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.
Highlighting significant disparities in DUI homicide sentences in Florida
The Miami Herald has this interesting new article highlighting big differences in sentences handed out in Florida when a drunk driver kills. The piece is headlined "A Florida DUI death conviction means prison — but for how long varies widely," and here are excerpts:
At 20, Kayla Mendoza tweeted “2 drunk 2 care” before killing two young women in a drunk-driving crash. She tearfully admitted guilt, but, faced with angry relatives of the dead, a Broward judge slammed her with a 24-year prison term.
Days later, a longtime alcoholic named Antonio Lawrence, 57, faced a Miami-Dade judge for plowing into a Liberty City restaurant while driving drunk, killing two church elders. Relatives offered earnest forgiveness. Lawrence got 10 years.
Downstairs on the very same day, in a courtroom with zero television news cameras, Edna Jean-Pierre, 27, took responsibility for killing one person in a DUI crash, then killing another in a hit-and-run crash — while out on bail in the first case. A Miami-Dade judge, Dennis Murphy, sentenced her to four years in prison....
There is a four-year mandatory minimum for a DUI manslaughter conviction in Florida, but as these recent cases show, prison terms vary widely from cases to case and, a Miami Herald data analysis shows, from county to county.
In over 400 fatality cases resolved in Florida since 2012, the statewide average sentence for DUI manslaughter is just under 10 years behind bars, according to a Herald analysis of prison records. Miami-Dade by far had the most cases in that time span, 66, and among the lightest average sentences with convicts serving an average of just over 6 years in prison. In Broward’s 27 cases, defendants in that time span are serving just under 10 years. “Broward has both a reputation and a reality of being harsher than Miami-Dade,” said Miami defense attorney David Weinstein....
Legal experts say the the reasons for the disparity in sentences are complex. Outcomes are swayed by a host of factors: the strength of evidence, the skill of defense attorneys, circumstances of a crash, a defendant’s criminal history, media glare and the desires of a victim’s loved ones. “Victims drive to a good degree what the sentence outcome will be,” said Miami attorney Rick Freedman. “Victims who are not active, not engaged with the state attorney’s office, are going to see a lower number in the sentencing.”...
The four-year minimum mandatory term is a recent addition to the law, added in 2007 over concerns about judges being too soft on drunk drivers who kill. Known as the “Adam Arnold Act,” the law was named after a Key West teen who died in a crash in 1996, a case in which the driver got only three years of probation.
Drivers convicted in fatal hit-and-run crashes — whether alcohol is detected or not — now also face a minimum of four years in prison. Lawmakers in 2014 passed the law, named after Miami cyclist Aaron Cohen, whose death spurred outrage after a Key Biscayne man got only two years behind bars for killing Cohen in the hit-and-run wreck.
Drunk drivers who kill rarely escape at least some prison time, and prosecutors can waive the minimum four years mandatory — like in a highly criticized 2009 case in Miami Beach involving a pro football player. Donte’ Stallworth, who played for five NFL teams, got 30 days in jail and a lengthy probation for killing a pedestrian crossing the MacArthur Causeway. For prosecutors, there was no guarantee of victory at trial — the victim, Mario Reyes, was not in a crosswalk that dark morning. The decision to support the lighter sentence hinged on Reyes’ relatives, who pushed for the deal and also received an undisclosed settlement from Stallworth.
Forgiveness from families can make a difference. In Lawrence’s case, he met with families of the two church elders killed in the crash, became heavily involved helping recovering alcoholics and even surrendered to jail early before pleading guilty. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward gave him 10 years, by no means a slap on the wrist, but much less than the 34 years he faced had he been convicted at trial.
“You’re dealing with people who are not criminals, not people who went to harm others,” said Assistant State Attorney David I. Gilbert, who oversees traffic homicide cases. “They are average citizens who have made a very serious mistake. Different judges deal with different cases in different ways.” The emotional reaction of relatives also can clash, with some urging leniency and others calling for heavy punishment, Gilbert said.
"From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post article, which carries the subheadline "Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison." Here are excerpts from the start of the lengthy piece, as well as some details of the profiled LWOP defendant's case:
Sharanda Jones — prisoner 33177-077 — struggled to describe the moment in 1999 when a federal judge sentenced her to life in prison after her conviction on a single cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.
“I was numb,” Jones said in an interview at the Carswell women’s prison here. “I was thinking about my baby. I thought it can’t be real life in prison.” Jones, who will turn 48 next week, is one of tens of thousands of inmates who received harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during the crack-cocaine epidemic, and whose cases are drawing new attention....
Because of her role as a middle woman between a cocaine buyer and supplier, Jones was accused of being part of a “drug conspiracy” and should have known that the powder would be converted to crack — triggering a greater penalty.
Her sentence was then made even more severe with a punishment tool introduced at the height of the drug war that allowed judges in certain cases to “enhance” sentences — or make them longer. Jones was hit with a barrage of “enhancements.”
Her license for a concealed weapon amounted to carrying a gun “in furtherance of a drug conspiracy.” Enhancement.
When she was convicted on one count of seven, prosecutors said her testimony in her defense had been false and therefore an “obstruction of justice.” Enhancement.
Although she was neither the supplier nor the buyer, prosecutors described her as a leader in a drug ring. Enhancement.
By the end, Jones’s sentencing had so many that the federal judge had only one punishment option. With no possibility of parole in the federal system, she was, in effect, sentenced to die in prison.
Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today. Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment. In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
But a lingering legacy of the crack epidemic are inmates such as Jones. About 100,000 federal inmates — or nearly half — are serving time for drug offenses, among them thousands of nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Most are poor, and four in five are African American or Hispanic.
In the spring of 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who had called mandatory minimum sentences “draconian” — started an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. They had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history, and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.
Jones applied. It has been a halting process, however. Only 89 prisoners of the more than 35,000 who have filed applications have been freed. They include 46 inmates who were granted clemency on Monday by Obama. Jones wasn’t among them....
On Aug. 26, 1999 — after days of testimony about drug deals by people nicknamed “Weasel,” “Spider,” “Baby Jack” and “Kilo,” and a dramatic moment when Jones’s quadriplegic mother was wheeled into the courtroom — the jury acquitted Jones of all six charges of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and aiding and abetting. But they found her guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
Although no drugs were ever found, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis determined that Jones was responsible for the distribution of 30 kilograms of cocaine. He arrived at that number based on the testimony of the co-conspirators — the couple who received sentences of seven and eight years, and the Houston dealer, who got 19.5 years. All have since been released.
The judge determined that Jones knew or should have known that the powder was going to be “rocked up” — or converted to crack. Using a government formula, the prosecutor said that the 30 kilograms of powder was equal to 13.39 kilograms of crack cocaine. He then added 10.528 kilograms of crack cocaine that the prosecutors said had been distributed in Terrell and was linked to Jones’s brother. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the conviction, but said there was “barely” any evidence of Jones’s connection to the crack distributed in Terrell.)
The judge’s calculation made Jones accountable for 23.92 kilograms of crack. That, added to the gun and obstruction enhancements, as well as Jones’s role as an “organizer,” sealed her sentence under federal rules that assign numbers to offenses and enhancements. The final number — 46 — dictated the sentence, leaving the judge no discretion.
“Under the guidelines, that sets a life sentence, mandatory life sentence,” Solis said at a hearing in November 1999. “So, Ms. Jones, it will be the judgment of the court that you be sentenced to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a term of life imprisonment.” Solis declined to be interviewed. Said McMurrey: “In light of the law and the guidelines and what the court heard during the trial, I know Judge Solis followed the law. He’s a very fair man.”
The sentencing scheme that sent Jones to prison has been widely denounced by lawmakers from both political parties. And sentences have been greatly reduced for drug offenses. But the differing approaches over time have led to striking disparities.
One illustration: The Justice Department announced last month that one of Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers and a senior paramilitary leader will serve about 15 years in prison for leading an international drug trafficking conspiracy that imported more than 100,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
The jurors who found Jones guilty were never told about the life sentence, which came months after the trial. Several of them, when contacted by The Washington Post, were dismayed. “Life in prison? My God, that is too harsh,” said James J. Siwinski, a retired worker for a glass company. “That is too severe. There’s people killing people and getting less time than that. She wasn’t an angel. But enough is enough already.”
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
In praise of GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner making the moral case for sentencing reform
Most long-time federal sentencing reform advocates likely have long shared my concern that Wisconsin GOP Representative James Sensenbrenner was a significant impediment to achieving significant federal sentencing reform. Indeed, as noted in this prior post, as recently as two years ago, Rep. Sensenbrenner was defending federal mandatory minimum statutes on very dubious grounds.
But now that Rep Sensenbrenner has been working for a couple years on bipartian federal criminal justice reform, he is a co-sponsor of the important SAFE Act (details here) and today delivered this potent testimony to the GOP-controlled House to support his call for significant sentencing reform. Here is an excerpt from the testimonty I found especially notable and important (with my emphasis added):
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 by 595 percent, a staggering figure that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.
And yet, this increased spending has not yielded results. More than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of release, and in some states, recidivism rates are closer to 60 percent. Several studies have found that, past a certain point, high incarceration rates are counterproductive and actually cause the crime rate to go up.
Especially among low risk offenders, long prison sentences increase the risk of recidivism because they sever the ties between the inmate and his family and community. These are the ties we need to help reintegrate offenders as productive members of society.
These severed ties are also at the heart of the moral case for reform. It’s not just the people in prison who are paying the punishment for their crimes. Mass incarceration tears families apart and deprives children of their fathers and mothers. It likely means a loss of job, possibly home, and any support he or she had within the community.
And that’s where we are with our sentencing policy — we’re spending more, getting less, and destroying communities in the process. The system is broke, and it’s our job to fix it.
It is remarkable and a true sign of the modern sentencing times that this reform rhetoric, which sounds more like a passage from an opinion or article by Wisconsin District Judge Lynn Adelman, is coming from GOP Rep. Sensenbrenner. And the adjectives I have stressed in the quoted passage are, in my view, at the heart of the most compelling case for federal reforms and a broad response to modern mass incarceration: the current system is broken and counterproductive, irresponsible and unsustainable, but even beyond any data-driven, cost/benefit analysis, there is a powerful "moral case for reform" that resonates with the commitment to liberty, family, community and limited government that triggered the American Revolution.
Prior related post:
July 14, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)
Highlighting why dozens of commutations barely move the mass incarceration needle
President Obama's action to commute the sentences of 46 drug offenders yesterday (basics here) merits the label historic. But, as two recent commentaries highlight, the decision seems more compelling than it is truly consequential given the massive size of the federal criminal justice population. Here are links to and snippets from the pieces that provide important (and somewhat depressing) context for what the Prez did yesterday:
From Margy Love at The Crime Report, "Clemency is Not the Answer":
[T]he problem of unjust sentences is simply too large to deal with through the clemency mechanism. When Lyndon Johnson commuted 200 drug sentences in the 1960s, almost everyone then in prison who deserved relief got it, thanks to the staffing efforts of the Bureau of Prisons. Today, given the massive number of people prosecuted for federal drug crimes in the past 25 years, and the fundamental rethinking of federal drug sentences now underway, potentially deserving prisoners are legion.
Between 1990 and 2007, nearly 10,000 people were sentenced to prison terms of 30 years or more for crimes involving drugs or firearms. Twice that number received sentences of at least 20 years. Trying to produce useful and reliable advice for the President about more than a token number of these individuals is too great a burden for the DOJ’s Justice Department’s tiny pardon staff. But the President cannot be expected to put his reputation on the line on the basis of anything less.
In addition to the practical problems raised by trying to force so many prisoner petitions through an administrative bottleneck onto a busy President's plate, there are institutional reasons why executive clemency is the wrong tool for dealing with systemic problems in the penal system.
From Steven Nelson at U.S. News & World Report, "Obama's 46 Commutations Barely Scratch the Surface: Thousands more may die in prison for nonviolent crimes":
Obama said 14 of the people he’s granting freedom would have otherwise died behind bars. Precise numbers are unclear, but in 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union reported at least 3,278 people were serving life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent crimes. More than 2,500 of those cases involved drug crimes.
"[T]here still remain thousands of Americans languishing in prisons serving sentences that have been repudiated by both Congress and the president," said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a leading supporter of drug law reform. "I hope the president continues this push for justice for all of them.”
Beth Curtis profiles 14 other people on her website LifeforPot.com who are serving life sentences for nonviolent marijuana convictions, none of whom received clemency Monday. She vetted each to ensure they had no previous convictions involving violence or other drugs. Other sources have higher estimates for marijuana-specific life sentences. The Clemency Report says there were 54 sentences of life without parole between 1996 and 2014.
“Frankly, my belief is that there is no place for life without parole for any nonviolent drug offender,” says Curtis, whose brother John Knock is serving life in prison for a marijuana dealing conviction. “It's not fiscally responsible and the sentence doesn't fit the crime.” Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, echoed other reformers, saying he welcomes the new commutations, but “we need much more action."
Prior recent related posts:
- "Obama Plans Broader Use of Clemency to Free Nonviolent Drug Offenders"
- Prez Obama commutes sentences for 46 federal drug prisoners (with a video message)
Start of big two-day House hearings on criminal justice reform
Though President Obama will capture most of the headlines with his emphasis on criminal justice reform in speeches and activities this week, Congress is where the reform action need to take place for there to be real, long-term hope and change. Consequently, I will be keeping an eye on the the two days of hearings on criminal justice reform taking place before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. This morning's Part I of the hearings can be followed via this webpage, and here is how the hearings are set up there:
- To share lessons on criminal justice reform from states that have successfully implemented new policies.
- To hear from a diverse panel of experts regarding emerging areas of reform at both the state and federal levels, including existing and forthcoming bills before the House and Senate.
- To broaden the conversation on criminal justice reform.
- Prison populations have grown precipitously over the past thirty years:
- From 1940 to 1980: the population remained stable at about 24,000 federal prisoners.
- 1980-1989: it more than doubled to about 58,000 prisoners.
- 1990-1999: it more than doubled again to about 134,000 prisoners.
- 2000-2010: it increased by another 45 percent to about 210,000 prisoners.
- 2013: we now have more than 219,000 federal prisoners (nearly 40 percent above rated capacity).
Spending on federal prisons has skyrocketed:
- From 1998 to 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget increased from $3.1 to $6.6 billion–from 15 to 24 percent of the Department of Justice (DOJ) budget.
- The 2013 budget request for the BOP totaled $6.9 billion, an increase of $278 million over the FY 2012 budget.
- The BOP is now consuming 25 percent of the DOJ budget.
Criminal justice reform efforts typically fall into one of three categories, each of which will be discussed in the hearings:
- “Front end” measures address how people end up in prison in the first place and the length of sentences they will receive. Reform of mandatory minimums, for example, attempts to reduce prison populations and recidivism by allowing judges to impose shorter sentences on nonviolent offenders.
- “Behind the wall” reforms attempt to change the operations of the prisons themselves.
- “Back end” changes focus on the circumstances of release from prison, including serving portions of sentences in an alternative custody arrangement and rehabilitation programs.
Sunday, July 12, 2015
The Marshall Project covers parole realities (and life without it)
The Marshall Project has a series of notable new piece about modern parole realities, and this lead one carries the headline "Life Without Parole: Inside the secretive world of parole boards, where your freedom may depend on politics and whim." Here is an excerpt:
America's prisons hold tens of thousands of people ... primarily confined not by the verdicts of a judge or a jury but by the inaction of a parole board. Michigan is one of 26 states where parole boards are vested with almost unlimited power to decide who gets out of prison when, and why.
With more than 1.5 million people behind bars, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the financial costs are staggering. As politicians from both parties seek alternatives to mass imprisonment, the parole process has emerged as a major obstacle.
A months-long Marshall Project investigation reveals that, in many states, parole boards are so deeply cautious about releasing prisoners who could come back to haunt them that they release only a small fraction of those eligible — and almost none who have committed violent offenses, even those who pose little danger and whom a judge clearly intended to go free.
A recent revision of the Model Penal Code, an influential document written by legal scholars, declared parole boards "failed institutions."
"No one has documented an example in contemporary practice, or from any historical era, of a parole-release system that has performed reasonably well in discharging its goals," a draft of the document says....
Parole boards are vested with almost unlimited discretion to make decisions on almost any basis. Hearsay, rumor and instinct are all fair game. In New Mexico, the law directs the board to take into account "the inmate's culture, language, values, mores, judgments, communicative ability and other unique qualities."
The boards' sensitivity to politics stems in part from the heavy presence of politicians in the ranks of board members. At least 18 states have one or more former elected officials on the board. In 44 states, the board is wholly appointed by the governor, and the well-paid positions can become gifts for former aides and political allies.
While some state laws require basic qualifications, these statutes are often vaguely worded, with language that is easily sidestepped. Many states have no minimum requirements at all. And unlike politicians, who are bound by open records and disclosure laws and are accountable to their constituents, parole boards often operate behind closed doors. Their decisions are largely unreviewable by courts — or anyone else.
"Not only are they closed, they're paranoid closed," said Janet Barton, the former operations manager of Missouri's parole board. "Closed to the extreme." Few others in the criminal justice system wield so much power with so few professional requirements and so little accountability.
Here are the other pieces in the series so far:
Saturday, July 11, 2015
"Can capitalism keep people out of prisons?"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing Quartz piece discussing social impact bonds which caught my eye. Here are excerpts:
The tendency for former criminals to end up back in prison generates over $50 billion every year in corrections costs nationally. After Medicaid, it is the second fastest growing budget item in the US. Three years ago, Goldman Sachs, New York City, and then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation aimed to do something about this, and inked a $9.6 million deal to reduce the recidivism rate of youth offenders at Rikers Island Prison using cognitive behavioral therapy.
The transaction, known as a Social Impact Bond (SIB), was structured with no upfront cost to the city and let investors (Goldman) and philanthropists (Bloomberg) assume the upfront risk for the social programs provided to current and former inmates, while the government only had to pay back the investors for the programs that actually worked.
The Rikers Island Prison SIB is one example of fast-emerging interest and activity around these kinds of strategies, which are also known as pay-for-success financings. SIBs create packages for achieving social progress where government only pays when it saves money; the investor can receive higher returns for higher impact, and the provider of the service can grow.
Given the ability for SIBs to save money and deliver better social outcomes, they appeal to both fiscal conservatives and social progressives, and over $40 million has been mobilized to date in the US. In the three years since the Rikers Island SIB was initiated, four other SIBs addressing early childhood education, homelessness, and prison recidivism in the US have been implemented.
But on July 2, the independent evaluator of the Rikers Island SIB announced that the program had failed to reduce recidivism among the participants by more than the 10% minimum that would have required the city to make payment to the investors. Put another way, any change in the recidivism rate of the program participants compared to a control group was determined to be statistically insignificant.
Although the approach had been used with success on older youths, the specific program at Rikers had not been tested and was being implemented in the challenging setting of a prison. New York City will terminate the program at the end of August, and Goldman will receive $6 million of the $7.2 million it had so far lent to fund the program, due to a $6 million loan guarantee by Bloomberg.
The results of the Rikers Island SIB and the launch of the other transactions raise a host of questions about whether or not these structures can actually transform public finance and bring more capital to social services....
The case for SIBs is strong. For one thing, prevention is harder to fund than downstream problems. Government is great at running an ambulance service at the bottom of a cliff for those who fall, but it does not often take the steps needed to prevent people from falling in the first place. One reason is that prevention has no clear constituency to lobby for budget — consider the prospect of prison operators and unions lobbying legislators versus organizing people who have not been victims of crime advocating for more effective prison release programs.
What’s more, our current system for funding social programs is not tied to outcomes. Because legislators fund (or cut) social programs based on legal mandates, pressure from taxpayers, or simple political expedience, activities are funded — not outcomes. Service providers are paid for inputs rather than for producing meaningful outcomes — e.g. turning around the lives of juveniles, or preparing children for success in school. It is easier to monitor how many juveniles are institutionalized and pay a per diem than to consider what is needed to keep a troubled youth with his family and community — even though institutionalization is a bad outcome for the youth and taxpayers....
The bulk of SIBs have been in criminal justice, juvenile detention, or sheltering the homeless. These sectors use high cost strategies of institutionalizing people who would be more effectively served in de-institutionalized settings. Most people (and even elected officials) can see the benefit of spending less on prisons, shelters, and dysfunctional juvenile detention centers. But what about areas where more spending is needed, such as early childhood education or job training or mental health?
In most cases, government entities are responsible for paying if the desired outcomes are generated. Even if investors accept the counter-party risk of the government, the ability of governments to make these commitments is subject to budget constraints and requires a complete re-engineering of procurement processes.
However, there are promising SIB opportunities that do not rely on public payors, such as workforce development and job readiness programs in which private sector employers agree to pay for the program if it delivers qualified employees. In the health sector, hospital systems and insurance companies that are now responsible for managing the overall health outcomes of communities can also structure innovative contingent payment transactions....
With enabling legislation being passed around the country, and federal grants arriving to cover development costs, more and more SIBs are coming down the pike despite the Rikers Island results. SIBs have created great value simply by bringing together many unlikely parties to tackle some thorny social issues, but the jury is still out on their long-term growth and impact.
Friday, July 10, 2015
“The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report coming from a collaboration by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Here is the report's introduction:
Violence against girls is a painfully American tale. It is a crisis of national proportions that cuts across every divide of race, class, and ethnicity. The facts are staggering: one in four American girls will experience some form of sexual violence by the age of 18. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12; nearly half of all female rape survivors were victimized before the age of 18. And girls between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
And in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization. Indeed, sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.4 A particularly glaring example is when girls who are victims of sex trafficking are arrested on prostitution charges — punished as perpetrators rather than served and supported as victims and survivors.
Once inside, girls encounter a system that is often ill-equipped to identify and treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests. More harmful still is the significant risk that the punitive environment will re-trigger girls’ trauma and even subject them to new incidents of sexual victimization, which can exponentially compound the profound harms inflicted by the original abuse.
This is the girls’ sexual abuse to prison pipeline.
This report exposes the ways in which we criminalize girls — especially girls of color — who have been sexually and physically abused, and it offers policy recommendations to dismantle the abuse to prison pipeline. It illustrates the pipeline with examples, including the detention of girls who are victims of sex trafficking, girls who run away or become truant because of abuse they experience, and girls who cross into juvenile justice from the child welfare system. By illuminating both the problem and potential solutions, we hope to make the first step toward ending the cycle of victimization-to-imprisonment for marginalized girls.
Wednesday, July 08, 2015
Federal habeas ruling decides Virginia's geriatric release does not permit juve LWOP
A helpful reader alerted me to a notable federal habeas decision handed down last week by a federal district court in Virginia. In LeBanc v. Mathena, No. 2:12cv340 (ED Va July 1, 2015) (available here), the federal judge rejected the claim embraced by the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision that the state's geriatric release provisions allowed the sentencing juveniles to life without parole sentences without violating the Supreme Court's Graham ruling. The LeBlanc decision has a number of powerful passages, and here are some key portions of the 32-page ruling:
Virginia Code § 53.1-40.01 governs the possible release of geriatric prisoners, and provides for the opportunity of conditional releaseto prisoners who have reachedthe age ofsixty or older and have served at least ten years of their sentence, or who have reached the age of sixty-five or older and have served at least five years of their sentence. The Supreme Court of Virginia concluded that in light ofthis provision, Virginia's sentencing scheme can be construed as being in compliance with Graham. The Virginia Supreme Court held that the possibility of geriatric release provides a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."...
This theory of compliance is a misapplication of the governing legal principle of Graham—that children are different and warrant special consideration in sentencing.... By relying on a geriatric release provision — a provision that by its very name was designed to be invoked by and on behalf of the elderly — in an attempt to salvage unconstitutional sentences, the Supreme Court of Virginia and the state trial court missed the heart of Graham — that children are, and must be recognized by sentencing courts as, distinguishable from adult criminals....
If it can be said that Virginia's sentencing scheme treats children differently than adults, it would be because, tragically, the scheme treats children worse. Under Virginia's current sentencing policies, prisoners are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide offenses that they committed as children. Like any other prisoner in Virginia, regardless of their age at the time of the offense, if these prisoners live to see the age ofsixty or sixty-five, they may apply for geriatric release. This treats children worse than adults....
The Supreme Court has recognized that nonhomicide juvenile offenders serving life sentences must be given "the opportunity to achieve maturity ofjudgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential." Graham, 560 U.S. at 79. The distant and minute chance at geriatric release at a time when the offender has no realistic opportunity to truly reenter society or have any meaningful life outside of prison deprives the offender of hope. Without hope, these juvenile offenders are being discarded in cages and left to abject despair rather than with any meaningful reason to develop their human worth. This result falls far short of the hallmarks of compassion, mercy and fairness rooted in this nation's commitment to justice.”
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
"Juvenile Sentencing in Illinois: Addressing The Supreme Court Trend Away from Harsh Punishments for Juvenile Offenders"
The title of this post is the title of this notable piece by Maureen Dowling now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The United States Supreme Court has steadily been changing the way it approaches juvenile sentencing since 2005. This ideological shift has occurred as a response to the increase in biological and sociological studies, which point toward fundamental differences between juveniles and adults. This Note addresses how the new mandates by the Supreme Court have been implemented around the country, with a focus on statutory changes Illinois should make moving forward. Specifically, this Note argues that there are several adjustments Illinois will have to make in regards to the way it sentences juvenile homicide offenders, in order to be considered Constitutional based on the analysis set forth by the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama.
First, lengthy, consecutive term-of-years sentences should be abolished because it does not give juvenile offenders the “meaningful opportunity for release” required by Graham. This Note suggests that courts need to look at the idea of a “meaningful opportunity for release” differently when sentencing juveniles as opposed to adult offenders, because studies have shown that adolescents who are imprisoned have a much lower life expectancy than average. Second, Illinois should amend its sentencing statutes to require judges to consider several factors, while on record at a sentencing hearing, before sentencing a juvenile homicide offender to life in prison. These factors, laid out within this Note, will put Illinois at the forefront of ethical juvenile sentencing, while also ensuring that it does not violate the authority of Miller. Admittedly, these theories have been criticized for being too ‘soft’ on punishment for juveniles who are convicted of felony murder. However, the suggestions in this Note are meant to allow for the protection of the adolescent’s Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, while also considering the severity and nature of the offense.
Monday, July 06, 2015
"Dividing Crime, Multiplying Punishments"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting article by John Stinneford which was recently updated on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When the government wants to impose exceptionally harsh punishment on a criminal defendant, one of the ways it accomplishes this goal is to divide the defendant’s single course of conduct into multiple offenses that give rise to multiple punishments. The Supreme Court has rendered the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, and the rule of lenity incapable of handling this problem by emptying them of substantive content and transforming them into mere instruments for effectuation of legislative will.
This Article demonstrates that all three doctrines originally reflected a substantive legal preference for life and liberty, and a systemic bias against overpunishment. A punishment was deemed excessive under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause if it was greater than an offender’s retributive desert, as measured against longstanding punishment practice. Prior to the twentieth century, if prosecutors proposed a novel unit of prosecution for a given crime, judges asked two questions: (1) Does this unit of prosecution give the government the opportunity to bring multiple charges based on a single course of conduct?; and (2) If so, would the bringing of multiple charges create an arbitrary relationship between the offender’s culpability and his cumulative punishment, measured in light of prior punishment practice? If the answer to both questions was yes, judges would declare the punishment invalid under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, the Double Jeopardy Clause, or the rule of strict construction of penal statutes (the forerunner to today’s rule of lenity). By recovering this methodology for addressing prosecutorial efforts to divide crime and multiply punishments, we can ameliorate our current mass incarceration crisis and make the American criminal justice system more just.
Friday, July 03, 2015
New CRS report: "Risk and Needs Assessment in the Criminal Justice System"
A helpful colleague alerted me to this intriguing new Congressional Research Service report concerning risk assessments and other crime-control focused criminal justice reforms. Here is the report's summary:
The number of people incarcerated in the United States has increased significantly over the past three decades from approximately 419,000 inmates in 1983 to approximately 1.5 million inmates in 2013. Concerns about both the economic and social consequences of the country’s growing reliance on incarceration have led to calls for reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system.
There have been legislative proposals to implement a risk and needs assessment system in federal prisons. The system would be used to place inmates in rehabilitative programs. Under the proposed system some inmates would be eligible to earn additional time credits for participating in rehabilitative programs that reduce their risk of recidivism. Such credits would allow inmates to be placed on prerelease custody earlier. The proposed system would exclude inmates convicted of certain offenses from being eligible to earn additional time credits.
Risk and needs assessment instruments typically consist of a series of items used to collect data on behaviors and attitudes that research indicates are related to the risk of recidivism. Generally, inmates are classified as being high, moderate, or low risk. Assessment instruments are comprised of static and dynamic risk factors. Static risk factors do not change, while dynamic risk factors can either change on their own or be changed through an intervention. In general, research suggests that the most commonly used assessment instruments can, with a moderate level of accuracy, predict who is at risk for violent recidivism. It also suggests that no single instrument is superior to any other when it comes to predictive validity.
The Risk-Needs-Responsivity (RNR) model has become the dominant paradigm in risk and needs assessment. The risk principle states that high-risk offenders need to be placed in programs that provide more intensive treatment and services while low-risk offenders should receive minimal or even no intervention. The need principle states that effective treatment should focus on addressing needs that contribute to criminal behavior. The responsivity principle states that rehabilitative programming should be delivered in a style and mode that is consistent with the ability and learning style of the offender.
However, the wide-scale adoption of risk and needs assessment in the criminal justice system is not without controversy. Several critiques have been raised against the use of risk and needs assessment, including that it could have discriminatory effects because some risk factors are correlated with race; that it uses group base rates for recidivism to make determinations about an individual’s propensity for re-offending; and that risk and needs assessment are two distinct procedures and should be conducted separately.
There are several issues policymakers might contemplate should Congress choose to consider legislation to implement a risk and needs assessment system in federal prisons, including the following:
• Should risk and needs assessment be used in federal prisons?
• Should certain inmates be excluded from earning additional time credits?
• Should risk assessment be incorporated into sentencing?
• Should there be a decreased focus on punishing offenders?
July 3, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Might Pope Francis shame Prez Obama into doing more about mass incarceration?
The question in the title of this post is a bit of a riff off of this notable new commentary from Philadelphia magazine, headlined "Will the Pope Shame City Hall Into Fixing Its Atrocious Prison Problem?". Here are excerpts:
The Cool Pope is visiting Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility during his trip to the city this fall, the Vatican announced Tuesday.
When Pope Francis tours the jail, he’ll find a prison system that has been sued over its crammed conditions almost non-stop for the past 45 years. In fact, a judge ordered the city to build CFCF in the nineties in order to alleviate overcrowding. Today, the city's prison system houses nearly 8,200 inmates — about 1,700 more than it was built to hold. At CFCF, 400 to 500 prisoners live in "triple cells," which are jam-packed, three-man cells that are intended to hold only one or two people.
Will city officials allow the Pope to see the prison's lackluster conditions? Will he pop into a triple cell? Or will his impending visit pressure the city to finally get its stuffed jails under control?
We asked Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, if there are plans to change the setup of CFCF or move inmates to other jails in the city's system during the Pope's visit. "There are no plans to change the 'setup' at the prison. The Pope will see the facility as it is. He will visit with a group of inmates and also speak to a group of staffers," he said, adding, "No, inmates will not be moved from CFCF."
There's a good chance that this might light a fire under the city to cut down on the prison population, though. Throughout Nutter's tenure, the city has taken several steps to reduce the number of inmates in the city's jails — and, at times, has been very successful. In early 2011, the prison system's population fell to 7,700, a recent low. Still, it has never reached that magic number — 6,500, which is the maximum number of inmates that the system was constructed to hold — under Nutter.
The prison population has often fallen under Nutter shortly after the city has been sued due to overcrowding. Likewise, it has risen after such lawsuits were put on hold.... Won't the upcoming visit by Pope Francis — and all of the international media attention that will come with it — give the city an even bigger incentive to cut down on overcrowding?...
It's also noteworthy that Pope Francis is touring CFCF, which opened in 1995 and is one of the city's newest prison facilities, as opposed to, say, the House of Correction, which is nearly 150 years old and lacks air conditioning.
My post title and question is actually prompted by the fact that I could not remember the last time Prez Obama (or, for that matter, any sitting or former Prez) ever visited a US prison. Notably, as this article reports, Prez Obama did visit in 2013 the South African prison cell which long housed Nelson Mandela.
As a general matter, I wonder if any Presidential historians can help me figure out if or how many sitting or former Presidents have ever made an official visit to a US prison or jail facility. In the meantime, I will here call it notable and telling, and ultimately shameful, that modern mass incarceration in the United States apparently is more of a Papal than a Presidential concern.
Virginia Gov creates commission to study bringing back parole in state sentencing scheme
I have long thought and feared that the broad move in the 1980s and 1990s to abolish parole in the federal sentencing system and in many state systems was a significant (and rarely recognized) contributor to modern mass incarceration problems. Consequently, I am intrigued and pleased to see this recent press report headlined "McAuliffe creates commission to study bringing parole back to Virginia." Here are the details of what is afoot in Virginia, as well as some highlights of the enduring political issues and debates that surround parole abolition and reforms:
Gov. Terry McAuliffe will create a commission to study reinstating parole in Virginia, two decades after it was abolished by then-Gov. George Allen amid a wave of tough-on-crime laws across the country.... McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order to review whether doing away with parole reduced crime and recidivism, analyze costs and make recommendations.
“It’s time to review whether that makes sense. Is it keeping our citizens safe? Is it a reasonable, good, cost-effective way? Are we rehabilitating folks?” he said. “Are sentences too long for nonviolent offenses? Are we keeping people in prison too long?”
The move is consistent with McAuliffe’s push to restore voting rights to thousands of former prisoners and remove from state job applications questions about criminal records, known as the ‘ban the box’ campaign. It also comes at a time when the country is redefining the way it enforces its laws, and sometimes questioning the strict policing and corrections strategies of the 1990s....
Carl Wicklund, the executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, said research suggests that the laws of the 1990s were not necessarily effective, and politicians from both parties are embracing change. Parole gives inmates motivation to better themselves in hopes they could be let out early, he said. “People are starting to look at that, how do you incentivize people when they’re in prison to actually start to get their act together?” Wicklund said.
But others say that crime declined in Virginia in the two decades since parole was abolished and that the prisons are not overflowing with nonviolent first-time offenders. “I want to ask them which murderer, rapist or armed robber they want to get out of jail,” said former Virginia attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), a lawyer in private practice who was Allen’s secretary of public safety. “Under the old system, murderers were serving a fourth to a third of their time.”
C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), a former prosecutor, said Virginia tends to lock up what he called “the right people”: violent offenders, repeat offenders, chronic probation violators and drug dealers. “Why the governor would want to tinker with undoing a good thing is beyond me,” he said. “It’s pure politics. I’m sure he’s getting a tremendous amount of pressure from the base of his party to tear down the criminal justice system. Criminal apologists would love nothing more than to have no one serve any time for practically anything.”
In the interview with WTOP (103.5 FM), McAuliffe said it is his job to protect citizens, but also safeguard taxpayer dollars. The state houses 30,369 inmates at a cost of $27,462 per year per inmate and a total of $833 million annually, he said. Inmates must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released for good behavior. “The question now, 20 years later, is has it made us safer or have we spent a lot of money and we haven’t done what we need to do for rehabilitation?” he said.
Former Virginia attorney general Mark L. Earley Sr. — a Republican whom Allen once portrayed as an ally in abolishing parole — will chair the commission with McAuliffe’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, and his secretary of the commonwealth, Levar Stoney. The Commission on Parole Review must complete a final report by Dec. 4. “I want everybody just to relax here. We’re not saying let everybody out. We’re not doing that. We’re going to do a comprehensive study,” McAuliffe said.
The effects of parole abolition were also the subject of a study by the Senate Finance Committee released in November, which deemed the policy change a success. “Virginia has the third-lowest rate of violent crime and the second-lowest recidivism in the nation,” the 74-page report concluded. “Sentencing reform is working as intended.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said there is little evidence that parole abolition has made Virginians safer. In fact, the state’s incarceration rate has increased and crime rate has declined at a slower rate than states that have reduced their incarceration levels, the group said. “By removing the opportunity for parole, the commonwealth has also compounded the disproportionate impact that our criminal justice system has on people of color,” said ACLU executive director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.
Democrats generally praised McAuliffe for revisiting the policy. “It’s an issue of public safety and our commitment to rehabilitation, are we actually doing that in Virginia?” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), chairwoman of the House Democratic caucus. Virginia House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said the commission could recommend relaxing parole for some offenders, but not others. “I don’t believe the governor has any interest in encouraging any policy that’s going to release hardened criminals in advance of their sentence being served,” he said.
But Republicans denounced any effort to roll back one of the landmark reforms of Allen’s governorship. Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), a criminal lawyer and former prosecutor who is planning to run for attorney general in 2017, said changing the state’s policy “would be an enormous step back for public safety in Virginia” and would create a “backdoor out of prison” after jurors, detectives and victims have left the courtroom.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he agreed that the current system has served the commonwealth well and has become a national model. “While there are always improvements to be made, the notion that Virginia needs wholesale criminal justice reform seems to be more about politics than policy,” he said.
Parole abolition was popular in Virginia when Allen pushed for it, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who worked on Allen’s 1993 campaign. Allen won the governor’s office that year by an 18-point margin on the promise to abolish parole, and the General Assembly, then controlled by Democrats, passed it his first year in office, he said. “When Allen abolished parole in 1994, it was for violent offenders,” LaCivita said. “And the primary reason was because so many of those who were convicted of violent crimes were only serving a part of their sentence.”
As of 2000, 16 states had done away with discretionary release on parole, and four other states had gotten rid of the practice for certain crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Experts said few, if any, states seem to have reversed course. If Virginia were to do so completely, it might be the first, said Keith Hardison, the chief administrative officer of Association of Paroling Authorities International, which represents parole board staffers. “It’s not unexpected, because it seems like a logical extension of some of the changing, perhaps backing off somewhat of the ‘get tough’ era, and the ‘nothing works’ era,” he said.
Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos (D) said it “makes abundant sense” to revisit the policy but noted that she did not feel abolishing parole was a mistake. Crime has dwindled in Virginia since parole was abolished, and while she said there might not be a causation, it was a factor to be considered. “It’s a function of a lot of things, but clearly, the bad folks who are in for a long time . . . for the time that they’re in for, they’re not committing crimes on the street,” she said. Stamos noted that no matter what the commission finds, it would be up to the Republican-controlled General Assembly to restore parole — an unlikely outcome.
Monday, June 29, 2015
"Prison Abolition and Grounded Justice"
The title of this post is the title of this newly published article by Allegra McLeod. Here is the abstract:
This Article introduces to legal scholarship the first sustained discussion of prison abolition and what I will call a “prison abolitionist ethic.” Prisons and punitive policing produce tremendous brutality, violence, racial stratification, ideological rigidity, despair, and waste. Meanwhile, incarceration and prison-backed policing neither redress nor repair the very sorts of harms they are supposed to address — interpersonal violence, addiction, mental illness, and sexual abuse, among others. Yet despite persistent and increasing recognition of the deep problems that attend U.S. incarceration and prison-backed policing, criminal law scholarship has largely failed to consider how the goals of criminal law — principally deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and retributive justice — might be pursued by means entirely apart from criminal law enforcement. Abandoning prison-backed punishment and punitive policing remains generally unfathomable.
This Article argues that the general reluctance to engage seriously an abolitionist framework represents a failure of moral, legal, and political imagination. If abolition is understood to entail simply the immediate tearing down of all prison walls, then it is easy to dismiss abolition as unthinkable. But if abolition consists instead of an aspirational ethic and a framework of gradual decarceration, which entails a positive substitution of other regulatory forms for criminal regulation, then the inattention to abolition in criminal law scholarship and reformist discourse comes into focus as a more troubling absence. Although violent crime prevention and proportional punishment of wrongdoing purportedly justify imprisonment, this Article illuminates how the ends of criminal law might be accomplished in large measure through institutions aside from criminal law administration.
More specifically, this Article explores a form of grounded preventive justice neglected in existing scholarly, legal, and policy accounts. Grounded preventive justice offers a positive substitutive account of abolition that aims to displace criminal law enforcement through meaningful justice reinvestment to strengthen the social arm of the state and improve human welfare. This positive substitutive abolitionist framework would operate by expanding social projects to prevent the need for carceral responses, decriminalizing less serious infractions, improving the design of spaces and products to reduce opportunities for offending, redeveloping and “greening” urban spaces, proliferating restorative forms of redress, and creating both safe harbors for individuals at risk of or fleeing violence and alternative livelihoods for persons subject to criminal law enforcement. By exploring prison abolition and grounded preventive justice in tandem, this Article offers a positive ethical, legal, and institutional framework for conceptualizing abolition, crime prevention, and grounded justice together.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
"Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails: Recommendations for Local Practice"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report authored by Jessica Eaglin and Danyelle Solomon for the Brennan Center for Justice. Here is how the report is summarized:
People of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system. One in three African American men born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime. In some cities, African Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested when stopped by police. With the national debate national focused on race, crime, and punishment, criminal justice experts are examining how to reduce racial disparities in our prisons and jails, which often serve as initial entry points for those who become entangled in the criminal justice system.
This report, which relies on input from 25 criminal justice leaders, pinpoints the drivers of racial disparities in our jails lays out common sense reforms to reduce this disparity, including increasing public defense representation for misdemeanor offenses, encouraging prosecutors to prioritize serious and violent offenses, limiting the use of pretrial detention, and requiring training to reduce racial bias for all those involved in running our justice system.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
"Will New Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Plan Fly?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Crime Report piece by Ted Gest discussing the prospects for the newly introduced SAFE Justice Act (basics here). Here are excerpts:
As support for criminal justice reform has spread, many states have left the federal government behind when it comes to reducing their prison populations. There were 208,598 federal inmates as of yesterday, dwarfing the state with the most in the last national count: Texas, with about 168,000. Prisons are consuming at least a quarter of the U.S. Justice Department's budget, putting a squeeze on other spending.
Until yesterday, most discussion of the issue in Congress has taken place in the Senate, where several members, ranging from conservative Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to liberal Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey have filed competing bills that would change federal sentencing laws and help inmates return successfully to society.
Now, two key House members from both major political parties are weighing in with a "Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act"-- dubbed SAFE -- they suggest could go even farther than the Senate measures.
They are James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, who have long headed the House subcommittee dealing with crime. (Scott recently moved from the panel, officially called the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and turned his role over to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.)...
Sensenbrenner and Scott headed a House over-criminalization task force that has spent the last year and a half holding hearings on the issue that led in large part to the new bill. Sensenbrenner contended yesterday that over-criminalization is a "major driver" of the federal prison count, although he conceded that no one know how many such cases are filed.
Liberals are much more interested in drug cases, arguing that mandatory minimum penalties dating from the 1980s have ensnared thousands of Americans serving terms of five or ten years or longer for relatively minor violations. Scott said that two-thirds of federal inmates serving mandatory terms in drug cases are not narcotics kingpins. He argued that in the end, the nation's high incarceration rate "generates more crime than it stops."
One notable aspect of yesterday's announcement was the presence of a wide range of organizations supporting the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Koch Industries, the American Conservative Union Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Police Foundation.
Helpfully, this article provides this link to this full text of the new House proposal which is formally the "Sensenbrenner-Scott Over-Criminalization Task Force Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015."
Prior related post:
Friday, June 26, 2015
How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?
After this post, I am going to take some time off-line in order to calmly and carefully read all the opinions in the big SCOTUS constitutional sentencing ruling today in Johnson v. US. (Sadly, I think it is a bit too early to get some liquid assistance in calming down, but that will change in due time.) Helpfully, Justice Scalia's opinion for the Court in Johnson is relatively short and thus it should not prove too difficult for everyone to figure out the import of the Johnson ruling for future applications of ACCA or even for future vagueness/due process Fifth Amendment constitutional jurisprudence.
But, as the title of this post is meant to highlights, I suspect it may prove quite difficult for everyone to figure out the impact of the Johnson ruling for past applications of ACCA and those currently serving long federal ACCA mandatory prison sentences. I am pretty sure vagueness ruling are considered substantive for retroactivity purposes, so even long-ago sentenced federal prisoners should at least be able to get into federal court to now bring Johnson claims. But not every federal prisoner serving an ACCA sentence has even a viable Johnson claim and I suspect most do not have what I would call a strong Johnson claim. In my mind, to have a strong Johnson claim, a defendant would have to be able to show he clearly qualified for an ACCA sentence based on and only on a triggering prior conviction that hinged on the application of the (now unconstitutional) residual clause.
That said, I suspect that there are likely many hundreds, and perhaps even thousands, of current federal prisoners who do have strong Johnson claim. And the potential legal consequences of a strong Johnson claim claim could be profound because it may mean that a prisoner who previously had to be sentences to at least a mandatory 15 years in federal prison now may only legally be sentenced to at most 10 years in federl prison.
I have a feeling that this new Johnson ruling may ruin the weekend (and perhaps many weeks) for some federal prosecutors and officials at the Justice Department because they are perhaps duty bound to try to start figuring out how many federal prisoners may have strong (or even viable) Johnson claims and what to now do about these prisoners. In addition, I am hopeful that some federal defenders and even private (pro bono Clemency project 2104) lawyers will also start working hard to identify and obtain relief for persons now in federal prison serving lengthy ACCA sentences that the Supreme Court today concluded were constitutionally invalid.
Some prior posts on Johnson and its possible impact (last two from before the opinion)
- A (way-too-quick) Top 5 list of thoughts/reactions to the votes and opinions Johnson
- SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague
- "Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality"
- How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?
June 26, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)
Bipartisan SAFE Justice Act with array of federal sentencing reforms introduced by House leaders
As this report from The Hill details, a notable and significant group of Representatives are backing a notable and significant new federal criminal justice reform bill. Here are the basics:
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population. The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms. The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons....
Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years. Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted. The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said....
Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform. “We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott. He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.
Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime. “If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.
The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum. Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.
The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va). “Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.
Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors. “If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”
I am struggling to find on-line the full text of this important new federal sentencing reform proposal, but this summary from FAMM leads me to believe that this new SAFE Justice Act may go significantly farther (and be more politically viable) that the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Justice Safety Valve Act proposals that failed to move forward in the last Congress. Indeed, these passages from this new Vox article, which provides the most detailed media account of the SAFE Justice bill's specifics, is prompting me to think all would-be federal reformers — including Prez Obama and his Justice Department, and especially Senators Cruz and Paul and other reform-minded GOP Prez candidates — should think seriously about giving up on the SSA and other reform bills now in the Senate in order to put all their advocacy efforts behind getting SAFE Justice passed through the House ASAP:
While Senate efforts at criminal justice reform have exposed a generational split in the Republican Party, in which young reformers like Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul face off against old-school, tough-on-crime conservatives like Senators Chuck Grassley and Jeff Sessions, the House's bill was written by one of those old-school Republicans — Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin — as well as Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA).
Sensenbrenner and Scott think of the Safe Justice Act as a federal version of the criminal justice reform bills that have been taken up in state after state over the past several years, many of them under the mottos of "justice reinvestment" and "smart on crime." In their minds, they're building on what's worked in the states and are in line with reformers' emphasis on "data-driven" and "evidence-based" criminal justice policymaking.
The Safe Justice Act is a collection of dozens of different reforms. Most of them aren't terribly big on their own, but many of them overlap. That makes it really hard to estimate exactly how much the federal prison population would shrink if the bill became law. But its effect would be bigger than anything that's been introduced in Congress so far.
Many of the reforms would cut sentences for drug crimes — which reflects a growing consensus that nonviolent drug offenses aren't as bad as violent crimes. Drug prisoners are about half of all federal prisoners (unlike in states, where violent crime is the biggest cause of incarceration). That means that many of the Safe Justice Act's biggest reforms would target the largest slice of the federal population....
Most changes to prison sentences in Congress have focused on cutting mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to sentence people to five, 10, or 20 years for certain drug crimes. But across-the-board cuts to mandatory minimums have been met with serious resistance from old-school Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The House's solution, via the Safe Justice Act, isn't to reduce the mandatory minimums themselves — but to narrow the range of people who they apply to. Instead of someone who's convicted of trafficking a certain amount of cocaine being automatically sentenced to 10 years, for example, he'd only trigger the 10-year minimum if he were also a leader or organizer of an organization of five or more people. And even then, the bill says that judges can override the mandatory minimum if the defendant doesn't have much of a criminal history, or has a serious drug problem.
The bill would also make it possible for more people to be sentenced to probation instead of getting sent to prison. It would allow drug offenders to get probation if they'd been convicted of low-level drug crimes before. It would encourage judges to give probation to first-time low-level offenders. And it would encourage districts to start up drug courts and other "problem-solving courts"; some states have found these are better ways to treat some addicts than prison is....
Current prisoners whose sentences would have been affected by the bill's front-end reforms could apply to get their sentences reduced that way. But the Safe Justice Act would also give them another way to reduce their sentences: by getting time off for rehabilitation. Under the bill, every federal prisoner would get an individual case plan, based on what particular prison education, work, substance abuse, or other programs are the best fit for his needs. For every month a prisoner follows the case plan, he'd get 10 days off his prison sentence — meaning a prisoner with a perfect behavior record could get his sentence reduced by a third. (Prisoners serving time for homicide, terrorism, or sex crimes aren't eligible for time off, but that's a very small slice of the federal prison population.) The logic is that prisoners who want to rehabilitate themselves, and whose good behavior shows they're succeeding, shouldn't be forced to spend extra time in prison just for prison's sake.
The bill goes even further when it comes to probation — which affects many more people than prison. For every month of perfect behavior on probation, the offender would get 30 days off the end of his sentence — essentially cutting the probation term in half. If the offender violated probation, on the other hand, there would be a set of gradually escalating punishments, instead of an automatic ticket back to prison....
In the year 2015, it is extremely hard to get any sort of bill through Congress. And Sensenbrenner, Scott, and their fellow reformers have a narrow window before the presidential campaign saps Congress of any will to act it has left. So the barriers are pretty high. But this isn't, in itself, supposed to be a polarizing bill. The presence of Sensenbrenner and other old-school Republicans reflects that. And this is something that both houses of Congress have been debating for some time.
If House leadership decides to snatch up the Safe Justice Act and bring it to the floor quickly, it might give the Senate enough time to act. Maybe they'll be interested in the provisions that would make it a little harder for the federal government to treat regulatory violations as crimes; that's a pet cause of conservatives, even those who aren't otherwise committed to reforming criminal justice.
Still, House leadership might not be interested. But this is the broadest bill that's been introduced during the current wave of criminal justice reform, and it's a marker of just how much consensus there is among reformers in both parties when it comes to reducing federal incarceration.
June 26, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Highlighting the need for much better modern prison metrics
Adam Gelb and Craig Prins, who are directors of the Pew Charitable Trusts' public safety performance project, have this notable new Washington Times commentary about prisons and prison reform. The piece, headlined "Who’s behind bars?: A better prison composition index could gauge whether reforms are succeeding," effectively highlights that for more effective prison reform (and more effective assessment of these reforms) could benefit greatly from more effective prison metrics. Here are excerpts:
The verdict is in, and it’s close to unanimous: The United States has built too many prisons. After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prison growth that put one in 100 adults behind bars, a wave of state reforms over the past several years has reduced the incarceration rate while the crime rate has continued to fall. These tandem trends have convinced many Americans that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time is neither the best nor only way to protect public safety.
Governors and legislatures in red and blue states alike have enacted substantial policy shifts, often by wide bipartisan majorities. Voters, in opinion surveys and at the ballot box, appear to be solidly behind putting the brakes on prison construction and steering lower-level offenders to alternatives.
Shifting national attitudes about crime and punishment have led to calls for even more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties and deep reductions in the inmate population. Elected officials and opinion leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have begun a dialogue about what it would mean — and take — to cut the current prison population in half, a once far-fetched fantasy that several new advocacy groups have adopted as their outright objective.
Tracking the number of inmates is essential but not enough to know whether we are making progress toward a more effective criminal justice system. A fuller picture requires a new and more nuanced measure — one that goes beyond the tally and captures the type of inmates behind bars. Recent state reforms have sought to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs. To achieve these goals, many states are focusing their expensive prison beds on violent and career criminals with new policies that divert lower-level offenders into non-prison sanctions or reduce the time they spend locked up, restrict revocations of parole and probation for minor rules violations, and expand eligibility and funding for drug courts and other alternatives.
Yet most states cannot readily determine whether the new policies are working any better than those they replace. Beyond a simple count of prisoners, the typical state data report offers basic demographic information and breaks down how many inmates are serving time for violent, property, drug and other crimes. These numbers are helpful, but by themselves they reveal only fragments of the information necessary to paint a meaningful portrait of inmate populations. For instance, an offender currently serving time for a relatively minor crime may have a string of prior violent convictions that make him a higher risk to society than someone in prison for a more serious offense not likely to be repeated.
A more holistic look at prison use would blend current offense, prior record and risk of recidivism. By joining some combination of these elements into a single measure — a prison composition index — policymakers and the public could develop a better understanding of how their prison beds are being used and whether their reforms are succeeding....
The end goal is to come up with a single measure tracked over time that answers the question: What percentage of the prison population consists of violent and chronic offenders who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are offenders who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways?
Pennsylvania is probably the first state to attempt to use a sophisticated prison composition index. Under the direction of Secretary John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections uses an “Offender Violence Risk Typology” tool, which merges information about current offense, prior record and risk level to create three categories of inmates. According to the index, 69 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison admissions and 59 percent of the standing population in 2013 fell into the least serious of the three categories, figures that have changed little since 2010.
The raw number of prisoners is an important barometer of our criminal justice system. But we also need to know who the inmates are, why they’re there, and whether society will be better off if they are incarcerated or sentenced in other ways.
Noticing Senator Cornyn's notable role in federal criminal justice reform efforts
Regular readers know that Senator Charles Grassley is perhaps the most critical current player in the current debates over federal sentencing reform because of his role as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair. But this new National Journal article, headlined "Cornyn's New Role: The 'Bridge' on Tricky Bipartisan Bills," highlights the key role now being played by the current Senate whip. Here are excerpts from an interesting piece about Texas Senator John Cornyn:
On April 10, John Cornyn toured a huge prison in rural east Texas, about a three-hour drive north of his Houston birthplace. Nearly 700 security employees stroll the H.H. Coffield facility, which has a maximum capacity of around 3,800 prisoners, and Cornyn, a three-term senator who rose to the Texas Supreme Court and attorney general positions during the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key 1990s, was there to draw attention to a project helping prisoners learn the skills they need to rehabilitate — and get out.
"Some of the inmates were so poorly educated they couldn't even read a tape measure," said Cornyn in an interview in his Washington office this week. "Which if you think about it, it doesn't say much for our public education system, but it also just shows how big a problem we have when people have zero coping skills — no education — and they basically have lived a continuous life of crime, and they know nothing else in terms of the challenges. We have to break that cycle."
Almost seven months into his role as Senate majority whip, Cornyn talks quite a bit about breaking cycles, whether in prisons or the nature of crises in the Senate. His official role is to keep the Republicans in line and on-message, but he also has been an influential figure — the "bridge," as one Democrat puts it — on bipartisan pieces of legislation, particularly on two in the Judiciary Committee that bedeviled the last Congress: a criminal-justice reform package — the cause du jour infiltrating liberal and conservative think tanks, as well as the 2016 presidential debate — and patent-reform legislation with Sen. Chuck Schumer. Neither is on the Senate GOP leadership's short list, but both bills could see floor action with Cornyn's help, especially if the appropriations process breaks down, leaving room in the schedule.
On criminal justice, Democrats see Cornyn as an instrumental figure in creating the package that requires low-risk offenders to participate in recidivism-reduction programs for an earlier release—saving taxpayer money and making communities safer — and that includes a bipartisan bill reducing mandatory-minimum prison sentences. That bill is supported by members across the ideological spectrum but was opposed by Cornyn — who says now that it wasn't ready for "prime time" — along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the Judiciary Committee chairman, and others last year.
"I think we need a marriage of both of those proposals," said Cornyn, who would like to build on his bill to include some sentencing reforms. "I think looking at nonviolent offenders, low-risk offenders, I think there's some things we can do."
"My hope is that in the near future we will have a product that we can then have a hearing on and then mark up, and my hope is that we'll get something to the president this year," he added.
Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the sentencing-reform effort with Sen. Mike Lee, said Tuesday that Congress could have a "dramatic impact" on the federal prison population by addressing even just a "very narrow" category of drug offenses not involving firearms, gangs, violence, or terrorism.
Grassley has been an obstacle on the issue, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, a Judiciary panel member. Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting to discuss the topic this year and was advised in his hometown paper to take up sentencing reform a few months ago. But he seems more willing to move the package now — he said recently that the committee has the "capability" of reaching a bipartisan agreement this year — and has been convening meetings to see if a compromise can be struck.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, sees Cornyn as the "bridge" trying to get their bills through the panel. "As you know, I think Chairman Grassley has gone to the floor three separate times to express his displeasure and dissatisfaction with the mandatory-minimum bill," said Whitehouse. "So by way of the chairman putting a marker down that he's not pleased with a piece of legislation in his committee, it would be hard to imagine much of a bigger, louder marker than that."
"And I think Senator Cornyn is a very helpful voice in trying to be a bridge among the different parties involved here," he added. "Whether it's Chairman Grassley, or Senator Lee or Senator Durbin, I think both Senator Cornyn and I are trying to be that bridge, but given that the chairman is a Republican and given that Senator Cornyn is a former attorney general, former judge, and leader within the Republican caucus, I think Senator Cornyn is a particularly important figure in the bridge between Senator Lee and Chairman Grassley."
June 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
"A Shrinking Texas Death Row"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new item from the Texas Tribune. The piece has a series of great interactive charts providing the details on this basic death-penalty data story:
The number of inmates on Texas’ death row is falling. At its peak in 1999, 460 men and women were living with a death sentence in Texas, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Today, there are 260.
The reason for the decline isn't a rise in executions. In 2000, an all-time high of 40 inmates were executed in Texas, compared with 10 last year. So far this year, nine inmates have been executed.
The main reason is a drop in new death sentences. In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to Texas death row, according to BJS data. In 2008, that number was nine — and has stayed in that range ever since. This year, there have been no new death sentences so far, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).
Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization of death penalty attorneys, said that zero is significant. “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” Kase said. “Before this year, the longest that we’ve gone is through the first quarter."
Experts suggest several factors could be contributing to the falling number of death sentences, from a national decline in support for the death penalty to shortages of the lethal drugs used in executions. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not face execution, lessening future sentences as well as sparing 29 offenders who were already sitting on death row.
But consistently, they point to a 2005 law that offered Texas prosecutors the option to pursue life-without-parole sentences against capital murder defendants. Previously, capital murder offenders who did not receive the death penalty were eligible for parole after 40 years....
Since that law was enacted, the number of life-without-parole sentences has increased nearly every year, according to TDCJ. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96.
Currently, 745 people are serving a life-without-parole sentence in Texas, nearly three times the number of death row inmates. So far this year, Kase said three death penalty cases have gone to trial. All have ended with life-without-parole sentences.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
"Policing, Mass Imprisonment, and the Failure of American Lawyers"
In prior comments, someone spotlighted this notable recent commentary by Alec Karakatsanis appearing in the Harvard Law Review Forum under the title that serves as the title of this posts. Here are excerpts from the introduction and the final paragraph of this provocative piece:
The contemporary system of American policing and incarceration puts human beings in cages at rates unprecedented in American history and unparalleled in the modern world. Its current rate of incarceration is about five to ten times that of other comparably wealthy countries and five times its own steady historical average prior to 1980. It is a considerable bureaucratic achievement to accomplish the transfer of thirteen million bodies each year from their homes and families and schools and communities into government boxes of concrete and metal. It is also a failure of the legal profession....
The failure of lawyers is a tragedy in two parts. First, there has been an intellectual failure of the profession to scrutinize the evidentiary and logical foundations of modern policing and mass incarceration. Second, the profession has failed in everyday practice to ensure that the contemporary criminal legal system functions consistently with our rights and values....
Legal academics, judges, and lawyers of conscience must take up this two-pronged challenge: we must bring intellectual rigor to legal discourse and doctrine on these issues, and we must use the energy that animates our bodies to ensure that the legal system looks in practice as it appears in our scrolls and on our marble monuments.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Great new USSC report (with some not-so-great data) on "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System"
The US Sentencing Commission released last week this notable new report on titled "Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System." (Notably, the report itself shows a cover date of May 2015, but I am pretty sure it was just posted last week on the USSC's website.) Here is how the USSC itself briefly describes its new (data-heavy) document:
As a supplement to the Commission's 2009 publication, this report examines more recent trends in the rates of alternative sentences and examines how sentencing courts use their discretion to impose alternative sentences.
This 30+ page report has lots of data about when and how federal judges impose alernative sentences in the post-Booker era. The data could (and perhaps should) be assessed in a variety of different ways, but I found at least some of these data realities somewhat discouraging. In particular, these passages from this USSC Alternative Sentencing report caught my eye, and they reflect data that I found at times a bit surprising and at times more than a bit depressing:
Although most federal offenders were not convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, alternative sentences are imposed for only small proportion of federal offenders not convicted of such an offense. ...
During the past ten years, the proportion of United States citizen federal offenders eligible for alternative sentences (i.e., those offenders with sentencing ranges in Zones A, B, or C and who were not statutorily ineligible) decreased slightly from 27.6 percent in 2005 to 24.6 percent in 2014....
In contrast to the moderate decrease in the proportion of offenders eligible for alternative sentences (with sentencing ranges in Zones A through C), there was a larger decrease in the proportion of those offenders actually sentenced to an alternative. The proportion of eligible offenders sentenced to an alternative decreased from 71.9 percent to 65.0 percent during that time period....
Though relatively modest, there has been a clear trend of a decreased rate of alternative sentences during the past ten years.... Rates of alternative sentences decreased regardless of whether offenders were sentenced within or below the guideline range.... Despite the increased discretion that courts have used to vary from the guidelines after Gall, the data seem to demonstrate that courts are not using that discretion to impose alternative sentences at a greater rate.
Black and Hispanic offenders consistently were sentenced to alternatives less often than White offenders. The data indicate some differences in criminal history and offense severity that provide some insight to this finding. Black offenders had more serious criminal history scores compared to the other groups....
[F]emale offenders were sentenced to alternatives at higher rates than male offenders. This difference is especially apparent for offenders with sentencing ranges in Zone B, in which 75.4 percent of female offenders were sentenced to alternatives compared to 55.9 percent of male offenders.
In general, alternative sentences were imposed for more than half of offenders in each age group. Excluding offenders under the age of 21, there was a clear trend of increasing rates of alternatives as the age of the offender increased, and this trend was consistent across the sentencing zones.
June 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, June 20, 2015
The Economist explains "how to make America’s penal system less punitive and more effective"
This notable new piece from the print edition of The Economist, headlined "Jailhouse nation: How to make America’s penal system less punitive and more effective," provides advice from across the pond about how the US ought to reform its criminal justice system to address mass incarceration. Here are excerpts:
More and more Americans accept that the harm caused by mass imprisonment now exceeds its benefits. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s 1994 crime bill filled many a cell, has now changed her mind. On the right, fiscal conservatives decry the burden on taxpayers, while Christians talk of mercy. Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and a Republican presidential candidate, boasts of his record of closing three prisons in his state. Nationwide, the incarcerated population appears to have plateaued; it should be sharply reduced.
A good start would be to end the war on drugs, which would do less harm if they were taxed, regulated and sold in shops, not alleys, as marijuana is in Colorado and Washington state. In fact, the drug war is already ebbing: in 1997 drug offenders were 27% of all prisoners; now they are around 20%. That could be cut to zero if drugs were legalised.
The next step would be to amend or repeal rules that prevent judges from judging each case on its merits, such as state and federal “mandatory minimum” sentences and “three strikes” rules that compel courts to lock up even relatively minor repeat offenders for most of their lives. New York has dramatically reduced its state-prison population this way. Prosecutors there have in effect been told to limit the number of people they imprison, giving them an incentive to lock up only the most dangerous. Prosecutors have long had huge discretion in which charges they bring; those in New York now use police intelligence to help them decide. If the man in the dock seems relatively harmless, they go easy on him; if they know him to be a career criminal who has remained free because he intimidates witnesses, they throw the book at him. Crime has fallen in New York. There has been no backlash among voters.
Reducing the prison population to European levels is probably impossible, for America is still a much more violent place, even if most districts are reasonably safe. There are roughly 165,000 murderers in American state prisons and 160,000 rapists. If America were to release every single prisoner who has not been convicted of killing or raping someone, its incarceration rate would still be higher than Germany’s.
But still, America does not need to lock up every violent criminal for as long as it does — which is longer than any other rich country. Some 49,000 Americans are serving life without the possibility of ever being released. (In England and Wales the number is just 55.) Such harshness is unnecessary. A 50-year sentence does not deter five times as much as a ten-year sentence (though it does cost over five times as much). Money wasted on long sentences cannot be spent on catching criminals in the first place, which is a more effective deterrent.
Reform is hard. Prosecutors and judges are often elected in America; many woo votes by promising to be tougher than their predecessors. Politicians who are seen to be soft on crime run a risk....
Nonetheless, the big fall in crime in the past two decades means that Americans are now less afraid than they were, and more open to reform. Californians voted last year in a referendum to downgrade several non-violent felonies to misdemeanours. Other states are experimenting with better education in prisons (so that ex-convicts have a better chance of finding work), and drug treatment or GPS-enabled ankle bracelets as alternatives to incarceration. Some are also trying to improve prison conditions, not least by curbing assaults and rapes behind bars. The aim of penal policy should be harm reduction, not revenge. Tighter gun laws might help, because guns can turn drunken quarrels into murders; alas, that is politically improbable for now. There is no single fix for America’s prisons, but there are 2.3m reasons to try.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Terrific Marshall Project coverage of "How Germany Does Prison"
Among the great stuff at The Marshall Project these days is a series of original pieces authored by Maurice Chammah as he and a delegation of American officials tour the German prison system. So far there have been three daily reports, and here are the full headlines and links:
Here is an excerpt from the second of these pieces, which highlights themes of the series:
[I]t was clear that this trip would be as much about the United States as about Europe. Germany’s system of sentencing (15 years is the longest most people go to prison here unless they are demonstrably dangerous) and incarceration (open, sunny prisons, full of fresh air, where prisoners wear their own clothes) serves as a reference point for reflecting on the punitive mentality that has come to define the U.S. justice system....
On Monday, as we visited Heidering Prison.... Bernie Warner, the corrections secretary of Washington, noticed the faint smell of smoke — all the prisoners can smoke here, unlike their counterparts in the U.S. Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. They have privacy—correctional officers knock before entering. Prisoners wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish. They cook their own meals, are paid more for their work, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education. (Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.)
There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders — and they consequently receive more training and higher pay. There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other potentially dangerous implements. And the maximum time inmates spend in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.
"Find a [security] camera,” Gregg Marcantel, the corrections secretary of New Mexico, said as he walked through the prison’s main corridor. “There aren’t any!” When he heard that prisons in Berlin have 33 physicians to care for 4,200 inmates, Marcantel’s response was a hearty, “Good God!” That’s a ratio of about 1 doctor for 127 prisoners. In Virginia's state system, according to a recent count, there was one doctor for every 750 inmates. We walked through pristine white cells that looked more like dorm rooms at a liberal arts college than the steel and concrete boxes most U.S. prisoners call home. The toilets and sinks were white and ceramic, nothing like the stainless steel bowls bolted to the wall in many U.S. prisons (Heidering Prison opened in 2013, but such toilets have been installed in older prisons as well). Most prisoners have knives and forks in their cells. Though the prisoners cannot access the Internet, they have telephones in their rooms, and they can call anyone — even the media. “We have nothing to hide,” Detlef Wolf, vice governor for Heidering Prison, said with evident pride....
Administrators here freely work terms like “human rights” and “dignity” into speeches about their prison system, and Germans appear to view people who commit crimes as medical patients (the word “prognosis” came up a lot to describe the status of an inmate). There is little stigma after prisoners finish their sentences — employers in Germany generally do not ask job applicants if they have a criminal record, according to Michael Tonry, a University of Minnesota professor on the trip who’s studied corrections systems in the U.S. and Europe. In some cases, the cultural norms were so foreign that it was pretty much impossible to imagine them taking root in the U.S.
Once the shock wore off, the questions came, and they reflected the political and professional concerns of those doing the asking. Many of the leaders here who have been elected or appointed — including Marcantel of New Mexico and Jeff Rosen, the elected district attorney in Santa Clara, California — wanted to know about victims. Do their desires for retribution play any role in sentencing here? (In the U.S., they are often allowed to read “victim impact statements” before juries assess punishment, and prosecutors often consult with them). Do sensational murders lead to the passage of more punitive laws?
The Germans had trouble making sense of these questions. There were a lot of blank stares. In Germany, prosecutors and judges are not elected. As career civil servants, they are insulated from public opinion. Their work is more “technical,” said Gero Meinen, who directs the prison system in Berlin. The role is to protect the rational system of correction — which aims to restrict freedom the least amount necessary — from the retributive impulses that individual victims and society in general might feel. Now it was the Americans’ turn for blank stares.
Besides the surprise, other emotions lingered just below the surface. A few travelers were skeptical, and will be looking for ways in which things might be worse than they appear throughout the rest of the week.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
"The Death Penalty Is Cruel. But So Is Life Without Parole."
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New Republic commentary by Stephen Lurie. Here are excerpts of a piece that echoes my oft-stated and enduring concern that LWOP punishments should garner a lot more attention from the anti-death penalty crowd:
Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.
Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself....
For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings — whether in a religious or moral sense — the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table.
Executions of any kind are exceedingly rare, so much so that death row itself appears to be the real punishment for the vast majority of inmates. There are just over 3,000 people awaiting execution in United States prisons. In 2013, the latest year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics has data, there were 39 executions. That is just more than the 31 inmates who died before their scheduled executions; it is just less than the 44 death row convictions or sentences overturned that year....
Because solitary confinement is the de facto housing for American death row convicts, and because excruciating delays are par for the course, international observers have considered U.S. capital punishment inhumane enough to delegitimize its practice entirely. In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2012, Juan Méndez (the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment) suggested that the realities of imperfect executions and death row conditions almost unavoidably run afoul of the international prohibition against human mistreatment. “Solitary confinement, in combination with the foreknowledge of death and the uncertainty of whether or when an execution is to take place, contributes to the risk of serious and irreparable mental and physical harm and suffering to the inmate,” Méndez writes. “Solitary confinement used on death row is by definition prolonged and indefinite and thus constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or even torture.”...
Nearly every prisoner faces an abrogation of his or her 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment; only a small few face the added cruelty and indignity of a botched execution. What about the pain of a cramped concrete cell, of shackling and restraints, attempts at self-harm, inedible food, existential fear, depression, and deprivation of any human contact? If there is concern is over fair treatment of human beings sentenced to death, it’s unwise, from a strategic standpoint, to continue ignoring the majority of their lives. Campaigns based on claims of cruel and unusual treatment would not rely on staying the execution of a single individual, but rest on the indefinite torture of thousands. That would be powerful.
Moreover, the instances of death penalty abolition that do not consider the background conditions for capital punishment invariably leave immense cruelty in its place. Nebraska’s legislation is typical in this regard: All death sentences become sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). The de facto alternative for states that abolish the death penalty, LWOP actually retains many of the worst conditions of confinement described above, as well as still effectively sentencing the prisoner to death. It is in almost every way a death row, and as such is also an internationally condemned practice.
It’s for this reason that some, like Andrew Dilts, an assistant professor of political theory at Loyola Marymount University, refer to current forms of death penalty abolition as “death penalty replacement,” the same result but with the added effect that prisoners lose even more legal protections. As Dilts writes in the new volume Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, these alternative sentences appease the “almost fetishistic levels” of concern over execution while it “effectively deflects attention away from the moment of death, even though death is necessarily a part of the sentence.” In addition, whereas “the Court requires strict review of offender qualifications, strict procedural guidelines, extended appeals processes, and additional standards of heightened scrutiny…the same procedural and substantive protections are simply not applied” to life sentences. The result, ultimately, is simply a “dramatic reduction of appellate rights” for inmates that are still condemned to die; it’s a slower death with even less of a chance for redemption. While the conversion of these sentences might lessen some of the specific psychological traumas related to the death row phenomenon, it does not address the expected use of solitary confinement or other inhumane treatment. There is nothing in an execution-focused narrative that would lead to the transformation of these conditions: It might, rather, cement them as appropriate penal policy.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Fascinating account of how "how neoliberalism lies at the root of the carceral state"
The always interesting poly-sci prof Marie Gottschalk has this especially interesting new piece in the Boston Review headlined "The Folly of Neoliberal Prison Reform." The lengthy piece merits a full read; these excerpts from the start and end of the piece are intended to highlight the article's themes and strong flourishes:
Amid deficit-allergic neoliberal politics, everyone can agree on the appeal of budgetary savings. So now it is not just liberals going after mass incarceration. A group of brand-name conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and, most recently, former governor Rick Perry of Texas, has endorsed various budget-cutting initiatives that would reduce prison populations. Utah Senator Mike Lee, an influential Tea Party Republican, has delivered speeches on “the challenge of over-criminalization; of over-incarceration; and over-sentencing.”
This bipartisanship has fostered a wave of optimism; at last it seems the country is ready to enact major reforms to reduce the incarceration rate. But it is unlikely that elite-level alliances stitched together by mounting fiscal pressures will spur communities, states, and the federal government to make deep and lasting cuts in their prison and jail populations and to dismantle other pieces of the carceral state, such as felon disenfranchisement and the denial of civil liberties, employment, and public benefits to many people with criminal convictions.
For one thing, the carceral state has proved tenacious in the past.... If there is to be serious reform, we will have to look beyond the short-term economic needs of the federal and state governments. We can’t rely on cost-benefit analysis to accomplish what only a deep concern for justice and human rights can. Indeed, cost-benefit analysis is one of the principal tools of the neoliberal politics on which the carceral state is founded....
[T]he carceral state was not built by punitive laws alone, and it can be dismantled, at least in part, by a change in sensibilities. The carceral state was born when police officers, parole and probation agents, judges, corrections officials, attorneys general, local district attorneys, and federal prosecutors began to exercise their discretion in a more punitive direction as they read the new cues coming from law-and-order politicians.
That discretion could be turned toward lenience. President Obama and state governors have enormous, largely unexercised, freedom to grant executive clemency. Federal judges have considerable wiggle room to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines, as the Supreme Court confirmed in United States v. Booker (2005) and reconfirmed in Gall v. United States (2007). The Department of Justice could put an end to overcrowding in federal penitentiaries by calling a halt to the federal war on drugs. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could “eliminate thousands of years of unnecessary incarceration through full implementation of existing ameliorative statutes,” according to a report by the American Bar Association. For example, the BOP and many state departments of corrections could release more infirm and elderly inmates early via a process known as compassionate release.
Prosecutors may be the linchpins of penal reform. The late legal scholar William Stuntz described them as the “real lawmakers” of the criminal justice system because they enjoy vast leeway in charging and sentencing decisions. Attorneys general and district attorneys also set the tone and culture of their offices and determine how prosecutors working under them exercise their discretion....
Alleviating the root causes of poverty and inequality will take a long time. In the meantime, no compelling public safety concern justifies keeping so many people from poor communities locked up and so many others at the mercy of the prison beyond the prison. The demands of justice and human rights compel thoroughgoing change, whatever the cost-benefit analysis returns.
I am a bit less pessimistic than this piece about what "neoliberal" cost-benefit analysis might achieve in the context of modern sentencing and prison reform, in part because I think mass incarceration was fueled (and is sustained) more by "classical" notions of justice and victim-rights than this article acknowledges. I especially think that "neoliberal" cost-benefit analysis has an especially important role to play in ratcheting back the modern drug war. That all said, there is much I agree with in this article, and it should be read by everyone eager to think deeply about modern criminal justice reform goals and means.
June 14, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Citing much research and data, Judge Posner rails against "the problem of the elderly prisoner"
The Seventh Circuit this past week issued an otherwise routine affirmance of a drug conviction in US v. Presley, No. 14-2704 (7th Cir. June 11, 2015) (available here), the opinion end up not at all routine because of Judge Posner's lengthy concluding (dicta?) about problems with exceedingly long federal sentences and the elderly prisoners these sentences create. I would urge all federal sentencing fans to read Judge Posner's work in Presley in full, and these passages help highlight why (even with lots of Judge Posner's great cites and data left out):
The only questionable feature of the judgment is the length of the sentence — almost 37 years, though it is within the applicable guidelines range because of Presley’s very lengthy criminal history. Presley was 34 years old when sentenced... [and if he] earns the maximum possible good-time credit he’ll be almost 64 years old when released. If he earns no good time he’ll be almost 69. And after release he’ll undergo five years of supervised release, which like parole is a form of custody because it imposes significant restrictions on the supervisee....
The judge pointed out that Presley is a career offender, that he began his criminal career when he was 16, that he was a large-scale heroin dealer, and that he had committed disciplinary violations in previous incarcerations. What the judge failed to consider was the appropriateness of incarcerating Presley for so long that he would be elderly when released. Criminals, especially ones engaged in dangerous activities such as heroin dealing, tend to have what economists call a “high discount rate” — that is, they weight future consequences less heavily than a normal, sensible, law-abiding person would....
The sentencing judge in this case ... gave no reason to think that imposing a 37-year sentence on Presley would have a greater deterrent effect on current or prospective heroin dealers than a 20-year or perhaps even a 10-year sentence, or that incapacitating him into his sixties is necessary to prevent his resuming his criminal activities at that advanced age. Sentencing judges need to consider the phenomenon of aging out of risky occupations. Violent crime, which can include trafficking in heroin, is generally a young man’s game. Elderly people tend to be cautious, often indeed timid, and averse to physical danger. Violent crime is far less common among persons over 40, let alone over 60, than among younger persons....
There needs finally to be considered the cost of imprisonment to the government, which is not trivial. The U.S. prison population is enormous by world standards — about 1 percent of the nation’s entire population — and prisons are costly to operate because of their building materials (steel especially is very expensive) and large staffs. If the deterrent or incapacitative effect on criminal propensities fades sharply with time, the expenses incurred in the incarceration of elderly persons may be a social waste....
We are not suggesting that sentencing judges (or counsel, or the probation service) should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long a prison sentence to give. But the considerations that we’ve listed should be part of the knowledge base that judges, lawyers, and probation officers consult in deciding on the length of sentences to recommend or impose. There is no indication that these considerations received any attention in this case. We do not criticize the district judge and the lawyers and probation officers for the oversight; recognition of the downside of long sentences is recent and is just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers. Neither the Justice Department nor the defendant’s lawyer (or the probation service) evinced awareness in this case of the problem of the elderly prison inmate....
There is much that federal sentencing judges are required to consider in deciding on a sentence to impose — maybe too much: the guidelines, the statutory sentencing factors, the statutory and regulatory provisions relating to conditions of supervised release, presentence reports, briefs and arguments of counsel, statements by defendants and others at sentencing hearings. But in thinking about the optimal sentence in relation to the problem of the elderly prisoner, probably the judge’s primary focus should be on the traditional triad of sentencing considerations: incapacitation, which prevents the defendant from committing crimes (at least crimes against persons other than prison personnel and other prisoners) until he is released, general deterrence (the effect of the sentence in deterring other persons from committing crimes), and specific deterrence (its effect in deterring the defendant from committing crimes after he’s released). A sentence long enough to keep the defendant in prison until he enters the age range at which the type of criminal activity in which he has engaged is rare should achieve the aims of incapacitation and specific deterrence, while lengthening the sentence is unlikely to increase general deterrence significantly if the persons engaged in the criminal activity for which the defendant is being sentenced have a high discount rate; for beyond a point reached by a not very long sentence, such persons tend not to react to increases in sentence length by abandoning their criminal careers.
June 13, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
"Invisible Women: Mass Incarceration's Forgotten Casualties"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Michele Goodwin now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Essay fills an important gap in social and legal policy literature, addressing the intersection of sex and mass incarceration as a serious blind spot in legal analysis. It considers two works, James B. Jacobs’ The Eternal Criminal Record, and Alice Goffman’s On The Run to make important contributions to the literature. Among its claims, it argues that Black lives should matter to human research.
In Part I, it critiques Goffman’s book as fitting within a paradigm that pays too little attention to ethical standards and moral considerations involving Black human research subjects. This is particularly relevant in light of Goffman’s hunger for one of her primary research subject’s “killer to die.” It argues that cognitive bias — perceiving poor, African American human subjects as already marginal, blinds researchers to appreciating the harms in which they may expose their subjects. Part II turns to the missing narrative of women and mass incarceration in the U.S. It sheds light on and analyzes the complex patterns that frame women’s subjugation to law enforcement — issues absent in On The Run. Part III analyzes the extra-legal and collateral consequences of policing women, including felony disenfranchisement, loss of housing, and the chilling impacts on their children. It unpacks, what Professor James Jacobs terms, the eternal criminal record, and teases out findings in his compelling new book of the same name.
Monday, June 08, 2015
"America's Largest Mental Hospital Is a Jail"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Atlantic article which carries this subheadline: "At Cook County, where a third of those incarcerated suffer from psychological disorders, officials are looking for ways to treat inmates less like prisoners and more like patients." Here is an excerpt from the piece:
At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. At least 400,000 inmates currently behind bars in the United States suffer from some type of mental illness—a population larger than the cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, or St. Louis—according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of all mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives.
“This is typically what I see everyday,” said Elli Petacque-Montgomery, a psychologist and the deputy director of mental health policy for the sheriff’s department. She showed me a medical intake form filled with blue pen scribbles. Small boxes listed possible illnesses: manic depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and so on. The forms are designed to help jail officials identify which inmates have mental illnesses as early as possible. Details from four new inmates could fit on a single sheet. She showed me a completed one. “Of those four,” she said, pointing to the descriptors, “I have three mentally ill people.”...
What sort of crimes had these people been arrested for? One kid on the list had a tendency toward aggression, but officials emphasized that the overwhelming majority were “crimes of survival” such as retail theft (to find food or supplies) or breaking and entering (to find a place to sleep). For those with mental illness, charges of drug possession can often indicate attempts at self-medication. “Even the drugs of choice will connect to what the mental illness is,” Petacque-Montgomery told me. People with severe depression might use cocaine “to lift their mood.” Those who hear voices and have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder often turn to heroin to regulate their sleep. Marijuana use “is just constant for kids with ADD and depression,” she notes. “I’ll ask, ‘Can you eat or sleep without this?’ and they’ll say no.’”
Chicagoans with mental illness end up in jail through a chain of small decisions by different local officials. Police officers can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, to a shelter—or to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to not bring charges. Judges can choose to set higher or lower bail amounts, thereby determining whether poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing. But once a person reaches the jail, the local sheriff can’t simply decline to take them into custody.
Thursday, June 04, 2015
"Shining a Light on Overcriminalization"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new "Backgrounder" from The Heritage Foundation authored by Jordan Richardson. Here is the abstrat:
Overcriminalization — the overuse or misuse of the criminal law to address societal problems — manifests itself in a variety of ways, including overly broad definitions of criminal acts, excessively harsh sentencing, and criminal sanctions for simple mistakes or accidents under a theory of strict liability. However, overcriminalization has a more tangible aspect beyond legislation and legal theory: American citizens all too often find themselves trapped by the very system that they assumed existed for their protection and prosecuted for crimes that most people would not even recognize as criminal offenses.
Criminal justice reform is about more than policy debates in Congress or legal procedure; it is about how the lives and fortunes of ordinary Americans are threatened by abuse of the law. Only by identifying the problem and highlighting why it matters will any meaningful change take place.