Thursday, May 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich and Van Jones say "Prison system is failing America"
Not only has CNN brought together a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and a former advisory to President Barack Obama as co-hosts of "Crossfire," but it now has published this interesting joint commentary under the headline "Prison system is failing America." Here are excerpts from an interesting opinion piece that goes a bit beyond just the usual standard points about the various problems with modern mass incarceration:
Thirty-eight U.S. states are home to fewer people than live under the corrections system in this country. There are about as many people behind bars as live in Chicago. That's one in every 108 Americans. One in 35 are under some form of correctional supervision.
Among African Americans, the numbers are even more horrifying. According to the NAACP, one in three black males born in the United States today is likely to spend time in prison at some point in his life. That's compared with one in six Hispanic males or one in 25 white males.
It would be hard to overstate the scale of this tragedy. For a nation that loves freedom and cherishes our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the situation should be intolerable. It is destroying lives and communities.
Our corrections system is not correcting. Within three years of being released from prison, nearly half of prisoners are convicted of another crime with one out of every four ending up back in prison.
When a typical bureaucracy does its job this badly, it wastes money, time and paper. The corrections bureaucracy, in failing to correct the large majority of inmates in its charge, not only wastes money but also wastes lives, families and entire cities.
The current system is broken beyond repair. It's a human, social and financial disaster. We need a radical strategy of replacement of these huge bureaucracies that lack any meaningful oversight.... We need to rethink prisons, parole and probation for the 21st century.
At a time when high-quality education is increasingly digital and in many cases free, shouldn't we provide opportunities for prisoners to learn skills that will enable them to support themselves as upstanding citizens when they are released?
We know that inmates who earn a GED while incarcerated are substantially less likely to return to prison. There are readily available online tools that our prisons could use extensively for a minimal cost to increase the number of inmates receiving valuable education and skills training.
Khan Academy has replicated virtually the entire K-12 curriculum online for free. Udacity and other online education sites offer introductions to software programming for free. Our prisons should be using tools such as these extensively. They offer the opportunity to interrupt the cycle of poverty, a failing education system, crime and incarceration....
Technology should revolutionize more than just the prisons' rehabilitation programs. It should completely transform the corrections and criminal justice systems.... [T]echnology should enable much more effective probation and community supervision, especially new options that could allow nonviolent offenders to remain with their families living productive lives under an appropriate level of restriction.
Almost any activity to which we might sentence low-level offenders --apprenticeship programs, school, literacy or computer science boot camps, community service -- would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than sticking them idle in prison with hardened criminals. Unfortunately, the current corrections bureaucracy has embraced none of this innovation -- in part because it is captive to the prison guards' unions or the private prison lobby, and in part because it lacks any incentives or sufficient competition based on the right metrics....
Years ago, Van proposed that states give wardens a financial incentive to cut the rates of recidivism for inmates leaving their prisons. More than 65% of inmates in California return to prison within three years of their release, where they will again cost taxpayers an average of $47,000 each year.
Surely it is worth giving wardens a substantial portion of the savings for every inmate that leaves their prison and does not re-offend. Such incentives would spark dramatically more innovation and investment in rehabilitation, job training and job placement programs for prisoners. That would be a revolutionary change from prison administrators' current incentives, which are often to keep as many people in custody as possible.
Finally, we need real market competition that rewards success at every step of the process -- in probation and parole offices as well as prisons. That doesn't just mean privatizing prisons or rewarding probation services with the same failed metrics. We need competition of methods and ideas based on the right criteria: When we send prisoners home, do they have the skills to reintegrate in their communities as working, law-abiding citizens? Or do they end up coming back?...
We should start by opening our prisons and probation offices to innovation to save money, achieve better outcomes for individuals and ensure better safety for us all.
May 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
"Remodeling American Sentencing: A Blueprint for Moving Past Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Michael Tonry now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When and if the will to roll back mass incarceration and create just, fair, and effective sentencing systems becomes manifest, the way forward is clear:
-First, three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and comparable laws should be repealed.
-Second, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, or similar laws that are not repealed should be radically narrowed in scope and severity.
-Third, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and similar laws that are not repealed should be changed to include provisions authorizing judges to impose some other sentence “in the interest of justice.”
-Fourth, LWOP laws should be repealed, or radically narrowed.
-Fifth, truth-in-sentencing laws should be repealed.
-Sixth, criminal codes should be amended to set substantially lower maximum sentences scaled to the seriousness of crimes.
-Seventh, every state should establish a sentencing commission and promulgate a presumptive sentencing guidelines system.
-Eighth, any state that does not establish an effective set of presumptive sentencing guidelines should establish a system of parole guidelines.
-Ninth, every state and the federal government should reduce its combined rate of jail and prison confinement to half its 2014 level by 2020.
-Tenth, every state should enact legislation making all prisoners serving fixed terms longer than five years, or indeterminate terms, eligible for consideration for release at the expiration of five years, and all prisoners aged 35 or over eligible for consideration for release after serving three years.
These proposals are evidence-based, and mostly technocratic. Those calling for prison population targets and reducing the lengths of sentences being served may appear bold to some. Relative to the problems they address they are modest and partial. Reducing rates of imprisonment by half in the United States, a country with comparatively low crime rates, to a level that will remain 3 to 3.5 times those of other developed Western countries, can hardly be seen as overly ambitious.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration
If you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:
At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.
Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies. There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached. So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....
[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”
As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.
Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....
So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.
Two new juve justice papers from The Sentencing Project
- Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview -- Recent Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of mandatory life without parole for juveniles, as well as in non-homicide cases. Still, the United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18. This briefing paper documents the key legal cases in this area, as well as the impact on fiscal costs, racial disparities, and prospects for reform.
- Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System -- Despite declining numbers of juveniles held in confinement nationally, racial disparities in the juvenile justice system remain a persistent problem. This briefing paper provides an overview of disparity trends in recent decades, and an assessment of how policy and practice decisions contribute to racial disparities.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
Texas teen facing 5-to-life for selling pot brownies(!) highlights prosecutorial sentencing powers
A drug war and severe sentencing story making the media rounds today emerged via this recent local report headlined "Texas man facing possible life sentence for pot brownies." Here are the basics (which have already been sensationalized a bit in some media accounts I have seen):
A Texas man accused of making and selling marijuana brownies is facing up to life in prison if convicted. That’s because officials in Round Rock have charged him with a first-degree felony.
It’s a move that the man’s family and attorney outraged. “It’s outrageous. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it,” Joe Lavoro, the man’s father said. Like many familiar with the case, Joe does not understand why his son is in so much legal trouble....
The 19-year-old is accused of making and selling pot brownies. He’s charged with a first degree felony. “Five years to life? I’m sorry. I’m a law abiding citizen. I’m a conservative. I love my country. I’m a Vietnam veteran, but I’ll be ****ed. This is wrong. This is ***n wrong!” the father said.
Lavoro’s lawyer agrees. “I was outraged. I’ve been doing this 22 years as a lawyer and I’ve got 10 years as a police officer and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jack Holmes, Lavoro’s attorney said.
The former high school football player has a clean record. The charge is so severe because the recipe includes hash oil. That allows the state to use the sugar, cocoa, butter and other ingredients to determine the weight of the drugs. “They’ve weighed baked goods in this case. It ought to be a misdemeanor,” Holmes said.
KEYE reached out to the district attorney to ask how they’re going to prosecute the case. Our call has not yet been returned....
Jacob’s father wants what’s right. “If he did something wrong, he should be punished but to the extent that makes sense. This is illogical. I’m really upset, and I’m frightened, I’m frightened for my son,” Joe said.
Jacob Lavoro's father is right to be frightened, in large part because it would seem that his son's fate is now almost entirely in the hands of local prosecutors. Though I do not know all the ins and outs of Texas drug laws, I assume that the local prosecutors can (and probably will) ultimately allow Lavoro to plead to some less charge rather than go to trial on a first-degree felony charge carrying a 5 to life sentence. But the fact that such a severe charge with a big-time sentence is even on the table all but ensures that the local prosecutor can extract a plea on whatever terms strikes his fancy.
May 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
"Save money, reduce crime: Alternative sentencing works, so Ohio needs to do more of it"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable lead editorial appearing in today's Columbus Dispatch. The Dispatch has a reputation as a pretty conservative paper (e.g., it has endorsed only GOP Prez candidates for nearly a century), so I see this editorial as further significant proof that more and more traditional conservative voices are seeing the value of (and now actively making the case for) sentencing and prison reforms. Here are excerpts from this editorial:
Ohio has made progress in easing prison crowding by offering alternatives for nonviolent offenders. But a look at the numbers shows that more can be done. The good news is, Ohio already knows what works: putting nonviolent felons in programs that make them better prepared to lead crime-free lives rather than in expensive prisons with hardened criminals. The challenge is to find the resources for the up-front investment.
Alternative-sentencing programs, such as the 18 community-based correction facilities and other programs based on drug-and-alcohol treatment and life-skills training, have a record of reducing recidivism. But the state hasn’t invested in them equally across the state, according to Ohio Division of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary C. Mohr....
A proposal contained in one of the mid-biennium budget-review bills would provide about $13 million to add 400 to 500 community-facility beds across the state. Because stays in such programs typically are three months, each of those beds could allow three people per year to get help and treatment rather than a prison stay. That saves taxpayers money and increases the chance that the offender will go on to a productive life — a double win.
As Ohio’s prisons grow more crowded and potentially more dangerous, the need for more alternatives becomes clearer. One in every 175 Ohio adults is in a state prison, and with nearly 51,000 inmates, the system has 30 percent more than it was designed for. Considering that each of those inmates costs taxpayers nearly $23,000 a year and that a large number are low-level, nonviolent offenders, it’s an expensive way to deal with societal problems.
A change to state sentencing law in 2011 aimed to ease the burden by steering more nonviolent offenders to community-based correction programs. The largest counties responded, and two years ago the prison population seemed to be on the decline. But Ohio’s wave of heroin and other opiate addictions, combined with too few alternative-treatment options, have swelled the prison population again.... But Mohr now finds himself with a new peak population and no reduction in sight unless the state invests more in alternatives.
Legislators should take note of the successful track record of alternative correction and steer available funds in that direction. Ohio won’t benefit from more prisons; putting low-level criminals in prison is a lousy business model with a poor return on investment. Spending less to provide the type of supportive correction that can turn around lives is a much smarter proposition. And it saves prison beds for those who pose the greatest threat to society.
Recent related post:
Friday, May 16, 2014
Record-long sentence?: 81-year-old child molester gets 935- to 1,870-year prison sentence
As reported in this local article, in order to "serve as a warning to other child predators," Pennsylvania Judge Albert Cepparulo "has imposed a 935- to 1,870-year prison sentence to an 81-year-old man who sexually abused a girl for four years and videotaped nearly every assault." Here is what led the judge to require an elderly offender to remain imprisoned until at least the year 2949:
Thomas Holliday was convicted in January of 234 crimes, including hundreds of counts related to creating and possessing child pornography. Prosecutors said Holliday began abusing the girl in 2009, when she was 14.
Holliday was a family friend who offered to help the girl's mother financially and the girl was sent to live with him. He denied the charges, telling the judge that he and the teen were in love.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
AG Holder assails solitary for juves with mental illness
As highlighted by this DOJ press release, "Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called for an end to the excessive use of solitary confinement for youth that suffer from mental illness." Here is more about AG Holder's latest use of his criminal justice bully pulpit:
“Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.
“In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time. We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all. In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.
“This is, to say the least, excessive. And these episodes are all too common.
“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities – who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide. In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement....
“We must ensure in all circumstances – and particularly when it comes to our young people – that incarceration is used to rehabilitate, and not merely to warehouse and forget. Our nationwide effort to end the unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities will not be completed solely with one settlement or court filing. But as a department, we are dedicated – and as Attorney General, I am committed – to doing everything possible to ensure the effectiveness and integrity of our criminal and juvenile justice system. In the days ahead, we will continue to make good on our commitment to the best practices of law enforcement and the highest ideals of our nation.”
Monday, May 12, 2014
Significant collection of significant former federal prosecutors write to Senators to oppose SSA
Thanks to this new post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, titled "Former Top DOJ Leaders Oppose the SSA," I have learned that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors — including former US Attorneys General William Barr and Michael Mukasey — have signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums. The full text of the letter is available at C&C, and here are excerpts:
Because the Senate is now considering revisiting the subject of mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug trafficking offenses, we take this opportunity to express our personal concerns over pending legislative proposals. We are concerned specifically by proposals that would slash current mandatory minimum penalties over federal drug trafficking offenses — by as much as fifty percent. We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions ofthis magnitude on public safety. We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP. We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs. In addition, we fear that lowering the minimums will make it harder for prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs — leaders who often direct violent and socially destructive organizations that harm people throughout the United States.
Many of us once served on the front lines of justice. We have witnessed the focus of federal law enforcement upon drug trafficking — not drug possession offenses — and the value of mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug trafficking offenses.
Existing law already provides escape hatches for deserving defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence. Often, they can plea bargain their way to a lesser charge; such bargaining is overwhelmingly the way federal cases are resolved. Even if convicted under a mandatory minimum charge, however, the judge on his own can sidestep the sentence if the defendant has a minor criminal history, has not engaged in violence, was not a big-time player,and cooperates with federal authorities. This "safety valve," as it's known, has been in the law for almost 20 years. Prosecutors correctly regard this as an essential tool in encouraging cooperation and, thus, breaking down drug conspiracies, large criminal organizations and violent gangs.
We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety. We have made great gains in reducing crime. Our current sentencing framework has kept us safe and should be preserved.
In addition to thinking this letter is a pretty big deal, I am now wondering if it represents the final nail in the Smarter Sentencing Act's coffin or instead reveals that the SSA might still have some legs. Based on the lack of action on the SSA over the last few months, I have been assuming this effort at federal sentencing reform was dying a slow death, and this letter from a lot of prominent former prosecutors provides yet another reason and basis for member of Congress to express additional concerns about the sentencing reforms in the SSA. And yet, if the SSA was already in its death throes, I doubt there would have been so much obvious energy devoted to getting all these prominent former prosecutors speaking out against the reforms in the SSA.
All that said, I continue to find the discussion and debate over the SSA an intriguing (and valuable?) distraction from all the other arguably much-more-consequential federal sentencing developments that are afoot. The fact that prominent Tea-party leaders in the GOP like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz all support significant federal sentencing reform, the fact that state marijuana reforms seem to be continuing apace, the fact that the US Sentencing Commission has voted to lower most of the drug guidelines, the fact that most federal sentences are now outside the guidelines, and the fact that DOJ and Prez Obama are working hard on clemency reform all will be likely impacting federal sentencing realities more than whether or not the SSA is passed by Congress. (This is not to say that the SSA is not important or potentially consequential, but it is to say that a whole host of much broader forces are changing the dynamics of modern federal sentencing policies and practices.)
Some prior posts about the SSA federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:
- Forecasting the uncertain present and future of federal legislative sentencing reform
- House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill
- "Some prosecutors fighting effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences"
- "Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"
- Effective Heritage analysis of federal MMs and statutory reform proposals
- Are we "headed for a crime-riddled future" without mandatory minimums?
- "Prosecutors Wrong to Oppose Sentencing Reform"
- "With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"
- "Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"
- Smarter Sentencing Act passes Senate Judiciary Committee by 13-5 vote
- Are "hundreds of career prosecutors" (or mainly just Bill Otis) now in "open revolt" over AG Holder's support for the Smarter Sentencing Act?
- Very eager to provide very thorough and fair coverage of prosecutors' views on Smarter Sentencing Act
- "Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"
May 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Documenting the enduring challenge of reducing prison populations in Ohio
One of many challenges facing this nation as it works toward trying to ameliorate the worst excesses of mass incarceration is the modern and now-all-too-common social and cultural instinct that significant prison terms must be the "right" way to respond to any and all crimes of concern. One expression and example of this perspective concerns this recent story of the feds appealing, and calling "substantively unreasonable," a probation sentence for a high-profile tax evader who has already paid in penalties more than 10 times the amount of taxes he tried to evade.
Another expression of this reality is in this lengthy story from my own Columbus Dispatch headlined "Ohio struggles with rising prison population: One in 175 adults in the state is incarcerated, at taxpayer cost of $22,836 each annually." Here are excerpts:
When Gary Mohr began his career at the Marion Correctional Institution in 1974, there were 8,516 inmates in state prisons. Forty years later, he manages a system nearly six times as large, packed with 50,639 offenders. One of every 175 adult Ohioans is housed, fed and receives medical care at taxpayer expense in a state prison. The latest two-year budget allocated $3.14 billion for the prison system.
Ohio officials have been unable to consistently tamp down the prison population despite attempts to do so. Major sentencing reforms were enacted, “good time” was reintroduced, community programs were enhanced, and early-release provisions were added.
And still the numbers go up. The latest projections suggest the inmate population in 27 prisons (including two private facilities) will hit 52,000 in two years, and 53,484 in five. Prisons already are bulging with 30 percent more prisoners than they were designed to hold.
“I’m getting a lot of people saying, ‘When are you going to build another prison?’ ” Mohr said in an interview. “I’m a believer in people instead of bricks and mortar. I’m not going to build another prison.” The major reason is the enormous cost, Mohr said. “That’s a commitment of $1 billion for two decades. It would cost $120 million to $150 million to build and $40 million annually to operate.”...
The series of reforms that began with House Bill 86 in 2011 got traction in Ohio’s six largest counties, including Franklin, which reduced the number of offenders being sent to state prisons in the past year. That helped reduce the prison population by about 675. However, the number of inmates being sent to prison from the remaining 82 counties increased, helping push up the population by 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2013. Here’s the math behind the numbers: Each prisoner costs Ohio taxpayers $22,836 per year, so adding 100 prisoners, for example, costs nearly $2.3 million.
A report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative corrections watchdog, last August listed five contributing reasons why the prison population has gone up: a very small increase in violent crime, longer sentences for higher-level felonies, dramatically fewer prison releases (a 24.3 percent drop in five years), legislation increasing penalties for specific crimes, and adverse court decisions. Another factor may trump all the others: a flood of heroin cases. Men coming into prison still outnumber women more than 4 to 1, but that gap is shrinking as more women are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who has been instrumental in recent prison-reform legislation, says the changes included in House Bill 86 are indeed working, “just not as fast as we had hoped. They’ve certainly ameliorated the situation as opposed to doing nothing. “We didn’t expect a dramatic overnight reduction,” Seitz said. “It takes awhile for the full import of these comprehensive reforms to float down the system.”
Seitz said many judges opposed the reforms because they limited judicial discretion in sentencing. As a result, “some judges are finding creative ways of sidestepping the provision that requires them not to send to prison first-time Felony 4 and Felony 5 non-violent drug and property offenders.”...
The prison-crowding issue is an everyday dilemma for corrections officers represented by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “We were told sentencing reform would flatten out staffing levels, but we keep keeping more people (hired) on the administrative staff and those who work 9 to 5,” said the union’s president, Christopher Mabe. “We know there’s going to be more inmates coming into the system, and that means we need more staff.”
Thursday, May 08, 2014
Recognizing that mass incarceration has lately been a little less massive
The always astute commentator Charles Lane has this new astute commentary in the Washington Post under the headline "Reaching a verdict on the era of mass incarceration." Here are excerpts:
Though the U.S. prison population of 1.5 million in 2012 was far larger than that of any other country, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of population, the era of ever-increasing “mass incarceration” is ending.
The number of state and federal inmates peaked in 2009 and has shrunk consistently thereafter, according to the Justice Department. New prison admissions have fallen annually since 2005. The inmate population is still disproportionately African American — 38 percent vs. 13 percent for the general population — but the incarceration rate for black men fell 9.8 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to the Sentencing Project.
This is not, however, the impression one would get from a new 464-page report from the prestigious National Research Council, which, like other think-tank output and media coverage of late, downplays recent progress in favor of a scarier but outdated narrative. The report opens by observing that the prison population “more than quadrupled during the last four decades” and goes on to condemn this as a racially tainted episode that badly damaged, and continues to damage, minority communities but did little to reduce crime.
The study’s authors are right that the disproportionate presence of minorities in prison is a tragic reality, rooted at least partly in the post-1960s politics of white backlash. Today’s big prison population reflects the impact of mandatory minimums and longer sentences, which probably do yield diminishing returns in terms of crime reduction, especially for nonviolent drug offenses. Summarizing a relative handful of studies, the NRC report implies that we can have safe streets without the cost, financial and moral, of locking up so many criminals — since it’s “unlikely” that increased incarceration had a “large” positive impact on crime rates.
It would be nice if there were no trade-off between crime and punishment, but common sense says it’s not so. An analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, similar in both tone and timing to the NRC report, acknowledges that increasing incarceration can reduce crime and that this effect is greatest when the overall rate of incarceration is low.
Ergo, increasing the incarceration rate now would do little to reduce crime, but the crime-fighting benefits were probably substantial back in the high-crime, low-incarceration days when tougher sentencing was initially imposed.
It’s easy to pass judgment on the policymakers of that violent era, when the homicide rate was double what it is today and crime regularly topped pollsters’ lists of voter concerns. That had a racial component, but minorities were, and are, disproportionately victims of crime, too. The NRC report extensively discusses the negative effect on communities of incarcerating criminals, but it has comparatively little to say about the social impact of unchecked victimization.
Buried within the report is the fact that, in 1981, the average time served for murder was just five years; by 2000, it had risen to 16.9 years. The numbers for rape were 3.4 and 6.6 years, respectively. Insofar as “mass incarceration” reflects those changes — and the majority of state prisoners are in for violent crimes — it’s a positive development....
Instead of ignoring recent positive trends, researchers should try to understand them. The decline in incarceration may represent the delayed effect of falling crime and the diminished flow of new offenders it necessarily entails.
Sentencing reform, too, is taking hold, based on changing public attitudes. The percentage of Americans who say criminals are not punished harshly enough has fallen nearly 23 points since 1994 — when the crime wave peaked — according to data compiled by Arizona State University professor Mark Ramirez.
After erring on the side of leniency in the 1960s, then swinging the opposite way in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States may be nearing a happy medium. But this probably would not be possible if 48 percent of Americans felt unsafe walking at night within a mile of their homes, as the Gallup poll found in 1982. To sustain moderate public opinion we must keep the streets safe, and to do that we must learn the right lessons from the recent past.
I largely concur with many of Lane's sentiments here, especially with respect to making sure we acknowledge that rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically in recent decades and trying our very best to identify and understand recent trends and to "learn the right lessons from the recent past." At the same time, though, I question the basis for asserting that we may "be nearing a happy medium" with respect to modern punishment policies and practices given that the vast majority of the most severe sentencing laws enacted in the the 1980s and 1990s are still on the books.
Some recent related posts:
- "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences"
- Notable new data on crime, punishment and mass incarceration
- New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"
- Should Prez Obama create a "Presidential Commission on Mass Incarceration"? Who should be on it?
- Reviewing how US prisons now serve as huge warehouses for the mentally ill
- Lots of recent (and long-overdue) new concerns about solitary confinement
- "Fewer prisons — and yet, less crime"
Intriguing new BJS data about national jail populations
I just received notice of a new Bureau of Justice Statistics publication, excitingly titled "Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 -- Statistical Tables" and available at this link. Though lacking a thrilling title, the data discussed in this publication are actually pretty interesting This official BJS press release, excerpted below, provides some highlights:
After a peak in the number of inmates confined in county and city jails at midyear 2008 (785,533), the jail population was significantly lower by midyear 2013 (731,208). However, the estimated decline between midyear 2012 and 2013 was not statistically significant. California’s jails experienced an increase of about 12,000 inmates since midyear 2011....
Local jails admitted an estimated 11.7 million persons during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, remaining stable since 2011 (11.8 million) and down from a peak of 13.6 million admissions in 2008. The number of persons admitted to local jails in 2013 was 16 times the estimated 731,352 average daily number of jail inmates or average daily population during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013....
Males represented at least 86 percent of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 10.9 percent (up 10,000 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2013, while the male population declined 4.2 percent (down 27,500 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1 percent each year between 2005 and 2013. In comparison, the male jail population declined an annual average of less than 1 percent every year since 2005.
White inmates accounted for 47 percent of the total jail population, blacks represented 36 percent and Hispanics represented 15 percent at midyear 2013. An estimated 4,600 juveniles were held in local jails (less than 1 percent of the confined population), down from 5,400 during the same period in 2012.
At midyear 2013, about 6 in 10 inmates were not convicted, but were in jail awaiting court action on a current charge—a rate unchanged since 2005. About 4 in 10 inmates were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. From the first significant decline in the overall jail population since midyear 2009, the unconvicted population (down 24,000 inmates) outpaced the decline in the convicted inmate population (down 12,000 inmates).
Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts
I am pleased to report that an article I completed in conjunction with a wonderful symposium on "Finality in Sentencing" for the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy is now in print and available in full via this SSRN link.
The full title of my article is "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," and here is the abstract:
This Essay examines the issue of “sentence finality” in the hope of encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final. Drawing on American legal history and modern penal realities, this Essay highlights reasons why sentence finality has only quite recently become an issue of considerable importance. This Essay also suggests that this history combines with modern mass incarceration in the United States to call for policy-makers, executive officials, and judges now to be less concerned about sentence finality, and to be more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences.
Regular readers know I have commented in the past in this space about my fear that too much stock and weight is often put on "sentence finality" (as distinct from "conviction finality"), and this article provided me the first real opportunity to think and write about this issue more thoroughly and systematically. And yet I fear I am only scratching the surface of various important conceptual and practical issues in this Wake article; as a result, I may end up writing a lot more on this topic in the months and years.
In service to my stated goal "to encouraging more thorough and reflective consideration of the values and interests served — and not served — by doctrines, policies, and practices that may allow or preclude the review of sentences after they have been deemed final," I am planning in the days ahead to reprint and discuss in separate posts a few of the ideas and themes that find expression in this article. For now, I am hopeful that readers will check out the full article and perhaps let me know via comments if they find this topic of sufficient interest and importance so as to justify many additional posts on sentence finality.
New Human Rights Watch report bemoans "Nation Behind Bars"
As reported in this press release, Human Rights Watch has issued a new report highlighting the problems of mass incarceration in the united States. Here are the details (and a link) via the the start of the press release:
The 36-page report, “Nation Behind Bars: A Human Rights Solution,” notes that laws requiring penalties that are far longer than necessary to meet the purposes of punishment have given the United States the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration. These laws have spawned widespread and well-founded public doubts about the fairness of the US criminal justice system.
“The ‘land of the free’ has become a country of prisons,” said Jamie Fellner, co-author of the report and senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch. “Too many men and women are serving harsh prison sentences for nonviolent and often minor crimes. How can a country committed to liberty send minor dealers to die in prison for selling small amounts of illegal drugs to adults?”....
Momentum to reduce mass incarceration is growing. Human Rights Watch is seeking to build on this momentum and offer a way forward. Federal and state legislators should ground their moves for reform in core principles of human rights, including prudent use of criminal sanctions, fair punishment, and equal protection of the laws.
To put those principles into practice, Human Rights Watch urges legislators at the very least to:
Ensure that the severity of the punishment does not exceed the gravity of the crime;
Reform or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws that prevent judges from being able to tailor sentences to the individual crime and the particular defendant;
Ensure that adolescents and children are treated in a manner appropriate to their age and capacity for change, and that they are not subjected to all the same criminal procedures and sanctions as adults;
Reduce or eliminate criminal sanctions for immigration offenders, especially those who have done nothing more than enter the country illegally; End criminal sanctions for possession of illegal drugs for personal use; and
Ensure that criminal law is not by its terms or enforcement biased against any racial, ethnic, or religious group, as for example, in the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against black people in the US.
Tuesday, May 06, 2014
"The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences"
The title of this post is the title of the massive report released last week by the National Research Council (which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering). The report runs more than 450 pages and can be accessed at this link.
I was hoping to get a chance to review much of the report before posting about it, but the crush of other activities has gotten in the way. Fortunately, the always help folks at The Crime Report have these two great postings about the report:
I hope to be able to provide more detailed coverage of this important report in the weeks to come.
California Supreme Court decides Miller demands altering presumption for juve LWOP
As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Ruling could reduce life-without-parole terms for juvenile offenders," the California Supreme Court issued a significant post-Miller ruling about juve murder sentencing in the state. Here are the basics:
In a decision likely to reduce life-without-parole sentences for teenage offenders, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges are free to hand down 25-year-to-life terms for older juveniles convicted of serious crimes and must consider the defendants' youth before sentencing.
Before the unanimous ruling, California law had been interpreted as requiring judges to lean toward life without parole for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds convicted of murder with special circumstances. The decision overturned decades of lower-court rulings and gave two men who were 17 at the time they killed the opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by trial judges.
The court said the sentences should be reviewed because they were handed down when state law was being misconstrued and before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that judges must consider a juvenile's immaturity and capacity for change. The ruling, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, stemmed from appeals in two cases.
In one, Andrew Lawrence Moffett robbed a store and his accomplice killed a police officer in Pittsburg, Calif. Moffett was convicted of murder, robbery and driving a stolen vehicle. Because the victim was a police officer and Moffett used a gun during the crime, he was subject to life without parole. In the other case, Luis Angel Gutierrez killed his uncle's wife while living with the family in Simi Valley. He received life without parole because the jury determined he had murdered Josefina Gutierrez while also raping or attempting to rape her.
"Because Moffett and Gutierrez have been convicted of special circumstance murder, each will receive a life sentence," wrote Justice Goodwin Liu for the court. "The question is whether each can be deemed, at the time of sentencing, to be irreparably corrupt, beyond redemption, and thus unfit ever to reenter society."
Certain juvenile offenders became subject to life without parole when voters passed Proposition 115, the 1990 "Crime Victims Justice Reform Act." State appeals' courts ruled that the law required judges to favor imposing life without parole over a sentence that allowed for release after 25 years. For two decades, those rulings stood.
But Monday's decision said the lower courts had erred in the interpretation of the law. "Proposition 115 was intended to toughen penalties for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder by making them eligible for life without parole upon a finding of one or more special circumstances," Liu wrote. But he said neither the wording of the ballot measure nor any of the official analyses resolved whether "the initiative was intended to make life without parole the presumptive sentence." The court concluded it was not.
Four justices joined a separate opinion to stress that California judges may still sentence older juveniles to life without parole, despite the 2012 Supreme Court ruling. Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote the concurrence, said the high court's ruling came under a law that was different from California's and involved mandatory lifetime sentences for much younger children.
Attorneys in the case said it was uncertain whether Monday's decision would apply retroactively to cases in which appeals have already been completed. Courts across the country have been divided over whether the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on juvenile sentencing applied retroactively, the lawyers said.
The full ruling in California v. Gutierrez, No. S206365 (Cal. May 5, 2014), is available at this link.
May 6, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Saturday, May 03, 2014
"Harsh Sentencing, Overstuffed Prisons — It's Time for Reform"
The title of this post is the headline given to this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Mortimer Zuckerman. Here are excerpts:
Too many people are in prison who should not be there. How many? Most of them! It is not that they are innocent of the offenses that put them there. It is that they are in prison mainly because we have criminalized vast areas for nonviolent offenders and compounded that with a distorted sentencing system. Criminal justice cries out for reform. Congress and the Justice Department have begun to listen.
Since 1980 the U.S. federal prison population has grown by about 800% (to 216,787 this week, according to the Bureau of Prisons), while the country's population has increased only a third. By comparison, under President Reagan, the total correctional-control rate (that includes everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole) was less than half what it is today. And here's another shocker: At the federal level, nonviolent offenders account for 90% of prisoners....
Federal prisons today house nearly 40% more inmates than they were designed for, many of them repeat offenders. According to an April 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, more than 40% of state ex-convicts return to their cells within three years of release, and in some states the recidivism rate approaches 60%. The inflexible mandatory-sentencing rules inflict punishments that in many cases no reasonable judge would impose — and then the system turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in. For instance, a June 2013 paper by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of MIT found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13% and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23%.
There is now an awakening to the desperate situation we created (out of the best of motives). It is manifest in Congress, which has a bipartisan bill before it to refocus federal resources on incarcerating violent offenders and move away from low-level ones. We also see the urge for reform in Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as in the states, which together have six times as many prisoners as the federal government....
The states are laboratories of reform led by vigorous governors—who realize that prisons cost the states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. Beginning in 2007, Texas, under the leadership of Gov. Rick Perry, rejected a proposal to build eight more prisons (and has saved an estimated $2 billion overall in projected corrections spending). Instead, Texas is shifting nonviolent offenders from state prisons into alternative treatment, and budgeting for rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally-ill prisoners. A March 2013 Pew Charitable Trust report on state and consumer initiatives found that the rate of parole failure had dropped 39% since 2007 and Texas had its lowest crime rate since the 1960s.
More than a dozen other states — including Ohio, Georgia and South Carolina — are shortening or even eliminating prison time for the lowest-risk, nonviolent offenders. Instead of spending on more prisons, many states are increasing the number and compensation of parole caseworkers, who in the past have been almost perpetually overwhelmed. Technology like ATM-style check-in stations and ankle bracelets with GPS helps.
But funding is required for the roughly 650,000 federal and state prisoners who are released every year into society. You cannot drop them on the curb to fend for themselves, for two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Enlisting family members to help once their relative leaves prison is one proven way to reduce recidivism. Sentencing nonviolent offenders to a minimum-security prison or even to home confinement is not only cheaper but also eliminates the strain on separated families and reduces the contagion of crime.
We have to be smart and tough on criminal-justice spending, with the goal of getting the most public safety from the more-efficient expenditures of taxpayer dollars. The central idea must be to return significant criminal-justice discretionary dollars to local authorities. Reserve expensive prison beds for career criminals and violent felons, and give local jails the responsibility and funding to oversee low-level inmates involved with less-violent crimes.
The politics of all this are admittedly touchy. But we cannot remain in the mind-set created by the 1980s crime explosion that led to a narrowing of criminals rights and tougher penalties. Think of all the billions spent building prisons that could have been spent on roads, hospitals, schools and airports. If we do not support the initiatives of all three government branches to reform the system, the verdict could only be: Guilty of waste and injustice.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Notable new data on crime, punishment and mass incarceration
This interesting new commentary by Eduardo Porter in the New York Times Business section, headlined "In the U.S., Punishment Comes Before the Crimes," combines the standard modern US story of mass incarceration with some notable new data suggesting we might be able to have less violent crime and less punishment. Here are excerpts:
Few things are better at conveying what a nation really cares than how it spends its money. On that measure, Americans like to punish. The United States spent about $80 billion on its system of jails and prisons in 2010 — about $260 for every resident of the nation. By contrast, its budget for food stamps was $227 a person.
In 2012, 2.2 million Americans were in jail or prison, a larger share of the population than in any other country; and that is about five times the average for fellow industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s unique strategy on crime underscores the distinct path followed by American social and economic institutions compared with the rest of the industrialized world.
Scholars don’t have a great handle on why crime fighting in the United States veered so decidedly toward mass incarceration. But the pivotal moment seems to have occurred four decades ago. In 1974, the criminologist Robert Martinson published “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform.” Efforts at rehabilitation, it concluded, were a waste of time....
Crime was rising in the 1960s and 1970s, alarming the public and increasing the risk to politicians of appearing “soft” on crime. The decline in manufacturing employment, once the backbone of many urban economies, wasn’t helping. Later, in the 1980s and ’90s, crack cocaine became a scourge of the nation’s inner cities.
But as Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael A. Stoll of the University of California, Los Angeles, note in their book “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?,” what drove up imprisonment rates was not crime but policy. If rehabilitation was out of reach, the thinking went, all that was left was to remove criminals from society and, through harsh sentencing, deter future crime. From 1975 through 2002, all 50 states adopted mandatory sentencing laws, specifying minimum sentences. Many also adopted “three strikes” laws to punish recidivists. Judges lost the power to offer shorter sentences.
And the prison population surged. Four decades ago, the correctional population in the United States was not that dissimilar from the rest of the developed world. Less than 0.2 percent of the American population was in a correctional institution. By 2012, however, the share of Americans behind bars of one sort or another had more than tripled to 0.7 percent.
Bruce Western of Harvard suggests a specific American motivation, which sprang to some degree from the victories of the civil rights movement. “The crime debate was racialized to an important degree,” Professor Western told me. “The anxieties white voters felt were not just about crime but about fundamental social changes going on in American society.”
Today, a little under half the state and federal prison population is black. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a black boy born in 2001 had a 32.2 percent chance of doing time behind bars. Growing inequality, too, appears to have played a role. As Devah Pager of Harvard told me: “There is something to the idea that the more distant the rich become to the poor, the easier it is to impose policies that are more punitive than others.”...
The United States had another singularity: a comparatively small welfare state that struggled to address social and economic dislocation. “The criminal justice system became the only effective institution that could bring order and manage urban communities,” Professor Pager said. Prison, according to Professor Western, “became a last resort for a whole variety of social failures.” Whether it is caused by problems with mental health, drug abuse or unemployment, he said, “all the people that slip through the safety net and end up in crime end up in the prison system.”
What did we get from this? Crime rates have fallen by almost half since 1990, to the lowest level since the early 1970s. But that may have little to do with mass incarceration. Demographic trends — there are simply fewer young men around — help explain much of the decline. Some states, like New York, have managed to reduce crime even while cutting the prison population through better policing.
The United States still suffers higher rates of violent crimes than European countries that have lighter sentencing policies. In 2012, the United States had five intentional homicides for each 100,000 people. In Canada, the rate was 1.8. In Australia, 1.2. Mass imprisonment not only suffers from diminishing returns. After a certain point, it might actually increase crime.
Indeed, a growing body of research has concluded that the costs of the strategy are much steeper than prisoners’ room and board. Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percentage points and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23 percentage points.
The impact of incarceration on a former inmate’s future life is difficult to disentangle. Still, a report by Mr. Western and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington suggested that serving time reduced men’s hourly wage by 11 percent and annual employment by nine weeks. More than half of inmates have minor children. Their children are almost six times as likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Family incomes fall 22 percent during the years fathers are incarcerated.
On Wednesday, the National Academy of Sciences is unveiling a report on the causes and consequences of American mass incarceration. On Thursday, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project will present its evaluation, alongside an analysis by Mr. Raphael and Mr. Stoll, which suggests that less imprisonment might not produce more crime.
California — which had to release tens of thousands of prisoners in 2011 and 2012 to reduce prison crowding — offers a perspective into what life might be with a more lenient approach. According to calculations by Professors Raphael and Stoll, there were 1.2 more auto thefts for every prison year not served. Violent crime wasn’t affected at all.
Extrapolating to a national scale, they estimated that reducing the imprisonment rate by 20 percent would lead to 121 new property crimes for every 100,000 Americans, a 5 percent increase over 2012. This is a price American voters, and their elected officials, might be willing to pay — especially if they can save money on prisons....
In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators — as varied as the Texas Republican Ted Cruz on the right to Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, on the left — are supporting a bill to lighten sentences for low-risk drug offenders. These changes could turn around the imprisonment juggernaut. After rising relentlessly for three decades, the nation’s incarceration rate hit a peak in 2008 and started gradually to decline. In 2011 and 2012, the total correctional population actually shrank slightly. We might spend the savings on food stamps.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
"Why innocent people plead guilty": Judge Jed Rakoff suggests "tens of thousands of innocent people" have been "coerced into pleading guilty"
The title of this post is drawn from this report via USC News summarizing a provocative recent speech given by Judge Jed Rakoff (which a kind reader alerted me to). Here are excerpts:
Rakoff, who sits on the Federal District Court in Manhattan, N.Y., spoke recently at the USC Gould School of Law’s Neiman Sieroty Lecture on “Why Innocent People Plead Guilty.”...
“The criminal justice system is nothing like you see on TV — it has become a system of plea bargaining,” Rakoff said. Today, only 2 percent of cases in the federal system go to trial, and 4 percent of cases in the state system go before a jury. As a result, accepting a deal from prosecutors — despite one’s guilt or innocence — has become a common choice for individuals accused of a crime.
“Plea bargains have led many innocent people to take a deal,” Rakoff said. “People accused of crimes are often offered five years by prosecutors or face 20 to 30 years if they go to trial. … The prosecutor has the information, he has all the chips … and the defense lawyer has very, very little to work with. So it’s a system of prosecutor power and prosecutor discretion. I saw it in real life [as a criminal defense attorney], and I also know it in my work as a judge today.”
What can be done? Rakoff said prosecutors should have smaller roles in sentence bargaining and the mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated. “But to be frank, I don’t think, politically, either of those things is going to happen. … When it comes right down to it, I think the public really wants these high penalties, and that’s because when these harsh penalties were imposed [in the 1980s], the crime rate went down.”
Another more controversial solution is to allow judicial involvement in the plea bargain process. A judge who is not involved in the case could take a first pass at an agreement, working with prosecutors and defense attorneys. “What I have in mind is a magistrate judge or a junior judge would get involved,” Rakoff said. “He would take offers from the prosecutor and the defense. … He would evaluate the case and propose a plea bargain if he thought that was appropriate, and he might, in appropriate cases, say to the prosecutor, ‘You don’t have a case and you should drop it.’ This would be very difficult for the judiciary; it’s not something I come to lightly, but I can’t think of any better solution to this problem.”
Until extraordinary action is taken, Rakoff said little will change. “We have hundreds, or thousands, or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty. There’s got to be a way to limit this.”
Saturday, April 26, 2014
Interesting articles about history and modern prison realities in United States
I just came across a set of interesting papers just made available on SSRN authored by criminologist Jeffrey Ian Ross examining the history and some modern realities about prisons in the United States. Here are links to these pieces via their titles: