Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Two very interesting (and very different) long reads about mass incarceration and drug dealing
I recently noticed two new (and very different) long-form commentary pieces that both ought to be of interest to deep thinkers about crime and punishment. Both defy easy summarization, so I will just provide links and the extended headline of the pieces and encourage readers in the comments to highlight important themes in either or both:
From The Altantic here by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration: American Politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report 'The Negro Family' tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent."
From The Huffington Post here by Steven Brill, "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker: Over the course of 20 years, Johnson & Johnson created a powerful drug, promoted it illegally to children and the elderly, covered up the side effects and made billions of dollars. This is the inside story."
Monday, September 14, 2015
Montgomery wards: gearing up for SCOTUS juve LWOP retroactivity case
In four weeks, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Here, via this SCOTUSblog posting and this official SCOTUS page, are the questions that the Justices will be considering in Montgomery:
Do we have jurisdiction to decide whether the Supreme Court of Louisiana correctly refused to give retroactive effect in this case to our decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ____ (2012)?
Whether Miller v. Alabama adopts a new substantive rule that applies retroactively on collateral review to people condemned as juveniles to die in prison.
Because both of these questions engage many interesting, important and dynamic issues, I am planning to do a (lengthy?) series of posts about this case and the various arguments that have been presented to the Justices via amicus briefs (including one I filed thanks to the efforts of good folks at the Columbus offices of Jones Day). As the title of this post reveals, I have decided to use "Montgomery wards" as the cheeky title for this coming series of posts.
Notably, as this new SCOTUSblog posting highlights, it would now appear that the Justices share my sense that the Montgomery case raises many interesting, important and dynamic issues because they have now scheduled additional argument time for the case. Here are the basics via Lyle Denniston's SCOTUSblog report:
The Supreme Court on Monday added fifteen minutes to the argument schedule for its hearing October 13 on Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that could decide which juveniles convicted of murder can take advantage of a 2012 decision limiting sentences of life without parole for minors. The added time will allow a Court-appointed attorney to argue a question about the Court’s authority to actually rule on the legal issue in the case.
In March, the Justices agreed to hear the appeal of Henry Montgomery of Baton Rouge, who is seeking retroactive application of the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which had all but eliminated states’ power to sentence youths to life without parole, as punishment for committing a murder when they were under the age of eighteen. In taking on the case, however, the Court also added the question whether it has jurisdiction to review and rule on the Louisiana Supreme Court decision refusing to apply the Miller precedent to cases that had become final before June 25, 2012, when Miller was decided. Louisiana had raised that issue in a filing in an earlier case on the juvenile sentencing question.
Instead of the usual one hour of argument time, the Court in the Montgomery case will hear seventy-five minutes. The time will be divided this way: the Court-appointed attorney, Richard Bernstein of Washington, D.C., will have fifteen minutes to argue against the Court’s jurisdiction, Montgomery’s attorney will have fifteen minutes to argue both points, an attorney from the office of the U.S. Solicitor General will have fifteen minutes to argue both issues, and a lawyer for the state of Louisiana will have thirty minutes of time to argue both questions. The order also said that Bernstein and Montgomery’s lawyer will be allowed to save time for rebuttal.
The federal government, in a brief filed by the Solicitor General, supported Montgomery’s plea to apply Miller retroactively and argued that the Court does have jurisdiction to decide that question. The brief noted that there are twenty-seven inmates in federal prisons whose sentences could be affected by the retroactivity issue.
September 14, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Alabama Chief Justice laments mandatory LWOP drug sentence for 76-year-old offender
As reported in this AP article, "Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore says the case of a 76-year-man sentenced to life without parole for a drug offense shows the need to change sentencing laws." Here is more about the notable separate opinion authored by the top jurist of the the Cotton State:
Moore issued a special writing Friday as the Supreme Court refused to overturn the case of Lee Carroll Brooker. "I believe Brooker's sentence is excessive and unjustified," Moore wrote.
Brooker lived with his son in Houston County, and court documents show police found a marijuana-growing operation there during a search in 2013. The elderly man was convicted of drug trafficking last year, and a judge sentenced him to life without parole because of past robbery convictions in Florida. His son was also convicted. Moore writes that the life-without-parole sentence for a non-violent drug offense shows "grave flaws" in Alabama's sentencing system.
"A trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," Moore added. "I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose."
The full opinion by Chief Justice Moore is available at this link.
Friday, September 11, 2015
"Dignity and the Eighth Amendment: A New Approach to Challenging Solitary Confinement "
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Issue Brief authored by Laura Rovner released today by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Here are excerpts from the start of the brief (with footnotes omitted:
Solitary confinement irreparably harms people. For those who have endured long-term isolation, it is not an overstatement to describe it as a living death: “Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin in which you lie and watch it as it slowly closes over you. When you neither move nor think in your cell, you are awash in pure nothingness. . . . Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller, who was a physician as well as a lawyer, recognized the harms of solitary confinement as far back as 1890....
[I]t was more than a century ago, as Justice Kennedy recently reminded us, that the Supreme Court first recognized the harm solitary confinement causes and nearly declared it unconstitutional. Yet, despite this unequivocal condemnation of solitary confinement by the nation’s highest court, over the course of the century that followed — and especially the last three decades — most states and the federal government have significantly increased their use of penal isolation. Today, conservative estimates place the number of people in solitary confinement at over 100,000. And they are there largely with the blessing of the federal courts.
While the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment appears to provide mechanisms to challenge the use of long-term solitary confinement, the way the federal courts have interpreted the amendment in the past two decades has rendered judicial review virtually meaningless, resulting in an unprecedented number of people being held in conditions of extreme solitary confinement. Part I of this Issue Brief examines the nature of solitary confinement and how it developed in the U.S. Part II discusses (in broad outlines) the current jurisprudence of Eighth Amendment solitary confinement litigation. Finally, Part III offers some reasons for optimism going forward and one promising path to achieving meaningful reforms through constitutional challenges to the practice.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Notable collective makes plans for "smart on crime" criminal code reform in Ohio
My local Columbus Dispatch has this new Ohio criminal justice reform story headlined, "Statehouse leaders push for shorter prison sentences, reducing prison population." Here are the (still a bit fuzzy) details concerning what is afoot in the Buckeye state:
Ohio officials are undertaking a sweeping reform of the state’s criminal justice code, potentially resulting in shorter prison sentences and fewer people going to prison for non-violent drug crimes.
An unusual bipartisan coalition, including top legislative leaders, tax reformer Grover Norquist, an American Civil Liberties Union official, and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, announced plans today to overhaul Ohio’s lengthy and cumbersome criminal code top-to-bottom.
“No one is here to say today that criminals should not be punished. We are here to say that not all crimes or criminals are created equal,” Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said at a Statehouse press conference. “This is not about being hard or soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime.”
No specifics were announced. Exactly how the criminal code will be overhauled will be up to the 24-member Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee appointed by the legislature. Faber said he told the committee to “swing for the fences” when it comes to big picture reform ideas. But he balked when asked about two specific areas: revising parole standards for current inmates and marijuana legalization.
The consensus of speakers was that the reform goals are reducing the prison population by incarcerating fewer non-violent drug offenders and people with mental health issues, eliminating mandatory, flat sentences, and removing barriers for ex-offenders to return to society....
Speaker after speaker criticized the burdensome incarceration rate in Ohio and the U.S., the highest in the world. “Locking people in cages is extreme and dehumanizing,” said Allison Holcomb, head of the ACLU’s national Smart Justice program. “This is the top priority for us.”
Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said he views reform from more of an economic standpoint. “We have too many people in prison and not the right people in prison,” he said. That is costing taxpayers far too much, he said.
Kerman, now living in Columbus, came to public attention as author of her real-life story that led to the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black. “I’m fairly confident I’m the only person up here with a felony,” Kerman said opening her remarks. Following her release from a Connecticut prison on a drug-related money laundering charge, she became an advocate for sentencing and parole reform. She is teaching writing to inmates at two Ohio prisons.
Faber said the recodification committee, which is chaired by Auglaize County Common Pleas Judge Fred Pepple, does not have a specific deadline for completing its work. The final recommendations must be passed by the General Assembly.
"No Reason to Blame Liberals (or, the Unbearable Lightness of Perversity Arguments); Review of the First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, by Naomi Murakawa"
The title of this post is the title of this new review by Margo Schlanger available via SSRN discussing a provocative book about the American political left's role in mass incarceration. Here is the abstract:
This is a review of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, by political scientist Naomi Murakawa. Murakawa takes as her target a conventional wisdom that explains the rise of mass incarceration as a victory of Republican law-and-order over Democratic civil rights. Rather, she argues, starting right in her subtitle, “liberals built prison America.” It was liberals, she claims, who “established a law-and-order mandate: build a better carceral state, one strong enough to control racial violence in the streets and regimented enough to control racial bias in criminal justice administration.” Her major point along these lines is that the liberal preoccupation with using fair, non-racist procedures has contributed importantly to the growth of the carceral state, taming reform urges, entrenching the punitive regime. This argument sounds in perversity — on Murakawa’s account, liberalism’s attempt to improve racial justice using procedural tools not only fails, it is counter-productive, entrenching and worsening the system’s inequities.
The review critiques Murakawa's focus on federal crime policy as missing the more important state and local dynamics. In addition, it argues that Murakawa's perversity argument is essentially aesthetic — that she adduces only post-hoc/propter-hoc kind of evidence that the liberal proceduralism she highlights has accompanied the ballooning of the incarcerated population. That is far from enough to convict generations of liberals — many though not all of whom decried overincarceration, as well as the unfair procedures that accompanied it — of the charge that they “built prison America.”
Prior related posts:
- "How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"
- Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarceration
- "Who Built Prison America? Not Ted Kennedy"
Wednesday, September 09, 2015
Noting federal prison reforms possible without statutory changes
A helpful reader alerted me to this notable Forbes article by Walter Pavlo which highlights ways the federal prison population could be lowered without waiting for whatever Congress might (or still might not) end up doing to reform federal sentencing statutes. The piece is headlined "Prison Reform Is All The Rage, But A Real Opportunity For Change Might Be Missed," and here are excerpts:
Many past U.S. Congress’s have drafted criminal reform bills, only to have them lay dormant in committee. Traditionally, the press releases and sound-bites have only provided false hope to those serving time. The SAFE Act is the most recent and has received some positive press but lacks significant sponsorship in Congress. Then there’s the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Second Chance Reauthorization Act that has recently lost some momentum. There are others, but none worth mentioning....
There are many ways to use existing legislation and policies to reduce populations that need more focus and advocacy. First, we need to allow more old and sick inmates to go home under compassionate release programs by crediting “earned” good conduct time towards program eligibility. Second, rather than building new prisons, the federal government should divert the funding to build out of the Residential Reentry Centers (RRC) infrastructure and allow for more direct community placement designations, which was the true intent of the Second Chance Act under 18 USC 3624. Next, early deportation options should also be explored for those who are in the U.S. illegally.
We have a problem of aging, sick inmates in the federal prison system. There are currently six (6) major medical facilities that offer treatments for inmates for various ailments ranging from dialysis to chemotherapy. It’s expensive with some estimates being as high as $57,000 per year per inmate. The recidivism studies show far lower rates of recidivism for elderly offenders.
Halfway house, RRCs, offer a chance for inmates to serve the remainder of their time in the community working in a regular job, integrating with their family and learning skills. According to [Jack] Donson [a retired BOP employee], the BOP has the statutory authority to place offenders directly in halfway house at any time because the Federal Courts have made clear that RRC’s are penal or correctional facilities within the meaning of the applicable statues. “Having a person in a community correctional treatment program including a job and integrating with their family is far better than any program the BOP could ever offer and inmate.” So an RRC is basically a prison where inmates serve their debt to society … except that it would be MORE beneficial to most everyone....
While we wait for the next prison reform bill, let’s hope it is a comprehensive Omnibus Crime bill with both front end and back end (retroactive) measures that can be quickly implemented with a simultaneous build out of the RRC infrastructure. Congressmen and senators would do us all a service by putting pressure on the Department of Justice to use the existing policies and laws to begin changing prisons now.
Monday, September 07, 2015
Lots of interesting criminal-justice reading for the long weekend
As I enjoy the tail end of a lovely holiday weekend, I will seek to honor laborers by here labroing to assemble links to a number of recent criminal-justice articles and commentaries from various media outlets. Each of these pieces could merit its own separate post, but I am content today to throw them all together (in no particular order) with a hope that readers might flag whichever of the pieces they think justify special attention:
Thursday, September 03, 2015
Julie Stewart of FAMM goes hard after Bill Otis for being "proven wrong time and time again"
Regular readers know I often note and express respect for the work and writings of both former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, who now writes most regularly at Crime & Consequences, and Julie Stewart, who is the President and Founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Today I must note and express amazement at the concerted efforts of one of these two taking on the other: Julie Stewart has this notable new Reason commentary headlined "The Former Prosecutor Who Consistently Gets Criminal Justice Reform Wrong: Former prosecutor Bill Otis has been mistaken over and over again when advising legislators against reducing drug sentences." Here are excerpts mostly from the start and end of the piece:
No one expects our elected representatives to be experts in every area of public policy. At the same time, we have every right to expect that our representatives will consult policy analysts and experts who know what they're talking about, not someone who has been proven wrong time and time again. In the world of criminal justice, that someone is former federal prosecutor and Georgetown Law adjunct William Otis.
Over the past two decades, Bill Otis has become the Paul Ehrlich of criminal sentencing reform. He is always certain in his convictions and nearly always wrong. Moreover, like Ehrlich, Otis likes to scare the public with predictions of certain and impending doom, and he is immune to feelings of embarrassment or humiliation despite being proven spectacularly wrong over and over again....
[W]hereas Ehrlich saw overpopulation as the culprit, Otis thinks shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be America's undoing. Indeed, every time Congress or the U.S. Sentencing Commission has considered even mild sentence reductions over the past two decades, Otis has gone full Chicken Little. He has been wrong every time....
The nationwide drop in crime and prison crowding should be celebrated. Less violent crime means fewer murder victims, fewer robbery victims, and fewer assault victims. Smaller prison populations means savings for taxpayers and more money to spend on what actually does reduce crime — community policing and supervision practices like "short, swift, and certain." None of these gratifying results would have been possible if Otis's theory were correct — or if any lawmakers outside the Beltway had heard of Otis and took his views seriously. While Otis has been consistently wrong, thankfully lawmakers have ignored him....
Committed to his prison-is-always-the-answer ideology, Otis derided the [Fair Sentencing Act], saying it should be called the "Crack Dealers Relief Act." When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the crack guideline and made it retroactive in accord with the FSA, Otis predicted it would lead to an increase in crime.... On his blog, Otis cranked up the fear machine. He predicted "misery" when "thousands of crack dealers" would be "put back on the street prematurely" to terrorize their communities.
Fortunately for those of us concerned about public safety, Otis was wrong again — amazingly wrong. Since passage of the FSA, the crime rate, the prison population, and crack usage are all down! It bears repeating. Otis said the changes would cause "misery" and "inevitably lead to more crime." Instead, while thousands of offenders have received fairer sentences, the crime rate has fallen, crack use is down, and taxpayers have saved millions from being wasted on unnecessary prison costs....
Otis is impervious to facts and evidence. He will quote Professor Steven Levitt's finding that greater reliance on incarceration helped reduce crime in the 1990s and then ignore Levitt's later conclusion that the country has gone too far and that prisons should reduce their populations by one-third. Otis will say, as he does in National Review, that the movement for sentencing reform "is strictly interest-group — and billionaire — driven, inside-the-Beltway," which would be fine if you did not already know that the reform movement began in the states and is being promoted in Washington, DC by insiders like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Otis's amazing record of wrongness would be interesting and perhaps even funny if he, like fellow fear-peddler Paul Ehrlich, were exiled from the world of rational public policy making. But media reports have suggested that some members of Congress actually listen to Otis. If that's true, then we really do have a good reason to be scared.
Yowsa. Because I consider both Julie Stewart and Bill Otis to be personal friends, I am going to be trying hard to stay out of this sentencing sparring. But I am also going to try to report fairly on any rounds of this fight, and thus will be quick to post any response that Bill Otis provides in his own defense in the days ahead.
UPDATE: Bill Otis has a response up at Crime & Consequences: Are Sentencing "Reformers" Getting Worried?. Here is a snippet from Bill's introduction to his brief substantive refutation of points made by Julie Stewart:
I think it unbecoming and unwise to get caught up in this sort of thing. If you hold a controversial position, you can expect some heat. And if you spend all your time answering your critics, you'll never do anything else. You'll certainly abandon any hope of making your own points. Accordingly, with the exceptions noted below, I am not going to engage with Ms. Stewart. (If she seeks a live debate with me, that would be another matter).
I'm quite sure she is sincere. But, for reasons stated in hundreds of things I have said on this blog and elsewhere, I believe she is in error.
September 3, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, National and State Crime Data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)
"The simple truth about why mass incarceration happened"
The title of this post is the headline of this effective recent Vox piece by German Lopez. Here are excerpts:
How could US politicians possibly think it was a good idea to incarcerate millions of Americans starting in the 1980s, creating the system of mass incarceration we have today?
It's a question that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, with varied answers — from claims it was an attempt to control the population to arguments that private prisons created a profit motive for locking up millions of Americans.
But there's a much simpler explanation: The public wanted mass incarceration. It's easy to forget now, but the politics of crime were huge in the 1990s. According to data from Gallup, never before or after the nineties have so many Americans said that crime is the most important problem facing the country today.
Americans had a very good reason for these concerns. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, crime was unusually high. The country was still coming off what was perceived as a crack cocaine epidemic, in which the drug ran rampant across urban streets and fueled deadly gang violence. So Americans, by and large, demanded their lawmakers do something — and politicians reacted with mass incarceration and other tough-on-crime policies.
It's very easy in hindsight to consider this an overreaction — now that we know crime began its decades-long decline in the early 1990s, and now that research has shown that mass incarceration only partly contributed to this decline. But people didn't know that at the time. They didn't know crime was about to begin its long-term drop, and the research on mass incarceration was far from conclusive. Politicians thought crime would get worse, not better.
In fact, there were warnings at the time that things were on the verge of getting worse. One prominent concern in the 1990s — based on what turned out to be very bad social science research — suggested that there was an incoming epidemic of superpredators, violent youth who would rob and kill people....
In this context, it was expected that all politicians — liberal and conservative — take a tough stance on crime. That's partly why liberals like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders supported the 1994 crime law that contributed to mass incarceration. It's why dueling candidates for governor in the liberal state of New York campaigned on who could be tougher on crime. And it's why practically every state passed tough-on-crime policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s....
Popular demand for tough-on-crime laws in the past doesn't in any way excuse the devastation lawmakers inflicted on millions of people through mass incarceration and other policies. But based on voters' concerns in the 1990s, if a politician didn't contribute to the problem back then, he or she may not be prominent enough to run for president today. That's how America ended up with mass incarceration — and the seemingly contradictory Democratic presidential candidates for 2016.
September 3, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Prison administrators contribute to new report on solitary confinement
As detailed in this press release, the Association of State Correctional Administrators has joined with researchers at Yale to produce an important new report about solitary confinement. Here are the basics via the press release:
Prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States. The insistence on change comes not only from legislators across the political spectrum, judges, and a host of private sector voices, but also from the directors of correctional systems at both state and federal levels. Even as a national outcry has arisen about isolation, relatively little information exists about the actual number of people held in restrictive housing, the policies determining their placement, and whether and how conditions vary in different jurisdictions. Indeed, the figures cited on the number of people held in isolation vary from 25,000 to more than 80,000. But that information comes from a decade and more ago.
To rectify the absence of data and to pave the way for changes, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) joined with the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School to develop a national database of the policies and practices on what correctional officials call “restricted housing” and is frequently referred in the media as “solitary confinement.” ASCA is the only national organization of persons directly responsible for the administration of correctional systems and includes the heads of each state’s corrections agencies, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the District of Columbia, New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles County.
The result is the new report Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison, which is the first to provide updated information, as of the fall of 2014, on both the numbers and the conditions in restrictive housing nationwide. This Report represents the commitments of correctional leaders to make such changes. But without a baseline, it is not possible to know the impact of the many efforts underway. Time-in-Cell provides one way to measure and to learn whether the hoped-for changes are taking place, to reduce and to eliminate the isolation of prisoners, so as to enable prisoners and staff to live and work in safe environments, respectful of human dignity.
This important report, which runs nearly 100 pages, is available in full at this link. Some of its findings and the broaded policy discourse now surrounding solitary confinement are effectively covered in new stories via the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal here and here, respectively.
Prison realities and reform insights from "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison"
Politico magazine has this fascinating excerpt from a new book titled "Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis." The book is authored by Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, who spent a year in federal prison for violating federal election laws, and parts of the excerpt read a bit like the Y-chromisone version of Orange is the New Black. But, as these passage highlight, it appears the book covers much more than just the fish-out-of-water elements of prison life for a white-collar offender:
Long story short: Five years after losing the election, I pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding the federal investigation Carnahan had initiated. But I requested an unorthodox sentence: two years of home confinement and full-time community service during which I would be allowed to leave my house only to teach civics and coach basketball at a St. Louis charter school I’d co-founded a decade earlier. It would’ve saved taxpayers about $175,000: two years of a teacher’s salary, plus the cost of housing a federal prisoner, since I would’ve paid for my electronic monitoring. More than 300 people, including a bipartisan group of the state’s top elected officials, wrote public letters to the to the judge requesting clemency and arguing that — as the prison counselor in Kentucky would later note — locking me up would be a waste. But the Feds portrayed me as the mastermind of a “textbook case of political corruption” and pushed for a harsh sentence at the top of the federal guidelines. The judge gave me a year and a day in federal prison.
Six months later, I was adrift in a sea of sharks — a professor-turned-politician-turned-felon forced to learn prison patois and the politics of survival. Among other areas, I’d studied and taught criminal justice policy as a political scientist for a decade. But in prison I would be the student, not the teacher.
This is the story of what I learned — about my fellow prisoners, the guards and administrators, and the system in which we operated. It is a cautionary tale of friendship and betrayal. It is a story of how politics prepared me — and didn’t — for prison, and how prison prepared me for life. But more broadly, it is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens, and a prescription for how America can begin to decarcerate and harness the untapped potential of 2.2 million incarcerated people through programs that will transform offenders’ lives, infuse our economy with entrepreneurial energy, increase public safety and save taxpayers billions by slashing sky-high recidivism rates....
Prisons have been called “training grounds for rapists,” and according to one estimate based on two decades of surveys, nearly 300,000 rapes occur annually in U.S. prisons. The most recent Justice Department data concluded that from 2003 to 2012, nearly 2 million inmates were sexually assaulted, costing society as much as $51.9 billion annually, including the costs of victims’ compensation and increased recidivism. Advocates hoped that passage of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which sought to prevent, uncover and address sexual assault, would help, but many large states have refused to comply with it (with little consequence). In 2011, a typical prisoner’s likelihood of being raped was roughly 30 times higher than that of a given woman on the outside, suggesting a depressingly steady trendline despite PREA’s passage. And since reporting assaults will only bring more trouble from fellow prisoners and COs alike, most victims remain quiet, rendering official prison data unreliably low.
Exacerbating this is a dearth of post-rape psychological treatment during incarceration and reentry, which increases the likelihood that victims will suffer from PTSD as well as their odds of recidivism — especially for crimes involving sexual assault. Tragically, prison rape often causes compensatory aggression as untreated victims commit rapes upon release to reclaim their manhood in the same way they imagine it was lost. This vicious cycle by which (frequently) nonviolent offenders become violent is the opposite of the duty that “correctional institutions” are meant to perform....
I spent less than a year in prison. In the words of my first cellie, I had less time in prison than he had done on the prison toilet. I had every advantage upon re-entry: I was a white guy with a Ph.D. from a top school, community and family support, and financial savings. Yet getting a decent job was a struggle. I often think about the re-entry of the guys I was locked up. Most had a GED earned in prison; some hadn’t had a visit in years, or even a decade, and had no one to call on the phone; few had savings to fall back on. They would be coming home to a world in which four of five landlords and nine of 10 employers run criminal background checks on prospective tenants and employees to screen out felons, in which many are not allowed to vote or use food stamps and in which they must immediately find money to pay for a halfway house room and urinalysis tests even as they cannot afford clothes for a job interview.
Mass incarceration is driven in large part by sky-high recidivism rates, and when one contemplates the myriad obstacles to successful prisoner re-entry, one grasps that the system is not, as many claim, broken at all; rather, it appears to be a well-oiled machine, keeping millions of people out of our economic mainstream. And only a shift in our cultural mindset — a realization that people who are incarcerated could, to paraphrase President Obama after his recent prison visit to a federal prison, be our brothers, our sons, our mothers, or ourselves — will change that.
Tuesday, September 01, 2015
California settles prisoner lawsuit by agreeing to limit use of solitary confinement
As reported in this local AP piece , headlined "California to end unlimited isolation for most gang leaders," a lawsuit concerning California's use of solitary confinement culminated today in a significant settlement. Here are the details:
California agreed Tuesday to end its unlimited isolation of imprisoned gang leaders, restricting a practice that once kept hundreds of inmates in notorious segregation units for a decade or longer.
The state is agreeing to segregate only inmates who commit new crimes behind bars and will no longer lock gang members in soundproofed, windowless cells solely to keep them from directing illegal activities by gang members. "It will move California more into the mainstream of what other states are doing while still allowing us the ability to deal with people who are presenting problems within our system, but do so in a way where we rely less on the use of segregation," Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Jeffrey Beard told The Associated Press.
The conditions triggered intermittent hunger strikes by tens of thousands of inmates throughout the prison system in recent years. Years-long segregation also drew criticism this summer from President Barack Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"I think there is a deepening movement away from solitary confinement in the country and I think this settlement will be a spur to that movement," Jules Lobel, the inmates' lead attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a telephone interview.
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2009 by two killers serving time in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay. By 2012, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell were among 78 prisoners confined in Pelican Bay's isolation unit for more than 20 years, though Troxell has since been moved to another prison. More than 500 had been in the unit for more than 10 years, though recent policy changes reduced that to 62 inmates isolated for a decade or longer as of late July.
The suit contended that isolating inmates in 80-square-foot cells for all but about 90 minutes each day amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. About half the nearly 3,000 inmates held in such units are in solitary confinement. Inmates have no physical contact with visitors and are allowed only limited reading materials and communications with the outside world.
The settlement will limit how long inmates can spend in isolation, while creating restrictive custody units for inmates who refuse to participate in rehabilitation programs or keep breaking prison rules.... Lobel said the new units, by giving high-security inmates more personal contact and privileges, should be an example to other states to move away from isolation policies that he said have proven counterproductive in California....
Nichol Gomez, a spokeswoman for the union representing most prison guards, said it was disappointing that "the people that actually have to do the work" weren't involved in the negotiations, so she couldn't immediately comment.
Beard said he will work to ease the unions' previously expressed concerns that guards could face additional danger. He said the settlement expands on recent changes that have reduced the number of segregated inmates statewide from 4,153 in January 2012 to 2,858 currently.
Until recently, gang members could serve unlimited time in isolation. Under the settlement, they and other inmates can be segregated for up to five years for crimes committed in prison, though gang members can receive another two years in segregation.
Monday, August 31, 2015
"The Just-Barely-Sustainable California Prisoners’ Rights Ecosystem"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper by Margo Schlanger now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Nationwide, litigation currently plays a far smaller role as a corrections oversight mechanism than in decades past, a change largely caused by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Yet no such decline is evident in the nation’s most populous state, California, where prisoners’ rights litigation remains enormously influential and was the trigger to the criminal justice “Realignment” that is the subject of this symposium. Indeed, every prison in California is subject to numerous ongoing court orders governing conditions of confinement.
This article examines why California is different. It argues California’s very large bar includes a critical mass of highly expert prisoners’ rights lawyers. Working for both non-profits and for-profit firms, they benefited from a pipeline of large-scale, pre-PLRA, fees-paying cases that sustained them while they learned to cope with the statutory obstacles. And the Ninth Circuit’s hospitable bench awarded them some favorable fee-related rulings in support of their coping strategies. In short, they learned how to — just barely — maintain a prisoners’ rights docket nothwithstanding very substantial financial hurdles. They continue to litigate old and new cases, but ongoing challenges pose a real threat to the fragile litigation ecosystem they have created.
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Following the industries that follows incareration nation (with only limited concerns about sentencing reform)
Today's New York Times has this interesting article authored by David Segal about various corrections-oriented industries and their (limited) worries about the impact of sentencing reform on their bottom lines. The article is headlined "Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market," and here are a couple excerpts:
[There were] 264 vendors in booths at the Indiana Convention Center for what is essentially a trade show for the prison industry. It is the shiny, customer-friendly face of a fairly grim business. The A.C.A. accredits jails and prisons and is also the country’s largest association for the corrections field, with a membership filled with wardens and state and county correctional administrators.
The convention is where those people windowshop. The United States currently imprisons about 2.2 million people, making it the world’s largest jailer. Those in charge of this immense population need stuff: food, gas masks, restraints, riot gear, handcuffs, clothing, suicide prevention vests, health care systems, pharmacy systems, commissary services — the list goes on. These outlays are a small fraction of the roughly $80 billion spent annually on incarceration, though precise sales figures are hard to come by because most companies in this niche market are private. Two publicly traded players, the private prison operators Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, have a combined market capitalization of almost $5.8 billion. Both companies had booths in Indianapolis.
For prison vendors, this would appear to be a historically awful moment. Sentencing reform has been gaining momentum as a growing number of diverse voices conclude that the tough-on-crime ethos that was born 40 years ago, and that led to a 700 percent increase in the prison population since 1970, went too far....
My goal ambling through the oddly colorful bazaar in Indianapolis for three days was to see what effect — if any — this much discussed change was having on the hardnosed bottom line. Was anyone here experiencing a slump, or even bracing for one? Nobody wants businesses to suffer financially, but if you think the current incarceration system is a calamity, there is no way around it: Bad news for these companies is good news for the country. And if change was coming, or had already arrived, these vendors would be among the first to know.
I had no idea what I would find. But a few days before the exhibition doors opened, I spoke on the telephone to a skeptic, a guy who just didn’t believe that the country was really on the verge of a correctional system makeover. “It’s hard for me not to be cynical about it,” said Jack Cowley, a retired warden who lives in Oklahoma. “Think about the size of our system, all the judges and lawyers, putting their kids through college, people that make leg irons, Tasers. Crime is driving the train. It’s like a business that is too big to fail.”...
In Indianapolis this summer, there were the ingratiating smiles that are always part of sales, but nobody seemed giddy. Concern about sentencing reform was in the air, but more than a few vendors seemed to regard the trend as a business opportunity....
[M]any companies are trying to diversify. In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison company, purchased Correctional Alternatives, which specializes in reentry programs, like work furloughs and home confinement. “We have continued to look for opportunities in this service area,” a spokesman for C.C.A. wrote in an email. “It aligns with the needs of our government partners, who are increasingly looking to this type of solution.”
Saturday, August 29, 2015
"Federal Drug Sentencing Laws Bring High Cost, Low Return"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new Pew Public Safety Performance Project Issue Brief, which gets started this way:
More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980. Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago. These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.
Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen. Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles. These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.
Friday, August 28, 2015
Arkansas political corruption case showcases corruptness of federal sentencing guidelines
This local reporting from Arkansas, headlined "Martha Shoffner gets 30 months in bribery case," details today's federal sentencing of a significant political figure in the Natural State. Here are the basics, with some commentary to follow:
Judge Leon Holmes has sentenced former Arkansas Treasurer Martha Shoffner to 30 months in prison for taking bribes for state bond business. It will be followed by some supervised release. No fine was assessed. The 71-year-old will have to report to a Fort Worth prison in 60 days.
She faced as much as 15 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Her attorney had asked for 12 to 18 months, with half that in home detention. U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer, who'd asked for 60 months, said he was satisfied with the outcome....
Judge Leon Holmes said Shoffner had netted little — he ordered restitution of $31,000 she'd kept in bribes — but as a public official should do prison time....Shoffner's attorney argued that the only loss was $36,000 in bribes, not the value of the bond business of $1.7 million. Holmes held there were multiple payments for multiple actions and the $36,000, paid in six installments, didn't amount to a single payment, which also means a potential enhancement of the sentence. He said [bribe giver Steele] Stephens benefited from the bribes to the tune of $900,000 the amount by which his $1.7 million in commissions exceeded the next biggest bond dealer who did business with Shoffner.
[Defense attorney Chuck] Banks asked the court to show mercy on Shoffner, saying she "made a terrible, terrible error in judgment" and characterizing her as "gullible" and "clueless." He said that she was inclined to accept the bribes from Stephens in large part because she was in a bad financial situation, having underestimated the cost of commuting on a regular basis between Newport and Little Rock.
Banks asked Holmes to consider Shoffner's "good deeds," including her work for the Humane Society. He presented the court with a picture of her dog, Fred, and said he was moved by the fact that after Shoffner was first arrested, she asked Banks to call her sister to check on Fred. He called two character witnesses to the stand to testify on her behalf.
He also said that in her capacity as treasurer, Shoffner's books consistently balanced and audits found no problems in the accounts of the office itself. "She was in all honesty doing a pretty dadgum good job," Banks said. "I'm proud to be standing with this poor woman here at this dark hour ... she really is gullible. She really is naive."...
Banks said Shoffner has experienced the most public vilification that he has ever seen in his career as an attorney. He compared her haggard appearance today with a picture of her being sworn in a few years ago, to show the physical toll her ordeal has taken. He said she was now "disgraced," "broke" and "ostracized" and noted that she drove to the courthose in a 2003 Oldsmobile this morning.
He also pointed out that Steele Stephens received complete immunity from prosecution for his cooperation with the FBI. Stephens got a $25,000 fine and lost his brokers license, and "that's it," Banks said.
The attorney argued that sentencing Shoffner to a long period in jail would not serve the public interest, and urged Holmes to give her only as much punishment needed "to repair people's confidence in the office." She might not live out a harsh sentence, he said.
Especially because to this day I remain grumpy Bill Clinton never got prosecuted for his crimes while in office, I tend not to be eager to argue for mercy for lawbreaking politicians. But, if I read the facts here right, it seems the bribe-giver netted nearly $1 million dollars in benefits and gets only a small fine for his misdeeds because of his FBI cooperation while the bribe-taker is headed off the prison for a couple years even though she has already been disgraced and likely never posed any real risk to public safety.
That all said, I do not find either the 30-month sentence imposed by the federal judge or even the 5-year sentence recommended by the federal prosecutor too troublesome. What offends me is a guideline structure that would recommend a 15-year(!) prison sentence for a 71-year-old, first-time offender who poses no risk to public safety. That guideline recommendation strikes me as crazy on these facts, and it is reassuring that the prosecutor here had the good sense to only urge a sentence only 1/3 as long as the guidelines recommend and that the judge imposed a sentence only half as long as the prosecutor requested. And it is cases like this that still lead me to consider circuit courts misguided in the post-Booker jurisprudence to embrace any kind of presumption of reasonableness for within-guideline sentences.
Despite copious reform talk, big and tough federal drug sentencing system churns on
As regular readers know, talk of federal sentencing reform, especially drug sentencing reform, has been all the rage in recent years. And yet, as this new report from the US Sentencing Commission details, in the last fiscal year, the federal criminal justice system still sentenced tens of thousands of drug offenders to hundreds of thousands of years of federal imprisonment.
The new report, titled excitingly "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2014," actually reports a decline in the overall number of federal criminal case sentences in the last fiscal year. But this overall decline was driven mostly by a significant decline in immigration cases. Here are some snippets from the report which highlight some of modern federal sentencing trends:
The number of individual offenders sentenced each year grew steadily after the Commission began reporting sentencing data in 1988, reaching a high of 86,201 individual offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2011. Since then the number of cases has decreased each year. In fiscal year 2014, the number of individual offender cases reported to the Commission fell by 4,199 (5.2%) cases from the previous year to 75,836. Since fiscal year 2011, the number of these cases has declined by 12.0 percent....
Drug cases have traditionally been the most common federal cases. However, beginning in fiscal year 2009, the number of immigration cases steadily increased, reaching a high of 29,717 such cases in fiscal year 2011. That year immigration cases were the most common offense in the federal system.... In fiscal year 2014, 24,011 drug cases were reported to the Commission, accounting for 31.7 percent of all cases. Most of these cases involved drug trafficking offenses. That year there were 22,238 immigration cases, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload that year....
Several factors affect the average prison sentence for drug offenders, including statutory mandatory minimum punishments, the quantity of the drugs involved in the case, the prior criminal history of the offender, and whether the offender assisted the government in the investigation of his or her crime and other crimes.
For more than 20 years, crack cocaine offenders have been the most severely punished, however the length of imprisonment imposed in these cases has decreased steadily since 2007. In fiscal year 2014, the average imprisonment for drug crimes involving crack cocaine was 93 months of imprisonment (with a median sentence of 72 months). This compares to a high of 129 for these offenders in fiscal year 2007. Methamphetamine offenders are the next most severely punished drug crimes, with an average length of imprisonment of 88 months (and a median sentence of 70 months). Marijuana offenders have the lowest average imprisonment at 36 months (with a median sentence of 24 months)....
Mandatory minimum penalties enacted by Congress play a large part in determining the sentence for drug offenders, either outright or through the impact of these statutes on the structure of the guidelines. In fiscal year 2014, half of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since the Commission began reporting data about mandatory minimum penalty application in 1993. The portion of drug cases carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2013 was 62.1 percent. This significant reduction was due, in large part, to a change in the policy of the Department of Justice as to how to charge drug cases.
In fiscal year 2014, powder cocaine offenders and methamphetamine offenders were convicted of an offense that provided for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence at the highest rates — 65.4 percent in powder cocaine cases and 61.8 percent in methamphetamine cases. Mandatory minimum penalties were least common in drug cases involving “other” drugs (mostly prescription drugs) and marijuana, accounting for 4.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, of those cases.
These data highlight that DOJ's new charging policies have a measurable impact of the operation of the federal sentencing system. But that change did not dramatically alter the modern annual pattern of more than 125,000 cumulative years of future federal prison time being imposed on all federal drug defendants. All those years, at a conservative average taxpayer cost of $30,000 per year, means just federal drug sentencing in 2014 served to commit nearly $4,000,000,000 in future federal taxpayer funds to incarcerating those drug defendants sentenced over the last USSC fiscal year.
August 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, August 27, 2015
"Criminal Justice Reform Begins With Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary which strikes me as especially notable because (1) it is authored by the Coaltion for Public Safety's senior policy advisor, Lance Lemmonds, who recently worked for the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and on a number of Republican campaigns, and (2) it is published by The American Spectator. Here are excerpts:
Political conservatives who, since at least the Nixon administration, have worn with pride the badge of “tough on crime” are beginning to realize that tough doesn’t necessarily mean the same as being “smart on crime.”
Just as the private sector has embraced the mantra of “working smarter, not harder,” it’s time for federal and state officials to acknowledge the need for a smarter and more cost-effective criminal justice system.
Reducing life-without-parole sentences is one of several planks in the Coalition for Public Safety’s nonpartisan campaign for fair sentencing and fair chances, the overall goal of which is aimed at reducing the nation’s burgeoning jail and prison populations and breaking down the barriers to successful re-entry into society.
The coalition supporting the fair sentencing and fair chances campaign believes that we can dramatically reduce the enormous amount of money — currently $80 billion — that American taxpayers spend annually on incarceration in the state and federal jail and prison systems — and do so without jeopardizing public safety. That coalition includes the conservative groups Americans for Tax Reform, Faith & Freedom Coalition and FreedomWorks.
In addition to calling for a reduction in the number of life-without-parole sentences, CPS’ fair sentencing and fair chances campaign is also calling for reducing the length of federal mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses, so that the punishment fits the crime. That will help safely alleviate prison overcrowding while also curbing burgeoning costs....
At both the federal and state levels, we also advocate greater use of alternatives to incarceration, where appropriate. These include restitution, community supervision and residential re-entry centers, both pre-trial and post-sentencing, as well as expanded access to mental health care, substance-abuse treatment, education and job training.
Programs that allow inmates to reduce their sentences through credit for good behavior and participation in recidivism-reduction training should be expanded. So should the sealing of criminal records, where appropriate, to encourage rehabilitation and to make it easier for ex-offenders to find gainful employment and reintegrate into society....
Clearly, something needs to be done when, since 1980, the federal prison population has increased nearly tenfold and the state prison population has quadrupled. More than 1 percent of all U.S. adults are now behind bars, by far the highest rate of any nation in the world.
By addressing much-needed reforms to the current one-size-fits-all approach to prison sentencing, and by also reducing barriers to education, housing, and employment that so many ex-offenders face, we can protect our communities and increase public safety. We must seize this unique opportunity for progress to make the justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.
"When Prisons Need to Be More Like Nursing Homes"
The title of this post is the headline of this new lengthy Marshall Project piece about the challenges posed by an aging prison population. Here is how it begins:
America’s prison population is rapidly graying, forcing corrections departments to confront the rising costs and challenges of health care in institutions that weren’t designed to serve as nursing homes.
Between 1995 and 2010 the number of inmates aged 55 and up almost quadrupled, owing in part to the tough-on-crime sentencing laws of the 1980s and 90s, according to a 2012 ACLU report. In 2013, about 10 percent of the nation’s prison inmates — or 145,000 people — were 55 or older. By 2030, the report said, one-third of all inmates will be over 55. At the same time, it is widely accepted that prisoners age faster than the general population because they tend to arrive at prison with more health problems or develop them during incarceration. Caring for elderly inmates can cost up to twice as much as caring for younger ones.
In North Carolina, for example, it costs an estimated four times as much. During the fiscal year 2006-2007 — its most recent figures — the state’s corrections department spent $33,824,060 on health care for inmates over 50, a 35% increase from just two years earlier.
Despite these runaway costs, there is no national oversight to determine how prisons handle the challenges of an aging population, says Marc Stern, a consultant in correctional health care. “If a Medicaid or Medicare auditor walked into [a large urban hospital] to do an audit’’ Stern said, “they would say, ‘O.K., where's your geriatric unit? Where's your dementia unit?’ It's part of the audit process, it's part of the intelligence phase that is part of being part of a national organization.”
But some states are confronting the costs and the problems. Here is a look at some innovative programs in New York, California and Connecticut.
A few (of many) recent and older related posts:
- Examining the sources of an ever-aging US prison population
- New major report documents costs and concerns with aging prison populations
- Big new ACLU report highlights the high cost of high numbers of elderly prisoners
- "Aging Prisoners, Increasing Costs, and Geriatric Release"
- What should Florida and other states do with all their old sex offenders?
- Are all states going to need to create old-age prisons?
- The high costs of an aging prison population
- The story of prisons becoming nursing homes in Virginia
- "Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?"
- The never-aging (and ever-costly) story of ever-aging US prison populations
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
New research report examines impact of "Realignment" on crime in California in 2014
Via an email from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), I received news about this notable new research report titled "Realignment and Crime in 2014: California’s Violent Crime in Decline." Here is how the CJCJ report was summarized in the email I received:
A new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice examines the impact of Public Safety Realignment on county crime given newly produced 2014 data. CJCJ finds no causal relationship between Realignment and changes in rates of reported Part I offenses.
• Since Realignment was implemented in 2011, statewide violent crime and property crime have generally decreased. This decline seems to be a continuation of the downward crime trend of the past two decades that has not demonstrably been affected by Realignment.
• Almost all counties experienced a decrease in their rates of state prison commitments for non-violent offenses in 2013 versus 2010. However, these declines showed no correlation with changes in crime rates in individual counties in 2014 versus 2010. For example, Orange County’s rate of non-violent prison admissions decreased by 53 percent along with substantial reductions in crime, while adjacent Riverside County saw a 30 percent decrease in non-violent prison admission rates along with less favorable crime trends.
• Trends in motor vehicle theft, which some researchers have connected to Realignment, were highly erratic among individual counties (for example, down 35 percent in Fresno County; up 102 percent in Shasta County). No correlations between Realignment and motor vehicle theft were apparent.
This report builds on CJCJ's previous county-level analyses finding that no definitive conclusions can be drawn about the impact, if any, of Realignment on crime at this time. Instead, this report highlights nine “model counties” that have shown uniquely large decreases in reliance on state prisons alongside uniquely large reductions in property, violent, and total crime. Policymakers should study the measures taken in these nine counties to better implement effective and safe statewide decarceration strategies.
August 26, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
"Federalism in Action: How Conservative States Got Smart on Crime"
Conservative states have led the way on justice reform over the last decade. By changing the culture of corrections through sentencing reforms that limit mandatory minimum prison terms to the most serious offenders and rely on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, rehabilitative programs for those who do serve time, and continued assistance when offenders reenter society, lawmakers have reduced recidivism, made communities safer, and saved taxpayers money.
The results from conservative states — these laboratories of democracy — are key as members of Congress look for ways to deal with the federal corrections system, which has seen explosive population and cost growth of its own since 1980. This is federalism in action. Through sentencing reforms and a focus on treatment as an alternative to incarceration, the federal government can lessen the cost-burden on taxpayers by using the lessons from the states to get smart on crime.
Conservatives have embraced the justice reform movement, and they should continue to do so. While passed with the best of intentions, the policies of the past have proven unsustainable, both in terms of the fiscal cost and the negative impact on poor and minority communities. The model that conservative states have provided fundamentally changes the nature of the approach. Punishments are, of course, still meted out by courts, but the sentences given offer a means for offenders to alter the direction of their lives.
One such example is a woman named Sarah Gilleland, whose story was told by Gov. Nathan Deal in a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly in January 2012. “Sarah was a drug addict. The drug use that began as recreation resulted in a destructive cocaine and methamphetamine addiction. It took control of her life. At one point, she had no means of transportation, she lost custody of her little girl, she wound up homeless,” Deal explained. “But I mention Sarah tonight because she exemplifies many of the goals we hold for our corrections system.”
“Under the supervision of a drug court, piece-by-piece, she began rebuilding her life. With help, she beat addiction, she won back her daughter, she is now a sponsor helping other women who face the same trials, and because she provides a powerful example of hope and redemption, I have asked her to join us in this chamber tonight,” he said, pointing to Sarah in the gallery of the chamber.
“Sarah was given a shot a better life and she took it. Her story is not the exception, it is playing out all across Georgia as people reclaim their lives through the work of accountability courts.”
“That is why we must focus on transforming our corrections system into a last resort of opportunity—a place where low-level offenders are reclaimed and restored to society as functioning members of the community—working to support their own families and paying taxes,” he added.
Compelling stories such as this are not just told in Georgia, they are also told in other states that have adopted conservative justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. And as more states and the federal government adopt the effort, more prison space will be reserved for the worst offenders in society, while those who have demonstrated a willingness to change their lives become productive citizens.
August 25, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Saturday, August 22, 2015
"Guns and Drugs"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Article argues that the increasingly prevalent critiques of the War on Drugs apply to other areas of criminal law. To highlight the broader relevance of these critiques, the Article uses as its test case the criminal regulation of gun possession.
The Article identifies and distills three lines of drug-war criticism, and argues that they apply to possessory gun crimes in much the same way that they apply to drug crimes. Specifically, the Article focuses on: (1) race- and class-based critiques; (2) concerns about police and prosecutorial power; and (3) worries about the social costs of mass incarceration. Scholars have identified structural flaws in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing in the drug context; in the Article, I highlight the ways that the same issues persist in an area — possessory gun crime — that receives much less criticism.
Appreciating the broader applicability of the drug war’s critiques, I contend, should lead to an examination of the flaws in the criminal justice system that lessen its capacity for solving social problems.
August 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)
Friday, August 21, 2015
"Who Built Prison America? Not Ted Kennedy"
Regular readers may recall a couple posts earlier this year (here and here) noting a fascinating book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Interestingly, Ron Weich, a prominent former staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy has this new commentary at The Crime Report (with the same headline of this post) asserting it is wrong to lay blame on Senator Kennedy for modern mass incarceration. Here are excerpts:
One of Kennedy’s most far-reaching bipartisan accomplishments was the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Yet this law serves as Exhibit A for Professor Murakawa’s theory that liberals bear responsibility for the failed criminal justice policies of that era. She blames the sentencing guideline system established by the Act for contributing to mass incarceration and accuses Sen. Kennedy of advancing unduly punitive policies....
Murakawa has harsh words for all who supported the 1984 Act, but she singles out Kennedy for special criticism. She decries the fact that the man she calls “the liberal lion of the Senate” included in the law various “carceral” elements such as the abolition of parole and a reduction in the availability of good-time credits for prisoners. She tracks changes in the sentencing bills Kennedy introduced from 1977 to 1984 and argues that his bills became increasingly punitive. She regards Kennedy as a “hard test case for my claim that Democrats aided, abetted, and legitimized a punitive law and order regime.”
The first flaw in the Murakawa book is its subtitle: How Liberals Built Prison America. No fair observer of criminal justice policy could conclude that liberals -- or conservatives or Democrats or Republicans -- bear sole responsibility for the spike in incarceration over the past half century. Rather, these disastrous criminal justice policies were a bipartisan misadventure that reflected the nation’s anger and fear about crime.
Every crime bill enacted by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s passed with broad bipartisan majorities and the support of leaders from both political parties. Only a handful of liberal House Democrats sometimes voiced concern. The Senate often passed crime bills by unanimous consent.
It is certainly fair to criticize Kennedy and other liberals for supporting bad crime bills. But they did not build “Prison America” by themselves, as the subtitle of Murakawa’s book unfairly suggests.
Murakawa’s narrative also fails to appreciate the complex collaborative nature of the legislative process. She attributes to Kennedy personally the flaws she perceives in his bills. Yes, he was a lead sponsor of the Sentencing Reform Act, but he did not write the law in a vacuum. The bill’s text is the product of years of negotiations with [Strom] Thurmond and many other members of the Senate, as well as committee markups and floor debates.
Murakawa acknowledges, but does not emphasize, the huge influence of the Justice Department in shaping the final law. It is no surprise that a bill first introduced during President Jimmy Carter’s administration became more conservative by the time it was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Too often, Murakawa conflates the role of the guideline system and mandatory minimum sentencing laws in contributing to overincarceration. Many of the most draconian mandatory minimums for drug and gun crimes were enacted in 1986, after the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 but before the guidelines took effect in 1987. Kennedy recognized that mandatory minimums were unjustified once the guideline system had been established. He repeatedly argued that guidelines are a reasonable mechanism to restrain judicial discretion, whereas mandatory minimums are blunt and unyielding.
Throughout the 1990s Kennedy fought against mandatory minimum sentencing proposals, as I detailed in my article “The Battle Against Mandatory Minimums: A Report from the Front Lines.”
He championed the safety-valve provision (18 USC 3553(f)) in the 1994 crime bill, which allows certain low-level, nonviolent offenders to be sentenced below applicable mandatory minimums. In fact, in his 1994 reelection race against Mitt Romney, Kennedy faced brutal ads claiming he was soft on crime because he had opposed mandatory sentencing.
Kennedy and other liberals can be faulted for voting in favor of the 1986 crime bill and other bills which contained mandatory minimums, but they did not lead the charge for those policies as Kennedy had for a guideline system. In fact, Sen. Kennedy was a leader in opposing mandatory minimums once their effect became clear and their inconsistency with the guideline system became apparent.
More generally, Kennedy was a voice for more rational criminal justice policies. He always opposed capital punishment and, as Prof. Murakawa notes, led the unsuccessful fight to pass the Racial Justice Act which would have allowed capital defendants to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias....
Professor Murakawa has written a thoughtful, comprehensive academic study of federal sentencing policies. A book like hers provides an important service, but it cannot be expected to take account of the rough-and-tumble aspects of the legislative arena. During his long political career, Sen. Kennedy endured criticism that was a lot harsher and less fair than that contained in Murakawa’s book.
As someone who has been involved in criminal justice policy for many years, both before and after I worked for Sen. Kennedy, I share Murakawa’s concern about America’s overreliance on incarceration. I also applaud the current trend toward more sensible sentencing policies.
I have no doubt that if Sen. Kennedy were alive today, he would be leading the charge for criminal justice reforms. And he would be doing so in a bipartisan manner, working with Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee and other unlikely bedfellows. That was his way.
Prior related posts:
- "How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"
- Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation
August 21, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Monday, August 17, 2015
US Sentencing Commission releases new data on retroactive application of "drugs -2" guideline amendment
I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this notable new document titled "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This part of the report's introduction provides the basic back-story for the data which follow:
On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that revised the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the drug or chemical quantity tables in sections 2D1.1 and 2D1.11 of the Guidelines Manual incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (Amendment 782). Specifically, the amendment reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities that trigger the statutory mandatory minimum penalties, resulting in corresponding guideline ranges that include the mandatory minimum penalties, and made conforming changes to section 2D1.1. Amendment 782 became effective on November 1, 2014.
On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782 beginning on the effective date of the amendment. The Commission also voted to require that courts not release any offender whose term of imprisonment was reduced pursuant to retroactive applications of Amendment 782 prior to November 1, 2015. To effectuate these decisions, the Commission promulgated Amendment 788, which added Amendment 782 to the list of amendments in section 1B1.10 (Reduction in Term of Imprisonment as a Result of an Amended Guideline Range)(Policy Statement) that apply retroactively. Amendment 788 also added a new special instruction to section 1B1.10 requiring that the effective date of all orders reducing a term of imprisonment pursuant to retroactive application of Amendment 782 be November 1, 2015 or later. Amendment 788 became effective on November 1, 2014.
The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 24, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by August 3, 2015.
The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, approximately 13,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of nearly two years.
So, given the (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers close to one billion dollars. Kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
"Sex Offenders Locked Up on a Hunch"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial. Here are excerpts:
The essence of the American criminal justice system is reactive, not predictive: You are punished for the crime you committed. You can’t be punished simply because you might commit one someday. You certainly can’t be held indefinitely to prevent that possibility.
And yet that is exactly what is happening to about 5,000 people convicted of sex crimes around the country. This population, which nearly doubled in the last decade, has completed prison sentences but remains held in what is deceptively called civil commitment — the practice of keeping someone locked up in an institution for months, years or even decades for the purpose of preventing possible future offenses.
The authorities have the power to detain people with mental illnesses or disorders who cannot function independently, or who pose a danger to themselves or others. But since the early 1990s, this power has been used increasingly to imprison one distinct group: sex offenders....
In a decision in June, a federal judge ruled that Minnesota’s civil-commitment law for sex offenders violates the Constitution. Federal District Judge Donovan Frank said the law imposes “a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.” For example, local prosecutors — not clinicians or mental health professionals — choose whether to seek continued detention based on a screening test that claims to predict a person’s likelihood of committing another sex offense, though there is no clear evidence such tests are accurate.
Yet based largely on those screening tests, more than 700 Minnesotans who have completed their prison sentences are locked up, at an annual cost of more than $120,000 per person — triple the cost of prison. This civil commitment rate is by far the highest in the country. Some people have been held for more than 20 years. During that time, not one person has been released from the program unconditionally.
A central flaw, Judge Frank said, is that Minnesota does not perform reassessments of risk, so the burden lies with the detainees to prove they no longer pose a danger. On Aug. 12, Judge Frank ordered the state to come up with constitutionally valid reforms by the end of September, or he “may demand a more forceful solution.”
Despite the public perception that all sex offenders are recidivists — a belief that drove these laws in the first place — sexual reoffense rates are in fact lower than those for other crimes (though an unknown number of sex crimes go unreported). In addition, while some states’ laws make it easier for detainees to earn their way out, 30 states have no civil-commitment laws at all, and there is no evidence that a state’s sexual-violence rate is affected by whether it has such a law....
Public safety would be better served if resources were directed toward community supervision and other services for those leaving prison, rather than toward skirting the edges of the Constitution to keep them locked away.
August 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)
Friday, August 14, 2015
In Ohio, "State prisons chief calls for softened hearts"
The quote in the title of this post is the headline of this local AP story about notable recent comments from the Director of Ohio's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Here are the details:
Ohio’s prisons chief is calling for more compassion toward wrongdoers as he continues a push to reduce the state’s inmate population. Too often an “us vs. them” mentality gets in the way of instituting programs to prevent people from going to prison and to keep former inmates from returning, corrections director Gary Mohr told a legislative prison-inspection committee on Thursday in remarks that at times were closer to a sermon than a speech.
“Our hearts need to be softened to some degree,” said Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “We have to think about the sense of forgiveness.” When Mohr started his prisons career 41 years ago, Ohio had 8,300 inmates in seven prisons, including 291 female inmates. The total now is holding steady at about 50,000 in 27 prisons, including 4,200 female prisoners.
The state’s incarceration rate was 5.3 per 100,000 citizens, compared with 68.1 today, said Mohr in a 40-minute speech to the bipartisan Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. Mohr is also dissatisfied that 1 in 4 state employees now work in adult corrections.
Society’s tough-on-crime attitude doesn’t match statistics showing violent crime at historic lows, he added. But Mohr also sees signs of optimism as commitments from the state’s biggest counties drop thanks to the growth of community alternatives in urban areas. The next challenge is extending such programs to the 82 counties where commitments have increased. The state is taking advantage of programs seeking to better integrate prisoners into society, as well, Mohr said. And the expansion of Medicaid will help inmates as they re-enter communities.
Among other issues Mohr said:
• 8,400 Ohio inmates spend less than a year in prison, a short period of time likely better served in communities in some form.
• 1 in 4 inmates is a probation violator, a trend that needs to be reversed by giving judges more discretion when ex-offenders make mistakes.
• The high population of some Ohio prisons raises security concerns.
Under Gov. John Kasich, the state has made efforts to slow the inmate population by easing penalties on first-time offenders, providing some early-release opportunities and boosting community-based options. At the same time, the state’s painkiller- and heroin-addiction epidemic has led to a rash of thefts, burglaries and other crimes that have increased prosecutions.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Fourth Circuit reverses district court's conclusion that Eighth Amendment precluded mandatory LWOP for piracy
Thanks to a helpful reader, I saw that the Fourth Circuit today handed down a panel decision in US v. Said, No. 14-4420 (4th Cir. Aug. 13, 2015) (available here), which reverses a district court's prior ruling that the Eighth Amendment precluded the imposition of mandatory LWOP federal sentences on defendants convicted of piracy. The main opinion in Said ends its Eighth Amendment analysis this way:
Victims of piracy are robbed of their vessels, kidnapped, held hostage, and even tortured and murdered, while pirates are often able to find safe refuge in the territorial waters off Somalia and collect multi-milliondollar ransom payments. In these circumstances, we agree with the government “that Congress could with reason conclude [that piracy] calls for the strong medicine of a life sentence for those who are apprehended.” See Br. of Appellant 39.
We are satisfied that “the relationship between the gravity of [the defendants’] offenses and the severity of [their proposed] punishment fails to create the threshold inference of gross disproportionality that is required” to satisfy prong one of the Eighth Amendment analysis. See Cobler, 748 F.3d at 580. Thus, without moving to prong two, we rule that the district court erred in invalidating § 1651’s mandatory life sentence as to these defendants and is obliged to impose such sentences on remand.
Judge Davis wrote an intriguing little concurring opinion urging Congress to no longer mandate LWOP sentences in all piracy cases because "not all piracy offenses are equal in severity, in heinousness, and in the dire consequences visited on innocent seafarers." In so doing, Judge Davis dropped this notable footnote:
Indeed, in this case, Mr. Ibrahim, who was “the group’s leader” and who “led the new mission,” ante at 7, would seem to have earned a life sentence. But he avoided that fate through the magic of “substantial assistance” and the fiction of “acceptance of responsibility,” the coins of the federal prosecutorial realm. The inference is unavoidable that it is not really those who participate in piracy who receive a life sentence upon conviction (as we imagine Congress might believe), but rather those who are convicted after electing to go to trial.
New juve research suggests punishment certainty matters over severity to achieve deterence
This recent posting via the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, titled "Report: Certainty, Not Severity, Key in Deterring Juvenile Crime," spotlights recent research on juvenile punishment's impact. Here are excerpts:
Researchers first reported several years ago that a major longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders showed the severity of their punishments had little effect on their recidivism rates. Digging into the data, the researchers also found that teenagers who commit serious crimes do respond to the threat or risk of sanctions, though not in a one-size-fits-all way.
In a new report released by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [available here], researchers say the findings point to the need to devote resources to change risk perceptions, rather than prisons.
The report, “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents,” is one of several OJJDP bulletins based on research from “Pathways to Desistance,” the study that followed more than 1,300 young offenders for seven years after their court involvement.
The resulting research has found no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests due to more severe punishment, such as correctional placement versus probation or longer periods of institutional placement, the researchers said. But it did find that the certainty of punishment can play a role in deterring future crimes. Among adolescents who commit serious offenses, “recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested,” the report said.
Edward Mulvey, the principal investigator on the Pathways study, said the idea that adolescents respond to the certainty of punishment, not severity, has found an audience with some policymakers. They are asking whether states should have to justify why the criminal justice system should hold an adolescent offender for a long time....
The new bulletin looks at how young offenders evaluate the risks of crime, which has a deterrence effect. Young people slightly increased their risk perceptions in response to an arrest, it found. The researchers said, though, there is no standard response to the certainty of punishment because risk perceptions vary based on individuals’ prior experiences or history of offenses and other factors.
August 13, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
"Does Plea Bargaining Add to Criminal Court Caseloads?"
The question in the title of this post is the title of this new commentary by LawProf Darryl Brown at Casetext. Here are excerpts:
Crime rates have been declining for twenty years, and more recently the caseloads in many state and federal courts have been declining as well, although somewhat more modestly. Yet as courts got a little breathing room, the rate of guilty pleas has not declined. Instead, in the federal system and some states, guilty pleas increased—usually from an already-high rate (as a share of total convictions) of 90 or 95 percent. To legal scholars who have examined plea bargaining for decades, this was not a surprise. Studies of courts in the 1970s found that plea bargaining did not decline even when caseloads for a local court system sharply fell, leaving prosecutors and judges with proportionately more time to handle the rest. Federal plea bargaining, it now seems clear, increased as prosecutors gained more bargaining leverage from mandatory sentencing laws and federal guidelines that greatly restricted judges’ sentencing discretion.
Plea bargaining, in short, is not simply of function of crime rates and the criminal caseloads that result from them. It depends many things: whether the parties want to reach a deal, strength of the evidence, and — far from least — how much bargaining leverage the law gives to prosecutors. To say merely that “plea bargaining is essential” begs the real question. It doesn’t answer whether all plea bargains we now achieve — 95 percent in federal courts — are compelled by caseloads and strapped budgets. Plea bargaining may be essential, but how many — or what percentage of — cases must be resolved by guilty pleas rather than trials?...
Discretionary decisions play out differently when courts and prosecutors can handle more cases thanks to the efficiency of plea bargaining. If it doesn’t “cost” as much to charge and convict, it is more tempting to do so. Police know courts can process some additional petty offenses, and prosecutors know that they can handle more as well. This doesn’t have to be a conscious recognition in every officials’ mind ... [but] plea bargaining helps to create a new set of norms or baselines — about how many cases prosecutors and judges ought to handle, about which defendants ought to plead guilty, and perhaps about which events deserve to be charged as crimes. Cases with evidence so weak that a trial conviction is highly uncertain now look worth the effort because, with hard-ball right plea bargaining, they can be turned into convictions. After years of achieving 95 percent of convictions through guilty pleas, a court system that suddenly had trials in 15 percent of cases would look like it is doing something wrong. The defendants who insisted on those additional trials would seem like ones whose cases didn’t “deserve” a trial and, consequently, that merit a harsher sentence because they had one.
All of these things are hard to measure. Empirical researchers have not yet demonstrated that plea bargaining actually drives up the number of cases in criminal courts. It may be the kind of phenomena that simply can’t be reliably measured. But ... recall that criminal caseloads continue to increase long after crime began to decline in the early 1990s. More tellingly, Professor John Pfaff has found that evidence that, in many states, prosecutors file charges a higher percentage of cases they receive from police than they did twenty or thirty years ago. That is, they use their discretion less often to decline to prosecute. Reasons for this are unclear. Maybe police now collectively send prosecutors case reports backed by stronger evidence. Maybe the current generation of prosecutors has tougher-on-crime views than the previous generation did. But we ought to be concerned that we have made plea bargaining so common, and so efficient, that its effect has not simply been to enable the criminal justice system to process more cases without more judges and prosecutors. There is a good chance that plea bargaining has also increased the number of criminal cases in the system.
That might be good thing if crime was increasing. Or if we simply couldn’t afford to increase funding for prosecutors and judges at the same that we do for police and prisons. Or if we placed no social and political value on trial by jury. But none of that is true. What is true is that, as we have increased the rate of guilty pleas from already high levels of 75 or 85 percent of convictions to 90 or 95 percent, the United States also created the single most punitive criminal justice system, with by far the highest incarceration rate, in modern world history. That alone ought to be reason to worry that our exceedingly efficient system of plea bargaining has triggered “rebound effects.”
"Buying Access: How Corporations Influence Decision Makers at Corrections Conferences, Trainings, and Meetings"
The title of this post is the title of this new report issued by In the Public Interest. Here is the report's executive summary:
Private corrections companies, which contract with corrections departments and facilities to oversee and provide services to incarcerated people, make up a multibillion-dollar industry. Every year, they devote resources to building influence with decision makers in order to find and capitalize on new business opportunities. One key avenue of influence is through professional corrections associations, which are non-profit organizations that support corrections officials, including wardens, administrators, state Department of Corrections staff, sheriffs, and others through events, trainings, and public policy advocacy.
This report first details how companies spend millions of dollars sponsoring conferences, paying vendor fees, and providing other funding to gain access to the professional corrections associations. This report then shows how corrections companies leverage this access in ways that can influence decision makers and benefit the companies’ bottom lines.
Considering corrections companies’ track records of providing low-quality services that harm prisoners, communities, and taxpayers, the influence they exert through professional corrections associations is cause for concern.
The research in this report is based on limited information that professional corrections associations make publicly available. Consequently, the report’s findings constitute only a portion of the total contributions made by companies and the subsequent opportunities they receive to influence decision makers.
Private companies make contributions to professional corrections associations. In 2014, sponsors, vendors, corporate partners, and other non-individual entities contributed at least $3 million to five of the largest professional corrections associations, including the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, the Corrections Technology Association, and the National Sheriffs’ Association.
In return, corrections contractors are able to build relationships with and influence decision makers in key ways:
Corrections companies send executives and staff to professional corrections association conferences to meet decision makers. Many companies receive lists of attendees, allowing the corporate staff to target certain corrections officials.
Corrections companies lead trainings and workshops at conferences. Often times, companies will directly market goods and services.
Corrections companies host conference events where their executives and marketing staff meet with and give speeches to corrections officials.
Corrections companies market their products and services at conference vendor booths to identify potential government customers and generate leads.
Corrections companies advertise on conference materials, such as the program books, hotel room key cards, tote bags, and take-home mugs. This marketing encourages officials to consider the companies’ products and services when making purchasing and outsourcing decisions.
Urban Institute creates intriguing on-line "Prison Population Forecaster"
I just learned about this notable new on-line resource from the Urban Institute, which it calls "The Prison Population Forecaster." Here is how the tool is described at the site:
Roughly 2.2 million people are locked up in prison or jail; 7 million are under correctional control, which includes parole and probation; and more than $80 billion is spent on corrections every year.
Research has shown that policy changes over the past four decades have put more people in prison and kept them there longer, leading to exponential growth in the prison population even while crime has dropped to historic lows.
But despite widespread agreement that mass incarceration is a serious problem, the national conversation is light on details about what it will take to achieve meaningful and sustainable reductions. What do states actually need to do roll back their prison populations by 10 percent? 20 percent? 50 percent?
To advance the policy conversation, decisionmakers and the public need to know the impact of potential policy changes. Our Prison Population Forecaster can estimate the effect, by state, of policies that aim to reduce prison admissions and length of stay for the most common types of offenses.
The tool currently uses data from 15 states, representing nearly 40 percent of the national prison population, to forecast population trends and project the impact of changes on rates of admission or lengths of stay in prison.
Using the tool, we can see that in some states, limiting prison admissions to only new crimes and diverting parole and probation revocations will substantially reduce the number of people behind bars. Other states can stem prison growth by tackling how they address drug and property offenses. Still others may discover that modest reductions in time served for violent offenses are necessary.
This forecasting tool paves the way for a more productive conversation about the need for tailored reforms that address the unique drivers of mass incarceration in each jurisdiction.
Friday, August 07, 2015
"What We Learned From German Prisons"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times op-ed authored by Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice. and Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts:
Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.
The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs...
This is an encouraging moment for American advocates of criminal justice reform. After decades of callousness and complacency, the United States has finally started to take significant steps to reverse what a recent report by the National Research Council called a “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” experiment in mass incarceration. Congress, in a bipartisan effort, seems prepared to scale back draconian federal sentencing laws. Many states are making progress in reducing their prison populations. And President Obama, in a gesture of his commitment to this issue, last month became the first American president to visit a federal correctional facility.
The delegation that we took to Germany represented the emerging national consensus on this issue. It included a Democratic governor; corrections officials from across the political spectrum; chief prosecutors; formerly incarcerated individuals; a liberal scholar of race and criminal justice; and representatives from Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute, conservative groups that advocate reform, as well as the evangelical Christian group Prison Fellowship.
But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.
While the United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, Germany — whose population is one-fourth the size of ours — locks up only about 63,500, which translates to an incarceration rate that is one-tenth of ours. More than 80 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany receive sentences of “day fines” (based on the offense and the offender’s ability to pay). Only 5 percent end up in prison. Of those who do, about 70 percent have sentences of less than two years, with few serving more than 15 years.
The incarcerated people that we saw had considerable freedom of movement around their facilities and were expected to exercise judgment about how they used their time. Many are allowed, a few times a year, to leave the prison for a few hours or overnight to visit friends and family. Others resided in “open” facilities in which they slept at night but left for work during the day. Solitary confinement is rare in Germany, and generally limited to no more than a few days, with four weeks being the outer extreme (as opposed to months or years in the United States).
The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.
Germans, like Americans, are greatly concerned with public safety. But they think about recidivism differently. During our visit, we heard prison professionals discussing failure in refreshingly unfamiliar terms: If, after release, an individual were to end up back in prison, that would be seen as a reason for the prison staff members to ask what they should have done better. When we told them stories of American politicians who closed a work-release or parole program after a single high-profile crime by a released inmate, they shook their heads in disbelief: Why would you close an otherwise effective program just because one client failed?...
The first article of the German Constitution reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Granted, our own Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment and protects individuals against excessive government intrusions. As was noted by the Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy in a landmark 2011 opinion ordering California to reduce its prison population: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment.”
These words hold much promise, but currently they have far too little impact on actual conditions in American prisons. In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.
The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Is it now ungodly to oppose significant sentencing and prison reform?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent Crux commentary authored by Jacob Lupfer headlined "There’s a truly religious consensus on prison reform." Here are excerpts:
In an era when most faith groups’ political priorities align predictably with the two major parties, it is refreshing to behold a truly diverse religious consensus on an issue....
The budget-busting prison-industrial complex was politically popular for a time, but in the past decade the pendulum has begun swinging the other way. Harsh sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders, created unsustainable fiscal pressures. States simply cannot afford to house more prisoners and pay the salaries and benefits of employees to supervise and care for them.
Already, states are taking steps to spend less on “corrections.” Fiscal conservatives now view prisons as overly expensive, hugely inefficient, bloated bureaucracies. Yet Christians and other people of faith see problems, too.
America’s denominations and faith organizations are calling for reform. Our vast criminal justice system emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, while our faith traditions preach redemption. Citing Isaiah 61, Jesus announced that his gospel would include “release for the captives” (Luke 4:18). It seems wrong for a Christian conscience to support needless incarceration.
Catholics were early leaders in promoting restorative justice, the idea that communities must help ex-offenders re-enter society in healthy and productive ways. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major pastoral statement in 2000 that placed criminal justice issues in the context of social ills, including family breakdown, violence, racial disparities and the perverse incentives of for-profit prisons.
Once a powerhouse in ecumenical Christian political influence, the National Council of Churches has reinvented itself as a smaller, more focused agency. Yet it has made mass incarceration its top advocacy priority. NCC President Jim Winkler has a provocative idea. “If churches want to see revival,” he told me last year, “they should pick up released prisoners and help reintegrate them into their communities.” Criminal justice reform is not just an issue. It is essential to the gospel: Redeemed sinners proclaiming mercy in the name of Jesus Christ....
Leaders from Catholic, mainline, and black Protestant traditions have been sounding this refrain for years. But the growing consensus among white evangelicals and Republican officeholders may finally make sentencing reform an urgent and truly bipartisan imperative. The National Association of Evangelicals, known to be more active on non-sex-related issues than other religious conservatives, has spoken strongly of the need for criminal justice reform....
Until recently, disparate groups have worked on the issue largely independently. That is changing. In 2014, Congress appointed a committee to study the feasibility of reform among federal prison populations, whose growth threatens other federal law enforcement and funding priorities. The committee is called the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. Earlier this year, the task force sought input from faith leaders and saw unprecedented agreement across traditions and enthusiastic support for reform....
Sentencing and prison policy is more easily seen as a boring bureaucratic issue. Even though millions are incarcerated, most Americans know zero or one person in prison. Yet faith communities are adding urgency to the imperative for prison and sentencing reform, even as they remain divided on the death penalty (for now).
In the end, fiscal constraints will force changes in prisons and sentencing if moral concerns do not. It seems better to make these changes out of a warm-hearted, merciful impulse than through cold fiscal realities. The faith community can credibly speak with one voice on criminal justice reform, and that voice must be heard.
"Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A"
The title of this post is the title of this new documentary that premired on HBO this week. Based on the few clips I have so far had a chance to watch, it looks like a valuable contribution to the broad on-going policy and constitutional debate over LWOP. Here is the film's synopsis via its HBO website:
America is the most punitive nation in the world, handing out historically harsh sentences that largely dispense with the concept of rehabilitation. Alan and Susan Raymond (Oscar® and Emmy® winners for HBO’s “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School”) explore the reality of “the other death penalty” in TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A.
Featuring exclusive, unprecedented access, TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A was shot entirely at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, a maximum-security facility in the Mojave Desert.
In 2000, a California State Prison inmate serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) approached the warden to request a dedicated yard for men serving life sentences that would break the code of violence dominating prison life. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) subsequently transformed Yard A at California State Prison into The Progressive Programming Facility, which inmates call The Honor Yard. The only one of its kind in the United States, this experimental prison yard is free of violence, racial tensions, gang activity and illegal drug and alcohol use.
TOE TAG PAROLE: TO LIVE AND DIE ON YARD A focuses on the 600 men living at The Progressive Programming Facility, who seek self-improvement and spiritual growth through education, art and music therapy, religious services and participation in peer-group sessions.
Although a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found mandatory sentencing of juveniles to Life Without the Possibility of Parole unconstitutional, those previously convicted still have to serve their sentences in some states. The film features interviews with three of the inmates – sentenced to life at ages 14, 16 and 17 – who describe growing up within the prison walls.
Ken Hartman, who beat a man to death at age 19 while drunk, and has been in prison for 36 years, says, “There’s a progression that these things go through. People used to be stoned to death and then they were shot and then they were hung, they were electrocuted. Each step along the way always the argument is made that this is a better kind of death penalty. I’m sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole. It’s not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence.” As the men of The Honor Yard say, “They will get out when they get their Toe Tag Parole,” meaning death by incarceration.
Wednesday, August 05, 2015
"Why Opposing Hyper-Incarceration Should Be Central to the Work of the Anti-Domestic Violence Movement"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Donna Coker and Ahjane Macquoid. Here is the abstract:
We demonstrate that among the many negative results of hyper-incarceration is the risk of increased domestic violence. In Part I, we describe the growth of hyper-incarceration and its racial, class, and gender disparate character. This growth in criminalization has been fueled by racist ideologies and is part of a larger neoliberal project that also includes disinvestment in communities, diminishment of the welfare state, and harsh criminalization of immigration policy. We place the dominant crime-centered approach to domestic violence in this larger neoliberal context.
The well-documented harms of hyper-incarceration -- collateral consequences that limit the economic and civic opportunities of those with criminal convictions; the emotional and economic harms to families of incarcerated parents; prison trauma and the deepening of destructive masculinities; the weakening of a community’s social structure, economic viability, and political clout -- produce harms that research demonstrates are tied to increased risks for the occurrence of domestic violence.
Anti-domestic violence advocates have responded to neoliberal anti-poor and anti-immigrant policies with two strategies: exceptionalizing domestic violence victims and expanding the reach of VAWA. These strategies are likely to become less tenable in the current political climate. We argue for a more inclusive political alignment of anti-domestic violence organizations with social justice organizations that addresses the larger structural inequalities that fuel violence. A key part of that alignment is opposition to hyper-incarceration.
Tuesday, August 04, 2015
Urging Prez Obama to appoint a "new, visionary Bureau of Prisons head"
Three notable law professors, Robert Ferguson, Judith Resnik and Margo Schlanger, have come together to make this effective pitch in the Washington Post for Prez Obama to make one key appointment in his effort to reform the federal criminal justice system. The piece is headlined "With one decision, Obama and Lynch could reshape the criminal justice system: The President needs to appoint a new, visionary Bureau of Prisons head," and here are excerpts:
The current director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons recently announced his retirement. The job is not Senate-confirmed (though Congress can play a role; on Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will be holding a hearing on the issue). Instead, Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch will choose the BOP’s ninth head since its founding in 1930.
The decision matters a lot. The BOP’s director runs one of the critical bureaucracies of the federal government. It houses more than 200,000 prisoners in more than 120 facilities across the United States. Under the leadership of some of its directors — such as James Bennett, who served from the late 1930s to the 1960s — the BOP set the nation’s benchmark for smart criminal justice administration. Bennett promoted the Youth Corrections Act and vocational and education training, he became president of the American Correctional Association and he led the U.S. delegation to the UN Crime Commission. Bennett led the BOP to the forefront of efforts to help prisoners gain skills to return to their communities and to treat juveniles differently than adults.
Since Bennett’s era, the BOP’s leadership role has eroded. The BOP has imposed unduly harsh conditions on prisoners, failed to prevent sexual abuse, and refused to exercise discretion to house prisoners in community facilities close to their homes. The largest prison system in America needs to do better....
The BOP also has many available tools and a good deal of discretion to lower its prison population, but it has used those opportunities far too sparingly. The BOP does not place all eligible prisoners in residential treatment centers (halfway houses) at the earliest available dates, nor does the BOP use compassionate release — when the prisoner or a member of his or her family is dying — and other aspects of the 2007 Second Chance Act as much as it could. Using halfway houses more would put prisoners closer to home, where they can maintain ties to their families and communities and can gain avenues to employment. Given endemic racial and other disparities in our criminal justice system, these lost opportunities have a particularly harmful impact on poor minority urban communities.
The result of these many decisions, along with unduly harsh federal sentences which Congress is currently considering fixing, has been severe overcrowding. The BOP is 30 percent over capacity, which makes keeping staff and prisoners safe significantly more difficult. With congestion comes risks of violence, and less access to services such as jobs and programs. And as prison populations age, the costs of medical care go up.
We know the BOP can do better, because many state correctional systems are making a variety of improvements in their approaches. State prison systems have reduced the population of those in isolation, created “gender-responsive” programming to suit the histories and challenges of women and men in prison, offered new work programs and improved mental health services. For example, Colorado, Maine and Washington have used careful analyses to substantially reduce the number of prisoners in solitary and shifted the treatment of those who remain, putting them back into structured and regular contact with other people.
When searching for the BOP’s ninth director, the president and attorney general can look to a field of experienced innovators with demonstrated commitments to reform — decarceration, improved conditions of confinement, racial justice and gender equity. The president holds the prison door keys for federal prisoners whose sentences he commutes. His administration’s choice for the new head of the BOP is critical to reform for those remaining inside.
Monday, August 03, 2015
US Sentencing Commission releases big report on 5-year impact of Fair Sentencing Act
As reported in this official USSC news release, today "the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress its report assessing the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which among other things reduced the statutory 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio of crack to powder cocaine." Here are highlights of an encouraging report via the news release:
Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, said: “We found that the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, substantially reduced the federal prison population, and resulted in fewer federal prosecutions for crack cocaine. All this occurred while crack cocaine use continued to decline.”
To assess the impact of the FSA, the Commission analyzed external data sources and undertook statistical analyses of its own federal sentencing data spanning before and after the enactment of the FSA. Among other things, the study shows that:
• Many fewer crack cocaine offenders have been prosecuted annually since the FSA, although the number is still substantial;
• Crack cocaine offenders prosecuted after the FSA are, on average, about as serious as those prosecuted before the FSA;
• Rates of crack cocaine offenders cooperating with law enforcement have not changed despite the reduction in penalties; and,
• Average crack cocaine sentences are lower, and are now closer to average powder cocaine sentences.
The full report, which runs almost 100 pages including all its materials is available at this link. The USSC's website now has this terrific page with various report-related materials and links for easy consumption of all the data in the report.
August 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)
Split Fourth Circuit panel finds no means for federal prisoner to challenge collaterally wrongful LWOP
A Fourth Circuit panel on Friday issued a very intricate and thoughtful set of opinions in US v. Surratt, No. 14-6851 (4th Cir. July 31, 2015) (available here). The start of the majority opinion provides this effective overview of the issues in Surratt:
In 2005, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Raymond Surratt was sentenced to life imprisonment. We affirmed his conviction and sentence on appeal, and Surratt’s motion to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was likewise denied. Neither Surratt’s direct appeal nor his § 2255 motion questioned the legality of his mandatory life sentence.
Several years later, Surratt returned to this Court and asked for permission to file a second or successive § 2255 motion. Surratt’s request was premised on United States v. Simmons, 649 F.3d 237 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc), which in turn overruled our prior decision in United States v. Harp, 406 F.3d 242 (4th Cir. 2005). Had Surratt been sentenced after Simmons, he would have faced a lower mandatory minimum sentence than the mandatory life term that he actually received. Surratt maintained that this difference entitled him to be resentenced. But Congress set out certain conditions that must be met before a successive motion may be permitted, and Surratt did not meet those required conditions. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(h). We therefore denied him permission to file a successive motion. See In re Surratt, No. 12-283 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 2012), ECF No. 6.
In the district court, Surratt had simultaneously filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 seeking the same Simmons-based relief. As a federal prisoner, however, Surratt cannot challenge his conviction and sentence under § 2241 unless 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e) -- also called the “savings clause” -- applies. The district court concluded that § 2255(e) did not in fact confer jurisdiction to consider Surratt’s claim in a § 2241 petition, so it denied Surratt’s petition.
Surratt now appeals from the judgment of the district court. We are not unsympathetic to his claim; like the dissent, we recognize the gravity of a life sentence. However, Congress has the power to define the scope of the writ of habeas corpus, and Congress has exercised that power here to narrowly limit the circumstances in which a § 2241 petition may be brought. Surratt’s petition does not present one of the permitted circumstances. Accordingly, we agree that the district court lacked jurisdiction under § 2255(e) to consider Surratt’s § 2241 petition and affirm the judgment below.
The end of the dissenting opinion in Surratt provides this alternative perspective on the case and its disposition by the majority:
I do not doubt that the majority is sympathetic to Surratt. In the end, I suppose we just have fundamentally different views on the role of habeas corpus, as well as the role of the judiciary in granting the writ. I see it as our solemn responsibility to guard against a morbid encroachment upon that which is so precious our Framers ensured its continued vitality in our Constitution. Instead we guard the Great Writ itself, and so closely that Surratt must spend the rest of his life in prison -- against the will of the government and the district court. Our abdication of this responsibility begs the question: quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who will guard the guards themselves?
It is within our power to do more than simply leave Surratt to the mercy of the executive branch. To hope for the right outcome in another’s hands perhaps is noble. But only when we actually do the right thing can we be just. I lament that today we are not the latter. Neither the plain language of our habeas statutes, our precedent, nor the Constitution demands that Surratt die in prison. I must dissent.
Sunday, August 02, 2015
Rep. Sensenbrenner explains why "Now is the time for criminal justice reform"
The Washington Examiner has published this notable new commatary authored by US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner under the headline "Now is the time for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:
Over the past three decades, America's federal prison population has more than quadrupled — from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today. Prison spending has increased alongside it, placing a heavy burden on American taxpayers. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 1980-2013, prison spending has increased by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable. Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.
This redirects funding from enforcement and other criminal justice programs and reduces our system's efficiency and effectiveness. The growth in prison population and spending, plus the massive human and social costs of mass incarceration, creates an urgent need for federal criminal justice reform.
The current high incarceration rates are a result of sweeping tough-on-crime initiatives, specifically the introduction of drug mandatory minimums in the 1980s. While minimums have proved successful in some circumstances, too often low-level, non-violent individuals have been caught up in the system. Instead of considering the unique circumstances of each case, taking into account the personal and criminal history of the offender, judges are forced to comply with federally mandated minimums that lock up millions of people without discretionary judgment.
Further, the current system lacks the ability to effectively rehabilitate nonviolent offenders, leaving them without the skills, education and training to successfully reintegrate into society. A shocking 50 percent of the federal prison population has substance abuse issues, mental health issues or both. An estimated 53 percent of offenders entering prison are at or below the poverty line, and our current prison population houses a disproportionate number of African-Americans, who account for nearly 40 percent of inmates.
Our prisons have become warehouses that simply lock away offenders, rather than treating the underlying issues that brought them there. This neglect contributes to high recidivism rates and puts a revolving door on the gates of America's federal prisons.
While Congress has remained largely silent on the issue, states have embraced reform — enacting wide-ranging, evidence-based changes that both improve public safety and rein in prison costs. These state programs have succeeded by prioritizing incarceration for violent and career criminals, strengthening community supervision and adopting alternative sanctions for lower-level offenders....
Last year, Congressman Bobby Scott and I led a congressional task force to investigate over-criminalization, which examined the scope of mass incarceration, as well as evidence-based programs for reform. In June, we introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, a comprehensive bill that addresses the major drivers of the federal prison population at the front and back ends of the system.
SAFE Justice promotes targeted sentencing over a one-size-fits-all approach, curtails the ballooning number of regulatory crimes, and includes policies that more effectively change the criminal behavior of the nearly 132,000 people on federal probation and post-prison supervision. The bill, which has been endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner and boasts 36 bipartisan cosponsors, advances research-based sentencing, release and supervision policies, and will enact meaningful reforms that shadow the success seen on the state level.
Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory. It's not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible. Now is the time for criminal justice reform, and the SAFE Justice Act delivers the change necessary to enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.
Prior related posts:
- Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders
- In praise of GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner making the moral case for sentencing reform
Thursday, July 30, 2015
"Miller v. Alabama as a Watershed Procedural Rule: The Case for Retroactivity"
The title of this post is the title of this timely piece available via SSRN and authored by Beth Caldwell. Here is the abstract:
Three years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP) under mandatory sentencing schemes amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Over the past few years, courts have reached conflicting conclusions regarding whether the rule the Supreme Court pronounced in Miller applies retroactively to the cases of over 2,100 prisoners whose convictions were final when the case was decided. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Montgomery v. Louisiana and is now poised to decide whether Miller must apply retroactively. The issue has primarily been framed as a question of whether the Miller rule is substantive, and therefore retroactive, or procedural, and therefore not retroactive. Ten state supreme courts have concluded that Miller is retroactive because it created a new substantive rule. The four states that have determined Miller is not retroactive have done so on the basis that its rule is procedural, rather than substantive. However, Miller’s rule is not clearly substantive or procedural.
This Essay presents an alternative argument for concluding that Miller is retroactive — one that has been marginalized in the discourse thus far but was just relied upon by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Casiano v. Commissioner. I argue that even if the Supreme Court were to determine that Miller announced a new procedural rule, it should still apply retroactively because of its groundbreaking nature. The Miller decision has sparked a transformation in juvenile sentencing across the country. Directly in response to Miller, eight states have passed legislation expressly outlawing LWOP sentences for juveniles. Nine other states have created new resentencing or parole procedures that go far beyond the requirements of Miller to offer juvenile offenders more meaningful opportunities for release at younger ages. Given the widespread changes the opinion has inspired, it should be categorized as a watershed rule and should apply retroactively.
July 30, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Sentencing reform group propounds "The Dangerous Myths of NAAUSA"
In this post last week, I linked to this white paper produced by the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys titled "The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing 'Reform'." This week has now brought this response from Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) titled in full, "The Dangerous Myths of NAAUSA: A Response to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys’ Paper Titled 'The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing Reform'." Here are excerpts from the executive summary, introductory paragraph and conclusion of this FAMM response paper:
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA), which represents neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor a significant percentage of assistant U.S. attorneys, opposes mandatory minimum sentencing reform on the basis of several unfounded and patently false claims. This paper rebuts those claims with data and facts...
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) recently released a white paper in which it purports to respond to the myths of sentencing reform advocates. Before addressing its substantive points, it is important to keep in mind who NAAUSA represents — or, more important, who it does not represent. NAAUSA does not represent federal prosecutors or the offices in which its members work. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which represents all federal prosecutors and prosecutes all federal cases, supports mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform. NAAUSA does not even speak for all assistant U.S. attorneys; only 28 percent of the nation’s assistant U.S. attorneys are members of NAAUSA, according to the group’s website. Former federal and state prosecutors now serving in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), are leading sponsors of federal mandatory minimum sentencing reforms opposed by NAAUSA.
While advocates from all points of the political spectrum, law enforcement groups, members of both parties of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, the Department of Justice, and President Barack Obama all agree that significant mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform is needed — and the sooner the better — NAAUSA is using scare tactics and patently false and unsupported claims to attempt to maintain a status quo that indiscriminately incarcerates thousands of nonviolent drug offenders for decades, at the cost of billions of dollars that could be better invested in law enforcement and crime prevention. NAAUSA wants to maintain a sentencing system that is unjust, ineffective, expensive, harmful to families, and depleting law enforcement of limited resources. NAAUSA may call its opposition to mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform many things, but it cannot be called a serious effort to improve public safety.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
More talk that all the talk about federal sentencing reform is about to produce some action
As July winds down and as more opponents of sentencing reform have become more vocal, I was coming to believe that all the talk (and more talk) of bipartisan efforts to finalize a federal sentencing reform bill was going to end up as another example of inside-the-Beltway sound and fury signifying nothing. But this new New York Times article, headlined "Push to Scale Back Sentencing Laws Gains Momentum," has me wanting to believe that optimism is still more justified than cynicism on this sentencing reform front. Here are excerpts:
For several years, a handful of lawmakers in Congress have tried to scale back tough sentencing laws that have bloated federal prisons and the cost of running them. But broadbased political will to change those laws remained elusive.
Now, with a push from President Obama, and perhaps even more significantly a nod from Speaker John A. Boehner, Congress seems poised to revise four decades of federal policy that greatly expanded the number of Americans — to roughly 750 per 100,000 — now incarcerated, by far the highest of any Western nation.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has long resisted changes to federal sentencing laws, said he expected to have a bipartisan bill ready before the August recess. “It will be a bill that can have broad conservative support,” said Mr. Grassley, who as recently as this year praised the virtues of mandatory minimums on the Senate floor....
Of the 2.2 million men and women behind bars, only about 207,600 are in the federal system, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But because the federal system has grown at the fastest rate of any in the country, many on the left and the right say they believe it exemplifies the excesses of America’s punitive turn. “If we can show leadership at the federal level,” Mr. Durbin said, “I think it will encourage other states to open this issue up for debate. The notion that we can create a bipartisan force for this really has value.”...
The dynamic is similar to the fight this year over changes to the Patriot Act when younger, more libertarian members — again supported by Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama — worked with Democrats to change the law and eventually even won over a reluctant Mr. Grassley.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Making the case that sentencing reform should (and must) include "violent" offenders
Two different law professors have recently published, in two different major papers, two important new commentaries calling for the modern sentencing reform movement to look beyond just so-called non-violent offenders. Here I will provide links to and snippets from these pieces while suggesting both should be read in full:
In the Los Angeles Times, Andrea Roth's op-ed is headlined "Let's consider leniency for many 'violent' offenders too":
The White House's push for meaningful criminal justice reform is laudable and arguably unprecedented. But if the president and reformers hope to radically reduce the number of people in American prisons and address glaring disparities in criminal justice, focusing narrowly on nonviolent drug offenses won't get them very far.
The truth is that prosecution for violent crimes, and not prosecution for drug possession and sales, is the primary engine of mass incarceration in this country....
Conceptualizing nonviolent drug offenders as somehow qualitatively different from other offenders creates a false distinction. Many crimes labeled “violent” under our criminal codes are either directly motivated by drug addiction or directly related to drug sales or possession. A heroin-addicted veteran who walks into a garage to steal tools to feed his drug habit has committed a first-degree burglary, a “violent” crime under many state codes. A drug-motivated unarmed robbery in which the offender pushes the victim, takes cash from his wallet, and runs away is also a “violent” crime under most state laws. A person who owns a firearm and has it in his house while engaging in a drug deal has committed a “crime of violence” under the federal sentencing guidelines. In short, “violent crime” is a legally constructed term that includes within its broad reach a great deal of drug-related conduct that wouldn't be considered “violent,” as Americans colloquially use that term.
Painting nonviolent drug offenders as a special group that deserves leniency obscures the fact that even those guilty of indisputably violent acts should not be overcharged or sentenced to disproportionately long prison terms. Piling on charges and strong-arming guilty pleas under the threat of mandatory-minimum sentences are fixtures not merely of drug prosecutions, but of all prosecutions in the modern tough-on-crime era.
In the Washington Post, John Pfaff's opinion piece is headlined "For true penal reform, focus on the violent offenders":
It’s true that nearly half of all federal inmates have been sentenced for drug offenses, but the federal system holds only about 14 percent of all inmates. In the state prisons, which hold the remaining 86 percent, over half of prisoners are serving time for violent crimes, and since 1990, 60 percent of the growth in state prison populations has come from locking up violent offenders. Less than a fifth of state prisoners — 17 percent — are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. And contrary to Obama’s claim, drug inmates tend to serve relatively short sentences. It is the inmates who are convicted of violent crimes who serve the longer terms.
Now, to be clear, not all violent offenses are especially harmful. But a significant fraction of those in prison for violent crimes are there for serious violence: murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery. Moreover, many officially nonviolent inmates have histories of violence.
In other words, for all the talk about nonviolent offenders, a majority of our prisoners have been convicted of a violent act, and even more have some history of violence. And because no one thinks we should set every drug or other nonviolent offender free, at some point we are going to have to reduce the punishments that violent offenders face if we really want to cut our breath-taking prison population down to size.
But this idea is a political third rail, and no leading politician has been willing to risk touching it. Almost all the reform proposals we have seen focus exclusively on scaling back punishments for drug and other nonviolent crimes.
That’s what made Obama’s commutations and policy speeches so disappointing. Incarceration is driven by so many local factors that neither federal sentencing reform nor presidential commutations can have much of an impact. What the president may be able to do, however, is use his national pulpit to shape the debate. Obama missed a major opportunity to influence the current conversation on how to reduce incarceration.
Friday, July 24, 2015
"Convicted Republicans Plead for Mandatory Minimums Changes"
The title of this post is the hedline of this notable new Roll Call piece. Here are excerpts:
Kevin Ring, the lobbyist who was sentenced in 2011 to 20 months in federal prison for his role in a corruption scheme, was pitching to GOP aides gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building on an effort to overhaul mandatory minimum requirements. Ring, who has been working in downtown Washington, D.C., since his April prison release, wanted the staffers to understand that current guidelines more often send low-level dealers and addicts to prison, not drug kingpins....
Two other convicted Republicans who served time in federal custody joined Ring for the lunchtime forum aimed at building support for a proposal sponsored by Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democrat Robert C. Scott of Virginia. Red states are leading the way, and now it is “time that the federal government catches up,” Sensenbrenner, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman, said during his brief talk to staffers as they munched on Chick-fil-A lunches.
Despite positive feedback from Speaker John A. Boehner, Sensenbrenner acknowledged it would be tough to prod his bill forward. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not on board. Sensenbrenner also suggested he may have “worn out my welcome” in the Senate, during the recent debacle over reauthorizing the Patriot Act, though a separate effort is gaining momentum in that chamber on a bipartisan basis.
Some federal prosecutors have expressed opposition to executive branch efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing they are an essential tool to dismantling drug rings.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, disgraced in 2004 when he was forced to withdraw from his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said it was “incumbent” that the next White House administration tackle mandatory minimums. Kerik pulled out of consideration after admitting he had not paid taxes for a domestic worker who may have been an illegal immigrant, and later pleaded guilty to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying under oath. He was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison.
Knitting, chess and checkers were offered as adult continuing education classes to inmates at the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., where Ring and Kerik served their sentences. “You can teach an inmate real estate or accounting, but that federal conviction will keep them from getting a license,” Kerik said.
“Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” echoed Pat Nolan, who served 15 years in the California State Assembly before he was nabbed accepting an illicit campaign contribution as part of an FBI sting. He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and served 29 months in federal custody.
Twenty-four hours earlier, in the same room, House Judiciary Democrats unveiled legislation that would end mandatory life imprisonment for incarcerated youth, as part of a package of bills focused on sentencing and incarceration. Ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also introduced a measure aimed at increasing police accountability in the wake of high-profile deadly encounters between officers and black citizens.
“It is clear that improved national standards are necessary to address the ever-growing catalogue of incidents such as the case of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas, where a routine traffic stop led to an arrest and a death in custody 72 hours later,” Conyers stated Wednesday. “It is critical that we adopt smarter approaches to dealing with those involved with the criminal justice system.”
Among Republicans, the blame was on the Justice Department. Nolan fired off at U.S. attorneys, saying their jobs are “entirely political” and driven by numbers. They have the tools to protect the public and keep the streets clean, he said, “but there’s no restraint.”
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Is it a big concern when a Prez candidate gets "big money" from private prison companies?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story from Florida headlined, "Marco Rubio is Getting Big Money from For-profit Prison Companies." Here are excerpts:
According to Open Secrets, the second-largest for-profit prison operator in the country, GEO Group, is one of the top contributors to Marco Rubio's presidential campaign. Between 2013 and 2014, GEO Group gave Rubio $41,500, more than any other presidential candidate. The group is the ninth highest contributor to Rubio's campaign.
Is that a problem? Prison reform advocates think so, pointing to Rubio's actions as an elected official that have helped for-profit prisons — including a $110 million state contract that went to GEO back when he was Speaker of the Florida House.
"On a system that makes them wealthier the more people there are in jail, the only reason they would lobby these sort of things is because they expect their money to have a financial return," says Paul Kruger, executive director of Florida's chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a prison reform advocacy group....
The presidential contender's ties to the for-profit industry are not new. And prison reform activists have always been wary of the lucrative connection between for-profit prisons and politics. But Rubio's ties are gaining steam online thanks to a petition demanding that Rubio cut ties with GEO Group for good now that he's running for president.
"Your ties to the prison industry go back to your years in the Florida state legislature and they’re disturbingly close," the petition states. "A presidential candidate should not be associated with imprisoning people for profit. You must break ties with the for-profit prison industry."
The for-profit prison industry is big business, raking in almost $3 billion a year nationally. Boca Raton-based GEO Group operates prisons throughout the southeast and since 2009 have added 7,600 new prison beds and grown by 10 percent.
Advocates point out that that Rubio's ties go beyond just taking donations. Back in 2006, Rubio hired Donna Arduin as an economic consultant. She's a former trustee for GEO Group. In 2011, after being elected a Florida state senator, Rubio hired Cesar Conda as his chief of staff. Conda is the co-founder of Geo Group's main lobbying firm, Navigators Global. While working under Rubio, Conda was still earning $150,000 from Navigators Global from a stock buyout agreement. In 2014, Conda went to lead Rubio's PAC, Reclaim America. It was during Conda's management that GEO Group became one of Rubio's top-10 contributors. Now, Conda is working back at Navigators Global....
Kruger contends that the companies are fueling a prison-industrial complex as they funnel big bucks into politics. He believes that Rubio — or any elected official in politics — shouldn't accept money from for-profit prison groups. "They don't do it because the guy is handsome," Kruger says. "They want to decide who goes to jail and for how long."
"Federal Sentencing in the States: Some Thoughts on Federal Grants and State Imprisonment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
As the movement to reduce the outsized scale of US incarceration rates gains momentum, there has been increased attention on what federal sentencing reform can accomplish. Since nearly 90% of prisoners are held in state, not federal, institutions, an important aspect of federal reform should be trying to alter how the states behave. Criminal justice, however, is a distinctly state and local job over which the federal government has next to no direct control.
In this paper, I examine one way in which the federal government may be driving up state incarceration rates, and thus one way it can try to alter them: not directly through its criminal code, but through the millions of dollars in grant money it provides. A strong predictor of state prison growth is state fiscal health: states with more money spend more on everything, including prisons. And federal grants bolster state fiscal capacity. So perhaps one way that the federal government could change state sentencing would be to help prop up corrections spending less.
My final conclusion, while quite tentative, is also somewhat surprising. Contrary to my expectations I held when I started work on this paper, it does not seem as if federal spending is bolstering state spending on incarceration to a significant degree. So cutting back on federal funding for criminal justice activities may not have much impact on state decisions about incarceration. Which, perhaps somewhat ironically, may suggest we want the federal government to spend more, not less, but to allocate the money in ways that encourage states to adopt reforms that push back against excessive incarceration.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Intriguing comments on prisons from GOP candidate Ben Carson
Because I cannot quite figure out which of the current 16 GOP Presidential candidates to take seriously, I am inclined to spotlight in this space any interesting comment made by any of the candidates concerning sentencing law or policy. Today, in this lengthy Washington Post article, I see Dr, Ben Carson recently had some interesting comments about modern prison practicalities and policies:
In addressing the young Republicans, Carson also said that he, like President Obama, had visited federal prisons. "I was flabbergasted by the accommodations -- the exercise equipment, the libraries and the computers," he said. He said he was told that "a lot of times when it's about time for one of the guys to be discharged, especially when its winter, they’ll do something so they can stay in there."
At the same time, Carson said that too many Americans are going to prison. "We're not doing things the right way," he said. "A lot of people that we incarcerate don’t need to be incarcerated."
After the event, he elaborated. "I think that we need to sometimes ask ourselves, 'Are we creating an environment that is conducive to comfort where a person would want to stay, versus an environment where we maybe provide them an opportunity for rehabilitation but is not a place that they would find particularly comfortable?'" he told reporters.
Saturday, July 18, 2015
"Prosecutors Rally Against Sentencing Reform, Say Build More Prisons"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece in U.S. News & World Report. Here are excerpts:
Nervous federal prosecutors attempted to rally opposition Friday to criminal sentencing reform in response to President Barack Obama’s week of issuing commutations and making pro-reform speeches....
“The federal criminal justice system is not broken,” Steve Cook, the association's president, said at a lightly attended event in the nation's capital. “What a huge mistake it would be,” he said, to change sentencing laws.
Cook predicted the crime rate would rise and prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information if laws were made more lenient. He also denounced reform proponents for saying nonviolent offenders are being ensnared by tough Clinton-era drug laws. “They have misled the public every time they say, 'We’re talking about nonviolent drug offenders,'” he said. “Drug trafficking is inherently violent. … If you’re not willing to engage in violence [then] you will be out of the business quickly, or worse.”
Cook said the small number of inmates whose sentences have been shortened by Obama – the president has issued 76 drug crime commutations total, 46 of them this week – shows there’s not much of a problem with people serving unreasonably long sentences.
Rather than focus on reducing sentences, he said, the government should consider building more prison facilities. “Do I think it would be a good investment to build more [prisons]? Yeah, no question about it!” he said....
Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says Cook’s assertion the crime rate would rise after sentencing reform is a “demonstrably false claim and a shameful scare tactic.” In Michigan, New York and other states, she says, crime rates did not spike after mandatory minimums were repealed....
Cook, who was joined by two other federal prosecutors, made much of his speech Friday about societal ills associated with drug addiction, from babies going through withdrawal to people stealing from their families and dying from overdoses and car accidents. “There’s a pyramid of individuals who are affected by [drug dealers],” he said. “Many view [drug trafficking] as more serious than murder.”
He declined to say if state-legal recreational marijuana businesses and regulators in Colorado and Washington state should face marijuana-related mandatory minimums for breaking federal law.
Cook’s colleagues did not speak at the news conference. He described the event as the first of its kind by the group, which claims to represent 1,500 assistant U.S. attorneys, about 30 percent of the total.
Former President Bill Clinton, one of the leaders responsible for establishing inflexible penalties, this week said doing so led to the imprisonment of a lot of "minor actors for way too long." The association views his reversal as “misinformed,” Cook said: “We think he was right before.”
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Prez Obama makes history, and reflects, as he visits federal prison in Oklahoma
This New York Times article, headlined "Obama, in Oklahoma, Takes Reform Message to the Prison Cell Block," provides a report on the President's historic visit to a federal corrections institute, FCI Reno:
They opened the door to Cell 123 and President Obama stared inside. In the space of 9 feet by 10, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a small sink, metal cabinets, a little wooden night table with a dictionary and other books, and the life he might have had.
As it turns out, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. As Mr. Obama became the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, he said he could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term, let alone one lasting decades. “There but for the grace of God,” Mr. Obama said after his tour. “And that is something we all have to think about.” ...
Mr. Obama came here to showcase a bid to overhaul America’s criminal justice system in a way none of his predecessors have tried to do, at least not in modern times. Where other presidents worked to make life harder for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.
With 18 months left in office, he has embarked on a new effort to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders; to make it easier for former convicts to re-enter society; and to revamp prison life by easing overcrowding, cracking down on inmate rape and limiting solitary confinement.
What was once politically unthinkable has become a bipartisan venture. Mr. Obama is making common cause with Republicans and Democrats who have come to the conclusion that the United States has given excessive sentences to too many nonviolent offenders, at an enormous moral and financial cost to the country. This week, Mr. Obama commuted the sentences of 46 such prisoners and gave a speech calling for legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system by the end of the year.
He came to the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution on Thursday to get a firsthand look at what he is focused on. Accompanied by aides, correctional officials and a phalanx of Secret Service agents, he crossed through multiple layers of metal gates and fences topped by concertina wire to tour the prison and talk with some of the nonviolent drug offenders he says should not be serving such long sentences.
The prison was locked down for his visit. He was brought to Cell Block B, which had been emptied for the occasion. Only security personnel were outside on the carefully trimmed grass yards. The only inmates Mr. Obama saw were six nonviolent drug offenders who were selected to have a conversation with him recorded by the news organization Vice for a documentary on the criminal justice system that will air on HBO in the fall.
But those six made an impression. “When they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” Mr. Obama told reporters afterward. “The difference is, they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.”
He added that “we have a tendency sometimes to take for granted or think it’s normal” that so many young people have been locked up for drug crimes. “It’s not normal,” he said. “It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people who make mistakes.” If they had the same advantages he and others have had, Mr. Obama added, they “could be thriving in the way we are.”
Still, he made a distinction between nonviolent drug offenders like those he was introduced to here and other criminals guilty of crimes like murder, rape and assault. “There are people who need to be in prison,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t have tolerance for violent criminals; many of them may have made mistakes, but we need to keep our communities safe.”
More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and one study found that the size of the state and federal prison population is seven times what it was 40 years ago. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population. This has disproportionately affected young Hispanic and African-American men. And many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or to vote.
In visiting El Reno, Mr. Obama got a look at a medium-security prison with a minimum-security satellite camp, housing a total of 1,300 inmates. He said the facility was an “outstanding institution” with job training, drug counseling and other programs, but had suffered from overcrowding. As many as three inmates have been kept in each of the tiny cells he saw.
“Three full-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell,” Mr. Obama said with a tone of astonishment. Lately, the situation has improved enough to get it down to two per cell. But, he said, “overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed.”
Advocates said no president had ever highlighted the conditions of prisoners in such a fulsome way. “They’re out of sight and out of mind,” Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview. “To have a president say by his actions, by his speech, by his example, ‘You’re in sight and in mind of the American public and of this democracy,’ it’s critically important.”
But the president is not the only one these days. Republicans like Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah have been working with their Democratic counterparts to develop legislation addressing such concerns.
Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated.