Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"The Obama Legacy: Chipping Away at Mass Incarceration" ... but ...

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Marc Mauer.  Perhaps appropriately given the "Obama Legacy" label, the piece is focused mostly on the federal sentencing system.  And, in my view inappropriately, the piece gives Prez Obama a little too much credit for some of what I consider to be his "day late and dollar short" work in this arena.  With that set up, here are excerpts (with two lines emphasized that really rankles me, as I will explain after the excerpt):

As President Obama prepares to leave office, the United States still holds the dubious honor of having the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people behind bars. In order to assess his impact on the criminal justice system, it’s necessary to examine the policy shifts that got us here in the first place.

In 1980 there were 24,000 people in the federal prison system, about 25% of whom were serving time for a drug offense. By the time Obama was elected in 2008, that number had ballooned to 201,000 people, nearly half of whom were locked up for a drug offense.

There are two key reasons for the population explosion — both rooted in the war on drugs.  First, President Reagan encouraged federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to emphasize drug arrests. Second, Congress adopted mandatory sentencing policies — frequently applied to drug offenses — that established a “one size fits all” approach to sentencing. Federal judges were obligated to impose prison terms of 5, 10, 20 years — or even life — largely based on the quantity of drugs involved. They were not permitted to take any individual factors, such as histories of abuse or parenting responsibilities, into account to mitigate those sentences. The racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

The most egregious of these policies were tied to crack cocaine offenses.  Someone possessing as little as five grams of the drug (about the weight of a sugar packet) would face a minimum of five years in prison.  That threshold was significantly harsher than the mandatory penalty for powder cocaine, which required a sale of 500 grams of the drug (a little over a pound) to receive the same penalty.  Since 80% of crack cocaine prosecutions were brought against African Americans, the racial disparities from these sentencing policies were particularly extreme.

Momentum for reforming the crack cocaine mandatory minimum laws predated the Obama administration, and had growing bipartisan support when the President took office.  The President signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law in 2010, reducing sentencing severity in a substantial number of crack cases.  Then in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum to federal prosecutors calling on them to avoid seeking mandatory prison terms in low-level drug cases, which has cut the number of cases with such charges by 25%.

While the changes in sentencing laws have helped to reduce the federal prison population, the highest profile of Obama’s reforms is his use of executive clemency to reduce excessively harsh drug sentences.  That is a story of both politics and policy.  During Obama’s first term he used his clemency power far less than his predecessors — a pattern that was sharply criticized by many reform groups and editorial  boards. But after launching a “clemency initiative” in 2014, the President has commuted the drug sentences of more than 1,100 individuals (with promises of substantially more by the time he leaves office).  Notably, in about a third of these cases, the individuals had been sentenced to life without parole due to mandatory sentencing policies....

Perhaps the most significant aspect of President Obama’s work in regard to criminal justice reform has been his role in changing the way we talk about the issue. After a disappointing first term in which these issues received only modest attention, Obama’s last years in office framed criminal justice reform as a top priority. Among a series of high-profile events during his second term was the President’s address on mass incarceration at the NAACP national convention, at which he concluded that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off.”

Mass incarceration did not come about because there is a shortage of ideas for better approaches to public safety — it was the result of a toxic political environment where legislators favored political soundbites over evidence. By using the bully pulpit to frame justice reform as a major issue, Obama provided some coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options.

It is difficult to be optimistic that the incoming administration will look favorably on criminal justice reform.  Leading Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, may be persuasive in making the conservative argument for reform.  But President-elect Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, which paints many incarcerated people as “bad dudes,” suggests progress at the federal level will be a challenge.  Realistically, opportunities for justice reform are more likely at the state level. Many local officials are already convinced of the need for sentencing reform and reentry initiatives, and they may be less influenced by the political climate in Washington. If so, such changes at the local level may ultimately gain traction in a Trump White House as well.

1.  The first line emphasized above makes me extra crazy because it falsely portrays Prez Obama as a bold leader who used the bully pulpit in order to provide "coverage for mainstream legislators to support sound policy options."  This could not be more backwards: Prez Obama was a timid and disappointing follower here, as his July 2015 NAACP speech about the need for reform came only AFTER "mainstream" politicians ranging from Rand Paul to Corey Booker, from Ted Cruz to Patrick Leahy, from Rick Perry to Deval Patrick, from Bobby Jindal to Jim Webb, from Chuck Grassley to Dick Durbin, from Jim Sensenbrenner to Bobby Scott, from Raul Labrador to Elijah Cummings, from Judy Chu to Mia Love, from Newt Gingrich to even Chris Christie had all spoken in some significant ways about the need for significant criminal justice reform and especially sentencing reform (and I am sure I am leaving out many others).

2.  The second line emphasized above makes me crazy for more "inside baseball" reasons: given that this commentary makes much of the "egregious" crack/powder cocaine sentencing policies that were only partially fixed by the FSA, the commentary ought to take a moment to note that Prez-Elect Trump has nominated as Attorney General the most prominent and vocal GOP Senator who was complaining loudly about the 100-1 crack/powder laws before doing so was popular or comment.  As noted in this post and recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, " Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime."  

I really respect so much of the work Marc Mauer does in his commentary and through The Sentencing Project, but these troublesome statements reflect what I am seeing as the worst tendencies of the "commentariat class" since the election.  Specifically, even though Prez Obama's record on sentencing reform is relatively unimpressive (especially as compared to his record on lots of other issues), many on the left seem eager to assert that Prez Obama really achieved a lot in this arena and then go on to gnash teeth about reform momentum being halted now that there is a new sheriff in town.  This narrative entirely misses, in my opinion, not only (a) the reality that Prez Obama himself retarded reform momentum in many ways (e.g., by getting such a late start on clemency, by resisting mens rea reforms that could have been included in bipartisan sentencing reform bills), but also (b) the (significant?) possibility that many GOP leaders in Congress who have actively promoted and worked hard on federal sentencing reform bills will keep up that work in the years to come.

December 21, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Wisconsin Sentencing in the Tough-on-Crime Era: How Judges Retained Power and Why Mass Incarceration Happened Anyway"

5493-165wThe title of this post is the title of this new book by my FSR colleague and LawProf Michael O’Hear. For sentencing fans, this new book would surely make a great stocking stuffer, as this text from the publisher's website suggests:

The dramatic increase in U.S. prison populations since the 1970s is often blamed on the mandatory sentencing required by “three strikes” laws and other punitive crime bills. Michael M. O’Hear shows that the blame is actually not so easy to assign. His meticulous analysis of incarceration in Wisconsin — a state where judges have considerable discretion in sentencing — shows that the prison population has ballooned anyway, increasing nearly tenfold over forty years.

O’Hear tracks the effects of sentencing laws and politics in Wisconsin from the eve of the imprisonment boom in 1970 up to the 2010s. Drawing on archival research, original public-opinion polling, and interviews with dozens of key policymakers, he reveals important dimensions that have been missed by others.  He draws out lessons from the Wisconsin experience for the U.S. as a whole, where mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and caused untold misery to millions of inmates and their families.

Praise

“Serious students of modern sentencing reforms — as well as everyone eager to understand the roots of, and potential responses to, modern mass incarceration — must have this book on their reading list. O’Hear thoroughly canvasses the dynamic story of Wisconsin’s uniquely important sentencing reform history.”
—Douglas Berman, author of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog

“Fascinating political and social history. O’Hear puts national criminal justice trends into a single-state frame, providing much sharper insights than often come from trying to look at the entirety of this very big country. This is first-rate work.”
—Frank O. Bowman III, University of Missouri School of Law

December 20, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes: Criminal justice policy is education policy"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing report released late last week by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  This press release from EPI provide a kind of report summary under the heading "Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the racial achievement gap," and here is its text:

In Mass incarceration and children’s outcomes, EPI research associates Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein outline the connections between mass incarceration and racial achievement gaps. There is overwhelming evidence that having an incarcerated parent leads to an array of cognitive and noncognitive outcomes known to affect children’s performance in school. Independent of other social and economic characteristics, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to misbehave in school, drop out of school, develop learning disabilities, experience homelessness, or suffer from conditions such as migraines, asthma, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Simply put, criminal justice policy is education policy,” said Morsy. “It is impossible to disentangle the racial achievement gap from the extraordinary rise in incarceration in the United States. Education policymakers, educators, and advocates should pay greater attention to the mass incarceration of young African Americans.”

African American children are six times as likely as white children to have a parent who is or has been incarcerated. One-in-four African American students have a parent who is or has been incarcerated, and as many as one-in-ten have a parent who is currently incarcerated. Because African American children are disproportionately likely to have had an incarcerated parent, the authors argue, the United States’ history of mass incarceration has contributed significantly to gaps in achievement between African American and white students.

“Despite increased national interest in criminal justice reform, President-elect Trump has promised to move in the opposite direction by advocating for a nationwide “stop-and-frisk” program,” said Rothstein. “While the chance of reform on a federal level may have stalled, advocates should look for opportunities for reform at the state and local levels, because many more parents are incarcerated in state than in federal prisons.”

The authors advocate for a number of policies to address this problem by reducing incarceration, including eliminating disparities between minimum sentences for possession of crack versus powder cocaine, repealing mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, and increasing funding for social, educational, and employment programs for released offenders.

December 19, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Interesting review of impact of Prop 47 on drug cases and offenders in California

Prop-47-jpgThis lengthy local article takes a remarkable and effective deep dive into the impact and import of California's Prop 47 two years after its passage. The piece carries a lengthy headline that serves as a kind of summary: "Two years after Prop 47, addicts walk free with nowhere to go: In 2014, California Voters Freed About 13,500 Low-Level Offenders From Crowded Prisons and Jails. But Many Ex-inmates Have Traded Incarceration for a Cycle of Homelessness, Drug Abuse and Petty Crime." Here are excerpts:

Two years after it was approved by California voters, Prop 47 has scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, but successful reform is woefully incomplete.  Proponents celebrate how the law freed at least 13,500 inmates like Lopez from harsh sentences in crowded prisons and jails, but Prop 47 has done little to help these people restart their lives. Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.

Prop 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent. Meanwhile, the state’s shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

"The problem is, if you don’t actually do anything to change conditions of their lives, they’re going to be back on the streets anyway," said Elliot Currie, a University of California, Irvine criminologist.  "What’s to prevent them from going back to the same old ways when they get out? The answer is nothing."

This alarming lack of support services is one key finding in a landmark investigation by USA TODAY Network-California journalists who spent seven months analyzing the impacts of Prop 47, a sweeping criminal justice reform law that has been debated and demonized but rarely understood. To uncover the ramifications of the law, reporters from four publications — The Desert Sun, The Ventura County Star, The Record Searchlight and The Salinas Californian — filed 65 records requests, scrutinized thousands of pages of public documents and performed over 50 interviews with policymakers, academics, police, district attorneys, public defenders, drug addicts and former felons. Among our findings:

  • California police have dramatically deprioritized drug busts in the wake of Prop 47, arresting and citing about 22,000 fewer people in 2015, a 9.5 percent decrease in the first year since the possession of meth, heroin and cocaine was downgraded to a misdemeanor.

  • Nearly 200,000 felony convictions have been retroactively erased by Prop 47 as of September, according to a first-ever analysis.  Government agencies were not required to track how many convictions were reduced, so journalists gathered public records from 21 counties to calculate a statewide estimate.  Many former felons will be slow to take advantage of their restored rights because they are unaware their convictions have been downgraded.

  • For those who are aware, however, Prop 47 offers an unparalleled chance for better jobs.  Tens of thousands of people no longer have to report felony convictions on job applications, making them drastically more employable than they’ve been in years or decades.

Michael Romano, a Stanford law expert who helped write Prop 47, stressed in a recent interview the law has been "amazingly successful" in its primary goal, which was always to get low-level drug offenders out of California’s crowded, damaging prison system.  But tackling drug addiction and mental illness, which plague so many who were released under the law, is a task that will require investing hundreds of millions of dollars in community treatment programs across the state.   "It is incumbent on local governments to engage this problem," Romano said. "Prop 47 was not a cure-all. It’s not a panacea.  It is one piece in an extraordinarily complicated puzzle — perhaps the most complicated puzzle in our communities."

December 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Repurposing: New Beginnings for Closed Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new Sentencing Project policy brief, which gets started this way:

Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 92 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 state prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $333 million.  The opportunity to downsize prison bed space has been brought about by declines in state prison populations as well as increasing challenges of managing older facilities.  Reduced capacity has created the opportunity to repurpose closed prisons for a range of uses outside of the correctional system, including a movie studio, a distillery, and urban redevelopment.

The U.S. prison population numbered 1,508,636 at year end 2014 — a reduction of approximately 1% since 2013.  Thirty-nine states have experienced a decline since reaching their peak prison populations within the past 15 years; in most states this reduction has been relatively modest.  Four states — New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and California – have reduced their prison populations by over 20%.  Southern states like Mississippi and South Carolina have reduced their prison populations by 18% and 11% respectively.  The political environment shaping criminal justice policy has been moving in a direction emphasizing evidence-based approaches to public safety for more than a decade. This has involved efforts to address the unprecedented growth and correctional costs resulting from several decades of policy initiatives.

In recent years, 29 states adopted reforms that scaled back the scope and severity of their mandatory sentencing policies. Voters in California approved ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2016; the former curbed the state’s notoriously broad “three strikes and you’re out” law and the latter expanded parole eligibility and limits the process governing juveniles tried as adults.  California and Oklahoma voters also authorized reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors. In other states, policymakers have become increasingly supportive of initiatives that reduce parole revocations, establish treatment courts, and divert prison bound defendants through alternatives to incarceration.

Declines in state prison populations and the shifting politics underlying incarceration have created an opportunity to downsize prison bed space for a range of reasons, including excess capacity and the challenge of managing older facilities.

December 15, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

"Why All Americans Should Go To Prison: Out of sight, out of mind isn’t good enough."

The title of this post is the extended headline of this new Ozy commentary. Here are is how it starts and ends:

Americans love their prison entertainment.  How could they not lap up the best moments of Orange Is the New Black, what with the lesbianness and the realness … the prison wars, the guards’ criminality, the racial commentary and, um, the lesbianness.

Sure, it feels authentic, but how would the audience know?  Safe to say that few of OITNB’s millions of fans have spent even a moment in a lockup — although probably half are engaged in the illicit sharing of Netflix passwords. Remote and security-sensitive, prisons aren’t exactly accessible to the general public.  States consider visits a privilege, doled out for the incarcerateds’ good behavior.  To enter, one must be on the prisoners’ approved visitor list or in an organized volunteer program.  Even the Supreme Court has come down in favor of strict visitation policies.

This is wrongheaded.  We believe every American should be required to visit a prison.  After all, some two million of their fellow citizens are incarcerated — that’s almost 1 percent of the population.  For the most part, those on the outside ignore this significant minority: Inmates don’t much figure into discussions about policy, which is one reason it took decades for politicians to start dismantling mass-incarceration policies that had long ago been deemed expensive and ineffective.

Isn’t it weird that the first sitting president to visit a federal prison was … Barack Obama, in the last year of his second term?  While there, he was surprised to discover that three fully grown men were housed in a minuscule 9 x 12 cell.

The idea of mandatory prison visits isn’t ours; law professor Neal Katyal tweeted about it this fall.  “The bottom line is, until you experience it and understand the total disconnect between life inside and life outside, it’s really hard to understand who you want to punish and how,” Professor Katyal told us on the phone....

Katyal tells of one Iowa judge who visits every single prisoner he puts behind bars to see how they’re doing. Instead of mandatory minimums, how about mandatory visits from all?

I have been to a handful of prisons to visit clients over the last two decades (and I also got to tour a local jail as part of serving on a grand jury). But I often think I ought to make more of a habit of visiting active prisons and jails, especially because I often go out of my way to tour famous old prisons (e.g., Eastern State, Alcatraz, Moundsville) whenever my travels allow it.

Remarkably, and usefully for those unlikely to be able to head right now to any nearby graybar hotel, this lead piece this morning from The Marshall Project is headlined "Let’s Go to Prison!: A national field trip to Incarceration Nation, under the shadow of Donald Trump." The lengthy article does not substitute for a prison visit, but it highlights a project by the Vera Institute of Justice very much in the spirit of the Ozy commentary. Here is a passage providing the backstory:

[Last month brought] the Vera Institute of Justice's "National Prison Visiting Week." Through a series of field trips to 29 facilities in 17 states, Vera welcomed a diverse array of community members — from bankers to prosecutors to real estate agents to teachers, doctors, and clergy — into Incarceration Nation.  The goal was to promote the value of transparency: to demonstrate that if corrections officials allowed people in, the sky wouldn't fall.  In the process, the organizers hoped, both staff and visitors would engage in a "re-imagining" of the very purpose of a prison: Is it punishment? Incapacitation? Deterrence? Rehabilitation?

The event was conceived during the administration of the first president ever to visit a federal prison, and in anticipation of a next president who had vowed she would reform criminal justice “from end-to-end.”  So the election of Donald J. Trump, less than a week earlier, left many participants wondering whether this field trip would still be the new beginning that was intended, or rather a last gasp of idealism about reform.

December 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vice series takes close look from multiple perspectives at "The Future of Imprisonment"

The media outlet Vice has a big collection of article that should be of interest to sentencing fans assembled here under the heading "THE FUTURE OF INCARCERATION: Exploring what's next for criminal justice reform in America." Here are links and the full headlines for just some of the interesting-looking pieces that are part of the series:

December 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

A deep look into Alabama's new sentencing systems and their impacts

6a00d83451574769e2019affbb5974970cBecause our next Attorney General (and perhaps also our next Supreme Court justice) emerged from and still have roots in the Alabama legal system, I thought it timely and valuable to spotlight this lengthy local article about Alabama sentencing reforms headlined "How has prison reform impacted Alabama?" Here are excerpts:

The criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number. Crimes now equal a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium or low risk.

Alabama is a bit of a trendsetter — for better or for worse — on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission tasked with both implementing the 2013 and 2015 reforms as well as crunching the data. “With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy. Obviously that’s not something everybody will jump on board with, but I think it’s important to make decisions, particularly ones that have huge price tags attached to them, to much more of a data driven process.”

The reforms are not without controversy. Attorneys remain critical of the sentencing guidelines, and judges are split on whether or not the score sheets rob them of their ability to adjudicate, but the reforms have shown promising returns in popping the balloon on Alabama’s prison population and the data collected over the next few years could continue to spur progressive criminal reform.

The two-pronged reform began with the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013 that essentially reduced sentencing decisions to a score sheet in an effort to be more selective and consistent about who gets locked away. For drug offenses, eight or more points — perhaps a distribution of marijuana charge (6 points) and a possession with intent to distribute charge (5 points) — will land that person in prison barring mitigating factors. For property crimes, 15 points is required for a prison sentence. Both sheets also add points for prior adult convictions, incarcerations, probation revocations and juvenile delinquencies, but the idea was — and still is — to send fewer non-violent offenders to prison to relieve the burden on a prison system that, at the time the guidelines were implemented, housed nearly twice the inmate population (25,299) than it was designed for (13,318).

The guidelines also made sentencing consistent across the state. A possession of marijuana charge, for instance, no longer relies on the presiding judge’s views of the drug. “Some judges are heavy on possession of marijuana. They detest it and (before the guidelines) would give harsher sentences than other judges would,” said former Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy who retired this past month.

The 2015 prison reform, also known as Senate Bill 67 sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, focused more on fighting the bloated prison system. A new class of felony, Class D, was created for sentencing guidelines to include non-violent offenses such as minor drug possession and third-degree theft. Those crimes now carry the lowest point totals as legislators are more concerned with locking up violent offenders. “They’re focused on felony offenses the Alabama Legislature has deemed non-violent. Mostly drug and property offenses,” Wright said.

If fewer non-violent offenders are going to prison, more are naturally going to parole and probation. The bill accounted for that by injecting funding into the state parole system to hire 100 more parole officers. Darrell Morgan, assistant executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said they have hired 71 additional parole officers as of the end of October. Seventeen more are currently being interviewed, and Morgan said more officers will be added using their general fund in an effort to reduce parole officers’ caseloads. “When this began we were around 200 cases per officer. Our target is to have everybody down to 100 offenders per officer by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” Morgan said. “That was one of the biggest issues with previous parole boards was we didn’t have the adequate staff. Now that these numbers have increased we’re able to better manage our caseloads and we can manage more people.”...

Montgomery County Deputy District Attorney Ben McGough said the sheets and implementation of Class D felonies have incentivized crime and taken the teeth out of the justice system. “When a defendant looks at their sheet and their score is two and it takes 15 to go to prison, they’re guaranteed from the beginning. You’re not going to prison no matter what happens,” McGough said. “Then they look at the sheet and think, ‘I’ve got 13 points to burn.’ they can look at the sheet, do the math, and think, ‘I can do four more non-violent offenses before the judge even has the option to send me to prison.’ And we’re literally giving them the figures.”

On the defense side, Public Defender’s Office Director Aliya McKee said the sheets reduce her clients to a figure instead of treating each case as a unique situation. “Our clients, from my perspective, get reduced to a number,” McKee said. “I’m somewhat comfortable with that being the starting point, but it’s not the solution. We want the court to see the person behind the charge. The name, not the case number.”...

As judges and attorneys feel their way through the reforms, all eyes are keen to judge what impact reforms have had on key statistics such as prison population, crime rate, parole caseload and recidivism. It’s still too soon to make definitive claims, but Wright said some early data returns are promising. State prison population, for example, has dropped from 25,299 in 2013 (189.9 percent capacity) to 23,318 this year (175 percent). “I think the initial results of the presumptive sentencing standards are promising,” Wright said. There has been a steady decrease in the prison population averaging 80-100 fewer inmates per month.”

State crime rate has also dropped during the period going from nearly 174,000 total crimes in 2013 (about 3,586 crimes per 100,000 people) to just over 162,000 this year, however, that rate was already falling from 191,318 in 2011 and 181,752 in 2012, according to Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Parole caseload has also begun to dip slightly. Morgan said it took longer than expected to hire new officers but active caseload is down to about 145 cases per officer. When adding inactive cases, that decline looks much smaller (about 215 per officer to about 195), but Morgan said the reform has had a noticeable impact. “(Adding inactive cases) makes the numbers still look high, but the hiring of the officers have gotten our active caseload down to a manageable level, which is lower than it was. But we still have to hire more people,” Morgan said....

On a local level, one particular statistic has the District Attorney’s Office concerned that the guidelines may be doing more harm than good for public safety. Montgomery has seen 530 more thefts this year than last year, and many in the DA’s office, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Lloria James, see the lenient sentencing guidelines as the blame.

“Those statistics don’t surprise us at all. It’s almost like a revolving door,” James said. “The problem is sort of like word travels fast on a college campus or neighborhood or things like that, in the criminal community word travels fast, and I think it’s gotten out there that pretty much if it’s non-violent — thefts, burglaries things like that — there’s almost zero chance you’re going to see some prison time, so it’s worth it to them.”

Whether or not there is a connection remains up for debate, but that hasn’t stopped District Attorney Daryl Bailey from reaching out to Sen. Ward in recent weeks about possibly making some changes. “We’ll continue looking at it, but we’ve done a lot of reform already,” Ward said. “Obviously that’s a point being made by the district attorneys, but if there's any changes needed to be made in the guidelines we need to do that. We need to make sure it's prudent for the safety of the public.”

The reforms have shown themselves not to be perfect, but Wright said that should engender further study and support in his ideal scenario. The reforms were put in place after studying prison reform in other Republican states such as Texas and North Carolina, but implementing front-to-back change is “trendsetting,” Wright said.

For now, the state must wait and see what the numbers hold. “It’s a little daunting, but that’s trendsetting to have this big of a process going on at one time,” Wright said. “That’s also why I tell people both for it and against it to take a deep breath and let’s do our best to implement it. I think with a lot of things, people get in the way of things before they implement it. We owe it to ourselves to embrace what the Legislature passed and what the intent was. Let’s give it our best good faith effort, wait a while and then sit around the table and talk about it then.”

December 13, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Trump should reform criminal justice system to foster economic growth"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill and authored by Eric Sterling, who is now the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and long ago was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Here are excerpts:

President-elect Trump has expressed a commitment to fostering economic growth and preserving American jobs. In that pursuit, he would be well advised to work towards reforming the criminal justice system. If he embraced a bankruptcy-like program to restore clean criminal records to the millions of Americans who have not been in trouble for many years, he could generate hundreds of thousands jobs – many more than were saved by his intervention and promises to Carrier and United Technologies.

One of the first measures of any economy is employment and job growth. Surprisingly (and unbeknownst to most politicians), our criminal justice system, and its focus on punishment instead of prevention, is one of the biggest drags on our economy because its long-term impact on employment. Once you have a criminal conviction, your ability to get a job is slashed for the rest of your life. If you can get a job, it is likely be “off-the-books.” One Department of Justice study estimated that the average wage loss is 50 percent.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a decade ago that about 68 million Americans have a criminal record. Many of these records are not convictions, but some estimate that about one-third of American working age adults have a criminal conviction.

More than two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product is based on the activity of consumers. Cumulatively, the "under-earning" by perhaps one-third of American consumers means lost purchases of everything that every American company makes and sells. Imagine how many Americans could get a mortgage and buy a home if millions of Americans no longer had a criminal record (and imagine how many new Carrier furnaces and air conditioners would be sold and installed).

We have a prison population of 1.8 million (that excludes the jail and juvenile detention populations). In 1970, that number was about .25 million. We know that none of the men and women in prison bought a Ford or Chevrolet last year. We also know that most of those in prison are not there for violent offenses. If they were home – yes, with their liberty restricted, and under supervision – they could work, and many of them would need and could buy a car....

Imagine what the Social Security trust fund would like if millions more American men and women were working, instead of in prison or unemployed or underemployed. Trump should direct his economic team to fully calculate the large-scale economic benefits of smart on crime justice reform.

Trump is proud of his mastery of bankruptcy laws. A criminal record clean slate law is like a bankruptcy. Instead of wiping your financial debts away, such a law would wipe away your criminal record after five or seven years of verifiable good conduct. Bankruptcy, which is in the Constitution, is a useful model for rebuilding the records of formerly convicted persons to re-enter the economy by the millions and help build economic growth for all Americans.

December 12, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 09, 2016

"How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?"

Unnecessarily_IncarceratedThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Brennan Center.  The report's preface serves as a useful overview of its coverage and findings, and here are extended excerpts from the preface:

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions. How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades.

This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation’s leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes.

Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation. Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences. This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime.

Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.

This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today’s sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant’s criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed....

Based on these findings, this report issues the following recommendations to safely reduce the prison population....

  • Eliminate Prison for Lower-Level Crimes Barring Exceptional Circumstances: State legislatures and Congress should change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead. Judges should have flexibility to depart and impose a prison sentence if certain enumerated factors are present — for example, repeat serious offenses or heinous circumstances of the crime.

  • Reduce Sentence Minimums and Maximums by Law: State and federal legislatures should reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate. We recommend that legislators consider a 25 percent cut as a starting point to determine how to reduce sentences for the six major crimes that make up the bulk of the current prison population: aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offense, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking. Sentences would be shorter, but still substantial. For example, the average inmate convicted of robbery now serves 4.2 years. A 25 percent cut would reduce the prison stay to 3.1 years. A similar analysis can be applied to other crimes for which prison may be warranted to determine whether sentences can be safely shortened.

  • Retroactively Apply Reforms: Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.

  • Complementary Recommendations: Prosecutors should use their discretion to seek alternatives to incarceration or shorter prison stays in line with the recommendations of this report. Further, the nearly $200 billion in savings from implementing this report’s recommendations can be reinvested in proven crime prevention tactics and in alternatives to incarceration proven to reduce recidivism. While the first steps many states have taken toward prison reform are welcome, they have not gone far enough. It took roughly four decades to build mass incarceration. Yet, at current rates of decline, it will take even longer to undo it.

December 9, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

"The Link Between Race and Solitary Confinement: Men of color are overrepresented in isolation, while whites are typically underrepresented."

The title of this post is the full headline of this new Atlantic piece.  Here is how it gets started (with links from the original):

Stark disparities in prisoners’ treatment are embedded into criminal-justice systems at the city, county, state, and federal levels, and have disproportionate, negative effects on men of color. A new analysis from the Association of State Correctional Administrators and Yale Law School provides a fresh trove of information with which to explore the racial dynamics in state and federal prisons — specifically through their findings on solitary confinement.

“People of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement compared to the general prison population,” said Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School and one of the study’s authors. “In theory, if race wasn’t a variable, you wouldn’t see that kind of variation. You worry. It gives you a cause to worry.”

The study concluded that, overall, black male prisoners made up 40 percent of the total prison population in those 43 jurisdictions, but constituted 45 percent of the “restricted housing population,” another way to describe those in solitary confinement.  In 31 of the 43, the percentage of black men who spent time in solitary wasn’t proportional to their slice of the general population — it was greater.  Latinos were also disproportionately represented in solitary: On the whole, 21 percent of inmates in confinement were Latino, even though this group constituted only 20 percent of the total population.  Overall, in 22 of the 43 jurisdictions, Latinos were overrepresented in relation to their general-population numbers.

The numbers look slightly different at the state level. In some states, the racial makeup of prisons and their solitary-confinement populations appeared more balanced — like in Kentucky, where white prisoners made up 70 percent of both the general and restricted-housing populations. Black prisoners represented 28 percent of those imprisoned and 27 percent of those in solitary. The dynamic is similar in the District of Columbia, with whites representing 2 percent of both the general and solitary-confinement populations, and blacks representing 90 percent and 94 percent of those groups, respectively.

By and large, similarly aligned figures can be found throughout the country. But in some states, the racial disproportions are startling.  

For example, in a handful of states where Latinos represent a large swath of the overall population, the racial disparities are significant. In California, Latinos made up 42 percent of the general prison population, but 86 percent of those in solitary confinement. Whites, by contrast, were 22 percent of the general population, but only nine percent of those in solitary. And in Texas, Latinos made up 50 percent of those in solitary, but only 34 percent of the overall prison population. Yet again, whites’ figures were lower: They represented 32 percent of the general prison population, but 25 percent of the population in solitary confinement. Mississippi, too, had dissimilar numbers among the racial groups.

December 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 05, 2016

Shining spotlight on ugly dark racial realities of New York State's prison and parole systems

The New York Times has an important new series of articles examining biases in New York State's prison and parole systems. Here are links to and key passages from the first two articles:

"The Scourge of Racial Bias in New York State’s Prisons"

A review by The New York Times of tens of thousands of disciplinary cases against inmates in 2015, hundreds of pages of internal reports and three years of parole decisions found that racial disparities were embedded in the prison experience in New York.

In most prisons, blacks and Latinos were disciplined at higher rates than whites — in some cases twice as often, the analysis found.  They were also sent to solitary confinement more frequently and for longer durations.  At Clinton, a prison near the Canadian border where only one of the 998 guards is African-American, black inmates were nearly four times as likely to be sent to isolation as whites, and they were held there for an average of 125 days, compared with 90 days for whites.

A greater share of black inmates are in prison for violent offenses, and minority inmates are disproportionately younger, factors that could explain why an inmate would be more likely to break prison rules, state officials said. But even after accounting for these elements, the disparities in discipline persisted, The Times found.

The disparities were often greatest for infractions that gave discretion to officers, like disobeying a direct order.  In these cases, the officer has a high degree of latitude to determine whether a rule is broken and does not need to produce physical evidence.  The disparities were often smaller, according to the Times analysis, for violations that required physical evidence, like possession of contraband.

"For Blacks Facing Parole in New York State, Signs of a Broken System"

An analysis by The New York Times of thousands of parole decisions from the past several years found that fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.

It is a disparity that is particularly striking not for the most violent criminals, like rapists and murderers, but for small-time offenders who commit property crimes like stealing a television from a house or shoplifting from Duane Reade — precisely the people many states are now working to keep out of prison in the first place.

Since 2006, white inmates serving two to four years for a single count of third-degree burglary have been released after an average of 803 days, while black inmates served an average of 883 days for the same crime.

December 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did death penalty initiatives make it easier for significant prison reforms to pass in California and Oklahoma?

The sets of death penalty initiatives on state ballots this year received lots of attention, and the pro-death-penalty side received lots of voter support in both "red states" like Nebraska and Oklahoma as well as in the in "blue state" of California.  (And I am very excited, as previewed here, that tomorrow at Northwestern Law I be part of a symposium that will be seeking  to sort out what this means for the future of the death penalty in the US.) But, as Randy Balko notes in this Washington Post piece headlined "Believe it or not, it was a pretty good night for criminal-justice reform," the death penalty outcomes should be looked at in the context of other criminal justice reform measure that also got significant support from voters in both red and blue states. Here are excerpts from his piece with one word highlighted by me for commentary to follow:

The death penalty was on the ballot in three states last night, by way of four separate initiatives. In all of them, the death penalty won.... But it wasn’t just in red states. California voters weighed in on two death penalty initiatives — one to repeal it, and one to speed it up. The former failed, the latter passed.  This is a state that Hillary Clinton won by 28 points. Americans still revere the death penalty....

But there was also a lot of good news last night. Marijuana won in 8 of the 9 states in which it was on the ballot — including outright legalization in California, Massachusetts and Nevada. Those states all went blue in the presidential race, but red states Montana, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota all legalized medicinal marijuana. The lesson here appears to be that pot has finally transcended the culture wars, but the death penalty hasn’t.  [My other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, is where I obsess on this reality.]

There are a couple of other important reform measures that passed.  Ironically, both were in states that strengthened the death penalty.  California voters approved Prop 57, which expands parole (as opposed to prison) and time off for good behavior for nonviolent offenses, and lets judges (instead of prosecutors) determine whether juveniles should be tried in adult courts.  And in Oklahoma, voters approved of a measure to reclassify certain property and drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.  They also approved a measure that would use the money saved from reclassifying such crimes to fund rehabilitation, mental health treatment and vocational training for inmates. New Mexico voters passed a bail reform measure that, while poorly drafted, at least indicates that there’s an appetite in the electorate for such reforms.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I do not think it "ironic"  that the very different states of California and Oklahoma with very different voters acted in the same way here.  Indeed, I think it quite sensible for voters to be eager to, at the same time while voting, express support for tougher sentencing for the very worst criminals (terrible murderers) and for smarter sentencing for the lesser criminals (nonviolent and drug offenders).  I make this point to stress not only that (1) these results make perfect sense to "average" voters at this moment in our national criminal justice discourse, but also that (2) it was practically shrewd for politicians in California and Oklahoma to put prison reforms in front of voters at the same time they were considering death penalty issues.

1. As a matter of political mood, I suspect the "average" voter now is not too troubled by historic problems with the administration of the death penalty, largely because some recent big capital cases involve mass murderer with no concerns about a possible wrongful conviction or terrible defense lawyering.  High-profile capital cases like James Holmes (the Aurora movie theater mass murderer), Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Dylann Roof (the Charleston Church mass murderer) have all involved crimes in which guilt seems clear beyond any doubt and in which the defendants have had the benefit of spectacular defense lawyers.

At the same time, while the "average" voter is seemingly not keen on taking the death penalty completely off the table for mass murderers like Holmes, Tsarnaev and Roof, she seems to be growing much more keen on reducing reliance on incarceration for nonviolent and drug offenders.  National discussions of the expense and inefficacy of the drug war and other concerns about modern mass incarceration has, it seems, made prison reform for certain lower-level offenders politically popular even in a red state like Oklahoma.

2. As a matter of practical realities, especially in a state like California in which "tough on crime" prison initiatives have historically garnered vocal support from law enforcement groups and prosecutors and prison unions, I suspect having a death penalty initiative for the "tough-and-tougher" crowd to focus on created a window of opportunity for supporters of prison reforms to dominate the messaging for voters on "lower salience" issues like expanding parole eligibility or reducing some crimes to misdemeanors.  Though I was not in California or Oklahoma to experience their initiative campaigns directly, I know just from reading Crime & Consequences that Kent Schneidegger, a very effective tough-on-crime advocate, was much more focused on Prop 62 and 66 (the capital initiatives in California) than on Prop 57 (the parole initiative that he called "Gov. Brown's Jailbreak Initiative").

November 10, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNBC article, which includes these excerpts:

Private prison stocks soared Wednesday after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House.

Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group had suffered some of their biggest declines over the last several months. But on Wednesday, both stocks recouped some of those losses.  Corrections Corporation gained 43 percent, while GEO climbed more than 21 percent.

In August, the Department of Justice instructed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private contractors for federal corrections facilities.  Both stocks tanked on the news, but analysts called the market reaction overblown, and questioned how feasible it would actually be for the federal government to build new housing for displaced prisoners....

The stocks fell particularly far after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the moves and her intention to build on them. "I'm glad that we're ending private prisons in the federal system," Clinton had said in her first presidential debate with Donald Trump. "I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans."

Days after Clinton made her remarks, both stocks posted their worst quarters in more than 15 years. Now that Clinton has lost, and Democrats failed to gain control of Congress, it appears investors are more sanguine about the future of the businesses.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sentencing reform's (uncertain?) future after huge election wins for Republicans, the death penalty, marijuana reform and state sentencing reforms

It is now official that Republican have retained control of both houses of Congress, and it seems now a near certainty that Donald Trump will soon officially be our nation's President Elect.  What that might mean for the future of federal sentencing reform will be the subject of a lot of future posts.  For now, I just want to wrap up the story of dynamic state ballot initiatives in the states by spotlighting that they showcase a pretty consistent national criminal justice reform message for all local, state and national officials.

1.  The death penalty still has deep and broad support in traditionally conservative states like Nebraska and Oklahoma, and clearly still has majority support even in a deep blue state like California.

2.  Non-capital sentencing reform has deep and broad support in a deep blue states like California and can find majority in a traditionally conservative state like Oklahoma.

3.  Medical marijuana reform has deep and broad support seemingly everywhere after winning this year in Arkansas and Florida and Montana and North Dakota.

4.  Recreational marijuana reform has seemingly significant support in blue states after winning this year in California and Massachusetts and Nevada and probably Maine, but in the red state in Arizona it could not garner a majority this year.

November 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Fascinating mixed criminal justice initiative results developing in California

Though a little under 40% of all precincts have been reported, the early results on all the criminal justice reform ballot initiatives in California reported here indicate this fascinating mixed bag of criminal justice reform developments:

Proposition 57 reforming "Criminal Sentences & Juvenile Crime Proceedings" is winning 64% to 36%

Proposition 62 "Repeal of Death Penalty" is losing 45% to 55%

Proposition 64 enacting "Marijuana Legalization" is winning 56% to 44%

Proposition 66 providing for "Death Penalty Procedure Time Limits" is winning 51.5% to 48.5%

In other words, the largest state in our Union has voted again against repealing its death penalty and seems to be voting for a competing reform intended to speed up the path of condemned murderers from death row to the execution chamber. At the same time, this state has enacted via initiative yet another significant reform to its non-capital sentencing system that seems likely to further reduce the state's modern heavy reliance on incarceration. And the state with a huge population and a "local" economy that is of truly global significance will now be fully turning away from the criminalization of recreational marijuana use by adults.

November 9, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 07, 2016

"Extreme Prison Sentences: Legal and Normative Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking new paper authored by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The American criminal justice system has an obsession with lengthy prison sentences.  From theoretical perspectives, harsh penalties may be justified to retributively punish heinous criminals, to incapacitate dangerous people, and to deter potential wrongdoers.  But for a penalty to achieve any of these purposes it must still be proportional to the offense and offender.  A disproportionately severe sentence is harmful in being unnecessary and tyrannical in nature.

This Article reports on an empirical study of extreme sentences, which is defined to include sentences of imprisonment of at least 200 years. The author compiled an original dataset of extreme sentences issued in the federal sentencing system. Since the year 2000, federal judges sentenced 55 individuals to prison terms ranging from 200 to 1,590 years.  At such a length, these sentences may appear irrational as they are beyond any person’s natural lifespan, particularly as the federal system provides no opportunity for parole.  Thus, it may be of interest to understand how and why such extraordinary sanctions came to fruition and to confront the consequences thereof in terms of normalizing extreme prison sentences.

The study undertook quantitative and qualitative analyses of a variety of sources related to the cases in the dataset.  The sources included statistical databases, case opinions, governmental press releases, and news reports.  The study results revealed that the discourses underlying extremely long sentences generally (a) justified them for the theoretical purposes of retribution, incapacitation, and/or deterrence; (b) approved them on proportionality grounds; (c) regarded the penalties as the practical equivalent of life sentences; (d) represented an exclusionist mindset; (e) relied upon dehumanizing caricatures; and (f) presented with cognitive biases, such as anchoring and scaling effects.

In the end, however, the Article still questions whether the extreme nature of these sentences is rational in any circumstance as they represent penalties that no person can possibly complete.  And even if a prison term of at least two centuries may be a proper one, the author posits that such a penalty appears disproportionate for multiple cases in the dataset.  At least a few of the defendants, for example, were nonviolent, first-time offenders.  Further, the federal judiciary’s acceptance of sentences of these extreme lengths has normative consequences that likely will continue to have a ratchet effect in future cases.

November 7, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

"Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Juvenile Offenders: Public Sentiments"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Jennifer Gongola, Daniel Krauss and Nicholas Scurich. Here is the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court recently abolished mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders, holding that the practice was inconsistent with the 8th amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause, and its “evolving standards of decency” jurisprudence. The Court explicitly left open the question of whether non-mandatory LWOP is consistent with these constitutional standards.

This paper examines the public’s sentiment concerning juvenile LWOP. An online sample (n = 599) weighted to be representative of the U.S. population was queried about juvenile LWOP as a general policy and in response to a specific case in which they had to impose a prison sentence on a juvenile convicted of murder. The age of the juvenile was experimentally manipulated. Overall, 31% of participants favored juvenile LWOP as a general policy while 55% were willing to impose juvenile LWOP in the specific case presented. The age of the juvenile moderated this effect, such that participants were more willing to impose LWOP on a 16-year-old than a 12-year-old both as a general policy matter and in response to the specific case vignette. A majority of participants were consistent in their preferred punishment across both frames, including 30% who selected LWOP.

Political affiliation was the only demographic variable that predicted consistency in preferred punishment across the two frames. Additionally, participants who consistently endorsed juvenile LWOP placed greater emphasis on retribution and deterrence as goals of punishment while individuals who evidenced inconsistent punishment preferences placed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.

November 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

"Black Studies and the Fight Against Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is title of this great public event talking placing in a few weeks on my own campus, which is to begins with a showing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th  (previously promoted here) and then includes a terrific-looking panel discussion.  Here is the official description: 

Join professor and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander for a screening of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13th, which explores the historical foundations and present-day structures of mass incarceration in the United States. After the film, Alexander will lead a panel discussion addressing the importance of Black Studies both for understanding the origins of systems of racial oppression and acquiring the tools needed to effectively combat them. The panel will feature faculty from the Department of African American and African Studies and the Moritz College of Law as well as student activists and community organizers.

A reception with complimentary food and drink will start at 5 PM in Heirloom Café, and the screening will begin at 6 PM.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

November 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

"Reducing the Prison Population: Evidence from Pennsylvania"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Lindsay Bostwick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Four decades of rapid growth in the US incarceration rate has met with bipartisan support for reforming sentencing policies and calls to reduce the prison population. However, there is little consensus on how to achieve the reductions suggested. In this paper we project how the Pennsylvania prison population and age demographics may change through 2054 as a result of alternative sentencing policies. One consequence of the prison population growth in recent years has been the aging of those incarcerated and these increasingly older populations strain correctional resources for healthcare and other needs.

Our study finds reducing the prison population requires significant changes to the number of people sentenced to prison along with reducing the sentence length of those incarcerated. In particular, to reduce the prison population by a meaningful amount, we will have to reduce admissions to prison to 1980 rates and the sentence lengths for violent offenders to those seen in 1990. A focus on drug and low-level offenses will do little to change the population in the long run.

November 1, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Florida’s prisons waste money and lives"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable lengthy new editorial by the Florida Times-Union, from which come these excerpts:

Wasting money, wasting lives — that’s the motto of Florida’s prison system. Oh, it’s not official, but it’s the reality. Florida’s refusal to attack its criminal justice problems has enshrined us in the backwater of prison reform despite numerous indications that Gov. Rick Scott would address these concerns.

Florida spends too much money, rehabilitates too few prisoners and leaves its citizens no safer than other states like Texas and Georgia that have instituted common-sense reforms. “There’s no state plan to do anything, and the status quo is leaving us even further behind,” says Deborrah Brodsky of the Project on Accountable Justice. “This state simply overrelies on things that don’t work.”

Although some changes have been made in the six years since Scott took office, there has been little comprehensive reform. That’s surprising to prison reform advocates who initially thought the new governor was a staunch advocate. Scott had commissioned a 263-page transition report from a team of hand-picked experts on the Department of Corrections before he took office in 2011.

When negotiating his first budget, the governor did make fiscal changes to make the Department of Corrections more efficient in his incoming budget. Advocates believed he would follow through by enacting the kinds of reforms that had reduced prison budgets in other states. Instead, the governor’s first budget showed not reforms but the elimination of 1,690 Department of Corrections jobs — including 619 corrections officers — the closure of two prisons and transferring 1,500 inmates to private facilities. Since then, he has since refused to embrace reform in the adult prisons, although he has made substantial positive changes within the juvenile system.

There are many proven changes Florida must make to reverse its course. These range from revisiting how the courts sentence people for drugs to how juveniles are treated in the system. Marc Levin, the director of the Center for Effective Justice in Texas, told the Times-Union editorial board his state has already made strides in reforming the Lone Star state’s system. He suggested four areas deserving of immediate attention in Florida.

Alter the use of direct file of juveniles into the adult prison system....

Readjust mandatory minimum sentences....

Change pre-trial procedures....

Adjust state felony theft thresholds....

In 2010, Scott’s transition team noted that prison reform was needed. “Our team found that DOC is broken,” the report concluded, noting that the Legislature had ignored pleas for modernization and reform. The report listed multiple excellent ideas whose combined mission was to reform the prison system, reduce recidivism, decrease the number of repeat offenders, ease ex-offenders transition back to the community and save taxpayers money.

What’s happened since then? Very little. Scott seems to have forgotten his own transition team’s report on the need for prison reform, and the Legislature has failed to press for changes. It’s time Florida paddles itself out of the backwater of prison reform.

October 30, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Significant new report calls for closing all traditional youth prisons due to their inefficacy

This recent item from the Harvard Gazette, headlined "Youth justice study finds prison counterproductive: New report documents urgent need to replace youth prisons with rehabilitation-focused alternatives," spotlights a significant new report concerning the way juvenile offenders are punished. Here are excerpts:

A new report, published by Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), documents ineffectiveness, endemic abuses, and high costs in youth prisons throughout the country.  The report systematically reviews recent research in developmental psychology and widespread reports of abuse to conclude that the youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and, for the few youth who require secure confinement, smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation.

The authors, who are leading youth justice researchers and former youth correctional administrators, find that the current youth prison model, which emphasizes confinement and control, often exacerbates youth trauma and inhibits positive growth while failing to address public safety.  Rather, the paper argues, programs work best when youths are in their home communities with rehabilitative programs or in smaller, homelike facilities that promote opportunities for healthy decision-making and development. Corrections agencies should provide a range of options depending on the individual’s needs, from smaller secure facilities to noncustodial programs.

Annual youth imprisonment costs are approximately $150,000 per individual, yet recidivism rates remain close to 70 percent. The report examines the experiences of several states that have pursued alternative models and finds community-based approaches can reduce recidivism, control costs, and promote public safety.

“Youth in trouble need guidance, education, and support, not incarceration in harmful and ineffective youth prisons,” said PCJ Senior Fellow Vincent Schiraldi, a co-author of the report. Previously, Schiraldi directed juvenile corrections in Washington, D.C., and served as commissioner of probation in New York City.  “We now know from research and on-the-ground experience that youth prisons are not designed to best promote youth rehabilitation.  This report offers concrete alternatives for policymakers across the country to maintain public safety, hold young people accountable, and turn their lives around.”

“Juvenile-justice systems must have the clear purpose of giving each youth the tools he or she needs to get on the right path to a successful adulthood and to reintegrate into the community,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a co-author of the report.  Like Schiraldi, McCarthy is a former director of youth corrections — in his case, in Delaware.  “By closing traditional youth prisons and leveraging increased political will to reform our country’s dependence on incarceration, states can use the savings to begin implementing a new, more effective approach to serving young people.”

This report, titled “The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model,” is available in full at this link.  And here is a key paragraph from its opening pages:

Whether the benefits and costs of youth prisons are weighed on a scale of public dollars, community safety, or young people’s futures, they are damaging the very people they are supposed to help and have been for generations. It is difficult to find an area of U.S. policy where the benefits and costs are more out of balance, where the evidence of failure is clearer, or where we know with more clarity what we should be doing differently.

October 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Consolidating Local Criminal Justice: Should Prosecutors Control the Jails?"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new essay authored by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Most observers agree that prosecutors hold too much power in the American criminal justice system.  Expansive criminal codes offer prosecutors wide discretion to charge defendants with a huge number of offenses.  And stiff authorized punishments provide prosecutors with leverage to pressure defendants to plea guilty.  As a result, prosecutors hold most of the plea bargaining cards.  Massive prosecutorial power has resulted in mass incarceration.

I do not disagree with the conventional wisdom that prosecutors hold too much power. However, absent drastic legislative and judicial change, it will be nearly impossible to substantially reduce prosecutors’ power and discretion. As such, this essay offers the counter-intuitive proposal that we should give prosecutors more, not less, power and responsibility.

This essay argues that states should change their nearly uniform policy of having sheriffs run local jails. Instead, we should place local prosecutors in charge of their local jails.  While sheriffs would remain responsible for safety and discipline, prosecutors should be charged with all of the logistical responsibility for checking inmates in and out of the facilities and with handling the overall budgets.

Putting prosecutors in charge of the jails would take a bite out of the “correctional free lunch” in which prosecutors impose sentences but do not have to internalize the financial costs of their decisions.  Put simply, prosecutors would have to pay for and live with their misdemeanor charging and sentencing decisions.  Consolidating local criminal justice might also have spillover effects that encourage prosecutors to reduce the sentences they seek in felony cases.

October 27, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782, the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

California judge imposes prison term of 1,503 years(!?!) on father who repeatedly raped daughter

As reported in this local article, a state judge in California gave new meaning to the term "mass incarceration" by imposing a prison sentence on a rapist that will not be completed until the year 3519.  Here are the details:

Fresno prosecutor Nicole Galstan asked a judge on Friday to sentence Rene Lopez to 1,503 years in prison for raping his teenage daughter over a four-year period, ending in 2013.  Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr. agreed, sentencing the 41-year-old Lopez to the longest-known prison sentence in Fresno Superior Court history.

It stands in stark contrast to recent high-profile sentencings in sexual assault cases such as six months for ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner and, just this week, 60 days for a Montana man convicted of felony incest for raping his 12-year-old daughter.

In announcing the punishment, Sarkisian told Lopez he violated a position of trust, engaged in violent conduct and is a “serious danger to society.” Sarkisian also noted that Lopez had never shown remorse and has blamed his daughter for his predicament.

Lopez, who sat shackled in the courtroom, sat silently, never acknowledging his daughter, who told Sarkisian that she feared her father. (The Fresno Bee does not name victims of sexual abuse.) “When my father abused me, I was young. I had no power, no voice. I was defenseless,” said the daughter, who now is 23 years old. She also told the judge that her father never has shown remorse for her pain and suffering....

In September, a jury found Lopez guilty of 186 felony counts of sexual assault, including dozens of counts of rape of a minor.  Galstan said the victim was first sexually abused by a family friend.  But instead of the father protecting his daughter, “he chose to turn her into a piece of property and use her to satisfy his sexual needs,” the prosecutor told the judge.

The victim was raped two to three times a week from May 2009 to May 2013.  Galstan said it ended only when the girl got the courage to leave him. Even then, her father would drive by her new home and later leave love songs on her message machine, the judge said....

At Friday’s hearing, Sarkisian read the date of each felony count, which included Lopez raping his daughter on Christmas and other holidays.  Before he announced the sentence, Sarkisian said Lopez turned down two plea deals. Before his preliminary hearing, if he had admitted his guilt, prosecutors would have recommended 13 years in prison. Lopez rejected the offer. Then before his trial, he was offered 22 years in prison if he admitted his guilt. Lopez declined that offer, saying he should be released from jail for the time he already had served, Sarkisian said.

“He ruined her teenage years and made her feel like it was her fault,” Galstan said in arguing for the maximum sentence.

Lopez, who did not testify in his trial, wrote in a letter to the judge that he didn’t get a fair trial and that his daughter lied on the witness stand. “It’s hearsay,” he says in the letter.  But Sarkisian told him that he received a fair trial and that the evidence was overwhelming.  In addition to the victim’s testimony, jurors heard entries from her diary in which she chronicled her father’s crimes against her, Galstan said.  And when she got pregnant from her father, he paid for the abortion, the judge said.

In addition to the prison sentence, Sarkisian said Lopez will have to register as a sex offender.

Though this defendant was convicted of extreme crimes that justified an extreme sentence, the decision of the prosecutor to seek and the judge to impose a term of 1,503 years in prison strikes me as silly and arguably counterproductive to the goal of helping all victims of sexual assault feel vindicated by the criminal justice system.  It is silly, I think, to impose upon a defendant a crazy-long-impossible prison sentence just for symbolic effect, just as a restitution sentence of, say, "one trillion, zillion, billion dollars" would be silly.  And this crazy-long-impossible prison sentence could, at least indirectly, make other victims of sexual assault whose victimizers were given much shorter sentences feel as though their harms were not entirely vindicated in their cases.

UPDATE: Over at his blog Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield has this effective new post titled "Rape, Incest And Retribution" to highlights how this case takes us from "the sublime to the ridiculous" as we reflect on what this case represents against the backdrop of other recent controversial sexual assault cases in California and Montana. In addition to recommending this post in full, I also recommend the comments there (as well as this funny button Scott provides if his post hurts your feelings).

October 23, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Bars to Justice: The Impact of Rape Myths on Women in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this paper newly posted to SSRN and authored by Hannah Brenner, Kathleen Darcy, Gina Fedock and Sheryl Kubiak. Here is the abstract:

This article stems from a National Science Foundation-funded interdisciplinary research project that addresses a major gap in understanding the reporting of sexual victimization in prison and the confluence of factors that contribute to the ineffectiveness of internal laws and policies.  As a basis of this work, our cohort of scholars in law, social work, and psychology utilized data and personal narratives from the groundbreaking class action lawsuit, Neal v. MDOC, brought on behalf of over 800 female inmates against the State of Michigan.

In this article, we identify the most prevalent rape myths we observed from women who were involved in the Neal lawsuit and other similarly situated female inmates across the country.  We focus on the impact of rape myths in contexts where prison staff perpetrate sexual violence against female inmates and in particular, how rape myths span the closed prison system-from reporting to grievance outcomes.  We explore how these myths shape notions of the "ideal victim," discuss their specific impact, and explain why they matter.

We consider how, by virtue of their incarcerated status, it is impossible for women victimized in prison to meet the "ideal victim" standards, ultimately rendering their attempts at seeking justice futile.  We hope that our analysis of rape myths in the prison context will inspire changes in prison law and policy by acknowledging and urging the dismantling of these often unforeseen, implicit, and informal barriers to justice.

October 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 21, 2016

New Gallup poll reports notable trends in "tough-on-crime" public polling perspectives

A6rjo7fztki7iz_8fgcxggThis new Gallup item, headlined "Americans' Views Shift on Toughness of Justice System," details the results of its latest annual Gallup poll on on crime and punishment opinions. Here are the highlights:

Americans' views of how the criminal justice system is handling crime have shifted considerably over the past decade. Currently, 45% say the justice system is "not tough enough" -- down from 65% in 2003 and even higher majorities before then. Americans are now more likely than they have been in three prior polls to describe the justice system's approach as "about right" (35%) or "too tough" (14%).

Incarceration rates in the U.S. have soared over the past few decades, and political leaders, justice officials and reform advocates have sought criminal justice reform as a result. With this, Americans' views of the criminal justice system have shifted with the national conversation, with less than a majority now saying the system is "not tough enough." Although considerably higher than in the past, relatively few believe the system is "too tough."

Views of the justice system's toughness vary across racial and political party lines.  The majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say it is "not tough enough" (65%), with most of the rest describing it as "about right" (30%).  Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, on the other hand, are most likely to say the system is "about right" (42%), with the rest dividing about evenly between saying it is "too tough" (22%) or "not tough enough" (29%).

A majority of whites (53%) say the system's handling of crime is "not tough enough," while a third (32%) say it is "about right."  One in 10 whites say the system is "too tough." Nonwhites -- who as a group make up a disproportionate percentage of the U.S. incarcerated population -- are more than twice as likely as whites to say the system is "too tough" (23%).  They are also more likely than whites to say it is "about right" (40%). Meanwhile, 30% of nonwhites say the system's handling of crime is "not tough enough."

Against a backdrop of bipartisan efforts in Congress to reform drug sentencing in 2016, 38% of U.S. adults describe guidelines for sentencing of people convicted of routine drug crimes as "too tough."  A slightly smaller percentage say they are "not tough enough" (34%), while a quarter say they are "about right" (25%).  Fifty percent of Democrats say drug crime sentencing guidelines are "too tough" -- twice as high as the percentage of Republicans (26%) who say the same. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to describe drug crime sentencing as "not tough enough" (47%).

Differences in views between whites and nonwhites are less pronounced on drug crime sentencing guidelines compared with their views of the criminal justice system's handling of crime more generally. Both whites and nonwhites have sizable percentages, ranging from 21% to 39%, of those who describe drug crime sentencing guidelines as "too tough," "not tough enough" or "about right."

Americans' views about the toughness of the criminal justice system have clearly shifted in recent decades, with less than a majority now saying the system is "not tough enough" and more Americans describing it as "about right" or "too tough." Although more than in the past believe the system is overly tough, this view is still held by a relatively small minority. U.S. adults are much more likely, however, to describe drug crime sentencing guidelines as "too tough" compared with their opinions of the system's handling of overall crime, and this is the case among both racial and political party groups.

The folks over at Crime & Consequences have these two notable posts discussing these new Gallup data (though I cannot help but note they did not comment on other recent Gallup polling data reporting record-high majoritarian support for the legalization of marijuana):

October 21, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

GOP Gov explains how sentencing reform has "Georgia's criminal justice system smarter, fairer, more effective and less costly, while in no way sacrificing public safety"

This Washington Times commentary, headlined "Georgia’s story of redemption: Criminal justice reform is saving lives and preserving families, is authored by Georgia's Republican Governor Nathan Deal. Here are excerpts:

When I took office in January 2011, Georgia was in the midst of a criminal justice system crisis.  The state’s prison population and incarceration budget had doubled in the previous two decades and taxpayers were spending $1 billion per year to keep tens of thousands of inmates behind bars.  The recidivism rate hovered at 30 percent for adults and 65 percent for juveniles, indicating that efforts to rehabilitate offenders were not working as they should have been.

To address this crisis, I established a task force to examine reform initiatives that eventually led to the creation of accountability courts, improvements to the juvenile justice system and expanded efforts to facilitate a smoother re-entry process for returning citizens.  The Georgia General Assembly used these recommendations to enact two rounds of reforms in 2012 and 2013 that have made Georgia’s criminal justice system smarter, fairer, more effective and less costly, while in no way sacrificing public safety.  These reforms were approved with overwhelming bipartisan consensus in the Georgia General Assembly.

Since then, Georgia has seen a decrease of about 10.3 percent in the state’s prison inmate population, from roughly 60,000 to about 53,800.  Before reform initiatives had been enacted, Georgia’s inmate population was projected to grow by 8 percent in the ensuing five years, presenting taxpayers with an additional $264 million bill in that time frame.  Not only did we shred that price tag, but we were also able to forgo the construction of two additional prisons as a result of effective reforms.

The cost to incarcerate one adult offender is about $18,000 per year, which is far more expensive than an addiction rehabilitation program or mental health counseling — so it makes fiscal sense to seek alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders whenever feasible.  Without the sentencing alternatives of the state’s 105 accountability courts, which give offenders a second chance and an opportunity to reverse the cycle of failure, thousands of nonviolent offenders with underlying addiction and mental health issues would likely be in prison.  Beyond fiscal considerations, criminal justice reform is essential to providing the successful rehabilitation to prevent former offenders from becoming repeat offenders.  Perhaps most important of all, these reforms have the long-term potential to positively change the dynamics of families, as crime is often generational....

Georgia’s criminal justice reforms have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and will continue to do so. At the same time, we have saved lives and preserved families, and that’s what is important.

October 20, 2016 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 07, 2016

This weekend's must-watch: 13th, Ava DuVernay's new documentary linking slavery and mass incarceration

As noted in this prior post, my screen time last weekend was devoted to my favorite bi-annual sporting event. And I suspect much of this weekend will be focused on one of my favorite annual playoffs. But the must-watch for this weekend is on a much more serious set of subjects, the US history of slavery and its echoes within mass incarceration. These are the topics covered in a new Netflix documentary, which YouTube describes in this way along providing this preview:

The title of Ava DuVernay’s extraordinary and galvanizing documentary 13TH refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out by DuVernay with bracing lucidity. With a potent mixture of archival footage and testimony from a dazzling array of activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men, DuVernay creates a work of grand historical synthesis. On Netflix October 7.

I would be excited to watch this new documentary even if it did not receive strong reviews.  But, as these reviews/headlines highlight, I am not the only one thinking this new doc is a must-watch:

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable negative review makes me even more eager to watch and re-watch this new doc:

October 7, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Television | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Notable report on "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms"

The  Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank, has released this interesting new report titled simply "California’s Historic Corrections Reforms." This PPIC press release reviews the report's highlights: 

California has reduced the number of offenders incarcerated in the state without broadly increasing crime rates. But so far, the state’s historic reforms have not lowered California’s high recidivism rates or corrections spending. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

After a federal court ordered the state in 2009 to shrink the size of its prison population, California embarked on a path — unmatched by any other state — of reducing incarceration and reforming its corrections system.  October marks the five-year anniversary of public safety realignment, the major reform that shifted responsibility for lower-level felons from the state prison and parole systems to county jail and probation systems.  The passage of Proposition 47 in 2014 led to more changes.  The PPIC report, California’s Historic Corrections Reforms, assesses the impact of the reforms and their implications for the future in key areas:

  • Incarceration. After reaching a peak in 2006 of almost 256,000, the total number of inmates in state prisons and county jails declined by about 55,000. The incarceration rate fell from 702 to 515 per 100,000 residents — a level not seen since the early 1990s.  The prison population rapidly declined in the first year of realignment, when most lower-level felons with new convictions began serving their sentences in county jail or under probation supervision instead of in state prison. But the decline was about 10,000 inmates short of the court-mandated target of 137.5 percent of the prisons’ design capacity.

    Realignment also increased the statewide jail population by about 9,000 inmates in the first year, leading to early releases because of crowding.  It was not until voters passed Proposition 47 — which reduced penalties for some drug and property offenses — that the prison population fell below the court-ordered target and the jail population dropped to pre-realignment levels. Each of these reforms changed the composition of the jail population—and presented new challenges to the counties. A companion PPIC report, California’s County Jails in the Era of Reform, also released today, examines these changes.

  • Crime rates. Realignment resulted in an additional 18,000 offenders on the street, but through 2014 there is no evidence to suggest that it affected violent crime. Auto thefts did increase, by about 60 per 100,000 residents. In 2014, the most recent year with comprehensive data available, crime rates were at lows not seen since the 1960s. In 2015, violent crime rose by 8.4 percent and property crime by 6.6 percent, but data are not yet available to determine if these increases are part of a national trend or specific to California. The role of Proposition 47 on crime remains unknown, but compared to other states, California’s increase in property crime appears to stand out more than its increase in violent crime.

  • Recidivism.  Rearrest and reconviction rates for offenders released in the first year of realignment are similar to what they were before realignment: 69 percent of offenders released from state prison are rearrested within two years, and 42 percent are convicted again.  This reconviction rate — about 5 percentage points higher than before realignment — may simply reflect prosecution of offenses that in the past would have been processed administratively.  California did make one significant advance: realignment effectively reduced the costly practice of returning released offenders to prison for parole violations. As a result, two-year return-to-prison rates, which had been the highest in the nation, dropped from 55 percent to 16.5 percent.

  • Spending.  Despite a lower incarceration rate, the state’s General Fund spending on corrections in 2016–17 is $10.6 billion — 9 percent more than the $9.7 billion spent in 2010–11, the last year before realignment. The state also gives the counties $1.3 billion in realignment funds.  Since 2012, increases to the corrections budget have funded additional space to house prisoners, employee salaries and benefits, and bond repayment.  The state has also invested significantly to improve delivery of health care for inmates, though prisons continue to operate under a court-ordered medical receivership.  Regaining control of health care could help the state reduce costs. But to realize substantial savings, the state may need to reduce the prison population enough to close a state prison or reduce its use of private and out-of-state facilities to house prisoners.

Even with the significant decline in incarceration, California still houses about 200,000 inmates and spends at historically high levels on corrections, the report notes.

September 29, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Terrific NPR segment about prisoners on strike throughout the US

I was lucky enough to have my drive home tonight coincide with my local NPR station's broadcast of a lengthy segment concerning US prisons and on-going strikes in a number around the nation. Among the participants in the call-in show was Beth Schwartzapfel who has been following developments and writing about them here at The Marshall Project under the headline "A Primer on the Nationwide Prisoners’ Strike: Prisoners can be forced to work without pay — the Constitution says so."

The reason I consider the NPR piece a "must-listen" is in large part because of two current prisoners were somehow able to call into the show and talk about these issues from prison for an extended period. (The currently incarcerated begin speaking around the 14:25 mark until about the 39:40 mark.

Really worth taking the time to check out for those who care about prisons and prisoners in the United States.

September 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Case Against Prisons: Alternatives to imprisonment are working around the world — so why isn’t the United States on board?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new piece by Rebecca Gordon at The Nation (although the title is a bit misleading because the piece talks more about justice and punishment than about prisons). Here are excerpts:

This year, a brave New Jersey state senator, a Democrat, took on the pernicious problem of distracted walking. Faced with the fact that some people can’t tear themselves away from their smartphones long enough to get across a street in safety, Pamela Lampitt of Camden, New Jersey, proposed a law making it a crime to cross a street while texting. Violators would face a fine, and repeat violators up to 15 days in jail. Similar measures, says the Washington Post, have been proposed (though not passed) in Arkansas, Nevada, and New York. This May, a bill on the subject made it out of committee in Hawaii.

That’s right. In several states around the country, one response to people being struck by cars in intersections is to consider preemptively sending some of those prospective accident victims to jail. This would be funny, if it weren’t emblematic of something larger. We are living in a country where the solution to just about any social problem is to create a law against it, and then punish those who break it....

I’ve been teaching an ethics class at the University of San Francisco for years now, and at the start of every semester, I always ask my students this deceptively simple question: What’s your definition of justice?...

For most of my students – for most Americans in fact – justice means establishing the proper penalties for crimes committed. “Justice for me,” says one, “is defined by the punishment of wrongdoing.” Students may add that justice must be impartial, but their primary focus is always on retribution. “Justice,” as another put it, “is a rational judgment involving fairness in which the wrongdoer receives punishment deserving of his/her crime.”...

Often, when citing the sources of their beliefs about justice, students point to police procedurals like the now-elderly CSI and Law and Order franchises. These provide a sanitary model of justice, with generally tidy hour-long depictions of crime and punishment, of perps whose punishment is usually relatively swift and righteous.

Certainly, many of my students are aware that the U.S. criminal justice system falls far short of impartiality and fairness. Strangely, however, they seldom mention that this country has 2.2 million people in prison or jail; or that it imprisons the largest proportion of people in the world; or that, with 4% of the global population, it holds 22% of the world’s prisoners; or that these prisoners are disproportionately brown and black. Their concern is less about those who are in prison and perhaps shouldn’t be, than about those who are not in prison and ought to be.

They are (not unreasonably) offended when rich or otherwise privileged people avoid punishment for crimes that would send others to jail. At the height of the Great Recession, their focus was on the Wall Street bankers who escaped prosecution for their part in inflating the housing bubble that brought the global economy to its knees. This fall, for several of them, Exhibit A when it comes to justice denied is the case of former Stanford student Brock Turner, recently released after serving a mere three months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. They are (perhaps properly) outraged by what they perceive as a failure of justice in Turner’s case. But they are equally convinced of something I struggle with – that a harsher sentence for Turner would have been a step in the direction of making his victim whole faster. They are far more convinced than I am that punishment is always the best way for a community to hold responsible those who violate its rules and values....

Of course, the urge to extend punishment to every sort of socially disapproved behavior, including texting in a crosswalk, is hardly a new phenomenon. Since the founding of the United States, government at every level has tended to make unpopular behavior illegal. Just to name a few obvious examples of past prohibitions now likely to stop us in our tracks: at various times there have been laws against having sex outside marriage, distributing birth control, or marrying across races (as highlighted in the new movie Loving). In 1919, for instance, a constitutional amendment was ratified outlawing the making, shipping, or selling of alcohol (although it didn’t last long)....

It’s hard to imagine a justice system that doesn’t rely primarily on the threat of punishment when, for most Americans, no alternative is imaginable. But what if there were alternatives to keeping 2.2 million people in cages that didn’t make the rest of us less safe, that might actually improve our lives? Portugal has tried one such alternative. In 2001, as the Washington Post reported, that country “decriminalized the use of all drugs” and decided to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter. The results? Portugal now has close to the lowest rate of drug-induced deaths in Europe – three overdose deaths a year per million people. By comparison, at 45 deaths per million population, the United Kingdom’s rate is more than 14 times greater. In addition, HIV infections have also declined in Portugal, unlike, for example, in the rural United States where a heroin epidemic has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worried about the potential for skyrocketing infection rates.

All right, but drug use has often been called a “victimless” crime. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to lock up people who are really only hurting themselves. What about crimes like theft or assault, where the victims are other people? Isn’t punishment a social necessity then?

If you’d asked me that question a few years ago, I would probably have agreed that there are no alternatives to prosecution and punishment in response to such crimes. That was before I met Rachel Herzing, a community organizer who worked for the national prison-abolition group Critical Resistance for 15 years. I invited her to my classes to listen to my students talk about crime, policing, and punishment. She then asked them to imagine the impossible – other methods besides locking people up that a community could use to restore itself to wholeness.

This is the approach taken by the international movement for restorative justice. The Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Justice and Reconciliation describes it this way: “Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders, and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational.”...

So the next time you find yourself thinking idly that there oughta be a law – against not giving up your seat on a bus to someone who needs it more, or playing loud music in a public place, or panhandling – stop for a moment and think again. Yes, such things can be unpleasant for other people, but maybe there’s a just alternative to punishing those who do them.

September 28, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When someone focused on criminal justice empirics calls this the "Greatest. Graph. Ever."...

via this tweet, I feel compelled to reprint it:

CtYe_SeW8AABV59

Those who are familiar with Professor John Pfaff's work on Twitter or elsewhere will surely understand why he views this graph as reflecting so much greatness, and those not familiar with Professor John Pfaff's work should see this post as my recommendation that you take the time to figure out why he things this graph is so great.

Also, to add my two cents (and also throw in another useful discussion point), I think the graph would be even better is it also noted that December 1972 also marked the end of conscription for the military (i.e., "the draft") in the United States.

September 27, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"The Under-Policed"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and provocative new essay authored by I. Bennett Capers now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

While there is much to be said about the problem of mass incarceration and strategies for de-incarceration, the goal of this essay is to bring two things to the conversation. The first is to bring attention to the complex role misdemeanors play in compounding the problem of mass incarceration. The second is to call attention to race, but not in the usual way.

Usually, when we think of race and criminal justice, we think of racialized policing and the overrepresentation of racial minorities in jails and prisons. But what happens when we consider criminal justice not only as an issue of overcriminalization and overenforcement vis-à-vis racial minorities, but also as an issue of undercriminalization and underenforcement vis-à-vis non-minorities?

Put differently, in this time when we are again discussing white privilege and the hashtag #Crimingwhilewhite has become a phenomenon, are there advantages to talking about white privilege — or more generally, privilege — and criminal justice?  If there exists what Randall Kennedy calls a “racial tax,” are there benefits to asking who gets a “racial pass”? Are there advantages to talking about the under-policed?  Finally, how might those conversations impact the issue du jour, mass incarceration?  This essay concludes by offering some suggestions for reducing mass incarceration.

September 25, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Assessing Time Served" and the deeply under-theorized problems of criminal history

Patrick Woods has this effective and important new article now available via SSRN titled "Assessing Time Served."  Here is the abstract (which will be followed by a few comments I have about this topic):

This article examines the utility of a new way of determining when increased punishment should be imposed pursuant to “three strikes” laws or other recidivist enhancements. In the past two years, Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have each considered criminal justice reform measures that would use the length of time an offender spent incarcerated as a proxy for the seriousness of his earlier criminal conduct.  While this reform seems sound at first glance, the article ultimately concludes that its incorporation into current state and federal sentencing laws must be done carefully, if at all, and that doing so now may be premature.

The article compares this new “time served” approach with the current methods of determining the severity of the punishment imposed upon an offender for his prior crime.  Current federal and state laws assess the seriousness of prior punishment using either the maximum statutory penalty — irrespective of the real sentence — or the sentence announced in court by the judge — even if only a small fraction of that sentence was actually served before the defendant was released.  Compared with these methods, determining the severity of a prior punishment using a “time served” measure seems to be an improvement.

Real problems, however, lurk just below the surface.  The article discusses in detail significant challenges with records gathering, defining the term of incarceration, and using the metric in a way that is consistent with due process guarantees.  It suggests how the metric might be employed to minimize each of these concerns, but also concludes that the condition of state and local incarceration records may make use of the metric in the near future impracticable.

This article effectively highlights some of the practical challenges of using time actually served in prison as a metric for recidivist sentencing enhancements, and these practical challenges must be considered against the backdrop of the host of other practical difficulties federal courts have experienced in using other metrics in application of the Armed Career Criminal Act and guideline assessments of criminal history.  Moreover, as the title of this post hints,  I think modern criminal justice theorists and scholars ought to be working a lot more on what the author calls the "philosophical underpinnings" of recidivist sentencing enhancements. (The author usefully brackets this issue because his fundamental project in this article is not conceptual.)  In many ways, I think the "war on drug" has had its biggest impact on modern incarceration through such recidivist enhancements, and I have long thought that the "philosophical underpinnings" of such enhancements can and should be greatly influenced by the types (and especially the motives) of prior offenses.

September 21, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Astute recognition that crime victims have to be integral part of effort to address modern mass incarceration

Greg Berman and Julian Adler have this important new commentary at The Crime Report headlined "Finding Common Cause: Victims and the Movement to Reduce Incarceration." Here are excerpts:

After more than a generation of punitive, “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and policymaking, there is now a fairly broad political consensus in the United States that we have gone too far in our use of incarceration.  Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the White House unveiled the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, a partnership of 67 jurisdictions — big and small, conservative and liberal — committed to using data to reduce incarceration.

The efforts to roll back mass incarceration are laudable, but they will not achieve lasting change if they do not figure out how to incorporate the perspectives of the justice system’s most vulnerable constituents: Victims of crime.

Victims of intimate partner violence in particular often feel sidelined by a criminal justice system that focuses almost exclusively on defendants. And make no mistake: Domestic violence represents a significant percentage of the cases in our criminal courts.  Current estimates show that approximately 10 million people are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. each year — and this is almost certainly an undercount, given the hidden and unreported nature of a lot of abuse.

But it is not just the criminal justice system that pays short shrift to victims. Reformers do it, too. “Victims have been overlooked in this de-incarceration movement,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, in a recent interview with the Center for Court Innovation. Advocates concerned with reducing the use of incarceration typically argue that fewer defendants should be sent to jail or prison, and that there should be more community-based alternatives. Victim support organizations are, by definition, focused on crime victims’ safety. Historically, many have argued for increased accountability — including incarceration — for offenders, particularly in cases involving domestic violence.

Is it possible for victim advocates and jail reduction advocates to find common cause?  To begin to answer this question, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Center for Court Innovation convened a roundtable with policymakers and practitioners from across the country, including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim advocates, and police officials. The roundtable highlighted a number of tensions.

One obvious tension is the potential conflict between protecting the safety of victims and protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Many advocates believe that to better serve victims, courts should impose conditions of release—including stay-away orders, monitoring, and participation in specialized services — for domestic violence defendants who are out in the community pending trial. This idea runs up against the strong national push to reduce pretrial detention for those who have been accused—but not convicted — of criminal behavior.

As with much of American life, the challenge of racial, ethnic and gender disparity hangs over this conversation. Black and Latino communities have long histories of being over-policed and over-criminalized in the U.S. At the same time, these communities have been under-protected from the threat of victimization. History tells us that women of color are particularly vulnerable.

Many advocates of jail reduction place great faith in actuarial risk assessment instruments to determine who can be safely released while a case is pending.  But victim advocates are asking some hard questions about these tools: How accurate are they? What can a statistical analysis tell us about what any individual defendant might do?  And how well do risk tools take into account potential lethality?

“Domestic violence defendants are different,” argued Idaho judge James Cawthon in the roundtable. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the presence of a specifically targeted victim changes the equation when it comes to looking at the potential risk — and severity — of re-offending. While some jurisdictions have developed special risk assessment tools for domestic violence defendants, many have not.  In the days ahead, jail and prison reformers will have to wrestle with these and other challenges if they are to win the full-throated support of victim advocacy groups....

A strong body of opinion within the victims’ movement agrees the time has come to take a hard look at “right-sizing” incarceration, which involves figuring out who needs to be behind bars and who does not.  “It’s just simply not the case that all victims of violent crimes, and certainly not all victims of nonviolent crimes, seek a punitive punishment for the offender,” University of Miami law professor Donna Coker tells the Center for Court Innovation.  “What they frequently seek is some assurance that it won’t happen to them again and some assurance that it won’t happen to somebody else.”

Victim advocates and jail reduction proponents may not be able to agree on every issue. But in those areas where they have shared goals — improving the quality of risk assessment tools, reducing racial and gender disparities, and promoting trauma-informed care — they can serve as a powerful voice for change within our justice system.

September 21, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Terrific TakePart series of article and commentary on "Violence and Redemption"

TakePart has this great "Big Issue" collection of articles, videos and commentary under the heading "Violence and Redemption: Can Rehabilitating Felons Make Us Safer."  There is so much important and insightful material collected here, I cannot easily link to it all.  But I can provide this introductory paragraph and some headlines/links to whet appetites:

With 5 percent of the world’s people but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, the United States is home to the largest prison population in the world.

A meaningful reduction in the prison population of 2.3 million people can’t happen without addressing those incarcerated for violent offenses. They make up at least 53 percent of the total in state prisons. Is that too many? Are they in for the right reasons? Are they hopeless cases, or can something be done to help reform and rehabilitate them, make them valuable members of society who won’t commit crimes again? Advocates cite three possible approaches to this problem: reforming justice, rehabilitation, and forgiveness.

September 20, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Any distintive thoughs, dear readers, on notable new video, "Jay Z: 'The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail'"?

This past week, the New York Times released this "op-ed" and video, which is embedded below, under the headline "Jay Z: ‘The War on Drugs Is an Epic Fail’."  This description of the video is provided by Asha Bandele, a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance: 

This short film, narrated by Jay Z (Shawn Carter) and featuring the artwork of Molly Crabapple, is part history lesson about the war on drugs and part vision statement. As Ms. Crabapple’s haunting images flash by, the film takes us from the Nixon administration and the Rockefeller drug laws — the draconian 1973 statutes enacted in New York that exploded the state’s prison population and ushered in a period of similar sentencing schemes for other states — through the extraordinary growth in our nation’s prison population to the emerging aboveground marijuana market of today. We learn how African-Americans can make up around 13 percent of the United States population — yet 31 percent of those arrested for drug law violations, even though they use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites.

Notably, this Vox commentary by German Lopez provides a sharp review of this effort via its extended headline: "Jay Z’s viral video about the war on drugs gets mass incarceration all wrong: The video is well argued and beautifully drawn. It’s also completely wrong." 

September 18, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Interesting accounting of "The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S." as approaching 6% of GDP

Via the always helpful Marshall Project, I just came across this interesting study produced this summer by folks at Washington University in St. Louis.  The study is titled "The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S."  Here is the abstract:

This study estimates the annual economic burden of incarceration in the United States. While prior research has estimated the cost of crime, no study has calculated the cost of incarceration.  The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs.  These include costs to incarcerated persons, families, children, and communities.

This study draws on a burgeoning area of scholarship to assign monetary values to twenty-two different costs, which yield an aggregate burden of one trillion dollars.  This approaches 6% of gross domestic product and dwarfs the amount spent on corrections. For every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional ten dollars in social costs. More than half of the costs are borne by families, children, and community members who have committed no crime.  Even if one were to exclude the cost of jail, the aggregate burden of incarceration would still exceed $500 million annually [I think the authors mean $500 billion here based on the report that follows].

September 17, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson say now is the time for federal statutory sentencing reform

This new National Review commentary authored by the notable pairing of Grover Norquist and Wade Henderson makes the case for having Congress finally getting sentencing reform to the desk of Prez Obama now.  The piece is headlined "No Better Time Than Now to Pass Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

Picture this: a legislative reform initiative that has garnered more than 70 percent approval from both Democrats and Republicans in state after state. Imagine a package of reform bills that has brought together elected officials from the left and right and passed through House committee with near unanimous support. Now consider that the speaker of the House is the biggest champion of these bills.

What issue has brought together both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and has civil-rights groups working with top prosecutors and law enforcement? Justice reform. And given all this success, you would say these policies have every chance of becoming law, right? It’s not that simple, but it should be.

In the months since bipartisan-backed sentencing- and prison-reform legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives, Congress managed to name about ten post offices, revised coastal-barrier boundaries, ordered the Mint to create commemorative coins, and adopted bison as the national mammal of the United States.

In the states during that time, Minnesota introduced and passed the most significant reforms to its drug laws in 30 years. These bills reduced mandatory minimums for low-level drug crimes and devoted greater resources to treatment instead of incarceration. Iowa took similar steps. Maryland repealed mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Even states with high incarceration rates took action. Oklahoma and Louisiana eliminated employment barriers for those with criminal records. And Kentucky passed one of the most aggressive expungement bills in the country that seals criminal records for certain offenses.

It’s time for Congress to act on justice reform. The states have proven that treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration can often provide better outcomes. Unnecessarily harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders do not make better citizens; they lead them to commit more offenses. We also know that the easier it is for someone who leaves incarceration to get a job, improve his education, and support his family, the better shot he has at turning away from crime altogether.

In an election year, real reforms can easily get jettisoned for campaign-trail antics. Yet we know justice reform makes for good politics as well as good policy. In polling in battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and North Carolina, support for reforms that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences and focus resources on rehabilitation ranges from the low 70s to the high 80s for both Republicans and Democrats. These numbers show that the risk lies not in supporting these reforms, but in opposing them.

When one in three American adults has a record, these issues are now affecting every corner of society. That explains why the diversity of support for justice reform spans the breadth and depth of our political ideologies. Whether it’s about redemption and second chances, as is the case for religious groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or about reducing the cost of an ineffective system, as is the case for Americans for Tax Reform and many other conservatives, millions of Americans from all different perspectives are getting behind this movement....

Our justice system should be a part of the solution to crime and its root causes. We can do better than using a one-size-fits-all sentencing regime that lumps nonviolent offenders with violent ones. And when some estimates have re-arrest rates for ex-offenders at 65 percent within three years, we cannot afford to continue the status quo. The reforms on the table would improve outcomes while ensuring that public safety is a top priority.

The best chance we have of passing this legislation is now. The political stars are aligned, and support for reform is at a zenith. We need our elected officials to seize this moment and pass legislation that saves money and makes us safer. Congress must not squander this opportunity.

September 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"Righting Wrongs: The Five-Year Groundswell of State Bans on Life Without Parole for Children"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.  Here is its "Executive Summary":

In just five years — from 2011 to 2016 — the number of states that ban death-in-prison sentences for children has more than tripled. In 2011, only five states did not permit children to be sentenced to life without parole. Remarkably, between 2013 and 2016, three states per year have eliminated life-without- parole as a sentencing option for children. Seventeen states now ban the sentence.

This rapid rate of change, with twelve states prohibiting the penalty in the last four years alone, represents a dramatic policy shift, and has been propelled in part by a growing understanding of children’s unique capacity for positive change. Several decades of scientific research into the adolescent brain and behavioral development have explained what every parent and grandparent already know — that a child’s neurological and decision-making capacity is not the same as those of an adult.  Adolescents have a neurological proclivity for risk-taking, making them more susceptible to peer pressure and contributing to their failure to appreciate long-term consequences.  At the same time, these developmental deficiencies mean that children’s personalities are not as fixed as adults, making them predisposed to maturation and rehabilitation.  In other words, children can and do change. In fact, research has found that most children grow out of their criminal behaviors by the time they reach adulthood.

Drawing in part from the scientific research, as well as several recent U.S. Supreme Court cases ruling that life-without-parole sentences violate the U.S. Constitution for the overwhelming majority of children, there is growing momentum across state legislatures to reform criminal sentencing laws to prohibit children from being sentenced to life without parole and to ensure that children are given meaningful opportunities to be released based on demonstrated growth and positive change.  This momentum has also been fueled by the examples set by formerly incarcerated individuals who were once convicted of serious crimes as children, but who are now free, contribute positively to their communities, and do not pose a risk to public safety.

In addition to the rapid rate of change, legislation banning life without parole for children is notable for the geographic, political, and cultural diversity of states passing these reforms, as well as the bipartisan nature in which bills have passed, and the overwhelming support within state legislatures.

Currently, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, West Virginia, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all ban life without parole sentences for children. Additionally California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia ban life without parole for children in nearly all cases.

It is also important to note that three additional states — Maine, New Mexico, and Rhode Island — have never imposed a life-without-parole sentence on a child.  Several other states have not imposed the sentence on a child in the past five years, as states have moved away from this inappropriate sentence both in law and in practice.

September 14, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica, Attica ... lessons unlearned 45 years later

For film buffs, repeating the words Attica brings to mind a great scene in one of Al Pacino's greatest movies.  But, for lots and lots of reasons, Attica and the riots and attacks that took place at this famous New York Prison in September 45 years ago should be remembers for so much more.  But, as this new Daily Beast commentary highlights, it is not clear that we have really embraced enduring wisdom from that sad month in upstate New York.   The commentary is headlined "Attica’s Lessons Went Unlearned: Our Prisons Are Still a Disgrace," and here is how it gets started: 

Forty-five years ago today, on Sept. 13, 1971, nearly 1,300 men were waking up in the yard of the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, eager to begin another long day of negotiations with state officials.  After first failing to get help by writing to their state senators and pleading with the commissioner of corrections, these men had begun a protest against inhumane treatment four days earlier. On this rainy, damp morning, they were now hoping that they could finalize the list of improvements to the prison they had been negotiating, as well as secure a promise of no retaliation, so that they could bring their protest to a peaceful end.

Suddenly, however, the men looked up in horror to see a helicopter rising over the walls of the prison.  Within minutes, it began blanketing the yard with a thick cloud of toxic tear gas. Then, as men began choking, gagging, and falling to the ground blinded by this noxious powder that now covered their skin and filled their lungs, a phalanx of nearly 600 heavily armed and gas-masked state police rushed into the prison and began shooting these men down.  Then, over the next weeks and months, behind the closed doors of Attica, these men were brutally tortured.

Today, Sept. 13, 2016, hundreds of people who live behind bars are once again in jeopardy because, on this 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971, they too just launched a series of human-rights protests as well as work stoppages.  Like those prisoners in upstate New York more than four decades ago, prisoners from Florida to Michigan have erupted because they too endure terrible overcrowding, insufficient food, too much time locked in solitary confinement, terrible medical care, and even bruises, broken bones, and, yes, death at the hands of abusive guards.

Their mistreatment is well documented. White guards in one Florida prison, for example, recently forced a black prisoner into a chair, and while choking, kicking and punching him, they screamed “Let’s beat this n——- and teach him a lesson.”  What had he done? He had dropped a cookie on the floor.  In another Florida correctional facility just a few years earlier, prisoner Darren Rainey died after officers punished him by forcing him to stand in a scalding 180-degree shower for two hours.  In Michigan’s prisons, juveniles and women prisoners have been raped by correctional staff, suffered medical abuse and neglect, and have been forced to eat rotten and rat-ridden food.

And yet, just as it was overlooked in 1971, this inhumane treatment has been utterly ignored by prison authorities as well as by the politicians who have the power to do something to stop it.  And so prisoners are once again protesting.

For those not familiar with the events in Attica two score and five years ago, the Marshall Project has this very modern review of events there,

September 14, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fascinating pictures of "What It Looks Like to Be Behind Bars in Four Different Countries"

The quoted portion of this post title is drawn from the headline of this new Slate article providing something of a sneak-peak into what looks likely to be a very interesting book to look at.  Here is how the Slate article begins (though everyone should really click through to see some pictures that strike me as fascinating in so many ways):

After photographing civil servants in eight countries across five continents for his book, Bureaucratics, Jan Banning thought looking at criminal justice systems around the world seemed like a logical next step. In his new book, Law & Order: The World of Criminal Justice, which will be released in the United States this fall, the Dutch photographer brings readers up close to prisons, police, and courts in Colombia, France, Uganda, and the United States.

“I’m interested in these aspects of society that are vital but not necessarily considered to be picturesque,” he said. “Basically, it’s an attempt to visually cope with the question of how we handle crime. I think it always makes tremendous sense to compare different societies as I’ve done with Bureaucratics because, of course, in comparison, the character of a specific society comes out.”

After discussing which countries to focus on with the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, Banning started his investigation with a trip to Uganda in 2010. In about two weeks, he was given access to a handful of prisons, and on subsequent visits he was able to visit 10 prisons of various security levels. Even in maximum security establishments, his guide tended to be just a single unarmed warden or assistant, which was indicative of environments he found to be “rather friendly and rather humane.”

“In the beginning, I was a bit suspicious. I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is a PR exercise and they’re just doing this for me.’ But I noticed it in all 10 prisons I was in, and some were tiny local prisons where you wouldn’t expect the personnel to have any idea of PR. So I thought that was honest,” he said. “Of course, the prisons there are still not a place where you’d love to be. They’re overcrowded, half the prison population hasn’t been on trial, and some have been sitting there without charges for five or six years.”

Uganda’s open system allowed him to get some of the more colorful photographs in the book. In the United States, his visits were much more restricted. The prisons themselves, meanwhile, tended to be a lot less visually interesting than those in Uganda, but Banning said he embraced the sterility in his photographs and thought it was important to communicate it in “a fair and relevant way.”

September 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proving punitiveness does not go out of style, prison populations ticking up even in states with recent track record of declines

This astute new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Inmate Populations Rise Again in Some States: Opiate addiction and high-profile crimes spur legislators to toughen drug and parole policies," reinforces my sense that the era of mass incarceration is a very long way from being over. Here are snippet from the piece:

An epidemic of opiate addiction and a handful of high-profile crimes have set back efforts by some states to restrain their prison populations, revealing cracks in​a bipartisan movement to reduce reliance on incarceration.

In Arkansas, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in 2011 passed a landmark law to reduce harsh drug sentences, as a way to curb costs from overcrowded prisons. The prison population dropped 10% in two years. Then, in 2013, a man who had been released from prison and arrested several times while on parole carjacked and fatally shot an 18-year-old man in Little Rock.

In response, state officials tightened parole policies, and authorities put parolees back behind bars for violating the terms of their release as fast as they could, said Dina Tyler, a state prison official at the time who is now a deputy director at the agency overseeing parole in Arkansas. “It was a natural reaction because something bad happened, and we don’t want it to happen again, so we’ll scoop them all up,” said Ms. Tyler.

The result: Arkansas’s prisons are more crowded than they were before the 2011 legislation. As of late August, the number of prisoners had risen to 18,243, a 25% increase from 2012. Similar reversals have occurred in a handful of other states in recent years, exposing the fragility of an effort to curb prison growth and focus resources on keeping offenders from returning to crime. “It just takes one incident to get things tracking in a different direction,” said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a criminal-justice research group that works for Arkansas and other states to forecast prison-population trends, referring to the 2013 Little Rock murder.

A review of prison data from 2007 to 2014, the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, shows that at least five states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Ohio — saw their incarcerated populations fall or stabilize after passing criminal-justice legislation only to see them rise again. Incarceration rates also rebounded in ​most of​ those states, and in others that passed laws targeting prison growth, including Arizona and Wisconsin, after dropping initially.

Overall, the percentage of American adults under correctional supervision declined 13% from 2007 to 2014, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts analysis of federal Bureau of Justice statistics. Prison rates dropped in most of the roughly 30 states that passed laws to curtail prison growth in that time, BJS data show. Even in states where rates increased, state officials and criminal-justice experts say such laws have helped slow prison growth, averting millions of dollars in prison costs.

Still, efforts to curtail prison growth have been hampered by uneven implementation of new laws, state officials say. Elected judges in Kentucky and Ohio, for instance, have shown a reluctance to cut sentences and divert offenders into treatment rather than sending them to prison, state officials said. Parole officials haven’t granted early release as often as lawmakers had hoped they would, they said.

The increase in opiate use also has played a role. In Kentucky, the number of jail and prison inmates climbed back to a near record this summer, the state corrections department said, after a drop following a 2011 law. That measure reduced prison time for drug possession, routing the savings into drug treatment, and linked recently released prisoners to community resources. John Tilley, Kentucky’s justice and public-safety secretary, who sponsored the overhaul as a state legislator, attributed the increase to offenders returning to prison in higher numbers and drug arrests fueled by the “heroin scourge.” Last year, Kentucky ratcheted up penalties for trafficking heroin and created a new offense for importing drugs across state lines....

The prison population in Ohio dipped after lawmakers overhauled state sentencing laws in 2011, but it has rebounded this year to nearly 51,000, just shy of the record, according to state figures. “We’ve done all these things, but because of the spike in heroin, we have this uptick,” said Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican who has led an effort to halt prison growth.

Civil-liberties advocates said scores of new penalties in Ohio have contributed to the rise in prison population. This year, the Legislature made it easier to prosecute people for heroin-trafficking, for example, reducing the threshold for the crime from 250 grams to 100 grams. In May, after staff at the Cincinnati Zoo shot a gorilla to save a boy who had fallen into the animal’s enclosure, legislators talked a colleague out of proposing a new crime for parents who let their child wander into a situation that requires the killing of an endangered animal, Sen. Seitz said. “We try to kindly tell our colleagues we cannot continue to make everything a crime or increase penalties on everything that already is a crime without further contributing to this overcrowding,” Mr. Seitz said.

September 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Top Texas criminal judges wonders about value of LWOP sentencing and its lesser process

This local article from Texas reports on interesting comments by a top state judge in the state about LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts from the article:

Judge Larry Meyers, the longest-serving member of the state’s highest criminal court, has grown uncomfortable with the way Texas allows for life in prison without parole, calling it a slow-motion death sentence without the same legal protections given to defendants who face the death penalty.  It can be argued, Meyers said, that the prospect of decades of prison — ended only by death from old age, medical problems or even violence — is as harsh or harsher than execution.

Even so, life without parole can be given in some capital murder cases without jurors answering two questions that must be considered before issuing a death sentence — is the defendant a future danger to society, and are there any mitigating factors such as mental disability or childhood abuse that weigh against capital punishment?

“I’m not saying the death penalty is unconstitutional.  I think right now it’s about as fair as it could be,” Meyers said. “But there are two variations of the death penalty; one is just longer than the other.  People are getting a (life without parole) death sentence without the same safeguards and procedures that you get when there is a death sentence.”

Larry Meyers has been a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1993.  Meyers, the only Democrat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, plans to make changing the life-without-parole system an issue of his re-election campaign, an admittedly uphill battle after he switched from the Republican Party in 2013 over disagreements in its direction under the surging tea party movement.

His Republican opponent in the Nov. 8 election, 22-year state District Judge Mary Lou Keel of Houston, believes Meyers has strayed from his principal task as a judge. “Policy issues like this are best left to the Legislature,” Keel said. “Doesn’t he have enough work to do as a judge?”...

Life without parole, an option for capital murder cases since 2005, has been credited with helping to sharply reduce the number of death row inmates by allowing prosecutors to reserve capital punishment for the worst cases, yet ensure that other convicted murderers are permanently removed from society.

Since life without parole became an option, the population of Texas’ death row has fallen to 244 inmates, down about 40 percent, as the pace of executions has outstripped the number of new death sentences. In contrast, 782 inmates were serving life without parole for capital murder as of July 31. An additional 54 inmates are serving life without parole after repeat convictions for sexually violent offenses, including crimes against children, since the Legislature allowed the punishment for the crime of continuous sexual abuse in 2007....

Seeking life without parole is by far the simpler option. Jurors are easier to seat — death penalty opponents aren’t allowed on juries if execution is an option — and there is no punishment phase trial. The appeals process also is less rigorous, with death row inmates granted two appeals before the state’s highest criminal court, while inmates serving life without parole go through the normal process. Meyers, a 23-year member of the Court of Criminal Appeals, believes life without parole has been made too simple, providing “an easy, inexpensive way of getting the death penalty.”

It would be fairer, he said, to let jurors consider some variation of the future danger question and to allow defense lawyers to present mitigating evidence. If jurors cannot agree that life without parole is appropriate, the defendant would get a life sentence and be eligible for parole after 40 years or some other suitable time, Meyers said.

The bigger reform — what Meyers called the “smarter fix” — would be for the Legislature to end capital punishment, making life without parole the ultimate punishment and including an option for parole. The political reality in Texas, by far the nation’s top death penalty state, makes that an extremely unlikely option for legislators, Meyers admits. “But right now, as I see it, there’s just two options — both for death,” he said....

Meyers said his change of heart on life without parole didn’t come about because of appeals. Nobody is going to tell his court that they improperly received a no-parole term when the alternative is a death sentence, he said. Instead, Meyers said, his qualms arose after coming to see the sentence as a delayed death penalty — one that is particularly harsh on young people — when a typical murder conviction is often enough to lock away killers until they are no longer a danger.

When the Legislature debated life without parole in the mid-2000s, prosecutors were divided on the best course to take, but many opposed adding a “long, drawn-out” sentencing hearing to determine the difference between a no-parole sentence and parole eligibility after 40 years, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “You could argue that it’s not much difference. It was a lot of squeeze without much juice,” Edmonds said.

In addition, many capital murder cases are decided by a plea bargain that allows defendants to choose perpetual prison time over execution. Some prosecutors feared losing bargaining leverage to a defense lawyer who threatened, for example, to drag out a sentencing hearing for three weeks unless offered a sentence with parole for a lesser crime like murder, Edmonds said.

Life without parole raises questions about whether Texas is imprisoning people long past the point that they “will ever be dangerous,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that provides capital murder legal representation at trial and on appeal. “We’ve got places in prisons that look like nursing homes. It makes me wonder, as a taxpayer, are these people dangerous? Why are we paying the extra cost of imprisoning them when they are geriatrics?” Kase said.

September 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, September 03, 2016

New York Times highlights modern rural incarceration realities

After various overseas internet struggles, I have been able to get on-line long enough to spotlight this great front-page article from Friday's New York Times about rural criminal justice headlined "This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why?". Here is the start of a lengthy article that merits a full read:

Donnie Gaddis picked the wrong county to sell 15 oxycodone pills to an undercover officer.  If Mr. Gaddis had been caught 20 miles to the east, in Cincinnati, he would have received a maximum of six months in prison, court records show.  In San Francisco or Brooklyn, he would probably have received drug treatment or probation, lawyers say.

But Mr. Gaddis lived in Dearborn County, Ind., which sends more people to prison per capita than nearly any other county in the United States.  After agreeing to a plea deal, he was sentenced to serve 12 years in prison. “Years? Holy Toledo — I’ve settled murders for a lot less than that,” said Philip Stephens, a public defender in Cincinnati.

Dearborn County represents the new boom in American prisons: mostly white, rural and politically conservative.  A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America’s prison population for the first time since the 1970s.  From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco.

But large parts of rural and suburban America — overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison — have gone the opposite direction.  Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.

Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties. The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population.

“I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties,” Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. “That’s how we keep it safe here.” He added in an interview: “My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me.”

But many criminal justice experts say that the size of the disparities undercuts the basic promise of equal protection under the law.

“Letting local prosecutors enforce state laws differently throws all notions of equality under the law out the window,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which advocates reducing incarceration rates. “This data puts governors and legislative leaders on notice that if they want to put criminal justice reforms into effect, they need to look at how prosecutors use and abuse their discretion.”

September 3, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Clemency advocate explains her view on "How to inspire criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is drawn in part from the headline of this lengthy new CNN commentary authored by Brittany K. Barnett-Byrd, whom CNN describes as "an attorney and criminal justice reform advocate [who] has handled several successful clemency petitions, including the nationally reported cases of Sharanda Jones and Donel Clark."  Here are excerpts from her commentary:

As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated mother, I know that when one person goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison. Mass incarceration has devastated families and communities across America.  The United States makes up nearly 5% of the world's population and almost 25% of the world's prison population.  Today, there are over 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country.

The dramatic growth in incarceration as a result of the failed war on drugs cannot be ignored. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased tenfold since 1980. In addition, nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving time for drugs.

While the statistics are astonishing, to truly understand the issue, we must look beyond the numbers and see the human capital sacrificed in the name of misguided appeals for law and order.  The human element is rarely addressed but is necessary to inspire and drive the change needed to reform our criminal justice system.

#17061-112. This number was assigned to my client Corey Jacobs 17 years ago when he began serving a life sentence in federal prison for nonviolent drug convictions. Corey had no prior felony convictions.  But with no parole in the federal system, he has been fundamentally condemned to die in prison.

Over two decades ago, Corey, now 47, began dealing drugs with a small group of college friends in Virginia. Though Corey was not a kingpin, he received an essential death sentence largely because three of his co-conspirators testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences.  Due to federal laws, Corey was held accountable for all "reasonably foreseeable" quantities of drugs attributed to the five other people involved in the conspiracy. Absolutely no dimension of his conduct was violent.

Despite facing the grim reality of dying in prison, Corey has worked diligently to prove that he is deserving of a second chance. He has devoted himself to extensive rehabilitative programming, completed three self-improvement residential programs and received over 100 learning certificates that have enhanced his education and personal development....

While there is little doubt that a prison sentence was warranted in Corey's case, he doesn't deserve to die in a cell because of it.  Life in prison without the possibility of parole is, short of execution, the harshest punishment available in America.  It screams that a person is beyond hope, beyond redemption.  It suffocates mass potential as it buries people alive. And, in Corey's case, it is a punishment that does not fit the crime.

Recently, I went to visit Corey in prison to discuss his pending clemency petition.  As I sat in the bleak, cold concrete interior of the attorney-client visiting room, I was struck by Corey's remorse, intelligence and dedication to bettering himself.   I learned Corey is an avid meditator. He mentioned how he once read nature could enhance the meditation experience, but he had not seen a tree in years. The prison yard is surrounded by daunting, gray brick buildings. The rest of our conversation was a blur because I could not move past the fact that he had not seen a tree. A tree.

Though I never imagined that visiting a United States Penitentiary would change the trajectory of my legal career, the state of consciousness I achieved after meeting Corey empowered me.  I no longer wanted to be just a lawyer.  I wanted to use this platform to promote the greater good.  Because of thousands of cases like Corey's, three months ago I resigned from my corporate law job to become a full-time advocate for criminal justice reform....

Last year the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) was introduced into Congress. This crucial bill would pull back mass incarceration and save taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing mandatory minimums and making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.  And yet despite unprecedented bipartisan support, it still has not come to the Senate floor for a vote.  We must urge Congress to pass this overdue, life-changing legislation.

But Congress is not the only branch of government beginning to address this injustice. Obama has shown he is committed to reinvigorating the clemency process through his administration's groundbreaking initiative to prioritize clemency applications for individuals like Corey....

Our criminal justice system is tangled in overcrowded prison cells, draconian sentences, shameful sentencing disparities, burdensome incarceration costs and heartbroken children and families.  Reform is desperately needed.  The time is now for the people who hold the levers of power to believe in humanity and to simply do the right thing.  After all, there is nothing more urgent than freedom.

August 31, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Does a weekend tweet from House Speaker Paul Ryan suggest that federal statutory sentencing reform still has a chance in the months ahead?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this weekend tweet from the account of House Speaker Paul Ryan, which includes a clip of a pro-sentencing reform speech that Speaker Ryan gave earlier this year and has this notable new sentence: "There are over 2 million people in our prisons, and a lot of them are just people who made a mistake."  Ever eager to hope that federal statutory sentencing reform is not completely dead for the current year, I want to consider this tweet a positive development to that end.

That said, I learned of this tweet from this Breitbart posting, and a good bit of the posting highlights why I probably should not really get too excited or hopeful in the wake of this tweet:

In July, Ryan said he believed that Congress “overcompensated” in the 1990s by imposing tough jail sentences to combating a decades-long crime wave and a drug epidemic that destroyed communities and lives across the country. He’s now backing legislation that would slash sentences for convicted drug traffickers.

“In the 1990s, to your first point, I think government, both Republicans and Democrats, overcompensated on our criminal code. And we went too far and there are disparities — crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine — there are clear disparities and more importantly, I think that we’ve learned there are better ways of dealing with some of these problems than locking up somebody for 20 or 30 years,” Ryan told NRP host Steve Inskeep. “You end up ruining their lives, ruining their families, hurting communities, and then when they try to re-enter into society, they’re destitute.”

“So I really think there are better methods of dealing with these problems and I think that is part of criminal justice reform. I think that’s something I put out in the poverty plan that I first authored three years ago. So we intend on bringing these bills up in September,” he added.

Conservative critics have labeled the so-called reform efforts as “jailbreak” bills. For example, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (SRCA) would reduce penalties for drug traffickers profiting from poisoning communities. Neither would these drug-related penalty reduction bills significantly reduce some racial disparities, law enforcement officials say. “Blacks make up 37.5 percent of the prison population at the state and federal levels. If we released those convicted on drug charges alone the percentage of Black males in prison would drop to 37 percent — a mere half of one percent,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke testified before the House Judiciary committee.

Furthermore, the rollbacks will harm the communities they’re allegedly intended to help, say critics. “People who are convicted of a crime and imprisoned are a very small minority of the U.S. population … they comprise approximately 6.6 percent of the population,” Peter Kirsanow and a member of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in a letter to Grassley. “These people have managed to be less law-abiding than the remaining 93.4 percent of the U.S. population – quite a feat,” he wrote. “It is perhaps less of a feat when one considers that many offenders have serious additional problems that likely incline them toward criminality.”...

“This bill doesn’t touch simple possession, because there’s virtually no simple possession cases in federal court,” said prominent critic Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. “The Senate bill would drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentences for all drug traffickers, even those who are armed and traffic in dangerous drugs like heroin, and provide for the early release of dangerous drug felons currently incarcerated in federal prison.”

Meanwhile, drug overdoses, mostly heroin and other opioids, killed over 47,000 Americans in 2014 alone and nearly half a million in the past decade. Nearly all heroin sold in the U.S. is imported illegally from Mexico. “While Colombia has historically been the biggest source of heroin sold in the United States, Mexican output has since surpassed it, DEA officials say. Together, the two countries account for more than 90 percent of the U.S. heroin supply, and nearly all of it is smuggled into this country by Mexican traffickers,” the Washington Post reports.

Yet Ryan continues to push the bipartisan elites’ sentencing reduction agenda even as Obama continues his “stigmatize-and-federalize” campaign against local and state law enforcement — and as the Obama administration is set to free 70,000 federal prisoners.  But Republicans’ efforts to partner with Democrats on leniency for criminals has stalled amid public concern.  Fifty-three percent of Americans, and 68 percent of nonwhites, are “worried a great deal” about rising violent crime, according to an April Gallup poll.

The Senate sentencing-rollback bill has been stopped by opposition from multiple Senators, including Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton.  Also, President Barack Obama has rejected a proposed deal from Sen. Orrin Hatch and other Republicans leaders who have offered to back the rollback bill if Democrats support a “mens rae” rollback of white-collar business prosecutions.

August 29, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Some hisorical perspective on today's debates over private prisons

Over at Bloomberg View, Stephen Mihm has this intriguing new commentary running under the headline "America's Rocky Relationship With For-Profit Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Shareholders of [private prison] corporations, along with advocates of privatization, shouldn’t shrug off the federal decision so hastily. They should remember what happened the last time that prison privatization became popular, and that proponents sought to turn incarceration into a business, claiming it was cheaper, more efficient, and could even achieve better results than public control.

This belief foundered on the reality that privately-run prisons often failed to turn a profit, and when they did, those profits often came at the expense of the inmates’ well-being.  These failures and abuses eventually led to a repudiation of private prisons, with the business of punishment and rehabilitation monopolized by the state. Another shift may now be at hand....

[I]n 1825, Kentucky surrendered the entire state-run prison to Joel Scott, a textile manufacturer.  Scott invested money in the prison but also managed to turn a significant profit. Emboldened by this success, other states quickly followed suit, particularly in the West and the South.  In some cases, the shift to private management yielded solid results; other times, though, it ended in disaster.  When California hired a crooked entrepreneur named James Estell to build and maintain its new San Quentin prison, the new penitentiary soon earned a reputation for corruption, lax management and cruelty toward prisoners.

Estell, who forced prisoners to make bricks, refused to invest in necessities -- such as a wall to keep the inmates within the prison.  Convicts routinely escaped, even after the state grudgingly built a wall, and while under private control, some 47 inmates escaped each year. When the state took over the prison in 1865, that number dropped to four.

Nonetheless, with rare exceptions, the contract system continued to flourish. This was particularly true in the South, which used the convict lease system to institute a de facto slavery for a prison population that was overwhelmingly black.  Throughout the region, state prisons turned over their inmates for work on railroads, turpentine plantations, roads and other projects.  The incompetence and brutality of these for-profit prisons was staggering. In Texas, for example, almost a fifth of the inmates escaped in 1876, and more than 6 percent died, and another 10 percent was listed as “missing,” but were not known to have escaped.  Similar scandals plagued other Southern for-profit ventures.

In the end, these abuses gave ammunition to a coalition of critics.  Humanitarian reformers argued that the for-profit prisons made a mockery of the idea or rehabilitation.  Federal officials who studied prison businesses discovered that prison contractors kept dying industries alive through subsidies of cheap labor.  Labor unions, which hated competition from prison labor, agreed.

The first major defeat for private prisons was in 1887, when Congress passed a law forbidding the contracting of any inmates in the federal prison system.  With private enterprise banned from the national penitentiaries, the battle shifted to the individual states.  After a pitched battle, New York curtailed then completely banned private contractors in the prison system by 1897. Massachusetts followed suit, as did Pennsylvania.

The pro-profit prison industry fought back, but eventually state after state banned for-profit arrangements with contractors, moving prisons on to the public accounts.  This shift was accompanied by the return of another, older idea: that prisons could help rehabilitate inmates, not merely punish them. If reform was the primary purpose of penitentiaries, profit necessarily became a secondary concern.  The decline of the private prison was gradual and halting, but it would eventually receive federal sanction with the passage of the Ashurst-Sumners Act, which made it illegal to transport prison-made goods across state lines.

Eventually, though, the tide would turn yet again.  In 1979, President Carter signed the Justice System Improvement Act, which laid the foundation for the Prison Industries Enhancement Program.  This lifted the ban on interstate commerce in goods made by prisoners, and helped usher a new age of prison privatization, spearheaded by corporations such as CCA.

These companies have thrived as the nation’s prison population skyrocketed, with many inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. As unease over this situation has grown, voices on both ides of the political spectrum have begun to agitate for prison reform. And that has gone hand-in-hand, much as it did over a century ago, with growing attacks on the marriage of punishment and profit. With the federal government taking the lead, much as it did back in 1887, the U.S. might be on the cusp of another revolution in thinking about the appropriate relationship between prisons and profit.

If history is any guide, it may well take decades for the states to follow, but eventually they will.

Just some (of many) recent and older posts about private prisons:

August 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)