Saturday, January 10, 2015

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

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

13-7120 JOHNSON, SAMUEL V. UNITED STATES

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 09, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Mapping facilities in incarceration nation which "has more jails than colleges"

The terrific Washington Post wonkblog has this notable post by Christopher Ingraham with a fascinating map and discussion of prisoners and incarceration facilities in the United States.  The post is titled "The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Here’s a map of where those prisoners live." Here is an excerpt: 

There were 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. as of the 2010 Census. It's often been remarked that our national incarceration rate of 707 adults per every 100,000 residents is the highest in the world, by a huge margin. We tend to focus less on where we're putting all those people....

Much of the discussion of regional prison population only centers around inmates in our 1,800 state and federal correctional facilities. But at any given time, hundreds of thousands more individuals are locked up in the nation's 3,200 local and county jails....

To put these figures in context, we have slightly more jails and prisons in the U.S. -- 5,000 plus -- than we do degree-granting colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses. Cumberland County, Pa. -- population 235,000 -- is home to 41 correctional facilities and 7 colleges.  Prisons outnumber colleges 15-to-1 in Lexington County, S.C....

[S]tates differ in the extent to which they spread their correctional populations out geographically. Florida, Arizona and California stand out as states with sizeable corrections populations in just about every county. States in the midwest, on the other hand, tend to have concentrated populations in just a handful of counties.

I encourage everyone to click through to see the map of all this in the WaPo posting.

January 7, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden.  Here are excerpts:

As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned.  But the reality is often different.  It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws.  This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.  Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.  As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

How did we get in this situation?  It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems.  Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year.  Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....

We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend.  It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began.  Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment.  A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later.  A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.

According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...

Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Criminology & Public Policy special issue on sentencing reform and mass incarceration

CoverA helpful reader alerted me to this special November 2014 issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy with an array of top criminologists and legal scholars talking about modern sentencing reform and mass incarceration in the united States. The entire issue looks like a must-read, and here is a list of the contents: 

January 7, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Notable discussions of children as mass incarceration’s "collateral damage"

Child-in-Court-boy-text1The latest issue of The Nation includes this effective piece about the generational impact of incarceration headlined "Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind; When a parent is sent to prison, a child’s life is derailed, leaving schools to pick up the pieces."  Here is an excerpt:

A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult-incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children ... who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars....

A very small subset of children — those with abusive parents — were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. But most children declined markedly. In fact, the new research suggests that prisoners’ children may be the most enduring victims of our national incarceration craze. “Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality.

Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression.

Kristin Turney, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reached similar conclusions in a report published this past September. Turney found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety....

Within the last few years, however, a broad range of agencies and policy-makers have begun to frame the nation’s prison boom as a children’s issue. Last summer, the Justice Department launched a wide-reaching campaign to provide support to the children of imprisoned parents — by rethinking visitation policies and changing the protocol for arresting parents in front of children, for example. In August, the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation invited key researchers, advocates and federal officials to the White House for a conference to discuss reducing the “collateral costs” to children and communities when parents are incarcerated. The conference was part of a larger inter-agency initiative begun in 2012 to focus the attention of participating agencies, including the Department of Education, on the children of incarcerated parents. A few months later, in November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons hosted its first-ever Universal Children’s Day, an event attended by nearly 8,500 children visiting more than 4,000 federal inmates....

John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, led the White House conference with his research collaborator, Holly Foster, of Texas A&M University. Fifteen years ago, in an oft-cited paper, Hagan first suggested that the effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” result of mass incarceration. Now Hagan is seeing his hypothesis proved. More than that, as his adolescent subjects enter adulthood, the effects are compounded: “Almost no children of incarcerated mothers make it through college,” he noted. “These people are now in early adulthood, and they’re really struggling.”

I have long believed and asserted that politicians and policy advocates truly concerned about family values and children's interests should be deeply concerned about the over-use of incarceration as a punishment, especially for non-violent offenders.  And I find fascinating and compelling the suggestion in this lengthy post at The Clemency Report titled "Children deserve legal standing when parents are sentenced." Here is how the potent post by Dennis Cauchon starts:

Are children entitled to legal standing when parents are sentenced in criminal cases? The current answer is “no.” The answer should be “yes.”

Today, the well-being of a defendant’s children is close to irrelevant in criminal courtrooms. Institutional indifference to children is official policy. This is the most profound legal error in the last 35 years, the mistake that made mass imprisonment possible.

Criminal courts produce millions of orphans every year using procedures that weigh only the interests of adults in the courtroom. This is a profoundly ignorant way for a bureaucracy to act. Removing a mother or father from a child’s life is a not mere “side effect”of the day’s procedure; it is an “effect,” often the most important thing that will happen that day.

Children deserve rights — legal rights, established in law — to end their mistreatment in criminal courts.

In domestic courts, the “best interest of the children” is the trump card standard that overrides almost all other adult needs in divorce and custody cases. In criminal courts, defendant’s children are treated as trash in the back row. This difference is legally shameful and morally indefensible.

January 6, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Despite recent reforms, Indiana and Ohio still struggling greatly with prison crowding and costs

This weekend brought two similar stories from two heartland states struggling with similar persistent prison problems.  Here are links to the stories with their headlines and highlights:

From Indiana here, "Despite code changes, state's prisons will grow":  

Amid other demands the Legislature will be juggling starting this month is a request from the Indiana Department of Correction for money to build and operate new prison cells. Without those cell units, department officials told legislators recently, the state will run out of beds for male inmates in about two years....

One reason is that the criminal code revisions, in addition to sending more prisoners back to the county, tightened the credit-for-time-served formula for other types of prisoners, keeping them in state prisons longer. It's not yet clear exactly how much more pressure that will put on the prison system, but DOC officials believe they would have had to increase capacity soon anyway. Indiana's prison population numbered 6,281 in 1980. At the end of 2013, it was 29,377. That's more than 4½ times as many prisoners.

From Ohio here, "Emergency early release of prisoners is considered":

As Ohio’s inmate population once again approaches record levels, with no money available for bricks and mortar, prisons chief Gary Mohr is looking at something never used here before — emergency early release of prisoners.

In his budget overview for 2015-16, Mohr said, the department will “request strengthened language on emergency release of inmates contained in Ohio Revised Code 2967.18.” The changes Mohr will ask the General Assembly to make weren’t specified. JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, emphasized that emergency release will be an option only if overcrowding persists and money is unavailable for additional prison beds....

As of Dec. 29, Ohio prisons held 50,641 inmates, 31 percent above design capacity and about 1,000 more than two years ago at this time.

The section of state law Mohr referenced, ORC 2967.18, specifies the chain of events for declaring an “overcrowding emergency,” resulting in the release of some nonviolent prisoners 30, 60 or 90 days early. Enacted in 1997, the early-release provision has never been used.

Mohr’s budget letter said the state is at a “significant decision point for criminal justice policy. Do we invest in people or in bricks and mortar? To build and operate one prison for two decades would cost Ohioans one billion dollars.”

New projections have the population hitting 50,794 by July 1, and rising to 52,844 by 2023. Ohio’s all-time high was 51,273 on Nov. 10, 2008. The prison population is increasing despite an overall drop in the crime rate and the fact that Franklin and the other five largest counties are sending fewer people to state prisons. The other 82 counties are making up for it....

State lawmakers have in recent years passed a host of laws adding offenses or increasing prison time for existing ones. Reform efforts to rein in the growth have helped, but the slow creep in prison population continues.

As outlined in law, Mohr would submit a declaration of an overcrowding emergency to the Ohio Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative watchdog agency, which would forward a recommendation to Gov. John Kasich. The governor could then declare an official emergency, clearing the way for early release of qualifying nonviolent offenders. That would exclude inmates serving sentences for murder, voluntary manslaughter, felonious assault, kidnapping, rape, aggravated arson and aggravated robbery.

January 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Switzerland has too many criminals and too few prisons"

ImagesThe title of this post is from the first sentence of this recent AP article headlined "Switzerland mulls plan to export prisoners." Here is more about a notable European nation having a problem all to common in the US:

Now the Justice Ministry is reportedly considering a proposal to export convicts to neighboring France and Germany.  Swiss prisons chief Thomas Freytag told public broadcaster SRF in a program aired late Friday that the country's correctional facilities are at more than 100 percent capacity.

Prisons in the French-speaking cantons (states) of western Switzerland are said to be particularly overcrowded.  It's unclear when the Justice Ministry would decide on the plan, and whether France or Germany would be prepared to let Swiss inmates do their time there.

Left out of this brief story is the basic fact that Switzerland, at recent count, has less than 7,000 prisoners in the whole country and an incarceration rate that is only about 1/8th of the incarceration rate in the United States. For comparison, consider that the US state of Virginia has a state-wide population that is a little lower than Switzerland's, but it has more than 30,000 prisoners (and that count excludes a few thousand federal prisoners coming from Virginia).

January 4, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"The Steep Cost of America’s High Incarceration Rate"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Robert Rubin and Nicholas Turner. Here are excerpts:

One of us is a former Treasury secretary, the other directs a criminal-justice institute. But we’ve reached the same conclusions.  America’s overreliance on incarceration is exacting excessive costs on individuals and communities, as well as on the national economy. Sentences are too long, and parole and probation policies too inflexible.  There is too little rehabilitation in prison and inadequate support for life after prison.

Crime itself has a terrible human cost and a serious economic cost.  But appropriate punishment for those who are a risk to public safety shouldn’t obscure the vast deficiencies in the criminal-justice system that impose a significant drag on the economy....

[Mass incarceration] is not only a serious humanitarian and social issue, but one with profound economic and fiscal consequences.  In an increasingly competitive global economy, equipping Americans for the modern workforce is an economic imperative. Excessive incarceration harms productivity.  People in prison are people who aren’t working.  And without effective rehabilitation, many are ill-equipped to work after release.

For the more than 600,000 people who leave prison and re-enter society every year, finding employment can be a severe challenge.  Prison time carries a social stigma, which makes finding any job, let alone a good job, all too difficult....

The costs of incarceration extend across generations.  Nearly three million American children have a parent in prison or jail.  Growing up with an incarcerated parent can harm childhood development.  Research by Pew shows that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are nearly six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Incarceration therefore helps perpetuate the cycle of family poverty and increases the potential for next generation criminal activity....

Model programs are being piloted at the state level. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Post-Secondary Education project is working with more than 900 students in 14 prisons.  The program provides college classes and re-entry support such as financial literacy training, legal services, employment counseling and workshops on family reintegration.  A 2013 meta-analysis by RAND has already found that recidivism decreases when a former inmate graduates from college, which also boosts lifetime earning potential.

And clearly, we need significant sentencing and parole reform.  There is widespread bipartisan agreement that we are using prison for too many crimes and for too long, with concentrated effects in many communities.  One possibility for reform is the Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Mike Lee, which boasts 30 co-sponsors and was successfully reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.  The bill’s House companion also enjoys strong bipartisan support. There are also examples of progress in statehouses around the country.  In 2013, 35 states passed bills to change some aspect of how their criminal justice systems address sentencing and parole; since 2009, more than 30 states have reformed existing drug laws and sentencing practices, according to reports from Vera this year.

The time has come to make sensible reform in these four areas — sentencing, parole, rehabilitation and re-entry — a national priority.  Doing so could accomplish a tremendous amount for families, communities and the U.S. economy.

December 30, 2014 in Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"U.S. Incarceration: Still Mass; The shrink-the-prisons movement hasn’t moved the numbers."

The title of this post is the headline of this basic analysis at The Marshall Report on the latest official BJS incarceration data (noted previously here).  Here are excerpts:

New Bureau of Justice Statistics figures out this morning measured a slight decrease — about half of a percent — in the number of adults incarcerated in the United States last year.  The decline comes from a drop in inmates of local jails. The number of people in local jails last year fell by almost 2 percent — to 731,200.  At the same time, despite a growing national concern with the costs and consequences of mass incarceration, the number in prisons grew a tiny bit, one-third of a percent from the previous year, to 1,574,700.

The increase in the prison population comes entirely from state facilities — reversing a three-year downward trend.  The number of inmates in federal prisons actually declined for the first time since 1980.

There are real lives behind these numbers: every percentage point accounts for approximately 22,200 people.  But the rate of change is almost negligible. If the nation’s incarcerated adult population continued to decrease at this pace, it would take 215 years — until 2228 — to drop below the number of adults incarcerated in 1985.

Looking at changes over the long term, the number of inmates in jails and prisons is down from 2010, but remains up more than 14 percent from what it was at the turn of the century.

Recent related post:

December 21, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, December 19, 2014

New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US

This official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Correctional Population Declined By Less Than 1 Percent For The Second Consecutive Year," provides highlights from the latest official accounting of who is subject to criminal justice control in the United States. Here are some of the details:

The number of persons under adult correctional supervision fell by 41,500 persons during 2013, dropping to 6.89 million by yearend, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. The decline in the correctional population (down 0.6 percent) was less than 1 percent for the second consecutive year.

By yearend 2013, the number of persons under adult correctional supervision was the smallest number observed since 2003. About 7 in 10 offenders under adult correctional supervision were supervised in the community on probation (3.91 million) or parole (853,200) at yearend 2013, compared to about 3 in 10 incarcerated in state and federal prisons (1.57 million) or local jails (731,200).

The entire drop in the correctional population during 2013 was due to a decline in the number of probationers (down 32,100) and persons held in local jails (down 13,300). The parole population (up 2,100) and prison population (up 4,300) increased, partially offsetting the overall decline in the total correctional population.

While the U.S prison population increased during 2013, the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons decreased (down 0.9 percent or 1,900) for the first time since 1980. The growth in the U.S. prison population was attributed to the increase in the number of inmates under the jurisdiction of state prisons (up 0.5 percent or 6,300).

About 1 in 35 adults in the United States (or 2.8 percent of the adult resident population) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2013. This rate was unchanged from 2012, when it dropped to the lowest rate observed since 1997. About 1 in 51 adults was on probation or parole at yearend 2013, compared to 1 in 110 incarcerated in prisons or local jails....

In 2013, females accounted for almost 25 percent of the probation population, up from about 22 percent in 2000. They made up 14 percent of the jail population in 2013, up from about 11 percent in 2000. The percentage of females on parole or incarcerated in state or federal prisons remained unchanged between 2000 and 2013. Since 2010, the female jail population has been the fastest growing correctional population, increasing by an average annual rate of 3.4 percent.

The full report with all these data and a whole lot more it titled simply "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2013," is available at this link.

December 19, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, December 15, 2014

Former Virginia Gov McDonnell facing significant (trial?) penalty in his federal guideline calculation

This recent article from the Washington Post, headlined "Early federal sentencing recommendation for McDonnell: At least 10 years in prison," spotlights the seemingly severe sentence recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines for a former Governor's corruption.  Among other notbale aspects of this high-profile sentencing story is the fact that former Virginia Gov Bob McDonnell is now facing a guideline sentencing range that is more than three to four times longer than the longest possible sentence he would have faced had he been willing to plead guilty on terms urged by federal prosecutors.  Here are the notable details at this stage of a developing high-profile sentencing story:

The guidelines recommended by the U.S. probation office are preliminary, and even if finalized, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is not required to follow them. But experts said that Spencer typically heeds the probation office’s advice, and judges in his district have imposed sentences within the recommendations more than 70 percent of the time in recent years. “It’s of critical importance,” said Scott Fredericksen, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “The fact is, the vast majority of times, courts follow those recommendations closely.”

The matter is far from settled. The probation office recommended a punishment from 10 years and a month to 12 years and 7 months. Calculating an appropriate range of sentences in the federal system is a complicated, mathematical process that takes into account a variety of factors, including the type of crime, the defendant’s role and the amount of loss. The judge has yet to see the arguments from each side.

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of lending the prestige of his office to Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 6. His wife’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20, and her guideline range is expected to be lower than her husband’s. The probation office has not yet filed a report concerning her.

It is unclear how the probation office determined that the former governor’s crimes necessitate a minimum decade-long sentence. The initial report on the matter is sealed, and people familiar with its contents revealed only the recommended range to The Washington Post.

The range is particularly notable because last December, prosecutors offered to let McDonnell plead guilty to just one count of lying to a bank as part of an agreement that would have meant he could be sentenced to three years in prison at the most and probation at the least. Importantly, though, McDonnell would have been required to sign a statement acknowledging that he helped Star Scientific, Williams’s dietary-supplement company, at the same time the businessman was giving him loot, fully shouldering blame for a relationship he has insisted was not criminal and was driven largely by his wife....

White-collar criminal defense lawyer Matthew Kaiser said McDonnell’s range probably was increased because he was a high-ranking public official, because he took more than one payment from Williams and because the total value of the gifts he received was so high. Kaiser said the probation officer also probably faulted McDonnell because his testimony was contrary to the jury’s verdict.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys will still have an opportunity to argue to the probation officer about whether the range was correctly calculated — although Kaiser said the probation office often “sticks to its guns.” After that, both sides can try to persuade Spencer to modify the recommended range.

Even then, Spencer is not bound by the guideline. Defense attorneys have already begun working vigorously in their bid to sway him toward leniency. This week, they won a legal skirmish with prosecutors so they can file additional pages in their sentencing memorandum — a key document outlining the sentence they believe McDonnell should receive and why. It is unclear whether their efforts to move Spencer away from the probation office’s recommended range will be fruitful.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, where McDonnell is being sentenced, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range more than 70 percent of the time last fiscal year, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In about 21 percent of cases, they imposed sentences below the guideline range without a request from prosecutors to do so. Nationally, judges imposed sentences within the guideline range about 51 percent of the time last fiscal year and deviated downward without a request from prosecutors to do so in about 19 percent of cases.

In the McDonnell case, prosecutors are not expected to ask for a sentence below the guideline range.... Brian Whisler, a defense lawyer who used to work as a federal prosecutor in

Richmond, said that Spencer is known to be “largely deferential to the probation office and its sentencing calculations.” Whisler — whose firm, Baker & McKenzie, represented state employees in the McDonnell case — said the judge will likely draw on other cases in the district to inform his conclusion.

The outcome of those might not be to McDonnell’s liking. In 2011, another federal judge in Richmond sentenced former Virginia delegate Phillip A. Hamilton to 9.5 years in prison in a bribery and extortion case. In 2009, a federal judge in Alexandria sentenced former congressman William J. Jefferson to 13 years in prison for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — though, notably, that fell well short of the recommended range of 27 to 33 years.

December 15, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, December 12, 2014

Federal task force on corrections getting geared up for (big?) work in 2015

Logo5As effectively reported in this Crime Report piece, earlier this week the members of a "congressionally mandated task force on the federal prison system" were announced.  Here is the context for this notable development:

[The task force is now] headed by a bipartisan duo of former House members, Republican J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.  They are being be joined by seven other experts in a yearlong study that many analysts hope will result in agreement on ways to cut the prison population.

There were 212,438 federal inmates last week, a total that has jumped from about 136,000 since the turn of the century -- even though crime rates have steadily fallen. (The federal inmate total exceeded 218,000 two years ago; it has shrunk as the Obama administration has reduced the terms of some prisoners serving time for low-level drug offenses.)...

Last month, Justice's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said that the Bureau of Prisons budget totals $6.9 billion and accounts for about 25 percent of the department’s "discretionary" budget, which means that prison spending hampers the DOJ's "ability to make other public safety investments."

The new task force is named for the late Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a 7-month prison term in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and then became a corrections reformer, founding the Prison Fellowship. Colson died in 2012.  Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the committee that reviews Justice Department appropriations, successfully pushed for the task force in recent years while Congress was unable to agree on any major legal changes that would affect the federal inmate total.

Watts, who will chair the panel, served in the House from 1995 to 2003. When he was elected, he was one of only two African-American Republicans in the House.  He is a member of the conservative justice-reform group Right on Crime.  Last summer, in an article in the Tulsa World on prison reform in Oklahoma, Watts wrote that, "for nonviolent offenders, watching television and receiving 'three hots and a cot' in prison does far less to advance personal responsibility than paying restitution to the victim, performing community service, holding a job and paying child support."

Mollohan, who serve as vice chair, was Wolf's predecessor as the House's chief Justice Department appropriator when the Democrats controlled the House.  Mollohan has presided over many hearings on corrections issues.  In 2012, he co-authored an op-ed article with David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, declaring that, "Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of ... states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth."...

The task force will hold the first of five meetings on January 27 in Washington, D.C. Its official mandate is to "identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President."

The Urban Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy will provide "research, analysis, strategic guidance and logistical support" for the task force under an agreement with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance.   A year ago, the Urban Institute published a study titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System," that might be something of a blueprint for the Colson group....

Several members of Congress, notably Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have introduced proposals that could lead to reductions in the federal prison population, but it is not clear that any will be enacted while the Colson task force is conducting its study.

In any case, the task force's final report is likely to include recommendations that will go beyond any bills that might be approved in the next year.  The group's eventual proposals may include some that require Congressional approval and others that the Obama administration could put into effect by executive order.

This new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections rolled out this website, which I am hopeful over time might become a source of new research and data about the federal criminal justice system.  And though I tend to be somewhat cynical and pessimistic about what task forces can really achieve, I am hopeful and optimistic that this group will be an effective and important contributor to on-going federal sentencing reform efforts.

December 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley introduces juvenile justice bill showing eagerness to do bipartisan reforms

This article from The Hill, headlined "Next Judiciary chairman eyes treatment of minors," provides an encouraging sign that the incoming new leadership in the Senate may be eager to work on at least some bipartisan federal criminal justice reforms. Here are the details:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced a bill Thursday that would update national standards covering how the justice system treats minors.

With Grassley preparing to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, the move is an early signal of the committee’s potential criminal justice agenda. Grassley has been particularly supportive of new accountability measures that will be included in the bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

“The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program helps in preventing at-risk youth from entering the system and helps those in the system become valuable members of communities across the country,” Grassley said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill will be a good starting point for reauthorizing this important program as we begin a new Congress.”

One advocate said Thursday that Grassley’s sponsorship will be a boon for the bill, but that the measure still has a long journey to becoming law. “I think as head of Judiciary, with his name on it, that is going to be a huge help,” said Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.

The bill, which will not see any movement before the end of the current Congress, aims to beef up juvenile justice standards that haven’t been updated in more than a decade. The juvenile system is estimated to detain 60,000 minors on any given night.

“This legislation will strengthen the main protections of the JJDPA, and improve the conditions and practices that can determine whether offenders leave our justice system as productive members of society,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

One update would make it harder for states to lock up children who have committed “status offenses” that would not be an offense if they were an adult, like running away from home or skipping school. Another update would require that states do more to make sure they are not confining minors near adults. It would also give states new direction on how to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system....

The bill comes at a moment when there is bipartisan support for certain reforms to the criminal justice system. Grassley has had a historical interest in juvenile justice. But it is not known if he will have the committee tackle some of the thorny problems in the adult criminal justice system, which encompasses everything from policing to prison conditions.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, something a smattering of lawmakers have been moving to change. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Il.) have introduced a bill that would make small changes to the federal mandatory minimum sentences that have led to black Americans being imprisoned at disproportionate rates. It’s received support from big names both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But Grassley opposes the measure and will decide whether it comes up for a vote on the Judiciary Committee, where it would likely pass.

December 12, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 08, 2014

Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform

Today's must-read for all sentencing fans is this lengthy new post by Bill Otis, amusingly titled "Should I Feel Lonely?".  The piece is a fun read in part because Bill is an effective writer and advocate, but it is a must read because it highlights that (1) while many in the media now struggle to find pundits other than Bill to speak actively and vocally in support of severe sentencing laws and mass incarceration, (2) efforts in Congress to significantly reform federal sentencing laws and "on the ground" developments to reduce incarceration levels are still failing to gain much traction.

I cannot do the Bill's full post justice in a brief excerpt, but here is a taste of what one can find by clicking through here:

Not to worry -- this post is not psychobabble about my feelings.  It's about a question I was asked by two journalists with whom I spoke recently.

The two were Ms. Carrie Johnson of NPR and Mr. Mark Obbie, a writer for Slate. The subject of their interviews was sentencing reform.  Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Obbie were cordial, well-informed, thoroughly pleasant, and -- most important for journalists -- curious.

Each asked me the same question: Whether, as an opponent of sentencing reform, I feel lonely? I told them I don't.

Their question was perfectly natural. Almost everything one sees nowadays about the subject of sentencing sings the same tune -- tough sentencing might have been needed at one point, but we've gone too far; momentum has swung toward "smart sentencing;" reducing the prison population (to cut back on costs if for no other reason) is the wave of both the present and the future; and that the newly-ascendant Republican Party will lead the way through such figures as Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

But the mantra leaves something out. That would be the part of the country outside the Beltway (and outside Boston, Berkeley, New York, Seattle and a few other cities). In other words, what it leaves out is the United States.

The omission of Main Street America from the assessment about where the country is going would seem odd to most people, but for those of us, like me, who live inside the Beltway and work in academia, it's no surprise.  The liberal bubble is big. It's also, for the most part, impenetrable.

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

If one wants to know the state of play with "smart sentencing," and the Smarter Sentencing Act in particular, there might be a couple of places to look outside the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones.  One might look, for example, to what actually happened in the last Congress, what's likely to happen in the next one, and what imprisonment trends have been over the last several years....

[T]there are some prominent people in the Republican Party on board with "sentencing reform."  But the great majority of Republicans, and the center of the Party, are not being fooled.  The much lower crime that increased incarceration helped produce are both wise policy for the country and good politics for Republicans....

So to return to my first question: Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don't feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as "sentencing reform."  Both the most recent statistics, and the most recent election, show that the American people know better than to cash in a system we know works for one we know fails.

There is much to discuss in Bill's important assessment of the current state of sentencing reform. But I have emphasized the very last phrase because I think it lacks demographic nuance based on the mostly older (and not-too-diverse) "bubble" that I suspect Bill mostly travels in.

Bill surely seems correct that an older (and mostly white) population of voters and political leaders are reasonably content with the sentencing/incarceration status quo, and that these voters and leaders still have considerable control over the policies and practices of the Republican party (as well as, for that matter, the Democratic party).  Bill stresses in his post, for example, that we do not hear much talk of sentencing reform coming from "Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley (the incoming Chairman of SJC), or Bob Goodlatte (the once-and-future Chairman of HJC) [or] Michael Mukasey."  Notably, everyone on that list is well over 60 years old, and they have all succeeded politically with "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies.

But as a new generation of GOP leaders emerge who are much younger (even though they are still mostly white), we are seeing growing concern for and focus on sentencing reform.  Leading GOP Governors from Chris Christie to Rick Perry, and leading GOP Senators from Rand Paul to Mike Lee, and leading GOP Reps from Paul Ryan to Jason Chaffetz, all have talked up sentencing reform in recent years.  And while Bill's list of older GOP leaders will control GOP policies and politics for the next few years, the younger leaders already on record supporting sentencing reform are likely to control GOP policies and politics for the subsequent few decades.

Turning from political leaders to voters, we see the same basic dynamics in play in recent election seasons.  According to polls and other sources, older and whiter voters seem much more wary about any significant changes to sentencing laws or drug laws.  But younger voters and people of color are much more open and eager to support significant sentencing and drug law reform as represented by the passage of Prop 47 and prior three-strikes reform in California and by initiatives for marijuana legalization in an array of states.

(Notably, these generational and demographic realities concerning sentencing reform are not only a  GOP story.  Older and whiter Democrats — from the Clintons to Joe Biden to Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi to even Jerry Brown — have largely been stuck in political thinking of the 1990s and slow to warm to advocating for significant sentencing reform.  But if and when younger and more diverse voices continue to emerge on the Democratic side of the aisle, we should expect even more liberal advocacy for the kinds of criminal justice reforms championed by the Obama Administration rather than a return to the toughness championed throughout the Clinton Administration.)

Finally, and to give Bill still more credit for his analysis, despite generational and demographic shifts and divides on these matters, I agree that the future of significant sentencing reform is quite uncertain and will turn greatly on short-term and long-term assessments of "what really works."   Americans are a pragmatic people who will always move away from criminial justice policies shown or felt not to be really working.  That is why, I believe, alcohol Prohibition failed even though it had constitutional gravitas and also why we moved away from a purely rehabilitation model of sentencing and corrections through the 1970s and 1980s.  

Now we are seeing a push back on the modern drug war and mass incarceration mostly from younger folks and people of color have come to conclude that these policies are not working for their interests abd communties.  But there are still a whole lot of folks in power (particularly those who are older and whiter like Bill) who still see more a lot more good than bad from the sentencing and mass incarceration status quo.  Whether and how these competing groups views as to  "what really works" unfold and compete in the coming years will determine whether sentencing and incarceration policies in the US circa 2050 look more like they did in 2000 or in 1950. 

December 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, December 05, 2014

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Praise for Texas justice embracing "Right on Crime" from across the pond

This new BBC article, headlined "Why Texas is closing prisons in favour of rehab," provides a notable example of the rest of the world taking note (and praising) the "right on crime" movement. The piece is authored by a Danny Kruger, a former speechwriter for UK's prime minister David Cameron, and here are excerpts:

Coming from London to spend a couple of days in Texas last month, I was struck most of all by how generous and straightforward everyone was.  Talking to all sorts of different people about crime and punishment, the same impression came across: We expect people to do the right thing and support them when they do.  When they don't we punish them, but then we welcome them back and expect good behaviour again.  It's not naive, it's just clear.

For years that straightforward moral outlook translated into a tough criminal justice system.  As in the rest of the US, the economic dislocations of the 1970s, compounded by the crack epidemic in the 1980s, led to a series of laws and penal policies which saw the prison population skyrocket.  Texas, for instance, has half the population of the UK but twice its number of prisoners.

Then something happened in 2007, when Texas Republican Congressman Jerry Madden was appointed chairman of the House Corrections Committee with the now famous words by his party leader: "Don't build new prisons. They cost too much." The impulse to what has become the Right on Crime initiative was fiscal conservatism — the strong sense that the taxpayer was paying way too much money to fight a losing war against drugs, mental ill-health and petty criminality.

What Madden found was that too many low-level offenders were spending too long in prison, and not reforming.  On the contrary, they were getting worse inside and not getting the help they needed on release.  The only response until then, from Democrat as well as Republican legislators, was to build more prisons. Indeed, Mr Madden's analysis suggested that a further 17,000 prisoners were coming down the pipe towards them, requiring an extra $500m (£320m) for new prisons.  

But he and his party didn't want to spend more money building new prisons. So they thought of something else — rehab.   Consistent with the straightforward Texan manner, the Congressional Republicans did not attempt to tackle what in Britain are known as "the causes of crime" — the socio-economic factors that make people more disposed to offend. Instead, they focused on the individual criminal, and his or her personal choices.  Here, they believe, moral clarity and generosity are what's needed.

Though fiscal conservatism may have got the ball rolling, what I saw in Texas — spending time in court and speaking to offenders, prison guards, non-profit staff and volunteers — goes way beyond the desire to save money. The Prison Entrepreneurship Programme, for instance, matches prisoners with businesspeople and settles them in a residential community on release.  Its guiding values are Christian and its staff's motives seem to be love and hope for their "brothers", who in turn support the next batch of prisoners leaving jail.

The statutory system is not unloving either. Judge Robert Francis's drugs court in Dallas is a well-funded welfare programme all of its own — though it is unlike any welfare programme most of the 250 ex-offenders who attend it have ever seen.  Clean and tidy, it is staffed by around 30 professionals who are intensely committed to seeing their clients stay clean and out of jail, even if that means sending them back to prison for short periods, as Judge Francis regularly does when required....

Immediate, comprehensible and proportionate sanctions are given for bad behaviour, plus accountability to a kind leader and supportive community.  This is the magic sauce of Right on Crime.

Far from having to build new jails for the 17,000 expected new inmates, Jerry Madden and his colleagues have succeeded in closing three prisons.  I visited one by the Trinity River in Dallas, now ready for sale and redevelopment.  They spent less than half the $500 million earmarked for prison building on rehab initiatives and crime is falling faster than elsewhere.

This, then, ticks all the boxes - it cuts crime, saves money and demonstrates love and compassion towards some of the most excluded members of society. It is, in a sense, what conservatives in America and Britain dream of — a realistic vision of a smaller state, where individuals are accountable for their actions and communities take responsibility for themselves and their neighbours.  It is a more positive version of the anti-politics — anti-Washington, anti-Westminster — tide that seems to be sweeping the West.

December 3, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2014

"What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella now appearing at both The Marshall Project and The Huffington Post. Here are excerpts:

Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium.  Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions.  Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.

But at what cost have these concessions been won?  The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States.  According to the Sentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole — a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s.  Over 159,000 were serving life sentences — many of them ... with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.

In many states, the expansion — and the very existence — of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment.  Death penalty opponents often accept — and even zealously promote — life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world...

Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty.  In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004.  During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place.  Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.

Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishment even more harsh than simple life without parole.  Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.

Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like [New York lifer] William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process.  So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.

Research has confirmed that even brief periods in solitary alter brain chemistry and produce psychiatric symptoms ranging from extreme depression to active psychosis. Some prisoners who have spent longer amounts of time in isolation describe it as a condition that slowly degrades both their humanity and sanity, turning them into blind animals given to interminable pacing, smearing their cells with feces, or engaging in self-mutilation....

William Blake has said that while he cannot bring himself to take his own life, he would have welcomed the death penalty 27 years ago had he known what a lifetime in solitary confinement would be like. Perhaps the time will come when people like Blake — and the American public — are not forced to choose among such monstrous alternatives.  In the meantime, it will be a shame if people who oppose state-sponsored death continue to advocate for state-sanctioned torture.

Long-time readers know that I largely share the perspective of these commentators. I find compelling the assertion that some (many?) LWOP sentences can often involve a fate worse than death, and I find moving the concern that too much of modern opposition to "state-sponsored death" in the United States tends to advocate, both formally and functionally, for a kind of "state-sanctioned torture."

December 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration"

Download (3)The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice as part of a new initiative called Justice Reform for Healthy Communities. A helpful report overview starts this way:

Each year, millions of incarcerated people — who experience chronic health conditions, infectious diseases, substance use, and mental illness at much higher rates than the general population — return home from correctional institutions to communities that are already rife with health disparities, violence, and poverty, among other structural inequities.

For several generations, high rates of incarceration among residents in these communities has further contributed to diminished educational opportunities, fractured family structures, stagnated economic mobility, limited housing options, and restricted access to essential social entitlements.

Several factors in today’s policy climate indicate that the political discourse on crime and punishment is swinging away from the punitive, tough-on-crime values that dominated for decades, and that the time is ripe to fundamentally rethink the function of the criminal justice system in ways that can start to address the human toll that mass incarceration has had on communities.

At the same time, the nation’s healthcare system is undergoing a historic overhaul due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Many provisions of the ACA provide tools needed to address long-standing health disparities. Among these are:

> Bolstering community capacity by expanding Medicaid eligiblity, expanding coverage and parity for behavioral health treatment, and reducing health disparities.

> Strengthening front-end alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

> Bridging health and justice systems by coordinating outreach and care, enrolling people in Medicaid and subsidized health plans across the criminal justice continuum, using Medicaid waivers and innovation funding to extend coverage to new groups, and advancing health information technology.

November 23, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 21, 2014

Unpacking why DOJ is so concerned about federal prison populations and its costs

As highlighted in this effective piece by Andrew Cohen published by The Marshall Project, earlier this month Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s Inspector General (and a former member of the US Sentencing Commission), authored this memorandum describing DOJ's concerns with federal prison overcrowding and costs. These excerpts from Cohen's piece highlight some of the Horowitz memo's most notable messages:

The Bureau of Prison’s budget now ($6.9 billion) is nearly twice what it was ($3.8 billion) in 2000, Horowitz tells us, an increase at “almost twice the rate of growth of the rest of the Department.” Worse, he writes, even though federal prison officials have been warned that their part of the budget is draining funding away from other Justice Department programs (like those that support victims groups) they asked for more money this past budget cycle....

Horowitz didn’t mince words, either, about what is costing so much. The federal prison population is aging at a fast pace. “From FY 2009 to FY 2013, the population of sentenced inmates age 50 and over in BOP-managed facilities increased 25 percent, while the population of sentenced inmates under the age of 30 decreased by 16 percent,” he notes. As a result, “the cost for providing healthcare services to inmates increased 55 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2013.”...

If you think the facts and figures above are disconcerting, the numbers Horowitz offers about conditions within our federal prisons are even more dire. Prison overcrowding, he asserts, is “the most significant threat to the safety and security of Bureau of Prisons staff and inmates”.... When it comes to easing overcrowding it’s clear that Horowitz believes we are headed in the wrong direction, which is another reason why he keeps calling current conditions at the Bureau of Prisons “a crisis.”

To bring the ratio of inmate to space available to appropriate levels, to eliminate the overcrowding “without expending additional funds to build more federal prison space or to contract for additional non-federal bed space,” Horowitz says that the Justice Department “would have to achieve a net reduction of about 23,400 federal prisoners from the June 2014 prison population...” That’s more than ten percent of the current population. Can you imagine? I can’t.

November 21, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack