federal prisoners serving mandatory minimum terms of 15 years or more. US Sentencing Commission data suggests that perhaps 5000 or more federal defendants have been sentenced under ACCA over the last decade, though I would guess the majority of these cases did not hinge on the ACCA subprovision that SCOTUS might now find unconstitutional.

January 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, January 09, 2015

"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"

9780199892808The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.  The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society.  More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.  This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders.  It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.  But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules.  If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes.  But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....

Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race.  Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people.  That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects.  Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime.  For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop.  For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.

January 9, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack