Saturday, February 01, 2014
Two notable new Sentencing Project reports on sentencing reform and prison closings
This past week, The Sentencing Project released two notable short reports on state sentencing reforms and prison closings. Both reports are linked from this webpage, where the reports are noted and summarized in this way:
The Sentencing Project released two reports that highlight states downsizing prison systems and adopting sentencing policy reforms. Our research documents a three-year trend of prison closings that produced a reduction of 35,000 beds, including six states reducing capacity by 11,000 beds in 2013.
On the Chopping Block 2013 documents state prison closures and attributes the trend to several factors:
- A declining prison population in many states
- State fiscal constraints
- Sentencing and parole reforms in the areas of drug policy, diversion programs, and reductions in parole revocations to prison
The State of Sentencing 2013 documents reforms in 31 states in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:
- Expanding alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses
- Policies to reduce returns to prison for supervision violators
- Comprehensive juvenile justice measures that emphasize prevention and diversion
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Deputy AG Cole's remarkable remarks to the NYSBA
Via an early New York Times article, I have already reported here on some of the clemency comments delivered today byDeputy Attorney General James Cole at the New York State Bar Association Annual Meeting. But i have now had a chance to review the whole text of the speech delivered by Deputy AG Cole, which can be accessed here, and anyone interested in federal sentencing policy and reform should read the whole text. Here are just a few sections that really caught my attention as a sentencing geek:
I want to talk with you today about the crisis we have in our criminal justice system. A crisis that is fundamental and has the potential to continue to swallow important efforts in the fight against crime. This crisis is the crushing prison population....
Over half of the federal prison population is there for drug offenses. Some are truly dangerous people, who threaten the safety of our communities and need to be taken off the streets for a long time. But others are lower level drug offenders, many with their own drug abuse issues, who fall into the all too common vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime, incarceration, release — and then the cycle repeats.
In addition, there is a basic truth that dollars are finite. Every dollar we spend at the Department of Justice on prisons — and last year we spent about $6.5 billion on prisons - is a dollar we cannot spend supporting our prosecutors and law enforcement agents in their fight against violent crime, drug cartels, public corruption, financial fraud, human trafficking, and child exploitation, just to mention a few. In other words, if we don’t find a solution to the federal prison population problem, public safety is going to suffer.
Recognizing this dynamic, the Justice Department has been working hard to come up with solutions to stem the tide....
All of these Departmental efforts recognize the need for a broader, smarter approach to criminal justice. We believe these efforts enhance our ability to protect our communities and maximize public safety. These efforts not only ensure that we continue to be “smart on crime” from a limited resource perspective, but they also help to ensure that federal laws are enforced fairly.
And embedded in this issue of fairness is the consideration of sentence reductions for those who, at an earlier time, encountered severe and inflexible sentencing laws.
This brings me to another issue I want to address with you today and ask for your help. The issue is executive clemency, particularly commutation of sentence. Commutation of sentence is an extraordinary remedy that is rarely used. But it may be available in certain circumstances, including when an individual has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and has been sentenced under out-of-date laws that have since been changed, and are no longer seen as appropriate.
As I said earlier, our prisons include many low-level drug offenders. Now, let there be no mistake, even the low-level drug offenders cause harm to people through their criminal actions and many need to be incarcerated. I don’t want to minimize the impact of their behavior. Our prosecutors worked diligently, along with law enforcement agents, to collect evidence and charge these defendants, and then fairly and effectively obtained their convictions. T hey were properly held accountable for their criminal conduct. However, some of them, because of the operation of sentencing laws on the books at the time, received life sentences, or the equivalent of a life sentence, for limited conduct. For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today's laws, erode people’ s confidence in our criminal justice system....
[A]side from legislation, the President also has the ability to take executive action to positively impact the criminal justice system. A little over a month ago, the President commuted the sentences of 8 men and women who were sentenced under severe — and out of date — mandatory minimum sentencing laws....
But the President’s grant of commutations for these 8 individuals is only a first step. There is more to be done, because there are others like the eight who were granted clemency. There are more low-level, non-violent drug offenders who remain in prison, and who would likely have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of precisely the same offenses today. This is not fair, and it harms our criminal justice system.
To help correct this, we need to identify these individuals and get well-prepared petitions into the Department of Justice. It is the Department’s goal to find additional candidates, who are similarly situated to the eight granted clemency last year, and recommend them to the President for clemency consideration.
This is where you can help. We are looking to the New York State Bar Association and other bar associations to assist potential candidates for executive clemency. We envision that attorneys will assist potential candidates in assembling effective and appropriate commutation petitions — ones which provide a focused presentation of the information the Department and the President need to consider — in order to meaningfully consider clemency for similarly situated petitioners. You each can play a critical role in this process by providing a qualified petitioner — one who has a clean record in prison, does not present a threat to public safety, and who is facing a life or near-life sentence that is excessive under current law — with the opportunity to get a fresh start. We anticipate that the petitioners potentially eligible for consideration would include: non-violent, low-level drug offenders who were not leaders of — nor had any significant ties to — large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels. We would also look for petitions from first-time offenders or offenders without an extensive criminal history.
Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
I just received a notable news release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums concerning a notable vote today by the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Here are the basic via the FAMM report:
Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed the first major reconsideration of federal mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws since the Nixon Administration. The Committee voted, 13-5, in support of S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL).
The Smarter Sentencing Act:
- Reduces mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenders by half
- Narrowly increases the scope of an existing “safety valve” exception to federal drug offenses
- Allows 8,800 federal prisoners imprisoned for crack cocaine crimes to return to court to seek fairer punishments in line with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a unanimously-passed measure to reduce the racially discriminatory disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses
- Requires the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies to compile, and make publicly available on their websites, lists of all federal laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties. This part of the bill addresses growing bipartisan concerns about the issue of “over-criminalization” – that there are too many federal crimes and that people can and do unknowingly and unintentionally break laws and regulations and serve jail or prison time for violations that could be better addressed with fines.
- Adds new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual abuse, domestic violence, and terrorism offenses
This new piece up at Huffington Post, headlined "Biggest Overhaul in Federal Drug Sentencing in Decades Clears Major Hurdle, Despite Opposition From Heartless Prosecutors," provides more information about who is for and who is against this important legislative development:
Today the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee passed bipartisan sentencing reform legislation that reduces the federal prison population, decreases racial disparities, saves taxpayer money, and reunites nonviolent drug law offenders with their families sooner. The reforms are supported by a strange bedfellows group of senators, including Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The legislation is opposed by some U.S. prosecutors who continue to defend a harsh, racially unjust system that has led to a greater percentage of black men being locked up in the U.S. than in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.
The bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act, is the biggest overhaul in federal drug sentencing in decades. It would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and expand the ability of judges to use their own discretion when sentencing defendants, so that judges can consider the unique facts of each case and each individual before them. It would also make the reform to the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress passed in 2010 retroactive, so that thousands of people sentenced under the old draconian and racially unjust disparity can leave prison early.
Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged the committee to reform mandatory minimum sentencing yesterday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys took the somewhat rare step of opposing the Attorney General by releasing a letter in opposition to reform. "We do not join with those who regard our federal system of justice as 'broken' or in need of major reconstruction," the organization said. "Instead, we consider the current federal mandatory minimum sentence framework as well-constructed and well worth preserving."
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
You be the judge: should guidelines be followed in federal sentencing of elderly nun and two other peace activists?
The question in the title of this post is based on this notable Reuters story, headlined "Activists face sentencing for Tennessee nuclear facility break-in." Here are the interesting details, with emphasis added concerning the recommendations of the federal sentencing guidelines:
An elderly nun and two other peace activists are set to be sentenced on Tuesday on their federal convictions for damage they caused breaking into a Tennessee defense facility where enriched uranium for nuclear bombs is stored.
Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed admitted cutting fences and making their way across the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in July 2012, embarrassing U.S. officials and prompting security changes.
The three were convicted by a federal jury last May of damaging a national defense premises under the sabotage act, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, and of causing more than $1,000 of damage to U.S. government property.
Federal sentencing guidelines call for Rice, 83, to receive up to a little more than seven years in prison; Walli, 65, more than nine years; and Boertje-Obed, 58, more than eight years. The defendants have been in custody since their conviction. Prosecutors have asked that the defendants receive sentences in line with federal guidelines. The defendants have asked for lesser sentences.
Bill Quigley, one of the attorneys of the defendants, said that all three are in good health, but that Rice, who turns 84 January 31, is "freezing cold in jail."
"They're all in great spirits and they're very much at peace about being sentenced," Quigley said. "We're hoping for significantly less time. People are even praying and hoping they'll be released."
Defense attorneys argued in court documents that the three were "completely nonviolent" when they were arrested. "They used the occasion to present symbolically their passion for nuclear disarmament," defense lawyers wrote. The three activists have received more than 2,000 cards and letters of support from around the world.
Prosecutors contended the break-in at Y-12, the primary U.S. site for processing and storage of enriched uranium, disrupted operations, endangered U.S. national security, and caused physical damage that cost more than $8,500 to repair. "The United States believes that the defendants should be held accountable for their deliberate choices and accept the appropriate consequences for their actions," prosecutors said in court documents.
The activists admitted cutting several fences, walking through the complex for hours, spray-painting slogans and hammering on the walls of the facility. When a guard confronted them, they offered him food and began singing.
I wonder how most Americans would react (especially the folks at FoxNews) if Sister Megan Rice had been caught and convicted of breaking into an uranium-enrichment facility somewhere near Tehran, and Iranian prosecutors were advocating that, at age 84, Sister Rice should be held accountable by having to spend another six years in an Iranian prison. Of course, that is not what Sister Megan Rice did: she broke into a uranium-enrichment facility in Tennessee, and it is American prosecutors who are advocating that she should be held accountable by having to spend another six years in an American prison. That obviously makes all the difference in the (western) world.
This recent article from Mother Jones, headlined "Nun Faces up to 30 Years for Breaking Into Weapons Complex, Embarrassing the Feds," provides a lot more background on this case. It concludes with this explanation of the religious background for the criminal actions by these activists:
The three imprisoned activists are members of the Plowshares Movement, a Christian peace initiative founded in 1980 when the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six others trespassed onto the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and hammered on the nose cones of missiles. The movement takes inspiration from Isaiah 2:4: "And they will hammer their swords into plowshares" — the part of the plow that tills the soil. Plowshares actions typically involve the pouring of blood and the symbolic gesture of hammering weapons — in this case, the walls of the Y-12 uranium warehouse.
"They feel that nuclear weapons are the single greatest threat to God's creation that exists in the world today," [fellow activist Ralph] Hutchison says. "They think that there is a faith imperative. Nuclear weapons represent the ultimate anti-God. Anything that God is for — compassion, hope, promise of a future, health, security — they think are completely contradictory to the idea of nuclear weapons."
UPDATE: This Knoxville News Sentinel article reports on the now-interrupted sentencing today:
With snow coming down and federal officials closing the courthouse early, Judge Amul Thapar, prosecutors and attorneys agreed Tuesday to delay the sentencing of three protesters who broke into the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant. They determined there wasn’t enough time to complete the sentencing before the doors closed at 2:30 p.m. on the Howard H. Baker Jr. U.S. Courthouse.
The sentencing has been rescheduled to 9 a.m. on Feb. 18. Sister Megan Rice, an 83-year-old Catholic nun, Rice, who’ll turn 84 in two days, Michael R. Walli, 64, both from Washington, D.C., and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, from Duluth, Minn., were convicted in May on federal charges of attempting to injure the national defense and depredation of government property.
Earlier Tuesday, the judge ordered the three to pay $52,953 in restitution, waiving interest and allowing payments to be made quarterly. The costs include repairs to fences, spray washing and cleaning the exterior of the plant’s storehouse for bomb-making uranium and additional security expenses.
January 28, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Florida prisons struggling with extra costs of a hearty appetite for religion
This new New York Times article, headlined "You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love a Kosher," highlights the extra costs of respecting religious freedoms for the incarcerated. Here are excerpts:
Florida is now under a court order to begin serving kosher food to eligible inmates, a routine and court-tested practice in most states. But state prison officials expressed alarm recently over the surge in prisoners, many of them gentiles, who have stated an interest in going kosher.
Their concern: The cost of religious meals is four times as much as the standard fare, said Michael D. Crews, who is expected to be confirmed as secretary of the Department of Corrections in March. “The last number I saw Monday was 4,417,” Mr. Crews said of inmate requests at his recent confirmation hearing before a State Senate committee. “Once they start having the meals, we could see the number balloon.”...
Kosher food in prisons has long served as fodder for lawsuits around the country, with most courts coming down firmly on the side of inmates. As long as inmates say they hold a sincere belief in Judaism — a deeply forgiving standard — they are entitled to kosher meals, even if takes a little chutzpah to make the request.
“Florida is an outlier,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented inmates around the country. “It’s a holdout. I don’t know why it’s being a holdout. It is strange that Florida, of all places, is placing a special burden on Jewish inmates. It’s just stubbornness.”
In Florida’s prison system. which faces a $58 million deficit, money is the easy answer for the battle against kosher food. The cost of three kosher meals in Florida is $7 a day, a big jump from the $1.54 for standard meals, Mr. Crews said. In New York State, where 1,500 inmates out of about 56,000 keep kosher, the cost of a kosher meal is $5 a person. In California, where some prisons have kosher kitchens, the price tag is $8, and the meals are served to 0.7 percent of about 120,000 inmates.
Last April, facing an inmate lawsuit, Florida began a pilot program for the religious diet at Union Correctional Facility near Jacksonville. Initially, some 250 inmates signed up, Mr. Crews said. But once other inmates spied the individually boxed lunches, 863 expressed a sudden interest in keeping kosher....
But the question of who gets a kosher meal is tricky. In all, less than 1.5 percent of the country’s 1.9 million inmates are Jewish, according to the Aleph Institute, a social services organization, and many do not even request kosher meals. “Who is a Jew?” Mr. Rassbach said. “People disagree about who is a Jew.”
The courts steer clear of that perilous debate. Instead, inmates need only say they have a “sincerely held” religious belief. Attempts by prison officials and rabbis to quiz prisoners about the Torah and the rules of keeping kosher were ruled not kosher. Tracing maternal lineage was similarly viewed unfavorably.... Some states, like New York, do nothing to try to discern who is feigning Jewishness. In California, inmates talk with a rabbi who will gauge, very generally, a prisoner’s actual interest.
But some Jewish groups in Florida are pushing for greater control, which may pose a difficult legal hurdle. “There should be away to ascertain who really does require a kosher meal for their religious belief,” said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, director of prison and military outreach for the Aleph Institute in South Florida, “and who is just gaming the system.”
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Your tax dollars at work in incarceration nation
Two very different recent stories about two very different prisoners have the unifying theme of taxpayers footing the bill. Here are the headlines and the starts of the stories:
A federal appeals court in Boston today upheld a judge’s ruling that a transsexual inmate convicted of murder is entitled to a taxpayer-funded sex change operation as treatment for her severe gender identity disorder. In a ruling that was a first of its kind, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit said courts must not shy away from enforcing the rights of all people, including prisoners. “And receiving medically necessary treatment is one of those rights, even if that treatment strikes some as odd or unorthodox,” the court said.
“Having carefully considered the relevant law and the extensive factual record, we affirm the judgment of the district court,” the court said in a 2-1 ruling, which could still be appealed to the full appeals court or to the US Supreme Court.
Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway, who is serving a one-year sentence for bank fraud, wants out of prison and says her unique status is keeping her confined longer than what’s normal.
Hathaway, in a self-drafted motion filed today, asks U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara to let her out early or allow her to serve the rest of her sentence at home. O’Meara sentenced Hathaway on May 28 to 12 months and one day in prison, plus two years’ probation, after she pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud in connection with the short sale of her Grosse Pointe Park home. She reported to prison in August.
She is serving her time in Alderson, W.Va., at a federal facility sometimes referred to as Camp Cupcake because of its relatively comfortable conditions, compared with some federal prisons. Former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers also served time there.
In her motion, Hathaway says she would normally be eligible for a move to a halfway house at this point in her sentence, but the Bureau of Prisons won’t consider such a move because of security and safety concerns because she is a former sentencing judge. Instead, she is only eligible to serve the last 10% of her sentence at home, Hathaway said in the motion. “Defendant is being denied equal protection of the law,” Hathaway told the judge.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that the incarceration costs for these two very different offenders are not worthwhile. Rather, I am just highlighting the (annoying?) reality that just about every interesting prison story in incarceration nation is being funded and fueled by state and federal tax dollars.
Friday, January 17, 2014
"Political odd couples push sentencing reform" ... and have little to show so far
The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this Washington Post entry, with a dash of my cynicism added and explained after an excerpt:
At a time when partisans in Congress don't agree on anything, they have found one area where they can: Reforming America's sprawling and costly prison system. Nearly 30 years after creating mandatory sentences for drug offenses, an unlikely band of lawmakers is moving forward with their plans to fix what they say is a broken criminal justice system....
The Senate Judiciary Committee is working through several reform bills crafted by lawmakers from the liberal and conservative wings of the two parties to put together a plan, which, they say, will help alleviate the financial and humanitarian costs of the spending guidelines.
So who are these unlikely co-sponsors? Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have joined forces and put together a bill that would give judges flexibility when they hand down sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. A House counterpart to the Durbin- Lee bill is co-sponsored by the unlikely duo of Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Another bill, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would expand that judicial leeway to some non-drug related crimes.
"I think money is driving this debate to some extent but also honesty," Durbin said in an interview. "After 30 years we ought to take a look at these laws. These aren't the 10 Commandments."
Overcrowded prisons have been increasingly a strain on federal budgets, costing an estimated $60 billion per year. Since the mandatory minimum law was implemented in 1986, the prison population has exploded -- from around 58,000 in the late 1980s to more than 217,000 in 2012, according to the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons.
“People are starting to see the unfairness, people who have been kept in jail, sometimes 10, 20, 30, even 50 years for a non-violent crime,” Paul said in an interview. “I personally think if you made a mistake, a youthful mistake, that when you serve your time, and the time should be a reasonable time, that you should be able to get back into society.”
The timing of a reform bill is still uncertain, but Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated in a statement that a mark-up was in the near future. "Doing nothing means cutting funding from law enforcement, victim services and crime prevention efforts -- doing nothing makes us less safe," he said. "We will soon be marking up legislation to address this important issue." Labrador said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has agreed to have a hearing in the House on the issue this year....
It's not the first time this issue has brought the two sides together. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, that eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, was put together by Durbin and Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions as they worked out next to each other in the Senate gym. The bill eventually passed by unanimous consent.
I have grown more cynical and pessimistic about statutory sentencing reforms coming from Congress now that it has been almost a full year since Senators Leahy and Paul started pushing for mandatory minimum reform. It would seem all political, social and economic forces are in line for major statutory sentencing reform, and yet we continue to hear lots of talk about reform and little tangible action in Congress. Especially given that it took decades for crack reform talk to become the FSA, and given that the FSA was itself a pretty tepid and incomplete reform, I hope all this talk from Congress is not generating false optimism about significant statutory sentencing reforms coming from Congress.
That all said, I am much more optimistic that other federal sentencing players, especially the US Sentencing Commission and lower court judges, can and will be inspired by all the reform talk in Congress to take tangible action in courtrooms. Indeed, I think the very important new proposal to cut federal drug sentences across the board (basics here, commentary here) only came to happen because that politically cautious body sensed members of Congress would not be likely to vocally resist a reduction of drug sentencing guidelines.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Could new, creative prison architecture be a key to unlocking incarceration nation?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting article forwarded to me by a helpful reader headlined "This Radical New Prison Design Could Prevent Prisoners From Coming Back." Here are the highlights (though I recommend that readers click through to see lots of pictures and useful links):
A recent topic that has been receiving attention among architects is the issue of designing prisons. The increased awareness of the problem has been spearheaded by Raphael Sperry, founder of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, who has been campaigning to have the AIA forbid members from designing execution chambers or solitary confinement units. At the other end of the scale, Deanna VanBuren, a principle of FOURM Design Studio and a member of ADPSR herself, has championed ‘restorative justice’, an approach to the justice system which emphasizes rehabilitation and reconciliation in order to prevent people from re-offending.
Now Glen Santayana, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, has used his thesis project to add to this debate, designing PriSchool — a prison which both integrates with a school of criminology and is embedded within the community. Could this radical approach to prison design really be an answer to the stretched prison system in the US (and elsewhere)?...
PriSchool is designed precisely for those non-violent offenders who struggle to stay on the right side of the law when released. Situated in a Brooklyn neighborhood surrounded by “million-dollar blocks” — city blocks with such high crime that the state is spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate their residents — the prison/school hybrid rethinks what a prison can achieve, positing it as a place where prisoners and students can learn from each other, and where criminals can be rehabilitated in preparation for their return to society.
The complex is split into four buildings, consisting of (from West to East) the school of criminology, the prison itself, a ‘pre-release’ building and a community center. The form of these buildings is warped to show where the functions of each building intertwine, with bridges between them. Prisoners and students get the opportunity to take part in lessons together, giving students the chance to get a sense of the real-life situations which they study, and offering the prisoners intellectual stimulation and a deeper understanding of the legal structure in which they are entangled. This promotes a sense of dignity and empowerment which can reduce their chances of re-offending.
In the pre-release building, inmates whose sentences are nearing an end get the opportunity to learn new skills, gaining access to metal and wood workshops, computer labs and a range of other environments where they can learn hands-on, employable skills. Finally, the community center is posited as a peace offering to those members of the wider community who are skeptical about being in a neighborhood arranged around a prison; it is hoped that the benefits to the community will be greater than the stigma of the prison, and that this stigma will also eventually recede over time.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
A few notable headlines concerning notable state prison realities
My review of sentencing law and policy stories this morning revealed this array of noteworthy reports and commentary pieces concerning a number of state prison systems across the US. I have reprinted the headlines and subheading, which serve as a kind of summary of the issues covered:
From Arizona here, "Private prisons really are cheaper for taxpayers; Lawmaker: Column, editorial are just plain wrong"
From California here, "California prison population expected to grow over next 5 years: Ten thousand more inmates are expected, complicating Gov. Brown's effort to abide by a court order to reduce the prison population."
From Ohio here, "Ohio's prison population nears record high, raising the prospect of inmates being released early"
From Oklahoma here, "Oklahoma Board of Corrections looks at expanding use of private prison beds: The Oklahoma Board of Corrections is looking at three options to deal with overcrowding at the state's prison facilities: expanding public prisons, contracting for more private-prison beds, and buying or leasing one of the state's two empty private prisons."
From South Carolina here, "When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina's Prisons: A judge's order in an inmate abuse case highlights the role played, or not played, by the state's political and legal infrastructure."
Friday, January 10, 2014
Mass incarceration, marijuana and deeper dives into national employment data
The title and topic of this post is driven by the curious news today, reported here by the AP, that US employers "added a scant 74,000 jobs in December after averaging 214,000 in the previous four months," but that also "the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, its lowest level since October 2008." The standard "official reason" for low job growth but a big dip in the unemployment rate is "because many Americans stopped looking for jobs." But I started then thinking about whether and how the thousands of people now employed in state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana businesses are counted in this national data. Could it be that a significant number of people working in the state-legal marijuana industry are now counted as unemployed and/or not looking for work (just as I assume all illegal cocaine dealers are counted)?
These thoughts are based in part on this one notable Montana study, which students in my marijuana seminar found when they assembled information about job creation in marijuana industry. Though the data in this 2011 study may be hinky because it was produced by the Montana Medical Growers Association, the study estimated that 1,400 new jobs had been created in the sparcely populated state of Montana alone and that "approximately 70% of employees [in the Montana marijuana industry] were previously unemployed." Extrapolating from these numbers, it seems plausible that there may already be 50,000 or more Americans already working in state-legalized medical marijuana businesses, and these employment numbers are certain to grow in states like Colorado and Washington now with a huge new recreational marijuana market.
But do all Americans now working in the (cash only) state-legal marijuana industry count as employed in the federal data? I would suspect not given that the federal law still regards all these folks as illegal drug dealers on par with a guy on a street-corner trying to peddle crack. Perhaps more worrisome for those concerned about the abuse of federal benefits, how many Americans have acquired jobs in the state-legal marijuana industry but remain happy and eager to report they are "still looking for (fully legal) work," and thus are collecting federal unemployment insurance while actually working in the marijuana industry? Or instead, once formerly unemployed folks get a job within a state-legal (but federally-prohibited) marijuana business, do they tend then to just report that they have given up looking for work?
As the title of this post suggests, I am asking these questions about the mariujuana industry and employment data in part because shrewd labor-force data-crunchers have long known that the massive increase in incarceration during the 1990s played a huge role in making national unemployment data look better than the reality. During from 1985 to about 2005, hundreds of thousands of unemployed (and mostly low-skilled) Americans were added to our prison population, taking them out of the labor force entirely and thus (artificially) driving down the unemployment rate statistic. (In addition, the need to build and staff ever more prisons was a terrific government stimulus program for low-skilled labor.) But in the last decade or so, the national prison population has been relatively stable: each year roughly 700,000 new persons get admitted to prison and another 700,000 get released. However, the reality of prison life and the challenges of a criminal record mean that every person newly released from prison each year is all but certain to have a harder time finding legal employment than every person newly admitted to prison that year.
Put differently, growing the prison-industrial complex often makes for better superficial national job numbers, while keep America's prison population stable (or getting it to decline) can end up hurting simplistic national job numbers. (That reality is one of many reasons it is often so much easier to get politicians to support laws that fuel prison growth rather than laws that fuel prison reduction.)
With these statistical realities in mind, I am now wondering and worrying in light of the latest national employment data whether a reverse data-collection problem could be at work with the marijuana-industrial complex as long as pot prohibition is still the law at the federal level. Could significant growth of a state-legal "marijuana-industrial complex" actualy produce federal data that makes national employment data look worse than it really is?
Obviously, I am not a labor economist, and I could be waaaaaay off base here. But I suspect and fear few serious US labor economists are even considering these realities much, if at all, as they think about the modern American labor force and its needs in the years ahead. More broadly, the only key takeaway from this post should be that just as mass incarceration is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue, so too do I think marijuana law and policy is a labor issue as well as a criminal justice issue.
Tuesday, January 07, 2014
"Should We Let Prisoners Upgrade Their Prison Cells?"
The title of this post is the headline of this interesting report from the OZY media resource. Here are excerpts:
Would prison be so bad if your cell was spacious and included a private bathroom, kitchen and cable TV? These are the accommodations for some prisoners at San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. But luxury isn’t free: For about $1,000-1,500, an inmate can purchase a high-class cell for the duration of his or her sentence.
San Pedro is divided into eight sections ranging from shared small cells with risks of stabbings at night to the opulent cells that have access to billiard tables and fresh juice stands. Every person must buy or rent a cell, no matter the quality, and many inmates have jobs as hairdressers, laundry staff, food stall operators or TV repairmen.
Does the idea of paying for better prison accommodations sound ludicrous? Would you bet this could never happen in the U.S.? Think again.
In California there are multiple jails with “pay-to-stay” programs where inmates can pay from $75-155 a day for a private cell in quiet areas away from violent offenders, and they are occasionally allowed to bring in an iPod or computer for entertainment. They must be approved for the program and their crimes are usually minor offenses. The ACLU is not a fan, calling the program a “jail for the rich.”
Supporters of pay-to-stay say they benefit the cities where they are located by providing revenue. For example, if the Fremont jail — which spends $8.35 a day on each inmate — houses 16 inmates for two nights per week a year, the city would net a profit of about $244,000. One immediate question is whether cities should make a profit off of prisoners. Another question has to do with equality.
Two people who commit the same crime but end up in different facilities depending on their ability to pay isn’t exactly equitable, but the American incarceration system doesn’t have the best record when it comes to treating the poor and rich equally....
But what if you weren’t allowed to use Daddy’s dollars to secure better living conditions while serving time for a DUI? What if, instead, you started out the same as every other inmate, regardless of personal wealth or outside resources?
Could a fairer option be that you start your sentence with a financial blank slate, earn money by taking jobs inside the prison or jail and then apply your self-earned dollars to book a nicer and more comfortable living situation? Should prisoners be allowed to pay to upgrade the quality of their cells, or should the nature of their crime be the sole factor in how they live out their prison terms?
January 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Sunday, January 05, 2014
"The Punishment Imperative The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America"
“Backed up by the best science, Todd Clear and Natasha Frost make a compelling case for why the nation’s forty-year embrace of the punitive spirit has been morally bankrupt and endangered public safety. But this is far more than an exposé of correctional failure. Recognizing that a policy turning point is at hand, Clear and Frost provide a practical blueprint for choosing a different correctional future — counsel that is wise and should be widely followed.” — Francis T. Cullen, Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati
Over the last 35 years, the US penal system has grown at a rate unprecedented in US history — five times larger than in the past and grossly out of scale with the rest of the world. This growth was part of a sustained and intentional effort to “get tough” on crime, and characterizes a time when no policy options were acceptable save for those that increased penalties. In The Punishment Imperative, eminent criminologists Todd R. Clear and Natasha A. Frost argue that America’s move to mass incarceration from the 1960s to the early 2000s was more than just a response to crime or a collection of policies adopted in isolation; it was a grand social experiment. Tracing a wide array of trends related to the criminal justice system, The Punishment Imperative charts the rise of penal severity in America and speculates that a variety of forces — fiscal, political, and evidentiary — have finally come together to bring this great social experiment to an end.
Clear and Frost stress that while the doubling of the crime rate in the late 1960s represented one of the most pressing social problems at the time, this is not what served as a foundation for the great punishment experiment. Rather, it was the way crime posed a political problem — and thereby offered a political opportunity — that became the basis for the great rise in punishment. The authors claim that the punishment imperativeis a particularly insidious social experiment because the actual goal was never articulated, the full array of consequences was never considered, and the momentum built even as the forces driving the policy shifts diminished. Clear and Frost argue that the public’s growing realization that the severe policies themselves, not growing crime rates, were the main cause of increased incarceration eventually led to a surge of interest in taking a more rehabilitative, pragmatic, and cooperative approach to dealing with criminal offenders.
The Punishment Imperative cautions that the legacy of the grand experiment of the past forty years will be difficult to escape. However, the authors suggest that the United States now stands at the threshold of a new era in penal policy, and they offer several practical and pragmatic policy solutions to changing the criminal justice system’s approach to punishment. Part historical study, part forward-looking policy analysis, The Punishment Imperative is a compelling study of a generation of crime and punishment in America.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
George Will laments "mandatory minimums as sledgehammers"
This past week, Washington Post columnist George Will made heavy use of recent opinions by Judge John Gleeson to join the chorus of commentators lamenting federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. Here are the closing paragraphs from this commentary, headlined "The sledgehammer justice of mandatory minimum sentences":
Kenneth Harvey was 24 in 1989 when he committed a crack cocaine offense. He had two prior offenses that qualified as felony drug convictions even though they were not deemed serious enough for imprisonment. They, however, enabled the government to make an 851 filing. He will die in prison. Harvey is 48.
Thousands of prisoners are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Gleeson, who is neither naive nor sentimental (as a prosecutor, he sent mobster John Gotti to die in a supermax prison), knows that most defendants who plead guilty are guilty. He is, however, dismayed at the use of the threat of mandatory minimums as “sledgehammers” to extort guilty pleas, effectively vitiating the right to a trial. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions are without trials, sparing the government the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Mere probable cause, and the meager presentation required for a grand jury indictment, suffices. “Judging is removed,” Gleeson says, “prosecutors become sentencers.” And when threats of draconian sentences compel guilty pleas, “some innocent people will plead guilty.”
Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are questioning the regime of mandatory minimum sentences, including recidivism enhancements, that began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Meanwhile, the human and financial costs of mass incarceration mount.
Friday, December 27, 2013
Fascinating lead-crime-rate forecast that incarceration levels will decline significantly in coming years
Regular readers know I am very intrigued by (but still at least a bit skeptical concerning) the social science research that suggest that lead exposure level better account for variations in violent crime rates than any other single variable. Consequently, I have to link to this new item sent my way by researcher Rick Nevin, titled "It Will Not Take 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration," which responds to a recent commentary by sentencing reform advocates (noted in this post) lamenting how little incarceration rates have declined even as crime has continued its historic decline over the last decade. Without vouching for the data, I am eager to highlight Nevin's concluding sentiments in this interesting little data discussion:
Nevin (2000) showed that per capita use of lead in gasoline from 1941-1975 explained 90% of the variation in the USA violent crime rate from 1964 to 1998. Nevin (2007) showed the same relationship between preschool lead exposure trends and violent and property crime trends in the USA, Britain, Canada, West Germany, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Australia. The time lag in every nation reflected lead-induced neurodevelopmental damage in the first years of life affecting behavior in the late-teens and 20s when offending peaks. The best-fit lag for burglary was 18 years, reflecting property crime arrests that have historically peaked at ages 15-20. The best-fit for violent crime was 23 years, consistent with violent crime arrest rates that have peaked in the early-20s.
The ongoing violent crime rate decline (down 32% from 1998-2012) has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This has been slowed by an increase in older offenders born across years of pandemic lead poisoning. This rise in arrest rates for older adults has occurred even as juvenile arrest rates have fallen to record lows, due to ongoing declines in lead paint exposure over the 1990s.
The Sentencing Project and other advocates for sentencing reform need to acknowledge the extreme divergence in arrest and incarceration trends by age. Opponents of sentencing reform often assume that “mass incarceration” is a key factor behind the USA crime decline over the past two decades, but arrest and incarceration trends by age discredit that theory: The largest arrest rate declines have been recorded by younger age groups that have also recorded large incarceration rate declines, while arrest rates have increased for older age groups despite rising incarceration rates for older adults.
Arrest and incarceration trends by age also cast doubt on the theory that budget constraints and public policy reforms have been a large factor in the overall prison population decline over recent years. The declining prison population is clearly not explained by shorter prison terms or early releases for older prisoners, but by steep arrest rate declines for younger Americans. It isn’t the public policies that have changed: It’s the people, and specifically the percent of people poisoned by lead exposure in early childhood.
Some recent related posts:
- Should we thank unleaded gas and the EPA for the great modern crime decline?
- Effective Washington Post commentary talks up great (and still puzzling) crime decline
- Do lead exposure realities continue to best explain modern crime-rate realities?:
- Uh-oh: BJS reporting significant spike up in violent and property crime for 2012
- FBI releases 2012 crime statistics showing stability in relatively low crime rates
- New National Academy of Sciences effort seeking to unpack the crime decline
Monday, December 23, 2013
"Can We Wait 88 Years to End Mass Incarceration?"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post commentary by Marc Mauer and Nazgol Ghandnoosh of The Sentencing Project. Here is how it gets started:
By many measures, there is growing momentum for criminal justice reform. Changes in federal drug-sentencing policy, passed by Congress in 2010, will help to reduce sentence lengths and racial disparity. We hear less "tough on crime" rhetoric and budget-conscious conservatives are embracing sentencing reforms. The Attorney General has criticized aspects of the criminal justice system and directed federal prosecutors to seek reduced sanctions against lower-level offenders.
In light of this, one would think we should celebrate the new figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showing a decline in the U.S. prison population for the third consecutive year. This follows rising prisoner counts for every year between 1973 and 2010. BJS reports that 28 states reduced their prison populations in 2012, contributing to a national reduction of 29,000. Beset by budget constraints and a growing concern for effective approaches to public safety, state policymakers have begun downsizing unsustainable institutional populations.
The break in the prison population's unremitting growth offers an overdue reprieve and a cause for hope for sustained reversal of the nearly four-decade growth pattern. But any optimism needs to be tempered by the very modest rate of decline, 1.8 percent in the past year. At this rate, it will take until 2101 -- 88 years -- for the prison population to return to its 1980 level.
Other developments should also curb our enthusiasm. The population in federal prisons has yet to decline. And even among the states, the trend is not uniformly or unreservedly positive. Most states that trimmed their prison populations in 2012 did so by small amounts -- eight registered declines of less than 1 percent. Further, over half of the 2012 prison count reduction comes from the 10 percent decline in California's prison population, required by a Supreme Court mandate. But even that state's achievement is partly illusory, as it has been accompanied by increasing county jail admissions.
Three states stand out for making significant cuts in their prison populations in the past decade: New York (19 percent), California (17 percent), and New Jersey (17 percent). The reductions in New York and New Jersey have been in part a function of reduced crime levels, but also changes in policy and practice designed to reduce the number of lower-level drug offenders and parole violators in prison. But the pace of reductions in most other states has been quite modest. Moreover, 22 states still subscribed to an outdated model of prisoner expansion in 2012.
Isn't it crazy (and one reason for much dysfunction) that California does not have some kind of sentencing commission?
I have written a law review article emphasizing that the mere existence of a sentencing commission within a jurisdiction does not magically solve or even necessarily improve the development of sentencing and corrections laws and policies in that jurisdiction. Indeed, some might reasonably claim that in jurisdictions that have other agencies collecting system-wide data, a sentencing commission can become a costly luxury that may at times do more harm than good.
That all said, and as the question in the title of this post highlights, it strikes me as truly nuts that California has never created some kind of sentencing commission to assemble at least basic state-wide sentencing information. Indeed, given the huge mess that has long been California's massive sentencing and corrections system, and given the crisis-mode reforms and regulations imposed by judges and governors for decades now, I have to think any kind of sentencing commission in California would be able to improve matters in some way at least by being the go-to location for information about what the heck is even going on in the state on a range of sentencing and corrections issues.
These matters come to mind in reaction to this notable new article in the Sacramento Bee headlined "Sentencing commission, suggested in Sacramento, faces long odds." Here are excerpts:
Key California lawmakers this summer suggested that a commission to review and overhaul criminal sentences not only could bring coherence to a disjointed system but also perhaps ease chronic prison overcrowding in the long term. But the idea now appears stalled, despite the incentive of federal litigation that could force Gov. Jerry Brown to release as many as 10,000 inmates next spring.
Lawmakers chastened by a history of unsuccessful sentencing commission bills hold out little hope that this time could be different. “These issues are hard,” Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in an interview last week. “They’re hard to bite off politically.”
The notion of a panel to overhaul California’s penal code has percolated for decades but eluded proponents time and again. Supporters argue that a steady accumulation of different regulations, layered on top of one another over time, has led to a labyrinth of sentencing guidelines. “There is a lot of disproportionate punishment in our penal code, and that’s because not uncommonly a horrible crime may be committed in someone’s district and so the response is legislatively to get tougher,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “These are emotional issues,” he added, “and to have politics infused in all of our decision-making does not create the most sound public policy.”
State sentencing commissions are typically independent bodies, appointed by officials, that study a state’s galaxy of sentencing laws and condense them into a comprehensive framework. They issue guidelines that would increase or decrease sentences for various categories of crimes. That troubles some law enforcement leaders who see the potential for weakened sentences. And it rattles lawmakers wary about constituents – or future electoral opponents – who could hold them responsible for changes that emanated from an unelected body.
“No legislative body wants to give up power,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, a former Assembly speaker who pursued a sentencing commission during her time in the Legislature.
Historically, the state’s law enforcement community has been hostile to allowing appointed entities to dictate consequences for crimes. District attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs have opposed past efforts, raising concerns about who would sit on panels with expansive authority to reshape criminal justice. “In California, the only times sentencing commissions come up, it has been code for sentence reductions,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully.
But the idea resurfaced this summer when Gov. Jerry Brown, seeking to satisfy a federal order to reduce California’s prison population without resorting to more early releases, proposed spending an additional $315 million to provide more cells. Steinberg broke with the governor, rallying Senate Democrats behind an alternate plan that questioned expanded capacity.
Among other provisions, Steinberg’s blueprint included a detailed plan for immediately creating an 18-member sentencing commission that could provide recommendations by the end of 2014. A letter to Brown argued that “short-term fixes provide no sustainable remedy.” Steinberg’s letter said the panel would make recommendations aimed at “long-term prison capacity, staying within the (prison capacity) cap, including changes in criminal sentencing and evidence-based programming for criminal offenders.” He included private poll results that showed nearly three-fourths of Californians supported a panel “to streamline California’s criminal statutes with the goal of safely reducing prison costs and maximizing public safety.”
But by summer’s end, the governor got his cash infusion. The final bill also created a special corrections policy committee tasked with broadly examining criminal justice in California. Last week, Steinberg called sentencing reform “a key piece” of rethinking the state’s criminal justice system. But he expressed doubt that substantial changes would materialize in the coming legislative session....
This session, Leno carried his second consecutive bill easing penalties for simple drug possession. Brown vetoed it. Part of Leno’s argument emphasized the state’s uneven sentencing statutes, which make possession of cocaine a felony but allow possession of Ecstasy or methamphetamine to be charged as misdemeanors. Leno cited such inconsistencies in arguing that the sentencing commission is “an idea whose time has come,” adding that the state’s struggles to reduce its prison population “only underscores the need for it.”...
Past sentencing commission efforts have self-destructed because the panel’s recommendations, though subject to legislative approval, would have carried the force of law, argued Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. By contrast, Steinberg proposed a purely advisory body.
After seeing previous resentencing campaigns stymied, Hancock said an advisory commission may be the only tenable approach. Even if a commission’s recommendations remain just that, Hancock said she would push to see them implemented. “It’s just so important to cast some rational light on what goes on with our sentencing that I would be happy to see one that makes discretionary recommendations,” Hancock said.
I am pleased to hear there is talk of making a sentencing commission advisory in California because that should be one key to making such an entity a viable reality. But, were I a lawmaker in California, my proposal for a CA sentencing commission would be for the entire voting body of any such commission to be staffed only with district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs and for these folks on the CA commission to always have a majority of voting members. In that way, it should and could be clear that having a CA sentencing commission would not be code for sentence reductions but rather just a means for seeking greater sentencing rationality and information as defined by those very state actors elected and most responsible to the voters for seeking to ensure public safety and sensible use of tax resources to that end.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
"If our prisons were a country, what would Incarceration Nation look like?"
The title of this post is the headline of this fascinating commentary by lawprof Rosa Brooks, which merits a read in full. Here are just a few highlights from a very interesting piece:
You already know that the United States locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. If you look at local, state and federal prison and jail populations, the United States currently incarcerates more than 2.4 million people, a figure that constitutes roughly 25 percent of the total incarcerated population of the entire world.
A population of 2.4 million is a lot of people -- enough, in fact, to fill up a good-sized country. In the past, the British Empire decided to convert a good chunk of its prison population into a country, sending some 165,000 convicts off to Australia. This isn't an option for the United States, but it suggests an interesting thought experiment: If the incarcerated population of the United States constituted a nation-state, what kind of country would it be?
Here's a profile of Incarceration Nation:
Population size: As a country -- as opposed to a prison system -- Incarceration Nation is on the small side. Nonetheless, a population of 2.4 million is perfectly respectable: Incarceration Nation has a larger population than about 50 other countries, including Namibia, Qatar, Gambia, Slovenia, Bahrain and Iceland....
Population Density: No matter how you look at it, Incarceration Nation is a crowded place. If we assume a land area of 2,250 square miles, it has a population density of roughly 1,067 people per square mile, a little higher than that of India. Of course, the residents of Incarceration Nation don't have access to the full land-area constituting their nation: most of them spend their days in small cells, often sharing cells built for one or two prisoners with two or three times that many inmates....
A nation of immigrants: Like many of the smaller Gulf States, Incarceration Nation relies almost entirely on immigration to maintain its population. You might even say that Incarceration Nation is a nation of displaced persons: most of its residents were born far away from Incarceration Nation, which has a nasty habit of involuntarily transporting people hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from their home communities, making it extraordinarily difficult for residents to maintain ties with their families. In New York, for instance, one study found that "70 percent of incarcerated individuals are in prisons over 100 miles from their homes" -- often in "isolated rural areas that are inaccessible by direct bus or train routes."...
Gender balance: International attention to gender imbalances has tended to focus on China, India and other states, but Incarceration Nation has the most skewed gender ratio of any country on Earth: men outnumber women by a ratio of about 12 to 1.
Racial and ethnic makeup: If Incarceration Nation were located in a geographical region matching its racial and ethnic makeup, it would probably be somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps near Brazil. Roughly 40 percent of the incarcerated population is of African descent, another 20 percent is of Hispanic descent, and the remaining 40 percent are Caucasian or mixed....
Health: Incarceration Nation doesn't do so well here. One recent study found that the incarcerated are "more likely to be afflicted with infectious disease and other illnesses associated with stress."...
Per Capita Spending: Judged by per capita government spending, Incarceration Nation is a rich country: its government spends an average of about $31,000 per year on each incarcerated citizen. (State by state, costs vary. Kentucky and Indiana spend less than $15,000 on each inmate per year, while in New York State, the per capita cost per inmate is more than $60,000 a year. In New York City, per capita costs for jail inmates reach an astronomical $168,000 per year.) Internationally, only little Luxembourg spends as much on its citizens as Incarceration Nation; among the generally wealthy states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per capita spending is under $15,000, and Sweden, France, Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all spend under $20,000 per year on each citizen.
Gross Domestic Product: Incarceration Nation doesn't have a GDP, per se, but that doesn't mean it doesn't turn a profit -- sometimes, and for some people. For American taxpayers, aid to Incarceration Nation is pretty expensive: looking at just 40 U.S. states, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the cost to taxpayers of incarceration in these states was $39 billion. Overall, federal and state governments spend an estimated $74 billion on prisons each year. (This doesn't count spending on state and local jails.) How much is $74 billion? It's higher than the GDP of more than half the countries in the world, including Lebanon, Paraguay, Nepal and Lithuania.
Some people make a lot of money from Incarceration Nation. Incarceration Nation employs about 800,000 people as prison guards, administrators and the like -- almost as many people as are employed in the entire U.S. automobile industry -- and in some rural areas, prisons are the main employers. But the real money goes to the operators of private prisons and the companies that make use of prison labor.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a whole slew of notable new corrections data
I just received an e-mail reporting on these new data publications released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Here are the bare basics (with analysis perhaps to follow if anything special jumps out from these materials):
Correctional Populations in the United States, 2012 is available at this link: Summarizes data from various correctional collections to provide statistics on the number of offenders supervised by the adult correctional systems in the United States.
Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012 is available at this link: Presents final counts on prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities on December 31, 2012, collected in the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program.
Probation and Parole in the United States, 2012 is available available at this link: Presents data on adult offenders under community supervision while on probation or parole during 2012.
Data Analysis Tool Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners (Updated) is available at this link: This dynamic analysis tool allows you to examine National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) on inmates under the jurisdiction of both federal and state correctional authorities.
UPDATE: For focus especially interested in incarceration data, this lengthy Trends in Admissions and Releases document looks like the most notable and interesting of these reports. Helpfully, this BJS press release provides a lot of the highlights from all these reports, and I found this accounting from the press release of prison developments especially interesting:
- The federal prison system had the largest sentenced prison population (196,600 inmates) in 2012, followed by Texas (157,900), California (134,200), Florida (101,900) and New York (54,100).
- California (down 10 percent) had the largest prison population decrease in 2012, followed by Arkansas (down 9 percent), Wisconsin and Colorado (down 7 percent each).
- Overall, black males were 6 times and Hispanic males 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males in 2012.
- Black males ages 18 to 19 were almost 9.5 times more likely than white males of the same age group to be in prison. Among new court commitments to state prison, more than a third each of black and Hispanic offenders, and a quarter of white offenders were convicted of a violent offense.
- Between 1991 and 2011, the number of females admitted to state prison for newly committed violent offenses increased 83 percent.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Task force recommends broad changes to sentencing and corrections in Mississippi
As reported in this local article, headlined "Sweeping prison reforms suggested in Mississippi: More judicial discretion among proposals," there is now big talk about big reforms in The Magnolia State. Here are the details:
A criminal justice task force on Tuesday recommended sweeping reforms to reduce Mississippi’s soaring prison population and costs, standardize sentences and reduce recidivism. “This is the first time in my career — 32 years — that we have taken a comprehensive look at corrections in this state,” said Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. “… We all know the cost of doing nothing.”
The recommendations include providing more discretion for judges to impose alternatives to prison and creating “true minimums” on when violent and nonviolent offenders are eligible for release. They also call for defining what constitutes violent crime — something officials said isn’t clear in state law. Proposals also include increasing the threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony theft and lowering drug sentences for possession of small amounts while cracking down on large drug dealers.
Epps headed the bipartisan, 21-member task force of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement and defense attorneys. The group, after working for seven months with assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project, developed recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.
Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker pro tem Greg Snowden and others voiced their support for the proposal after the task force adopted it. The task force was created by a bill Snowden authored this year. Bryant said the reforms “put victims first,” protect public safety and provide “clarity of sentencing.” Reeves praised the recommendations as “evidence-based, data-driven, fiscally sound criminal justice reforms.”
While the nationwide trend has been lower prison population, Mississippi’s has skyrocketed since it passed some of the toughest “truth in sentencing” laws in the 1990s. The state now has more than 22,600 prisoners and the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation. Prison costs have risen from $276 million in 2003 to $361 million, with unchecked growth expected to result in 2,000 more inmates and cost taxpayers another $266 million over the next 10 years.
The state has attempted unsuccessfully to reduce prison costs with a patchwork of release policies that created confusion in sentencing and a disconnect between the judges/prosecutors and corrections. Uncertainty about how long convicts would serve helped push sentence lengths by 28 percent the last decade....
State Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, said the proposed reforms are “historical,” and “create a better system as opposed to a build it (prisons) and they will come approach.”
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
"We wish you 70 years in prison, we wish you 70 years in prison, and an unhappy new life"
The title of this post is inspired by this local sentencing story and the song I could imagine in some Texas jurors' heads as they decided to "celebrate" the holiday season by sentencing a woman with a notably long and ugly criminal record to a notably long and harsh prison term. The story is headlined "Parker County 'Grinch' Sentenced to 70 Years in Prison," and here are the details:
A woman known as the Christmas “Grinch” for stealing Christmas lights from a Parker County family’s home was sentenced to 70 years in prison on Friday after she was convicted of a separate burglary.
Dana Brock, 44, of Hurst, shook her head when the judge read the jury’s sentence. Prosecutors pushed for a long sentence because of her lengthy criminal record.
Brock gained notoriety in December 2012 when she was caught on surveillance video stealing Christmas lights from outside a family’s Aledo home while they were inside sleeping. She was arrested again in May after she stole a weed wacker and a power washer from another homeowner’s garage. She also was caught on video in that case.
"One of our deputies who responded out to this case and looked at the surveillance video at the homeowner's house saw her on the video and said, 'Hey, that's the Grinch,’” said assistant Parker County district attorney Jeff Swain. “He knew right away who it was." A jury deliberated just five minutes before convicting her on Thursday.
In the sentencing phase of her trial, prosecutors pointed to her long criminal history. Brock’s record dates to when she was a 17-year-old and was convicted in Arizona of solicitation to commit murder. Over the years she also was convicted of credit card abuse, injury to a child, theft, assault, and drug possession. Instead of two to 20 years in prison for burglary of a habitation, she faced 25 years to life under the "three strikes and you're out" law.
She shook her head as the judge read her 70-year sentence. "A 70-year sentence will knock the air out of your stomach,” said her attorney Raul Navarez. “She kept asking me, '70 years? Are you serious? 70 years?' Because 70 years is a pretty harsh sentence for this kind of a deal. And quite frankly, that's what I argued to the jury. But the jury decided and we have to respect that."
Navarez and prosecutors agree it didn't help her case when jurors saw the video of her stealing Christmas lights. "When you're known as the Christmas Grinch, people do remember you,” Swain said.
I am unsure whether Texas law ensures that this version of the grinch will have to serve most or nearly all of these 70 years in prison, though this defendant's lengthy record of not-so-petty crimes leads me to be less than too-sympathetic concerning her fate. That said, if she is really as smart as the "real" Grinch, she probably will be able to figure out some way to catch "affluenza" while serving her time in Texas prisons and thereafter convincingly claims at a parole hearing that her heart and her conscience managed to grow three sizes one day while she was incarcerated.